In my first year of teaching I had 2 challenging Year 9 classes which I struggled to engage. I made countless mistakes as I looked for the best strategies. 3 years on, I have come up with some of the things I have found most effective in engaging the disengaged:
- Praise those who are on task – praise is a powerful tool when used effectively. By acknowledging the students who are doing what you expect of them, you are showing the disengaged students the level to aim for.
- Use competition – every teacher has their preferences but some of the things I have found particularly useful are:
- Relays – a good way to facilitate group work. A selection of relays I have made can be found here
- Game show-style competitions – my favourite is Catchphrase. I use mini whiteboards to ask questions and then randomly select numbered cards which correspond to a square to remove. Download my versions here
- Kahoot quizzes – if you have access to tablets, this is a fantastic online multiple choice quiz. You can make your own; check out g.evans for all of my quizzes.
- Puzzles – students like a challenge. I have found sudokus and Don Steward problems to be popular.
- Point-per-question challenges – I like to have 1-point, 2-point, 3-point etc questions. Solving Equations Challenge Answers Solving Equations Challenge
- Give deadlines – use a timer on the board if you can, and refer to it throughout a task
- Get them up to the board – a bit of responsibility goes a long way. Plus, they get to be centre of attention for a bit.
- Use manipulatives – multilink cubes, counters, playing cards, dice. There are an infinite number of manipulatives you could get your hands on
- Variety – it is the spice of life, so don’t be afraid to shake things up a bit. Group work, discussions, worksheets, quizzes, open-ended tasks, bingo, match up tasks, videos, treasure hunts, code-breakers. Routines are important in lessons, but that does not mean you cannot have a variety.
- Get to know your students – take the time to find out about each young person and find common interests. You can then use this to your advantage when they inevitably try to engage in conversation about last night’s football or the latest episode of Bake Off – “answer 3 more questions and I will talk to you about it”.
- Have a laugh – teaching is the best job in the world but it is also up there with the most stressful, so it is important that, particularly with the more challenging classes, you enjoy what you are doing. As teachers we often feel under pressure and so do the students, so I like to take a couple of minutes in the lesson to go off the script and have a laugh – providing that you remain professional of course!
Over the last couple of years I have made a conscious effort to develop my questioning. As a new teacher I would regularly ask closed questions to the whole class and insist on hands up. I quickly found the obvious – the more confident or extrovert students would be the ones who had their hands up often, whilst the more shy or disengaged students would be happy allow others to take the lead. This meant that I was not assessing learning effectively, nor was I ensuring all students were making progress. Since then I have put in place a few things which have helped me to question even better in my lessons:
- Using open questioning – 3 years ago I started a coaching course run by coachinginschools.com and it completely changed the way that I approached questioning. Without giving away the content of the course, I highly recommend it as a gateway to developing your classroom questioning and listening skills as well as acquiring the tools needed to be an effective coach. It showed just how much more powerful open questions are as opposed to closed, in tapping into students’ understanding. Closed questions will often lead students to say they don’t know, and may lead them to become less confident. Open questions on the other hand, help to develop confidence as it opens up opportunities for students to express what they are thinking.
- Hands up to ask, not to answer – During whole class discussion I want to find out what students are thinking. To do this I insist that students can put up their hand to ask a question, or to offer a different opinion, but they should not put up their hand to answer questions. In fact, I rarely ask for answers – I am more interested in the process or their reasoning so I can check understanding.
- I choose who answers questions – I don’t want students to put up their hand to answer questions because I know that not all students will confidently engage, so I prefer to choose students myself. I have become quite good at keeping track of who I have asked so that there is not an imbalance, but there are many resources I have previously used, such as:
- Random name generators – quite good and needs setting up beforehand
- Lollipop sticks – useful, but only if you put them back in after each question or the student you have chosen may disengage for the rest of the lesson as they will know they won’t be asked again
- Tick sheets – I usually use a laminated seating plan so I can tick off students after each question. Again, I make sure I don’t avoid a student if they have already answered a question
- My favourite question – Whenever I receive an answer from a student, whether it is in a whole class setting on during 1-to-1 support, my next step is to follow it with “how do you know?” I feel this is just as important when the student has given an incorrect answer as it pushes them to retrace their steps and more often than not, they will identify a mistake themselves. If not, it gives me an indication as to where they may have gone wrong and it can become a discussion point.
