Saturday, 5 April 2014

Dynamite Paragraphs - How to teach your students to analyse brilliantly

This method is suitable for analysing both language and literature.

This strategy comes from material that was shared by an AQA adviser for English at a recent course attended by my super colleague Karen Cunningham @kcquietcorner.

The adviser gave a bank of words that can be used to construct deeper, more probing analysis of language and encourage more detailed responses, especially under the time constraints of exams. However, as I have found this week, this method works equally well with students in lower years.

So I took the word banks and created two posters that I stuck up in my room. 


After seeing students keen to take photos of the posters I reckoned it would also be useful to create printable versions, which I now have.


The first poster demonstrates how paragraphs might be started, encouraging a wider range in vocabulary right from the off. I’ll use the first class I tried this with as my initial example and I’ll replicate actual responses from the students. It was my Year 11 set 4 (out of 5 sets) and we had been studying the poem “Bayonet Charge” by Ted Hughes. I was trying to teach them the old ‘write a lot about a little’ strategy and students had picked out 3 quotations that they thought would be worth further exploration (and hopefully would then replicate in the exam).

Here’s the poem in its entirety: a brutal, powerful and heartbreaking snapshot into what must surely be the final moments of a WWI soldier as he goes over the top.

Bayonet Charge

Suddenly he awoke and was running - raw
In raw-seamed hot khaki, his sweat heavy,
Stumbling across a field of clods towards a green hedge
That dazzled with rifle fire, hearing
Bullets smacking the belly out of the air -
He lugged a rifle numb as a smashed arm;
The patriotic tear that had brimmed in his eye
Sweating like molten iron from the centre of his chest, -

In bewilderment then he almost stopped -
In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations
Was he the hand pointing that second? He was running
Like a man who has jumped up in the dark and runs
Listening between his footfalls for the reason
Of his still running, and his foot hung like
Statuary in mid-stride. Then the shot-slashed furrows

Threw up a yellow hare that rolled like a flame
And crawled in a threshing circle, its mouth wide
Open silent, its eyes standing out.
He plunged past with his bayonet toward the green hedge,
King, honour, human dignity, etcetera
Dropped like luxuries in a yelling alarm
To get out of that blue crackling air
His terror’s touchy dynamite.


I modeled how to create a Dynamite Paragraph with the help of the students, as a whole class activity; the students were then expected to do two more on their own. To start off, one of the students chose the line from the second stanza:
In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations
Was he the hand pointing that second?”

It’s a complex and challenging extract: the second stanza sees almost a slowing or a freeze-frame of the soldier charging as his final thoughts occur and he begins to question his existence.

We first looked at what we considered to be the first two words worthy of exploration: “cold clockwork”. We discussed each word in turn. What did the word ‘cold’ connote? The students came up with suggestions such as ‘heartless’ and ‘unemotional’.

Then we moved onto ‘clockwork’ which seemed harder for the students, but in its purest form they agreed related to time. Therefore, the two words together gave a sense of time being uncaring.

We then tried the same method to look at the words ‘the stars and the nations’. Through discussion and questioning, the students deduced that this might relate to the universe (stars) and conflict between countries (the nations), or war.

Now we needed to write the paragraph so we referred to the first poster to get a starter sentence. Students will need practice in order to embed this type of sentence starter but it doesn’t take very long to get the hang of it.

In the second stanza, Ted Hughes creates the impression of the soldier questioning why he is there: “In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations/ Was he the hand pointing that second?”

We now moved to the second poster to construct our first PEA bit of the paragraph and we chose: “this suggests” from the first column and came up with our first layer of meaning.

In the second stanza, Ted Hughes creates the impression of the soldier questioning why he is there: “In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations/ Was he the hand pointing that second?” The words ‘cold clockwork’ suggest that time will move on whatever happens to this soldier; that it is unfeeling and doesn’t care.

Many students that struggle to move from D-grade-type responses would probably end their analyses here. But, instead, you return to the second poster and choose a word or phrase from the second column in order to take the analysis a step further, e.g. 'This could also imply that...' or 'In addition to this...' and then move onto another point about the same same quotation. This is what we came up with at this stage:

Further to this, the mention of ‘the stars’ seems to suggest the universe, backing up the idea that time is moving on, whatever happens on Earth at that moment. The soldier is realising that his life is very small in comparison with the universe. The mention of ‘the nations’ suggests the countries on Earth which are at war with one another.

Pretty good so far! But we’re not done, because we now need to add the final layer, the piece de resistance: an interpretation of the entire idea evoked by the quotation. This is where A* students come into their own and the idea of interpretation might seem out of reach for many lower ability students. However, when given a structure to work from I’ve found some students are more than capable of coming up with some astonishing ideas: a great example of setting the bar as high as possible and seeing what happens.

