Twinkl, Twinkl, Little Stars!

Here at Team English our main job is to share excellent resources and connect you all to each other so as to save you time and energy when planning. As such, I was excited recently when Twinkl got in touch to ask what we thought of their Secondary English resources… I had to admit I didn’t know that they did Secondary English materials. I have used Twinkl resources in the past but always for KS3 classes (usually SEN or EAL groups) as I always assumed they only did Primary materials.

How wrong I was!

Having browsed Twinkl this half term I have found a treasure trove of resources for our new Y7 Much Ado About Nothing scheme, our Y8 Gothic Horror unit and – Holy Grail – their very own AQA sample papers! Anyone who has tried to make their own exam paper knows how utterly time consuming this task can be, especially if you decide that a detailed mark scheme with indicative answers is needed. They even have exam packs for The Sign Of Four!! Those exclamations are entirely necessary because if you’ve tried to teach that particular Sherlock story this year you’ll know that barely any resources exist. One well known resource site told me they didn’t bother making Sign Of Four schemes of work because “our research showed that no one was teaching that text.” One-Nil to Twinkl.

Of particular interest to me were their resources on that awful structure question on AQA Language Paper 1. A difficult question for which to prepare even the brightest pupils, yet the Twinkle Q3 resource pack breaks the skills down into manageable chunks. All of the AQA packs that I have so far downloaded look ready made for my EAL pupils but also touch upon the higher level skills needed for the most able in my mixed ability classes. The packs include attractive visuals for which Twinkl are well known but also lesson plans, word mats and mini exam papers.

The only downside? You do need a subscription to access these resources which is a luxury some can’t afford or simply may not want to pay. That is entirely up to you but do have a look at their growing bank of materials and see what you think. I reckon you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

By Nikki

Ta Ta For Now

I’m making a bold statement here.I think Twitter might be partly responsible for the bad work/life balance that afflicts many teachers. Perhaps I’m generalising too widely. Perhaps this isn’t your experience at all but let me explain.
This week I watched a video posted by That Boy Can Teach about the millennial generation and their over reliance on smartphones and social networks. I tuned into it expecting to nod sagely at the comments that would so accurately sum up my students. I did not expect to apply the video’s message to myself…

 I found the video interesting but one thing really stuck in my mind. It bothered me. It was mentioned that we tie up a great deal of our self esteem in our social media worlds and we get a little rush of joy when we see that have a new follower or a like or a retweet. This struck a chord with me. Earlier this week I was excited to see that my TeamEnglish account had reached 4000 followers. Four thousand people have “followed” my account and I felt proud. Now, don’t get me wrong, it is quite cool that the Team English community is growing so strongly and so many people are sharing ideas with each other. I’m a big Twitter advocate and know how much you can gain from it. However, I think I’ve gone down the rabbit hole recently. I need to get back to reality.

When someone unfollows me I feel a little pang of annoyance.

 When I unfollow people I feel a little twinge of guilt.

When I get a retweet it makes me feel good.

When someone popular in the twitter world follows me back or likes a tweet of mine it makes me feel great!

Why? I don’t know most of these people, yet their acceptance actually means something to me. I’m starting to feel like this is slightly mad…

Over the last two weeks, and bear in mind this was the CHRISTMAS period, I’ve seen rows and general nastiness involving such topics as traditional vs progressive teaching, Michaela (no change there), the behaviour problem, using tech in the classroom, and knowledge organisers. Knowledge organisers! As I said, this strikes me as slightly mad…

I’ve skimmed past all of this, sometimes feeling tempted to engage but mostly just picking out articles I want to read and saving them to Pocket, or favouriting resources for saving to Dropbox later on. I’ve not engaged with Twitter much recently. Even at its best I’m sorry to admit that sometimes it just makes me feel bad when people are sharing how many books they’ve marked that day.

Having not been on Twitter much this week I have done more reading, stared at my phone a lot less and I have honestly felt better for it.

There are many things in Edu Twitter that I love, and I’m not disappearing at all. But I am taking a step back. I am taking a step back from my phone and from constant notifications.

Last week someone called Team English “the nice corner of Twitter”. That’s where I’ll be if you need me.

TTFN

‘Write’ or Wrong – Trying Something New

Over summer I read this blog by the very talented Chris Curtis. I magpie a lot of ideas from a lot of blogs, but this one has had the biggest impact on my department. I promised Chris I’d let him know how my little project went so that’s what this blog is all about. 

Rationale

Teaching writing is hard. Most English teachers are guilty of reducing writing to a clever mnemonic or a tick list of features to include. We all know that good writers are readers, but for those kids who don’t read, or don’t read enough, this tick list approach has been our life-raft for creating adequate writing, but nothing more.

