Tom Sellick teaches English at the Colegio Internacional de Sevilla San Francisco de Paula
When the drive towards the final exams is underway, students and teachers alike are aware of three facts at this stage of the year:-
1) - an idea of how to successfully navigate the exam papers will be the main focus for these final months.
2) - there are only so many times we, the teachers, can say plan your answer and read the question; which leads me to...
3) - there are still several opportunities left for students to choose not to plan their answer and misread the question.
Cutting an exam paper up is always a good start in the move to rid the dreaded boring-practice-exam-style lesson (not to mention the mountain of marking that these lessons produce). The problem with going for the scissors is that if these lessons and accompanying documents aren’t cemented (or glued) with some memorable element then the Valuable Lessons will be forgotten (or these documents will begin their six-month slide-and-scrunch down to the bottom of the student’s school bag).
A cheap, easy-to-set-up, and enjoyable/important lesson around this time could be this carousel lesson on Paper 2 exam skills.
It's very easy to set up and full of that good stuff like peer assessment (without over-egging the whole thing), exposure to Assessment Objectives (in a subtle, jargonless way) and, as is important in the teaching world of 2017, a splash of technology!
Here's my best Delia-style ingredients/method explanation.
What you need…
1) Old exam Paper 2 with the 5 tasks on.
2) Pens and A4 pieces of paper (one for each student)
3) Computers – they can complete this part at home if need be.
4) Access to Google Drive – for you and for them.
5) 5 students minimum - although less students just means less tasks. No big deal.
Note: the lesson was conducted with 10 students of similar ability. A second run through with a mixed ability group was also successful, but to ensure the full completion of the task and the successfulness of the lesson, some nudges (made by the teacher) were needed for the weaker students.
6) Some music. Why not?
What you do…
> You will be in possession of Paper 2 SL or HL from a previous year.
> You must cut the exam paper up – leaving the students with one task each.
> In terms of the classroom space that is needed,I recommend that the desks must be separated (to prevent collaboration of ideas). You will give each student their task (remember, 'their task' is just 1 of the 5 options for Section A) and a separate A4 piece of paper.
(Note: I have trialled this lesson with the HL and thus the Section B Personal Response section – it works ok, but with the nature of this response, it makes the task of picking up someone else’s ideas a little more difficult later on in the lesson. But definitely doable).
> Your initial instructions are simple: Tell the students to plan a response, using what they know about text-type conventions – in this plan, they may include structure, format information i.e bullet points or headline needed, etc. They must also plan their ideas out – this will include creating/inventing information or names and ordering their ideas into sections – intro, main body, conclusion etc. No prescribed way of planning ideas was given. I find that the more mistakes made by students in this first lesson, the better. Imagine a poor plan – or a confusing plan. This makes the writing of the task pretty much doomed to failure – not a lesson lost but their Valuable Lesson #1. Good Plans are imperative!
> Tell them that they have around 15/20 minutes to complete this plan.
> You now need to stop the students and get them to stand up. At this point, it is an idea to withdraw the original task text (cut out from the exam paper). This is the first test to see how good the plan is. They will move to the next student’s desk and sit down at a new plan.
> Students now have 10/15 minutes to follow this plan and make a start writing the response – ensuring that they STICK TO THE PLAN, even if this plan is inadequate, confusing, vague, or if it includes ideas that they personally would not have used. They must make the best job of it – remember that the original task explanation has now been withdrawn.
> You will need to stop them again (after 10-15 minutes or so) and moved in the same direction. They will move to the next student’s desk and now be confronted with a new task, a new plan and the beginnings of the response itself. Ensure that they read the task carefully to ensure the plan has been followed up to that point and take over the reins.
> They then have 10/15 minutes to continue the task response before being moved again. Repeat process one more time.
** In order to add some exam-style drama, be strict with the time, in the form of a clear timer or just by shouting that their time is up – this is Valuable Lesson #2: keeping track of time is important in the exam.
** Remember that this lesson was completed with 10 students split into two groups of five. Both groups had the same exam paper. Imagine being a student in one of these groups – by close of play, you have planned for one text type, let’s say a BLOG ENTRY ... read and written a different text type, perhaps it was a SPEECH/ TALK (all the while comparing what makes a good plan and, I guess, assessing the adequacy of the intro) ... before moving on to read the plan and first half of an ESSAY – this process will have been repeated two or three times. The ‘peer assessment’ is subtle but effective. In enforcing the need to stick to the plan, better students may notice errors in format, or errors in what has already been written. Weaker students will be supported by a different student’s ideas and will have something to go off.
