Tuesday, 27 August 2013

100 Ideas for Secondary Teachers - Outstanding Lessons

I was over the moon to be asked by Ross Morrison McGill, or @TeacherToolkit as he is known as on Twitter, to write a chapter for his upcoming book.  I have written Chapter 75 for him and hope it sits well with the rest of the topnotch ideas in the book.  I am honoured to have been asked to be a part of this.  I know how hard Ross has toiled over it   You can read about his journey here.  The book is available to pre-order on amazon or the publishers site.  It will be in stores on the 26th of September and available electronically on the 26th of October.

Ross has so many great projects and ideas on the go alongside his day job.  I think we are all a little in awe of his ability to get stuff done. Below are a few of the things Ross organises that I have also happily contributed to this year.  It's been a pleasure.

He hosts a weekly online Twitter chat for senior school leaders on a Sunday evening at 8pm called #SLTchat.  I guest hosted this for him back in March on the topics of 'Whole School Vision' and 'Strategies for 'Closing the Achievement Gap'.  I am due to do so again on the 8th of September.  Topics still to be confirmed but watch this space.  After the first week back at school it should be an intersting one.  It is a whirlwind of a half hour let me tell you.  It has taught me so much in the year that I have been taking part in it.  One of the best free CPD opportunities out there for aspirant or current school senior leaders.

The Thunk series that Ross orchestrated and hosted on his site were great fun and a brilliant read.  Teachers from all walks of life were invited to choose from his list of thunks and  write a guest blog on his site.  I choose 'Why should you encourage kids to ask why?'  It was a lovely piece to write and a topic that is close to my heart.  We must get students to see the relevance of what we teach for it to stick with them.  I was very happy to be writing along side some other wonderful teachers and senior leaders in this series.  Doing this post really spurred me on to want to be a better writer and keep improving my blogging.  A work in progress but getting there.

I have attended two #TMLondon events Ross has organised this year - both were great and once again great free CPD.  The second of the two teachmeets I attended was hosted by Ross and Action Jackson (look him up if you don't already know of him - he is a force of nature!).  Ross persuaded a very reluctant me to put myself forward to present.  The thought of presenting to a 200 strong audience of random teachers and having it filmed and opening myself up of online public criticism put the fear of God in me. (I'm not religious so that is serious!) Ross assure me it was 'nothing' and I should be fine as I 'give it all the talk on my blog' when I arrived then swirled off happily.  Thank you Ross.  I was not convinced but I did it, shaking and very nervous, I did it.  My topic was Making Marking Matter and it seemed to go down quite well to be honest - which was a relief.  I would not have stepped up to present unless Ross had tempted me via Twitter, and for that I am grateful.  He was right, it was a really positive experience.

Again, I have attended two of these wonderful #SLTteachmeets hosted by Ross and recently Stephen Lockyer has co-hosted them also.  I gained a great deal from each one.  Every presenter had been an inspirational, honest, forward thinking, rerflective senior leader. Brilliant.  I was feeling more confident following my presentation at #TMlobdon not having ended with rotten tomatoes being thrown. So once again I stepped up to present at the second one I attended.  I presented on the importance of engaging with digital learning in our schools.  I thoroughly enjoyed putting this presentation together as it is something I have been working on in depth this year.  Once again I was not booed off stage so I can't have been bad.

This past year has seen me stepping up to senior leadership.  Having complete a full year in post and looking forward to the next, I really am so happy to have had the extra support of these projects.  They have developed me more than just time on the job and regular CPD does.  Although these are just as important.   You need space to reflect, discuss and hash out your ideas.  You need to learn form others doing really well in your own school as well as those doing well differently in other schools.  It is important not to just live in the bubble that is your own school, to keep challenging yourself and to stay fresh and informed and these projects have allowed me to do this.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Cultivating Creative Writing

Creative writing is a joy to teach.  There is something wonderful about the freedom it allows the students.  They can express exactly how they feel and cloak that difficult emotion in a character, a scene or event. It helps them see the world, their world, in a different way.  Things they try not to think about suddenly surface and they can seem more manageable as they hash them out in their writing.  I love to write along with my students, off the cuff.  I ask them to guide me - what scene, who's there, what do I feel?  It is exciting - you never know what will come next.

