Monday, 26 September 2016

Teachers! Be More Batman!


You'll be unaware, but across the internet a debate rages: is Batman a superhero or not? The first result from a google search adamantly suggests that "In the strictest sense, Batman isn't a superhero because he has no "amazing" powers (e.g. powers that are magical or pseudo-scientific)." 

Superman was born with a whole range of amazing powers: super-human strength, the ability to fly and X-Ray vision to name a few. Spider-Man was imbued with powers by a radioactive spider, mutating to possess precognitive spider senses and the ability to cling to most surfaces, among other capabilities. But Batman is just human like the rest of us; perhaps why he has probably enjoyed so much success as a fictional character.

If Batman doesn't have powers, what does he have? Abilities. He has genius-level intellect, peak physical and mental condition, is a master martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant, a skilled detective and he utilises high-tech equipment and weapons. Yes, his vast fortune helps with the last one, but otherwise his abilities are all realistically attainable to a certain extent.

Teachers often have very high expectations of themselves. This may result from the pressure put on them 'from above' to perform. But it often comes from a personal sense of responsibility, stemming from the same emotional place that led them into education in the first place. Teachers expect themselves to be superheroes, amazing powers and all. And it is unrealistic and damaging to their health. A superhero without actual superpowers who tries to behave like he has wouldn't last long. If Batman flung himself from the top of a building (without a gadget) he'd meet an unfortunate end: if Superman did the same, he'd swoop off into the horizon, a silhouette passing the setting sun. When teachers try to live life as if they are super-human, the consequences are potentially disastrous for themselves, their families and their pupils.

"With great power comes great responsibility" is a true enough maxim. But how true is "With great responsibility comes great power"? Not true at all. The responsibility we are given doesn't come with a free helping of superpowers, yet so many of us are pushing our human abilities to the limits, expecting to be able to do what only super-humans could.

Yet we have a job to do. An important one and a difficult one. Whilst Batman battles to clean up crime in Gotham City, we have our own dark enemies to face as we protect the innocent ones from their influence. And we must do it all with human ability only.

So how can we be Batman-like teachers? What are those shortcuts to becoming a superhero teacher without actually having superpowers and without killing oneself in the process of trying? Let's revisit his list of abilities:

