Category Archives: Teach First

Back to the (very scary) drawing board

At 4:30pm today I was hot and irritable, and running late for a workshop through no fault of my own. I hate being late – and in this case, it was for a workshop that I really needed to get the most out of. When I eventually got there, half an hour into an hour long session, I wasn’t exactly in a great learning mindset.

The workshop was on interactive whiteboards. I got there in time to see a fair few demonstrations of how you could use it, coupled with Active Inspire (which is used in my school). When the other people in the group started practising those skills, those of us who had been late were given a whistle stop tour of the techniques.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I got anything out of the workshop. My irritation at being late exacerbated an underlying worry that really got my head in a spin and left me pretty closed off in relation to the learning process. The thing is, I really don’t like ICT. I was never great at it in school – I wasn’t terrible, but it was never something that particularly interested me. Unlike a lot of my peers, who were always thrilled when we had a lesson in the computer rooms, I didn’t thrive in front of a screen. I still don’t, to be fair. I spend far too much time on social media and news sites, but actually I prefer it when I don’t have access to a computer as it takes away those distractions.

When I was in school, it was still pretty exciting if a teacher had prepped a power point. Smart boards came in a few years before I left but I never really saw them used a whole lot to the best of my recollection. However when you go into schools today it’s highly unlikely that you’ll see a lesson in which ICT isn’t used in some shape or form, whether that’s in the form of a simple powerpoint or a snazzy interactive smartboard presentation. Ofsted like it, and after all we’re living in a technological age, so at face value it makes total sense.

The truth is, the use of ICT in schools, particularly interactive whiteboards, makes me so angry and worried that in class today I was on the verge of walking out in frustration. I’ve been told that the research and anecdotal experience says that kids learn well with interactive whiteboards. This generation is very tech-savvy and computer literate, even if they come from deprived backgrounds, because they have access to shiny equipment at school. The problem for me, especially as an English teacher, is that I think they simply have too much ICT in their lives for it to be of much or any use or interest in a classroom situation.

To put it another way; my professional tutor told us a couple of weeks back to look at the “diet” that pupils were being fed in terms of lessons during our school observations. I’m pretty sure over the three days I didn’t see a single lesson that didn’t involve ICT in some way.

We talk so much about kids being unable to spell, read, write, add up, concentrate, engage. Is it any wonder, when they have been born into a world where a machine will spellcheck everything for you? Why concentrate when you know that the answer is just off-screen, waiting for a click or a dragging motion? Why bother to inquire or be curious about anything at all when all you need to do is type a few words into google?

I’m frustrated because I think it is very easy to use ICT for the sake of using it, and not because it is meaningful or increases the rate of progression in kids’ ability. I’m frustrated because I’ve got to include ICT in my lessons, and I never learned to love literature or language or anything for that matter through a series of slides, with a glaring backlight.

One of the best things we’ve done so far this Summer Institute is learn about Active Shakespeare, a way of exploring Shakespeare as a class, on foot, orally and physically. Although I am not entirely certain, I’d still be willing to say that this was the only session I’ve had that was “sans powerpoint”. And if I’m being entirely honest, I think I remember more about that session that I do about most others, although they’ve all been great. I’m not a purely kinaesthetic learner – I actually learn best visually, reading words. So it says something about my ability to view ICT as a useful tool, since I don’t think I have ever been able to learn from it myself.

I’m fully aware that a large part of my rage and sadness today was to do with insecurity and personal capability – because I am not good with ICT, I am really terrified of having to use it to facilitate learning on so regular a basis. Interactive whiteboards honestly put the fear of God into me. I don’t know how to use them, and I don’t particularly want to use them.

I can see the useful side of ICT – it is so much easier to not waste time writing instructions on the board. For SEN pupils (of which I will have many in my classes come September), simple and short instructions on a single slide, with images, are much more effective than oral instruction. I will use ICT when I think it is useful, when it is going to be best for my kids. Despite my lack of computer literacy, I do have some very strong opinions when it comes to good powerpoints; the anger I feel when I see a cluttered slide with clashing colours and difficult fonts is only equalled by the genuine anguish I feel when people misuse apostrophes.

