On Dancing and Writing

Published on 11 December 2015

There have been a number of excellent blog posts published recently about modelling - most notably, in my mind, this one from John Tomsett. As I read the blog, three things which I've been working on recently came together, making me want to trial and adapt John's suggested methodology in the classroom. 

Year 11 Exam-Busters

I picked up the teaching of both of our Year 11 top sets in English this year. They are amazing students and young people - if you came to the ResearchEd Literacy conference in Swindon you'll have met quite a few of them as they were the prefects who courteously served lunch, sold cakes and did all the washing up and clearing away behind the scenes. 

For the last two years our entire Year 11 cohort have taken the iGCSE English qualification. My new students have great coursework folders, mostly produced whilst they were in Year 10. During the course of last year they also took four mock exams and we thought that they were doing really well. However, when the results unit breakdown came through for last year's Year 11, it was very evident that we'd not been effectively teaching that cohort of students how to approach the reading exam. Fortunately, this didn't have the same seriously detrimental impact on our students' results as it did those in other schools and we have plenty of green on Raiseonline for English. Nevertheless, we're determined to do even better this year. 

I know some people aren't big fans of PIXL, but we use a lot of their strategies at school. In order to address the exam issue for the new Year 11 students, to ensure they could do even better than our 2015 cohort, one of the things our English team have done is to take the PIXL Steps to Success mock exam and watch the videos produced by an examining team leader. This is one of the best pieces of subject specific, exam focused CPD I've had in quite some time. I could clearly see where we'd gone wrong the previous year and was really keen to share this in a positive way with my two new classes. I'll come back to this later. 

New Modelling Army

The second area of my work which John's blog brought to mind was the ongoing CPD which our Assistant Principal, Lorraine Jordan, leads on. We've focused each session on either a Teach Like a Champion strategy or a specific area of our Teaching and Learning model. 

This Monday's session was on modelling. I'm part way through Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby's excellent book Making Every Lesson Count and their chapter on modelling is excellent. So much so that I took the time to summarize their pros and cons of different modelling strategies in this document:

Aside from some great blogs, there appears to be little academic research on what teachers call modelling (please correct me if I'm wrong). In my hunt for researchers on modelling, however, I did get pointed in the direction of Greg Ashman and this post about worked examples. In turn, this led me to this book by Sweller et al - which I think might be a Christmas read - and this research summary

My reading so far about worked examples suggests that:

  • Breaking your modelling down into steps and naming them can reduce cognitive overload. 

  • The decision as to whether to give students a model before or after attempting a task/problem should be taken in light of their level of expertise in that type of problem. A sequence in which the model is used before completion of a problem is more effective for less knowledgeable students, whilst more knowledgeable students respond better to the model after their attempt at the problem. 

  • As the level of complexity in problems presented to students increases, it is best to reduce the number of high quality model responses you initially provide students with. 

Dancing and Writing

This leads me to the third area of my work on which John's post made me reflect. All of our teachers, from NQTs to Vice Principals, have a teaching coach. Two years ago, I began coaching our dance teacher, Becky Woolven. At the time, she was just starting her NQT year, but it became clear that Becky had the potential to be a great dance teacher. Her expectations were high and she used the studio mirrors well to maintain a sight line on her students in the dance equivalent of the Teach Like a Champion strategy, Check for Understanding. What she did particularly well though was model for the students in her classes at the same time as doing all of these other things. It struck me, when I first coached Becky, that copying is an entirely acceptable state of affairs in a dance studio when, in classrooms, it is more often perceived negatively by teachers and students and derogatorily referred to as 'spoon feeding.' In the dance studio, unless they are producing their own choreography, groups attempt to copy the teacher's every move as they model from the front and they repeat again and again until the routine is a polished performance. 

The learning of a pre-choreographed dance routine is different to learning to write though, isn't it?

Well, yes. There's no credit in any English exam writing I'm aware of given to students for memorising, then copying another whole text verbatim, precisely and accurately. The assessment system in English requires students to choreograph new texts of their own. This demands that they have a well developed vocabulary, the ability to manipulate grammar and use rhetoric, a mastery of paragraphing and skills in structuring whole texts in a variety of genres. 

But this does something of a disservice to the dance curriculum. Where it's taught well, in dance, students need to learn the grammar and structure of dance - the various ballet positions, motifs, phrasing and the structures used in different styles of dance. 

Back to Year 11

So, drawing all this together, what I've done with my fantastic Year 11s?

  • Following on from their last mock, I've spent a lot of time teaching them the choreography or procedural knowledge required for the exam. We've broken each question down into steps, each of which has a visual cue or gesture attached to it to make it stick in their memory. 

  • We've begun to do a lot of vocabulary work to develop their comprehension and enhance the quality of their writing. I'll be posting separately about this. 

  • I've done more modelling than I've done in a long time. In lessons, I've done a brief input on the steps, then directed some students to work wholly independently, whilst others have watched me, listened to me and copied me wholescale or partially. Either way, they've had to keep up with my pace. In some cases this lasted for forty minutes as I wanted students to see a whole answer modeled in front of them and to feel the strain in their hand after writing for this long. It's not like I don't normally model writing. It's just that I wouldn't have done it at such length previously.  At first, this approach felt alien. Planning was really different, with much of my time spent reviewing the mark schemes even more rigorously than I'd done before and ensuring I was confident in exactly what I was going to write and remind them of - I even went out and bought the same kind of fountain pen I had when I was in Year 11 (or fifth year in old money).  The teaching felt a little like cheating and I seriously doubted in some lessons whether it would pay off when the students worked completely independently. I had to keep reminding myself that it would be easier to do the whole exam dance if you'd seen it performed all the way through rather than just in little bits. Fortunately, the classes took another mock today and marks have seriously improved across all three questions. 

What's exciting is that we still have five months to take this even further. By the end of the year, the students will be prima writerinas.

Categories: Blog, Mastery, Teaching and Learning Model, Literacy

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