  1. Genius-level intellect - perhaps we don't quite need to be geniuses but a good amount of knowledge and understanding are key to operating as a teacher. As JL Dutaut once put it so eloquently: 'We need to be knowledgeable as teachers, not just about our subject, but also about pedagogies, not just about practice but about policies. And the knowledge we as a body have and create every day in classrooms should be heard, and should inform those that make the policies, because teaching is an informed profession.'' There is no need to expect yourself to innately know everything about how to teach but there is a wealth of information out there which will begin to inform your practice. Read the blogs, the articles, the magazines, the books. Listen to your colleagues, your boss, the guy doing the training day. Consult the research that's already been done for you.This is your first step to becoming a Batman-like teacher.
  2. Peak human physical and mental condition - at risk of sounding like a broken record, I must reiterate in the context of this article that these things are important. We need to be doing all we can to ensure that we are well. And yes, our leaders must ensure this too. Being rested and alert can make or break a lesson, regardless of time spent planning it (in fact if you've stayed up late planning it, chances are it'll go to pot if you're tired as a result). As difficult as it may be to prioritise wellbeing it is absolutely essential that it is top of your list: without being well you'll struggle to teach well. Even Batman takes time off from fighting crime in Gotham when he gets a bit bashed up; when you're feeling a bit worse for wear the best preparation you can do is get a good night's sleep then reassess in the morning. Getting rest, eating well, exercising regularly, spending time doing things you love and with family and friends are all essential to your success as a Batman-like teacher. I've written about wellbeing a lot - follow this link to read more.
  3. Master martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant - right now, many teachers feel they are in the midst of battle. Our colleagues the country over are feeling oppressed. Whilst some would advocate political engagement, I think quicker gains can be made by challenging the status quo in our own schools. We have much more chance of changing policy and expectations by directly petitioning the leaders in our own schools. Sometimes it won't even take a battle - sometimes your senior leaders just need to know that one of their edicts is difficult to put into practice, or that you are struggling to complete all your tasks and that you'd appreciate some extra time. Many teachers are afraid to be honest about these matters - if they were willing to stand up for themselves, fighting hand-to-hand (however peacefully) they could effect personally beneficial change. And if they fight with stealth and patience, as any martial artists would, suggesting solutions to problems, showing willing and a positive attitude and perseverance, they are even more likely to win over their leaders in order to bring about improvements leaving you with more time to focus on what really matters: the children. Perhaps a tenuous link, but there are many who would testify to the success of this type of combat. For more on this read my post 'Rise Up! (Being Militant Teachers)'
  4. Master detective - there is nothing more like sleuthing in teaching than assessment. Putting more effort into assessment allows a teacher to spend less time on planning. If you are making effective use of time in lesson to continually assess children's needs then their next steps become more obvious; you won't need to agonise over what to do in the next lesson, you will just know. Keeping a record of all this - nothing more detective-like than a notebook - can make following steps in the teaching cycle much simpler. More time spent assessing and giving feedback in lessons also means less time spent marking books after school. This one works well with the first point: the more you read about your subject and pedagogy, the easier it will be to recognise the clues which will help you to work out what children need and how to teach it to them. If Batman were a teacher he would definitely know his data!
  5. Utilises high-tech equipment and weapons - I have to be careful here; no way am I wading into the debate about the use of tech in classrooms. Nor will I speak on any kind of pedagogy. We all have our weapons - our go-to tools - and successful teachers have a particular tried-and-tested arsenal of methods which ensure children learn, time is not wasted and behaviour is managed well. These Batpeople of the classroom will also have tools which make their lives easier too: the ones that keep them in peak condition. In order to survive, and have the appearance of a superhero, you will need to build your own batcave and fill it with equipment (physical and metaphorical) that you know supports the way you teach and the way pupils learn. It's worth remembering that with every new Batman incarnation comes a bigger and better car, the addition of helicopter or whatever else: our arsenal can always be improving, especially if step 1 is followed.
Teacher, no matter how great you are, you are not a superhero with super powers. You are a human being with great responsibilities who, admittedly, might often be expected to deliver super-human results. You do not have powers, but Batteacher, you have abilities - don't be afraid, or ashamed, to use them. Please don't kill yourself in the process of trying what is humanly impossible - your citizens need you in one piece. 

And they won't quibble over whether you have super powers or whether you simply have abilities.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Greener Grass (or 'Finding A Better School')

Reading Keziah Fetherstone's piece in the New Teachers supplement from the TES (Friday 9th September) reminded me of this interview I did with a teacher who left one school for another and found that actually the grass is sometimes greener on the other side.

Having qualified in 2011 our interviewee is in their 6th year teaching. They have taught across Key Stage 2 in two schools: the one they left, and the one where they work currently. The interview explores the differences between the two schools and provides an insight into the experience of someone who has made the leap because they were unhappy in their school:

How did you feel working at your old school?

In the beginning of working at my old school I loved it! It was the only place I had applied for because it was the one I felt was closest to my own views of teaching. University gave us a great chance to form our own beliefs, and I really feel like I stuck to them when searching for a school to start my career.

Towards the end however, it simply wasn't the school I joined. So much had changed. I was trying to stick to the methods that I knew worked, methods I had been praised and commended for, yet somehow they were no longer allowed and I was suddenly seen as a poor teacher; not because the children weren't learning anymore, but because of how it looked. It became very superficial. I tried to follow the strategies I was being criticised for not using, but because I didn't believe in them, that came through my teaching and progress decreased from the high rate I was used to. The children were 'doing' lots (which therefore, superficially, looked great on the surface. But I could see they weren't learning anything; any independence I tried to give them was wasted, because they didn't have the skills to apply to anything (although their sparkling book looked like they could!) Those who had been there longer than me were a lot smarter at 'playing the game' but I was unwilling to join because it felt wrong. I thought 'these little people need to leave here capable of achieving a job, or we have failed them'. In order to do that, they needed to be equipped through good teaching and ample opportunity to learn; not listen and copy because their page is more important for the moderation coming up.

