Sunday, 22 October 2017

Once upon a time: starting at the beginning

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. First of all, I should start by saying that I’m certain that what I’m about to say is nothing revolutionary or new. In fact, I almost decided not to write about it because it seems so obvious. However, it wasn’t obvious to me before, so perhaps it will be of interest to someone.

Last year, we started Year 7 with a great reading scheme of work based on a fantastic book, “The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman. Similar to every other year of my teaching career, we got straight into reading the book, making inferences about the characters and considering the effects of language and structure. By this time last year, our pupils were able, with heavy modelling support and sentence starters, to write about these things. But, round about June, it occurred to me that we’d actually done them a disservice. In preparation for their end of year exams, we created a set of revision resources which really went back to basics, starting off with exercises focused on meaning, writers’ purpose and effects. As we did this, it occurred to me this is how we should have started at the beginning of Year 7: at the beginning.

This might be an issue that is quite specific to our school, but I have realised that the vast majority of our pupils just don’t understand stories. Many of them have not been brought up with stories, not had stories read to them as young children and don’t really understand the point of stories, which makes developing a genuine understanding of what people are trying to do when they write difficult. Pupils could diligently learn all the different language and structural features and sentence starters, and churn out versions of the model answers we’d worked through, but did not have a real feel for why any of it was important. As a result, there were often moments when I would ask, “Why has the writer done that? What effect does it have?”, and be faced with a room full of blank faces. As a result, I decided to completely change our scheme of work for Year 7 Term 1 and start with a very basic breakdown of what stories are, and what the point of it all is.

For no very good reason, other than me getting carried away with beginnings, I decided to avoid the pressure of trying to get through a whole novel, and chose to use a range of extracts, also starting at the beginning with Hesiod and Homer, moving through to Beowulf. The rationale for this was to try and plug some of the gaps in cultural capital which our pupils have, while trying to build an awareness of how and why the stories have been put together. The lessons involved a repeated focus on making sure the pupils understood the meaning of the texts, borrowing an idea I picked up from Chris Curtis about getting them to focus on what they don’t understand. We spent a lot of time insisting that pupils didn’t simply ignore difficult words, but used a range of techniques to decipher what such words mean. We also repeated ad naseum the idea that the texts did not appear by magic, but were constructed deliberately and methodically by the writers (one brilliant teacher in our department, who is an MFL specialist, had his classes choral chanting, “Because the writer chose it” in response to any questions about why anything happened in the stories). We spent time discussing writer’s purpose, explicit and implicit meaning and considering why the writers made the choices they did, as opposed to any of the multitude of other choices they could have made. And only towards the end of half term did we finally start to talk about what effect these choices had on readers, and what inferences we could make about the characters.

Being totally honest, it did feel at times like we were moving very slowly, and having to cover some quite basic concepts several times. In this regard, I was reassured by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby’s brilliant book Making Every Lesson Count that it was better to persevere with something worth learning until they’ve learnt it, rather than simply moving on because that is what my Medium Term Plan dictated. In the end, we’ve moved lessons looking at Chaucer and Milton and the use of language and structure into Half Term 2, rather than rushing through them. And I think it has been worth it. I teach two Set 3 classes, and I am confident that they are all now aware of what stories are and why they are written, which I believe puts them in a much stronger position for the rest of their study of literature. I’m also confident that they are now aware of at least two culturally significant Homers, which is, in itself, no small thing. The next step is to try and put this awareness to use: in Half Term 2 we are going to focus more on their own writing, using a similar range of “classic” extracts to inspire and inform what they write. I believe that, by going back to the beginning, we’ve given our pupils a better start to KS3 and, ultimately, a better chance of really engaging with their GCSE texts. Fingers crossed anyway.  

