'Pick a topic you'd tell your friends about' - advice for the junior cycle assessment
Junior cycle students rise to the new challenge of communicating and presenting in front of their peers
There were no past papers or role models to learn from, but Conor Eiffe, one of the first students in the country to undergo the new classroom-based assessment (CBA) in junior cycle English, worked out a simple, and effective, approach to the challenge facing him.
"Definitely choose something you would tell your friends about," says Conor (14).
He is among thousands of second years who, in the past month, have stood in front of their teacher and classmates and delivered a three-minute oral presentation, on a topic of their choice.
It is one of the methods being used to assess a broader range of student skills, rather than exclusive reliance on a single set of, mainly written, exams after three years. The aim of this particular exercise is to assess research and communication/presentation skills.
Guitar and piano-playing Conor picked a subject very close to his own heart, and one that the knew also had wide appeal: "Music is something that everyone enjoys and, if someone likes something, they should really learn as much as they can."
So, with the help of Powerpoint (the skills for which he had to develop) he gave his classmates at Maynooth Community College, Co Kildare a brief lesson in sampling, the music industry practice of taking a sound recording and using it in a different song or piece.
Conor says that while he understands the subject well, he realised that he also had to break it down for others who may not have been familiar with it.
"His teacher said you could hear a pin drop when he spoke," says Joan Donlon, also a teacher of English at the school.
Another Maynooth Community College pupil, Eimear Ni Mhaonaigh, took a completely different approach.
The 14-year-old performed a monologue based on a fictional teacher who got caught up in the events of Easter Week 1916, while cycling past the Shelbourne Hotel.
Students like Eimear, who studies acting with the Brennan Academy, have an asset in an oral assessment, but, still, she found performing for her peers a different matter: "I was a bit nervous going up in front of my classmates, but once I was up there, it was fine."
Maynooth Community College is a new school in the Co Kildare town, which, while it awaits its own building, is sharing home with the longer-established Maynooth Post Primary School. Both are under the patronage of Kildare Education and Training Board (KETB).
So, it made a certain sense for the two schools to collaborate on the new assessments, which involved more than 200 pupils of 10 of the 17 teachers of English on the campus.
Teachers and pupils had a three-week period to devote to finalising preparations for, and completion of, the new CBAs. In a class of 25, it would take about three days for each student to do their presentation.
The three weeks allowed for a practice run, which, in these two Maynooth schools are being described as the 'mocks'. If students were not happy, they could rework their presentation, based on their own reflections of their initial performance, the standard of other presentations and feedback from their teacher. Some teachers recorded the 'mocks' as an aid to providing feedback.
Nicola Henry, who teaches English at Maynooth Post Primary School, said that among the issues that came up were eye contact and voice projection. Some students did not have enough content to keep it going for three minutes. Some changed topics completely after the mocks.
Some pupils did not feel the need to do a second presentation but Eimear Ni Mhaonaigh valued the chance: "I could look back and see my faults and how to improve."
While many chose their own topics, others selected from a list of suggestions. One that caught the eye of Glen Lee (15) of Maynooth Post Primary School, was superstitions: "I don't believe in them and it is something I feel strongly about," says Glen, who relished the opportunity to tackle it.
A Galway native, he discussed it with his dad, who filled him in on some old wives' tales from the west of Ireland.
He says: "I enjoyed putting it together. I had to work out what was interesting stuff to say in three minutes. Because we got a chance to do a second draft, I could make it better."
With students doing most of the research and rehearsal at home, the teachers were struck about the level of involvement of parents in these projects.
Martha Gilligan (14), also of Maynooth Post Primary School, says her dad put her through her paces: "He would say things like 'did you pause at the right place, Martha?'"
She is passionate about the environment and, in her Powerpoint-assisted presentation, challenged her classmates to think about "how green are we really?".
She says: "When we hear about climate change, most people don't really do that much about it. We need to really try. We do not know what will happen if we keep putting loads of carbon dioxide in the air."
Nicola Henry says another student spoke about the forgotten famine of 1748 and her dad told her about the importance of speaking slowly and the importance of delivery to prove a point.
"There is very little else that we have where parent feedback is so relevant and so needed," she says.
While some students are more comfortable than others with the new assessment mode, it has been welcomed as a positive teaching and learning experience in these two schools.
Both have introduced oral presentations to their first years, who do them as part of their summer exams as a way of laying foundations for the CBAs in second year .
"The progression and maturity that we saw from first year, with its wobbles and nervouness, to second year was huge," says Joan Donlon.
How the teachers assess their students
Once students have done their classroom-based oral assessment, a teacher awards it a descriptor.
In a change from the traditional percentages or grades, there are four quality descriptors; exceptional; above expectations, in line with expectations; yet to meet expectations.
Samples of student presentations are then reviewed at what is known as the Subject Learning and Assessment Review (SLAR )meeting, involving the English department of a school, or more than one school. This is intended to help to ensure consistency and fairness within and across schools in the assessment process.
Nicola Henry and Joan Donlon are the SLAR coordinators for English in their respective schools.
The SLAR meeting discusses samples of work from each class, under each of the four descriptors, and forms a judgement as to whether they align with the quality expectation attached to the descriptor awarded.
"We thrash things out," says Nicola Henry.
After the meeting, teachers consider the assessment of their students' work and, where necessary will change their original descriptor. It is at the discretion of the individual teacher to make an adjustment, or not.
The descriptors will appear in the Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement Award (JCPA), which is replacing the traditional Junior Certificate.
Schools may choose to report the outcomes to parents at an earlier stage. Maynooth Post Primary School and Maynooth Community College are both including the descriptors in the summer reports of the second year students.
The Association of Secondary Teachers' Ireland (ASTI) is in dispute over the junior cycle changes, so CBAs have only been conducted in schools where the Teachers' Union of Ireland (TUI) is the sole or dominant union representing teachers.
That's about 35pc-45pc of post-primary schools - about 270 in the Education and Training Board (ETB) sector, as well as some of the 96 community and comprehensive schools.