Sustain Over Show: Literacy is NOT a dirty word

I’ve spent the last year developing rather a fanatical obsession with what leaves students standing at the literacy block and how I can develop strategies that are not box-ticking or with quick-win value, but that will demonstrate that improving students’ literacy over time with long-term habits is the key to raising standards within school.

As a PGCE student, literacy was presented to me as a bolt on, an extra box to tick on the lesson plan that I needed to include key words or a task that explicitly demonstrated my consideration of literacy. I hastily fell back on my Boggle and Scrabble starters, compiled literacy based word play and highlighted key words as my ‘literacy focus.’ The explicit was easy but I have since become more concerned with the disintegration of the English language within my classroom and questioned the effectiveness of these ‘quick wins.’ How was this going to stay with my students? Admittedly, they were engaged and the concept of a contest to beat the teacher or their peers was particularly motivating for the boys but what happened once they left the classroom?

I love scrabble. I’m pretty educated (for the sake of argument) and my vocabulary is pretty extensive. And yet a game of Scrabble will often see me revert to the words that I know in an attempt to beat my opponent. I will very rarely try to integrate the possibility of a new word into the mix for fear of missing out on a perfectly good word already in my head slamming into a triple word spot and taking me to an easy win. Certain friends (and previous boyfriends) have since refused to play me on account of the deadly combination of fail-safe words and an unhealthy level of competition. I once ruined Christmas eve on account of my ‘one more game’ approach until I had won the best of. I refuse to be beaten.

This is just a microcosm of the classroom- roll out the scrabble Ppt; the same students rise to the challenge, safe in the knowledge that they will be able to use a word already in their head to secure the top spot, whilst the less confident or engaged simply switch off and focus on packing up their pencil case. How is this TRULY developing students’ literacy, other than the power of peer sharing? Is this meaningful collaboration when it is simply one student knowing a word that the other does not?

To get a little geeky for a moment, the National Literacy Trust have drawn up a post Curriculum Review (Sep 2014) to make it explicitly clear as to the literacy-based expectations of teachers. To draw from what I found to be the most beneficial points, teachers need to, ‘provide rich and regular opportunities for talk to develop….. make sure pupils engage in reading, for pleasure and information, with a wide range of increasingly complex fiction and non-fiction texts…ensure their knowledge of literature and poetry enables them to use high quality texts that engage pupils’ interest and develop a love of reading.’ I draw your attention to these over other points outlined because I feel that these are our largest challenges within secondary. Why? Because they focus on the sustained aspect of literacy- development of verbal literacy, moulding and shaping a particular attitude towards reading and enabling confidence to manage more complex texts are not quick wins. 

To quote the horrendous O, I am in solemn agreement with this statement, taken from the 2013 Improving Literacy Standards Report- ‘This survey of best practice found there is no ‘quick-fix’ for raising standards in literacy. The best schools made literacy an integral element of the whole school curriculum. In these secondary schools, there was no attempt to address literacy through one-off training days for staff. Literacy in the best schools was an integral part of longer term school improvement plans and informed the content of action plans for each subject.’

However, I would like to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Whilst I appreciate (and endorse) whole-school presence of literacy, I would like to once again question- what impact does it make? Word of the week displays, literacy books, ERIC sessions- what does this add? Do these act as a driving factor to ultimately motivate children to standards that are required of the workplace?

I’d like to offer my own views. These are very much my own observations and not research based (in progress) but surely the one word to take from the good intentions of big O-dog is ‘integral.’ THE ONLY WAY TO ENSURE STUDENTS CONNECT WITH LITERACY IS TO MAKE THEM A PART OF THE LITERACY PROCESS. I’d like to push some thoughts on to you and see how other schools take a similar approach. This is essentially a spoiler alert of that research that I will get around to.

1. I’ve seen amazing success with Reading Programmes and Incentives in school. However, I am not sure beyond a specific age that it successfully motivates or encourages what I would argue is the ‘correct’ way of reading- understanding a text, engaging with it through either plot or characterisation, evaluating the situations that the character find themselves in and provoking discussion. Why are such programmes not driven by the students that have had the grace and good luck to already harness such skills? I’d like to hand over comprehension and evaluations of books to those students please. If we are to demonstrate engagement in reading and introduce students to access a range of texts, who better to do it than the students who are already convinced.