Saturday, 19 August 2017

On being afraid

I am a white man, racing headlong towards middle-age. I grew up in a stable and loving home, did well at school and went to a good university. My parents are still married, I still have a living grandparent, a happy marriage, a child. My mum and dad were both teachers so we always had enough money. I'm now a teacher and Mrs Shaw is a lawyer, so we both have good jobs and earn good salaries. 

I am privileged. I know.

Last night though, I experienced something which brought home to me just how privileged my life is. For the first time I can remember, I felt afraid to speak my opinion. And the fear came from the colour of my skin and my background. I wanted to get involved in a recent Twitter debate, but was afraid of the response I might receive if I did. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not equating me not wanting to receive some mean replies to a comment I make on Twitter with the fear that many people feel on a daily basis through no fault of their own. But it gave me a small insight into what it might be like to feel I had no voice. 

The reason for this is because, over the last couple of days, there has been a huge amount of vitriol thrown around on Twitter about racism and comments made by David Didau in a recent blog. I don't know if there is a link, as the blog suggested, between race and IQ. I don't even know whether there is a link between race and "success" at school (the tiny amount of research I have done seems to suggest that being eligible for Free School Meals is a more relevant measure). I also don't know whether any link which does exist actually has anything to do with genetics, although I hope that it doesn't.

All I wanted to say last night was that, for all my own ignorance of the research and complete lack of any experience of prejudice, the attacks on Didau (and Tom Bennett) seemed wildly over the top, and the response (including accusations of a witch-hunt) equally so. I understand that 140 characters doesn't allow for much nuance, but we are teachers and should be aware that words are important. I have met Tom Bennett (briefly), and have never met David Didau (although I've heard him speak and read a lot of his work), but I can say with confidence that I don't believe either of them are racists. Didau's blog (as I read it) was about being aware of a possible link between race and performance in IQ tests so we can improve the life chances of people who often, and deeply unfairly, have fewer chances than others. And I don't know about anyone else, but that is why I became a teacher in the first place. Disagree with Didau if you like; question the validity of the research he quotes; argue with him (he appears to not be afraid of that). But what happened in response to his blog made me afraid to share my own opinion, and that made me angry. Angry enough to write most of this blog at 4am. Probably I should have been angry already. Angry about the lack of social justice in the world. Perhaps it's time I was shaken out of my privileged safe little world. But I didn't like that feeling, and it has made me even more committed to helping stop other people feeling that way. 

Reading what Didau wrote, and some of what Benjamin Doxtdator has written in response, has raised my awareness of issues, my own ignorance and I'll keep reading. The reality is though that, whenever you look at data in relation to large groups of people (whether that's based on gender, race, favourite ice cream flavour, whatever), you can lose sight of the people themselves. I'm in a fortunate position to teach people, not statistics. I read as much as possible so I am aware of trends that might be relevant to the children I teach, but I don't forget that they are all individuals. When I teach someone I think might be the victim of prejudice in their life (which, by the way, is pretty much all of them), I try to think what that means to them as an individual. There is a Chinese girl at my school. She might be the most committed, hard-working and dedicated pupil I've ever taught. Should I assume that she has pushy parents and might be stressed out? I teach the eldest son of an Indian family who is underperforming. Should I assume that he is indulged by his family and is perhaps a bit lazy? I refuse to do so. Just as I will always refuse to believe that anyone in my class room is genetically disposed to fail. I'll try and be aware of any research which suggests that certain groups of children are likely to face particular challenges, but I won't be slave to it. I won't think about how to motivate "Chinese girls"; I'll think about how to motivate this particular girl. I won't think about how to motivate "eldest Indian sons"; I'll think about how to motivate that particular boy in Period 6 on Friday. I won't think about how to teach "black children"; I'll think about how to teach each child in my room as well as I can.

