Brighton Sparks

This year I trialled a new initiative at my school called Brighton Sparks. Aimed at our most able and gifted pupils in years 8-10 and offered as part of our existing programme of co-curricular activities, it ran successfully (albeit largely via Google Meet) in spite of extended periods of site closure due to COVID-19.

The aim of Brighton Sparks is to help pupils develop academic writing and supra-curricular study skills such as independent learning, secondary research, time management and referencing. These qualities are sadly overlooked by many schools and yet are essential attributes, not only for study at IGCSE and A Level but also beyond. For instance, in a recent survey of university admissions officers, almost half of respondents felt that UK students were not prepared for the step-up to higher education, citing, in particular, a lack of good written English and an inability to think and learn independently:

‘…all respondents unanimously agreed that students must ensure they are “ready to think and learn independently” when asked how students could be better prepared to thrive while successfully completing their degree.’

‘…52 per cent felt they were “unable to carry out extended writing”, and the same number “unable to remember facts, possessing a ‘Google-it’ mentality”

At my school, these skills are already embedded throughout the curriculum but for those pupils who are consistently high achievers or demonstrate a propensity for a particular subject, Brighton Sparks offers them an exciting opportunity to be stretched and challenged even further in areas of their own interest and expertise.

Along with weekly university-style tutorials on topics including Harvard referencing, academic writing, university vs school, and the differences between searching and researching a topic, the pupils were assigned a supervisor (a specialist teacher) with whom they worked one-to-one, and were tasked with writing a 2000 word essay that was marked in accordance with the British Undergraduate Degree Classification System.

The pupils also received presentation skills training and were required to present their research findings to, and field questions from, their teachers and peers (much like a PhD viva voce). At the end of the school year, the pupils received a certificate in assembly and their essays were published in our very own College journal, ‘The Spark.’

Brighton Sparks certificate

This is how it worked…

In the autumn term, pupils in years 8-10 who had been identified as being able and/or gifted (using their stanine baseline, calculated using the GL battery of assessments and teacher referrals) were invited to participate in Brighton Sparks via an in-school introductory presentation and a letter home to parents. At the same time, teachers volunteered to become supervisors and prepared a small number of essay questions on topics in which they had a particular interest and expertise.

Academic essay titles

I produced a guide which I shared with pupils detailing the Brighton Sparks process but also providing support on how to plan and write an academic essay, referencing and presentation skills. Additional resources were shared with pupils via a Brighton Sparks Google Classroom.

The Brighton Sparks guide shared with pupils

Brighton Sparks got underway in the summer term. Unfortunately, the school site was closed due to COVID-19 so it was largely delivered online via Google Meet. Each week, the pupils attended university-style tutorials. These were led by specialists within the school and covered a wide range of topics including:

  • Secondary research
  • Planning your essay
  • Academic writing
  • Harvard referencing
  • Boolean operators
  • School vs university
  • Presentation skills

The pupils received support and guidance from their supervisors via email correspondence throughout the research and writing process but they were also encouraged to meet one-to-one with them at least twice during the term and this was the responsibility of the pupils to arrange. Pupils for whom English is an Additional Language (EAL) also received support from our EAL Department.

Supervisors marked the essay first using a simple marking rubric comprising five criteria:

  • Focus and method
  • Knowledge and understanding
  • Critical thinking
  • Presentation
  • Engagement

A small working party then met to moderate the marking and assign final grades in accordance with the British Undergraduate Degree Classification System (e.g. First Class, Upper Second Class, etc.). In addition, the pupils received diagnostic and constructive feedback; they knew exactly what they had done well and what they could do in order to improve their work.

Finally, the pupils were tasked with delivering a short (<5 minutes) presentation on their research and a reflection of the process as a whole to their peers and teachers, from whom they also successfully fielded questions.

Feedback from participating pupils and staff has been hugely positive (see below) and the model is simple enough to be replicated and / or adapted elsewhere with ease.

