Being the Change…Now.

My last few posts have really been all about the need to act, to step up, and to do something. To deliver, as SethGodin might say. I came away from Teachmeet slf2012 with that buzzing feeling you get from too much coffee only you haven’t had too much coffee. There were was so much positivity pervading the day and so many inspirational people and I wanted to do something on the first day in school; not wait as usual, wait for an appropriate break in the planner or time to think more. There has been too much time to think. The time is now.

Neil Winton’s work was inspiring and painted a picture of what school could be like. On the Monday, my S4 class (Year 11) and I discussed the possibilities of school change. They are a smart bunch and, mostly, enjoyed school but there is still a lot of what we do which seems meaningless to them. That’s not to say that it is meaningless but we simply are not convincing them why it is important. We cannot keep sticking our heads in the sand or our fingers in out ears over this. So, what if we allowed them to choose topics, based on the work we are doing in class, and asked them to go away and use all of the learning they have done in school to produce something amazing? As Neil has shown, incredible things can happen.

We are studying ‘To Kill a  Mockingbird’, an old English class staple for a reason. It is one of the greatest books ever written and I always teach from the point of view that ‘It is harder to the right thing than the easy thing.’

It is a long, challenging novel but I have never taught a class which didn’t get it and love it. No change here. What I wanted to do after speaking to Neil was to try and explode the Experiences and Outcomes and try something which passed responsibility for learning on to the students. They begin each year knowing what is coming. Some lengthy study on character, plot, theme, imagery etc. An assessment or two on the way, a Critical essay at the end. But why do we study literature? What did it give me? What can it provide for them? On the train in to work the next day I sketched out this.

Each of the ‘What is…?’ points cover themes in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’

What would happen if students could begin to use the skills and knowledge they have gleaned across the curriculum but were, up until now, unable to do so? They could use their skills in historical research, art, music, modern studies, ICT, anything else. They could create art which represents ideas, music which reflects feelings…

Would we see a move toward true active learning? A need for students to do it themselves, to take responsibility? It would not makes things easier for us but would change the focus. Our role in the process becomes provider of challenging opportunity.

And we still do the other things. We learn about sentences structure, imagery, connotation. We study tone. We write regularly.

We spent the first couple of classes playing about with various web tools – Wikispaces, Pinterest, Prezi, for example – until they became comfortable with the ones they liked. The only stipulation being that they use many to collect their ideas and present them to me at the end of November. That same night, I received an email. Two of my students had gone home and filmed a Vlog (video blog) of themselves discussing the topic and what it meant to them. They comfortably – if somewhat light heartedly – made plans for their project and addressed the film to me. Nine minutes long. I was amazed. Of course that doesn’t mean that the end result will be fantastic but it is a fair indication of how enthused they are by the project.

So what are the next steps? I have been providing them with challenging materials – articles, blog posts etc – which will guide them to where they want to go, with luck. We are still covering the usual skills. But I want to focus these posts on those in the class from whom, perhaps, I wouldn’t expect the most creative work. Those kids who do the work but rarely sparkle. How would a project like this change their attitude to schooling? Would it? Would it remove the safety net which they have relied on for so long? This is an ongoing process. I have been impressed so far but I’ll keep you up to date.

Reclaiming the Discourse

It should have come as no surprise that a letter in the TESScotland would refer to the ‘dreadful Curriculum for Excellence’. Since it inception a mere nine years ago there have been similar claims, many of them much more antagonistic than that.  What is more disappointing is that negative language seems to be at the heart of the discourse of teaching. It so much easier to knock down than it is to build. Despite the pages of excellent practice each week in the TESS we are still faced with this unsubstantiated verbiage each week in the letters page.

The domination of negative discourse is a real problem. It pervades our staff rooms: it dominates our Inservice days. We are happy to treat the staff curmudgeon as a real character. Always been there, always first to tell us that thIngs were much better in the past. That there are no new ideas: merely ones which come back again and again. But what happens is that we become mired in the ease of negativity. It is safer to be like that, to retreat behind a mask of cynicism. In turn, we begin to agree with the negativity, refuse to change and, well, opportunities are wasted.

