Wednesday, 11 December 2013

I Don’t Know How To Start...

Imagine a world without imagination. How plodding and prosaic life would be without the opportunity to envisage something other. How dreary our dreams would be if they reflected nothing but reality. Imagine your hopes, your fantasies, your deepest desires - and then imagine them no more.

We would grow stale. Stagnate. Original thought would shrivel and die, leaving us devoid of invention, innovation, art, music and literature. We wouldn’t dare to strive for something better. We would not seek to improve, develop or grow; we’d lack the facility to do so.

It’s a nightmare scenario. Only in this world of our creating, there would be no nightmares.

Welcome to my Y10 English class.

They are an able and eager bunch. They’re not wonderfully gifted, nor without literary pretensions. Realistically, they’re likely to achieve Cs – although I’ve told them their reach must exceed their grasp (they love a hoary old cliché). Problem is, they have absolutely no imagination. None.

We’re about to start the ‘Moving Images’ controlled assessment: produce a piece of writing inspired by a still image from a film. They can write anything – description, narrative, monologue, poetry, script - from a perspective of their choosing.

Except they can’t; they “don’t know what to write about”.

I have attempted to address this. A practice piece was based on Simon Armitage’s poem Out of the Blue, which every pupil re-interpreted as a first person perspective from the POV of a character trapped in the World Trade Centre on 9/11. I encouraged such a focus, even producing model paragraphs and responses which did something similar.

This was a mistake.

Not only did they steal the essence of my narrative, but they lifted lines verbatim from my work. It was shameless. I forgave them, realising that I had been too prescriptive. The source material was too narrow. I’d given them the answers.  I’d not allowed their imaginations to run wild. I would not make the same mistakes again.

This time, we have studied various elements of the horror genre – short stories by Poe, prose by Susan Hill, films like Pan’s Labyrinth. We’ve reviewed movies, written practice paragraphs, explored figurative language, looked at planning techniques and filled our editor’s toolkit with techniques from Steven King. We are ready.

I have collated images from various films: monsters, scenery, creatures, people. Pupils can select their own source material. The movie stills range from Guillermo del Toro’s aforementioned masterpiece to The Shining, Beetlejuice, Let The Right One In – even Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is an option.
It hasn’t made one iota of difference. They don’t know what to write. They haven’t got any ideas. They don’t know how to start.

Whose fault is this? I’d like to think it’s not mine. I reflected and remedied what went wrong first time around, but maybe I’m still making mistakes. Maybe it’s the school’s fault for focusing for so long on language rather than literature. Maybe it’s our educational system creating pupil-automatons conditioned only to pass exams.

My suspicion is that it’s their fault. Their imagination has atrophied, withering year on year as they move further from a childhood of play and invention to a teenage where imagination is replaced with computer games, social networking and I’m A Celebrity. Their palm-sized smartphones connect them to the world automatically, requiring little cognitive effort – a far more convenient way of engaging with the ‘outside’ than through the cumbersome chore of reading a book or engaging in a genuine exchange of ideas with a flesh-and-blood human being.

It’s a trite and obvious conclusion, but if our children read more books and spent less time alone with their gadgets, maybe this malaise might be alleviated? But how can we encourage them to engage with the world, to dare to dream, to fantasise? We are bombarded with stories telling us that Britain is Broken, but we have to convince our pupils – and ourselves that this is the case. Only I don’t know how to start.

If you have any tips on helping me overcome this problem I’d love to hear them! Add them to the comments or tweet me @PGCEng

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Should People In Ivory Towers Throw So Many Stones?

On Friday night David Didau, the esteemed and highly regarded teacher, blogger and author of The Perfect Ofsted English Lesson, became embroiled in a contretemps with Rob Ward, a newly qualified teacher of little repute. The flare-up occurred as a result of the tweet below, rumbled on for hours and involved many educationalists with influential online presences.

The tweet was posted after Rob had spent approximately three hours listlessly flicking through the collection of class texts in his school’s KS3 cupboard. He had already dismissed Room 13 by Robert Swindells (on account of it being shit) and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (because the few copies available were unavailable). He had toyed with spending his own money on copies of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English (but is skint because it’s Christmas), but then discovered a box stuffed to the gills with JK Rowling’s tale of a wannabe wizard. Hence the tweet – and the row which ensued.

