Friday, 28 September 2012

Making sense of it all...

You see that railing, there. That's
the path to get to uni. Such larks...
Today I was reunited with a very dear friend of mine, someone that I had seen almost every day over the summer, but since the new school year started I haven't managed to see him even once. Jeremy Kyle and I go way back, and there was nothing quite like settling down with a slice of toast and shredless marmalade to watch Jezza put the world to rights on my university's making sense of it all day. Oddly, the university felt that I should be spending today getting my head around the deluge of information and paperwork that I'd been given over the last two weeks. I'm not even going to mention pathetic fallacy here...

But yes, my immersion into teacherdom is well under way, the fact that my diagnostic teaching practice starts on Monday serving as testament to that. So much has changed in the last two weeks that I'm not actually sure upon which rung I stand on the ladder to gaining QTS. I had entered the course with a certain amount of knowledge that I had hoped would stand me in good stead for my training. Much of that is now having to be unlearned at an alarming rate, as many of the things I thought I knew about (Aims, Objectives, Outcomes, Success Criteria and the like) are now being explained differently, and apparently what I've spent the last year learning to do isn't actually what you're supposed to do. Terrifying, right?! You're not kidding it is! So apart from the fact that I feel an ineptness on a scale similar those guys in the viagra adverts, I have to spend three days a week as a professional, and two days a week as a student which, you may be unsurprised to learn, is causing information overload. I usually spend the remaining two days of the week in a vegetative state trying to recover from the aforementioned chaos.

One of scariest things I've learned this week is that the new Teacher's Standards are basically a chronic pain in the bum. Not only are all the standards new this year, but they are standards that I have to carry with me into my career, rather than ones that I need to demonstrate in order to be recommended for QTS. The sheer amount of work I need to do is mind-blowing, not to mention the new-fangled 'digital portfolio' I now need to construct and maintain to collect my evidence. The ambiguity that surrounds the whole process of the PGCE is, for me, the single most off-putting factor in ITE. I think the best way I can deal with this right now is by not dealing with it. There are so many other things I need to do simultaneously that this has to take a back seat for at least the next week until I settle into my placement. Thankfully that shouldn't be too arduous a task, as being assigned to the Joseph Swan Academy couldn't have been a more perfect school in which to start my training. Rumour has it that if I bring a mix of positivity and cake along with me, I'm practically half way to meeting these new standards...

Despite the voluptuous inner-thigh wobble I've suffered this week as I debated if this new world of teaching was really for me, one lecture proved beyond all doubt that this is where I belong. Abused and neglected children isn't usually something that inspires people, but listening to a lady talk for three hours about the horrific problems children from these backgrounds can have, I knew instantly that teaching was where I should be. The idea that through merely doing my job well I can offer these children and young people a space in which they can feel safe, valued and respected is something I will carry with me forever. If it means that I have to sit and massage a child's hand because they have cramp from having never held a pencil in their life, it'll be worth it. If it means I have to sit for hours teaching a young person how to speak because no-one has ever spoken them at home, it'll be worth it. The reason it'll be worth it is because every teacher has a duty to provide a future for the students they look after, whatever it takes.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The 32 Hour Collage...

If you're wondering what that sound is, it's merely the chinking of ice in my super sized vodka and lemonade (I've run-out of gin) after my first week in my primary school placement. I still have many questions to answer, including whether or not it's too late to change courses and teach primary instead, but I thought I should update you on my progress so far. You can learn an awful lot in 32 hours...

Monday was PD day, so my interactions with children were in all fairness non-existent, however I was able to use that time to profile the school effectively, looking at its ethos and principles, as well as the responsibilities of staff members.  The school I'm working at is a C of E (aided) junior school, therefore the ethos woven throughout everything the school does is predominantly Christian. I'm as yet unsure of how I feel about this. As a fervent atheist I think discussions of morality and citizenship can be framed within a worldly context that transcends the bible and it's associated tropes. Having spoken to others working in schools of no designated faith, it seems that a Christian ethos is present in almost every primary school, with prayers and hymns to celebrate the contribution of Christianity to the lives of children today, taking place on a regular basis. Although I think the majority of young people are sufficiently savvy to make up their own minds, I am still somewhat uneasy about what may or may not be being said in order to preserve the ideologies of a school's guiding religion. Having said that, the children at the school are little angels in their own right, so something must be working!