I must say, the following ideas are not rocket science but they are useful!  Perhaps the English NQTs, Teach First participants GTP and PGCE students about to embark on their teaching career may find these ideas useful.  Below are just a few of the techniques I dip into from time to time when I teach creative writing.

I love using images in my lessons.  If I'm using a PPT, prezi, paper-based work or a blog post to teach the lesson I will rarely not have an interesting image on the in sight.  Students can connect with a theme or topic being explored in their writing as soon as they glance at the board, computer or task sheet.  A powerful image can really spark a students imagination.  A tropical island, a deserted house, an old woman with harrowing eyes, an image from another era or a foreign land. Get them using the image as the centre of a spider diagram and exploring the five senses.  Place students in groups and give them different things to focus on in the image and feed back after, amassing the ideas of the class.  Ask the students to hot seat a character in the scene or one they imagine is in the scene if there is none.  With the right approach, discussion and connection tasks when using an image students can produce the most wonderfully emotive writing in character.

Beautiful music melts the coldest of souls.  Music is great to amp up the fun factor or bring home the emotion of a topic, helping students to feel that emotion deeply prior to writing.  I have used a wonderfully flighty piano concerto to help the students write about someone feeling mixed emotions. I have played James Bond themes music to help student write exciting mystery / detective stories.  Mariah Carey, Sinead O'Connor or Mary J Blige (along many others!) have been dipped into to help them feel the love in a romance piece.  There are some wonderful audio clips on the BBC voices website of different accents.  This is great to help them understand how they can use language in different ways in their writing. Sometimes I use the audio clips before they write, during or both - depending on the task and class.  It always works a treat.

Drama is  great way to get students to lose their inhibitions and dive into a topic or theme.  Even the students that 'hate' drama with a passion can benefit from a short sharp burst of drama to help them feel more about what they are going to write about. I love a bit of hot seating, either as a whole class with me being the willing victim or one of the more lively students.  getting them to do it in groups is less daunting for some and works well too.  Conscience ally is great to immerse the students in a situation too.  Give the student a fairly detailed scenario, discuss it as a class.  Get a few students at a time to walk through a tunnel of students whispering their opinions on a character or scenario.  I could go on because I love drama in the English classroom.  It is not for everyone, but if you can show a little vulnerability and take a risk the pay off is worth it.

Story dice
This is a super creative writing planning tool that I have used often.  The idea is that the choice element is taken away from the  student, and indeed the teacher, when planning for creative writing.  It brings an exciting twist to stories as the students write about things they probably would not have do had it not been for the activity.  Students individually roll the dice to select the location, character, props and events of the story they are about to write.  This helps the most reluctant of planners plan for their writing in a quick, easy and fun manner.  A little hamming it up or phrases like 'what's it going to be....' doesn't go amiss.  There are various electronic and physical resources online to aid with this technique.  Two I have used in the past are story cubes  and story wheel. The premise is the same and you can very easily make your own to suite your style, lesson or class.  

This is  technique I picked up from a pal of mine and have adapted it for essay writing too.  The idea is simple - consequences.  We all remember the game of consequences that we played as a child.  That element of the unknown makes it exciting to unravel the paper and reveal the story at the end.  It makes you want to write something really good so that the story was worth the wait.  Convert that into a story format in the classroom and hay presto.  I will form a generic story plan with the class as a whole, a basic outline but missing the detail, so that all the stories will make sense at the end of the task.  For instance...
1. Set the scene.
2. Main male character walks into the scene (use name)
3. Another female character walks in and they talk to one another (use name).
4. A problem   occurs that they have to overcome (no names used) and so on.
Then students will all write the first section fold it over and pass it round the table.  Then they write the second section, fold it over and pass it round and so on until the story is complete.  The fun of reading the stories at the end is great.  I'll do it so they pass it around a table and read the stories out to one another at the end.  I have always been pleased and surprised at the amount the reluctant writer write in these lessons.  You can make the writing anonymous or names if you want to make them peer-mark at the end.  Great fun.

