Thursday, 23 February 2017

Not Just Teachers, But Human Beings Who Teach

"And what do you do?"

"I'm a teacher."

"But, what do you do?"

Have you ever noticed that whenever we're asked that question, we don't answer it truly?

We don't actually respond by stating what we do. We tell them who we are instead. Or at least we tell them that we identify ourselves by our job title, regardless of all the other aspects of our lives that might make up our character: spouse, parent, sibling, sportsperson, hobbyist, believer.

Continue reading on the TES website:

In this article I touch on the subject of teaching as a vocation. The very best thing I have read about vocation is Justin Gray's blog post entitled 'Vocations - Balance and the Art of Happiness'. In it he suggests that teaching is a vocation but it is only one of several vocations that a teacher might have to balance. But don't take my word for it, read it for yourself!

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Best RE Lesson I Ever Taught (Spoiler: It Was A Reading Lesson)

The last day of half term: business as usual. I always start the day off with a reading 'session' (somehow can't bring myself to call it a lesson) and that Friday was no exception. Continuing with our reading of Sandi Toksvig's 'Hitler's Canary' and with a focus on linking non-fiction with fiction, I had prepared a text about Judaism.

The skills focus that lesson was scanning the text for answers. The children underlined what they thought would be key words in the questions and, before being allowed to read the text thoroughly ("Sir, what does 'thoroughly' mean?"), had to answer 7 simple retrieval questions about Judaism. They were then allowed to read the text properly to check their answers. A pretty useful exercise. 

I also asked the children to write down three new facts they had learned whilst reading. Sometimes I require them to write down three questions the text makes them ask instead. Either way, it certainly promotes deeper engagement with the text and is an approach that is encouraged for 'EAL' learners (most of the children in my class are 'categorised' as such).

That engagement became apparent when the children began to ask me (font of all knowledge, obviously) questions about what they had read. The text had mentioned Abraham as a figure whom the Jewish people could trace their heritage back to - one boy asked who Abraham was. Thankfully my Old Testament  knowledge isn't too shabby (I am currently reading through Genesis, so that helped) and I was able to give a bit of background information. 

At some point during my explanation (possibly when I (intentionally) mentioned Abraham's first son Ishmael) light bulbs began to blink on - a look of realisation crossed several children's faces. You see, my class - who, bar one pupil (who happened to be absent that day) are from a Muslim background - began to put two and two together: the Abraham of the Torah and the Bible is the Islamic prophet Ibrahim and Ishmael is Ismael, patriarch of Islam! They also recognised the name of Isaac, Abraham's second son, to be one and the same as prophet Ishaq. Although the conversation was entirely unplanned, these were the links that, once the discussion had begun, I hoped they'd make.

So there I was, a Christian, teaching a reading lesson to a class of children from a Muslim background using a text about Judasim, and getting more interest and engagement than any RE lesson I've ever taught before. Without explicitly pushing it at all I could tell some children began to understand the three faiths more as they recognised for themselves the commonalities that exist in their shared heritage. Children were becoming, due to learning about the three faiths in this context, more empathetic.

Not content with one story from Jewish history they then asked about Moses (who has been mentioned as the founder of Judaism). Some of them had seen the film 'The Prince of Egypt' so we're able to contribute; others of them were thrilled to be hearing about the events of Moses' life for the first time ("Oh, so that's why we call it a Moses basket!"). Some children immediately made connections between pharaoh's treatment of the Hebrews and Hitler's treatment of the Jews, and even Trump's very recent 'Muslim ban'. This, as I'm sure you can imagine, was music to my ears: our school deliberately aims to engage children in these issues through the books and texts we read, so - job done!

If by then I wasn't sure that they had engaged fully with the text and the basics of Judaism, all was confirmed with the third main question: "Why's it called the Star of David? Who's David?" Cue the third Jewish history story of the morning - from shepherd boy to king of Israel (via giant slaying episode).

And then we actually got round to reading 'Hitler's Canary'. We read of Rabbi Marcus Melchior and his warning to the Danish Jews and saw his picture in a recent BBC news article. We heard of how the Christians and Jews worked together to remove the Jewish artefacts  from the synagogue so that they wouldn't be destroyed by the Nazis and we all understood very clearly that due to the shared heritage both parties would be interested in preserving these items - that and the fact that religious harmony was in full effect. Just as I had hoped, the reading of the non-fiction text enhanced  their reading of the novel and their understanding of the historical events it is based on. 

We then revelled in the fact that, by working together, Jewish and non-Jewish, the Danes managed to disappear 7000 Jews so effectively that the Nazis actually claimed that it was they who had disappeared them. The children in my class had total empathy having spent the previous 30 minutes being totally engaged in the best RE lesson I've ever taught.

So, and very briefly, a message: a reading lesson is the perfect opportunity to teach any lesson you want. Indeed, any lesson is the perfect opportunity to reinforce and use reading skills. Simple. But just prepare for it to be so much more than just another lesson.

