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.

Sunday, 26 July 2020

Book Review: 'Spaghetti Hunters' by Morag Hood

Writing children's picture books that are loved by both adults and children can't be easy. But there is one avenue, open only to the most skillful of writers and illustrators, which, if nailed, is a sure-fire way to appeal to both parties in the pre-bedtime reading session: surreal comedy.

Morag Hood combines her bold illustrations with limited wry text to hilarious effect. From the zany story line (a duck has lost his spaghetti and is aided in its attempted retrieval by a character called Tiny Horse, who is, indeed, a tiny horse) to the seemingly-incidental props (duck lives in a teapot, Tiny Horse's lecture on the finding of 'the trickiest of all pastas', the peanut butter which forms part of their hunting equipment) every word, every image has been selected for humourous purposes. 'Spaghetti Hunters' is (age appropriate Reeves and Mortimer-style frivolity in picture book form. When this is featured on Cbeebies Bedtime Stories it would only be right for Noel Fielding, or someone of that ilk, to read it.

'Spaghetti Hunters' is a celebration of more traditional pastimes - reading books, going fishing and home cooking are all on the table here - and is a gentle challenge to children (and perhaps some adults) as to where our food comes from. And whereas many books for children of this age focus on a harmonious, friendly relationship, Duck and Tiny Horse's friendship is a little more strained. During the story Duck, although clearly agitated (the eyebrows give it away, and the mental image of a duck trying to stomp off) by Tiny Horse's seemingly-pointless antics, demonstrates the patience needed when your friend has different ideas to you.

Morag Hood more than understands the necessity for images to mesh seamlessly with the words - the greatest outcome of this in this book is that the characters are so well portrayed - you know Duck and you know Tiny Horse within a few pages and, by the end, despite Tiny Horse's misplaced enthusiasm and single-mindedness, you feel like they are your friends. The rich but uncluttered illustrations make re-reading an extra pleasure - why do they need matching hats for spaghetti hunting?!

A perfect launch pad for some back catalogue delving (I'd heartily recommend 'The Steves'), 'Spaghetti Hunters' is a great bit of fun and has been a hit in my household with children across the primary age range. Books that are supposed to be funny are easily come by, but books which genuinely are don't come along all that often: Morag Hood's quirky style shines again in this one - a necessary addition to your child's bookshelf, for sure.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Guest Blog Post: Storyboarding With Children by Bethan Woollvin


After playing with traditional tales and creating my own twisted versions, including Little Red, Rapunzel and Hansel & Gretel, I decided I was up for a new challenge. Wanting to stay in the fairytale realm, I began channeling my love for folklore and traditional tales to write my own, more contemporary tale.

Anchored in a medieval era, I Can Catch a Monster follows a little girl who desperately wants to go monster-hunting with her brothers, but is told she is far too small! Exploring the kingdom anyway, she goes on a quest of her own to catch herself a monster, meeting some unlikely friends along the way!

Though I Can Catch a Monster is a step in a slightly different direction for my books, the idea unfolded in the same way that most of my books do - through pictures. I’ve always considered myself to be more confident as an artist than as a writer, and this is really due to how I think. I’m an incredibly visual person, so all of the book ideas I create, I do so nearly entirely in pictures to begin with. After some interesting research into mythical creatures, folktales and medieval lore, I quickly jumped in to sketching my ideas across a storyboard. This helps me to quickly map out the story in small, rough drawings, helping me to tell as much of the story as possible in pictures as possible. Words come much later in my process, and I usually use them to fill in any gaps in my story.

When I visit schools for author events, one of the first things I admit to children is that I find writing really difficult at times. I share my more picture-based method of story creation, and remind them that there’s no right or wrong way to create a story. My aim is always to encourage children (or anyone really!) to have more fun when creating stories. Mirroring my exact process of creating new story ideas, we work on a wordless story activity together. I usually focus this activity on a theme such as - ‘Create your own twisted fairytale’. I ask them to draw their story across a storyboard without any words. I encourage them to think about their characters, the environment and how they might progress their story over several panels of the storyboard.

For those who find writing particularly difficult, this activity really lifts the burden of writing. I’ve noticed with this activity, that it allows children to be more imaginative with their characters, environments and overall story plots. Sometimes children even add in words after they’ve finished their storyboarding, using more complex storytelling techniques such as dialogue and humour! But most importantly they have fun creating their own stories, and will feel more confident when it comes to the next story they create.

