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Letters to a New History Teacher: No. 9

Hitting the Mark

There’s a saying that the eyes are the windows on the soul. If that’s true then in the world of the teacher, the children’s exercise books are the windows on the brain.

In one of my first Letters I wrote of the importance of a regular marking routine. But also admitted I had never cracked this in my first NQT. Yet as this term has progressed I have found a way to conquer the marking – and in so doing am giving myself essential access to what the children are thinking.

The Method?

1. I take in their books every week. This shows the children I care about their work – about their ideas. (I won’t go into the mass of evidence that demonstrates how regular dialogue has a positive impact on the quality of the student’s work.)

2. I have set up a marking timetable. So on Thursdays after school for example I mark Year 8, Year 9 and one Year 11 class. This was part of a bigger medium term plan where I worked out which classes would have formative feedback when, and then made sure I didn’t have too much detailed marking occurring at the same time in the half term. It sometimes meant I had to jiggle lessons around but it’s far better to do that and make sure all children get feedback than find you’ve hit a crisis, unable to get all of your marking done.

3. Whatever feedback they receive I write it as questions that they must reply to. This is where it’s neat because that becomes their homework for that week – so it’s essentially a cycle of class work + home work > marked by me > home work to respond, which takes the burden off me when I mark the home work the following week as it’s relatively quick to check they’ve responded to comments.

4. I only ever mark for one thing. This is essential – I would never get my marking completed if I was marking everything that needed development. Even more essential is that I share my marking focus with the students when I set the work. For example “Year 9 I want to see that you can select and explain any evidence on this Victorian empire plate that shows they were proud of the empire”.

5. I don’t write comments out over and over – I use codes or colour coding where possible. This relates to point four as if you know your marking focus you should have a good sense of the positives (what went well) and the issues (would be even better if …) that will arise, so you can create a set of codes to annotate the work with. Of course I still write individual praise and cause for celebration in full as it’s very motivational (“you’re really showing great gains overall Tom, well done: I’m proud of you”).

6. I plan to give all students detailed formative feedback before they complete their final assessment. At my school we complete assessments once a half term. So usually around half way through the half term I plan to mark a piece of work that mimics or builds to their final piece. The formative feedback on this is an important step to achieving more highly than they would without such feedback. But just because it’s formative it doesn’t have to mean tons of writing. Again I use colour coded dots (bingo dabbers are amazing for this!). The magic here is I then spend the next lesson asking them to use colouring pencils to find examples in their work of the ‘what went wells’. So if I gave them a yellow dot representing they had explained changes in the church in 1549 well, they must use a yellow pencil to highlight where in their work they did this. This shows me that they know what they did well. To action their ‘would be even better if’ coloured dots they can then find someone in the class who has that colour as a ‘what went well’ – they can read their work as an example and then add the improvement for themselves or at least better understand what they need to ask for to complete that addition (eg “Miss I don’t have enough information on the changes Mary made to the church – where can I find it?”).

7. Finally I borrowed an idea from the fab Ed Podesta – a “verbal feedback given” stamper. We each have 100s of learning conversations every week and that don’t always get captured. So now when I give verbal feedback I stamp in the student’s book and they write underneath the action I ask suggested. Once put into practice the student draws a line from the stamp to the place in their work.

Above all the mantra from HMI Michael Maddison stays with me when I am marking: a piece of work in history deserves a history comment. Comments like ‘good, well done, good effort, nice work’ are meaningless if we want the children to get better at the discipline of history. So make your time spent marking meaningful for you and your students and give them history feedback. Thus my codes and colour codes all relate to the knowledge, skills and concepts we need students to understand if they are to work toward mastery of history.