Catching Up With Good Reads

I’m getting to an age where being invited to other people’s houses fills me with terror. The small talk, the nibbles, the apologies for having to leave early after constantly and surreptitiously checking my watch every ten minutes; my ability to cope with the opinions of others is seriously receding. The concept of the book group is another level of hell. I’m unforgivably very set in my ways and my views. If I like something, I like it; I’m rarely swayed by reviews, whether from friends, strangers or newspapers. But that’s the nature of our tastes. My taste in books is better than yours; same goes with film and music.

It is in that context that I signed up for Goodreads. If you’re unaware of what it is, it’s a Social Media platform for readers, one where we can track what we read and record our progress. There is also scope for ongoing discussion with others and  it is an excellent forum for recommendations. And that’s fine if you like that sort of thing. I’ve not always been that bothered with it but signed up years ago just to see where it would take me. Like most Apps on my phone, however, I forgot all about it. Mostly.

This year has been a little different. In January, when we go through that resolution phase, I signed up to the reading challenge where you give yourself a target number of books to read in the year. I normally hate that sort of thing as it is quite okay if ‘War and Peace’ is the only book you read in a year as opposed to 18 books by Andy McNab or Jeffery Archer. However, I had spent years looking  at shelves of books I had bought and never read. Those were the books I, mostly, put on my list. If I couldn’t read them this year, I would get rid of them.

And it has been fine so far. That long line of neglected books has begun to shrink. That David Sedaris book I bought a couple of years back; finally discovering the joy of Magnus Mills; others that were ‘must-reads’ about five years ago. All moved to the ‘recently read’ shelf. ‘Goodreads’ has, bizarrely, provided a childish sense of achievement as I watch the list decrease and my ‘Reading Challenge’ overcome its targets. I’ve never given myself reading targets before. It has been okay. I do, however, miss  the rediscovered joy of reading an old book from my past; the digression from what I had planned to read to reacquaint myself with an old friend. Re-reading ‘Rabbit, Run’ was my greatest reading pleasure of the year.

The biggest problem is that when I look from my unread books to my newly purchased shelf I seem to have created a whole new, even bigger, pile. Of course I keep buying new books; of course I always will. And of course I’ll go back to reading old ones.

In his book ‘My father and Other Working Class Heroes’, Gary Imlach discusses the problems with televised football. ‘Every goal we see is remembered for us.’ Creating an online record of every book we have ever read creates a similar issue. Forgetting great books and returning to them unexpectedly can be a joyous thing; it can reintroduce you too old friends or enemies. And it reminds us of why reading consists of a lifetime of Good Reads.

Clouds in My Coffee – Being With My Books

In his book ‘Out of My League’ the journalist George Plimpton quotes humorist James Thurber who claimed that ‘every American male falls asleep to the dream of hitting the winning run in baseball.’ In that, he hits upon the very heart of the male psyche. For perhaps we all want to be the hero: scoring a late goal in the cup final, the winning runs at Lords; standing on our classroom desks proclaiming ‘O Captain, My Captain.’ Plimpton wrote about his attempts to live out this childhood fantasy, humiliating himself in the process. Most of us never get that chance. We do, however, identify ourselves in the literary characters we love.

With twenty years of hindsight, I think this may be what connected me to Harry Angstrom all those years ago. The protagonist of John Updike’s ‘Rabbit, Run’, Angstrom has been described as a ‘heroic antihero’, one who stands alone against world. When I first read the books, in my early twenties , I realise now that I foolishly, pretentiously and wholly incorrectly felt that the world had dealt me a dodgy hand, fought against my injustice and saw a kindred spirit in Harry.

That seems to be the power of reading; that we can see ourselves in fictional characters, allowing us to develop some form of empathy, mistakenly or not.