To celebrate the publication of I Can Catch a Monster, I’ve adapted a version of this very activity which you can do at home or in the classroom. I hope you find this inspiring, and keep on creating exciting stories! Click here to download Bethan's printable storyboarding activity!





Friday, 19 June 2020

Back to School: Recovery or Catch Up?

Recovery.

We’ve been hearing a lot of talk about recovery with regards to the curriculum we teach when schools can eventually reopen to all children.

But the question must be asked, what are we trying to recover?

Are we trying to re-cover past material to ensure that it is secure? Are we trying to recover normality and perhaps just try to ignore this blip? Are we trying to help staff and children to recover mentally from the upheaval - similar to how a hospital patient might need to recover? Are we talking of something akin to roadside recovery where we fix a problem and send them on their way, give them a tow to get them to a destination or just give them a jump start?

Maybe we need to attempt to do all of these and more.

But the recent talk of ‘catch up’ does not help us to do any of the above.

When we normally think of catch up we think of small groups of children taking part in an intensive burst of input over a short amount of time - indeed, research shows that this is exactly how catch up interventions should be run so that they have maximum impact.

Can this be replicated for whole classes of children, some of whom will have been doing very little at home, others of whom may have followed all the home learning set and really prospered from that? We certainly need, as ever, an individualised, responsive approach for each child, but it is fairly certain that when we are all back in school we will be ‘behind’ where we normally would be, even if it means everyone is equally behind.

It would be foolish to think that by the end of the first term we will have caught up and will be able to continue as we were back in February and March. To believe this surely puts us on very shaky ground. Any kind of intensive approach to recovery is almost certain to negative repercussions, not least where children’s well-being is concerned - and that of staff, for that matter.

Year after year we hear stories from teachers escaping toxic schools and even leaving the profession who speak out on the hothousing, cramming, cheating, off-rolling, flattening the grass, and other morally bankrupt practices that go on in schools in the name of ‘getting good results’.

Well, back to my question: what are we trying to recover? How do we define ‘good results’? What result are we wanting from that first term back? That second term back? That third term?

How long are we willing to give this? We don’t know how long this will impact learning for - we’ve never had a period this long without children learning in classrooms. Perhaps it will barely leave a mark academically, perhaps the effects of it will be with us for years? Maybe we are overstating the potential impact on mental health and once we are back everyone will just be happy to be there, but maybe it will effect some of us for a good while yet.

What’s for sure, at least in my mind, is that we need a slow, blended approach to recovery. We must focus on the academic but we must not neglect everything else - bear in mind that phrase ‘the whole child’ and extend that to ‘the whole person’ so that it takes in all the people who will be working in schools when we can finally open properly to all.

We can not revert back to a system cowed by accountability - arranged around statutory assessment. Maybe they will scrap SATS this year, or edit the content that children will be tested on. Then again, maybe they won’t. Either way, schools - leaders and teachers - need to be brave enough to stand up for what is right for their children.

Ideally, we’d have an education department who, instead of telling us that modelling and feedback are the ideal way to teach, were willing to consult the profession in order to create a system-wide interim framework. A slimmed-down curriculum outlining the essentials and cutting some of the extraneous stuff from the Maths and English curriculum. Many schools are doing this piece of work so it would make sense if we were all singing off the same hymn sheet. If this was provided by the DfE then any statutory tests could be adapted accordingly - but this is the bluest of blue sky thinking.

And in suggesting that we limit the core subject curricula, I am certainly not suggesting that the whole curriculum is narrowed. Children will need the depth and breadth more than ever. We mustn’t let all the gained ground in terms of the wider curriculum be lost. We need the arts - I surely don’t even need to remind of the mental health benefits of partaking in creative endeavours. History and Geography learning is equally as valid (especially as they are the most interesting and captivating parts of the curriculum - fact): these must not fall victim to a curriculum narrowing which focuses solely on getting to children to ‘where they should’ be in Maths and English.

Who is to say, in 2020/2021, Post-Covid19, where a child ‘should be’? Perhaps we need to define this, or perhaps it’s not something we can even put our finger on.

