My RE flame is burning out…

I have been teaching RE in some format for 5 years now (Andy Lewis, you would screw at how many names I’ve taught our subject under… RE, RS, RPS, P+E…) and I have to say my passion for our subject is dying.

I am a huge advocate of academic Religious Education and by that, I mean RE that contains RELIGION (shock, horror!). I would say that I have taught more non-RE than RE in my 5 years of teaching. Thus, my passion is burning out for our subject.

This year, I have been teaching a lot of Geography including GCSE Geography and I feel so inspired by it. It has left me questioning why do I love Geography so much? I think the honest answer is that it is because it has substance. I am not teaching RE GCSE this year so the majority of my time in RE is not necessarily delivering the actual religion side of things (basically, KS3 and PSHE).

To be quite honest, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of defending it to staff, parents and students. I’m tired of fighting for an RE which is credible and holds its own against History and Geography. I’m tired of explaining why this is necessary and important for KS4 and to bridge the gap to KS5 and mostly I’m tired of explaining why ‘sexy’ RE should be gotten rid of and never be allowed back.

I remember how exciting A-Level and University were for me. I am not religious myself but I thrived off discovering the historical, theological and practical elements that all religions have to offer; however, when I say this it is often met with concern about it not being ‘engaging’ enough for students. Before my maternity leave, I trialled a theologically credible curriculum and it was a huge hit with the students so I just can’t understand this argument as a reason not to try something different.

My flame is burning out for our subject, I think I am ready to make the transition to Geography…

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Literacy – how to attack it head on

One of the issues surrounding the idea that ‘we are all teachers of literacy’ is lack of knowledge on how to tackle it in subjects outside of English.

In my current school, literacy is a huge issue. Incorrect spellings, using the wrong ‘there’, not writing capital I, not beginning sentences with capital letters, not using question marks… the list goes on! It is some of the worst literacy I have ever seen and they are all basic primary school mistakes.

Teachers are expected to mark for literacy, currently we write sp for spelling, gr for grammar and p for punctuation. I usually correct it and ask the student to write it out three times for themselves as it saves time when they do their responses. This is doing nothing. The same mistakes appear next time I mark. I also find that students can’t spell the months when they write the date and incorrectly spell things that were spelt correctly on the whiteboard. Why is this happening? In my lessons, I am guilty of glossing over this in favour of covering RS content. I would rather they know the religious content than teach a literacy lesson but my students cannot write essays very well.

I have to tackle this head on. I am going to introduce 5 new things into my ks3 classroom lessons to ensure that this changes.

  1. Regular spelling tests as part of the lesson or for homework. The introduction of a new homework software at my school means I could use homework to work on spellings and thus not use too much of my precious lesson time for this.
  2. More writing in lesson. A simple but effective solution; the more they practice, the better they will be. Paragraphs/Essays as a plenary is the most effective way of ensuring the students are writing more.
  3. Highlighting mistakes in marking but during feedback lessons encouraging the students to find the answer for themselves. Either by asking or by using a dictionary. This does impact on time but it is a laborious task which may mean they put more effort into SPaG.
  4. More reading in lessons. The most improvement I have ever witnessed myself with literacy is in students who are reading every day. This means I will have to differentiate resources more precisely but it may pay off if they are reading more in my lessons.
  5. Correcting verbal responses. Students who speak things incorrectly will often write incorrectly. A student who uses incorrect tense for example can easily be corrected during verbal feedback in lesson.

I expect that if I adhere to my own rules, I will see some improvement between marking cycles.

 

Low-level bad behaviour is the worst type of negative behaviour.

I have been thinking about this for a while now and understand that low-level behaviour can be left unchallenged in many schools due to higher priority behaviour. There are usually ‘big hitters’ in schools who are classed as the ‘naughty’ students or there are classes whose behaviour is way worse than other classes and so these are often the focus for teachers on the ground and those above analysing the data.

The problem I have is that this often leaves the masses unnoticed and low-level behaviour has been rife in all of the schools I have worked in so far.