Anything I was doing in class was based on everything we'd be told at our rousing annual first INSET day of the year. Every year there was a big presentation, the school's aims and such, and I left wanting to try these ideas in my classroom. That's what started it all. I think, once they saw these ideas in practice, they got scared because it was something they'd never seen before; all the ideas were from Shirley Clarke's 'Outstanding Formative Assessment'.

Did you ever think of leaving the teaching profession as a result?

As a result of how I was treated, and the awful feedback I was getting, I fully expected to receive a terrible reference. For this reason only, I did consider other careers, although I did only apply to teaching jobs eventually. All applications I sent were successful, and I turned down all offers other than for post I am now in - I still wanted to stick to my values. My reference was great although I was, to my surprise, asked to stay. This made me feel like anything I had been told wasn't really true; as if my time as "the teacher to support" was over and they'd move on to "upskilling" someone else. It made a lot of what had happened seem worthless. A tick box exercise for "Staff Discipline" or someone else's chance to boast at Performance Management about their generous input into my seeming improvement, thus evidencing their own contributions as a Leader.

Has moving school changed your perspective?

My new school hasn't changed my perspective in the sense that I enjoy my job; I mostly always have. But it has motivated me again.

What is it about your new school that is different?


My school is different because teachers have so much freedom, but still with the expectation to do a good job! I think the fear for SLT is that freedom makes lazy teachers who don't work. My school is full of hard workers, making sensible sequences of lessons that their class benefit from. Although the pressures and the workload are still exactly the same, the atmosphere is totally different, making for happier staff able to deliver better lessons. I know personally, that if I have put my heart and soul into a plan, or sequence, or strongly believe something will work, it will come across. In the same way that not believing in what I was asked to do previously came across.

What are the characteristics of a school that you should leave? How can you tell that you need to leave a school?


For me, it was once I was receiving conflicting feedback that I realised it was time to go. I couldn't perform when the criteria for a lesson was the complete opposite of the pointers I had been given previously. I was being judged on that - the school's leaders were forming opinions of me based on that. If you're in a situation like that then, depending on the ethos of your school, the impact that opinion has on you, and those around you, can have a big negative effect.

The feedback I was getting wasn't really based on anything. I guess the easiest feedback to give, is to advise you to do the opposite of what you're doing. And giving feedback makes people feel important, "I told them to do that" - but ultimately, the effects of you acting on what they say (managing the change, teaching and learning implications and associated data trends), aren't seen as their problem.

What were the tell-tale signs (when you went to look round and when you went for interview) that your new school was going to be a better place to work? What was the initial impression compared to your old school?

Firstly, after a few years of full time teaching, the 'walk round' is so totally different to when you're an NQT. I could feel myself asking different questions and looking for different things.

That said, I asked every single school I looked at about their approaches to classroom layout and lesson design. From my experiences, I wanted to make sure that my new school was a place that valued differences among the children, and were encouraging teachers to act on those differences in order to make the best learning.

The Head, (my new boss) showed me round and he had such a good sense of humour; I'd never known anything like it! It really is a great place to be. I spoke to children, looked through books and got a feel of their expectations of me should I be successful.

However, I also looked for things that I could make an impact on and change. I think one of the things about my previous school is that I was always seen as the new boy, so a position of responsibility was almost laughable; an awful prediction that I had nothing to offer. Yet here I saw and heard things that I knew I could do something about in time, and I made that known.

The tour, interview and interview lesson, were enjoyable. Although it's important to say, when I started at my new school, I went through this strange transition in the first few weeks of trying to teach in the way I had been forced to, as if I had forgotten the methods I used best. Of course, I carried some strategies over but I needed to return to the core of what I used to do, the methods that were successful before someone quite simply changed their mind, based on what was "fashionable", and I was no longer good enough.

As a person, I needed a short period of reinvention; I felt very worn down by my experiences. Being told you're not good enough, yet seeing so much misconduct being swept under the carpet was almost humiliating. It made no sense to me and I found it difficult to brush off. Being asked to stay was even more confusing as I didn't understand why! Why would you want me here if I've been doing such a bad job?

