Sunday, 22 October 2017
Saturday, 19 August 2017
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
Sunday, 25 June 2017
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
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?
Sunday, 7 May 2017
Tuesday, 11 April 2017
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
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.