For me, teaching year 11 this year has been unlike any previous stresses I’ve encountered. Like many other schools, our original plans regarding GCSE entries have had to shift, and like other schools, we’re grappling with a new curriculum and balancing different pathways at GCSE. As a consequence of, our year 11 students have a huge amount of work to do, and very little time to complete it, particularly when it comes to coursework.
Obviously, I’m not the only one feeling the squeeze. So, for the most recent coursework assignment, a few of us clubbed together a Friday after school (yes, a Friday!) to plan a couple of weeks of lessons. Minus a few tweaks for our individual groups, we had year 11 sorted for a couple of weeks, before going home on Friday. It was joyous.
What I had failed to think about during this moment of year 11 unity, was my impending observation by two colleagues with one of my year 11 sets during this week. Further, the observation was to occur in the very lesson that I had managed to book a computer room for my kids to type up their coursework. Given our time constraints with this coursework, finding a free computer room to do some drafting in was an absolute godsend. It wasn’t even one of the slow computer rooms on the ground floor. I’d found a beautiful oasis in the ICT suite desert. For those of you who haven’t spotted the dilemma, I salute you. But for me it seemed that I was offering up myself for a summative lesson observation, where all I wanted to do was let my students write for as much time as possible. There would be no song and dance, no acrobatic tightrope-walking, and no swaying from the original plans I had made with colleagues during Friday planning club. This was a stressful time and my students needed to write.
I spoke about this to a couple of my colleagues, who were interested in what I was going to do. I was absolutely adamant that a lesson drafting coursework, without interruption, was precisely what my students needed. So that’s what we did.
For the four previous lessons, students had worked with examples of the style they’d need to replicate for their coursework. We’d talked at length about how we would adapt our writing to suit this style and the required audience for our coursework. We’d planned our writing against an agreed structure, researched our topic, and had written, peer assessed, and re-edited our introductions. We were ready to go.
On the day, I arrived at the ICT suite 5 minutes before my students, dished out their books and coursework folders, along with a support resource I’d planned with colleagues. I was at the door on the bell, directing students to their seats (away from peers which might distract them). For approximately five minutes, I reminded students precisely what they needed to achieve in that lesson, I questioned them on what they had already done to help them, and ensured they had their plans and support resources to hand. Then, they typed, virtually silently. The observers left 15-20 minutes later. During this time, I circulated the room, discussing work with individual students, ensuring high standards of literacy, and that students were on the right track. In that short lesson, they did precisely what they needed to do.
The feedback from the observation was short, but delivered very positively. I was praised for how calmly the students behaved in the ICT suite, how quickly they started work and how focussed they were during the session. They also were well aware that at this stage of term, my class had a lot of things ‘to get done’, and this was a valuable use of their time.
Yet despite all this positivity, there was still a sense that whilst what I was doing in that lesson was necessary, it was not necessarily what an observer would like to see. For me, there was a shared understanding that this sort of lesson would never be outstanding. I didn’t stop the students at any point to remodel / redirect them, I didn’t go out of my way to question my students so that it was clear to the observer that they knew exactly what they were doing. I let them get on with it, and helped those who needed it. They just worked.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve thought about the difference between what I feel is necessary for my students, and what an observer would like to see. At the start of the year, everyone in my department was observed in the same week for our department review. The process was fine, but at the time we were teaching a novel to years 7, 9 and 10. Could we read to our students during an observation, or is this professional suicide? We laughed and joked about it, but after that week I’d wager most classes were desperate to read more of the texts they’d been starved of all week, for their teacher’s fear of observation.
So, are lessons when students simply write for extended periods of time worthwhile? Are lessons when an English class reads a novel for an extended period valuable? And, is it possible for such lessons to be graded outstanding? If not, then maybe outstanding lessons aren’t always what’s best for my students.