Fancy a job in a place like this?

People come to interview at my school and I think they’re a bit taken aback. The corridors are silent at lesson changeovers; kids line up, eyes front, to enter the building; kids sit with their arms folded in lessons; they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ a lot; if a kid’s collar is a bit skew-whiff one of his peers will silently sort it out for him; if a kid drops something, his peers instantly help him; at lunch kids each have a role, they serve each other, they chat enthusiastically, politely, taking turns. All that stuff, courtesy, mutual respect, it’s a bit weird at first. Well, for some anyway.

But actually, the people that come into my French classroom, rarely mention the impeccable manners, the superb behaviour, the wrapt attention. What really blows visitors away is the enthusiasm, the sea of hands, the excellent pronunciation, the extended responses habitually featuring past, reasons, opinions, future and subjunctive. And the atmosphere is playful! I laugh, the kids laugh. We have a giggle whilst at the same time these kids really know how to analyse language, how to memorise, to recycle across context, to really deconstruct and reconstruct.

It’s a joy to spend time with these kids, to listen to them correct the French on the board, ” Mais c’est evident Monsieur. Il faut ajouter un e à la fin parce que le mot ‘chambre’ est féminin.’ It’s a delight to be with these kids at break time as they crowd around you to share what they’ve learnt that morning or they ask to be challenged to spell, in French, the incredibly long words they’ve learnt in science.

Why do I love my job so much? And let’s not forget that it’s just a job. It’s just a part of my life. I hate all that ‘teacher as martyr’ stuff.

I love my job because I teach. Very simply, I teach. I laugh. The kids laugh. They call me: vieux, chauve and zinzin. I reply: dingue, cinglé and n’importe quoi! It’s fun. Not in the, games, distractions, fads and gimmicks, sense of the word. But in the, I’m going to teach you all the intricacies of this subject, I’m going to pitch high, I’m going to make the content memorable, I’m going to preempt the stumbling blocks and you’re going to leave this lesson feeling energised, accomplished and confident, sense of the word.

I work in a school where every child, every lesson, expects to be taught. To be talked at, to receive precise explanations, to be didactically, authoritatively, memorably, passionately taught by a real subject expert. So the kids go from lesson to lesson, in silence, keeping to the left, knowing that the next lesson, like the lesson before, will be 100% focused on effective learning. Lessons aren’t planned to placate the lazy, or entertain the indolent, lessons aren’t structured to fit a despotic pro forma in the hope of appeasing a fad-chasing SLT. Lessons are simply structured. What do kids find hard? Why? How can I teach this better so the content is memorable, transparent and challenging?

Anyway, if you fancy working in a school where the kids are diamonds, silence is golden and charismatic delivery, combined with subject passion, is welcomed with open arms, get in touch!

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The Straitjacket of “Good Practice” UPDATE

Right, time for another rant into the ether! Well, not really a rant, more a few observations on what works and doesn’t.

You know why my ranting isn’t as ranty as it once was? I’m just not so angry anymore. And I used to be. I used to make my living from doing inset and I met so many frustrated teachers, teachers given ticklists towards excellence, minute by minute diktats on what it is to be ‘outstanding’. Lots of those teachers were really desperate to please observers. I say ‘observers’ because the fear I encountered was often created by the leadership in schools. Some teachers I met were told to do crazy things in the pursuit of SLT approval. So, yeah. I used to be angry.

Now? I’m actually pretty chilled. I teach in a lovely school. I teach lovely kids. I am free to teach the language I love in the most effective manner I know. But ‘I’m alright Jack!’ isn’t really good enough so I thought I’d share some mfl strategies that work incredibly well yet they fly in the face of everything you’ve been told is ‘good practice’.

Show the written word always! Just do it! Don’t show pictures. Ever!

I know, MFL heresy. But that orthodoxy has been around for long enough for us to know that the laborious, slow, one picture at a time process of kids and teacher barking at an image simply doesn’t work.

I’ve been in so many language lessons where teachers follow the mfl protocol of pretty pictures, choral repetition, the kind of powerpoints TES resources are full of. God it’s slow and the pronunciation is just horrible guesswork.

So instead just show the written word so kids can immediately see the link between words, so kids learn that there really is no such thing as a new word. Bassin, chagrin, dessin, jardin, malin, lapin, intéressant, intelligent, informatique. They’re all linked. These words are easy to say…if you use the written word from the outset.

No you don’t need the picture. Just give simple to produce and easy to follow numbered lists, English on the left, French on the right. No confusion. I’ve: j’ai, a sister: une soeur, and: et, a brother: un frère.

