Book Reviews

‘Slow Teaching’: A Great Classroom Manual

When Marilyn Thomas (the coolest teacher I’ve known) retired from CLV a couple of years ago, she gave a sharp and inspiring leaving speech. Those of you lucky enough to hear it might remember her advice to us ‘young ones’ that giving ourselves time for life outside of school would only make us better teachers. Jamie Thom’s book, ‘Slow Teaching’, is a similarly positive reminder that this is a “unique and wonderful profession”, but that “nobody can function well in the workplace when it is dominated by stress and anxiety”.  

The English department has of course taken every opportunity to make ‘slow’ puns at Jamie’s expense, but what’s actually at the heart of this book is a focus on reflection. Each chapter ends with a list of ‘slow questions’, which encourage us to take the time to think about and evaluate each particular aspect of our teaching. This isn’t a preachy or didactic ‘how to’ guide. Instead, ‘Slow Teaching’ emphatically encourages us to take ownership of our classrooms and spend our limited time wisely, not on ‘mindless marking’, but on strategies which have been proved to have an impact on students. This, combined with Jamie’s honest reflections on teacher stress and his thorough summaries of recent pedagogical thought, is what makes ‘Slow Teaching’ a great manual for good teaching.

It’s probably not surprising that this book, by an English teacher, has such a lengthy bibliography, but it is still one of the real strengths of ‘Slow Teaching’. The uplifting quotations which open each chapter range from Ghandi and Dickens to Doug Lemov and Geoff Barton. In addition,  every section is rooted in research collated to concisely offer practical and impactful strategies. I found the chapter on questioning to be a particularly excellent example of this. In just 8 pages Jamie covers the value, pitfalls and most valuable approaches to this crucial aspect of teaching. It would be excellent pre-reading for any CPD session focused on questioning. If, like me, you’d like to read more educational theory, but struggle to find the time, this book is a great summary of key ideas from many recent texts.

Perhaps sadly, I think another highlight of this book for most teachers will be Jamie’s sincere and self-deprecating reflections on the effect teaching can have on the rest of our lives. I don’t know of another teaching book which even touches on sleep and yet insomnia is something familiar to everyone in our profession. Jamie’s advice is simple: cut down on caffeine, do some exercise, curb the use of electronic devices and commit to a routine that prioritises rest. Yet this is advice I think we have all needed to hear at one point or another and it seems strikingly relevant with exam season looming too.

Overall, ‘Slow Teaching’ is an ironically quick read, which I would definitely recommend to teachers at all stages of their careers.

By Cathy Williams 

WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE IN THE CLASSROOM? by Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson

“Teaching is the best profession in the world and has given us a huge amount of satisfaction. This book is, we hope, a useful contribution to the work of our fellow travellers”

Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson

There is, let’s be clear, not a huge amount of time for dipping into the murky depths of educational research. We still, however, need motivation to fuel our tired and frazzled minds. Finding the time to think, reflect and work on our teaching helps to energise us and find the joy in our endeavours in the classroom. What we need is something concise and practical: something we can dip into and use to make some immediate and informed changes to our practice.

Here is where I formally introduce the splendid ‘What does this look like in the classroom?’ by Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson, the most informative and accessible education book I have read in some time. This term I have been reflecting on lots of different elements of this very useful guide to some of the pressing questions in education.

The chapters each work as separate explorations themselves, with the question and answer format used to respond to the pressing questions that we all face in our daily practice in the classroom. There are a range of fascinating and informed voices that each offer genuine expertise on areas that it can be hard to find clear guidance on: assessment, marking and feedback; behaviour; reading and literacy; SEN; motivation; memory and recall; classroom talk and questioning; learning myths; technology and independent learning.  Three areas I have been particularly thinking about and experimenting with this term:

Classroom Talk

How about this for an inspiring opening:

“The kind of talk that happens in our classroom largely determines the kind of learning that takes place and developing an armoury of tools to facilitate that talk should be at the top of every teacher’s list whether that be learning how to scaffold learning with effective explanations and worked examples or setting up the kinds of fruitful conversations that can lead to genuine learning.”  (pg 146)

I was instantly reminded of my Year 8 class when I read this. Their verbal expression is something we have had many conversations about but never developed a consistent strategy to tackle: this class is full of informality and they have an obsessive desire to show off with each other. Doug Lemov and Martin Robinson provide some sage tips and guidance throughout this chapter on how to tackle such lackadaisical approaches to classroom talk.  I particularly liked this from Martin Robinson:

“You want them to talk in a subject-specific language, in an appropriate register, and to talk in way that can be understood. Clarity. And, so long as they’re aware of the need for good rhetoric, classroom talk can help learning, thinking, arguing and writing. So don’t let them get away with second-rate chatter.”  (pg 154)

The mission begins. The students have been studying Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time’ and entered to the wonderful ‘Express Yourself’ by Charles Wright. Their task was to link this song to the novel so far (though to be fair the song was a tad too funky for them to handle, and it did result in some interesting dance moves!)

