Posted by: markhowell101 | August 6, 2011

Visit to London sports stadiums

On 22nd July 2011 we visited Wembley Stadium, Wimbledon and the new Olympic site. In the coming days I will blog about my thoughts on how the Olympic Park might change Stratford (geography case study style) but for now I thought I would just post a few photos from the trip.

Posted by: markhowell101 | August 6, 2011

Anticipating my first results (properly)

As a student I never worried about exam results but as a teacher I have quickly found that I get very apprehensive about how my students do. Having now been at my school for 2 years my first meaningful results day is approaching and I felt I would reflect on the 2 years before I see the results. Whilst I had a year 11 group last year I inherited them half way through year 11 and whilst they did well and I was able to take some of the congratulations for this, clearly much of the credit needs to go to my predecessor. This time my GCSE students have been with me for the entire 2 years and it would be nice to build on the success of last year.

Initially the signs for this group were not so great, in terms of both work ethic in year 10 and in terms of ability they are just slightly below my previous group and so I had expected their results in the controlled assessment and DME to be slightly worse. However the DME results were reasonable and after 2 months of hard work on DME’s the results in January were outstanding (40% A* and A and only 4 resits needed, will take that any day) so I am hopeful that this performance will continue into the January exam. We also worked hard on the final aspects of the course through the last 2 terms and did a lot of really productive revision.

I hope the results are good as almost half of them are looking to continue Geography on at AS Level and I feel like they deserve to do well. Its also not often I say this but I feel like I deserve a good set of results too, I feel like I got my teaching just right for this group over the 2 years and have really maximised their knowledge, understanding and exam know how. This was confirmed to me in the last week of term when I received notification that my GCSE group had nominated me for a national teaching award. Whilst I was so pleased with this it means nothing if the results are not good.

I have had a week now to have a good look through the first OCR B exam in full on the new specification and thought I would reflect how I felt about it as a paper and how it matched up with the material previously available, the information gained at the OCR day I went to in London and with the spec / official text book.

My first impression of the exam was relief. It had been my belief throughout most of these 2 years that the format would allow students to choose between questions on rivers and questions on coast, between questions on population and questions on settlement and between questions on climatic hazards and questions on tectonic hazards. Having taught population and settlement and tectonics and climatic in equal measure this gave my students the opportunity to choose the easier set of questions or the ones which suited them better. However, due to doing our controlled assessment on coasts we had spent roughly twice as much time on this topic than we spent on rivers. I had thus suggested strongly that my students should answer the coasts questions. Clearly the nature of always doing the coasts controlled assessment means my students will always favour this over rivers, however, I learned late on in the process from a colleague that OCR had told them that the board reserved the right to set 2 of the same type of questions and I therefore spent a lot of time working on rivers stuff in the run up to the exam. It makes sense for the board to do this to stop unscrupulous teachers just teaching half the course in lots of detail and directing students towards only the questions they have studied. That said I think it is unlikely that they would ever do this simply because it would polarize results. By setting only rivers questions they potentially put at a disadvantage all those who did human or coastal controlled assessments. Only by setting questions on rivers, coasts, population and settlement do they ensure that all students have a fair crack at the area they have spent probably most time on and have experienced fieldwork it.

The exam turned out as I initially thought with a question on each of the 6 topics included (with questions of tectonics and climatic hazards, population and settlement and rivers and coasts kept apart) but I will not bank on this every year, making sure my students are prepared for every eventuality.

The first section got students to choose between rivers and coasts with similar questions set for both (incidentally all 32 of my students did rivers). The opening questions on both disciplines were fairly standard map reading and interpretation exercises for up to 4 marks. I think it is very likely that the map skills will be a fixture of the rivers and coasts section in future papers and will make sure that students can identify some river / coasts features on maps in future (obviously this can’t be the case in 2012 as rivers and coasts are the DME options and will not be in the exam). Both sets of questions also featured a 4 marks describe with the aid of a diagram question where students had to explain a features origin, again fairly standard. The coasts case study was fairly predictable for me as students have covered the natural features of a coastline in their C/A and I therefore was confident that management would be the topic of the exam case study. I would anticipate that this will be the case in the majority of years that the terminal exam will ask the opposing question to the question set in the C/A and will therefore alternate annually. I was glad my students were doing coasts as I felt the rivers case study was tricky. In the spec students are asked to know about 2 case studies of flooding (MEDC and LEDC), understanding 3 things about each: the causes, consequences and management. In the specimen papers and practice questions the case studies had always asked for 2 out of the 3 aspects, for example causes and management and so I felt it was tricky to expect students to respond to just 1 of the 3 elements, in this case the management. Something to consider in future.