Underline or bold the high frequency vowels: ai, au, eu, ou, ui – teach these and every word is easy! I’m teaching kids to read, I’m not barking at a PowerPoint. Kids love this, they feel clever, they throw themselves into the language, they no longer wildly guess at pronunciation or spelling. They learn like linguists. I teach like a linguist.

The written word is a fantastic tool to ensure beautiful mfl pronunciation. All the silent letters? Put a dotted line under the silent letters. Pronunciation confidence explodes! It’s phenomenal!

Do pictures if you like. But honestly ask yourself, why? Because there are visual learners? For the dyslexics? For the EAL kids? If a kid can’t read, showing him pictures won’t help. It’s madness!

Show lots of words, break them down, build them up, look at the common letter patterns, make links with English, make lots of links with other French words – they don’t have to fit into the topic you’re covering – teach the kids to analyse.

All of this works incredibly well. Kids feel very, very accomplished instantly. Resources are super fast to create, are easy to recycle again and again and it’s so much more challenging for kids.

Would you you dare to do this in an observed lesson, even if you were 100% convinced that this were the best possible methodolgy on the planet by a million miles?

Sadly, very few would. When observed, too many just desperately strive to deliver what they hope the observer will like. And so the straitjacket of ‘good practice’ is tightened by a few more notches. Maybe I was right to be angry after all.

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Lesson Objectives, Good Practice and What Really Matters – An Update

My blogs prior to September 2014 were written when I earned my living giving inset. I suspect I am part of a very small band of people who once earned their living from giving inset but who then have returned to full time teaching. I may be wrong.

These older blogs were written at a time when I used to regularly meet teachers who were often angry, sad and confused. They often felt confined, forced to teach in a way that was, in fact, an anathema to them. They would shake their heads at the fads that would come and go. They would beat their chests at the gimmicks that would wax and wane. They would bend over backwards to please the powers that be.

I met happy teachers too! Of course! The teachers who were told by their SLT that they were “outstanding”, they were happy. They felt a lot of pressure to find the next “game changer du jour” but they were happy-ish.

Of course there were lots of teachers who were told they were “good” and they came to me looking for a new game or an acronym or magic formula that would win over their SLT in their next observation so they too could be – “Outstanding”!!!

Anyway, here’s a blog, maybe a bit anachronistic now, have a read, see what you think. As ever, it could be just some bloke ranting into the ether or, maybe, just maybe, there might be some food for thought buried in my not so elegant prose.

Cheers Barry

Someone suggested I write a blog on “objectives” and I thought, “Hey, why not?” So here, goes…

This blog is, on some levels, meant as a bit of advice to new teachers. On other levels it’s a commentary on the nod-a-long conformity that is so often encouraged in teaching. It’s an attempt to question “good practice”. Cos, you know, very often, “good practice” really isn’t that good.

So much in education, that is, so many of the fads and fashions that come and go, they never arrive empty-handed. They arrive, not only with the fanfare that says, “This is the panacea you’ve all been waiting for!”, but they arrive with the expectation that we adopt the latest “magic formula” without ever actually questioning its value, its roots or its learning impact.

So many of the “must-do” miracles of modern pedagogic orthodoxy don’t leave a lot of room for discussion or independent thought – it seems to me.

“Shut up and do as you’re told!” prevails in many schools, I’d suggest. That’s not teachers talking to kids. No! Perish the thought that adults should tell kids what to do.

“Do as you’re told, fit in, never stand out if you want to be outstanding.” That’s more the mantra that teachers are encouraged to adopt to ensure conformity.

Of course, if you “do as your told”, if you “tow the line”, if you never “rock the boot”, if you dutifully recycle the nod-a-long “thinking-lite” soundbites that permeate education orthodoxy, you’ll soon be recognised as “outstanding”.

In an avalanche of green, amber and red, in a tsunami of lolly sticks, in a blizzard of independent brain-based multi-sensorial interactive 21st C personalised deep learning – you’ll be praised to the hilt.

Which is a shame. Because praise is addictive. And, even if you’re being praised for teaching by star sign, delivery through mime or, better still, facilitating through stealth – praise brings with it a buzz and we like that buzz of acceptance.

It’s very easy to get sucked into the concept of “if others like it, it must be good stuff”. See, you’re probably working on the premise that those observing you have given this stuff some serious thought. And maybe they have! In some schools you’ll be observed by some great teachers who are critical, challenging, supportive, sharp and insightful. They’ll tell you some stuff that’ll maybe smart a little and they’ll tell you some stuff that’ll make you really question every hackneyed essential “good practice” Pavlovian learned response embedded via not good enough ITT and CPD.