I tell all the children I teach not to be afraid, so I won't be. I tell them to challenge things they think are unfair, so I will. I don't know if there's a link between race and IQ (I don't even know whether I think IQ is a very good measure of anything very much, other than the ability to do IQ tests), but I do know what racism is and what bullying is and, as teachers, we have a duty to challenge one, but without resorting to the other. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

More dove, less hawk

I'm 6'2" and weigh about 90kgs. I've got a shaved head (ok, I'm bald). In poor light (to hide the goofy grin), give me a black puffa jacket and a clip board and I could run the door at one of Tom Bennett's club nights. I thought this would help me when I started teaching; my stature, I thought, would lead to instant respect and painless behaviour management. It didn't. And I'm still trying to work out why. Here's what I've come up with so far. 

Firstly, although I am big, I'm not tough. I've never been in a fight, and I have a tendency to cry at the slightest mention of a heart string. Nevertheless, I tried to play tough in my first weeks, have tried to play tough at the start of every year since and was still trying to play tough last September. I remember once (and I've only done it once) almost squaring up to a Year 11 boy with whom I was having a difference of opinion over his presence in my room (bizarrely, now I think about it, I wanted him to stay). It's embarrassing to recall, but I thought I had to have physical dominance to earn their respect. There has been quite a lot written recently about this, and, if you haven't already read them, I'd encourage you to check out Mr Pink and Thomas James' blogs on the subject. My view is that, in my case, going for physical dominance is pointless. For a start, it's not genuine, and I suspect that's obvious. Secondly, the pupils know how powerless you are. And thirdly, and sadly, for some children, even if I was genuine, and was able to do something about it, I still wouldn't be the scariest person in their life. The truth is that some of those pupils have more inclination, more ability and more reason to use violence than I ever will. So, I've decided, why bother; it's exhausting and, more importantly, a waste of time (for me, anyway). I've decided that I'm no longer going to care about being physically dominant in the classroom. 

Probably more important than this is the fact that I'm increasingly of the opinion that children, and some boys in particular, need to see that male role models come in all different flavours. I tell them that all I want is for them to be themselves, as hard as they can, so I need to model that. So I don't bang desks anymore (still get teased for that), and I try to not raise my voice (I'm trying to get quieter and quieter the more challenging anyone's behaviour becomes). It helps that my school currently only has Years 7 and 8, and that behaviour is generally fabulous anyway, but it seems to work at least as well as the tough guy approach, and is much easier for me. Plus, I think it's probably good for the children to see a big guy who's not tough, and doesn't seem to want to be. In Thomas James' wonderfully honest story, he got his respect partly through his power (although the guy is clearly a deeply committed and passionate teacher which I think is probably more important). I'm trying to get mine through a kind of relentless affability. Just as a very basic example, I now try and sit down if I'm going to tell someone off, rather than purposely tower above them. 

It saddens me to feel like I need to make clear that this doesn't mean I've lowered my expectations in terms of behaviour. Perhaps you weren't thinking that, and it says more about what a way I still have to go to prove to myself that I haven't gone soft by being less tough. But I'd be lying if I said that I felt no pressure to be tough. Whether we like it or not, it seems like to me that there is a serious problem with the portrayal of maleness and masculinity in our society. People may point to role models like Obama and ... well, certainly Obama anyway, but, while he may be a fabulous example to us all, the former President may be a little far removed and rarified to be really meaningful for lots of children. All around us "real men" are presented as fighting things, winning things, sacrificing their emotional souls for victory at all costs.  I think I'm pretty enlightened, yet I spent most of my pre-teens pretending to be Han Solo, a man with such stunted emotional intelligence that, when the women he loves says she loves him (as he disappears to what they both believe will be his certain death), his reply is, "I know". Part of me still thinks that's cool. What a dick (me I mean; he's a fictional character, after all). Google "boys toys" and Marvel at the array of superhero figures and a jolly multicoloured arsenal that could take out North Korea. I'm sure things are better than they used to be, but boys especially are surrounded by images showing them how they should be, and I'm actively conscious about raising my son to reject it. If there wasn't a problem, then would I take him to the swimming pool with his pink goggles and Barbie mermaid? Or maybe I'm just trying too hard? 

