School: How I Mark

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Or rather, how I made my life infinitely easier, thanks to the amazing David Didau (@learningspy) and his approach to progress in the English classroom.

When I took over as Key Stage 3 co-ordinator at HPS, I was aware that something needed to change.  Marking was a major factor in the lives of the English department and as a result, staff weren’t able to offer the level of challenge or the range of subjects they really wanted to.  We all felt under immense pressure to produce books with reams of dialogue written in glorious green pen, showing clear targets for improvement but also recognising good work and effort.  Examples were shown to us of books where the teacher had written at least a paragraph at the end of each paper; the work had been meticulously read and picked apart and the feedback, though faultless, was lengthy and tiresome.  Morale was dipping, staff were tired, and something needed to be done.

What we were all already aware of was that all of the above means nothing, nothing at all, to a 12 year-old boy who really just wants to know what level he got. Though the feedback was lengthy, there was no proof that anything was actually read, or acted on, at all.  What I wanted to see was evidence of students making an effort to improve. So how do we make a change?

In February 2014 I was lucky enough to attend the Brighton and Hove Joint Practice Development Day (JPDD), where teachers from across the county get together to collaboratively deliver and receive excellent CPD, sharing best practice from across the LEA.  It’s a great day and a wonderful opportunity to develop your practice.  It was here that I first met David Didau.  I won’t go into the specifics of his presentation now – that’s another blog post entirely – but the day encouraged me to engage in some reading, and I looked up Didau’s blog with fervour.  His enthusiasm and charisma had encouraged me and I was keen to learn more.  Little did I know that what I was going to read would change my practice and save my sanity…

DIRT and Triple Impact Marking

One method of marking that Didau advocates is that of Triple Impact Marking.  He doesn’t claim to be its inventor, that was Clevedon School, but he is a fan; the basic process is this:
– The student completes the work;
– The teacher feeds back on the work;
– The student improves the work.

It seems simple, but I’ve been quite shocked by how little of it I have seen when browsing books across different schools.

Now, in recent times there has been some debate about this, specifically regarding Ofsted’s assertions that they categorically do not expect to see reams of dialogue in students’ books (Didau himself wrote a blog about why he may have been wrong after all), but I tend to believe that TIM, when used sensibly, is actually extremely beneficial.

In my classroom, I pair TIM with DIRT – Directed Improvement and Reflection Time, a term again introduced to myself by Mr Didau.  For those not au fait with the term, DIRT is written into lessons to allow students to spend time re-drafting, evaluating and understanding their work, errors and all.  Of course, we put our own HPS twist on this, and came up with our own version of TIM, using the principles of DIRT and our own shortcuts to ensure that marking load was significantly reduced.

After a few tweaks, we found a way that proved easy to navigate – all staff were on board, students were engaging and progress was beginning to shoot up, despite the challenging new curriculum and the introduction of unseen assessments.  In addition to this, staff morale was raised, teachers were able to mark a set of books in the space of one free (really!) and less work was being taken home, saving my team’s relationships, sanity and lower backs.

So, how did we do it?

English: Marking at HPS

Most importantly, and before beginning: Do not accept sub-standard work.  If it’s poorly presented, send them back and make them do it to their best.  Only then is it OK to be marked (thanks, David!).

This means that at times, you may end up repeating an entire lesson as the class simply did not meet the standard expected of them – this isn’t a crime!  Redrafting helps even the most able student to reflect, and the more students understand that they can’t get away with the bare minimum, the less you’ll see the bare minimum in their books.  Repetition is your friend, people.

– Teachers can regularly mark using highlighters.  This can be done in the classroom as the lesson takes place, and you can usually get through at least 4 books in a lesson.  Pink highlighters pick out work that is exceptional or interesting; yellow highlighters show that something needs to be fixed.  The beauty of this is that it automatically increases independence as students need to actively look for what needs fixing; at the same time, it saves you an awful lot of work.  Encourage students to make changes there and then.