A change of scene was very much needed and a fresh outlook on what my primary objectives are; to teach children the skills to apply to various challenges independently. Yes, they will be assessed. But their life goes on after that stupid week in May, and we need to do our bit in preparing them for that life.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

5 Ways To Make Texts With Unfamiliar Contexts More Accessible To Children


Recently, the author Tom Palmer sent me a copy of his latest book Wings: Typhoon. It's a great read aimed at 8 to 10 year olds and is a stereotype-breaking brew of the supernatural, football, fighter jets and the relationship between two sisters. But before I knew all of that I was intrigued to find that the covers of the book extend to contain a cut-out-and-make Typhoon aeroplane model. Is this a gimmick, or is there something more to it?

One of the complaints about the 2016 Key Stage 2 SATs reading paper was that many children would not be able to relate to or understand the contexts of the narratives that were used; certainly none of the children I taught last year have rowed a boat to an island or ridden an albino giraffe across the Savannah. I wrote a lot about this issue in this blog post and concluded that "stories are the means by which we experience events and happenings that our everyday lives could not possibly provide" and therefore we should be exposing children to narratives with unfamiliar contexts. 

So, as teachers (and parents too, if you're reading this), we must ask ourselves how we can make these texts more accessible to children. Importantly, we want them to get the maximum enjoyment out of the books they read, and without understanding what you are reading it's hard to enjoy it.

And that's where Tom Palmer's book comes in. Imagine reading about a Typhoon fighter jet when you have no idea what one looks like. A child might imagine something more akin to a Boeing 747 -  a more typical plane for a child to visualise; they are more common and more present in other contexts. The more inquisitive child these days would probably Google an image of a Typhoon in an instant, but many wouldn't and some couldn't. So it's ideal that before reading the book (or during) a child could construct a 3D model of the jet in question, thus enabling them to easily visualise a key object in the story. Without giving too much away, if a child were imagining a passenger plane whilst reading the story, they'd be a bit confused as to how on earth some of the action could take place!

Many moons ago someone hit on a bit of a genius idea by which readers are granted better access to the texts they read: illustrations. As I finished reading 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' I reflected on the role of its illustrations: they clarify to the reader the appearance of the mythical beasts described (beautifully) in the text. The illustrations in 'Wings: Typhoon' are excellent too - their two-tone comic book style really help to convey action as well as appearance. It's quite obvious why we start children on their reading journey with books dominated by pictures but it's a shame that by the time they reach the age of 11 they are expected to read challenging and diverse texts totally unsupported by images.

One of the key hindrances to comprehension is vocabulary. If a child does not know what the word 'creek' refers to then this sentence is less illuminating than it could be: 'In those days, far south in Calormen on a little creek of the sea, there lived a poor fisherman named Arsheesh...'. A child might wonder how someone could live on the sound that a door makes when it needs oiling, or they might imagine a creek to be something quite different to a little inlet or bay. And even if you then used those terms to describe it to a child you may have to then define the words 'inlet' and 'bay'. If at word level there is little understanding, there is no hope for sentence, paragraph or whole text level comprehension. Whether one is looking to retrieve information or infer it, a good grasp of vocabulary is needed.

Back to our question: how can we make these texts (particularly ones without pictures whose contexts are outside of the experience of the children we teach) more accessible to children? 

A list (not exhaustive) containing the most obvious ideas, and some more creative ones too: 

1. Use images - photographs, drawings, paintings, stills, illustrations from other books, 3D models. If using a text in class, pre-read the intended portion and collect images (particularly of nouns) to support and enhance a child's visualisation and understanding. This goes a long way to bringing a child into the realms of a book - even one set in a basic setting, such as a seaside town where quays and harbours, lobster pots and yachts might be alien objects to some of the children we teach. Just because a children's book is not illustrated, it doesn't mean we shouldn't provide those images ourselves.

