I have a small but lively bottom set year 10 group who have found the demands of the new English Literature GCSE, well, demanding. I took the group on when I joined the school in January and they were unsettled (having already had two different teachers before me from September to December). The group’s confidence was low and they had slipped into some pretty bad habits.
One particular challenge with the group was how to manage the start of lessons. We have a five minute warning bell which means that some students came to the lesson immediately and others arrived any time within that five minutes (and a few would arrive late). If I were to give instructions as students arrived I’d have to keep repeating myself but if I waited until everyone was present the early birds would be at a loose end and the devil makes work for idle hands…
I wanted to build the group’s confidence as well as their knowledge and understanding of the key texts but I also wanted to have much more focused and productive beginnings to our lessons. To help achieve these aims I introduced the 5-a-Day Starter (an idea inspired by a Teachmeet style CPD session at my school).
How does it work?
Essentially the idea is to begin every lesson with 5 questions. I like to use a mix of recall, comprehension and analysis questions. I’ve played about with this as we’ve gone along and have started to introduce multiple choice questions (inspired by what I’ve read from Daisy Christodoulou and Joe Kirby). I’ve read a fair bit recently about spaced learning and trying to beat Ebbginhaus’ forgetting curve (I’d recommend reading David Didau’s post on making learning deliberately difficult here) and I therefore include questions which are based on the previous lesson and others based on what we learnt weeks or months ago. I also include some extension questions.
So far this year we’ve studied a selection of the Power and Conflict poems, ‘An Inspector Calls’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. Here’s some of the questions that I’ve given my year 10s so far:
‘If you don’t come down hard on these people they’ll soon be asking for the earth!’ Who, from ‘An Inspector Calls’, says this?
What does Fin de siècle mean? How does it link to ‘Jekyll and Hyde’?
‘The evil side of my nature…was less robust and less developed than the good. In the course of my life, which had been, after all, nine-tenths a life of effort, virtue and control, it had been much less exercised and much less exhausted. And hence, as I think, it came about that Edward Hyde was so much smaller, slighter and younger than Henry Jekyll.’
Why does Jekyll think that Hyde was so small?
‘Our brains ache, in the merciless iced winds that knive us’
What technique is underlined? What is the effect?
I’ve found it tricky to get the challenge of these starter questions just right (sometimes the whole class only get a couple of marks) but I’m getting there.
Impact: Starts of lessons
I was concerned that doing the same thing at the beginning of every lesson was a bad idea but, because we do the 5-a-Day starter EVERY lesson, students now expect to begin the lesson by quickly correcting any answers they need to from the previous lesson (the answers are displayed on the board) and then completing their new 5-a-Day starter. Because this is routine, the students are in the habit of ‘getting in and getting on’ whether they arrive on the first bell or any time after. For a group like mine there seems to be a real comfort in routine and familiarity.
It has had a dramatic effect on how focused the learning environment is during those first 5-10 minutes. Rather than being a bit messy and wasted, the time is being put to good use and sets the tone for the rest of the lesson.
Impact: Knowledge and Understanding
The process of recalling prior learning is helping things to stick – students are more confident with key plot/character details, correctly identifying devices and even remembering quotations. If we keep going, I’m hopeful that these things will get stickier and stickier. After all, by this time next year they’ll be taking two closed book exams on their three set texts and a collection of poetry: they have to know a lot.
These starters are also illuminating to me what has been retained and what needs to be revisited – particularly important given that I didn’t teach them before Christmas. I’m picking up where there are misconceptions and I’m able to address them quickly – it takes a few minutes to mark the starters and I can address any needs the following lesson.
My year 10s had pretty low expectations of what they could achieve. Most have a target grade 4 but didn’t necessarily believe they were capable of that. When I took them on they felt hard done by that they were getting yet another English teacher and also didn’t feel like could ‘do’ English. Some were slipping into failing to try so they didn’t risk trying and failing.
The 5-a-Day starters aren’t easy for my class. I tell them that the questions are challenging because then when they do manage to get 5/5 they can feel suitably pleased with themselves. I don’t believe that the key to building confidence is setting the bar lower – I think it’s important to set the bar high and show students what they can do. I’m purposely manipulating the level of challenge to ensure that getting full marks isn’t too easy and we’ve got a chart to track when they get 5/5.
Now the class want to get full marks in the starter which therefore relies on them working hard to recall, understand and analyse. Some of my year 10s weren’t sure to begin with that they’d be able to remember a quotation for the exam but are now intentionally committing quotations to memory to boost their chances of getting full marks in the starter. I’m pretty pleased about that.
Here’s a link to a folder with a selection of 5-a-Day starters for you to use/adapt:
Here’s a link to another folder with a selection of PowerPoint slides of 5-a-Day starters for you to use/adapt (just hide the answers in the first slide for students and then reveal). This is also a much paper-friendly option.