Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Book Review: 'Night Speakers: Sleepless' by Ali Sparkes

The Breakfast Club meets The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, but for a slightly younger audience. An unlikely trio of youngsters are drawn together by a mysterious commonality: they all wake up at exactly 1:34 am every night. Something strange is going on, and they're desperate to discover exactly what. Together, meeting secretly in the dead of night whenever they can, they are drawn into an adventure as supernatural elements of the world around them are revealed.

A heady mix of the regular teenager's everyday struggles - problems with parents, troubles at school, awkward friendships - and ancient superstitions, beliefs and beings, Night Speakers: Sleepless is an incredibly moreish book. Ali Sparkes expertly tantalises the reader with a gradual release of information that often allows the reader to feel like they are just one tiny step ahead of the book's protagonists. Sparkes lets the reader believe the reality of what is happening before the characters do, making for a very satisfying read. Although this is true, there is enough suspense left too - not every event can be expected; a perfect mixture from a skilful author.

The beauty of nature is brought alongside the clamour of urban life as the three young people discover they have powers and abilities which allow them to communicate with nature. Although pegged as appealing to animal lovers, this is not your typical animal story. In fact, the fauna concerned in this story act quite as they should where other books might have had them too anthropomorphised; this treatment of the animals in the story makes for an almost believable fantasy. 

With the classroom in mind, Night Speakers: Sleepless would be a fantastic book for character study, setting description and creating tension. There are excellent passages which would stand alone as short texts for a variety of different teaching purposes. Year 6, 7 and 8 children and their teachers would enjoy making comparisons between this and other fantasy adventures set in the real world.

A hugely climactic, cinematic ending brings brief calm before a nosedive into an unsettling cliffhanger as the book's surprise fourth main character speaks menacingly, suggesting that the business of this book, the first in a series of five, is not yet done. Sparkes has certainly created an intriguing enough world for the follow-up tome to be highly anticipated by readers of Night Speakers: Sleepless.

Monday, 22 January 2018

The Four Tendencies and Teacher Wellbeing

In her book 'The Four Tendencies' author Gretchen Rubin outlines four ways in which people respond to expectations. According to her findings everyone fits into one of the following categories:
  • Upholder - readily meet external and internal expectations
  • Questioner - question all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified
  • Obliger - readily meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet inner expectations
  • Rebel - resist both outer and inner expectations
Information taken from the free-to-download The Nutshell Guide To The Four Tendencies (a read-through of this will be useful before you proceed)

In a recent Twitter poll I asked educators to complete The Four Tendencies online quiz and to then vote as to which tendency they were. 696 educators responded and the results were as follows:
  • Upholder - 12%
  • Questioner - 47%
  • Obliger - 25%
  • Rebel - 16%
However, according to a survey done by the author (not just of educators), the biggest percentage of people in general were Obligers (41%) followed by Questioners (24%), Upholders (19%), and Rebels (17%). There are some possible reasons for the differences between my poll and the author's (much larger) poll:

I asked on Twitter. According to Rubin Questioners have the following traits:  Data-driven; interested in creating systems that are efficient and effective; willing to play devil’s advocate or buck the system if warranted; strong-willed; enjoy sharing their findings. Which sounds to me exactly like the sort of teachers who sign up for Twitter. It may be that there are many more Obliger teachers who haven't joined Twitter (which is commonly seen by twitter-using teachers as a place to find new and better ways of doing things).

I asked educators. One trait of Questioners is that they ask questions and then enjoy sharing their findings - most teachers like imparting knowledge in one way or another. Questioners also ask a lot of questions, as do teachers. Perhaps teaching is just a natural career choice for many Questioners. Having said this, the traits of Obligers would seem to make great teachers too: Reliable; responsible; team player; good boss, responsive leader; feel great obligation to meet others’ expectations; willing to go the extra mile; highly committed.

People didn't take the quiz. Twitter polls are usually used to gauge a very quick off-the-top-of-the-head reaction, usually based on opinion. My poll was completely the opposite. Some folk contacted me to say they'd voted before doing the quiz (some of them had picked the right option) but there are bound to be others who voted based on their own opinion without understanding the four tendencies framework. Questioner is probably the easiest category to believe you belong to as it is seemingly most self-explanatory, and after all, all people ask questions.