I have taught persuasive writing for the past 9 years using that awful AFOREST approach. I’ve told countless students to start with a rhetorical question. And end with one too! I’ve shared excellent pieces of persuasive non fiction with classes and then reduced it down to “highlight the persuasive techniques everyone” often not stopping to discuss the real impact of the writing. Why? Because I know no other way. Most of us know no other way. 

My young nieces and nephews all enjoy writing. I remember being stuck in dire M6 traffic with two of them and knew they were getting bored. Fortunately, being a teacher, I’m never far from a notepad and pen and within minutes they were busy writing stories about fantasy worlds and talking cats. Not once did they complain that their hands hurt, or that they didn’t know how to start, or asked whether this was being levelled. They wrote for a good half an hour and took great pleasure in reading to me afterwards.

I sat wondering why I couldn’t make this happen at school? Did my nieces come from a home of writers and prolific readers? Not really. Was it because my students were older? Maybe… but I wasn’t convinced. It lay in how I’d set the challenge. My nieces got to choose what they were writing. There was no assessment. No expectation other than to please themselves and, to a lesser extent me.

It would be wonderful if we could harness pupils’ early enjoyment of writing and reading throughout high school and into their later lives (I know that not all children do enjoy these activities but I’m starting from the perhaps naïve assumption that they don’t all hate it at first). Sometimes a piece of work will have to be assessed. Sometimes they won’t get a choice of topic and will have to answer a dry exam question. But… but. That’s only sometimes. We’ve let this occasional need to assess and limit their writing bleed into our daily teaching practise. My challenge was to change this. 


The Challenge
 

After reading Chris’s blog I decided to pitch the idea of Writing Workshops to the English department. This was my first year as HoD and I didn’t want to make too many dramatic changes, but I hoped I could get people on board with this. Like all changes, I knew I’d have to have a clear idea of the challenges and questions the team would ask.

The Writing Workshop lesson would be once a week, where pupils would be given a writing prompt and then they would write. That’s it. Write, all lesson. The teacher would lead some class discussion to start with, share some ideas etc. But then they just write. The teacher will have time to move around the room live marking and giving instant feedback.

We needed to begin from a new starting point and rearrange our expectations. Children know how to persuade and argue. Ask your class to tell you why they should be allowed first into lunch next week. You will see an impressive range of persuasive skills on show. They know how to explain and inform. Listen to them helping a friend with their homework. They know how to describe, how to explain, how to make something dramatic, emotive, funny – they are experts at funny!

The challenge from my team was not about lots of extra marking, as I’d expected. The concerns were mostly that, given this new approach, I had made the gamble to remove all ‘writing units of work’ from our remodelled curriculum. I’ve put that statement into inverted commas because, as far as I’m concerned, all units of work in English are writing units. I’m fed up of spending 6 weeks on teaching the nuances of gothic writing to a Y8 class, only for them to produce a mediocre piece of horror writing which strongly resembles the plot of The Conjuring at the end of it. People were understandably unsure about how we would teach writing without a 6 week scheme of work to back it up. I asked them to trust the pupils and trust themselves, the feedback they give and the skills they can share.

The Story So Far

I’m very lucky to lead an enthusiastic team of talented English teachers who all want opportunities to add more to the school and show off their skills. In this instance I was pleased when one of the team approached me asking if she could lead on the Writing Workshops. She wanted to put together a schedule of topics to be covered – she rightly felt it made sense to have a focus each half term and she wanted to put together a bank of writing prompts for everyone to use. If this was going to be long term, it needed organising so that classes don’t repeat all the same tasks next year. I was more than happy to let her take this on.

Once the lessons began we faced a couple of teething problems, namely the Writing Workshops not happening! People felt the lessons could be expendable if a little extra time was needed on the Animal Farm unit or or if a lesson was missed because of Eid. Cue a department meeting agenda item – Writing Workshops are not an add on, they are as important as our units of work.

The second issue was just breaking old habits. When you’re used to teaching writing through a breakdown of a persuasive text, followed by a card sort, followed by highlighting techniques, it’s hard to do something different. Especially when that new something requires you to leave the pupils to their own devices for most of the lesson. No one likes to feel redundant and some of us like the sound of our own voices a little too much (me included, I think I’m hilarious!).

After a few more feedback sessions in department meetings to iron out these issues, and getting people to share great examples to prove it can be done, we seem to be on the right track. The whole project might die on its proverbial backside before the year is out, and I’ve no solid data yet to prove it’s making a significant difference to pupil progress. But its early days and I’m optimistic, as are my department. That’s half the battle.