Examples of low-level behaviour are things like:

  • Talking underneath the teacher
  • Not following instructions the first time
  • Saying ‘no’ to staff
  • Not completing homework
  • Messy/incomplete classwork

You will always have students who dominate the class. This may be things like arguing with staff or refusing to complete classwork and they generally exhibit this behaviour in a number of lessons for a number of staff. They will sometimes be on report or be having their behaviour monitored by Heads of Year and tutors. They will probably have been involved in parental meetings between the school to try and ‘turn the student around’. Whilst these students should be a focus for a school, I think it means that often everybody else gets away with much more than they should. I also think these students mean we sometimes expect less of everybody else because we are just glad they are not doing the ‘bigger’ things.

My biggest pet-hate is failure to hand in homework but I also find that incomplete classwork is more common than I assume when I stand at the front and wander around monitoring classwork.

I know that systems within school don’t always support the teacher and if you are pedantic like me and want behaviour entirely under control it can be hard if you don’t have the correct channels to use.

I have been thinking then if I had to narrow down techniques and strategies with behaviour to five ones that should help with individual classroom management, what would they be? I have devised a little table with the things that I think help to minimise this low-level disruption even when the bigger system of the school doesn’t necessarily challenge it.

behaviour-1behaviour-2behaviour-3behaviour-4bheaviour-5

In many of these boxes, I have referred to consistency across all staff and whilst I appreciate this is the ideal, it is unlikely in most schools to be the case. I think that carrying out these actions yourself, in your own classroom also has a huge impact on your day to day dealings with low-level behaviour.

I am not saying that these will completely resolve all the problems when it comes to classroom behaviour, no man is an island after all, but I think it can help to make small changes in a school where you feel you are drowning in behaviour issues but don’t necessarily know how to tackle it for the best.

New Spec RE GCSE

After having a large amount of time off to have my son, I have returned to the world of work in a new school a bit closer to home.

I have been helping a colleague to plan the new GCSE spec ready for teaching next half term. He has taught the Christianity unit so far and with his excellent knowledge of Christian Theology, this has been successful. He can see the knowledge of the students coming on leaps and bounds in comparison with the old wishy washy spec.

I have been helping to plan the Hinduism side of the GCSE and I must say I am so much happier with the new spec than the old. I have had to actually go away and research and read up in order to create lessons on Hinduism (it isn’t a topic I studied at University) and this fact alone has impressed me as it means that if I have to use my brain, then they have to use theirs.

I welcome knowledge in Religious Education. I think we have lacked knowledge in our curriculum for a long time and I know that the popularity of the subject sometimes falls down to the ‘exciting’ topics studied but it is often at the expense of depth in their learning. We had a hub meeting in the area recently and other heads of department do not welcome the changes in the same way.

I think when it comes to planning the new GCSE (which I’m sure many people have done by now) there has to be a positive approach or else the students will think negatively of it too.

I posted last year about the KS3 curriculum I developed and how it was all knowledge based and barely touched on the variety of religions in favour of studying 2-3 in more depth. I feel this feeds into the new GCSE spec and I think that more time given to studying the history, texts and tradition is only a good thing. I know students will struggle more but that’s because the old questions were not actually challenging and also I think most teachers would admit that they came up with formulas and cheats in order to get their students the grades. If I didn’t have FARM in my first few years of teaching, I think I would have cried. There is no doing that with the new spec, you have to teach knowledge and you have to challenge the students more than they have been before in RE.

I want to follow up this blog post with examples of how to attach teaching without the ‘cheats’. Stay tuned.

 

 

Making our RE curriculum more academic!

One of the perks of this year has been that I have had complete autonomy over the RE curriculum. Also, with no GCSE/A-Level to focus on, I’ve had the time to completely focus on the often forgotten KS3 curriculum.

My agenda at the start of the year was to create an entirely academic style of RE that was both engaging to students but held credibility in the world of academia. In the beginning, my lesson planning was a little bit off as I had moved from a school with higher ability students to a school where the intake was generally lower and lots of the students were new to English.

I almost gave up thinking that my curriculum was too hard for these students but I did not. The results were amazing.

Since starting teaching I have wanted to plan my own curriculum and try out the more traditional style of theology that I encountered at university. I was fed up of teaching RE with no religion in it. With what little knowledge we have of the new GCSE, I knew that ‘religion’ needed a stronger role in the curriculum if these students are to have a chance of understanding it in the future (probably with only 1 lesson a week still!)

