Working with the Enemy

I have a confession to make. I have taken my children out of school for educational reasons. Personally I’d never do it just ‘to go on a holiday’, especially not to Disneyland (which they’d hate anyway). Even though we have family overseas and we pay painfully over the odds for going to see them a few times a year, if they’re in school, they really should be in school, unless there’s a very good reason. But we did take them out for six months to Road School them – and before anyone threatens me with high court action, they were off roll at the time. Did we do a bad thing? Or did we do a totally brilliant and lifetime memory making thing? Only you can decide and it’s too late for me to worry about it, anyway. My problem with today’s high court ruling on term time absence is not that it is going to stop me taking holidays when I want to, because I don’t. It is that the government has found another way of making the system more difficult for some people than it is for others, and their policy will impact on those who can least afford it, yet again.

If you have very little money, or a particularly fine-prone local authority, then you won’t want to risk taking any time off during the term, whatever your personal circumstances. (Single parent, forces family, someone who has to work every August because that’s when the tourists arrive in your area, your personal circumstances have ceased to matter.) Your children may never go overseas, which is very “Brexit means Brexit” of our Government. However, if you can shrug off a £60 fine, if you are willing to lie to your children’s school, or if you can afford to go to a private one, then you’ve just been incentivised to say ‘what the hell, I’ll do it anyway’. I’ve seen websites today that suggest parents might be asked to provide a death certificate, in order to have the right to go to a family funeral. And the head teacher of your children’s school has been tasked to be the final arbiter of whether you are deserving enough of not having to be there. Their Ofsted result depends on the way you behave. Talk about the law of unintended consequences. Insisting that ‘parents are obedient’ is no way to run an education system, if you value parent partnerships.

For the last eight years, I have helped to run my local preschool setting. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you are probably bored of me going on about it by now. I started there as a parent, but I stayed on, and I have now committed hours and hours and hours of my free time to helping a small part of the education system thrive and survive. During those eight years, I’ve had to work with our parents. Not in an ‘ask their opinions occasionally’ way, but in a ‘you are running this setting and we need you to do these things because they are legal requirements’ kind of way. The parents who have helped me have given up their free time, just like thousands of governors and PTAs do, all around the country, every single day of the week. During this time, I’ve also run a school magazine club, and I’ve watched my parent friends do their bit to be supportive, in all kinds of ways. Yes, some parents really don’t care about their children’s education, and I know that is painful, but most of us really do. So, please don’t let the Government make you think that you are working with the enemy, because we are not the ones that you need to attack.

Posted in Parents, Schools, Teachers | 2 Comments

A Baseline

“Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems.”
Rainer Maria Rilke

Yesterday I was over at the allotments, and I was lucky enough to bump into the preschool children, who were doing their Thursday forest club. Forest club is probably more accurately described as ‘explore the local environment club’, since we don’t have any forests close by. We do, however, have big clumps of trees, farmland, a river, horses, mud, bee hives, a large allotment, and sometimes there are even pigs. The children were digging up part of my neighbour’s plot – he had come along to help – and they asked me if I had any chitted potatoes that they could plant. I had some spare Pink Fir Apple, which are the weirdest shaped potatoes you have ever seen. Anyway, there was lots of excitement as the children dug over the area, pulled out the weeds, found worms, planted the potatoes and watered them in. Later on the children came into my allotment, weaving their way carefully around the paths, spotting tadpoles and picking chives.

To make your allotment thrive you need to do a lot of hard work; you have to pay attention to detail and give it plenty of energy. At the same time, though, it needs to breathe – to be a place where you can go to be creative and to learn, making something that wasn’t there before out of old bits and pieces. A place where it doesn’t matter if you make all sorts of mistakes. A place you can go to be yourself. Of course, it’s tempting to get fixated on measuring your productivity; to think that you can only tell how well your allotment is doing by how many vegetables you pull out of the soil. It’s so easy to forget that our lives are made up of moments, not of where we might get to at some future point. Yesterday, when I looked at the children laughing, and running, and tripping over, and exploring, and digging the soil, and watching out for the nettles, all in their different ways, I didn’t think ‘this is the point that each child is at now, and we must measure exactly how far they get from this moment, to a preordained point’. I thought, ‘look how amazing these children are already – how can we help them grow into the people they want to be?’.

