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Junior Cycle students write new chapter


Leslie Turner, SchoolWise CEO, and co-founder, Sally Roynane, ICT coordinator with students from Presentation De La Salle, Carlow, viewing the new online platform

Leslie Turner, SchoolWise CEO, and co-founder, Sally Roynane, ICT coordinator with students from Presentation De La Salle, Carlow, viewing the new online platform

Leslie Turner, SchoolWise CEO, and co-founder, Sally Roynane, ICT coordinator with students from Presentation De La Salle, Carlow, viewing the new online platform

Traditionally, junior cycle students returned to school in third year with the prospect of an exam marathon the following June, including five hours sitting in the hall doing English. Next year, that will be cut to two hours, and here's why.

While it has been slow to happen, and remains highly contentious, tens of thousands of students are experiencing the reforms being phased in at junior cycle.

The big change is the introduction of classroom-based assessments (CBAs) in individual subjects, a move away from exclusive reliance on a single set of State exams, day in, day out, over three weeks in June, as a means of measuring what students had learned over their first three years of second level.

The Association of Secondary Teachers' Ireland (ASTI) has maintained an opposition to the reforms, so students being taught by a teacher who is a member of the ASTI are not doing the new CBAs.

But, the reforms are up and running for the remainder of junior cycle classes, which account for almost half of students.

Education experts believe that terminal examinations, such as the Junior Cert, are too limited in what they assess, and work to the advantage of those who can memorise information and regurgitate it. Such exams are blamed for encouraging rote learning and putting students under extreme pressure.

Broadening forms of assessment is widely regarded as the best way of capturing student skills and achievements, beyond an ability to memorise. And putting assessment into the hands of people who know the student best and who can use it in real time to improve student learning, is seen as a positive.

English is the first of the new-style junior cycle subjects to be rolled out, and current third years are the first to experience the new approaches to teaching, learning and assessment. The new regime involves two CBAs in each subject, across second and third year, as well as an assessment task in third year, along with some traditinoal exams.

Students whose teachers are co-operating underwent the first CBA in English last spring or, at the latest, last month. That was in oral communication, and could, for instance, have taken the form of a presentation on a topic of choice, participation in a debate or a dramatic performance, done in front of teachers and classmates.

There is a second CBA for each subject, and third year students of English in classes where teachers are co-operating, are now focussing on this. It requires individual students to gather the four best examples of writing, across a number of different genres, such as poetry or a short story, that they completed across second and third year. By December 2, they must whittle those four down to two, which they then submit for the CBA.

The process, in first selecting four and then reducing that to two, involves the student reflecting on each piece of work and improving it in whatever way they deem fit. It is the final versions of these works that will go forward for the assessment.

Dr Pádraig Kirk, director of Junior Cycle for Teachers, the Department of Education's professional development and support service for the new curriculum, compares the more traditional approach to the new.

"When you go in to do an exam and are asked to write an essay in an hour or so. You do it, it is done and dusted and, whether you like it or not, away it goes to the examiner," he says.

"With this, students have an opportunity to revise, edit, fine tune, in the same way as a novelist would. It is all about thinking about what you have written. It is more real life, a more authentic experience of the writing process."

That process of selecting and revising written work is likely going on now in classrooms, or in students' homes, and is sure to intensify before December 2.

Similar to the CBA in oral communication, teachers will assess that work and award one of the four CBA descriptors: exceptional; above expectations; in line with expectations; yet to meet expectations. This will be included in the new Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement (JCPA) to be awarded next year, replacing the traditional Junior Certificate.

As well as the assessment by teachers, in the following week (December 5-9) students will sit what is known as a written assessment task (AT), directly linked to the second CBA.

The assessment task, to be done over two class periods, will involve students answering questions to show how they reflected on the process, and what they learned, in the course of completing the second CBA. The paper will be set by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) and students' work will be dispatched to the State Examinations Commission (SEC) for marking.

The assessment task will be worth 10pc of the overall marks for English and will be added to the results that the students achieve in the two-hour exam next June. This is why serious concerns have arisen about the situation for students who are not doing these new forms of assessment because of the ASTI opposition.

If nothing changes they will be at a loss of a potential 10pc marks for the written exam, as well as not having CBA descriptors included on their JCPA.

Start-up gives a technology leg-up to schools

A start-up technology company at Maynooth University's new business incubator, MaynoothWorks, has come up with a product that is helping schools to track individual students' progress in key skills development, assessment performance and learning outcomes. It has a particular relevance for the  junior cycle, with its new approaches to teaching and learning and  assessment.

SchoolWise is an online platform that is credited with cutting the amount of time teachers spend on administration, while also making it easy for them to map out their subjects and ensure that each student reaches their clearly delineated targets.

According to Schoolwise founder, Leslie Turner, one of the benefits is that it helps teachers to identify positive and negative trends as they emerge, which allows for early and correct intervention, leading to better overall outcomes for students.

During the design phase, SchoolWise received input from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and Junior Cycle for Teachers.

Sally Roynane, ICT Coordinator at Presentation De La Salle, Carlow, one of the first schools to use it, said staff were now spending much more time teaching and helping students, and the impact was "clearly evident in the outcomes of our students."

Attention transition year students

Press Pass, a Newspapers in Education programme for transition year students, is running again this year.

Participating schools receive free copies of national and local newspapers, as well as a workbook designed to give students a better understanding of how newspapers work and how they can be used as an educational resource.

The programme also exposes students to the five language types that form the basis of study for Leaving Certificate English Paper 1 in a very practical way: the language of information, argument, narration, persuasion and the aesthetic use of language. 

Once schools have completed the programme, students are invited to take part in a national journalism competition, with four written categories and one photo journalism category.

The winners will be presented with their awards at a ceremony in the Convention Centre in March 2017.

The closing date for registration at presspass.ie is this Friday, October 7.

The programme is funded by NewsBrands Ireland, the representative body for all national newspapers, print  and online.

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