2. ERIC needs talking time. The child that sits in ERIC with his book open, staring out the window? This is what boredom feels like to him. Even if the book he had picked up were the most exciting thing on the planet, you’re not letting him tell anyone about it. The discussions centred around reading are as important as the act of reading itself; using stem questions as a base, the direction that students’ conversation can have following a book that they have selected themselves are incredible. This can then be recorded in a short summary and displayed, almost as a ‘reader reaction’ moment. Again- peer power. If I have read a fantastic book, I want to tell everyone about it and that enthusiasm is often infectious.

3. We need to provide our students with a variation of texts that they want to read, in an environment that they want to read it. I often say to parents to direct their children to news websites (under supervision) to read before sharing a discussion about their reaction to the article. Several school libraries focus on poetry as a key area of focus so that students’ only experience of poetry is within the classroom; imagine if your only experience of such an artistic demonstration of words was dissecting it and removing the magic at times? The students that want to share what they have read often bring in material from home or that they have sourced elsewhere, which prompts me to think that perhaps I have not provided the outlet for them  to access the type of text that they wanted to read.

4. Talk into writing. Talk after writing. Talk about writing. TALK to these kids about how they’re going to demonstrate ambition. Stress the detriment to recycling words. When we worked towards an assessment that studied the character of Richard III, we ‘collected’ words along the way that depicted this monstrous, manipulative, hypocritical, poisonous, calculating, cruel, vindictive, ruthless (see what I did there?) man. Consequently, we didn’t find ourselves repeating ideas or stumbling over the motivations of the character because we simply didn’t have the words to describe it. Yes, I have my English head on but the processes of science and the concept of History does not possess a monosyballic quality either. Encourage ‘beating’ words: question-driven discussions where students will outdo one another in terms of vocabulary to develop ideas and lead to evaluation.

5. A Whole School Literacy policy that is in consistent, demonstrative, formative use across the school. I was never a fan- mainly due to my lack of memory- and it needs to be simplistic for both staff and students. The power of double marking (mark for success criteria, read aloud for literacy marking) has demonstrated fantastic improvements within my own teaching and again, it is a case of developing the habits for students to be able to objectively assess and evaluate their own work. The value of self assessment a week after writing is especially evident; I have argued with, and will again with colleagues who refuse to believe that all students can self assess work to improve. If we’re talking ‘learning over time,’ then it is essential to understand the power of setting time aside to open a lesson with literacy-based reflection and encouraging students to identify their own literacy requirements.

6. Provide outlets for students to explore literacy in its natural state. David Attenborough style, we need to highlight the presence of literacy outside the curriculum for students. Provide extra curricular opportunities that demonstrate how literacy is an integral (see, there’s that word again) part of society and already existent within their every day life. Poetry Club, Film Club, Graphic Novel Club, Creative Writing Club, Song Writing Club, Magazine Club, Review Club- a range of opportunities for students that would be mortified if they were aware that the very process was developing their literacy skills, because of the association with the word itself. Encourage a literacy focus within other areas of enrichment- written responses to trips, journals, scrapbooks or blogs that record their experiences or reactions. Additionally, one of my current homework options is to send me an email outlining how the student is finding the topic so far with highlights and suggestions of the direction we could take next. Embed the sharing process of literacy to enable students to grasp the words that they may not currently have.

7. My dream? A whole school literacy festival. A place where a school-based community come together to explore the multi-model presence of literacy and celebrate our ability to develop excitement around the spoken and written word rather than the connotation that literacy often brings with students. Creative writing, Meet my Book, Song Writing, Performance Poetry, Open Mic, The Art of Storytelling, camp fire, bunting. You get the idea.I want a whole-school celebration of how literacy opens up so many doors to us as individuals, rather than the existence of it on a wall in a classroom or scheme of work somewhere. I’m working on this one.

I asked a selection of students today to explain what the word literacy meant to them. The responses?

‘Books and stuff.’

‘Words to use to make our writing better.’

‘Booklets with gaps to full in.’

Isn’t that sad?

How to Get What You Want By Going For What You Think You Want – The Middle Leader Interview

So. I went for a Head of Department role this week. As anyone who reads this chaotic cluster of thought bubbles may realise, I get itchy feet and bored if I don’t have my teeth in something and I wanted to see how I fared.

I had been toying between the role of HOD for the last few months, investigating the differences between that and Lead Practitioner and keen to know where my strengths would be better applied but more importantly, where I would feel most fulfilled. I knew that I wanted to make an impact on a larger scale than my current classroom bubble would allow and so I filled in the application form, expecting a polite no but some incredibly valuable feedback and an insight into what my experience and skills could best place me within a school.