Feeling more than a little aggrieved at the way his innocent request for input was interpreted and the way he was personally attacked, Rob wrote a letter to the Right Honourable David Didau. Sadly, Rob did not know to which ivory tower he should address his missive – hence its online publication…

Dear David,
               I wonder whether you might think more carefully in future about how you choose the targets for your opprobrium? You’ve been following me on Twitter for a while now and have communicated amicably with me in the past, so I’m sure you are aware that I am newly qualified. If you were unaware, maybe you might have noticed my username; I was inordinately proud of dreaming up ‘EngQT’ to signal my status and would be distraught to think that others were not marvelling at my clever wordplay. Regardless, I did make it abundantly plain in my communication with you last night that I had been teaching for just three months. That your vitriolic messages were not tempered by this knowledge speaks ill of you.

Worse, however, was the dogmatic, inflexible and stubborn manner in which you chose to make your point.

You clearly don’t believe that Harry Potter will assume a prominent place in our literary heritage. You don’t believe it is ‘exceptional’. You wouldn’t add JK Rowling to the pantheon of great British authors. You don’t believe I, or anyone else, should be teaching it. All valid points of view, all of which I fully understand – and some of which I totally agree with.

But here’s the rub, David. You didn’t ask me to what end I was selecting my class reader. You made no effort to find out what the objectives of my teaching would be. You don’t have the faintest idea who is in my class. And you attacked me without making any attempt to discover these salient and relevant points.

Let me enlighten you. My class are adorable, and I love teaching them. They are very, very weak – working below L3 in reading and writing. Of the thirteen children in my class, three attend fewer than half of my lessons thanks to their ill-discipline and poor attendance. I have no support in these lessons whatsoever. I have formed a great attachment to them and them to me. I am absolutely determined to secure L4 for all of them before they leave my class. And I will.

I am completely convinced that they would read the texts you advocated. They would launch themselves into Dickens (and would probably be familiar with the story of Oliver Twist already). They would have a good stab at Oedipus the King. But both of these texts would be too hard for them.

I tweeted you last night with the first paragraph from both Harry Potter and Oliver Twist. Here they are again.

Potter’s a bit prosaic, eh? Perhaps a little dull. Certainly it can’t hold a candle to Twist. You are correct – we can learn an awful lot from Dickens.

But you don’t know what I want my Y7s to learn, do you? At the moment, my number one aim is to get them to write coherent sentences which start with a capital letter and end in a full stop. If I want to use a class text as a model for this, The Philosopher’s Stone provides clear examples of how to do so. Rowling might not be the greatest author the world has ever seen, but she provides sentences which my Y7s might genuinely be able to emulate.

Do you believe they could write sentences like the one Dickens opens Oliver Twist with? That paragraph is just one long sentence. It’s one which I would LOVE them to write. But it is beyond them right now. What use is it providing them with examples such as these? How confusing it would be. How alienated they would feel.

You made a massive assumption last night. A false one. You assumed that when I said I wanted ‘accessible’ texts, you thought I was referring to ‘easy’ ones. I was not. I was speaking of texts which were difficult enough to stretch them.  And because I know my class, I know that Harry Potter would be a less difficult gap to bridge than that between their current reading level and Charles Dickens.

Your snobbishness also irked me here. You airily dismissed the teaching of texts which pupils could access at home, believing that we should only teach them what they cannot otherwise access. For better or worse, we use the Accelerated Reader programme at school. On average, my pupils are reading books at level four on the AR scale. They read these for thirty minutes at home each day (if they are good little boys and girls). Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is a level six on the AR scale; this is a title which will stretch them. Oliver Twist is a level eleven.

I am sure you can deconstruct/dismiss my understanding of Vygotsky and ZPD, but my impression was that pupils learning best occurred when children are called upon to perform at the very edge of what they are already capable of? My professional judgement is that Harry Potter and the work I set them to do on the novel would be more likely to achieve this than Oliver Twist.

This is where you became particularly sneering and dismissive of me. Your constant assertion that learning is supposed to be ‘hard’ was not particularly troubling – although you failed to take into account that there is a difference between being ‘hard’ and ‘too hard’. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but if work is ‘too hard’ will learners not become disenchanted? Evolution is an incremental process, and I am trying to ‘evolve’ these youngsters into confident writers and readers. Throwing them in at the deep end (apologies for the mixed metaphor) is likely to see the majority sink rather than swim.

As for your assertion that “being satisfied with what they can do isn’t really teaching”: thanks. Thanks for being so condescending, insulting and obnoxious. I am not an idiot, David. I know what teaching is; I am a teacher.

