The Christmas Book Flood

When I’m asked what I’d like for Christmas, my responses over the last few years have been fairly predictable. Books. And Whisky. But mostly books. It’s a lovely way to spend an afternoon over the Christmas period, sitting quietly wth a book ( and occasionally, a whisky), and books are a lovely gift to give. When people give me books it always strikes me as the most personal gift as the givers often want me to read what they’ve read, experience what they’ve experienced.

Discovering ‘The Christmas Book Flood’, from Iceland, started a wee idea rattling around my old noggin. The act of making Christmas Eve the time to share a book with someone you care about; one book you take the time to choose and buy and wrap for a special person in your life seems a beautifully simple but important one. Spending at least some of your time sitting reading quietly might be a lovely time spent before the chaos of the following day.

So here’s a wee plan: why don’t we do the same here? Why don’t we start our own ‘Christmas Book Flood’? I suggest as many of us as possible put aside some time on Christmas Eve to exchange books with someone at home. Spend the rest of the night reading and eating chocolate if you like, but definitely some reading.

Perhaps we can create a hashtag – #xmasbookflood ?- and share a photo of the book or of you reading your book by the Christmas tree, if you like. It might be a nice way to create a new (minor) tradition for Christmas. It might just be a nice way to share books and encourage us all to read a little more. So who’s up for it?

Dealing With Exam Results- Pass or Fail.

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 20th November 2017)

It would seem, if you follow the progress of our exam system through both social and traditional media, that from P1 to S3 exams don’t matter; then they do for a couple of years, but only if you do well; then we’ll photograph your kids literally jumping for joy and put it in the papers. If they don’t, we’ll create a Twitter hashtag telling them that it doesn’t matter. A conveyor belt of ‘celebrities’ will sympathise, claiming, ‘I got nothing at school and I turned out all right, didn’t I?’ We’ll all have our stories of why exam success isn’t the be all and end all.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.

With each year of experience it’s often sobering to think of the number of young people who come through my classroom door. Entering my nineteenth year of teaching, I was shocked to realise that some of the first kids I taught will be well in to their thirties by now. I recently met a former pupil in Glasgow, instantly recognisable and memorable as one of those kids who had been, in his own words, a ‘nightmare’. A polite and erudite young man, he now runs his own business and is married with a couple of kids. He left school with nothing but a whole heap of negative baggage but went on to be a responsible, successful individual.

As a secondary teacher, I do believe that the best thing we can provide for our young people is a strong set of qualifications which will allow them to move on to the next stage of their lives, whatever that may be. That may not sit well with the principles of the Curriculum for Excellence but it is what I’m judged on whether I like it or not: it is what Secondary Schools are judged on. However, this is a damning indictment of those kids who fail to achieve at school, whatever the circumstances. Meeting my former pupil merely reaffirmed the folly of the way our education system works.

Is it not patronising to tell kids who don’t do well in exams that it doesn’t really matter? They, we assume, worked hard at those exams, perhaps expected to pass. Failing is a perfectly natural lesson in life so telling them that it doesn’t matter demeans them as individuals. Is it important to do well in your exams? Of course  it is. Will your life be over if you fail? Of course not. But you will have to reconsider your options. Assisting kids in being able to deal with the disappointment instead of metaphorically telling them to ’cheer up’ is a more responsible and caring way to help them grow and develop.

Time to rise above our station.

It’s 4.30 in the morning: I can’t sleep. Today is the fourth whole school development day I’ve organised – a morning of workshops led by staff, attended by staff – and, of course, I’m convinced it’ll be a disaster. I’ve woken up with a cold so that feeling of impending doom is magnified, that ‘Imposter Syndrome’ is kicking in. It’s never gone badly before but there is always a first time and I’m pretty sure today will be the day. I’m sick of feeling like this.

I’ve spent the last  two months coaxing and cajoling colleagues into leading workshops, delivering training, sharing ideas. The number of superb colleagues who have convinced themselves that ‘I don’t do anything special’ is both mystifying and heart-breaking. What is wrong with a system whose lead specialists feel like this; worn down by s system which seems to be against them, which often treats them like the enemy? A system that treats anyone who raises their head above sea-level as a show off or a trouble maker? But we’re not allowed to rise above our station, are we?

