Enjoy the Silence.The Disappearing Beauty of Being in the Library.

When was the last time you were in your local library, spending time choosing books, wandering the aisles, checking out the shelves? Does it still have that library smell or has it become a cafe or a hub or a ‘chill-out zone’? ( A wee line for the kids, there). They are quite remarkable spaces and we ‘re lucky to have them. But that opening question? When were you last in one? We’re losing them and we’re outraged at the thought but could it be argued that our increasing aspirations lead us to desire our own books, our own libraries., leaving the traditional ones redundant in our lives?

Our books can become a symbol of how we live our lives. We create libraries which we like to have on display, as much for ourselves as anyone else. They help create an aura of cleverness and respectability in our homes, which begs the question; is a library a collection or a space? Can a library exist without books and does a collection of books necessarily make a library? And when, with the onslaught of computing areas, coffee shops and the like, does it stop being a library? For surely the greatest boon of the library is for it to be one of the last places where silence is not only expected but a rule.

l-and-hI write about this tonight after having two classes up to our school library today. I take my classes up every week, if possible, and we spend as much time there as we can. We write and talk about books informally and spend as much time  as possible reading in that fabulous space. Today I had two class who spent the whole period reading. And they did too. It was lovely. The time to sit quietly and read is something we don’t often get to do and, while I have so many things I have to get through, sometimes, just sometimes, it’s good for them to sit in silence and begin to understand what a reading life looks like. The silence is part of that. We sit in silence together.

We sit among the shelves of books  because I want them to be able to pick up the books, feel them in their hands and read loads of blurbs: I want them to get a feel for the vast, huge, unfathomable number of books which leaves even their teacher feeling intimidated. I walk into bookshops and libraries only to be reminded of what I haven’t read. As Gabriel Zaid says in his wonderful little memoir, ’So Many Books’: “To say, ‘I only know that I’ve read nothing,’  after reading thousands of books is not false modesty.”  Readers have books around us all the time; we deprive our students of that experience if we don’t get them into the library.

However, there is much more to cover isn’t there? Course work is a priority. So, perhaps we could be doing other things, perhaps we could be spending our time in a more constructive way. But perhaps we may be forgetting that the only way we become readers is by sitting in a quiet room with a book. We teach our kids about silence when we are in the library, that silence is a rare and precious privilege at times. We neglect that at out peril. The next time you go into your library, then, have a closer look around. At the books, the history, the space. And enjoy the silence.

Notice them. Don’t Let Them Disappear

I have very few positive memories from my time at Secondary school. I had come from Primary really keen, one of the brightest in the class, ready to do well. I was one of the first pupils in the first year of a brand new school, so the future might have been bright; it wasn’t though. My abiding memory of those teenage years is one of desperately trying to hide from the attention of both teachers and my more exuberant peers. Many a day I recall getting home and sighing in massive relief as I lay on my bed. Another day over. It was perhaps no surprise that I left school with ordinary and unimpressive exam passes.

I was reminded of that unhappy time recently while re-watching the overly schmaltzy ‘Freedom Writers’, the true story of a teacher in east LA who miraculously changes the lives of her students in typical Hollywood fashion. There is a scene in the film where one boy speaks of his love for the classroom – see the clip below – and no-one else in the class even recognises him. His life was so awful that his classroom became his safety zone and ‘home’. It couldn’t have been more different to my experience but something did ring true.

Back in the day, I wanted to be the one who wasn’t recognised, the one no-one noticed. School is hard for some kids. They disappear, often deliberately, often because they are shy or frightened. In the course of their day, we may never notice them, may never find out anything about them. And isn’t that such a shame. Perhaps if any teachers had taken the time to speak to me I would have had a better experience than I did: much of my desire to be a teacher was to provide experiences which were better than I had.

New beginnings to the school years are always challenging. As a teacher I have to get know about one hundred and fifty new names, begin the often long process of developing trusting relationships with kids who want to learn from me, mostly. Some kids will slide off my radar because they are ‘quiet’ and no bother. This year I want to try and view my classroom through their eyes. What are they thinking about school, about their teachers, about their peers? I refuse to allow them to go home and heave a sigh of relief without anyone taking an interest.

Teachers like Erin Gruwell in ‘Freedom Writers’ or John Keating from ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ are lovely, warm images of the ideal of the perfect teacher. Most of us will never be like that. But we can be the teacher that reaches the often unreachable. It’s why I insist on silent classes very often to provide for the ones crying out for a bit of peace and quiet during a day of bedlam. Some kids are trying to hide but you must never let them. A quiet word, an awareness of their presence doesn’t take much. Notice them. I hated my time at Secondary School. I don’t want that to happen to anyone.

