Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Learning To Fall


"If you can't ride, can you fall?"
"I suppose anyone can fall," said Shasta.
"I mean can you fall and get up again without crying and mount again and fall again and yet not be afraid of falling?” 
― C.S. LewisThe Horse and His Boy

Picture this:
A skatepark on the edge of a council estate. The rubbish bin burns to keep the midges away. I've just regained a few of my old tricks and got a bit of confidence back. I realise one of the young lads watching (the ones who set the fire in the bin after asking us "Do you mind if we put the fire on?") is a former pupil and strike up conversation; he's now 17 and studying welding at college. His mate asks me how long I've been skating; I tell him a long time but I haven't been doing it for about 10 years. He seems surprised, impressed. He goes on to compliment me on the way I fall - I had fallen a fair few times whilst he spectated and at first it seemed an odd observation to make. After a moment's thought, my reply: "You learn how to fall faster than you learn how to do anything else."
Learning to fall. I knew there must be an analogy in there somewhere. 
Most participants in extreme sports know the importance of learning to fall in order to minimise damage. Falling is such an inevitable part of learning an extreme sport that it is accepted, not looked down upon. Falling and its associated injuries are a rite of passage for any skater, skateboarder, skier etc. Whilst every skater I know is a perfectionist, they don't beat themselves up about making mistakes (they're bruised enough as it is), instead they learn to fall, sometimes even making it look stylish or turning the fall into another trick.
It would seem that, like skaters, teachers are usually perfectionists, however there seems to be so little allowance for 'falling' in education.
'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.' - Samuel Beckett
There are plenty of similar maxims out there and many of us encourage that try, try again attitude in our students. But do we allow ourselves, and others, as teachers to fall as part of the learning process?  
To be clear, I'm not talking about teaching's catastrophic falls - the ones that spell the definite end for some - the equivalent of a sporting injury which totally takes the player out of the game forever. I mean those day-to-day small falls, a terrible lesson observation, extending even to a poor set of results. And yes, students' futures are at play here so we can't be glib about this and the reason why most of us are perfectionists is because we know the stakes are high.
But 'to err is human' and we all need to remember that - teaching staff and SLT members. 
If you are in leadership you must create an environment where, when you say 'Don't worry, it's supposed to be a supportive process' about lesson observations and the like, that it really is. Teachers will take your cue when responding to mistakes they've made - in feedback the mistake should be framed in such a way that teachers go away determined and excited to nail it next time. And the next time should come quickly. Usually when I miss a trick skating I'll get up and have a go again straight away - allow your teaching staff that opportunity to have another go. If a leader sees a list of errors rather than a list of development opportunities then that's what their team members will see too. And racking up a list of mistakes is hardly conducive to wellbeing and decent classroom practice. As a leader you can help people learn to fall by helping them to look at their challenges in a positive way.
But how can teachers learn to fall?
Have a positive and reflective response to a fall - be kind to yourself, see it as an opportunity to improve, and above all, find the good in the mistake; perhaps the good is that you at least tried it in the first place, or perhaps it's that you've learned how not to do it. Remember, Dale Carnegie wrote 'Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.' You could even go so far as to celebrate the mistake as another step in your journey of progress.
Have a practical response to a fall - once you have responded positively and reflected to out and seek advice on how you could change things next time. It might just be a colleague, it could be a middle leader - you could even ask Twitter. It of course helps if you begin to be solution focused when approaching others for help so you could begin to think beforehand about your own ideas for what do change next time. One of the most important aspects to this stage of having a practical response is that you get up and try again; that you don't write it off immediately as something you'll never be able to do.
Make the best of a bad situation - in the moment, at that actual point in a lesson, for example, where you feel yourself falling, you could begin to think how you can react quickly. Think about how you can rescue yourself. This will come more as a result of the first two steps; as a result of you learning to fall. It is this that the boy at the skatepark was commenting on - because of past experience of falling during a trick I have learnt to almost carry on regardless, eventually righting myself and rolling away from the fall. In my blog post 'Freestyle Teaching' I discussed more about what it's like to get into the flow state; it may help with thinking about how to 'freestyle' your way out of a fall.
Look after yourself after a fall - I've touched on this already in the first point, also this step may sound contradictory to the advice I gave about getting up and trying again. You must acknowledge that falling hurts. There will come a time when you have to decide not to punish yourself more, for the time being. Sometimes you might just need to crawl away and nurse your wounds. But always with that positive mindset already mentioned - a time to recuperate and reflect on what went wrong and what you could change for next time.
Perhaps the steps I've laid out aren't all that helpful to you, but what I do hope you take away is the idea that as teachers we can, and need to, learn to fall. And that it's OK to fall. And that actually it might even be beneficial to fall.
Falling is not failing. But not getting back up and trying again is. Learn to fall and eventually you will learn to fly.
 “There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask "What if I fall?"
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?” 
- Erin Hanson

