Monday, 30 January 2017

Changing Hearts, Minds, Lives and the Future: Reading With Children for Empathy

There is no better place to tackle issues traditionally covered in PSHCE lessons than in a reading session. I don’t mean just by reading non-fiction texts about the issues, I mean by reading fiction. Consider these two quotes from two generations of British authors:

“The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures.” – George Eliot

“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” – Malorie Blackman

Many-a keen reader would identify with what both Eliot and Blackman said. In fact, when asked, many would admit that the main purpose of their reading is escapism – being given a window into another world where they can almost ‘be’ someone else for a while. I remember how emotionally attached my wife became to the characters in ‘A Time Travellers Wife’ – she thought about them, and cried about them, for weeks afterwards, often returning to the book to re-read excerpts. Those of us who love to read also love experiencing that feeling of empathy, as we learn about the lives of others, whether they are lives we’d love to live or not.

And it’s those lives that we’d not love to live that it is most important that we read about. Especially with children. C.S. Lewis said:

“Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”

Many of our children will come up against these cruel enemies and so need to know how to respond, but we also need to protect them from becoming those cruel enemies. To extend the idea behind that quote: since it is so likely that children will meet those who live life differently to themselves, let them at least have heard of how to treat those people when they do meet them. Fiction is a perfect gateway into the worlds of others who live life differently.

If you are a reader of any quantity of children’s books, titles will immediately spring to mind which have the potential to evoke empathy in children. Indeed, many children’s writers specifically aim for this, just as George Eliot did in her time. Two such books spring to my mind immediately: ‘Wonder’ by R. J. Palacio and ‘Hitler’s Canary’ by Sandi Toksvig, which, as readers of this blog will already know, I’ve used in my year 6 whole class reading sessions this year. Both books help children to be “better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them”.

‘Wonder’ was written, according to Wikipedia, “after an incident where [Palacio] and her three-year-old son were waiting in line to buy ice cream. Her son noticed a girl with facial birth defects. Fearing he would react badly, Palacio attempted to remove her son from the situation so as not to upset the girl or her family but ended up worsening the situation. Natalie Merchant's song "Wonder" made her realize that the incident could teach society a valuable lesson.” ‘Wonder’ is written precisely to challenge the reader’s thinking, to present them with a different viewpoint to their own and to provide them with frame of reference to access when they experience people who differ to them in real life.

And it does just that from my experience. The children in my class this year responded incredibly to the book. Not only did they think that it was ‘the best book ever’, but they articulated clearly how the book, and the discussions we had surrounding it, had helped them to understand better those with disabilities. It’s hard to quantify but I’m also sure it has made them kinder to one another too.

‘Hitler’s Canary’ is about the Danish resistance to the Nazis during World War Two and the resulting rescue of the majority of Denmark’s Jewish population. Obviously, it explores racism through its characters and plot, but it also challenges attitudes towards differences in general. At one point early on in the novel the mother character says, “In this house we respect and cherish differences. Let me tell you that the very atrocities you are worrying about occur when people are obsessed by their differences.” This is in reply to comments about a homosexual character in the book.

The linking of non-fiction texts to our reading of ‘Hitler’s Canary’ has enabled children to engage more with the novel than the group of children to whom I read it last year. An almost unexpected effect of this increased engagement is the depth of thinking that children have displayed. During a recent lesson, prompted by the children’s thoughts, we discussed many related issues which proved that the text was causing children to draw parallels to real-life issues. These parallels were only drawn because of the heightened understanding of how others feel; it showed that the children understood not only how historical and fictional characters felt but how those same feelings might be felt by real people in real and current situations.

We discussed the ongoing Palestine/Israel conflict, including its origins and its complexities and I had the opportunity to share my wife’s experience of a press trip which allowed her to speak with officials on both sides of the conflict. They had their own ideas about how the conflict could be resolved and the non-fiction text we had studied about Danish underground resistance groups (some of which were started by young people) provided me with fertile ground to encourage them that one day they could make a difference in situations like this – this led to an exploration of my role as a teacher and how I hope to make a difference in my work. Children began to show empathy not only for the characters in the book but also for a range of real people who have lived or who are living.