I made some tough decisions that I’m sure would be criticised by some RE teachers as I cut breadth of knowledge for depth and I worked chronologically, focussing on the main religions the students would need to know for GCSE. I would probably also be criticised by teachers who think it would not be ‘engaging’ to study these topics but I beg to differ. I also kept some of the lessons/units that did not necessarily harness the theological side of RE but that I felt were important to raise the importance of RE in my school (not all schools would need this necessarily).

 

Below is an outline of the curriculum I went for.

Year 7 

Term 1+2 – Introduction to RE*

A focus on what Religion is and introducing key terms such as ‘Abrahamic’ and ‘Indian’ and why the world religions are categorised this way. Also introduced to ultimate questions and why religions deal with these.

*This would probably be the scheme I’d cut if I was in a school where RE was already appreciated. I did question whether it was worth doing and I think after teaching it, this really hooked the year 7’s and allowed me to take them into the theological route I planned without question. Also, with my school being a start up school I really needed that baseline knowledge to pursue the rest of the curriculum.

Term 3+4 – Study of the Old Testament

We started at the beginning, Genesis. We looked at the story of creation IN the ACTUAL BIBLE. We then continued on to the Fall of Mankind and asked questions such as who was actually to blame for the fall of man – Eve, Adam, God, The Devil. Whilst studying the text, the religious views were interwoven and students engaged with the Christian, Muslim and Jewish perspectives of this story.

In the next half term we moved on to look at the Prophets. Abraham (Isaac), Moses and Esther. The question I wanted the students to engage with throughout the whole unit was ‘is the Old Testament still relevant today?’ At all times,  the students were invited to question the relevance of the text within the religions and also within modern secular society. They absolutely loved Esther.

This scheme taught me that the students can engage with the difficult religious literature if it is differentiated appropriately. I also found that my students who were lower ability in Literacy or New to English really progressed in reading and writing when reading the Bible. Also, KS3 children love a story and the OT stories are always exciting to them!

Term 5+6 – Judaism (Ancient vs Modern)

Moving chronologically through the Abrahamic religions and beginning with the Old Testament meant that it gave me the opportunity to explore Judaism. In my experience of teaching Judaism, it is one of the religions that the students misunderstand the most. We’d already covered the founding Fathers in the Old Testament so this allowed me to tie in the Judaism of the Biblical tradition quite neatly for the students.

This meant that for the next term of study, they will be able to look at Judaism as a religion in modern British society and effectively compare with the ancient traditions and have theological literature to back up their discoveries.

 

Year 8 

Term 1+2 – Study of the New Testament

This, for me, was the most exciting of the schemes I created. Students began with a look at how the New Testament was formed. They studied the Synoptic Problem and questioned the authenticity of the Gospel writers using arguments I had only discovered at degree level. They analysed how Jesus and society was represented in each of the Synoptic Gospels and looked at the different styles the Gospel writers used.

In the second half of the unit, we focussed a little more on Jesus. Using the Biblical literature we looked at the characteristics of Jesus and some of the main events in his life. With the understanding of the difference between the Gospels, the students were really able to grapple with the problem of who the ‘real’ Jesus might have been historically. The question they focussed on for this unit was ‘Who was Jesus?’

Term 3+4 – Introduction to Islam*

Again, moving chronologically through the Abrahamic religions, I decided to try and introduce the students to a more academically rigorous Islam than the ‘shock-factor’ Islam that is sometimes taught in school.

Accepting that RE was a study of religious literature, the students engaged in exegesis of the Qur’an. However, their knowledge of Islam was a little less than Christianity and so basic fundamentals of the religion such as who Muhammad actually was and what society was like during that time did take over primarily for the first half term.

Once the students had built up a knowledge of God and Muhammad in Islam, they understood the Qur’an better and were able to engage with the Qur’an on some of the fundamental beliefs such as the 5 Pillars and the importance of the Ummah.

*I believe there was so much more to be done with the scheme and if I were to teach again, I would focus a lot more on fundamental beliefs linking with religious literature. However, being RE, we really struggled for time in this half term with year 8 going on lots of trips etc and missing too much RE to do this scheme justice!

