Of course you can study Macbeth if you want to. Don’t blame the SQA for that one.

sqaRight from the off, then, let me say that I’m no cheerleader for the Scottish Qualifications Authority. The stress to some of my friends and colleagues caused by some bizarre assessment practices in subjects other than English which seem unbelievable when they tell me of their experiences.  Too often we’ve had goalposts moved mid-season – strange rule changes, confusing, contradictory advice at ‘information’ days – that leave teaching staff in a state of panic, never mind the young people hurtling towards exam season. This year we’ve had to submit Writing Folios on a specially prepared grid, apparently to facilitate e-marking. That was also changed half way through the year. I know of no English teacher who hasn’t experienced a massive increase in workload because of this. So there is a discussion to be had with – and about – the SQA.

However, the appearance of this article in yesterday’s Herald newspaper, Teacher claims bureaucracy blocks study of William Shakespeare – left me a bit frustrated about the nature of the argument. The New Higher exam – or National 6 as it is officially known- brought yet more changes to a course which has experienced so much tinkering even Claudio Ranieri would be embarrassed ( I’m not sure if that joke is massively out-of-date or super hip). Two years ago candidates had to complete two Critical Essays in ninety minutes and a Close Reading exercise, also in ninety minutes. That was it. Along with a Folio of two pieces of writing – and a few Internal Assessment hurdles –  that was your Higher English.

Now, a candidate has to complete one Close Reading exercise – now called Reading for Understanding, Analysis and Evaluation – only one Critical Essay on Literature and a forty five minute analysis of a previously studied Scottish text. Make of that what you will but it’s there. The nature of the assessment means that less time is available for the wide ranging study of literature we had before. I would always study two major texts and at least a couple of poems. But nothing, as the article suggests, is banned. The headline puzzled me as I’d only recently finished Hamlet. Without the need to study two major texts – candidates only have to write one Critical Essay now – I got to spend more time with the Bard, not less.

We also studied six challenging Don Paterson poems and, to a lesser extent, Alan Spence’s magnificent short story, Nessun Dorma. It was a high challenge yet engaging and enjoyable course. Like many English teachers I know, I’ve tried to cover the internal assessment aspect to the course with a less formal approach, as suggested by the SQA. I cover bases and pick ups outcomes through my study of the play, as well as the odd Newspaper analysis we do over the course of the year. I have had to make choices as I adapt to the new course but to suggest that anything has been ‘blocked’, as the Herald article suggests, is at best mistaken and at worst mischief-making.

We have some serious discussions on workload coming up and we should be taking that seriously. If any approach to what should or shouldn’t be studied is being imposed by department, school or Local Authority then that is a serious matter. But be fair: that’s not the SQA. They have some serious questions to answer. Why we are being blocked from studying Shakespeare isn’t one of them.

A Netflix of Education? No thanks.

Flicking through Netflix the other night, desperately tying to find something worth watching, the scale of how much our access to resources has changed really struck me. From the three channels of my childhood, I now have access to thousands of programmes I don’t want to watch; alongside Spotify where, for about a tenner a month, I no longer have to buy any other music and can listen to almost anything at any time. Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware of the moral arguments against music streaming and the problems that causes for the artists; however, I think it is an inevitable step in the process. It ain’t why, it just is. So I can have all the TV I ever want, all the music I ever want and all the books I ever want, all on my smart phone.

But that cultural change surely comes with a cost.  The ‘on demand’ approach to our lives is a dangerous game to play when it slips into education.  When our students begin to believe that they can access us at times of their convenience, when our time becomes theirs, we should begin to worry. Of course, we want our students to achieve the best they can, better even, but that will come at a cost, in workload and wellbeing. The onset of exam revision season brings those concerns to centre stage. And giving them unlimited access to our time may be doing them more harm than good.

Screenshot 2016-03-28 12.07.18Of course,  greater use of digital technology is a wonderful thing when it used appropriately. The use of online learning networks – such as Glow in Scotland – allows us to top load our students with resources and access to further work; but our time cannot be a Netflix for our students. I want them to access help at any point through a wide range of on-line resources and revision guides. What I don’t want is a never-ending supported study where I am forever on call.