Missing the Music of What Happens To Us

phone-690091_960_720I suppose the last straw, the final nail, came when someone about two rows in front lifted up their phone to film the opening lines  of ‘Caroline, No.’ It wasn’t the first time that night that I’d wanted to shout out, ‘Put your phone down. He’s there. In front of you. Brian Wilson. You’re missing this!’ Our desire to capture what we think might be beautiful or valuable or historical, and the newly attained ability to do so – I wonder how many filmed moments are ever watched more than once or twice –  deflects our attention from the real moments, the moments we experience in the flesh.

And in our haste, we miss the shy couple who, instinctively, reach out for each other’s hand when they hear the first chords of ‘God Only Knows’, turning to smile fondly; the elderly gent, smartly dressed and previously reserved, jumping to his feet like an excited child for ‘Help Me Rhonda’; the involuntary gasp of many at the engrained familiarity of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice.’ The music of what happens to us.

It’s such a shame when we waste our time staring through the lens of a phone, hoping to capture a memory, especially when the truly interesting stuff is often happening all around us.

That desire to grab hold of the moment has become a commonplace factor in the classroom too. Teaching can be a collection of wonderful moments and technology allows us, more than ever before, to freeze those in time; social media inadvertently encourages us to share those moments, hoping they’ll be noticed and loved equally by others. Perhaps we have gone too far though. Choosing to capture the lightbulb learning moments can mean we miss the ‘Pet Sounds’ of real learning in our classrooms. Rather then the shiny, perfect essay by little Ryan, we miss the effort in Alice’s attempts to write in full sentences for the first time or the pleasure Ross displays after being praised for his improvement.

Increasingly, lately, and for too long, I’ve been too guilty of looking for those bits of teaching; my attention focused on one lens, missing what is really happening in my classroom, what is happening all around me. I’ve undoubtedly lost focus, forgotten what was important. So, for a while at least, I’m putting my lens away.

This is not a big huffy abandonment of Twitter or blogging. Just a recognition that, for a time, I need to put the phone away, step back a little, and find out what I loved so much about teaching in the first place. Rather than watch some wobbly footage of the best bits, I’ll have a look at the audience instead.

Your friends don’t really want to watch your footage of Brian Wilson, no more than they really want to see your holiday snaps. They’re probably not that over-excited about hearing about how many of your kids got ‘A’s  either. Not everything needs to be for forever. But just don’t miss out on the important bits. The music of what happens to us.

Using Homework More Effectively

I’ve been trying to get my head round the concept of homework recently. Is there such a thing as good homework and, if so, how can I use it more constructively than I’ve been doing? If I’m to believe some then  homework is the devil’s work and should be avoided at all costs. It’s cruel to our children; it cause parents unnecessary grief when they could be spending more quality time with their families. I should never give it again. Others say that it needs to be the bedrock of a good education and is vital to underpin the work I do in class. So, that’s that solved then.

From a workload point of view it would suit me very nicely to give up issuing homework. It, perhaps, is the reason for most of the conflict I encounter with pupils. However, my school’s policy means that I must issue homework on a weekly basis and if there is one piece of advice that I’d give any teacher it would be to stick to school policy: your beliefs and principles are important but inconsistency helps no child. So, for the last few months I have been looking to develop homework which is helpful to my senior pupils, something from which they will genuinely benefit.

Part of the New Higher English Course includes outcomes for Reading, Writing, Talking and Listening. It can be an onerous task to tick a lot of boxes and one which seems unnecessarily burdensome. So I’ve done this: I issue a newspaper article or essay on a Monday; the homework task is to read and analyse the language in the writing and answer four exam-style questions attached. I specifically model the questions on questions which they will face in May. For example: ‘How does the writer’s use of punctuation effectively emphasis her point in Paragraph 4?’ The homework needs to be handed in on Thursday.

My marking of that homework is minimal. I spend five minutes looking for one perfect, or near to perfect, answer to each question. I write an ‘E’ for Expert in red and that’s that. We now have four ‘experts’ in the class. On Fridays I announce the experts and send them to corner one, two etc. The rest of the class now has a perfect answer scheme. Their job is to go to each corner and ‘mark’ their own answers. Of course, many of them will have perfect answers too but my plan is to allow everyone to have a chance to be a n expert at some point.

The payback for the experts is that they must discuss and not show. No pointing to answers, no copying from others. Experts must give answers in full sentences, practicing the way  answers should be set out in the exam. I’m assessing Talking as well as Listening outcomes – along with Reading – throughout the process which takes about ten to fifteen minutes each week. More importantly, by explaining their answers to others, the pupils are embedding their understanding of the language and of how they might use it in the exam. Other pupils then go back to their desks and have another go. Over the weeks, these answers build in to a collection of revision resources. As a result, I think I’m beginning to use Homework as a more effective learning tool. So. How might I adapt that to other year groups?