In late February, along with the headteacher Stuart Lock, two languages teachers at CVC visited two schools in London – Capital City Academy and Michaela Community School – to help reflect on their own practice. Here is their report and some reflections:
1. Capital City Academy (http://www.capitalcityacademy.org/)
We received a very warm welcome and staff gave up their valuable time to talk to us in detail about their curriculum, new grading system, and specifically their teaching, learning and feedback in Modern Foreign Languages.
At the moment schools find themselves stuck between the old National Curriculum levels that have been officially disbanded and the new curriculum which offers no clear replacement for these; the decisions have been left to schools. Some schools are using a traffic light assessment system for students, some are still referring to the old levels, whilst others, like Capital City Academy, have devised a system at KS3 that mirrors the new grading system of 1-9 at GCSE. In this way students certainly become used to this method of grading and have one clear target (a number 1-9) for each subject. A student would therefore be expected to achieve the same number each year. There is therefore no numerical progression year on year yet clearly the requirements and criteria, for example for a grade 7, become increasingly more detailed, demanding and challenging each year, therefore progress is certainly made even if the numbers make it appear as explicit as we are used to. How motivating this is for students and how clear this is for parents also remains to be seen. Stuart said he thought this embedded some of the same problems that the old National Curriculum levels had (ie how do you apply general criteria consistently) and adds that the GCSE syllabus becomes the whole domain of what should be learnt at school, rather than what we want it to be: just a test of what kids know and hence a sample. Using GCSE criteria can also dumb down what we might also want pupils to learn.
Lots of the techniques we saw at Capital City are borrowed from Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. These are clearly very effective techniques and are used across the whole school very consistently indeed.
The MFL department, a dedicated group of staff, kindly invited us into several of their lessons. In these lessons, as at Cottenham, we observed engaging, purposeful lessons that foster student understanding, communication, independence and confidence in the language. We were interested to talk to them about how they encourage students to commit language to memory, preparing them for the increased demands of the rigorous new GCSE languages course with linear assessments. Students at Capital are given sheets at the start of each topic that contain key language that students must learn, they also include cultural references, to help engage and increase students’ understanding of the language and country as a whole. Students are then quizzed or tested on this knowledge each week in lessons. The emphasis is clearly knowledge, knowledge recall and memory, which seemed, from what we could see, to be effective. Extended writing is only carried out in lessons, not at home. Students are given 25 minutes to write in as much detail as they can on a given topic, these are called ‘GEM’ tasks (getting excellent marks). They are allowed during this time to use their resources. They then have a ‘DIRT’ (Directed/dedicated Improvement/Independent Reflection Time) lesson that follows this piece of work once the teacher has marked, corrected and given detailed feedback and targets on the piece. In this time students make corrections, address their targets, re-draft and improve their work. They reflect individually and as a whole class on what makes a successful piece of work. We may not use quite so many creative acronyms consistently across lessons at CVC but our students are now also very familiar with and competent in this style of feedback, correction and extension of their work.
2. Michaela Community School http://mcsbrent.co.uk/
Earlier in the year a group of colleagues visited Michaela and were taken aback by their approach to teaching and learning in MFL. Whilst we don’t want to repeat what has already been shared on this school by colleagues in the CVC blog ‘The Micheala Way’ we would like to just add our own experiences and views.
The zero tolerance on any form of low-level disruptive behaviour is apparent throughout. Students are silent in lessons and no minute of learning time is lost or wasted. When asked to track the teachers, students fold their arms and hang on the teacher’s every word.
We observed two year 7 French classes and the Micheala way of teaching and learning is really very different. Barry Smith, Head of Languages and Deputy Head, is certainly a charismatic and engaging character. He has 17 years of teaching experience at secondary schools, and has trained thousands of teachers across the UK in his role as a teaching & learning consultant. He has a unique ‘literacy first’ approach to language teaching and his enthusiasm and love of teaching, languages, and Michaela shine through in the classroom and when you talk to him.
Languages teaching and learning at Michaela could be summarised in the following ways:
- Lots of work on memorisation
- Students who are very confident in listening, speaking, reading and writing
- Students who sound French, with excellent pronunciation (including accents, silent letters and liaisons)
- A great deal of time spent analysing the written word and linking it to the spoken word
- The teaching of complex, authentic language
- Constant exposure to higher level language (a real mixture of proverbs, idioms, structures, tenses and topics)
- No choral repetition
- Reading aloud, and lots of it! – teacher reads out loud, the students read out loud, one at a time, the rest listening intently.
- Parallel text work- side by side English and French texts where every single word is translated directly
- The deconstruction and reconstruction of language.
- The use of extended texts
- Tests or quizzes using English and the initials that corresponded to the French translation
- Very little actual writing in some lessons – we didn’t see them pick up a pen once!
We were very impressed with the focus of all students and their impeccable work ethic. Their level of French, from memory, was impressive, both in terms of pronunciation and also in terms of variety of vocabulary, structures and tenses that they could use.
We felt however that this approach, although seemingly impressive in outcome so far, allowed for no individuality or creativity. All students were producing the exact same language, and at no time in lessons did individual personalities (other than that of the teacher!) shine through. It felt highly academic, and productive, yet also very repetitive and restrictive. Stuart said that this could be the basis for creativity in the future – i.e. a very strong basis and understanding of the rules of grammar, pronunciation and translations allows for pupils to be creative in the future.
We should, of course, have extremely high expectations of our students both in terms of behaviour and their attitude to learning (both in and out of school), yet we would hate for our amazing students’ individuality and originality to become dampened. Having said this, the pupils were a delight and are very happy at their school. They have character and enjoy school, and their achievements so far (the school only has years 7 and 8) appears exceptional.
Lunch time at Michaela was an experience in itself! After a short amount of time to themselves, outside, playing and letting their hair down, students then experience an extremely structured rest of their lunch break. It was lovely to see each student (assigned different roles) helping lay the table, serve the food and drinks, and clear away. This experience, called ‘family’ lunch fosters manners, respect and a sense of togetherness. All students eat a hot, tasty meal. They must engage in a discussion on the topic of the day, rather than social chit-chat whilst eating. We sat on tables with the students, they were delightful and equally as interested in us as we were in them. That did seem a bit short of time – if you don’t eat your lunch in the allocated time (incredibly short) then your food is taken away from you! At the end of lunch students give appreciation to members of staff and their peers who have done something helpful, thoughtful or inspiring that day. A nice touch and a very commendable activity.
An insightful and informative day, that has given us much to talk about and plenty to think about. Thanks to both schools for having us.