Wednesday, 3 June 2020

#BlackLivesMatter - A Pledge

I had a rough night last night - couldn't sleep properly. Dreams were haunted. And I knew it would be so. I went to bed with thoughts of Bunce Island (I started reading Black and British by David Olusoga), Cyntoia Brown (we watched the Netflix documentary which I've subsequently found out was not approved by her) and the lack of representative diversity in our SLT running around my head (this was the topic of conversation with my wife before we went to sleep). I was afraid to go to sleep because I knew it would be disturbed.

But, if that's all I've got to be afraid of, then I'm priviliged. This privilege is something I am aware of already, but when I compare my fears to those of people who see George Floyd being murdered by police and know that it could happen to them because of the deep-seated racism that exists at a systemic level, I have to remind myself that I can cope with a rough night.

However, it is right that I should be disrupted - this should be my burden. As a white middle-class male I have benefited from the privilege that comes with that all my life and I know I've not done anywhere near enough to advocate for people who don't have that privilege.

When it comes to being an ally, I know that loving music of black origin isn't enough. As Clara Amfo said, "We black people get the feeling that people want our culture but they do not want us. In other words, you want my talent but you don't want me.". I do think I've learned from Hip Hop particularly a little of what life for black people is like as they experience the systemic racism around them but if I'm honest, I've still come away with a false overall impression of life as a black person being a pretty cool thing. I am ashamed to admit this, but it is important that I do.
In the last couple of years I have begun to try to educate myself by reading both 'Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race- by Reni Eddo-Lodge and 'Natives' by Akala. I've been heartened to see that many have pointed towards these volumes, as well as others, as being a good starting point for white people who 'want to do something'. Education is the best starting point, as illustrator Dapo Adeola said:
It's because of my reading of the aforementioned books that when I watched this clip of George The Poet on Newsnight, that I already knew that the presenter was wrong in her question:
I was pleased to see that many others appear to have finally taken up the responsibility to self-educate: Amazon's best seller list this morning featured 'Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race' at number 1, as well as 'Me and White Supremacy' by Layla F Saad, Natives by Akala, 'How To Argue With A Racist by Adam Rutherford and other books by black authors, fiction and non-fiction.
The BAMEed network website has a really good booklist aimed at educating teachers, or anyone who is wanting to learn more about how systemic racism is: https://www.bameednetwork.com/books/

But even this reading books is not enough, I know. I'm not sure exactly where the quote comes from, but this from Angela Davis is key: "In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist."

What does it look like for me to be antiracist? This is a big question, and one that I can't answer immediately. This list of ten things from BAMEed is a good starting point for me, and anyone finding themselves in a similar position:

The above document can be downloaded as a PDF here: https://www.bameednetwork.com/resources/

I think the important next step here is to recognise that being an ally, an advocate and an activist starts where one is already: in my home, with my daughters, with my friends and family, in my church, in my job as a school leader, and so on - this is reflected in points 4, 5 and 9. This will require an ever-shifting mindset; a constantly growing set of filters for thought processes: as I learn more about the history of racism and just how systemic it is, I will need to reflect this in how I think and how I make decisions.

The part of discovering and taking these next steps that is very nuanced is that which is outlined in point 8. I am not complaining about the difficulties that might be involved in trying to be an ally instead of a saviour - this is part of my role, and I would like to gladly take this on. I know as a school leader I have institutional power, even having 25k followers on Twitter means that I do - with this power comes responsibility but not ultimate responsibility - nowhere near. I must listen to the voices of black people, Asian people, and anyone who does not share my own ethnicity but I must not rely solely on them to tell me what to do - that is not their responsibility. There is enough information out there to guide me as to what my responsibility it, however I will always be ready to listen when they are ready to talk, always ready to learn when they are ready to teach.

I am aware that this blog post is probably riddled with my white privilege in ways which I cannot yet see. If you are reading this and you can see something that I can't - in the way I've phrased something, in omissions, in things I've written that don't mark me as a true ally, then I ask that you call me on it - this is how I will learn, this is how I will change.

Thank you for taking the time to read this - I pray it has not been an egocentric virtue signalling session, but a true pledge to do better.

I'd also love you to have a read of my wife's take on this matter over on her blog: White supremacy is in my blood; we need to get uncomfortable fast to defeat it

Monday, 1 June 2020

Empathy Day: Guest Post by Planet Omar Author Zanib Mian

Empathy is a vital human force. One that creates happier children, stronger communities and a better world. It’s come into sharp focus during the pandemic and right now, we’ve never needed it more. Empathy is being able to imagine and share someone else’s feelings.