That’s brill! If you’re working with teachers that think – you’re in a great place. Teachers should never be afraid to question “good practice”. Teachers should be constantly analysing and dissecting “good practice” based upon the evidence they see before them daily. Teachers should be constantly asking…

What do my kids find hard? Why?

How can I teach differently so the hard bits become accessible?

How can I do that without dumbing down?

How can kids hide in my lessons?

How can I pre-empt the most common errors through precise and concise teaching?

How can I convince them that success in this subject is just a set of habits that need lots of practice?

How can I make those success habits explicit and ensure they weave through every lesson?

They’re the sort of questions teachers should be asking themselves – I’d suggest. But instead a lot of teachers are encouraged to focus upon…

How can I demonstrate “engagement”?

How can I get some group work in here?

How could I include mini-whiteboards?

How can I incorporate technology?

How do I make the lesson objectives fit the SLT prescribed format?

None of those questions really get to the heart of teaching, I’d suggest. None of those questions help teachers better understand themselves, their strengths, weaknesses, areas for development. None of those questions focus the teacher on the kids in front of them – not really.

Those questions are about embodying, demonstrating, replicating, parroting “good practice”. Those questions don’t encourage teachers to reflect on the kids in front of them or on their own potential. I think that’s a shame.

If change is going to start anywhere, it’s going to have to be with the adult in the room, the teacher, who gets to understand himself and his vision and the little and big habit changes he needs to make to really impact upon learning.

So learning objectives typed onto a powerpoint, following the prescribed format, maybe with some snazzy font and zingy effects – that might be “good practice” but it’s not great teaching or learning – I’d suggest.

If you like, or rather, if your SLT like, give your objectives in the “All, Most, Some” format. If SLT like WILF and WALT, if they salivate over EBI,  if they want objectives in the form of questions, if they love SOLO – go on then, feed them the thing that they crave. That’s the game.

But I worry about this imperative to please observers at all costs. There’s a real danger that “the observer is king” mantra encourages crowd-pleasing conformist, mechanistic, lobotomised teaching, robotic unthinking teaching, the kind of teaching by numbers that corresponds perfectly to an SLT designed tick list but doesn’t necessarily let the teacher grow and develop their potential.

I guess my point is: lesson objectives – they don’t need to be written to be at the heart of everything you do. Just because they’re written, copied down and referred to, as per prescribed procedure, at designated lesson intervals, that doesn’t mean the teacher has really asked the important questions about what holds kids back or pushes kids forward.

So, new teachers, nod your head, do as your told, tick the boxes, it’s the game and, besides, nobody likes a smartarse. But when you’re praised for your capacity to follow the party line, to swallow the sound bite, to nod-a-long, just remember that, one day you’ll move to another school and the definitive unequivocal “truth” that seemed set in stone in your first school, well in your next school they’ll laugh at it, as they’ve moved on to “the next big thing”.

Take the panaceas with a pinch of salt, take a moment to think about what you really believe in. What’s your vision of a brilliant lesson? What would you want a fly on the wall to see? Try working towards that – that’s my suggestion.

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How Can We Improve Teaching?

Many moons ago, I recall having to go through schemes of work and departmental documentation and removing any reference to the word “teaching”. My SLT at the time, in their wisdom, had decided that the word “teaching” was a bad, bad word. It should be removed from the dictionary. Now, we must only talk about “learning”. It was around this time that all teachers were instructed that pupils were now to be referred to as students or, preferably, “learners”.  And, just to underline the point, pencil cases would henceforth be known as “Learner Toolkits”.

Granted, there was a lot of silliness at that school. This was the same school where I was told that “If you take care of learning the behaviour takes care of itself”. The same school where SLT reluctantly agreed to whole school detentions then failed to support them or follow them up. Consequently, teachers stopped referring behaviour issues up to SLT, due to a mixture of, “Well, what’s the point? They do nothing anyway!” and “No! Don’t refer things up! Don’t use call out! They keep a log of the teachers to see who can’t control their classes.” So, after a while there were very few “call outs”, very few kids referred to SLT. SLT took this as a sign that there were no discipline problems in the school.

So, yes, I’ve seen some silliness in my time. Silliness, more often than not, I reckon, comes in the guise of “good practice”. I’m still seeing, for example, a lot of very wordy lesson objectives, often referring to Welsh Assembly Government policies. I’m still seeing lessons where the teacher sets inappropriate tasks where kids are confused and where the justification given is, “Now you are developing your thinking skills”.

I reckon that there’s an awful lot of time wasted in lessons due to the tick box silliness that nobody needs. Yet, people feel they “need” those tick boxes more than anything else. The kids don’t understand the objectives? They’re adding nothing to the kids’ learning? They’re copied to provide “evidence”? Yet all they are is evidence of how the lesson started with the sanctioned time-wasting habits that are the mark of “good practice”? Never mind!