So we go back to the second poster and now choose a third layer of analysis using the third column, one that allows some left-field thinking and encourages imaginative thinking. “Maybe”, “This could possibly mean”, “Perhaps”. 

It could be that because the starters are suggestive rather than concrete, the students feel confident in trying some original ideas out. Higher ability students are much more confident about suggesting outlandish ideas; lower ability students much less so: they fear failure and are embarrassed about getting things ‘wrong’.

So we had a go at a third layer in our model paragraphs, each student having an individual go and then we shared and discussed some of the outcomes. They were AMAZING. Sheri’s in particular blew our minds so we chose his answer for our model:

In the second stanza, Ted Hughes creates the impression of the soldier questioning why he is there: “In what cold clockwork of the stars and the nations/ Was he the hand pointing that second?” The words ‘cold clockwork’ suggest that time will move on whatever happens to this soldier; that it is unfeeling and doesn’t care.
Further to this, the mention of ‘the stars’ seems to suggest the universe, backing up the idea that time is moving on, whatever happens on Earth at that moment. The soldier is realising that his life is very small in comparison with the universe. The mention of ‘the nations’ suggests the countries on Earth which are at war with one another.
Hughes may possibly be suggesting that the soldier is actually having an existential crisis in this split-second, which is ironic as he now almost certainly is facing death. Hughes could be emphasising here how pointless our lives really are as humans when we are so tiny in the universe and the history of time. The fact that war has made life even shorter is the cause of anger for Hughes, I think.

As our fab LSA Andy commented as we were packing up, “If someone had ever told me I’d even hear the word existential in this class, let along used in such a powerful way, I’d never have believed them!” I agreed. Sheri obviously has a great vocabulary, but he’s shy and often reluctant to commit pen to paper. This simple structure actually gave students the tools with which to construct sound analytical paragraphs but, added to that, an opportunity to go a stage further and attempt to be creative. Other students’ work, although perhaps not in quite the same league as Sheri, surpassed anything else they’d done in terms of analysis of language all year.

I’ve tried it with all of my classes now, including a Y8 cover class I’d never taught before in their study of The Lady of Shalott. They lapped it up. Here are some example of the Dynamite Paragraphs written by the year 8s in response the question: “How does Tennyson create the sense that Camelot is a magical place in this part of the poem?”

Tennyson describes the appearance of Camelot from the outside: “Four grey walls, and four grey towers/ Overlook a space of flowers” This actually suggests that Camelot is not magical because the word ‘grey’ is repeated and we usually associate grey with something dull and quite boring. However, the ‘space of flowers’ suggests beauty and colour as a contrast, which might smell lovely in the air. In addition to this idea, Tennyson could even be suggesting that, from the outside, Camelot might look ordinary, but if you are on the inside looking out, it looks beautiful all around. Perhaps he is saying that you only really feel the magic of Camelot when you are in there as it is so special and surrounded by beauty.

And another one:

Tennyson starts with the description: “On either side the river lie/ Long fields of barley and rye”. This highlights what surrounds Camelot and show how it stands out from the landscape of ordinary crops. Although they do not seem magical described like this, if you imagine it, it could imply that the crops’ colours of yellow and gold are beautiful. Tennyson could even be showing the difference between the ordinary farmers and worker and the people that live in Camelot. The farmers see the fields as part of their normal day of work but the people living in Camelot would look out of their windows onto the gold of the fields and the silver of the river, making it seem precious and magical.

The Dynamite Paragraphs are such a simple concept but they highlight an area of analysis that seems such a leap for many students to make and they’ve worked really well so far, including when practicing Paper 1 language questions that ask how writers create effects.

I must give full credit to the lovely @kathdarliston85 who came up with the name Dynamite Paragraphs when I shared this with her and the equally lovely @FranNantongwe when they visited the other day. Thank you both for your insights and views as we discussed this strategy. 

Just look what @JamieClark85 did with the idea of Dynamite Paragraphs!

Just wow. I LOVE Twitter!

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Love the ones you're with

Developing lesson observations that help, not hinder

I was lucky enough to attend a great session hosted by Dylan Wiliam last year. Much of what he had to say about improving teaching and learning in the UK resonated and I’ve seen it discussed a lot in my Twitter explorations. I don’t know if what I’ve read elsewhere is indicative generally, as I’m obviously selective to a certain point with my blog and research reading, but the consensus seems to have been positively in Wiliam’s favour on his keys points.

