Litdrive: Regroup, Refocus, Return

I’ve spent a long time trying to put the words together for this post, and as I type now, I’m still not sure how this will look when I finish typing. Perhaps to start with what, before worrying about the Why.

Litdrive was something I have always been incredibly proud of. Along with the amazing people I have met during my time on Twitter as a teacher, Litdrive felt like a profound, sustainable way of contributing to that community beyond throwing my own (never quite as spectacular) resources out there for others. Always fantastic at dumbing down my own achievements, I would try and explain Litdrive to friends as,’ I just put a bunch of resources together for other people to use,’ but I am proud and confident to say it is so much more than that. When starting out as Literacy Coordinator, during huge shifts in KS3 curriculum mapping across schools and when I took up a post as Assistant Subject Leader, the collaborative nature of Litdrive was an absolute lifesaver for me.

My own sentiments were echoed back to me over and over again; teachers would email requesting to be involved, sharing their own isolations or lack of confidence in their capability to produce fantastic tools for use within the classroom. It seemed that imposter syndrome is far reaching in this profession; I would be sent amazing stuff that I knew would shave hours off my and other teachers’ planning time, and the sender would play it down with comments like,’ it’s not much,’ ‘I’m not sure it’s really what you are after,”I’ll send some better stuff when I get a chance.’ I was blown away with the generosity of people, in such a tough, tough climate where time is beyond precious.

Over the last month, Litdrive reached whirlwind stakes. Having discussed with two other English teachers to take on their own shared drives to merge with Litdrive, as we became more and more aware that we were simply duplicating work when it could be one service, word of Litdrive spread. I received in excess of fifty emails a day, from every level of management within school, from a range of countries beyond the UK, but all with the same enthusiasm and willingness to contribute and participate. The buzz was infectious; people were receiving positive, encouraging feedback for their work, people were coming together with ideas of collaboration for future projects but most importantly for me, people were saving time. As one teacher commented,’ HOURS and HOURS of time that I will be able to spend with my two very young daughters.’ This feedback wasn’t isolated to parents, but NQTs looking for guidance, individuals new to particular roles or simply those who had been out of education for a little while.

Beyond that, the people I have met and collaborated with thanks to Litdrive have been priceless to me. This is a tough gig, teaching, and surrounding yourself with people who show compassion, patience and generosity is worth hanging on to.

But I don’t want to make this post a gushy, aren’t teachers great kind of deal. Two weeks ago, for reasons that I am too dignified to elaborate upon (and that ripple beyond just me), Litdrive had to be removed from a public platform. Over 1500 contributors, 300,000 files and so much hard work from so many people, over such a number of years. As I write (one handed, as with all tasks carried out on my maternity leave), I cannot tell you how devastated I was about my choice, but it was very much the right one. Not wanting to focus on the problems and the pitfalls, and with time to let the dust settle, the experience has presented itself as an opportunity in new form.

An opportunity to provide a professional, FREE service to teachers. To bring teachers together without the bitter aftertaste of a price for their request for help, the fear of someone selling on their hard work, the reassurance that they have a collective body of several teachers to support them. Litdrive IS the answer to the workload issue surrounding planning, and I put that down in complete conviction (and a small amount of terror from my inside voice). I have the grandest of plans to making Litdrive work, but it will take time, and the munificence of so many of you in order to make it happen. I don’t want to make a profit, I just want to provide something with a grassroots ethos that we can say, we run our own show here. We provide for one another. We build our own abundance of knowledge. We, as a group, make teaching better for ourselves and one another. Think of us as a giant super-powered teacher cooperative- because after all, the little guys come out good in the end.

I cannot promise a timescale or even a platform at this given time, but it was vital to me and my own integrity that I shared a little of our current state of play. If you think that you could contribute to what will be a spectacular service for English teachers, by all means start a discussion with me via Twitter or at litdriveuk@hotmail.com. We will need all of you, wit me all of your knowledge, skills, enthusiasm and will to make it happen. Until then, what Arnie said in that film that time.

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Scandal at Southwell

As part of my #maternityCPD (and obsession with anything Victorian shaped!) , I took a trip to Southwell Workhouse with Ted. Restored and maintained by the National Trust, the building alone was incredibly striking. Stark against the backdrop of rolling countryside and its own impressive sustainable gardens, I wondered how it must have felt, walking up to admit yourself or even your family to such a place. The irony of the title ‘Greet House’ is inescapable.

I was informed by our guide that many arrivals were the elderly that simply had no other source of welfare. As part of the tour, we were provided with details of admission and discharge of various residents; as you can imagine, many do not tell a happy story.

Several of the names on the admissions register left in death, or the book was marked with ‘own wish:’ to what extent that was true, you have to wonder! The rules alone were somewhat laborious and punishment was harsh. Throughout the entire visit, I struggled with the ideology that the presence of the workhouse could be viewed as a positive addition to a community, which is how it was portrayed in parts. One family asked for admission whilst their father was ill in hospital; when he recovered, he sent for them. Was this place a far cry from the anguish of London workhouses of the era?

That may be exactly so. Southwell housed 160 residents from 60 parishes- a world away in destitution and desperation of the sometimes 1000 strong holdings in London. Those that stayed were given three meat meals a week, an exercise yard and their children were educated. If behaviour was good, they could spend time with their children on Sundays. As a parent, I could see why in such times of poverty, the workhouse was not just a place of last resort for some- it wasn’t that black and white.