We must be able to distinguish between our resources and ourselves. I already see new teachers with every day lunchtime study sessions and after school drop ins. It cannot end well. Workload problems are becoming the most important issue in education so to add to that in some vain attempt to support student learning is a roadmap to burn out and exhaustion; and it doesn’t help our colleagues who, very often, feel pressured to do the same. By all means, have a window where students can come and see you. But close it more often than not.

A part of our Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland was to create independent students who would take responsibility for their own learning. The hope is that they would be successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. Our desperate clamour for raising attainment – a noble aim, of course – results in schools offering more and more support and asking teachers to do more and more. What we need to do is foster that independence in our children where, at some point, they need to go away and work hard. So, like Netflix, they often may not find what they are looking for. Especially if it’s us

What Are We Waiting For? It’s Time for Genuine, Grown Up Collaboration

IMG_0881I’ve become more and more convinced that we will always struggle to develop as teachers in the way we should until watching each other teach, and analysing the good and the bad things we see, is embedded into our working week. However, the problem with peer observation is a cultural one, and a deep-rooted one at that. I know there are examples of excellent practice but, more often than not I fear, teachers struggle to hear potentially critical comments about their practice. We close our classrooms doors and try new things and hope for the best and there is no-one there to tell us where we are going wrong. And that is where we are going wrong.

Faced with the prospect of our peers finding fault in our new strategy, we very often race for the lock on our doors, sliding down,  perspiring, heaving deep sighs of relief. What if our new technique is rubbish? What if my lesson goes wrong? Why would we want others to stand in witness to our weaknesses? In my last post entitled ‘A Time to be Brave’ I called for serious investment in teachers and our time; but that must come with a commitment to professional collaboration and a commitment to challenge our practice maturely and constructively.

Doctors deliberately try to prove each other wrong. In medicine, any new ideas are literally placed under the microscope.They are committed to finding fault in their colleagues’ work because it is, very often, a matter of life and death. The possibility of a medical practitioner trying out a new strategy learned from a blog over the weekend would be ludicrous. And perhaps that’s what gives teaching an advantage. We can take risks. It’s not a matter of life and death. However, our students get (at least) one year with us and if we get it wrong for them, the consequences could be far-reaching.

The tragedy is that we become so entrenched in own our own work, so emotionally connected to the work we spend so much of our time on, that is difficult to avoid taking any criticism personally. When you’ve spent all Sunday working on what you believe is a fabulous resource which others pick holes in, it is difficult not to retreat into your classroom and avoid sharing in the future. Why is that? And how can we change it? Perhaps years of mistrust – perceived or otherwise – have brought us here. Perhaps we need to step out of our comfort zones if things are to change.

I turn fifty this year – I know. I don’t look it , do I? Sorry? I do? Fair enough. – and I’m running out of years to perfect this teaching thing. However, paradoxically, I’m worried my increasingly thick skin is becoming immune to any criticism at all,  rather than just the silly stuff. Waiting about for structures to change is no longer an option for me. I want to open up my classroom to scrutiny and I want someone to tell me why my cleverly constructed lesson was ineffective. So observe my lesson. Criticise the work. But tell me why and give me alternatives.  I promise I won’t hate you for it. I promise I won’t cry in the car park.

A Time to be Brave – Invest in Teaching.

The world of educational academia seems so distant from the humble classroom teacher that at times it could be from a different planet. There can be little doubt that there is a vast tsunami of great research being undertaken at University level, and much of it fascinating I’ve no doubt, but I never read it unless I have to and I very rarely have to. The tragedy is that there is clearly a lot of fabulous work being done in education which is having very little impact. And surely our time and resources – human or otherwise –  could be put to better use.

clock-407101__180The rise of the teacher conference has brought this to my attention. I look down the Twitter feeds of those in attendance and very rarely see a classroom teacher. Okay, they might be there and not tweeting but it seems that more and more take place during the week and those that happen on a Saturday come and go without even registering. And believe me if I haven’t heard about them then the vast majority of my colleagues won’t have heard of them either. However, there’s a bigger problem with teachers not getting out of school for important conferences than me getting annoyed about it.

A passive acceptance that there is no cover available to allow us out of school is not only unacceptable but standing as a block to our own professional development. I know of very few teachers who get out of school to attend the ‘bigger picture’ conferences and certainly none who bring back ideas and thoughts which they are then given time to share and develop. The lack of resources available to provide that space is not something we should merely accept. We are being deprived of the opportunity to access the very research and information which could radically change the educational experiences of the children we teach. Being told that ‘we know you’re busy but…’ isn’t good enough. Recognition of time constraints should never have ‘but’ as an addition.