The good news is that it's a skill you can learn, and Empathy Day on 9 June aims to help everyone understand and experience its transformational power. Empathy Day focuses on how we can use books to step into someone else’s shoes. Scientists say that we can train our brain with stories – the more you empathise with characters, the more you understand other people’s feelings.

Empathy Day was established by not-for-profit EmpathyLab, who are on a mission to inspire the rising generation to drive a new empathy movement. On 9 June they will host a day of brilliant online events and home-based celebrations to help children READ, CONNECT AND ACT using empathy. Children can join in whether they're at home or at school, and authors, illustrators, schools and libraries across the country will all be taking part.

To mark the countdown to Empathy Day, Zanib Mian, whose book Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet is included in EmpathyLab’s Read for Empathy Collection, has chosen an extract from their book and tells us why they feel it’s a powerful read to develop empathy.


Extract from Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, Chapter 8

One afternoon, when we were doing an art lesson about Picasso, Mrs Hutchinson was so excited about how he made everything abstract that her curls started dancing with joy. She asked us to paint self-portraits just like his. Charlie and I were having loads of fun giving ourselves colourful triangle noses and weird-shaped eyes, when Daniel walked past our desk and sent the dirty water pot tumbling onto my painting.

‘Oops, clumsy me …’

There he was again with the upside-down talking. It definitely wasn’t an oops moment, it was a hey, let’s ruin Omar’s painting on purpose moment.

Charlie’s mouth dropped open in surprise and my heart took a little dip, as if it was falling into a different and less comfy place in my chest.

It seemed like Charlie could tell exactly how I was feeling. Because he leaned in to whisper, ‘He’s just a big frogspawn head. I bet you can paint a new one even better!’ And he gave me the biggest toothy grin I’d seen yet.

I imagined what Picasso looked like. I wondered if he looked like some of his paintings, all out of shape, but happy. Happier than all the other paintings from those old days. And then I thought, hey, what if some kid had ruined Picasso’s painting at school one day, which is why it came out all different and weird and that’s what made him famous? So I took my paintbrush, I grabbed it like it was alive and like it was the first time I ever held a paintbrush, and I painted.

When Mrs Hutchinson saw my work, her curls almost rose to the ceiling.

‘Omar, Omar,’ she said. ‘You DID this?’

‘Yes, Miss.’

‘It’s … wow. It’s brilliant!’

Daniel’s face was red. Like the beetroots my dad will never eat. He passed me a note.

It said:

WATCH OUT

Zanib Mian writes:

As I wrote this, I felt sad for Omar. But I also felt very proud of both Omar, and his new best friend Charlie, for how they handled the situation.

When Daniel tips over the paint pot, Omar recognises his emotions and allows himself to feel them, which is always the first step towards moving on from them. He didn’t use words like, ‘I felt sad,’ or ‘I felt upset.’ But we know how he felt because of the way he describes his heart falling into a different, and less comfy place in his chest. Unfortunately, everyone has probably experienced one of those moments when someone has said or done something, that made their heart ‘drop’ like that, with disappointment, sadness or discomfort, which is why readers might empathise with Omar at this point.

The reason I chose this extract to write about for Empathy Day however, isn’t solely for the empathy that it may elicit from readers. It’s because the way Charlie reacts upon seeing this happen to his friend is one of the most gorgeous Charlie moments in the book! Charlie is an amazing friend to Omar during this incident. He’s there for Omar. He sees Omar. He recognises how Omar might be feeling, and he does something to help him through. That is a wonderful example of showing empathy towards others. It’s a complete empathetic reaction.

What I love most is how this scene displays what showing empathy for someone can do. Encouraged by Charlie’s words, Omar regains his spirit and produces a piece of art more brilliant than before!
That’s the beauty of empathy – it has a great power to change every situation for the better.

For the first time this year, EmpathyLab will host its Empathy Day programme online to support families at home. Schools and libraries across the country will also be offering a wide range of home learning and story-time activities.