However, there were remnants of information that held helplessness and despair to their tales. Inmates were given the task of ‘getting money for old rope’ for the master- pulling the tar from ship rope purchased at a minimal price and reselling back to the ships for insulation for a tidy profit. Their hands would bleed, but the work itself was a replacement for bone grinding. This task was discontinued after starvation reached such a point in a workhouse in Andover, Hampshire that inmates were eating the decaying meat from the bones as they worked.

‘The Dead Room,’ held corpses as the uninventive name suggested – these bodies were then transported by horse (at a cost to the Master) to Upton to be put into a mass, unmarked grave. To save the budget, bodies were held for weeks at a time to transport en masse. It seemed not only clearly inhumane, but what would be an distressing reminder to the other inmates as to what might inevitably become of them once it was their time to be discharged.

With my English head on, two pieces of literature stood out for me to ponder over. The first, a quotation from the founder of Greet House, Reverend JT Becher,

An empty workhouse is a successful one”.

It takes me back to Ebenezer himself, as the words,’are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses’ are thrown back at our protagonist as he makes his journey to redemption. Did Belcher truly feel that he was making a positive impact upon his community? As a man of God, did he see such people as individuals that required saviour? The quotation could be interpreted as such- was he suggesting that all poverty could be resolved with the inclusion of such systems within society? Or was this someone that saw poverty as a disease that only he could cure?

The other piece of writing – rather unsettling to read that it was a nursery rhyme. Remember ‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses?’ It was ever so slightly more implicit than this creation:

The rhyme was like a derogatory version of ‘Monday’s child.’ The song demonstrated the harsh isolation and segregation that the female inmates must have felt, separated from their children once they turned 2 (several women were admitted in the throes of labour) and with little hope of prospects beyond those four walls.

I left Southwell wanting to know more about the individuals and their stories rather than rules and regulation- it appeared that there was more scandal than I realised. The Education Inspector’s visit in 1848 was less than satisfactory:

However, it appeared to be the tip of the iceberg. It came to light that the Master, William Sumner and the Mistress, Maria Richardson had engaged in a relationship that held a ‘low tone of morality,’ resulting in Ms Richardson becoming pregnant. Mr Sumner was 17 years her junior. Both had regularly entertained friends at the workhouse for dinner parties on the workhouse budget! It must have been quite a day- a hypocritical one at that- as inmates watched them cast out, jobless and destitute themselves.

All in all, a really informative day that opened my eyes to the complexities of Victorian poverty, and the convoluted ways in which they sought to solve them.

Nearly Three and Look at Me: Little Ol’ Litdrive

Well, what a tidy little trip we have been on.

Almost three years ago, I took on the role of Literacy Coordinator and found myself looking around despairingly at the lack of information specifically aimed to support such a role. Hindsight in tact, and particularly after reading David Didau and Geoff Barton, who in their own way argue that literacy can never truly exist as a separate entity from a curriculum or culture, that may have been why I looked at the role with some perplexing thought, but that is a post for another time.

I combatted my confusion by setting up #litdrive, a little shared set of resources that was simply my ideas and action plan for others to view and critique. Before I knew it, people wanted to become involved, offering their own resources at both primary and and secondary level. I think the message or aim of Litdrive has been confused over time, but that may be because of the lack of ‘brief’ as such; I just wanted a space for people to share stuff, magpie or adapt other resources and see what other schools were approaching the huge changes within KS3, 4 and 5 (thanks, Govey). #KS3LTP was an amazing spin off from Litdrive, with several English departments sharing their new long term plans and collaboratively reaching solutions for the rigour of a new specification.

And here we are. A lot has changed in those three years; I no longer coordinate Literacy, I’ve left the school (and returned- another blog!), I type blog posts with a dead right arm and a sleeping baby on top. It appears that Litdrive is trying to keep up- we are now at over 500 contributors, and I have a terrifying 60 requests sat in my inbox.

I want grand things for Litdrive. I know that other subjects look on at movements like #TeamEnglish a little enviously; I’m incredibly lucky to teach a topic that has such a strong online network and support system. But there is room for #litdrive to branch out just a little I believe. And as long as both myself and my dead arm can keep up, here’s the plan:

  • Litdrive now has its own twitter handle- @litdriveuk. This is my desperate attempt to remain organised with requests, uploads and share success stories or particular resources that are in keeping with the seasons (hi there, exam month, waving at us on the calendar).
  • I’ve also set up litdriveuk@hotmail.com, because I have no idea how I thought I could deal with loads of stuff being sent in my direction and not lose all my Amazon/BabyGap/Boden/Waterstones/Habitat/Frustrated Builder emails along the way.
  • I would like to open up Litdrive a little bit to include other sections to support different aspects of school life; for example, there is now a #teacher5aday section, so that people can contribute resources to support wellbeing for teachers either in or outside a school environment. This could be a wellbeing policy in use, or a support system that you use that could benefit others. There is now also a CPD section that again, contributors could add to if they have run a session within school that may be useful to other teachers, or another document such as an article that would be beneficial to those in other schools. This file has come about as a result of being on mat leave and wanting to continue my own ongoing CPD: I know many teachers take ownership of their professional development and the idea would be that there would be a bank of tools to assist you in doing so. If you think that you could contribute to either section, or indeed have a suggestion for an additional section within the drive, please do get in touch.
  • Finally, I’d like the drive to be far more organised for everyone! I’m going to spend some time every week in a concerted effort to do as such.

