It’s been a while…a dancer’s mum’s tale.

I love writing my blog but sometimes other things take over.  I have been honing my hair styling technique this weekend as my eldest daughter participates in her first dancing festival.  She is so independent. It made me think of school. I spend all my time attempting to train my students to think for themselves; to make their own choices. I have a variety of differentiated tasks which they can choose, allowing them the chance to take a little more control of their own learning.  So why is it, when my 8 year old daughter is getting ready for her dancing festival, I am anxious and want to take over? I am sat here, watching as she has applied foundation and is now carefully applying eye make up.  It would take me less than 5 minutes, but, and here is the teaching point, I would have to take those 5 minutes every time she needed it. This way means that we spend 20 minutes now but gradually build up to when she can do this, and anything else without assistance.

Sometimes the role of the teacher isn’t planning and doing more and more. It is sometimes gradually doing less and less.  A gentle releasing of the support, the hand supporting the bicycle, so our young people can manage by themselves. 

The art of the teacher is being able; with the use of data, awareness of the criteria and knowledge of the individual student, to be able to anticipate and predict when to let go and when to grab them. Sometimes we have to support, sometimes (in rare situations) a controlled failure or fall can be effective. 

I have just watched my daughter plaster lipstick all over herself. The only question I asked was if she looked like a dancer. She has asked for help.

We have to differentiate, but if students think everything is going to be easy to understand without them thinking too much; then we are setting them up to fail. League tables can only judge academic progress, a school’s reputation is built on that and everything else. 

My daughter has never done a dance festival before, she is excited, I am nervous but I am also proud of her growing indepence.

Addendum…she came first in her category!  

A very puzzling state of affairs…

When I was a new teacher I was told in no uncertain terms that giving children word puzzles was an utter waste of time. We had to ensure that every moment the student was in the classroom was filled with learning opportunities.

Now, almost 20 years later. I am reviewing that very rigid attitude. In fact, when I look back, I think I ignored it anyway. But I didn’t know why. My pedagogy was not as developed a superpower as it has become recently. Now, if someone challenged me on the use of anagrams, word searches or other cryptic puzzles I would be able to answer cleverly that these stretch the ability of student, encourages logical and lateral thinking and it engages the imagination and allows a student to develop concentration to perform and complete a task.

I have pushed it further. Recently as a revision tool, I gave students squared paper (that I had stolen from Maths) and set them the task of creating a word puzzle based on characters, plot and key themes and ideas based on a specific text they had read. I told them to make sure they had an idea of the solution in order to help others if assistance were needed, then as a prepare to learn activity a few days later, I gave the students a puzzle created by a friend. That worked. It was fun, enjoyable and challenging. There is something similar in the ‘Teacher’s Toolkit’ I think and if there isn’t, there should be!

Sometimes we assume that all our lessons have to be heavily resourced in order to show that we have planned. But something like this, as a culmination of a lot of hard work, challenges and encourages learning and revision. While the students were doing their peer’s puzzles they were asking all the questions I would have normally asked. ‘Which theme connects Lennie and Curley’s Wife?’ Just one familiar example.

We should never underestimate the power of low-tech. Audio-visual is good; but so is pen and paper. Raw creativity is just as much to be praised and encouraged as that build on PC research. Giving students the ability to question and support each other is key to duplicating our presence and ensuring that all students get a chance to learn and make rapid progress.

So, 20 years on, I will continue to use word searches, crossword puzzles, anagrams and cryptic clues because without them information gathering is mundane, and also Deep thought would have no committed puzzlers in 30 years time!

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Mocking exams.

Mock exams. The very name suggests that we are simply laughing at the lack of effort so many students have made over the Christmas break to prepare for their forthcoming practice exams. The mocks. When I was a student we took our mocks seriously. We were told the mark would be sent to the exam board as part of our predicted grade and we would have to sacrifice our Christmas holidays to do the very best we could at this point. I was saved the pain of my English exams, because, as I was the third year of GCSEs we were doing 100% coursework. No final exam needed. Can you imagine it? Not any more.

So as of Monday our year 11 students are on Mock study leave in order to do mock exams. They are now beginning to understand. They had a briefing on Friday and sat in shock as they were informed that they weren’t allowed to take bags, coats, phones or any device into the exam hall. They were enlightened as to what the definition of ‘Communication’ was. But, they were also informed that if they so chose to, they were allowed to leave the school site when they didn’t have any exams. The most exciting point apparently being that they can have lunch at KFC without trying to ‘Jump fence’ – freedom indeed. Mock exams have suddenly allowed a degree of freedom that more than makes up for the 5 hour Art exam several students have to wade through.

I am looking forward to the marking…no hint of irony. My year 11s have worked hard; with the exception of Christmas. They have come to lunch boosters; they have engaged in exam question preparation. They have created their own reading questions based on articles and we have analysed the conventions of numerous writing formats, language for audiences and they can detect the purpose of a text from about 20 paces.

So why am I nervous? It’s always the same. I drum the info in and pull the knowledge out. The students prove they can do it, but, just as when my daughters were learning to take their first independent steps; I am still concerned that my students will falter. They won’t, at least not in the Summer. The mocks might be a different story. I can but wait. But in the meanwhile the mocks stare at me, mocking.

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With thanks to Hayley, Paul and Alan

I started teaching in 1996 after completing my BA (Hons) and PGCE in Lancaster, S. martin’s College. I loved my four years at uni by the Lake District and felt ready to take on the world with my utopian view and idealism.

I got my first job in Birmingham and was excited to share my knowledge with the fresh faced Brummie children, who would obviously love me and my particular take on English Literature and communication skills.