I’m sure that if Lord Adonis read this I’d run the risk of becoming another of his apologists for failure, but that’s not what I am. What I am is an optimistic realist who wants the best for the children returning to our schools and the staff teaching them. What I am is someone who has observed the UK education system over a number of years and have seen schools who really run the risk of falling for rhetoric and accountability that leads to practice which does not best serve their key stakeholders. What I am is someone who is committed to getting all children back to school, back to work even, as quickly as is safely possible. I am a leader who is committed to the highest of standards but who won’t take shortcuts to get there.

When it comes to success(ful recovery) there are no shortcuts.

Some important other reads:

http://daisi.education/learning-loss/ - Learning Loss from Daisi Education (Data, Analysis & Insight for School Improvement)

https://www.adoptionuk.org/blog/the-myth-of-catching-up-after-covid-19 - The myth of ‘catching up’ after Covid-19 by Rebecca Brooks of Adoption UK

https://researchschool.org.uk/unity/news/canaries-down-the-coalmine-what-next-for-pupil-premium-strategy/ - Canaries Down the Coalmine: What Next for Pupil Premium Strategy? by Marc Rowland - Unity Pupil Premium Adviser

Monday, 8 June 2020

Decolonising and Diversifying the Primary History Curriculum: A Journey (Part 1)

Before you read this, please consume the following:

Jeffrey Boakye's 'The long, insidious, shadows of colonialism': https://bigeducation.org/lfl-content/the-long-insidious-shadows-of-colonialism/

Pran Patel's 'Decolonise The Curriculum': https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JjRQTuzqTU (and when you have time, check out the whole stash of articles on his website: https://theteacherist.com/category/decolonise-the-curriculum/)

And, if you've got even longer, seek out both Akala's 'Natives' and Reni Eddo-Lodge's 'Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race' who both have a little longer to convince you of why it is necessary that we decolonise the curriculum.

If you're still here, and it is OK not to be because the above articles are far more important than my own, I'd like to mull over what we might do to decolonise and diversify the primary curriculum. Writing this way is my way of thinking things through, but it may help some readers on their own journey. It may be that I get loads wrong - in this case I hope I am told I am wrong by those who know better. Hopefully, in the very least, it can be a conversation starter that moves us all on in our thinking, understanding and actions.

For the purposes of this blog post, I have set a starting point for myself of analysing the subject of History, and more specifically, British History.

In the above article Boakye says: "In education, manifestations of structural racism are both dramatic and visible. We can list them: The pervasive whiteness of our curriculum. The lack of criticality towards Britain’s colonial past. The lack of diversity in texts, narratives and voices."

What I want to consider is how we can begin to make meaningful changes to the curriculum we teach. Rewriting a whole curriculum is something that takes time and collective decisions. So, for practicality, first of all I ask, is it possible to adapt our current curriculum in order to better represent the history of BAME people and to begin to deconstruct systemic racism?

In his book 'Black and British', David Olusoga writes: "Black history is too often regarded as a segregated, ghettoized narrative that runs in its own shallow channel alongside the mainstream, only very occasionally becoming a tributary into that broader narrative. But black British history is not an optional extra. Nor is it a bolt-on addition to mainstream British history deployed only occasionally in order to add – literally – a splash of colour to favoured epochs of the national story. It is an integral and essential aspect of mainstream British history. Britain’s interactions with Africa, the role of black people within British history and the history of the empire are too significant to be marginalized, brushed under the carpet or corralled into some historical annexe."

Firstly, if we are considering adapting the curriculum, we really must be serious about avoiding the pitfalls that Olusoga outlines above:

  1. Black history cannot be optional - it must be insisted on, part of the written, set curriculum, and shouldn't be left to the whims and desires and expertise, or lack thereof, of individual teachers - it almost needs to be set in stone. Why does it have to be there? Look at the last sentence of the Olusoga quote - that's the truth.
  2. Black history should not be seen as a bolt-on - it should not just be 1 lesson in 12 which, for example, highlights a famous black person from history. This will be seen, whether consciously or sub-consciously, as paying lip service to teaching black history. Students under this curriculum will know that it means that it doesn't matter as much as the other 11 lessons.
  3. Black history can, and should be, black British history - there are more easily-accessible resources out there to teach about the American Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, but we need to to do better than this. Actually, there would be no black American history if it was not for black British history - we, and other European countries, were the colonisers. The Atlantic slave trade should not be taught as disconnected from the ones who made it all happen - the British, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, the Dutch and the Danish. Teaching slavery as something that only happened in America in the cotton fields is dishonest.
Secondly, we must ask if teaching Black history is the same as truly decolonising the curriculum. Actually, if you take Boakye's quote from above, there is a separation between making the curriculum less 'white' and being more critical of Britain's colonial past.