In any case, I'm pretty sure that the last thing my pupils need to see is me desperately acting like a tough guy to try and earn their respect. In the end I think the boring truth is that I think all I've discovered is that it's best to just be myself, and, if that means waging war (a good manly metaphor) on stereotypes of what it means to be a man, then so be it. Huey Lewis had it right I think: The Power of Love is a curious thing and, amongst other things, turns a hawk to a little white dove. So that's the power I'm going for now: more dove, less hawk. 

Sunday, 25 June 2017

A marked improvement

In November last year, my school was kind enough to let me go, along with our Deputy Head, to visit Michaela Community School. On the way down, we talked about what we were hoping to get out of the trip, and I told him that I was interested to learn more about their claim that they didn't mark books. Our Deputy Head is a PE teacher so, after I'd explained to him what marking was, he smiled politely and then carried on talking about behaviour policies or Pupil Premium funding or some such. The visit was overwhelming and incredibly thought-provoking - so much so that we didn't really talk much about the marking (or, rather, feedback) policy on the way home and I figured that would be the end of that.

I was wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, my school embraced the future. While it isn't quite the golden utopia of the greatest marking policy in the world ever (written, incidentally, by me: “There should be clear evidence that pupils and teachers have considered, and taken action on, pupil work on a regular basis”. See here for more on that), it is pretty close. Essentially, each department has been told that we can develop a policy of providing feedback which best suits our subject and our classes. There are some general, best-practice guidelines, but they are not prescriptive, and we have been encouraged to be as creative and flexible as we can. The guiding principle is that, whatever we do, it needs to be sustainable for teachers, and make a tangible difference to the pupils we teach. 

Honestly, it's brilliant. Our Head of Department was part of a pilot scheme involving a small number of teachers working on different ideas, and her approach, which she has adapted over a term, is the one we have adopted. And, the funny thing is, it's very similar to the way they approach feedback at Michaela (on this, read Joe Kirby here and Jo Facer here). We read the pupils' work, make notes and then, in the next lesson, tell them what they have done well and what they can do to improve. Making comments in their books is not forbidden, so if a pupil is making a particularly idiosyncratic mistake, I'm at liberty to provide more detailed, individual feedback but, generally, written comments are at a minimum (handy if your handwriting is as bad as mine). It's simple, and, as far as it's possible to tell after a couple of weeks, really effective. I also take photos of excellent examples of work and talk through them in the follow-up lesson to break down why they were so good. I tend not to announce whose work it is on the screen and the pupils love trying to guess who produced it, and the looks on the faces of the authors is priceless. It has created a lovely atmosphere in the room as we talk about what makes a good piece of work and they then have a go at improving what they have done. 

Marking a full set of books used to take me at least four hours. Some of the other teachers in my department have been completing a full set of books, and the prep for the response lesson, in less than an hour and a half. I haven't quite got down to that level of efficiency yet (see here for evidence of my marking problem), but I think that is partly due to the fact that we have been preparing for our end of year tests, and we have been covering a wide range of material. Nevertheless, last week I read the book of every pupil I teach, which I don't think I've ever done since I started teaching. And it was clear that, as I walked round my classes during their response time, they had a much better idea of how to make their work better than has been the case previously. It really does seem to be a better way to do things.

Although it is early days, I am confident that this approach will improve the quality of response work my pupils do, as well as making a fundamental change to the quality of my life and teaching, such is the reduction in the time is takes to complete my marking load. Having more time for myself and my family will make me a better teacher. Having more time to read up on my subject will make me a better teacher. And I believe that, by focusing more on what I really want the pupils to know, and planning for these regular feedback sessions to assess whether they know it, I will become a better teacher. I am excited about structuring schemes of work next year so they build to one of these feedback sessions (weekly, fortnightly, whatever makes sense); I am even more excited about getting more sleep, reading more books, doing more exercise and spending more time with my family.