Litdrive has led me to connect and have discussions with so many people, especially recently and it really does demonstrate the extent of people’s generosity and compassion for others. Without wanting to be sentimental, the last two weeks have been a little overwhelming on the Litdrive front (positively speaking, of course) and it just becomes a steady reminder of how many brilliant teachers there are out there. So, thanks and all that!

Do As I Do.

In the last three months, I’ve discovered that chronic sleep deprivation does the funniest of things. 1, what was once a rather straightforward task now feels as though it requires a Mensa subscription to crack. Complaints processes appear to be a particular challenge. 2, you can reach a point of tired along the journey to utter madness where you actually don’t feel tired. It is this stage that is indeed the one to be most feared. 3, you come up with the most amazing and original ideas but unfortunately, because of the tired, you may never know if they are truly any good or not.

Both worryingly and spectacularly, I’m enjoying 3 the most. Whether it is the fact that my freedom is now somewhat restricted (in a wonderful way of course) by looking after a newborn, or simply that I really do need employment to keep my brain cells ticking over, I’m feeling quite inspired. I put this down to one factor above all else that seems to be the real bitch within the braces: time.

Time is the one thing that teachers beg for as answer to all of our problems, the only thing standing in our way of feeling like we are nailing the workload. I’ve been thinking this over and being a starter over a finisher, time is my excuse rather than the true enemy. To be honest, the stumbling block is often that whilst the time I have is almost certainly sufficient, I’m not using it in the most efficient way.

I think I figured this out above all else over the last year: I can teach better if I do the things that matter (ironically, and I’ve mentioned this before, I talked about value vs time and the impact of workload on wellbeing at #TMLeics in 2015. Clearly doing a fantastic job of taking my own advice). So let’s scale this right back by thinking about our students; with only a limited time with the content, what could they do-or could I get them to do- that will make maximum impact? How can we simply stop using time for anything other than the things that matter?

I’ve by no means formulated a comprehensive list- I definitely need to know the examiner’s notes inside and out to be in a position to feel that I am providing students with the most accurate advice on this. But as a starter for five (ish) and with last year in mind, here’s what I believe we could possibly pinpoint, with both Lang and Lit in mind:

1 Read non fiction every day. Talk about it and keep a reflective journal to ensure you are engaging actively with the text and possible contexts or structures.

2 know your context. For all the literature texts, read around both the texts and authors to grasp a thorough understanding of these people. Dickens is now your best mate. Treat it as the equivalent of a 19th C Facebook stalk.

3 Know your texts, on three levels. Firstly, literally be in a position to reel off the parts of the text that are valuable, provocative, open to interpretation or ambiguity. Secondly, know your characters. Consider them as old friends or perhaps people you would avoid inviting to a party and think about why they are one and not the other. Encourage yourself to like them, even when they make it so bloody difficult (I’m talking about you, Sybil). Finally, know the text to understand its motives. View the text as an individual that is pointing you in a particular direction and consider what it is exactly it wants you to see.

4 Know your terminology. Not only the fancy words, but why someone writing would make such a choice. When would you choose such fricative alteration- angry? Indignant? Excitable? Number five will help with this a bit:

5 Write, every day. Write as another person, object, in another era, walk of life, present moment, purpose of writing. Play with words; do not view what you are writing as something of finality but more as a mixing bowl to see what you end up with.

6 Because I knew I wouldn’t be happy with five, see how others do it. Not because they will carry out the five tasks with any more flair or finesse than you, but because they will have chosen a different way of getting there, which will put things is an altogether different light to your initial ideas. Argue with them (not too aggressively), and allow yourself to be convinced by what they say, if they put it well enough.

To take my own medicine, I’m going to spend the next six months trying to do the same through the CPD that I complete. That way, maybe I can endorse my own sleepless ideas and pass it off as words of wisdom.

#52books2017

In true (absolutely never) earlybird fashion, I came in at 53 as at last week, so I’m quitting whilst I’m ahead. The majority of this year’s list has been borrowed or recommended via Twitter and as consequently, I am finding it more and more difficult to start a book without it receiving endorsement from someone else. I used to pick a book based upon what I  now view as the most frivolous of reasons: cover design (this was the basis of my decision for quite easily a decade- too much charity shop shopping led me to just lose patience and buy the pretty book), the same author over and over, learning to recognise their style and then becoming furious at myself for knowing it so well that I would guess the ending, or simply because it looked like the type of book that would hold my somewhat sketchy attention span. As I reach my fifth year of 50+ books, or at least formally tracking them, my tastes have changed to a degree, but I think the remnants of my twenty something self still remain; a pretty cover, desperately lacking in a reading of non-fiction or classic literature, manoeuvring towards the apocalyptic over a laugh-out-loud. However, in my defence, I read to teach (Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths was a head scratcher), I have learned to persevere with the more difficult reads because sometimes, it’s worth it (Dear Amy was not but hey, I finished it didn’t I?) and I’m learning to stretch out beyond YA fiction from time to time.

