Monday, 16 September 2019

From the @TES Blog: 8 Routines For Teachers To Nail Before Half-Term



The idea of routines in the classroom might be a bit of a turn-off for some, but they aren’t about creating robot children who don’t think.
 
They are about making time for the stuff that really matters and providing children with the boundaries and clarity they need to get on with learning...
 

The Right Book for the Right Child (Guest Blog Post By Victoria Williamson)

I remember very clearly when my love affair with Jane Austen began.

It was the summer between fifth and sixth year of high school, when I was seventeen. I’d picked up Pride and Prejudice for the first time, but not because I actually wanted to read it. It was a stormy day despite it being July – too wet to walk up to the local library. It was back in the nineties before the internet, Kindle, and instant downloads were available. I wanted to curl up on the sofa to read, but I’d already been through every single book in the house. All that was left unread at the bottom of the bookshelf was a row of slightly faded classics belonging to my mother. I only picked the first one up as there was clearly a book-drought emergency going on, and I was desperate.

The reason I didn’t want to read it, was because I already knew it was going to be totally boring.
Well, I thought I knew it. I’d already ‘read’ the classics you see. When I was ten or eleven, thinking I was very clever, I branched out from my usual diet of fantasy and adventure books, and opened a copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I can’t remember why now – it might have been another rainy day and another book emergency situation, but whatever the reason, I spent several miserable hours ploughing through page after page of unintelligible drivel about Lincoln’s Inn, Chancery, and a bunch of boring characters who said very dull things, before giving up in disgust.


I ‘knew’ from that point on that the classic novels teachers and book critics raved about were the literary equivalent of All Bran instead of Sugar Puffs, and I wasn’t interested in sampling any more.

I didn’t pick up another classic until that rainy day at seventeen, when I sped through Pride and Prejudice in a day and a night, emerging sleepy-eyed but breathless the next day to snatch Emma from the shelf before retreating back to my room to devour it. That summer, after running out of books by Austen, the Brontes and Mrs Gaskell, I tried Bleak House again. And what a difference! Where before I had waded thorough unintelligible passages without gaining any sense of what was going on, I now found an engaging, and often humorous tale of a tangled court system far beyond the ‘red tape’ that everyone was always complaining about in present-day newspapers. Where before I’d only seen dull characters who rambled on forever without saying anything at all, I discovered wit and caricature, and a cast of people I could empathise with.

That was when I realised that there wasn’t anything wrong with the literary classics – it was me who was the problem. Or rather, the mismatch between my reading ability when I was ten, and the understanding I had of the world at that age. I could read all of the words on the page, I just didn’t understand what half of them meant, and I thought the problem was with the story itself.

I was reminded of this little episode in my own reading history recently when I spent the summer in Zambia volunteering with the reading charity The Book Bus. One afternoon we were reading one-to-one with children in a community library, when I met Samuel. Samuel had a reading level far above the other children, and raced through the picture books and short stories they were struggling with. I asked him to pick a more complicated book to read with me for the last ten minutes, and after searching through the two bookshelves that comprised the small one-roomed library, he came back with a Ladybird book published in 1960, called ‘What to Look for in Autumn.’

He did his best with it. He could read all of the words – the descriptions of wood pigeons picking up the seeds to ‘fill their crops’, the harvesters – reapers, cutters and binders – putting the oats into ‘stooks’ and the information about various ‘mushrooms and fungi’, but he didn’t understand anything he was reading. Needless to say I looked out a more appropriate chapter book from the Book Bus’s well-stocked shelves for him to read the following week, but the incident reminded me of the importance of getting relevant books into children’s hands if we’re to ensure they’re not turned off by the reading experience.

This is a problem often encountered in schools when teachers are looking for books to recommend to children. A lot of the time we’re so focused on getting them to read ‘good’ books, the ones we enjoyed as children, or the ones deemed ‘worthy’ by critics, that we forget that reading ability isn’t the only thing we have to take into consideration. We have to match the child’s level of understanding to the texts that we’re recommending – or in the case of that Ladybird book, get rid of outdated books from our libraries entirely!

Children often find making the leap to more challenging books difficult, and comfort read the same books over and over again – sometimes even memorising them in anticipation of being asked to read aloud with an adult. If we’re to help them bridge this gap, we must make sure our recommendations are not only appropriate for their reading level, but match their understanding too, introducing new words and ideas gradually in ways that won’t put them off.

Samuel and I were both lucky – we loved reading enough that one bad experience wasn’t enough to put us off, but other children might not be so fortunate. Let’s ensure all children have the chance to discover the joy of reading, by getting the right books into the hands of the right child.

