DISPLAYING ITEMS BY TAG: LITERACY

The ambition of every leader in education is to meaningfully improve our students’ outcomes. This is particularly important at a time when school budgets are under increasing pressure, meaning we often have to support teaching and learning using the resources we already have.

However, the answer is deceptively simple - and most school leaders are aware of it, but may not know how to harness its power. While extra funding is always welcome, the solution to improving teaching and learning may well lie in a change of attitude... and a dose of extra creativity.

By developing students’ learning habits and thinking skills, school leaders can essentially help them think better. This establishes a foundation for better learning and helps deliver improved outcomes in the long term.

Metacognition, or ‘thinking about thinking’, has been shown to be a key factor in increasing a student’s potential.

At the Thinking Schools Academy Trust (TSAT), we believe that the best way to transform life chances is to actively shape the minds, attitudes and habits of young people using a framework of cognitive education.

Some of the ideas underlying this framework date back thousands of years - Aristotle once said that “You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” But the application to multi-academy trusts is new. Our approach enables students to consciously recognise their own habits, strengths, and areas for development, and actively seek to improve themselves - thereby creating transformational change.

One of the key ways in which we foster this is by encouraging close collaboration between Primary and Secondary schools.

A recent successful example was when Year 10 students from The Victory Academy and Year 5 students from Cedar Children’s Academy worked together to create a storybook called The 6 Seeds of Cedar.

Inspired by Dr Seuss, with original characters brought to life in beautiful illustrations, the book is a resource designed to promote student engagement and critical thinking across all TSAT schools. It unites creativity with cognitive techniques, to instil positive habits of mind.

The “6 Seeds” represent six key critical thinking skills: persisting, managing impulsivity, listening with understanding and empathy, questioning and posing problems, applying past knowledge to new situations, and taking responsible risks.

For two hours each week, the Year 5 students were introduced to the more advanced learning habits of the Year 10s - or, as they refer to them, “Victory Virtues”. Having older role models in these lessons was inspirational for the Cedar students, who could learn from those who are further along their thinking skills journey.

The younger pupils were not the only ones to grow and benefit from the experience, as the Year 10 students were able to further their understanding of the Victory Virtues by taking on the responsibility of sharing knowledge with a younger audience. Both groups of students emerged proud of and empowered by the finished book.

This collaboration between students of different ages has offered a brilliant opportunity for improving students’ critical thinking skills, using a more creative approach to making the most of the resources we already have.

It has also demonstrated the growing understanding of the cognitive processes involved in learning, and the value of applying neuroscience to our approaches to teaching and learning.

The challenge for school leaders has always been how to make metacognition and neuroscience work consistently at a whole-school level, to generate the impact we know it can have. The 6 Seeds project has done just that.

The book will now be part of the framework for future curricula at Cedar, and its authors will impart their knowledge of the 6 Seeds to their fellow pupils. These 6 Seeds will be planted in Reception, and through lessons tailored to different ages throughout students’ academic careers, pupils will head to Secondary school reflective about their own habits of mind and prepared for what is to come.

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Fostering creativity in students has dominated discussion in education since the turn of the century. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) lists creativity as one of its 4Cs alongside critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. In 2016, the World Economic Forum released its top ten list of desired skills for 2020, including creativity among them. Professor Michael Fullan includes creativity as one of his 6Cs, and describes it as the need for students to possess creativity and imagination.

Despite these attempts at defining creativity in education, a challenge remains: explaining what creativity looks like within the traditional school culture. Too often, ‘creativity’ gets confined to a single course - such as art - or an individual unit, project, or activity. However, Professor Fullan defines creativity not only as “the opportunity to pursue novel ideas”, but also as “economic and social entrepreneurialism” and “leadership for action.” He argues that students need the opportunity to use their imaginations, engage in problem-solving, and have the opportunity to learn through play. Therefore, when schools provide these conditions, students have a chance to develop their creative skills.

