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Odblog

A weblog designed to share Geography resources with students and colleagues

Monday, April 21, 2014

Pause for breath

I have had a very welcome and fulfilling Easter break with the family and an even longer blogging sabbatical. It has been possibly the toughest year of my teaching career, with an authority SQA visit in the style of an inspection followed by the full HMIe inspection (my first as PT subject) along with verification of our work with students on the new National qualifications. I have appointed a member of staff for the first time and worked with and managed a number of supply staff while we waited on the appointment. As a department, we have very much learned from experience as we worked through the changes in the upper school curriculum and my colleague in history is probably fed up with me saying next year will be better :-) We also had very positive feedback on both the quality of learning and teaching from the inspectors who visited our lessons and further welcome positive feedback on our National 3,4 and 5 assessment judgements from the verifiers. And yet...
When I look back on the year so far, I have to say that it's the year where making learning a positive, challenging and fun experience has been most difficult. All of the quality assurance mentioned above is absolutely necessary but creates great demands on time and some of the sacrifices have inevitably been in preparation of learning resources, ideas and activities. I find less of my time spent mining my networks for inspiration and sharing our own ideas. Our department twitter @marrgeog and my own have been notably quieter than previous and I have taken great solace in the 'Thinking through Geography' series of books for a quick fix while recycling the lessons of the geographers such as Alan Parkinson, Tony Cassidy, David Rogers and Noel Jenkins that I've used for what seems like a long time now with probably too little in the way of thanks. My colleague @daviemarsh has been a massive help and influence in the department throughout this time and I'm hoping for a period of relative calm and stability now to jump back on the bike again and use the summer term to develop, renew and share, hopefully nicking a few nuggets from others along the way. Old habits die hard ;-)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Teachery results analysis question

I was doing my post-results analysis recently. We had decent standard grade results, with an improving trend in most areas for the last 5 years. It was interesting seeing our figures against other subjects. We had very similar results to the largest subjects in terms of presentations, Maths and English, and we were talking today about how our results, having a large student roll ourselves, were maybe quite reflective of the school as a whole - identical passes to maths at 1 and 2, for example (though slightly higher credit passes than the school average). Higher had a drop in the number of A passes, but was our highest A/B pass rate in the last five years and our highest overall pass rate in the last five years. There is a continuing disappointment with No Awards at Higher (although it is lower than all but one of the last five years), something we have tried very hard to address through interim testing, offering a two year Higher and targeted suported study. We have extensively broken down the data to pick out the impact that we have had on individual students, for example, those that needed one or two more credit/ general/ foundation passes overall, those Higher candidates who did not pass any prelims and have measured the impact of study support against the results. We had set classes for the first time at Standard grade and feel that, in comparison, it has allowed students to work well towards their own level, particularly in the smaller classes where more support has been available. In our return to SMT, we detailed what we thought had worked well, but I am at a little bit of a loss as to what we could do differently to take our results to another level.

Here is a flavour of what we currently do:
  • Drop-in support
  • Supported study
  • Students provided with staff timetables during exam leave
  • Standardised homework exercises for consistency
  •  Early interim testing based on SQA standard for decisions on presentation levels
  • Coaching of targeted individuals (set activities post-prelim)
  • Parental contact where neccessary
  • Input at study skills evening
  • Provision of accessible online revision resources
  • Focus on paper two at Higher for in-class revision (this is consistently the weakest part of the component marks)
  • 'I can' checklists
  • Traffic lighting in the student planner (although this could be more consistent)
  • Access students identified early and assessed
  • Target setting discussions at regular intervals throughout the year
I am sure there are some things that I am not including, but the point is that there is always an expectation that we improve again and there will still be questions asked of us, as there will of the school as to how we can deal with issues such as students achieving No Awards, for example. I am conscious that the context cannot be given in 140 characters via twitter, but I would really love to hear your tweets or comments as to how you would continue improvement in attainment, no matter how obvious,abstract,simple or sophisticated they might be. We don't have a bad set of results at all and there are some cracking successes too, but how can it be better again? Many thanks in advance for anyone replying.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Drops in the ocean