In holiday for the week in remote Devon with only a six year old to bounce ideas with, I received a phone call and instantly recognised the dialling code. Imagining that it would be a thanks but no thanks, I ignored it, perhaps somewhat childishly but I was in full-throttle relaxation mode and was not in a part of my day to entertain work (200 donkeys and an Easter egg hunt will do that to a girl). The voicemail? Congratulations Miss, you’ve made the shortlist.

Now, things not to do if you only have a six year old to celebrate with. Don’t ‘Yessssssss’ without explanation as it makes them incredibly nervous, but definitely do not outline that your outburst was due to the possibility of a new job. Both will lead to meltdown city and I embrace a learning curve with the best of ’em.

This post is not so much to outline my personal experience (and outcome) but more because on the lead up to the interview, I really struggled to find advisory blogs that offered an insight into a Middle Leadership role. Fortunately, I felt almost over-prepared, having spent my time responding to data and completing high stakes prioritisation tasks and walked in almost over-equipped to answer questions that I hadn’t actually considered.

Clearly, every interview day will be different and tailored to the personal demands of the school and their specification but I hope that this will act as another resource for people to use as they wade through Google! I also haven’t included my 20 minutes lesson- happy to share but again, I think a lesson is rather personal to your style.

The In Tray Task

My day started with a 25 minute in tray task- a series of questions that I was required to write detailed answers to within the specified time. What rookie error did I make? I didn’t read them all first. Instead, I answered until I pondered, skipped over that one and returned to it at the end. Whatever suits. The questions combined a large number of scenarios that I had come across during my prep and was rather an effective way of covering several basis in a short amount of time.

Questions (and a summary of my responses) included:

What do you think is a realistic projection percentage for English GCSE for a good school? What if it is an outstanding school?

A risky business. It is right up there with ‘how old do you think I am?’ I said I would share with parents that we aim for ten percent over the National average (locally, schools are performing at this level anyway and it sounds aspirational in relation to the benchmark), internally- aim for 70%. The grading of a school should not alter these figures- that is insinuating that you’re not teaching as hard if you’re anything less than outstanding which is simply not the case. A target is there to be met- it should be a balance between achievable and aspirational.

A parent has emailed to complain about their child reading Of Mice and Men (Y10) or Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (Y7). What do you do?

Y10- Phone. Always phone. Explain the requirements of the exam board and that the text is not governed by the school. Pinpoint the aspect of the text that the parent is upset about to be able to place it into context, placing heavy emphasis on developing empathy.

Y7- Outline the presence of the Holocaust within History but also the possibility of World War poetry exposure at Key Stage four. Place emphasis on preparation for this through a range of texts and that an understanding of historical context will be invaluable. Again, pinpoint to overcome.

Do you feel that there are benefits to students learning from past papers?

I said no. So many changes, completely new format as of September- use the reading material to develop new resources that mirror both the new specification and exam format. The quicker students can navigate the exam, the more confident they will feel.

A teacher has been teaching punctuation incorrectly, What do you do?

Is it just the one? Offer up a quick CPD session to clear up misconceptions and share resources. A group environment is an ideal basis for staff to share an,’ oh I didn’t know that!’ moment and clear it up without formality, Happens again shortly after? Sit down and share concerns, offer support of yourself or a member of staff that is a grammar Queen/King and set a follow up date.

Which book would you recommend that students read and why?

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Mark Haddon. What better book to build compassion for another human being and get an insight into how to see the world differently? I would have written Wonder, but I was not mispelling the guy’s surname on interview day. No no no.

The final question provided a piece of work that you needed to provide feedback for. No full stops, eight million spelling errors and you had to blur your eyes to spot the good bits. ‘Well done <insert name here>! Fantastic use of precise verbs- I have highlighted the most effective ones in your work. T- re write the first three lines, including punctuation to give the reader a clear idea as to how dangerous the situation is for the narrator. Correct the three spellings in these lines.’ I dug deep on that one.

The Student Panel

This was tough and I always feel like the students are so structured and rigid with their questioning that it is such a challenge to get to a point that you can be personable. Questions included, ‘What would you bring to the school? Why do you want to work here? How would you make use of our iPads? ‘ I made every effort to ensure that I mentioned preparation for KS4 (all students were Y8) and asked what would help them to build their confidence in tackling GCSEs. In my opinion, the student panel is an opportunity to provide an insight to your personality in a teaching capacity but also to instill faith in students that you are well equipped to lead them to success. They admitted that GCSEs scared them and it would be helpful to make the process transparent; I saw the simple admission as trust gained.

The Formal Interview

The individuals taken to interview stage were met with the panel consisting of the Head, Assistant Head (T&L who observed my lesson) and a long- standing Governor. I will simply list questions here- I feel that my own responses are not necessarily relevant or valuable. This would be your chance to leave the imprint of your own ability to lead a department!

