Different school, different story?

As a Maths teacher you are normally faced with a combination of the following:

  • Teaching Maths
  • Preparing for exams/assessments

I know that this is a watered down explanation of our role, but at the heart of what we do are those 2 elements.

In the summer of 2015 I left my position working in an upper school (13-19) and took up a position in a middle school (9-13) as a Head of Department. In doing so I was moving somewhat into the unknown (my initial training was as a primary Maths specialist, but I had worked solely in the secondary sector)

I was faced with doubts and concerns. This was mainly due to the change in the age range as the school offered a very warm welcome. I was aware of the curriculum changes, having been preparing for teaching the new 9-1 GCSE. However I was now faced with the 2016 SATs for our year 6 and this seemed to be a very familiar battle from the outset.

Then I remembered the words of David Brent 


You may be wondering which of his philosophical sound bites rang true, and if you would like to see, click on this link:

A good idea…“A good idea is a good idea forever”

This is so true. There are 5 years between my current year 6 class and their year 11 counterparts, but the process of preparing for their assessment has a familiar feel to it.

My year 6’s will take out their folders at the beginning of the week and in them they will find their Numetacy Ninjas book (can’t rate these high enough!) and a series of assessments, with a mixture of peer and self assessment, and topic lists for improvement.

Those little things that we brought in to better prepare our year 11’s are now serving the same process in year 6. And the students have bought into these ideas because they believe they work, and they are seeing them work.

Assessment in small, but regular, chunks allows any student to visualise progress and become more and more comfortable with the concept of being assessed.

So yes, every school will provide a different background, and with it a very different challenge. The story though is always written with the same pen. 

“A good idea is a good idea forever” 

The fear of Maths!

There is no doubt that there has always been a widespread fear of Maths, and in particular learning Maths.

If we believe the following quote, that fear should be a concern to those of us involved in the teaching of Maths.


I have heard words like “he/she’s never got on with Maths” or “I can’t help him/her at home” at so many parents evenings, and as a result you start to understand why some students already have a fixed mindset about the subject.

There is no doubt that the following statement is true


so therefore the only way to eradicate the fear of Maths is for students to embrace Maths in the classroom. But how do we achieve this with students who already have the fear?

The first answer has to be to show them how they must deal with things that they get wrong, or when they don’t understand how to get to the correct answer


I have had many conversations with students who have been afraid to ‘guess’ or ‘attempt’ an answer in lessons for fear of this being wrong. My experience is that this is a common response in all year groups, and that it is harder to ‘undo’ the older the student is.

So how should the student be encouraged to attempt an answer? Especially considering the chances that their answer will be incorrect. 

A demonstration can be used to show that when attempting a second answer the student use the incorrect answer to help them. This can even be done through teaching the student trial and improvement as an actual lesson. This of course relies of several ‘estimated’ answers that are used to obtain a best solution in the end.

One idea that I have come across is to play a simple game where students have to guess your mystery number. Every time a student makes an attempt to ‘guess’ the number they are given a clue such as ‘too big’ ‘too small’ or ‘that’s only 5 away’

Straight away the students are engaged because there is less pressure when guessing, but they want to find out your number and can therefore use the clues to get closer to the answer until they will finally reach it.


The above is how I talk to my students about making mistakes, and accepting that it is in fact their first step on the journey. My current year 6 students will quite happily recite what ‘fail’ means and the majority of them are now far more prepared to accept that it is ok to make mistakes.

My hope now is that they will continue in this way as they progress through the years ahead of them. I can only believe that this in turn will help them to overcome the difficulties associated with the learning of Maths. 

In turn, maybe they will also use this skill in other subjects and give themselves a more growth mindset based approach to their studies in general.

Talk Maths

I love to talk about Maths, which is just as well as that’s what I’m paid to do!

It’s also advisable to encourage students to ‘talk maths’ as well. This enables them to demonstrate their understanding, improve their understanding (through listening to others) and increase their engagement in a subject that many decide is inaccessible.

One of my favourite memories comes from an Ofsted inspector who described the noise in my lesson as a ‘mathematical hum’ and talked about the excitement with which these year 11, boys in particular, talked about what they were doing. 

This year I have attempted to take this concept of ‘talking maths’one step further and ask all staff to engage in weekly ‘talk maths’ sessions with their classes, based around a central question/concept.

The responses have been very positive and many staff have been surprised by the way students have engaged with the subject matter. In addition staff have been encouraged to identify, and highlight, where they are using Maths in their lessons. This has further highlighted to students the way in which Maths impacts upon their lives.

The hope now is to train our older students to identify these uses of Maths for themselves and further improve their engagement in the subject.

The belief behind this approach is that students will always apply themselves with more rigour when they are engaged with the subject itself. This is a quote from a year 5 student last year:

 “you’re my favourite teacher sir, but you teach one of the worst subjects” My vision is to reverse the second part of that quote and make Maths the subject they all want to be in!