So it seems to me that a sensible approach to real educational improvement would be to genuinely invest in our teachers: investment in time rather than empty but shiny initiatives imposed from who knows where; investment in genuine engagement with current research, not merely reading it; investment in proper and effective peer observation and collaboration. It’s not a selfish stance. I’m not complaining about my workload here. Teaching is a difficult but important job and the workload comes with it.  I’d simply prefer that if I have to have that excessive workload then it should involve things that are helpful and important; not tedious box-ticking tasks which deflect me from the very thing I’m good at.

There are many teachers who do their best to access current research as much as possible, quite happy to do the extra when appropriate. However, it’s a soul destroying and dispiriting task when you realise that nothing is changing.; when you realise that, probably, teaching hasn’t changed much in the last ten years; when you realise that time is a valuable resource both in terms of school and life. The opportunity to change our educational system is here. I won’t get another chance in my career. And the financial resources required would indeed be an investment, not merely additional waste on a profligate profession. The gains could be immense; the impact on our classrooms huge. All it would take is bravery. From all of us.

The Scottish Government and Reading for Pleasure

IMG_0603This week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a new venture to encourage  primary-aged kids to read for pleasure. Part of her Government’s ongoing – and as yet unsuccessful – attempt to enhance literacy and narrow the attainment gap, children in primaries four to seven will be encouraged to read as many books as possible and write short reviews to win prizes for themselves and their schools. As one who has blogged, tweeted and presented at Teachmeets, on the importance of reading for pleasure, I’m delighted that this has been placed, to an extent, centre stage of a literacy push. I do worry slightly about the competitive element though.

The First Minister’s comments on reading for pleasure echo mine exactly: “Research … shows that reading for pleasure is crucially important for children’s development, and I hope this scheme goes a long way in encouraging Scotland’s young people to see reading as an important leisure activity as much as a school one.”  That we place reading for pleasure at the heart of any literacy development is vital, especially in the early years, if we are to develop life-long readers, and anything we can do to encourage that must be seen as a positive step. From experience, however, I think there may be some flaws with this venture.

Where it begins to fall down for me is the added burden of the book review. I’m not wholly against writing about reading but I think we open up areas of real difficulty for some kids if we mesh something which we present as being for pleasure with something else which has its own pitfalls. Writing book reviews, long or short, can be a wonderful experience for kids who are confident readers and writers. For reluctant readers, who we spend a lot of time encouraging and finding books for, the thought of writing at the end of a book can turn them off reading forever. They are faced with all of the issues they have with literacy: now hitched to something which was supposed to be about pleasure remember.

I also have an issue with choice. To paraphrase Donalyn Miller, writer of ‘The Book Whisperer – as I do time and time again – in order to create lifelong readers we must provide three things: time, choice and love. Closing down the choice of reading material to a set list chosen by adults is a potential disaster. Kids like to read books recommended by their friends. They may be terrible in our eyes but, with reluctant readers who we simply want to read, nothing should be off the table at first. Then, perhaps, later on we can start to push books their way. Book choices should not be limited to what adults think they should read.

However, despite these concerns, I welcome the Scottish Government’s new focus on Reading for Pleasure. I love the fact that Nicole Sturgeon is talking publicly about her favourite children’s books. We should all be doing the same in our classrooms and in our homes. I perhaps worry though that in order  to take this forward someone felt that it should be made into a competition. So one kid can read ten short books while another reads one long doorstopper: who should get a prize? If you teach kids you’ll probably know that reading for pleasure is not as big a disaster area as we are lead to believe. However, for those who are still reluctant readers we need to get this right.

First Minister’s Reading Challenge

My Reading Year – Part Two January 24th

The snow is bucketing down outside and I’m under a blanket. I’ve got Salman Rushdie’s new novel besides me and, while I am supposed be going to the football this afternoon, this sounds like a much more attractive proposition. Being back at work changes my approach to reading as, naturally, I have less time. Tiredness as much as anything means I read less during term time. Finding space is a priority. However, I’m getting through the Christmas books with a vengeance.

