Monday, 16 February 2015

Random Acts...

I originally wrote this for @staffrm but kept getting a server error - so here it is!

I had an experience over the New Year which touched me profoundly. I won't bore you with it, but I blogged about it and said I was going to set up a small group of students to be a RAK group - Random Acts of Kindness. They would be anonymous; I would fund it (gulp!).

I approached a few students who I thought would really love it - and would benefit from it. I showed them some YouTube clips and also shared my own recent experience. They were fascinated. They would do it. 

So many things have been done, since. Teachers have had sticky notes on their computers, thanking them for being great teachers...chocolate/biscuits/teabags have been left by keyboards...

I have bought some paper grocery bags and have started filling them: Sir Ken Robinson's book: The Element; sweets, biscuits, sticky notes, highlighters...all these for my fantastic and very despondent department, who are taking a real beating at the moment. My new Head of Dept has taken a real battering, so I have sought things to make her smile and realise that she is valued. 

Taking a breath at the end of a mad morning, I looked up to see one member of the group coming towards me with a sandwich and a jelly. "Hey, Miss", she said: "I bought you lunch". The sun came out; the hassle of the morning melted away. It was exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment.

Since starting this, I have made myself perform at least one RAK a day. It has started to change my whole outlook. I am now actively thinking: "what can I do to make someone feel good? What can I do to help?" Sometimes it is as simple as today: just letting someone with fewer groceries go in front of me in the queue; sometimes it involves me going right out of my way. 

It has opened up new opportunities, too. I recently helped to fund a new project on Kickstarter. It's a research-based journal, for teachers, by teachers. I think it's great, so I pledged what bit I can afford to help. I will benefit from having access to it. My students will benefit, more to the point.

Mostly, though, I have noticed that these students' perception has shifted. They are not looking inwards, so much. They are looking outwards, looking to see what they can do to help others. They email me, even in the middle of half term. "RAK OF THE DAY DONE, MISS!" One emailed me today to say she'd managed THREE in one day..."I feel good about myself", she wrote. 

I don't think we can underestimate this. This is genuinely helping some of my most vulnerable students feel empowered. In the words of one: "Miss, for the first time in my life,  I really feel as though I have something to offer". 

So we'll keep on doing it, then.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

What matters

Recently, one of my students ended up shuttling between her nan, in one hospital and her mum, in another. Shattered by lack of sleep and worry - her mum, although in remission, is still seriously ill - she came into school.

I'd emailed staff, asking for lenience with homework deadlines, not really thinking that I would need to ask for people to be a little more aware that here was one very tired and emotional child, who was trying to focus on her GCSE courses.

And then, at break time, she came to me, tears weighing heavily in the corner of her eyes. "What's the matter?" I asked. She wiped her eyes, took a deep breath and smiled at me. "I'm ok now", she said. Respecting her need to cope, I didn't press her, but I didn't have to: into my classroom piled three furious students, all of whom were outraged that she had been, in their eyes, ridiculed in class. They told me that the teacher in question had said that "we all know you've got problems", before declaring that she, too, had problems, but that she did not bring them into school. 

Well, of course not: she is an adult. 

Now, of course, this went further and, to be quite honest, I never did get to the bottom of it. Quite what was, things like this are very subjective. It is entirely possible that the students took it  the wrong way; that the teacher didn't mean it the way it obviously came across...

Nevertheless, it got me to thinking: the relationship between this student and this teacher is broken. Whatever that teacher meant, the student - and her fantastic and very supportive friends - genuinely feel that she was ridiculed in front of the group. 

Now, ok, that isn't the end of this story and there are measures in place to attempt to redress this disconnect, but that's not why I'm writing about this.

What we say, matters.

What we say, matters for a very long time. Just think about it from your point of view: I am still furious about something my Head said to me in September last year - and I am an adult. Most of us can remember comments that stung, from years ago. I still remember the maths lesson that turned me off maths for years, for example, and all because of one sarcastic comment.

It takes a great deal to build a relationship with a student, yet it can be broken with one ill-thought comment, sometimes even with the tone of your voice.

And so often, these are our most vulnerable students, the ones who come to school both to learn and to be loved.

I think we owe it to all of our students to be mindful of the words we say,  not just as we hear them, but as they can be heard. It's not easy to alter your 'inner ear' to hear you as others might, but it is incredibly important. 

