Friday, 14 June 2013

A question of progress

The title of this blogpost may be slightly misleading. The 'p' word. That Ofsted-sought holy grail of classroom practice in 2013. I'm afraid I won't necessarily be addressing that issue explicitly here.

I haven't blogged for a while. I'm never convinced that I have anything that interesting to say, particularly in the company (on Twitter) of such prolific and talented teacher bloggers. However, this week's been a tough one for lots of reasons but in the midst of the rough stuff came a moment of sheer 'grinnability' which has sustained me and remained with me into the weekend.

My Year 8 class is amazing. I love my lessons with them. (Actually, I'm really enjoying all of my teaching at the moment so I probably shouldn't just single them out. However, it's their moment I want to write about so I'll just do that, rather than digressing unnecessarily.) At the moment, they are engaged in an independent reading project, completing a range of tasks based on a book of their choice (from our school's prescribed lists) and they're brilliant at getting on at their own pace, aware of upcoming deadlines. I've been running these lessons for about a week now: I list the tasks on the board and let each of them choose which to tackle. They know I am there if they have questions they can't answer but they also know that they can ask each other, collect dictionaries, use the internet or simply work entirely independently, not needing to interact if they feel happy with what they're doing.

Because there's a deadline when they will all have to stand up in front of the class and present their findings, I'm confident that they're all on track. I have taught them for almost two years now and trust them to do what is necessary. They have been given the assessment criteria; they know how their work will be 'judged'; they know I have great confidence in them.

I've long been aware of research which suggests that playing classical music can aid concentration and I know that I often listen to Radio 3 when I'm working. In my 10+ years of teaching though, I've never got around to trying that in my classroom. I don't really know why; I just haven't. So, last week, I settled down with my own book while they got on with their work and I clicked 'play' on a YouTube playlist of classical music. The students were slightly sceptical at first: 'What's this?', 'What if it distracts me from my reading?', 'Why are you playing this?' I explained my thinking and asked them to give it a go. If it really did distract them, I would turn it off. For the rest of the lesson no one mentioned the music.

The next lesson I did the same and this time there was very little comment. I did hear a quiet, 'I really like this music; I find it helps me to focus,' but decided just to log that, rather than open discussion.

In our next lesson, the school's internet connection was down and I couldn't access the playlists. I had no alternative plan, so we began the lesson in silence and the students settled down to work. 'Please would you put on the classical music?' asked a boy from the back of the room, and the nods and pleas of agreement came at me from all sides. I explained why I couldn't and there was no protest, just a smatter of disappointment.

For me, that represents progress. Perhaps not in terms of literacy or analytical ability or understanding of context...but it is educational progress as far as I'm concerned and it made me smile. Perhaps I'll try it with Year 10 next.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Reviewing the interview: getting things in perspective

I went for an interview last week. It was a job I really wanted... or at least I thought so at the time. Needless to say - the blog title perhaps gives this away - I didn't get it. Initially, I was distraught; so much seemed tied up in the process. Three days after the judgement, I am beginning to feel a sense of relief.

I had built myself up to believe that I would not be working in my current school in September 2013. For a number of reasons, I wanted this to be the case. I think I still want it to some extent but I am tied, by contract, to a resignation date which means I will be there until at least Christmas, if not for another full academic year. Also, the amazing reactions of my colleagues to my tear-stained face on Friday afternoon awoke me to the support and kindness of the people who surround me on a day-to-day basis. I had lost sight of that; in fact, to quote Radiohead's 'Karma Police', 'for a minute there, I lost myself'. It's easily done in the hugger-mugger frenzy of a teaching day/week/term. However, for the opportunity to see a little more clearly, thank you Ms Interviewer.

It seems, now I have a little distance, that nothing I did would have got me the job. By necessity, I must be guarded here... but we all probably know how these things work. It was a hellish day, possibly one of the toughest selection processes I have experienced, but not for the right reasons. Should I ever be in the position of interviewer, let's hope I remember what happened last week: I never want to treat anyone like I was treated. So, my disquiet began on the day and yet the post was, I thought, so perfectly suited to me; burying reservations was easy at the time.

I will try never to leave a candidate alone at lunchtime. I will try never to send them to spend time in a Department where no one is available to talk to them. I will try never to make them complete a task which has not been explained and did not appear in the programme of the day sent in advance. I will try never to yawn in front of a candidate in a formal interview without some kind of apology and/or acknowledgement of my tiredness.

Most importantly, however, I will endeavour to create a situation in which a candidate is enabled to perform to the very best of their ability. Just as in the classroom I am a teacher, in the interview process I will remember that I am an educator first and foremost, a role which means I have a responsibility to create opportunities for good. So, if I ask a question which does not elicit the response I am looking for, I will ask for further clarification or examples; I will not just make notes and then spout them back at the candidate as 'feedback', as the reason I did not appoint them. We focus so much on the importance of questioning, of encouraging deeper learning and response by asking different, layered questions which allow people to delve into their thinking and articulate their ideas with increasing success. If we can do that for the students in our classrooms, why can't we do that for the adults in front of us, whether in meetings, observation feedbacks or interviews?