But the character I saw as a rebel, one standing up for himself despite the mistakes he makes, I now see an unconscionable monster: one who damages everyone around him with his cruel behaviour. What was I thinking? Taking time to reread ‘Rabbit, Run’ half a life away has provided an insight into a younger me I perhaps wouldn’t like very much now. Wholly selfish, concerned only with my own place in the world, righting wrongs. What an idiot I was.

Re-Acquainting myself with Harry, all these years later has given me the opportunity to consider how much I’ve changed.

We recently changed our smallest bedroom into a library. A bunch of Billy bookcases, of course, filled to the brim with a lifetime’s collection of old paperbacks, beautifully bound hardbacks and a multitude of travel and photography books. In quieter moments, when I’m alone, I like to run my hands along the spines, feeling the stories within them recalling a younger me, a lifetime ago, when I first picked many of them up and jumped in. Having a library in my home has been, it turns out, a lifetime’s ambition. It’s a small room but it’s ours.

Sitting on the floor, surrounded by a lifetime of reading – a lifetime of friends and enemies, loves and hates, laughter and tears – I realise that books have changed me and I could never have lived with out them. Who needs to be a hero when you’ve got that?

Talking up teaching will help solve recruitment woes

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 11th August 2017)

Recent suggestions that Scotland could soon have a “Teach First” system of teacher training should not come as a surprise. If you haven’t heard of Teach First, it is a charity set up to tackle educational disadvantage in England and Wales. Participants bypass traditional teaching routes to work directly with disadvantaged schools. Graham Donaldson first suggested something similar in his 2011 report, Teaching Scotland’s Future. But he clarified that “routes of this nature could complement” more traditional routes into teaching – and therein, perhaps, lies the rub.

If “traditional” teacher-education routes were still financed and supported as they always were in t

However, despite this “proud tradition”, we are struggling to recruit enough teachers. We have to look at all options now, surely? Well, no. We are struggling for numbers because successive Scottish governments have defunded education to such an extent that it is hardly the attractive profession it once was. And there’s a familiar ploy: defund something until it is barely able to function – then privatise. That’s what it will be: a firm step towards the privatisation of our education system.

So here’s a thought: perhaps making teaching an attractive prospect, not one used as political ping-pong by politicians, will attract graduates. Perhaps highlighting the work of teachers who do amazing things day in, day out, instead of focusing on the negatives, will attract graduates. Perhaps allowing us to showcase the skills we have and our love for the jobs we do will attract graduates. Perhaps paying us properly will attract graduates.

And another thing: please stop saying that Teach First-type routes attract “high-quality graduates”. That’s an insult to every teacher I know – all of them already high-quality graduates.

I don’t understand our willingness to accept the degradation of our teachers in society. We chose this profession because we wanted to change the world for the children we teach. We turn up every day, despite seemingly constant criticism from all sides. There are clearly recruitment issues, but there are simple ways to solve that. Open up and fund ITE programmes properly, don’t erode them until they disappear. Because that’s what will happen – believe me.

Time – our most valuable resource.

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 23rd June 2017)

It is difficult to talk to fellow teachers about real change in Scottish Education without coming across the thorny topic of Time. There is no shortage of commitment, no lacking in interest in new ideas, new strategies. But that’s not enough, is it? We can provide as many as ideas as we like, create as many resources as we possibly can; without the time to properly implement those ideas we will more than likely wander around the edges, more anxious than ever about what we may be missing. Teaching is a series of habits, of learned behaviours, and to change what we do takes real commitment and time from all involved for implementation.

It is this dichotomy which frustrates teachers most, I think. We see the wonderful work by organisations like SCEL (Scottish College of Educational Leadership) and their efforts to get into as many schools as possible, leading the way in new, radical approaches to continuing professional development, but often return to our classrooms overrun with tasks to complete and classes to prepare. And, when faced with those pressures, we return to the habits which successfully get us through our day. It’s not that we don’t want to be leaders; we merely find that the space to implement real change is filled with other things we must do.

