Archive for April, 2013

Progress, ’til there’s nothing left to gain.

April 29, 2013 3 comments

This is a response to the April #blogsync topic

“And progress is not intelligently planned;
It’s the facade of our heritage, the odor of our land. They speak of
Progress, in red, white and blue.
It’s the structure of the future as demise comes seething through. It’s
Progress, ’til there’s nothing left to gain,
As the dearth of new ideas makes us wallow in our shame” – Greg Graffin

 When Bad Religion released the album “No Control” at the back end of the 1980’s they included a song called “Progress”. It was not written about classroom practice, but that does not mean that the sentiments are not relevant to the day to day life of all of us classroom practicioners. The opening line “And progress is not intelligently planned”, could easily be written about the education system and some of the things that get said within it. We cannot “plan progress”. We can plan lessons, we can plan what we will teach, we can plan what we want them to learn, we can plan activities and we can even plan ways to show and track progress. All these things are planning for progress, but progress itself is the result of good teaching and good learning.

 Progress, ’til there’s nothing left to gain, As the dearth of new ideas makes us wallow in our shame,”

 We are told in training about this measure, that measure and the other measure. I hear people say “Ofsted want you to show progress like this”, etc and I worry, I really do worry, that all this things are geared up to give the impression of progress, rather than to enable pupils to actually make it. I think that when you are planning a lesson, if your thought process goes “I’d better do this because Ofsted like it”, or “I’d better do that because it was mentioned in training”, then you are doing things for the wrong reasons. That doesn’t mean I think everyone should instantly write off everything that Ofsted like, or that I think people should ignore everything they are told in training. Far from it, in fact. I just think that it needs to be appropriate. If you try to incorporate all of the strategies, all of the time, you don’t have any time left for teaching or learning!

I was interviewed last week for a TLR role at my school and one of the questions I was asked was “what makes a good maths lesson?” My answer was simple: “There are no one-size-fits-all ‘good’ maths lessons. A lesson which is good for one class could be terrible for another.” The centre of all lesson planning should be the students. The lesson should be built around their needs, not the opposite. And I think the same goes for tracking progress.

As a department we have developed a number of policies to track progress over time, but the most successful and useful is the marking policy. It has evolved over the last couple of years and is centred around giving good, detailed, personalised feedback and questions for the pupil to answer. At the end of each topic (every two weeks or so) all classes sit a short mini-test on the topic. These, along with bookwork and other activities done in class, inform the feedback and as such the questions asked. The questions are either on an area of the topic the pupils struggled on, which enables the pupils to consolidate the learning, or an area similar but further on, to extend those who have fully accessed the topic and are confident in all areas. Pupils are also expected to comment on the topic and let the teacher know how they feel about their learning. This is a valuable tool when marking and is superb way of seeing the progress all pupils have made over time. (Read more on our marking policy here )

 Progress over time.

That is the key right? Those three little words sum up what we’re judged by, and I have to say, “quite right too.” As teachers we are working to ensure that pupils leave us with more skills and knowledge than they had when they joined us. It is our job to make sure they progress over the time they are in our care. We need them to make progress over time. And we really need to be able to prove it. Obviously, the biggest proof comes in the form of exam results, but we need to be able to evidence that pupils have made progress over time. And the marking system set out above does this. The mini test results are also logged into a RAG rated spreadsheet, which gives a hand sheet to show the progress made by the group, and also gives a handy list of areas that pupils need to work on when revision time arrives.

Other ways I monitor progress over time is by mock exams. These work great for tracking progress, as you can see how far pupils have progress in relation to grades and/or levels. They are also great tools to inform future planning. If your entire class scored zero marks on solving equations, then you had better go back over the topic.

Progress in lessons

We are also judged on progress in lessons. I often hear people referring to progress in lessons and progress over time as two different things, but I don’t think they are. I think if you are making progress in lessons, you will be making progress over time. If you are not progressing in lessons, then you will not progress over time. I have a few strategies which I want to mention here that I find extremely useful for checking progress in lessons, but I must say that again, it’s picking the right thing for the right group in the right lesson that is important.

Exit tickets: – I love to use exit tickets and I have a wide range which I use, some I have designed, some colleagues have designed and some I even asked pupils to design. I find the best ones are the ones where pupils sum up in their own words what they can now do, and what they need help with. Some classes are superb at doing this, and some are not.

Whiteboards: – I often use whiteboards to complete show me activities at the end of the lesson. Asking pupils to quickly answer a range of questions based on the lessons activities. This gives me change to see where they are in relations to the objectives to inform future planning.

RAG rating: – I’ve used this in many different guises. One way I discovered on someone’s (can’t find who but will endeavour to add in later!) blog was to have three piles (they used trays) and have pupils put their books on the relevant pile on the way out. I also use RAG rating on mind maps, exit tickets and on objectives themselves to get a self-assessed version of progress in the lesson.