What a rubbish way to start a lesson! But, what a great way to announce to kids, “Hey, look everybody! We’re playing “teaching by numbers”! You know, the game where the teacher does as he’s told and never stops to think what great stuff could be done in lessons if only we stripped away the silly “good practice” mechanistic clunky observer-pleasing nonsense.”

How many starters have I seen that kill the lesson dead? How many over wordy lesson objectives on pretty powerpoint, with “fun” font and great clip art but very little real thought to the intellectual content of the lesson?

This is what’s gone wrong with teaching. The observer must be appeased but the observer doesn’t know your subject and, may be,  the observer just isn’t that good a teacher. The observer may go gaga for lolly sticks, or weak at the knees as you flash you traffic lights or salivate as you whip out your wordles…but none of that’s got anything to do with managing lesson time to maximise learning.

So, because the observer doesn’t know your subject, or because your observer isn’t, and maybe never was, that great a teacher, or because the observer likes the “pretty things”, the “good practice” tickable, instantly recognisable window-dressing things that, quite frankly nobody ever analyses to see if they’re helping or hindering learning, because the observer likes the fluff and can only understand the fluff – we give the observer fluff. He feeds on fluff. He likes fluff. When we give him fluff we’re giving him something he’s heard of, so we’re making him feel “clever”. He likes feeling “clever”. If he feels “clever” he’ll tell us we’re “clever”. Everyone’s a winner! Everyone except the kids whose days are packed with fluff.

Why isn’t ITT and CPD and every single observation ever undertaken focused on managing time? The first ten minutes are often a mess, the last ten minutes are often rushed, core routines often don’t exist or are actually harmful.

Kids routinely talk over teachers, kids habitually start chatting amongst themselves as the teacher pauses for breath, kids don’t line up properly, kids call out, kids interrupt as the teacher tries to explain, kids gaze into space, mouth gaping, kids absent-mindedly doodle.

Teachers “teach” to the very last second, teachers give homework instructions orally and don’t check that they’ve been written in planners, teachers set homework in the last minute of the lesson, teachers interrupt kids, who might otherwise have got on with some work, to get them to colour in a green, orange or red traffic light as a commentary on their understanding in that lesson, teachers set kids off on a task without first explaining whether it is to be an individual, pair or group task, teachers don’t insist on all pens down and all eyes on the teacher as tasks are explained, teachers ask for silence then ignore the kids who are brazenly chatting, teachers, very often, say one thing and do another.

I see these things often. I don’t believe classrooms need to look like this. I don’t believe kids can’t be well mannered and focused and polite. I’m not advocating 60 minutes of silent lecture every lesson. I am advocating that kids sit up, feign interest if necessary, and pretend to focus at very least. What do you do in meetings? Yep, you play the game. It’s a valuable lesson.

Kids need to learn to focus. it has to be their habit. Teachers need to learn to check that instructions are precise and concise and that lessons are set up so lazy kids or cheeky kids or kids that haven’t got a clue after years of imprecise teaching – that these kids can’t sabotage lessons or hide from work.

If we want to improve teaching we need to get teachers thinking carefully about how they use every minute and how the routines they do, or don’t, employ are hindering learning. We’ve all got to stop saying, “But I’ve been told to do it like this!”

I hear that a lot. Silly strategies that don’t work, very often the teachers I meet don’t believe in these silly strategies either, they know that lesson time is being wasted again and again, yet they persist with the fluff. This fluff eats into everybody’s time – within the lesson and beyond. And when alternative strategies are offered where kids can’t hide but where, instead, they will be challenged and supported and learn what delayed gratification and effort leading to the exhilaration of personal success feels like? “But I’ve got to teach the way I’ve been told to. I don’t have a choice.”

I’ve never understood  that. Would you teach the Earth is flat? Creationism as scientific fact? That boys and girls have very different brains and must be taught differently? That kids fit into 3 categories: visual, auditory and kinaesthetic? Of course you wouldn’t.

When did teachers start believing they were morons that had to be directed at every turn? That they don’t have the right, or the intellect, to reflect on genuine good practice? That they need somebody else to tell them what’s good?

Truth is, some teachers, aren’t very good at their job. In fact some are useless. Shockingly bad! I’m, quite frankly, amazed at times. Some teachers are ok. Some are good. And some, they blow you away with passion and expertise and charisma and the sheer volume of learning that goes on in their lessons.