Prior to the big day, EmpathyLab are hosting a Countdown Fortnight on their social media channels (26 May-8 June). Highlights include brand-new empathy-themed illustrations from leading artists, short stories from favourite authors and video readings of empathy-boosting books and poems from the writers themselves. Families can also download a new Family Activities Pack, featuring 14 writing, drawing, crafting, listening and reading activities to do at home: https://www.empathylab.uk/family-activities-pack

Events on 9 June will begin at 9:30am with Children’s Laureate and best-selling author Cressida Cowell, who will introduce Empathy Day. The day’s activities, designed to introduce children to the concept and importance of empathy and how to put it into action, include a draw-along with Rob Biddulph, a poetry challenge with Sarah Crossan, Empathy Charades with Joseph Coelho, exercises on listening with Jo Cotterill and Robin Stevens, before rounding up the day with an activity on putting empathy into action with Onjali Rauf and Sita Brahmachari. Finally, an evening event with Cressida Cowell, Muhammad Khan and psychologist Professor Robin Banerjee aimed at parents, teachers and librarians will address the science that drives EmpathyLab.

The full programme can be found HERE https://bit.ly/EmpathyDay2020

Join in with the #EmpathyDay social media campaign and share your #ReadforEmpathy book recommendations.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Book Review: 'The Dog Runner' by Bren MacDibble

The fact that I read this review copy just over a year of it being published is testatment to the fact that I loved Bren MacDibble's last book so much that I knew I had to keep this on my TBR&R (To Be Read and Reviewed) pile until I had the time to give it the attention I suspected it might deserve.

I'm glad I kept it there on the shelf, ready for such a moment: the moment being lockdown during a worldwide pandemic straight after I'd read Jack London's 'The Call of the Wild' (Goodreads review here). It's funny how things conspire together - I think I may have read this book very differently had we not been a couple of months into COVID-19 restrictions.

You see, 'The Dog Runner' is set in Australia in the near future following the spread of a fungus which has killed pretty much all plant life, but crops in particular. People in cities are struggling to survive and the best hope is out in the country where fewer people are competing for resources. Ella and her half-brother, Emery, head out on a treacherous journey in the hope of making it to Emery's mum's house. They leave behind their dad who is searching for Ella's mum after she was designated as a key worker and drafted who-knows-where to work for 8 months.

Picking up on key themes from 'How To Bee', MacDibble once again excels as she tells a tale laced with environmental and family themes. It is no mistake that readers of this will close the book with thoughts and questions in their heads: Should I begin to learn how to survive without all the things I currently take for granted? Do I need to learn how to grow my own food? What does family really mean? Who would I want to be with if I was in a similar situation?

If you've read post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction before, or indeed films within these genres, then you'll have a pretty good idea of the kind of plot line you'll find in 'The Dog Runner'. Two kids on the run, fighting for survival against both the elements and potential enemies, placing all their hope and energies into reaching a place where they think they will be safe the the forseeable future. The Australian setting, the dog team, the nature of the disaster that has become the world and the family scenarios are the context in which the adventure unfolds.

But this certainly isn't a depressing book. It is full of light and beautiful moments between the characters, and between them and their dogs. Seeds of hope are sewn throughout the book - indeed, there are some positive plot twists where ordinarily you might expect events which plunge the protagonists further into the pit - and, ultimately it is not all doom and gloom in the end.

The real beauty of the book is that there is a message of hope for the reader - the events of the book are something that we can perhaps avoid, and if not, can be prepared for. It celebrates togetherness and collaboration and it encourages responsibility when it comes to food. On this second point, the story could germinate further exploration of where the food we rely on for life comes from and how it is produced, and what are alternatives might be if we want to live more sustainably.

All in all, a cracking adventure with plenty of tension and a novel setting for the action to take place. 'The Dog Runner' is an ideal introduction to a genre which is popular for teens and adults, but less so for younger readers. Suitable for children aged 10+.

Friday, 22 May 2020

What will we do to best support the mental and emotional wellbeing of children on the reopening of schools?


My colleague Yasemin Cevik asked me to join this Teachmeet but unfortunately I had to decline her offer. Instead I wrote a quick answer to the question that is up for debate. I tried to take one particular angle, expecting that other speakers would pick up on other aspects of the answer to this question. It's about Bradford but it goes for all children:

“What will we do to best support the mental and emotional wellbeing of Bradford’s children on the reopening of schools?”

I think the key word here is ‘best’ as it acknowledges that there is no perfect way to do this – we can only do our best. As teachers we often strive for perfection – it’s because we care so much – but perfection is unattainable.

That sounds pretty pessimistic but if we want mental and emotional wellbeing for Bradford’s children then we need to pay a lot of mind to the mental and emotional wellbeing of Bradford’s education workers.

‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’, goes the saying. And it is true for this situation that we find ourselves in. Teachers who are striving for perfection and setting themselves unattainable goals are not going to experience good mental and emotional wellbeing. And, once we have more children back in (the word ‘reopening’ is incorrect – we have been open the whole time), teachers, co-teachers, leaders and other school staff are going to need to be emotionally strong and resilient so that the children have the chance of experiencing the same.

