Subject specific CPD is where it is at. According to research, it is where teachers grow the most professionally and so it was with great excitement that I booked tickets to attend the first English National conference organised by Caroline Spalding and Rebecca Foster.
Choosing sessions is always tricky. Sometimes I am guided by the person. Sometimes I am guided by my school’s priorities. Sometimes I am guided by the things I want to develop. For the #teamenglish conference I was predominantly guided by my desire to improve how I teach transactional writing (I think it is a minefield) and I was desperate to see Lyndsey Caldwell.
Opening by Alex Quigley
- Knowledge is power and reading is the master skill of school.
What are common problems facing English teachers and teachers in general?
- My pupils don’t read widely enough;
- My pupils struggle to write independently, especially in timed conditions;
- My pupils don’t plan their writing;
- My pupils cannot craft a sentence;
- My pupils cannot punctuate accurately;
- My pupils have a narrow vocabulary;
- My pupils cannot spell complex words accurately and consistently;
- My pupils cannot remember the knowledge for their examination;
- My pupils don’t have enough background knowledge to access the text.
Good teaching boils down to explicit teaching, consistent application, deliberate practice.
Session 1: Louisa Enstone (Developing your confidence as a writing teacher)
Louisa is the Queen of writing. She now has an established website www.theteacherwriter.com (which she only set up last week so will be a grower).
Why live writing?
- Watch it happen
- See the mechanics
- Hear the rationale
We discussed how a lot of writing pieces in the examination are ‘ploddingly straightforward’.
It was raised (and I think it is a valid point) that the rigidity of the reading sections means pupils are in that zone for writing. We need to teach them to colour outside the lines.
Louisa does writing warm-ups. Short 10-15 minute bursts with a focus on crafting excellent phrases and sentences. She provided us with three examples:
- Provide pupils with a list of words (taken from a text you are studying) – ask pupils to join 2-3 words together but ensure that the joining of these words is out of the ordinary and creates a sense of mystery. Pupils should be considering ‘where would I go with that?’ Then ask pupils to write it down on a post it note, place on the board and then take someone else’s to carry it on. As an extension, compare / contrast with the writer’s original choices.
- People cut outs. Pupils receive a cut out and give the person a name. Swap. Next they give an age. Swap. Then the likes. Swap. Then the dislikes. Then you give pupils a scenario ‘You wake up late one morning….’ What would the first thought of this character be? Craft it. Good opportunity to discuss voice and get pupils going beyond their age and gender in their writing.
- Give pupils an object. Model describing the object – Louisa did this with colour, crafting phrases and being very particular about the details of the object (a good activity for asking pupils to zoom in). Personify the object. Imagine it lying on your floor. What would it be thinking?
- What one word would you use to describe your mood today? Why?
Louisa also talked about provided structure to the pupils but sentence structures. For the mood task above she gave pupils the following structure:
- If I had one word to describe my day
- It all started…
- It was…
- I was…
- -ing verb
- -ing verb….
- As I said…
Session 2: Matt Pinkett (Chopping down AFOREST)
I’ve fallen a little bit in love with Matt after his session yesterday. It’s not something he will want to hear LOL but he was just brilliant.
He made a convincing case for binning AFOREST and much discussion since the exam series has been about pupils’ writing being too mechanistic and that this is dangerous and we need to move away from this.
So he spoke of rhetoric and the three proofs: ethos, logos and pathos. And this is just a superb way in to all teaching of transactional writing.
Ethos – credibility, the I, the expert
Logos – the reasons and the logic behind something
Pathos – the feelings you want to evoke
Matt talked through a structure for rhetoric writing which I am going to begin to think about using:
Exordium – hook (ethos)
Narratio – narrative (facts, less personal and more a collective understanding (ethos again and a bit of logos))
Divisio – division – acknowledging the counter argument – what you agree with? What you disagree with?
