A Numbers Game?

When I was thirteen I was told by my teachers that I was no good at Music or Art and that it would be a waste of my time to continue with them as subjects in school. I still feel angry about that. Over thirty years later. I may have failed the exam so they couldn’t take a chance. I was just a number.

In his documentary film, ‘The Hobart Shakespeareans’, Rafe Esquith, a US Teacher of the Year, describes teaching as a numbers game. He says, and I paraphrase, that one third of any class will always get what you’re trying to do, one third will never get what you’re trying to do, but it is the third in the middle which will make and break your class. If you can sway those towards your side, then the other third will become a quiet minority and perhaps let the rest get on with it.

I will confess that I have passed this story on to the student teachers I mentor each year because, while lacking in subtlety, I’ve always thought that it contained a certain amount of truth. As time passes, however, I’m not at all sure.

The end of term and arrival of a long summer holiday is always greeted with relief but there is also, for me, a time of reflection; reflection on the failures as well as the successes. It pains me to see too many on the failure list. That most of those failures will be in the third who never get what I’m trying to do is a feeble and pathetic argument. It is too easy to accept that some kids will never improve. It is too easy to dismiss and compartmentalize like this. But I teach in a school in which eighteen hundred students turn up every day. I have five classes a day in which thirty students sit and expect to be taught English. It is a failure on my part if they fail.

I read about some wonderful things happening in schools. I read about one-to-one ipad projects. I read about multi-platform blogging projects and students who are ‘Skypeing’ around the world. I read about amazing classrooms doing amazing things. And I begin to resent them. I see video of classes of ten, fifteen, even twenty doing wonderful things with technology and I can’t help but resent them. I know that’s awful. But when I stand in front of classes of thirty kids without so much as a single computer – and even when we do get access they are little more than word processors, so much content is blocked – I cannot help but feel that something is unfair, something is wrong.

It would be too easy for me to glibly accept that this is always the way and I should just get on with it; too easy to accept that, yes, a third of our kids will never get what we are trying to do; will never get what they need out of education. However, if I accept that, if we as a society accept that some kids can be left out so comfortably then I am not only accepting a divided society I am contributing to it.

I’ve always been of the mind that you control what you can and let the rest go. What I can control is my expectations for the kids in front of me. These kids won’t get any where near realising their potential if my expectations are not always very high. I won’t realise my potential as a teacher for the same reason.

It seems that those in our schools who need most get least. I hate myself for resenting the resources of others. Of course I shouldn’t. But I see the potential in some of the kids I teach and resent the fact that they can’t have what they need. I’ve never seriously attempted any musical instrument in my life, never picked up a paint brush. Who knows the damage we are doing to this generation?

Check out The Hobart Shakespeareans here

My Twelve Year-Old Self

The lowest moments of my teaching career have been when I’ve stopped and realised that I was repeating the  same bland expressions used by my teachers all those years ago. I would be lying if I said that my school experience was a happy one; indifferent teachers mostly, each day wrestling with unending mundanity. I shudder to think that the students I teach would have a similar experience.

Watching Jeremiah McDonald’s short film, ‘A Conversation with my Twelve year old self’, (scroll down to the end of this post to see it) brought back some bad memories of school. In August, thirty twelve year old kids will arrive in my class, embarking on their Secondary school education. Fresh from Primary school, they will no doubt be filled with a mix of nerves and expectation. So, if one of them was the twelve year-old me, what advice would I give myself? Here goes:

1- These six years will be the last free formal education you will receive? Enjoy them. Don’t get hung up on exams and assessments. Ask questions and learn as much of what you want to learn as possible.

2- In a couple of years, your teachers and parents will start to obsess about University. Don’t sweat it so much. It ain’t the be all and end all. You’ll go, eventuallY, if you really want to. Your friends will get caught up in that and end up in, for the most part, mundane jobs. Don’t think you are inferior if you don’t go to Uni at 17. You probably will hate it then anyway.

3- No matter what happens, no matter how bad the teachers try to make you feel, no matter what they tell you, pick up a pencil and draw more; paint, sing, dance, play. Natural talent is a myth, you can get better at anything if you want to. Work hard at things you enjoy and don’t let anything get in the way of that. Because you will regret it if you don’t. Believe me. You’ll regret it.

4- Teachers are just people. They are there, mostly, to help you, but they don’t know everything. Some may not even be as smart as you. They, apart from a small few, want you to do well. Work with them but don’t accept everything they throw at you. Ask questions. They may not like it and they will probably let you know but don’t move on when you don’t understand. That’s what you’re there for. And that’s what they’re there for.

5- Nobody died from getting a ‘C’ for Higher English. Exam results are very temporary. The most important thing is that you read every night under that little lamp attached to your head board which you bought with your pocket money last year. There is a big old world outside school and you’ll see that school is, as Ian Gilbert says,  just a phase you’re going through.

