Combatting Curriculum Changes: A Transition Term for Y9

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As the exam boards have only just published the new specifications in the last couple of months for the new GCSE courses, I haven’t yet had chance to discuss which choice to make with the heads of chemistry/biology or or to properly plan out how we should teach such a course/which textbooks to buy etc. Therefore, to make sure I can make a well informed decision and have enough time to be able to plan how to teach the new specs properly, this term will be a ‘transition term’ for Y9, which will focus on teaching them the skills that they will need when they start the new GCSE in January. As it has been made very clear by the government that many of these skills will be mathematical, we will look at these, plus we will study how to write extended answers in science (as it seems that the infamous ‘6 mark questions’ – or at least something similar – will remain) and interpret data from graphs and the like.

OCR’s 21st Century Science GCSE course has been taught at both my previous and new schools, so in order not to overcomplicate things I’ve rooted this skills-based scheme of work in their Sustainable Energy module (P3), with the addition of climate change (which would usually have been taught previously in P2). I think this has a good mix of factual learning (electromagnetic induction and how thermal/nuclear power stations work), arguing scientifically (examining the pros and cons of different energy sources and which ones different situations call for), mathematical skills (power equations, calculating efficiency, using the kilowatt-hour) and data analysis (studying energy use, climate patterns and Sankey diagrams), whilst being based in a really topical area that students should know about, for the good of the future of Earth! Using a whole module means that assessment will be much easier (we can use complete past papers, instead of cobbling questions together) and makes it feel like a coherent terms worth of work. However, to stop it feeling too much like a recycled GCSE module, I’ve entitled it ‘Can Physics Save the World?’ and have made some nice graphics to go with it (if I do say so myself!) that are used in the lesson PowerPoint presentations and also in the information booklet that each student will get at the start of the term.

This information booklet has a couple of functions. Firstly, it explains the rationale behind the scheme of work in student friendly language and outlines the skills that they will learn. Secondly, it presents the learning objectives of each of the 12 lessons in the course, so the students know what they need to learn during the lesson, what’s coming up in the future and what they should remember from the past. Finally, it provides links to some revision websites/YouTube videos that will help them to revise the content for the end of unit assessment. I am a big believer in sharing information with students so they understand what they are doing, when they are doing it and why they are doing it, and this little booklet ticks many of those boxes. I print them so they can be folded to make an A5 booklet from A4 paper and stuck on the first page of the students’ new exercise books, for them to keep safely as a reference.

In all probability, this course will run for this year only, but hopefully it will equip the students with the basic skills they need for the more demanding GCSE that is to follow and provide us physics teachers with the time to prepare for the new course properly.

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Combatting Curriculum Changes: An Online Course Handbook for Y12

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I partly chose this year to change schools as I knew that – with the new physics GCSE and A-levels – I’d have to replay a lot of my lessons and schemes of work anyway. It is quite intense though, trying to introduce two new courses whilst still teaching old courses to the other years! Over the next couple of blogs, I’m going to talk about how I’m trying to combat these curriculum changes, for both me and my students.

To help the Y12s, their parents and my staff to get their heads around the new physics A-Level (not to mention myself!), I’ve been making a handbook to gather all the relevant information in one place and explain to them what they need to know. It’s simply a ‘pitch book’ style PowerPoint presentation (i.e. a default style that is designed for printing/reading individually, with smaller fonts and book like layouts etc.) that is uploaded to the VLE so it can be accessed by everyone, and which I can update and edit throughout the year. ‘What’s the point?’, I hear you cry. ‘They can just look on the exam board website!’ Well, yes, they could do that, but that’s pretty difficult to navigate and making this has forced me to get my head around the new course, plus is a good way of showing (or at least giving the impression) that I am confident with it already. It also means that the students will have a ‘one stop shop’ to visit to find all the information they need, without the extra ‘bumpf’ getting in the way and confusing them.

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Included in this handbook are:
  • An overview of the course
  • Exam dates and content
  • Timelines for teaching over the year
  • The expectations we have for the students, and what they can expect from us in return*
  • Links to useful websites, including the exam board, past papers and revision sites
  • Specification tables (allowing students to assess themselves against each point and track their learning)*
  • Instructions for how to access support materials for each specification point*
  • Examples of how students are expected to fill in tracker sheets to chart their progress over the year*
  • An explanation of the CPAC qualification
  • Lists of the CPAC competencies and skills
  • Examples of how students should evidence these competencies and skills in their lab books*
  • Formulae list for each module
  • Data sheet
* I plan to talk about these in more detail in later blogs

Hopefully, the students will see this as a ‘go to’ place for all the information they will need over the year. If it works, I may well make one for the new GCSE course too. Once they are made, they should be able to be used year after year with only minimal changes. We’ll see how it goes!