Our reading material also allowed me to challenge attitudes towards the Jewish people. One child in particular held some negative views about Jews which he revealed he had gained from internet searches. Without the discussion around both the book and the supporting non-fiction texts I would have been unaware and thus unable to challenge the views. In addition to this I was also able to advise on safe and sensible use of the internet as a result of this debate. As well as teaching empathy a novel can highlight where there is a lack of empathy, thus being an important assessment tool.

These conversations have also provided me with ideas for further reading content. It is clear that I can use future reading sessions to read around anti-Semitism with a view to dispelling myths and increasing understanding. I will also use texts to continue to encourage children that they can make a difference in society. It has also been made evident that the children have some awareness and understanding of current issues and that some of them like to have the forum to discuss them – an increase in the use of reading materials related to world affairs would seem to be a way to further engage them in reading and discussion. So, the added bonus of reading for empathy is that it can provide the teacher with a clear path forwards, making imminent text choice easier.

So when selecting texts (fiction or non-fiction) choose wisely; not just based on reading ability, links to topic, enjoyability and so on, but also on the issues that are covered in the texts. Try to find texts which will promote discussion about social, moral and cultural issues and the values that we’d like our children to hold. In doing this reading sessions become multi-purpose, providing an arena for exploration which does not appear forced but becomes a natural part of classroom life, thus embedding and interweaving your approach to education hot potatoes such as British Values and the Prevent strategy. Carefully-chosen fiction really does have the power to change hearts, minds, lives and the future.

I’ll leave you with one more quote:

“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.” —Katherine Patterson, author of Bridge to Terebithia
Click here for a great list of books which promote kindness, compassion and empathy from Book Trust
Click here to visit the Empathy Lab UK website to find out more about the creative power of words to build empathy, and the power of empathy to make the world a better place
Click here to visit the Empathy Library website, "a digital treasure house to share inspiring books and films to spark a global empathy revolution"
Click here for CLPE's Celebrating Kindness booklist

Additional Reading for the science behind all this:

Good News for Bookworms: Reading Novels Boosts Your Empathy
Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy, Study Finds
Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind (sign up for a free account to access this journal article by psychologists and researchers David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano)

More great quotes from authors about reading and empathy:

"In reading, you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals." - Neil Gaiman

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Why your Maths interventions for KS2 SATs should not start in Year 6

When a primary school receives good Key Stage 2 SATs results, the whole school celebrates, and rightly so: all teachers in all year groups will have contributed to the success of each child who reaches Year 6 and sits those tests.

However, it is not uncommon for Year 6 teachers to feel a pressure that teachers in other year groups don't. When results aren't so good it is more likely for the teaching and learning in that last year of primary, as opposed to any other, to be called into question - I know, I've been there myself. And with such pressure it's not surprising that in Year 6 we can descend into last-minute panic of revision classes, interventions and extra Maths and English time, often to the detriment of other areas of learning. Ideally this wouldn't happen.

Click here to read the rest of the article over at the Third Space Learning blog.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Teaching Reading: Pairing Non-Fiction with Fiction

Having spent a term with year 6 on reading fiction (and answering questions based on fiction texts) data analysis pointed firmly towards non-fiction as being next on the agenda. Data analysis aside, the reading of non-fiction texts is one of the key ways in which we learn throughout life; as the outgoing POTUS said: "Reading makes all other learning possible". In addition to this, as I have explored in previous blog posts, having a greater knowledge base makes us better readers of fiction and although reading fiction is one way to experience and learn new ideas, non-fiction is arguably better for this purpose.

Still wanting to read a class novel (the reasons for my desire to do this are probably obvious and would take up an entire blog post for themselves) I realised now was the time to put into practice one of my key takeaways from 'Reading Reconsidered': the concept of embedding non-fiction and pairing texts.