What are three qualities of a Leader as opposed to someone who simply manages a team?

What will you bring to the role that the other candidates will not?

Name your favourite moment in teaching.

Give an example of a time that you dealt with challenging behaviour………. How did the behaviour make you feel?

If you could be an electrical appliance, which one would you be?

What would your colleagues highlight as your key skill?

Tell us about a time that you dealt with a safeguarding issue (be careful….)

How are you equipped to deal with the changes to your subject recently?

What do you think the priorities are within your department subject?

Do YOU have any questions?

Best of luck!

Thank You To The Teachers!

I thought it would be nice to say a little thank you to the good ones. I’ve had some absolutely shocking teachers in my time (my secondary English teacher laughed in my face when I signed up for A level lit) but some absolute gems. I will share the good, the bad and the ridiculous. I think the collection sums up the quirks, spirals and highlights of education!

Mrs Muchall

From Guyana so an instant hit with my educationally suspicious West Indian father, this woman was amazing. I had a reading age of 10 at 5 and she would take me out of class reading to let me read the Hobbit out loud to her. She was the kindest lady on the planet and I don’t remember her with anything but a smile on her face.

Mr Baker

Now, if you want to be the most cool of all the Headteachers, you have to top this guy. He would rock up to assembly, turn off the projector and whip out his guitar to share his own handwritten musical delights. He organised a local Beatle-athon with the other local primary schools, as we went head to head with one another, singing a heady mix of the Liverpool’s finest. He had the hairiest knuckles I have ever seen in my life.

Mr Cassidy

Mainly a brilliant man for tolerating me in his maths classroom for three years. I hated maths; I didn’t see the point and as a result would find ways to entertain myself through the 70 minutes of hell on a Thursday afternoon. My favourite would be ‘pack up,’ where you shook your tin pencil case 30 minutes before the end of the lesson and then sat back to view your own handiwork as the sheep-like fellow classmates responded robotically to the sound by packing away. I know- I was an absolute delight. He was 23 and had a beard-which I still don’t understand- and looked a little like a garden gnome in a bad mood. I’d be in a bad mood if I had to teach maths all day. Why do we call it maths instead of math like the Americans? Oh, who cares. It makes my eyes bleed (sorry maths!)

Miss Bursnell

Yes yes, we called her bird-smell. She wore socks with sandals and had clearly been to ‘stereotypical dress and behaviour for the Spinster Teacher today.’ She was my first English teacher and she threatened to destroy the English language, one monotonous lesson at a time. For an entire term, we came into the room, sat down and opened our play books, and read Romeo and Juliet out loud. No book work. I saw her in Sainsbury ‘swhen I went home before Christmas and she was wearing sandals. With socks.

Mrs Cooley

We called her big bird. She was SIX FOOT SIX without heels, had specs like Deidre Rashid (RIP) and wore lilac eyeshadow. The boys once smashed the window next to her desk at break, in November, and she didn’t notice until last lesson. She didn’t know what planet we, her or anyone else was and her french lessons were bedlam.

Mrs Ball

One in a long line of teachers who had the patience with me to notice a glimmer of a nice child underneath all of the indifference and hostility. She did the whole cigarette in a glass with cotton wool thing and blew me away. She listened when I asked very quietly to be moved from my tutor group because a girl had punched me in the face. I liked Mrs Ball.

Mr Marshall

Mr Marshall was a gently spoken man, with giant hands. He taught Art, and I produced the one piece of artwork that I have ever been proud to bring home. He never raised his voice in the classroom and one day, a girl wet herself on her stool rather than miss part of his class (I know- we were thirteen. No excuse). One day, a rumour started floating about that he had pushed a boy in my year up the wall by his throat. Dragged along by the hysteria that always comes with a Chinese whisper, we all sat down in the car park to protest. I don’t remember much about protesting, other than sharing my Iced Gems with the girl next to me. After being shouted at by Big Bird at the end of lunch, I tentatively went to my Art lesson. Mr Marshall had been replaced by a supply teacher and didn’t come in for two days after that.

Mr Rigelsford

This guy looked like the man from Red Dwarf. Rimmer. He is quite possibly the most angry man that I have ever met in my life. Looking back with my teacher head on, he couldn’t manage the behaviour and so all I remember about Humanities is watching the film about the Amish people and Hitler. To an extent, I hold him somewhat responsible for the amount of work I had to put in to bring myself up to standard when delivering historical context. Bar the Holocaust, I had absolutely no idea what had happened in any place at any time. It didn’t help that the same boys that broke Mrs Cooley’s window would regularly turn all of the furniture upside down and proceed as normal as though everything was as it should be. And affectionately called him Wriggles. All the time. The only thing I remember about that classroom was that we always had the television!

