The Excel Academy

Confessions of an English Teacher. Work hard. Think hard. Excel.

By Steph Dudley

Education is a challenging, but extremely rewarding, profession.

The adventure begins with the studying: endless hours of essays and slaving towards a deadline. Overnight this snowballs into teacher training, copious amounts of coffee, trying to adapt to the school world and balancing teacher life on a 90% teacher timetable. The pot of gold at the end: finally capturing the golden snitch – the qualification, the hard work that paid off and the gratification of being called teacher which is almost as rewarding as being 11 at the release of the Harry Potter franchise and desperately seeking the, ‘you’re a wizard, Harry’ status.

Despite still waiting for our Hogwarts’ acceptance letter seventeen plus years later, becoming a teacher is still that: Rewarding. Although I’m no wizard, as teachers we do hold the magic and the spark that allows students to learn. What is significant is that the teaching profession is ever evolving, as is the pedagogy behind it. The one thing that can be said about the profession is that it isn’t monotonous, that’s for sure.

At the root of it all, first and foremost, learning is about thinking and Mead got it right when she said:

‘Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.’

Although this seems like a most obvious statement, the premise of this can get lost in a career life of consistently being busy. Fundamentally, students need to be thinking.

They need to be thinking hard.

How do I know that they’re thinking hard? What does this even mean?

In reflecting on my own practice, especially with Y11, I decided to strip it back and I wanted them to be thinking so hard that I could almost see the cogs in motion. Writing essays or notes does not always cut it, I’m afraid.

Thus, in embracing Excel @ Thinking, I embarked on a journey of helping the students to make connections. I removed the association of exercise books being for lots of writing and simply gave students a list of words associated with the topic. I made sure that these words were somewhat challenging; rather than simply referring to characters such as Pip or Estella, I incorporated themes and structural devices such as social mobility and bildungsroman.

The role of the students was that they all had sixteen words and sixteen blank mosaics. Taken from an excellent strategy observed in MFL, students had to link the sixteen words together ensuring that each word was linked to the previous one in the chain. The challenge was then that students had to guess the tile that did not quite fit or the link that was tenuous; for instance, using communism for An Inspector Calls.

On the blank tiles, students had to justify the links that they had made and, as part of my plenary, the students would carousel and circulate, looking at what connections other students had made and particularly looking for more obscure connections.

But, what if the words you have given are just too challenging, you ask?

Whilst we want students to work in the struggle zone, to develop their ideas and thought process, we also don’t want them to give up and inevitably end up escalating into an ‘All by myself’ Bridget Jones moment quick and fast. A solution to this was to create a cheat sheet, which would have the definitions of major words that students did not understand, or hint questions.

Despite knowing that this was going to be an experiment, I thrived in the thought of trying something new. The best part of this is that all the task really required was one A4 sheet and 32 tiles that would be cut up by the students (clearly avoiding the ‘miss my envelope is missing three tiles’ saga when you stayed up until 11pm cutting them out.)

What I have noticed is that I really did see the students thinking. They were able to articulate the connections that they made, but also speak up when the connections were not obvious.

Can I get a connection?

Another way I have trialled this is in Y11 Literature tuition, but like cranking it up to 11 on the old Tesla, I amended the task to enhance the challenge.

Students received thirty-two blank tiles and had to fill in words associated with their topic of choice: either Great Expectations, Animal Farm or Macbeth. They had to link all sixteen words to ensure that they did, in fact, link.

The eight students then swapped and once the words were jumbled, they had to make connections with somebody else’s topic words on a topic that they had not chosen. Once completed, they used the blanks to either justify their connections or add in further themes.

A successful week in trialling an Excel @ thinking strategy. Although this works in English, it can be adapted for most subjects and the students loved it, as it also catered for them progressing at different rates.

All it takes is a little bit of thinking, a big picture and hardly any resources to facilitate this happening. Paper resources don’t always equal progress.

Steve Jobs said:

 “You have to work hard to get your thinking clear to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Wise advice for us all, I say. Preach to that!

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