Victoria Williamson is the author of Fox Girl and the White Gazelle (click here for my review) and The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, both published by Floris Books.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Choose Simple


It really is all about the simple things. The longer I've been in teaching, the more I realise this. I thought I'd realised that 10 years ago; I thought I'd realised it 5 years ago. Last year I thought I'd realised it. Next year I'll realise it even more than I do today.

The thing you need to be able to do in your classroom is teach. Whether that's explaining, providing feedback, working with a group, modelling, reviewing, summarising, or whatever your definition of teaching includes, you need to be able to teach.

What you don't want to have to be doing is all that other stuff that goes on in classrooms that stops you from teaching, and, in turn, the children from learning.

If you know what you need to teach and how you are going to do it, then you need to free yourself up to do that. What you don't need are the endless interruptions that are nothing to do with teaching and learning:

"Sir, I haven't got a pencil."

"Please can I have a dictionary?"

"Can I go toilet?"
"Pardon?"
"Can I go toilet?"
"Try again..."
"Please can I go toilet?"
"Please can I go...?"
"Please can I go toilet?"
"Please can I go TO THE toilet?"
"Ohhhhh… please can I go to the toilet?"

It might not be the things the children say. It could be the things they do:
  • Wandering around trying to find the equipment they need.
  • Sitting there without trying to find the equipment they need.
  • Not going to the toilet when they really need to and thus not concentrating on their work properly.
  • Faffling around when they think they've got a spare moment.
  • Arguing about the exact position of a shared text book.
You all know the type of things that really frustrate you as you attempt to teach.

But so many of these things are avoidable if you attend to the simple things first. In order to do this you might have to reassess what you believe to be a waste of your time.

Is it really a waste of three minutes of your time for you to go around each table in the morning to check there are 6 pencils and rulers in each pot? Especially if you are going to ask them to write in pencil and underline their dates and titles multiple times in the day?

Is it really a waste of your time to spend the same three minutes putting out the maths books at break so that the children are ready to work when they come back in?

Is it really a waste of your time to think about who is sitting where when you put the books out, and to make adjustments to the seating arrangements based on what you know of the class and the current relationships between children?

Is it really a waste of your time to write up a welcome message for the class which contains instructions about what they can be getting on with as they come in?

Is it really a waste of your time to prepare that resource that children can refer to during the lesson so that they don't need to constantly ask the same questions?

Is it really a waste of your time for you to design a routine for getting the books handed out in less than 10 seconds?

Is it really a waste of your time to plan for how you will add to your working wall during the lesson if it means that you don't have to then spend half an hour after school updating it on your own?

Is it really a waste of your time to arrange the equipment in your room so that children know where it is and can access it at all times?

Is it really a waste of your time to spend a few moments explaining to children that they can use the toilet whenever they need to (or that they must always only use the toilet during breaktimes)?

All of these examples require a little bit of extra work outside of class time, but it is exactly these simple things that, once a little bit of thought and effort has been expended on your part, will allow you to get on with the job once you and the children are in the classroom together.

Spend a bit of your time outside of class time sorting out these things and lessons will be such a dream that you will feel less like you need to collapse in the staffroom for 15 minutes in between lessons.

There are often very simple solutions to the issues that arise during class but they require a little forethought. Often, the problems you have in class are very hard to firefight at the time, but can be pre-empted and avoided with the development of a few simple routines. Sure, you might have to spend some class time initially explaining routines and practising them, but in the long run it'll be so worth it.

Next time you are frustrated by something that happens in class ask yourself: Does this problem have a simple solution? Could I pre-empt this happening again by spending a little bit of time in preparation? What can I put in place to avoid these distractions in the future?

If you can't at first find the simple solution, spend some more time mulling it over, or ask another teacher who may have already cracked that particular issue.

And the thing with simple things is that even children can do them. Perhaps it doesn't even have to be you who counts the pencils, puts the books out, arranges the equipment and so on - the children can do those things.

The really difficulty with being a teacher is that all the little simple things add up: remembering to do them all can be hard. Keep working intentionally at doing them and, just like the routines you drill with the children, you'll start to do more of them automatically. But in order to do that you need to value and embrace the power of the simple things to begin with, never belittling them or thinking you haven't got time for them. Often, ignoring the simple things can lead to complex problems.

Monday, 9 September 2019

From @Matr_org: Understanding Maths Anxiety: A Parents’ Guide On How To Overcome This Primary School Problem


"I remember finding ways to get out of maths lessons as a youngster.

My favourite ruse was to offer to tidy up the teacher’s cupboard – I even clearly remember stacking the maths textbooks neatly on the shelves, feeling inwardly smug that I did not have to open them and attempt the questions inside.