I have always been wary of acronyms in Scottish Education. Once we use them, they can become meaningless words, easy to dismiss. However, more and more I’m beginning to see SCEL as our most important. Whatever your definition of leadership, it would be difficult to argue that taking responsibility for our own development is not part of that.

Money is certainly there. Investment in SCEL, in the Pupil Equity Fund, in the Attainment Challenge, in the First Minister’s Reading Challenge. Professional Development opportunities have changed completely over the last ten years. However, our opportunities to benefit from them have not.

Imagine what we could achieve if, instead of a cupboard full of resources provided for our National courses, we were provided with the more valuable recourse of Time. Time to collaborate properly; time to innovate properly; time to embed new habits and transform our classrooms: instead of struggling to cope with what we have already and finding ourselves vilified in the press for our reluctance to change.

There is no greater resource than our teachers. To improve their skills, to improve their ability to teach our young people, then we need to give them what they need. Having SCEL is a ground-breaking achievement but without the time to adapt we may be missing a massive opportunity. Let’s not do that. Please?

‘You and Me, all we want to be is lazy’

Of all the things that have begun to happen to me as I get older, increasing claustrophobia is my most concerning. Whenever I’m in a position where I can’t see a way out – whether an exit or an excuse – I start to get anxious and feel my heart rate increasing. More and more , I avoid social occasions, certainly if there is likely to be a large crowd: more recently I’ve begun to dread larger CPD events, especially ones where the ‘presenter’ asks the ‘audience’ to do some work.  I feel the same way when Bruce Springsteen turns his microphone to the audience: ‘No, Springsteen. YOU sing!’

That feeling is probably the reason why online learning appeals to me. I can read things when and where I want: there is no one with flipchart paper or a microphone to put me on the spot. And, to cap it all off, I don’t have to tell anyone who I am or where I’m from or what I hope to get from the day. Seriously? If you’re running a CPD day and have to ask that then there’s a problem. Indeed, if you’re an educational ‘consultant’ and need that reassurance then you really need to up your game. If you’re selling your product you should be clear what it is from the start.

But online learning is much more appealing to me. Sometimes. The comforting delight in knowing that you can give up at any time means that, for the most part, I give up at any time. Never finish things, I dip in to blogs and research papers and find books, and get about half way through them and give in, learning lots of little things along the way. And, knowing I don’t have to ‘feedback during plenary’, it is massively satisfying. But it’s different when you’re an adult. I’m not sure how I would have got on if I had something like ‘Flipped Learning’ when I was at school.

That tendency to give up is probably why these things won’t work for everyone in schools. It is in our nature to be lazy. As Daniel Willingham says in ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’, ‘Humans don’t think very often because our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.’ Some of my students may love online learning; some may hate it; most, I think, would love the idea but never find the motivation to do it on their own. Flipped learning makes a lot of in correct assumptions about the willingness of children to work in their own time.

So, while crammed classrooms are probably claustrophobic for some kids, it really is the best way for us to teach a class of thirty. It’s not perfect by any means but I’m yet to be convinced that more ‘open’ approaches to learning can work for every child. We have a responsibility to those kids who needs us most, those disadvantaged by background, and new, untested strategies are often vanity projects. Teaching them well, in the best possible way, is our duty. Let’s not take risks with that.

What’s Up, Docs? Digital Technology in English.

As  an English teacher I get no greater pleasure when I see a classroom full of children engrossed in a book. Whether that is a focused ten minutes on their own choices or hanging on every word of Macbeth, books are what got me here and books are what it should be about. So when it comes to tech, I’ve always approached with caution. With any new ‘innovation’, I always begin with two questions: will this help reduce my workload rather than increase it and will it genuinely be a better way to teach kids stuff? If the answer to either of those is ‘No’ then I’ll ignore it.

