Thursday, 1 October 2020

Tonight Matthew, I'm Going To Be... A Director

This COVID has certainly put a spanner in a few works; one such spanner being year 6 open evenings at secondary schools. 

A parent of a year 6 child myself, this is a huge concern for me - how do we pick the right school for her, especially given that this is the first time we are sending a child off to big school? With my responsibilities across both KS2 and KS3 I wanted to help to make sure that what our school offers to prospective children and parents would help them to understand better what our school is like.

So, on top of the content that was already being produced for online viewing (virtual tour, promo video, message from the principal etc), I decided to give both year 6 and new year 7s a voice - after all, they're the ones its all about. It's all very well having members of staff present information, but children want to hear from their peers too - they're the ones who will tell them what it's really like.

And that's why this morning I was directing, alongside our tech-savvy media guy, an extra bit of video content where year 6 children got the chance to ask year 7 children some of their own questions. With bubbles we couldn't get them in the room together so we had to film the year 6s asking their questions first and then the year 7s answering the questions (with me asking the questions this time). Hopefully once it's all edited together we will have a seamless FAQ video for children and their parents to watch in order to get a more rounded picture of what's on offer.

The year 7 children presented confidently, embodying our values and showing that in just a few short weeks they have really settled in well and got to know the ropes. They were able to articulate positively much about their experience so far -  a testament to the hard work of the team of staff leading and teaching in year 7. And all this in spite of all the difficulties surrounding transition and the return to school that COVID has presented us with.

Teachers and leaders play many roles under normal circumstances - the positive view of COVID is that it is most certainly providing us with further strings to our bows!

Monday, 28 September 2020

Tonight Matthew, I'm Going To Be... A Gallerist

It's a fairly well accepted concept that a teacher is so many more things than a teacher - that a teacher puts on many different hats even during the course of one day. I think the same is true for school leaders too.

For a part of today I found myself acting as a gallerist, or a curator.

We have, as many primary schools probably do, many, many display boards around school. Too many, perhaps. And what happens to display boards when teaching staff are getting on with teaching and doing the important stuff? The content sometimes gets a bit old. That or teachers have to spend time out of class, or out of hours, putting up displays - something that, in my opinion, really should be minimised if we care about our children and staff at all.

So there I was double-sided taping the large art prints I'd order to black paper, gluing the accompanying information I'd collated and trimming it as perfectly as I possibly could. I was in 'the studio' overlooking 'the heartspace' off which many of our classrooms are situated. I could see and hear school going on all around me - I noticed this because I suppose I was desperate to legitimise the time spent gluing and cutting and stapling. I could almost feel the calm, purposefulness of what was going on through each of those doorways and in all honesty I wondered if what I was doing was worthwhile.

Afterall, I'm a deputy head - shouldn't I be doing something else? Did these Eric Ravilious, Georgia O'Keefe and Jacob Lawrence prints really need backing and putting up by me? Yes, I told myself, they did - because this is one of the many problems of being a perfectionist: you learn very quickly that there are some things you just have to do yourself. And yes, because for all intents and purposes, I am the art lead in the school and it is my job to educate staff and children in matters relating to the arts. 

And actually, yes, because I have to balance out some of the other less desirable things I have to do with things that are actually enjoyable - this for my own mental wellbeing. Besides, what was I actually thinking about all that time? Well, many confidential things that can't be repeated on my blog: I was providing myself with time and space to think through the issues of the day - the things that were on my mind over the weekend, the difficult conversations that need to be had, the logistical problems that need working through. 

On the outside I was cutting and sticking, on the inside I was doing what I'm really paid to do: lead.

If I were to go from one high pressure situation to another, never allowing myself down time doing jobs that seem a little more menial, would I really be properly ready for the next meeting, the next time someone brings a problem to me or the next time I have to deal with a behaviour issue? I think not.

So, some thinking got done - hopefully preparing me for the future - and some nice (I think) displays were created in the process.

Yeah, I'm OK with being a gallerist.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Questions To Guide Teacher Reflection


As part of the researchEDHome 2020 CPD series, David Weston, CEO of Teacher Development Trust, presented under the heading 'Schools that unleash teachers' expertise and how to lead them' - that's the video embedded above.

As he spoke, outlining for the first 20 minutes what it is that expert teachers do, I began to jot down some questions that a teacher, or a coach working alongside a teacher, might ask to prompt reflection on their practice.

I imagine these being used post-lesson, either by a teacher wishing to reflect on their own, or by a coach and a teacher - it could be that the coach has seen the lesson, but that might not be necessary. 

Where lesson observations are concerned, David Weston made it clear that many of the things that make an expert teacher an expert cannot really be seen by an observer. Later on he pointed out that SLTs often try to glean information from lesson observations (as well as book and data scrutiny) which they can then use to direct CPD - a fairly ineffective practice. Although he only touched on this, there was the suggestion that far more information about teaching and learning can be gained from a discussion-based approach to pedagogical coaching - this information can then inform CPD planning.

