Improving stretch and challenge

Slide1Our final presentation on Magic Monday 2 was by Head of Performing Arts and seasoned blogger Laura Jackson, who shared with us ways in which she is trying to stretch and challenge her students.  Over to Laura………………

I have chosen to speak about stretch and challenge, mainly as I will be focussing on it throughout the rest of the academic year.  It fits in with what we are aiming for in school but most importantly, I want the students in my department and in my subject area to be the best they can possibly be.


As I teach full year groups at KS3, in mixed ability forms, I investigated ways to support all students in my lessons.  The current shift in our students over the last 3-4 years has meant that I have needed to differentiate a lot lower than I previously have before. I worked with a Y3, 4 and 5 class at a local primary school to see what work they did, what was accessible and also looked at practical ways to differentiate.  The main motivation for this was I was spending a long time marking and the work of the lower ability students in particular was not done well.  It wasn’t because the work was too hard, but the way I wanted to assess them was inaccessible for them, so it meant their work could sometimes be of a poor quality.  I worked at the local primary school before my maternity leave and implemented some of the changes before I went on leave.  They worked well and although there were improvements to make, I knew I was on the right track.


My “lightbulb” moment came when a group of us attended the Walbottle TeachMeet “A Rising Tide”.  The first speaker, Cherry Crooks spoke about the school’s method of teaching from the top down.  As she spoke I realised that it made perfect sense.  Choose the most able student in the class and plan the lesson around them.  Once that is done, differentiate downwards.  I had become focussed on the students at the lower end, making sure they had work that was accessible.  Although I provided work for my most able students, it was not what my lesson was built on.  In one of my year 9 classes, I have a student who will achieve level 8.  There are also several students who are working on level 7 tasks, so they do get different work, but my lessons, definitely,  were pitched at the majority – the students aiming for level 6.  Then those aiming for level 5 were given another different task.  I fully understood what was being said and knew I could easily change the focus of my lessons because I had been using many differentiation techniques.


The very next day, my year 8 and 9 classes were beginning a keyboard assessment task.  Once I got home from the TeachMeet, I was desperate to change my resources, PowerPoint and planning to focus on the challenge.   I also shared with my students what I wanted to do. I told them their work would be harder because they could do it.  I also told them that it was something I was trying out (they have got used to that this term!) so if it didn’t work then it was fine.  I just wanted them to try their best.  Everyone agreed they would, including me.


Two weeks later I had my evidence.  Improved grades in a keyboard performance.  Not just slightly improved grades but notable gains.  While this sounds great, I know not all students will make this amount of progress in all tasks, as the tasks get harder, the margin for improvement gets smaller too.

While I was reading a book Dan recommended: Ron Berger’s “Ethic of Excellence”, one of the first things that stood out was on the third page: testing children constantly doesn’t make them smarter, the best way to make things stick is to establish a new ethic and long-term commitment.  It has to become a way of life.


I have chosen to highlight the following class as they are probably my biggest challenge.  There are a lot of new additions to the class, as well as students who have particular needs.  It was also the group who were working at lower levels at the end of year 8.  With the exception of one student, all were working at mid to low 5, or level 4.  One student was working on level 3 at the end of year 8.  I have included the assessment data collected to show progression but also to show that some students perform better on some tasks than others.  From this assessment data I have also highlighted in red anyone who has made less progress, yellow are slow movers or students to keep an eye on, purple have met or exceeded their level on that task (not overall) and they then need a new challenge in the next topic.  It also gives me my list of concerns straight away.  The best bit about this “raised challenge” task was that the students bought into it.  They took pride in their work.  For example, one of my students tried so hard and the smile when he achieved a 5b in this task was incredible.  His highest level achieved so far was a 4b.  I know if I had given him a L4 task, to move to a 4a, he would have still achieved a 4b.  He did the green task without question because that was the task he was given.  All students working at 5a will be given the purple task next time.  I have deliberately chosen purple and green (our school colours).


The top example shown below is the same student’s work over 7 week period.  3 listening tasks, along with work in the classroom – vocabulary boosters, seating plans and piles of targeted praise meant there was a clear and visible improvement in this student’s work.  Because I have caught him being good at something and recognised that, he tries harder and I know this is the same for many of the Y9 boys.  Developing homework is something that was a priority for me, as well as in my department.  I saw many of different examples of  #takeaway homework, as mentioned in the #100ideas book and also knew our Science department had been using it and had some excellent quality homework submitted.  I decided to use homework tasks which would engage all students by giving them a choice of different activity.  The activities were designed to “nurture” some students but also “stretch” others. They are also meaningful tasks which link to and contribute to the overall grade rather than just being set every two weeks “just because”.


All of these resources have been collected from other colleagues and acquaintances I have networked with on Twitter.  I have tried them in different settings and also shared them with different colleagues to use too.


There is no “quick fix” for improving student work.  I know I still have tweaks to make to some tasks, improvements to make to others and complete re-writes of other tasks (or even discard some), but I have changed my whole attitude to planning and differentiation.  After making some tweaks and improvements for the benefit of our students, it has been worth the time spent as it has made lessons better, more engaging, and has made my marking smarter and more focussed.


My final ‘advice’ I would give to you is: “join Twitter” – the amount of ideas and resources people post there is unbelievable.  Read “An Ethic of Excellence” by Ron Berger.  I cannot convey how good / amazing / fantastic / inspiring it is.  Also share ideas and speak to people.

The best CPD I’ve ever had as a teacher has been this year in this school, by our staff.


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