The complete list:

  The Kites Are Flying Morpurgo, Michael
The Power Alderman, Naomi *
Alex As Well Brugman, Alyssa
The Girls Cline, Emma
Before I Fall Oliver, Lauren *
One Crossan, Sarah *
The Muse Burton, Jessie
This is Not Your Final Form O’Brien, Richard
Anna and the Swallow Man Savit, Gavriel
Dear Amy Callaghan, Helen*
Dreaming the Bear Thebo, Mimi *
Hot Milk Levy, Deborah
The Iron Man Hughes, Ted
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite Kim, Suki *
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Out of the Hitler Time, #1) Kerr, Judith
Brother in the Land Swindells, Robert
Bone Room Cassidy, Anne
The Girl of Ink and Stars Hargrave, Kiran Millwood *
All the Little Animals Hamilton, Walker
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler Konigsburg, E.L.
My Brother’s Ghost Ahlberg, Allan
I Let You Go Mackintosh, Clare *
The Dead Fathers Club Haig, Matt *
The Buried Giant Ishiguro, Kazuo
The Giver (The Giver, #1) Lowry, Lois *
How Texts Teach What Readers Learn Meek, Margaret
The Light Between Oceans Stedman, M.L. *
My Name Is Lucy Barton Strout, Elizabeth
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (Harold Fry, #1) Joyce, Rachel
The Nest Oppel, Kenneth*
Salt to the Sea Sepetys, Ruta *
Boy In The Tower Ho-Yen, Polly
Bed Whitehouse, David
Lie With Me Durrant, Sabine
Once (Once, #1) Gleitzman, Morris
Everything, Everything Yoon, Nicola *
The Bone Sparrow Fraillon, Zana
Red Sky in the Morning Laird, Elizabeth
Shtum Lester, Jem *
Paperweight Haston, Meg *
Wolf Hollow Wolk, Lauren
American Gods Gaiman, Neil *
The Tobacconist Seethaler, Robert
The Graveyard Book Gaiman, Neil *
Drop Everson, Katie *
Delirium (Delirium, #1) Oliver, Lauren *
Seven Myths about Education Christodoulou, Daisy
How to Stop Time Haig, Matt *
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way Birbalsingh, Katharine
How Not To Be a Boy Webb, Robert
Never Let Me Go Ishiguro, Kazuo
The Radleys Haig, Matt *
Turtles All the Way Down Green, John *

 

 

The Highlights:

Robert Webb, How Not to Be a Boy: I know that some will disagree, but I found this not only to be incredibly entertaining in an endearing yet sardonic fashion, I also found Webb to be well researched in his opinions as to what hinders boys throughout childhood to what can certainly be a well-founded contributor to our male suicide rate within the UK. If nothing else, one to ponder over.

Matt Haig, How to Stop Time: Haig is writing slower than I am reading. After discovering the author rather late in the day, I believe that I am all out but this (along with Reasons to Stay Alive) is a firm favourite. A delicious concept for a novel and Tom is such a likeable yet tormented individual to fall in love with.

Walker Hamilton, All the Little Animals: I came across a pile of these for 50 pence each in a second hand shop and wish I had scooped up the lot. Bobby is Lennie, and the novella tosses around the ideals of good and evil in this quick read.

Jem Lester, Shtum: I wept, a lot. Knowing a family that have been caught in the ridiculous, illogical cycle of meeting criteria to enable their child to be educated in a way that meets THEIR needs, not the needs of a piece of paper, this was a tremendous way of opening up that world to any reader.

Kazuo Ishaguro, Never Let Me Go: Because I resisted it for so long after my disappointing experience of Buried Giant, and now wish I had the opportunity to teach it. I loved the ambiguity that the characters journey through, not relentlessly but without option because after all, that’s kind of what life offers up.

I like to attempt optimism, but I think this may be my last smash at 52 books in a year for a while. The incredibly small person currently strapped to my body is the only reason that I can write this blog to you, but there are also other priorities for this year and I don’t do well with a target that seems unreachable. With this in mind, I’m aiming for 12 books for 2018 (piece of cake), but with specific criteria:

  1. One MUST be a classic. There really is no excuse.
  2. One MUST be a book that I own but have not yet read. This may or may not be as a result of bagging up five bags for life with books and still possessing an entire shelf of ‘I’ll get round to that’ books.
  3. One MUST be explicitly to aid with professional development. I want to really link this to subject knowledge as I do feel that my historical context could do with a Spring clean.
  4. One MUST be poetry. And it MUST be annotated as a result. Strict, but I read so much poetry and then instantly forget it, which means that I don’t make use of it or even remember it in a sense of personal value.
  5. One MUST be to help with grammar. I really want to take a more traditional approach to teaching grammar when I return from maternity leave and as with all things requiring memory, knowledge fades when it is not used.
  6. One MUST be a funny book. I read far too many books that end in death or despair and that’s all very well but Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van was one of the best things I had read in years and it reminded me of how therapeutic it is to laugh out loud at a book.
  7. One MUST be finished in a day. A pretty contradictory approach to the restrained twelve books over fifty, but this will force me to sit still for at least one day of the next 365 and relish the act of reading.
  8. One MUST be written by an author of a book that I teach. This one is off the back of reading Steinbeck’s The Pearl and Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant; there is so much value in exploring the rest of a writer’s brain when teaching their work.
  9. One MUST be a recommendation of my son’s choosing. I get passed so many books by him and often (this is awful, I know) say I will get around to reading it and don’t. This is admittedly because I’ve read the back and the plot line makes me want to weep- I do not want to spend my precious time finding out about the highs and lows of Captain Underpants, apologies- but I think I can stretch to one book.
  10. One MUST be more than ten years old. Weaning myself off all the amazing new YA fiction that comes out every year.
  11. One MUST be from the Carnegie List- because just writing the last stipulation brought me out in a cold sweat.
  12. One MUST be written by an author I have met or at least spoken to on Twitter. Because one of them had to be bloody near-on impossible (or alternatively, opens up a whole heap of brand new conversations.

