Why Do We Need Half of our Holidays at the Same Time?

So this morning I woke up to a new future. No, not the UK’s departure from Europe. This is all about me. I’m on holidays for six and a half weeks and I deserve it. Non-teachers bristle; their eyes roll. Fair enough. I’m going to be on a sun lounger in about forty eight hours so bristle away.

Secretly, though, I’m coming round to the fact that the summer holidays are unnecessarily long and if we are to tackle the serious problems with poverty we are all aware of, we need to do something more than just wring our hands and shake our heads.

childThis week I’ve had numerous conversations with students about their holidays: some heading off to Florida, to Europe, to London; some heading to caravans around Scotland; some going nowhere, playing X-box. The disparity is obvious. Some grabbing books from school and class libraries; some vowing to never read a page until they return in August. Poverty is not something that can be solved in schools alone; it is a societal problem in a society that, thus far, has been bereft of any workable ideas as to how to ‘narrow the gap’. Throwing money at it has never worked. So we need to be brave and bold.

Our more well-off students will continue their educations over the summer. They can afford to travel, to visit, to learn. Our economically-deprived students can’t do that. They often have to take even more time off during term-time because holidays are cheaper. Our rigid approach to school breaks means the holiday companies can, quite openly, often double the price of that fortnight in Greece. With twelve weeks holiday a year there is no reason we can’t shorten our summer holidays to make that window smaller.

A four week summer holidays is still vastly longer than most people get. The final two weeks of term could be given over to activities/ trips and those who wanted to use that for a family holiday could do so. We, in effect, shorten the time our most vulnerable children are out of school at any one time, with added fortnights thorough the year. Still twelve weeks; just  utilised in a more valuable way.

Oh, I know you’ll shudder at that thought after such a hard year. But think about it. More breaks throughout the year might mean we are less stressed at specific times. We can plan for proper breaks and, dare I say it, time to step away. It’s a bold and not original suggestion but if we’re serious about doing our bit to tackle poverty then we need to be radical in our thinking. The accepted structures of our society embed that poverty. So we must change for them not for us. We must do something.

I’m already feeling the benefits of my summer holidays. I’m packing. But this way isn’t working so let’s be brave and less self-serving. Poverty isn’t a school problem but it is something we can help change. Perhaps the way we live and work needs to be transformed if we are serious about the lives of all of our young people. Perhaps it’s time for that.

On Not Finishing Books

A fine-looking copy of ‘Ulysses’, resplendent in green jacket like a proud Masters winner, stares at me from my bookshelves. I’ve moved it around because it catches my attention and reminds me of my failure to finish it. Oh, I’ve tried. Many times. One page a day; big chunks at a time; sections in a different order. I just can’t do it. As an experienced reader, it’s something that has troubled me for years. And, while I can’t bring myself to part with it – it as a gift, bought for me at the James Joyce Centre in Dublin – I’ve finally put up the white flag. I will never finish ‘Ulysses’ in this lifetime.

Not finishing books is an unforgivable sin in the English classroom, is it not? Those reluctant readers will change their books every week, every day, if they could get away with it. The novelty of a new book, chosen without thought or advice, trumps finishing the previous one. Experience in spotting the tricks of ‘reading avoidance’ allows us to recognise and intervene but raises the thorny problem of my ‘Ulysses’ hypocrisy. If I’m allowed to dismiss books unfinished then why shouldn’t my pupils? The answer may lie in a discussion of what it’s like to be a reader. Of course you can change books if you’re a reader. Knowing when and why to give up is another matter.

phone-1052023_960_720Life’s too short to waste time on books you don’t enjoy. Notice that I refrained from using ‘bad books’ because I don’t think that matters. I walk into my local bookshop and it often sinks in that, despite reading constantly for forty years, in the larger scheme of things, I’ve read nothing. None of us will ever read everything we want or read everything we think we need to read. So let’s not get hung up or feel guilty if we dump a few books along the way. And I think it should be okay for our children to do so too.

When I take a class to the library it is incumbent on me to be by a child’s side when they are choosing a  book; to stop them choosing a seven hundred page doorstopper if they are a reluctant reader; to know them well enough to suggest a book which they may enjoy; to have read enough teen fiction to be able to make that choice. It is not about insisting that they finish the books I choose for them but providing them with the skills to make that choice for themselves. Children with no reading history have no hook to hang their reading on. My job is to provide the conditions for them to start that history.

In his essay, ‘Why Finish Books?’ Tim Parks argues that it’s fine to finish books before the end because the writing is the most important factor. ‘Once the structure has been set up and the narrative ball is rolling, the need for an end is just an unfortunate burden, an embarrassment, a deplorable closure of so much possibility.’ I wouldn’t argue with him about the ‘Reservoir Dogs’-style end to Hamlet and, dare I agree with him , that the play might have been better without it. But it makes me feel better about not finishing ‘Ulysses’. I recognise the beauty of the prose. It’s just I’ve got other things to read. Allowing our pupils to ‘not finish’ books is okay too. As long as they know why.

