Tag Archives: education

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.

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“I will show you fear in a handful of dust” – late night poetry

I learned a wonderful way of writing poetry the other day, from the founder of First Story, a really wonderful organisation that runs creative writing workshops in UK schools. I’ll try to write about them at more length at another point, but I just wanted to have a place to put my first attempt at using the technique up here.

The basic premise is making random combinations of abstract and concrete nouns, and using their definitions to make a poem. I cheated a tiny bit by not always using the dictionary definitions – but that’s kind of the point. I used an online randomiser to generate the combinations and these are the two poems I came up with.

1. Pain is the organ that keeps you alive,

A daffodil is a strongly felt dislike,

Bravery is a device that keeps you dry in rainstorms,

A candle is the grief of losing someone you love,

Happiness is a clear glass container that holds the cure for dry throats,

A gun is the belief that that person over there is dangerous,

Anger is a piece of cut metal that opens a lock,

Betrayal is a  colour that exists between red and blue.

2. A window is the state of being alone,

Faith is a reflective surface,

A diamond is the quality of being considerate,

Loyalty is a material pulped from trees,

Ice cream is a feeling of exultant contentment,

Love is an ornament worn around the neck,

Coffee is placing your confidence in someone.

It is a LOT of fun to write and makes you realise more than ever the potential magic of words. I can’t wait to teach it to my kids this September!

Concrete nouns used (in no particular order): gun, window, heart, candle, bottle, necklace, coffee, mirror, daffodil, umbrella, paper, key, ice cream, purple, diamond

Abstract nouns used (in no particular order): love, pain, loneliness, happiness, trust, bravery, fear, hatred, faith, anger, joy, loss, loyalty, kindness, betrayal.

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.