For a year I’ve felt like that. Last December my book came out. Pretty soon after, I received two tweets from followers; one a very prominent member of the Educational Twitterati, who reminded me ‘Not to get above myself’. The other one – someone who I have met – told me, after beginning writing for TES Scotland, that I was ‘a big mouth who no-one wanted to listen to’. Both comments have never been very far way for most of this year. Oh, I know that some will think I’m massively prominent on Twitter myself. Perhaps. But I’m a humble classroom teacher who has found himself apologising for being so prominent.

I spent much of my childhood being told I’d never amount to much, much of my school life being invisible. Even when I eventually became a teacher, for the first ten years there was little expectation that I would rise above the mediocre; I’d been conditioned to think that. So, being from my background, coming from where I come from, bringing out a book is an extreme rarity. As a result, I find it hugely difficult and uncomfortable to accept compliments. I expect and anticipate that someone will try to burst my bubble. And that means I turn down a load of offers to speak about my book. No more.

For anyone who is reading this, perhaps recognising these feelings, sharing my upbringing and background, it’s time to get above our station. It’s time to break free from sneering negativity and acceptance of mediocrity. I’m just a teacher like you; I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in a position where I can write a book. But for all of us, it’s time to shout from the rooftops – both literally and metaphorically; write if you don’t want to shout – that we have things to to say; that we will no longer be silent and humble and shy about the great things we do in our classrooms. Lift your head up; look people in the eyes: you are a teacher.

Some thoughts on developing reading

I suppose it was about ten years in to my career that I started to take a serious look at myself and what I was doing. I was bored and boring in the classroom; long since forgotten the novelty and joy of teaching, morphing into the teachers who taught me, teaching the way I was taught. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it was for me.

Things have changed dramatically since then. It’s almost a year since my book, Reading for Pleasure: A Passport to Everywhere’ came out and I’m still dazed by the whole experience. I hadn’t looked it at for a while and, after doing so, I have to say, I’m incredibly proud of it. Creating a reading habit in children is a goal we should all strive for and my book is a good starting place.

But it isn’t enough. Feeling contented with my input only took me so far. Just by having books and even just by reading them doesn’t always make us proficient, critical readers. Reading Daniel Willingham’s ‘The Reading Mind’ messed with my head a bit. It has a subheading of ‘A Cognitive Approach to How the Mind Reads’ and walks through the mental processes of what happens in our brains as we read. That process is hugely complex: the process of learning to read well even more so. Willingham discusses the huge amount of knowledge and experience we bring to our reading.

Consider this example: I happened to be reading Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ and came across this passage:

‘The unpredictable revealed itself only at that point. I saw Lila lose her colour, become as pale as when she was a child, whiter than her wedding dress, and her eyes had that sudden contraction that turned them into cracks. She had in front of her a bottle of wine and I was afraid that her gaze would go through it with a violence that would shatter it, with the wine spraying everywhere. But she wasn’t looking at the bottle. She was looking farther away; she was looking at the shoes of Marcello Solara.”

It’s a beautiful, heart-breaking moment in the novel. However, in order to really understand the premise, what am I bringing to the table?

Simplistically, we interpret a sound from the squiggles that become letters; put them together and eventually see words to which we have to assign meaning; lots of those words go together to create sentences and developing language allows us to interpret information. But without greater knowledge we might find that increasingly difficult, especially when lots of sentences go together to create paragraphs and more.

Now, merely having a book in your hand and reading might help you along the way but to develop a greater understanding of context in the Elena Ferrante passage, I need to go further. I need to be aware that, as the book is set in Naples, that contextual factors come into play. The role of women, the role of poverty, the role of politics. Willingham, clearly and wonderfully, talks his reader through these process and makes clear the challenging, but almost unconscious, development of the proficient reader.

So developing readers is not easy. This post is a bit of a splurge of initial thoughts on this so apologies for that. My own book dealt with some effective ways to develop the reading habit in children. Willingham’s book has helped me move forward in my thinking and that’s not such a bad thing. We’re often told that, in education and in life, that we are ‘on a journey’. Sometimes that journey can leave us a little travel sick. But sometimes we can often find out way.

We Must Do Better Than This

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 6th October 2017, adapted and developed from an earlier post of mine,)

The cup slams down on to the desk. Lukewarm coffee splashes onto the pile of documents I’ve yet to read. I don’t sit down in my chair, I collapse into it. The chair doesn’t invite me. I surprise it. In revenge, the wheels send me backwards into a cabinet. Three ring binders, piled precariously, fall to the ground. I can’t be certain but I’m sure my sighs can be heard in at least three adjacent classrooms. I stare at the ten e-mail requests I have received since the beginning of that last double period. This can’t be what it’s all about. It just can’t be.

