Saturday, 14 July 2018

Book Review: 'The Spiderwick Chronicles (Books 1 - 3)' by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black

It's no wonder these international bestsellers are being republished. There's something special about them; perhaps something magical.

These are books about faeries. Not pink, glitzy, glittery fairies, but proper badass faeries: boggarts, brownies, goblins. Magical creatures come thick and fast in these short, little bitesize stories: The Phooka, wood elves, dwarves, trolls, griffins and more besides.

There's no messing about when it comes to getting into the story in each of these little books. At around the 100 page mark each, with a good few of those dedicated to the classic yet lively illustrations, the plot comes thick and fast. Where a longer book might faff around, these ones just get straight to the point. This characteristic would make these books perfect for reticent readers - ones who would benefit from the experience of finishing a whole, proper-looking book quickly. And the fact that there's a whole series of further books to read would automatically provide a reluctant child with another book to read - they can even read the first chapter of the next book at the end of their current book to really get them hooked.

In fact, some of these readers might even identify with main protagonist Jared Grace who, since his father's departure has struggled with his behaviour at school. Taken off to live in a strange old house with his twin brother and older sister he soon discovers that there is more to his world than first meets his eye, and, once he has the sight, he and his siblings find themselves embroiled in a faerie battle to wrest ownership of a mysterious tome of faerie world knowledge from their own hands.

Whilst the stories are short and the illustrations are plentiful, there isn't a simplifying of the text. Readers will still be exposed to creative vocabulary and the most exciting of content. Small but perfectly formed these reissues are sure to find themselves to be firm favourites of a whole new generation of children.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Using Mnemonics For Retrieval Practice


What is a mnemonic? Well, according to Wikipedia it is 'is any learning technique that aids information retention or retrieval (remembering) in the human memory.'

To be clear from the outset: an acrostic (such as Naughty Elephants Squirt Water, used to remember the points of the compass) is just one kind of mnemonic. Other kinds of mnemonics are stories, songs and rhymes.

From D.T. Willingham's AFT journal article
'What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?'
In D.T. Willingham's 'What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?' AFT journal article he summarises the three principles of memory (see the box to the left). He says that 'mnemonics work largely (but not exclusively) by using the first two principles... Mnemonics make meaningless material more meaningful, giving you something to think about and a good cue.

He also makes the point that 'learning something by rote memorisation is a great time to get creative.' Mnemonics '...give students ways to make up meaningful relationships. And the more creative or distinctive, the better.'

Many of those within educational circles who are currently promoting retrieval practice and other memory techniques seem to focus heavily on the testing effect. As such, it appears that quizzes have become the most widely used technique when it comes to helping children to remember things. I have already collated a selection of no-quiz retrieval practice techniques but in that blog post I felt my final recommendation of using stories, songs, rhymes and mnemonics needed some further exploration, hence this further blog post.

Image from Wikipedia
We can all testify to the ease in which we are able to recall the lyrics to certain songs, even ones we've not heard for a while. Most likely we will also remember their tunes - sometimes they pop into heads when were are least expecting it. Many of us will still remember MRS GREN/NERG, My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming (Planets) and Richard Of York Gave Battle (In) Vain. Some of us will even have mastered that knuckle thing to help you remember the number of days in each month. Each one of those is an example of how mnemonics help us to remember things - often things we don't even deliberately try to remember.

So, how can we harness these (dare I say it) fun and engaging ways of memorising information in the classroom? Well, first of all we need to be deliberate about it - we have to intentionally include these opportunities, recognising the potential they have to help children in their learning. It will take a bit of effort to search out a decent (I use this word purposefully) song or rhyme that links to your current topic. It won't be easy to put together a story that features the facts you want the children to learn. But, done well, it should be worth the extra effort.

Here a few quick pointers to get you started using mnemonics in your teaching:

Story

Hywel Roberts and Debra Kidd's latest book Unchartered Territories has a fascinating chapter on how story can be used as an aid memoire. It's a great book in general for those looking to inject some creativity into their lessons


It quotes D.T. Willingham: “Stories are psychologically privileged in our minds”. Roberts and Kidd suggest that we should place knowledge content (i.e. facts and figures) into a dilemma-led story which has four components (the 4 Cs of storytelling):

Causality – how events link through consequence (plot)
Complications – aspects of the stor where things aren’t as they seem
Conflict – tension to engage emotions
Characters – because we relate and connect to other humans

There will be very few stories out there that do this already for each area of learning that a teacher might be teaching so there is a lot of work to be done in order to use this technique. Teachers will need to write their own story, or adapt an exisiting one, in order to present the information in this fashion.

