Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Cambridge IGCSE English Paper 2 - An Examiner's View

I'm marking, marking, marking at the moment which was a bloody marvellous idea when the bairn slept for four or five blissful hours a day but not so wonderful now that he's a semi-crawling dervish with sweet potato in his hair.

The sweet potato thing doesn't actually impede my marking as such, but you get my drift. He moves a lot. He doesn't sleep so much. It's a bit of a mare.

ALL HAIL THE MOTHERSHIP who came out to Belgy last week to Get Him Sorted (big believer in getting kids 'sorted', my mother) and he's been straitjacketed into the cast iron trademark Annie Mc routine. It involves an hour and a half of nap time in the morning during which time I MARK AND MARK AND MARK and anywhere between forty minutes and an hour and a half of nap time in the afternoon during which time - you got it! - I MARK AND MARK AND MARK.

So far it's going well. I haven't showered yet today but 16 PAPERS AND COUNTING BABY WOOOOYEEEAH.

So, Cambridge iGCSE English Paper 2, what do I need to remember about you in September when I meet my Year 11 class?

I'll put a link up to the paper once it becomes available but the first passage was all about a community meeting where Rufus Carmichael and local Anuja battled it out over what should happen to an area of local common land - should it be developed into a depot for a food company or left as it is, full of historical value to the people and an ideal habitat for rare species? The second passage was all about ospreys. There were some amusing tweets about it proving that Young People Today haven't been entirely beaten down by the system just yet - see here and scrooooooll.

Thoughts on Question 1

1) Integrate lots of detail. Do it skilfully, not 'mechanically' (they don't like that, no siree). If one of the bullet points asks about the atmosphere, GUESS WHAT? You're going to get credit for every point about the atmosphere that you include. So go to town! Tell the examiner that it was tense, it was hot, that it began calmly but the intensity of the debate escalated quickly, that a short break for drinks and snacks eased the pressure for a few minutes, that it ended in chaos with a cacophony of jeers and boos...You're going to get even more credit if you DEVELOP those points, too. Say what? Well, take the fact that 'it was hot', for example. If you suggest that the atmosphere was stuffy and the audience uncomfortable, you're going to get even more credit! Crazy, I know.

2) Still on Question 1 - be careful that you just say things once, though. The number of answers I've read where a candidate has written a variation on 'the atmosphere was tense' about a gajillion times. 'The atmosphere was tense....some people were eager....some were less excited....everyone had different could cut the atmosphere with a knife...' Move along, nothing to see here, YOU'RE MAKING THE SAME POINT OVER AND OVER AGAIN IN DIFFERENT WORDS STOP NOW YOU'VE GOT YOUR MARK ALREADY!

3) Also while we're on the topic, no self-respecting journalist under the sun is going to use the phrase 'You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.' It's a cliche. Please try to sound like a journalist or whatever 'type' of person you're trying to imitate. Don't break conventions ('But I was writing as if I was an online news blogger! Text speak is totes acceptable!' Nah. Go with the stereotype). It's an exam, ergo formality ALWAYS WINS.  

4) Also, please paragraph, unless you're desperate for 2/5 for writing ('structure is weak') mmkay?

5) PAY ATTENTION TO THE BULLETS. If you want to stay stranded in Band 3 (that's 7-9 marks out of a juicy 15), feel free to tag on a couple of sentences at the end to cover the third bullet. If you want more marks, ensure you devote a roughly equal amount of time and writing to all three.

6) Oh, and language. Don't play it safe. Use a few wow words otherwise you're going to get a 3/5 ('language is clear but plain', a.k.a. just about readable but MY GOD it was dull). Just make sure you use them in the correct context, otherwise you'll slip to a 2.

I've seen a LOT of Band 3 (7-9 out of 15 for reading and 3/5 for writing, can you tell?

Thoughts on Question 2

1) Umm, well it would seem that Question 2 is a sod. It really is. It's the classic stylistic one - here's a couple of paragraphs, pick out four powerful words and phrases from each and explain what makes them so effective. Kids, hear me - if you pick out eight good phrases and explain the meanings of words - even if you explain them really, really well with fancy vocal and everything - you're getting 6/10 tops.

2) You need a double-printed attack here. Pick out your quotation and explain the hell out of those words. Be really, really precise about meaning.

'Noxious weeds choke...' Noxious means poisonous or dangerous. This is perhaps Carmichael using exaggeration, or hyperbole. 