‘What just happened there?’ should be the question most on my mind. ‘Why did that lesson go so badly?’ I should think about the endless planning I did for this lesson; the immaculate resources I prepared; the constructive yet essential use of ICT. The clear outcomes set, the challenging but achievable goals. Everything was perfect; it should have been perfect. And, of course, I should have been thinking about these questions. But I wasn’t. I had ten minutes to get ready for the next lesson. Another one I had planned for ages. I didn’t have time for questions.

That the rest of the day went well doesn’t really matter. They usually do. However, when I’m driving home, when I’m eating dinner, when I’m spending time with my wife discussing normal things, I know damn well I’ll be thinking about that lesson. I’ll be blaming myself and punishing myself and coming to the conclusion that I cannot and never will be able to be much good at this teaching thing. I’ll be back at my desk for the obligatory two or so hours of marking and preparation. I’ll be in school at 7.30 next morning to go through it all again.

Perhaps this portrays the reality of an impossible job. Perhaps it merely confirms the reality that you never stop learning. Reflecting on what goes wrong makes us stronger. However, nineteen years down the line I’ve finally arrived at the point where I know that, no matter how hard I’ve tried to get over it, that feeling never leaves you. Twenty four hours a day. I’ve dreamt of bad lessons, of troublesome students, of difficult colleagues. I’ve woken up at three in the morning worrying about course work. It never goes away.

I generally love my job. In all those years, there have rarely been days on which I wasn’t excited about getting into school. Recently though that has been a lot harder. The increasing awareness that the big and bold project that is Curriculum for Excellence is nothing but a pipe dream, crushed under the weight of poor implementation and bad decision-making; the inevitable new strategy added on to the pile of those we barely had time to implement last session; all added to a creeping feeling that, despite everything, nothing much has changed in Secondary School. We attempt to develop a Broad General Education from S1 to S3 without any real commitment to changing our timetabling structures. So we resort to what we know. Exams. The tail wagging the dog, once again.

We’re told things must change though.

The First of September was a quiet Friday, it seemed. Like many teachers, I’d been back a couple of weeks and just getting used to a new timetable and new classes. I might never have noticed it had I not been sent a link on Twitter, but there it was. Another major report released quietly on a Friday afternoon, lost in the maelstrom of the school day. The Teachers Workforce Planning for Scotland’s Schools document has much to discuss, much to debate.

The report suggests that – and as an English teacher I raised an eyebrow at this – new teachers, unless they wanted to teach English, wouldn’t require Higher English on entry to Teacher Education but at the point of exit. I wonder how this will go down with those who see TeachFirst as a way to attract ‘high quality’ graduates? Shouldn’t we expect high levels of Literacy to be in place when a student leaves school?

There were interesting comments on a return of the much-maligned Chartered Teacher Programme. Recognition that promoted posts were scarce and teachers were leaving, or planning to leave the profession, due to lack of opportunity, is important. However, there are many whose progress throughout the Chartered Teacher Scheme was curtailed last time round.

But that’s not really my concern for the moment. If you’re like me, you’ll sit through meetings about this and smile. ‘Of course, we’ll read that document. Of course, we’ll reflect and discuss the main points.’ Of course, we won’t, probably. I’ll add it to the workload document I didn’t have time to read, and the follow up report. That one is underneath the National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan.

Oh, there are the new Literacy Outcomes that came out in June; the Education Governance Report that came out in June; the Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education Delivery Plan which also came out this year.

Excuse me while I slam my coffee cup down on the desk again.

You’d never guess from the media coverage, but we teachers are utterly fantastic at what we do. We teach kids to be better than they ever thought they could be, work harder than they ever thought they would. And we do it every day. Enough with the documents though. I’m like that drawer in your kitchen, full of carrier bags. You know it’s so crammed full that you can hardly open it but you keep cramming another one in now and again.

I want to get back to loving this again. There must be a better way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Choosing Our Texts Carefully

I suppose it’s the nature of reading, being an adult and a reader and having a pile of books that never seems to diminish, but I never read enough children’s or young adult fiction. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of or happy about but there you go.  Finding books for the kids in my classes is a hugely important and rewarding part of my job so keeping up-to-date with what’s new should be something I keep on top of. And there shouldn’t be an excuse. Walking through your local High Street bookshop, you’ll see an explosion of colour as books for young people are marketed so beautifully now; some of them are even fabulous.

