Friday, 28 October 2016

From the TES Magazine: Teachers Who Just Want To Teach


This article was published in the TES magazine on 28th October. It explores how to support teachers who have no desire to do anything but remain in the classroom and teach. I was particularly chuffed that my second outing in the magazine was accompanied by a picture of the late, great Robin Williams in his masterpiece 'Dead Poets Society'.

Many teachers choose not to climb the career ladder up into the ivory tower of senior leadership. For most, their reasons are admirable: they got into teaching to work with children and that’s the way that they want it to stay. And who can knock that as an ambition?

To continue reading, follow the link: https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/teachers-who-just-want-teach You will need a TES subscription to read this article.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Why I Care So Much About Wellbeing


I have been known to write about, and comment upon, wellbeing (possible understatement). My interest in reducing workload - my own and that of others - is very much linked to my interest in the issue of wellbeing. In fact, so is my obsession with optimism and positivity as opposed to negativity; if you are optimistic about reducing your workload and improving your wellbeing you will look for, and indeed find, ways of doing it.

But why am I so bothered?

Two reasons:

One, it saddens me to see so many teachers struggling with what can be a really amazing job. I believe teachers can have a good work/life balance - I do - and I want to help them to have it. Why? Because if we are all well then our hard work will be more effective. And because no-one should have to work to the point where they are made ill - be that physically or mentally. Which leads me onto my second reason...

Two, as a teenager my dad took early retirement due to workplace-related stress. Diagnosed with depression, I saw him become a different person. When your big, strong, fun dad bursts into the kitchen struggling through tears to breath after battling for hours with a usually-simple task you are affected for life; that's not a point I want to get to. When the man who used to get down on the floor and build the best Lego castles with you retreats and becomes distant, you, even as a child, know that things aren't right - and you don't forget it.

I have seen first hand, and lived with the effects and consequences of, how a job can come close to killing a person. He was a successful doctor at a young age; it was a job that he once enjoyed - spending your days driving the scenic roads of the Yorkshire Dales visiting patients in a classic Daimler sounds idyllic, but this is no James Herriot story. It was a job which crept in and took control - I had an inkling at the time that his boss had rather a lot to so with his decline in health. I love and respect my dad but I know the depression and associated medication has changed him. He would not wish it on anyone - it's certainly something that, suffice to say, I'm fairly keen to avoid. If I can at all avoid it, I'd rather not be a dad who goes missing for hours at a time on a winter's evening, leaving his children at home fearing for daddy's life.

So if in future you read my blog or tweets and question why sometimes I come across as forthright and opinionated, you'll know why. It's fine for you to question my authority - who am I to make suggestions about how you live your life and approach your work? But instantly dismissing my advice, and that of others, as unworkable and unrealistic could be to your detriment. I don't claim to have all the answers but my experiences have hard-wired me to seek solutions to avoid becoming overworked, stressed and even depressed. My dad would not wish upon me that which he experienced (and still lives with today). He would not wish it upon anybody.

We teachers must speak up about these issues - not in the moany, ranty way that seems to have become commonplace, but in a way that secures support and seeks change. Friends, partners, colleagues, line managers and doctors are a good place to start - they will all be able to help you in different ways. The thought that taking such actions could actually begin to be of help is often poo-pooed; I've seen it so many times on social media when I've suggested that talking to the boss might help. The thing is, by not speaking out you are making a choice - you are choosing to subject yourself to something such as my dad experienced. You are choosing to subject your loved ones to something such as I experienced. Why is that the preferred option? I do understand the difficulties involved in talking about such delicate issues but I also understand the result of the alternative; it's really not worth it.

Please, if you are a teacher experiencing unacceptable levels of workplace-related stress, get the help you need. If you are a teacher who believes you are working more than you should have to (yes, we all do some overtime, I get that), then reassess and try to make changes in your work/life balance and if you've done all you can, then you must take it further and speak to those who have the power to make changes for you. The possible results of not doing this can be devastating, even if you're not feeling it right now, that erosion of your mental health could be on its way.

I know I am not the only one attempting to do my bit for better mental health and wellbeing in education and I'd be willing to bet that most who are have similar, or worse, stories to tell. Listen to those voices - they are not against you; they are for you. Their words are impassioned because they really do care, not because they think they've got it sussed and are better than you.

Please explore the links I've included at the beginning of this blog post as they all point to other things I've written that explore some of these themes in more detail. If you would like to chat about anything then please do get in touch.