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Being A Reading Teacher

At the beginning of this year I decided to shake myself out of a long slumber, to blow the dust off my 'library' and to become a reader again. I joined the 'fifty book challenge' and promptly got my wife on the case too; fifty books in a year (we are both currently on track).

I cannot remember learning to read (other than the flash cards my mum did with me pre-school) - I imagine I've always been able to read! As a child, thanks largely to Roald Dahl and later The Hardy Boys series, I was a fairly avid reader - the torch-under-the-covers type. Later in my teens, aside from 'Moonfleet' (still one of my favourite books) I read very little. Studying English at GCSE didn't do much to encourage me to read increasingly complex or canonical texts - we covered Jane Eyre but cannot recall actually having to read the whole book. By the time I was at uni I scraped my 2:1 by skimming through library books for the underlinings and highlightings of more diligent students who preceded me, without ever having to read a book in its entirety. And by that age I certainly wasn't reading fiction. After uni, Ian Rankin rescued me when I picked up a copy of 'The Falls' in a holiday cottage - I spent the next couple of years scouring charity shops and buying new releases; I'm now well versed in Rebus' career.

On one hand I regret that I fell out of love with reading - think of all the books I could have read during my 'dark ages'. But, on the other hand, I get to read them all now of my own volition, now that I'm a (mostly) sensible adult. I'm not one for those '100 books to read before you die' lists but I have begun to try out some of the books that feature on those lists: To Kill A Mockingbird, Brave New World, Candide, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse Five, The Old Man and the Sea. I can honestly say I've enjoyed each one - probably wouldn't have if I'd have been made to read them as a teen.

The benefits of me, as a teacher, reigniting my own passion for reading have been many fold. And consequently, I have come to be of the opinion that every teacher should be a reader - and more than someone who just reads the odd bestseller. In my blog post 'Reading for Pleasure' I outlined some of how my passion has been transferred to the children in my class but here I'd like to discuss further ways in which teachers who are readers (i.e. those who make a habit of reading) will see benefits in the classroom:

I am currently reading 'Reading Reconsidered' by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway. It's full of highly detailed practical advice on how to teach reading skills. As I read, it dawned on me just how complex the reading comprehension process is. The authors of the book insightfully break down how to go about establishing and analysing meaning as well as outlining where difficulties lie. They reference many novels by way of giving supporting examples - because I had recently read some of the books mentioned I was able to understand the concepts put forward in the book much more comprehensively than I would if I'd have read it, say, in December. But greater than that, as the book discussed plot type and narrator techniques I was able to recall examples from my own reading: 'Oh! Slaughterhouse Five has a non-linear time sequence!' and lo and behold, a page later it's mentioned as an example.

It was following several similar moments as I read that I realised teachers must read for themselves. Yes, we should pre-read the texts we read and teach to our class, and we should read to help us make decisions on book selection but we should also read for our own enjoyment, at our own level. Why? Because it makes us into readers and it is the only thing that will give us deep insight into what books are like - the varying ways they are narrated, the different plot types, the similarities between two texts, the complexities of older texts, the devices used by authors. Having a continually growing understanding of what books are like is essential if we want to help children to learn how to gain meaningful understanding of a variety of texts. If we aren't readers then we will struggle to model what it is like to be a reader. We will find it difficult to identify why an author has chosen a particular word or why the narrator has left certain pieces of key information out. And if we can't model reading in this way due to a lack of our own experience, are we really teaching reading?