It's a huge ask, I know: not only are you an educator, comforter, sanction-giver, shoulder to cry on; also have to be an expert in language and paralinguistics. I know of no other job with such unbelievable demands. But these are the demands: these are what we signed up for - and we owe it, both to ourselves and to our students, to do our very best to meet them, day in, day out.

I know this particular student would very much appreciate it.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

The one

I have spent the last three days in a very small room, examining the Speaking and Listening component of the iGCSE English qualification. I have heard a huge range of individual speeches, ranging from "I hate the way people eat", from a normally mild-mannered student (trust me: I am NEVER going to eat anywhere near her!) to a really fascinating and thoughtful piece on gender stereotyping in children's toys. 

And then, on Friday, just before lunch, I popped my head around the waiting room door and there he was. One student who I knew was absolutely dreading this and who found it unbelievably difficult to talk to anyone about anything. He has spent the last four and a half years almost silently watching everything that has happened around him. I have taught him for nearly three years and feel privileged to have known him. He, along with this incredible group of students, has taught me far more than I have ever taught them.  But now, faced with him, I am worried. I know his TA has spent ages with him on this. But I also know how difficult he finds extending his thoughts. We sit down and I say, cheerily: "let's treat this as a test run. I'll put the recording thing on, because it would be maddening if you ace it and I wasn't recording it, but it doesn't matter - we can do this as many times as we need to". He is white-faced and shaking and, to be honest, I feel awful. I wish I could tell him there is an alternative. But there isn't. We start.

I say my spiel into the microphone and smile encouragingly at him. He starts, with his mouth as closed as it can be without rendering him completely silent. I move the nifty little microphone-thing closer to him, praying that it won't put him off. He raises one eloquent eyebrow at me, but continues. He hates school. He hates the irrelevance of it...I sit there, silently sympathising with him and grateful that he knows I am agreeing with much of what he says. He talks about being bullied...about feeling insignificant and worthless. He talks about feeling invisible. And, somewhere in this process, I start to realise that he is actually going to do this thing, first time. I sneak a look at the time counter - he's over the two minute mark! He is extending his points, explaining his feelings...and, to my utter horror, I feel my eyes pricking and one lone tear begins its journey down my cheek.

When he'd finished and I'd stopped the recording, his first thought was for me. "Miss, are you ok?" He said. "Is your back hurting?" I told him how amazing he was and listed all the things he'd done: "you extended your points, so that means you explained how you feel, and what it meant when you were made fun of", I explained. "You used emphasis on some words and you paused so that I would notice some of the important points you made". He looked pleased. "Did I do well?" he asked. "You did more than well...I am so, so proud of you. I know you didn't want to do this and I am so proud and impressed that you have done such a good job". He smiled at me and then left me speechless: "It was worth not sleeping last night, then", he said.  

It mattered. This student, whose target is an E...who won't achieve a C, who won't figure on the school's league tables...this mattered to him to the extent that he lost a night's sleep worrying about it.

I love my job. It matters to me that every student I teach feels that they can achieve in my subject. It matters to me that they feel safe enough to take risks. I hate it that, according to the Government, they are only the sum of their results.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sat in a restaurant in Lisbon, Portugal, talking to the incredible Nancy Dana.  I remember having a debate with her and another colleague and saying to her that, at the end of the day, what we do boils down to that lone student, that one student. 

For me, last Friday absolutely encapsulated everything I was trying to say. I had many fantastic speeches that day, but nothing came anywhere near this one. In that moment, I was more proud of him than my own children, if I'm honest. 

We all talk a lot about progress. We talk about data, too. But it is worth remembering, in a sea of data, acronyms and expectations, that this process is about that one student, that individual student...and that, irrespective of however many students we have to teach, every single one of them is the most important we have ever had.

Saturday, 24 January 2015


A couple of weeks ago, a colleague used the word "Mastery" in a meeting, then stopped, looked at me  with a lopsided grin and said: "force of habit. Sorry - I know you hate that word". Another colleague chuckled and everyone shared 'aww, what is she like?' looks. The next time the opportunity to use it arrived, she hastily amended it from what she was originally going to say: "and that leads to mastery in the classroom" to the ever-so-slightly more vague "and that leads to, uh, great stuff happening". But she'd changed it. And she'd changed it for me.

She shouldn't have. Oh sure, she should have changed it, but not because someone else didn't like it -  she should have changed it for other, much more valid reasons. But before I go any further, I want to check the etymology of this word and see where it leads me.

