No excuses, just reasons.

Ino excuses‘m a big fan of traditional discipline. I believe that school rules need to be simple, memorable, minimal and clearly communicated to all students. They need to be applied consistently and fairly. They work best when there’s a communal language used by all staff. In short, they need to be as black and white as possible.

However, I do believe that there are grey areas that are absolutely necessary to allow for, as at the end of the day we’re all human, and we’re dealing with children who will make mistakes, as well as families who sometimes need the carrot and not the stick.

Like so many others, I teach in an area of social and economic deprivation. When it comes to some just reasonsrules, like our uniform policy, there needs to be a balance of no excuses and reasons to forgive ‘transgressions’. That discretion is up to all of us to manage, but perhaps in particular our pastoral staff and senior leadership team. Their relationships with parents is crucial – they need to know the difference between a student who simply decided to wear their trainers to school and a student whose parents or carers simply can’t afford new shoes when old ones are lost or damaged. Students from less affluent families – most often our pupil premium students – shouldn’t be punished further because of a lack of disposable income in their household.

That’s why, despite being a bit of a fan of some of the things that are done at the Michaela Community School, like their English department’s approach to marking, I’m really just horrified by this letter which threatens students with punishment by isolation – and the lack of a hot meal – because their parent/s or carers haven’t paid what to many is a hefty sum in advance. I suspect that, if the Michaela intake is anything like ours, that there could well be a number of those students in isolation who rely on that hot meal at school as their only hot meal of the day. It certainly wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case. Therefore not only are students being punished for the actions of others which are outside of their own control by being isolated, they could well be being punished a second time by being denied a hot meal.

I’m quite certain that there is more to this story that has been reported. I’m quite certain that there’s a whole other side of it to be told by the school. I definitely have an intense dislike for seeing those stories in the tabloids about students being punished for not following school rules, for example by having an ‘extreme’ haircut – you agree to follow the rules of the school when you sign up your child to go there, and you shouldn’t complain when there are punishments for breaking the rules unnecessarily. I don’t know what other factors influenced this particular case, but the very fact that a generic letter was sent out suggests that it was going to more than one family and therefore it’s policy, rather than dealing with an individual case.

This blog was apparently written by the same deputy head who devised the lunchtime isolation policy. As I said at the beginning, I’m all for traditional methods of discipline, but this policy and the description of Michaela students in that post just brings this to mind, and that’s what’s most worrying of all:

 

Celebrating Academic Achievement.

IMG_20160712_190836Last night was our annual awards evening for academic achievement – our school Oscars. Subjects had nominated their top three students in each year group, and winners were announced in front of a packed audience of family and loved ones.

Our guest speaker was a former student who is now a freelance children’s book illustrator. She and our headteacher both talked about how we seem to have a culture where academic success is something to hide, not celebrate. It got me thinking about why this is the case in schools, and how it is perhaps reflected in society in general.

I’m all for celebrating the achievements of students, whether they are academic or not. I fully recognise that for some students school is incredibly difficult, but they can excel in sport or performing arts, and that this should be recognised. I do get frustrated, however, when I see non-academic achievements being celebrated over academic ones. At the very least, they should have equal status in our schools.

Looking to the wider community, it’s not hard to see this reflected both across the UK and globally. The BBC have their annual Sports Personality of the Year awards. It’s a big, splashy event, with celebrity athletes being celebrated for their sporting achievements. We have the BAFTAs and the National Television Awards, where the glitterati of the showbiz world are recognised for, amongst other things, their ability to pretend to be someone else on a regular basis.

At the Oscars themselves, perhaps the pinnacle of the entertainment award season, the technical awards – a short section – take place two weeks before the main ceremony with little glitz and glamour. The people who spend their time working on the technology that allows actors and directors to win big awards are pushed off to the side rather than being celebrated at the main event.

I think that if I was to survey our students, quite a large proportion of them would be able to name Olympic medallists, Balloon d’Or winners or the past five years of Premier League champions. Very few, if any, would be able to name Nobel Prize winners from any category.