This blog post was re-blogged on the TES blog on 11th October entitled 'If all we do is rant to each other about workload, rather than seeking help, we're choosing to subject ourselves to stress': https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/if-all-we-do-rant-each-other-about-workload-rather-seeking-help-were

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Scaffolding Inference: Trialling a Teaching Technique

If you are short of time but would like to get the gist of this technique, please see my Quick Reference Guide: http://thatboycanteach.blogspot.co.uk/2016/11/scaffolding-inference-quick-reference.html


With inference being the most-assessed skill in the Key Stage 2 reading tests it is no wonder that teachers spend a lot of time attempting to teach children how to infer meaning from texts, with varying degrees of success. It's the sort of skill that readers (by that I mean those who make a regular habit of reading, and enjoy it) possess without really learning. Because of this, it is a skill that is hard to teach; many teachers infer naturally so deconstructing how they do it in order to teach a process to children can be difficult.

In case you missed it, the reading test framework has rearranged reading skills into eight content domains. The fourth domain, the one we are concerned with here, is: 
2d: make inferences from the text / explain and justify inferences with evidence from the text
Background Reading

The chapter in 'Reading Reconsidered' entitled 'Writing for Reading' (read an excerpt here) discusses the various structures a teacher might use within a reading session. The ideas presented widen the scope of how different task sequences can support the development of different skills. This made me think more carefully about how the teaching and learning sequence could build to help children to infer more successfully.

Penny Slater's helpful article 'Reading Re-envisaged' explores the links between vocabulary knowledge and inference skills initiated the thinking that led to my development and trial of this method. Her conceptual model (pictured left) represents how inference skills rely on good knowledge and understanding of vocabulary. In her own words: 
"...the model signifies the importance of vocabulary knowledge. If we consider each circle to be a moat which the children must cross before they are able to access the skills within the innermost circles, then we see clearly that they will not get very far if they do not understand the meanings on the words on the page. This chimes with what teachers are finding in their classrooms: lack of knowledge of vocabulary is a complete blocker. You can’t make any inroads into comprehension without addressing this issue first."
Anne Kispal's 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading', in section 2.3 (page 26) goes into more detail on this and the document as a whole is an informative read. It has also been shown that 95%-98% of the vocabulary in a text needs to be understood in order to be able to derive a general meaning of the text (Schmitt, Jiang & Grabe, 2011).

So, another content domain comes into play, one which children must be confident with if they are going to be able to make inferences:
2a: give / explain the meaning of words in context
I also had an inkling that development of inference skills could be supported through the use of retrieval skills.
2b: retrieve and record information / identify key details from fiction and non-fiction
Children usually find retrieval easier than inference, however it is worth noting that in the 2016 KS2 tests even some of the retrieval questions were difficult, often because of the vocabulary skills that are needed in order to retrieve information. There are plenty of places to learn about how to improve vocabulary skills, so I won't go into detail on that in this article, but I must stress that it is important that children are taught skills such as contextual and morphemic analysis before they attempt the process I suggest. Before my own trial I spent around 4 weeks focusing on teaching vocabulary skills, allowing the children plenty of time to practice.

The Theory

The theory that I have been trialing is that inference skills can be taught by first studying the vocabulary used and then retrieving relevant information before going on to make inferences about a text. If inference is 'a conclusion reached on the basis of evidence and reasoning' then first a reader must be able to identify where the evidence is (retrieval) and before that the reader needs to understand the words used to present the evidence. In the model I propose (see right) the understanding of vocabulary is the foundation on which information retrieval is built, which in turn provides the support for making inferences.

The Practice

In short:
  1. Decide on an inference question (2d); the question stems based on the 2016 KS2 reading test made available by Herts for Learning on their blog are really useful for this.
  2. Begin to work backwards - work out where in the text the children need to go to locate useful evidence and ask a suitable retrieval question (2b).
  3. Continue to work backwards - which words or phrases do the children need to understand in order to be able to understand the evidence then ask a careful vocabulary question (2a).
  4. Once this process is complete (it may take a while at first), check that the 2a and 2b questions will adequately lead the children into answering the 2d question. If not, go back and tweak the questions.
There are different ways in which the 2a and 2b questions might provide a scaffold for answering the 2b question. In order to explain this I will share some examples. All the examples are based on 'Wonder' by R.J. Palacio. I chose 'Wonder' as our first class novel because although it is fairly heavy in subject matter, it is easy-going with its vocabulary. I wanted to begin by supporting children's acquisition of vocabulary skills in a non-threatening manner before we started to read novels with more advanced language.

The first excerpt takes place in the chapter entitled 'The Summer Table' in which a girl named Summer joins August who is alone at a lunch table on his first day at school.