Today, we switched the focus of the elective class to the sciences and, in my opinion, our far too understated links with all three. This is a potentially rich vein of engagement that I think we as geographers frequently miss out on. Our subject lends itself so well to many of the practical elements of the sciences and students frequently tell me that they enjoy science "because of the experiments". We have built this learning through experiment and experience into part of the elective and focused on oceans today, using climate change as the context to discuss ocean acidification. There are already some fantastic resources available through the Catlin Arctic Survey and Digital Explorer which we used for the basis for today's activities. We also employed the S3 experiment write up structure that is used in Biology after discussion with my colleague, Mrs Morrison. 
I was confident in teaching part of this theme but wanted to make sure I wasn't teaching bad science, so I invited a colleague, Mr McDermott, to see if we could co-op on this. It's fair to say that we were both delighted with the outcomes. The students conducted experiments comparing carbonated water to still water, using 'sea' water and fresh water which they then carbonated themselves through straws, comparing PH change rate over time and prepared for next week, where we will look at being ocean detectives, followed by a look at ocean currents and how meltwater might influence energy distribution. The student engagement was first class, the learning was pretty much all through enquiry, the context (something that Mr McDermott stressed the importance of in our later conversation) was real and the results were not uniform. This led to anomalies and the realisation that unexpected results are not always wrong results, as long as they can be explained or improved. The concept of oceans as a carbon store was explored, but the real eye opener for me came after the lesson.
When we discussed the lesson from each others subject background, Mr McDermott and I actually learned quite a lot from each. For example, I now know that temperature increase diminishes the ability to absorb CO2 and can therefore link this to skewed results but, most importantly, the increasing acidification of oceans in polar regions. This also led us to discuss methane locked in the seabed and how increasing temperatures are likely to release it which, again, links back to climate change and greenhouse gases. This was hopefully a lesson which students enjoyed and has given me another angle to teach it from when we build on the prior learning next week. I was also sent a link by Jamie Buchanan Dunlop on twitter to this (
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/may/07/arctic-threat-ocean-acidification) which brings a marine biology element to the climate change and when we discuss oceanic circulation as part of the theme, there are ties with physics.  This is a small step towards proper interdisciplinary learning, a drop in the ocean to use an obvious pun, but the possibilities for its expansion seem very real if this is an accurate snapshot of the outcomes.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

The Bill Boyd mini epic

A friend of mine, Bill Boyd, is a literacy adviser. His twitter page (@literacyadviser, funnily enough) and blog are always a good source of ideas for encouraging the development of literacy skills across the curriculum. I remember Bill talking about a 50 word 'mini-epic' that he used to employ when teaching where students had to write on a given topic using the exact word count, no more, no less. I've used the same thing recently with a new rotation of S2 students that I've been seeing since the start of May. It's excellent for encouraging kids to summarise rather than perform a straight lift from a source. Here are some examples of their work. It also leads perfectly on to the mentos experiment we look at next.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Forgotten, but not gone :-)

One of the perils of my job since I became PT three years ago this June is that I spend more of my time dealing with bits of paper which gives me less time to blog. As such, it can be frustrating, as for much of the time in that role, I see some great things or have a trigger for some nice ideas which I would like to share but don't get the time to. Plus, there are always the occupational hazards like trips to Arran, shown in the photograph taken today ;-) I wanted to share something we are developing for the coming year as I am genuinely excited about it and, for me, illustrates a lot of what the new curriculum in Scotland could be.

We have been given the opportunity to develop and deliver an S3 skills elective. Effectively, this is a blank canvas and, while I will share the outline of what we have so far, I would love to hear from any readers with further suggestions for activities which might work in conjunction with ours. We have decided to focus on skills and content which allow clear interdisciplinary learning to be facilitated and have (probably rather cheekily) titled it 'We rule the school'.

The elective involves three main themes and, if they work well, I would plan to bring some of them in to our core courses, particularly in the lower school where there is a lot of flexibility over content. The first of our three themes is primarily focused on developing literacy skills and is, unsurprisingly, being called Writing the Earth. We are using a purchase of digimap to help with this and have borrowed some ideas by Alan Parkinson and, for a later lesson elsewhere, Paula Owens. We probably don't use Ordnance Survey maps as often as we used to since developing our new courses, so this is also a good way to incorporate key mapping skills into students learning as well as an element of numeracy. Some of the activities include a persuasive writing exercise where students have to compete against one another for 'square of the year' using a randomly selected grid square and elaborating on the limited map evidence to make a convincing case for their 'brilliant' locations. We are also using the resource as a prompt for film locations and scripting. Finally, we are hoping to use the O.S. to inspire grid square poetry. I am hoping to set up a wiki to showcase student work and will credit properly where the ideas arrived from there (I have no idea how to hyperlink from my phone). Outwith mapping, anyone who is a regular reader will know that I like a good story and I think this would be an ideal place to resurrect the very successful river stories of two years ago where students wrote and recorded a first person account from a river from its youthful upper course to its old age (estuary). For all of this, we have liaised with the English department and are looking to assess literacy skills in a uniform way that students will recognise from their time in that subject.