It's also interesting to note that so many Questioners responded to the poll (and indeed that Rebels did too) - they responded to an outer expectation (from me) with only a brief explanation of why they should do it. Perhaps I have some very dedicated followers who felt like my asking for help with something I was writing was a good enough reason.

Implications of The Four Tendencies for Teacher Wellbeing

In Dr Emma Kell's book 'How To Survive In Teaching' she cites that respondents to her questionnaire identified unreasonable working hours for the reason why they left teaching. She also outlines that the LKMco's 'Why Teach?' report found that workload was the top reason for teachers leaving the profession and that the ATL's survey had 76% of teachers cite workload as their reason for considering leaving the profession. There are plenty of other studies and reports that say the same, not to mention the personal experience of many teachers. Heavy workload is the main reason for poor teacher wellbeing.

After reading 'The Four Tendencies' I believe it might be the case that teachers struggle with workload and therefore wellbeing in different ways, depending on their tendency.

Upholders - they will readily meet the expectations of the government, their school policies, their leaders and their students and will do their best to do what is asked of them but will also respond to their own inner expectations, for example, if they know they need to get rest, or to not work so much. Upholders might struggle to delegate because they believe others aren't dependable enough. This puts this group in a fairly good position when it comes to workload and wellbeing, although they still have the potential to uphold unmanageable expectations and want to do everything themselves. Their reliability also might mean that more is asked of them.

Obligers - they will readily meet the expectations of the government, their school policies, their leaders and their students, potentially regardless of difficult it is to meet those expectations. In addition to this, they won't find it easy to priorities their own needs without some external accountability. This puts this group (a large group) at risk of being over-worked, and therefore of having low levels of wellbeing. If an Obliger feels resentful about the expectations they are meeting then they are prone to falling into Obliger-rebellion. Most Obligers are also known to others to be obliging meaning that this group can often find themselves being asked to do more and more, thus adding to their workload and the possibility of them burning out.

Questioners - they will meet their own expectations and if they can see a good reason for doing what they are expected to do, will find this relatively easy. If the policies they are expected to adhere to are not, in their opinion, based on sound reasoning, they will find it difficult to meet those outer expectations. However, in a school system where teachers are held to accountable for meeting the school's expectations, a Questioner could get into trouble - they may end up missing deadlines, doing last minute work, or becoming subject to the school's accountability processes. Questioners also may dislike delegating, especially where decision-making is involved as they believe others won't make the best-informed decisions - this could lead to an obvious increase in workload. If this is the case, then wellbeing levels could be low for a Questioner.

Rebels - they prefer to do things their way, and will often feel the need to do things contrary to expectations (including to their own expectations). Just as with Questioners, in a school system where teachers are held to accountable for meeting the school's expectations, a Rebel could get into trouble - they may end up missing deadlines, doing last minute work, or becoming subject to the school's accountability processes. If this is the case, then wellbeing levels could be low for a Rebel, particularly if they are frustrated at themselves for not meeting any expectations even if they want to.

Providing Wellbeing Advice To The Four Tendencies

Having read Rubin's work with interest, I came to realise that all the advice being given about wellbeing and managing workload (my own advice included) might not be having the desired impact on particular teachers because of their tendency. Perhaps I only give advice as a Questioner that would have an impact on other Questioners.

Rubin outlines that to persuade someone to follow a certain course, remember:
  • Upholders want to know what should be done
  • Obligers need accountability
  • Questioners want justifications
  • Rebels want freedom to do something their own way
If we want teachers of all tendencies to look after themselves, then the advice we give needs to appeal to all. In the book Rubin writes, "because the tendencies see the world in such different ways, there are no magic, one-size-fits-all solutions for how to influence ourselves or other people" but does suggest that "the winning formula is indeed information-consequences-choice... and best of all, humour".

How then can we help each of the four tendencies when it comes to workload and wellbeing issues?

Upholders - when giving wellbeing advice they want to know what they should do. But, any advice given might clash with other internal and external expectations. For example, you might advise someone to only spend a certain amount of time on marking books, but this might not fit with an inner expectation of marking books to a certain standard.

It's also worth noting that telling an Upholder what to do when you have no power to remove other expectations (such as their school's marking policy) might put them in a difficult situation - whose expectation should they uphold? When giving advice to an Upholder is might also be necessary to be someone who they respect - they're likely not to meet the expectations of someone who doesn't matter and are more likely to meet their own expectations, or those of someone with higher standing.

