Tag Archives: SEN

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.


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.