Once done, the potential is huge - children could learn the story Talk 4 Writing-style, they could write their own versions, use role play or toys to retell the story, even making some of these into films or animations. All of this could be considered rehearsal, and therefore retrieval practice. If they can remember the story, then they will remember the facts that are embedded in it.

Willingham also outlines another technique which loosely follows the principles of telling a story in order to memorise information:

From D.T. Willingham's AFT journal article 'What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?'
This point alone is worth exploring in much further detail, but for now this will suffice. I do plan to attempt to try out this method in the coming year so will be writing some stories linked to year 5 topics shortly - I will share these, and blog about the process.

Songs and Rhymes

Although some time is required for searching out songs and rhymes, there are often topic-specific examples already out there - many of them on Youtube. The more creative and musically-talented among us might be willing to turn our hand to writing original songs or rhymes (my brother-in-law writes and performs parodies of popular songs to teach physics facts, one of which was recently sung on Radio 1!) but often this level of commitment and skill isn't necessary.

The key here is to choose songs and rhymes wisely. Do they cover the content that we want the children to learn or are we settling for learning whatever the song's current content is? Is the content accurate (e.g. ensure the song is about English grammar and spelling rather than American English grammar and spelling)? Does it reinforce misconceptions? Does it support a good understanding as well as memorisation (Keep Change Flip is a great trick but it doesn't help with conceptual understanding)? Finding and selecting suitable material can sometimes take as long as writing your own!

If you do choose to write your own try using familiar tunes, such as those used in nursery rhymes and popular songs, as a memory cue.

Children could also be asked to write their own songs and rhymes using pre-learned information, although some caution should be exercised here as additional skills will be required - this is not as straightforward as a free recall task (although it could follow a free recall task as well as additional teaching on how to write stories, songs, rhymes or mnemonics).

Expression/Word Mnemonics

These are what we most often think of as being mnemonics. Some of them rhyme, some of them are acronyms, others are acrostics and others of them make associations between something in the to-be-remembered material and an aspect of the material that is hard to remember. Some expression mnemonics make use of more than one of these techniques.

Here are some examples:

Rhyming: Divorced, beheaded, died / Divorced, beheaded, survived
Acrostic: (For the tuning of guitar strings) Every Afternoon Daddy Goes Back East
Acronym: (For coordinating conjunctions) FANBOYS
Associations: stalactites grow from the ceiling; stalagmites from the ground.

Never Eat Shredded Wheat is a rhyming acrostic.

Lists of such mnemonics can be found online such as these ones from Wikipedia, Adducation and Thoughtco. Expression mnemonics can be used to remember tricky spellings (I will never forget the Trunchbull's derision when Nigel spells 'difficulty': "Mrs D, Mrs I, Mrs FFI, Mrs C, Mrs U, Mrs LTY. That spells difficulty.") and lists of facts, names or rules. It is worth regularly searching for such mnemonics when planning to teach something new although it might not be too daunting to create your own. There are also acrostic generators available on the internet.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

On Taking A Career Detour

Recently I've been cycling to work quite a bit - it's a great way to get exercise into the daily routine and has allowed us to be a one-car family again after we scrapped my MOT-failed runaround. But, because I've been working at my current school for nearly four years now, I've sought out a few detours to make the journey a little more interesting; a little more scenic.

One such detour took me off road, through woodland and around the side of a reservoir. As the already-risen sun reflected off the water and the quietness of my surroundings stilled my mind, I was caused to think on the nature of detours.

Detours are what makes life interesting. That I would stand by, and I was sure that some other greater mind must have summarised this thought in better words. Upon arrival I did a quick search for quotations about detours - there were plenty. Here's one of the most succinct:

"See any detour as an opportunity to experience new things." - H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

Many other quotations spoke of detours as a metaphor for events in life - something which, as I pedalled on my way, I too had contemplated. My morning ride round the reservoir was a picture of my career moves this year.