I don’t have a magic solution to balance the importance of academic and non-academic achievements in schools. I’ve been in schools where sport is prioritised, up to and including students being withdrawn from lessons where assessment is taking place because they’re wanted as part of a team. I’ve also worked in a school where there was a panel of staff who had to approve every student representing the school in any extra-curricular activity or trip – if their grades weren’t on track, or if their behaviour was poor, they didn’t play or they didn’t go. This led to one student memorably missing the grand final of the rugby league competition, because his behaviour wasn’t up to scratch and he was causing too many problems. Harsh? Yes. Fair? Also yes. He knew about the system in advance and had been warned frequently that it could happen. The ripple effect this had on the behaviour of others wasn’t to be ignored either. The boy was allowed to watch the match and support his team, but there was a lesson there that sport wasn’t the most important part of his schooling. Incidentally, he went on the next year to captain the team and win the following grand final, so I think the longer lasting impact was positive.

It was great to see the venue so packed last night that it was standing room only. It means that our parents and families do see the value in celebrating academic achievement. Hearing the cheers as the winners were announced and seeing the smiles on the students’ faces was a brilliant way to spend an evening. Perhaps we need to do more to celebrate academic achievement throughout the year rather than just one night late in Summer term.

The Literacy Shed.

8052767_origI’ve known about the Literacy Shed for quite a long time now, but it wasn’t something I’d ever really considered using. I was absolutely guilty of writing it off as a ‘primary thing’ that had no place in a secondary English lesson. That opinion changed when its founder, Rob Smith, came to speak at Lead, Learn, Lancs last weekend. I only caught a couple of minutes of his workshop, but even that tiny snippet was enough to make me reconsider how I could use it in my lessons.

The opportunity came yesterday with a Year 7 class, which happened to be my performance management observation. I’m the fourth English teacher they’ve had this year and have only taught them since the start of the Summer term. They’re a class who’d be a challenge even if I’d had them since September. We’d been studying Shakespeare but then their assessment was a generic reading comprehension task, and they did that last week. Throw in that it’s virtually the end of the school year and that I’d was doing it straight after being away on a three day course, and you can well imagine why I was looking for something to really engage them without being gimmicky. Luckily for me, my line manager had said that doing an out of context lesson would be fine.

I had a bit of a browse of the website and eventually decided to use The Present. There’s such a range of high quality clips that choosing wasn’t easy, but this one struck a chord when I watched it and I could immediately see how I’d break it down for a lesson and link it to their prior learning. I started them off with a question – what’s the best present you ever received, and why was it the best? Expecting answers from my students like ‘my PS4’ or similar, imagine my reaction when the first response was ‘the gift of life – because without it I wouldn’t have experienced any of the wonderful things I have in my short time’. Thinking that was a bit of a fluke, the next one was ‘my family – because without them I wouldn’t have any support’. ALL THE FEELS. I did eventually get a PS4 response, which was almost a relief before both myself and the assistant headteacher observing me lost it completely!

With an aim to have them write a third person narrative of the story in the film, I showed them a few seconds of it at a time and asked them a series of questions, to which they answered in bullet points. I specifically asked them to not discuss ideas and answers, as I didn’t want them to influence anybody else. It went something like this (which will be easier to understand if you watch the clip – it’s just a couple of minutes long):

ls 1

Questions for the students:

What’s going on? How do we know? What evidence is there? They needed to think about the sound as well, which was rapid gunfire.

ls 2

What do we know about the boy? What evidence is there to support this?

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What’s in the box? What was the boy’s initial reaction to it? How do we know this?

[At this point one of the students asked how they could possibly know what was in it. I reminded them about the visual clues we saw – the boy’s mother carried it easily, and the size of it ruled out lots of potential things. I happened to have a cardboard box about the same size in my classroom, a total coincidence, but used it to give them a bit of perspective.]

ls 4

How has the boy’s reaction changed from when he first opened the box? What clues are there?

ls 5

How does this make you, as the viewer, feel? Why does the boy react like this? Why doesn’t he like the dog?

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At this point I gave them an opportunity to add to their last response.

ls 7

What’s the purpose of the music in this part? What effect does it have on you, as the viewer?

ls 8

How do we know that the boy is becoming interested in the dog? What evidence do we have?

ls 9

How does this new information make the viewer feel? Has it changed your opinion of him?

ls 10

How does this ending make you feel?