In chapter 3 of 'Reading Reconsidered' the authors describe how shorter non-fiction texts chosen to run alongside a class novel fall into two main categories:

Inside the Bull's-Eye: contains "content necessary to support basic understanding of the primary [main] text" (Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 123)

Outside the Bull's-Eye: causes "students to look at the primary [main] text in a new and unexpected or more rigorous way"(Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 123)

I would absolutely recommend that any teacher interested in teaching reading effectively read 'Reading Reconsidered' - the chapter on reading non-fiction is full of insights guaranteed to improve some aspect of practice. Focusing only on the Inside the Bull's-Eye category of text, here a just a few of those insights, the ones most relevant to this blog post:

"When students start from a base of knowledge, their inferences allow them to engage with the text with much greater depth - to learn from what they read as efficiently as possible. They're more attentive, both to the emotions of the characters and to the factual information presented in the fictional text." (Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 123)

"When texts are paired, the absorption rate of both texts goes up." (Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 123) The book also describes how children are more likely to understand a non-fiction text if they can relate its content to characters from a novel who they felt connected to - this particularly when the fiction text is begun to be read before introducing some of the non-fiction texts.

"...we typically choose [non-fiction] texts assuming that we are helping our students fill in knowledge gaps... but this results in non-fiction that constantly appears out of context..." (Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 125)

"Embedding, pairing non-fiction with related fiction, brings both to life." (Lemov, Driggs & Woolway, page 125)

So with this in mind I set about looking for paired texts to go with our current class novel 'Hitler's Canary' by Sandi Toksvig. The book is set during World War Two in Denmark and is all about the Danish underground resistance. It explore many themes such as antisemitism, homophobia and good and bad. As such, there are not a lot of books in our library with readily available texts to use as secondary texts so I began to prepare texts based on internet sources:

The main characters in the book are a family involved in theatre - there are constant references to theatre throughout the text (even the chapters are called, for example, Act 1 Scene 3) so my first paired non-fiction text was simply a list of theatre vocabulary - already, after reading just a few chapters, the learning from reading this has been invaluable.

The children in my class had not previously studied WW2 so it was important for them to have some context early on. Whilst we reading the second chapter we also read a fairly simple text, which included a world map, about the countries involved in the war; it also mentioned briefly the causes of the war.

The book fairly quickly throws up the idea of persecution, particularly antisemitic persecution. In passing pogroms are mentioned. Pogroms are not usually touched upon in primary schools however I saw it as a way into the whole concept of antisemitism. Rather than skim over the mention of pogroms, perhaps with a brief definition, I decided to prepare a linked text about them. It was full of challenging vocabulary (which the session focused on as well as information retrieval) but the children are already linking this level of persecution with every mention of a Jewish character in the story, helping them to understand the gravity of the situation some of the characters are facing.

Continuing on the theme of antisemitism and persecution I decided to preempt the part of the story when Jews begin to be taken away by the Nazis. I wanted, as mentioned previously, children to understand and anticipate how the Jewish characters (and their friends) would be feeling about the events in the story. For this I chose a non-fiction with a certain amount of narrative: the life story of Zigi Shipper, a holocaust survivor. As well as the narrative provided in the text, there is lots of simply communicated background information about the Nazis and their death camps.

All the resources referred to, along with the 'Reading Role'-linked comprehension activities that children completed alongside the secondary non-fiction texts are available to download here at the TES Resources site. This resource will continue to grow as we read more of 'Hitler's Canary'.

The challenge of this approach will be continuing to find a variety relevant texts - the temptation will be to provide an endless stream of  'non-chronological reports' rather than a mix of newspaper articles, advertisements, information leaflets, diary entries, letters and so on. Hopefully, with careful selection (and creation), I will be able to provide the children with a range of non-fiction text that increase their understanding of the events in 'Hitler's Canary' at the same time as bolstering their knowledge of World War Two and their understanding of issues such as racism and tolerance. As their knowledge and understanding grows, it will be interesting to see if their inferences do become more accurate - they are already engaging with the novel at a deeper level than a previous group of children who were not provided with the paired non-fiction text.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing reading at your school, please visit his website at and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

On Scrutinising Scrutiny and The Coaching Model

A recent discussion on Twitter centred around the regularity with which senior leaders in schools "scrutinised" teachers' lessons, books and planning. Many expressed shock and surprise at the apparent regularity of these activities in some schools. Some commentators linked high frequency of "scrutiny" to mistrust.

