Clever(ish) Lands

(The original text of my article in TES Scotland 17th March 2017)

There are some striking moments in Lucy Crehan’s ‘Cleverlands’. The author spent time in five of the world’s most successful school systems – in terms of PISA results anyway – looking for patterns and clues. It is a fascinating read and, regardless of your opinions of PISA, should appeal to those with an interest in curricular change. What struck me most, however, was that amongst those systems, there were characteristics which we in Scotland hold dear.

Indeed, there are moments which raised a smile, considering the transformation we are attempting: performance standards mainly used in the classroom, an outcomes-based approach to assessment, attempts to create an increasingly more research-aware profession. All the more frustrating that we seem to be struggling to implement our flagship Curriculum for Excellence.

The obligatory stop in Finland reminds us of the good stuff going on there but also highlights the reasons why teachers, and education in general,  are so much more respected over there. Finland is a country of only five million people: they were determined to utilise the talent of all citizens. They couldn’t afford anyone being left behind so developed an educational system to support that. Scotland should listen.

Finnish teachers have complete autonomy and decide to teach using strategies underpinned by research. The research they conduct together allows them to collaboratively reach those decisions. And here’s the thing: despite having the freedom to choose what and how they teach in their own classrooms, they all teach in very similar ways because they have come to understand the most effective ways to teach. All kids in Finland experience similar high quality classroom experiences as a result.

So, while we can never replicate the systems we most admire, there are undoubtedly models which provide us with ideas and aspirations. We are currently trying to shoehorn an exciting new curriculum into a set of structures unable or unwilling to accept it. We seem unwilling to waver from the same rigid timetabling in secondary school which allows any leeway or freedom to innovate. We seem unwilling to take research seriously.

‘Cleverlands’ reminds us that we have the ability to change education systems if we really want to. But if we are to truly implement a creative curriculum which wants us to work in cross-curricular ways then we need to change the structures to allow us to do that. Otherwise dump the idea. If we are to truly develop a research-savvy teaching profession then provide us with the time and resources to do that. Otherwise dump the idea.

Great ideas which are poorly supported create the conditions for guaranteed failure. If we don’t have time then we don’t have time to waste. Let’s stop wasting it.

 

The Higher English Folio and Equal Writes.

There won’t be an English teacher in Scotland out there who isn’t currently stressing over the marking of written Folio essays for both Higher and National 5 classes. A pile which never seems to shrink; another pupil who’d like you to take another look; the demoralising realisation that deadline day is fast approaching. Indeed, over the course of my eighteen years in teaching the assessment of writing in the senior phase has changed several times, arguably not in a good way. I would argue that, at a time when equity in education is so much in focus,  the way we assess writing now has never been so unfair.office-594132__340

The new exam system is now in its third year and, while this might surprise some,  I have been mostly pleased with it. Teaching Don Paterson poetry has been a joy; spending time with Hamlet has been fantastic. The rest has been a chore. Time seems to be constrained; deep learning, at times,  rare. However, the writing folio – one creative piece and one functional piece of  a maximum of thirteen hundred words each – is externally assessed by the SQA and is worth thirty percent of the final grade. So, a good grade for Folio can take you much of the way to a pass.

The writing is assessed using a marking grid which every teacher and pupil can access during the writing process. So far, so fair. But not really. It would be difficult to argue that the external assessment is unfair; perhaps there is an argument there but that’s for another day. The real problems become clear, however, when we consider the preparation and support given. The SQA guideline suggests ‘reasonable assistance’. It also says this;

‘Assessors should not provide specific advice on how to re-phrase or improve responses, or provide model answers specific to the candidate’s task. It is not acceptable for the assessor to provide key ideas, to provide a structure or plan, to suggest specific wording or to correct errors in spelling and/or punctuation. This would go beyond reasonable assistance.’

Those who can, rush straight to their tutors for help. And yes, despite the above advice, tutors do. Parents often insist upon it. Those who can afford it get more help. those who can’t, struggle on. Different approaches are followed all over the country. It’s a system which, while appearing to be equal in terms of assessment is, in fact, anything but.

So perhaps, if we are to assess writing more fairly, it needs to return to the final exam. Why the hell not? It might re-emphasise our need to teach writing properly. Our whole curriculum was supposed to be a move away from our traditional exam system but it doesn’t appear to have worked. What was intended to be an attempt to narrow the gap appears to me to be exacerbating it. Let’s face up to that and do something about it.