On balance I felt the human questions were the most straightforward with half being on population (pop pyramids, changes in pop, links between development and pop, ageing pop and pop management) and the other half being on settlement (urbanisation, squatter settlements, counter-urbanisation and changes to retail provision). My students almost all answered the population question on the basis that we had a couple of pretty memorable case studies they could use for the long question. Students felt that both sets of questions were pretty reasonable and straightforward with no surprises. This was a relief as there were no pop and settle questions on the specimen paper provided and neither were there any on last years short course paper as these topics are not in the short course. At least now we have some questions to use as mocks and in class tests which look like the real thing. I am torn on whether to expect pop and settle to be separate every year as the topics do cross over more than the physical ones and it would be pretty reasonable to mix up the questions. That said both topics are controlled assessment options and therefore students doing human fieldwork ought to have the same opportunity to attempt questions on their area of most knowledge.

The third section covered the 2 natural hazards options and again this was split as expected with the first set on climatic hazards (specifically drought) and the second set on tectonics (volcanoes). My students mostly opted for the questions on volcanoes but most felt they would have been ok to answer the drought questions without any trouble. There were no specific questions on earthquakes or tropical storms, although case studies were open so that students could use case studies of these hazards if they wanted to. It remains to be seen whether the exams will always focus on one of the hazards in each category or whether in future they might look to mix up questions on say droughts and tropical storms or even droughts and earthquakes for example.

Overall I was pleased with the exam and really pleased that I seem to have gone about teaching and assessing the course over the 2 years in a way which prepared the students well for the final exam. Hopefully the results will be what I expect in August.

Posted by: markhowell101 | May 14, 2011

Meaningful revision in class

I am someone who didn’t get revision going through school and as a result didn’t do enough (in fact doing almost none). It is therefore then not surprising that I underachieved at GCSE and A-level dong enough to get by but in reality had to go to college during my year out to improve my A-levels to get onto a decent uni course. It was only at university where I discovered what worked for me and the only way revision worked for me was hour after hour in the silent room at Plymouth University library reading and writing practice essays through exam season. This hard work paid off and I did very well in my degree.

Revision season has therefore been hard for me in both PGCE and NQT years as I have struggled to help students revise in the best way possible. To expect them to revise in the way I did for uni would not be appropriate for many of them but I want to find a way to get them all doing something. Thankfully one success has been the podcasts which all of my classes have downloaded (new Manor Geog Pod on the way) and all have listened to which if January’s results for me were anything to go by this has been a good result. My struggles have come in class with trying to create a focussed environment where students revise the right sort of things and can improve exam technique without it being too dry which might switch some students off altogether.

This was my problem last year where with the majority of classes I encouraged students to sit and read through notes or text books in close to silence and threw occasional past papers at them. Whilst this worked for some, a great number did not gain a great deal from this and though my results were good last year I felt this was not as a result of the 2 or 3 weeks before the exam in which I felt learning had not been maximised.

This year I feel much more positive about the experience and hopefully the results in August will affirm my higher expectations. With all of my exam groups I have 100 minute lessons which allow me to do a few tasks. I have been starting each lesson with a pub quiz style quick fire questions on a part of the course spec (I teach on the AQA B Religious Studies SPEC, AQA Geography A-level and OCR B Geography GCSE spec) then depending on what questions students answer badly they then attempt different revision tasks. So for example if they did badly at questions 1 to 5 they do the population revision task I have set and if they do badly at questions 6-10 they do the settlement revision task. This quiz style intro to lessons has been really fun with prizes and a nice relaxed end of the year kind of feel, a nice break from a lot of the heavy revision I know is going on elsewhere. It takes maybe 20-30 minutes out of my 100 and I then get them doing a revision task for the middle 30-45 minutes. This I make sure is more focussed and addresses areas which have been identified as weaknesses in the quiz. The final half hour or so is given over to exam practice where I set prior exam questions and they answer in timed, exam conditions. We then peer assess these at the end with students reading out answers and us discussing the marking of them.