So, the questions that I began to jot down became perhaps more pertinent: these questions (not an exhaustive list by any means, but based on the effective practices of an expert teacher) could be used to develop how well teachers reflect on their own practice in order to gain insight and develop perception. In turn, via coaches, school leaders then might be able to gain a better insight into teaching and learning in their schools, allowing them to provide more pertinent CPD opportunities.

The purpose of using questions such as these would be to gradually develop independence: teachers might begin to naturally reflect on such questions before, during and after teaching, removing the need for such a set of questions to be asked in any structured way.

I've loosely grouped the questions - in this way, discussions might be guided by coaches, or self-guided, towards a particular aspect of the lesson. It might be useful to use some of the whole session reflection questions to begin with, before moving onto specifics. Obviously, when reflecting on a lesson no one would attempt to answer all the questions below - they just represent the broad range of reflection points that expert teachers think about subconsciously as they work.

Reflecting on the whole session: 

What were the main things you noticed happening during the session? Did you notice anything that wasn’t happening? Should it have been? What was the story of that session? What did you notice about the whole session? What was the main focus of the session? Does that match to the intended focus? Which parts of the session had the most impact? What was the cause of the successes in that session? What was the cause of any lack of success in that session? How were you feeling during the session? Did your feelings change? How did you deal with your change in feelings? 

Reflecting on specific identified incidents: 

When have you come across a similar situation? What did you do then? Reflecting on outcomes: What did you see that showed you they were learning? Which was the most effective part of that session? How much of the time did you spend doing the most effective things? Which parts of the session had the most impact? What was the cause of the successes in that session? What was the cause of any lack of success in that session? 

Reflecting on behaviour: 

What happened before that behaviour issue? Were there any signs that it was going to happen? How could it have been tackled earlier? Were children complying? Did this mean they were learning? 

Reflecting on questioning: 

What was your questioning like in that session? How and why did you adapt your questioning? What was the impact? 

Reflecting on differing needs: 

What variations in understanding did you notice? Which individuals did you notice? What do you know about them already? What did you do to address differing needs? 

Reflecting on responsiveness: 

At which points did you go off-script? Why did you do it? Did it help? Did you have to give extra explanations? What made you do that and did it help? How did you adapt the session as you went along? 

Reflecting on sequencing: 

How did that session link to prior and future learning? Where did that session fit in the sequence of learning? What did the children already know that helped? What didn’t they know that would have helped?

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Finding Your True Teacher Persona

 In Mary Myatt's ResearchEd training video she reminds those working in education that they are 'human beings first, professionals second'. It's a theme I've touched on before when I wrote about how we might avoid allowing judgments about our teaching define us as people.

However, there are other benefits to remembering what Mary so neatly sums up. If we are human beings first, then our professional selves should take our cues from our 'human' selves.

Many teachers spend a chunk of their career trying to work out how to present themselves in the classroom. Back in my early years it was seeing other teachers in action that most influenced this, as well as taking feedback from them when they observed me. There was also the notion of an 'Ofsted-lesson': a checklist (often a physical, literal checklist) of things that should be included to get a Good or Outstanding grading. In addition to this, many teachers, some who have harboured a desire to be in the profession since the days of lining up their teddies and taking the register, have pre-conceived ideas of what a teacher should do, and how they should act, in the classroom - often based on their own experiences of being a child at school. Most of these are great places to draw inspiration from, yet they are not enough.

Nowadays, I suspect much influence comes from social media: what the teachers of Pinterest, Twitter and Facebook are doing can cause a teacher to believe that they too should be doing those things. However, the nature of the medium means that the influence is largely aesthetic: what might a display/book corner/work outfit/art activity look like? Social media communicates little of how a teacher might act within the visually rich (or otherwise) environments they've created. This has the potential to fool us into thinking that because someone possesses a classroom we admire, they must also have it all sussed out in the actual teaching department - there is very little way of knowing whether or not this is the case.

In both scenarios - whether we watch our colleagues teach or scroll through Twitter looking for creative ideas - we potentially miss out one of the most important influencing factors: ourselves - our true, human being selves.

Who are you? 

What are your interests? 

How do you interact with the people you feel closest to? 

How would you describe yourself in three words?

What makes you tick in real life?

It's these things that should form the greatest part of your teaching personality, or persona. If you think your defining characteristic is how humourous you are, then use humour in your classroom - even if it sarcasm that you major in. If you're not that funny, don't try to be in the classroom as it won't come across as genuine. If you know that its your quirkiness that makes you tick when with your friends, transport that into the classroom and allow the children to see the true you. If you know that actually, in real life you are really introverted, you don't necessarily have to create an extroverted teacher persona - a quiet and thoughtful teaching style will benefit children too. 

