PGCE vs GTP – the ITT wars

With this week’s announcement that trainee teachers will have to pass a personality test to be able to train (TES, 8 June 2012), teacher training is once again at the forefront of educational debate. But the big question is, personality test or not, which pathway should you follow?

Follow the yellow brick road

The two principal teacher training pathways in the UK are the Post/Professional Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) and the Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP). One of the main attractions of the GTP over the PGCE may be financial; six months into their term of office, the government laid out plans to cut ITT funding by up to 85% (TES, 23 November 2010). In reality, PGCE grants were drastically cut (my current trainee receives at least £3000 less than I did for the same course). GTP students, however, receive a salary from their placement school or the Teaching Agency with a fixed minimum which is based on the Unqualified Teachers’ Pay Scales, and accounts for a lot more than a normal PGCE bursary.

Delightful possibilities for exploitation

There is, of course a downside to being paid such a good salary to train. As Head of Languages Isabelle Jones puts it:

With the GTP you do get paid, but some schools can see you as cheap labour as well.

This is, unfortunately, all too true; whilst as a GTP student you are normally employed as supernumerary (ie: on top of the teaching staff already at the school), plenty of schools will happily use you to fill a gap in their timetable, leaving you alone in a class without the kind of regular feedback given to PGCE students. Teacher of MFL Nina Elliot agrees that this can be a risk, but nonetheless supports the GTP…

…with appropriate support and in a school which understands you are NOT a full time teacher.

This, in my opinion, is too big a variable to risk.

A question of experience

The GTP naturally lends itself to those coming to teaching from other industries and not straight from university, since it enables them to ‘train whilst working’ and still earn a salary. Yet self-proclaimed career-shifter Alex Foster (http://alexfoster.me.uk/), currently studying for his MFL PGCE, still thinks that this was a better route than the GTP:

Don’t do the GTP unless you already work in a school. I am glad, as a mature career shifter, of the support and peers from the PGCE approach.

This, I have to say, is one of the main reasons I support the PGCE over the GTP; peer mentoring is such an important process when you are learning to teach, and a lot of this can be lost through the GTP because contact with your peers is minimal. I was lucky to follow a unique course with Canterbury Christ Church University which saw me spend four months at university in France with seven other trainees; this was a real bonding experience and one that left me with some very close friends, with whom I still now share ideas and resources.

The other obvious advantage of the PGCE is that…

students get a wider range of experiences through their various placements and enrichment opportunities. (Isabelle Jones)

In other words, the experience you gain as a teacher in two contrasting placements of more-or-less equal length could be said to outweigh the experience of just one school with a brief placement elsewhere, particularly when you consider that this experience is also backed up by more educational theory than the GTP, delivered by the relevant ITT provider.

Whatever route you choose, the ultimate deciding factor of how well you are trained is how you respond to your training, so make sure you pick the best pathway for you.

Have your say

What do you think – GTP or PGCE? Or do you feel that one of the other pathways, such as Teach First, is a more viable option?

Quotations in the above post were taken from comments on Twitter, and have therefore been modified appropriately.

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ICT in MFL – acronym heaven!

My school recently advertised for a member of each department to be ICT Champion for their subject… naturally, I couldn’t resist! But before writing the one-page proposal for how technology could be applied within the MFL department and why I was THE person to do it, I had to have a think about what I actually knew.

What about Q23?

We all remember well Qs 16 and 17 of the Professional Standards for Teachers – you know, the ones about passing an ICT test that had nothing to do with programmes people actually use, and the one that you validated by using a ‘custom animation’ in your latest PowerPoint that your mentor thought had come straight out of Star Trek. But what about the Q that time forgot: Q23?

In observing my trainees, I rarely pay much attention to what they’re doing with PowerPoint/SmartNotebook/Promethean (delete as applicable) – for me, the point in using ICT in the classroom is to enable a higher level of engagement, interactivity and independence from the pupils: Q23 – Design opportunities for learners to develop their literacy, numeracy and ICT skills. Ie: the kids have to use it too.

