Rebecca White, Head of English & Media Faculty tells us to do it ourselves:
Picture the scene: You have set Year 10 a mock exam that will take the whole lesson. Despite the inevitable pile of work this will create, you are secretly relieved that this will give you at least forty minutes to write that urgent email, finish the PowerPoint you need for the next lesson and mark the three Year 13 essays you forgot about yesterday.
Inevitably, however, three minutes into the assessment, Marie asks you how to spell the name of the author (you know, of the book sitting in front of her.) Dutifully, you direct her where to get the spelling and continue tapping away furiously on your keyboard. Moments later, Sam asks you how long they have on the assessment. “The whole lesson Sam. Now come on, give me something worth marking.” Again, your reply is supportive but you’ve written the same sentence three times now and it still isn’t quite right so when George asks you what he’s supposed to be writing about, you are understandably a little short. “The question we have been preparing for the last two lessons. Now come on.”
Meanwhile, this flurry of exchanges means that half the class are no longer obeying the ‘Exam Conditions’ rule and are merrily chatting about the latest match, game or gossip while the other half are staring out the window, wondering where all the seagulls have gone.
Fifteen minutes later (after much coercion and shh-ing) the students appear to be back on track and you can start on that PowerPoint. While you are frantically trying to find an appropriate image, Ben is happily staring at the pictures on your screen rather than looking at his work. It takes you a minute, but you spot him and give him ‘the stare’ and his head goes back down again.
Your next task involves a lot of paper rustling and scribbling; more questions are being asked, spellings requested, clarifications required and by the time the bell goes, you are left with a class set of fairly poor essays that all require the phrase: “Manage your time more effectively and write more.”
Clearly, there has to be a better way. And there is: Do It Yourself!
Demonstrate to students how you prepare to start an exam – pen out, spare to the side, resources in reach – so that when you say, “You may now begin,” they can see you start efficiently. When the first student asks you a question, tell them you are writing and need to concentrate – don’t give them an answer. The others will quickly learn that they can’t bother you – you too are working in exam conditions. Show them good exam practice – head down, face focused, pen moving furiously across the page. After all, how many times, outside of an exam hall, do they see genuinely good practice? If you are rustling and tapping while the class are trying to focus, how can you criticise Max at the back for clicking his pen?
DIY also has a number of other benefits. At the end of the session, you will have a good model to show students. They will see exactly how much can be written in the time frame, how a good answer should be structured and how to use the skills you have taught them. You will have used the time to produce a fantastic resource that they can apply the mark scheme to, helping them to develop their understanding of exactly where marks are awarded.
This model also helps you to demonstrate your thought processes to students, allowing you to articulate your way of working and encouraging them to reflect in the same way on their own work. In poetry essays, I am able to explain why I have chosen certain quotations, what I was trying to demonstrate by linking more than one idea together and how I built up to a powerful conclusion.
Having done this a number of times, I strongly recommend writing the best possible answer you can. I have tried writing less secure answers but a) it is really difficult once you get going to ‘hold back’ and b) students find it patronising. Also, if you have produced an average example, when are they going to see a good example? They can see average examples when they peer assess – yours should offer them something more.
Students, in my experience, actually find it reassuring to realise that they are being taught by a genuine expert – someone who knows exactly what they are doing. Having produced some creative writing recently that impressed my Year 9s, my Level 8 G&T students are now listening to me when I suggest changes to their work; they trust me as someone who can do something better than they can and therefore act on my advice.
Finally, DIY also reminds you of the threshold concepts (and beyond) that you need to teach students to get those higher grades. Often, these are the little flairs, sentence starters and key words that we often forget about when trying to hammer through masses of content but these are the things that will separate the 8s from the 9s in the future.
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