Holidays

“Teachers only teach because of the long holidays”

Everyone who works in education has been subjected to that suggestion on multiple occasions, and it comes from all manner of sources.

I don’t think that anyone currently employed to teach our young people would offer this as an incentive for joining the profession, simply because of the attached commitments. I won’t go into details because we all know what those commitments involve, and how they vary from school to school, and from position to position.

I happen to consider myself fortunate to work as a classroom teacher, and I make a point of reminding myself of that fact when things seem to be not going the way that I’d like them to be.  

The holidays offer respite, recovery and reflection.  These three things are without a doubt crucial to be able to continue to work in an industry that is continually changing, and losing its members at too frequent a rate.

Respite: There is an intensity involved with being a classroom practitioner, and this intensity requires perpetual manipulation and adjustment just to keep it working for each class/lesson. If this was maintained for 52 weeks the outcome would be obvious because it simply couldn’t happen. There is a need to regularly take a break from that intensity to avoid burning out (not that it always works!)

Recovery: If we are taking a break so as not to burn out it is essential that recovery is worked into this break. This will consist primarily of extra sleep, spending time with friends & family and taking holidays. All of these allow us to feel ‘normal’ again and remove those pressures that threaten to bring us down during the term time.

Reflection: Don’t let any teacher fool you into thinking they do nothing during the holidays, and if anything be concerned if they suggest that. The need to have respite, and make a recovery, are tools to allow you to reflect on everything from your work attire to the way you choose to organise your entire classroom. We are all constantly feeling the need to adapt our approach, or streamline our strategies, and we use that time in the holidays to really think about, and then act on, what happened in the previous week, term or even year.

I for one will be thankful for moments like this as I recover:


and allow myself to recover and be in a position to reflect on what has been a very intense and challenging, but ultimately enjoyable school year.

I hope that you too will feel that everything is worth doing and come back even stronger next year!

Collaboration

It is very difficult, if you’re of a certain age, to see the word ‘collaborate’ without thinking of:

  
And I never ever thought I would be starting a serious blog post with a reference to Vanilla Ice! But it has now happened!

It’s half-term. It’s time to relax, unwind, switch off and basically chill out. However, when I do these things (36 hours in and yes, very successful so far) my mind clears and I am able to focus on things that have happened in the run up to this relaxation point.

Friday was an INSET day. This will always be a minefield, and most teachers will be able to share good and bad memories from such days. This INSET day was different. We weren’t in our school, we travelled across the county to attend a shared INSET day with all middle schools in the county.

Genius! Everyone who faces the same struggles as we do in the same place. This would be at the top of any wish list for the majority of teachers in the country, assuming they have a growth mindset of course!

How do you possibly make this work? Well a great start point is to put on stage someone who is going to entertain, motivate and inspire those in the audience. Did it happen? Yes it did! Mr David Cameron! No, not that one…the REAL David Cameron (@realdcameron) Anyone who had been fearing the worst for the day was instantly transformed. 

Then came the reason for being there in the first place….

  

Yes! The bringing together of all of these kindred spirits with the hope of providing everyone with something to take away. Workshops! Run by the very people they were being provided for! It is a growing trend, helped massively by social media, that teachers learn best from each other. 

There was a great choice, and opportunities to see the good things that were being done in very same situations to your own. Ideas discussed, furious scribbling down of ideas and a realisation that in no way are we alone out there doing our job. This last point brought a great deal of satisfaction to me personally, particularly as I’m still new to the middle school system.

There was of course the food, the goodie bag (Somerset will be awash with teachers sporting bright coffee mugs!) and the chat. But how do you finish something off that has already been a success? Do you simply let people go with a thank you and “happy half-term”?

No, you bring out a second inspirational speaker to entertain and inspire the audience. Robin Launder (@BehaviourBuddy) reminded us of the reasons we, and our students, benefit from a growth mindset. It was a very fitting way to complete a positive experience.

So did I STOP? Yes, taking a day away from my classroom is always tough but is needed from time to time.

Did I manage to COLLABORATE? Absolutely! The subject specific workshop allowed for lots of useful discussion with colleagues facing the same challenges as we do.

But did I LISTEN? I never stopped! I listened and I was inspired. 

This is without a doubt the best way to finish a half-term, and for me personally was the single most positive INSET day in 15 years of teaching. That is not something I will forget in a hurry, and am already looking forward to next year!

So, don’t forget the most important three words in a teachers vocabulary:

  
Oh, and happy half-term!!

Tackling Differentiation

This past week I have had the privilege of taking part in my first #mathschat on Twitter, hosted by @BetterMaths.  The subject being discussed was setting, and as you can imagine there were different stories being shared about how, or even if, setting is currently being handled.