The word "scrutiny" will always carry negative connotations, especially for teachers. Its definition is critical observation or examination or surveillance; close and continuous watching - neither of which do anything to make it sound like something teachers would want done to them. The word has negative connotations for clear reasons - it's like teachers are being spied on. And spies don't trust anyone or anything. So yeah; mistrust.

Remove the word "scrutiny" from the scenario though and the act leaders of looking at lessons, books and planning (I use "looking" deliberately as a word devoid of much nuanced meaning) is a necessary thing in schools; leaders must know what is going on at the chalkface, they'd be poor leaders if they didn't. As a result, I would go so far as to argue that the frequent "looking" is absolutely crucial. But it all depends what the "looking" is for. It depends on how and why the "looking" is done. Leadership guru Andy Buck commented that it 'all depends on the climate within which these things are done'.

It's an absolute cliche, and one which causes teachers to curl, at the very least, their toes, but if all this "looking" is truly done for development's sake then the "looking" will be seen by teachers as a positive thing. And it will be welcomed. If areas of development are identified as true areas of development, rather than just things that are being done badly, and if a leader then takes steps to work on those areas of development with a teacher, then teachers will look more favourably on all the "looking". I have heard of schools who continually collect such data but then never do anything about it. It is absolutely imperative that if leaders collect data on 'teacher performance' (for want of a better and less punitive-sounding phrase) regularly they should be doing something about their findings. In my school, and in increasing numbers of others, that something is coaching.

Our model of coaching is adapted from the one outlined in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo's 'Leverage Leadership'. The main difference, and pertinent to this discussion, is that instead of weekly drop-ins and coaching sessions, we conduct a drop-in (15 minutes in a lesson, teachers know which week but not which lesson - this has encouraged teachers to 'just do what they normally do') one week and a coaching session (30 minutes) the next week. For clarity's sake it is school leaders who conduct both the drop-in and the coaching session - I have heard of some models of coaching centred more around peer coaching. Leaders usually drop in on and coach members of their own team.

A sports analogy by way of rationale for the regularity of what we call the coaching cycle:

"Teachers are like tennis players: they develop most quickly when they receive frequent feedback and opportunities to practice." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p65) A tennis coach is regularly present during practice, as well as matches. If they only turned up at the match and commented on how they played that game, and then didn’t show up until the next tournament, then the tennis player is not receiving effective coaching and will struggle to improve.

To explain more, here are some of the core ideas behind Bambrick-Santoyo's model of coaching:
  1. "By receiving weekly observations and feedback, a teacher develops as much in one year as most teachers do in 20." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p65) Coaching has to be done consistently and regularly.
  2. "Observation and feedback are only fully effective when leaders systematically track which teachers have been observed, what feedback have received, and whether that feedback has improved their practice." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p62) Coaching outcomes have to be tracked so that they leaders are aware of what to be looking for in future observations, and so that improvements can be celebrated.
  3. "The primary purpose of observation should not be to judge the quality of teachers, but to find the most effective ways to coach them to improve student learning." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p63) Observations are not summative, they are formative, therefore the whole process is designed to be supportive. In our experience, teachers have received coaching positively and understand that it is for their benefit, and the benefit of the children.
  4. Feedback should be given face-to-face and should provide specific and manageable action steps for improvement. A coaching session is a discussion where the coach questions the coachee to enable them to analyse their own practice, leading to them identifying their own point for developing – this enables them to internalise the feedback. Face-to-face meetings are more useful than lengthy written evaluations. 
Once a lesson drop-in has been conducted, the coaching session will usually follow a similar pattern:
  • Precise praise: "The most effective praise is directly linked to the teacher’s previous action step: you validate the teacher’s effort at implementing feedback." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p80) Coaching sessions allow coaches and coaches to highlight and celebrate the progress and improvements.
  • Probe: "When giving feedback start with a probing question that narrows the focus of the teacher to a particular part of the lesson." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p81)
  • Identify problem and concrete action step: "We learn best when we can focus on one piece of feedback at a time. Giving less feedback, more often, maximises teacher development." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p70) "Action steps need to be bite-sized: changes teachers can make in one week." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p75) Rather than observing once a term and giving a long list of areas for development, coaching provides regular, manageable next steps.
  • Practice: "Great teaching is not learnt through discussion. It’s learned by doing – or more specifically, by practicing doing things well. Supervised practice is the fastest way to make sure all teachers are doing the right things." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p86)
  • Plan ahead: "Practicing and planning ahead go hand in hand: practice the skill and then adjust the coming lessons." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p87)
Personally, I don't like the use of the word 'problem' as it isn't aspirational but it has clearly been chosen so that it begins with P like the rest, and it does the job well enough.