This method for me has been head and shoulders better than last years approach and I can really see their exam answers improving lesson by lesson. For me they have been a lot more focussed and gained more in the 45 minutes or so directed revision time this year than 100 minutes of unstructured stuff last year. Hopefully the results will show this improved approach and then I can use this method for future years. Lets just hope it doesnt take me as long to find a method that works in the class as it took for me to find a personal method that worked.

Posted by: markhowell101 | April 25, 2011

My marking hell

As discussed previously in this blog there are many things in teaching I feel I do a decent job at. There are many things which I feel I don’t do well at but persevere with because I can see why I need to be better at them and therefore want to improve. I find it easy to motivate myself to do these things as I can visualise an end result which is of benefit to me and my students. However, when it comes to marking books I find motivation a difficult thing to muster up. Even writing this blog is being done as a way of delaying the inevitable stack of marking that needs doing by tomorrow.

Now marking assessments and tests and coursework I don’t mind as I genuinely enjoy assessing work and trying to make a case for a student getting a C instead of a D or seeing a key stage 3 student suddenly show a big improvement in their understanding. I also find it easy to focus on this kind of marking and find it easy to offer feedback on how students can improve as its simply a case of thinking how can they take it to the next level. I also do a lot of peer and self assessing and I am aware that is really good practice when done well which I do. This does mean that there is less to mark for me when I take books in for marking (all books are marked in a 2 week cycle at my school)

However, the problem for me is marking books. This year my school has made a big thing out of marking (it was an area which let us down during last OFSTED and with another approaching they want it fixed) and this has meant a number of scrutinise of our practice. Whilst I have done ok in these scrutinise it is clear to me that this is an aspect of my practice which needs improving when compared to many other elements of being a teacher.

Firstly, I do struggle to keep up with a 2 week marking cycle. Whilst I don’t slip miles from that, if I am honest I am probably nearer a 3 week rotation. I find the problem comes when trying to take in books around setting homework or revision for tests or work to be completed at home and then taking books in when you don’t see the class for a couple of days and you have a couple of free evenings. All this makes it difficult to keep with the cycle.

My second problem is my focus when marking books. I used to mark whilst having the TV or music on and whilst this made it less of a chore I was very easily distracted by these things. When I have a stack of 32 books all saying more or less the same thing I will openly admit that it can become quite tedious and I look for distractions (like writing this blog). I have tried to break it down and do ten at a time but then the problem is often you can’t get a class set done in a night.

My final problem is what to write. As previously stated I am ok at informing students on how to improve assessments but in everyday classwork I find it difficult beyond making statements about presentation or completion of tasks set. This means that a student who does complete all work and the book is neat will often not get any comments beyond well done.

Now at the start of this blog I said that I was happy to keep working at aspects of my practice where I can see that improvement would pay dividends. However with marking I sometimes struggle to see what I am aiming for by continue to try to improve my practice. Partly because I think that 80% of students don’t read everyday comments (they look at grades and assessment feedback but not sure they always read your day to day marking) and partly because the only way to improve would be to spend more time marking books. As previously discussed in this blog I spend a lot of time planning lessons (I think more than the average teacher) to ensure that they are all high quality and I already feel like during term time I am pretty much maxed out with school work and struggle to keep a life balance at times. Therefore to improve my marking I believe the quality of my lessons would suffer and that is not a price I have been willing to pay so far.

Having said all that I would love to improve and would really value the advice of anyone on how to improve my everyday marking and keep up with a 2 week rotation without spending lots and lots more time doing it and without losing the will to live through boredom.

Posted by: markhowell101 | April 11, 2011

Y12 trip to Lulworth

Just got back from a few days in Lulworth with year 12. Couldnt go and not post a few geography pictures taken. Outstanding part of the country and the geography there really is text book. Pictures of Old Harry and the dunes to follow.

Posted by: markhowell101 | April 2, 2011

Geographical enquiry at key stage 3

Having delivered the new OCR B enquiry controlled assessment last year I was struck by the lack of understanding of what an enquiry was and how to put one together shown by my year 11’s. Looking through our KS3 assessments at the end of last year it was clear to both me and my HoD why this was. We had very few enquiry tasks in the key stage 3 program of study and the ones we did offer were not enquiries in the truest form in that we gave the title and sourced the information and students just picked the info apart in order to answer the question. Clearly this sort of preparation does not gear students up for the GCSE enquiry tasks in the new courses. Whilst the title is dictated by the exam board, at GCSE students need to be able to research the required information for themselves.  