After three years as an Assistant Vice Principal (that's the academy speak for Assistant Head) I was presented with a new challenge: I applied for the role of Primary Lead Practitioner within the MAT my primary school is a part of. I was successful and I was excited to take on my new role supporting the handful of primary schools in the group. I was to work two days for the MAT and three days as AVP at my school. The decision was made that I wouldn't have a regular teaching commitment due to my reduced time in school - my 12th year in the job has been the first year I haven't had my own class. The end of August rolled around and thus began what I recognise now to have been my career detour.

I've always taken a one step at a time approach to my career, seeing my journey not as on a road but as one might cross a river on stepping stones. I've not waited for opportunities to be handed to me, but have sought them out when I've felt ready: I'm still skeptical about 5-year and 10-year plans. But what has happened is, as I've progressed, I've always found myself at a point where I do want to pursue management and leadership. Whilst I acknowledge this isn't the only progression path to take in education, it's the one I've found myself to be on, and I've enjoyed the ride so far.

I had begun to assume that my next move would be to Deputy Head and had concluded that this would mean a change of school. Indeed, I had applied for a Deputy Headship, but despite getting through a rather grueling two-day process with an oncoming case of my yearly laryngitis, I was unsuccessful, coming second to a more suitable candidate. It was, as they say, all good experience. That straightforward road from Assistant to Deputy was not meant to be for me - I was meant to take a detour.
Early on in my year of being Lead Primary Practitioner it became apparent that one of the schools I was working in needed more support than the others due to a reduced leadership team. I began spending more of my time there. This was to become a detour from my detour - my role changed significantly as I effectively became a two-day-a-week Deputy whilst the actual Deputy became Acting Head.

During this time I also took on an active role with the research school attending planning meetings, speaking at events, preparing and running a three-day course and writing material for the blog. Through the research school I also got involved briefly with the Opportunity Area work. My role as PLP also saw me being involved in the MAT's NQT and RQT network programme of events. My online activity was also of a significant quantity as I wrote for TES, Teach Primary, Third Space and Innovate My School, as well as for my own blog. All of this weighed heavily, not to mention my 'normal' job of leading maths, leading LKS2, mentoring three NQTs, two students and carrying out general SLT duties, became quite burdensome.

The fact that I spent a reduced amount of time in my own school (and had begun working with a brand new team there with none of my previous colleagues), and limited amounts of time in other schools, meant that I began to miss the relationships I had formed. I began to feel like I didn't belong anywhere in particular.

Then, in December, Ofsted called. I rushed back into school from elsewhere to spend the afternoon in the usual preparation. It was a rigorous couple of days but when we eventually received the verdict I discovered that I had had a previously unrecognised, hidden goal: the job advert I answered called me to join the school on their journey to Good and this is what, deep down, I had been hoping to achieve with my colleagues. And, from the school's previous inspection judgement of Inadequate, that was the journey our inspection report deemed us to have made. On receiving that news I realised I had achieved a goal, and that almost immediately I wanted a new challenge.

Without going into too much more detail this cocktail of responsibilities suddenly felt like a lot and I began to struggle quite significantly, questioning my purpose and my impact. I began to renege on speaking and writing commitments I'd made and also asked to have some of my more extraneous work responsibilities removed. Whilst I still have moments of difficulty these actions have been largely successful in preserving my sanity.

Don't get me wrong, there have been some excellent moments this year - the very fact that the school where I began spending two days a week employed me as their Deputy Head (starting at the end of August) is enough to make my detour all worthwhile. But the best part is that I have learned more about what I want in my career by experiencing things that I think, in the long run, I don't want to be particular features of my work.

Career-wise, I have learned that (at least for the time being):
  • I want to have a regular teaching commitment
  • I want to commit the majority of my time to working with and for one school rather than across several school 
  • I don't want to make a habit of public speaking
  • I want to continue to prioritise doing things that have a visible impact in classrooms that I frequent
  • I want to ensure that I don't deprioritise my own health or my family

More generally I have learned that detours, welcome or or otherwise, are great and worthy learning opportunities and that they certainly do make life interesting. Despite some bumpiness in the off-road nature of my career detour this year I have experienced new things, all of which have taught me, one way or another, a little more about myself and what I want from my career.