I don't know what exactly prompted our Deputy Head to rethink the way we approach feedback, but I'm very glad he did. If you are still struggling under the load of a more prescriptive marking policy, I'd encourage you to mention it to whoever is in charge: there is another way.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Can you teach language analysis by playing?

I recently read this interesting article by Tom Bennett on the limitations of learning through play. I immediately (and sycophantically) responded to say that I agreed and thought play wasn't essential in order to teach language analysis. And it isn't. I'd go as far as to say that there is often no fun had by anyone in many of my lessons. Which, if I'm honest, does trouble me. Am I really as mean as Tom? Isn't he Government Overlord of Telling People Off or something? I started thinking about how I could use play. 

Which made me think about YuGiOh and how brilliant lots of the children at my school are at it. YuGiOh is an essentially indecipherable card trading game played at impossible speed involving intricate, multi-faceted analysis of your own cards, and those of your opponent. I've watched it. It's been (very patiently) explained to me. I've got no idea how it works. But the children do, and they use complex analysis skills, the kind I despair of them ever showing in my classroom, effortlessly, automatically. 

Which made me think about Daniel Willingham and the research finding that "poor" readers who knew about baseball understood text about baseball better than "good" readers. Willingham says that people are, generally speaking, pretty good at understanding things they know something about. David Didau has made a similar point here. Analysing isn't all that hard; it's knowing what to think about that's hard. I can analyse a piece of text because I know lots about what makes a piece of writing good, not because I'm great at analysing. I used to be able to analyse the flight of a cricket ball because I knew what was required to execute an elegant, graceful cover drive (so successfully that I regularly produced such masterpieces once, or even twice a season). But, despite these great analysis "skills", I can't analyse Beethoven's symphonies (or, if I'm honest, anything in the Little Mix discography) because I don't know anything about how music is put together or any of the vocabulary to explain it. 

So far, so dull. I then read another brilliant blog by Fiona Ritson (seriously, all her blogs are brilliant - read them here) about preparing students for Lang Paper 1 by using and deconstructing model answers. Then I went swimming. And while I was swimming I thought: I wonder if they could play YuGiOh with model answers? Trade different pieces of text based on the relative merits of their use of language? "My Dickens scores 5 stars for use of complex sentences!" "Beats my Orwell: 2 stars cause he never uses more than 5 words per sentence!" I mean, even writing it out is fun!

Now, as I admitted earlier, I have no idea how YuGiOh works, so my game is basically Top Trumps. I'm going to write (or find) short pieces of text and, initially, rate them on their use of writing techniques (see the picture for an example - I just did this very quickly, so would appreciate some feedback on the categories! I think that it will be better with more specific categories). The children can have a few each and will play, trying to acquire as many cards as possible. At first I think I'll give them the ratings, so they'll only really be analysing the scores. However, they'll need to read and analyse the texts in the event of a tie. Nevertheless, they will be using the language they'll need to know to analyse the texts themselves when we get to that. When they're comfortable with that language, then I think I'll get them to rate (and write) the pieces of text themselves. Not only can they play, but they could also write up some of their classic plays (like those people who kept diaries of their Risk games): My extract from Henry V was able to defeat the extract from Diary of a Wimpy Kid because.... I mean, seriously, who isn't having fun in that lesson?

At this stage it's just an idea, but I'd appreciate any thoughts or ideas from anyone who has done something similar. Does it work?

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Education: more than just a numbers game

Before he became the world's favourite football pundit, Gary Neville actually played football. Quite well. And I remember reading an article in which he said that, the morning after every game, he always looked in the papers to see what score he'd been given. If you're not a football nerd, you might not know that sports journalists often rate player performance in a game out of ten. And Gary loved it. Even though he knew it was nonsense. He knew it was impossible to look at his performance over 90 minutes in one match and come to a definitive conclusion as to how good he was at football. Yet, still he was desperate to know that score. He knew it was weird, but he couldn't help it. 

