We’ve been using the 200 word challenges as shared by the ever-generous and thoughtful Chris Curtis (@Xris32) for the past year now in our English department. They’ve gone down a storm at all levels. You can read about them here. As Chris stated originally:
“Now, here’s the thing: the students love it. They love the unpredictable nature of the task. They love the routine. They love the freedom of the writing. Yes, I have had one or two students have a mental block with a task, but usually they come back with renewed vigour the following week. They love it. The teachers love it.”
We’re lucky to be able to share so many excellent ideas and resources through the amazing network of English teachers known as #TeamEnglish on Twitter. 200 word challenges have been adapted and shared widely since Chris first posted about them. We’ve really enjoyed tying some challenges to our schemes of work to encourage links, as well as using ‘random’ themes. The students like doing them, have clearly improved their techniques and skills in both content and form, and I think I can safely say that all students from years 7 to 11 at our school know what the 200 word challenges are. More importantly, perhaps, they know their own capabilities in writing now: what 200 words looks like in their own handwriting; how long it takes to create a piece with this word count (about 20-25 minutes) and they are used to being able to develop an idea into the 3 or 4 paragraphs required and the criteria we set for each task. Hurrah!
Recently, I was working with our dance department. They have gone to a 40% written element in their GCSE and have been trying hard to think about how they introduce this element into the year 9 curriculum so that students know that written appreciation is expected of them in dance and so they don’t find it too much of a shock to go from purely practical classes in year 9 to the demands of year 10 and its 60:40 split. At GCSE, the theory paper has a range of questions, ranging from 1 to 12 marks with a total of 80 marks possible, so year 10 and 11 students also need to be able to gain practice in writing dance appreciation in timed conditions.
I remembered the 200 word challenges that have worked so well in English and suggested to Abbie, our head of dance, that we try to create a short writing task that introduces year 9 students to critique and could be practised at set times in the year. It was also important that the students could peer mark the tasks, so they get to know the vocabulary and methods of appreciation and evaluation – and also to ensure it didn’t take up too much of the teachers’ time to mark them. They tried them out, using clips of dance performance from a range of sources (including Strictly!) as stimuli and clear criteria containing key words and they’ve worked really well. They will now use this format to support GCSE students answering the theory questions, adapting them to suit to mark scheme and timed allowed for each question.
We had a TED (Teacher Education Day) a few weeks ago and a significant proportion of staff have opted to take a teaching and learning focus for their CPD this year (as opposed to Pastoral/SEND or personal professional learning). Those of us focusing on T&L have been working on memory, retrieval and revision. As well as this focus, it struck me at this point that colleagues like those in PE, whose subjects have much-increased theory, and also those who have greatly-increased content such as history, geography and science, might benefit from the practice that the challenges provide.
A question we hear a lot from subjects with new specs is ‘How do we fit all the content in and then get the students to write about it successfully?’ For students starting out at secondary level, it will be easier as we are adapting our KS3 curricula to establish those baselines, but for students in the upper years, it’s been a tall order for many subjects. Some of these subjects are well-used to expecting extended written responses, but some are going from zero to a comparatively large amount. How do these subjects teach the students to expect to produce quality writing where traditionally none has featured? How do they give writing the kudos it deserves and needs? I thought the 200 word challenges might help with this. I asked two of my brilliant English colleagues, Karen (@kec261) and Jo (@jbjuniper) if they could give this some thought and develop a workshop that would share the benefits we have found in our department, and discuss with colleagues just how transferable the challenges might be, helping them to create some if they wanted as part of the workshop.
The workshop content that Jo and Karen came up with was excellent. Jo even tried some of the various subject ideas out on older members of her Learning Mentor (vertical tutor) group. Student feedback was very positive and this added another valuable dimension to the session: ideas that the students had contributed to and were able to confirm that really worked. Here are some of the ideas Jo and Karen shared, including a Geography response that one of Jo’s group wrote.
Obviously, colleagues in other subjects will want to adapt these ideas, dependent on their exam board and deeper knowledge of the new specs than we may have after just a short time skimming the exam specs, but there is clearly much potential in this idea (how many times can we thank @Xris32?) Once you know what ‘perfect’ exam responses look like for those 6, 0r 8 or 12 marks questions, you’ll be able to set word and time limits. So, in History you might set 100 word challenges for a 4 mark question; in PE it might be 150 words for the 9 mark question, etc.
Establishing these as habit is crucial. Build them into your curriculum planning, interleaved with retrieval opportunities like low stakes quizzing, 5-a-day and revision grids, all of which have proven very successful in a number of subjects now. If you are able to do this, you can then do the ‘tablecloth trick’ with your tasks, gradually removing the criteria and key words and asking that students remember them independently.
And in case you are worried that this activity detracts from exam practice, you needn’t fret. As Chris states:
“I think we have suffered ‘connection’ issues in English. We have felt that everything has to be connected. If students write, it is usually writing something connected to the main topic. You are studying ‘A Christmas Carol’ so the students will write a carol, a Christmas card, a description of life in the Cratchit house, a ghost story and so on. Four hours a week on the same topic for seven weeks can make lessons particularly beige. More of the same thing.”
Same idea applies to other subjects. In discussing them with a range of departments recently, it is clear that the writing challenges also help students develop their subject knowledge in a flexible and creative way, using subject knowledge and expert terminology to problem-solve for a range of tasks. The challenges don’t need to resemble exam questions in order to have a high level of impact.