Being a duck!

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So, it’s been just over two weeks since I started at my new school and I finally feel that maybe I’m starting to know what I’m doing!(?) Apparently – according to my physics team – I look like I’m quite laid back… what they don’t know is that I’m really like a duck; I have the appearance of gliding though the water but in reality I’m paddling like mad underneath the surface!

The hardest thing to cope with so far has been getting to know all the different procedures for the simple things, like how requisitions should be done or who sorts out bulk photocopying. I know this seems odd, but it’s those simple everyday things that I never had to think about last year that makes everything seem so different. The head of department things aren’t so bad – I was prepared to be baffled by them! It’s very strange not having someone directly managing me within science though, letting me know what I should be doing – I’m convinced that I must be missing out lots of vital jobs!

Luckily, this is all definitely balanced out by the students I get to teach – generally,they are lovely and enjoy learning. I think they’ve taken to me and my style quite well – the introductory lessons I talked about a couple of weeks ago were really successful at both helping me to get to know my classes and lessening the stress of the first week! Surprisingly the most informative section was the pop quizzes – they really gave me a great idea of what the students had learned last year (and then managed to remember over summer!) – I would definitely recommend it! The entry questionnaires I used also gave some enlightening insights into my new students’ minds; a lot of them have the impression that physics is very complicated and aren’t too interested in it – something I am determined to change over the course of the year.

Driving home this evening I was struck by the realisation that I am happy with where I am – as much as I miss my old colleagues and the comfortableness of my old school, I really feel that I can make an impact in my new position, and enjoy myself at the same time. It was a nice realisation to have, and something I’m sure I’ll need to bear in mind during the more difficult parts of the year that will definitely come up!

Getting to Know your Students: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

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A really quick and super easy way to get an overview of what your class thinks about something that I like to use is a ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ survey. At the start of the year, I use it to get a general feel of which activities a class likes; for example, do they prefer textbooks or worksheets, videos or teacher talk, independent work or group work? Of course, they end up being given a mixture of these things, but if they prefer one over the other I’ll try to take that into account whilst planning their lessons.

This idea started out it’s life as another questionnaire (see below and previous blog), but I found this a bit hard to analyse (or at least quickly), and this version saves paper too! As you can see below, I put different types of learning activities on the board and ask the students to show me whether they like it (thumbs up), dislike it (thumbs down) or don’t mind (thumbs in the middle). Obviously there’s a spread across the class, but I gauge the general reaction and note it down on a printed out version of the PowerPoint (usually with 6 – 12 slides on a page). I write the class name at the top then can keep the sheet for reference later on in the year.

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The range of activities I use is different depending on which year I am teaching and what stage of the course they are at (e.g. students may well prefer different activities when revising as compared to when they are learning content for the first time). Activities I ask them about include:
  • Making own notes
  • Printed notes to annotate
  • Fill in the gaps
  • Answering questions
  • Textbook work
  • Worksheets
  • Group work
  • Pair work
  • Individual work
  • Peer assessment
  • Self assessment
  • Focussing on learning objectives
  • Past exam questions
  • Talking through assessments
  • Being given model answers
  • Fun revision games
  • Working with music on in the background
  • Working in silence
  • Teacher talk
  • Watching videos
I do find that there are variations between classes, and especially between sets – higher ability classes generally enjoy teacher talk and making their own notes, whilst lower ability classes often prefer worksheets. I am often surprised however – for instance, some classes hate revision games whilst others dislike group work. Overall though, everyone seems to enjoy watching videos! This is something I will talk about in much more detail in future blogs – it’s a slight obsession of mine!

Getting to Know your Students: Questionnaires

I find that short questionnaires are a great way of getting a snap shot of what the students in your class are thinking, either at the start of the year or at any point afterwards when you want to understand the general consensus feeling of a class. They also have an added bonus of being a paper-based entrance activity/plenary, meaning they are perfect to do when the board is being used for something else (e.g. for displaying a new seating plan). As mentioned in my previous post, I’m going to start all of my introductory lessons this year with a questionnaire, which differs slightly for GCSE and A-level students.