In the first example (pictured above ) the scaffolding structure can be seen clearly: question 1 is a 2a question, question 2 is a 2b question and question 3 is a 2d question. There is a very obvious grammar discussion to be had to surrounding common nouns and proper nouns - the children asked for clarification on this despite the words in question 1 not being capitalised. The discussion we had cleared up possible later misconceptions that Summer meant the table was only for people named Summer - a misconception which would have been at odds with the basic fact that August was also sitting at the table. I've noticed that test questions are often set about texts with potential misconceptions so I try to take opportunities to incorporate similar tricky bits in my teaching.

The second example is taken from the same chapter; the text follows directly the previous excerpt:



The second example does not lead the children directly to the answer for question 3 but it does provide background knowledge which should inform their own thoughts on the motivation for Summer's actions. In answering question 1 the children realised that there was a long list of names and by answering question 2 they began to get the sense that the quote in question 3 was true; they gained their own insight into why August says that most of the names weren't actually summer names. Questions 1 and 2 allowed the children to understand what Summer was doing (making a long list, bending the rule that only children with summer names could sit on the table) before they began to think about why she was doing it.

Question 3 actually also requires previous knowledge of the text - the children must have already grasped that August (a boy with facial birth defects) is sitting alone on his first ever day in school whilst children whisper about his looks in order to infer that Summer agrees that so many children can sit with them so that he finds more friends. The more perceptive children might also realise that Summer also wants him to have fun so that he forgets about his situation and so that he feels like all the other children. I was satisfied that our previous reading and dialogic discussion (thanks Mat Tobin for the terminology) meant that they understood the whole text well enough to approach this question.

It should also be noted that here there are two retrieval questions and no vocabulary-based question; the vocabulary they needed had been covered in the previous set of questions.

Here is an example of a child's work. This task was undertaken independently directly after completing the previous task (see above). The first task was completed independently prior to a whole-class discussion and then children edited their answers (with a purple pen) based on the discussion that was had. This example contains no edits - the child was able to answer question 3 successfully first time. It is worth noting that this child is one of the best readers in my class - for her the scaffold has had almost immediate impact. In further blog posts on this subject I will provide before and after evidence.


For the next examples I must give credit to Rhoda Wilson for her excellent 'Moving Beyond Comprehension Sheets' resource as I used it along with the Herts for Learning question stems to vary the question styles in these activities.

Here's an example of a very scaffolded set of questions - the scaffold questions (questions 1, 2 and 3) make the answer to question 4 very obvious.


This one worked so successfully that I actually encouraged the children to further their answers for number 4 by explaining how the evidence showed that the children were unsure how to treat August - this was not initially required of them, and when compared to similar questions in the 2016 KS2 test, this would be classed as an inference (2d) question without the addition of an explanation. It also made me contemplate giving them the inference question to answer before the scaffold questions, as well as after, in order to compare the difference and the impact the scaffold questions have on the quality of answer.

Some more activity examples:


Here is an example of child's work. This child entered year 6 in September assessed at a year 4 standard for reading. This method appears to have been very successful for him, even after only a few times working in this way.


One more example:
What Next?

If this way of scaffolding inference questions works for the children in my class then I will begin to adapt it in order to support the development of skills outlined in the other content domains:
2c; summarise main ideas from more than one paragraph
2e: predict what might happen from details stated and implied
2f: identify / explain how information / narrative content is related and contributes to meaning as a whole
2g: identify / explain how meaning is enhanced through choice of words and phrases
2h: make comparisons within the text
It will also be important to begin to remove the scaffolding - for some children sooner than others - in order to encourage children to use the skills independently; one question often raised against methods such as this is how will this approach help children when the structure is removed, for example, in the SATs reading test? And it's a good question. My hope is that it will provide them with a method for answering inference questions; a method which will be embedded in their way of working. If this technique is successful then children will naturally make inferences using their ability to understand the vocabulary (these skills will need to be taught in addition to this method of scaffolding questions) and their ability to locate and retrieve information from the text.

The trial of this technique for scaffolding inference is in its infancy. As such I will follow up this blog post with others including commentary on what I learn, further examples of questions and some more examples of children's work showing the impact.

I would also love to engage in discussion on this idea - please use the comments section to tell me where I am going wrong, to point me in the direction of relevant research or additional reading or to share your own examples if you decide to try it!

Click here to read a testimonial from one teacher who used the technique.

Click here to read about how this, and other changes made to the way we teach reading, impacted on our SATs results.

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