I had the great privilege of reading two such books recently, both of which were linked thematically and blew me away. The first one is a book I’m teaching for the first time: Patrick Ness’s ‘A Monster Calls’. The second, ‘Noah BarleyWater Runs Away’ by John Boyne called out to me from a shelf in the school library. Both dealing with the difficulties of coping with loss and family illness, we follow the lives of our protagonists through mystical, magical worlds as they struggle to face up to family tragedy.  Both are beautifully written and heartbreakingly moving.

Like many, I first came across  John Boyne with the publication of  ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’. Despite the unsettling nature of the subject matter I found it extraordinary. The beautiful tale of two young boys and the friendship which see them through horrible times is both shocking and tragic.

‘Noah BarleyWater Runs Away’ has a more mystical feel. Noah runs away from home and finds himself in a toyshop run by an elderly man. The man’s stories allow Noah to reassess his choices and face up to the real reason he leaves in the first place. Slowly, we begin to see through the fantasy and see a little boy struggling deal with a painful truth about his family. ‘The thing is, she made me a promise, you see. And I think she’s going to break it. And I don’t want to be there when that happens.’ It’s a powerful and moving novel, and a hugely important one. The denouement will leave you stunned with mouth agape.

There is also a similar element of tragedy in ‘A Monster Calls’. Like Noah Barleywater, Conor is struggling to face up to his own monsters; the truth about his inevitable future. He is visited by a monster at 12:07 at night, with tales intended to help him. Conor fights against the monster until, slowly, the truth begins to emerge. ‘Many things that are true fell like a cheat. Kingdoms get the princes they deserve, farmers’ daughters die for no reason, and sometimes witches merit saving’. Patrick Ness seems to have nailed that ability to create characters struggling to find their way in the world. His prose is mesmerising, characters wholly believable and I love his writing.

The power of great literature provides us with opportunities to approach difficult subjects in the classroom. Our compassion for both Noah and Conor results in powerful conversations with children; conversations which allow them to develop empathy and, perhaps, to begin to understand challenges in their own lives. We must never underestimate the importance of what we choose to teach as, beyond the story, we can engage, affect and influence our learners and open them up to worlds they may never visit.

Time – our most valuable resource.

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 23rd June 2017)

It is difficult to talk to fellow teachers about real change in Scottish Education without coming across the thorny topic of Time. There is no shortage of commitment, no lacking in interest in new ideas, new strategies. But that’s not enough, is it? We can provide as many as ideas as we like, create as many resources as we possibly can; without the time to properly implement those ideas we will more than likely wander around the edges, more anxious than ever about what we may be missing. Teaching is a series of habits, of learned behaviours, and to change what we do takes real commitment and time from all involved for implementation.

It is this dichotomy which frustrates teachers most, I think. We see the wonderful work by organisations like SCEL (Scottish College of Educational Leadership) and their efforts to get into as many schools as possible, leading the way in new, radical approaches to continuing professional development, but often return to our classrooms overrun with tasks to complete and classes to prepare. And, when faced with those pressures, we return to the habits which successfully get us through our day. It’s not that we don’t want to be leaders; we merely find that the space to implement real change is filled with other things we must do.

I have always been wary of acronyms in Scottish Education. Once we use them, they can become meaningless words, easy to dismiss. However, more and more I’m beginning to see SCEL as our most important. Whatever your definition of leadership, it would be difficult to argue that taking responsibility for our own development is not part of that.

Money is certainly there. Investment in SCEL, in the Pupil Equity Fund, in the Attainment Challenge, in the First Minister’s Reading Challenge. Professional Development opportunities have changed completely over the last ten years. However, our opportunities to benefit from them have not.

Imagine what we could achieve if, instead of a cupboard full of resources provided for our National courses, we were provided with the more valuable recourse of Time. Time to collaborate properly; time to innovate properly; time to embed new habits and transform our classrooms: instead of struggling to cope with what we have already and finding ourselves vilified in the press for our reluctance to change.

There is no greater resource than our teachers. To improve their skills, to improve their ability to teach our young people, then we need to give them what they need. Having SCEL is a ground-breaking achievement but without the time to adapt we may be missing a massive opportunity. Let’s not do that. Please?