Posted in Gardening, Testing | 2 Comments

The Pause, The Look, and The Deadly Eyebrow

One of the odd things about being a teacher is that your teaching behaviours can begin to bleed over into your home life. You act a lot at work so you find yourself doing it when you’re not being paid to. Maybe you find yourself giving someone a disapproving look on the tube because they dropped a crisp packet, or you sigh exaggeratedly when your partner leaves the kitchen in a mess. I can’t be the only one to have heard “Don’t use your teacher look on me” or “You’re not in the classroom now.”  But there are some very good reasons why teachers get into the habit of using non verbal communication, and why we struggle to stop doing it in our spare time. It helps us maintain the flow of a lesson, it encourages children to regulate their own behaviour, and it teaches them to read social cues – to know what human beings mean by how they look as well as what they say.

Once children know what is expected and what you need as a class, those who struggle most with behaviour will be the ones who can’t read or respond to the social context, or who just generally struggle to control their bodies (school typically asks for a lot of sitting still). Those children who struggle most might need a more explicit explanation of what is expected, to help them achieve it, but in the end the goal is for them to read the situation and understand how to control themselves in order to learn (not least because it’s a LOT less work for everyone concerned). This is hard to achieve, especially at secondary, but it’s still an important aim. The alternative – punishment, consequences, whatever you choose to call it – tends to be time consuming, and has the habit of doing damage to relationships. If you want children to see learning as the most exciting thing of all then learning needs to become the ultimate reward.

The children are wriggling and fidgeting. Daryn is annoying Mary and Nancy is shuffling her way to the back of the carpet again, as though she just wants to escape. Kate is plaiting her hair and Tim is gazing off into the distance like he can see something that no one else can see (which you often suspect he can). You pause. Maybe you heave a little sigh. Then you look at the picture book that is sitting in your lap with a wistful look in your eyes. At this point, Andrew goes to stand up (perhaps he has had enough of waiting for Daryn and Mary to finish fussing). You give Andrew a look and a shrug and he sits back down again. He knows that it isn’t really you he is waiting for. Finally, you bring out your most powerful weapon. You raise a single deadly eyebrow and you say in a (not too scary) pretend witch-y voice: “I wonder what Winnie the Witch would make of having to wait so long for everyone to be ready? You don’t suppose she might turn you all into frogs? Should we find out?” Now all the children turn towards to you and most of them lean forwards a bit. You open the book. And Kate finally looks at you, with eyes lit up, because she doesn’t want to miss a word. 

Posted in Behaviour, Engagement, Reading | 2 Comments

You Have a Choice

You have a choice.

Well, we don’t really. That’s what you choose to call it, but in the end there’s only one school that we can get our children to, realistically.

You have a choice. There’s public transport.

That doesn’t really help. If we don’t live in the right part of town, or hit the right point in the fair banding tests, we only get to express a preference. And we might not get that.

You have a choice. If you don’t like what we offer you can go somewhere else.

But our child is settled in your school. We can’t just move her away from her friends and disrupt her education. Could we work in partnership? Figure out what’s best together?

You have a choice. You could always apply to a selective school.

But even if we choose that we might not get it. And we don’t support selection.

You have a choice. The school doesn’t have to become an academy.

It does if you’ve stripped all the funds out of our Local Education Authority.

You have a choice. You can attend worship regularly and get into a faith school.

We’re atheists.

You have a choice. But we don’t think we’re best suited to meet your child’s needs.

Say what?

Look. If you don’t like it, there’s always private school or home education. See? We told you; you have a choice.

Posted in Choice | Leave a comment

Join the Dots

.       .       .
.       .       .
.       .       .