In summary – and prĂ©cising heavily - he had this to say about improving teaching and learning:

·           Improvement in student attainment requires improvement in teacher quality.
·           Improving the quality of entrants takes too long so we need to ‘Love the ones we’re with.’
·           The changes that will benefit students all involve changes in teacher practice.
·           In the UK, as long as you go to school, it doesn’t matter very much which school you go to, but it does matter which classrooms you are in.
·           Students taught by the most effective teacher of 50 teachers learn in 6 months what they will learn with the least effective teacher in 2 years.
·           In the classrooms of the most effective teachers students from disadvantaged backgrounds learn at the same rate as those from advantaged backgrounds.
·           Good teachers: know where students are; identify learning destinations; plan routes; regularly check progress & adjust the course as conditions dictate.
·           Students who have a role in the assessment of their work achieve more.
·           All ability students benefit from this approach but lower ability students benefit the most.
·           Teachers need to make ‘marginal gains’ through opportunities to explore and share effective strategies.

What we can take from all this:
·          “Teachers are at their best when they are their quirky, idiosyncratic selves”Some teachers’ weaknesses require immediate attention; most students however, benefit from the development of teachers’ strengths.
·           Telling teachers what to do doesn’t work.
·           Improving practice involves changing habits which is hard.
·           Hardest bit is not getting new ideas into teachers’ heads; it’s getting the old ones out, so it takes time – but it doesn’t happen ‘naturally’.
·           Raising achievement > improving teaching quality > improving CPD and basing it in the classroom > Teacher Learning Communities (model trialled in over 1000 schools)
·           Making a commitment
o        Teachers must commit to reflect and aim to continually improve; focus ONLY on what makes a difference to students
o        Leaders must commit to creation of expectations for improved practice; keeping focus on making a difference to students; provide time, space, dispensation for innovation and improvement

Much of this won’t be news to many teachers and leaders, especially those to regularly seek to reflect and improve on their practice or who seek to support others in doing so. But there are many teachers who can only look to Wiliam’s model and those of other commendable academics and leaders with a wistful longing. Perhaps their school’s T&L group is not run in the way Wiliam’s successful TLCs have done: maybe due to a lack of time? lack of solid commitment? a lack of understanding of how teaching and learning improves? Whatever the reason, for many teachers, their own school’s model of improvement is not working for them: they might feel under scrutiny to teach a certain way and the only way their teaching is measured is via the dreaded Ofsted-styley framework. 

      I’m guessing we could agree here that, in our experience, gradings and judgements about teaching Just Don’t Work if you’re looking to make improvements in the teachers you have and that you want to develop and encourage, long-term. And long-term is the key. Change takes time and investment. We can't just morph our current teachers into brand spanking new and outstanding clones. Who would even want that, really? I've seen schools that try to develop a House Style in their teaching and in some cases they achieve very impressive results, as far as Ofsted are concerned. But they can also result in teachers that physically shake when a member of SLT enters the room and who find themselves on competency after more than 2 grade 3 lessons. We don't need an army of brand new teachers: we need support and nurture and investment in the staff we already have.

      Wiliam is so right when he says 'teachers are at their best when they are their quirky idiosyncratic selves'. Why on earth can't teachers who get good results  be left to teach the way they do best - as share good practice with others? We should be giving our colleagues as many models of good practice as we possibly can when we seek to improve teaching.

Like Wiliam - and Stills - say, you need to love the ones you're with.

A small number of school leaders are taking the brave leap into non-graded lesson observations for their staff, in a drive to make them developmental. But we can also agree here that this is, sadly, not the norm, and too many school leaders still (rightly?) fear the spectre of Ofsted’s judgements on their staff, their leadership, their schools that may result in a disastrous report. Therefore, their observations of individual lessons are based on a framework designed to make whole-school judgements and the results are divisive, confusing and demoralising. It’s a circle more vicious than a sack of Siamese cats. So I’ve been thinking about how observations can escape from judgements and gradings but at the same time invite meaningful, ongoing and supportive improvement. No pressure then.

I would still maintain here that the Lesson Study model is a fabulous way to observe lessons and it certainly has a huge impact in studying how students learn and behave in lessons. But there are certain times when more focus is needed on the teacher and their practice.

So I’ve had a go at a record sheet; a pro-forma; a progress starting point… I can’t quite come up with a name I’m happy with yet without it sounding like something out of a David Brent sales seminar. But I’m sure that will follow. For now, it’s called a Teaching Progress Observation form. Any alternative suggestions for names will be gratefully considered.

I’ve tried to work backwards, looking at what the key success indicators might be in any lesson and boil it down to its simplest form. I’ve also tried to consider how useful this form would be for trainee teachers and teachers that aren’t used to observing lessons. Many teachers and trainees feel very uncomfortable in judging other colleague’s lessons – and well they might, when we consider how much a judgement can affect a person’s self-esteem. 