Now, arguably there's no meaningful comparison to make between this and educational assessment. I mean, football is a complex, multifaceted endeavour, requiring, as it does, players to not only run, but also kick and even occasionally head the ball. It's understandable that someone might question the validity of reducing that to a single digit score. However, let's indulge the conceit and pretend that the charge of oversimplification can be applied equally to 11 years worth of formal education as to a football match, and think about what that means. Gary Neville knew that score out of 10 didn't validly represent how well he had played in that game, let alone how good a footballer he was. It was no use to him as a means of understanding his strengths or weaknesses. It was of no benefit to an opposing manager who might be interested in buying him: "I need someone who's really good at heading a ball, I'm not so bothered about running. How about Gary Neville?" " He's an 8." "What does that mean?" "He's an 8. Or, at least he was in one game, last week."

It is time to be honest: it is stretching credulity further than I'm stretching this nonsensical football metaphor to think that a list of numbers on a piece of paper represents somebody's education. It is of no benefit to the child, to a university or an employer. It says nothing about what a person knows, what a person can do or what a person could perhaps do. Yet we can't let it go. Read any research into assessment and you'll see: as soon as a teacher puts a grade on a piece of work, the child ignores any comment, despite the fact that it's the comment which will actually help them improve. It's almost as if it's impossible to imagine any other way. 

But there is another way. My son is two and a half and goes to nursery near where we live. The wonderful people who look after him there have a sheet they use to tell us how he's getting on: the EYFS standards. I don't know much about it, but it seems to broadly set out a load of things under different headings which he should be able to do between 12-36 months. They colour in boxes when they see him doing stuff and they give us a copy and, because I'm a pushy middle class parent, I force him to do all the stuff they haven't coloured in at home, colour in my copy and tell them they need to update theirs. It's awesome. And, when he wasn't walking at 15 months when heaps of babies walk much earlier, it calmed me down to see his sheet had lots of coloured in boxes in other areas. It also meant that they could say to me that I shouldn't worry, that everyone develops in different ways and at different speeds and that he'd work out walking in his own time. Which is lucky because, if they'd told me he was "below target" or "working towards target" in walking, I might have renounced a lifetime of pacifism and punched someone on the nose. 

I'm not sure it is such a stretch to imagine each subject area coming up with a sheet of things you need to know to understand that subject, or to imagine a way you could use that to assess people. You don't need a number to know what you can and can't do or what you do or don't know. We need to change the focus of our system from one obsessed with numbers to one obsessed with what children know and what they can do. To stop it being an examination system and start it being an education system. Until the question stops being what did I get, and starts being what do I know and what can I do then the system is doomed to gaming, stress and hysteria. Gary Neville knows, but he isn't going to be Secretary of State for Education any time soon. So we need to find someone to do something about it. Only, it can't be me: I'm off to find an 11+ tutor who doesn't think it's too late to start training my son. 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Sorry, marking: it's not you, it's me.

Wherein our hero, trying to make a change, starts with the man in the mirror.

I have a problem: I am addicted to marking. I'm not proud, and I fully appreciate how wrong it is, but, when I get that purple (has to be purple) pen, green highlighter and orange highlighter in each hand, I can't stop. And, I've only just realised, that is the problem: it's me. I'm the problem. (The absurdity of such a simple task requiring more tools than I have hands is for another time.)

It might be that I'm the only person with this problem, and, if you're lucky enough to not suffer then there's no need to read any further. However, I suspect that I'm not the only one so, here are some thoughts which have inspired me to deal with my marking problem. 


I've realised that I have this problem for a number of reasons, and none of them are particularly good reasons for maintaining the status quo. The main one is a desperate need for praise or validation or something to cling to when I feel like a dreadful teacher. When I was training someone once told me, most likely because there was nothing good to say about the lesson they'd observed, that my marking was good (or, actually, if I'm honest, they said it was "Good", which, at the time, seemed very important). I'd spent hours on those books. So, I kept spending hours, because I'd been told I was good at it, and I really wanted to be good. I still do, but I should know better what that means by now.