We then had a quick discussion about some of their predictions, what was right and wrong and why they’d thought what they had. There was another moment of wondering who these students were and what had happened to my usual group when one of them asked if the reason the boy didn’t like the dog at first was because he rejected him due to his missing leg, the way society might have rejected the boy. I mean, come on!

We watched the film as a whole after that, looking for clues along the way as to the ‘reveal’ – I told the students afterwards to remember when writing their narratives that they want to give clues without giving away the ending, so as to engage the reader without spoiling the story. I linked the task back to both the fiction writing we’d done at the start of term and to a direct speech punctuation task as a reminder before they got started (and a big hint to my observer!), and they got cracking.

We certainly didn’t get as far into the writing task as I thought we would, but to see them as engaged as they were on a Friday afternoon just before the end of the year, I couldn’t have been happier. We focused on the opening paragraph in particular, and after a bit of independent writing time we shared some examples. They were absolutely brilliant. I’m really looking forward to spending Tuesday’s lesson getting stuck back into them.

If you’re a secondary English teacher and like me had written off the Literacy Shed, I thoroughly recommend having a good look at it and thinking about how you can use it for yourself.

 

Career Goals.

I’ve had conversations with two very different people in the past few days that both resulted in me commenting that I have no desire or aspiration to be a member of our senior leadership team – or any SLT, for that matter. Both people I was speaking to seemed a little taken aback by that.

career goals

After all, I’m young(ish), I work hard, I’m passionate – why wouldn’t I want to take that next step up the career ladder? And of course, I’m female! I must want to address the supposed statistical anomalies by seeking an SLT post, right?

No. Not at all. I really don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, and I say that as a 34 year old. I’ve never really sought to climb the leadership ladder. I’m part of our school’s extended leadership team, but that almost happened by accident, in a way. I was the eLearning coordinator for several years, a role that I loved. We had a restructure and completely changed our TLRs and middle management, and the role became part of the ELT. I didn’t want to give it up, so I applied for it, and found myself involved in things that actually I have little interest in, but which allow me to get on with flying my geek flag on a regular basis.

Natalie Scott, in her closing keynote at Lead, Learn, Lancs the other day, included this slide:

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Whilst it was very relevant to Natalie and her journey, which she was describing to delegates, it resonated with me. Until about 18 months ago I’d never thought that I wouldn’t be teaching full time. It’s something that women do when they have children, and – wait for it – I don’t want children either. On a side note, I’ve been told for nearly 20 years that I’ll ‘change my mind’ on that, as if not wanting children is a failure on my part as a woman.

My career path has been relatively settled until last year. Sure, I’d changed schools (and countries) a bit, finding myself at four schools in four years, but I’ve been in my current school since 2009. I teach, and I get on with the job with usually little fuss. In September last year I took on the role of association secretary for my union, which means that I’m out of school for 1.8 days per week. It was a big adjustment and one that still leaves me feeling like I’m missing out on things, even when I’m on top of everything and working hard at both jobs.

I feel very much like taking on that role has meant that I’ve officially indicated that I’m not interested in being SLT. I can’t be an effective member of the leadership team when I’m effectively there only 60% of the time. I struggle enough with being ELT with that time frame, and whilst I’d be teaching less (another deterrent to rising up the ladder), I don’t feel I could be effective in both roles. I’m sure that there’d also be a conflict of interest. It’s one thing for SLT to be active union members, but I think being a lay officer and a member of SLT would simply be too hard to keep separate.

I’m not saying never. Like the thought of having children, if all of the magical pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place, I’d consider it. In terms of SLT, it’d have to be the right job, in the right school, with the right people – and I’m not holding my breath on that. The fact that I’m not actively seeking it probably makes it even less likely, to be honest.

I’ve made my peace with my lack of ladder-climbing ambition in schools. Now I just need everyone else to accept it as well.

Gratitude.

This Saturday is the first Lead, Learn, Lancs conference. It’s not-so-coincidentally my first attempt at running a conference. I’m going to take the opportunity to get my thanks in pre-event, because I know there’s a really good chance I’ll lose my ability to think straight come Saturday afternoon and I really, really don’t want to miss anybody out.