Term 5+6 – Indian Religions

My initial plan for these terms was entirely different as I assumed there would be a year 9 RE curriculum but once my school made it clear that the students would begin their GCSE at the start of year 9, I thought it would have been more important to cover some parts of the other world religions, particularly as some of the understanding of topics such as death on the GCSE requires some knowledge of reincarnation and so on.

I am not entirely happy with my attempt to squeeze Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism into one unit; however, I am unsure as to whether this would actually be beneficial to them for GCSE and would probably revise this for future teaching.

I argued for termly assessments in RE so that actual progress could be shown rather than me wasting lessons assessing every 2-3 lessons when they couldn’t realistically show progress in that time. The results in the level of writing that was being produced was amazing. Like I said at the start, my intake were lower than average on entry and I had students dealing with genuinely difficult questions and producing coherent answers that demonstrated they had clearly understood these academically difficult concepts. The data was + in RE throughout the whole year (until I left for maternity) and when completing my SEF for the department (myself essentially) I was genuinely pleased with the strengths in my little department.

Obviously, there would be much to work on for next year and more specifically there needed to be more tailored lessons for the EAL students who should have been able to access these concepts equally with the English speaking students. I am proud of what I had created for my first year of being in control of the RE curriculum. I didn’t have to manage any people and taught all of this myself so it was a lot easier than if I had to try to get other teacher’s to understand my brain but I believe that with a little focus on KS3 and developing that academically rich and rigorous curriculum you can achieve great things in RE.

My students even petitioned the VP to ask for double lessons of RE instead of just one! I’ve never had that level of interest with ‘sexy’ RE!!

I am more than happy to share my plans/lessons with anyone who wishes to look at them also.

 

 

 

 

Non-Specialist Teaching… it’s dangerous!

I haven’t blogged for a while and I’ve now finished work to have my baby. I’m sorry people, the blogs that have been in my head for a while are probably all going to come together!

First of all, I want to discuss the dangers of non-specialist teaching. This time around I was the non-specialist teaching History and Geography and I was the only teacher, teaching the whole school RE.

I have not particularly enjoyed teaching this year and I think a lot of that is down to the fact that I have taught more non-specialist subjects than RE. My RE curriculum was always well thought out and planned and I could differentiate for my classes because I have clear knowledge and experience in RE to allow me to do this. It was never a concern to me on a week to week basis as I was confident in my abilities in this area and could manipulate the curriculum I had planned in whichever direction was necessary.

However, I relied on someone else’s planning for History and Geography. It was sold to me as I wouldn’t need to worry because all the lessons were planned. I’d already been hired before I found out my timetable would actually be non-specialist heavy so it was too late to say no.

In the beginning, I taught the lessons as they were. I have a little more knowledge in History than Geography and also we had a Historian in school so I could use her if I was desperate. Geography on the other hand was a cause of great stress. The lessons were weak and with no Geographer on site, it meant that I became solely responsible for re-planning the lessons I had been given and making them relevant to our kids and then re-planning again specifically for my own classes.

I had a mixture of sets and year groups, top and bottom, year 7 and 8. This meant that I couldn’t just think in terms of one or two classes. I was planning Geography lessons to stretch the top year 8’s and then planning completely different Geography lessons for the set of EAL students who were very new to English, all with no knowledge of Geography! I had great needs in my classes that are hard to plan for full stop. Planning a subject I had no idea about was a disaster.

I made some great mistakes such as drawing graphs incorrectly and then having to back track and re-teach it correctly. Silly mistakes, based on the fact I had misunderstood someone else’s lesson plans.

When assessment and data entry comes around, there’s a stark realisation that you’re not just doing a ‘favour’ or ‘filling this hole until someone qualified comes along’. You are actually responsible for this curriculum. I put my effort into those lessons because of the children but I did not necessarily do them the justice they deserved. I planned lessons I thought were adequate for Geography but I am an RE specialist with not even as little as a Geography GCSE to aid me.