Being able to read does not make one a reader. Reading one age-appropriate class novel each half term hardly makes one a reader either. By skimping on one's literary intake (and I have learned this from experience) no matter how you 'push' for the children to enjoy reading, no matter how well you 'do the voices', no matter how Pinterest-worthy your beautiful book corner is, you will probably struggle to effectively teach reading. To reiterate: it comes down to knowing what books (in general, not individual books) are like.

And the encouragement comes in this form: it is an easy change to make. All you do is pick up a book and read it. And repeat. You won't need to go into too much deep analysis of your own reading - with half a mind on teaching reading you will start to naturally identify text features and literary devices and similarities between books. The very (continuous) act of being a reader will prepare you far better for being a teacher of reading than if you are not a reader. 

Of course, I would also recommend that you begin to read about the teaching of reading too - helpful books like Reading Reconsidered will open your eyes further to what you are reading in your own novels, as well as what is present in the books you read at school with the children. But get into reading novels for pleasure first - get a few of those under your belt as for most folk reading novels for fun is easier than reading non-fiction for learning purposes it it hones those reading comprehension skills all the same.

So, if you wouldn't consider yourself a reader, why not set yourself a challenge? Be realistic perhaps - don't aim to read too many too soon, or don't aim to read the heavier, more archaic classics just yet. I'd recommend using Good Reads (app or website or both) to track your achievements and I'd recommend first and foremost that you read for YOU - not even so you'll become a better teacher of reading, and definitely not so you can feel good about having ploughed your way through the James Joyce that everyone says is 'an absolute must read'.

To be a teacher of reading, you should be a reading teacher.

A version of this article was published in the TES magazine on 2nd December 2016 entitled 'Throw The Book At Yourself'. It can be read online, with a subscription, here: https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/throw-book-yourself

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Leading With Optimism and Positivity

C.S. Lewis once wrote a reply to a letter from a girl named Joan Lancaster. In it he offered her some valuable writing tips. One piece of advice he gave has always stuck with me:

'In writing. Don't use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was "terrible," describe it so that we'll be terrified. Don't say it was "delightful"; make us say "delightful" when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers, "Please will you do my job for me."'

This week a member of my teaching team messaged me saying 'thank you for... keeping me feeling so optimistic and positive this year'. Receiving feedback like that is reassuring; I often worry my online persona does not align with how I am in real life. Upon reflection, I can probably count on one hand the number of times in the last two years that I've actually spoken the words 'positive' or 'optimistic' to them.

My colleague hasn't had the easiest of times this year and has come to me as phase leader for help many times. Had I have responded with something amounting to 'just be positive' or 'try to be optimistic' I don't think I'd have been much use - it would have seemed like I was fobbing them off with empty platitudes.

My reflection of my meagre two years in leadership is that I have somehow, despite all the challenges I myself have faced, managed to lead in a way that has made others say 'positive' and feel optimistic without my having to use those words. After spending time under my leadership my colleagues have themselves labeled my leadership style as optimistic and positive; if I'd have labeled myself as such they'd always have been looking out for when I didn't live up to my own standards. Using the words, as Lewis pointed out, would be lazy and unhelpful but acting with optimism and positivity as core principles has made my ethos clear without putting people's backs up; the very real danger of telling struggling people to be optimistic or positive is that they immediately write off the advisor as unrealistic and, quite frankly, a bit naive and stupid. As a leader you have to show that something works, in this case: positivity and optimism.

At this point another blogger would write a handy 10 step guide entitled 'How to lead with positivity and optimism' but I can't even figure out what I've done to ensure that I have been a positive and optimistic leader. I'm not even sure that those qualities are ones that can be gained in a self-improvement system - perhaps I am only positive and optimistic because I am naturally like that. I'm not even suggesting that everyone should try to lead optimistically and positively but if they do, it's not about what is said explicitly but what is implied by what is said done.