'Noxious weeds choke...' This presents a negative view of the weeds.

And yes, that's right, naming the technique also counts as explanation!

3) But you're not done yet! THEN tell the examiner what the effect is.

This creates the effect of a sense of pollution or danger. Rufus is trying to manipulate his audience into agreeing with his plans by presenting the common land as negatively as possible. 

Some good practice I've seen is where the candidate does a little summation at the end of their quotation analysis concluding what the overall effect of the paragraph is - but remember you also need to refer to the specific effect of specific words and phrases within your answer!

Thoughts on Question 3

Part a - 15 adaptations of ospreys and threats they face - man, these should be some easy marks. But they're not. Why? Because they are SERIOUSLY FUSSY about the wording.

The good news is, though, you're allowed to copy directly - so do it! COPY, COPY, COPY! I marked 330 papers and awarded 15/15 ONCE. Surprise surprise it was a candidate who COPIED!

Don't try to be too clever - often, the examiner is told that a key word has to be present in order to award a mark. If you write 'Toes that are retractable' when the answer is actually 'reversible toes' you're not going to get the mark.

Also, be specific - it's TOES (plural) not 'toe'. Seriously, this is how fussy the mark scheme is. Be precise!

Remember what the question is asking you for. Adaptations and threats? OK. 'Birds are disturbed during egg-laying and chick-incubation periods.' Err, you haven't told us who's doing the disturbing, ergo you haven't told us the specific threat. Tourists, you say? WRITE IT.

Don't separate points across two lines (e.g. point 13: They can get caught in fishing lines. Point 14: They can get fishing hooks caught in their throats. You won't get either mark).

And don't add points at the end. There are 15 lines and the examiner stops reading at line 15. Sooo many candidates added a 16, 17, 18....

Part b - It's a summary. That means NO COMMENT. NO EXPLANATION. 

What are the threats facing ospreys? A chemical called DDT and other pollutants? Great. Mark awarded. Oh, hang on, they cause terrible problems such as thin eggshells and personally you think it's a disgrace that humans have such little respect for their environments? Ah. I see. Well, that's all well and good but you've just got 2 out of a potential 5 because you're waffling.

(the mark scheme doesn't use the word 'waffling' but they might as well do)

And use your own words. But it's a thin line. A significant % of the answers I read were unclear as a result of laborious attempts to avoid the wording of the original, and therefore only got 2/5. 'The birds have ends of their feet (original word: toes) which are specially designed by evolution (original word: reversible) to grab their difficult to catch (original word: slippery) food from the sea (original word: fish). As a result, answer are opaque and super-long. Baaaaad. So don't go crazy. A good rule of thumb is to keep the key words (reversible toes, sharply-curved beak etc) and change everything else.  

Also, LOTS got 3/5. Why? They were list-like. Examiners HATE list-like. How to avoid that? Umm, in short, you need to write well. Use connectives. Groups things differently to how they are in the original. What do I mean? Well, if writing about threats facing ospreys, group environmental threats together, human threats together and animal threats together (just an example).

BABY AWAKE. A bientot!

Monday, 11 May 2015

Why Being a Teacher is A Bit Like Being a Royal

It must be tough naming a baby if you're a Royal. After all, the range of monikers you can realistically bestow on your baby without some Palace aide stepping in to say 'I DON'T think so, Ma'am' is fairly narrow. Poor Will and Kate - Kate especially, what with her Not Being of Blue Blood - would have had to put aside any remotely unusual choices and accepted their destiny as Royals to choose Royal Approved Names. 

I like to imagine Kate gazing at Princess Charlotte's wrinkled little newborn face, wiping a tear from her eye and whispering, 'Tulisa. You'll always be Tulisa to me.' (SOMEONE PUT A BET ON IT)

In reality they probably had fifty boys' and girls' names open to them and even some of those were probably off-limits for one reason or another. Mary? Apparently the last Princess of Cambridge was a Mary, attractively nicknamed 'Fat Mary'. Hmm, maybe not. Henry? Bit too head-choppy-offy. Even something as staid as Charles is potentially risky: given its association with one of the monarchy's bloodiest periods, the Prince of Wales is said to be considering adopting another name when (if?) he gets his plant-loving mits on the throne. 

No, naming a baby as a Royal must be grunt work - shifting through the many nos until you find a yes you can work with. Before you know it, you're down to the perfectly pleasant if predictable Elizabeth, Victoria, William or George, feeling a bit daring if you plump for Louis or Frances. 