.. mastery (n.) Look up mastery at
early 13c., mesterie, "condition of being a master," also "superiority, victory;" from Old French maistrie, from maistre "master" (see master (n)).
Ok, so... Master: .late Old English mægester "one having control or authority," from Latin magister (n.) "chief, head, director, teacher" (source of Old French maistre, French maître, Spanish and Italian maestro, Portuguese mestre, Dutch meester, German Meister), contrastive adjective ("he who is greater") from magis (adv.) "more," from PIE *mag-yos-, comparative of root *meg- "great" (see mickle). Form influenced in Middle English by Old French cognate maistre. In academic senses (from Medieval Latin magister) it is attested from late 14c., originally a degree conveying authority to teach in the universities. 

What does it mean, then, to master?  master (v.) Look up master at
early 13c., "to get the better of," from master (n.) and also from Old French maistrier, from Medieval Latin magistrare. Meaning "to reduce to subjugation" is early 15c.; that of "to acquire complete knowledge" is from 1740s. Related: Masteredmastering.

Three things leap out at me from these words:
1) the connotations of mastery are entirely male.
2) Mastery has to do with subjugation.
3) Mastery is concerned with "complete knowledge".

It is no accident that so much of our academic language - particularly the soundbite language - has so many male connotations. There may be more female teachers than male, but the gender balance of teachers is largely irrelevant. The gender balance of social engineers and policy makers, however, may be a whole lot more relevant! I do not believe, by the way, that they are sitting in darkened chambers, glass of port in one hand, ornately-carved pipe in the other, evilly plotting the dominance of masculine language in education. I simply believe that no-one much thinks about the language they are using. In true soundbite fashion, as long as it sounds good, baby: it's in.

This lack of accuracy over language use starts to cause problems quite quickly.  I spoke to a teacher a few weeks ago who used the word 'mastery' and the phrase 'growth mindset' in the same sentence. Well now, hang on a minute: you can't have Mastery if you believe in a growth mindset. As a quick peek at the etymology shows, Mastery is inextricably bound up with "complete knowledge". If you promote the "growth mindset" approach, then you're going to have to leave that word, Mastery, behind, I'm afraid. 

I don't understand why we are so reluctant to be as precise as we can with the language we use. Imagine the maths teacher: "James, what is the sum of 3 and 8?
James: "Umm, 10, Miss"
Sally: "No it isn't, it's 12!"
Miss: "yeah...either is fine".

Why are we so careless with our language when we know how powerful it can be? Why are we so happy to use a word that sounds good, without even considering what it means, what its connotations might be? 

I do not want my daughter growing up with language that, however subconsciously, defines and reinforces a gender stereotype that is not conducive to her dreams, her goals and her view of herself as a strong, independent individual PERSON. I don't want my children, or my students -male or female - to grow up with language being used so carelessly around them. I do not want my teenage students growing up, having had the belief ingrained into them that anything that is great, anything that leads the way, anything that subjugates and oppresses, is male. It perpetuates divisions; it perpetuates dominance; it perpetuates subjugation. And that cannot be A Good Thing.

I also do not want my students, or my children, growing up with the belief that language really isn't all that valuable, or important. Words, meanings, are interchangeable, valuable only if they sound good. Teach children to devalue language at your peril: our society, our culture, with all its richness and diversity, will be all the poorer for it.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

An unexpected gift.

Just before Christmas, I was shopping with my mum and children in a large outlet shop in Ross on Wye. We'd got bored with retail and wanted lunch. I found a table, then went up to the Fish Bar, to order my children a bucket of prawns. 

Well, there were several people waiting. I zoned out and waited until I became aware that the lady in front of me - a diminutive lady in her 80's - was in trouble. I handed her a menu. "Oh that won't work", she said. "I'm blind". The girl behind the counter gave me a "help me" look and I shrugged. I wasn't in any hurry, for a change. So I said "it's ok - I'll take her over to the sandwich bar". I ordered two buckets of prawns, promised to return to pay, and offered the elderly lady my arm. 

I took her over to the right area and, in doing so, I learned that, when she was younger, she was responsible for training teachers in North Wales. How funny - I am a teacher and fascinated with research. She was an incredibly interesting lady. We stood and talked of life, love won and lost, the death of her husband and how painful the festive season was for her.  I asked her to have lunch with us but also said to her that it wasn't a problem if she felt more comfortable with her thoughts. 