Student-based programmes

With this in mind, I sat down to think about all of the times my students had used ICT in my lessons to enhance their learning. This was not easy – whilst the will had always been there, poor WiFi connection and batteries that refused to hold their charge for a full hour often scuppered my plans. Still, there were some times when I felt genuinely pleased with the result, and none of those involved students copy-pasting from Wikipedia to PowerPoint and then reading their work to the class, stumbling over the Americanisms they had lifted but didn’t understand. Here are my top favourites:

1. French History Project (y7)

The VLE at my last school was (although not perfect) truly interactive and pretty user friendly: it was called RealSmart. Using the ‘mind-map’ application (unsurprisingly named ‘RealMap’), I created a three-hour long project for year 7 students on French historical periods.

Lesson 1 saw students in groups named after French regions logging on to the Histoire française RealMap from their netbooks and clicking on the coat of arms for their region. They were then presented with a series of reading and listening resources based on different periods of history (one per group) which they used to complete the exercises on their worksheets. All of the language in the resources was based on structures we had seen throughout the year so this was a great way to show their use in a contextual situation. During lesson 2 students broke away from their former groups to form new teams, with one student for each period of history per team. They then shared their information, teaching the other students in their group, before planning the final activity to be completed in lesson 3 – creating a timeline of French history.

This project was not only a great way of introducing cultural information into the MFL classroom whilst still practising essential language; it also enabled students to develop their ICT skills in a controlled way, without just resorting to Google and Wikipedia.

2.  VocabExpress

Whilst the next offering wasn’t really something that I created or even used in lessons, I couldn’t write a post about ICT in MFL without mentioning it.

VocabExpress is a web-based programme for – you guessed it – learning vocab. We all know that there is just not enough time to drill vocab and teach structures in lessons, so VocabExpress is the ideal accompaniment to any MFL course. Students log on with their own ID and complete different learning activities for a given list of words, chosen by the teacher (all of the vocab that has been uploaded is taken from the main coursebooks and so can be easily linked to any GCSE or A Level topic). The programme is intuitive, so when students make mistakes, it remembers and gives them those words more often. The teacher can monitor everything they do, from when they log in to what exercises they have completed and how well they did. Scores are then converted into points and a leader board is displayed of the whole class. There are also rankings for each class within the school, each school in the local area and there is even an annual national competition where schools from across the country compete for points.

The students LOVED it; the competitive element coupled with the fact that they could log on and learn whenever they wanted made VocabExpress a real success.

3. Blogging

The third and final activity in my list of favourite uses of ICT in MFL is a shameless piece of theft, but I am sure that its creator will not mind me stealing it!

My PGCE/Master 1 student on her second placement with us has been teaching her y7 French class about hobbies and free-time activities. Towards the end of the term, as a culmination of the work they had been doing, she asked them to bring in their netbooks and write a blog on their free-time activities. ‘Not very creative’ I hear you shout? Well wait for it…

Once the blogs had been designed and written, students were asked to include a space for ‘reader comments’ just like a real blog. They then left their netbooks in their places and moved around the room, reading their friend’s texts and leaving comments in French (which had been introduced previously). This was such a simple and yet amazingly creative idea, and an excellent way to get students giving their opinions in a real context. If this had been coupled with the RealSmart blogging facilities (RWeb or RCast) this would have been a truly interactive experience.

ICT means money

Now I know what the more cynical among you will be saying to yourselves: where did all of these bloody netbooks come from?! It’s true that 95% of the students at Homewood had signed up to a part-rent part-buy laptop scheme which meant that they all had their own netbook. I can’t deny that, if this isn’t the case in your school, buying a laptop trolley for a department can be very costly. Most schools, however, do have ICT suites which, with some planning, could be booked for a series of lessons to enable some of these activities to take place. The main point is that you really should make the effort – it will be well worth it!

The Kagan Method: teaching’s Holy Grail?

The first time I heard the word ‘Kagan’ was not a positive experience; a parent of one of my tutees (also a teacher) warned me of the impending hell when I told her that an entire INSET day had been dedicated to this newfangled teaching method. Thankfully, she was wrong! The training, delivered by Gavin Clowes from Teacher To Teacher (UK) Ltd. was engaging, creative and very thought-provoking.

Nobody is left behind

Kagan Cooperative learning, developped by Dr Spencer Kagan and associates, is a teaching and learning method designed to actively engage all students in their learning throughout a lesson. The underpinning idea is that, if all students are actively involved at each point during their lesson, their results will improve and behavioural issues will diminish greatly.

Kagan, however, isn’t just a philosophy; it’s also a collection of useful independent learning activities that can be used by teachers of all subjects with classes of all abilities. The characterising feature of each activity is that every student has something to do at every moment, meaning (for the MFL classroom) that everyone is practising their language skills at the same time!

