Being a Cock-Eyed Optimist in 2013

Sometime in the mid-nineties I found myself in a nightclub in Aberdeen – that’s a long story in itself. I don’t know what came over me but the idea that I would ask a girl to dance came to me and, suddenly, I was John Travolta in one of those films. This particular lady didn’t know how much her life was about to change. I don’t recall which song inspired me to wander over but I would imagine it was either She Sells Sanctuary by The Cult or Blue Monday. It was that sort of nightclub. Anyway, I digress.

Picture the scene as I shuffle over and ask her to dance…

She slams down her pint pot, stubs out her cigar and slowly turns to catch my eye. A step towards me, she leans in and whispers with all the charm of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, her stale breath as intoxicating as her beauty, one index finger held up in front of me.

‘One dance!’

‘One dance!’ she sneered.

Of course I agreed. As far as I was concerned, I was in. It was a beautiful moment. Even though she walked off half way through the song it was a signal. Wasn’t it?

Two years ago tomorrow I started my blog. That terrifying point, where I could no longer procrastinate and find excuses not to, had passed and, let’s face it, I couldn’t break my most important resolution on day one. Immediate positive feedback gave me the confidence to write another post. Then another. My life has never been the same. As far as I was concerned, I was in.

Taking that first step has lead to Teachmeets in Stornaway…

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Newcastle…

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…as well as many others. It took me to Pedagoo and a world of like-minded educators. I have been invited to write assessment materials for the SQA. I have had my work published on The Guardian Teachers Network. I have been invited to review educational texts. I had my first work published in a book. It has been remarkable.

If you can find any connection between that and a nightclub in Aberdeen then please get in touch. It came to me when I was thinking about a review of my blog so far, perhaps some hopes for next year. However, all I can really say to anyone reading this who is in the same place as I was back then, is that sometimes you need to go for it. Ask the questions; answer them yourself if you like. But don’t find yourself reading this blog in year’s time having never found the courage to press the publish button.

I suppose the point is that you need to jump in. It might only be half the dance you thought but, hey, you can still throw a shoe about when you’re in here.

A Ghost of Teenage Past, Present and Future

I’m sitting in Starbucks writing this, trying to avoid the chaos of the sales shopping. Crowds of teenagers are passing by, many of them taught by me incidentally. More than ever, it strikes me that we often fail to notice that teenagers get a terrible press, don’t they?

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This is caused by deriding modern culture, the culture our children are faced with every day. Not only the technology they access but the food they eat, the culture they devour. We look down our noses when they eat a Big Mac, drink a Coke. We mock when they boast of completing video games, text messaging, facebooking.

We don’t find their sense of humour funny, their clothes at all attractive. We condemn them for wearing hoodies, jeans which display a large percentage of underwear. Their haircuts seem ridiculous.

And all the time we are reminding them of how terrible their prospects are, how our generation have messed things up for them.

We need to stop it.

I remember being a teenager and eating my first Wimpy burger. It came on a plate with a knife and fork, for goodness sake. I remember believing that I could live on that taste forever. If I could have, I would have. It was a luxury then. Couldn’t afford it. I was enticed by the advertising campaigns of Coke, loved it cold and just out of the fridge. It was a luxury then.

My older brother came home with a BBC micro computer and our house was never the same. Clunky old games, but games nonetheless. We used to play for hours and hours. I may not have had texting but I would stay out with my friends for as long as humanly possible. My friends were my family.

My parents couldn’t understand why Monty Python’s Life of Brian was so funny. Later, The Young Ones, Not the Nine O’Clock News. As an older teenager I didn’t have a hoodie but if I did I would have worn it with pride. Most teenagers don’t wear them as a mask; they wear them because they too are afraid. Afraid of a society which often alienates them.

We forget that Punk Rock meant spitting and vomiting became Olympic events.

Perhaps there is some truth in the above newspaper article. We may may not owe them a living but we do owe them the space to live their lives and the hope that their future will be better then ours, better than now.

Why is it that some teachers want to furnish pupils with our past rather than prepare them for their future? For many of them, we may be the most significant adult influences they have.