LeadLearnLancs (1)

First and foremost, thanks to my co-host Linda Hopkins. No matter how many times she says that up to this point she’s done very little, she’s been both an sounding board on too many occasions to count, and has bounced around classrooms and corridors with excitement right alongside me as people have stepped up and the conference has come together. Linda, we need to have a proper night out after all of this is over!

Secondly, to all of the speakers travelling the length and breadth of the country to speak at a small-ish, first time conference simply because I asked them to. From seasoned speakers to first timers, you’re all wonderfully brilliant and I wish I could attend all of your workshops. You’re also a little scarily weird en masse, which makes you a perfect fit for something like this! Some of you aren’t just tipping up on the day for a good time; you’ve helped me out enormously with the power of your social media following and helped to publicise the conference. Particular thanks to Martin Burrett for including us on the new UKEdChat app.

Thirdly, to all of the delegates who are also travelling the length and breadth of the country to attend. There are bigger and more well-known conferences taking place on Saturday, and heaven knows Saturdays are sacred and shouldn’t be used for CPD, but I’m so grateful that you’re taking the time to come to my school and take part in #LLL16. I hope it’s truly worthwhile and that you come back again next year.

Our sponsors are amazing. Lancashire NUT have provided the lion’s share – they recognise that this event will be great CPD not just for our members, but for teachers across the North West and beyond. I’d have simply been unable to put together the programme that we have without their support. EPSL Educational Printing are a very local company who got in touch one day via social media. Paula is lucky that I didn’t actually squeal in her ear when I rang her to follow up the message! Every delegate will receive a little something in their goody bag from EPSL, and on top of that they’ve also donated a raffle prize to the value of £200. ClassCharts are also coming along at their own expense, and will be demonstrating their new products. As well as the demo, they’ve also given us a £100 restaurant voucher for the raffle. Innovate My School aren’t to be forgotten – there’s something for every delegate from these guys as well. Honestly, gratitude just doesn’t begin to cover it.

Lastly, thank you to my school for hosting the conference and taking a chance that I could pull this off. Having a venue, paying overtime for support staff, our lovely student helpers, using school resources – none of this would have come together if it wasn’t for Rhyddings.

Hopefully I’ll get through all of that in a coherent fashion as we finish up on Saturday. I wouldn’t put money on that actually happening! Gratitude seems too small a word for how absolutely blessed I feel to have the support of so many wonderful people. Thank you.

And thank you again.

On Resilience, Determination and Grit, and All That Jazz.

It’s been a really long time since I blogged here, far longer than I ever intended to leave it. I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the meantime – I’ve written a stack of articles for Innovate My School, such as this one on what innovation means to me and this one that came about as a result of my love of Disney films. I’ve written a bunch of posts for the Labour Teachers blog, like this one about the current NUT ballot and this one about pupil premium and other labels we give students. I took part in Staffrm‘s #29daysofwriting and I’m currently working my way through their #44weeks challenge. I’ve also just submitted my first article for the UKEdChat magazine. In short, I’ve been relatively prolific, but there’s been little writing just for me or about the things that I dwell on generally.

I spent the better part of last Saturday sorting out the grasslands that had taken over my back garden and the jungle at the front. I had a lot of time to think, and I discovered a few things along the way. Two of the things I discovered were these:

Plants

On the left is a strawberry plant from about three years ago. I’d forgotten it was there and, to be honest, I didn’t realise that they lasted more than a year. On the right is a chocolate mint plant (yes, really!) that has survived a good five or more years of neglect. It’s been buried under several feet of snow, but worse than that, it’s in a pot with no drainage and is perpetually in at least an inch or two of water. I really don’t understand how both plants are still alive.

This, in a roundabout way, had me thinking about some of my students. We focus heavily on those who need interventions and extra support for however many reasons or labels we attach to them. We work hard to make sure that those students succeed to the point of expected progress, if not beyond. We push our highest achievers and we focus on our C/D borderline students (or the equivalent number grade). Those students who don’t fit into those categories though? Sometimes they have to push themselves because we don’t necessarily push them enough.