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.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Education Has Reached its Lowest; it's Time to Love it More

"When do you think it's time to love something the most, child?
When it's successful? And has made everything easy for us, huh?
That ain't the time at all.
It's when it's reached its lowest and you don't believe in it anymore.
And the world done kicked it in its tail enough that it's lost itself!
Yes, that's when: when nobody cares."

That's Jill Scott's introduction to De La Soul's latest album 'And The Anonymous Nobody'. Words, which when applied to education, should cause one to stop and think.

When we're talking about education we're not just talking about pedagogy and assessment. We don't just mean lessons and homework. It's not about behaviour management strategies or whether or not we set or stream or teach in mixed ability groups. Education isn't only about the distinction between early years, primary, secondary, higher or further. It's not about any of the arguments that rage on social media or the issues debated by academics. It's not even solely about the teachers, lecturers, classroom assistants or school leaders. You know what's coming: it's about the learners, be they children, teenagers, young adults or 'mature' students. 

And when education is on it's knees, crippled by lack of funding, ever-changing curricula, recruitment and retention crises and workload problems the ones who suffer are the learners, most of whom are children. The children suffer. Education needs some love right now - these children need some love right now. Now is the time for education to be loved the most - it has reached its lowest and so many don't believe in it any more. The world has kicked education in its tail and it has lost itself.

The love revolution must come from those who are closest to education. The vows need to be renewed by those already involved in education. If anyone knows what there is to love about education then it is us - the teachers, the school leaders, the classroom assistants, the lecturers, the lunchtime supervisors and everyone else who gets into work everyday and does so much more than 'a job'. Educator, you are in the best position to show education the love it needs.

We must not allow our profession to be dragged through the mud - we wouldn't allow it to be done to our partners. We must stand up and speak out for it. We must show others that education is worth caring about - we must sing its praises. We must love it. Until we do, those outside of education won't. 

Even when it seems that education doesn't love us back. Even when the relationship is rocky. Like anything, it's not always going to be easy. There are times when the loving takes more effort. But could it be that with a little bit of love, a spark will be reignited? With a little bit of proactivity and creative thinking, could the flame be rekindled? Could it be made to work? Is it just the particular school that's not working out rather than education as a whole?

It's not even that education demands a hopelessly devoted to you type of love - it doesn't demand infatuation or obsession. It just needs love, respect, nurture. And it needs all these for the good of the learners and their future.

It might seem like nobody cares - the government, the media, the general public, even your SLT -  and that is precisely why you, educator, need to care. You know what to care about and why caring about it is worth it. Educators, education needs our love most during these precarious times - can you give it the love it needs despite everything?

Two excellent responses to this blog post:

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Unexplainable Joy Of Comparing Books

Regular readers of this blog will know of the journey I've been on with reading. And now, having a good solid year of reading behind me, I'm really reaping the benefits. Of course, each book I read is a benefit in itself, but now I'm beginning to experience particular moments of awe and wonder. I know exactly what causes these moments but as yet am undecided on why they occur. I can't quite put my finger on what is so joyous about what essentially is this boring-sounding lesson objective: to make comparisons between texts.

A few years ago, every KS2 test had that part at the end where children were required to make comparisons between the texts they'd read during the test. The last of the current interim objectives for reading states that children should make comparisons within and across books although the KS2 reading test framework only asks that children should make comparisons within the text (and last year's test didn't test this at all). I recently wrote about pairing non-fiction texts with fiction texts but as far as I know teachers always paired fiction texts with other fiction texts - this is common practice.

I recently read the excellent 'The Goldfish Boy' by Lisa Thompson and I was struck, not by similarities (it's a highly original concept) but by the links I naturally made to other texts as I read. I was told of children trying to solve a mystery which occurs on a single street during the summer and was reminded of Michael Frayn's 'Spies' (a novel for adults and one of the best books I read last year). I read of a boy who lives with the guilt of feeling responsible for a younger brother's death (not a spoiler as this is revealed early in the book) and instantly recalled Patrick Ness' genre-defying 'More Than This' (and was also caused to reflect on the links between this and the latest series of 'Sherlock'). I made more overarching links to current favourite with teachers, 'Wonder' by R.J. Palacio, as both books deal well with the treatment of those who live with medical conditions.

Whilst reading 'Hitler's Canary' by Sandi Toksvig with my class I read 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' by John Boyne with my book club (Friday lunchtime, read and discuss, read two more chapters before next week). Initially the links to be made were so strong that we all commented on how we kept forgetting which book it was we were reading: both set during World War Two, both a first person account told from the perspective of a young boy (Bruno or Bamse), the first chapters in both even mention the boys dressing up as ringmasters and performing plays! The links as we read became deeper: they each provide a different view of the Holocaust, with each book deepening the children's understanding of the other.