Now, here's the thing: when I offered to help her, I was only thinking about her. About how awful it must be not to be able to see. About how vulnerable she must feel. But, when I'd finished helping her and was wandering around the shop, wondering about Christmas gifts for people...I felt twenty feet tall.

I didn't help her for that reason. Ordinarily, I am an intensely reserved individual. I try not to get emotionally involved and am intensely uncomfortable with any physical contact, even from my mother. I can just about cope with hugs from my children, but only because I know that it's important.

Helping this lady unlocked a part of me I didn't recognise. I felt incredible: I felt as though I could breathe again - I felt 'clean'.

I have heard of the 'Random Acts of Kindness' movement. I have never done anything about it. Next week, I am setting a small group of Year 10's the challenge of thinking of and carrying out Random Acts of Kindness...signing themselves RAK - and keeping very quiet about it.

It will be interesting to see what comes of it. 

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Real World?

'Walking up the corridor yesterday, I overheard a snippet of an exchange between a colleague and a student. The bit that made me both grin and grimace was: "School is here to prepare you for the real world". (The gist of the exchange was something along the lines of: so this is why you need to do this thing that you don't want to do, and do it without causing hassle, please). does school prepare anyone for the real world? 

First of all, I can't think, for the moment, of anywhere else where you are grouped by age to perform a task. Can you imagine it? "Ok, will all workers born between July 1970 and September 1971 please come to assembly line 2 and start working on the ducks". Things get even more bizarre if you start narrowing them further, as we do when we set by ability: "Will all those who passed their test with an A, please go to room 1, where they will be labelling the ducks".

Secondly, think abut the school day. Bells mark the beginning and end of lessons, but essentially, students spend their time moving between a series of unrelated activities. The bell urges them to discard whatever activity they have been working on, whether they have completed it or not. How does this prepare a student for the real world? All this does is teach them that the value is not in the task, but in the timetable.

Thirdly, the examination system. This is an interesting one. In the 'real world', we, as workers, often collaborate on a project. We share ideas, discuss deadlines; we draft and re-draft. We use and acknowledge other people's input. And our examination system is going in precisely the opposite direction, suitable only for those who can 'do' exams.

Back in the mists of last term, I heard a student being soundly told off for bringing in a whole bunch of work that he'd printed off the internet. I won't bore you with the long disagreement the students and staff member had about it, but I remember thinking that it was a bit rough: we use research like that all the time. He had simply gone to Google, found 5 or 6 different sites that matched what he was looking for and was going to use that information to help him to write an essay. He wasn't going to plagiarise it - he was going to employ precisely the skills that we all use: information selection, retrieval; re-phrasing, linking evidence to a particular point; re-structuring and sequencing...why on earth he was in trouble was completely beyond me. And what he was doing was far better preparation for the 'real world', where we do this, or a version of this, all the time.

"Sir, can I use my phone to find out X?" 
"Absolutely not! You know you're not allowed phones in class".

Well, that's helpful! So John Holt is still right, then: “It's a nutty notion that we can have a place where nothing but learning happens, cut off from the rest of life.” 

Why are we still locked in a 20th Century approach to technology? Can you imagine that happening in the 'real world'?  

"Umm, boss, I can help us to improve productivity by 5% per annum, but I'll need to use the Internet."
"Absolutely not! Work it out for yourself, Hodgkins!"

I hear a great deal  of talk about preparing our children for the real world, but I don't understand how our school system actually does that. I have a strong suspicion that it doesn't and that the educational system, as Holt memorably suggested, has a "vested interest in children’s dependency and incompetence". I think it is high time re re-evaluated precisely how 'we' are preparing our young people for adulthood.

John Holt: Free the Children: they need room to grow. Psychology Today (1974)

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Getting it wrong.

Inspired by a tweet of @oldandrewuk, I thought back to the lows of last year. It has taken a great deal of time to write this and I have had to face a few facts about myself along the way, but, personal lows aside, here is my offering: 

I got a lot wrong last year. Even when I got things right, I managed to get their implementation wrong. I read a few key people wrongly, trusted someone I shouldn't have and spent much time reflecting on my many mistakes.