Mr Kershaw

Chuck was his name, outbursts were his game. He now works as a volunteer, taking old folk (namely my Nanna) to their day group of choice. Previously, he was best known for teaching stuff about chemicals, his grey ponytail leftover from the sixties, and throwing a pot of pens at me once because I got up to open the window whilst he was talking. He left the room for ten minutes, came back in with a brew and carried on where he had left off.

Miss Andrews

Mr Kershaw’s cooler, more collected other half. A psychology teacher, she unsuccessfully (my fault, not hers) kept me at the Sixth form when it was quite apparent that I could no longer fathom out any direction for myself. She would call my Mum at exactly 8.46am when my backside had not made it to my lesson and then sat through several meetings with my then divorcing parents to try to get me to buy back in to my education. When I received my place at University, I sent her an email saying thank you and telling her that I had finally figured it out. Her son was my boyfriend for two whole days when we were eleven, and I got to go to a teacher’s house- the entire house was laden with books. That is my goal- to live in a house as laden as Miss Andrews’ house.

Andy Mousley

Fast forward to University, and this guy knows EVERYTHING. His class was where I discovered autobiographies including my favourite book of all time, The Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. We studied the concept of self, having a sense of self and building an identity. Andy conducts the Theory of Literature module which really opened my eyes to the motives of literature.

Keith

I feel bad for not remembering Keith’s name. He lectured and held the seminars for an American Literature module which is possibly the most practically useless but most enjoyable part of my degree, alongside film adaptation. He introduced me to Emily Dickinson by describing her as ‘someone who attempted to reach out on to the other side for us so that we may know what death would be like. Death in reality is actually pretty f***ing boring.’ He was Irish and would digress on such a regular basis that I lost track of what was or was not on the syllabus. They’re the best kind.

Victoria Elliott

Victoria was my least favourite of the two PGCE coordinators. She talked about grammar and sensible stuff, whilst Rachel the drama side of things simply hugged everyone and talked candidly about how tough it was out there. I didn’t want to think about the fact that I had been (and still on occasion take part in) comma splicing my entire life and had absolutely no idea what a prepositional preconjective personal imperative pronoun was. Why isn’t it enough that I really like books? But Victoria is a wonderful teacher because of her neverending knowledge. I have such admiration for an academic and once we realised that she was actually really rather lovely and it was simply that Rachel just liked to hug everyone that we had overlooked her and should probably not veer away from all the non hugging academia that we would really rely on to get us through and give us confidence. It is Victoria that I have to thank for keeping me going through what was a very difficult year and Victoria who has opened up opportunities to me since my completion of the course. Thankfully, she was substituted with the lovely Andrew Evans when I decided to spend four hours arguing in floods of tears that yes yes, I really did want to quit the course a month before the end and no, no, no, I definitely DO NOT want to be a teacher. I will always be grateful for a place on my course at Warwick- In didn’t think I stood a chance in hell next to everyone else there.

Ann Rayns

This lovely lady was my professional mentor during my PGCE year. She was the epitome of cool, immaculately dressed and used to glide around the corridors, smiling and speaking with everyone. I’m not sure I ever really worked out how Ann felt about me, but that was simply because of how wonderfully professional she always was, and how she found humour in everything to lighten the day. The first time she watched me teach, she pulled it to shreds and I was heartbroken. I had set out to impress her; that was the issue, she opened her feedback with- I had not put the children at the centre of it all. She taught me more in a very short space of time than I have ever learned from another teacher and I still implement a lot of the ideas I took from that in my day-to-day teaching.

Lorna Roden

This woman is an utter legend. Her brain works in exactly the same way as mine, only hers is much bigger and more impressive. We would collaboratively teach a lot during my training year and she worked in a very kinesthetic way with the children- Key Stage 3 were mesmerised when she taught. She never shouts, she teaches (as I often find myself) in a flurry of chaos and colour and we used to have long chats about autonomy of teachers and the concept that whilst the end point is still the same for everyone, that we must keep hold of our own approach to make the journey quite personal for the students and us.

I’d like to add to this from time to time- I think it is a nice process to reflect on where you have taken your teacherisms from. Teaching is a bit like parenting- we know how we want to be perceived and also how we do not want to deliver lessons. Hope you found it mildly entertaining for a lazy Easter afternoon!