New term, new rules

Previously, on ‘A drop of ink…’

… my aim is simple: I want kids to feel empowered and confident in my lessons. To enjoy French because of that …  And, crucially, empowering them is not about removing deep thought or hard work – I suspect that they will find it really challenging – but rather about allowing them to spend their time committing to memory the things that I, as the teacher and the expert in the room, can tell them right first time.

The term is a week old, and I’m already very tired.  However, not for the usual reasons: last week, we had parents’ evening on two consecutive nights that ran until 9.30pm, so I think I’m still catching up on a bit of my sleep debt (utterly worthwhile, mind you, if I’ve successfully managed to persuade some kids to do a language GCSE).  And I haven’t drunk very much coffee today.

Normally, I feel tired because I have:

  • spent the day with my voice raised to control some lively classes;
  • stayed up until 10pm (I don’t do late nights) writing resources and putting together powerpoints;
  • lain (what an odd past participle that is) awake in bed thinking about my lessons, how I can make sure that pupil X gets the most out of it or pupil Y doesn’t disrupt the learning of others.

And I work in a nice school, with lovely kids – Dios sabe how tired I’d be if I had to deal with real problems.  But I have come home from school nearly every week since I started teaching and been inordinately grateful for my bed.

Not so now.  What’s more, I’ve spent a lot of last week on the important stuff: honest and open behaviour interventions with the kids who routinely disrupt and dislike my lessons; planning the kind of language I want the kids to be using on a routine basis; acting shocked when a child tells me that I drive him nuts (‘Madame, vous m’énervez!’). I’ve spent time observing and learning from others – NQT tick – and talking about my practice with my colleagues.  Oh, and the small matter of 11 hours talking to our year 9 parents.

But how?  Because I’ve realised that teaching – the nuts and bolts of what I want the kids to do and master – is actually much simpler than I’d previously thought. To demonstrate this fact, I refer you to exhibit A: the amount of paper I’m using.

Last term: at least one worksheet (on which the kids would write), a support sheet, a glossary, possibly a supplementary ‘do now’ or consolidation activity.  Per lesson. Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate.

This term: one class set of sheets per year group, re-used in different lessons, each providing enough rich input and content for 2-3 lessons, and a valuable reference point for later use.  A reduction of (opens calculator) around 85%.

What I’ve found is rich input.

Last term: I produced a powerpoint to introduce my year 7s to places in a town – some pictures, words that appeared in a snazzy fashion when clicked, some ‘which letter/word is missing?’ activities, some short sentences with opinions.  They loved it.  They learnt… some words.  That powerpoint took me AGES, and lasted a single lesson.

This term: I produced a worksheet with 30 lines of text.  In that text there are: rooms in the house, descriptions, opinions, comparisons, past tense, present tense, future tense, conditional tense, subjunctive, negatives and, my new personal favourite, idioms.  It contains helpful guides to pronunciation.  The text refers back to the Magic 10, 10 easy ways to conjugate any regular -er verb, which nearly all of my pupils can now identify, understand and use.  Every word, every interesting phrase, is translated, because I want them to be able to see, at a glance, what every word means.  This new text contains the kind of French that French people actually use every day.

That worksheet took me an hour, and will last for weeks.

Some kids will only get the basic vocabulary – fine.  They’ll recognise and understand and – fingers crossed – be able to spell and use the words for the rooms in the house.  Hopefully they’ll find the idioms amusing, and casse du sucre sur mon dos at some point when I least expect it.

Some kids will also pick out sentences, or turns of phrase, that they like – they’ll write them down in their books, and use them in their writing tasks, and hopefully remember them in the weeks to come.  I anticipate that ‘grand comme un mouchoir de poche’ will be a particular favourite.

Some kids will ask insightful questions about the language that is there, bang smack in front of their eyes for entire lessons: Miss, why does this ‘jouer’ end in an -er and that one doesn’t?  How come it’s ‘mon lit’ but ‘ma maison’?  (They know the answers to these questions, but it’s nice to hear them engaging with the language).

Some kids will drink this new French up like a sponge, and walk up to me in the corridor and say “Bonjour Madame, quelle belle journée pour jouer au foot dans le parc!”  Well, I can live in hope…

Does this approach solve my three causes of fatigue?  Have I…

  • spent the day with my voice raised to control some lively classes?  Not so much – they’re reading the text, finding key vocabulary, answering carefully constructed and targeted questions, listening to my explanations… It’s all much more simple, and everything is in one place.
  • stayed up until 10pm (I don’t do late nights) writing resources and putting together powerpoints? Not at all – I write, tweak, refine and add interesting language to my texts, and I ensure that I’m repeating the best and most useful stuff for their learning curve.  I’m anticipating mistakes, and planning their defence against them.
  • lain awake in bed thinking about my lessons, how I can make sure that pupil X gets the most out of it or pupil Y doesn’t disrupt the learning of others? Well, yes – this is no magic bullet, after all, and I’ve only been doing it a week.  But in the last week I have met with my pupils X and Y, and talked to them about their progress in the time I’ve had not making resources; I’ve emailed form tutors and parents on a regular basis to congratulate the kids on awesome performances in their Magic 10 tests; I’ve had time to think about the marking I will absolutely, definitely be doing this week.

I’ve been lucky enough to take part in a research group this year that is focused on improving attainment in MFL, and increasing the number of pupils taking it at GCSE and A-level.  The leader of the group, Prof Alessandro Benati, tells us that (among many other principles) the key to second language acquisition is input: rich input, and lots of it.  I honestly feel that if last term’s input was tic tacs, this term’s is on course to be a vast crème brulée.

I’m looking forward to reporting back again in a couple of weeks, and seeing if I can start to tackle the other things playing on my mind – marking, feedback, promoting the four skills, the new GCSE, memory, creativity, culture – in the meantime.  But I love this new way of doing things so far, and the kids seem both keen and a little bit more empowered.

A good week.

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