Yes, I am bruised and yes, I am frustrated. Had I written this on Friday, it would have come scented with the aroma of sour grapes and bile. Today, however, I realise that the route I had thought so right would, in fact, have been horribly wrong. I may not be in the right place right now, but I need to take my time to decide on the next step, rather than rushing towards the light of an oncoming train...

Friday, 1 February 2013

Leave your bananas at home...

The 'fruit poetry' lesson I learnt about and trialled during my PGCE (1994) has remained a favourite, being adapted over the years as the fruit is replaced variously with chocolate or marshmallows... 

It was a textbook-inspired thing, I seem to recall, centring on a Judith Nicholls poem, 'How to eat a Strawberry'. I've long lost the original materials but feel happy to swim freestyle with this one.

Students are asked to bring in fruit (ideally an apple or satsuma - no bananas in my classroom...I have an irrational shiver-down-the-spine reaction to them). I always have a few fruity spares, just in case.

Step-by-step, they build an ideas bank, progressing through the senses. I time-manage this, making them look, touch and sniff for long enough to get them tantalised. They might be writing single words or brief phrases, nothing more structured is necessary.

Some senses need to be revisited. As they peel their satsuma they need to think of smell as well as touch; as they bite into their apple they need to explore sound and texture as well as taste. Once they're munching, I leave them to it for a while, letting their imaginations reign.

The next stages can be extended as required - combinations of class and homework, individual and pair work can be used to fit the students and the time available.

Initial ideas are built into lines of poetry. Similes and metaphors are encouraged. Precision of description and vocabulary is a must. Students are reminded to ask themselves and each other (I often create critical pairs for this activity) why they have chosen certain words and/or phrases. This reflection is not only relevant to their own writing but is designed to instil confidence when responding to others' poetry.

The drafting process is vital. Students usually write at least three versions - again, it's versatile and flexible. We learn about line divisions, end-stops and enjambment. We think about emphasis and impact; the art of positioning words carefully.

But mostly, they just write and discuss and question and edit and continue in a glorious spiralling burst towards some of the best poetry I have ever read. 

Yes, it can be messy. Yes, it can be a bit risky. And yes, it doesn't always go according to plan. So what?

Monday, 28 January 2013

Some thoughts about A level reform...

I have followed some of the reactions to the recently-announced proposals for A level reform at a bit of a distance, occasionally commenting but, more often than not, sitting back and assuming that others, apparently more forthright and confident than I, probably know better.

But, increasingly, I find myself at odds with what I'm reading. At odds, specifically, from a subject perspective. I don't want to restrict social mobility, reduce students' life chances or apply a reductively revisionist approach. As a teacher, that would surely be foolish. However, as an English teacher, I have never liked the AS level and Gove's proposal seems, to me, to be good for my subject at least, if not for any others.

Let's start with the hoop-jumping evil of the Assessment Objectives. I hate them. They are useful as possibilities but as a 'be-all-and-end-all' requirement, they reduce literary criticism to a series of box-ticking endeavours. I often read brilliant responses to literature: insightful, exploratory and incisive. If there's no mention of context though, go to jail, go directly to jail and do not collect any of the marks available for that aspect of work which is, so often, a 'bolt-on'. Now, I know that Gove's plans won't necessarily remove the AOs but my argument is this: if we are essentially testing the same things twice in English, once in Year -2 and once in Year 13, why bother? Why put raw, partially-developed students through a process after one year if we know that they will be better at it after two? If we think they'll have it cracked during Year 12, what is the point of Year 13 other than to study a wider range of texts?

From my own A level English experience - late 1980s, in a Surrey sixth form college - I know that an AS level result would have restricted my university options. I was a terrible first year A level student: I worked hard but I just didn't 'get it'. Following my result of the college's internal first year English exam my teacher took me to one side (not so far that the rest of the class couldn't hear though), told me I was stupid and that my dreams of going to read for an English degree would never come true. Quite a special lady, my A level English teacher.

The point is this though: had that result been an AS result, she might have been right. I needed another period of study before I had my moment of epiphany: 'Ah, so *that's* how you write about literature'. I don't think I truly got it until university - I can still picture that moment of revelation, discussing texts in the coffee shop with fellow undergraduates, but that's another story.

What I think I've been trying to say here is that English, for me, is a subject that needs time to percolate, to practise and to perfect. Testing students after one year on the same AOs as will be tested at the end of year two (albeit in different combinations) seems unnecessarily brutal, a measure which suits those who already 'have it' or who learn to perform tricks quickly. For this English teacher, a two-year process seems fairer and more conducive to encouraging students to experiment, explore and, perhaps most importantly, to take that leap of faith which good literary criticism requires.  Why do they need to be ready to be tested on that at 17 when there's every chance that they will be better at it one year later?

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Some thoughts about poetry teaching...