This led to some interesting dialogue about communication and about Christopher’s method of understanding of the world around him. I then used it as a nifty lead into some discussion about the way in which we ‘express ourselves’ in the classroom and begin to form our new talking guidelines. Exploring this with them and thinking about the different contexts in which they will be required to speak in was useful.

Lemov suggests that “a useful move might be the write out and practise the prompts you would use to ask a student to upgrade their language”. Now this is very simple with this group, anything that does not conform to our classroom dialogue rules, i.e. fillers or incomplete verbal sentences, is responded to with an “express yourself.” Students now leap in to correct each other, admonishing with a quizzical eyebrow raise and an “express yourself!” While all very light hearted and collaborative, it has seen them take more care in how they communicate in the room. Fillers are vanishing and we now speak as we would write as often as possible. They still want to show off with each other – but now in a slightly more verbose fashion!

Assessment, Marking and Feedback 

It is, of course, the aspect in which we wrestle most with as practitioners: how much, how often, how to ensure a response to our endeavours?  Everyone ‘expresses themselves’ with their 50 pence worth in this debate: from the purists who believe it is vital that we mark everything in depth and consign ourselves to an early marking grave; to those who believe that nothing should be marked. We are frazzled and overwhelmed with the feedback we have been given about feedback!

I have again tried to simplify this based on reading this excellent section with Dylan William and Daisy Christodoulou. Both offer tangible and clear guidance on how to manage the marking monster. This advice from Dylan William particularly struck me in its clarity and pragmatism for teachers on a full timetable:

“I recommend what I call ‘four quarters marking’. I think that teachers should mark in detail 25% of what students do, should skim another 25%, students should then self-assess about 25% with teachers monitoring the quality of that and finally, peer assessment should be the other 25%.’  (pg 32)

It is with my Year 9 group that I have been experimenting most with this. They are currently working on a narrative writing unit. On a two week cycle I want them to complete one extended piece of narrative writing. This week, for example, they used my Catastrophe narrative example to write their own narrative called ‘The Catastrophe.’ Their extended writing is then the 25% of what I will mark in specific detail, although still employing codes and sparse guidance in order to speed up the process. Practise paragraphs that they may complete in class are either self-assessed against these generic thought prompts or peer assessed:

Am I on the right track?

What am I doing well?

What do I need to do more of?

Do I need to do something differently?

Am I following our narrative writing targets? 

The peer assessment that students have completed has all been using the excellent strategies from ‘Gallery Critique’ in Ron Berger’s ‘An Ethic of Excellence’.  Students are now used to giving this kind of feedback and are becoming better at being specific the points they give each other:

  1. Something kind: I really like the way you/Excellent use of/The most successful thing about this was..
  2. Something specific: In the first/second/third paragraph you/ Your point here was difficult to understand because…/ Your sentence, paragraph, point here is…
  3. Some helpful: Think about adding/think about taking away/have you thought about/you could improve this by…

All this helps students to see their work as their responsibility, not something they immediately pass over to a teacher for the red pen frenzy to begin. It all helps to create Williams’ vision of “students as essential partners in the learning process.” They are clear that the 25% that they do mark is something they take very seriously and I expect to see improved.

Memory and Recall 

Finally, my work this term with Year 10 on ‘A Christmas Carol’ has been very much influenced by the strategies in the book. In this section of the book, Paul Kirschner and Yana Weinstein respond to some of the points that perplex us about memory. Their focus on using regular review is something I have used regularly this term, even using mini quizzes to open lessons with Year 8 to secure their understanding of the plot of ‘The Curious Incident’. This is an example:

‘The Curious Plot Quiz’…

  • What tensions exist between Christopher and his father?
  • What was revealed last lesson about Christopher’s mother?
  • How do you think Christopher will respond to this news? How do you think he is feeling?
  • What is the mystery that is central to the novel?
  • What are some of the important themes in the novel?

