Why Do We Need Half of our Holidays at the Same Time?

So this morning I woke up to a new future. No, not the UK’s departure from Europe. This is all about me. I’m on holidays for six and a half weeks and I deserve it. Non-teachers bristle; their eyes roll. Fair enough. I’m going to be on a sun lounger in about forty eight hours so bristle away.

Secretly, though, I’m coming round to the fact that the summer holidays are unnecessarily long and if we are to tackle the serious problems with poverty we are all aware of, we need to do something more than just wring our hands and shake our heads.

childThis week I’ve had numerous conversations with students about their holidays: some heading off to Florida, to Europe, to London; some heading to caravans around Scotland; some going nowhere, playing X-box. The disparity is obvious. Some grabbing books from school and class libraries; some vowing to never read a page until they return in August. Poverty is not something that can be solved in schools alone; it is a societal problem in a society that, thus far, has been bereft of any workable ideas as to how to ‘narrow the gap’. Throwing money at it has never worked. So we need to be brave and bold.

Our more well-off students will continue their educations over the summer. They can afford to travel, to visit, to learn. Our economically-deprived students can’t do that. They often have to take even more time off during term-time because holidays are cheaper. Our rigid approach to school breaks means the holiday companies can, quite openly, often double the price of that fortnight in Greece. With twelve weeks holiday a year there is no reason we can’t shorten our summer holidays to make that window smaller.

A four week summer holidays is still vastly longer than most people get. The final two weeks of term could be given over to activities/ trips and those who wanted to use that for a family holiday could do so. We, in effect, shorten the time our most vulnerable children are out of school at any one time, with added fortnights thorough the year. Still twelve weeks; just  utilised in a more valuable way.

Oh, I know you’ll shudder at that thought after such a hard year. But think about it. More breaks throughout the year might mean we are less stressed at specific times. We can plan for proper breaks and, dare I say it, time to step away. It’s a bold and not original suggestion but if we’re serious about doing our bit to tackle poverty then we need to be radical in our thinking. The accepted structures of our society embed that poverty. So we must change for them not for us. We must do something.

I’m already feeling the benefits of my summer holidays. I’m packing. But this way isn’t working so let’s be brave and less self-serving. Poverty isn’t a school problem but it is something we can help change. Perhaps the way we live and work needs to be transformed if we are serious about the lives of all of our young people. Perhaps it’s time for that.

What Are We Waiting For? It’s Time for Genuine, Grown Up Collaboration

IMG_0881I’ve become more and more convinced that we will always struggle to develop as teachers in the way we should until watching each other teach, and analysing the good and the bad things we see, is embedded into our working week. However, the problem with peer observation is a cultural one, and a deep-rooted one at that. I know there are examples of excellent practice but, more often than not I fear, teachers struggle to hear potentially critical comments about their practice. We close our classrooms doors and try new things and hope for the best and there is no-one there to tell us where we are going wrong. And that is where we are going wrong.

Faced with the prospect of our peers finding fault in our new strategy, we very often race for the lock on our doors, sliding down,  perspiring, heaving deep sighs of relief. What if our new technique is rubbish? What if my lesson goes wrong? Why would we want others to stand in witness to our weaknesses? In my last post entitled ‘A Time to be Brave’ I called for serious investment in teachers and our time; but that must come with a commitment to professional collaboration and a commitment to challenge our practice maturely and constructively.

Doctors deliberately try to prove each other wrong. In medicine, any new ideas are literally placed under the microscope.They are committed to finding fault in their colleagues’ work because it is, very often, a matter of life and death. The possibility of a medical practitioner trying out a new strategy learned from a blog over the weekend would be ludicrous. And perhaps that’s what gives teaching an advantage. We can take risks. It’s not a matter of life and death. However, our students get (at least) one year with us and if we get it wrong for them, the consequences could be far-reaching.

The tragedy is that we become so entrenched in own our own work, so emotionally connected to the work we spend so much of our time on, that is difficult to avoid taking any criticism personally. When you’ve spent all Sunday working on what you believe is a fabulous resource which others pick holes in, it is difficult not to retreat into your classroom and avoid sharing in the future. Why is that? And how can we change it? Perhaps years of mistrust – perceived or otherwise – have brought us here. Perhaps we need to step out of our comfort zones if things are to change.