Making Use of Past Papers In English Class

Even at Christmas you can’t walk through a book shop without seeing piles of Past Exam Paper collections, staring threateningly back. Exam preparation is on the horizon and publishers are rubbing their hands. My previous post on past papers made my thoughts clear. I have always said that I dislike them and everything they stand for. As an English teacher who believes my subject is skills based, I think the only purpose they serve is to emphasise to students what they don’t know rather than teach them anything new.

imagesOver the years I’ve tried to find ways to use them effectively in the English classroom. Using various Assessment is for Learning techniques and co-operative learning strategies  I’m beginning to see how they can work really well as a teaching tool. Active learning is the key, I think, especially in the Close Reading/interpretation section of the papers. So, rather than merely reading and answering the questions in isolation, there is collaboration, disputation, walking around the classroom and a whole lot of learning. I give three fifty minute lessons to this task, depending on the level of the class, but the time is more than worth it. Here’s a quick guide.

1- Issue passages. Read out loud, depending on the ability level of the class. If you allow the class to read on their own, give a time frame with which you think they should all cope. It provides a framework for them and allows the rest of the lesson to flow freely.

2- When reading is finished, issue highlighters and ask students to highlight words they know rather than those they don’t. The looks on their faces when you ask them to do this is priceless but by the end they see almost completed covered passages and this emphasizes the high level of vocabulary they possess.

3 Allow them to find someone who knows what they don’t. This is when things get noisy and they get to walk around the room. Again give a limited time frame, I usually give ten to fifteen minutes depending on the class, for students to wander about, discussing their unknown words and allowing them to explain meanings to each other. I will keep saying that someone in the room will know the word they are looking for. An excellent way of encouraging collaboration and developing contextual understanding.

4- I then allow a final ten minutes as students refer to dictionaries as a last resort. You could have a brief feedback session if there are still any difficulties but this rarely happens. At this point, all challenging vocabulary has been accessed.

5- Now issue questions instructing students to, In pairs,  read through all questions highlighting challenging ones. What makes them challenging? This could be a whole class discussion afterwards or individual help. Whatever works for you at the time.

6- In the next period, assess. I do think this needs to be done under exam conditions. Rows. Silence. This will be the exercise they have to complete in February and May so it makes sense that they develop experience in doing this. They get to use highlighted passages, of course.

In his book ‘Embedding Formative Assessment’,  Dylan Wiliam offers plenty of active strategies to use in your classroom every day. He emphasizes the point throughout his book that grades bring learning to an end and we must avoid them as long as possible. The purpose of completing this close reading/ interpretation task is not to get a grade. Students object at first but do start to see the benefits if you persist. He provides an example where a teacher does not even mark the completed papers.

‘Instead, during her next period with the class, each group of four students receives their unscored papers and one blank examination paper and has to compile the best composite examination paper response they can.’

(Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment)

All of this lead me to…

7- Don’t return student papers. Oh, you may want to grade them privately for your records – perhaps photocopy them then – but it would end the learning if you returned them with grades. Issue one passage, one set of questions and one sheet of A4 lined paper to each group. Today’s task is to complete the perfect group response to this Past Paper, for which they will all receive the group grade.This is, I think, where the real learning occurs. Collaboration, argument, competition even. I haven’t had a class which did not respond well to this and learn so much more from a silent response. You can use this with any newspaper article or passage from a book but, perhaps, past papers have their place in English after all.

Ban homework? Not so fast.

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The cry to ban homework is one which has been around for a while. Educators like Alfie Khon have been campaigning for it for years, echoing what students have been saying forever. The President of France, Francoise Hollande, recently announced his intentions to do this in primary and middle schools, stressing the inequalities which homework merely emphasises. Many may cheer, many may rejoice but I’m not totally convinced. In an era where learning is more and more the social currency in which we expect our children’s future’s to be negotiated, it would appear that banning homework seems mental.

Let’s be honest. Homework is something which nobody enjoys. Kids hate it eating up their free time. Teachers generally hate marking it. Parents find it an endless source of stress at home. ‘Twas ever thus though. I left school in 1984 and things don’t appear to have changed much. Rarely was it linked to anything worthwhile. Rarely was it connected to learning above merely doing. Homework was issued as a matter of school policy rather than educational necessity. Under those circumstances is it any wonder that homework has such a bad reputation.

However, before you come to the conclusion that I’m a yoghurt knitting leftie – I may well be but not in terms of homework – it is not learning at home I object to. It is this imposition of ‘work at home’ which creates so many problems. That it enhances and increases inequality of opportunity is difficult to argue against. Those with warm, comfortable homes, modern computers, nice desks and supportive parents are already at an advantage. For some kids, even getting to school is tribute to their tenacity and perseverance. Adding homework to the list of difficulties at home is not only self-defeating but cruel.