‘Brighton Sparks has been such a great experience for me. I have learned so much that I know will help me with the rest of my school career and professional career’ – Year 9 pupil

‘It’s been a pleasure to have this opportunity’ – Year 9 pupil

‘Marvellous experience – I really enjoyed the conversations we have had and the hard work and interest [the pupil] took in this subject’ – Supervisor

‘I loved having the opportunity to study something that I am so interested in and to discuss it with my supervisor’ – Year 8 pupil

‘I have already used what I learned in Brighton Sparks in my Science lessons’ – Year 10 pupil

Looking ahead, I would like to build on what has already been established this year by:

  • extending Brighton Sparks to include more year groups;
  • incorporating more research-based projects (e.g. in Science, Psychology, Sport Science, etc);
  • arranging tutorials with external speakers including industry leaders and academics;
  • offering trips and visits; and
  • disseminating supra-curricular skills by asking Brighton Sparks pupils to lead assemblies and workshops for others.

If you have any questions about Brighton Sparks or would like to share how your school provides for AG&T pupils I would be very interested to hear from you.

Oreo Plate Tectonics and Moon Phases

A couple of nice activities using Oreo cookies (or in my case, cheaper alternatives).

Plate tectonics

Explain that the upper cookie is the lithosphere, the creamy filling is the asthenosphere, and the lower cookie is the lower mantle. Begin by simulating the motion of the rigid lithosphere plate over the softer asthenosphere by sliding the upper cookie over the cream. Then break the top cookie in half and simulate a divergent plate boundary by sliding the two cookie halves apart.

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Push one cookie half under the other to make a convergent plate boundary.

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Finally, simulate a transform plate boundary by sliding the two cookie halves past one another. Students should feel and hear that the two ‘plates’ do not glide smoothly past one another (thus modelling the earthquakes that occur at transform fault lines such as San Andreas).

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Moon phases

Simply remove the top cookie to reveal the creamy filling beneath. Scrape away and shape the cream to show the phases of the moon. Students should draw the relative location of the Earth and label the phases. Great as a revision tool or plenary.

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Squishy Circuits – Electrical Play Dough

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A wonderful idea from the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

Play dough is a semisolid which contains salt and is naturally electrically conductive. However, replace the salt with sugar and the play dough becomes an insulator! Both can be made easily and cheaply using flour, vegetable oil, water and salt or sugar. Students can then roll the dough into ‘wires’ or build more elaborate shapes into which they can then connect components. Great fun!

The recipes in metric units are available here.

The Squishy Circuits Classroom Guide contains the recipes as well as basic instructions and sample worksheets. There are also lots of fun ideas for using squishy circuits in electronics education on the Tinkering Studio website.

Desert Island Apps for Teachers

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There are thousands of websites and apps aimed at teachers but if you had to pick just 10 that you couldn’t live without – the digital bare essentials of a 21st Century classroom, your desert island apps – what would they be?

Here, in no particular order, are mine.

1. Google Drive and Google Classroom

Google Drive includes Google Docs, Sheets, Slides and Forms as well as many other GAFE (Google Apps for Education). Google Classroom is a learning platform for schools which brings it all together in a secure online environment. Drive and Classroom allow students to collaborate and share files quickly and teachers to create and distribute assignments, flip learning, grade work, and post notices. Indispensable.

2. Kahoot!

Without doubt this would be the students’ choice. Kahoot! is an enjoyable, game-based learning platform with many similarities to (the also excellent but less jovial) Socrative. Use it to build fast paced multiple-choice quizzes and class surveys or pose questions at hingepoints during a lesson to receive instant feedback from all. Formative assessment at its most fun.

3. TES Teaching Resources

If you didn’t already know, TES Teaching Resources is a vast online library of mostly free lesson plans and classroom resources uploaded by teachers from around the world. To be honest, it’s not all great but there are some real gems in there which are more than worth the rummage. The site is also home to Teachers’ TV; a source of high quality videos on teaching and learning in Early Years, Primary, Secondary and FE, as well as films to help with continued professional development.

4. Adobe Voice

This one is relatively new on the scene but I love the simplicity of this application for making short, highly-professional-looking animated videos. I have written about it many times in this blog and confess to being a huge fan.

5. Online-Stopwatch.com

This site provides a variety of different stopwatches and clocks which can be used to add a sense of urgency to any starter activity or plenary, help keep younger students on task, or be clearly displayed during classroom-based tests.

6. Educreations

There are now a huge number of apps for creating video tutorials on the iPad but I have mostly remained faithful to Educreations as it works seamlessly with Google Drive and is so simple and intuitive to use. As well as making tutorials, I find it useful for providing feedback on larger pieces of student work (e.g. posters or models). I simply take a photograph, import it into Educreations, and then comment and annotate over it before sharing with the student via Classroom.