If you have made it through my personal ramblings, and are reading this final paragraph, I'd urge you, if opportunities arise, to take a detour. Whether it's a change in route on your actual journey to work or a step in a new, unexpected direction in your career, it will certainly keep life interesting and will probably teach you a thing or two along the way.

Monday, 18 June 2018

From The @TES Blog: Year 1 Should Be Like EYFS, Not Vice Versa


This piece that I wrote for the TES outlines a few questions that I have been asking myself about formalisation of teaching in the Early Years and in KS1 and beyond. It has met with a lot of praise from concerned Early Years practitioners and a certain amount of questioning from those more opposed to the ideas that I raise:

A key component of any phase of a child’s education is preparing them for the next stage, with an eventual goal of preparing them for the big wide world of work. Of course, this isn’t the only purpose of education – there are many immediate benefits, too. However, we try to ensure that Year 6 children are secondary-ready, we prepare our university-bound sixth formers for lectures and self-directed study and we want those leaving Reception to be "school-ready".

Click here to continue reading

Perhaps we need ask not how we can get children school ready, but how we can get school ready for the children?

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Things You Should Continue Doing In The Early Years (And What The Research Says About Why)

Here's another blog post I wrote for the Bradford Research School blog. It is in response to the EEF's guidance report 'Preparing For Literacy', which can be downloaded now for free.

Much of what goes on in Early Years is misunderstood by those without experience of working with the youngest children in our education system. Early Years practitioners can feel like they are continually having to defend their working practices against those who have little understanding of the ways children develop and learn in the Nursery and Reception years. The fact that there are proportionally fewer Early Years teachers than say, Key Stage 2 teachers, or Key Stage 4 teachers, means that they are under-represented in education as a whole.

And nothing is as bad as when an agency produces a report telling the experts how to do it. So, does the EEF’s latest guidance report ‘Preparing for Literacy’ just teach the proverbial grandmother to suck eggs?

One benefit of engaging with research is that often it can confirm that what is being done already has an evidence base. Sometimes, after reading up on a particular working practice, one might discover that nothing needs to change, and that actually the things they are already doing are likely to be effective. Often, teachers will be convinced that their practice is effective because their own assessment of outcomes appears to prove it. For these teachers, checking with research findings can confirm that what they are doing has worked elsewhere too.

With that in mind, here are some common Early Years practices that the ‘Preparing for Literacy’ guidance report confirms as best bets; these are things you should definitely continue to do in your Nursery and Reception classrooms...

Click here to read the whole article

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Reading Roles PLUS: Philosopher Exemplified

The Philosopher Reading Role (click here to find out more about Reading Roles) is concerned with thinking. To explain more, here is my initial explanation of the Philosopher role:

Asking and answering philosophical questions about a text allows children to engage further with what they have read. Doing this has the potential to improve comprehension for the same reasons as we have discussed under other Reading Roles: the deliberate act of thinking about what has been read can lead to better comprehension.

Philosophical questioning and discussion should encourage children to ask and talk about more open-ended questions – questions of morality, questions about life and the universe and so on. Often these questions will touch on curriculum areas such as religious education and personal, social, health, cultural education (PSHCE).

SAPERE’s Philosophy For Children, Colleges and Communities (P4C) resource website is a useful starting point when teaching children to think philosophically:  https://www.sapere.org.uk/Default.aspx?tabid=289

SAPERE outline that philosophical questions:

  • Should be open to examination, further questioning and enquiry
  • Can't be answered by appealing only to scientific investigation or sense experience
  • Are questions about meaning, truth, value, knowledge and reality
Many children’s books lend themselves well to asking questions that fall into those categories. Teachers can look out for opportunities but should also be aware that children might surprise them with philosophical questions prompted by what they’ve read, especially if they have been trained to ask them.

To exemplify this I have some materials from one of my colleagues. As part of a local history unit he asked his year 4 children to read a case study on child labour in mills in the Victorian period (this can be downloaded here). They then spent some time discussing their thoughts on the issue of child labour, prompted by some questions: 


The children then followed this discussion up by answering some basic retrieval questions. I observed the subsequent lesson where children were preparing to write a report on working conditions in the mills from the perspective of a mill inspector. Their engagement with the above Philosopher activity clearly had an impact on their comprehension and understanding of the issue. The fact that the content bore some relevance to them - they too are children living in Bradford - possibly also factored in their engagement with the text and their comprehension of it. 