THIS IS WHERE I MAKE MY CONNECTIVE LEAP - ready? Voila: being a teacher is a bit like being a Royal. No, not because a phalanx of hairdressers is waiting to blowdry the hell out of one post-delivery or because one shares a gynaecologist with the Queen (it still makes me snigger that the Queen has an official gynaecologist) OR actually that one makes a habit of using the pronoun one; but because of this very naming issue. As a teacher you're similarly restricted in the names you might choose for your offspring, oh yes. 

When it came to discussing names for our first-born, my husband (very much Not A Teacher) was driven demented. I had literally taught at least one kid with every name we discussed; not surprising, I suppose, ten years and thousands of students later. And as a result most of them were off-limits. 

Some were on the basis of being 'too common'. I mean common as in 'there were lots of them' rather than in the manner of Katie Hopkins, by the way. Jack, Ben, Sam, Sophie, Katie herself - man, I've taught a LOT of Katies. I had a GCSE class once where they all kind of blurred into one; I had what felt like rows upon rows of bright, smiley, shiny-haired Katies in front of me. The more usual problem was that the name was already associated with a student, though and, whether I liked the kid or not, the association was pretty strong.

The conversation went a little like this:
'Oh my Gohhhhhd, as if! I've taught five billion Alexs!'
'I taught an Arthur once. He had a mohican.'
'No. Just no.'

On the rare occasions we struck upon a name that I hadn't come across it was either a) totally wacky or b) an ex. Super. 

Which then got us talking about the craziest names we'd come across in the workplace. Of course, the sheer volume of students I've come into contact with across three schools (five if you count training, and dozens more if you count colleague anecdotes) meant that I could massively top-trump his modest effort. I've taught a Jack Daniels, an Emily Dickinson and an Iona Fortune. In one of my placement schools in Dewsbury, I came across a Capri ('After the island?' 'Nah, the car.') 

I heard a great story once about a teacher (a colleague's friend's husband's sister's school or something) who had a child in her class whose name appeared on the register as 'La-a'. The bemused teacher went with 'La' as in 'Doh, Ray, Me' etc and received an irate phone call a couple of days later. 'Why are you calling her 'Lah'?' Mum demanded to know. 'It's LA-DASH-A!' 

Please don't burst my bubble and tell me that's an urban myth. Instead, please tell me about the most weird and wonderful names you've come across in teaching. And whether you found naming your own kids as tough as I did? 

(We went for Patrick in the end. Don't tell me about any horrible Patricks thanks-bye)

Friday, 1 May 2015

Interview Questions

As a twenty one year old NQT wannabe, I rocked up at Leeds University to be interviewed for the PGCE Secondary English course. 

I'll admit I was a bit complacent. I was on my way to getting a good degree from a good University and they were crying out for teachers: it was 2004! The era of the Golden Hello and the Teacher Loan Repayment scheme! I'd been for a few drinks the night before because I was in Leeds and, you know, friends and beer and being twenty one. I wasn't hungover but you know. Beer

And so I went in for the interview. 

The interviewer had a huge moustache - that was the first thing I noticed. The second thing was that he wasn't smiling. At all. Not even a hint of a smile. And so the questions started rolling. 

'This is a bit of an indulgent question based on an area of interest of mine - morality and education. How do you propose you would or could teach morality through Secondary English? Or do you even think that we should?'

'What do you think motivates young people to do well academically? How can you encourage them to do that?'


And then, my personal favourite, the scenario-based question. 

'Imagine I'm a fifteen year old boy. Go on.'

I stared at the enormous moustache. OK. 

'Now, you're teaching a lesson on poetry. It's a lesson you've really been looking forward to and you've put a lot of time and effort into preparing your resources.'

Still staring at the moustache. OK. 

'Especially a handout. THIS handout.'

He picked up a piece of paper from his desk. And then, before my very eyes, he morphed into a fifteen year old boy. 

'What use is this anyway? Poetry! Pah!'

His face, moustahce and all, contorted in adolescent disgust.

'And this is what I think of your fucking handout!'

He actually said 'fucking'. And then he screwed up the piece of paper and threw it at me. 

He sat back in the chair, smiling for the first time since the interview had started. 

'So, what do you do now?'

Ah. Right. Should have prepared for this, I thought. 