Differentiating non-specialist assessments was difficult too as you need knowledge of how to grade in those subjects as well as knowledge of the content and this was another massive glitch in my teaching this year. They say that you can teach ‘anything’ when you’re a teacher and whilst I know I did teach something in those lessons, the level of expertise and craft that one applies to their own subject was inherently missing. This was clearly obvious.

In lots of schools, non-specialists teach RE and we think that they’ll be okay because they’re teaching lessons we’ve planned and thought out. We have to put up with it or face having no teacher’s at all in RE sometimes! But without that background knowledge, it can all go to shambles in the classroom. Or without that knowledge when planning for specific needs such as G&T or new to English it can become a bit of a joke. Also, without confidence in that subject the children can take advantage. I had to say ‘I’m sorry I’m not a Geographer I’ll look that up and get back to you…’ too many times this year.

Schools have to fill the gaps, I understand that, but surely at this level in education it’s important for the children not to have non-specialists teaching outside of their comfort zone. It’s also important for GCSE as the foundations are laid at KS3 and without them, teaching GCSE is going to be so much harder than necessary.

If I was ever to manage non-specialists in RE, I would offer so much more support with planning than I initially would have thought necessary. Although, ideally I would say we should be teaching where our expertise lies.

 

Why behaviour is a problem in our schools…

I read on Twitter recently that one user was upset that somebody had claimed that behaviour needed sorting in the country and they didn’t agree because it’s “not the case for the whole country.” Whilst I am sure there are schools where the children are polite, well-mannered and well-behaved, it doesn’t take away the fact that there are plenty of schools where they are not and that there are teachers having to put up with abuse from children every day. Without something being done nationally, this is unlikely to change for those teachers as it is clear that the schools themselves cannot get a grip on this type of behaviour.

The NHS have a no-tolerance policy. If you verbally or physically abuse staff, you are refused medical treatment (or these are the signs that are all over my doctors surgery anyway). Why is is not the same in education? I understand it is more complicated to do it with education, but why is there not a zero-tolerance policy in some schools?

I understand we have to manage behaviour as practitioners. I understand the school has a behaviour policy that we are to follow. However, I have yet to see one that works just because it exists. My other half is currently at a school with a very tight behaviour system and he feels like a new person. He is one of the lucky few working in one of those schools.

I would say that our school policy is tight on paper. However, the students disregard it because they can and because they don’t know any better and it is not enforced by everyone so there are gaps.

I am currently pregnant. Everytime I am involved in confrontation from a child for something they haven’t done – like not bring in their homework – it causes me stress. This stress is affecting my unborn baby. So why can’t I have a zero-tolerance policy? Because the school system means I have to allow the child 4 opportunities to get it right before I can remove them from my room. That is 4 occasions where I am dealing with stressful situations. Usually, 4 occasions where a child is shouting, arguing or refusing to do what I’ve asked.

The students do it because they can. I am not going to raise my voice, nor am I going to argue with them. I am pregnant, my priority is my unborn child and keeping my classroom at minimal stress levels.
I would say I am quite a strong behaviour manager, I am very strict and follow the policies and have high expectations. But I still have problems with behaviour from children whom no member of staff can control – not even the senior leaders.

I was recently asked by a middle leader at our school to grade where I thought our school behaviour was. I replied I think it is a 3, requires improvement. My reasoning behind this is that there are a lot of ‘big’ names who misbehave and because of the time and attention they take up, the low-level disruptors and those who are far from perfect but not as bad as the ‘big’ names get away with it. He said ‘I think it’s a 2, because of the area we’re in.’ How is this acceptable? So, because I am not in a leafy suburb I can’t have the same expectations? I am expected to tolerate it because I don’t work in a ‘nice’ area according to some.

I expect to be able to teach without being consistently spoken over. I expect to sanction as necessary without arguments from children. I expect to be able to talk to a child about them not achieving and them take responsibility for that and say yes Miss, I am in the wrong and I need to step up.

It is tiring, day after day to fight these battles with children who do want to achieve but somehow think that it is not their responsibility to get themselves there.
I am speaking about a minority and I know there are plenty of lovely children in these schools too. Unfortunately, I think they are also fed up of them and fed up of having disrupted lessons and stressed wound-up teachers.

I am on the side of this debate that says something definitely needs to be done.