I am also self-aware enough to know that I am not a fully-formed educator. I am learning. For that reason, I often seek advice on Twitter from more experienced colleagues. I am happy to take advice on board and was delighted that many people offered excellent advice and tips on alternative texts or approaches to making the literary cannon more ‘accessible/easy’ (delete to suit your bias).

What upset me most of all was your flagrant disregard for my circumstances. I’m not entirely sure whether it was ignorance, lack or empathy or just a personal agenda, but the below tweet was a real low in a succession of dismissive tweets:

There are a number of reasons why I take particular issue with this tweet. Firstly, and forgive me for repeating myself, I am new to teaching. I have never taught a full novel to anyone. I freely and publicly admitted that I would find teaching Dickens to this class very difficult. And I stand by that. It’s a massive book and, at present, I genuinely would not know where to start. Nobody has ever told me how to condense such a weighty tome into manageable chunks. Nobody has ever advised me on how to make some of the language more understandable. Differentiation is the part of the job I find most difficult. I am shocked that you find that shocking.

Secondly, I didn’t say Dickens is “too challenging to attempt”. That makes me sound like some kind of moronic fraudster. I’d gladly teach Dickens to different classes. In fact, I really want to teach his work. Great Expectations is high on my ‘to do’ list – when the time is right. For me and for my pupils.

You’re in a position to offer advice. If you truly believe I should be teaching something with ‘cultural capital’ (a wholly subjective qualification), please provide some advice on how to do this. Many others did, whilst you seemed to relish the opportunity to pursue an agenda at the expense of making me look foolish.

Hectoring (bullying?) me the way you did was a thoughtless and unnecessary abuse of your status. You demonstrated a total lack of empathy and no understanding whatsoever. Your inflexible dogmatism spoke of someone with an agenda to pursue – one which you unfairly pursued at my expense.

I hope this letter causes you to carefully consider the way you communicate your ideas. You might have been nominated for a prestigious bauble, but other opinions are always available.

Yours sincerely.

Rob Ward

PS: I don’t think I was ever likely to teach Harry Potter. I was asking out of curiosity and in the hope that someone would offer a credible alternative.

PPS: I found a middle ground: Animal Farm. I don’t care if you approve or not.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Why It Matters To Me

My face is drawn and sallow. Wiry white hairs protrude from my beard. My eyes hide in darkly cavernous recesses. My gym-hardened body has become softer, doughier. I have had backache for weeks. I've been a teacher for less than two months.

I rise at 5:15am for the double-bus commute to school. A strong coffee is slurped on arrival as I gather resources and double check my lesson plans for the day. I deal with yesterday’s emails, admin and endless requests for data as efficiently as possible, then close down this potential distraction until I feel ready to deal with another barrage of demands on my time.

I deal with the reprobates in my form who simply cannot control themselves despite exhortations from me, their parents and senior leaders. I sign and stamp my Y7 form’s planners, trying my utmost to shower deserved praise on those who are performing so admirably in their first term at big school. Often time constraints prevent this, which saddens me.

I teach. I teach to the very best of my ability and, modesty aside, sometimes I am marvellous. Momentarily I feel I have finally cracked it; broken through and become the brilliant practitioner I aspire to be. My pupils amaze me with their insight, empathy and ability. Behaviour is spectacularly good, they learn loads, they love me – and I love them in return.

More often than I’d like, I am awful. I am thrown early on by a room change, an incident, a distraction. I never wrestle the lesson back from its shaky start. Or they don’t get it. Occasionally they are bored. Often, I doubt myself. Sometimes I sulk. Always, I punish myself.

Maybe I care too much. Maybe I should relax a little more. I should definitely stop being so hard on myself. But I really, really fucking care.

I rarely leave school before five. I almost always work when I get home. My weekend lasts just one day: on Sundays I plan. I have 20% PPA time and it isn’t enough. I have 24 lessons to prepare. Six class’ worth of marking to do. Three subjects to teach. I have numerous shortcuts to help me in all these areas and I am getting faster, but the fundamental problem remains: I am inexperienced and everything is new to me. Things take me longer. I recycle, I borrow, and occasionally I improvise. But sometimes I need to learn something myself before I can teach it to someone else. I don’t know the mark scheme by heart. I can’t level a piece of work by looking at it. Not yet. 