Maybe that’s somewhere else where teaching has gone wrong. As soon as anybody dares to suggest that there are any teachers anywhere anything less than selfless, hugely dedicated, saintly, wholly virtuous, all round wonderful people with hearts of pure gold, intellects the size of small planets and humble, oh so very, very humble, and, of course, hard-working, doing the toughest job in the entire universe, for the love of the kids. As soon as anyone says, “Some teachers are a bit rubbish and a bit thick and a bit lazy”, My God! The walls come tumbling down! How dare you?

If we want to improve teaching maybe, we have to get teachers thinking for themselves and not constantly looking for approval. Maybe they need to be more self-critical, not in a destructive way, but in a way that helps them appreciate where they are being productive or otherwise. I’m not advocating that teachers fret over the small stuff. I want them to hack at the roots of what holds kids and teachers back in lessons.

And maybe we have to admit that to say someone is a “teacher” barely scratches the surface. Teachers are not a homogenous group. We should stop talking about teachers as if they have so much in common. Do we say all doctors are the same? Or bus drivers? Or hairdressers? Or exotic dancers? (Where did that come from?) I don’t think so. Don’t we talk about individual people with their strengths, weaknesses, foibles? Don’t we talk about people as individuals that just happen to do a job to earn a living to pay their mortgage or rent?

Maybe we need more of that then, if we want to improve teaching. Let’s not talk about “teachers” as if we’re identikit automatons that do the same job, in the same circumstances, in the same way, with the same motivation. Let’s acknowledge that we each bring, or don’t bring, our own spark to lessons. Let’s admit that some of us love our subject and it shows. Some of us don’t, and that shows too.

If I had a pound for every English teacher I’ve met who can barely make it past page 5 of TV Quick or every French teacher who simply can’t speak the language – I’d have a few bob. Maybe if we admitted that teachers who aren’t very good make the job that bit more difficult for all teachers?

Calm down! Teachers are not a homogenous group.  That’s my point. To point out that some are dreadful and shouldn’t be doing the job is not to deny that there are also some “blow your socks off”, “wow! I wish I were in his class!” teachers out there. Let’s get some perspective.

Teachers are people doing a job. Some of them do that job well. Some of them don’t. All of them need to pre-empt kids lesson sabotage attempts. None of them should be looking for off the peg panacea in lieu of really thinking for themselves. All of us could benefit from a bit of constructive self-criticism.

Some of you will be spewing forth projectile vomit at this point. Chill! l don’t hate teachers. I don’t hate anybody. I do think that teachers come in all shapes and sizes and I do think that, once we recognise that, we’ll be in a much better position to talk honestly about how teaching can be improved.

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Are Rules Really So Bad?

I like rules. Everybody needs rules. Society exists because of rules. Rules, in and of themselves, aren’t good or bad of course. But without the right rules, carefully chosen rules, there’s chaos. Surely? Without rules every day would just be another round of pushing boundaries, seeing how far our selfishness will take us. Wouldn’t It?

I think teachers need to identify their personal  “vision”. I think teachers need to have a very clear concept  of what their ideal classroom would look like. How would relationships work? How would kids come in and sit down? How would kids react as the teacher talks? How would kids get the teacher’s attention? How would kids let the teacher know if they need help? Your basics – I think teachers need to know what they want and then work towards that.

I don’t think teachers should be frightened of kids, or be verbally abused on a daily basis, or be ignored, or be treated dismissively by kids.

Some kids, depending upon the culture of the school, think that teachers, just by virtue of their job title, are there to be abused. Some of these same kids throw stones at policemen and firemen and ambulance men. These kids have learnt to be anti-authority and they’ve learnt not to fear consequences. Do I want kids living in fear? Well, a bit, yeah.

Are you frightened of the consequences if you don’t attend regularly, if you don’t mark books, if you don’t turn up on time, if you don’t mark in green pen or show evidence of differentiation? I suspect, like many teachers, you spend much of your time frightened that somebody is going to come along and tell you that you are not following the rules.

So, I’m going to say, rules are a part of living in society, sharing the planet with other people. I’m also going to say that life is made up of hierarchies. That’s not to say those in power are always the best, but, for a whole host of reasons, we live in hierarchies.

The classroom is a hierarchy. The boss? It has to be the adult.  That makes him responsible for outcomes to a very large extent. To a very large extent? Yes, because kids have to meet us part way. Some of them won’t want to, and, as teachers, it’s our role to coerce and force kids to comply if necessary. Coercion! Force! The man’s a monster! No, not really, a benevolent dictator perhaps.

There’s no dichotomy for me in the adult leading the class, presenting ready made highly effective routines that will be applied with precision and persistency, and the kids getting the best possible deal.