'Where there's a will, there's a way.' That is my motto, not that I ever really say it out loud, or try to force it on others. But having deep-seated convictions like this are the only thing I can identify as reasons for how and why I lead with optimism. In another recent affirming moment my wife reminded me that when we met, it was my optimism that ensured that 10 years later we are very happily married: I told her 'I think it will be really good' when she expressed concerns over conducting a long-distance relationship with a guy everyone thought wasn't intellectual enough for her. She obviously bought into my natural positivity then and mostly she still does! Acting and speaking with implicit optimism is key, especially when anticipating someone else's pessimism.

You see, optimism is for life, not just for clich├ęd quotes pasted over a photoshopped sunset. You have live it to be it - you can't just say it.

Which leaves me in a quandary. Is there actually any point in my blogging and tweeting about optimism and positivity in light of my musings here? Isn't writing about optimism and positivity akin to flippantly telling someone to look at the brightside? If my day-to-day actions can't be seen by my readers then do I stand a chance of them ever being able to truly say 'thank you for... keeping me feeling so optimistic and positive this year'? Perhaps I just have to heed Lewis' advice and become a better writer, ensuring that I don't simply write about optimism and positivity but write with optimism and positivity, avoiding the words completely. Now there's a challenge.

PostScript: I am aware that this blog post probably comes across as self-congratulatory but it's not supposed to. I often worry that my actions don't match my words here on my blog so, if anything, this is just a record of my relief at the fact that others do recognise that I practice what I preach (even though they don't know that I preach it here on the internet!). It has been quite personal, which I admit I don't always do (I usually try to write in order to help others), but I still hope it might help someone in some way. I would love to hear the reflections of other leaders who consider positivity or optimism as a core value of leadership.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

SATs Results - My Experience and an Optimistic Response

I'm not a stranger to SATs result day nightmares (read about it here), and if it wasn't for my past experiences I dare say today would have been a different experience for me. Our SATs results this year are alarmingly low, not approaching anywhere near the national picture.

We were expecting it really. Under two years ago, our school was placed in special measures and subsequently academised as a result (read a bit more background here). Whilst the academisation has brought about many changes it would seem that there is only so much underachievement, bad behaviour and poor attitude to learning that can be tackled in a short space of time. This year's year 6 cohort have suffered in a school that previously had low expectations and inadequate teaching, along with a whole host of other issues (really, there are many!). We have a large number of SEND children, many on the register due to behavioural needs, who have not had their needs catered to in the past. We knew we'd take a hit.

Coupled with all the changes to primary assessment arrangements this year, we were under no illusions: children who had been taught very little for years and then had been taught a new curriculum for less than two years had a long way to catch up, especially when they had to meet two sets of criteria (the NC objectives and the interim framework objectives) and sit new and more rigorous tests. The word omnishambles has been used to describe the government's operations within education this year; it's not a bad way to describe it. We knew what was coming our way.     

Despite being saddened by what has befallen these particular children, my natural optimism kept on fighting me. After calculating our dire percentages I looked for all those who nearly made the magic 100 mark - there were so many. Then I looked at all who had achieved 100 or over and felt proud of their achievements. I scrutinised the spelling and arithmetic test results and found great successes there. Comparing our SATs scores to our teacher assessment data I found that we had been very accurate in our judgments: even where we had said EXS and a child hadn't achieved the pass mark, they were always very close. This led me to the conclusion that if the SATs results tallied well with our teacher assessment (so, for example, a child with 98/99 scaled score who has been assessed as Year 6 developing) then the phenomenal progress our children have made this year (as shown by our in-house data tracking system) is something worth celebrating.

Yes, I briefly went though the feelings of self-doubt (Did I do enough? Could I have done it better? Is it all my fault?) and my mind has been full of things to try differently next year, but I remain optimistic (perhaps you think I shouldn't). I know that my team and I have done a great job this year - the progress proves it, as do many observations, book scrutinies, pupil progress meetings and external reviews (my phase working at 'Good' 18 months after the school received its 'Inadequate' Ofsted judgement). I know that the kids have worked incredibly hard; they're exhausted, bursting with new skills and abilities and actually, their conduct and learning behaviour has steadily improved - even acknowledged just last week by our MAT's executive principal. These are children who really have learnt so many things that the tests just can't test - we have set them in much better stead for their high schools, and indeed for the rest of their lives. And did I mention that their progress has been ridiculously phenomenal?!