Obligers - when giving wellbeing advice they need to be held accountable for making necessary changes. Much wellbeing advice hinges around the importance of doing things for one's own sake but Obligers are unlikely to meet such inner expectations - they may want to take action to improve their wellbeing, but will feel bound to meeting the expectations of others, no matter how ridiculous (although Obligers can experience Obliger rebellion, where after time, they rebel against constantly meeting unfair expectations).

It is important for Obligers to have someone to hold them accountable - thus making an inner expectation into an outer expectation which they find easier to meet. So, if you are in a position to give an Obliger some wellbeing advice, follow it up by providing deadlines, oversight and monitoring (which to people of other tendencies sounds like too much) - giving advice without this ongoing support will probably lead to very little change in an Obliger.

Questioners - want justifications, and for them, they might need further justification as to why they should meet certain expectations, such as why they should spend time planning lessons thoroughly or providing feedback to children about their work. As discussed before, their wellbeing might be suffering as a result of begrudgingly meeting enforced outer expectations in a last-minute manner - they need to buy into the reasons behind particular work-heavy policies in order to use their time more wisely to complete these tasks.

Where Questioners have inner expectations which have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing (they could, for example, really believe that triple marking is absolutely the best way to mark and thus spend hours each evening providing this) it will take reasoning, provision of research findings, and plenty of information to help them change - they will also need trust the expertise of the advice-giver as they probably won't take advice from someone they think doesn't know what they're talking about.

Rebels - want to feel like they are doing things their way. Advice to the Rebel is best given as a series of recommendations from which they can choose. If only one way is provided then the chances are they will decide to reject that way, preferring to do something their way, or no way at all. However, Rebels may choose to act out of love, a sense of mission or belief in a cause so if the advice-giver can tap into that feeling, as long as they don't specify what they should do.

Rubin also points out that Rebels "may be easy to manipulate by using their spirit of resistance: “I’ll show you,” “Watch me,” “You can’t make me,” “You’re not the boss of me”". This essentially means that in some situations counterproductive advice might drive Rebels to take productive steps or that telling a Rebel that they probably won't be able to solve their workload and wellbeing issues might be the catalyst they need. However they dealt with, they still might defy convention, finding their own ways of doing things to make improvements to their wellbeing.

Other Implications of The Four Tendencies for Teacher Wellbeing

What I haven't gone into in this blog post is how schools might manage teachers of all four tendencies when it comes to getting them to meet expectations. Clearly, the same principles as above apply, but where wellbeing is concerned schools need to ensure that their own policies and systems aren't demanding too much of teachers before thinking about how to get teachers to meet those expectations. Once a school's leaders are content that what they are expecting is manageable, then they should think about applying Rubin's theory to persuading teachers to follow a certain course of action.

Another implication of the above is that one-size-fits-all approaches to wellbeing won't be very effective. Questioners will never see the point in whole-staff Yoga sessions if they think they could be doing something better; Rebels will just walk out. Obligers might go along with your initiative for a while but if they resent it then they might rebel too and even if they don't, it could just add to the pressure that too many expectations puts on. Upholders would most likely get so annoyed at everyone else for not meeting the expectations that they too would feel unhappy.

The four tendencies framework does not intend to label someone's whole personality. Within each group there are hundreds of other factors - nature and nurture - that makes each one of us unique. Having an idea of someone's tendency is helpful, but their other characteristics, traits and experiences must be taken into account too, when thinking about giving them advice about wellbeing. For example, I'm a Questioner but I'm also very loyal so I am more likely to make someone else's expectations into internal expectations because I believe that if I've committed to something then I should follow through on that commitment come what may. If someone were to give me advice, they'd also have to navigate the fact that I find it very hard not to do what I consider to be loyal, even if it is to the detriment of my own wellbeing.

Many teachers feel powerless to change their circumstances - they believe it is only policy makers at government or school level who can do that. They feel like however much they try to change themselves, it will never be enough to combat unmanageable expectations. But when they consider that the way they are (their tendency) will never change, and that (for the time being) policy won't change, but that how they deal with the expectations in light of their tendency can change, things might become more manageable. They might need to be shown how to set their sights lower than whole system change, but higher than no change at all, in order to identify what circumstances they might be able to change:

Obligers might realise they need to ask for more accountability when it comes to taking up a hobby or starting to exercise more regularly. Questioners might need to see that they can ask their questions constructively to people who can influence change rather than question in an unproductive way to their colleagues, friends and family who can't do anything to change policy. Upholders might just need to understand that they want to meet both inner and external expectations and that in order to do this they could plan their time to ensure this happens in balance. Rebels might need to find their own ways of achieving things.