What's the best interview question you've ever been asked? And by 'best' I mean, of course, the weirdest/toughest/most interesting/bizarre.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Impossible and Irresponsible: 'Sacrifice-Everything' Teaching

I recently read Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, an American mom and self-confessed neurotic who found herself in Paris bringing up three bébés with her British husband. As a new mother myself (P is now five months old: is he EATING TIME?) and having had my baby in Belgium, land of the 15 week maternity leave and 'Ow-Are-We-Losing-Ze-Weight?' conversations, I was interested in her observations of the difference between typical French and Anglophone child-rearing approaches.

Of course, it's the nature of the beast that this book is full of generalisations but that's not my concern here; rather, I want to explore how the child-centric parenting philosophy favoured by Americans and Brits is bleeding into the education world and making life particularly miserable for teachers. 

You see, Druckerman perceives that the average American parent (OK, especially mom, because women are fantastic at doing the guilt thing) is prepared to make multiple significant and prolonged sacrifices for the sake of their children. It starts immediately, from racing cribside to soothe the tiniest of newborn whimpers right through to ferrying Tommy to his tennis lesson and nagging Valerie to practise her viola. Time previously spent on everything from ironing to sex is cut down - if not completely cut out - in order to ensure that the little darlings are stimulated, engaged and encouraged All-Of-The-Time.

There's enormous pressure to do it, too - to whack on the (now discredited) Baby Einstein, to cajole, to coax development on. Druckerman namechecks Piaget and his visit to the States to expound his ideas on child development. The audiences started to ask what Piaget subsequently referred to as 'The American Question' - how do we get these stages of development to happen more quickly? He was aghast. Why would you want to hasten a child's development? The way he saw it, in most situations development would happen in its own sweet time and that, quite frankly, was soon enough.

Jean Piaget - 'You what now?'

The French share Piaget's despair at this 'sacrifice-everything-at-the-altar-of-child-development' push-push-push approach, Druckerman says. They're believers in encouraging autonomy in children within a cadre or framework but strive to retain a sense of équilibre - balance, not letting one part of life, such as parenthood, overwhelm the others. And guess what? French kids develop just fine. They tend to have less parky tendencies when it comes to food and they can entertain themselves without constant recourse to their caregiver (she hits the nail on the head when she writes that she 'just knows' the mum heading down the slide in her local park is an American. You'd never catch a French maman doing that). They do well at school, despite the absence of pre-school Kumon maths or harp tuition; the 'leave them alone' school of parenting thought seems to have seeped into the education system, with feedback from Druckerman's daughter's French school being limited to the point of 'If I don't say anything, that means she's fine.' Nor do the children seem too emotionally scarred by the whole experience, growing up on the whole to be well-mannered and well-adjusted.

Reading her observations - and, for all she throws in some token science now and again, her ideas are mainly founded on her observations - it struck me that if British parents are similarly prepared to give up their lives for their children to bring on their development it's really no surprise that they expect teachers to do the same. The British government, responsive to the hysterical cries of parents all of whom have a vote, continue to pile on pressure down the chain of educational authority command. Get those books turned around in 24 hours. Give every student feedback every lesson. In the horrific period leading up to examinations, be on call for anxious students from 7am-7pm (and out of hours on email, if my school's anything to go by). The parent is prepared to give up everything from their social lives to their sanity; so, therefore, must the teacher. 

Druckerman's reward for her selfless sacrifice? Well, she reports that her kids were irritable, poorly-behaved and unpredictable, and she was pretty frazzled most of the time. She describes how her self-esteem, relationship, figure and sanity all took a direct hit. For teachers who adopt the sacrifice-everything ideology, this may sound familiar. This hysteria about progression, development, advancement at all costs is doing no one - least of all the young people in our charge - any favours. At best, they're apathetic; at worst, they're stressed to hell. Thankfully, questions are being raised about the fallacy of linear progress, but until that message really sinks through, remember this: flogging oneself to the point of collapse doesn't make for award-worthy parenting or teaching. It's more than just impossible; it's irresponsible.

Yes, we are honoured with an incredibly important job as teacher, parent or both, but the idea that we have to give up everything else in our lives to do that is a ridiculous - nay, dangerous - one. So, post-Easter and in the run-up to exams, parent, teacher, student, one and all, give yourself a break. 


(Andy Tharby wrote about this recently here - it was a little bit of encouragement just when some was needed. Respect, innit)

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Teaching teaching? It's always the real thing.