As an app, Book Creator does not create these conditions any more than a paintbrush or crayon creates a masterpiece. And yet, when placed into the hands of students who are given the opportunity to imagine, explore, problem-solve, and create, it removes the technical limitations from a student’s imagination. Not only does Book Creator provide students with the capacity to work in text, drawing, photos, video, and audio, but it also encourages them to embed and incorporate content created in any number of tools. The open-ended, multimedia capacity of Book Creator then supports the conditions in which the creative process can occur.

Book Creator is an open-ended, creative and cross-curricular app that empowers students and teachers to create multimedia ebooks. Available on iPad and Chromebook, Creator launched in 2011 and has gone on to be one of the most popular apps in education, winning the 2015 Bett Award for Best Educational App, and 2018 American Association of School Librarians Best Website for Teaching and Learning.

Returning to Fullan’s notion - that creativity not only results in a product, but also entrepreneurialism and leadership - how might educators allow students to harness the power of digital tools such as Book Creator to design a creative solution to a community challenge, or take action as a leader in the classroom? Multimedia tools encourage students to share their thinking and demonstrate their understanding in varied and previously unimaginable ways. The challenge then lies in how skilled educators might design new learning experiences that foster the creative process.

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Have you ever found yourself marking the same pupil responses over and over? You asked them to be creative; you asked them to use their imagination. Instead, they regurgitate countless clichés onto their pages, leaving you wishing you hadn’t bothered.

“The sky was blue.”

“Really?” I thought, as I read this for the thirty-second time. Now, I get that the sky is blue, but it can be so much more. Vocabulary can be a sticking point when it comes to creativity. You can only create using the knowledge that you have. Therefore, if you have a limited vocabulary to begin with, chances are that the sky will remain blue and your creative writing will remain dull. I had two problems that I wanted to tackle that week. My classroom was as dull as the pupils’ writing - could I kill two birds with one stone?

The solution came during a discussion with our specific educational needs expert, classroom assistant Lisa Heart. As a fan of Vincent Van Gogh, she was leafing through one of his books and explaining to me how she loved his descriptions of colour.

“Theo, what a great thing tone and colour are! And anyone who doesn’t acquire a feeling for it, how far removed from life he will remain!”  - Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo

If only our pupils could describe colour like Vincent Van Gogh, we thought… and an idea sprang!

The set up

With Van Gogh as our inspiration, we wanted to create a classroom that inspired through colour. We wanted to create a room that felt like you were entering an art gallery. It should inspire conversation and ooze with rich vocabulary that would be easy to pick up and use. Lisa headed off to the local B&Q to gather every colour that the paint companies had to offer. She also worked on creating mini colour charts that included gradients of the main colour palletes linked to objects and feelings. We collaborated to create our classroom of colour, complete with images for stimulation, colourful materials as a talking point and examples of writing that went way beyond “The sky is blue.”

The introduction

Standing at the classroom door, I held a box full of pebbles. On the board was the question: “What colour is your pebble?”

Each child was handed a pebble as they entered the room and asked to consider their starting question. When I took in their responses, they consisted of grey, black and brown. How inspiring!

On each desk was a colour chart card. I asked the children to take hold of these. They had 30 seconds to write down the colour on the card before passing it on and writing down the next colour again and again. Their pages began filling up with words like ruby, sapphire, dazzling, powder, opaque and so on. After a few minutes, I asked them to stop and compare the colours on their pages to the colours they had chosen for their pebbles. They could see the difference. They recognised the need to gather more vocabulary for their colours. Stage one was complete.

The exploration

To see how real writers used colour, the children explored different stories, plays and, of course, the letters of Van Gogh. How did other writers use colour in their work? They experimented with images that we found online and tried out the new vocabulary gathered from the colour charts. It was important to allow the children freedom to explore, but equally as important to critique their creations.

