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Chris Curtis

Chris Curtis is an English teacher and head of department with over a decade’s experience in education. Chris is forever reflecting on which aspects of his teaching work best for his students and, as an avid reader and blogger, is a big believer in sharing practical ways to tackle difficult problems in the classroom.


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Publications by Chris Curtis

How to Teach: English

Written by Chris Curtis, How to Teach: English: Novels, non-fiction…

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The Law of Averages and Data Sponges

July 14 2019


Recently, my school has joined a MAT and it has been brilliant for sharing ideas, resources and systems. One of those great things has been the use of data. In particular, the use of averages.

English teachers, on average, shy away from data. We’d rather focus on the words in a data report than comment on the strange things called numbers. Yes, I know there has been a drop in PP students, but ‘on target’ is an interesting phrase and has so many connotations. Let’s discuss each connotation in depth.

Nights before a meeting, I’d have sleepless nights and panic over not picking up something in the data soup. My biggest fear has always Ofsted or any other person asking me data questions. How many students in Year 8 are not on target? Panic sets in. I am impressed with the data sponges: people who can regurgitate figures off the top of their head. I look terrible in comparison. Umm…err…I think…let me just check this sheet… ummm…errr. I have it here. In fact, let me tell you about this book I have recently read.

I admit I will never be a data sponge, but over the last few years I am starting to ‘love’ data and help students to appreciate data surrounding English. And no, I don’t mean the number of nouns in a sentence or the number of compound sentences in a chapter of ‘Holes’ (a billion by the way).



We do lots of tests in English.

We test spellings, weekly.

We test vocabulary every term.

We test core knowledge at Christmas, Easter and in the summer.

We count the books students have read each term.



They are all low stakes tests, but we test them regularly. We have used this system for years and it all feeds into our system. Before this year, we tended to just fuel our data system with them. Here you go data monster. It is feeding time. Yummy data for you. An assessment point is just dinner time for the data monster.   

This year, I have started to use average scores and year averages.

At parents’ evening, we provided parents with the year average and the student’s average. I was able to tell a parent if their child was average in spelling, below average in reading and above average in knowledge and vocabulary. It was a really useful way for me to explain where a child was and for the parents where the child in relation to the year group.  

We live in the age of random numbers. Parents are confused with the SATs score. Is 104 good? Parents are confused with GCSE scores. Is 5 good? The national collective haven’t picked up on what these things in education mean. What, fundamentally, parents want is to know that their child is happy and performing well and that depends on the context? Using averages, I was able to tell a parent how their child did in our particular context.

Before people panic that I had reduced a child to a numbers, I did also speak to the parents of child number 2432 about their child’s natural flair for adjectives, explaining how he often uses an average of 7.8 in each paragraph, which is high for a student of his age.  Nah, only joking. I will talk about a child’s personality. How the child has personality trait 12386 and 4453!

An average score puts the data in context. We throw tests out like confetti.  However, there is a natural assumption that students have to get full marks all the time. Students think they need full marks. Parents think they need full marks. And this thought process is damaging. Success, in this case, is unrealistic. For the weak student who finds spelling difficult, he/she knows that he never will be successful. Especially, when success is 100%.  When you change the bar to averages, you change the success criteria for the weakest and for the majority of students.

Let’s say the average in spelling in Year 8 is 8 out of 10. A student who gets 7/10 knows that success is within his /her reach. Students with a score less than 8 are closer to success than they were before, when full marks is seen as the epitome of success.

When you factor in averages, you are ensuring more students feel successful or, importantly, feel like success is achievable. We’d all like 100%, but when you look at the GCSE exams you’ll see how rare it is that students get full marks. An emphasis on greatness and perfection is ideal, but we deal with young emotional people. The bar should be high, but within reach.

The GCSEs factor in averages. I couldn’t look at piece of work and tell you if it is a Grade 4, 5 or 6. I could do some marking and grade conversions, but could I tell you if it was average, above average or below average. And, with the grade boundaries fluctuating and varying, we need to think in averages. If you scored above average, then you are likely to get a Grade 4 or more. The exam boards work on national averages, so we should looking at averages.

I am now looking at the whole data for the year and I have a yearly average for each group. I have data from this year, which we can use with teachers next year. None of this getting to know you period. We can tell teachers what each students’ average for spelling, vocabulary, knowledge and reading is. Teachers can have that in mind when teaching the students in September. It is also the starting point for next year. For the teacher. For the student. For the parents. From year to year, we lose the impetus because students have different teachers. It takes teachers a good bit of time to understand a student fully. This way the teacher can know things about the student and work on building that relationship with them from the word go. Plus, if a student isn’t reading in Year 8, then I want that to be a priority in Year 9 and I want it to be a priority from the start.