The last thing you want to do, and I'm afraid I probably tried to do this for far too many years, is try to be someone else in the classroom. Whether that's trying to ape the teacher who has been on the job for years, your super-dynamic year group partner, your favourite TV/movie teacher or just the idea of the ideal teacher that you've pieced together after years of being taught by teachers. If those teachers as human beings are different to how you are as a human being, why should your teaching personas appear to be the same?

I believe it is a good thing for children to experience a range of personalities in their classrooms as they move through school. After all, it hardly prepares them for the big wide world that they are already abroad in to only experience one kind of person. Teachers are hugely significant adults in children's lives and it is part of our job to share with them the diversity that exists in the world: everyone is different, and (cheese alert) the best person to be is yourself. Children need to see this example set. They need to be able to transition from working with an extroverted, larger-than-life year 1 teacher, to a more introverted, calming year 2 teacher, to a hilariously wacky year 3 teacher, to a nurturing but minimalistic year 4 teacher, and so on. 

Children need teachers to be who they really are. Yes, there are many times when teaching feels like a performance - a time when we don the theatrical costume and step outside of our comfort zone - but at the same time, for long-term impact there must be a defining element of authenticity in what we do. Relationships are key when it comes to teaching and relationships based on falsehoods, I'm sure I don't really need to point out, are doomed to fail. Children are often very perceptive, too: they, unwittingly, are looking for real connection, and will sense when a teacher is having to try too hard to be something they are not. 

If a teacher is putting much of their effort into hiding who they really are, instead applying it all to generating a facade, children may well pick up on this. Children aren't looking for the next TV entertainer, they aren't looking for a replacement of Miss So-and-so from last year, they aren't looking for a new mate - they are looking for a teacher who they can be sure and certain of. They are looking for someone who is transparent who they can trust, someone who they feel safe with. When a teacher feels safe with their human being self, that confidence will exude and children too will feel safe.

And your you-ness is never static - you are probably constantly adding strings to your bow: taking up new hobbies, exploring new reading material, visiting new places, making new friends - all these things subtly change us as human beings. I am certainly a very different person to who I was when I was an NQT - my life experiences have changed me significantly (and hopefully for the better). 

If you took some time to answer the questions above - and I suggest that at some point you do - and felt yourself lacking (I hope you didn't, because no-one is lacking in their own personality) then some self-discovery (sorry - bit of an icky phrase) might be useful: spending some time in reflection about what makes you you, writing about your life experiences or speaking to friends, family or colleagues about how they might answer those questions about you could help.

Whatever you do this year, however Pinterest-worthy your classroom is, however many children's books you read, however many weekend CPD events you attend, make sure that you prioritise allowing your true, genuine, human being self to be the armature onto which you build your teacher persona. With The Current Situation, and All That's Being Going On in these Unprecendented Times, children will be returning to school after the summer looking for security -  a security which they will easily find in a teacher who is secure in themselves, confident that they are presenting a true version of themselves in the classroom.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Book Review: 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' by Pádraig Kenny

As a pair of down-on-their-luck siblings, Jem and Tom, stumble through a tear into the hidden grounds of an eerie manor house, the reader is drawn through the closed doors of Rookhaven and into a world of intrigue. In fact, the reader almost becomes Jem as the story focuses less on her and more on what she discovers as she spends more time with The Family.
With great skill Pádraig Kenny sets to work, in the subtlest of ways, weaving motifs and feelings seemingly drawn from classic and contemporary literature and film. The effect of this is highly successful - in an instant the reader will feel a comfortable discomfort as intertextual synapses spark reminiscences and remembrances of other stories they have experienced. The magic that Kenny weaves is all in the fact that despite the nods and references, 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' feels like a highly original piece of work - indeed, one that had me on the edge of my seat.

Perhaps the reason for this is that 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' turns some of the most common classic horror* tropes on their head. Like Shelley's Frankenstein, the 'monsters' are misunderstood and there is more to them than meets the eye. One particular character, Piglet, who is a key player in the events of the book, is a monster who, locked up for years, never seen even by the others in The Family, has a secret weapon and it is most certainly not what you think it is. And it is this secret weapon which brings the story to a beautiful, healing, albeit highly dramatic, conclusion.

The illustrations in this book more than warrant their own paragraph in this review: the black and white woodcut print-style illustrations of Edward Bettison are something else. The images lend real gravitas to the story, giving 'The Monsters of Rookhaven' a real classic feel and making the cover stand out from the current pack of more contemporary-looking children's books. The double page spreads are excellent, providing a feast for the eyes yet not revealing unnecessary details which are best left to the reader's mind's eye - this really is a masterclass in illustration for books aimed at this age range.