The second theme is something we have called Experimental Geography. Here, we have linked with the sciences. I am currently speaking with a Chemistry colleague who already uses similar tectonics experiments as us and, hopefully, this will be something which compliments rather than repeats learning elsewhere in the school. We are using several experiments on pressure, weather, renewable energy, growing stalactites, ocean energy transfers, earth forces and biodiversity to enhance our status as a science subject as well as a social one. I really value the practical experiences as it contextualises learning for the students and provides a 'wow' factor at times. We plan to have students write up experiments to analyse their findings and become better at problem solving e.g. If it didn't work well, why? What would have improved the result? What influenced the result? The beauty of this is that it should make geographical field work and the use of hypotheses much easier if students continue with Geography in the upper school. 

The final theme is Artful Geography and involves some exciting collaboration with both Design and Technology and Art. We have already started an activity where we have been looking at abstract art and comparing to the patterns on maps (this was the Paula Owens idea). This will result in student produced mosaics or collages which mimic the patterns on maps which use shape, colour and line, will require students to become more familiar with the symbols on the maps and draw on advice from the Art department with regards the best way to create the piece of art. This also requires students to work on scaling up their compositions and will require disciplined team working. A side benefit has been the suggestion by my colleague in art that we can also dovetail with her photography elective by using landscape and photograph composition which involves some joint tuition. With my colleague in Design, we have also managed to come together to create an opportunity to use design skills learned in S2 using specialist software to bring to life sustainable building designs related to Noel Jenkins' excellent 'Designing for Dubai' exercise. This will also develop our role in global citizenship delivery and will allow students the opportunity to use digital mapping through Google Earth to provide a suitable site and situation for their designs, as well as again utilising problem solving.

I would love to hear any suggestions for further extension of these themes, particularly in terms of practical activities that you may have used which would fit. When we have had our first run through by November, I'd be happy to share a fully resourced scheme of work too. The short timescale has meant thinking on our feet a little, but I am really delighted at the shape it has taken and hope to be sharing some of the results here soon.

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Mentos and mini cookers: Accidental IDL

I was reflecting on Friday after work about the day just gone and what we had tried to do with classes. At the time, I hadn't realised just how much some of the learning was linking with other parts of the curriculum and just how much interdisciplinary learning was taking place. Here is a quick summary of some of the lessons to exemplify that.

S1: The class were feeding back on a microclimate investigation we had conducted the previous period. We had used the school grounds to find the perfect site for a solar cooker to be used ( difficult in Scotland, I know) and I thought it would be a nice extension of the exercise to actually give the students the opportunity to make their own solar cookers using the instructions at the RGS website ( which isn't working properly tonight or I'd have included the link). I was surprised and delighted to find out that several students had already started or, in some cases, actually finished making these. We will try these when the weather is suitable. After discussing this with the PT of Physics, it seems this sits between an S1 topic looking at renewable energy and an S2 topic examining infrared radiation, so we made that link in class too. From this microclimate starting point, we discussed comparison of climate at a larger scale and used climate graph construction to take this a step further. Within the two lessons, we have included health and well being (fieldwork and personal responsibility while working with others), science, numeracy and geography!

S2: This period was all about volcanoes as the messy picture below shows! I had asked the class to do a little homework as preparation for the lesson, borrowing Bill Boyd's 50 word mini epic idea ( Bill can be found at http://www.literacyadviser.wordpress.com ). This was all about summarising why some volcanoes are more explosive than others. The students had to include the words effusive, explosive, eruption and a named example of both an effusive volcanic eruption and an explosive one. They had to do this in exactly 50 words, no more and no less. This proved really useful as it meant students had to effectively summarise the often quite technical sources that they were finding when they searched the Internet. By limiting what could be written, it made copy and paste almost impossible without it sounding ridiculous and meant students also had to look for different ways to express something. It also meant that students who wanted to take an easy way out by writing very little still had to find 50 words! The discussion we had before the main learning activity proved that students had a good grasp of what I had asked them to learn about and was invaluable in the next part of the lesson which included the well known Mentos experiment which allowed me to bring viscosity and dissolved gases into the discussion without it being totally alien to what the students already knew. Literacy and Chemistry covered!

In other lessons, we dealt with more numeracy themes ( using development indicators with S3 to compare countries) and citizenship issues ( using the Rwandan genocide as a backdrop to forced migration with Higher). It was quite a hectic day in and out of the classroom but, looking back, actually provides us with evidence of how we are working as a department which links up learning in a positive way.