– Teachers mark in red.  Feedback is minimal and takes the form of a question or small task, i.e. what is the effect of this word choice? How do you think Shelley wanted us to feel? Can you think of better alternatives to the words in yellow? Questions posed focus on getting more out of the student and building positive habits.  One of my personal favourites is simply Why?

– Whenever a teacher has marked a task, the following lesson incorporates ten minutes of DIRT at the start.  Students are handed a green pen and spend this time improving their work, using the targets you have set.  Then you can check this and mark using either the highlighters or the red pen; it’s really up to you.

– Peer- and self-assessment are all done in green pen; this way, you can see the dialogue between student and teacher and easily see where the student has done more work than the teacher (as they should!)

– The English department puts aside an hour a week to mark collaboratively.  This way, staff are able to air concerns, share best practice, understand progress better and generally enjoy the process of marking.  We timetable it so that it can’t be taken away – no emergency meetings with parents or SLT at the last-minute, thank you very much!

– Finally, work is rarely levelled until the very end (though students may self-assess at any point.  I always refuse to substantiate their claims, though, until it’s done completely).  This way, they cannot sit back and accept the C grade as ‘enough’.

An example of a final piece, albeit blurry; note the use of highlighters.
An example of a final piece, albeit blurry; note the use of highlighters.

If used consistently, this method can truly change your life.  At first, it can be scary to let go and trust the students to reflect on their work; you may even get the hardcore crew who simply refuse to co-operate, but trust me, as time goes by they will see the others progressing and begin to understand that they need to be doing the same.

One of the biggest perks is that it becomes extremely easy to see where students are excelling and where they are struggling.  By marking quickly and regularly, I get to know them better – for example, I had a good 75% of the class failing to explore layers of meaning in a pre-essay task, so I was able to address this in the next lesson and ensure that no student sat the essay without understanding the importance of this skill.  It means that I can keep a close eye on my vulnerable students – I can mark these first and keep a close eye on them in the classroom.  My marking informs my planning, not the other way around.  I’ve found that this has helped me to build stronger relationships with my students than ever before and I’ve really enjoyed watching them grow.

So, thank you David – for revolutionising the way we mark at HPS!

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Cheap Eats: Pepsi Pulled Pork and Pickled Cabbage Slaw

pork heaven 2Because alliteration is the food of love.

No, it isn’t, because this pork recipe is.  Or rather, if you’re looking to apologise/suck up/curry favour/fall in love, it’s a go-to recipe.

Unless they’re a veggie, then best not.

Why ‘Cheap Eats’? Well, pork shoulder is relatively cheap – you can pick up 1kg for around £4 now, and as ‘the other white meat’, not only is it cheaper, but also (allegedly) healthier.  So there you go; technically this is a health food as well as coming in at a low price.

This will serve 2 gannets, 4 hungry people and six for pork rolls.  Add BBQ sauce for extra deliciousness and, if you can, make 24 hours in advance and add the sauce later, reheating in the oven at 200 degrees for ten minutes.

You will need:

For the pork:
1kg pork shoulder, boneless
1 x 500ml bottle of Pepsi (full-fat: we’re going hardcore)
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp chilli powder
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp thyme
200ml beef or pork stock
BBQ sauce

For the slaw:
1 x red cabbage head
3 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup of red wine vinegar
1 tbsp sugar

What to do:

Quarter the red cabbage and discard the core.  Coarsely chop the rest of the leaves.

In a jug, mix the vinegar and sugar; stir until the sugar dissolves.  Then gradually add the oil, stirring all the time.  Pour over the cabbage leaves.  Add salt and pepper, then seal with clingfilm and allow to ferment for at least two hours, tossing regularly.

Take out the pork, untie and remove any rind, but don’t throw it away because you’re not an idiot.  Of course you’re going to save it for crackling and it will be delicious.