I turn fifty this year – I know. I don’t look it , do I? Sorry? I do? Fair enough. – and I’m running out of years to perfect this teaching thing. However, paradoxically, I’m worried my increasingly thick skin is becoming immune to any criticism at all,  rather than just the silly stuff. Waiting about for structures to change is no longer an option for me. I want to open up my classroom to scrutiny and I want someone to tell me why my cleverly constructed lesson was ineffective. So observe my lesson. Criticise the work. But tell me why and give me alternatives.  I promise I won’t hate you for it. I promise I won’t cry in the car park.

Gulp! Five Years On…

Back in the day, my first opportunity to have my writing in print came in the highly regarded, award-winning match day magazine -programme to you and me – of the great Partick Thistle. Fortnightly, more or less, for about six years, you could read about my childhood memories of watching my team, or ponder over the creative ways I could liken that week’s political events to the experience of being a Thistle supporter. All good things come to an end though. And my page had to come to an end too. I’d written about every memory, every experience, every possible thing I could. I stopped because I couldn’t possibly continue to force things on to the page. Better to let someone else have a go.

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From then on I concentrated on teaching. I began blogging exactly five years ago – Gulp – with the intention not of sharing my thoughts, but of expressing them in a way in which I could formulate and clarify my own ideas. While I was on Twitter, I hadn’t thought of the links between that and blogging, or how they could complement each other. What I did discover was that there was a whole new world of people who had things to say and things to share. Our school context didn’t cater for that. I wanted to write but hadn’t factored in the CPD possibilities.

I’m a much better teacher than I was five years ago so I suppose the blog title is an appropriate one. I’ve connected with hundreds of great people, many have become good friends. Blogging has opened doors for me that nothing else in my professional life has come close to. I’ve been invited to write articles for many other publications, been invited to speak at all sorts of conferences and Teachmeets. However, like my days as contributor to the Partick Thistle programme, I am coming to the end of the line with this. I’ve said as much as I have to say.

I’ve never wanted to be a ‘big-hitter’ on Twitter or anywhere else. I’ve never really wanted to leave the classroom. I’ve never really wanted to be seen as an expert in anything. My work with Pedagoo intended to be a way to get teachers talking in a way they’d never done before. We do that and continue to do so. I truly believe that the educational landscape is beginning to change in Scotland and we are a part of that. There are discussions going on in staffrooms – not all but many – which may never have happened before. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.

So 2016? I have two huge events happening in my life this year: one personal, one professional. Potentially game changing in many ways. But I think my blogging days may be coming to an end. I’d like to move into more creative writing – something I’ve done more of recently -so may mix my educational thoughts with that. So this is no big ‘I’m off. So long, and thanks’ speech. I may still blog occasionally. It’s just a realisation that I’ve come a long way in five years and I’m maybe ready to move on to something else. Blogging is a blast and, should you be considering it, get going. Be proud of it. I know I am.

The Book Whisperer- Scream it from the Rooftops. #favedubooks

Cross-posted from Pedagoo.orgIMG_0553
Being an English teacher, I still look and cringe at my first, probably, five years of teaching. Everything that had got me to where I was, everything which I had experienced up until that point and had supported me through the years of working in terrible jobs – the wilderness years, as I like to call them – had books to thank; books and my ability to read them and stick with them. What shames me is that by the end of my fifth year I had just about thrown in the towel when it came to encouraging Reading for Pleasure in my class.

At around about that point, I stumbled upon ‘The Book Whisperer’. Slightly cynical at first, the title sounded cheesy and cringeworthy, I’ll have to be honest. It, without a shadow of a doubt, changed me as a teacher. I read through this book with increasing ardour, angry at myself for forgetting why reading for pleasure is so important. Donalyn Miller, a teacher from Texas, had written a book which rekindled my belief in reading and one which is never very far from my desk whenever I contemplate reading for pleasure in the classroom. I return to it again and again.

What struck me was not merely the simple message that if we are to create and develop children who will go on to be life long readers – and who would argue with that? – then we have to live that philosophy every day in class, not merely when it suits us. I had become the teacher who drops reading when things get busy, assuming it to be a luxury a packed curriculum could not afford, but the passion and love for her students which oozes throughout the ’The Book Whisperer’ convinced me that there is another way: Time, Choice, and Love have become the backbone of my practice in developing readers.

