Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Reading: 2 Things All Parents and Teachers Must Do

An excerpt from 'To Kill A Mockingbird':

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

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

'Jem says I was.'

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


'Your father does not know how to teach.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading: Attacking Children's Immunity To Imaginative Literature

An excerpt from 'To Kill A Mockingbird':

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Brextolling The Virtues Of Youth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Rise Up! (Being Militant Teachers)

In recent conversations with teachers I have had my eyes opened to a world of pain that some of our colleagues are being subjected to. Whilst I don't assume every school is like the ones I've worked in or every leader is as understanding as the ones I've had the pleasure to work for, I was shocked to hear of the expectations that are being placed on some some teachers in some schools by some leaders.

It would seem that some of us are falling prey to unrealistic 'marking and feedback' requirements. One primary school teacher asked on Twitter how to lighten their marking workload of 102 books every day. The expectation on this teacher was external - they weren't ascetically burdening themselves. They were being expected to 'deep mark' three sets of books (Maths, English and Topic) a day for a class of 34 Key Stage 2 children. This was linked to the expectation that they have evidence of recorded work in each book on four out of five days per week.

My only real advice to our colleague was to leave that school and find one where things are being done properly.

But I soon realised that, although it would remain my ultimate advice, there must be something else that could be done until leaving becomes a legitimate option. All my usual tips for marking (marking in lessons, planning carefully so you don't have three sets of books every day, peer or self marking etc) would barely scratch the surface in this situation. So what interim advice is there to give?

Militancy. If you have found yourself in this situation, particularly with marking and feedback, then you need to fight back. I'm not talking Che Guavara-style revolution (or worse) but I'm talking about a diplomatic revolt; a polite rebellion. Perhaps what I'm suggesting is a contradiction in terms but a strong word is neccesary because what I'm suggesting will take much strength, conviction and determination. Allow me to explain:

Boy Scout Militancy - "Be prepared." 

First gather your evidence: Ofsted reports from schools who have reasonable marking expectations; this document from East Riding of Yorkshire (http://eridingsuperceded.eastriding.gov.uk/resources/assessment/020312_jmundy_assess_marking_feedback.doc); the short myth busting video from Ofsted; an exemplar marking policy, again from a school that doesn't have ridiculous ideas about what marking should look like. Also, be ready to present well-thought out solutions to the problem - preferably tailored solutions that will appeal to your leaders. It's also worth considering practising exactly what you want to say.

Henry Ford Militancy - "Working together is success." 

If you're suffering from the unrealistic expectations then others around you will be too. If you don't know who they are, be willing to share your struggles and you will find your allies - the ones who are also breaking under the sheer weight of the workload. One teacher alone may be seen as a weakling unable to cope whereas a whole team of teachers together should indicate that there is a more universal problem which needs to be investigated. There is strength, and support, in numbers.

SAS Militancy - "Who dares wins." 

Once you're armed with your evidence and solutions and flanked by your colleagues, the next (and perhaps scariest) step is to call a meeting with your leaders. This potentially requires more derring-do than the resulting meeting. Once the meeting is underway you and your colleagues will need to keep your nerve and continue to dare to speak up for yourselves.

Satyagraha Militancy - “In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” - Gandhi 

Speak to your leaders civilly. I'm no peace negotiation expert but it stands to reason that non-violent, non-threatening, even amiable, behaviour is in everyone's best interests. If daring to call a meeting is the scariest part of the process, then this step is the most difficult - emotions, and the tongue, are hard to tame. You'll need self-discipline to kill them with kindness - that rehearsal in the preparation stage will come into its own here.

Caesarian Militancy - "It is easier to find men who will volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience." - Julius Caesar

Be patient; to use another Roman analogy, Rome wasn't built in a day. These negotiations will take time - you will need to gather more evidence, regroup and continue to push for what you need. Don't just 'volunteer to die' by taking 'No' for an answer and then working yourself into an early grave marking hundreds of books each night. With ongoing negotiations you may need to endure the pain with patience whilst remaining hopeful that your militant actions will eventually bear fruit.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Reach For The Cheese Slicer

When it comes to cutting cheese I'm a traditionalist. A knife; that's the tool for the job - preferably a made-for-the-job cheese knife. You won't find me using a cheese slicer. They're flimsy at best and the thickness of the resulting piece of cheese just doesn't do it for me. And I've sustained severe injury from them in the past - it goes against all my instincts to cut towards my fingers as I grasp the block of cheese in a manner not necessary when cutting with the proper implement: a knife.