None of my friends had particularly positive experiences at Secondary School. Friends from Aberdeen to Ayr, Dumfries to Dundee all share tales of misery, horrible teachers, terrible lessons. I strive to ensure that anyone who comes through my class doesn’t leave with that memory. So, when your new recruits turn up in August/ September what’s going to be different for them? Looking back to our twelve year old selves might just help us to answer that question.

Phone Number Poetry

(This a post which I had left in draft form for a couple of months. Something about it wasn’t quite finished and, to be honest, I never really got round to it. So, to clean out the ashtrays a bit, here it is. Comments would be most welcome. I would also add that this class were a VERY reluctant class of writers.)

Phone Number poetry is an idea I stole, took, borrowed, was inspired by in Phil Beadle’s book, ‘Could do Better’. I’m a big fan of Mr Beadle. As a constant thorn in the side of establishment, his often bizarre approach, his seemingly ‘two fingers to the norm’ attitude disguises a genuine compassion for the kids he teaches. His ‘How to Teach’ from 2007 is, perhaps, the first book I would recommend to any teacher, especially of English. But enough of the fawning. I digress. Phone number poetry. As Beadle says:

‘Come exam time, to save your child time thinking up sentence lengths, remind her to use her mobile phone number and write it at the top of the page…Where there is a zero suggest she replaces it with a 9, join 1 to its nearest neighbour.’ page 194

Okay, so this is not necessarily a task which requires a phone. There need be no phones in the room- in fact, I would doubt that your school even allows them. What it does need, however, is a series of numbers. This is a lesson about varying sentence lengths. Part of the difficulty for some young writers – and subsequently their noisy teachers – is often the inability to move beyond the simple sentence. ‘John walks to the door. He opens it carefully. He looks down the corridor. He sees some thing unusual.’ Potentially not a bad story but the repetitive structure of the sentence beings to get a little tired and predictable. Phone number poetry helps get over that problem.

In his book, Beadle claims, ‘Being able to write with a variety of sentence lengths…is pretty much the definition of a stylish writer; it shows your child is aware of rhythm of her write into, and it’s will come across to a reader.’ page 193

So, what happens? You can do this two ways. You can ask, firstly, for five numbers between 1 and 5, preferably with a few the same. (2, 3, 3, 4, 1). Then ask for another five numbers. Phil Beadle says between 6 and 20 but I narrowed it down to 10 for this class. (6, 8, 8, 7, 6). Mix the ten numbers up and you get something like this: 2, 3, 3, 4, 6, 8, 8, 7, 6. The task is to write a paragraph with ten lines. Each number will dictate the number of words in each sentence. You next have to choose a class topic for modelling purposes. My class, being the culturally aware bunch they are, shouted out, ‘McDonalds’. It was just before lunchtime after all. We had loads of fun going round the room getting contributions form every one in the class. Some better than others. We ended up with this:

Tasty, cheap.

Drive-thru, always loud and crazy, fattening.

Colorful but beautiful

Filling, great value chicken nuggets, amazing enjoyable too.

greasy fingers…gooooood!

Yellow clowns, red seats, green uniform, white tables.

Exciting, time for ice cream.


Some good laughs with that Big Mac?

Always when with friends.

All good so far. The class have begun working on a topic called ‘My Favourite Place in Scotland’, inspired by Scottish Book Trust, and had already been thinking about their favourite place in the school. This was their topic and they chose their own numbers for this one. Overall, there were mixed results but every student completed the exercise which was real progress for some of them. They had written a poem.


Those of you of a certain vintage will fondly remember a children’s TV programme in the UK called ‘Runaround’ where over-excited kids would run in all directions, trying to answer questions from a younger Frank Butcher, or Mike Read as he was known then. The object of the game was to answer as many questions as possible, even after you get two seconds to run around and change your mind. Well it seems that the Exam revision season is a bit like that. Spring weeks  spent trying to answer the questions of the previous year’s  problems and a hectic mad dash in April when you’re not really sure that you were right in the first place. And it’s that indecision which causes all the problems.

It seems like the wee lassie who changed her mind and decided that, yes, you can turn off Niagara falls at night, some teachers will be having forehead slapping, Homer Simpson ‘DOH!’ moments before the term is out.

The Higher English exam in Scotland, for those who don’t know, consists of two papers: the first is a Close Reading/interpretation paper of one hour and forty five minutes, where candidates must analyse two similarly themed passages and answer questions on them; in paper two, candidates must choose two Critical Essay questions from different genres and complete an essay on each in ninety minutes. So far, so straight forward, yes> Well, no, not really.