But we must not inhibit learning by banning it. Learning at home must be encouraged. I recently, very publicly, shared the best piece of homework I have ever received. Did the student learn from this experience? I’ll let you decide. What I would say is that the learning experiences of both of us have been enhanced by the process. I am very aware that not every student would even have had the tools to create something like this, never mind the will or the talent, but to ban homework seems to be cutting our noses off to spite our faces.

It is not the word ‘homework’ which I object to but the ‘banning’ of it. We could be setting a very dangerous precedent if we do so, inadvertently placing learning way down the list of priorities. So here’s the thing. Let’s stop calling it homework; it’s only a label. Let’s start talking about learning at home. I believe that learning at home needs to be encouraged. We know the students who will do it and do it well and we know the ones who won’t, often for very good reasons. But banning won’t help anyone. Encourage it but don’t punish those who don’t do it. It may well be the last things on their minds when they’re at home.

http://www.newyorker.com/talk/comment/2012/12/17/121217taco_talk_menand

http://www.delicious.com/kennypieper/homework

What’s a good wall display?

I scribbled these questions down in draft form ages ago and never really got around to doing anything with them. In the spirit of ‘cleaning out the ashtrays’ for the new year, I worlded them and, ahem, created a wall display…sort of.

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Who is it for?  What does it achieve? What should it include?  How often is it changed?  How often do we refer to it during class time? How often do we refer to it outside class time? In what ways is it there to impress management? In what ways is it there to impress parents? In what ways is it there to impress colleagues? In what ways is it there for pupils? For ourselves? Which things should be permanent and which temporary? How much thought do we give to positioning? How much thought do we give to eye level? Will our students get by if they never look at it? What would change if we put homework on the wall? What should change if we put homework on the wall? What would change if we put essential information on the wall? If someone, anyone, walked into your room today, what would they see?

Super Juice. Just words stuck together.

When I was about six, my family and I spent a week in a Guest House in Torquay. It was a nice place, as far from Fawlty Towers as you could imagine and the family who ran it were especially pleasant. I would run down for dinner every night, hoping for a seat near the window of the dining room but, more importantly, I’d get there first because I was being offered Super Juice. ‘Super Juice?’ the lovely people would ask, knowing that I’d accept with childish, exuberant glee. I felt special, felt like I was drinking elixir.

It wasn’t until years later that I realised my mistake. The initial confusion on the lady’s face, followed by humor and a ruffle of my hair, disguised the fact that I wasn’t being offered anything super at all. It was a choice. Soup or juice. I can still remember the crushing humiliation I felt when that sunk in, though no one else in my family remembered. Embarrassed beyond belief by my childish naïveté.

Now, looking back, I think it’s hilarious…

When I was about thirty six, I spent weeks and months in a cold University classroom in Glasgow. It was a nice place, as far from Fawlty Towers as you could imagine and the people who ran it were especially pleasant. I would run from school for classes every Thursday night, hoping for a seat near the window of the classroom but more importantly, I’d get there first because I was being offered Chartered Teacher. ‘Chartered Teacher?’ the lovely people would ask, knowing that I’d accept with childish, exuberant glee. I felt special, felt like I was learning to change things.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized my mistake. The initial confusion on the lady’s face, followed by humour and a ruffle of my hair, disguised the fact that I wasn’t being offered anything Chartered at all. It was a choice. Pay us lots of money for something we’ll take away in a few years time. I can still remember the crushing humiliation I felt when that sunk in, though no one else in my school remembered. Embarrassed beyond belief by my childish naïveté.

Now, looking back, I am disgusted and angry.

I’m disgusted by a profession which destroyed the Chartered Teacher programme because, for goodness sake, teachers could CHOOSE to do it without asking for permission. I’m angry because colleagues immediately dismissed it as divisive, not heeding the hours required to complete the modules, the massive personal expense, on my part anyway, I was still paying off long after the salary increments began.

Now I’m left waiting to find out if any of it meant anything. My Chartered Teacher modules may help me towards a Masters qualification, may not. I may have my salary increments taken away from me, I may not. I may be asked to take on duties which were not in the original plan, I may not.

What does it say about a profession which crushes the enthusiasm of teachers who want to be better?

Naive? Perhaps. Either way, I’ve learned a valuable lesson. Be wary of nice people offering you juice. Super or not.

Why I became a teacher: travelling changed my mind about the profession

Cross-posted from The Guardian Teacher Network

Proudly cross-posting this for posterity. Original link is here.