Not Just Confidence. But Integrity. A ‘sort of’ Review of ‘The Confident Teacher’ by Alex Quigley

confidentThere’s a long walk up from York City Centre to Huntington School but it’s a beautiful day, unexpectedly beautiful, and I’m soaking in it. My first visit to the city and, after a nervous, sleep-interrupted night in a TravelLodge, Research-Ed is getting ever closer. I’m listening to Teenage Fan Club. I recall it clearly; Songs From Northern Britain; a nod to my three hour trip from Glasgow the night before; the real Northern Britain. To the jangly guitar twang of ‘Ain’t That Enough’ the humble and ordinary looking Huntington School appears to my right. Yet despite that ordinariness, a welcoming aura surrounds the place.

That welcome feeling defines the school. Throughout the day, the words ‘honourable’, ‘humble’ , integrity’, pepper my notebook. Personified in their remarkable head teacher, John Tomsett, and the one speaker I really want to hear, Alex Quigley, Huntington School in May 2014 is everything you expect it to be. Pupils, in on a Saturday, justly proud of their school, go out of their way to assist. I get my talk out of the way – a poetry-based analysis of Scotland’s curricular development. Yeah, I know, right- and wallow in the atmosphere. If I had ever wondered about the kind of school I’d like to be a part of then on that day I found it.

Two years on, and both John and Alex have become successful authors. There’s a lot of them about in Education. The Twitter world has spawned a multitude of new voices. These two rise above them all. The humanity and integrity I witnessed two years ago shine on every page of John’s book – I blogged about it here – but Alex’s new book, The Confident Teacher, is a different thing altogether.  I loved his first book, Teach Now. Becoming a Great English Teacher. However, the new one achieves something of which most other Education books find themselves falling short.

Like the echo chamber of social media, very few teachers I know bother to read Edubooks. They don’t have the time. There’s a feeling that reading about new approaches and techniques is just another burden on top of the mountain of work we have to complete already. I can teach well. Why should I read your book? Alex’s book does something quite remarkable. I read a lot of these things and, perhaps for the first time, I think ‘The Confident Teacher’ speaks to teachers as equals. It understands the real issues we experience and never patronises. It is practical, positive, hopeful. It is a book written with integrity, humility and a deep, deep passion for teaching. It has knocked me sideways.

Leaving York that night on the evening train back to Northern Britain, I reflected on what I’d experienced that day. I remember little of the sessions apart from my own, the day was too much of blur for that. But I took away an image of the kind of experience I’d hope my school provided. I love my school and hope we display the characteristics of Huntington, at least on some days.

This might not be a book review as such, but I’d recommend Alex’s book to any teacher looking for some practical advice on how to improve our day. Reading it took me back a couple of years; to a school that operated on confidence, with confident staff and pupils. Read it now.

Missing the Music of What Happens To Us

phone-690091_960_720I suppose the last straw, the final nail, came when someone about two rows in front lifted up their phone to film the opening lines  of ‘Caroline, No.’ It wasn’t the first time that night that I’d wanted to shout out, ‘Put your phone down. He’s there. In front of you. Brian Wilson. You’re missing this!’ Our desire to capture what we think might be beautiful or valuable or historical, and the newly attained ability to do so – I wonder how many filmed moments are ever watched more than once or twice –  deflects our attention from the real moments, the moments we experience in the flesh.

And in our haste, we miss the shy couple who, instinctively, reach out for each other’s hand when they hear the first chords of ‘God Only Knows’, turning to smile fondly; the elderly gent, smartly dressed and previously reserved, jumping to his feet like an excited child for ‘Help Me Rhonda’; the involuntary gasp of many at the engrained familiarity of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice.’ The music of what happens to us.

It’s such a shame when we waste our time staring through the lens of a phone, hoping to capture a memory, especially when the truly interesting stuff is often happening all around us.

That desire to grab hold of the moment has become a commonplace factor in the classroom too. Teaching can be a collection of wonderful moments and technology allows us, more than ever before, to freeze those in time; social media inadvertently encourages us to share those moments, hoping they’ll be noticed and loved equally by others. Perhaps we have gone too far though. Choosing to capture the lightbulb learning moments can mean we miss the ‘Pet Sounds’ of real learning in our classrooms. Rather then the shiny, perfect essay by little Ryan, we miss the effort in Alice’s attempts to write in full sentences for the first time or the pleasure Ross displays after being praised for his improvement.

Increasingly, lately, and for too long, I’ve been too guilty of looking for those bits of teaching; my attention focused on one lens, missing what is really happening in my classroom, what is happening all around me. I’ve undoubtedly lost focus, forgotten what was important. So, for a while at least, I’m putting my lens away.

This is not a big huffy abandonment of Twitter or blogging. Just a recognition that, for a time, I need to put the phone away, step back a little, and find out what I loved so much about teaching in the first place. Rather than watch some wobbly footage of the best bits, I’ll have a look at the audience instead.

Your friends don’t really want to watch your footage of Brian Wilson, no more than they really want to see your holiday snaps. They’re probably not that over-excited about hearing about how many of your kids got ‘A’s  either. Not everything needs to be for forever. But just don’t miss out on the important bits. The music of what happens to us.

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.