Creating the conditions for our students to see reading for pleasure as a valued and valuable skill takes a lot of time and commitment but if we, especially as English Teachers, don’t do it, then who will? I’ve persisted with many of the strategist I found in this book – time to read every day, free choice, consistent support and discussion – even when it would have been easier not to. I’ve sacrificed other things in order to keep reading as a mainstay of every lesson. And, do you know what? My students make progress in all areas as well as leaving me having begun that process of becoming a reader.

If you’ve ever heard me rattle on at Teachmeets or Pedagoo sessions then you’re more than likely to have heard me mention ‘The Book Whisperer’. And, while I read some incredibly good Educational books on all sorts of subjects, this one is my favourite. Donalyn Miller has followed this up with more of the same in ‘Reading in the Wild’ but her first book is essential for those of you who are responsible for Literacy and promoting reading for pleasure. Indeed the message screaming from each page might be, “There’s more to life than books you know, but not much more.’ Read it soon.

‘Sometimes Right. Sometimes Wrong. Always Certain.’ A review of ‘What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong’ by David Didau

As a middle aged man from the west of Scotland it is a very human trait for me to automatically accept that my opinions are facts. ’Sometimes Right. Sometimes Wrong. Always Certain’ as Danny Baker and Danny Kelly often proclaim. We men do that though, don’t we? Waving off any evidence which contradicts us as just a mere triviality. So, within that context I approached David Didau’s ‘What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?’ with extreme caution. What truths could possibly lay within? What evidence could I dismiss as scientific, academic jibber jabber? How could I possibly be wrong?

IMG_0332It is a huge book in many ways. Almost four hundred pages if you read the appendices – which I swear I’ll get to. In these pages Mr Didau picks holes in our approach to just about every idea about education you may have ever had, offering alternatives to established teaching techniques and the beliefs that we’ve always thought effective. And he makes a compelling case. We can be a conservative lot in teaching – with a small ‘c’ – and we don’t always like to be questioned, but that is what this book does and does well. Whether you agree with him or not, this book will change you.

This not is not an ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’ book in the slightest. Despite the title he’s not saying that you are wrong. You may be, probably are in some areas, but what the author is trying to do here, I think, is to ask you to at least question some of your long held beliefs about what you’re doing. We do things in teaching which we’ve always done because we convince ourselves that they work and they fit with our principles and beliefs but do they work for our students? How do we really know that? They may well work but we should be asking those questions.

The book goes some way to convincing me of a better path to learning for my students but also, ironically, nails a key stumbling block.

‘Everything about school is is set up to value performance over mastery and learning.’ p 316

While Mr Didau argues that performances of learning are poor displays of deep learning, it is difficult to shy away from the fact that Secondary Schools are judged on exam results. Therefore passing exams becomes a greater aim than ‘mastery and learning’. And even if that’s just a perception, my greatest gain from the book was that I am now convinced that there needs to be a better way for me; that maybe  a lot of what I thought I knew was wrong. Not all of it though.

This is a book that left me unsettled. I read a lot of books on education and like to be challenged but this was different. It goes to the heart of what a mature, intelligent profession like teaching should be. Questioning ideas, not people. Unpacking policies, not egos. It is a hugely readable and entertaining monster of a book and you will hate it at times. But, the thing is, I’m never usually wrong, or so I thought. I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes I might be. And If I can do it, so can you.

Deconstructing My Own Bad Ideas

So, yes, I get it, that writing a blog is supposed to be about reflection and learning and thinking through your mistakes. Why is it, then, when I read over the four years of posts I’ve somehow managed to collate, that I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve written some real stinkers? How’s about that for an opening? Bear with me; I get there in the end. Reading through the archives does indeed make me wonder what I was thinking at the time but I do see the point. Sometimes learning something and deconstructing that learning is much more useful.

Take, for example, name generators. I’ve a draft post of something I wrote about lollipop sticks and those ‘fruit machine’ style online things that whizz through pupils’ names. I tried them; both, in fact, and after Dylan Wiliam’s TV show the other year, just about every teacher I know started using them at the same time. By the time we got to period six on the first day the kids were sick of the sight of them. They were, mostly, ditched very soon after but served a purpose. My classes learned very quickly that they would no longer be allowed to drift and disappear. The lollipop sticks quickly helped me develop a culture where everyone knew that they could be asked at any point. I didn’t need them any more.