Pick your activity

Kagan activities are not all suitable for the MFL classroom; they rely heavily on peer-to-peer discussion and the sharing of ideas and opinions between students, which requires too advanced a level of language for most MFL students. Some of the activities also lack the structure required for supporting student-to-student conversations in the target language. Some activities, however, are ideal for teaching foreign languages; here are my top three favourites:

  1. Quiz-Quiz-Trade
    Students circulate, each with a card with a target language phrase and its English translation written upon it. They pair up, and partner A reads the target language phrase. Partner B responds with the translation and then they swap roles. Partners then swap cards and circulate again before finding another partner and repeat the process. This activity is ideal for practising new vocabulary and ensuring that all students repeat a range of phrases.
  2. RallyCoach
    In pairs, students have one worksheet and one pen. They take it in turns to solve one problem each, explaining to their partner how they are solving the problem as they go. This activity works particularly well for grammatical constructions (negation, conjugation &c.) and is ideal for peer mentoring, when a stonger student is sat with a weaker student.
  3. Carousel Feedback
    This activity works best with a timer running. I have adapted it slightly in MFL lessons by combining it with another Kagan activity (RoundTable) to provide the necessary structure mentioned above: in groups of four, students take it in turns to add one idea to a mind map (for example nouns to complete the sentence Dans mon école idéale, il y a…). When the timer runs out, each group stands up and moves around the room, looking at other groups’ mind maps and noting down answers that they hadn’t thought of.

Don’t go calling Arthur

Despite the title of this post, I cannot unequivocally say that Kagan is the ‘Holy Grail’ of education; of the 36 activities elaborated by Kagan, only a handful are suitable for MFL teaching. The activities are also a bit samey, and if all teachers in the school start using them, students get quickly bored (five bouts of Quiz-Quiz-Trade in a day can be quite boring! Although this does make one reflect on the overuse of PowerPoint…). Nonetheless, Kagan training is an essential tool for every modern teacher’s arsenal, and the Kagan Cooperative Learning handbook is a must buy for any department.

Earworms: infecting language learners with song

We all know how annoying a catchy tune can be; I was sleepily driving along the A28 last week when my trainee decided to put DiscoBitch’s C’est beau la bourgeoisie on the iPod at full pelt. I spent the rest of the day teaching KS3 with the words “I’m a bitch” rolling around my head on a loop. For the creative MFL teacher, however, this curse can be turned into a golden advantage.

Invading your students’ involuntary memory

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we fill our lessons with expletive-ridden rap in order to drive them mad. In fact, it’s not the words of the song I’m interested in; it’s the music.

Dr Daniel J Levitin of McGill University in Montreal remarks that songs are easier to remember than words alone, because of the combination of melody, rhythm and rhyme… and what’s more, he points out that this is nothing new; before the ‘invention’ of written language around 5 000 years ago, songs were a number-one way to remember and transmit information.

According to Dr Vicky Williamson, memory expert at Goldsmith’s University in London, ‘stuck-song syndrome’ or ‘Earworm’ sets off involuntary triggers in our memories, which can result in a song remaining lodged in our consciousness for days on end.

More information on the science behind earworms (and my source!) can be found here.

Teaching grammar with songs

Ok, ok, I’ll stop boring you with neuroscience. The point is that this inherent ability to more easily memorise words set to music can be a invaluable tool for the Modern Foreign Languages teacher.

I try not to overkill the singing method however; we all know how quickly a well-loved activity can bore a class to tears if it is used one time too many. I therefore use songs to teach the one thing that students find the hardest – grammar!

The key to using songs in the classroom is to pick something the students know; the last thing you want to be doing is spending an hour teaching them the notes when you could choose something they already sing backwards in front of the bathroom mirror while their mothers bang frantically on the door and beg them to use their hairbrushes on their hair and not as a microphone.