The never-ending tick-boxes that go to make many observation pro-formas strike me as particularly unhelpful in supporting and developing practice: they are distracting in lessons and prevent the observer from seeing what really goes into the vast part of the lesson. An inexperienced observer can also find themselves getting a tad obsessed with making sure each box as been ticked and, indeed, what constitutes a tick for the boxes they are least sure about.

So I’ve tried to keep things simple too. My belief is that the evidence from a lesson observation should be a starting point for discussion between the teacher and observer and an opportunity for the teacher to begin to reflect on the lesson from another person’s viewpoint.

These are the key questions I think might help this process:

·   What was the learning aim of the lesson?
(Either taken from the teacher’s LO; from questioning students or from what you have gathered from observing.)

I don't think it necessarily matters if it's not displayed throughout the lesson, but it does need to be shared and explicit. Do students know what the point of what they're doing? If the observer isn't clear, the students probably aren't either. 

·   To what extent was the learning aim met?
o        How did you/the teacher know this?

This is probably your AfL: a measure of what has been learned up to that point and, importantly, to what extent. It will need to be revisited if it's to stick and accumulate. It doesn't have to be an overly-conscious and arbitrary display for the observer but it's very important to gauge this before learning can move on, either in this lesson or the next.

·   What behaviour management strategies did you seeing being utilised?
o        How successful were these from what you saw?

Very often it's easy to ignore this, especially if there are few behaviour issues. But if there are, that's because it's well-managed and good habits have been established. By consciously looking for these habits and for signs that measures are in place when someone raises their head, it's easier to pick apart successful behaviour management. 

·   Which students stood out today?
o        Why was this?

I like this one because the teacher may not always realise that one or two students either dominate or slip off the radar. Is any one student's name used more than others? Why is this? And in the discussion afterwards, look at the students who might have needed additional support. Were they supported sufficiently in the lesson? The observer doesn't need to pass judgement on this though; it's a starting point for discussion.

These last three are taken from the developmental Learning Walk process I learned about on SLE training, detailed here. They seem on first glance a bit wishy washy, but after using them a lot in the past 2 years, I’ve seen how effective they can be.

·   Favourite
(What did you like about the lesson?)

Who would't like being told their lesson contains something that's been favourited? Observers can include resources and displays here, as well as relationships, tasks or anything else they liked.

·   Feeling
(What feelings did you get about the lesson as whole?)

This is often the hardest to articulate. But how did the lesson feel? What was the atmosphere? Quiet and studious? Quiet and lethargic? Buzzy and exciting? Buzzy and out of control? Calm? Safe? Too safe? 

·   Question(s)
(What questions would you ask the teacher or any of the students about today’s lesson?)

This is maybe the area that would normally count as the target area, but because it relies on questions rather than judgements, it invites reflection. As I said in more detail in my Walk On Through post (linked above), this part offers the teacher the chance to justify their teaching choices. Sometimes there's an answer; it just wasn't made clearer in the lesson. And sometimes there's not, which can lead to a greater understanding of the process of teaching and learning. But it also allows explanations to be made that the observer just wouldn't have prior knowledge about, especially perhaps when thinking about differentiation (see also my post here). Much of the resentment that arises from classroom observations involves the teacher feeling they didn't have a voice or the chance to explain themselves. This process allows that opportunity.

I wouldn’t want this form to be any longer than a side of A4; it’s not the story of the lesson in several chapters, it’s a starting point for reflection.

As I’m sure many teachers now know, there are plenty of studies to support the use of diagnostic/formative feedback only for the most part when assessing students’ work. Why should this be any different for teachers? What are we if not grown-up kids? Wiliam cited one particular study that looked at the effect of 3 control groups of middle school children who each received a different type of feedback. The 1st group were given tests scores only; the 2nd received scores and comments; the 3rd received diagnostic comments only.

When measuring improvement in attainment, the 3 groups scored as follows:

1st group (score alone) – no improvement in achievement
2nd group (score & comment) – no gain. It was found that the score actually negated the effect of the comment.
3rd group (comment alone) – 30% gain in attainment.
Additionally, when trying to raise student self-esteem, even NO feedback was better than grades or praise without substance.

So for these lesson observation forms there are no grades. At all.

I’m going to give them a go with the new trainees when they arrive in January and go through their usual round of lesson observations across the school. And for those staff I’m currently coaching, I’ll suggest them too. If anyone else wants to have a go as well, tweet me and I'll email you a link to the first draft of the form. Do let me know how you get on, and I will too.

Quick extra thought:
What about if the observer didn't write anything in the lesson and just absorbed what they saw? Following the lesson, the observer and teacher could have a go at filling the progress form in themselves for 10 minutes, without consulting. Then compare and discuss. It would be very interesting to compare perceptions of the lesson from the observer's (and students' if they've been spoken to) with the teacher's. I'll definitely try this out in the next few weeks.