What do we mean by ‘Educational Aspiration’?

Here’s the full version of my article in TES Scotland 17th February 2017

Reading J. D. Vance’s ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ is a humbling experience. His beautiful memoir of a crushingly challenging upbringing and the aftermath of fraught family connections rang a few bells and brought me back to thinking of the lives of the children I teach. Returning to school after the Christmas break, I was reminded that there are those in my classroom who will not have had the same happy holiday as everyone else. There are those who, while being asked to raise money and bring in donations for the local Food Bank, will have had to turn that very Food Bank for Christmas dinner.

Vance’s thesis throughout the book is that poverty is generational. He grew up in communities where having a job is rare and barely surviving was normal. His parents and their parents and their parents were mired in a system which, they were convinced, was not for them; a system which lies when it says that hard work pays off in the long run; where Grandparents worked themselves to death just to keep afloat, and aspiration was survival, and avoiding homelessness and starvation. It is no wonder that the poverty gap is widening with showing no sign of reversing that trend. Throwing money and resources at the problem will fix nothing.

There is also an endemic perception that education is for others. The poor don’t go to University; you certainly don’t see many lawyers and doctors coming from poor backgrounds. There are few role models to change that, no heroes returning to transform their community. And perhaps that’s an area worthy of focus. If we are to convince those in poverty that education truly can be transformative then wouldn’t it be good if we showed them that too? Perhaps ensure they visit a University at a younger age than sixteen; match them with a mentor for a term to discuss the life of a Uni student and the possibilities which could be open to them.

To what should be our great shame, some children, having lived their lives in poverty, begin school already behind their peers in so many ways. Our system often fails to overcome those barriers and these kids leave school twelve years later still behind their peers, but with deep-rooted resentment of a system which has failed them. Oh yes, we comfort ourselves by creating qualifications for them so that we can repeat, year after year, ‘at least she’ll leave school with something’. A line which should shame us.

In his book, J.D. Vance overcame horrific odds to reach University and succeed. He realises that there were significant adults who consistently told him and reminded him that aspiration was transformational; who never lowered the bar but raised it and helped him get there. If education is to be for all, then let it be for all. For all time.

Reading for Pleasure- A Passport to Everywhere

The sight of a brown box, just delivered, slammed down on the hall rug might not sound special or appealing but it was the most glorious thing that has happened in my professional life. Almost two years in production, I could now stop telling people that I had a book coming out. And, perhaps, that moment was the most nerve-wracking of all. The anticipation as I breathed in, found some scissors and began to open the box, slowly and carefully, for my first sight of ‘How to Teach – Reading for Pleasure’. My words in print. My book.

As long as I remember I’ve been in awe of books. The covers, the spines, the very feel of them; the remarkable nature of words and stories captured inside. Like many of you, no doubt, I loved having them and seeing them on my shelf. Before University, working in factories and shops, I longed to be able to afford more; to fill up my shelves with the complete works of Hemingway or Roth or Updike. It was never a status symbol; they never made me feel clever; I wanted them around me because they were aesthetically pleasing as well as filled with memories. Like a long curated record collection, nothing says more about you than your books.

So what brought me to this point? Why would I write a book about reading for pleasure? There are other books on the subject. And, as a classroom teacher, I’m not convinced that this thing called ‘pleasure’ is my main focus. I want kids to read and read well because literacy is the benchmark for their place in society. I want them to be readers because good readers succeed in life. I am convinced of that. But what I wanted to achieve in writing this book was both a tale of my reading life and a series of, hopefully, relevant strategies which would allow the children in my classes to begin to develop the habits of a reader.

imageAnd I’m really proud of it. I wanted to capture my own approach to reading, perhaps with a touch of humour and a wee bit of memoir. Either way, I think I’ve achieved that. Every strategy in the book has been successful in  my classroom at some point: no, I don’t use all of them all of the time. I use them when necessary and when I’d like to inject a little bit of enthusiasm for reading. It, for the most part, works successfully for most kids.


But holding your own book in your hands? That’s a moment which will stay with me for a long time. The new book smell, the untouched pages, the sight of my name on the front: the proud tears. In  my initial communication with Phil Beadle, who so kindly made this all possible, I said that I wanted to write something of which I was very proud. I’ve done that. Books come and go but our words, in print, last a lifetime. Almost two years after I began, I have a book out. And it’s a wonderful feeling.