I think if I manage to get some substantial time with an interactive whiteboard, and if I can familiarise myself with the Active Inspire Software over the few free days I have in August, I’ll probably survive. However I still think it’s worth bearing in mind that it may do kids good to have  a break from technology in the classroom whenever possible. Outside of class they are constantly on phones and computers, or watching TV. There’s nothing wrong with the written word, with tactile sheets, with pen and ink. It just takes a lot of guts to go back to basics, guts I hope I’ll be able to hang on to, if only to prove that the book is mightier than the slide.

Ps. Roald Dahl takes a somewhat more extreme view than me, but I still think he may be right.

In which I compare the British Education system to “The Hunger Games”, because I can

I’ll readily confess that when I first heard tell of The Hunger Games (thanks twitter) I thought it was some kind of extreme pie eating competition. Imagine my disappointment when I found out it was a best selling trilogy with a rabid fanbase. Naturally, I ranted and moaned for a while about “popular literature”, lamenting the conspicuous lack of Austenmania in today’s youth, before actually reading the books and finishing the entire trilogy in about 6 hours. Turned out it was quite good. After all, anything’s better than Twilight. Anything.

The thing about The Hunger Games is that despite not being the most beautifully written triology of all time (I could rant for ages about the epilogue which almost equals The Deathly Hallows in its utter lack of closure and general sloppiness), it is the kind of story that gets into your head and won’t leave. Which is why, several re-reads later, I found myself walking home and all of a sudden thinking, “hey, our education system is kind of like a fight to the death in a world controlled by dictatorial social forces and constrained by poverty to the extent that it can be compared to a dystopian Roman Empire if a dystopian Roman Empire involved loads of puns about fire”.

Let me break it down a wee bit. For those of you who have been living on Mars, the premise of The Hunger Games is an annual televised competition, in which 24 children fight to the death in order to atone for the rebellion of their ancestors who instigating an uprising against the Capitol of Panem, the future America. One victor remains at the end of the Games as a reminder of the Capitol’s good will towards their citizens. The kids are chosen to go into the arena by a randomised ballot (supposedly randomised, anyway) – one girl and one boy, aged between 12 and 18 are selected from each of Panem’s twelve districts.

Here’s the catch: because of systematic oppression at the hands of the Capitol’s power elite, a lot of the districts are poor. Really poor – as in, don’t know where their next meal is coming from poor. Kids can get extra grain and oil for their family (“tesserae”) by putting their name in the ballot more times, which many of them do. So basically, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to get picked – and the more likely you are to die. Hold on to that thought for a sec.

Katniss, the protagonist and narrator, tells us that it’s usually pretty much a given that Districts 1, 2 and 4 will be the ones to have a victor at the end of the Games. The kids in 1 and 2 tend to train in an academy until they are 18 and then volunteer for a shot at the glory.  These kids are known as “Career” tributes. I don’t think it’s ever explained why 4 is on a similar level – but Districts 1 and 2 are closer to the Capitol, geographically and politically. The kids are clearly better fed and richer owing to the industries of their districts. This, along with their extensive formal training, gives them the upper hand in the arena.

By now it might be easier to see where I’m coming from with this comparison. But let’s put the education system into its social context for a brief second:

People living in the poorest neighbourhoods in England will die on average 7 years earlier than people living in the richest neighbourhoods [The Marmot Review / Department of Education 2010]

Remember what I said about poverty in The Hunger Games? It boils down to this: if you’re poor, you’re more likely to get into the arena, and you’re more likely to die than survive. The tagline of the trilogy, and of the Games, is “may the odds be ever in your favour”. In Katniss’ world, at least the authorities come clean about the fact that it is a game of chance. In the games, you may avoid murder at the hands of the other tributes only to die of dehydration.

In our world, in the education system, the odds are equally unstable. You may live close to an excellent school, but your catchment area may mean that you go to a much less good one. You may have superb teachers and support, you may not. You may get help with your homework, have parents who have been educated, live in an area with cultural opportunities and work experience options. But the odds are, if you live in a deprived area of England, you won’t have these things. The odds are not in your favour, because the single greatest indicator of how well a child will do at school in the UK is their parents’ income.