Monsieur M’s top tips

Using pop songs in your lessons is not difficult, and you don’t need to be Education’s answer to Katherine Jenkins or Jonas Kauffmann to do it; it just takes a bit of confidence and the ability to have a laugh, albeit sometimes at your own expense! Here are my top three tips to help you get started:

  1. Don’t play around with the music!
    The whole reason this method works is because the students already know the rhythms and melodies of the songs that you choose, so changing these to fit in with your words, no matter how slightly, will confuse them and detract from the sticking power of the song.
  2. Keep it simple!
    Chanting all conjugated forms of the principal modal verbs in the space of five seconds may be your party trick, but you’ll be lucky if the kids can manage the first three pronouns! My general rule-of-thumb is to use the verses for model sentences and the chorus for the conjugation of the tense in question, or the main grammar point that I’m teaching. Check out the song lyrics I’ve posted above for some ideas.
  3. Trust in yourself!
    Yes, yes – it would be hard to get cheesier than that, but you’d be surprised how far a little confidence will go. You don’t have to be a great singer to do this – just accept your tone deafness and scream the lyrics out. The kids will probably fall about laughing, but as soon as they see they you’re laughing too, the new competition will be to find who can sing worse than you! As long as they’re all getting stuck in, your song will succeed.

Good luck!

UPADTE! Check out recordings of my songs on my YouTube channel: MonsieurRMc.

Château de la Baudonnière: immersion with a kick

After a grueling week away, I was glad to finally arrive at my front door and to be greeted by the atmosphere of a warm, heated house with all of my home comforts. Once I had sat down on the sofa with a glass of wine, however, it was not difficult to decide that the week was definitely worth it.

I had been away for seven days with twenty-five mixed-level students and two colleagues. Our destination was the Château de la Baudonnière, an immersion centre for English-speaking children in the heart of the Norman countryside.

A tailor-made experience

The Château is staffed by a team of qualified native French-speaking animateurs headed by Liverpudlian Darren Benson. Each school chooses the activities that are of most interest to them and the Château then draws up a packed timetable for students grouped by their linguistic ability or age, as the school decides. Students are kept busy from 08h15 unti 21h00 every day, with time for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All meals and activities are accessibly presented in French.

The animateurs, many with quirky names bearing little resemblance to their real prénoms, are instantly popular with the students, who remain engaged in each activitiy throughout. Teachers are free to come and go as they wish (with the exception of a few more challenging activities), although, as you can see below, I couldn’t resist getting involved!

A fun-packed week

There is a range of activities to choose from, and more details can be found at http://www.the-chateau.com. The most popular with the students this year was the Parcours de santé (assault course) which I, perhaps foolishly, did with them…

MonsieurM after an hour-and-a-half crawling around in the mud

Another popular activity was traditional French bread making or Fabrication du pain. Students hand-made bread into a form of their choice whilst learning useful vocabulary and holding singing competitions with other groups during the kneading process. Unfortunately for me, however, the ‘create an anim or teacher in dough’ activity was not the most flattering…

MonsieurM in dough

Despite comments to the contrary, the French lessons that popped up twice for each group during our week-long stay were well organised and covered language that was useful and pertinent to students throughout their stay. Perhaps the only drawback is that the sight of Leçon de français on their activity timetable already fills students with dread… nonetheless, they all completed a daily journal of their activities in French with no complaints!

All-in-all, despite a fractured finger and an allergic reaction with both gave me my first visits to a French A&E department, the trip to the Château de la Baudonnière was a resounding success… and I’m already thinking about next year’s trip!

Photographs © L Blythe

Exams & Boards: which ones work?

Our school is, in many respects, the county’s only true comprehensive; in an area with such a widespread system of selection, most high-schools only draw from a catchment that has already had the highest achieving students ‘creamed off’.

This, however, is not a rant about selective education (I happen to be somewhat of a fan – unsurprising considering my own background). But teaching as I do in a school which draws from a neigbouring county with no selective education, I am confronted with the problem that my job is to engage and enthuse students of all ability ranges, and, hopefully, encourage them to continue studying a language for GCSE (in our school, languages are not compulsory). Once again, no ranting to be found – of course that’s my job.

The rub is that, with such a relatively low uptake at GCSE (one of my middle-set KS3 classes had an uptake rate of 25%) we are unable to stream students at GCSE level. The result is a class of hugely mixed ability (87% projected A*-C, but with students ranging from A* to E grades) which are all forced to sit a GCSE course.

Two questions therefore present themselves:

1/ is it fair to make all students who have a passion to study languages sit a GCSE course, as opposed to alternative qualification pathways?

2/ which GCSE course should we have them follow?

Please feel free to post your own thoughts on these questions.