It was therefore decided that our assessments and therefore our schemes of work needed changing over the summer to include enquiry assessments and lessons which help develop enquiry skills and techniques. For me the biggest challenge was trying to give students the idea of what an enquiry was and how to put one together. I took my 2 year 9 groups as a sample of how to deliver this idea, believing them to be a good basis to build from as I teach top and bottom set. With both groups I spent one lesson at the start of the process exploring what an enquiry was using this excellent blog as the basis for these lessons.

Students used this video to establish a grounding of what an enquiry question was, what research needed to be done to reach a conclusion and we began to evaluate the quality of different research (video evidence, interviewing riders etc). At key stage 3 students can achieve a decent level by creating a good enquiry question, doing relevent research and reaching a valid conclusion. If they can begin to evaluate the evidence they start to push level 7 so for me the discussion of this video delivered all the concepts required even for the bottom set group who were even starting to display some level 7 evaluation skills.  A colleague of mine who watches a lot of rugby said she effectively delivered this lesson using the rugby bloodgate enquiry so pick something you know about and this should work.

From here I gave them a limited amount of background info about 2 earthquakes from 2010, Haiti and Chile and students started to generate their own enquiry questions (typically they came up with why did Haiti kill more people whilst Chile was more powerful on the Richter scale?). They then had to break that question apart into the various aspects that they would need to research in order to reach a valid conclusion. Again both groups were able to do this effectively although of course the lower ability needed more guidance on suitable questions and lines of enquiry.

To make an effective enquiry you will of course then need to allow to for them to openly research and this needs to be done ideally in a computer suite although it can be done at home but inevitably this leads to varying outcomes in terms of quantity and quality of research as is typical of homework. My colleague could not get access to computer so had to do hers this way and the outcomes for some students suffered due to lack of time spent on homework, perhaps they have learned for next time and the more important GCSE enquiry.

Finally I allowed time to write the assessment up in whatever format they chose, again in preparation for GCSE. Some whilst most chose a report style some chose powerpoints and others even enquired as to whether websites or podcasts were possible but time constraints meant this was difficult.

The outcome for both me and my colleague (not a geog specialist) was very good grades across 3 groups using this process. The key stage 3 curriculum levels means that if students understand what an enquiry requires they can easily access high level 6 and low level 7 if they are an able student. Hopefully in the long term the outcome is even more favourable and I hope that in 2 years my year 11’s will have a better idea of what is expected of them in a GCSE enquiry.

Posted by: markhowell101 | March 13, 2011

Floating teaching and the Japanese tsunami

The events in Japan over the past few days have been shocking. Whilst I have had a busy few days and have seen little news coverage I have of course seen some of the amazing and shocking footage of the tsunami. What has struck me is that this is a disaster in a major MEDC country and therefore there has been high quality footage shot by people experiencing the disaster and filming with phones etc. There has also been an array of helicopter and news crew footage which films the event as it take place. I can’t remember a natural disaster with coverage like this and in many ways it reminds me of the scenes around 9/11 more than other natural disasters. When the previous tsunami, on boxing day 2004, hit in the Indian Ocean, there was limited TV footage and later footage that emerged was grainy. Certainly I never saw any live helicopter shots. I know that details are still becoming clear about the number of casualties and the numbers continue to rise with the nuclear plant issues but it seems this disaster will not have a death toll anywhere near as high as the terrible numbers in 2004.  In spite of this I dont remember the 2004 tsunami getting round the clock coverage on the news channels 4 days after the event, there simply was not the amount of footage to keep the news tickers going.

All this coverage meant that even as early as Friday this was all my students wanted to talk about. I am currently not teaching tectonics with any of my classes, having recently finished with year 9 and am about to start with both y10 and 11 but it seems to make sense to me and many other teachers I have spoken to strike while the iron is hot and deal with this while the students are impassioned about it. I therefore dropped 20 minutes from my lessons on Friday and will do so again on Monday to tackle what is going on in Japan. Issues as great as this I think are so significant that we should be able to float them into the curriculum and just step back from whatever is being done even if it is just for 20 minutes.