Sometimes expectations  will need to be introduced - some teachers might have no expectation whatsoever that they can have a good work/life balance, and as such will not try to meet that expectation because it doesn't exist for them! Some will need this introducing as an internal expectation (telling themselves that they expect to have a good work/life balance), others as an external expectation (being told that they are expected to have a good work/life balance). The belief that teaching is a 24/7 job can become an external or internal expectation leading some teachers to put in a dangerous number of hours each week - this general expectation in the profession needs to be tackled, otherwise, regardless of tendency, teachers are going to struggle with being well as they try to meet unattainable expectations.

Monday, 15 January 2018

The Pearl

It crept towards her, out of the pages of her diary. Those empty rectangles of nothing. And from where there were entries and to-do lists it swaggered out across the pages, parading past her, jeering. When she did manage to shut out the noise, it whispered derisively instead. Not into her ear, but directly from the centre of her head, engulfing all else, like backwash on a beach rattling her logic, dragging all order away and into the deep.

It wasn’t as if she had nothing to do, and it definitely wasn’t because she wanted to do nothing. It was just that what she did have to do felt like nothing. The sense of urgency and fear that she relished did not make residence in the items on her schedule. It didn’t even really feel like her schedule, and definitely not her agenda. Someone else’s, perhaps. Maybe no one’s in particular. Just a schedule.

Things to do, things to do. Busy, busy. No time. The familiar phrases taunted her. She had once felt that way; she felt that absence keenly. It left a vacuum, now perforated and being slowly inhabited by the swirling grey of a winter North Sea, carrying sand and seaweed, grating and tangling with her thoughts.

When had she last been on the beach? Too long ago. The stretching sands and undulating water reminded her that, despite how she felt, the tumult in her head was only… not imaginary, but… something that could be controlled more easily than she could control the heaving mass of water rushing to meet her feet.

King Cnut. He had been demonstrating that he couldn’t stop the tide coming in. So misrepresented these days. He knew he didn’t have divine powers, and that only God did. She pondered this. Then she pondered her train of thought, wondering why she was now sitting at her desk with her organiser open in front of her thinking about God.

She flipped it shut, decisively. Although, she knew not what she’d decided. Only that she would shut it and that somehow, perhaps, that would change the course of her thoughts. Then she realised actually, that in imagining the events going on inside of her head as something more tangible, she had spent a blissful few untouched minutes – she had fought back, stemmed the tide.

She got up. She knew she should do it more often. She should get out there. The nothing must become something. And it would only become something if she made it so. If she found the purpose in it all.

Feeling the sand between her toes she headed to the shoreline, the retreating surf beckoning. The tide was turning taking with it that which had filled the void. The emptiness returned, but it was welcome – it could be filled. And this time she would curate its contents. The sea was back where it belonged and the pages of her diary remained closed.

Something winked up at her, its lustrous shell reflecting the moonlight. The world had its order – tides would come and go. She didn’t have divine powers, but she knew someone who did. Nothing is nothing, everything is something, she realised. The last sounds of the sea washed away, the corridor seemed a brighter place and a pearl began to form around the last remaining grain of sand.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Transforming Primary School Lunchtimes With Family Dining

Transforming Primary School Lunchtimes With Family Dining
The second phase of our school's building work meant that we lost half of our playground. This meant that we could only safely have half the number of children playing out at any one time which was going to be a particular problem at lunchtime.

Break times were easy - we just staggered it so that only two year groups (we are two-form entry) are out at a time, with the oldest children waiting longest for their morning play. So, years 1 and 2 use the playground 10:15 - 10:30 (school starts at 8:45), years 3 and 4 have it 10:30 - 11:45 and years 5 and 6 have it for the following 15 minutes until 11am. Early years have their own outdoor space.

Lunchtimes presented more of a challenge. But our lunchtimes needed a revamp anyway - behaviour still wasn't as we wanted it, the level of waste food was high and the queuing system was inefficient. Thankfully we had a ready-made solution to hand: family dining, something which several other schools in our MAT already did. All we had to do was to make it fit for us.