Mix together the oil and spices and rub all over the pork.  Make sure you massage it in as if it were Ryan Gosling, because you want that meat to be tender.  Don’t get carried away though, because it isn’t him.  It’s just meat.  Place into a deep roasting tin, cover with foil and seal.  Allow to marinade for anything from 30 minutes to overnight – the longer, the better.

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees (gas) or 180 degrees (fan).

When it’s time, unpeel the foil and dump in the bottle of Pepsi, as much as you can fit in without it overflowing.  Reseal the tin tightly with foil and put into the oven at the high heat for thirty minutes.

After the thirty minutes is up, turn the heat down to 160 degrees (gas) or 150 degrees (fan).  Allow to cook for two hours.

After two hours, give it a check – peel back the foil and give it a poke.  Does it fall apart?  If so, it’s ready.  If not, give it a roll-over in the juice and put it straight back in for further roasting.  Check at thirty-minute intervals.

The pork is ready when it falls apart the moment you touch it with a fork.  When it’s done, lift it out of the tin and pour the juices into a jug.

When the juices have cooled slightly, skim off the fat and return to a pan.  Reduce down with a little stock and some BBQ sauce.

Add the reduced sauce to the pork, give it a mix and whack it onto a brioche bun with some slaw for what can only be described as manna from heaven.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

New Year’s Resolutions…

… are for suckers.  Or so I thought.

Until yesterday, the only resolution I made for this year was to eat more pulled pork.  Seriously.  I’ve got a recipe that will blow your mind.  But I digress.

Yes, I thought they were for suckers.  However, as the first Monday back drew to a close, I sat on my sofa and pondered some of the positive changes I could make this year, should I be so inclined to do so, and after pushing through the wall of cliché, I came to a conclusion –

So long as your resolutions are beneficial to yourself and others, and, in the grand tradition of teaching, are SMART – then how can one possibly go wrong?

Thinking SMART

Whilst thinking of what I wanted to achieve this year, I decided to turn to an old friend of mine who has been with me since I qualified as a teacher, way back in 2008 – the SMART target.  As most teachers well know, the principles of SMART are, well, bloody clever (come on, I’m an English teacher; I refuse to use ‘smart’ as an adjective if I can help it). That is –

Specific – Measurable – Achievable – Realistic – Time-focused

I’m an absolute mug for a fad, especially one that I *think* is going to save me time, and thanks to my gullible ways, I have in the past ended up out of pocket, out of ideas and indeed, out of time, so this time I was going to focus on the things that mattered.

I thought back to my tweets to Nicky Morgan earlier this month regarding teacher workload.  How could I manage the never-ending pile of marking and planning that mocked me from my desk every day, come 4 o’clock?  It’s unrealistic to think that one can get away with doing no work at home (see resolution no. 4, 2012; no. 2, 2013; no. 1, 2014).  So how could I manage my time effectively to ensure that I took home as little as possible?

Resolution 1: Adopt the Highlighted List Method

SMART Rating –
S: Workload;
M: Sanity levels will reduce dramatically;
A: Even a child could do this;
R: It’s writing a LIST. Come on.
T: Seen on a day-to-day basis

This has been brilliant and has gone some way to saving my sanity this week.

As teachers, we all know the pressure of receiving fifteen emails from various areas of the school at various, inconvenient points throughout the day.  It can, at times, be overwhelming and unless you’re a whizz with your e-diary, it can be very difficult to keep up.

I’ve kept a diary in the past, but have always fallen to pieces by March as I become overloaded with notes, ideas, dates, meetings…  So I’ve never really managed to keep a diary.  I started to browse Pinterest for ideas that didn’t require sticky-back plastic and a degree in Engineering, and that’s when I came across the highlighted list.

Let’s be fair, we all love ticking things off a to-do list.  This works on the same principle – on each page of the diary, you make a list of what NEEDS to be done.  Plan this a couple of days in advance, so you have timeslots for each activity you have to do – work these into your frees, and treat them as meetings – don’t allow yourself to be waylaid by errant students or curious staff.