These are just a few of the techniques I use when approaching creative writing the classroom.  I enjoy experimenting and taking risks with creative writing. Creative writing is so unpredictable and there are times when the most unlikely student will blow your mind with something they produce.  It makes it all worth while.

Happy writing.

Top image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons - Gunckxx

Saturday, 17 August 2013

My Guardian Piece - Immersive Learning

My piece on immersing your students in the learning to enable progress while enjoying what their time in class. Learning without knowing they are learning - brilliant.

Very happy to be asked to do this piece, as always. Thank your for the opportunity The Guardian. 



What does a truly immersive lesson look like? Sarah Findlater shares her proven tips on engrossing your class in a topic

Every now and then I throw caution to the wind and teach a lesson where everything is a little bit different, unexpected. An immersive learning experience, if you like. These are the lessons where fun and learning intertwine and the students forget they are in a lesson at all. Most of the learning is done by accident. Sneaky, I know. The turn-everything-on-its-head lessons are my favourite and each time I teach one I wonder why I don't teach every lesson that way.
What does suspending belief in the classroom involve? It can encompass many things. It could be just tweaking how I speak to a class or introduce a topic – hamming it up. It may be using visual, audio or props to create an atmosphere or spark discussion. I have even been known to dress up as various characters; from an air hostess to a detective, a vet to a Greek god, and stay in role for part or all of the lesson. It is about getting them hooked on the learning at a deeper level. Completely immersing them in the story, scene, concept or topic. Allowing them to escape from the real world, here and now in the classroom, and experience an alternate world in the past, another country or different life. There are many roads one can take to this destination.

Don't just stick with the that formula that works with your class

It is great if you have found a way to get them learning and focused but don't be scared to mix it up. Students are treated to five shows a day and more often than not they are fairly similar. This is not a bad thing but boy does it stick with them when a teacher chucks it all up in the air and pulls out a well-planned, risky lesson. Perhaps they don't write the lesson objective down. Maybe the classroom isn't set up in the way they are used to and the seating plan is obsolete. Possibly there is a waft of unfamiliar sounds, foreign objects or strange colours or images as they approach and enter the room. Keep the focus on what you want them to learn, but mix the lesson up. Swirl up the elements that are usually so well ordered. It is freeing for the students and you may be surprised at the result.

A different approach needs proper planning

If you are doing something different it is essential that you have a well-planned lesson and have set up what you need in advance. Think through the lesson a few times. I tend to ask myself some questions when I am planning and setting up the lesson. What will I need at each point of the lesson? Where will I be in the classroom and will the items I need be easily accessible without causing a distracting fuss? If you are in role or are asking the students to be in role in some way, the last thing you want to do is distract them from this by faffing around on different sides of the classroom because you have not set it up correctly before hand. What will the experience of the student be? This last question is the most important. I will often sit in one of the students seats and imagine what they would see, hear, feel and so on. If you want any lesson to go well this is important, but even more so when you are mixing it up and need them to possibly suspend their belief for that session.

Stay in 'role' to keep them involved

The core of this is what the best of us teacher folk try to do all the time – you staying in your positive 'teacher' role, convincing them to get involved in the learning. It is no mean feat keeping them focused by your enthusiasm and involvement in the lesson, even on days that you don't feel like it. Showing them your excitement at the lesson, even in the face of an occasional groan or roll of the eyes, is essential if you want them all on board. They will come on board if you are convincing enough, so don't get sidetracked and downhearted – persevere. Make it so fun that the naysayers will not be able to resist. Involve them in the setup of the lesson, if you can foresee any issues with certain characters. If you are one of the brave (and slightly mad) ones and are actually taking on a role of another character then it is essential that you think about how you will instruct them whilst staying in role. Setting up tasks that go with your role and the situation where you can exert your teacher presence without coming out of role is a good idea. For example, a spy may set top secret missions for the class with guidelines for completion included. If you have to deal with a behavioural issue think of an inventive way of remaining in role but still dealing with it. A police officer may threaten a student with being sent away to jail for the remainder of the lesson, for instance.