Here's what we did:

Staggered dinner times
There are three half hour sittings - Reception, years 1 and 2 at 11:30, years 3 and 4 at 12:00 and years 5 and 6 at 12:30. Each sitting is followed by half an hour on the playground. Children do not leave the dinner hall until the half hour is up. Benefits of this are that children no longer rush their food so that they can get out to the playground and they eat more and appear to waste less (on the first day of doing it we went from five or six bins of waste to less than one).

Staffing
Teaching staff are not required to take part in family dining however they are allowed to if they want (main course will be paid for if they do join in and sit with the children). Instead we employ a handful of lunchtime supervisors and teaching assistants and learning mentors work a full hour at lunchtime - first leading a table inside and then doing duty outside. In order to accomplish this TAs and learning mentors then have a half hour lunch break afterwards once the children are back in class. In addition to this there will be one or two members of SLT in the dinner hall who also sit at a table and lead proceedings. The fact that we have well trained staff outside who know children well and who interact and play with the children has meant that incidents of poor behaviour at lunchtime play are almost non-existent these days - no more afternoons spent dealing with behaviour issues for teachers.

Table lists
Children are assigned to a particular table with a particular adult. Children will sit in mixed-gender, mixed-year group and mixed-class groups (when children had a choice this never happened). Adults who know the children create these groupings based on many factors - this is a good opportunity to help particular children who are struggling with friendships or behaviour by grouping them with suitable children. Because of this children and adults have the chance to build and maintain relationships with the same people. Preset groups mean that transition to the hall is quick and there are no issues with who sits where. These groupings may change during the year. 

Serving
One of the worst parts of the old way of doing lunchtimes was the queuing up both out on the playground to bring children in and inside the hall whilst children waited to be served. Now, once tables are ready, children collect the food (which the kitchen staff have already put in containers onto deep trays along with serving implements), take it to their tables and serve each other - members of staff may aid with this although the aim is to have the children do as much as is possible. Once everyone is served children and adults begin eating together.

Room prep
Lunchtime staff start getting the hall ready for lunch at 11am. To facilitate the quick turnaround between the hall being used for PE and the first lunchtime sitting we invested in new tables. The tables have a built-in bench, comfortably seat 12 people and fold in half in order to be stored much more compactly - we have given over a small office-sized room attached to the hall for storage purposes. Lunchtime staff also set up trolleys containing cutlery, crockery, jugs of water and a cleaning station. Once children have been greeted (usually as a whole group by the member of SLT on duty) the nominated children go and collect the things they will need to set the table from the trolleys; all children will then help to lay the table.

Meal choices
Shock horror! There is not a choice of food. There is one meal per day and everyone eats the same food. And you know what? The children eat it. We constantly review the menu and listen to the children as to what their preferences are. Of course, special diets are catered for and in our school a very high percentage of children are from Islamic communities so all the meals are halal. We have had next to no opposition to these changes from children or parents. I think the kitchen quite welcomed this change once they saw children were happy.

Packed lunches
Children are also free to bring their own lunch in - these children are still involved in family dining in that they sit on the same tables as those having school food and they too take part in serving food and setting tables. They wait until all children are served their food before tucking in - part of family dining is that everyone eats together. On each table there is a mix of children who typically have packed lunches and school lunches.

Cleaning
Cloths and water, brooms, dustpans and brushes and mops and mop buckets are all available for children to use to help keep the hall tidier. The improved cleanliness of the hall was immediately noticeable when we started doing family dining. After the children have eaten they clear their plates into the containers the food came in and one or two children will carry away the waste food and dirty dishes to the cleaning station where a member of kitchen staff sorts the items into various larger containers and the bin. Washing up is done by the kitchen staff, as is the final set down of tables.

PE timetabling
Four class teachers at a time are covered for PPA - part of this PPA cover is the week's recommended amount of physical education. In order to accommodate this both the hall and the playground are used on a rota; we also hire a local sports hall which children and staff walk to. Outdoor PE happens in all weathers - children know to come dressed accordingly. All of this ensures that the hall does not need to be used from 11am onwards as the two hours of PE fits in before that.