I recall my dad spending what seemed like hours with me trying to help me to understand negative numbers and how to calculate them – unfortunately, his pictures of eggs and egg cups didn’t help at all although I appreciated his efforts!"

https://matr.org/blog/understanding-maths-anxiety-parents-guide/

Monday, 2 September 2019

Choosing The Gods by Steve Kershaw, Author Of Mythologica (Guest Post)

Imagine my joy! I’m a Classicist, a person who spends his life in the world of dead languages and the people who don’t speak them anymore, when all of a sudden I receive a fantastic opportunity to collaborate on a fabulously illustrated children’s encyclopaedia featuring fifty of Ancient Greece’s most powerful gods and goddesses, fascinating earth-dwelling mortals, and terrifying monsters. What could be better? I teach this stuff for Oxford University, but I’ve loved it ever since I was a kid myself. At my lovely Primary School in Halifax in Yorkshire, our teachers would read to us from wonderful books for the last 20 minutes of each day. And when a new young teacher read bits out of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to us, I thought this was totally amazing! Gods, monsters, heroes, astonishing adventures… I was entranced!

So who should I include in Mythologica? Obviously the twelve Olympian gods and goddesses. They can be a pretty jealous lot: if I’d left any of them out, they would just have ruined my life in the most horrible way imaginable. But they are also completely entrancing: Zeus, who can blast even the most awesome of giants into oblivion with his thunderbolts; Athena, his daughter, born from his head, with her mesmerising grey-eyed beauty and fearsome intelligence; Artemis, running free in the countryside with her dogs; or the blacksmith Hephaestus, who was severely disabled but still physically powerful, and married to Aphrodite, the most beautiful female in the universe! In some ways they seem incredibly distant and alien, and yet again they can be so like us. They are a close-knit family, and they behave like one, always squabbling and arguing with each other, but if any outsider threatens them, they immediately come together in inseparable unity. They’re just so easy for children to relate to!

Illustrations from the book by Victoria Topping
Selecting the mortals was like choosing a sports team from a squad of world superstars. Some, like wily Odysseus, beautiful Helen, mighty Heracles, swift-footed Achilles, and Medea the barbarian witch, picked themselves, but sadly others had to be left on the bench. Greek mythology can seem a bit male-dominated, but we wanted to strike a slightly fairer balance between male and female characters, and the ones who made the cut had to bring the amazing stories, staggering achievements, and brilliant skills that would excite our interest and emotions, and make us think. Our mortals needed to be people who we could admire, fear, love, hate, laugh at, or feel sorry for. As heroes and heroines they had be able to do things that we ordinary mortals could never dream of, face unimaginable dangers, make terrible mistakes, and possibly win eternal glory.

Our humans also needed to look great, and to provide a diverse range of character types. So in looking for inspiration for Victoria Topping’s magnificent artwork we thought about their personalities and behaviour, what they wore, what distinctive things they carried, their hair- and/or skin-colour, what their eyes looked like, where they lived, who they interacted with, and what amazing powers or abilities they might have. I think we found a hero for a very reader.

When it came to the monsters we just wanted the biggest, baddest, mightiest, weirdest, wildest, snakiest, doggiest, fire-breathingest, flesh-eatingest, turn-you-to-stone-est, set of colourful, evil, hybrid creatures that the Greek myths could offer. They had to encapsulate that wonderful world of ‘the other’ that kids find so entrancing. Cerberus the hell-hound, the Gorgon Medusa, the dangerously alluring Sirens, the bronze giant Talos, and their various brothers and sisters all had to thrill, scare, and astound.

Why are these tales so important and enduring? At heart, they are just fantastic stories with wondrous characters, and children adore them for that reason alone. The myths are so vivid that we feel we can get to know the gods, monsters and mortals personally. We can meet Athena, travel with Jason, and fight with the Cyclops. But there’s more to them than that. Myths are good to think with. But they’re not preachy, and they’re often morally ambiguous. We don’t find straightforward answers; easy morals are sometimes hard to find; it’s not always about ‘Good people’ versus ‘Bad people’, with the Good ones winning in the end - even the good guys do bad things; life can be unfair; bad things happen when it isn’t your fault, but they also happen when it is; and, ‘they all lived happily ever after’ doesn’t happen very often. So these Greek myths challenge our children’s imagination, and invite them to reflect on how we live today, presenting them with lessons and problems not just about the world as we would like it to be, but about the world as it is. The world of Greek mythology is still very much our children’s world.