Proof – your argument (ethos / logos)
Refutation – smash the opponent’s view (Matt argued this should follow the Divisio)
Peroration – end emotively (pathos)
He then went on to talk about some key techniques he uses. I loved the idea of the flipped anecdote in which you start with an anecdote at the beginning of your piece and then you flip the anecdote at the end to reinforce your argument.
Matt referred to The Elements of Eloquence which is a great book and ran through the same techniques. It occurred to me at that point, that the techniques explored in the book would form great Writing Warm Ups as advocated by Louisa.
Matt’s rhetoric booklet is available from his Twitter page.
Session 3 – Lyndsey Cadwell (Leading the Research Focused English Department).
I chose this session because of Lyndsey. #teamenglish came back buzzing from ResearchEd Rugby after seeing her and so I feel like I had been waiting a year for my opportunity to listen to her talk.
Lyndsey is meticulous and strategic in her planning. She began by stating that we should ‘Do what is going to make the most difference right now’ whilst acknowledging we can’t do it all. Lyndsey’s decisions and planning is underpinned by her thinking that ‘Every change that has been made is making things better for the teachers in the classroom.’
As a result, Lyndsey identified three key priorities:
- Prioritise knowledge – Lyndsey spoke about minimal units to support deeper learning, cultural capital (choice of text is critical) – what is it we want our children to know before leaving our school? What narrative does your curriculum tell?, knowledge organisers, scripting the stories of authors
- Crafted direct instruction – vocabulary and a systematic approach to teaching vocabulary, providing pupils with a booklet of sentence starters for different types of writing, direct instructions on Youtube
- Standardised assessments
What came across more than anything was the amount of Research Lyndsey had completed in order to frame her curriculum and the practice within it. Within the session she cited: What makes great teaching? Why students don’t like school? Seven Myths about Education. The Matthew Effect. Peps McCrea. Daisy C and so on and so on. Her thinking had been careful and meticulous in order to provide an incredible strong curriculum and approach to curriculum.
Session 4 – Patrice Miller (Modelling writing)
This was a discussion-based session exploring all facets of modelling. Questions provided included: do we currently model? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks? And this instigated some good discussions.
I was able to make a number of reflections during this session:
- I am more nervous of modelling writing than I am reading. In reading, there are set structures and I find analysis easier. For me, there is a vulnerability when modelling writing.
- This led to a debate on preparing responses ahead of a lesson to model to pupils. I think it is helpful to build teacher confidence but it is also important for pupils to see the thought-processes that teachers go through, even when this includes the struggle.
- Pupils need to be exposed to great models. Having examined this year, I have realised that I haven’t really exposed my pupils enough to models that are 500-600 words in length – the length we would expect them to write in an exam. I think there is a point about this in terms of really focusing in on how writers create shape within such a short piece of writing and so I am definitely planning to do this more next year.
Again, Patrice advocated model – practice – reflect as a structure to use.
Closing speech – Lindsay Skinner
A passionate speech about serving the most disadvantaged and the belief we have to have that we can close the gap. She spoke about why it is so difficult to close the gap and citied the following reasons:
- Vocabulary deficit
- Cultural deficit
- Poorer health
- At risk of exclusion
- High absence rate
- Lower level of literacy
- Low expectations
And called English teachers to arms to impact upon some of the difficulties above.
At the start of the day Alex very wisely said, don’t rush back to your schools and implement any of the ideas from today, tomorrow. Instead, think, consider, reflect and identify your priorities for next year. Strategic thinking is key.
I am creating my own professional development target for next year – to improve how I teach transactional writing. I am going to weave the nuggets I got from today over the summer into a cohesive strategy which I will embed with my classes next year.
Thank you for an excellent day. I am begging the other presenters to upload their presentations – so many other sessions I wish I could have attended. One thing that did strike me was the consistency of messages. #Teamenglish is a very research-informed group of people and therefore we are all singing from the same hymn sheet. We are lucky to have each other and I hope Twitter and #teamenglish continues to go from strength to strength as a platform for sharing, collaboration and support.
Looking forward to flying back to the UK for next year’s conference.