Now this post is not about setting itself but has a clear link to that conversation.  One of the biggest fears for us as Teachers is not being able to give every student access to the right material that will aid their understanding, and lead to progress being made.  Hence the continual reference to differentiation;  The act of adjusting resources/tasks/outcomes to allow all students to gain from a particular lesson.

Now I’ve only ever taught Maths in ability sets, although different models have been used.  The main reason has always been the suggestion that the children are of a similar level, and therefore the work set can be tailored to them as a class.  That means less need for differentiation.  This of course is a theory, and although it can be seen to work, it doesn’t always work in that way.

I have recently started teaching in a middle school, and am currently trying to adjust to the removal of levels for KS2 and 3.  Now while this is proving tricky, and providing us with a few difficulties, it does make sense for it to happen.  That’s right, I’m seeing benefits in removing levels. But why? Allow me to explain.

For the last 14 years I have watched 300 or so year 9 students turn up in September each year, and be placed into a Maths group based on assessments based around levels.  I’m not saying this is wrong but when you look closer at what a level represents you find their major flaw.

What does a level 5a look like in Maths? Is there only one answer to that question?

Of course not, a 5a represents a student that achieved a given number of marks in their SATs test.  It does give an indication of their ability but, in Maths in particular, it fails to offer a true picture of that students ability in the different areas of the subject, or offer any indication of areas of difficulty.

So, the reality of setting on levels is that you still have a classroom full of students for whom you must differentiate.  The first lesson of a new year will always show this to be the case, as some students will consider it to be an area of strength, whereas some may struggle to cope.  In conclusion the setting, or not setting, of a class will never remove the need for differentiation in the teaching of Maths.

6_24_14_differentiate_banner

The original reason for writing this post was to share a resource that I started using last year and am now trying to adjust for use with the students in my new school.  It is simply known as ‘chilli maths’ and the set up is very simple.  The reason I want to share it is because of the reaction that I received from students in both schools.

chillimaths template             chillymaths template

In recent years I have moved away from using textbooks as my main teaching resource, and found that differentiation became easier for me when I did.  Instead I would produce ‘mini worksheets’ which simply means that I cut up questions into small sections and was then able to differentiate the type/order of questions that each student was given.

As you can see from the templates above, ‘chilli maths’ is simply an extension of this but allows students to see the bigger picture and measure their own progress.  Please note the ‘chilly maths’ alternative was used last winter for obvious reasons!

The following are some examples that I have used with KS4 students in the last 12 months, and hopefully there will be new ones created for use with the new KS2 and KS3 curriculums.

chillimaths find length

chillimaths compound rectangles

chillimaths equations

chillimaths quadsfactformula

I hope that you find these of use and, as ever, feel free to leave any comments you may have.  Thank you.

 

Teachers Being Positive!

Clearly this post could go one of two ways.

Am I about to discuss the merits of positive numbers, against the disaster that is negative numbers?

Or am I going to attempt to convince you of the need to be positive in all you do so as to create the best possible outcome?

  
It’s very easy for anyone working in education to find so many things that give them good reasons to view their job in a negative light. 

There is always ‘something else’ to put on top of the infinite list of things left to do, and so taking the light at the end of the tunnel further away from your grasp. So how do we find a way to deal with this situation?

  
If you have never seen the film Pay It Forward make it your #1 priority for this weekend. 

For those who aren’t aware, the basic premise is to do good things for three people with no request for repayment, but simply a request that they ‘pay it forward’ and do the same for three people, thus passing on the message and the number of selfless good deeds grows.

This has never seemed more appropriate to me than this week. As Teachers we are asked to improve the personality, and prospects, for each of the students that we work with….but who does the same for us? Who is there to help us to see the positives in what we do? Who gives us that smile or compliment that keeps us believing in what we do?

The answer is we do! I was very fortunate to have spent the last 14 years working in a school where I had people that I could rely on for that positivity. I am even luckier that, having moved school, I have found that this has not changed, and that every day has provided me with opportunities for optimism.

This week hasn’t been the easiest but I’ve been determined to retain a positive approach, and with these external contributions I have managed to do so. 

So, in honour of that I thought I’d suggest a few things that we can all do for each other so that we can maintain that positivity for (let’s not forget them) the students that we are there for. All the following are small things to make a big difference:

  1. Smile and say hello (to everyone!)
  2. Make a drink (we all love a nice warm drink at this time of year)
  3. Offer an ear (don’t tell people how to do it, listen to what they are trying to do)
  4. Share experience (only once you’ve successfully managed #3 of course!)
  5. Compliment (classroom displays, resources being prepared etc.)
  6. Look out for signs (we all have bad moments but don’t like to show it, just keep an eye out for each other)

I hope that everyone who reads this will say ‘but I already do these!’ because that means that you are making a difference! If you think of anything I’ve missed, please do comment below.

Be happy.