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Making it to Christmas: the fairy light at the end of the tunnel

As your recurrent Halloween nightmare that 9Z4 have found out where you live and are all banging on your front door chanting `Trick or treat!' finally starts to recede, a daunting half-term lies ahead with Christmas nothing more than a fairy light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel. Yet despite all the pressure and hard work, this is a half-term not without its rewards, writes Peter Anstee head of English.

Focus on progress

For classes with exams or controlled assessments looming, it's not always easy to be as jolly as the season demands. This year, actions and announcements from on high have not helped. Mr Gove might have pulled the rug from under GCSEs with remarkable relish, but it remains for us and for our students the only gold standard we know. Support your students by emphasising progress wherever you find it - and emphasise its dependence on hard work. Use mark schemes, exemplar answers and examiners' reports to help your students develop a real sense of what's being looked for.

Get students to peer-assess in small groups you have selected so they meaningfully discuss the qualities of each other's work. Nothing succeeds like progress when it comes to motivating students.and their teacher.

Marking - little and often is the key

To make progress more prominent, show its baby steps by marking little and often. Liberate yourself from the guilt that engulfs you if you don't mark every word that your students write - it is not the most productive way to spend your precious time. Instead mark for impact, focusing on significant work where your comments will be followed up by further learning. Don't wait for a whole essay without quotations or a whole story without description - mark it after three paragraphs, reducing your workload and giving your comments a chance to foster improvement. The final product can be self- or peer-assessed in relation to the targets you set.

Spark a debate

Don't neglect speaking and listening; it can be a great festive friend. It can bring a bit of sparkle to cold, dark winter months and provide a welcome distraction for students getting either fed up or over-excited waiting for Santa to come. When your marking is focused on exam classes, speaking and listening can relieve the pressure elsewhere.

Always good for a lively group discussion is the topic: Christmas has lost its meaning and should be banned.

2012 is a gift-wrapped year for students to make individual award speeches. Get students to explain their winners in four or five categories such as:

  • Hero of 2012
  • Villain of 2012
  • Team of 2012
  • Unsung hero of 2012
  • Overrated celebrity of 2012
  • Inspirational moment of 2012
  • Funniest moment of 2012
  • Filmbooksong of 2012
  • Trend of 2012
  • New gadget of 2012
  • Student of 2012
  • Teacher of 2012

    • Promote independent learning

      Just when the outside world thinks that we are all serenely winding down together in schools, December marks the advent not of calm but of chaos! You are dragged away from your normal teaching to run revision sessions; students miss lessons due to trips, rehearsals for the Christmas play, viruses and snow. If this sounds familiar, consider resurrecting project work - it's a great way to develop independent learning. Whatever the project - Dickens or space travel, celebrity or fear - set a variety of differentiated research, discussion, reading and writing tasks that students can work through without it mattering if they or you miss a lesson or two.

      All things in moderation

      Just when you think it's safe to pass through the staffroom, you get asked if you can help backstage with the Christmas concert or go on a trip. "Of course," you say, and rightly so - these events are vital and enjoyable and help to build the relationships that are at the heart of all we do. But at this time of year in particular, remember to do all things in moderation.

      End with a `fun' lesson

      Exhausted, you make it to the final week of term. The fairy light at the end of the tunnel is shining brightly and is within reach.You grind a bit of analysis of the writer's craft out of Year 8 and at the end of the lesson they chorus "Can we have a fun lesson, it's our last one before Christmas?" "Aren't all of my lessons fun?" you respond and you promise them something - it's Christmas and they deserve it. Pre-empt this by writing one quiz question in your diary each week through the year; or by agreeing with your departmental colleagues to each write one question a week during this half-term, then arrive at the final week with a compiled quiz rather than having to think of questions with a jaded brain and little time.

      If all goes well, you can be driving home for Christmas with the satisfaction of knowing that your students have made progress; that they and you have had a bit of fun and have maintained your motivation and your relationships; and that your car boot is not too full with marking for you to be able to fit some Christmas presents on top.

      Who is Peter Anstee

      Peter Anstee has worked in Essex comprehensives for over 15 years, eight of them as Head of English. He has held whole-school responsibilities for able, gifted and talented and for assessment-led learning. He is the author of the Differentiation Pocketbook, published in 2011.

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