Confessions of a Hoarding Teacher

 It recently occurred to me that I might be a hoarder. I’m one more visit to Ryman’s away from having a house filled from floor to ceiling with pens and notepads that I don’t have time to use because I’m busy unwrapping my new pens and notepads. For someone who likes to claim that I am not a materialistic person, I do seem to collect a lot of things. Pens and pencil cases, hoodies (mostly Marvel themed), dvds and books, cushions, candles… and teaching resources.  

My classroom has 5 filing cabinets. Each cabinet is filled with resources from my 10 years of teaching and training but most of these resources are now irrelevant. They link to old specs, old curriculums, and some of them are just bad ideas from my first few years of teaching that I’ll never use again. So why keep them? I can’t imagine the day will ever come when I think ‘Ooh, remember that OHP acetate of Education for Leisure – the poem you’re no longer allowed to teach to children for fear they’ll go on a killing spree? That’ll be handy for my lesson today! Now where’s the overhead projector got to?”  
I hoard on Twitter too. I ‘like’ many tweets and add links to Pocket, because for some reason I think I’ll be more likely to read those articles when they’re hidden in another app. I pay for a Dropbox subscription because I want access to everything the shared English drives have to offer. I subscribe to the email updates of many brilliant teaching blogs but rarely find the time to read them. I have notepads (there they are again!) filled with notes and ideas from teachmeets and seminars. I have annotated Reading Reconsidered and various other edu books with ideas and references that, at the time, I fully intended to go back and use someday. Of the vast materials and notes I have amassed over the years, I think I’ve used about 1% of them. 

That’s not to say that any of this idea and resource hoarding is useless. The best ideas must have stuck in my head without the need for further reference because I know my teaching practice has improved over the years, and I always like to try new things. The question is why can I not be more selective about what I keep and what I dump? Why do I save EVERY SINGLE Dropbox link I come across on my timeline, regardless of whether I not I teach that particular text or even year group? This year I have attempted to justify my hoarding by convincing myself that, as HoD, I should be collecting useful resources to pass on to my team. A nice thought, but is that really my responsibility? Do I have time for that? So far the answer has been no. And the year is unlikely to get any less busy from this point on. 

The fact is, I like hoarding all of this stuff because I have major FOMO. That’s Fear Of Missing Out for those of you fortunate enough to have never come across this phrase. I worry about not having that resource to hand should I ever need it. What if Education for Leisure comes back onto the curriculum? What if coursework comes back and all those packs I made 5 years ago become useful again? What if one day I do decide I need to read X’s blog on the progressive Vs traditional argument?  

As long as I have the space, virtual or physical, I suppose I shall continue to hoard. But if the Channel 5 documentary makers ever come knocking on my door could someone please stage an intervention? Thanks.  

Team English

I love the Olympics. I have spent the last week becoming an expert in everything from road cycling to diving (too much splash! 7.0 for you!) and every time I see the winners interviewed I always feel a little emotional about how proud they are and how much effort they have put in to get that precious medal. For me though, the emotion always seems extra special when you see people performing as part of a team. The reaction of Tom Daley and Dan Goodfellow when they won bronze this week was absolutely wonderful. Becky Adlington in the commentary box crying tears of happiness for the young Team GB swimmers reminded me that once you are part of a team, you are ALWAYS part of the team.

This year my team, my English department, has changed almost beyond recognition. Lots of incredible English teachers have left us (all because of various circumstances and not because they were desperate to get away I hasten to add!) They’ve moved on to join new teams, new English departments in new schools, new senior leadership teams, new communities. They may not be a part of my department anymore but, the way I see it, they will always remain a part of my team; Team English.

I have been using the hashtag #TeamEnglish for a while now and earlier this year I set it up into a group list on Twitter for people to use a common calling card when sharing resources and ideas. I was stunned by the number of tweets I received from fellow English teachers asking if they could be added… but something was missing. The list was fine but lacked the community cohesion for real sharing that I wanted it to be used for. Then one morning I messaged the legendary @positivteacha and @shadylady222. Would they like to help me set up a Team English twitter account? A place for our community to really share and connect with each other, much like the EngChat account but without the weekly chat.

So we started it up (with the help of Literacy Shed’s @redgierob who very kindly offered to be our Primary rep) and by today’s count we have 1,347 followers. Now I know that’s peanuts in the world of Edu Twitter (we ain’t no @TeacherToolkit… yet!) but we have managed to draw together over a thousand English teachers who want to expand their subject knowledge, connect with others, share their ideas and, dare I say it, make new friends. I was lucky enough to meet @shadylady222 and so many other English teachers at T&L Leeds this year and I realised how wonderful this Twitter team was.