Filling the time
Quite often the half hour time slot is easily filled with the setting, serving and eating but there can sometimes be a spare five minutes left at the end before the playground is available for the group of children in the hall. This time is used for passing on messages, times of reflection, conversation (the members of staff on each table are there to encourage conversation throughout the mealtime) and appreciations (where children publicly share things they are thankful for).

All in all these arrangements make for much calmer lunchtimes that allow children to exercise their social skills and eat a good meal. I certainly would never want to go back to the old way of doing things. And the fact that Ofsted referred to our lunchtimes as 'fine dining' must mean something (we did get the report amended to say 'family dining' - we didn't want future children and parents to be disappointed that we weren't serving up Michelin-starred food)!


Thursday, 11 January 2018

Book Review: 'Make Me Awesome' by Ben Davis

In this hilarious send up of self-help guides and larger-than-life celebrity life coaches Ben Davis introduces Freddie, gamer and son of a failed antiques dealer, and Chuck Willard, 'inspirer and giver of dreams'.

Things aren’t going too well for Freddie Smallhouse. His dad left his successful job to set up his own business which failed and now they’re living at Uncle Barry’s but he’s about to kick them out. Freddie enrols on Chuck’s Complete Road To Awesomeness programme and sets about trying to make the family’s fortune. One failure after another doesn’t perturb our hero, not when he’s got Chuck’s AWESOME tips and advice to hand.

In this laugh-out-loud tall tale Freddie learns about friendship, integrity and true success as he muddles his way through his response to his dad’s despondency. Amongst the hilarity (the headteacher is called Mr. Bümfacé – pronounced ‘Boomfachay’) there’s a really touching story of how a not-quite-yet teenager might try crazy things in an attempt to deal with a difficult home situation.

‘Make Me Awesome’ is an easy read yet the age of the protagonist (he’s at secondary school), and a couple of the jokes (reference to the rude channels on TV and perverts, for example), mean that this would be really suitable for reluctant KS3 readers as well as KS2 children. With better, slightly more sophisticated jokes than a David Walliams and more plausibility than a Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, ‘Make Me Awesome’ will go down very well with those children looking for a funny, quick read.

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

Book Review: 'The Light Jar' by Lisa Thompson

The Light Jar by Lisa Thompson That Boy Can Teach Review
Very early on you know something is not right - the nighttime escape with hastily packed bags, the feverish glances in the rear view mirror; Nate's mum's paranoia seeps through the pages. And as soon as you hear of Nate's dad leaving and mum's new man Gary you marvel at Lisa Thompson's bravery: tackling a subject like domestic abuse in a story aimed at 9 to 12 year olds? But she does it so beautifully. And it is important that she does - books should tell all stories.

Once again displaying her knack for weaving intriguing mystery into a story about terrible real life events - one that still has many blindingly bright and brilliant moments - Lisa Thompson leaves the reader in a quandary: they want to know more, but they're scared of what they might discover. Where has mum gone? Why did they leave home in the dead of night and turn up to this decrepit cottage? Why does Kitty avoid her own home? These questions and more make 'The Light Jar' a one-sitting type of book - the urge to read on and on is overpowering.

Brimming with clever imagery and metaphors 'The Light Jar' will get minds young and old alike thinking about the significance of Nate's favourite book, of the chicken and the light jar and the magic fortune telling ball toy. Readers will experience the satisfaction of solving the mystery of Nate's new friend Kitty's treasure and will be left wondering just how real Sam and his friends are. This finely-crafted multi-dimensional story will introduce children to the necessity (and joy) of flicking back through previously-read pages to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

'The Light Jar' is a book that digs deep into human emotion, validating the gamut of thoughts and feelings that children the world over will feel on a day-to-day basis. And with all the current news of young people's mental health issues, books like these are crucial in normalising and validating the responses our children have to difficult life circumstances; 'The Light Jar' will provide illumination in the darkness of some of its readers' lives.

Serious, uplifting, mysterious: a combination I've not found served up quite like this before. 'The Light Jar' is a special book and is certainly a must read for 2018. I can confidently say that not much will top it this year.

'The Light Jar' was published in paperback on 4th January 2018 by Scholastic (9781407171289 £6.99)

Sunday, 7 January 2018

I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue: Oracy Games For The Classroom

Hello and welcome to another blog post on thatboycanteach.blogspot.com, the blog that has done for teachers 'what being hit repeatedly on the head with a large croquet mallet does for small frogs... or so I'm told'. You join me here today as I consider what teachers can learn from the long-running BBC Radio 4 panel game 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue'.