GCSEs vs NVQs

When I was at school, NVQs were reasonably new, and risibly labelled as Not Very Qualifieds. My friends and I were, admittedly, a tad precocious and had been well fed on the idea that we belonged to the top 25% of society by our teachers. This condescending view of NVQs definitely marked me and, until recently, had even endured into the first years of my teaching career. This is, happily, no longer the case.

The problem with GCSEs is that the centralised syllabus forces teachers to cover topics that have little relevance to pupils’ lives or interests. What’s more, the new(ish) assessment set-up requires excessive amounts of the use of a range of complex language structures that would probably not be used all together in real life. How, then, can teachers offer qualifications that are both relevant and manageable for lower ability students?

The answer appears to be the NVQ. The advantages of the NVQ are that:

  • students can simultaneously enter different skills for different levels (eg: Speaking Level 2, Listening Level 3),
  • language study can be linked to a relevant area of vocational study,
  • assessment for each level can be undertaken & evidenced whenever the student is ready.

GCSE vs iGCSE           

I will not, I know, be the only teacher with an underlying couche of rage bubbling away whenever I see the Edexcel logo. This rage is perhaps a little ungenerous, since I teach and actually quite like their A Level French syllabus (despite some interesting marking weightings). But the fiasco surrounding the controlled coursework modules of their ‘new’ MFL GCSE has left a very bitter taste in many a teacher’s mouth.

The new controlled assessments, designed to replace the previous controlled and non-controlled coursework tasks, are as flawed as their predecessors; they take up huge amounts of time to administer; they evaluate unrealistic assessment criteria, simultaneously requiring students to use every single structure they have ever learnt; most schools’ Key Stage structures will mean that students have to sit a number of these assessments before they have completed a full programme of study. How is it fair to expect a student to sit a controlled assessment when they haven’t learnt everything they would need to be able to achieve the top marks?

Conversly, the Cambridge iGCSE, until now largely the province of Independent Schools, assesses students in each of the four core skills at the end of their course of study. Each assessment is designed to test listening, reading, speaking and writing skills of different levels and the positivie marking system rewards students for correctly used language.

Whilst I still have to decide whether it is worth persuading my department to switch to both NVQs and the iGCSE, this issue has certainly given me something to think about. If anybody else has experience working with either qualification in languages, their contribution to the debate would certainly be welcome!

What do you think?

The School’s Network: Languages Subject Conference 2011

Last week, I took part in this year’s Languages Subject Conference held at Warwick University by The School’s Network (formerly The Specialist School’s and Academies Trust). With keynote speeches by Dr Anthony Seldon, Master of Wellington College, and more notably ALL’s Steven Fawkes, the conference was both informative and thought provoking.

Vocabulary Learning in the 21st Century

Lead by Rachel Hawkes from Comberton Village College, this session introduced some excellent ideas for teaching vocabulary in MFL. Her main points are summarised below. More information can be found on Rachel’s website at www.rachelhawkes.com.

  • Use of contextualised gap-fill worksheets, to teach vocabulary in a real context,
  • Use of a ‘core language’ sheet of around 100 words, along with the VocabMan,
  • Letting students choose their own vocabulary, relevant to them,
  • Using music to enable students to better remember words and phrases,
  • Using online programmes, including Quizlet and Vocab Express,

Sticky Grammar: making grammar teaching really work for all pupils

James Stubbs’ presentation on teaching grammar in sequences through the medium of the target language was slightly more controversial among the attendees. His method relied on working backwards from a model sentence or text and leading students to notice grammar rules themselves. His teaching was very energetic and enthusiastic, but questions remained as to whether a low-abilty group would have been able to keep up and remain engaged. From a teacher’s point-of view, I also think this session would have been more useful if James had presented a range of strategies that can be used in the classroom, rather than presenting just one lesson sequence. More details on his work can be found at www.jamesstubbslanguages.co.uk.

Ashfield ICE, bucking the trend in languages

Language College Coordinator at Ashfield School in Notts, Kim Brown, delivered a very interesting presentation on how she has been able to ‘buck the trend’ in low uptake figures for KS4 MFL and increase the profile of language study in a comprehensive school with a very broad catchment. She should be commended for her work in tying in Language NVQs with vocational study, her excellent links with international schools and her inspired cross-curricular work, most notably the LinguaVision competition. The school’s language college website is www.ashfield.notts.sch.uk/languagecollege.htm.