Steve Kershaw is an expert on dead languages and the people who don’t speak them anymore. He’s been captivated by the Greek myths ever since childhood when he used to read Homer’s Iliad with his torch under the bedclothes. Steve wrote his PhD under Richard Buxton, arguably the leading scholar on Greek myth in the world. He has taught Classics in numerous establishments, including Oxford University Department for Continuing Education and Warwick University. He runs the European Studies Classical Tour for Rhodes College and the University of the South. He’s also an internationally renowned jazz musician.

http://stevekershaw.com/

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Book Review: 'Spylark' by Danny Rurlander

Just as Daniel Craig's James Bond brought a more human dimension to the franchise, Danny Rurlander has broken the Stormbreaker mould with the unlikely hero of Spylark. True, Tom Hopkins has lost both parents and is living with a relative, but he also suffers bullying at school, has terrible claustrophobia and is living with the after-effects of an accident which has left him needing a walking stick to get about.

Tom is at risk of becoming withdrawn and reclusive and his love inventing machines and piloting his homemade drones seems to be making this worse. But flying is his escape - as he explores the beautiful surroundings of the Lake District using his drone's camera's live feed he feels free of his body and able to do all manner of things. However, a routine flight brings him into a world of danger and terror as he attempts to foil the plans of a criminal gang whose activity threatens to have world-wide consequences. Tom's freedom very quickly becomes captivity.

Thankfully Tom isn't in this alone - he reluctantly befriends two children who come to stay in his aunt's holiday cottage and, as he becomes tour guide to their Swallows and Amazons fantasy holiday, he takes them into his confidence. And a good job too - they prove crucial not only in helping him combat the criminals, but in causing Tom to break free of how his life's experiences are holding him back.

Although certain aspects of the book are recognisable, the storyline is far from formulaic - halfway through it seems like the action is soon to be over: not so. You see, the familiar idea of children being taken seriously enough to have done what a country's secret services couldn't have done is rubbished in this story, lending it an air of credible realism. The fact that some adults don't believe Tom and his friends means that the story must go on and the no-nonsense advice of more trusted adults ensures that it does.

Spylark is an awesome page-turner and an incredible feat for this first-time author. If Arthur Ransome legitimately got so many sequels out of his sailboats-and-sandwiches romps (and don't get me wrong, they thrilled me) then Rurlander could certainly provide us with a brilliant follow-up to Spylark - I know I'd be queueing up to read it. Immediately gripping, this book would go down well with upper key stage two readers and upwards, not least with those considered to be reluctant readers. I couldn't recommend it enough - a cracking adventure.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Misguided Reading (6 Questions To Ask When Planning A Reading 'Lesson')


How should we teach reading? What do we even mean by 'reading'? Decoding? Comprehension? Both? Is it more than that?

Scarborough's Reading Rope - image from EEF's 'Improving Literacy In KS2'

Scarborough's Reading Rope breaks things down a little more and, if nothing else, serves to show that there is quite a lot going on when one picks up a book to read.

If the above 8 headings (background knowledge; vocabulary; language structures etc) were all the necessary components of being able to read, is it the case that if we teach them all, children would be able to read? If so, how explicitly do they need to be taught? Can some of them be developed unwittingly in a language-rich, book-rich environment? Do teachers and schools really have a chance if a child isn't being brought up in such an environment?

So many questions, and given the range of advice that exists about reading instruction, I'm not sure we have the answers - at least not readily. Indeed, the 'reading wars' have been raging for years (although they focus less on comprehension) - just how exactly should we teach children to be able to read so that they can read words and understand their meaning as a whole?

My personal experience is that this is something that depends heavily on context. During my own career I have taught classes of children who have needed very little reading instruction and vice versa - I am judging this simply on their ability to understand what they have read. A cursory analysis of  the differences between these classes reveals that it appears to me to be the children who have been brought up in a language-rich, book-rich environment who, by the time they are 10 or 11, can read exceptionally well and don't need teaching how to comprehend what they have read. Of course, some children will have been brought up in such an environment and still need help with their reading.

Why does context matter? Well, for the purposes of this blog post, it matters because what one teacher in one classroom in one school somewhere does, might not work for another teacher somewhere else.

For example, a reading lesson consisting of asking children to complete two pages of mixed written comprehension questions might work with children who can already decode, comprehend and encode, but it is questionable as to how much they will have actually learned during that lesson. A lesson like this might have the appearance of being successful in one setting but, share those resources online with a teacher in a different context and they might not experience the same levels of apparent success. The children in the second teacher's class might need teaching some strategies before they can access such an activity.