To finish, as you reflect on the process outlined above and begin to form your own opinions of it, a couple of quotes from two teachers in my team who are coachees in the coaching process:

“Coaching has really helped me fine tune my teaching in different areas of the curriculum and is continuing to help me become a better teacher every day. It supports my pedagogy as we are in a fast-paced environment and keeping up to date with  new ideas and policies can be tricky alone! The 1-2-1 support is really effective and is making a big difference 😊 Thank you!”

"The coaching has been informal, supportive and best of all, useful! Achievable, realistic and logical targets are set which have had a real impact on my teaching and, as a result, the learning going on in my class. Thanks."

The frequency becomes a non-issue when the processes involved are truly developmental and supportive. The model taken from 'Leverage Leadership' is just one way of making this happen, there are probably many other ways of doing it - this article is supposed to outline one way of doing it with the purpose of showing that regular interaction between leaders and teachers can be a positive thing for all involved, and a thing that gets results for the children.

Please feel free to ask any questions about our approach and do try to read the whole section (Chapter 2: Observation and Feedback) in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo's book 'Leverage Leadership' as it expands on the ideas laid out above.

If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing leadership and coaching at your school, please visit his website at and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Book Review: 'Hopeful Schools' by Mary Myatt

Recently I've been wondering how all of my educational ideologies hang together. I often experience the discomfort of feeling like some of them are at odds with each other. I'm the sort that likes to have all my ducks in a row; I like to to understand my own thoughts with great clarity but rarely is the bubbling surface of the witch's brew calm enough for me to divine the meaning of the concocted ingredients.

Mary Myatt's latest book 'Hopeful Schools' has joined the dots between many of my pre-held education-related beliefs and ideas thus forming a far clearer picture in my head of how I think schools (and those who work in them) should operate. 'Hopeful Schools' has shown me that I am a hopeful teacher and leader working in a hopeful school and that most, if not all, of the ways I operate are precisely because of that - Mary makes it clear that my ideologies do hang together well. The book also provided me with further food for thought: areas of practice that would hang together well with my current philosophies.

Reading through, my highlighter went into overdrive as I found phrase after phrase which spoke words of affirmation to me (I had to refrain several times from just writing 'YES!' in the margin). But these same words, to someone less hopeful, are words which have the potential to transform thinking and promote positive action: the chapter on scarcity and abundance is particularly helpful when it comes to shifting mindset. And despite writing that 'hope cannot be forced on others' Mary Myatt makes such a clear argument for why educators should be hopeful that she is sure to win many sceptics over.

Part of the winsomeness of the book is that it acknowledges that negative feelings and thoughts should be taken into consideration and that being hopeful doesn't equate to blind optimism. It also takes into account the fact that many of our base human instincts might initially lead us to focus on 'sad, bad things' but the book then gently pushes the reader on to consider how these instincts might be overcome. 