Class Dojo was another one. I wrote this post about my experience, explaining that I was criticising my use of it rather than the software itself. Pupils get points for various classroom tasks, including behaviour if you want it, and they are visually presented on whiteboard or such like. Again, and I’m quite willing to confess that I used it to promote good behaviour for a while and that others may use it more effectively than me, I quickly realised that it told me nothing. The good kids got lots of points, those well-behaved soon gave up caring. Nothing beats the ability to develop trusting and respectful relationships and a strongly adhered to code of conduct to promote a positive learning environment. No computer programme will give you that.

I’ve also just deleted a post about my wonderful wall displays from about three years ago, in which I describe the valuable learning being displayed on poster paper and glitter type stuff. If you think about it, wall displays are only ever effective if they are noticed and read and very often they lose their effect very, very quickly. I still display pupils’ work, both good and bad, but I have limited space so try to ensure it changes very regularly and that I leave spaces blank rather than put up colourful rubbish. See this post on Feedback Gallery. Use the space you have effectively as long as you find out what is most effective.

Finally, and only because I’ve observed a lot of lessons which still waste more time than necessary on this, I completely disagree with myself about writing Learning Intentions on the board. What’s been really useful about this unnecessary distraction is that I’m more and more focused on what I want my pupils to learn every day and make it clear to them throughout lessons. I’m not sure of the value of writing them out as sometimes they change depending on the rhythm of the lesson. But it has been hugely important in reiterating the learning.

Writing a blog can be embarrassing at times; you necessarily have to write about vulnerabilities if is to be of any use, I think. However, I realise how fortunate I am to have a written record of my thinking over the last four years. It has made me better than yesterday, for the most part.

Leaving school – Don’t Let them Disappear, Holden

It’s the final day at school for our S6 pupils tomorrow- and many from S5 too. A strange calm has descended on the school; traditionally the last day has witnessed practical jokes and general mayhem as they celebrate the end of an era. But beneath the increasing collective delirium you can clearly see a panic in some of their eyes. Not the panic of impending exams; it’s a slow realisation that they won’t be coming back here in August. And, while every kid dreams for much of their time at school, ‘when can I leave?’, they don’t all seem overjoyed by the prospect.

More than anything you begin to see the reality of their relationships with school. Despite the often harsh exteriors, young people do eventually realise the huge role school plays in their lives, even as a physical structure. In speaking to these guys this week, I see that they are often relieved, often scared, often confused by their impending departures; but they are looking at their school and their teachers in a more affectionate light. They no longer need to attend classes; they no longer need to play a subservient role. We begin to treat them as adults and they begin to become adults. Many I spoke to today were pupils from last year who studied “The Catcher in the Rye’ with me. Completely unprompted, they told me of their increased understanding of Holden Caulfield and what he was going through. His fear of disappearing as he stumbled into the world of adulthood; his inability to comprehend that he was coming to the end of something that had protected him forever. These young people had a mature and steely determination about their futures but it was tinged with a fear in their eyes, a fear of the unknown. Holden saw the world outside school, the world of adults, as ‘phony’ and something to be avoided. But, given some responsibility, he realised things would be fine. These guys will too.

Since they were four or five, their lives have been controlled by bells; by corridor rules; by uniformity. And the safety and comfort in that is something they only being to understand when it is gone. We discuss leaving school and I tell them, according to former pulls, they will feel it hardest in August when they see younger brothers and sisters leaving for school, or wonder why they have no where to go until University. They will miss us. And we will miss them. There’s little that touches this week for me: seeing the end product of our secondary education system.

We do ourselves a disservice if we don’t take time to appreciate this moment. Thirteen years of school brought these young people to this point. We have played a pivotal role in their development but it is time for them to move on. Like Holden watching his sister, Phoebe, going round and round on the carousel, it is their turn. Many of them may cause me to fight back a tear to two tomorrow; others certainly won’t miss me. But  I wish them all well. Just don’t let them disappear. Please Holden, don’t let them disappear.