I am still not a data sponge, but I have found the use of averages as head of department to be quite transformational. Averages have helped me make sense of the data and helped me to communicate it to staff and students. We are often led down the path of on target and not on target, but that doesn’t help to dig down into things. We need specifics. Now, I know that a certain year needs a stronger focus on spelling and some year groups need to work on reading. I can address the wider issues with clarity and precision.

An average helps us to understand the context.

Thanks for reading,

Xris

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The Fight: understanding parents of SEND students

June 30 2019


I suppose I am in unique position because I understand this situation most as I am one of those parents. Before I carry on, I will say that I am not a reflection of all parents. Just the ones like me.

Teachers have empathy by the buckets. It is probably one of our key defining features. We can regularly empathise within seconds of a situation. In fact, if it was an Olympic sport, we’d regularly win as a nation. The problem, for me, is the difference between empathy and understanding. Teachers can easily empathise with a parent of SEND student, but rarely will they understand them.

I had an interesting conversation with a teacher this week and it highlighted this discrepancy. We were chatting about a situation and I simply said: ‘Do you know this parent has had to fight at every step of their life as a parent?’ The teacher simply didn’t see the situation like I do. I have lived it.

Parents of SEND students have had to fight for everything. The world would like to suggest that having a disability is one of ease, luxury and copious amounts of monetary benefits. It isn't. It is about a lot of conflict and fighting.

Being a father to child with Cerebral Palsy, I have lived with 'the fight for' over a decade. Everything is a battle. My wife and I are constantly fighting to get things done or organised. A battle that parents with non SEND children don’t have.  These are just some of the battles.

The fight to get an EHCP.

The fight to keep the EHCP and it not change.

The fight to get access to specialists.

The fight to get a blue badge.

The fight to get my daughter to do the activities that others do.

The fight to get regular physio.

The fight to get appropriate splints / wheelchair access. 

The fight to get a TA.

The fight to get a TA trained in physio.

The fight to keep the same TA.

The fight to get my daughter to be in the right group and not just the group where the TA is needed.

The fight to get systems right for my daughter.

The fight to get schools to see things from my daughter’s perspective.

The fight to get teachers to view my daughter academically rather than physically.  



That fighting takes time and it is the main reason my wife works part-time, because along with all that there are hundreds of appointments, meetings and check-ups.

There is also the conflict.


The conflict of being the parent who has to park close to the school for physical access when the others have to pack elsewhere.

The conflict of being the first on an aeroplane, when others have had to queue.

The conflict of having a parking space closer to the shop when others have had to wait for ages to find a spot.

The conflict of having preferential treatment in society.



I’d love to say that people are lovely and kind to a person with a wheelchair and people with a disability, but that wouldn't always be true.  People are kind, but every so often you get people who are not so kind. I find that people are not happy to wait when the reason the transport bus isn’t moving is because they are waiting for me with a wheelchair.

We get looks, stares and silent judgements.  Or, people will say something.

It is amazing how in some situations people forget common sense and human decency.

Then, you face all this alone. The fight. The conflict. There are not lots of us. My wife and I have dealt with all this on our own, because we live in a rural part of the world and there isn’t anybody nearby. We know of no one in the same situation as us. There isn’t a group of us in the playground. In fact, my daughter is the only child with Cerebral Palsy in the school. So, we are in a club of one. We have a clique of one.

So, when you talk and have dealings with a parent with an SEND child, think of the fight, conflict and social unease they have had to deal with. Think of how they have dealt with this on their own. School is just another thing to cause fight or conflict. Understand this and you’ll understand them and their children better. We don’t need emotions or sympathy. In fact, I’d be bold to say that the last thing I want from anybody is pity. Pity helps nobody. My sharing of this blog is not about garnering any emotion. I’d stuff your pity in your face like a big cream pie, if you so much have an ounce of pity in your heart after reading this.

Understand.

Understand a parent and you understand the situation better.

Understand a parent and you understand a child.  


I will leave you with one little bit of understanding. A perfect example of what made my week. My daughter had a transition day in her new secondary school this week. During the day she had a PE lesson. The teacher told her she could go on any of the machines in the fitness suite, including the running machine. My daughter went on the machine and she loved it. She then told me afterwards, ‘people would never have let me do this in my school.’ Two types of caring people. One understood. One empathised.

Empathy can be hindering and damaging in a school. We have to control it as it dominates understanding. Empathy smothers children. Empathy stops things. Empathy stops people from pushing themselves to the limits. Caring can stop us from truly helping a child. It might seem like some backwards logic, but schools often compensate the difficulty of a situation with loads of compassion.

My daughter, when grown-up, doesn’t want pity; she wants you to understand that she finds it difficult to walk and that stairs are the work of Satan. My grown-up daughter, like me, would take the piss out of you, because bleeding hearts and emotions are not going to get her up those bloody stairs.

Thanks for reading,

Xris

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