However, in the immediate hours after the event it is difficult to know how to resource a lesson on an event such as this for many reasons. Although clearly in the years that follow this will become a case study for many text books and revision guides, right now it seems senseless to trivialize it in this way. I decided the best approach was not to have them produce work of any kind but simply just to discuss what was going on. I of course opened up with revision on tectonics and we looked at the specifics of how this event was caused. This was followed by looking at video footage and images of Japan and discussing the scenes and issues which came out of this. The understanding of the causes and consequences and management of this event among the students was on a level you could never expect from teaching a cold and unknown to them case study. They engaged in a very high level conversation and strong differences of opinion emerged on how we should manage and recover from events like this. This contrasts greatly with teaching normal case studies where students need to learn facts about the event in order to answer exam questions.

Whilst you can never of course plan a floating curriculum, the ability to be flexible and teach reactionary and relevent issues creates some of the best learning I have experienced in quite a while. At technology improves our immediate coverage of global events such as this will improve and speed up and this will enable us to teach issues as soon as they arise. The students live in an age of immediacy where information spreads very quickly and interests seem to fade equally quickly, I think it is important that we as teachers do just a little to capitalise on their sometimes passing interests.

My thoughts of course go out to anyone who has been affected by these disasters and from the conversations I had on Friday the students of East Northamptonshire are thinking of you too.

Posted by: markhowell101 | March 10, 2011

Time for some positivity

Looking back over my blogs from the last 2 years I had the awful realisation that lots of them are quite negative towards me and my teaching. I think in many ways this reflects not just me but a great number of teachers that I know. We spend time dwelling on the negative things we do and forget all the positives. Someone recently said to me that if 99 good things happen to me in one day the one bad thing that happens will be the one I remember.

In light of a few events in my life this week I am feeling good about me and my teaching for once and thought I would write down some things that I am proud of so that in the future I can look back on this after not such good days. A few things this week have made me consider the successes of the first 3 years of my career, culminating in a set of y11 controlled assessment and DME results today which blew me away. Whilst much of the credit for these results must be given to them as they have a great attitude towards the subject and are really motivated to do well, some of the success I would like to think can be put down to the hard work I put into getting through the last 12 months with revision classes, podcasts and wiki revision guides (see previous blogs for details). This along with some other events this week (which those close to me will know about) have made me think I am doing something right.

In my first 2 years proper teaching results in geography have been above national average, being the only geography teacher I would like to think I could take some credit for this. All this in a school where previously geography was not taken up at GCSE so there was no culture or previous of good grades. That meant when I came into the school I had to write from scratch SOW for KS4 and plans for the new controlled assessments and these have clearly delivered the content required for students to achieve. Tinkering with the KS3 program of study has also meant that numbers at GCSE are well up now with the school offering 2 groups at GCSE. All this has enabled the school to offer geography at KS5 for the first time and hopefully the summer will yield respectable results in this.

I also think that in 3 years was classroom craft has come a long way. Through 2 varying placements and my current school I have learned to adapt to a number of environments. I think this has put me in a position now where my teaching is consistently good enough that I would be happy for an inspector to be sat at the back of the vast majority of my lessons. Although I blogged to the contrary at the start of the year, I think I have maintained the creativity of my PGCE year and have learned that it is something which comes and goes from time to time. You just need it less often in your 2nd year as you can use the inspiration of the past.

Where I think I have stepped up beyond most 2nd year teachers is outside the classroom. I think that few people in my position have led field trips in multiple schools and a ski trip to Italy all of which have been great successes.

At times over the 3 years of training and teaching I have felt that the hours of commitment I have put in have been for little. But lately I have felt that they are beginning to add up and when I step back I realise that I have done a lot in a little amount of time and in the future I hope opportunities will open up for me as a result of some of the extra mile stuff I do.  This may be starting to happen but time will reveal the extent to which this is the case.

I hope this blog acts as a landmark to me when I feel like the extra hours are not worth it to remind me that this is a long game I am playing and that really my students have benefitted from all I have done for them.

Posted by: markhowell101 | March 6, 2011

Piancavallo half term ski trip

Just thought I would post some pictures of recent school trip to Piancavallo, Italy. An outstanding trip in the end. For information on how the trip was put together see previous post at

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