You can tell kids what to do and smile at the same time. You can tell kids what to do and explain your rationale, “People, dead simple rule, if you’ve got a question put your hand up  and wait for me to cue you in. There are 25 of you and 1 of me. It’s only fair. And if you let me finish my sentence, usually it becomes pretty clear what I want. Cheers”

Explaining your rules isn’t apologising or compromising or negotiating. Not in my book.

I say, let’s have lots of rules. Let’s write them up. Let’s do a great big A1 poster with each rule numbered. The rules are an outline of the teacher’s vision. The rules are there to make things smooth. The rules are there to ensure that more time is spent on learning and less on work avoidance. The rules are an opportunity to highlight the behaviours you want.

Will kids read the rules poster? Doubt it. But it’s there every day to keep the teacher on track. It’s there to  remind the teacher, “Listen, you thought about this when nobody was trying to side track you. This is your vision. This is what you want. It’s your route map. Keep going. Personal consistency is your greatest asset.”

Most schools have rule posters, they’re generic, sometimes they’re pretty rubbish these rules. Invariably the posters are ignored by teachers and the rules themselves applied in a very haphazard manner.

What if you create your own poster, not contradicting the school rules, but filling in the gaps? That way you’re on firmer ground, I’d say. The music  teacher needs his subject specific  rules, the PE teacher his, and so on. The generic school rules poster can only, at best be an outline.

But it’s not the act of designing a pretty poster, changing fonts and adding clipart that makes a difference. I’d say your rules could be scribbled on a sheet of paper and stuck in your planner where the kids don’t even see them.

It’s the act of reflection. It’s pinpointing, “What do I really believe in? How do I want them to collect equipment? Put it away? How do I want the first ten minutes to look? Q&A sessions? Reading and writing tasks? The last ten minutes? What’s my vision? What are the steps I need to take every day to make that vision a reality?” Is any of this child cruelty? I think not.

Here’s an idea, what if we thought less about placating the mouthy rude kids who come to school determined to disrupt and, instead, we thought more about the willing kids, the kids that would like to learn, free from interruptions and bullying, the kids who would like to join in and feel accomplished but who are frightened of being singled out as swots, freaks, geeks, nerds and gays?

Just a thought!

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Reading, Writing & Sabotage Prevention

Literacy stirs up a lot of passion on twitter, lots of conflicting views, the odd spat, the odd bout of verbal fisticuffs. I don’t really understand why. I don’t really understand why “reading & writing” should be controversial at all, to be honest. Then again, there are loads of things in Eduworld that seem to whip up a storm when, to me, the answers seem blindingly  obvious.

So, here’s my take on “reading & writing stuff”. My perspective is heavily influenced by my subject, French, and by the fact that, I believe, given half a chance, most people are lazy buggers who’ll give up and do something more palatable when faced with the prospect of work. I also believe that lots of kids actively attempt to sabotage lessons to avoid effort. It’s our job to prevent their sabotage attempts.