I have real concerns that some of the major international tech firms are looking on at Education in the UK and are rubbing their hands with glee. So much money; so much possibility. The blind swallowing of this thing called ‘21st Century skills’ often disguises the fact that good learning is good learning no matter the tools we have in front of us. But is it incumbent on us all to find out what might work for our classrooms and ourselves? Perhaps. Again, approaching with caution – and a firm eye on the price tag – is key.

Having said that, though, it is our professional responsibility to utilise the best strategies for our classrooms. Using effective tech is already part of what we do in Scotland. The Government issued document ‘Enhancing Learning and Teaching Through the Use of Digital Technology’   states that: Digital technology is already embedded within Scottish education. It has a place within Curriculum for Excellence, Initial Teacher Education and the Professional Standards set by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS).’ So, knowing that, I have always tried to use the best resources I could find for my classes. The danger comes, however, when we use tech just because it is there.

I have recently been dabbling with the  ‘Classroom’ suite of tools from a very big tech company. For writing in the senior school I have begun to see it as hugely impressive. Our students have to produce a Folio for Higher and National 5. Using Docs this term has allowed me to follow progress very closely, to mark and assess as they go along, and avoid the chasing up of late bits of paper. It both cuts down on my workload and helps the students to make progress. Sold. I would never use it with younger kids; they need to write accurately with pen or pencil before they should move on to more focused tools but for seniors it works really well.

As teachers we should be able to assess how tech works most effectively. Kids have loads of gadgets but are not as tech savvy as we may be lead to believe. In fact it is often  lazy assumption. They have tools with great power. Whether we can tap into that or not remains to be seen but we should find out of ourselves. Tech, if anything, should allow us to extend the classroom, providing genuine opportunities for learning. If it doesn’t do that the we should leave it alone. And get back to the books.

Show a Little Respect: Perhaps We Do Have More in Common

I have always resisted the urge to comment on the Michaela School in London. Aside from being a particularly heated, often nasty, occasionally cruel debate, I never see it as my place to comment on a school I’ve never been to, never worked at. It seems that we in Scotland have more with which to concern ourselves. However, their successful Ofsted report this week spurred me on to write something; their undoubted success might be symbolic of a greater divide in educational discourse.

I have read many blogs from their teachers, from their visitors, from their critics. And, while there may be things which seem anathema to me as a teacher, from what I’ve read and heard the kids love it at Michaela; teachers love working there; outsiders love visiting. That should be enough, shouldn’t it? Of course it should. Kids who wear their uniform with pride, set high standards for themselves and are polite and erudite is a noble aim. How Michaela get to that point is really nothing to do with anyone else.

And that’s not a damning indictment of anyone else’s school. There are great schools everywhere: not all of them have the same approaches as Michaela yet they work. I work at a Secondary School in a firmly working class area and we are a great school, improving all the time. But are the kids polite all the time? No. Do they always do their homework? No. They often come from backgrounds where school and education is not valued and that’s a genuine concern. There are a whole host of cultural reasons why schools become what they are. Michaela started from scratch, taking the opportunity to embed cultural and educational habits from the beginning and I commend them for that.

So, for those who feel antagonism towards Michaela and what they do, I wonder if it’s because we feel that their success is  slap in the face for what our own schools are doing, in some way their being right makes us wrong. It doesn’t. It’s just a school doing what they do very well indeed. I see teachers trumpeting their Ofsted/HMIe success all the time on social media. I often see criticism when poor reports are issued. We should all be delighted when any school does well. Their students deserve no less.

Our recent election cycle saw opposition parties in Scotland criticise our schools as disaster areas; oh, how the SNP have ruined our education system. And while there are undoubted problems, much of the criticism was dishonest nonsense. My greater concern though was for the kids sitting exams at the same time, hearing how terrible they were, how bad a deal they’d been served. Think about how the kids at Michaela feel when they read criticism of a school of which they are very proud. We should be celebrating the success of any school, embracing the good things happening. That doesn’t mean we have to be just like them, although there may well be lessons to learn on both sides. We might find that we have more in common than we think.