Join all the dots
using only 4 straight lines and
without taking your pen off the paper

I often use the nine dot puzzle when I’m working with teachers. It helps us consider how thinking can work, why it can be really hard, and how differently people react when they are given something they can’t easily do. Faced with this puzzle, and told to work on it alone and in silence, some people will stare at the dots, trying to imagine what the answer could be. Others will start scribbling immediately, in an effort to find out how it works, not caring how many failed attempts they make. A few people might switch off pretty quickly because they decide they won’t be able to do it, or they can’t be bothered. And others may want to be told the answer almost immediately. (A handful of any group will know the answer already, so I ask them to come up with alternatives to the ‘classic’ answer.)

When we are asked to work something out, rather than just being told it, we have to think harder than we normally would. We don’t know yet, so we have to figure out how we could find out. I suppose this is why the human mind seems to like puzzles – trying to work something out is like aerobics for our brains.  Even though we know there is an answer, we get a buzz if we can work it out for ourselves. When I use this puzzle with teachers, I help them get the solution to the puzzle by giving them clues. The first, most important clue is that it gave rise to the saying “Think Outside the Box”. This puzzle is a great example of how, when the human mind is given a box, we tend to stay inside it. As soon as you let people chat in groups about the puzzle, they quickly start to build on each other’s thinking, and pretty soon someone has figured out the answer.

For me, though, the most interesting thing about the nine dot puzzle is not that there is a ‘correct’ answer, but about how many alternative solutions I can devise. Can I come up with a solution that no one has ever thought of before? Is there a more interesting way to solve this? I feel this way about education at the moment. I worry that if we are told that we have to find the one correct answer, we might stop looking for alternatives. And the alternative solutions to the nine dot puzzle? Well, try this. Holding your pen on the paper, fold it up, so that you can connect the dots in a stroke or two. Or this. With your pen still on the paper, grab a pair of scissors and cut out the dots, rearranging them to complete the task. Perhaps my favourite alternative answer of all is not to do with the dots at all, but with the tool I am using. Because all I need to do is to find the world’s fattest marker pen, and I can join the dots in a single line.

Posted in Learning | Leave a comment

Won’t Get Fooled Again

This morning I was ambling through my Twitter timeline in my usual half awake Monday state, when I stumbled across the following tweet:

I had a quick read of the blog, and joined in a brief Twitter discussion about it, but I had a nagging concern at the back of my mind. There was something distinctly odd about that image. For a start, the tail on the ‘a’ looked to me like the letter formation of a very young child – that separate tail is a classic sign of an emergent writer – it’s something you see a lot in children of around 4 or 5 years old. But why would a child that young be given a test like this, when they would only just be learning to read? And if the child was older, with poorly developed letter formation, but was able to read, then surely the answer to the question would have been obvious? I started to wonder whether the child had written the wrong answer on purpose, as a joke. It seemed like the only plausible explanation. It was really bugging me. How could I find out the truth?

And then I remembered something that I learned a month or so ago – a great tip I picked up for dealing with potential ‘fake news’ of the Trump variety, around the time of his inauguration (when all kinds of claims about huge crowds were made). It’s a simple way to check the source of an image you see on Twitter, and to ensure that it is what it claims to be, before you retweet it to all and sundry with an outraged comment attached. All you need to do is hover over the image on Twitter, right click on your mouse, and then choose ‘search Google for image’. This takes you to Google where, with a bit of careful research, you should be able to identify the origin of the image. The furthest back I could get for the image in this blog was someone called ‘FishInferno’, who had uploaded it to Reddit in the ‘funny’ category on 26th February, from which point it was picked up by various ‘funniest thing on the Internet’ sites and ended up as “a picture a friend had sent me of work a young student did in the classroom” in Doug Lemov’s blog.

Call me cynical, but I’m not entirely convinced about the veracity of the original image – it looks to me as though an adult might have made it for laughs, with the thought that the best way to make it look like it was done by a child was to write the answer in babyish handwriting. There’s something just a little bit too pat and amusing about ‘Getty Images’. Either that or the child is brand new to English, or just can’t read yet. Perhaps the only way we could know for certain would be to hunt down ‘FishInferno’ and ask him/her to provide the child’s handwritten original, or to get Doug Lemov to check with his friend. As is the way of the Internet, we will probably never know. The image will pass into history as an example of the evils of using Google, when in reality Google was what allowed me to identify where it had come from in the first place. It strikes me that, instead of this image being an example of why we need more knowledge, it is actually an example of why we need more digital literacy. Of why it is important not to take the things we see on the Internet at face value, and why we should always verify the source.