Any decent teacher is a reflective teacher. It's not the only thing that makes them good, but it seems to be a common thread running through all of the decent teachers I have encountered. Partly because of that, I'd say that reflective teachers run the risk of being too self-critical. I have lost count of the amount of otherwise confident and positive people who, when reflecting on their teaching, reduce themselves to the sum of their mistakes. Far from this being a useful tool, it paralyses people. For this reason, when I reflect, I try hard to find a way to turn a negative into a positive. It can be very hard to do, sometimes.

Towards the end of last term I spent some time with my KS3 groups, reflecting on the term and on the way that we were working. I had used a mixture of a Flipped and Blended Learning approach, although I had not, at this stage, tackled the question of assessment: the Department standardised task stayed in place. All three groups told me that this was a mistake. And it was. In fact, in the case of my Year 9 group, it really hampered everything they were doing. All term, they'd had a great deal of freedom. All term they had risen to the task magnificently. And then I stopped them and told them they 'had' to do this task and they 'had' to do it this way. They didn't like it. "Can't I focus on different poems?" enquired one student. "Err, no", I responded. He squinted at me. "Hang on, miss: we've just spent the whole term exploring Sir Ken Robinson's Ted Talks; we've looked at the Hackschooling Ted talk; we've explored education and what it actually means for us - and now we have to do this one thing and we have to do it this one way?"

I stood there, 32 pairs of eyes looking at me, and I said: "You're right. But we have to do this standardised test". I knew what was coming next and I also knew That "I've been told to" wasn't a good enough answer: "But why?" he said.

Into the silence came the voice of my Y9 ICT expert. "Miss", he began. "You know us, don't you?". I looked at him, a bit baffled. "If I asked you to predict our results for this assessment, how accurate do you think you would be?" 

You know that moment? When the lightbulb explodes above your head? That happened to me, just then. I looked at my Year 9 group and realised that, if I predicted their results, I would probably get it about 95% right. What on earth was the point of a test that simply confirmed my own assessment? And, more than that - the assessment wouldn't even give me an accurate picture of my students' skills and knowledge: it would more likely give me an accurate assessment of who was good at assessments and who wasn't. I already know that! Those who were good at assessments would do well; those who panicked would do less well than they should. Three students in that group would bomb the assessment altogether, yet they are among my top 5 student in terms of thinking skills, analytical skills and written flair. Faced with an assessment, well, it all goes wrong. (We are working on it, with GCSE in mind, but it's a worry).

The whole way I've been assessing students has been niggling away at me for a while. While I've been trying to organise my Flipped Classroom, with all the related ICT issues, I have put it to one side. Oh I've been assessing them - and they've been assessing each other and themselves, too. But I hadn't really sat down and got to the heart of assessment and what I wanted it to look like in my class. But, faced with this group of students, I knew I owed it to them to deal with it. We discussed how else we could do it. We looked, in depth, at assessment and whether we should have it at all, then we focused on the idea of a Personal Best system and whether that would be a better approach.

I'll be honest: we did the standardised task. I wrote my 'guess' about each student's grade down, in my e-mark book, before they wrote their essay. I got one wrong. Out of all of the Year 9 group, I judged one student as a 6b when, in fact, she achieved a 6c. It was a deeply sobering lesson about the nature and value of assessment and it has forced me to re-evaluate, completely, the assessment I use and the reasons I use it. 

Next term, I will, I hope, learn from my mistakes. I have a great deal of formative assessment going on in my classroom and, I am reasonably confident, that is a good thing. But when it comes to summative assessment, I really struggle. David Didau, a man for whom I have the greatest of respect, opines: "Maybe I’m being dense but I really struggle with the idea the summative assessment is useful for anything other than providing data on students’ (and teachers’) success and failure." I couldn't agree more. My only problem is that, right now, my students are going to be judged on a narrow and prescriptive set of criteria. To a certain extent, then, we have to 'play the game'. And this is making me increasingly uncomfortable.

Some - maybe most - of you will be wondering why on earth I didn't think it through much sooner. I haven't got an answer for that. All I can say is that I was so eaten up with all the preparation, the forward planing and video creation for the Flipped approach that I sidelined the assessment part of it. Even writing that, I am wincing. How could I have neglected to consider whether I was going to make changes to the assessment part of it?

I'm still not 100% happy with the way I am approaching assessment. I'm still not sure I am 'doing it right'. All I can say is that, this time, I am really, seriously, thinking about it.

Lesson learned. 

If you've been reading, Happy New Year.