After the lesson...
Glueing it all down. A sharing document, such as those found with Google Drive documents, is now the perfect place to store this completed work and move forward with homeworks, off-shoot lessons and further discussion.
One idea is this – ensure that each student leaves with a piece of work they have had nothing to do with (but still the piece of work is from their group of five). With this Something New, their task is to type this up exactly as was intended on the piece of paper – including glaring spelling errors, grammatical slips. They type it into the document that you have provided (allowing for you to easily put this work together later on). This document can then be printed off into a pack of examples, or shared electronically – although the printing and annotating is my favoured option.
The beauty of such a Google Drive document is that it can be duplicated and edited by all hands. The teacher, simply by copying the typed-up scripts into another document, can enable students to improve and edit the work at a later date/in a later lesson. They can make surface level changes or radically change the work – but, they will realise when doing this: what about the plan? We need a plan!
Advantages of the carousel approach
Students must plan. As the lesson unfolds, and depending on the group dynamic, the poor plans are quickly exposed. This will allow a follow-up lesson with some voting for the best type of plan (even though we have stressed that the plan is individual and that there is no set way to get the ideas on paper, I think some fundamental aspects have to be there). The infamous plans that reads: “Introduction: introduce ideas; Paragraph 1: expand on ideas; Paragraph 2: further expand on ideas”, will quickly be identified as pointless. Best of all, it is identified by them themselves. Much better than our hollow threat that “if you don’t plan you will not achieve a high level”.
Students cover all text types. The students this time had some experience of the conventions prior to the lesson – an interesting variation being if the students are less certain of the conventions – perhaps one for earlier in the course calendar!
Students are taken out of the comfort zone of their favourite and strongest two or three text types.
Students peer-assess without the fanfare. Although a user of peer-assessment, I find that often it churns out false and sterilized responses when students are marking their classmates/ friends for skill and effort. With this approach, they are judging plans and intros more organically – because the plans and the work completed prior will directly affect how well each student will be able to complete the task.
Students improve their writing style - their awareness of what these “cohesive devices” are or could be, how to best structure their work, their spelling, their use of punctuation, etc. without the need for red pens and conventional feedback. They will be able to take note from other students doing these things well or not so well.
Teachers will be able to assert feedback without the need for red pens. A Welcome Break for us from meticulous correcting of exam scripts and of students making similar mistakes, surely?
Teachers will be able to explore the mark scheme and make sense of it with their students – think of Criteria A, B, and C for Paper 2. Now, imagine that your two groups of 5 students have completed these tasks. You will be left with two example pieces written for the Cultural Diversity option, two written for the Health option and so on. Or rather, two blogs, two sets of guidelines, etc. The weighting of the criteria can be explored in coming to conclusions on which is the better task of the two produced (by themselves!).
I asked students to think: "If I could buy one of these two answers and submit it as my own in the May exam, which one would I buy?… and why!" This leads to some fantastic discussions on the importance of format, clarity of message and use of language. Akin to a boxing match, I asked the students to break their decision down into three rounds. Which response has the better, more appropriate use of language? Which one carries the message in the best way? Which format is the most correct? Perhaps it is that the better linguists win on two rounds but the format has been forgotten or confused with another text type. Failures can be traced back to the plan – and thus highlighting the importance of the plan. Or perhaps during the change-over of personnel, the message was confused and therefore we will understand the importance of cohesion, clarity and paragraph order.
This carousel lesson worked very well and it can be repeated several times before the exam. I think of it best as being a Heavy Lesson delivered with a Light Touch. These Assessment Objectives and mark schemes can be loaded with ambiguities, at times. But by introducing this element of competition (between the two groups of 5), or perhaps more importantly, the feeling of collaboration and inclusiveness, students will learn a lot and enjoy the unusual process of making an exam answer in these groups. They have an hour and a half in the exam. There are no excuses not to make a wonderful, understandable plan. With this, they can then get up and around 400 words of a clear, interesting, detailed and correct piece of writing. The follow up lesson proves this switch in focus towards a good plan and by the time the exam comes along – they should be able to win all three rounds and score highly for criteria A, B and C.