As Yana Weinstein highlights in response to how to ensure students don’t forget what they have learned in previous lessons:

“This one’s easy! Give them a starter quiz. Once they get used to the routine of needing to remember information from one class at the beginning of next, they will adapt by trying to keep the information fresh in between classes. In addition, the retrieval practice in and of itself will cause additional learning”.

This has certainly been the case with Year 10 this term, as they enter they know they will face ‘The Ghost of Christmas Memory’ tasks, and as a class of a large number of male students they don’t want to lose face when we go over answers quickly. I also like the idea of introducing a mini quiz in the middle of lessons, to check how much students are retaining during the lesson.

The summary that Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson offer at the close of the book was also something I found very interesting, very much in keeping with ethos from the contributors throughout:

‘One of the things we learned in writing this book is that an awful lot of what goes on in the classroom simply doesn’t matter. The signal-to-noise ratio is often less-than-optimal level for effective learning, with many extraneous activities taking up valuable learning time in the name of demonstrating progress, whether that be burdensome marking strategies or the creation of time-consuming resources to ‘engage’ students.’

This would appear to be a refreshing beckoning call for teaching next year: it is time to simplify and streamline. A very long winded book recommendation perhaps, but “What does this look like in the classroom?’ is an essential read for anyone interested in making informed improvements to their teaching practice.

By Jamie Thom

‘READING RECONSIDERED’ by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway

“An exceptional reader can learn to do anything, no matter…how long the journey to mastery.”

If I’m completely honest, there’s only one method from Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion’ that I have adopted fully in my own classroom, despite my intentions to take on more. This is the ‘control the game’ method for group reading. Like much of TLAC, this is incredibly simple, but has been powerful in all of my classes to ensure that every student reads aloud and that every student is actively reading every text we explore as a group. (It is described in more detail below).

As an English teacher, and due to my success with Control the Game, I was excited to find ‘Reading Reconsidered’, Lemov’s collaborative ‘Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction’ in the LRC. Though much of the book is targeted at US reading standards, my discovery of it could not have been more timely. It is not only the English department who are having to deliver more challenging material for the new GCSE specifications and it is certainly true that our students, especially at Key Stage 4, are often not as well equipped as we would like them to be to tackle 19th century non-fiction or archaic sources.

Lemov’s discussion of the decline of the canon is balanced and thoughtful. Unlike our new curriculum, he doesn’t assume that old texts=good texts. One line that rang depressingly true for me, when considering our students and the new specifications in particular, pointed out the power that the “cultural capital” of the canon affords:

“Members of the upper and middle classes often take for granted knowledge that marks them as educated and sophisticated. They can hear a reference to Hamlet or Dickens (in a classroom, a coffee shop, or a book) and join the conversation…Knowledge of the books that educated society takes for granted is a powerful tool, though perhaps only not having it would make you realise that. A culture of reading that doesn’t consider this cultural importance has a disparate impact on those who are less likely to acquire cultural knowledge by other means. It is their best chance to be included in the secret conversation of opportunity.”

Like TLAC, the focus of this brilliant guide is to ensure that all students have the kind of education they need not just to get to college/university, but to be able to continue to access challenging texts when they get there, at the same level as their peers. Lemov identifies ‘Five Plagues of the Developing Reader’ which stand in the way of this. These are clearly recognisable problems from our own classrooms. His solutions are not prescriptive, instead he offers suggestions for text choices to ensure that all of our students are exposed to these problematic characteristics through more approachable texts early on. This is something that helped me to look carefully at how I deliver the ‘pre-complex’ texts that Amy McVay has already introduced to our KS3 English curriculum.

If you’re still assuming that this is just a book just for English teachers, I’d urge you just to read Chapter 3, which focuses on Non-Fiction and Chapter 5, which explores various approaches to reading inside and out of the classroom.

The sub-title of the book, ‘A Practical Guide’, is an extremely apt one. It’s definitely a guide that I will go back to repeatedly (in fact, I returned the copy to the LRC and bought myself one). It is the kind of instruction in reading teaching that I wish I’d received during my PGCE. It is intelligent, carefully researched and enthusiastic about literature. Although there’s no module on reading for pleasure, you can hear the authors’ excitement about reading and what it can do for their students in every section.