Peer assessment: – This can be a good double marker for progress; the work being assessed is checked against success criteria and as such is checked for progress. But the process of doing this checking shows that the checker has progressed enough to tell whether the work meets the success criteria.

The song concludes:

 “It’s Progress, ’til there’s nothing left to gain, it’s
Progress, it’s a message that we send.
And progress is a debt we all must pay.”

And this to me reads: We must strive to enable the pupils to progress to the height of their potential and we must show those to who we are accountable (The leadership within school, Ofsted, but most importantly the pupils and their parents) that progress is being made.

So, in short:

Do pupils make progress in my lessons? Yes, they do.

How do I know this? A variety of ways, most of  which can be boiled down to the statements: “They show me they have”; and “They tell me they have”.

New Toy!!!!

April 29, 2013 Leave a comment

Last week this arrived!

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A new toy that my super duper Area Team Leader got in. She got one for each of the teachers teaching A level and the arrival date was uncanny. She dropped mine in my classroom the evening before I was teaching sketching polar curves! I thought, “what a handy tool for tomorrow”! And it really was. My year 13’s loved playing with it and it was really handy to let them use it to check their sketches if polar curves.

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I’ve not had chance to play with it much further, but I intend to investigate it’s full capabilities! I’m fairly sure I had this same model (or at least one very similar) when I completed my A levels, so it will be exciting to rediscover what I knew, and to discover many new things about it!



If you know of cool uses for it, please do let me know!

Into the woods. Nature or nurture?

April 27, 2013 Leave a comment

On Thursday evening I was lucky enough to see the latest school production. This time it was Sondheim’s “Into the woods”. Not a show I’ve seen before, or knew much about. All I knew really was that it was by Sondheim, and I like his other work, “Sweeney Todd”.

The show was phenomenal. (You may have read my blogs about other school productions, if not they are here: My dad said to me afterwards “I don’t think the show itself is a good as cats, but I think the production and the performances are definitely as good, if not better.” I’m not sure I agree with the first bit, I think the show itself was great. I think the story is far better than cats and it has more dimensions. Cats is a collection of phenomenal songs with great choreography, but into the woods is a full show, with humour, a story and some great songs along the way.

I’d be very inclined to agree with the second part of my dads comments though, especially the last bit. I think it was a better production than cats. Which is really saying something, as Cats was brilliant!

It’s incredible to see these pupils, from these deprived areas, coming together and putting on something amazing. The star role of the witch went to a year 11 pupil. (A great achievement in itself, given she was up against many performers from y12 and 13!) At other schools, she may have fallen by the wayside, but here she has shined. In year 12 we have a male ballet dancer who played the wolf and the hind legs of the cow. He was amazing, before Thursday I would have thought it impossible for the hind legs of a cow to be a show stealing part, but now I know it is!

One of my year seven pupils was playing little red riding hood, and it was amazing to see how she shone. It was an incredible performance from a young lady with a great voice, great acting ability and seemingly no nerves, despite being considerably younger than most of her costars.

These weren’t the only pupils who shone, the whole cast were amazing, and I now can’t wait for the next production. Not just the cast though, the set design team, the lighting, the sound, the band everyone came together to make a fantastic show.

On the way home, my partner asked “how come your school has so many talent pupils?” This got me thinking. It is unlikely that the people if the surrounding area are just giving birth to a higher than normal amount of talented performers, so it must be something else.

I’m a rugby fan, and over the years have wondered how such small towns as Wigan and St Helens have consistently produced some of the best rugby players in the world. I think that in their case it must be the nurturing and coaching that the professional clubs put in place with their local amateur clubs. Likewise, I think that there must be something in the culture if the school that enables these pupils to reach their potential.

I think the drive and commitment of the staff rubs off onto the pupils. I think caring that they do well, instills in them the desire to do well. I think that is very evident in the shows, but I also think it is endemic across the school. It is a culture I am proud to be part of.

What a week!

April 26, 2013 Leave a comment

This week has been a good one. Monday started with the late notice news that my trainee was ill and as such would not be able to teach my year seven class. He had, however, emailled me a lesson he had planned. I taught from his lesson, and he had some good activities, but I didn’t feel as confident teaching the lesson as I do when teaching my own, and i don’t think it went as well as it would have done if I’d planned it. There were things I would have done differently, but a good experience all the same.

The rest of Monday was pretty good, and I got the first taste of one of my new y11 groups. (the foundation one). The lesson started a little messy, as some of the pupils felt like they were seen as the “dumber” ones, but we had a Frank discussion about the fact that a smaller group of them targeting the topics they can’t do on the foundation paper gives them the best chance of doing well. They accepted this and hot on quite well. The lesson I has with them on Friday was amazing, they worked really hard and I think they now all want to do their best.