And what does said activity amount to in reality? Just another test. Weighing the pig won't make it fatter - it's just that weighing it also won't make it any lighter either: if a child can read already, then these kinds of activity might do no harm. But we must be clear: this practice of repeatedly giving children comprehension activities composed of mixed question types is not really teaching children much. However, perhaps the stress, or boredom, of constantly being weighed might start to have negative consequences for the pig: children are potentially put off reading if their main experience of it is repetitive comprehension activities.

So, if weighing the pig doesn't make it fatter, what does? Feeding it. But with what should we feed them with? What should we teach them in order to help them to read words and understand what they mean as a whole?

Is it as simple as Michael Rosen suggests? Is it just a case of sharing books with children and talking about them? I've seen first-hand anecdotal evidence which certainly suggests that 'Children are made readers on the laps of their parents' (Emilie Buchwald). My own children, taught very well to decode using phonics at school, also appear to be excellent comprehenders - they have grown up around family members who read an awful lot, have had models of high quality speech, have partaken in a wide variety of experiences, have broad vocabularies and spend a good deal of their own time reading or being read to. Give them a two-page comprehension activity and they'd probably ace it. However, as already mentioned, this certainly won't be the case for every child brought up in such a way.

But what should schools do when they receive children who haven't had the privilege of a language-rich, book-rich and knowledge-rich upbringing, or those for whom that hasn't quite led to them being excellent readers? Downloading someone else's comprehension sheets and making children spend half an hour doing them isn't going to help them to become better readers. Should we teachers be trying to 'fill the gap' - to do the things that some children experience at home before they've ever even set foot in a school? Or is it too late once they're in school? Does the school-based approach need to be different?

As I said before: so many questions - questions I won't answer in this blog post. But I will leave you with something practical, in the spirit of this blog post, it'll be in the form of some questions to ask yourself when preparing a reading lesson:

Does this activity promote practice of existing skills or is it teaching them new strategies? Sometimes you will want to do some practising, other times you will want to teach them something new - how to ask questions of what they are readin, how to summarise what they have read, for example.

Does this activity help children to understand the text better or does it help them to understand a strategy better? Again, on some days you will just want to do activities that help children to gain a really good understanding of the passage; other days you might want to focus on teaching and practising a strategy such as inference making or visualising what has been described in the text.

Does this activity promote an enjoyment of reading? I tentatively include his question, and provide some clarification: I do not mean Is this activity fun? Reading is nearly always enjoyable when one understands what is being read. A reading task therefore can be enjoyable if it focuses on developing understanding of previously unknown word meanings which then helps he children to understand what hey have read. Anything that makes a child feel a sense of success will probably also be enjoyable for them. If they feel like it's pointless, repetitive or way too difficult, they lose that motivating sense of achievement.

Does the activity require silent completion or dialogic collaboration? I would suggest at the first option is reserved for testing - occasionally necessary; the second option should be key to a reading lesson. Teachers should be reading aloud, modelling their thoughts, demonstrating strategies, explaining word etymology and so on, and children should be joining in with this. Although the act of reading is usually a very private thing, a reading lesson will need to be the opposite if the children are to learn anything in it. A lesson can legitimately feature a set of printed out questions that require a written answer but should never consist of this alone - such activities will need surrounding with plenty of decent talk. And it's that book talk that will make the lesson enjoyable.

Do the children need any new prior knowledge (of the world or of words) before they access is text? Reading sessions can be derailed instantly if the children don't know enough about what they are reading to be able to understand it. Spending some time previously learning new stuff (could be by reading a non-fiction text) will help a following lesson to go much more smoothly - comprehension, including inference-making, relies on prior (or background) knowledge. Of course, some fiction texts (historical novels, for example) can be great ways for children to learn new things about a subject.

Have I (the teacher) read and understood the text and the questions and answers I intend to ask? When I've seen reading lessons go off the boil, it's usually because teachers haven't asked themselves this question during their preparation. Downloading someone else's comprehension sheets can easily lead to teachers not being able to answer the questions themselves and then getting into a right fluster in front of the children. Although a good reading lesson will nearly always follow a tangent or two, it's best to know where you're going in general: pre-empt the questions the children might ask, the words they might not know, and so on. Plan out what you will model, which questions you will ask and definitions you will give.

What other experiences of reading do the children in my class get? The timetabled reading lesson shouldn't be all that children get. They need to discuss vocabulary and read across the curriculum. They will benefit from a physical environment which celebrates reading. Adults who have read the books on the shelves and can discuss them with children will really boost their engagement with books and reading. If a lesson is the only time children experience reading then they may believe that reading only belongs in that slot on the timetable.

Perhaps by asking the above questions during lesson planning sessions, reading lessons might develop a little more focus and direction. By preparing in this way a lesson might end up being more guided than misguided.