Posted in Technology | 10 Comments

Just Imagine


Dressing up for World Book Day in schools seems to split opinion right down the middle. Some people love it, and go all out to take part and to think up a costume. Other people hate it. They don’t like the way that it has been commercialised, they don’t think it has much to do with books or reading, or they don’t enjoy being forced to dress up full stop. Personally, I can see both sides, and most years I would tend to side more with the “oh god no, please don’t make me do that” group than the “I’ve been planning my costume for weeks and it is nigh on perfect” one. In our house, we’re pretty disorganised, so what usually happens is that we chuck something together at the last minute out of leftover bits and pieces from school plays and fancy dress parties. But this year, for some reason, the kid has taken on board the idea of becoming a character for World Book Day and she has embraced it with all of her heart and all of her soul. Maybe it’s because this is her last year at primary school, and she knows that she won’t get do childlike stuff like this when she moves on to secondary. Or maybe it’s because she’s (re)reading a book series that she is very excited by at the moment. But ever since we got the note from school saying they could come in dressed up as a character, her preparations have been in full swing.

“I want to be Newt from The Maze Runner,” the kid announced to me earlier this week. This sparked off an initial panic about what costume Newt might require, which then segued into a long discussion about what a Runner would wear. (Luckily for me, I’ve read the books, so I knew what she was talking about.) We checked out images from the films of the books, we talked about the things that the Runners do, and we rifled through our cupboards to try and find something that would be suitable. Newt is a boy, so we ended up trawling her brother’s old clothes to get what we needed. And as we figured out what she would wear for World Book Day, and worked out how we could create the accessories she needed to be authentic, we spent more time talking about books, and about the characters that inhabit them, and the way that authors work to make meaning, than we have ever done before.

We discussed how the characters in The Maze Runner are named after famous scientists, although you don’t find out until right near the end of the story, which makes it really clever. We talked about how the main character Thomas is named after Thomas Edison, how the character Alby is named after Albert Einstein, and how Minho doesn’t seem to be named after a scientist at all, but how anyway the Minho is a region of Portugal that we happen to know and love very much indeed. We discussed how the language in the books is different to normal everyday language (the children make up constructions of their own, reminiscent of the way that A Clockwork Orange is written). We talked about how far in the future we think the book is set. We talked about dystopian fiction, and how we both also love The Hunger Games, even though the bit where Rue dies is so terribly sad. We talked about our favourite characters, and the bit of the book that we both remembered best. (The part where they climb the walls and hang from vines, to escape the Grievers.) We discussed how eventually the boys find out how to solve The Maze, and how it turns out that there has been a group of girls, solving their own Maze as well. And it felt like me and the kid were in a book group made up of just us two.

Last night, the kid spent an hour making a map of The Maze, with authentic details written into it, like the number of days they had been trying to find a solution and the place where they jumped off the cliff into the invisible Griever hole. This morning, as we stood at the top of the lane waiting for the school bus, she told me that she needed to put a stone in her shoe, in order to make her character completely real. Apparently the actor who played Newt in the films had done this, to remind him that he had a limp. She stuck a big stone in her shoe but decided it was too painful. She tried a smaller stone but she gave up on that too. Then she started throwing Newt quotes at me, including her particular favourite, “Great, we’re all bloody inspired.” By the time the school bus arrived, we both had tears of laughter in our eyes at her attempts at method acting. The lady who drives the bus got out to open the door, looked the kid up and down, and said the words that I knew the kid was going to be hearing a lot that day. “What have you come as?” she wanted to know.

“I am Newt,” the kid said proudly. “I was named after Isaac Newton.” No shop bought costume needed. No money was expended. Mum and daughter bonded. Just imagine that.

Posted in Books, Parenting, Reading | Leave a comment