One of the enjoyable aspects of this book is that it is just a brilliantly told adventure with just enough magic to be believable and exactly the right amount of elaboration to keep a reader guessing whilst feeling like they get it - I enjoyed reading a children's book that didn't appear to be moralising as I read it. However, once finished, I was left with an understanding: empathy is the enemy of division. I hadn't realised as I read that here was a tale of how communities can be divided, and how certain influential characters can use this division to their own ends, to the point where they provoke and stir up dissension - certainly a tale for our times. And I applaud Pádraig Kenny for this, his ability to leave the reader be as they read but to leave them with life-changing message.

*although this book is influenced by some classic horror and sci-fi it is not at all too scary for its intended audience of Middle Grade readers.

The Monsters of Rookhaven by Pádraig Kenny and Illustrated by Edward Bettison is out on 17 September 2020 (ISBN: 9781529031492)

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Book Review: Diver's Daughter by Patrice Lawrence

I've previously reviewed two other books from Scholastic's Voices series (here and here) and, after reading the first, I did not intend to stop there. 'Diver's Daughter' by Patrice Lawrence was next on the list.

Not exactly based on a true story, but involving one very real and pivotal character, this book is rooted in the true, often untold history of Black people in Tudor England. Having read the section in David Olusoga's Black and British that dealt with the Tudor period I had recently become more aware of the fact that there were hundreds of people from Africa or of African descent living in Britain in the 16th Century.

Eve is a Black Londoner, living, at the beginning of the story, a poor life in Southwark with her mother, a Mozambican by birth. Moving around, getting work where they can, they dream of a better life. Eve's mama is a diver and, faced with a chance to earn some real money in Portsmouth where the Mary Rose has sunk, they make a perilous journey in order to attempt to make their fortune, or at least in search of a better living. Along the way they are beset by illness, untrustworthy companions and ultimately, by their poor circumstances.

Upon arrival, things seem to look up for while, but not for long. The pair struggle to find work, and even the famous African diver Jacques Francis (historically significant not only as being lead salvage diver on the sunken Mary Rose, but also as the first Black person recorded to have given evidence in an English court) doesn't want to help them. They suffer the rejection of the townsfolk, betrayal by supposed friends before the racist viewpoints of the time lead to the kidnap of Eve's mama.

As well as being a thrilling, albeit sad, adventure, the book also evokes many other details of a time gone by - descriptions of living conditions, architecture and every day life as well as explanations of royal lineage and the tussle between religion and politics all ensure that young readers might even learn a thing or two as they read.

Providing, as I believe is the purpose of this range of stories, a way into Black British history for Key Stage 2-aged readers, this book is a great starting point for more learning around the ethnic diversity of Britain in Tudor times. Expertly written and exceedingly evocative, Patrice Lawrence's compelling narrative reveals, in a palatable way, the harsh realities of living in historical England as someone who is part of an ethnic minority group. A must for bookshelves at home, at school and in libraries.

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Book Review: 'The Infinite' by Patience Agbabi

'The Infinite' by Patience Agbabi felt like a very unique read. What made it unique, I asked myself as a I read it - it was clear right from the beginning that this was something else.

Well, perhaps, it is the fact that you are plunged headlong into a world which at first, you do not understand. And there are layers to this world.

Perhaps the one layer is to do with the fact that Elle lives with her Nigerian grandmother - beautiful snippets of Nigerian culture are scattered throughout the story. Obviously some readers will understand and identify with this, but for this White British reader it was a great opportunity to learn more. I was, however, able to identify with Elle's grandmother's strong Christian faith - another thread that runs through the book.

The next layer to the world that the reader enters upon opening up 'The Infinite' is that Elle has some un-named additional needs. Given that the story is told from a first person perspective, this comes into play a lot. As such, characterisation is strong: the reader really gets to know Elle. We know she needs to sit under tables in certain situations; we know sometimes she spends days without speaking as she deals with trauma. And in this way, understanding of the world Elle inhabits grows as progress is made through the book. It's not only the protagonist who is characterised well - Elle's first person narrative is open and honest - she speaks the truth about the people she encounters in the story meaning that the reader builds up a great picture of the diverse cast of Elle's friends and acquaintances.

And then there is the fact that Elle is a Leapling - one who is born on the 29th of February - who has The Gift - specifically, the gift of being able to time travel. It takes some time to adjust to what is actually a very well-thought-through concept of time travel, and it is this that will draw any curious reader further into this book. Essentially, this is crime fiction, but very much complicated by the fact that crime can happen across time if perpetrated by others with The Gift. The story concludes satisfyingly and logically - a testament to the fact that the parameters of Agbabi's concept of time travel are very well-communicated throughout the book.

'The Infinite' is a really inventive, imaginative and innovative book - I've certainly never read anything quite like it. Highly recommended.