Big thank you to @thatboycanteach, @afardon, @fkritson, @mrlockyer, @ralston_h, @happysadcross and anyone else who has endured my Twitter book chat over the last year, but also to @RemusLupin for disagreeing with every book choice I ever make, but always reading double my figure to spur me on. For anyone interested in setting themselves a #52books2018 challenge, @fkritson runs a group via Goodreads that helped tremendously with recommendations, alongside the hashtag on Twitter.

Please feel free to get in touch to chat books, make recommendations or dispute my choice for this year’s highlights; I recently tweeted here regarding the eleven books that I dug out in my book-purge and could not bring myself to get rid of.

Maternity- but what about Me?

Being of a disposition that sitting still is impossible, the concept of having an extended period away from work was unimaginable to me after having to go on maternity leave a little earlier than I had hoped last month. Enjoying your job (I’m rather X Factor speech-esque if anyone asks me why I like to teach) comes at a price; you are simply a little bit lost without it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from ungrateful for the luxury of time- I’m just not very good with grappling with it if there is rather a lot of it.

This is where you realise that you picked a vocation rather than a job. Now, as a second time parent, I want to ensure that whilst I take the much needed time with my newborn (when he actually decides to show up), I get the balance right for me. My last maternity leave was spent wishing I didn’t have to go back to work (different industry, different job, different time) and I didn’t read a book for eighteen months. This time, without putting too much pressure on myself, I understand the fact that keeping my brain challenged and motivated is essential- not to the job, you understand, but to me. Whilst I am mindful and respectful of those that simply want to jump off the train for their time away from school, after a period in my career last year that took me through the difficult consideration of leaving teaching, I really do feel a sense of gratitude for finding my edu-mojo again and am keen to feed the monster a little bit, now it has made its return.

If you read literature around maternity leave outside of the education profession, there are policies in place to ensure that employees keep themselves informed and in addition, maintain a minimum CPD requirement to ensure that they have kept themselves up to date with policy or practice change; look to the same policy in place for schools, and often NUT advice is provided as sufficient, alongside local authority policy.

DURING YOUR MATERNITY LEAVE section 3.7? Details of whether I can keep hold of my laptop or not. Beyond that?

KIT days: I’m entitled to ten (as with any job), ‘to attend work, a training course, team meeting or Personal Development Review meeting, or to participate as a member of an interview panel.’

There is little stipulation as to what extent I need to keep updated as such (and some would argue rightly so) but surely, there needs to be available outlets for each individual to find their own equilibrium as such?

Finding @maternityCPD via Twitter before I was due to start my maternity leave was an absolute Godsend, helping  me to answer some of my questions. growing by the minute, the project originated in June 2016 and even in the last few months, has really developed into something very special. Upon first finding the project, I was saddened to see that everything taking place was so far away from me but the website now has a plethora of tools and signposts you to a variety of CPD available to those on maternity or parental leave. What I find most exciting is the development of research surrounding teachers with children, but also the formation of accreditation for schools to state that they are family-friendly employers.

 

So what now? I wanted to draw together a might-do for myself, to make use of the thing that we all want when working in a busy school- time. This is very much a ‘would be nice’ list that I can dip into when I’m not peeling my eyeballs off the floor.

My own so far:

  • Attend three text or subject specific training opportunities- either of the online or real-world variety
  • Make #litdrive a functioning, organised resource for the 400 people signed up, instead of a neglected, chaotic bundle of THOUSANDS (just dropping it in there) of resources for Primary and Secondary schools
  • Create a selection of resources at my leisure that I had on my to-do list before starting my maternity leave
  • Keep on top of the @TeacherTapp app recommended daily read- if you do not already have the app, download this!
  • Read- of course read- but in particular, read three classics before returning to work (to make up for the fact that my classic count for #52books2017 was appalling)
  • Go into work for at least one KIT day prior to returning

(I have to mention, for those that are returning to work after a break, @heymrshallahan wrote a fab piece here for TES about juggling returning to work after maternity leave -it’s saved for next year!)

What would you do if you had the luxury of time, away from your classroom?