The specifics of 6A's classroom layout gave the teacher
additional control over behaviour and learning.
On Tuesday I met my first class, the angelic 6A. This was my first real opportunity to see primary education in action since I left primary school in the summer of 2001. What I noticed immediately was the shift in emphasis within the school from when I was a student, placing pupils at the heart of their own school. Students were given the opportunity to create their own class charter, working collaboratively to establish the rules that would guide their experience in Year Six. Far beyond this as a gesture of student participation, the students use these rules to create the space in which they learn. This does sit somewhat at odds with the advice I've been given so far, that at the start of the year you need to make it clear that the room is 'your' room and that you as the teacher lay out your expectations of them. I think something of a compromise has to work best here, where the students and I can collaborate to lay out contractual expectations of each other, guaranteeing both parties' accountability in the pursuit of excellence.  I also found their enthusiasm for responsibility infectious! Every student was given a specific duty to carry out and they seemed unhealthily excited about it; the day I can get a Y8 to buzz about a year of handing out books will be one to treasure for a very long time! I do think responsibility is important, as ownership of their lessons must give students some conviction to progress, but quite how you inspire teenagers to hand out coloured pencils with a smile is still a mystery to me...

I'm also beginning to unpick some of nuanced variation between primary and secondary attitudes to teaching and learning. Using the analogy of a retro school lunch, secondary school has to be the stale fish finger, compared to the uneasily elastic turkey twizzler of the primary school. Secondary schools seem laden with policies, and a rigidity that stifles the creative fluidity of many. On the other hand, primary schools have a dynamism that refreshes the notion of education on an almost constant basis, as well as pursuing the highest quality of national curriculum teaching. This brings me to my next focus, the up levelling of expectation for school pupils towards the end of key stage two. Year Six in particular (as discovered during my time in 6DB) are now being pushed to pursue the sort of grammatical knowledge that many GCSE students would struggle to learn.  Word classes, active and passive phrasing as well as clause structures all feature in a new-look focus on grammar in writing.The absurdity of this became obvious to me as I reviewed the plan for Friday's lesson. It was an almost identical replica of a lesson I had planned for KS3 before the summer holidays, albeit with more basic terminology. I think that despite the importance of grammar in all writing, it is wrong for the government to place a requirement on primary schools to place such a heavy focus on a particularly difficult area of the curriculum at such a young age, potentially at the expense of some learners' development, as their core literacy skills and competencies are sacrificed to devote time to explaining the difference between and adjectives and adverbs.

Wednesday was relatively unexciting, although I did manage to get numerous cuts, blisters and bruises from knocking out some flat-pack cabinets that the caretaker didn't want to make...

Thursday was very much the wardrobe into Narnia for me, spending the day with 4L went beyond all of my expectations and fears in almost equal measure. The class were a great group of kids, supported by a fantastic partnership between their teacher and a regular learning support assistant; this showed in their ability to deal with a child called Consuelo  (perhaps not their real name). Consuelo has a spectrum of behavioural issues that could manifest as tears, anger, and head-banging on the desk amongst numerous other things. Having not been told in advance that Consuelo had these behavioural concerns, my decision to sit next to the pupil in question was ill-advised, fearing severe brain damage as her cranial assault continued. What shone out for me here was the commitment of the staff, the persistence with which both the teacher and the LSA dealt with Consuelo was amazing, and at the same time managing to focus the other 31 children and deliver high-quality lessons in a suitable climate for learning. Whether or not i could maintain the composure of these ladies as long as they did, I'm not quite sure, but it is something i would have to quickly adapt to given the strained level of support personnel available in most secondary schools. A special mention must of course go to the other students, their maturity and eloquence in dealing with the behaviour of Consuelo would hardly ever be seen in a secondary school environment. I found it touching that throughout these disturbing outbursts, the students maintained their focus and behaviour, and kept a positive, welcoming attitude to Consuelo throughout the day.