The Critical Essay questions, while they have become more generic over the last few years, are still something of a gamble. My class could spend the whole year on a novel, a play and a few poems and there is no guarantee that there will be a question on any of them. An extreme scenario, I’ll admit, but one that is possible. So the young girl who has worked hard all year and come along to see me after the exam, worried that she’d chosen an inappropriate question, was clearly upset. She had and I had to lie to her. No point in ruining her summer. The split second she had to choose a question was too much for her. Runaround. Jumped to the wrong question.

What exactly is it we are testing here? What should be an opportunity for our students to explore and express their understanding of challenging literature becomes a lottery as less well-prepared students hit the jackpot with ‘ideal’ questions. Those who’ve worked hard all year are not necessarily in a better position to get what they deserve.

This type of end of year exam must surely be getting to the end of its shelf life. The stark differences between examinations and true assessment have never been clearer. Assessment needs to be more than the game show which we have always played. It needs to reflect the true learning of our children and provide them with something more than a transitory grade at the end. We cannot keep allowing the hard work done by many kids to go unrewarded by an unfair lottery.

The Pub Quiz and the Joke of Formal Assessment

There was a time in the past when I regularly attended a local pub quiz. It was an excellent excuse to show off my ‘so-called’ intelligence, mixed with a little bit of Guinness of course.  Indeed, this became more of a social event but still I wanted my team to win, was disappointed when we didn’t. I was a teacher, for goodness sake; I knew a lot about…well…things.

The novelty soon wore off though and it has been years since I visited any pub during the week, for any reason, never mind for a pub quiz. That changed the other week when, in celebration of the beginning of the summer holidays, I returned to the challenge – to the land of the trivia-obsessed. It was an interesting experience.

You could say that things have changed somewhat. First of all, every team achieved a remarkably high score in what seemed to me to be fairly challenging subject rounds. Has the nation’s intelligence increased since I was last there? Has our thirst for trivia become an obsession.

Secondly, there were a remarkable number of visits to the toilet during rounds. Were we more concerned, worried, fearful of our quizzing performance or do we merely drink too much? Needless to say my team did not win.

The team which did, however, was full of teachers. They had been using their phones to search for answers – as were most people there it has to be said – and were quite happy for this to be known. The irony wasn’t lost on me. The rise of the smart phone has changed our view of information and how we access it. From the brick like ‘Richard Gere in Pretty Woman’ monster phones we had back in the day to the mini computers which can do everything, it seems that access to this information has changed everywhere except in schools. It is becoming something of a joke.

Sugata Mitra claims that the point of education is to get information to kids as quickly as possible in order to get to the point where they can really begin to learn. His ‘child-centred education’ claims that students can learn for themselves and much of what we do in school bores them. We spend our time transferring information which they can get on their phones.

Our approach to formal assessment seems to be so outdated that even pub quizzes are showing it up. The irony of a team of teachers winning a pub quiz by accessing the answers on their smart phones shouldn’t be lost on us. The kids I teach can access everything which is blocked to them in the classroom by stepping outside into the corridor to use their phones. They can access Facebook and Youtube and Twitter and possibly the answer to every question we are currently asking in school.

So, If we are to engage our young people in a lifetime of learning we must stop ignoring the ways that they access information. ‘Why do I need a teacher when I’ve got google?’ asked Ian Gilbert. It is a serious question. The time has come to stop flogging this dead horse and start helping them use information in the correct way. Teachers have cottoned on to that outside of the class. If we don’t then our exams will continue to be tests of memory. Like a pub quiz. But ten years ago.

Summertime…And the Living is Easy

About a year ago, I started my summer holidays with a post called ‘A Summer of Learning.’ In it, I made three pledges, three things I would attempt over the summer holiday.

‘By August I will have taken my first piano lesson.
By August I will be able to bake great bread.
By August I will make something amazing out of wood.’

One I tried and didn’t enjoy. One was a disaster. One was a resounding success. One hurt my fingers. One filled the house with joy. One left me with chips. I’ll let you work out which is which. So what about this summer? What should I be learning? Anything?

I’ve always believed that the long summer holidays – while being a thing of great beauty in many ways – can have terrible consequences for some kids. John Greenlees in the TesScotland this week makes that very point: that ‘during the summer, those (attainment levels) of the majority of children regress.’ For some it means a complete switch off from anything educational. No reading, no writing, no cultural input. For others, it is a summer of adventure. Foreign capital cities, gallery experience. Something doesn’t quite sit right about that. If it is not the reason for the widening gap between rich and poor in our country then it certainly doesn’t help.

Perhaps the break from learning suggests that kids are very aware that schools are places where we achieve grades above real learning. Perhaps they know that schools are only concerned with how those grades rate the schools themselves, rather than them as individuals. If we undertake a long race to the exam finish line in May/June is it any wonder that we all see summer as a welcome break?