Tuesday was a brilliant day. Every lesson went as well as it could possibly go. I’m not sure why, but I was really on form. I had to pick up two lessons the trainee usually takes my classes, but I had notice this time, so was able to plan my own lessons. I did inequalities with my year 7’s, which stretched and challenged them and they loved it. My year 13 lesson was on polar curves, a superb topic, and as with many recent further pure topics one I didn’t have to teach much in. The class have become accomplished mathematicians, and have a superb ability to see the links from the skills and knowledge they already have to the new maths. Year 11 did ratio, which results plus tells me is one of the areas they did badly on in march, the lesson went well and they will all get full marks on it next time! Year 8 did revision, year 9 fractions and year 10 changing the subject. All lessons that were planned well for the class and that came off brilliantly. (I will try upload some if these resources to TES soon!)

My lesson for the rest of the week have gone quite well too, but not as well as Tuesday’s, which might well be my best day since I started teaching!

The other highlight of the week was getting to see the school production of Sondheim’s “Into the woods”, but that’s a topic for another blogpost, so watch this space!

Results, Timetables, SoW and MacLaurin’s Expansion

April 20, 2013 Leave a comment

The first week back after Easter has been pretty hectic, with plenty going on. Not least the GCSE results for the feb/march sitting and the resultant meetings regarding intervention. As a result of this I have picked up two extra year 11 classes and I am looking forward to the increased responsibility this holds for their final half term, and to teaching more of the higher GCSE topics. One of the classes is full of pupils yet to get c’s and the other contains pupils on c’s looking for a’s and b’s. Some of these pupils are looking to take a level maths next year, so improving their grades will be of paramount importance, and teaching them the necessary topics will be fun too!

As well as this, a lot of my time this week has been spent working with the ATL on next years timetable for the department. This is a big job that can be frustrating at times, but is something I find fun and challenging. Being strongly maths based is one of its draws for me, and I used a variety of maths techniques to solve various problems, including two way tables and a variation on bin packing. I feel that a generalised solution to timetabling problems is achievable through maths, but would probably be a doctorate level procedure! (Perhaps I will attempt this on day when I have time…) It took us a while, but we managed to work it so the teachers we wanted were on the target classes and that all staff had a good, mixed timetable across a range of years and abilities.

I’ve also started work on a KS5 SoW. We haven’t really had one before, we’ve just done medium and long term plans between us and that’s been working ok. But I want to get a more substantial SoW up and running as we are expanding our a level offer and hoping to increase the take up by a lot over the coming years. We have had a year 13 AS Further Maths class this year and we have added a full A level Further Maths to the year 12 offer for next year. The SoW will also take into account what topics are needed from A level maths to enable pupils to complete the further pure module and ensure these are completed first in their A level maths class.

My personal highlight this week was in a year 13 further maths lesson, after teaching MacLaurin’s expansion I asked, “can you use this to prove Euler’s Formula?” The class managed it with no input from me!

Abaci, Pi and Mathematical Ink

April 12, 2013 5 comments

There are a few things that have been at the forefront of my mind recently, and I thought I would write a post about them here and see if anyone can add anything.

The first is the question of Abacuses (or Abaci? I don’t know the correct pluralisation). Having a 9 month old daughter has meant that invariably I have spent rather a lot of time in toy shops/mothercare/the early learning centre etc since she was born. During one such visit recently I spied an abacus. I think they are fantastic instruments. Although I don’t know too much about them. I figured that, as we live in a base ten world, each wire should have nine beads on it. That was 1-9 would be on wire a then ten would be the first one on wire b. However, all the Abaci I have been able to find have ten beads on each wire. Have I misunderstood the use? (Having read up a little it would seem the Romans used them in line with their numeral system, so currently a 9 bead approach would be the natural successor.) I suspect the ten bead per wire has been introduced at somepoint by someone who didn’t realise why there was only 9. If this (9 per wire) isn’t how they were meant to be, then someone’s missed a trick. I want one (9 per wire) for my daughter, and one for school, as I think it could be a really useful tool for teaching place value!

The next thing that has been on my mind recently is Pi. (Not pie!) this has been prompted by a friend of mine called Steve who is planning to get Pi to 39 digits (so 38 dp) tattooed on his arm. (If you aren’t aware of the significance of 38 dp, this video explains it well ). He asked me whether I thought he should round to 38 dp or put it as is and dot dot dot, my answer was simple: “we’re mathematicians, not physicists nor engineers, don’t round!” he found it a persuasive argument!