Yes, there are plenty of things we can do directly for the children: a Recovery Curriculum, as written about by Barry Carpenter (1), covers most of what school staff need to think about in terms of emotional wellbeing, and we must take care of all the logistics of keeping the school a safe place to be so as to curb the spread of virus (2). But in doing all of these things, the school staff who are responding to this unprecedented situation put their own mental health on the line.

This must be a key concern for school leaders, and for those who wish to be a supportive colleague regardless of their position. We are all in this together and everyone involved will need support. Headteachers will benefit from an appreciative word from a recently qualified teacher. Regular check-ins from a more experienced teacher will be essential for trainee teachers. Mentors and coaches will need to cast aside their regular agenda in order to focus on how their mentees and coaches are coping with the changes in policy and practice. A little encouraging message from colleagues will be a balm to the soul of members of SLT, working away in the background on the nitty gritty of wider opening.

My point is this: we can all help each other to weather this storm and as we help each other, we will be best placed to help the children. Kindness is essential at this time. Yes, kindness to ourselves – get your sleep, eat well (but don’t forgo all treats), exercise, watch your favourite series, get outside, keep in touch with family – but kindness to each other, too.

Empathy will be key. Never suppose you know how someone is feeling – although we are experiencing the same pandemic, we are not all experiencing the pandemic in the same way. Take the time to find out how people have felt during all its different stages, and make sure you know where they’re at presently. Don’t assume to know based on your own experience. This goes for staff and for children.

Much of the time when we open schools to more children should be spent in this exploratory manner. With adults it might be more obvious, with children it could be more subtle. Make time for discussions which allow children to air their views – do this in different group sizes, or 1-to-1 if necessary. Allow your story reading to flow into conversations about how the characters’ experiences mirror the children’s own thoughts and feelings. Make time for collaborative activities (they can still be socially distanced if you want to go for that), team quizzes and games and other activities where children connect with one another mentally and emotionally. Whatever the activity, allow people the chance to share, and be sensitive to their needs as they do.

We can best support the mental and emotional wellbeing of Bradford’s children on the reopening of schools by taking care of the members of staff who will be taking care of them and by knowing and taking into account of each individual’s experience of the last couple of months. Empathy and kindness will be king upon wider opening – any school who attempts anything other than this will take a hit in the years to come, both in staff and pupil wellbeing.
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1. Carpenter, R: A Recovery Curriculum: Loss and life for our children and schools post pandemic (https://www.ssatuk.co.uk/blog/a-recovery-curriculum-loss-and-life-for-our-children-and-schools-post-pandemic/)
2. Gov.uk: Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-implementing-protective-measures-in-education-and-childcare-settings)

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Book Review: Mohinder's War by Bali Rai

I love a historical novel set in World War Two so when I saw that Bali Rai had written another (read my review of his excellent Now Or Never - A Dunkirk Story) I jumped at the chance of reading and reviewing it.

Mohinder's War follows the story of Joelle, a French/British girl living in France during the Nazi occupation. She, her family and their friends are a part of the resistance and when a downed RAF pilot needs hiding, he is taken into the home of the Bretons and concealed in their cellar.

The pilot is Mohinder Singh, a character based on a real life RAF pilot who flew in the Second World War. He and Joelle strike up a friendship - Joelle keeping him company and sharing her local knowledge, and Mohinder teaching her about his homeland and Sikh faith and opening her eyes to philosophies regarding life:

'We are all family,' he said. 'Every man, woman and child on this earth. I believe that all of creation is one whole. We are bound together, each of us, by invisible links, and all are equally important.'

During the course of the story, as result of key events (desparately trying to avoid spoilers here but there is treachery), their friendship develops into something much more resembling a father/daughter relationship - an interesting, rarely explored dynamic between two unrelated characters. This aspect of the story is executed particularly well with some genuinely lovely moments between Joelle and Mohinder, resulting in a very ultimate act of commitment and love (again, trying to avoid spoilers).

I would advise caution when choosing to give or read this book to children - it actually contains some quite starkly violent scenes, ones which in the context may not have been out of the ordinary, but which could be shocking to children living in a time and place of peace. Seeing as the action focuses not on warfare between soldiers, but civilian acts of resistance and episodes of violence against civilians, this less familiar territory should be carefully trodden. Having said that, with the right adult guide, the content of this book would be suitable for 11+ children who have some historical understanding of the time period.