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The questions I chose can be seen above, but I’d like to mention my reasons for choosing some of them. I ask GCSE students to write their target grade simply to see if they know it, and seeing whether they think they will reach this or not (plus why) is a really interesting and telling thing to know – it gives a show of the student’s confidence.  For A-level students, I ask them to list the grades in their maths, science and English GCSEs; yes, I could find this on SIMS, but this way is much quicker, plus from previous experience it can take a while for all the data to be added and it’s important to see whether any students who haven’t reached the entry requirements for the course have slipped rough the net at registration). I ask whether they are confident using maths skills in physics lessons as I find this to be a huge indicator in general of how students will do at A-level physics – those who are scared of the maths involved often struggle and need extra support.

These are definitely the most formal versions of questionnaires that I have done, but often I will make one up on the spot if my class are getting through a lesson quicker than expected and I have something I am genuinely wondering about them. I’ll ask them to write on a post it note (or more often a scrap of paper) the answer to a question that I quickly type or write on the board, such as:
  • Which topic have you found easiest and hardest in the module so far?
  • What topics would you like to revise most next lesson?
  • How would you like to revise this topic?
  • What could you do to help you learn this topic better?
  • What could Miss Lowe do to help you learn this topic better?
  • Give Miss Lowe a WWW (what went well) and EBI (even better if) for this lesson (if I’m feeling super brave!).

I really value this quick feedback and fell it helps me to get to know my classes better, and hopefully it makes the students realise that I am interested in them as individual people too!

New School, New Students: Introductory lessons to help reduce first week back stress overload!

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I always find the first week of term a bit of an information and stress overload – there’s so many meetings to attend, whole school priorities to get your head around and things to sort out. And that’s before you even think about meeting your new classes and teaching them! I feel that the first lesson a teacher gives a student has a lasting impression and should show the class what he or she is about, but it’s difficult to dive straight into a lesson of content when you know nothing about the dynamics of the class. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to perfect an introductory lesson that can be generally used with all classes, with just a few things changed for each year group.This year, being in a completely new school, I decided that my priorities were to:

  1. Get to know my classes – their names, their feelings towards physics, their current level of understanding and what types of activities they like and dislike.
  2. Set out my expectations, both in terms of their classroom behaviour and of them as physics students.
  3. Explain the structure of the year for them and how it fits into the rest of their course.
  4. Show them what they can expect my lessons to be like – fun and interesting, but with an understanding that learning is always the most important thing and sometimes things just have to be done.

For both points 1 and 2, I also think the reverse is important – I want the students to know a little bit about me as person to make me more human (although I think very carefully about what I choose to tell them!), and what they can expect from me in return throughout the year.

In order to get these things done in the least stressful way possible, I follow a general plan with each class for their first lesson of the year. I try to break up long periods of me talking with short group activities that get students thinking about physics again after a long break and prepare them for their first ‘real’ lesson next time. I’ve explained some of the things I use below, and some (those with a * next to them) I will hopefully talk about in more detail in later blogs.

Student questionnaires*
As the entrance activity, I ask the students to fill in a questionnaire about their feelings towards physics. This has the added bonuses of not requiring an exercise book and it keeps the board free so I can show the seating plan on there.

‘Five things…’
I share a series of ‘fives’ with the students, including ‘five things to know about Miss Lowe’ (no, Internet, I won’t be sharing these things with you, except that one is that I have just been on holiday to Russia, but you knew that already!); ‘Miss Lowe’s five lab rules’, ‘five things that are expected of you as a GCSE/A-level physics student’ and – in return – ‘five things you can expect from Miss Lowe’.
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Teaching like Sheldon?
I like to break up all of the talking that has to be done in the first lesson by showing one of my favourite Big Bang Theory clips – the one where Sheldon tries to teach Penny physics (find it here). I ask the students to watch for and feed back to me all of the things that make Sheldon a bad teacher (there’s a lot!). I then tell them that if I ever make them feel like Penny does in the clip, they need to let me know that I’m being a ‘bit like Sheldon’. This has worked quite well in the past, especially with a lower ability Y8 group who would tell me I was ‘doing a Sheldon’ if I was going to fast for them.