In my final year of university the running joke among my friends and I was: “so, are you thinking about teaching then?” This was followed by in-house sniggering. We all thought we had much loftier intentions then and teaching wasn’t one of them. In fact, nothing was further from my mind than becoming a teacher. However, within a fortnight of my graduation day that all changed. Bereft of any short-term ideas, I joined some friends on a volunteering trip to Romania and a teacher was born. In fact, I went along in an admin capacity and it was only when one of the younger teachers got cold feet was I asked to walk along to chat with a few of the 27 students. They were 15 year-olds. I was terrified. I loved it.

At the end of that first week they took me out to the local museum to tell me all about their town’s history. It was on my 30th birthday and they sang their version of Happy Birthday to me. I couldn’t believe how much my life had changed in a fortnight. These people wanted to learn from me, wanted to hear me read and discuss that reading. Looking back, and I still have the photos, this group of Romanian kids are to blame for everything I do now. Many of them wrote to me for years until they too grew up and went to university.

Romania opened doors for me and I went on to spend two years on a Greek island, teaching slightly better off kids. If you just pictured the scene of a new teacher on a Greek island having the time of his life, reading in the sun every day, starting work at 5pm and finishing at 9pm, then you’d be right. It was glorious. It might seem strange that I’d want to return to Scotland after that but the call of the big city was too much. I returned to teacher training at the Jordanhill campus of Strathclyde University and spent way too much time missing lectures, drinking cheap beer and developing a love of country music on the jukebox of the campus bar.

I joined Duncanrig Secondary in 1999 and have been there ever since. I love it. As well as teaching English, I’ve been a magazine editor, stage manager, chess club organiser. In what other jobs could you experience such diversity of task? Some 13 years on, I find myself writing a blog all about teaching. Who would’ve thought? Certainly none of my uni friends.

In a previous life, I was unemployed for some time during the Thatcher-led eighties. I worked on factory floors, in shops, in hospital; I worked for months on night shift, twilight shifts as well as 9am to 6pm day shifts. What I remember from those days is not the work I did. Probably couldn’t differentiate one day from the next. I recall some great friends, some great laughs but nothing about the jobs I did. I read though. Every day. Every lunch break. I spent time in bookshops and libraries. I read reviews. I wasn’t university educated but I could see that this was something. This was a life. A year of night classes from Monday to Thursday – 7pm until 9.30pm – got me to university and I never really looked back. However, I knew it was reading which got me there. I could only have been an English teacher. Now I work in a building which has a library. How perfect is that?

If I was being honest, I don’t look back on my first four or five years of teaching particularly fondly. Learning the ropes, experiencing the lows. When I mentor student teachers now I always use the analogy of learning to drive as a good comparison for teaching. At the beginning you clutch tightly onto your steering wheel/lesson plan. You see nothing else. Everything outside of that is out of your control and terrifying. Soon you begin to relax and look down the road a bit. Later, everything seems natural. Nothing phases you. Experience is the only thing. You grow into yourself. You become a teacher. Eventually.

Since those first few years the staff room walls have collapsed leaving an online Personal Learning Network which enhances my learning, supports my teaching and provides the biggest staff room I could ever want. Through Twitter and blogging, my teaching life has come alive. My work with pedagoo.org is one of the most pleasing aspects of what I do. A group of like-minded teachers attempting to spread the message that Scottish Education can and will change if we want it to. We try to accentuate the positive adding a healthy dose of realism as we go. But we love our jobs and never a day goes by where we regret doing this.

If you’re about to undertake a life in the classroom, be aware that this is no normal job. It will consume you absolutely at times. It will make you laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. You will convince yourself at least once a day that you can’t do it. That never really goes away. But when you get it right – which will be most of the time – when your lessons explode with learning, when the students just get what you are trying to do, then it is, without any hesitation, the best job in the world. Your days will be filled with the unexpected – laughter, tears, rage, frustration and complete happiness. You will arrive at those long holidays a wreck of your former self. But that is why the holidays are there. To recharge and refresh, to return to a normal life – to an extent. Show me one teacher who doesn’t see a lesson possibility in just about everything that comes their way. And each year you will be desperate to get back into the classroom.

Teaching is what I do and I do it well. It took me a long time to find teaching and for it to find me. I won’t do anything else now. I still see those university friends from time to time. One or two of us have become teachers. The others? Well, with what question do you think we greet them?