Simply teaching about Mary Seacole, self-funded nurse in the Crimean War, without exploring her parentage (Scottish soldier father who was stationed by the British empire in Jamaica, Jamaican free-woman mother), and how Jamaica came to be peopled by those of African descent, may well be teaching some aspects of black history, but it is not decolonising the curriculum, or attempting at all to deconstruct systemic racism. It is hiding away inconvenient truths about Britain's not-so-great past. Truths that make us feel uncomfortable - that's if we even bother to question and find out about them in the first place.

To us white teachers, it might actually be quite scary to begin to ask the question Why are there black Britons? After all, it all sounds a bit racist to be even be focusing on the colour of their skin, or their ethnicity. It even feels sort of go-back-where-you-came-from - and most of us don't want to be racist at all.

Olusoga recounts how Stuart Hall, British-Jamaican sociologist, "explained to his British readers that the immigrants ‘are here because you were there’". If we pretend to be colour-blind then we ignore too much. He need to see ethnicity in our curriculum, and we need to interrogate and explain how the history of a black British person is deeply connected to any other aspect British history, particularly colonialism, because it inevitably will be. In carrying out this kind of investigation, both at planning stage as teachers, and with the children during lessons, we will begin to decolonise the curriculum.

But in doing that, we will only begin to decolonise the curriculum. The next step would be to call into question the actions of the British empire. I don't think I'm too naive to think that most children, when exposed to the truths of the British empire's modus operandi the world over, will quite quickly identify the injustices, cruelty and immorality.

However, children will not have the chance to identify the above if teachers do not present it to them. And teachers who have also grown up within the British education system have also fallen prey to its whitewashed curriculum and scarce mentioning of the actions of the empire and its colonists, slave traders and apologists. We teachers must educate ourselves. It won't be enough to download a powerpoint from TES about Harriet Tubman and teach through that one afternoon. We have to know so much more. In order to educate or children we must educate ourselves - I can guarantee that there are very few of us who actually know enough history to really begin to make amends - myself included.

My current action - and I believe sharing our actions is a good thing to do, even if it might seem self-centred - is to read the aforementioned David Olusoga book. Now that I am convinced of the need to see colour, and that the curriculum does need a major renovation, I know I must read incessantly to begin to learn everything that my education has so far deprived me of. As I've read I have already identified lots of interesting case studies which can be brought into the current units of work as set out by the National Curriculum. I have noted areas of the History curriculum that most schools cover which should take in significant portions of history which, if taught and critiqued, would be a good step towards providing a decolonised primary curriculum. I already have some ideas forming of how the curriculum at my school, which is by no means devoid of BAME history, can be vastly improved. I also benefit from standing at a point in time where I am currently writing unit overviews which outline the content of each session within the sequence so find myself well placed to really set things in place which ensure a better curriculum for the future.

At the outset I asked is it possible to adapt our current curriculum in order to better represent the history of BAME people and to begin to deconstruct systemic racism? I'm not sure that in the above ramblings I have actually answered that question. Instead I think I may have extracted from the writings of more knowledgeable people than I some principles that might help me as I continue on my journey to having a decolonised and diversified primary curriculum. It remains my quest to continue to learn, to think and to create in order to come closer to answering that question.

And if the answer to the questions ends up being a no? Well, then I suppose a complete rewrite is in order.

I would love to hear from any readers who have been prompted by any thoughts or questions about the primary curriculum during the reading of this, or indeed during the last few days. I know that my own musings will be hugely enhanced by some collaboration and discussion, and as mentioned at the start, I am open to criticism (although would request, if I may, that it remains constructive and is conducted in a respectful manner). Crucially, I acknowledge the fact that as a white British male, my curriculum design, even after reading books by people who know what they're talking about, might still not cut the mustard - I will need to listen to the voices of those who are most negatively affected by the current colonised curriculum. Please do speak and join with me in this journey.