Pop quiz
A 10 – 15 question quiz covering the previous year’s content (which the students complete in pairs and then peer-assess) is a quick and fun way to see how much they class have generally remembered from the last year, plus it gets them back to thinking about the subject. Sometimes, instead of a time limit, I play two or three songs (usually from the current chart) – when the songs are over, the quiz is too! I also sometimes add in a bonus round of ‘what is physics?. The pairs of students write what they think is the best answer to this questions,  which I then judge in terms of accuracy and entertainment value and give a mark out of 5. The pair with the highest pop quiz and bonus round total then win an ‘exciting physics prize’! This is usually some stickers – I get mine from IOP events and they’re fab, even for sixth formers (they love them!).

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Thumbs up/thumbs down*
As a plenary, I ask the students to vote on different learning activities by either putting their thumbs up (They like it) or down (they don’t). This gives me a quick idea of what the class prefer to do.

Although doing this uses up a whole lesson of time without really getting started on content, I feel the sacrifice is worth it; it gives me plenty of time to set out my expectations and present the image of myself that I want my students to see, plus it gives me a bit more headspace in the first week back – I don’t need to worry about requisitions for such a lesson, or bulk photocopying of specifications for a new module etc. and it can be entirely planned in advance as it doesn’t contain anything that would need changing in light of what might be said on inset day. Starting a new school is stressful enough – at least this way I feel I’ve got my first few lessons of the term sorted, leaving me with more time to get to know the school routines and how things are done.

I’ll reflect back on these lessons in a few weeks, and let you know how they went!

From Russia with… nerves?!?

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I write this sat on the Trans-Siberian Express, drinking coffee from the samovar and listening to a baby on the opposite bunk cry whilst his Russian mother is trying to placate him. A rather odd place to write my first blog you may say (and admittedly I have typed it up and posted it a couple of days later), but a new school year begins next week and last night I had my first ‘back to school nightmare’. You know the type – you walk into a classroom completely unprepared for the lesson you are about to teach and the students decide it’s a good time to act as if they are football hooligans. No matter that I’ve been teaching properly for three years now and finally feel like I know what I’m doing (most of the time at least). Nope – like clockwork, my subconscious has followed its’ termly pattern and has decided to slightly desecrate my summer holiday (a tour of Russia – it’s awesome, you should go!) by introducing a niggling feeling of nervousness. Usually I would combat this feeling by writing a list, but I’ve made at least six already (each in a different place and each missing out at least one vital entry) and it hasn’t worked. Therefore, I’ve decided to try something different… blogging! Yes, I know it’s the new fad out there, but as I’m moving to a new position in a new school this year, I think it might be a useful way for me to organise my thoughts, collect all of the teaching ideas I try out (I often try things that work well but then forget about them the next year) and generally document my ‘journey’ (for lack of a better term) so I can reflect on it later. If it helps someone who is reading it as a byproduct, well that’s an added bonus! (By the way, for anyone who is worried about the crying baby, worry no longer! He now seems extremely happy and is enjoying his little adventure on a train!)

So, some things about me you may need to know if you are reading this to put what I say into context. Firstly, I write with far too many commas/brackets/exclamation marks and often use many unnecessary words when trying to explain something – for these literary crimes, I apologise in advance. Secondly, I’ve taught physics at GCSE and A-Level in an inner city state comprehensive academy since completing my PGCE in 2012 and – for the past 18 months or so – I’ve also had responsibility for KS3 Science. The academy was a fantastic place to start my career, with an amazingly supportive science department. I learned so much about teaching, behaviour management, leadership and the importance of consistency there (to name but a few things). In 2013/14, I completed an M.Ed (whilst teaching full time) looking into how best to teach mathematics for physics to GCSE students, which taught me a lot about educational research and putting theory into practice.  However, last year I felt I was ready for a new challenge where I could apply the skills that I’ve developed. Therefore, I’m about to take the plunge and be head of physics at a state grammar school at the grand old age of 26. As all students there study separate sciences, each science is its own separate department so I won’t have a head of science to manage me… eek!

The biggest challenge facing me at the start is navigating the changing curriculum at both KS4 and KS5 whilst at the same time trying to settle in; this year, both Y9 and Y12 will be following different courses to the years above them, with details of the new GCSE specifications having only just been published (an attempt by the government, I assume, to encourage the return to a two-year GCSE) and the training for the new A-level CPAC practical endorsement qualification that is replacing controlled assessments not occurring until November. There is an element of starting these courses ‘in the dark’, but I am hoping to contend with this in a couple of different ways. Over the next couple of entries, I’ll be trying to explain my ideas for this and how I’m trying to cope with the mental time that is the first week of term. After that, I’m not exactly sure where this blog will go or what it will cover… but I’m looking forward to finding out!