7. Twitter

We all know that Twitter is essentially a virtual staffroom for sharing resources, airing opinions and generating discussion but it can also be used to support learning in the classroom. For example, I have used it to provide a running news feed, tracked hash tags, connected with other classrooms and industry professionals, and encouraged students to send live Tweets during field trips. There are lots of possibilities. Not convinced? Here is a useful post by the brilliant @ICTEvangelist on the dos and don’ts of getting started in the pedagogical Twittersphere.

8. Armoured Penguin

The best site I have found for making crosswords and other simple word games. All free and easily converted into PDF.

9. YouTube

Create playlists of videos on particular topics, import videos into Google Forms as a flipped learning activity, post video tutorials, find sound effects to really bring your lessons to life, or simply mine this vast resource for educational audio visuals. TeacherTube, TedEd, How Stuff Works, BBC and Sick Science are just some of my favourite channels.

10. Visible Body 3D Human Anatomy Atlas

This is the only subject-specific entry on my list and a costly one (at the time of writing £18.99 from App Store) but it is a simply stunning piece of kit with an impeccable 3D interface offering students a far greater appreciation of anatomical structures than the flat drawings of a textbook ever could. The high-resolution graphics offer smooth zooming, panning and rotating capabilities and the concise labelling (showing the name of each structure and the system hierarchy to which it belongs) make it particularly useful for older students during organ dissections and demonstrations. Brilliant.

So there you have it, my top 10 teaching websites and apps. I would love to hear about your own desert island choices!

 

Awesome Lesson Starters

Start the lesson with a bang!

What students experience in the first couple of minutes of a lesson makes a crucial difference in how well they engage with the learning intentions and as such, starter activites should be exciting, enthusing and unpredictable.

Here are some ideas for creating that ‘hook’ and maintaining the curiosity of students from the get-go.

  • Start the lesson with a fun or even explosive demonstration which ties in to the main body of the lesson. Sick Science has lots of great ideas.
  • Pass around mystery objects inside sealed bags. Ask the students to guess what they are and what they do.
  • Display apparatus, interesting objects and photographs around the room.
  • Play a short video on a loop and hand out questions about its content. This is even better if it is a video that you or the students have made. For example, a time-lapse video to recap the previous lesson or the steps of a practical investigation presented in Adobe Voice.
  • Write a true / false question or a statement on the board. As pupils arrive ask them to choose whether they think it is ‘true’ or ‘false’ or whether they ‘agree’ or ‘disagree’ and to stand to one side or another of an imaginary line down the middle of the room.
  • Display a picture and a question. Alternatively, you can display a number of different pictures related to a theme and simply ask ‘What have I Googled?’
  • Play ‘Backs to the Board.’ Divide your students into two or three teams. One volunteer from each team sits in a chair with their backs to the board, facing their friends. Write a key word on the board, making sure that the players in the ‘hot seats’ can not see it. After you say ‘Go!’, the members of each team must try to elicit the word from the volunteer without saying the word or giving any clues as to its spelling. The players in the ‘hot seats’ then swap with another member of their respective teams.
  • Arrange for a guest speaker to be standing in the room as the students arrive.
  • Recap the last lesson by displaying true / false statements or multiple choice questions and asking students to answer on mini whiteboards.
  • Use Socrative or Kahoot to prepare a fun quiz or questionnaire.
  • Play a song relating to the lesson as the students arrive.
  • Display multiple choice questions around the room. Give the students a time limit (these classroom timers are fun) and get them to move around the room looking for and answering the questions.
  • Set up apparatus for the lesson and display one or more questions about what it might be for and how it works. Alternatively, hide the appartus under a cloth and, before revealing it, ask questions about what it might be.
  • When they arrive, hand each student or pair of students a mystery object and ask them to come up with ideas about what it might be used for.
  • Greet the students at the classroom door wearing full protective equipment including visor or goggles.
  • Hand each student a question or an answer to a question and ask them to find their pair.
  • Play the ‘Who Am I?’ game but instead of a famous person designate each student a key word relating to the current topic. Remember, participants can only use ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ questions to work out who or what they are.

No matter how you start the lesson try to involve the students whenever you can and make sure it does not go on for too long. Link the activity to the main body of the lesson and allow time for questions and answers. Have fun!