A few simple prompts in the form of questions are all it takes to get children thinking about what they have read. A lesson based on the Philosopher role does not need to take a lot of preparation - the time spent preparing some prompts is a fraction of the time the children will actually spend discussing their thoughts. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Guest Post: Why Tackling School Leader Workload Is Not Enough By Viv Grant


In March, Damian Hinds announced that the DfE were going to implement measures to reduce teacher workload in an attempt to head off the recruitment and retention crises facing many schools across the country.

Whilst this is a very welcome initiative, unfortunately it is much like putting a sticking plaster on a wound when something more substantial and curative is needed.

If policy makers honestly think that measures to reduce workload are all that’s needed to stem the rising tide of leavers from the profession, then this shows just how far removed they are from the beating heart of those who are at its centre - teachers and school leaders.

So much more must be done to make the role of School Leadership sustainable amidst the growing challenges our Heads face on a daily basis.

The pace and volume of change over the past decade has led to increased ambiguity, inconsistency, insecurity and staggeringly high levels of public scrutiny and personal accountability. Meanwhile, the emphasis on data, results and policies such as academisation, free schools etc have only served to further complicate life as a School Leader.

As a result, Head teachers find themselves having to respond to a range of often conflicting national policy agendas. Many of which draw them away from their central school leadership role and into the world of local politics and excessively complicated levels of bureaucracy. The strain for many can be too much.

Yet the system seems immune to this fact and chooses to ignore the real reasons as to why so many school leaders are leaving the profession. Workload may be a contributing factor but it is not the sole one. School Leaders are leaving the profession because their needs as human beings are not being attended to. This is because we have yet to develop an accurate understanding of the support needs of school leaders.

Along with increased levels of public scrutiny and personal accountability, I believe neglect in meeting Head teacher’s psychological and emotional needs has become a major contributing factor to Head teacher attrition and early retirement.

Whether Heads are new in post or are well established and long serving, too often the predominate type of support that they receive is that which is concerned with meeting the strategic and operational aspects of the role. Their emotional needs are often neglected and this is where the system falls down in fulfilling its duty of care for school leaders.

Consequently, Head teachers often sacrifice the meeting of their own needs in order to meet the needs of those they serve. This level of constant giving, without moments and opportunities for renewal built into their leadership life can often lead to illness and for some, burn out.

This has to be understood and taken seriously because if the emotional and psychological needs of school leaders are not met, not only do our School Leaders themselves suffer but all school improvement efforts are also put at risk.

I fear this situation has been further compounded with local authorities now diminishing in size, meaning that there have been fewer and fewer opportunities where Heads can come together, to offer support for one another, and experience a real sense of collegiality and shared purpose to help combat this.

I feel this reduction of support has been felt across the profession and that’s why on the back of many requests from School Leaders, last year I began hosting “Education for the Soul” Conferences to offer a chance where Heads can have honest conversations about the issues they’re facing, replenish their passion and sense of purpose, and discover how to best support their own needs amidst the challenging demands of Headship.

Whilst I’ve seen what an incredible truly restorative events these can be, I still fear far more needs to be done across the country if we are to tackle this recruitment and retention crisis. We need a whole new conversation around how we support great leadership in schools and to find solutions that takes care of the “Person in the role”.

Meanwhile, policy makers finally recognise that workload measures are not enough. Instead they must learn that if they want help create outstanding schools, they must provide School Leaders and Headteachers with outstanding support.

The price of continually failing to do so is one we can no longer afford to pay. As when we fail to adequately recognise what it takes to create ‘Great School Leaders’, we also fail our children and their hopes of a better tomorrow.

Our children deserve the best care and education and our school leaders also deserve the best care that can be provided so that they can remain in the profession, fulfil their vocations and meet society’s hopes and dreams for our future generations.

Viv has been in the education profession for over twenty five years. She is a former primary head teacher and has been a lead trainer and consultant for a number of educational training bodies. Now as an Executive Coach and Director of Integrity Coaching, Viv works daily with others who have taken on the mantle of school leadership.