- Silence is golden – it is important to give a student time to answer a question, so I make it clear from the outset that I would prefer someone to take their time and even do a bit of working out if they need to, before answering a question. Equally, I acknowledge patience from the rest of the class as they await an answer from their peers.
- Bounce – a useful tool I have developed is to bounce questions from one person to another. If I ask for an answer, I may bounce to another student and ask “how could you add to that?” or ask them how they could make it even better.
A set of resources for a lesson on reflection across axes, including an outdoor activity. I put a coordinate grid over the top of a plan of my school and created a treasure hunt. There is also an indoor version to use in the event of inclement weather (I had to use this today). The PPT which goes with the lesson was inspired by an episode of Grange Hill (a blast from the past!) where they used a picture of a student to show symmetry. In this version I use celebrities, plus a dreadful picture of me.
Reflection Across Axes PPT
Reflection School Plan Stations
Reflection School Plan Stations Indoors Version
Tarleton Academy School Plan Coordinates Grid Answers
Tarleton Academy School Plan Coordinates Grid
Since I attended the first two #mixedattainmentmaths conferences our department decided to move towards mixed attainment classes. Here are some of the plans we have made for the coming year:
- Introducing it gradually – Initially the plan was to gradually introduce mixed attainment classes only in Year 7 so that it was more manageable. However, in a conversation with the knowledgeable Bruno Reddy at the MA conference in Sheffield he suggested the best way was for a teacher to teach a whole year group so that planning was reduced due to repeated lessons. I passed this idea on and we compromised by opening mixed attainment classes to Year 7 and Year 8, with 3 teachers teaching two Year 7 classes and 3 teaching two Year 8 classes. We are hoping this is going to help us to plan collaboratively and reduce workload as we lead ourselves into the unknown.
- Collaborative planning – At the last MA conference Mark Horley suggested that collaborative planning was key to making mixed attainment classes a success. We hope to meet at least once a week in our PPA time to plan for the week. This will be particularly useful for our two new NQTs.
- Learning journeys – I first came across learning journeys during a workshop led by Zeb Friedman at the first MA conference. Students will be given a copy at the beginning of a unit that they will highlight throughout to show progress. They will have the chance to see a Super 9, an initial set of questions covering all of the outcomes so they can see the types of question they are going to be learning to answer.
Key Stage 3 Learning Journey – Factors and Multiples
- Notes to Myself – this was an idea shared at our last faculty meeting and was taken from a teaching & learning group. Students will have an A4 sheet of paper containing boxes in which they can write down key formulae, methods and examples. However the limited number of boxes means that students will be advised to only write down the most helpful information. The students will be able to use the sheet in end of unit assessments.
- Scheme of Work – we are writing our own SoW so that we can tailor the units to suit our needs. We decided on what key skills we wanted students to learn by the end of Year 7 and narrowed the units down accordingly. For example, we will introduce fractions in Year 7 but not calculations involving fractions.
- No calculators in Year 7 – this was a move we feel was important. We want students to be able to work without a calculator to do calculations, using other notation where necessary (e.g. surd form, fraction form, in terms of Pi)
- Manipulatives – Helen Hindle’s workshop at the MA conference in Sheffield used lots of manipulatives including fraction boards and 3D shapes, whilst Mike Ollerton is renowned for his use of geoboards. We plan on investing in such things, although with financial constraints it will be over the course of the next few years.
- Revision session – In order to support retention we plan on using a lesson every week to focus on revision of topics covered. As part of this we will be using a revision tool called The Big 9
One of the biggest misconceptions in maths is that students think they are either right or wrong, and good maths is all about getting the right answer. This means that students do not value working out or understanding a process – they are too focused on the end product, instead of the journey. Tackling the problem requires the students to change their mindset about what makes a mathematician, so the first thing I did was try to define what I believe makes a good maths student. ‘Good mathematics isn’t always getting it right, but is how you react when you are wrong.’ I wanted to emphasise that it is ok to be wrong; in fact, I want them to get things wrong and reflect on their work. So at the end of the lesson I introduced a ‘Dear Sir’ plenary, where students would write a reflection on what they learnt, how they felt in the lesson, what they needed to do to improve and any other information that they wanted to share with me.
The next step was to act on the feedback. I would read the Dear Sirs and address any issues in the next lesson, praising students who gave informed reflections and working with those who did not. Initially this needed a lot of practice as some students found it difficult to write reflections and others did not know what they had achieved etc, so until I had engrained the process I needed to provide the students with support through templates and hints. Over time the standard of the reflections transformed and students became more honest and thorough in their writing.