Next I will most likely tackle the question if it is possible to adapt the current curriculum, in what ways would we go about doing that? in which I will hopefully be able to share some specific examples pertaining to specific units within the primary history curriculum of how the curriculum could be decolonised and diversified. In doing so I am sure that I will be able to share a great many resources that are already in existence, as well as perhaps some of my own ideas.

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 of 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.
______________________________________________________________________________

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.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

#DailyWritingChallenge: Patience (In School Leadership)

I wanted to quote someone like Yoda to begin this post, but having just watched the first 6 Star Wars films, I know now that there is no point where he actually says 'Have patience my young padawan' despite this having become a fairly well-known maxim. I'm certainly going to avoid quoting Take That and on this occasion will refrain from googling 'famous quotes about patience'. Actually, over the years, my go-to place for encouragement regarding patience is the Bible, which has a lot to say about the matter.

First of all, it encourages patience a lot. It also says that patience is an attribute of true love. But it is to the 'wisdom literature' that I would take myself today:

A person’s wisdom yields patience;
it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.
- Proverbs 19:11 (NIV)

Through patience a ruler can be persuaded,
and a gentle tongue can break a bone.
- Proverbs 25:15 (NIV)

The end of a matter is better than its beginning,
and patience is better than pride.
- Ecclesiastes 7:8 (NIV)

Being patient is one of my enduring battles - it most certainly does not come naturally to me. Compounded by the fact that I am a perfectionist, I often want everything right away - and it better be just right, too.

This impacts in all areas of life, albeit in different outworkings. At home, I'm more likely to allow my impatience to seep out in frustration and anger. At work, as a school leader, I am more restrained: I attempt to mask it for the sake of professionalism, but impatience then eats away at me internally.

When you are a leader, you actually rely a lot on other people. Whilst they may look to you for leadership, you look to them to follow. And, for many reasons, people don't always follow. Or sometimes they don't follow in just the way you want them to. Or sometimes they follow so much that it seems like there is very little independent thought.

In schools, there are daily opportunities for leaders to exercise patience: with children who are struggling with a concept; with parents upset by a decision that has been made; with teachers working hard to improve their practice; with fellow leaders you don't always see eye to eye with; with the time it takes to feed all the children at lunchtime; with colleagues who are finding it difficult to work together - the list could go on.

But I come back to those proverbs above.

The first practical suggestion we get is that patience can be developed by wisely overlooking things. Obviously, wisdom is the key here - we can't go about school overlooking everything - some things need addressing, but we can be selective in this, and we can prioritise. Not everything needs sorting now - some things can wait, others are more pressing. By shelving some concerns for a later date, we can focus on doing fewer things better, feel like we are achieving something, and not feel so impatient. By doing this we reduce the number of things we are impatient for, and therefore reduce the overall feeling of impatience making it a more manageable emotion.

The second thing we could learn is that by maintaining a gentle tongue, we are more likely to remain patient. Elsewhere in the Bible it says the tongue is like a rudder: the things we say determine our direction. If we find it easier to manage what we say, then we might be able to control our patience. Having in mind to always speak politely, courteously, slowly, with thought and with a mind to the feelings of others can actually help us to be more patient with other people. Firstly, they will detect less of our impatience, and most likely our own words will have a soothing affect on our own feelings. I know that I can control the things I say better than the things I feel inside, so that seems like a logical starting point.

The third is both a reminder to stay humble (humility being the opposite of pride) and to remember, in a sense, that we will get there in the end.

Impatience, particularly with others, stems, in part, from pride - the belief that we could do it better, or that our way is right. It also comes from selfishness - believing that the best outcome for us is that something happens right away. C.S. Lewis wrote 'Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.' - being a leader is not about us, it's about them - the people we lead. We must think more about them and their needs, than we do our own. Why are we impatient - because we want results now. Why might results now be impossible? Because we depend on others to get results for us. And those people have an intricate mass of interwoven needs - we have to think of them, and how we can help them, before we can even think about the results we desire from them.

Then, to finish, we are reminded that we will get there in the end. With diligence we will. With impatience we won't. Impatience never speeds up the arrival of a good thing, and if it does, then that good thing is usually marred. There are very few quick routes to children grasping concepts, parents coming round to your point of view, teachers becoming consistently great, convincing fellow leaders of something, getting all the children through the canteen, mending fractured relationships between colleagues. If we impatiently employed quick-fixes in all the above scenarios, they would soon fall apart again.