The Importance of Gratitude

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” – Epicurus 

Aiming for a short but concise post: it is the end of the year after all, but nevertheless the most difficult of my career to date, for countless reasons that again, would pad this out far more than I would prefer. However, what has been apparent on more than one occasion during that time, that when finding myself in situations that were so far from pleasant or comfortable, they made tea and scones with Theresa May look like a jovial day out, two nibbles of realisation reared their inconspicuous head: firstly, that I am more intelligent, more capable and far stronger emotionally than I think. In fact, to the extent that I have used my belief that I am less than, not as good as, and all the others excuses as a crutch for far too long. Time to pull the sleeves up. Second, and this ties intrinsically to the first, that gratitude to both yourself and others is a fundamental part of what drives me forward. In order to understand myself both personally and professionally, I need to be explicit in this genuine thankfulness to others much more often, which in turn will help me to be a little less hard on myself for not getting around to making a dent on that book plan from January. Why? Because I think:

I do not say thank you enough. Or quite to the contrary, people say it a thousand times a day for the things that don’t make an impact, but fail to say it with the raw meaning that it can impart when it needs to be said the most. Thank you for the big things is hard, because it is admitting vulnerability, admitting that you needed someone else, admitting that you cannot exist in solitary greatness and need other people to move forward, challenge you so that you can create an idea, concept, attitude that wasn’t achievable on your own. How many times do we say thank you for the pen, thank you for the change, thank you for holding the door- what about the thank you for what you showed me 9En3, thank you for opening my eyes to a poem in an entirely different way than I’ve ever seen it before Tom, thank you for making me laugh Simon, as we plough through evaluation skills just one more time on a Friday afternoon?

I need to embrace the difference of others. I spent a large part of my previous career managing people and growing increasingly frustrated that they weren’t doing things in ‘the right way.’ To take this to teaching, I know I have taken to the classroom, master plan of learning at the ready (they are going to LOVE this, it’s going to be a reconstruction of that Just teach classroom where everyone’s BUZZING with the learning), only to find that things just didn’t pan out that way. The ‘good’ kids looked at you like you’d pulled a lesson off the Martian version of TES, whilst the kids that were expecting to walk in and put a minimal four line paragraph together after a hard slog in PE are cashing in BIG. If teaching were linear and two dimensional, we would have all made a fortune by now, instead of chasing, as we do, the lights in the darkness to try and create the thing that works; that way into a text, that conjuring of magic for creative writing of an iceberg on the hottest day of the year, that anecdote about this programme in the nineties called One Foot in the Grave where Victor Meldrew becomes the somewhat hilarious and satirical representation of Ebeneezer Scrooge. Be grateful of the difference; it is what keeps you in teaching.

My pride should never be a factor in the decisions you make. This one is easier said than done. It is hard to decline, fall back, say no to opportunities that once used to challenge you and spur you on to restock, shift priorities, maintain your identity at the same time. Andy Cope’s Being Brilliant speaks of happiness being a magical unreachable destination, Sarah Knight’s The Magic of Not Giving a Fuck outlines that your cares, time, energy, money is best budgeted to managing true contentment- contentment with challenge is possible, but difficult.

People are the most important thing. This loses gravity on a day to day basis, but yesterday’s final day of school reminded me of the reason that I returned to a school close to my heart. Working in the ivory (scuffed white) tower of your classroom, exchanging conversation with young, lively but somewhat not quite matured brains all day, it is easy to forget the fantastic support network that teaching provides and I remember saying a similar thing last year at #Pedagoo, the year before at #LeicsTM, the year before at #ReadingTL15 but of all the things I am grateful for, it is to end the year with a group of people that are thought-provoking, challenge ideas, encourage my own and most importantly, understand my need to eat every two hours.

Reading From the Roots: WHAT, HOW, WHY?

On Saturday, I ran a workshop entitled Reading from the Roots, unpicking the nuts and bolts of reading skills and strategies in a bid to move away from technique labelling and little else beyond that.

The question is: are we teaching to read our way, or providing routes for students to read their way? There IS a difference, and whilst comprehension, clarification, inference and analysis have their place, perhaps we are missing out on utilising the toolbox that students already have.

Inspired by Doug LeMov’s Reading Reconsidered, Margaret Meek’s How Text Teach what Readers Learn and Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why, I wanted teachers to consider stripping back their teaching to use said toolbox:

– prior knowledge- not of the text, but intertextuality OR the real world; where have we seen this sort of story line before? Who does this character remind you of? How so? How can we make links with other readings? Empower students with the confidence that they are not already on a back foot, irrespective of the challenge level of text.

-This leads nicely into context; what impact will the time that the text is written place upon certain subjects? How does this idea or event relate to our own personal contexts?

– Opinion-led learning: students can make an evaluation of character or mood based upon first impressions or viewpoint that isn’t essentially critical.

This three-point starting point acts as a somewhat valuable crutch for readers to access texts through HOW rather than WHAT. By giving them the WHAT (the setting, the characteristic traits, the presence of tension), we can move swiftly onto the HOW and WHY. By forming personal evaluations and opinions, this allows us to return to such evaluations once we have studied the HOW with much less unease at correcting our ideas. They were simply opinions; there’s no right or wrong to them but we’re simply slightly more expert now.

Moving onto unpicking the HOW needed practical application. Again, three strategies that I suggested would focus upon both reading with purpose, but exploring the writer’s intention beyond the labels:

  • Modelling. Modelling at every level. Modelling reading of the text, discussing if the tone, pitch or projection was appropriate for the content, re-hashing and giving it another go as a group. Modelling verbal interpretation. Modelling response (this comes later). Each step of the process provides a backbone to the entire emphasis placed upon how an element has been achieved. The value of a student hearing your voice deliberately shape the text and then contemplate how to shape a response is immeasurable (visiting Michaela sold me on this entirely; I’d always been taught to ‘let the kids read’).
  • Text Dependent Questioning. In order to focus on the HOW, reading must be an active process and tailored towards a big question, but not reliant on that question alone. From whole text to sentence level to word level, the questions selected are crucial to ensuring that you and the students are making your way towards the same destination point (section 2 of this  from Doug LeMov’s field notes is a perfect example but the picture of my TDQ for the opening extract of OMAM works).
  • Question-led annotation or Help boxes to support the annotation process are also key to a HOW reading. For those less confident with the annotation process, it ensures that the WHAT is covered so that we can move onto consideration of the HOW. For example, when considering the line, ‘the fine sliced through the water,’ from The Life of Pi, questions to accompany the text may be: how does the verb sliced raise particular images in our mind? How has the writer used the verb to create a sense of fear? How does the verb convey the mood of the narrator? Why is the verb particularly effective or a well-made choice made by the writer? It layers reading through our reaction, narrator reaction, writer’s deliberation by providing the what. The what isn’t the most vital stage of this process so it’s worth handing over.