That aside, this is a heartwarming tale of friendship, bravery and derring-do. Joelle and Mohinder use their wits to work together, defying all odds in their bid to escape France to the safety of Britain. With an exciting climax sure to ignite the imaginations of young readers, this is a fantastic adventure story which provides a much-needed window into a World War which has, to greater or lesser extent, been whitewashed: Bali Rai's latest book is a welcome addition to the bookshelf.

'Mohinder's War' will be available on 11/6/2020 and is part of Bloomsbury's Flashbacks series.

Friday, 15 May 2020

From @TeachPrimary Magazine: Sounds Like A Plan

"Enjoyment and engagement of learning can, and should be, intrinsic: the act of learning is enjoyable and engaging, providing that you are actually learning."

Read my latest article for Teach Primary Magazine for free online, pages 50 and 51:

https://aplimages.s3.amazonaws.com/_tp/2020/0515-NewIssue/TP-14.4.pdf?utm_source=TPNewsletter&utm_medium=20200515&utm_campaign=Issue11

"Imagine a way of working that was not only more responsive to children’s needs, but was also better for teacher wellbeing. If there was such a way, surely we’d all want to be doing it? I’d like to suggest it is possible; that by planning learning sequences and designing lessons flexibly we can provide for individual needs without it being a huge burden on our time and energy.

In order to ensure that our planning and teaching doesn’t impact negatively on our wellbeing, we have to find an efficient way to work. And in order for something to be efficient, it usually needs to be simple. However, teaching can often be overcomplicated by myriad solutions for how to engage children, manage behaviour, include technology, make links to other subjects, and so on."

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

#DailyWritingChallenge: Achieving Unity Through Harmony And The Recognition of Individuality

Unity

Unity = oneness.

An undivided entity seen as complete in itself.

How often are we, within our schools, really united? How often do we play together as a team?

Often we can all be siloed away, doing our own thing, perhaps acting in smaller teams but never as a whole.

We all play our different parts, but just like a body, we should be acting together for a common purpose.

At the root of a united staff team will be unity of vision. Often we talk about clarity when we consider vision, but clarity isn't enough. Yes, our common goals must be clear, but they must also become the goals of each of the smaller units within the united whole. Not until there is a unity of vision will there be a pulling together of those sudivided units into a whole new super-unit.

However, this isn't as simple as just brainwashing every person to believe in the same thing as the school leaders. Even if that was done, you wouldn't end up with a team of people all thinking and believing the same thing. Why? Because each individual has their own starting point: an experienced teacher with years of opinion-forming under their belt will not need the same input as an NQT who is ready to be moulded.

No, you see, even if the aim is to become a team, you can't make a team by treating everyone the same. Although it is oneness we are trying to achieve, we can't remove the individual from the picture. Leaders must celebrate individuality and uniqueness; the skills and expertise that each member of staff has. They must also acknowledge the weaknesses as well as the strengths.

Harmony

It's almost a paradox: to get everyone singing off the same hymn sheet for the benefit of the school and the children, leaders need to give each member of staff a different hymn sheet. For choir leaders, this is not an unknown thing: the person singing tenor will read a completely different line of music to the one singing bass;  there will be another line for the soprano, another for the alto, and so on. Each singer needs something slightly different - often each line will be on the same sheet of music, but the singer knows which bit is for them.

In the above scenario, someone who had very little experience of music, when told that the singers were all going to sing something different, would understandably expect dischord. If it was an unskilled arranger who had put together the piece of music, perhaps they'd be right. But with a skillful arranger, one who knows which notes sound sweet together, and which ones clash - someone with all the necessary music theory - a beautiful, harmonic, euphonious sound will be the product.

The school leader as arranger knows each member of the team, knows that they want to achieve unity, but knows that each one will need a slightly different approach to development in order for them to pull together with others into a single, harmonious unit.

This has implications for the CPD opportunties that school leaders provide: the one-size-fits-all approach won't cut it. Does everyone need to attend the same training sessions? Should everyone's one-to-one be focused on coaching, or should some be recieving mentoring? Do others need peer-to-peer support whilst some recieve the attentions of a leader? Who is it that needs help at the planning stage, and who could do with support in the classroom?

Skilled leaders will have this overview of their staff, and will treat them as individuals, and in return will benefit from a united team - a body of different parts which work together to allow the whole to function. Such leaders will not only arrange for each member of staff to have a bespoke hymn sheet, but will also then conduct the choir, orchestrating great movements which fill the corridors and classrooms with the pleasing and harmonious sound of learning.