The end will be better than the beginning and we have to fall back and rest on that truth as school leaders, knowing that if we patiently plod away (and plodding is how it will sometimes feel) we will get there in the end.

@thatboycanteach on The Well Teacher Podcast

Teacher and author Jamie Thom invited me onto his podcast to discuss all things teacher wellbeing - I had a great time chatting to him and would like to thank him for the opportunity! Listen in below:

From: http://www.slowteaching.co.uk/2020/05/11/take-control-work-life-balance/

LISTEN ON APPLE PODCASTS | LISTEN ON SPOTIFY | LISTEN ON GOOGLE PODCAST



One thing I know I have been notoriously bad at in my teaching career has been finding a balance. I have always struggled with switching off from the all-consuming nature of teaching, and in proactively managing work demands.

This week’s episode of ‘The Well Teacher Podcast’ is for anyone else who has struggled with this perfectionism strand that haunts so many teachers. Aidan Severs, who writes the very popular thatboycanteach.co.uk blog has made teacher wellbeing one of his major focusses as a deputy head and a writer.

In this episode we unpick how to step away from technology and become a digital minimalist, we explore how minimalism could be applied to teaching in general, examine what it takes to say no and push back on the demands of teaching and discover why Aidan will no longer be teaching lessons dressed as an elephant.

If that isn’t a reason to listen, I don’t know what is! It is an episode packed full of practical and easy to implement tips, I hope you find it helpful!

Sunday, 10 May 2020

#DailyWritingChallenge: Dreams

This blog post doesn't really belong here, but here it is anyway.

Hannah Wilson's #DailyWritingChallenge theme for Friday was 'Dreams' and this is a version of the strange dream I had last night:

He is late down again. I call up for him, as usual. He comes down, dragging his blanket with him, yawning and rubbing his eyes – like a just-woken child from a cartoon. The full cliché. The sight of him simultaneously annoys me and fills me with an overwhelming feeling of utter devotion.

It is just me and him now. Inseparable, others say. But there is a greater truth to it than that. There is no choice in the matter. He is there with me, and we have grown to like it that way.

I sit at the table, writing. Writing is my way of making sense of this world and these things that have happened. He drags himself to the bench and sits down. It’s what I wanted. I can’t stand him staying in bed, lazily. I can’t stand being down here on my own.

Today is the day – we can’t stay here longer, really. I think through our itinerary – always worrying that I’ve got a time wrong, that connections will be missed, that the destination won’t be everything I’ve built it up to be.

We’re all packed and ready to go. I take a last look around – I’ve been taking last looks around for a week now, thinking of all that I will miss about this place. About the memories that cling to the furniture and haunt the dusty corners. He isn’t there in all the memories, but I’m the one who tells the stories round here so if I want him there, he is.

Walking to the station, dragging bags behind me, I lose myself in daydreams. Daydreams of how we’ll thrive and prosper in the new place. Of how we will find friends, family even. Of how we’ll be taken care of.

Sitting back in the rough, prickly seats of the train gives me chance to write again. He sits next to me wittering on about what he sees out of the window and asking a million questions. All the things he wants to know about everything and nothing. Are we there yet? Can we have the snacks now?

Later on, we arrive. I slump down on the bed, exhausted. The bags left strewn around.

I get up to unpack – there are drawers and a wardrobe. I tell him to do his too because if I didn’t his stuff would stay in bags forever. He unzips the holdall I’ve been humping around for him all day, opens it up and begins to pull out his things. Except they’re not his things. They’re mine, and they’re useless. All the things I knew to leave behind. The things that wouldn’t be useful here. What’s more, they are the things that would drag me back, time and time again, to the old times.

I snatch up the bag, pulling item after item out of the bag. I fling them across the room, not caring where they land. “Where are your clothes?” I scream. “What do you expect to wear?” I ask. He stands there, not saying anything, voiceless.

I turn away, snatch up my journal and begin scribbling away, my pen scratching across the page, ink blotching and faltering. How could he be so stupid? Why did he do this to me? Doesn’t he know that if it wasn’t for me he wouldn’t even be here?

And when I turn around again, calmed by my scrawling, he is gone. And I know he isn’t coming back. I know I’ve written him out, that in my anger I’ve severed the ties that bound us. Those comforting cords that formed my safety net.