As inThe Hunger Games, this is not always a be-all end-all – after all, Katniss and Peeta are the eventual victors of the 74th Games, despite being from the poorest district, and some kids from deprived backgrounds will excel at school and break out of the cycle of poverty. But the odds of that aren’t great. Only 17% of kids on Free School Meals will go to University compared with 96% of their privately educated peers.

There’s more to be said about this comparison. In the arena, children between the ages of 12-18 fight to the death. Okay, maybe this doesn’t happen literally in schools – but think about it. Our education system as it currently stands is premised, ultimately, on how good one child is compared to the rest of their peers – in their classroom, school and nationally. In other words, kids are judged contextually rather than individually. This is not the same as acknowledging a child’s context in the sense of their background. Rather the system operates on a series of benchmarks which children either meet or fail – and in order for some kids to succeed, or excel at succeeding, other kids have to fail. Not everyone can be a winner. That’s why they are called winners. We talk about “healthy competition” – and maybe that’s okay, to a degree, when you want to motivate kids to do a task quickly, or strive to win points for their school house. But at the end of the day, what we’re actually asking them to do is not simply to be their best, but to be better than everyone else’s best if they want to really shine.

In one of my Teach First Leading Self Workshops (yes I know, gouda with a side order of gruyere), we read an article about what kids bring to school in their metaphorical schoolbag – a love of reading, musical ability, parental support and so on. We went on to have a discussion about policy and whether or not current policy is working. Someone in the group made a really excellent point about how the education system is basically geared towards a certain “type” of kid, and they are the ones who are, from the moment they enter primary school, going to succeed. These are the kids who are read to in English – and have been encouraged to read in English themselves. These are also, generally speaking, the kids whose parents have been educated to a Higher level. The kids who are less likely to succeed may still have a lot in their schoolbag – the example in the article was a kid who spoke three languages (including English, but that wasn’t his first language), loved music and hearing about the history of his parent’s home countries. Yet he is more likely to fail because these are not the schoolbag items that are valued in the educational system, to the same degree as formal abilities sustained by cultural capital.

Going back to The Hunger Games, a narrative of survival, Katniss manages to endure precisely because she has unprecedented access to a skill set that is not usual for a District 12 tribute; her ability to shoot and hunt puts her on a level with the formally trained Career Tributes – although arguably it is her sheer grit which sees her claim the ultimate victory. If we put this model in the education system, surely we would see the same results – kids of all backgrounds have the potential and determination to succeed, but only some of them have the tools to be able to do so.

Despite the fact I’ve spent this time comparing The Hunger Games to the educational system, there are obvious points of diversion. The trilogy is finite, it concludes with the overthrow of the oppressive system and the destruction of the Games. This overthrow comes at a huge price (I won’t spoil it for you, read the damn books) but it still happens. And it happens because the Capitol’s regime has a figurehead, a power source; President Snow. The centralisation of power makes it relatively easy to pull the plug on it, in the end. Same with Voldemort and the One Ring; drain the sources of life, and you kill the centre of darkness.

For us, it’s not so simple. The education system that we currently have is so deeply embedded into our social structures that there is no simple crux, no turning or tipping point, no regulating factor – no horcruxes, no ring, no President. Sure, there are few things I’d like to see more than Michael Gove being trampled to death by an angry crowd, in the same way as Snow meets his demise, but apart from a fleeting sense of relief on my part it wouldn’t do much good for the education system. The means of control exerted by the Capitol is simple; not so for us.

So what do we do? Well, the good news is that we can all do something. One of the things I’m slowly getting used to is that Teach First is only part of a wider solution to this problem of educational disadvantage. It focuses on excellent teaching, as it should – but it is not an overtly political organisation, which is sometimes difficult for me, being the highly opiniated person that you all know and love. Yet we can have influence at a systemic level. Teach First’s Ultimate Goal in 10 years time is to not exist – it is the hope that by then we will have achieved enough as a collective organisation to become unnecessary. By setting the standard for teaching and learning, by driving our kids to raise their aspirations, improve their achievement, and gain access to life options, we may slowly see the system reinvent itself.