Use music visuals and objects

The use of audio is a powerful mood setter. It can change the whole feel of a boring old classroom. Students are transported to another space, the usual classroom noise is no longer there. I have used powerful classical music to depict a battle when teaching war poetry, a medley of James Bond theme tunes when writing spy fiction and opera to inspire creative free writing. I have seen others use Gregorian monks chanting to set the scene for a religious history lesson, power ballads of the 1990s to explore the emotions behind love poetry and tribal African music when discussing appreciation of other culture. Music touches the coldest of hearts and I have seen it bring tears to students eyes if used in the right way.
Visuals are another great tool to immerse the students into a topic quickly. Deep analysis in groups of an image related to the lesson and sharing of findings can lead to immediate deep learning and empathy. Shocking, confusing or unusual images spark discussion and open students up to a topic on another level. Using audio and visuals within the lesson for effect just adds another level of immersion keeping the students connected with the learning.
Objects from outside the classroom are a great way to spark curiosity. To your students, an object will have many different, often surprising, connotations. There are many ways to use objects to help student suspend belief and jump into a story or topic. I have used a great poetry lesson about objects found in a shipwrecked sailor pocket, bringing in a few objects to spark discussion. Setting up a mock crime scene where students have to investigate what has happened always goes down a treat. And, in history I have seen a soldier's helmet or a gas mask used, to create interest and spark discussion. These objects bring the lesson into reality, often someone elses reality very quickly.
This type of immersive learning where students can escape into the world of the topic is a really important part of their school experience. It is because of this that we must ensure that while keeping it fun we must keep it real. What learning do you want to take place? Work back from this point. Sometimes the time restraints and the pressure of the job squeeze the fun from our lessons and I believe it is important that we fight against this. We need to make it one of our priorities to create these exciting learning experiences that will stay with the students, and us, forever.
Sarah Findlater can be found on Twitter as @MsFindlater. She has worked in London schools since she began teaching. She has been KS3 coordinator for English, head of languages and communications faculty (English, media and MFL) and is now an assistant headteacher.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

SLTcamp - Igniting Change

SLTcamp - a ground-breaking residential unconference hitting UK for the first time this November. The event will bring together like-minded senior leaders to help one another become better senior leaders.

On the 15th of November 2013 Stephen Lockyer @MrLockyer and Sarah Findlater @MsFindlater will be hosting a super weekend residential of participant-driven and participant lead CPD, aimed specifically at SLT and aspiring SLT.  It will be an unconference to top all unconferences, and conferences for that matter! Senior leaders will be able to connect with like minded individuals, collaborate on ideas, listen to talks, take part in workshops, be part of group discussions and form solutions. There will be time to embed and discuss those workshops experienced, talks listened to, activities taken part in.
The focus of the weekend will be sharing the challenges and experiences of being a member of SLT and working together towards finding new and exciting ways forward.  We are in an era of ever-changing educational policy and external pressures, it is time to take control back.  We are the experts.  Together we can make a better SLT.  This weekend will form a national community of like minded senior leaders to help one another to be better leaders. We hope to ignite change and spark inspiration over the course of the weekend.  We will very much style the weekend around the participants specialisms and needs.  All sessions will be focused on encouraging change and furthering our ability to be the best senior leaders we can be.
Accommodation and food are provided at a ridiculously low price (£99 for 2 nights accommodation and all food) for attendees and fun is thrown in for free - bonus!  The event is a residential event and will take place over the course of the entire weekend.  We will be based at Holmbury St Marys YHA.  For detail about the location and how to get there please visit our website.  There will be no charges for any sessions held over the course of the weekend because we form both the audience and the leaders of sessions.  The only the best speakers for the best audience.
Possible topics of the discussions / workshops / talks could include...
Creating a cohesive and well rounded senior leadership team
  • Interviewing for the best leaders
  • Forming a strong whole school vision
  • Bottom up leadership
  • Changing mindsets within your leadership team
  • Leading teaching and learning
  • Effective whole school behaviour systems
  • Developing your staff
  • Approaches to improving marking and feedback on a whole school level
  • Building brilliant Middle leaders
  • Bet approaches to lesson observations
  • Effective use of data
  • Target setting strategies
  • Embracing educational research
  • Innovative and effective approaches to timetabling
  • Coaching approaches
  • Headship
  • Performance related pay
  • Forming real and long lasting community links
  • Should we be marketing our schools?
  • Line management approaches
  • Whole school digital learning strategies
  • Pupil premium
  • Teacher improvement CPD
But these are just ideas, the real content will be designed once we know our participants.  It will be one special CPD-packed weekend.