I also know that trying to bring him back into my life is fruitless – miracles don’t happen anymore. He was real to me and it was a real life that was lost. Just because I am the author of it all doesn’t mean that I can defy the laws of nature.

I am alone now, and it was my own anger, my own lack of love that made it that way. My fault. The pen is mightier than the sword, they say – and it might be true. Certainly, the one who wields either should be exceedingly careful: violent and regretful actions can be executed by both.

However, should I have had only a sword, I would still have him. He’d still be here and I wouldn’t be all alone again.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Being A Reading Teacher 2020


Back in the summer of 2016 I blogged about how I'd become a Reading Teacher (with a capital R and T, as Teresa Cremin says). I reflected on how prior to that year, and therefore for quite a huge chunk of my career as a teacher, I had not even been able to class myself as a reader, let alone a Reading Teacher. I went on to outline the benefits of being a Reading Teacher that I had experienced in the 8 months since I had taken up reading again.

I re-read that blog post today, maybe for the first time since 2016. So complete is my transformation that I was shocked to even recall that there was a time when I was not a reader, nor a Reading Teacher.

Back then, I recommended that anyone wanting to develop a reading habit should join Goodreads, and I'd echo that today as it has been a boon to my development as a reader. There's a part of my character that really likes the challenge of trying to read a certain number of books and another part which likes to document my own progress.

Over the years my reading interests have meandered but never waned. Sometimes I read a lot of picture books. Other times I read a string of Middle Grade novels. After that I often get MG fatigue and read something a little more grown up, a little more factual, a little different, at least.

I've tried to read outside of my comfort zone without running roughshod over my rights as a reader. I read what I want (but not when I want - life dictates otherwise) and I follow my fancy: the next book on my TBR pile is not always the next book I read. If I get into Viking-themed children's literature then the next few books might just have to be along those lines too. Invariably this kind of activity causes me to side-step into reading of adult non-fiction related to the subjects and themes of the children's books I've been reading. One book inspires the next in one way or another.

I'm writing this as a reflective and celebratory post, so I am sorry if it comes across as smug and showboaty. But I'm also writing it because in the intervening years I think I have noticed a problem.

I have been fairly vocal about my love for reading, not only on social media but in the schools I have worked at and have worked up a reasonable reputation as someone who loves reading (I won nerdiest teacher award the year I left my previous place and my #shelfie was easy for the children to guess because it contained many children's books). But I think I may have given a false impression: namely that I have always been a reader and that it comes naturally to me. Children and colleagues do not know that I consciously transformed myself into a reader. I suppose I suspect that this makes going from zero to being a full-on reader is unattainable - that in some ways my obsession and fervour is actually a stumbling block to others.

I need to rectify this. I need to be brave enough to share my story - to show that changes can be made to one's habits. I think those who feel like there is no time in life to become a reader might need to hear my experience of how changing habits can make more time for reading. Or perhaps I'm just assuming too much that I can change other people? Even if I don't need to explicitly share these things, I certainly don't want to act in a way that puts other people off finding their own obsession with reading.

Another point of reflection for me is that, since writing, I have become class-less. I now no longer have so many opportunities to speak to children about my love for books. Sure, every day that I sit in the canteen and eat with the children I ask them about the books they are reading and engage with them on the subject. I get down on my knees at the bookshelves when children are choosing books and pick out a few recommendations - some children even know to come and find me for this purpose.

If my school is to be one where Reading Teachers lead in the classroom then the school needs a Reading Deputy to lead it. A Reading Deputy who finds and creates more opportunities in the day to share the book love with the children. If you are a class-less teacher who still manages to do this I'd be very interested to hear from you - Simon Smith and Karl Duke, I'm looking to you guys as I know you are doing fantastic things. But I know that there will be many other SLT members and other non-class-based members of staff who manage to take a lead on reading - please get in touch with your tips and advice for me!

There is a part of me which is satisfied that I managed to bring myself on this journey, regardless of whether or not others join me. But there still remains the desire to share this passion - and it will be this desire, this passion, that wins over the satisfaction of knowing that I myself am a reader. I understand the benefits of reading and I want other people to experience them too - that's no bad thing. So forgive me once more if this post was just some self-congratulatory tosh, but I can't stop talking up reading and trying to get other people on their own journey as readers.

Must dash - there are books to be read.