I’m pretty terrified of the challenges that lie ahead – and I guess my comparing the education system to a fantasy trilogy is just my way of coping, of mapping my thoughts. I’ve always done that; literature is my lens through which I can look at the world – that’s why I want to be an English teacher, to give other kids that perspective. I think that’s going to be my role in this narrative. It’s Katniss’ father that teaches her how to use her bow and arrow – even if she is the one who eventually leads the revolution. We all need someone to teach us how to shoot straight, after all.

Week two of Teach First: putting things into context

I cannot believe that it’s only been two weeks since I started Teach First – it feels like months since I left my old job. Don’t get me wrong – I’m enjoying it hugely, but it just goes to show that when you get really absorbed in a bubble, it’s difficult to break out of it and to remember that other stuff is going on. If it weren’t for twitter I wouldn’t have a clue what’s going on at Wimbledon.

This past week has been a bit mixed in terms of how we’ve been spending our time, so I’m not going to go through it in minute detail – as per, I’ve gone through my notes and picked out the things that really struck me.

Two great things on Monday: discussing our reading for the “Identity, Community and Achievement” part of the Leading Self Workshop was really interesting (although I would beg Teach First to not make us start at 8am again!) The very short reading was about awareness of self-identity and the identity of others, and how this can effect teaching if the teacher – consciously or subconsciously – treats an individual or group differently because of their identity.

Since the vast majority of the West Midlands cohort is white, being aware of that privilege is extremely important in classrooms where the majority of kids may well be from non-white families. An interesting term I encountered was “naïve egalitarianism”, which denotes the kind of behaviour a teacher exhibits when they purport to treat their students “all the same”, regardless of race or background. While this might sound like the politically correct thing to do, this essentially contributes to systematic erasure of cultural identity and is tantamount to exclusion of the minority. On the other hand, marking a group out as “Other” because of who they are is equally dangerous. Something to think about in terms of maintaining a balance and designing a curriculum which will engage all of the kids. I like to think I’m already quite familiar with this concept, thanks to the work NUS has done in terms of Liberating the Curriculum* in Higher Education – but let’s see what happens when I get into the classroom.

We also had an excellent contextual lecture from the Director of the Institute of Education at Warwick, which essentially gave us the background of government policies and issues in urban education and urban schools. It was really useful to get a sense of where the notion of publicly funded school education came from and the legislation that followed it, given the shake-up currently going on in the sector under the Conservatives. The idea that the improvement of education must be premised on the “raising of standards” is evidently not a new one, but I still find it ridiculous as a concept – after all, as Sir Ken Robinson said in his RSA video, “why would you lower them?”

It was also interesting to remember that when the first City Academies were announced in 2000, they were designed for schools that were perceived to be struggling – now a lot more outstanding schools are becoming Academies. I’m going to try to blog on Academies and different types of school at some point as I still haven’t made my own mind up about the changes. I’ll also be interested to see Teach First’s work over the next ten years in terms of rural schools – currently it does target inner-city schools, but surely as it continues to expand rural schools will become actively included, and rightly so.

From Tuesday to Friday morning we were all in school for observation. I’m not going to write a huge amount here as to be honest, I’m pretty sick of observing lessons, regardless of how good they are – it was a real treat to be able to teach a  class by myself on Friday, even if it was only for 20 minutes. I’ll say this though: the difficulties of teaching SEN kids really hit home this week after I observed a year 7 class that was made up of pretty much all SEN kids. I’m still processing how I’m going to deal with that if I have a class like that in my school.

It was also useful (if a little draining) to spend two days observing the year 6 cohort who were joining this school as year 7 in September. It was remarkably easy to jump to conclusions about what kind of person they are and what their behaviour was like after only a few hours – first impressions must make a huge impact on how teachers treat children so the onus on kids to behave on their first day is absolutely massive. They also put them through  a series of Cognitive Assessment Tests, which most schools do. It terrifies me a bit that the standardisation of intelligence starts before they’ve even got their uniform.