I’ve always argued that it is not only our right to speak up about things which concern us, it is our professional duty. But that duty comes with the responsibility to be active in finding solutions, to provide evidence  that another way is better and, indeed, possible. In Scotland the new curriculum is here and here to stay whether we like it or not. Should it not be our professional duty to make it work? This is where I, again, am described as an apologist for the new fancy shmancy teaching ways but I simply want it to work because I truly believe that it is the best way. I am happy to stick my head above the parapet to be shot down but at least have the discussion in an intelligent and constructive manner.

I admit that, in the face of almost constant custard pie throwing (see my last post), it is very difficult to stay positive. The empowerment of positivity, however, can be a wonderful thing. Reminding yourself that you are making a difference, that you are reaching the kids in front of you must surely be a better alternative. When we flood the discourse with negativity then, eventually, it will become the norm. When we criticize instead of praise we take a step backwards.

So let us stop using ludicrous expressions like ‘natural ability’ and ‘winners and losers’, with all of their connotations,  stop tearing each other apart when we hear something we don’t like. Let us stop dampening the spirits of younger teachers. We are here to educate all children. This is no idealistic call for smiles and huggling. It is a genuine attempt to swallow down that negativity we all feel at time. Perhaps our staff rooms, such as they are, will be nicer places.

Deciding to Play My Joker – with a Wee Nod to ‘It’s a Knockout’

The annoying thing about hiding places is that you can never seem to find them in appropriate spots when you need them. Whenever you need that safe haven to hide ashamedly from the light, hide away from the difficulty, hide from the truth, the space around you narrows, the discomfort increases dramatically and maybe, just maybe, you have to face up to the devastating truth of what is happening to you. Maybe you have to stop running so quickly. Maybe you have to look closely at yourself in the bathroom mirror. As a teacher you have to admit that at times the truth comes crashing down like a cartoon anvil.

Teaching in Secondary School can be a bit like a big, long game of ‘It’s a Knockout’, (or that new one on a Saturday night with the little one from Top Gear if you’re under 35). You spend all your time trying to get to the finish line when it seems like people are throwing water bombs at you at every opportunity. We get there in the end but more often that not we are metaphorically soaked or covered in custard. And our misery is a spectator sport, the most common one even.

So when, like me this week, you have a soul destroying day, it is difficult to get yourself back on the tightrope. You must, of course. Too much is riding on it. But don’t let anyone underestimate how difficult that can be. Hiding is not an option. When you are faced with obstacle after obstacle, when you are facing closed doors both literal and metaphorical, it is then more important to walk with Stuart Hall permanently cackling in your head. (It works. I’ve tried it).



When Dylan Wiliam said ‘show me a teacher who doesn’t fail every day and I’ll show you a teacher with low expectations for his or her students’, (Embedded Formative Assessment) he wasn’t wrong but that doesn’t make it feel any better when your well-planned, cleverly resourced lesson goes wrong or when the simplest of things don’t pan out the way you thought they would. The truth that we fail – indeed have to fail – can be a tough one to swallow.

The implementation of the new curriculum in Scotland has been and will continue to be laden with custard pies and waterbombs. There are those who will celebrate every failure, glow in every problem. They will write to the TesScotland to proudly let us know that. But they do so from their own hiding place. It is easy to throw stones from the dark. It is easy to glory in the failure of others. We teachers need to step up to the plate, step out into the light, though. Creativity is not an optional extra. We can longer accept learned helplessness in our students if we, too, accept the way things always have been. It is time to raise the bar for ourselves, not just our learners, and break a few doors down. Winning ‘It’s a Knockout’ was never without mess but it seemed so much more fun that way.

After my bad day this week I returned to have another wee read of Seth Godin’s Linchpin. It made me feel better.

‘The future belongs to chefs, not to cooks or bottle washers. It’s easy to buy a cookbook (filled with instructions to follow) but really hard to find a chef book.’

Persistence in the face of real difficulty is the key to learning for all.