Except every now and then one comes across a block of delicious mature cheddar whose length and width are perfectly adequate but which only measures about two or three centimetres in height. With a piece of cheese of this stature cutting a slice suitable for a sandwich is a challenge. Of course, I relish a challenge and out comes the trusty cheese knife and a slice of cheese measuring roughly 2cm by 10cm - you've got to cut a lot of those bad boys to fill a decent sandwich. I hesitate, sigh and then do the sensible thing; out comes the silly cheese slicer. And yes, the slices of cheese are paper-thin but at they do fill a sandwich properly. And using the ridiculous device wasn't that hard once I'd swallowed my pride. And this time I didn't even lacerate my digits.

This is not a post about the trad vs. prog debate. This is a post about occasionally accepting that there are more efficient methods of working than the ones you're accustomed to. This is not even a post where I attempt to tell you what those more efficient methods of working are, although I will illustrate my point. This is a post to encourage you to reflect on your practice and that of others around you, be that at work, amongst your friends or even on social media networks.

Ever found yourself envying another teacher's lack of weekend workload? Was it you that sarcastically said 'I wish I had time to just sit and read for pleasure!' or similar? Perhaps you even genuinely questioned how it was possible for someone to have seemingly less work than you.

Amongst teachers there are differing levels of workload depending on time of year, the leadership of schools, proximity to Ofsted and a million other factors. But perhaps one of those other factors is your working methods - and you do have total control over them.

Translate my cheese block to a pile of marking. My cheese knife becomes taking them all home to mark in the evening in front of the TV. The dreaded cheese slice is actually completing marking within a lesson - something you've designed your lesson structure around and which, as research seems to show, has a greater impact than marking books in the absence of the children. It's something you know other teachers do but it's just not the way you've always done it or you 'can't see how it would work'. Reach for the cheese slicer.

Alternatively my cheese block could be that half an hour after the kids have left, you know that time when you mooch down to the staff room, get a coffee and get caught up in a conversation you don't really want to have. That's the way it's always been - you always get a coffee at 3:30. It's your cheese knife. There's a teacher in your school with a cheese slicer. They don't leave their room at that time and they seem a bit antisocial but they are getting stuff done, probably their prep for the next day's lessons, or one or two more report comments so that they go home with less to do. They're maximising their time and you could too. Reach for the cheese slicer.

You rarely get taught on teaching courses how to reach for the cheese slicer and most CPD doesn't touch on it either. Use of the cheese slicer is something you either work out for yourself or it is passed on from others who have discovered the way of the cheese slicer. Remember, the cheese slicer is a better way of doing things. You should share the ways you've found of working more effectively and seek out others who work efficiently in order to learn how to put down the cheese knife every now and then, favouring the cheese slicer instead.

Even now there are those crying out: 'But I love my cheese knife! And cheese slices are ridiculous.' Yet it is they who want the sensible slices of cheese that only the cheese slice can provide and it is they who bemoan the fact that they only have the useless pieces they cut with their precious cheese knife.

Reach for the cheese slicer.

Photo Credit: punkmarko via Compfight cc

Saturday, 28 May 2016

I Thought I'd Lose My Job.

A few years ago I really thought my career had come to an end. It was definitely an overreaction but for a few days I had that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach 24/7. In my more rational moments I was sure that at least my being trusted to work in year 6 was over.

It was July and my first set of SATs results had come through. I'd been teaching a really high-achieving and compliant (if not a little boring) year group in what might be considered a leafy-lane school. They'd worked well and had aced practice tests. But the results arrived and calculations were made and there were disappointments. Enough disappointments for it to be a problem.

I went into overdrive: worrying, gathering evidence, mentally phrasing and re-rephrasing my defence. I met with the senior leaders and with my partner teacher and the School Improvement Officer was drafted in for a special meeting. Nothing else occupied my mind; I sat glued to my computer compiling page after page of reports based on the year's data (which thankfully I'd kept a good record of). I only remember one moment of peace: I'd cycled home and, in an attempt to clear my head, I lay in my garden listening to a favourite album from my youth: Kula Shaker's 'K'. 'Hey Dude' still reminds me of that time.

"Smell the rose, the sweet, sweet rose,
Catch the sun, find where it grows,
Smell the rose, the sweet, sweet rose,
That grows on castle walls in heaven."

Things were not smelling of roses and my experience did not seem like anything approaching heaven.