Whilst the chairman always introduces the teams as being given silly things to do, the entertainment is usually derived from witty and clever wordplay which demonstrate the competitors' mastery of the English language. Both the EEF's KS1 and KS2 literacy guidance reports have the development of pupils' speaking and listening skills (or oracy skills) as their first recommendation - in the KS2 document the emphasis is on developing pupils' language capability.

The KS2 guidance specifically mentions the benefit of collaborative approaches to improving oracy skills:
The impact of collaborative approaches on learning is consistently positive, but it does vary so it is important to get the detail right. Effective collaborative learning requires much more than just sitting pupils together and asking them to collaborate; structured approaches with well-designed tasks lead to the greatest learning gains. Effective collaboration does not happen automatically so pupils will need support and practice. Approaches that promote talk and interaction between learners tend to result in the best gains. The following should be considered when using a collaborative learning approach:
  • Tasks need to be designed carefully so that working together is effective and efficient, otherwise some pupils will try to work on their own. 
  • Competition between groups can be used to support pupils in working together more effectively within their group, though over-use of competition can focus learners on the competition rather than succeeding in their learning, so it must be used cautiously. 
  • It is particularly important to encourage lower achieving pupils to talk and articulate their thinking in collaborative tasks, as they may contribute less.
  •  Professional development may be needed to support the effective use of these strategies.
Now obviously the games that the participants play on ISIHAC aren't research-based but if we apply the principles above, and pay heed to the warnings too, we should be able to use some of them to promote a collaborative approach to improving oracy skills, and as a result improve reading and writing skills as well.

Without further ado, the games:

Ad-Lib Poetry: The teacher (or another child) reads or invents a line of poetry. Children than take it in turns to continue the poem, one line at a time. The focus could be on rhyming words, adjectives, synonyms or telling a story. This game does not have a strong competitive element.

Cheddar Gorge:  Children all start with 10 points. By taking it in turns to say a word each, children should aim not to be the one who completes a sentence. If the word they say finishes a complete and grammatically correct sentence they lose a point. The main tactic is to try to force the next person to complete the sentence. This game has a focus on correct grammar and syntax and might help children to assess whether or not a sentence has been completed. Teachers could record the sentences and model correct punctuation. As an extension to this children could be permitted to name a punctuation mark instead of giving  a word - this would allow for the inclusion of parenthesis and other clauses.

Compressed Works: Children give brief synopses of films and books whilst other children guess the title. Similar to this is Rewind where children explain the plot of a book or film as if everything happened in reverse order. This could be played in pairs, groups or as a whole class and gives children the opportunity to practise summarisation - an important and often difficult reading skill.

Letter Writing: Similar to Cheddar Gorge, children take it in turns to say a word, this time 'writing' as famous or historical person to another such person, usually about something they are known for. This can be played in teams with the two teams taking the roles of the two correspondents. Letter Writing could be a good game to use in history lessons or in response to the class novel with children taking on the role of the book's characters. This could be simplified for any style of writing so that children orally co-create a piece of work prior to recording it in writing. One tactic in this game is to add in conjunctions, adverbs and adjectives to prolong the sentences. Another variation is Historical Voicemail  where children suggest messages that might have been left on the answerphones and voicemails of historical figures.

Uxbridge English Dictionary: Children come up with new definitions of words based on the parts of the words. This is potentially difficult so this game might need some preparation in the form of teachers selecting words that would work well. This is a word play game which requires children to know meanings of other words, rather than the one they are redefining. A health warning exists here: it might be wise to supply true meanings as well so that children don't believe that their new definitions are correct.

What's the Question? Either the teacher or a child supplies an answer to a question. Children then have to make suggestions as to what the question could have been. Plausible or funny answers can be accepted. This game might get children thinking about cause and effect and is a great opportunity for them to ensure that their questions are succinct and linked well to the answer.

Word for Word: Children take it in turns to say a word. The aim is to say a word that has no association to the previous word. If another child can prove, however ingeniously, that the word a child say is associated with the previous word, then they gain a point. This game could develop children's vocabulary as they hear words that others know and by trying to find links children will think carefully about word meanings.

Click here to listen to examples of the show on the BBC iplayer (may not be suitable for children)