A Lifetime of Resentments and Insecurities

tazOften like a whirlwind, often like a Tazmanian Devil, he storms, belligerently out of my class on the bell in the same rebellious manner as he enters: with somewhere better to be and another fifty minutes chalked off from his day. Negotiating six periods daily is a constant battle for him. What has changed is, in his developing maturity, he now doesn’t fight as much, knowing that this is something he must endure until he can leave school. He does what he needs to do, avoids what he can avoid and gets out of here as fast as he can.

For kids like him, school has been an abject failure. Education has never been respected in his family – what has it ever done for them? – and we have whole-heartedly failed to change that for him. Counting the days, looking at the clock, biding his time. He’ll leave school barely literate. Our inability to engage him or even counteract the feeling that we, as symbols of authority,  are the enemy, means he will leave school with some token qualifications and a whole bag of resentments and insecurities, some of which he may never get over. No-one ever leaves school with nothing.

Of course, a system stacked against him didn’t help. Stuck in a bottom set for most of his subjects – yes, I know we don’t like the term, but that’s what they are – he has never had the opportunity to sit with someone who is ‘good at English’ or any other subject for that matter. Our pretence that it is ‘for his own good’ and he can get more attention in a smaller class has long been debunked by staff shortages and cutbacks. He spends his day with the same kids, every period, all of whom who know their place. Well done us.

William McIlvanney once wrote of a deprived area as ‘a penal colony for those who had committed poverty’. Who could argue against the fact that setting by ability often becomes that. Not always but often, and probably more often than we’d care to admit. We set by ability to appease our more middle class parents; our school websites are filled with photographs of those to whom success is expected and celebrated at home. We glory in that success at Parents Evenings. What we try to forget is that, as Andy Day once wrote, and I often quote, ‘the greatest tragedy in education is the empty seat at Parents Evening’.

He’s been with me for two years now and I’m not sure what difference I make. I occasionally get a smile now when once I got a sneer and an earful of abuse. He’s read a whole load of Robert Muchamore books which he would gladly do all day if he could. His writing hasn’t improved one bit beyond almost illegible. He rarely makes any effort when he has to think on his own. He sits quietly and listens. But I already know what his life will be like and it shames me that I’ve not been able to change that for him.

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.

Reading is a habit not an isolated action.

This summer I’ve been submerging myself in fiction again, after a little break with some non-fiction. I discovered the wonder of Grahame Greene, finally read ‘Rebecca’, and worked my way through a host of unread books I’d been adding to my bookcase over the year.  The act of reading is one in which I am most at ease during the holidays. The niggling thought that I should be doing something else dissipates and my time is my own. I leave no time or space between books, almost literally, and that pile of books which had been building up over the last few months starts to decrease.

thinkerWith no pause between books how could I possibly reflect on what I’d read, something I ask my students to do after reading a book? Of course, I couldn’t. Stopping after each book, thinking for a bit, or even writing about it, is not something that experienced readers do an awful lot of. Of course we internalise what we read – I could talk about ‘Our Man in Havana’ for hours if you asked – but good readers can do that. We live the lives of readers and the reflection part is built in, ingrained in what we do. Our students don’t often have habit that yet.

I return to teaching tomorrow and will, for the first time, meet about 150 new students. Some of them may have been with me before but I like to spend that first day, or at least some of the time, talking about the reading we will be doing and why it is important for them. Each will have a reading journal  – they will write in that once or twice a fortnight – and part of their role will be to write about the things which I now take for granted. However, to begin with anyway, it will be more important to get books into their hands. The refection bit will come later.

When it coms to reluctant readers it is important to remember that the quality of the book itself might not be the most important thing at the beginning. I’m happy for them to choose any book to start with just to get that habit on its way. Many of these guys will be coming to us with negative reading experiences so rejection of their early choices merely adds to that. Let them choose whatever they want: when they start to read you can begin to push books over their desk towards them, once you get to know them. And I won’t worry whether they choose to reflect too much on those books.

While I don’t necessarily reflect on individual books any more, preferring to submerge myself into the act of reading, it is important that we remember that when we meet new classes. There is nothing worse than asking kids to write a book review, especially reluctant readers. Don’t concern them with chin scratching and reflecting. Reading is a habit not an isolated action. It’s more important that we begin the sometimes long process of allowing them to develop that habit, along with an awareness of what being a reader looks like. Some will get there quicker than others. But it’s hugely important that they do get there.