It has also occurred to me that I mark the way I do because of guilt. Or, more accurately, as a preemptive strike against possible future guilt. What if correcting that particular their/there error is it? That's the one which convinces that child that it's important that it's their coat over there? If I ignore it, will they forever be trying to get over their? Over their what? Over their disappointing exam results directly caused by their lazy, good for nothing teacher who didn't correct every SPaG error?!?

That fear is almost certainly completely misplaced. But, it isn't the only fear driving my over-marking. I'm also afraid of work scrutiny. Of someone whose job title involves an acronym walking into my room, flicking through a book and not seeing clear evidence of hours of my work. Now, I've been teaching for five and a half years and I'm only really just beginning to realise how ridiculous that fear is. Why should they be looking for evidence of my work? Surely they're not, and, if they are, surely they're not doing whatever it is they are doing when they scrutinise work correctly? If anyone looks through the book of a child you teach and comments about that child's progress or the quality of their work by reference to what you have written, then consider very seriously whether you spend much of your time listening to what they have to say. The focus must be on the stuff the children write in their books, not what I write. If their work appears to be better half-way through the year than it was at the beginning, then maybe (although I'm afraid it's no better than maybe) whatever feedback strategies you're using are effective. If their work seems to be getting worse, then take a look at what you're doing and think about how to try and make it better. 

Reasons to change

A lot has been written about the effectiveness, or not, of marking and I don't plan to go through that here (other than to quote this from this recent David Didau post "no one knows whether marking is particularly effective and they certainly don’t know the best way to go about it"). However, and this is the really embarrassing bit, I actually know for a fact that most of my marking is a waste of time. I wrote my Masters dissertation on the effectiveness of written feedback. I did action research on actual pupils which showed they hated responding to my comments. The only time they did like it, was when it happened during the process of their work, not afterwards (sometimes days afterwards) when they'd mentally put that piece of work away. So, why am I spending so long writing comments which I know they won't read? Aside from the causes above, I honestly don't know.

What I do know though is that it's important to be clear about one reason not to change which isn't a reason not to change at all: my school's feedback policy. These policies get a lot of stick and often that is perfectly valid. I set out my idea about what a sensible feedback policy would be here (spoiler alert: it's one sentence which does not contain any words describing colours). However, my school's feedback policy (unnecessarily rigid though it might be) is not the enemy here. Marking is not the enemy. I am the enemy. I am the one writing all this stuff in their books. Marking books can be a positive, even uplifting process, and I am certain that, at least some of the time, some of the children actually do benefit from reading some of the comments I write. However, some of the children benefiting some of the time from some of the comments is not a great return on the time I'm currently investing. I have a family, a social life (barely) and a place in a ludicrous sporting event in June for which I must start training properly. Moreover, my teaching will be better if I spend less time marking, more time planning/reading/sleeping/doing other things. The pupils won't learn any less if they receive one thoughtful, useful, relevant piece of advice they can immediately put into practice than if I make them search for multiple comments scattered through their book which they'll need to remember in a week's time when we do a similar task again. Most likely, they'll get more from it. So, I'm going to train myself to mark less. To focus more. There are lots of things which could be improved about the education system to make my life as a teacher better, but I need to remember that one of those things is me. Hopefully, it is the easiest thing to change. Make that change. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Teaching English is not teaching Reading

First, an anecdote. There was once a rich and highly successful man, who enjoyed a fabulous lifestyle afforded him by his well paid and very glamorous job. He was, however, troubled and unhappy because he knew that, behind all the glitz, his life was a shallow and unfulfilling one. The reason: he was a poor reader. He never really understood what was going on around him. Determined to help children avoid finding themselves in a similar position, this man decided to use some of his money and fame to set up a school. 