I don't know if you can find the silver linings in your results, but I would urge you to try. There are schools out there who have done exceptionally well his year despite the changes - I intend not to resent them, only to learn from them; for the sake of the children I'm willing to humbly take any advice going and I hope you are too. Perhaps you just need to cling to the fact that our government ministers have stated that these results are non-comparative and that Ofsted should not pay much heed to them (read more about that here).

I know there will be some teachers out there who feel terribly unsupported by their school today, and I sympathise with you - perhaps next year is the time to try to move one to somewhere with leaders who care a bit more or perhaps you need to fight your corner and present the case for why results were low (there is plenty of universal evidence out there). There is definitely a time for mourning too - I'm definitely not saying suck it up and get on with it. 

And I still think we need to be optimistic about the future; maybe next year will be more settled. We'll know the curriculum better and we'll know the height of the expectations (let's face it, that sample reading paper really didn't prepare us for the hardcore-ness of the actual one). I also know I'll be receiving a much more settled year group next year - a group who've also had one more year of new curriculum teaching - that's got to count for something, right? 

If you've experienced poor results then you're not alone - please get in touch, even if just to offload - I really don't claim to have all the answers but am an open (and anonymous) ear.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Reading: 2 Things All Parents and Teachers Must Do


An excerpt from 'To Kill A Mockingbird':

"...she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading.'Teach me?' I said in surprise. 'He hasn't taught me anything, Miss Caroline. Atticus ain't got time to teach me anything,' I added, when Miss Caroline smiled and shook her head. 'Why, he's so tired at night he just sits in the living-room and reads.'

'If he didn't teach you, who did?' Miss Caroline asked good-naturedly. 'Somebody did. You weren't born reading The Mobile Register.'

'Jem says I was.'

Miss Caroline apparently thought I was lying. 'Let's not let our imaginations run away with us, dear,' she said. 'Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I'll take over from here and try to undo the damage - '

'Ma'am?'

'Your father does not know how to teach.'

I mumbled that I was sorry and retired meditating upon my crime. I never deliberately learned to read but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church - was it then that I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus's moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills To Be Enacted into Laws, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow - anything Atticus's happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night.

Perhaps this post is not about Miss Caroline as teacher, but Atticus's Finch as unwitting teacher - or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing. Remember, what we read here is only Scout's childish reflections on how she learnt to read; children often don't realise when they are being taught. But her reflections are nonetheless revealing and thought-provoking. We see, from Scout's point of view, Atticus doing two things: modelling reading and sharing reading.

Modelling: Scout believes that Atticus is 'so tired at night he just sits in the living-room and reads.' It may be true but what Scout doesn't realise is that she is immensely privileged to be brought up in   a home where books and other reading materials are a central part of life. In the Finch household  reading is normal. It is not particularly celebrated, it is not done as a special occasion (although we do see that occasions spent reading are special to Scout), it is not enforced. This is the true model of reading for pleasure. There are multiple passing mentions in 'To Kill A Mockingbird' of the children reading as part of their daily routine, without it even being encouraged. In their house there is a reading culture.

There is a clear challenge for parents as well as teachers here: daily reading, at home and at school, needs to be normal. If it is, our children, like Jem and Scout, are far more likely to be natural readers.

Sharing: Of course, merely seeing Atticus read and copying the motions of reading (sitting with a book, turning pages etc) does not enable Scout to read but sitting with him whilst he reads aloud and points to the words does. Atticus goes beyond modelling to sharing, not only making reading normal but also showing how it is done. The fact that Scout, a fictional child, appears to have learned to read by these means could easily be contested - certainly not every child could learn that way. But the principle of sharing reading is an important one regardless.

Throughout the book, Jem and Scout feel at liberty to ask their father questions about meanings of words and events. There is no doubt that, during these shared reading sessions, Scout asked such questions, giving Atticus the opportunity to share not only the decoding of the words but also the understanding of the words in their context.