I’m not a believer in grit and resilience being the magic solution to our students’ educational woes. There’s no one thing that will suddenly see all of our students achieve their targets or exceed them. I do think, however, that perhaps if we spent a little more time explicitly teaching these concepts from an early age, and embedding them in our practice, that we’d see a difference. Like the plants above, they’d survive – if not thrive – irrespective of their learning conditions.

One of my brilliant colleagues has been working for the past couple of years on mindset and how we change it within our students. She created this resource in various formats that are displayed in every classroom:

mindset

Each pair has a fixed mindset thought on the left, and growth mindset on the left. It’s still very much a work in progress, but like any other idea, the more we collectively talk about it, the more we use the common language, the more likely it is to succeed.

I know that I’m supposed to be focusing on specific pupil premium students in my classes at the moment, but these students are the seedlings – they’re being nurtured and trained to grow big and strong. I have mighty oak trees in some of my lessons – they’re secure and doing just fine on their own. It’s the strawberries and chocolate mint that I need to remind myself to work a little more with – for though they’ll survive by quietly getting on with things, they’ll thrive with a little more care and attention.

Facebook: A Cautionary Tale.

I love social media. I’m a total Twitter addict and Pinterest is my go-to for so many things both at home and at school. I Instagram loads of photos (most my furkid and food – sorry!), and I use Google Hangouts to stay in touch with mates all over the world. Facebook though? No. I resisted Facebook for a very long time, but eventually caved in not long after I moved to the UK as it was a good way to stay in touch with friends back  home. A couple of years ago I deactivated it, mostly because I was tired of the drama it caused. Heaven forbid I should be ‘friends’ with some colleagues but not others! How dare I *not* want to share my personal life with people I am not friends with in real life! I do still have an active account, though it’s a sort of dummy account – it has no friends and no personal information, and is just there so that I can run our school Facebook page.

I’m well-versed in privacy settings on social media and thought I had covered myself pretty well. Yesterday, my Year 11 students alerted me to the fact that someone has set up an account and is pretending to be me. That in itself isn’t a huge bother – it’s not exactly identity theft in the truest sense as they’re not doing this across the board. I’m confident that it’s one of our students, but I don’t know who.

The problem is that they are actively ‘friending’ our current students. This, for what should be fairly obvious reasons, is of great concern.

One of my students showed me the profile via her own account. We reported it to Facebook as someone pretending to be someone she knows. I then found the profile via my own account, and reported it as someone pretending to be me. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Facebook responded with the following:

facebook 1

You can follow this up with a second attempt, and you can add a comment to that. I reported that the account is likely being run by a student at my school, is ‘friending’ current students, and therefore leaves me open to all kinds of allegations. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting on a reply.

It seems that there is very little that I can do other than wait and hope that Facebook understand the necessity of shutting down the account.

In the meantime, I’ve let my headteacher know exactly what’s going on and what I’ve tried to do through Facebook themselves. Luckily he’s very understanding and aware that I’ve done what I can. I’m not sure what will happen if a parent sees it and understandably complains – hopefully they’ll get that it’s really not me.

I remain in favour of teachers using social media, and this won’t deter me from staying online. It’s a good reminder to regularly Google myself to find out what’s out there – even if it remains out of my control to do anything about it.

Highlighting Success

Like many GCSE teachers, I’ve taken my Year 10 English class through to Year 11. Whilst I thoroughly dislike the label, for the purpose of giving some context they are on the whole a C/D borderline class, with a couple of students falling below that. I have some students with some behavioural issues, and attendance can be an issue – sometimes due to exclusions, but for one student it seems more and more likely that he’s been withdrawn from school permanently as he is a traveller (to be perfectly honest, we were happily surprised he was still at school in Year 11). I have a couple of students who will be lucky to make it through to the end of the year without being put on study leave early. There are several students who have outside agency involvement, including one in care, and almost 50% of the class feature on the SEN register. I also have some students who are absolute superstars behaviour-wise and work-wise – all in all it’s quite a mixed bag.

Most importantly, they are my students. As much as they can annoy me sometimes, I’m like a fierce mother bear and fight for them whenever I need to.