As you complete a task, highlight it in pink.  This shows it’s done.

Whatever isn’t done by the end of the day is highlighted in yellow, and the task is slotted in on the next day.

The beauty is, you rarely end up slotting things in because it’s so damn easy to finish everything when it’s presented in such easy-to-read slots, and it’s much easier to address issues when they are glaringly un-highlighted than they are when they are sat in your inbox, waiting to be seen.

I even find myself ticking things off for the next day, just to make my workload that little bit easier tomorrow.

***

Next, I started thinking about my life outside of school.  I made a vow to myself on hitting 30 that I’d see 30 places before I hit 31.  I’m currently at 24 with five months to go, so I’m doing pretty well (and really should have been updating this blog, come to think of it).  However, I still have a number of big trips I want to take and with rent in Brighton at its highest levels ever and energy bills exploding in the last 18 months, saving is difficult when you’re a single woman in a one-bed flat.

Plus, I’m rubbish at saving money.

Which led me to my next resolution –

Resolution 2: The Weekly Saving Challenge

S: Save a specific amount each week (or more)
M: Money saved recorded in a spreadsheet
A: The year starts small (£1 in week 1!) so isn’t too big a shock
R: I can save; I just haven’t in the past.
T: Weekly deposits saved over a year

This has been doing the rounds on the internet for a while and was brought to my attention last week.  It’s bloody ingenious and makes me wonder why I hadn’t thought of it myself before.

The concept is simple – you save an amount of money equal in pounds to the week of the year we’re in.  So, in layman’s terms:

Week 1 – £1
Week 2 – £2
Week 3 – £3

And so on.

In an epic moment of pseudo-craftiness, I poked a £1-sized hole in my Highland Park carton and eagerly thrust £1 inside to mark my first official week as a “saver”.  It shames me to say that this is an achievement, seeing as I’m 30, but hey, who’s caring?  A start’s a start, right?

So far, despite only being in week 1, we are hitting £4 and that Summer trip to Sri Lanka suddenly seems a lot more achievable.  I’ll keep you updated.

***

Finally, I have been thinking about cheap and cheerful ways to get creative in the kitchen.  I’ve got a lot of love for vegetables but a Northerner’s attitude to food, which is basically, if it didn’t used to have eyes, then I’m not interested.  All well and good, but it’s probably going to be good for me to think about different food stuffs over the coming weeks.  Which led me to my final vow –

Resolution 3: Be Healthy (But Trick Body Into Thinking It Is In The Lap of Luxury)

S: Focuses on cleaner eating
M: I’ll look and feel better
A: As it’s cheaper, it’s definitely more achievable
R: It’s not a ‘diet’, so it’s a much more realistic target for me
T: The weekly food shop dictates this!

This one has been a doddle so far.

I went to Asda and bought them out of carrots and brussel sprouts in an admirable vow to make them both palatable.  I also went a bit mad on the broccoli.

Armed with my spice cabinet and access to a world-wide-web full of ideas, I set to.

So far, we’ve had brussel sprout curry and curried potatoes, carrots and peas.  Both delicious, both to be posted soon.

Next, I’m looking at dahl-icious lentil dishes.  Cheap, cheerful (HELLO weekly savings whiskey carton!) and healthy to boot – you can even store them in the fridge or freezer for cheap lunches throughout the week.

***

So, there you have it.  Coupled with last year’s successful (albeit set in September) resolutions to use DIRT in the classroom (big fat tick; blog post coming soon – thanks David Didau) and to not work over the weekend (semi-tick – except for exam season. Sigh), this new term is looking easier to tackle than ever.

Of course, we can’t forget the last thing that I simply must stick to this year:

Resolution 4: Post to Itchy-Footed Teacher on a Regular Basis

I’m intending to make this page my place to share stories, recipes, craft ideas, lesson plans, reflections and strategies for the classroom.  I’d be very happy if you were to join me some time.

Adieu,

-R.