It is nearly 20 years since that first year, but I remember it, it is etched onto my long term memory vividly; I had one class with three ‘characters’ Hayley, Paul and Alan. I have to be honest, these students taught me more about how to handle a class and behaviour management than any CPD or observation. They were more critical than OFSTED and every lesson became as daunting as being observed by your HoD. The combination of these three individuals reduced me to tears on a regular basis and I remember being mopped up by other teachers and my HoD, who tried to support and give advice on how to proceed. Nothing helped. I had a healthy dislike for them, almost as much as I have a regard for them now. I nagged them to complete class work, homework was out of the question. I battled to get them to sit on a chair, rather than stand on the desk; I bribed and persuaded them to listen rather than talk…I could paint a graphic tale that many of you would understand, if you have worked fresh faced in an inner city educational establishment.

I have met children since who have tried to match these trailblazers, but they come up short. I have resources my current year 7,8,9,10 and 11 know nothing about. Even when they are trying their hardest, they never come close. It was almost as if I was vaccinated in my earliest years and have been hardened and immune to attempted onslaughts ever since. I am able to advise my newer colleagues, passing on my wisdom, gained from my three mentors right at the very beginning. I can empathise and I can predict what will happen if I take a group down a particular avenue of learning or enquiry. It has honed my sixth sense and made me more confident.

So, a at this generous time of year, I extend my thanks to the three students who, without whom, would mean I’m a lesser teacher than I currently am. I would like to thank them, and I’m sure if I ever met them in town I would be able to say hello…after all it’s been nearly 20 years. Thank you Hayley, Paul and Alan.

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The brown teapot

My mum was a child of the 1950’s, a very different world that seems to have been absorbed into history. What do you know about the fifties? Anyway her mum had a brown teapot. It was used every afternoon; my mum would sit there at the table and her afternoon cup of tea would be poured out.

One day my mum was given the auspicious task of making the tea. This was even more important because a guest was visiting. My mum nervously boiled the water, poured it into the warmed teapot (everything had to be warmed up in those days) the tea cosy fitted before bringing it through. The cups and milk were in place. It was at this point she handed the teapot over. Her mum poured the first cup. To be honest I’m not sure if they were milk in first people. Shock! Plain water came gushing out! In all the occasions my mum had observed her mother she had never once seen her add tea leaves (there were no bags in their house) My mum thought the brown teapot created the tea! There was a slight awkward moment and her mother took things in hand. Tea disaster averted. But it was an event that stuck with my mum so long that it was a story she told me when I was younger.

This innocent story revealed several things: something’s cannot be learned by osmosis (or is that Brownian motion in terms of tea?) some things have to be made explicit. Teachers cannot always expect students to get it just by modelling outcome, although the ‘here’s one I made earlier’ approach can really help.

No, students sometimes need to see the obvious. I have joked with primary colleagues that Primary teaching is the art of stating the obvious. Most of them have understood my gentle jibe, laced with respect. Without a firm base of basic understanding, students can have no way of building a more complex understanding.

For my mum to honestly believe that tea came from a brown teapot showed that she had glaring gaps in her knowledge. If her mum had been an educator, professionally or home based then that would never have occurred. Her embarrassment would have been averted and her confidence developed.

I have several students from various countries, a few recently arrived and part of my EAL group. This year I have had to start again. Last year’s group needed socialising support and now have gone on with their friends and manage well. This year’s group are younger, more unsure and need support with homework, ironically we had to do French yesterday! They need to fill the basic gaps in order to avoid embarrassment. Hopefully allowing them to make mistakes with me in a small trusting group, allows them to gain confidence to be sure in their normal lessons. No teapot moments for them.

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14 more get ups, play dough and poetry

I’m not sure my day could get any weirder. We know that being a destination obsessive is not the most healthy of pursuits but when you see a countdown on an office white board, you know it’s not just you. You also know that everyone is feeling the same way.

I have always enjoyed teaching, but this has always been the hardest time of the year. I have developed a strategy for surviving:

Plan tasks that enable students to peer assess each other…we have currently done an in house poetry recitation competition with year 7, we can’t take them further in the regional because of age restrictions but they enjoyed the ability to learn and recite a poem to their peers. The audience judged and gave stars for the performances. They had strict criteria…give up to three positives and one point to develop.

The poetry unit has afforded us the opportunity to explore modern music and lyrics. We have been able to discuss the differences between traditional poetry forms and techniques and modern song lyrics. I’m all set for the Christmas poetry that we will embark on in a week or so.

My KS4 groups have either been reading Mice and Men or been doing exam prep. I have a bank of reading and writing tasks in hand to keep them in check. So basically I can cruise through to the end of term, knowing that I have everything under control.

But then…

I attend a departmental meeting where my HOD hands out two tubs of play dough. We are told that we can use them for class activities. The caveat is that we have to pick our pilot group carefully. My mind has started racing. I don’t know if I can manage a bunch of students with two tubs of play dough, in fact with some of my year 10s I might have to issue a certificate warning when we evaluate what they manage to create as part of their creative process. But it has certainly woken me from my premature slumber. Bother, I now have to experiment with tasks to elicit the correct outcome. I have to be all active and constructive and encouraging. And to top it all off I have to keep an eye on the carpet!

Teaching and Learning comes into it’s own when we are tired. Training students when we are on top form prepares us for when we are counting down the days. My students know how to do green pen catch up, WWW and EBI as well as gap tasks. I can give them instructions and they can get on with it, allowing me to focus on the students who need that special assistance to engage or extend. For me Teaching and Learning has gone from a chore to a chance to shine. Sometimes it is a little bit like a roller coaster.

We won’t be watching DVDs and playing at seasonal word searches this year; we will be too busy with thinking hats, group tasks, dice activities, and play dough activities based on what animal you associate with Curley…

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