It is so important for parents and teachers to model and share the thoughts and understanding of a competent reader: the links they are making, the questions they are asking, the meaning they are deriving, the jokes they are getting, the emotions they are feeling. This can all happen within anything from a whole-class reading session to a parent and child encounter on the sofa at home.

On the flip side of this, we adults need to be very careful about the many habits we may be unwittingly promoting to the children around us. Where reading is concerned if we aren't seen reading, if we don't explain word meaning, if we never discuss books and stories then we are subliminally passing on negative message to the children around us. We need to be deliberate about our actions as everything we do sends a message. Much decent teaching can be undermined if the overall culture of a school or home is at odds with what is being taught.

We must not expect children to be able to read (decoding or understanding), or to enjoy reading, if we are not modelling and sharing reading. And if we are not modelling and sharing reading, are we really teaching reading at all?

Reading: Attacking Children's Immunity To Imaginative Literature



An excerpt from 'To Kill A Mockingbird':

"Miss Caroline started the day by reading us a story about cats. The cats had long conversations with one another, they wore cunning little clothes and lived in a warm house beneath a kitchen stove. By the time Mrs Cat called the drug-store for an order an order of chocolate malted mice the class was wriggling like a bucketful of Catawba worms. Miss Caroline seemed unaware that the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature." 

Reading this reminded me of the argument post-2016 reading SATs paper. Many thought the stories (and their vocabulary) were out of the realms of accessibility for many year 6 children. After all, most ten-year-olds have never rowed a boat to a little island, let alone ridden an albino giraffe. But, so the argument goes, neither has the most experienced and privileged of children ever gone to steal a precious stone from a dragon, along the way meeting dwarfs, elves and goblins and procuring for themselves in the process a magic ring. For many of us stories are the means by which we experience events and happenings that our everyday lives could not possibly provide.

However, Anne Kispal's 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading'  says (on page 17) that 'the importance of background knowledge cannot be over-stressed' and summarises (on page 23) that the factors common to those who are adept at automatic inferencing are, among others, a wide background knowledge and a sharing of the same cultural background as that assumed by the text.

Lee, through the voice of Scout Finch, posits the idea that children of limited life experience are 'immune to imaginative literature'. Is this true? Does the breadth of our actual experience allow us to access further experiences in fiction? Lee makes the point that children who are so accustomed to the realities of animals find it ridiculous to relate to a story where the animals are anthropomorphised, which is probably a fair point. A story about farmers and animals behaving as animals would perhaps have been better received, but that would not have broadened the scope of the hearers.

So, we ask the question: What is the point of reading? There are obviously many possible answers to this question, but for the sake of this discussion I'll follow that question with another: Should we read only about what we know or should we read widely to expand what we know? The answer is obvious.

However, many of us would attest to knowing children who appear to be 'immune to imaginative literature'. So we must ask our selves how immunity is compromised. The answer is: by repeat attacks, often from more than one infection or from virus that has adapted to beat the immune system. What does that mean for breaching the 'immune system' of someone who does not engage with fiction? We must:

Repeatedly attack their immune system: Giving up isn't an option. Continuous exposure to stories and books will break down their immunity eventually and they will gradually find themselves able to enter into, and enjoy, fictional worlds. In general, children who grow up from a young age listening to stories want to hear more stories.

Attack with more than one infection: Provide stories of different genres (humorous, mystery, romance, classic, gothic, suspense, horror, adventure, quest, fantasy) and in different formats (picture books, short films, comics, short stories, long stories, text maps, cartoon strips, novels, fictional, factual, biographical). Eventually a wide and varied diet of infectious stories will take effect. Often children, through this exposure, will find their weakness: the books they love the most.

Attack with adapted viruses: Provide stories that are differentiated based on need. Some children need the expert advice of an adult who can pick out just what will appeal to them - perhaps the chink in their immune system's armour is a book about adventurous construction vehicles. A parent or teacher may be the only one capable of identifying that need. Once the digger-obsessed child reads that book, then he may find he has a thirst for adventure stories, at which point a whole canon of books may suddenly become more appealing to him: immune system breached.