Friday. The weekend is almost here, and the notion that I can go to bed tonight without setting the alarm for 6am is orgasmically good as chomp through my golden Grahams with skimmed milk. Returning to Y6 I spent most of the day with 6DB. One of the main things I focused on here was reading, and in particular how schools support a class of readers who are all developing at different speeds. I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to listen to two readers from 6DB, reflecting opposite ends of the reading ability scale. The magnitude of the gap between the two readers was enormous, and my focus for next week will be to delve deeper into how the school provides differentiated learning opportunities for students in the same class.

As you can see, my perspectives on education are already beginning to shift as I see where the children arriving in Year Seven have come from, and how I have a duty to bridge the gap between the expectations of a secondary school, and the abilities and attitudes of a child of primary school age, whose experience of education thus far has been underpinned by a nurturing ethos of careful development. I still have a week to piece together the collage of my primary experience, before I present my (hopefully eloquent) evaluation to my university, and use my experience as the foundation upon which I craft my teaching ideologies. Lord knows what next week will entail as I enter the prolifically snot-encrusted world of Year Three...

Mr James

Monday, 27 August 2012

Confessions of a Window Dresser...

Earlier this evening I was sat on the sofa, gin in hand, watching Abi Branning return to Albert Square. Next Monday will almost certainly be a similar affair, but by then I will have completed the first day of my Home Area School Experience, and my journey into education will have officially begun. To suggest that I am stupendously excited to take my place in the profession of teaching would arguably be the understatement of the year, my personalised teacher’s planner is testament to that...but murmuring underneath all this excitement, all the laminating and all the post-its, is an uneasy sense that I have in fact regressed into the mind of a seven year-old, and that I’m actually just playing ‘Teachers’ with myself, rather than being a bona fide guardian of our children’s education. Perhaps I am merely window dressing the profession, rather than setting up shop.

During the last academic year, I spent two days of every week working in the incredibly successful English department of a local secondary school. During that time I created displays that Neil Buchanan (remember him?) would be proud of, I laminated paper in every size imaginable and created the most beautiful filing system for the Y8 SoW you could imagine. I also taught lessons in years 8,9 and 10, as well as designing resources for A-Level, all of which was part of a normal teacher’s life and I am hugely grateful for the experience I gained there, but there was so much going on that I didn’t see or do. I didn’t have three hours of marking to do when I got home, I didn’t have irate parents on the phone because Eden was getting too much homework, I didn’t have to give up just about every lunch time for meetings like the rest of the department did. I had the gold-leaf experience, and delightful though it was, I am worried that it has cast me somewhat adrift from what really happens this side of the desk.

' A good teacher is like a candle -
it consumes itself to light the way for others.
-Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
I doubt I’m the only one starting their PGCE this year asking ‘do I have what it takes?’, ‘Can I actually do this?’, ‘Have I got the capacity to deal with the demands of teaching?’, and throughout the summer holidays my answer to these questions has been both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I’m already putting plans into motion that’ll add capacity to my day-to-day life, making those phone-calls you put off forever, saying those important things you've never had the confidence to say before, and having nights out with friends for one last time before my work takes over, as none of them will hear a jot from me come next week. I hear they’re gutted...

I couldn’t be more prepared, I have a planner, a diary, three huge files full of potentially useful bits and bobs, and enough stationary with my name on it to see all of year eleven through their examinations. I don’t know what else I can do to make me feel ready for this, all I know for certain is that I’m not ready. At all. Maybe all those months of display-making and compartmentalising will come in useful this year, although that may be wishful thinking in the extreme.