On a more positive note, I was pretty pleased with how my lesson went on Friday and had some very good feedback, which was a big relief and now I can’t wait to start teaching properly! It was also interesting to see, in various observations, that strict teachers  can still be engaging and approachable to kids – as long as they get the balance right.

Finally, on Friday afternoon we all re-grouped for Professional Studies, where we talked a fair amount about Behaviour for Learning. The real thing that I took away from this was a point that I raised – which was whenever we talk about BFL, we always seem to start with the discipline, punishments, sanctions and so on. We rarely, if ever, start with the positive basis for BFL – the praise, the reward. I think this is crucial for understanding how kids behave. If we start from the premise of what is expected, and why it is positive, rather than starting with what the kids should not do or X, Y and Z will happen to them, then I think this makes a huge difference. I’m not one for giving praise for the sake of it, but I don’t think we give it enough – especially for the good, but quiet kids who sit down, get on with their work, and never get any credit for it. It’s something I’ll definitely be keeping in mind as September approaches – as the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

In other words, when it comes to BFL, I’m using Pirates of the Caribbean** as my reference point.

Finally on Saturday I took part in the Challenge Day, which was loads of fun – we had to build our ideal indoor learning environment out of scrap materials (our group came top for creativity and second out of four overall, it was definitely the fishtank that nailed it!). Then we got together in groups to do some problem solving for various ventures or organisations – I was part of the group looking at the National Orchestra For All (NOFA), a fantastic orchestra for kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to play music. I think we came up with a lot of ideas to help them out and make them sustainable so hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of them soon!

A last little thing that one of the participants told me this week which has really stuck with me: “you do have to build that professional wall with your kids, but you have to use glass bricks”.

I can’t wait for September.

*If anyone wants a copy of the study, let me know – short but worthwhile read!

**Obviously I’m referring to the “guidelines” concept here, nothing that amounts to piratical justice or keelhauling.

“the whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows” – Sydney J. Harris

This week I started my training with Teach First, a charity that aims to address educational disadvantage by transforming exceptional graduates into effective, inspirational teachers and leaders in all fields. In the UK, the factor that is most crucial in determining a child’s educational success is their parental income. The Teach First cohort (totalling 997 participants in 7 different regions this year) undergoes 6 intensive weeks of training before being placed in challenging schools for two years in order to start tackling this systematic inequality and give deprived kids the same chances as privileged ones.

No pressure, then.

I’m in total awe at Teach First’s mission, values, statements of intended impact and the quality and depth of the Leadership Development Programme which every participant is a part of. One week in, and we’ve already researched learning theories, talked about legislation, values and principles and vision. Acronyms such as B4L, SEN, EAL, HAPs and AFL fall from our lips easily as fruit. We’ve learned how to plan lessons and what the role of a teacher is, why our subject is important. We’ve started working on the three strands of the Leadership Development Programme. We know about Bloom’s taxonomy and Kolb’s learning cycle. We’ve planned, taught and reflected on microteaching sessions, and so much more. In short, we are well on the way to becoming teachers. We’re all scared, but we’re all confident and excited. We know what we need to work on and what to expect.

To be honest, I could outline all the values and so on here and talk about them, but I actually wanted to talk about the things that stand above that, the things I’ve learned this week that are fast becoming my personal driving force. We’ve been told from day one that the next two years are going to be phenomenally difficult. We’re going into very challenging classrooms with very little teaching and often huge amounts of pressure from Ofsted to improve. Most of us will be moving to a brand new place. We are going from 0 to 100 in a very short space of time. Scared? I’m absolutely terrified. So I need to remember why I’m here, so that when all my energy has been sapped and I’m miserable and tired and alone, I’ll still be able to get up in the morning and teach my kids.

Why do I want to be a teacher?