Not a day goes by without my phone pinging with endless notifications of resources and chats that have started on the @Team_English1 account. People are sharing constantly with the rest of their team. I happen to think that’s pretty special.

Looking Forward

Looking back over my Staffrm and WordPress blog posts, it seems I’m quite partial to a half term musing. Today is no different. It’s obviously the luxury of time, half term holidays being that golden opportunity to catch up on much neglected hobbies; reading, writing, photography, gardening, even colouring in.

Right now though, the last day of my half term holiday feels a little different to the recent ones. They ran thusly:

Christmas – a feeling of doom and gloom at the thought of the dark morning get-ups and the dreaded January term. Always the most difficult and the one where a lot of people, unsurprisingly, find the job just too hard to carry on with.

February – The exam season was coming up. Lots of stress involving Year 11. If I remember rightly, the last day of this half term triggered a mini meltdown as I marked Y11 mocks and realised just how much work we still had to do if they were to have any hope of being exam-ready.

April/Easter – A stressful half term holiday as I spent most of it writing a job application letter to become Subject Leader of English and deciding whether or not to join Teaching Leaders. This was the half term in which I downloaded the Headspace app and brought a hamster so that I had something else to focus on. (The headspace app has now gone, the hamster – Rocket, is still here and she’s super!)

And now? Well, I’m excited. I got the Subject Leader job, as most of my lovely Twitter friends will know, having helped me with interview questions and sending lots of positive vibes my way. So now I’m looking forward to the final half term.

I’m looking forward to meeting with my friends and colleagues to plan exciting new things for September.

I’m looking forward to finishing Reading Reconsidered and a bunch of other edu books so that I can poach all of their ideas.

I’m looking forward to Northern Rocks, T&L Leeds, becoming a Teaching Leaders Fellow (assessment centre is next week so fingers crossed!).

I’m looking forward to Sports Day, my favourite day of the school year where my tutor group make banners and go wild cheering each other on.

I’m looking forward to seeing my brilliant Y11 class tomorrow for the last time before their final English exam.

I’m looking forward to meeting all the new people that will be joining our epic team in September.

It’s a relief to feel happy about going back to school. I certainly know that isn’t the case for everyone and to those people I offer Dory’s motto: “Just Keep Swimming.” We’ll get there soon.

I hope you all have something to look forward to over the next 7 weeks. Enjoy!

 

Taking the Time to Read

Last night I had trouble sleeping because I’d been reading Dracula before bed. I’d just read that bit where (spoiler alert!) Jonathan Harker sees Count Dracula lean out of a window in the castle and scale down the wall like a lizard. Weird. Even weirder though, is the fact that I’ve never read Dracula before. I’ve been an English teacher for 8 years, I studied English Literature at university and yet I have never read Bram Stoker’s classic.

Why?

I suppose the main reason is that it was A) Never a set-text for my own studies and B) Never one of the novels I’ve had to teach. That’s not to say I’ve only read books that I’ve studied or taught – that would be madness! No, it’s because, like a lot of “classics”, when given the choice between reading one of those or another novel, I’ve often assumed that I already know the story so I’ve opted for something new and unknown. Not an approach to reading that I would encourage but when time for leisurely activities is at a premium, it’s a trap that I have fallen into.

Which leads me to this week’s blog. I have taken up the 44 Week Writing Challenge here on Staffrm because I love writing but can often not think of what to write (or I assume that what I have to say has already been said and who would want to listen to me anyway?) I was excited to see that a list of weekly topics had been provided so that first stumbling block was removed. Until I saw this week’s title: Local Differences. Stumbling block well and truly back in place. I’ve only ever worked in one school. I have no idea how we do it differently. I puzzled and I pondered, I browsed Staffrm and read some of the other great posts under the Local Differences hashtag but still couldn’t find my voice.

I went to my bedroom to pick up Dracula and do some more reading (lesson planning for the day thankfully completed) and I was reminded that the only reason I had this book by my bedside was because I had made a resolution to read more books this year. Dracula is my 7th since January. That may not sound like a lot to some but I haven’t read this habitually since I was 14. It is the first time in my 8-year career of encouraging and helping others to read, that I have consistently had a book on the go. And I LOVE it. It’s my attempt to reclaim some me-time, some Teacher5aDay time, some semblance of who I was and what I enjoyed before teaching took over my life.

I’m not sure if this post has a point, or a message. But that’s ok. I wanted something to write about, so I read a book. Which now I need to get back to…