Some children had produced wonderful descriptions: “The opaque water shimmered a silvery sheen against the coral moon.” Others needed work: “The so snazzy, antique gold was pinky purple in the blue light.” Some had thrown the whole paint pallet in without consideration of the effect upon readers. By listening to each other’s descriptions and exploring the effect that it had on us as listeners, we were able to develop some special and unique sentences.

Practice, practice, practice

At least once a week, we would have a go at describing different images as a starter to our lessons. Success came when they began asking me if they could get out of their seats to use the walls. They would get handfuls of colour charts to choose appropriate vocabulary for their descriptions. They would read the examples and use them to form their own sentences and I even found adaptations (not copies) of Van Gogh’s work in their own writing. If we had only one colour lesson and the colours had gone back into a box, never to be used again, we would not have had as much success as we did. We had to practice!

About one month after creating the colour room, I once again gave every child a pebble asking, what colour is your pebble? The responses this time were astounding. Those children could work for Dulux! They had stopped seeing the obvious first answer and were now drawing upon a much richer vocabulary to describe the everyday. The vocabulary was not limited to their writing either. The colour room inspired conversations about the colour of characters’ moods in novels, choices made by Shakespeare to characterise through colour and exploring how writers used colours differently.

The colour room was a platform for accelerating creativity through sparking conversation, practising new vocabulary regularly and creating a safe space to experiment and explore. Collaborating to create a space that allowed creativity to grow was a joy! The next time you read the words, the sky is blue… look up at your classroom walls and ask yourself, could you collaborate to create a colour room that inspires? We did and we loved it!  

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I’ve been teaching one to one literacy for years now. I recall saying to parents (and I inwardly cringe at this memory) that spelling isn’t really that important and skills like reading, planning and understanding exam and essay questions should take priority. Spelling is something which can be overcome by spell check and predictive text. It is a waste of time learning how to spell, as it is the one skill - in my experience - that is the hardest thing to crack.

Pupils who struggle with spelling may get a rule for how to spell a word one week, only for said rule to disappear the week after. It can even happen in the same piece of writing. It is such a laborious process, and for pupils who find many elements of literacy difficult, spelling seems the easiest one to drop and avoid. However... avoiding spelling is doing the child or young person a complete disservice. Although it may be true that spell check will help in the future, that doesn’t change the classroom they are returning to; where they are likely to still handwrite their answers, have their presentation, grammar and spelling marked, and participate in group activities where they may have to write.

Spelling is therefore a must, but what do you choose to focus on? The general approach in the classroom is Key Stage lists and learning a few words a week. For children who need to see a word more frequently, and revisit those words regularly, this approach is not effective for long-term retention. A missing component of this approach is the understanding of that word and seeing it in context. Year 2 lists contain words such as improve and sure. Year 6 has some humdingers like hindrance and sacrifice.

I am a fervent supporter of developing a child’s vocabulary and enriching their communication skills with an increased lexicon, but how much time is invested in exploring these words? Children may perform well on spelling tests but not apply these words to their writing, which is surely the end goal?

One approach can be to support the teaching of the class lists, but breaking them down in more detail, understanding their meaning, using them in context and repeating them frequently. Still, this approach doesn’t feel quite right. Although it is reinforcing the class teaching and therefore has more curriculum relevance, it does not feel specific enough to the child or young person I am working with. It is likely that if they struggle with spelling that the age-appropriate list is too difficult for them, and that they will have missed a lot of key words.

Perhaps the teaching of key words is the way forward, with teaching becoming more tailored to the child, but it’s still not quite there or right for some of my pupils. I then discovered the most commonly misspelt word list. Surely if you can crack these, then you’re onto a winner. The bonus of using this word list is it’s not age-specific, it has a finite number of words on it, and the pupil can self-identify those that are tricky. Bingo! And what’s more, the words are popular and can be used in a variety of subjects. The one teensy drawback is that someone, somewhere has compiled it. I have no assurance that these are, in fact, the most commonly misspelt words. Putting that limiting thought to the back of my mind, I press on using these words to teach spelling.