There are recurring themes and ideas throughout the book, often looked at from slightly different angles in different chapters, but which sometimes feel a little repetitious. The short chapters are great for dipping into but to get a sense of how all the aspects of a truly hopeful school work together to create an environment of hope I'd really recommend that the book is read through as a whole in a short time frame. Reading it in this manner will leave the reader with a melting pot of simmering ideas allowing the brain to refine the showcased ideas into clear, actionable points that are relevant for their setting.

A highly recommended read.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Key Stage 2 SATs Results 2016 Explained: 15 Insights That Will Change How You Teach Year 6 Maths in 2017

Given that I'm maths leader at my school you'd expect that my blog would contain more than just one post about maths, but it doesn't. Until now, that is. And even this one's not a full and proper post, only a link to a piece of work I've done for Third Space Learning.

I spent some time with the Question Level Analysis document produced by RAISE online, working out what the most difficult aspects of the KS2 tests were in 2016 so that hopefully we can all prepare our children well enough for the 2017 tests.

Click here to read the full in depth analysis: Key Stage 2 SATs Results 2016 Explained: 15 Insights That Will Change How You Teach Year 6 Maths in 2017

Sunday, 1 January 2017

At The Portal: Optimism and Positivity for a New Year

As we stand at the portal of an opening year we are wont to reflect and prepare; like Janus we look both backwards and forwards as we assess what has been and what is to come. With a panoramic view of past and future we experience myriad emotions, our minds an ever-changing sky of sunshine, rain, storm clouds, rainbows, bright stars and dark nights.

2016 has been characterised (and in some ways victimised) as another annus horribilis (politics, education and celebrity deaths spring immediately to mind) but the practice of ruminating on a year just gone is least effective when looking at it in a negative way. Conversely, identifying the positive aspects of the previous 12 months and remembering the events and people one is grateful for allows for more optimistic forecasting.

Scientific studies show the many benefits of practicing gratitude: more and better relationships, improved empathy and self-esteem, reduced aggression, higher quality sleep and increased mental strength. And it stands to reason that if someone can look back on a difficult year and still find the positives that they will also be able to look optimistically through the gateway into the unknown of another year.

Winston Churchill said that 'an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty' but it's not necessary to wait for difficulties to arise in order to be optimistic. In fact it's easier to generate optimistic thoughts and feelings in less challenging circumstances which will stand one in good stead when one comes up against the inevitable struggles that life (and teaching) present: the workload, the work/life balance, the behaviour of the kids, the new GCSEs and their results, improving on last year's dire SATs scores - your personal list will no doubt go on.

But 2017 is year for optimism, hope and positivity. How do I know this? Because it is inevitable that it is a year that will bring many stresses, strains and worries, as any new year has the potential to bring. But why does that mean it's a year for optimism, hope and positivity? Well, because, really, it's the only feasible option for coping with what's to come. Dealing with difficulties negatively usually leads to a downward spiral in which further difficult situations arise. So when tough times do occur, a positive viewpoint and an optimistic response is all that will give one hope for the future; it's all that will allow one to continue when travelling the road ahead seems impossible. Without optimism there is no resilience, there is no willingness to continue, there is very little point to the future. Without optimism what's to come can only be met either negatively or neutrally, neither of which really allow for a response which will make the best of each and every situation.

I'm not encouraging an uber-macho taking of the year by the proverbial horns, nor a passive acceptance of come-what-may, but a measured, calm and determined approach to where life's road will take you this year. I'm not saying it'll all be hunky-dory either - realistically all of us will experience stormy times in 2017: some will just be caught in a shower, for others it'll be a relentless deluge. But no matter the scale, an optimism which acknowledges and embraces hard times, which seeks practical ways to overcome them, and which recalls and is thankful for the brighter times, will see any of us through the darkness.

As Big Ben chimes in the new year allow that first step across the threshold to be hope-filled. Set your sights on making the best of every opportunity you are given. Open your eyes to the possibility that positive things may be happening all around you, indeed some of them may be happening because of you. In 2017, as you continue on the undulating paths of life with its vicissitudinal weather, allow positivity and optimism to direct you.