I am seen as competent and confident by my peers and superiors. They trust me and my ability. I’m heartened by this. I take pride in it. The pupils speak highly of me. But I’m like a swan, gliding serenely over the water’s surface, my legs pedalling and kicking furiously, hidden beneath the calm exterior.

I am not unique. I am not a martyr. I am not special in any way. There are thousands like me.

I do this job because it is worthwhile. It’s essential. It matters. I do it for all the selfless reasons you do it. And I know you do it because only a committed, caring, conscientious teacher would spend their leisure time reading an article written by a colleague.

But I also do it for selfish reasons. It validates me. It makes me feel valued and valuable. I came to teaching in my thirties, having earned better money in mind-numbing, spirit-crushing jobs which ended when they ended - and asked nothing of me but my minimum.

So when the DfE, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings or anyone else suggests that PRP will improve my performance, that an unqualified teacher might be better than me, that my students’ genetic make-up determines their fate, that there are very few talented teachers, that I am ‘gaming’ the system, that my PPA time might be threatened, that I leave work at 3pm or any number of the many  insulting, insidious and pejoratively poisonous statements they make, my blood boils and I ask myself this simple question:

Why don’t they come and watch us work?

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Chumming The Waters

Attainment in my placement school is significantly below the national average. Behaviour is generally abysmal. An overwhelming sense of apathy pervades the student populace - despite the best efforts of a committed, passionate and enthusiastic English department. Sadly, the efforts of these wonderful teachers see them swimming futilely against a tide of myopic management and poorly applied policies which undermine them at every stroke.

I have been thrown into this sea of mediocrity like chum for sharks - those rapacious pupils fully aware that I am fresh meat for them to chew up and spit out. It's a hugely difficult position to be in, and one in which I have oscillated wildly between flourishing and floundering.

In the main, I have stringently adhered to the school's behavioural code of conduct. This sees a verbal warning for pupils who warrant one, followed by a pair of written comments in their planners for subsequent misdemeanours - and a ten minute detention. A third comment is accompanied by a room-removal and an hour after school. Further (or more serious) crimes result in time spent on Miss Trunchbull's chokey (aka inclusion). Pretty standard stuff.

Unfortunately, this policy is not worth the paper it's written on. There are numerous reasons for this which can be easily summarised:
  1. The school day finishes at 14:45pm to accommodate ten minute detentions before school buses take the pupils home - meaning it's not really a detention at all.
  2. There is no cumulative process for totting up 'comments' other than a detention if you garner twelve documented instances of bad behaviour in a week.
  3. Pupils do not give a shiny shite if they are given an hour's detention, often bragging or boasting about them to their peers - before failing to turn up and serve their punishment.
  4. Behaviour on corridors goes largely unregulated, with phones and fights to the fore.
  5. SLT's selective vision leads them to describe behaviour as 'outstanding'.
  6. SLT's wilful blindness/self-delusion annoys staff and leaves them feeling abandoned and powerless.
  7. Abandoned and powerless staff are easily identified by students who subsequently take advantage wherever possible.
I'm sure this scenario is familiar to many of you. But for a student teacher, these problems are magnified tenfold. We are seen as a weak link. An adult figure they can toy with and test. And they are absolutely right - we are virgins waiting to be defiled.

So, despite my misgivings about the policy's shortcomings, I have soldiered on. Behaviour in my classes is now significantly better than it was. In some cases my pupils behave better for more than for their own teachers. But at what cost to me? I have a few weeks left in this placement school and feel that my teaching has suffered significantly - i haven't had the opportunity to sharpen and hone my pedagogical skills in the way I'd have liked, thanks largely to the constant demands of behaviour management and the time it has stolen from actual teaching.

I know that managing my classroom is a huge part of the job. But I also know that my placement would have proved a far more valuable experience were I (and my colleagues) not constantly undermined by a horrendous culture of poor behaviour which is tolerated, ignored and, dare I say it, encouraged by appalling mismanagement from those who profess to be the shining beacns of excellence and good practice.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Want An AfL Essay?

Unlike the majority of fresh-from-university PGCE students on my course, my greatest fear has not been teaching, lesson-planning or workload. It has been 'academia' and the horrors of essay writing: I was never the most assiduous of students and left university more than ten years ago. My dissertation on digital music technologies seems like a vision of the future now (it made various salient predictions about file-sharing which have come true) but in academic terms it was a bit shit. So imagine my surprise when my 6000-word masters-level essay was returned to me with a score of 85/90.