What about we teachers? How much do we see summer as a time to completely shut off from our jobs and forget about teaching and learning for six weeks? I think, for most, the answer may be very clear. However, if we are to take the moral high ground and expect kids to keep on learning then we must do likewise.  No, I don’t mean we should be working; I don’t mean we should be preparing or marking; I mean we need to model good learning and talk about what it means with our students. We need to model good learning, not merely good schooling, and show that learning is not something that is exclusive to the school building or even the school year. We are clearly failing at that.

I’m not sure if, as John Greenless suggests, project based work is what is required. That could work. It might suggest a change in approach for secondary schools – not a bad thing – as many of us don’t see the same classes two years in a row. But what I do know is that if we return to school in August/ September without having learned anything then we have missed an opportunity. An opportunity for us to improve as teachers; an opportunity for us to prove that schools are not just about the exams; and, if we share our learning, an opportunity to show that we are human too.

When I return in August, I hope to be confident enough to try out Solo Taxonomy in my classroom. I am reading some excellent blog posts and the work of Pam Hook. I will also try to embed Aifl into my lessons in a more effective way. Thus, I am reading Dylan Wiliam’s ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’. I need to better at that. I also have time to do loads of other things which have nothing to do with school. Six weeks is a long time. I am using it well.

Reading Aloud Allowed

‘This morning, I looked at the books on my shelves and thought that they have no knowledge of my existence. They come to life because I open them and turn their pages, and yet they don’t know that I am their reader.’  Gabriel Zaid

I’ve made my thoughts clear on my belief that having controlled periods of silent reading is the only way to encourage a love of reading in the children I teach. Read some of my earlier posts. However, I don’t want to create the impression that the ten minute session I allow for reading silently is isolated and unconnected to the rest of their work in English. Indeed, it is a core part, but only a part.

One of the most fulfilling things I do as an English teacher, one of things I look forward to most is reading great writing aloud. Not always great novels, but I have to admit it is this which pleases me most. If you’ve never read to a large group of kids – and I’m clearly not including English teachers in that – then it is an experience which you need to share. The intimacy of the moment, the electricity of the dramatic scene, is unique in my job. When you can recreate the tension of a great piece of writing – through hushed tones, genuine anger, subtle nuance – then you can hold a class in the palm of your hand.

There are scenes in some of the books I teach which still leave a tingle down my spine. Holden Caulfield’s explanation of his desire to be ‘The Catcher in the Rye’; Macduff’s reaction on hearing the news of the murder of his family in ‘Macbeth’; the gripping finale to ‘Of Mice and Men’; the final, beautiful, poetic last section of ‘The Great Gatsby’. Every one of them leaves me gulping back a tear and I’ve yet to read any of them to a class who haven’t been wrapped up in every word. The room is silent.  The words sink in. The bell signals the end of the period. Let them go.

‘Every story read to students from any genre contributes to building their background knowledge in some way.’   (Steven Layne, Igniting a Passion for Reading)

And that knowledge is very often better left alone when the book is finished, for a time anyway. Not stopping a book and asking what we thought of it, or ‘why did that happen?’; or ‘what does it really mean?’ is the most effective way to get children to think their own thoughts. Leave it alone for a while. Let it settle. Then talk. No worksheets, no comprehension quizzes, no wasting time.

If we are to create lifelong readers then it is important that we don’t cast them adrift with meaningless, time-consuming nonsense. Yes, we look at great writing and analyse and discuss. But we need to ask ourselves what we want most of all at the end of the process. Readers who can access difficult texts or readers who do access difficult texts. Unless we promote reading as something to be enjoyed in and out of school, something which they will take with them for the rest of their lives, then we are in danger of creating a generation of alliterate children. ‘We can read but reading wasn’t enjoyable at school so we choose not to.’

When I read out loud to kids I am reminded why I wanted to do this in the first place. Memories of my English teacher reading the chapter from ‘Lord of the Flies’ where Piggy meets his inevitable doom. I went out and bought the book that weekend. I may still have it all these years later. Even so, I can still hear his voice slightly cracking as he read the words, probably for the umpteenth time, to a class of previously rowdy teenagers. That stuff never goes away.

In class, we’ve just finished reading ‘The Outsiders’ by S. E. Hinton. The kids in this group have read more with me than they’ve ever read. I gave them the time to do it and I talked about books with them. I made sure I found the reluctant ones and let them sit until we found, together, books which engaged them. That is my job as an English teacher.

‘The job of adults who care about reading is to move heaven and earth to put that book into a child’s hands.’  (Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer)

The scene from ‘The Outsiders’ which gets to these kids is not the scene when Jonny dies but Dally. Dally, the hard, cold thug, the rebel, the one who cares about nothing, even himself. His death is so unexpected but inevitable that there were gasps in the room, cries of ‘No’. They gasp because they see themselves in Dally. They empathise with this character. They have learned to do this and now go off and read their own books. They are learning through reading in class in all ways. We owe them that.