Having looked at the ‘what’ and the next thing to tackle is the how.

I am conscious that spelling is most of my pupils’ Achilles heel, and having to struggle to spell words in front of anyone can be inhibiting. My first technique is therefore active, fun, and starts with a high success rate. This may take some explaining, but I will do my best.

Using up to 10 of the words chosen, write them on Post-its and, when the pupil is out of the classroom (this works best during a one to one), stick the words around the room. The pupil has to write the words on a whiteboard or large piece of paper without removing the word from its spot. They can revisit and look at it as many times as they need. When they have written them all, they can check their accuracy and hopefully tick them all off as correct. You collect the words as they check their work.

Next, you create a map of the room (technical drawing expertise is not necessary, nor is a huge amount of detail), making sure you include any furniture on which a word was placed. When complete, the pupil then marks with an X where the words were. Hopefully, they will look around the room and maybe even revisit places to jog their memory, visualising the previous set up.

Okay, everyone still with me? This is about memory and recall, and can be applied to revision strategies too. Once they have done this, the final step is to try and recall where the words were and spell them correctly. At this stage, the spelling is only part of a fun activity; the expectation and pressure have been completely lifted as their attention is on remembering the location of the words. I have found this to be the most fun I’ve had teaching spelling and pupils’ accuracy on this final activity is high. They leave having spelt words they’ve previously struggled with and had a really enjoyable, fun lesson. Follow-on activities around finding the words in text, writing them in shared stories and writing definitions can all then be explored.

Essentially, any method of identifying words - be it through assessment, word lists or key words and the subsequent instruction in learning how to spell - has to suit the child that you are working with. Some need to go right back to basics with phonic instruction and building words, whereas others appreciate the etymological approach. It is absolutely necessary* to know your pupil. Always keep in mind what works for them as an individual, all the while making fun and creativity a priority.

*Here's a spelling mnemonic for this ever-tricky word: 'Never Eat Crisps Eat Salad Sandwiches And Remain Young'

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We all loved going to the cinema when we were young: the smell of popcorn as you walked through the foyer, the anticipation upon entering the dark auditorium, the flickering light of the projector, and the hush of the audience as the film began. It was, and still is, a truly magical experience for a child, being able to watch a film on the big screen. Now imagine if the film being shown were one that you had written and starred in yourself, the audience listening to your every word... That may have been only a dream to us, but this is the experience of many Primary school children each year, thanks to LitFilmFest.

A couple of years ago I led a study which provided the evidence, for the first time, that the physical characteristics of the classroom not only affect the learning progress of Primary school pupils, but impact very significantly. Taking everything together, the measured impact of the classroom design factors explained 16% of the variation in learning of the 3766 pupils - in the 153 classrooms - assessed.

Reading is incredibly important in supporting students’ overall growth. It’s a predictor of success in further education and life, with achievement in Mathematics and reading significantly associated with academic motivation and quality of life. So it is understandable that education policy largely focuses on developing strong readers at an early age. With that focus comes assessment requirements that can be confusing to parents and exhausting to educators. How do we communicate the value of assessments and the importance of data they return?

Not so long ago, geeks were often considered outcasts - both in schools and in society at large. Although they bonded with other like-minded people, geeks didn’t typically mingle in mainstream culture.

“All pupils must be encouraged to read widely across both fiction and non-fiction to develop their knowledge of themselves and the world they live in, to establish an appreciation and love of reading, and to gain knowledge across the curriculum.” National Curriculum

Supported by Change.Org, school literacy project Change It invites the next generation to take action on real issues that matter to them, by writing and directing their own campaign video in the classroom. Teacher Dan Burden recently completed the project with his Year 6 class, in support of the #homesnotspikes petition. He explains the impact the project had on his pupils:

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