 

Musings over Michaela

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (a wall, Michaela. Originally Aristotle!)

I have deliberately waited a week to blog about my recent visit to Michaela, because there was so much to take away, but also questions that rather than remaining unanswered, had not even existed in my mind before walking through the gates, or perhaps do not even have an answer. I am also incredibly aware of the weight that opinions towards Michaela seem to carry, so have an incredibly ardent wish that my words are concise enough to convey the meaning with which I intend (not something that I excel at on the whole, but I’ll try). Above all, I waited to write so that I would have enough time to do so with clarity, but not enough time that I would waffle forever- as you can see, this first paragraph fails already! Rather than spend time explaining the details of my visit- what I did, who I saw, I want to try and pull together my key observations and why I see the school as one of the most refreshing opportunities for young people in state education in quite some time.

The balance of childhood and challenge

Arriving at lunchtime, I was free to talk to the children as they played and waited to be called in for lunch. The playground reminded me of my first Primary school , a small village school outside Felixstowe where the playground and the act of play was central to any lunchtime. On the Michaela website, Katharine’s address begins with the statement, ‘at Michaela, children can be children,’ and it was this statement that rang so truly throughout my visit. The conversations that I shared with the children carried a combination of curiosity in me and my teaching experiences (LCFC saved some blank looks at least from the boys! Leicester is a long way from London) but also a burning desire to answer any questions that I may have in return.  The lack of phones, talk about last night’s TOWIE, not shying away from the fact a grown-up is cramping their style at lunchtime was so refreshing. Discussion was energetic and I noticed a sense of community; students teased one another playfully about the fact that one of their friends had put an incorrect answer for a knowledge quiz that morning, before thinking up a rhyme to help him remember it next time. Two boys chased one another round but as soon as this resulted in one of them dropping his work folder, several students helped him retrieve the contents from the floor. There was a sense of calm and I think it wasn’t until attending lessons that I reflected upon the possibility that without a presence of disruption and challenging behaviour that I would expect to see within a school (this is where I will struggle to be concise) that aggression simply doesn’t factor here. I do not believe that conflicts don’t occur or that students don’t walk through the gates with events of home or relationships on their mind, but simply that they are either equipped with the tolerance of others to know how to deal emotionally as such, or that being in school is a momentary escape to learn.

 

Tough love and Time

Children were so ready to share their takes of the school that they have an unabashed loyalty towards: my questions varied from, ‘what would be the first thing you told my son if he were to come here?’ to ‘what is the best thing about this school’ and the answer was always the same, but with such different meaning: ‘it’s strict Miss.’ It was always conveyed as a positive thing. At family lunch, play time, the discussions centred around this to the point that I probably exhausted them with my curiosity in something that as teachers, we already know- children like boundaries. Beyond that, they appreciate them, are grateful for their undeniable regularity and above all, understand their value because at Michaela, the children grasp the reasons behind sanctions and praise. Rather than an oppressive stamp upon their enthusiasm, it spurs the students on to succeed; family lunch appreciations were a clear example of this. Students are invited to share a moment of appreciation with the group and are encouraged to notice kindness, give specific evidence and project to the crowd in exchange for a merit. This act is so embedded with the children that their motives for sharing seemed to be rooted in the opportunity to share gratitude rather than the reward (rightly so). @jo_facer facilitated and was not an easy one to extract a merit from! Her feedback after each appreciation was critical but fair, highlighting the successes whether it was volume or the specific appreciation but not shying away from stating where others fell down in their delivery or lack of reasons. My main observations? That ALL children that had contributed, those with merits and without, immediately put their hand back up for another opportunity to share. Imagine that level of resilience within a classroom setting.

In acknowledging what one student described as ‘tough love,’ and a robust system where children do not recognise the teacher as strict but the system, it is clear to see the advantages within the school day in its entirety. Time is given a place of honour for both staff and students in every act; school appreciations are received with a double clap only; a process like lesson changeover is swift and ordered because learning is the key outcome of time spent well. Time was a central theme that repeatedly cropped up during the course of my day- my guide noted the fact that in comparison to friends in other local schools, he described his education as ‘better’ because his time in school was not wasted. He told me in rather astute terms as he showed me spectacular artwork produced as a result of the study of artists such as Monet and Renoir that pupils made progress at Michaela because the time is dedicated to learning, always.