In short, the finger was pointing squarely at me. Well-meaning leaders tried to attribute the perceived failure to some difficult family circumstances I'd had that year. The problem was that they had all occurred after the SATs - they were clutching at straws, perhaps because they didn't want to say I was a bad teacher. They couldn't say that anyway as they had no evidence from their own monitoring that would suggest it were true. My carefully collected (and subsequently curated) practice papers and assessment grids were proof that there were no real issues in the achievement and progress throughout the year. I'd been successfully observed, my books had been scrutinised and there had been no issues with my data; pupil progress meetings had gone well and I always followed through with any interventions or changes that were suggested.

All this made it worse because it was so hard to put a finger on what had gone wrong. I doubted myself but at the same time was the only one being proactive about explaining the differences in the data. My confidence was shot yet I had to repeatedly defend myself, having to appear confident in what I had been doing for the year. 

In the end we put it down to an increase in challenge in the tests - these were the 2013 tests, the first year of the SPAG tests and the first time we began to see Tory ideals creeping in (inclusion of an excerpt from classic literature). Many perceived the tests to have already begun moving towards assessing principles from the incoming National Curriculum.

The agony I felt was prolonged until I'd been told which year group I'd be teaching the following year. I knew there was deliberation. I wanted out because I didn't want that pressure again - and my confidence had taken a severe blow. I wanted in because being ousted would have been proof (in my mind) that they thought I was incapable. In the end I was asked to teach year 6 again - that was probably the best outcome. And I've never taught another year group since.

The following year we had a visit from Ofsted. The previous year's data (which I'd had sleepless nights over- not to mention the terrifying days) did not stop the school from getting 'Good' overall (with two areas of 'Outstanding'). I was observed twice - SLT directed the inspectors back to me on the second day so they could see my cross-curricular use of ICT. An SLT member and an inspector told me there were no points for improvement in my lesson. It was noted in the inspection report that provision for reading (the test in which we'd suffered most) was 'Outstanding' - I'd led on reading for a year and a half. I'd already secured my current job by that point - assistant head at another school. The School Improvement Officer conducted a book scrutiny and affirmed that from what she'd seen in my books I'd make a good Maths leader in my next school. Those awful few days from the year before were long forgotten. We had a successful set of SATs results through that July. All was well. 

And I've learned something from all that; something I'd like my readers to learn too. There's probably a cleverly-worded, pithy quote somewhere which will better express this next point, but here it is in my own words: the things we worry about rarely have any lasting impact. A month, term, year down the line they are all but forgotten. Now, whenever I'm worrying about something work-related, the memory of this event reminds me that it probably won't have any lasting consequences. I do all I can to make things right and then let it go - it's a very freeing way to be but if it wasn't for the described event I wouldn't have learnt that lesson. 

Although at the time I was certain I'd lose my position as year 6 teacher, or even my job entirely, I didn't. Even though I worried that it'd harm my chances of procuring a leadership role, it didn't. All that you are most afraid of may never came to fruition - don't worry unnecessarily. Don't allow your fears to limit your potential. That thing you're living in fear of? It'll probably never happen. 

At least, that's how I see it.

"Smell the rose, the sweet, sweet rose,
Catch the sun, find where it grows,
Smell the rose, the sweet, sweet rose,
That grows on castle walls in heaven."

PostScript: It must be said that throughout this whole experience my wife constantly reminded me of what I ended up learning for myself. She reminded me too of the comparative insignificance of the event and of the principle laid out in Romans 8:28: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him". Her support was, and is, invaluable to me.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

A Year 6 Teacher's Vows

 I do solemnly declare that I, your year 6 teacher, shall not pressurise you, my year 6 pupils, during the run up to the SATs. From this day forward, until lunchtime on May 12th, and indeed thereafter, I shall not subject you to emotional torture and shall protect you (to the best of my ability) from the ills of Key Stage 2 testing.

I promise that I will strive to keep you stimulated and engaged, even as together we learn the difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. I will be a good teacher, for better, for worse, and I shall not continually mention that the SATs are coming up. Instead I will endeavour to prepare you for the rest of your lives until we are parted by the spring bank holiday, and eventually the six weeks holiday.

I pledge that I will respect, trust, help, and care for you, remembering that after all, you are fragile people with real emotions. I will persevere with you, in sickness and in health, not only to secure for you academic success but emotional wellbeing, social ability and general well-roundedness.

And when July comes, I promise to reassure you, in joy and in sorrow, that I, your year 6 teacher, believe that you, my year 6 pupils, really do have qualities that the test could not test. I will be your champion, reminding you that you have the capacity to succeed in a myriad of different ways as you express your own unique personalities and skill-sets. And as the last day of school rolls around, and we are rent asunder, I will wave you off, confident that your sanity and happiness remains intact as you look forward to blissful weeks of summer.

This is my solemn vow.