*Leaving the analogy behind now; it is key that we prepare children for exposure to texts on subjects on which they have no knowledge and prior experience. With an immersive curriculum where vocabulary is focused on children can be prepared for the new concepts that they come across in narratives. Using non-fiction books, images, videos, drama and real-life rich experiences children can be brought into the world of the novel they are about to read or are currently reading, leading to a greater understanding of the plot and content, for example. This is a very short summary of a huge idea which will allow children to access almost any text - I have written a separate blog post to cover these ideas.

Some sceptics may question why we put so much effort into compromising a child's immunity to imaginative literature. The reasons are many fold: stories widen our experience and understanding of the world, reading stories is enjoyable, stories encourage creativity and they provide us with a voice with which to tell our own story. One of human nature's most basic concepts is the way we see life past, present and future as a story; story-hearing and story-telling is written into our DNA. Stories are important.

Although Miss Caroline seems to have judged her class wrongly, it might just be that she had the right idea: exposing children to imaginative literature, even if the first time it falls on deaf ears, is an important part of their education. In this we can follow her example. Only, Beatrix Potter might not be the best choice for the rough-and-tumble Scout Finches of this world.

*with thanks to the staff at Penn Wood Primary for some clarification and food for thought on this issue.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Brextolling The Virtues Of Youth

With scooters cast on the ground beside the park picnic bench and shared portion of potato scallops in hand, two lads, no more than 13, discussed the outcome of the EU referendum on a sunny day in a Yorkshire village. They understood the significance of the links between the world wars and Brexit as they discussed why each war began and what they thought of the outcome of Thursday's vote. They didn't have all the facts they needed but were drawing their own conclusions based on what they knew. What mattered to me was that they were politically engaged - something, it would seem, we've not quite experienced before in my living memory.

In writing this I am well aware that I am not bringing anything new to the table. Many teachers have already voiced the opinion I am about to give. In the last few days educators have observed the heightened awareness of politics, and, regardless of your position on the matter, or the position of the children we all teach, one thing is clear: we must carpe this diem. 

I wore the motto 'Suivez La Raison' on my sixth form blazer; and now it is our job to teach tomorrow's adults to suivez the raison. It's very difficult to have a working democracy if those in the electorate are being misled; we must show children the importance of finding out facts for themselves in a discerning manner. We must equip them with the critical skills to be able to do this - this could be through researching and evaluating non-political issues as well as political ones. If the future electorate, one who seem increasingly desirous to involve themselves in politics, are able to find truth for themselves then good decisions will be made by the people of this country.

Once our young people are aware of the facts, there are two other things we need to encourage them towards: respecting the views of others and actually voting.

Slightly disturbing has been the spiteful comments surrounding, amongst other voter groups, the elderly vote - I don't believe it is right to be so vitriolic along the lines of 'Why should those with the shortest life expectancy decide the future of those with the longest?' Despite disagreements, we have to respect the views of others where decisions have been made in 'good conscience' (the water gets murky here, although issues such as racism should be clear-cut). Part of this skill involves being able to debate which does not cause dissension - something often not modelled by our politicians. Our young people are about to embark on a period of time where they have to learn to live in a divided country - with our guidance they have the chance to adapt to that more quickly than the rest of us.

Perhaps a better responses from young people on this issue would be to channel their heightened emotions into encouraging their peers to engage: only 43% of 18-24 year olds and 54% of 25-34 year olds voted in the referendum. Many colleagues on twitter have reported deep engagement from those not yet eligible to vote, hopefully in future elections we will see that 43% figure rise as a result! but it is now our job as educators to keep the momentum going. Interest in these matters will always pick up around the time of huge change but we can keep the debate current: there are always interesting debates going on in the houses of commons and politics stories are never really out of the press. It may well be worth noting too that many teachers fall into the 25-34 category: in our attempts to engage our peers we must be as active as we want our students to be.

So far this referendum has left many, even those who voted leave, with a sour taste in their mouth; at the moment it appears to have been a hollow victory. But regardless of your views on Britain's relationship status with the EU, we can all be optimistic about the future of our politics based on the potential that our up-and-coming electorate has shown. The children are our future and we teachers have the privilege not to indoctrinate, but to guide the nation's youth towards political engagement and a brighter future.