There was time when I was deftly jumping through Magic Realism – from Rushdie to Garcia Marquez to Eco – throwing paperbacks behind me. Confidently debating the merits of ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ or ‘The Satanic Verses’. Unfortunately recent reading has caused me to think that my brain is turning to mush. I have to keep flipping back when I find myself lost in a world I’ve no idea I’d entered. While set in New York, Rushdie’s book was less familiar to me than the plague ridden streets of Shakespearean London.

Book Three

shakyShakespeare’s Restless World – Neil McGregor

This book is a blast: fascinating from start to finish, it, like no other book I’ve read, prepared me for teaching Shakespeare in  a better way than ever. By telling the stories of objects discovered from the period, he paints a beautifully frightening image of what it was like for those who may or may not have gone to see the plays of  this young upstart that everyone was talking about. Through the political and the social history of the time, we are taken on a journey which is at times terrifying and at others mesmerising.

It ends with a wonderfully moving story from Robben Island, during apartheid South Africa. A rogue copy of the collected works of Shakespeare was circulated amongst prisoners. The inspirational quotations they highlighted to each other will bring you to the point of tears.

Book Four

Salman Rushdie, Two YearsTwo Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Days. – Salman Rushdie

It’s been many a year since I’ve dozed off, dribbling, on a train. Lost in the magical world Rushdie has created – and I mean lost. Not in a good way – I’ve struggled through this one, not really knowing what the hell was going on. Number three in Danial Pennac’s the Rights of the Reader is ‘The right not to finish a book’ and I was seriously tempted on many an occasion with this one. Then I would be sucked into some beautiful prose, pages long. And then the blur; and the sad reality that I’m not the man I used to be. As much as I loved and lived ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, I could care no more for Magic Realism. Thank you,  Salman, you’ve been great.

I’m not even sure that I’m pleased that I persisted. I should live by Pennac’s list more truly.

Next time: It’s funny when you create a pile of books, with a specific order. The nature of other people’s recommendations mean you’ll never stick to it.


Finding a Rhythm With a Challenging Class

I’m not sure if it was me or them but my wee class were beginning to weep quietly. Every one of them could tell me how to use a comma, full stop; could tell me what metaphor and a simile were; could recognise a rhetorical question. Using them in their own writing, however, was another matter completely. Our eyes began to meet over a crowded notebook filled with my red comments and both sides began to wave the white flag. Perhaps kids with weaker literacy skills don’t always benefit from continued reminders that their writing is weak. A year and a half with me and they had progressed in lots of areas: writing wasn’t one of them.

Perhaps I was going about it the wrong way. Perhaps if I stopped pointing at the errors they could concentrate on raising their game in other areas. By fourteen years of age it’s a sad indictment of our system that many of these kids are, in some ways, unable to ever write fluently and I don’t know what to do about that. They redraft perfectly, they blog perfectly with support but, on first draft, revert to established habits and carelessness. What if I changed my approach and gave them the same work I’d give to a high-flying top set. Iambic pentameter anyone?

The rhythm of Shakespeare’s sonnets might help them see that they can do what might be perceived as more challenging work. Watching Akala’s TED talk, see below, they took part in the Hop Hop or Shakespeare quiz and got  a kick out of it. I wrote some lines down on the board, gave them some definitions and talked them through loads of examples of Iambic Pentameter. We dum-de-dummed our way though a whole lesson. They tore apart the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, recognising the rhythm and counting the beats. There was engagement I hadn’t seen from them in English.

This is a class which finds it difficult to cope with individual work. In fact, more often than not, when I set them loose on a task, I’m immediately hit with a forest of hands, some low-level indiscipline and some expert A-grade work avoidance. But this. Something grabbed them. The counting of the syllables, the circling of the stresses, the rhythm of the lines. They counted on their fingers, tapped on their desks. They began to chant Shakespeare’s lines perfectly: ’Two households both alike in dignity…’ And so it went on. And it wasn’t purely a numbers game. They could tell me what was happening, what it was about. They wanted more.

We’ll go on to study ’Sonnet 65’ now. I’m confident they’ll cope. I’m not sure what brought the change; whether the far more challenging task which I told them might be too difficult for them brought out the beast and thy wanted to prove me wrong. Whether the different mental strategies engaged them more. What is clear is that my focus on their technical ability wasn’t working. I’ll still tackle that – God help those who give up on their literacy – but, after a year and a half, I now have the trust of these guys; trust enough to push them to study literature they would never have looked at a year ago.

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSbtkLA3GrY%5B/embedyt%5D