The next fiction text I will link to 'Hitler's Canary' will be a picture book: 'The Whispering Town' by Jennifer Elvgren and Fabio Santomauro. It's another account of how the majority of Denmark's Jews were smuggled out of the country to safety during World War Two; the Danish people working together to resist the Nazis. I'm hoping it will give the children the opportunity to engage with historical events in a different way. I'm no expert on picture books (seek out people like Mat Tobin and Simon Smith for people who really know their stuff) but I believe they harbour the potential to engage children at a deep and meaningful level within their few pages. 

Deborah Wiles said, "Telling stories with visuals is an ancient art. We've been drawing pictures on cave walls for centuries. It's like what they say about the perfect picture book. The art and the text stand alone, but together, they create something even better. Kids who need to can grab onto those graphic elements and find their way into the story." I'm hoping these visuals will further spark the imaginations of the year 6 children and that they will feel that thrill of finding two stories that link. One of my favourite authors, Philip Reeve, said, "Even tiny children looking at a picture book are using their imaginations, gleaning clues from the images to understand what is happening, and perhaps using the throwaway details which the illustrator includes to add their own elements to the story." Just imagine the potential impact a series of linking texts, including picture books, could have on a child's imagination and understanding.

This blog post, unlike others of mine, is more of a statement of intent than anything. I've experienced that unexplainable excitement of making links between texts I've read and I want the children I teach to feel it too. I intend to be more intentional about is, seeking out and providing them with a rich tapestry of high quality fiction texts, many of them short to ensure breadth, to expand their mental library. Many of the children I teach have not been brought up on picture books and bedtime stories as I was - I feel it is my duty, and my privilege, to continue to share the joys of reading with them, with the hope that this will create a life-long love of books.

So, a couple of questions remain to be asked: when have you experienced that strange elation of making links between two or more books? Which fiction books do you use as paired texts in class? Perhaps you can even answer that which eludes me: why is it such a good feeling when I make a link between two books? I'd love to hear from you in the comments section below!

Monday, 6 February 2017

Book Review: 'The Goldfish Boy' by Lisa Thompson

Lisa Thompson cleverly intertwines a truly intriguing mystery story with an entertaining study of how people respond differently to loss. Whilst older primary-aged children will be gripped by the plot, they'll also be receiving a masterclass in empathy.

As with any good crime novel there are a plethora of characters, each very different, and each with their own emotional issues. There's Matthew, the main protagonist, with OCD; Jake the bully with chronic exzema and allergies; and Melody who seems to be obsessed by graveyards and death. The story takes place almost exclusively in one street during one summer so as well as the aforementioned children, there are a whole host of adult characters too, again, all very different. Someone is responsible for the disappearance of a toddler - but who? As Matthew investigates, hampered by his worsening OCD, the reader discovers more about each of the street's residents.

This would be a 5 star addition to any classroom - the work that could be done on inference and empathy through this book could be invaluable to how a child views the different people they meet in life. The concept that everyone has potentially hidden reasons for how they behave is an important one for children to grasp - it's the basis for being non-judgmental and kind to others. By studying the varying characters as more information is revealed, children will begin to infer the reasons as to why the characters behave as they do. In doing this, important lessons could be learned about how to treat others who might appear to be different.

The fact that carrying out such studies would further involve the children in the plot is testament to the author's skill; the more the reader engages in the emotional side of the book, the more they will enter into detective mode as they attempt to solve this exciting whodunit.

Using 'The Goldfish Boy' as a class novel would also provide perfect opportunities for children to discuss and explore their own emotions and feelings - the book providing a safe and neutral foundation for children to consider their own response to the information and events in the story.

Now excuse me whilst I go and beg budget holders for a class set of these... I'll ask the English leader AND our PSHCE coordinator as this book falls solidly into both of their remits.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

On The TES Blog: 'Teachers Love To Take The Mick Out Of Themselves – But It Demeans The Profession'

This article was published on the TES blog on 4th February. It didn't go down well judging by the comments that came, mainly via Facebook. In the end I had to stop reading the comments on this one. I stand by what I wrote though:

Teachers seem to be fair game for anyone. The "witty" adage "those who can't, teach" is as old as the hills and it often feels like the government do their utmost to make a laughing stock of us.

Non-teachers relish their little "Oh, but 9am 'til 3:30pm is a cushy number and think of all the holidays" type of "jokes". But there's no one who likes to ridicule teachers more than teachers themselves.

I know it's good to be able to laugh at oneself – that wise old sage Mickey Mouse once said, "To laugh at yourself is to love yourself" – but what would he know? He's a cartoon; he's supposed to be laughed at.

Yes, we must have a sense of humour – it's one of the characteristics I most admire in teachers – pupils appreciate it too. But this is a serious profession – not that you'd always know it.

Follow the link to read on:

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