It's a charming and heart-warming story, made only slightly less charming and heart-warming by the fact that it's made up; it's a story about a character called Derek Zoolander, and his school was the Derek Zoolander Center For Kids Who Can't Read Good. Now, the reason for telling you that, or reminding you about it, is because I thought about Derek Zoolander today. I was thinking about teaching reading after spending a brilliant day at the ResearchEd English and MFL conference on Saturday. It occurred to me that a lot of the answers my pupils give to reading questions are a bit like Derek: they look great superficially, but the Blue Steel exterior masks insubstantial and feeble foundations. And it's because many of those pupils can't read good. I scaffold and I model and I give them sentence stems and quote banks and, eventually, with practice, they can produce answers which are decent. But, when that is all taken away, and it's just them and a piece of text, they can't do it. They can't understand what they are reading, so they can't make sensible inferences. They can't analyse the language. They can't tell me what the effect on the reader is (or, they could, but they don't want to hurt my feelings by writing: "nothing").

As a secondary school English teacher, I can honestly say that I have little or no idea how to teach basic reading skills. I'm skeptical, and a bit baffled by, phonics (despite volunteering for some basic training on it earlier this year); I'm very old, and I don't remember how I learnt to read, but I know it wasn't like that. Nevertheless, I am staying open-minded and am happy to believe those more qualified and experienced than me who say that it does work. However, that doesn't mean that I'm currently in a position to teach someone who is struggling to read how to do it. Most teachers I know across different subjects will happily acknowledge that "literacy" is a whole school responsibility, and will commit to including reading in their lessons. Nevertheless, I suspect that they believe, really, that the English department are, or should be, teaching the pupils to read. But we're not. We are teaching them English, not Reading. We have specific subject knowledge and content to teach them, the same as every other subject. We have exam practice to do, the same as every other subject. We have exactly as much time as every other subject to teach children to read: none. And I think it is time that we recognised that no amount of literacy across the school initiatives, expectations that pupils read at home and repeatedly telling them to read for pleasure ("just keep trying different books - you'll find one you love!") is going to teach pupils who can't read how to do it.

Talking about this dispassionately is hard because it often seems to degenerate into a blame game between primary and secondary teachers, ending up with an exchange you might hear in a nursery school: secondary teachers whining that "it was broken when I got it" and primary teachers responding, "it was fine when I left it. And anyway, you touched it last". But these children aren't damaged toys to be thrown away. This is too important for us to not work together to try and help them to read better. Because, and I don't claim any evidence of causation here, people who are poor readers die younger. They have diminished life chances. And that isn't fair. 

So, although I can't speak for anyone else, here is a promise: primary school teachers, I don't think it is your fault if a child comes to my Year 7 class and can't read. There could be multiple reasons why that has happened. But, the fact remains that they can't. So, I need some help to teach them. If phonics is the best way to teach children to read, there should be phonics specialists in every secondary school. Children in Year 7 (and beyond, if necessary) need to have timetabled Literacy lessons, which are separate and distinct from their English lessons. If children come to secondary school as good readers, does anyone seriously believe it will harm them to also have a dedicated Literacy lesson? There was apparently a wonderful session at ResearchEd, which I didn't manage to see, on teaching Latin to improve literacy, so perhaps they could learn that?

There is a bit in Zoolander when Derek, looking at an architect's model of his proposed school, flies into an apoplectic rage because it is too small: "It needs to be at least three times this big!". When I first watched that film, before I was a teacher, I thought it was funny. Thinking about it now, it really isn't. It's really sad. But it is a decent metaphor for many attempts to improve literacy in secondary schools: they need to be bigger! At least three times as big! Making sure that everyone who passes through our schools can read confidently and accurately should be a fundamental obligation on all teachers, school leaders and government ministers. We should stop pointing fingers at each other and start trying to get this right. It is too important for us to keep getting it wrong.