Control the Game:

This is a method for controlling whole class reading which can be easily adapted to different texts and classes. It definitely works as well for non fiction as for fiction.

  1. Ask all students to follow the text with a finger. This is crucial and must be enforced. At any point that the teacher stops reading for discussion, Lemov recommends a “placeholder signal” to remind students to keep their place. “Freeze” has worked well for me.
  2. Designate a student to read aloud, while the rest follow along. Unpredicatable duration is crucial, do not let students know how long they will be reading, so they must be paying attention to the text and every reader.
  3. Vary the length of sections (keeping them all quite short) to maintain unpredictability, but also to allow differentiation.
  4. Name a new student at random or jump in briefly yourself. Again, this must be unpredictable. Repeating readers once or twice in the lesson is also useful to maintain this unpredictability.
  5. Try to ensure that, at least over time, you hear from every student. Enforce audible volume and expression from all. I have found that with weaker groups I can pick up the energy of the reading by taking over briefly myself before passing back to another student. This can also be useful for particularly tricky sections of text, especially if they don’t know when I’ll pass back to them, so are reading along more carefully too.

Cathy Williams 

SEVEN MYTHS ABOUT EDUCATION by Daisy Christodoulou

In her introduction, Daisy Christodoulou states that ‘for every myth I identify, I have found concrete and robust examples of how this myth has influenced classroom practice across England; only then do I go on to show why it is a myth and why it is so damaging,’ (p.5-6). A controversial way to start a book and perhaps not entirely reflective of Christodoulou’s arguments, but a good way to inspire curiosity.

In this book, Christodoulou challenges seven myths that she had previously accepted as ‘rules’ that teachers had to abide by, in order to teach ‘well’ and adhere to the standards set out by Ofsted. Basing her arguments not only in theoretical frameworks and research but also in personal experience of teaching in state secondary schools, Christodoulou does make some convincing points against these myths (see below). Indeed, her attacks are not necessarily ground-breaking (I found myself nodding along at points) but they do put into words the problems with certain classroom experiences that even I have witnessed (and been guilty of) during my short time as a teacher.

Undeniably, the list of myths is a little predictable but to a teacher of a subject that is both modern and old-fashioned at the same time, I found them quite interesting:

  1. facts prevent understanding
  2. teacher-led instruction is passive
  3. the twenty-first century fundamentally changes everything
  4. you can always just look it up
  5. we should teach transferable skills
  6. projects and activities are the best way to learn
  7. teaching knowledge is indoctrination

There are many themes that tie these myths together. The first two chapters discuss the need to build student knowledge of both concepts and facts. Whilst Christodoulou argues that there is a place for both in the classroom, one cannot be left out for the other. Her busting of myth 2 was particularly reassuring to me as a linguist, learner and teacher of MFL. Her arguments for teacher-led learning question how students can learn without being given some basic information (such as the French or Spanish alphabet, for example). Myths 3 and 4 focus on the impact of new technologies such as the Internet on the use of memory and fact learning, portraying many classrooms as a battle ground between long-term and working memory; two necessary learning tools which should be complementary but, due to these ‘rules’, find themselves at odds. Meanwhile, myths 5, 6 and 7 question the prizing of project based learning and the teaching of ‘transferable skills’ above everything else and suggests that often, strong teacher subject knowledge is deemed less important than a teacher’s ability to teach such skills.

Arguably, some of the statements Christodoulou makes in her book are not new. Indeed, we bust some of these educational myths in our day to day teaching, yet the author does provide us with some more ammunition in the pedagogical battles that we fight, not so much within, but outside of the classroom.

– Lily Peters

This Much I Know About Love Over Fear describes head teacher John Tomsett’s vision of creating a culture for truly great teaching within schools. It’s a wonderful read and, above all, a hopeful book that documents the author’s insights into teaching and school leadership. Underpinning everything, Tomsett argues, is the idea that schools should have a culture of honesty, humility and particularly humanity. In an educational world which is bursting at the seams with new initiatives, workload, performance management, targets, meetings and data harvesting, the book reminds us that as teachers we should stay totally focused on our core purpose: the development of great teaching which will in turn lead to great learning. Mostly, though, the book is an important reminder that values and good relationships remain the bedrock of a successful school. Inspirational and life-affirming.

– Stuart Kemp

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