Not as Good as I Thought I Was – It’s Official…sort of.

There is a certain obstinacy in a refusal to change in the face of the facts. Pride gets in the way; a reaffirmation of the the way you’ve always done things takes over. The realisation that perhaps your strongly held beliefs about something which you’ve argued for for years are not so right after all leaves you feeling uneasy. So you emphasise them all the more, louder, drowning out any other possibility, closing your ears. Continuing with those wrongly held views eats away at you until you become bitter and cynical.

The first staff room I ever sat in was filled with experience and cynicism in equal measure. Sure, there were young upstarts like myself who were filled with the hope of a new career but, for the most part, the loud and certain finger waggers sneered their opinions as facts, spilling vinegar and scorn on anyone who dared to oppose them. It is an intimidating bear pit for a young teacher to be thrown into; and one which can deflate an ability to stay enthusiastic and idealistic. I never lost my ability to adapt and change when necessary but it was hard back then.

I recently started a creative writing course. It was with the ludicrous idea that perhaps I’d be quite good at it. I’m not. Go figure. However, those two hours on a Tuesday night for the last two months have given me more than I could have ever expected. I have learned how to be a better teacher of writing. I always thought I was good at it, certainly enjoyed it. Alarm bells started ringing over the last year or two when my senior classes’ Creative Writing was being marked well below my estimation of them. I can’t lie. It was my fault, of course. After fourteen years it was becoming clear that I wasn’t as good as I thought.

It would great if I could write that I took the brave and noble decision to admit my faults and ask for help, resulting in a creative writing course, but it wasn’t like that at all. Purely coincidental, but there is something humbling about facing up to the truth that I could have been better which I have, subsequently, found life-affirming. I now model my teaching of writing on the workshop format of the classes and get stuck into the words my students write, more than the essays. It has rekindled my love of language.

I would never have been able to admit those flaws in that staffroom of old; I would have been laughed out of the room. I found my place in blogging, Pedagoo and Twitter and in the last two and a half years I’ve been able to share success and failure equally. Recently though, I’ve felt a change. When once Twitter was full of optimism and idealism, mixed with energy and a supportive peer group it seems to be turning into that staffroom I experienced all those years ago.

New bloggers are often derided and mocked; openness and honesty criticised; optimism stamped out. Those who once were new bloggers develop an air of the staffroom cynic and sneer with their own certainty and superiority. Looking around the blogosphere (Is it still called that?) I’m not sure if I would have the courage to start now; things have changed.

The opening line of this post certainly applies to me in everything I do in the classroom. But how much does it apply to us all? How can we be certain that everything we do is correct and how much damage could we be doing if we refuse to change?

Two years ago, I wrote a post about what I wanted to achieve in the summer. I became very good at only one of the three things I decided to try. I finish for summer on Wednesday and want to make another vow. This one I’ll keep to myself, but I will return as a better teacher. I have realised that if you don’t change you don’t stay still; you fall behind. I am not as certain of my teaching abilities as I once was and I think that’s what makes me a good teacher.

In Search of Creativity – or at least a definition

The recent Ken Robinson / Sugata Mitra backlash might have come as a surprise to some but it shouldn’t really. These poster boys of the TED Talk world delivered charismatic and entertaining talks which seemed to explode over the Internet. They now face the inevitable kick back. But it seems to me that this is emblematic of the polarisation of educational debate we have in this country. Whether you think they’re both fraudulent chancers or inspirational geniuses is neither here nor there. They’re likely neither. In fact it troubles me that I am expected to be on one side or the other. When you can see the value in both sides it doesn’t make you seem like a Lib Dem at a buffet table.

I remember watching the Ken Robinson TED Talk for the first time and thinking it was wonderful. I’d never heard of him and he seemed to be a motivational speaker at the top of his game. I laughed at his jokes, felt sad at his anecdotes. It was entertaining, funny, moving. it made me feel good. And that’s okay. It didn’t change me, didn’t make me want to storm the barricades of educational change. it merely made me feel good.

After reading some of the more critical blog posts recently, by people I respect hugely, I watched it again with a critical eye. I still enjoyed it. What I did realise though was how much my view of that strange thing called creativity had changed since I first viewed it. Robinson defines creativity as ‘the process of having original ideas that have value’. That’s just his definition remember, let’s not pee our pants about it. But it does raise a few questions, doesn’t it?