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Wee reminder to me

This is a template of what I would like to do with S3 for their end of unit presentations comparing development of nations. From the choice of Kenya, India and Brazil, students must compare one other country to the United Kingdom. The presentations can be completed using the following methods:

- PowerPoint
- Prezi http://www.prezi.com
- a Flickr slideshow http://www.flickr.com
- Movie (windows for presentation or narrated)
- An infographic
- A poster

The important element of the presentation is the content and the geographical skills exhibited. For skills purposes, there should be evidence of these key skills:

- The use of maps to support comparisons. For example, it may be that a student feels that the physical geography of Kenya has impacted greatly on development and they could compare climate, resources, relief and vegetation to the UK. Students may wish to use other types of specialised maps, such as those found at Worldmapper http://sasi.group.shef.ac.uk/worldmapper/ or the 3D visualisations of the CIA world Factbook at http://www.kmlfactbook.org/#&db=ciafb&table=2002&col=2008& . Students should use at least one map for comparison purposes. The map should be titled and referred to within the presentation.

- The use of development indicators to compare levels of development. Students should use at least 3 indicators of development with at least one economic and one social indicator. This may overlap with the mapping if using something like the kml Factbook. Students should explain the advantages and disadvantages of using these indicators for comparison. It may be useful to look at http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/education/int/geog/health/development/economic/index.shtml as well as the resources used in class when preparing this. Useful sites include http://www.gapminder.org and https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/ , both of which the class have already used.

- Students may present information in a variety of ways e.g. Graphs, tables, proportional symbols on maps etc

For the content, students must include the details below:

1) A comparison of the location of the two countries
2) A comparison of the physical and human factors which influence each country's development
3) A comparison of development data (this is where the maps, indicators and presentation skills are most likely to be used)
4) A detailed explanation of at least one way in which the development 'gap' could be narrowed e.g. Aid and how effective this might be

I think this is a bit ambitious and it's needing to be put into language that's a bit less threatening for the kids, but my laptop is not playing and this is really just a memo for me for tomorrow

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Sunday, March 03, 2013

Carousel Country Comparison

Apologies for the alliteration in the title, but the alternative post header was even more of a mouthful, a consequence of trying to turn my brain on too late. I'm hoping to use a carousel activity to highlight some of the difficulties in comparing levels of development between countries with my S3 groups. I was thinking back to a successful homework exercise that I used a wee while ago now at my previous school. I've included the Country A/ Country B image below (or above, depending on the way this post comes out) and it's actually the same country in both examples, DR Congo. I'm going to ask students to post their answers to the questions within it on the wall and collect and reflect at the end of the activity.

In the second activity, I'm going to have a number of atlases available. I want the students to really start exploring the full range of information available within it - socio-economic, physical etc and will ask them to consider Kenya, India and Brazil and, using only the atlas, determine which country is likely to be the most developed. This also covers a key curricular outcome using maps and specialised maps.

Thirdly, I want to have an indicators mix and match, where I'll be using the CIA world factbook information on the same three countries and asking students to allocate the figures to the correct location. This should be quite challenging as we have really just covered what we mean by development and why some countries are more developed than others (briefly) but we have already looked at some population indicators. It means that students will also have to think about what the indicators mean before they have been properly explained. However, I still intend to include as part of this task a response to which figures are most meaningful in telling us how developed the countries are and why. This is something we can obviously then use later.

Finally, I'm going to appropriate the old Make Poverty History banner and add the word 'by' to it and give the students some time to add their own suggestions as to how countries can improve standard of living/quality of life within India, Kenya and Brazil based on what they have learned from the previous tasks. The solutions must be realistic and, where possible, cost effective. All of this will then feed in to a homework task where students will compare the United Kingdom and one of the three focus countries by examining development indicators, physical and human factors influencing the level of development in each and possible strategies to narrow the development gap. This will then be brought together at the end of the unit mirroring one of the National 4/5 style of assessments where students will present orally on their comparison. I feel like we are over-assessing at present in S3, which goes against the ethos of the new curriculum a little, so we are really using this for practice and familiarisation rather than potential level setting for S4. Most importantly, students here are getting the opportunity to explore their task beforehand, draw their own conclusions and air their own opinions which will hopefully all make the final task a little bit easier. Any feedback greatly appreciated and any potential to develop the task would be considered, it's all a little rough just now. That's a lot of words and a few too many requests for the first blog in ages ;-)

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