Searching for the prince-like positives in this quagmire of negativity-frogs (an actual species, I believe), the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the table is to be laid in exactly seven days time. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know how it goes...

Mr James

Sunday, 8 July 2012

#Teaching&Learning: Digital Literacy and the Game Changers of Modern Education

Has anyone else ever done that thing when you fall asleep in an empty train carriage and then snored yourself awake an hour later to find three other people sat staring disapprovingly at you over their iPads and Venti, triple-shot non-fat, sugar-free, cinnamon dolche lattes, with whip? No? Oh, okay then...

So after completing my usual train-related faux-pas I arrived in London for a conference at the NCVO about Cyberbullying and E-Safety. Neither of these things are particularly alien to me, having spent four years advising the as-was DCSF about the government's policy to protect young people from bullying. However the premise of the conference was 'to turn on its head the notion of embedding good practise in schools and organisations'. Not entirely sure how this could be achieved, I signed up and made the excruciatingly early journey from Durham to London's now rather lovely King's Cross Station. It was a revelation! The idea of E-Safety being effectively defunct was music to my ears, and that schools now need to be moving towards and era of digital literacy amongst both students and staff, and the relative ease with which this could be achieved was my inspiration for writing up this blog.
'You can't teach people to swim by blocking access to the
swimming pool.'

The first thing that should perhaps be explored is what exactly is Digital Literacy? And more importantly, how does it relate to our role as aspiring teachers?

There is some ambiguity as to the nature of our relationship with technology as adults. Are we digital immigrants or digital natives, like our students? Well the reality is that neither ourselves, nor our students are so easily classified. What is clear, however, is that our perspectives are different. Our students may know more about the nuances of a BBM group, but are they as savvy when it comes to the digital footprints they leave behind? Research would suggest not, and as teachers our job has to be to assist students in their citizenship of the online world, as well as the offline one. To do this we as teachers need to engage with the realities of e-safety and an online existence, and not to buy into the archaic terms of Cyberspace, the Superhighway, and the Virtual World. These terms don't mean anything to young people, as they describe these alien spaces as My Home, My Space, and My profile. The Internet is not a bolt-on aspect of their childhood. It is as embedded as pogs and pokemon cards were to us.

The advice we're likely to be given on our PGCE that we are supposed to pass onto our students will run the course of: 'Just delete them off your friends list', 'turn your phone off', 'tell your parents about it' and the classic 'don't give out your personal details online'. We might as well sit there and blow bubbles with Deely Boppers on our head. All of this advice asks students to turn away from their online activities and to be as inconspicuous as possible. Young people don't want to do that, they want to be discovered, followed and 'liked' by both friends and strangers, to reassure themselves that who they are and what they like is okay. As educators we need to accept this, and rather than show them how to be 'safe' online, we should be assisting their adoption of functional, digital literacy that allows them to navigate the online platforms they inhabit in their day-to-day lives.

There are six key ways in which I believe schools can achieve this:

  • By empowering students and showing them how to manage their privacy controls
  • By having better, frequent, hands-on staff training, which students themselves can participate in
  • With better inter-agency learning
  • By making reporting easier
  • By really promoting peer learning and education
  • By embedding digital literacy into social and emotional literacies.
As aspiring teachers, we cannot turn up on our first day at work and implement these changes across the school, but as individuals we can each seek to embed these approaches into how we manage the pastoral demands of our students. 

As a final note, I must pay credit to the former head of Childnet International, Stephen Carrick-Davies, who's talk on this subject was my inspiration for sharing my thoughts on this important issue. You can find more information about him here: 

May I also suggest that if you are interested in embedding Digital Literacy into your approach to teaching, please have a look at Adrienne Katz's fantastic book, Cyberbullying and E-Safety: What Educators and Professionals Need to Know.It's available through Amazon.