I wouldn’t argue with his claims about creativity being crushed by schooling at times, I see it every day, but it’s not as simple as that. However, I’m not buying the premise that we should allow kids to do whatever they want all the time in the name of creativity. Surely our most creative minds are creative only because they know their subjects so well that they can subvert the rules of their chosen field. It seems clear that creativity is something we should encourage but to say kids can be creative without knowledge of what they are doing is ludicrous. Creativity then comes down to chance. Luck. Good fortune, call it what you will. Otherwise you get things like this happening…

Call me cynical but that story is not about the child. You may well like her paintings but how can we call them creative? Is creativity then in the eye of the beholder? Can I like someone’s work but not agree that it is creative or find it creative but not like it? I struggle with a definition. I used to argue that our problem was not that we should teach kids to be creative but we should stop telling them not to be. Now I’m not so sure. I think we devalue the work of great people if we say that everyone can do it. Picasso could create his weird and wonderful work because he knew the rules and how to bend them. Warhol, Pollock too.

James Joyce knew language inside out and was the only writer who could have achieved something as creative as ‘Ulysses’. In Scotland, Irvine Welsh and James Kelman are such esteemed writers because they can subvert their art. They are, in my opinion, creative. The rest of us mere mortals are expressive, for sure, but creativity needs to be earned. Whether it’s after that elusive ten thousand hours I’ve no idea but we water down the power of the word if we say that everyone is creative. They can be, clearly, but it needs to be earned.

The Sugata Mitra backlash is similar. I think there may be some merit in what he says but it is clearly too simplistic at times. What happens, though, is another example of polarization of educational debate. W don’t have to take sides if we can see even the slightest value in someone’s argument. Ken Robinson becomes popular and, sure enough, he faces a backlash, along with TED in general, and I can understand why. But TED Talks can make us feel good and that’s okay. They won’t change the world, probably, but they might change us a little bit in terms of our attitudes to certain things. Then again they might not. It’s surely worth listening for twenty minutes though.

The Gemini Man and Teacher Talk


Those of a certain age may remember a TV show called the Gemini Man starring Ben Murphy out of Alias Smith and Jones (I realize that I’ve lost as least half of the twelve people who regularly read my blog. It’s a risk but I’m taking it.) It was about a character called Sam Casey who, after an accident, could become invisible for only fifteen minutes a day. He had a watch which he could switch on and it would countdown as he got into scrapes and japes. It was axed after one series, rightly so, but I enjoyed it.

I was reminded of the Gemini Man recently while reading some blog posts on classroom Teacher Talk. I’ve never been a fan of limiting Teacher Talk as a rule, although I understand that we need to get students actively learning as soon as possible. However, I don’t buy the 20/80 rule or any stipulation that teachers should never lecture. Sorry. Sometimes I need to. Sometimes I talk for a whole lesson about the novel we are about to read. Sometimes I lead a whole class discussion on a topic which might arise out of nothing. Okay, that’s not all teacher talk but I do lead the talk and talk more than anyone in the room.

For example, when I introduce The Catcher in the Rye, I have a standard talk which starts at the end of the Second World War and travels all the way up to the day I got knocked down by a car when I was fourteen. (On the day John Lennon died, incidentally. See the connection?) There are times when we need to lecture, times when we must. Not always though. That would be nuts. But limiting Teacher Talk is really problematic for many reasons.

For about three days this week I tried to be The Gemini Man of Teacher Talk. For a couple of lessons with each of my classes I limited myself to fifteen minutes talk out of fifty five, with a countdown on my phone which I stopped whenever I stopped talking. I found it very difficult. Younger students, especially, always wanted to ask questions. Sometimes I refused to answer them. We had agreed that they would consult peers before the teacher, apart from those moments when I announced I was now ‘live’. There were times when the class was descending into bedlam. I’m too much of a control freak to let that happen.

I quickly realised that if any change in strategy like this was to work then we all need to be trained in how to do it well. I need to practice keeping my mouth shut at times and working with the students as to why that is happening. More importantly, students need to develop the skills of effective peer assessment. I’m never convinced that this works for all children. We are very happy to publicise our successes with peer assessment but how many kids really get nothing from it? I’ve been working on Ron Berger’s critique techniques, where students comment constructively on each others work (Be kind, Be specific, be helpful), but I’m clearly not there yet. My students are not comfortable working without me as a safety net, but we’ll stick at it.

I never found out what would happen if The Gemini Man’s fifteen minutes ran out. It never happened. However, if there is to be any value in limiting Teacher Talk then we need to work on ensuring that we have a rigorous assessment of the work the students are doing. Talk is far too important a skill to be left to chance. The Gemini Man only had fifteen minutes so he had to use them wisely. We have more but they are far more important.