2. Use film - archive footage, movies, documentaries, news stories. I would make a similar point here to the one made above regarding images. In addition, film has the power to convey more than appearance, moving beyond into action and sounds too - film can provide a very immersive experience which stimulates more senses than an image can. Because of this, film moves beyond supporting just word and sentence level comprehension, giving a sense of the bigger picture. For example, newsreel footage of children being evacuated helps modern-day children to understand the beginnings of 'Carrie's War', 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' or 'Goodnight Mr. Tom', not to mention the movie versions of those books.

3. Use other texts - books (both non-fiction and fiction), newspaper or magazine articles, webpages. In 'Reading Reconsidered' Lemov et al suggest that when texts are paired (ie a non-fiction text about the holocaust paired with 'The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas) children better comprehend the novel and they also absorb more of the supporting nonfiction text (Chapter 3: Reading Nonfiction, and the Challenge of Background Knowledge). When considering paired texts it does not always need to be a fiction and a non-fiction; you might choose a graphic novel or a picture book to support a novel, a diary entry to support a non-fiction text - the combinations are limitless but the main point is that other texts can help children learn the context needed to full access another text. It is also worth considering how linked topic work in a cross-curricular approach can really support children's comprehension - choose your novels to fit with your science, history or geography curriculum and use those lessons in part to provide background knowledge for the narratives you are reading.

4. Use drama and real-life experience - act out movements to help children understand new verbs and adverbs, pull faces to show how characters are feeling, go on museum visits to see recreations of story settings and historical artefacts, go on trips to old mills, little villages, steam railways, the countryside, the coast... make the stories come as alive as you possibly can by giving children the experiences that will help them to engage more deeply in a text. Perhaps you can't visit an entirely fictional solar system, but booking a StarDome portable planetarium to begin read your new sci-fi novel in isn't a bad idea (especially if your Science work ties in). Even slightly dramatising the way you read aloud can have an impact - do the voices, pay attention to your dynamics and tone, make gestures to mirror the characters' actions - there is a lot that can be done beyond sitting in a chair and speaking aloud words on a page.

5. Use dictionaries - if vocabulary is a key to understanding new contexts, then dictionary work is a fairly obvious inclusion. Once the words have been looked up and defined there are plenty of follow-up activities that could aid children in their understanding of a whole text: rewrite a line of this poem in your own words to explain what it means, draw the setting that the author is describing, discussions as to why the author has chosen the particular word rather than on of its synonyms or basic written answers to comprehension questions. It may be that prior to using dictionaries, children could write their own definitions of words they don't know using contextual or morphemic analysis (both key word learning strategies - but that's for another blog post altogether!) and then compare their definition to the real one. Those are just a few ideas and there is much more to be said on the subject of teaching vocabulary.  

If we regularly built opportunities like these into our teaching sequences then we would be helping children to connect with and better understand the novels they are reading. The more you understand what you read, the more likely you are to enjoy it and the more you enjoy books, the more you want to read. The Matthew Effect says that the rich get richer - if we can make our children rich in reading skills then they will go on to become richer, even without our ongoing instruction. Even if our children have never been stranded on a desert island, trapped in an apocalyptic landscape or hunted by nightmare creatures, we can use the strategies above to bring books and children closer together to place where unfamiliar contexts become places of new experience and learning.

Having said all this, Anne Kispal's 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading', on page 35, states that 'The research conducted by Barnes et al. (1996) and Cain et al. (2001) suggests that knowledge acquired just prior to reading is not as useful for inferencing as that which is well embedded in the reader’s long-term schemata. Cain et al. arrived at the conclusion that …even when they had the requisite knowledge base from which to generate an inference, the less skilled comprehenders did not make these inferences as readily as their skilled peers did. Knowledge availability is therefore not a sufficient condition for inferencing (p. 857).' So it remains that we cannot expect to provide the above experiences in isolation or even just in relation to particular texts, but that we should always be seeking to expand the knowledge-base of our pupils, making links where possible, if we want them to become better when it comes to comprehending a text.

A version of this article was published on the TES blog on 19th April 2017. Click here to read it: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/five-ways-make-books-unfamiliar-contexts-accessible

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.