Also, if anyone else is as interested in these sorts of things as me, I would urge you to watch this fantastic talk by Brene Brown about the power of vulnerability. 

Mr James

Trip Hazard: When watching your footsteps can make all the difference.

For the last three weeks I have been working with a brilliant Y9 class, teaching them poetry analysis and how to make links between texts. The first two weeks were absolutely sublime. The atmosphere was fantastically productive. Everyone was engaged, attentive and polite, and I began to think I'd cracked this class perfectly, and that our working relationship was solid enough to give them a little more freedom within the environment of my classroom. How wrong I was...

I had planned what I thought was a blinding lesson. We had post-it notes, kinaesthetic learning, think-pair-share activities, Venn diagrams and exit passports and even a musical interlude. Despite this, and the fact that my classroom management style had gone unchanged from the previous two weeks, my class were completely intolerant of my attempts at managing their behaviour. I don't think I have ever felt so incompetent  in my entire life. At one point it took me almost five minutes to achieve quiet so as a class we could move forward. In hindsight it was clear that they were just testing my boundaries now that they were comfortable with how I work, nevertheless I was unprepared for the onslaught and ended what I had hoped would be a really exciting lesson feeling utterly deflated and to be quite honest, a little upset. 

Oddly enough, when I reviewed the responses on their exit passports, it would seem that despite my evaluation of the lesson as a disaster, the class seemed to have regarded it as a success.  26 out of 31 students responded that they enjoyed the lesson, and that they gained information from it. I am as yet unsure of how this is possible given the fact that the majority of them seemed off-task for the majority of the lesson.

In terms of what I would take from this, I can now safely say that I have bought into the mantra of not letting them see you smile for at least the first month! That doesn't mean I'm going to become a distant, cold, unpopular member of the English department, that has never and will never be my style. But my hesitance at asserting my authority and my desperation to be 'liked' by my students has completely evaporated and now I think my approach to behaviour management is much clearer and well-defined.

Mr James

Monday, 21 May 2012

Putting pen to paper...

With Ollie's legacy still in the back of my mind I decided that now (the first sunny-ish day of my post-degree life) is as good a time as any to start tackling my first assignment for my PGCE. Despite my pre-course booklet's best efforts, I can't help but feel a little intimidated by an assignment entitled ‘What contribution does English make to the education of young people?’. How do you even begin to answer a question like that? The rather large part of me that would rather be sat in the garden sipping a gin was tempted to scrawl It shows kids how to read and write and stuff and to simply leave it there. Despite this being accurate in its own way, it certainly isn't the impression I want to make in my first venture into the world of educational academia. So I sat for a while with a notepad and a hobnob and these are the answers I came up with...

Firstly, what were my own experiences of English at school? Did I observe a particular phenomenon or process that gave me an angle from which to approach this essay? Well, kind of. There's no doubt that my experience of English at school is what inspired me to become a teacher, all three of my A-level English and Media teachers were incredible at firstly making the subject bearable, then making it interesting, and finally making it inspirational. But what was it they were actually teaching me whilst all this bearably, interestingly, inspirationally stuff was going on? Yes I was learning how to read and write more effectively, but I'm now realising that it was in fact so much more than that. English as a subject trains you in the art of thought. The processes that students undertake in order to complete their GCSEs and A-levels are designed to stretch their capacity to consider facts and opinions in relation to context, and to explore perspectives and intentions of people from different times and places, but also those closer to home, and to reflect upon the impact we as people have on the world around us. That is, for me, the essence of English as a subject. It is an opportunity to become a skilled thinker, one who has an informed perspective on the world, alongside the tools with which to comment on it. 