So, as something of a latecomer to the Twitter fold, as more (perhaps) of a lurker than a participant, I watch & learn (& sometimes envy). It feels, as a Pastoral Middle Leader & English teacher of Years 8-13, that there's a lot of exciting work going on out there, thoughts especially about teaching & learning (or learning & teaching, depending on your preference) but that I exist on the edge of this stuff; I read tweets & blogs by Headteachers, Assistant Heads, ASTs & Heads of Department. What I'm not quite sure about is how many main scale teachers are blogging about their work (I consider myself main scale in this sense as I have no specific Departmental responsibility): is there a gap out there? I'm not talking about 'a gap for filling', to borrow, inaccurately, from Owen's 'Insensibility' but, instead, I'm wondering if it might - and I'm thinking more about English teaching here than any other subject - be an issue of space; space & time to think about teaching afforded to those who divide their time between a classroom focus & other responsibilities. Is there such a thing as 'too close to blog'?

These musings have caused me to digress. It's 4.24am & I'm awake thinking about my lessons. So I thought I'd share some ideas about poetry teaching. Here we go...

1. I like to encourage students to think of poetry as three-dimensional. It's so much more than words on a page. I want vision & sound & texture to play a part in their understanding. Poetry is art, so I try to show them its colours, its music & its tangible correlations between content & form.

2. I often encourage students to start with the 'Who?', the 'Where?' and the 'What?' Doing this yesterday with the Extract from Wordsworth's 'Prelude' (AQA Anthology, 'Moon on the Tides') really helped to remove an initial barrier constructed by my Year 11 students who had read it once & thought it 'hard'. Once they realised it is about a boy, on a lake, rowing a stolen boat, we were off.

3. Starting with structural features, poetic techniques, seems to me a dangerous approach. Subject & meaning surely has to be our starting point: what is happening here? Starting with simile, metaphor, alliteration trains students to technique-spot; instead, I want them to approach those aspects as part of the poem's fabric. Have something to say about the poem's meaning first, referring to technique only after a quotation, never before. 

4. As a child of the '80s, I like to use the music video approach. Those narrative videos, ones which tell the story of the song, can be really helpful when approaching poetry. If you were making a film of this poem, what would be happening? Again, this builds on the questions from (2): who are the characters, what are they doing and where would your film be set?

There's nothing groundbreaking here. I was in awe of the blog I read the other day with envelopes on students' chairs & writing a version of the poem before reading the poem (dead shelley's blog, I think - I'll try to come back here & post a link when I'm not under the covers, blogging via my iPhone). I think I'm more pedestrian than that. Nevertheless, I do break poetry apart, asking students to illustrate words/images/lines to show colours & textures & shapes; I do have them reading aloud, dramatising the sounds (& sometimes the shapes) of the poetry; and I do, above all, try my best to dispel the myth that poetry is impossible to understand. A significant amount of this dispelling, though, needs to be done at KS3, I think... Get them reading and, perhaps more importantly, writing plenty of poetry... understanding the mechanics from the inside can surely only help students' analytical skills.

But that's for another blog...

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Twitter-inspired... thoughts on teaching

I joined Twitter in July 2012.  I'd been wondering for a while if it would help me to stay up to date with bands I like, football scores and other such frippery and, indeed, it did.  What I did not foresee was the power of the 'Tweachers' (still not sure I actually like that term) and the multiplicity of blogs, resources and educational tweeting (twittering?) that I would discover.

So, I thought I should have a go.  I'm in the fourth year of my reincarnation as a classroom teacher.  I did six years back in the '90s before heading back to university for some further study and research, a spell as a part-time university teacher, and some short-term educational support roles.  In the last of these, a mentoring post in North Somerset, I found myself gravitating more often than I should towards the English Department...  and so here I am, back in the classroom and wondering what my next step might be.

I'm going to start with what being an English teacher means to me.  It seems a sensible and safe beginning and may actually help me to tease out why I do what I do.  It is a question I ask more often than I'd like at the moment.

English teaching means reading and writing and sharing and laughing.  It means putting myself on the line at times - as my students put themselves at risk - and exposing my likes and dislikes, my attempts at creative writing along with my students who get to give me feedback and learn what it feels like to comment on someone else's work, someone they might not expect to be able to question or criticise.  It means sharing my belief that words are the key to a future we might choose, rather than one which is chosen for us.  It means smiling as students begin to believe in themselves as writers, witnessing them pushing against boundaries that, for one reason or another, they perceive even when I don't want those boundaries in the classroom.

To be an English teacher, for me, is to delight especially in poetry in the classroom.  It's my favourite part of the job.  When students start to understand the beauty of correlations between content and form, moving beyond a 'poetry is a difficult riddle and I'll never get it' state of mind, I feel the buzz in the air.  It was there today, with Year 11... 

And yet, at times, to be an English teacher feels restrictive and manipulated.  The marking makes me want to cry.  I hate the Assessment Objectives and the hoop-jumping, box-ticking requirements which seem so unnatural, so in opposition to what I feel about my subject.

This has been more of a splurge than a blog.  Not quite a 'barbaric yawp' perhaps but not entirely what I thought it would be when I re-opened my blog and thought about using it to join the Twittersphere of teacher-bloggers.  Perhaps I'll get better.  Perhaps this is me.  Perhaps I'll just stop.  For now though, this is it.