This conversation led to me wondering out loud, how many dp do calculators hold Pi to? I assumed it is more than the display, but how much more? This prompted a few trials: His Casio silver holds it to 12dp, His Phone (can’t remember the model) to 8 dp, my phone (Iphone4) to 16dp. Calculators we had at school: Sharp 13dp and texet 11dp. I’d be interested to hear if your phone/calculator hold it any further!

We discussed maths tattoos for a while, he knew someone with e^ipi + 1 = 0. We agreed phi = 1 + root 5 all over two would be cool. Graham’s number would be cool. A colleague of mine has a Casio calculator circuit board tattooed on him, which is awesome. Navier-stokes, Euler’s Formula, de Moivre’s theorem were all suggested as possibles maths tattoos! Have you got any? If so I’d love to hear about them, or even just ideas of them would be cool.

Reflections on the spring term

April 3, 2013 2 comments

Well, that just flew by. I can’t believe how fast it went! Christmas seems only a few weeks ago. So what has happened, and what have I learned?

I have completed stage one of a project I was involved in with a PE teacher who is one year on from me in terms of his career. The first stage of the project involved each of us observing the other as if it were a formal observation. It was brilliant CPD for both of us. I got to see a PE lesson that I rated as a good with outstanding features. I got to give feedback and discuss the lesson and the grading process with him, got great feedback on my lesson (also graded good with outstanding features) and again had some great discussions about the lesson and the grading process. I was paid a huge complement as part of my feedback when my collegue said: “you ooze pace, but manage to do it in a calm and relaxed manner.” he also noted, “you can tell this is the standard of lesson their used to, and not a one off lesson for observations sake.” This second comment ties in strongly with my philosophy on teaching. I think we owe it to the pupils to give them the best lessons we can, to enable them to meet their potential and succeed on reaching their goals.

This has been a common theme for me this term. I have had a number of conversations, sometimes heated, on the subject. We took part in a peer review a few weeks ago where SLT from two other schools came in and along with our own SLT observed a lot of staff. Each department was given three lessons where an observer would be circulating the lesson. In the staffroom after they announced the time slots a colleague said, “that’s alright, I only have to plan two good lessons.” This irked me and I questioned this. I outlined my theory that we should all be trying to be at least good all the time. There was a little argument and a couple of others seemed to take their side, claiming it was impossible given the time to plan good lessons every period. I disagree, and think if the time is running out then you need to work smarter, not harder. A well planned and resources lesson can be tweaked and used again with a different class when the topic is next met. Marking can be kept on top of by implementing smarter working systems and doing a bit at a time, etc. Thankfully though, it seems from other discussions I’ve had that most of my colleagues are in fact in my camp on this one.

This term saw my first foray into teaching further maths a-level. Having finished FP1 and most of FP2 I have really renewed my passion for higher level maths. It has encouraged me to start researching higher maths for fun, this has meant though that maths books and education books are both now ahead of novels in my reading priority list. Reading is something that I have lost time for in general as well. This has been due partly to the hours I work, but mainly the fact I have a young baby at home and I spent all my free time playing with her. I do miss reading a little, but the precious moments I have with my daughter are far more important, after-all, the books will always be there. She will grow up and lead her own life. I am hoping to incorporate more reading time once she has gone to bed during next term though!

I have been excited by the blogsync initiative pioneered by Chris Waugh this term. It has given me a chance to express my views on topics and has given me a vast array of blogs and papers to read which have helped me to evaluate and improve practice. (Finding time to read these short entries is much easier than whole books!)

I have had another PGCE student take some of my lessons this term and have again enjoyed the experience and found that observing others is key to improving myself, be it said PGCE student, or the more senior members of staff I’ve observed. The whole process of helping develop students has been great and I have asked to be considered as a possible mentor (for NQTs; ITT students or even both) next year.

All in all, I have enjoyed this term and feel renewed and invigorated by the challenges ahead. The next half term is to be my last with my current classes (We change timetables at spring bank), and the ones I lose next year I will miss. None more than my year elevens, with whom I have built a great relationship. They were the first class I took over at this school, and I will miss them all. I just hope they leave with the best grades they can and go on to achieve all they want in the future!

There are also some changes being made to staffing at school. The vice principal is moving on to a headship and a couple of the department are moving to schools closer to home to cut down on their commutes and give then more time with their families. This means next year will be very different. I will miss those leaving, but wish then the best. I do, however, think that it is good to have some changes, if everything stayed the same we may find ourselves complacent, familiar, taking our foot of the gas. We have come a long way in the last two years, but our work is far from over and I know the staff staying are committed to taking the team on to the next level. I am looking forward to seeing what next year brings, for me; the team and the school as a whole! But first, there is the small matter of the summer term and external exams for us to sink our teeth into.

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