Will you be on of our super school leaders who have agreed to boldly go where no other group of senior leaders have been before... SLTcamp?

Follow @SLTcamp and #SLTcamp for updates.
Official website - https://sites.google.com/site/sltcampuk/home

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Building Beautiful Cathedrals - What becomes of the children we teach?

This evening something wonderful happened.

My teenage sister-in-law, husband and I mooched our way down to the local cinema.  We pick up some unhealthy food stuffs before going in to see the film, as is tradition, and get in line for our screen.  Suddenly a commotion in the corner of the room gets the attention of the crowd.  There is a shriek of "OH MY GOD... Ms Findlater!" from across the crowded foyer.  The crowd parts and I brace myself for what might be about to happen.  Next thing I know, a fully grown young man stampedes towards me and launches into a hug, nearly knocking me over in the process.  A beaming young woman is standing a little way behind him waving enthusiastically at my squashed face peering over the mans shoulder.  They are so familiar yet so alien at the same time. I know these faces.

Now, having taught the number of years that I have, I very often see past students out and about, even though I live in the huge metropolis that is London.  We find one another walking along high streets, sunbathing in parks with our families, shopping in supermarkets and squashed on public transport during rush hour.  These two make four this weekend alone!  I always love seeing them and finding out what they are up to, who they have become.  But these students... these students are different.  They are special.  These two are from the group that I taught in my PGCE placement when they were in Year 7 and saw them all the way through to their graduation.  My two very lovely friends were their tutors and English teachers alongside me.  I have seen them go through so much in those five years.  They saw me from a quivering wreck of a PGCE student to a fully fledged confident and relaxed teacher. (and a grown up :-))  They were an immense group of students.  I cried a lot when they left.  I still miss them now.

We exchange warm hugs again and I reminisce with them about school and the teachers they loved that I'm still in contact with.  I feel like I might cry right there in the cinema foyer, but I hold it together.  I feel a deep sense of joy at seeing them and make lots of cooing noises.  Then this sentence comes out of my mouth, "So, have you finished your GCSEs now then?"  Yes, you heard right, I saw them through to their graduation some years ago, but I still ask this question!  Their adult faces perched atop their 6ft frames stare back at me bemused and all I see is the scared little 11 year olds they once were sitting in my classroom.  They giggle and say "Miss...of course!  We have, like, proper jobs and everything now!" I slap my forehead and we laugh as I say "Of course you have! You guys are making me feel old!"  They tell me proudly about their jobs and what they want for the future.   I tell them that their year group was a joy and we loved them and still do.  We wish one another well and off we go. Onwards with life.

It is strange, the fact that we have them in our little bubble for five years and then - poof - they are gone.  I suppose they were frozen in time for me when I saw them standing in front of me, as I probably was for them.  In that moment I felt a deep gratitude for the chance I get to be a part of the lives of these young people.  I am so thankful that when they are having issues outside of school I am there, I am a constant and I care.  Not often does a student appreciate that at the time but in the long run that fact is there, buoying them up.  I am so thankful that I have the chance to teach a subject I love to students that may grow to love it too. Some will come to the subject long after you are gone, but there is always that possibility there - one day.  I am so thankful that when other student are being hurtful I can be the one that hosts the discussion on appreciating everyone's differences and finding beauty in all people.  One day when they go to be mean, or someone else does, they might just echo what you said.  These things are so important.

Judette Tapper, the headteacher that I worked for when I taught these students at (what was then) Stockwell Park High School once described the job of a teacher as "building cathedrals."  Many of the worlds great cathedrals were built by many generations of workers who often had no idea what the finished product would look like. They had a specific skill, worked on a specific section and their job was done.  On with life.  As teachers, we work hard crafting the small part of our students life that we share, but more often than not we will never see the end result, who they will become. We have faith that the cause we are working for is a great one so we continue our crafting and our job is done. On with life.

Well, today I saw two of my cathedrals and they were beautiful. 

Dane and Shakira, you rock.