As an NQT, I'd await my GCSE class with bated breath. Dawn had a regressive disorder and forgot things as quickly as they were taught ("It just fell out of my head,” she'd say, bewildered); Simon had severe learning difficulties and, when I called his name, cocked an ear like the German Shepherd he'd allegedly been raised alongside. Jordan was a rising star in the brutal world of Thai kickboxing; he might not have been able to spell 'egg' or 'bacon' when taking sandwich orders on work experience but apparently he was very, very good at violence. Happy-go-lucky Leon went to far-right rallies at the weekend with his dad, fired up on Stella and xenophobic chants. They reminded me of the Bash Street Kids except my Toots, Spotty, Smiffy and Plug had a darker side. A couple had been on social workers' books for most of their short lives; many of them, to use Ofsted's trusty yardstick of social deprivation, received free school meals. 

And me, their dedicated teacher? Why, I was a bastion of inspiration! Ahem. Not quite. Mainly it was hard. There were battles of wills and batterings of egos. There was Jordan arriving late one day, putting his head down on the desk and announcing wearily, 'Don't you f***ing start' before I could open my mouth. There was me begging Leon to 'TURN AROUND' and another boy chipping in with an operatic 'briiiiiiiight eyyyyyyyes' Bonnie Tyler would be proud of. There was some leaping on tables, but not prompted by poetic inspiration - rather, a wasp drifted unwittingly in through the window and pandemonium erupted.

Did I mention it was hard? Harder than a nanotechnology PhD or scraping dried-on porridge off a bowl, i.e. really, really hard. And so I referred desperately to the trusty teaching manual of the time - The Teacher’s Toolkit by Paul Ginnis - with limited success. It seemed the rules didn’t apply to 10B4. Confusingly, a new strategy would work one day and backfire spectacularly the next. 

I was following good, sound, ‘proven’ teaching techniques: why wasn’t it working? I confided in fellow NQTs and wailed to my mentor. I locked myself in the staff toilet for a therapeutic cry. I observed other teachers and marvelled at the pockets of learning magic they created. The penny finally dropped when I realised that good teaching wasn’t about slavishly adhering to someone else’s ideology, but about using knowledge and experience of a group of students to confidently tread an intuitive line. It meant being consistent alongside some well-judged flexibility. It was about being fully present in the classroom and using every nugget of information available from the weather forecast to what was on the canteen menu that day in order to gauge what would work. Tentatively, I started to trust my judgement. I deployed whizzy stuff - felt-tip pens, cultural hooks, tiered lesson objectives, electronic tickers and timers, music, whiteboards, bite-sized chunks - but built in ‘down time’, easy-on-the-brain tasks, deviations from The Plan as appropriate. And, very gradually, the occasions where I felt like an abject failure were outnumbered by those where I felt I was effectively managing tough students.

The recent hype about the latest How to Teach tome, Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2.0, got me thinking about those heady NQT days. I even bought a copy, despite my aversion to the chest-beating machismo of the title. Sucked in by Lemov’s impressive credentials, I diligently studied and tried some of the techniques. My first discovery? They weren’t so different to tips my battle-scarred NQT colleagues shared over a decade ago, except Lemov’s strategies made use of snappy alliterative titles and mnemonics. The emperor’s new pedagogical clothes? Perhaps. 

And then I hit upon the same problem that strikes whenever I try to apply some reading to the reality of a classroom: ironically, given the emphasis Lemov places on presence, I actually find myself less present than when I’m trusting my own intuition. His ‘champion tips’ were honking in the back of my mind like a car alarm, distracting from the real business of responding to the students in front of me. 

The good news? Teaching is undoubtedly a craft and, fortunately, a refineable one, otherwise those toilet cubicle tears may have signalled the end. The bad news? Unlike what many of Lemov’s devotees imply, books don’t hold all of the answers. I’m yet to find the most valuable lessons I learned in my NQT year - how to spot a student texting under the desk from twenty paces, how to know when someone is genuinely desperate for the toilet as opposed to wanting to make vigorous wanker signs at another classroom window - in a handbook. That comes with experience, intuition and guts. Teaching books have their (limited) place. However, I like to think of them as the equivalent of the driving theory test or an antenatal course: valuable preparation but, as any parent who’s been up all night with a screaming newborn or new driver who’s found themselves doing an elaborate fifteen-point turn knows, very definitely not the real thing.