  1. Right people some dead simple rules in this class when we’re reading. The same rules for everybody, so are fair to everybody. First things first, we always read with our books flat on the desk. See, I reckon some of you are pretending to read when you hold your book up to your face. I want to know you’re reading. If you’re not looking where you should be looking, you’re not reading. Simple!”
  2. “Second thing. When we read stuff,we always follow line by line with a ruler. And I’ll tell you why. Some people pretend to read when they’re not. Sly! Some people try to “skim and scan”. Well, I think that’s a daft idea. I want you to be patient and look at every single letter and every single word. It’s French! I can’t skim and scan French properly and I’ve been learning it for a million years and I’m brilliant! So you certainly can’t… well not yet!”
  3. “I’m not saying “books flat and rulers out” because I think you’re  a bunch of numpties, by the way! I know that if you slow down and think carefully about what you’re reading you remember stuff much, much better. You’re actually saving yourself time. No point busting a gut is there? Make your life easier! Read slowly and carefully. Remember stuff!”
  4. “Again, ‘cos I see where your ruler is, I know you’re looking where you should be looking. You’re gonna love French. You’re gonna learn loads. You’re gonna leave this lesson scratching your little heads going, “You never stop in that lesson. You can’t hide. I’ve learnt loads. I’m really good at French.” Remember there are no hiding places in this lesson and there are no passengers. I’d be a pretty useless teacher if I let you hide , wouldn’t I?””
  5. “Everything I tell you to do is for a purpose. I’ll never waste your time and I’ll never let you waste your time. Does that mean I’m a bit tight? Probably, yes! But, guaranteed, you’ll learn loads in these lessons. We’re a team remember. I can show you dead easy ways to be really good at French. I can show you dead easy ways to kick examiner butt! That’s our job!”
  6. “You know who the examiners are don’t you? Just bored teachers doing it for the money! They want to give you marks. They’re searching to give you marks. I’m going to show you how to make the examiners job dead easy. So all the brilliant mark winners you use leap out at them. Subtle as a brick! Give it some welly! Mr Examiner…bring it on!”
  7. “I’m going to make you read lots. I’m going to show you entire pages full of text. A4 sheets crammed with French. Bursting with it! You’ve got nothing to worry about. You can only read one letter at a time, one word at a time, one sentence, one paragraph. I won’t be using  pretty pictures and crazy fonts. You’re not daft. You don’t need decoration getting in the way. When you leave this school you’ll be reading proper books, proper newspapers.”
  8. “To help you focus, and read line by line, you’ll notice that I number every line of text for all the stuff I create. If I photocopy something, like a past exam paper, I’ll scribble the line numbers on it too. Not a thing of beauty but dead easy to follow.  So you read line by line, with your ruler and your book flat and if we’re talking about a particular line of the text or a particular paragraph – you’re straight to it. No faffing around. No staring off into space. No time wasted.”
  9. “Look at the comprehension questions I’ve given you. Number 1: Where does Pierre live? Look at the brackets after every question. If they say (L1 – 6) you know the answer is between lines 1 and 6. So don’t give me, “Can’t find it!” Rubbish! You read lines one to six very carefully. One, two, three times – if necessary. But you’re not going to faff around or pretend you can’t do it. If you’re stuck I can help but no hiding, no passengers.”
  10. “Sometimes I might give you a question like Number 2: What sports does Gilles like? (P3) You know to read Paragraph 3 line by line with your ruler. No hiding. Dead simple.”
  11. “I’m going to give you 20 questions to do. I’ll give you about 10 minutes to have a go at them. We always read and write in absolute silence – unless I tell you differently.”
  12. “Some of you will finish all 20 questions in about 10 minutes. Some of you might not. But all of you will be working like Billio! I’ll be circulating, I’ll be watching your little rulers going up and down as you whizz through these questions. The line number clues are there for each question, the text is numbered, your books are flat, I’ve given you rulers, you’ll be working in silence – exam conditions. Could I be any clearer?”
  13. “Being good at anything is about practising lots. But really focussing and thinking about what you’re doing. So reading and writing tasks are never a race.  If some of you only get 10 of the 20 done but you worked carefully and solidly and didn’t waste a millisecond – I’m happy with that. You’ll find that next week you’ll get more done, then the week after that, more again. It’s practising – nothing complicated.”
  14. “At first, it’ll feel a bit weird for some of you working in silence and following the text with your ruler. I don’t care. That’s how we do it in this class. The first couple of minutes might feel odd, you might be going, “Head hurts! I hates Mr Smith! He does my ‘ead in!” The first few questions might be hard, the next few will be a bit easier for you, the next few a bit easier again and, by the end, you’ll be begging me for more work, you’ll be loving it so much! I promise! I’d never lie to you! Trust me! I’m a teacher!”

So, ladies and gents of Eduworld, that’s my take on “reading, writing  & preventing sabotage”. There’s an awful lot more I could, and will, say on the subject. Some of you will think my rules are draconian, I’m a martinet, I’m just a crap teacher. I don’t care! No, I really don’t care!

I know this approach works brilliantly well. I know that kids who, otherwise, are often allowed to flounder or faff or chit chat and generally fritter their time away, those kids really, really excel with this approach. I also know that the keen, willing kids, the kids that often just aren’t stretched, they too feel massively accomplished with this approach.

There’s lots more to say on reading and writing and spelling and MFL and all manner of things. I will be pontificating, as only I know how, with more highly personal ramblings  that to me always boil down to the essentials of teaching:

Be a grown-up, lead kids, protect them from their own laziness, pre-empt their sabotage attempts, never waste their time and make sure, every lesson, that there’s a real sense of momentum so they leave scratching their heads going, “You never stop in those lessons, I’ve learnt loads, You can’t hide, I’m really good at that!”

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Let’s Talk About Sex!

I’ve been  reading some very disturbing reports on twitter about sexual bullying in schools. It’s a big issue I think and, I also think, it’s a massive part of pupil underachievement.

Pupil underachievement – isn’t it nice writing pupil? Not “student” or “learner”. Pupil, pupilpupil, I like it. Pupil, pupil, pupil!

Sure it comes from the Latin: he/she who will sit down, shut up, do as told, practise lots, learn lots, go off and have a brilliant life, having learnt, above all else, the importance of effort and delayed gratification. I think that’s the etymology, if not, well, it would be in my alternative universe!