In 2008, I saw a programme called “Can’t Read, Can’t Write”. It followed a group of adults who were illiterate – as in, they didn’t even know their alphabet. As far as I remember they were all white working class people of different ages and genders. Phil Beadle, an excellent if somewhat obnoxious teacher, was tasked with getting these adults to learn basic literacy in a very short space of time. One adult stuck out particularly to me; her name was Linda and she really struggled with learning the alphabet, moreso than the other participants. Eventually Phil took a different tack: he got her to mould the letters out of plastecine. After literally two or three goes, Linda suddenly knew her alphabet by heart. I thought she would be happy. Instead she was furious. Furious at the education system that had told her that she was thick, stupid, dumb, good for nothing. Furious because it turned out she was pretty damn smart – within a few weeks she was reading Shakespeare. Furious because she had been cast aside at a young age because her mind worked differently.

My one certain joy has always been reading, and so when I saw how upset and angry Linda was, I knew I wanted to do my best to ensure that no one I taught would ever leave school unable to read and write. From then I was pretty much set on being a teacher one day.

What keeps me going?

A girl called Rosie, who I met when she was about 8 or 9 on an outreach programme. Unbelievably smart and cheeky, with a passion for performing arts. Her mother told her she would never get further than working the checkout at Sainsbury’s. That was in 2007. I have every hope that Rosie is now preparing to take her GCSEs, and then go on to A levels and college or University. But I don’t know this for sure. This uncertainty, paradoxically, keeps me going. Rosie is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to smart, brave kids who are knocked down by systematic inequality, hopelessness and a lack of social opportunity.

That, and poetry, above all.

What’s shocked me this week?

– Hearing from a Teach First member of staff and ambassador, who, when he was teaching, encountered a family with two boys at the same school. The boys had a terrible attendance record – they would come into school on alternate days. Eventually the parents were called in to tell the school what was going on. It turned out they were so poor that they could only afford one uniform. The boys had to take turns to come in to school.
– Learning that a lot of the schools that Teach First work with don’t have a library, and that more often than not, core texts that are studied at GCSE can’t be taken out of the school because there are simply not enough to go around. This means that kids will often go into their GCSE exams having never read a core text – or indeed any text – all the way through.
– The levels of differentiation, even in sets that are formed according to ability. Even in set one you get kids who are much, much less able than their peers. It’s worse in lower sets.
– The extent of poverty and deprivation in one of the world’s richest countries.

What have I learned?
– That education as it stands actually perpetuates inequality. I mean, I knew the education system was unequal but for some reason I didn’t make the connection. We watched a really excellent video that isn’t perfect, but it is very slick and goes some way to explaining why this is. It’s worrying that we are going into a system which actually reproduces inequality at the same time as working to give equal chances to all kids. It’s reassuring that Teach First also produces research, policy and recommendations that aim, step by step, to address this problem.
– That I can’t change the world in a day and I shouldn’t try to.
– That I’m going to fail not once, but many, many times over the next two years. This is scary as I’ve never properly crashed and burned at anything, coming from the background that I do.
– That my two degrees (1st class honours BA English & American Lit, and MA English Lit) have absolutely no relevance in the classroom.
– That not everyone cares about or even knows about Educational Disadvantage, and even amongst the people that do (within the TF cohort) there is a lot of disagreement and debate about what it looks like and how it could/should be tackled.
– That loving English and wanting kids to love English is just as good a reason to teach English as any.
– That clinging to the idea of education as important because it gives kids “a stake in society” is utterly pointless given that the kids I’ll be teaching have absolutely no clue what it is like to have a stake in society.
– That I am really, really bad at English grammar.
– That kids are amazing, capable, brilliant, and come out with the most hilarious stuff that will literally have you spilling over with laughter.
– That one-on-one work with kids, even for 20 minutes, has a massive effect.
– That wine and/or gin are going to become my very close friends. Luckily we are already well acquainted.
– That it’s okay to be angry and frustrated and hold onto this “WHAT THE FUCK” mentality when thinking about how horribly unfair the education system is and how much work needs to be done to change it.
– That it was stupid to think I could take a designer handbag into a deprived school and not feel like a total hypocrite.
– That I am absolutely, completely, 100%, without a doubt in the right place, at the right time, doing the right training, for a career that despite making me cry, scream and despair on a regular basis, is absolutely what I was meant to do.