Image source: http://bit.ly/1RK1GXX

Image source: http://bit.ly/1RK1GXX

One of the exam techniques we use is text marking using different coloured highlighters. It’s pretty simple – four questions, four colours. Unfortunately the ace Bic highlighters I’d found on a clearance shelf at Tesco only had three colours, so I asked the students to hit up the pound shops and buy themselves a packet with at least four. Predictably, only two students did this. A few more might have with a little more time, but I found myself wandering the aisles of Poundworld and spotted some great liquid highlighters – six colours for a quid!

Honestly, it was like Christmas had come early. I’ve not seen sixteen year olds so excited about anything the way they were excited about getting a cheap packet of highlighters. They were very quick to pull out the cardboard label so that they could put their names on them – and heaven forbid anybody who touches someone else’s highlighters!

This may sound like I’m embellishing or completely making it up, but there’s been a real change in attitude towards their work since I gave them to them. They are more invested in their exam preparation, working harder at each task and trying to improve in each and every lesson, instead of having a more laissez-faire attitude as they’ve done in the past. Maybe it’s nothing to do with the highlighters and more to do with their forthcoming mock exams, but either way, me showing an investment in them is reaping rewards.

The interactive part of my interactive whiteboard has been getting quite the workout in the last couple of weeks. We’ve been deconstructing questions, particularly after what we affectionately call the ‘epic fail mock’ of last year, where virtually the whole class wrote brilliant essays about “A Taste of Honey”, but completely failed to answer the exam question.

question deconstruction screenshot

This was the first question we attempted, therefore it was deconstructed and modelled by me, but since then I’ve had students doing it up at the board.

The first couple of times we text-marked the exam texts, it was based on my modelling. I’d used modelling sporadically in my teaching over the years, but after listening to John Tomsett at Northern Rocks this year, I had decided to do a lot more of it. We’re not at the stage where students have a crack on their own, and then one comes up to share their text-marking on the board for us all to discuss. We’re moving swiftly towards them being able to do it comfortably and competently on their own.

text marking screenshot

On a side note, whilst I’ve been teaching them to use one colour per question, a couple of times I’ve broken that rule in order to demonstrate the two parts of the question being asked. In the example above, the question was asking for Jenny’s thoughts and feelings (in yellow) and how the writer shows that (in green – but we hadn’t finished).

It cost me all of £20 for a packet of highlighters for every member of the class, one for me and a spare. You can argue that I shouldn’t be spending my own money on resources for my students, and you’d probably be right – but it’s my choice and I’m sticking with it. I’m thrilled with the change in my students. Who knows, maybe next week I’ll break out the stickers and see what happens!

Lifelong Teacher Training

It worries me that the message, whether implicit or explicit, given to trainee teachers is that once they finish their training, everything will be ok. I appreciate that given time and experience, most teachers cope just fine, but why do we insist on perpetuating the idea that you won’t need help after your certificate arrives in the post?

Part of my new role involves supporting teachers when they are struggling, including during appraisal and capabilities procedures. In the last week alone I’ve been supporting a classroom teacher with over 15 years of experience, a deputy headteacher and a headteacher. Certainly in one of those cases, much could have been avoided if only the person had felt comfortable asking for help when the problem first began.

The prompt for this post is this exchange:

tweets

The whole thread is about asking for help planning an ITT session. There’s plenty of good advice being shared. I find it concerning, however, that asking for help is seen as something that only trainees need to do. I agree, the thread was specifically about trainees, but they need to have the message that they will need support at other times in their career reinforced. The issues may not be the same, but the outcome may well be. I think that’s a really crucial message to give trainees, otherwise we end up with more teachers in the same boat that the three I mentioned above are already in.

Why don’t we spend more time on this issue as whole staff CPD? Teaching, for all that it can be a collegiate profession, is also very isolating. Why aren’t we reinforcing the message that all teachers, at one time or another, need help? Surely if we reinforce that notion, we are supporting our colleagues and in turn supporting our students.

 

Innovate My School Guide 2015-16

I’m really pleased to have been a part of the new IMS Guide 2015-16. It’s a great publication written by some fantastic educators – click here to check it out.

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