Back to sex!

As teachers, we often talk about “raging hormones”. The theory goes, Year 8 are pre-pubescent little sweethearts, each and every one a chubby-faced cherub with an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Then come the Summer Holidays. And, after 6 weeks of internet “research”, Year 9 come back in September, but not the wide-eyed innocents they were just  6 weeks ago – now they’re sex-obsessed beasts – gagging for “love in the 1st degree”. (Bananarama – they were the days!)

There’s some truth to that I guess. All of these “raging hormones” are often used to explain, even excuse, rudeness, laziness, inattentiveness, general sloth and, what we euphemistically call, low level disruption.

And so what if the lads grab a “bit of tit” or a “bit of arse” as one of the girls goes past? They’re just being lads! It’s their hormones – they’re “raging” apparently. And we can’t expect lads to control themselves can we? It’s normal! You don’t want them to be puffs do you!

See, that’s where I think so much of boys’ underachievement comes from, that’s what so much of this macho posturing and sexual bullying is all about. It’s lads demonstrating to other lads that they’re “proper lads” by doing “proper lad things”.

Yeah, “proper lad things”! Like underachieving at school, like never being seen to make an effort, like belittling girls, like being misogynistic and homophobic. Manly heterosexual pursuits! All very character-building I’m sure.

But shouldn’t teachers, and that’s from SLT down, be actively and deliberately creating a school culture that is focused 100% on maximising learning? And if we’re serious about learning, shouldn’t we be tackling indiscipline and unacceptable behaviour in all of its forms?

And where does this bullying, sexual or otherwise, take place? In corridors, on the stairs, in the yard, in the canteen –  in fact, all those places that are massively policed come Ofsted inspection time. All of those places that, at inspection time, are bristling with SLT. All those places that, beyond inspection time, are largely free of adult presence. Funny that!

But what about in the classroom? SLT can’t be everywhere. What about those classrooms (so I guess those teachers) where big-mouthed, rude, arrogant kids are allowed to put down their peers, to ridicule them, to shout them down, to generally belittle and, of course, deprive them of a decent education? What about those classrooms where group and pair “work” are used as a cover for the teacher who can’t actually get kids to work silently in a focused reflective manner? What about those classrooms where the lack of basic routines means kids waste hours and hours every week?

Blatant  sexism and all other forms of indiscipline and unacceptable behaviour don’t just happen spontaneously. Kids are rude when they think they can get away with it. They learn, in some schools, and with some teachers, that there aren’t any real consequences for rudeness, arrogance, selfishness, laziness.

But it’s society at large! Teachers, we can’t be held responsible for all of society’s ills. I agree absolutely. But surely teachers can be held responsible for school culture? Teachers can be held responsible for their own classroom culture – can’t they?

Teachers, starting from the top, create school culture. Sometimes they create cultures where “teacher talk” is vilified and “pupil voice” is lauded; cultures where the “no hands up” policy leads to a “the mouthy kids shout out” reality; cultures where “boy friendly” strategies lead to low expectations, deep-rooted underachievement and the active reinforcement of harmful gender stereotypes.

So sexism is a massive issue in schools. An issue that should be tackled. But sexual bullying is only one example of indiscipline in schools.

In well-led schools where, not just the SLT, but the vast majority of teachers, actively lead kids,  completely assume their role as authoritative adults, as the unquestioned arbiter of right and wrong – in those schools, kids don’t think they can make up their own rules. Sure, kids still try to make up their own rules. They’ll always try! But, in well-led schools, kids soon learn that when adults say it, they actually mean it.

Fancy an anecdote? A teacher friend of mine told me a little while ago of an episode where she discovered a 14 year boy, as she said, “pleasuring himself”, in her lesson. Obviously, she reported this to SLT. The response? “You need to make your lessons more engaging!” Sound advice indeed! Can’t expect Johnny to control his “raging hormones” – can we?

We create school culture, we create our own classroom culture. In the best schools we have inspiring, savvy SLT with the right priorities. SLT who know that the right culture has the power to transform teachers and kids. Then there are the schools where window-dressing trumps genuine leadership and where topiary trumps hacking at the roots.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the “leaders” that say “take care of the learning and the behaviour takes care of itself” are right. Maybe we just need to be more engaging.

So remember that next time you’re in a staff briefing and your attention’s flagging and you’re not being sufficiently “engaged”. Maybe you can do like the 14 year old with the “raging hormones”. Try it!

“Mr SLT, you’re not really engaging me. Thought I’d have a quick Tommy Tank. Knew you’d understand! Cheers!”

I

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