It wasn’t all plain sailing though. A couple of years ago I took my eye off the ball, became negligent and lazy. I underestimated the power of feedback by not reading the reflections the students had taken time to write. The students picked up on it and this was evident in the standard of their Dear Sir reflections. It took a while for me to pull it back but I am happy that I now have a routine with my students. I feel that having the personal dialogue with each student gives them the opportunity to take ownership of their learning and take the time to appreciate the progress they have made.
When I first started teaching I took over the school’s Twitter account with the aim of posting puzzles and challenges for students. I quickly realised that not many students use Twitter, so I looked for another way to engage using social media. I set up an Instagram account, initially to share photos from a school trip to Paris, and this helped us to get a few followers!
I then began promoting our social media accounts in lessons and parents’ evenings so that I could start posing challenges and competitions, but I found it difficult to attract interest until I ran a competition with a class to design creative posters, and the quality and creativity blew me away so much that I wanted to show them off. I uploaded photos onto Instagram and the response was fantastic, students were engaging with their work outside of the lesson. I found that students loved having their work broadcast and I had them asking if their work could be posted so that others could see it. Now I also regularly take pictures during of students working hard during the lesson – some don’t like being on the pictures so I take a snap of their work instead.
I started following Matthew Burton on Twitter a few years ago – you may remember him as the English teacher from Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire. One of the things I really liked was that he used #errantapostophewednesday where he would post pictures showing incorrect use of apostrophes, usually on shop signs, menus etc. I took inspiration from this to start #badmathsmonday after a trip to Tesco where I saw this ‘offer’:
Now I try to post a picture a week, sometimes spotting them myself, sometimes relying on the internet, and even sometimes having them submitted by students! So if you find any yourself, make sure you use the hashtag!
Focusing on the Positives
I believe in the importance of being positive in and out of the classroom in order to give students confidence. I pride myself on creating a positive classroom environment. In fact, a former student once described me as ‘waaaaaaay over-enthusiastic’ which I am not sure was meant as a compliment, but I will take it as one!
I look forward to parents’ evenings. There, I said it. And I am usually (ahem, always) the last teacher standing. I love talking to parents about their child, especially those who have been most underperforming. With all students I like to talk about what they have done well, rather than what they have not done, and then discuss what they could do to be even better. I feel that this is most powerful for those underperforming students because I want them to still get recognition for what they have done well, whilst I address the negatives by giving them direction for improvement. I do this because I feel that if I talk about negatives then they won’t necessarily be addressed. By focusing on the things they have done well I hope that it will encourage them to have more positive experiences in my lessons.
In my role as Head of House I communicate with parents on a regular basis to discuss progress and achievement. I have been in the role for 18 months now and I love it, but I quickly found that most of my conversations – whether they were with students, teachers or parents – were for negative reasons and the only opportunities I had to celebrate achievements were during parents’ evenings and in rewards assemblies, which we have twice a year. That was until I met a head teacher on a coaching course who shared with me her idea of Positive Fridays. This simple idea entails making only positive phone calls home on Friday afternoons. I have used this for the last year and I have been blown away by the impact they have made, in particular with two very different students – the first student, a high-attaining Year 8 girl in my House with a reputation around school as a fantastic learner who I had highlighted for praise after an exceptional data report. I rang home and Mum was surprised by the nature of the call, but was grateful to me for giving up the time to personally recognise her daughter’s achievements. However it was only the following week when I spoke to the girl, that I realised just how grateful her mum was, as unbeknownst to me she was crying with pride on the other end of the phone for the duration of the call.
The second student was a Year 10 boy in my maths class who had a reputation as a ‘bit of a character’. His brother, in Year 11, had recently moved schools after finding himself in trouble on numerous occasions and it looked like he may have been following in his footsteps. However, just before Christmas he had worked exceptionally well for a number of lessons which I felt needed recognising. I made the call and started by expressing how pleased I was with her son’s effort, so much so that he had earned the Student of the Month award in his class. His mum was taken aback by this and she explained that she assumed it was going to be one of ‘the usual’ phone calls about how her son had done something wrong. She went on to say she had never experienced this kind of phone call before and could not thank me enough. In the next lesson the boy thanked me for ringing home and conveyed how happy it had made his mum. I would like to think that this proved to be the catalyst for an improvement in his engagement and ultimately, his progress.
Positive Friday will continue to be a mainstay in my weekly routine as I look forward to using it even more effectively next year.