The essay is about AfL and is centred on a critique of three lessons I taught on reviewing The Woman In Black. The lesson plans and anonymised samples of pupils' work are included in the appendices. I received particular praise for my varied references which include the obvious Ofsted and Dylan William quotes, but also more up-to-date references from the likes of Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit, Claire Gadsby and Ian Gilbert (@ThatIanGilbert).

If you have a similar essay to write, a particular interest in AfL, wanna read it for your own CPD or just want to be nosy, the essay can be read by clicking the below link. I hope it's of use to someone.

A Critique Of Assessment For Learning: A Case Study

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Blissful/Wilful Ignorance

On the first day in my current placement school, the ITT co-ordinator made it abundantly clear that behaviour in his school was 'not a problem' despite the deprived inner-city catchment area from which his school draws its pupils. Barely ten minutes later he was shakily trying to convince me that the child threatening to break a member of staff's nose and calling him a 'fucking cunt' was an anomaly rather than the norm. I smelt a rat.

Of course, the abominable behaviour I had just witnessed might well have been exceptional rather than typical. But supposing it wasn't (and subsequent experience has confirmed this), what could possibly explain the reason for my being so badly misinformed. It seems that there are two possibilities:
  1. I was being lied to.
  2. The ITT co-ordinator was lying to himself.
Perversely, I wish I could believe I was being spun a yarn. At least if I was being lied to it would indicate that the school knew it had a problem and was ashamed or embarrassed by it. Sadly, I genuinely believe that SLT are unaware quite how appalling the conduct of their students really is.

In the last few weeks a member of staff has been assaulted, a school trip saw a pupil spray a member of museum staff in the face with hairspray and numerous fights and scuffles have broken out in classrooms and corridors. Every lesson is a battle of wills between teacher and students, and the atmosphere among the staff is one of resignation.

But apparently behaviour is fine.

The leadership team in this school either have selective myopia or are fucking stupid. And given that they've managed to rise through the ranks to assume senior positions, I think it's safe to assume that they are not idiots. So what are the reasons for their myriad blindspots?

Perhaps I'm being a presumptuous young pup in thinking I can diagnose their problems. I probably am. But I have a fresh set of eyes and recent experience of working in two very different schools. I am not jaded and have not become acclimatised to the atmosphere and culture of the school - so maybe my observations are valid?

Firstly, I'd suggest that in order to see what's going on in their school, leaders ought to put their iPads down and look around them. Having an Apple product does not make you impressive in the eyes of anyone: they're tablet computers, not the tablets of stone God gave Moses. Talk to people instead of messaging them. Look your staff in the eye rather than taking notes on your little computer. Cast your eyes around your corridors and classrooms instead of staring into your 7" screens.

Of course, in order to cast your eyes around the corridors, you must first set foot on them. Get out of your offices and get into your school. Be a visible presence. Back up your staff. And don't bullshit us that behaviour on corridors is not a problem when there is no way you can know this thanks to your absolute absence from them.

And who told you that behaviour in classrooms was good? It isn't. It's awful. Your presence in observed lessons is not an accurate reflection of anything: your attendance in those lessons is hugely influential. Why not try wandering into some lessons randomly? Or being on the corridors during lesson time to back-up your staff when they might need some assistance. Cowardly cowering in the safety of your offices might make your life easier, but it makes everyone else's harder. Man the fuck up.

And while i'm on the subject, here's some practical advice you might consider: observe your school's behaviour policy. I'm sure you're aware of it - you devised it. Apply it rigidly and consistently or don't bother at all. Don't make exceptions. Don't renege on your agreements. Don't contradict the staff who have correctly applied it.

I understand that you want to be an 'inclusive' school and you want to keep your pupils on site. But if they don't obey the rules, pupils must be punished fairly and consistently. They will respect you for it. Rather, they have no fear of your sanctions and consequences as they are negotiable. As is stands, you pupils couldn't give a shit about your rules - they openly laugh at the poxy ten minute detentions they face for consistent bad behaviour and know that a spell in inclusion will be over before it begins.

Even a green-behind-the-girls, wet-behind-the-ears PGCE student knows that pupils respect consistency and fairness. Set the rules, enforce the rules, reinforce the teachers at the coal face who are enforcing your rules and do not bend or break. Your school will be better for it. Your pupils will appreciate it. It might make life harder for you at first, but that's why you get paid the big bucks.

And given that i'm on an unpaid work placement, you can have that advice for free.