Secondly, what had I observed from the other side of the desk? How have my voluntary experiences in schools informed my knowledge of what English as a subject is trying to do? I think the biggest contribution this question can make to my essay is that the impact of English is dramatically limited by the frameworks of examining bodies and and the pressures of 'targets' and 'residuals'. Although I'll be the first to acknowledge the importance of data when it comes to planning and implementing schemes of work, I do feel that schools are under an enormous pressure to tick boxes and to be seen to be doing the right thing. It will be so disappointing to come up with an amazing idea for a lesson or for a particular topic, only to find I haven't the time nor resources to make it happen in light of the intense schemes of work schools now have to plough through. Good schools are schools that reflect and build upon their success with innovative approaches to teaching and learning, however one of my concerns is that in order to be seen as innovative, I may find myself losing sight of the aforementioned essence of English in order to pursue the structural touchstones of modern education. This is, of course, a view I hope to change in the coming weeks and months. I would never suggest that T & L should be anything other than forward-thinking and cutting-edge, but I am as yet unconvinced that wee baby-teachers such as myself will have time to establish my own style and perspective on teaching English before the pressures of exams and controlled assessments move in to stifle my creativity. Therefore I would suggest that despite the potential for English's contribution to education to be huge, it will inevitably be measured by whether students merely meet their targets, or are inspired to push themselves further.

I then began to think about some of the controversies that sit within the study of English at both school and in everyday life. I feel that at this exact moment in time, the attitudes to towards English are somewhere near where they should be, bang in the middle of an immense pendulum swing that has dictated attitudes to language for the last few decades. We're all familiar with the Pathe newsreels from 60 years ago that feature the purest variety of standard British English, Received Pronunciation. We are also familiar with our friend from the north who, for the last ten years has narrated the channel four series of Big Brother. These diametrically opposed varieties of English highlight just how dramatically our attitudes to language have changed in the last 60 years, and I believe that we are now in a better position that ever before to observe language objectively and critically. For me, the contribution of English to the education of young people should be to create an environment in which they can form their own ideas about what is or is not the correct language to use and to see how they, as the younger generation (I feel VERY old now), choose to utilise language to create particular effects. Our role as teachers has to be to facilitate this linguistic independence, and not to prescribe what is correct or incorrect, but to shape and guide our students in the formulation of their own ideas and reward the flair and insight they will undoubtedly bring to the table.

I do of course have a long way to go before I can safely say I've cracked what contribution English makes to the education of young people. I am however now confident in approaching this most basic of questions with my eyes on both the practical and theoretical foundations of English education. I will also utilise my carefully concealed third and fourth eyes (currently sprouting from the back of my head, a vital tool when writing on the board) to reflect upon my experiences so far, and to develop my perspective as clearly as I am able, but with an open enough mind to change it as my PGCE progresses.

AND I have a gazillion books to read. Someone bring me the gin!

Mr James

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Blogging Cherry...

Welcome to my first ever blog post. Exciting so far, isn't it? I thought I'd start my blog today as this morning, I took part in an event that allowed me to realise the impact good teaching can have on young people, as well as the legacy it creates.

Today I attended the funeral of a close friend. Ollie Clark died at just nineteen years old, and he was the most amazingly intelligent and inquisitive young man I have ever met. His love of all things poetic was almost as unusual as mine, and our shared love of expensive alcohol gave us even more to talk about. At his funeral there were dozens of Ollie's peers, friends and family, all of whom were there to celebrate his life. Also at the church were some of Ollie's teachers, who had come to remember one of their most favourite students. Ollie of course didn't disappoint, his funeral was filled with poetry he had loved whilst at school, not to mention LMFAO's 'I'm sexy and I know it'. Ollie had made it clear that it was these teachers that had given him the confidence to overcome his dyslexia and to engage with a love of literature and writing that made him one of his school's finest achievements. Ollie's legacy to aspiring teachers like myself is that not only can an education give young people the keys to their future, but that it can also give young people the keys to understanding who they really are, and allows them to take their place in the world that we have created for them.

This post may not be what you were necessarily expecting. There are no nuggets of information or insights into the world of a PGCE, it should however give each of us the hope that our efforts to enlighten young people are seldom forgot, and that what we do each and every day will stay with our students for the rest of their lives.

Mr James