 

Priorities for Progress

Knowledge organisers, something that I now feel that I have not utilised enough, play a central part to the Michaela curriculum. Students have a bank for each year of their education, of which they are quizzed upon different sections at regular intervals. There are several advantages to this approach; all students retain key information for the subject, demystifying both the cognitive process of retention but also the topic itself into a process of simply learning and recalling. Michaela’s walls are adorned with the work of students, accompanied with detailed captions that draw the reader to appreciate particular attributes of the work, but most importantly details of how the student has applied previous learning to put the piece into context, for which I believe KOs are wholely responsible. For such a large proportion of students, they falter at this starting block for so many years that they lose the opportunity to move onto the analytical and evaluative qualities of the topic itself (I won’t dwell on this, not being an expert. @joe__kirby does a much better job of explaining the successes of KOs here). Work displayed in the toilets (!) demonstrates the power of this process paying off; students use knowledge gained from previous topics and apply it to their analysis months later.

Another key success (and something which was repeatedly tweeted about at ResearchED recently) that I observed was modelled reading. @doug_lemov preaches- in the nicest possible way!- about this incessantly and it is something that doesn’t get the airplay at secondary. Michaela teachers modelled reading beautifully, to which students replicated to in some cases, a superior standard! Reading is an incredibly active task within lessons, with target questions fired at students regularly to maintain the ‘moment’ of the text, rapidly unpicking challenging language using recall of previous units to ensure comprehension and move swiftly towards the analysis of character actions and motives.

The process of annotation and a lack of an ‘end point’ was also intriguing to see; students annotated and developed their own ideas in green pen, when feeding back after a knowledge quiz, others contributed answers, or annotating a text. Everything about the process of teaching and learning at Michaela is explicit; teachers instruct to annotate something of interest as a result of student questioning; students ask as many questions as necessary to understand an essay task set. NOTHING is left to interpretation, but do not construe this as a disadvantage. Instead, students have an incredible understanding of what is expected of them; their confidence not in the topic itself but in their ability to master it is what drives them forward. The efficiency of the practical process of developing work but also a deep understanding that there is always room to improve makes for an incredibly high ceiling when it comes to outcomes.

During my tour, I asked about the presence of challenge within the school; I was keen to understand the aspiration for the student that successfully retains information and is keen to exceed expectations beyond the Knowledge Organiser; where was the opportunity for fostering curiosity in the subject? With less discussion time than I was used to, I wondered if students were ever My guide stated that personally, his current challenge was the requirements of GCSE papers. He felt that not only were the questions easier than work that he was used to, but the format of them would be difficult to combat initially. Does this simply open up the debate that the demands of examinations still don’t accommodate for anything other than teaching to the exam?

Debate and Discussion

I think I would have always left Michaela with questions, but most I have been able to provide my own answer, having worked in state schools and dealt with in some instances incredibly challenging behaviour and a frustrating lack of progress. How do pupils reach additional challenge? Because challenge IS the expectation here. Why is the competitive edge that I heard essential to success? Because it drives success in pupils if they understand that they are pitted against one another by a system that we cannot control but are rooting for them all the same. How do all succeed? Because this is growth mindset in its most practical form; students understand that hard work equals progress. Anything else is simply wasting time.

If I learned anything that day, it is that context is key. Aspects of Michaela’s approach will work in all schools, with a whole-school approach and the backing of everyone- is that possible to achieve? Perhaps, but the reality usually presents a very different, varied, inconsistent outcome (we’re human, consistency isn’t really our finest hour). Context is what makes Michaela’s success so extraordinary- the eloquence, perseverance, gratitude and sheer determination of the pupils are qualities that I have not seen within a school setting to that extent in my five years of teaching. What the media seems to fail to notice is that Michaela is succeeding at providing a robust education with high expectations in quite a transparent, honest capacity. In the face of hate mail, criticism and some quite despicable acts of cruelty towards both staff and students. The first question put to me by friends (teachers and otherwise) was: Did I ‘agree’ with all that I saw? I’m not sure that that word has a place here. In fact, it lacks all relevance. The children do, wholeheartedly, with a fierce sense of loyalty and enthusiasm, and it allows them to succeed. Perhaps that is enough. At least, if you teach and support teachers, I believe that it should be.

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”- Karl Marx

The #Litdrive Way of Life

After receiving a vast amount of interest about my ambiguous spouting on about #litdrive on Twitter over the weekend, then sharing the original post (here if you are interested https://saysmiss.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/the-little-acorn-litdrive/ ), I have realised that there are already several things about #litdrive that are outdated. One, we shifted from googledrive to dropbox (mainly because my ICT skills leave a lot to be desired and my lack of organisational skills could do with an entire post of their own). We have also grown from the original concept that I posted about; what started in my mind as a resource for literacy has inevitably grown wings, sprouted heads and transitioned to a heaving bank of resources for all sorts.

Change is good! We are now sitting at 350 contributors (primary and secondary) and with lots of shared drives floating about, I hope that the variety of resources will add value to any teacher, anywhere. A plethora of ‘stuff,’ #litdrive offers schemes of work, exemplar work, marking ideas, reading lists and initiatives, written literacy support, literacy across the curriculum and a whole heap in between. I usually have a monthly re-arrange/clear up/back up to ensure that resources shared are safe and easy to find.

What next? I thought it may be beneficial to outlinethe purpose of the drive but also put a few guidelines/pleas in place to make it great for everyone. Excuse the bullet points (some people may not have wanted to read the rambly words above and just get to the good stuff):

 

  • DM your email address with the #litdrive hashtag for me to send over an invite for you. Alternatively, send to my email (Katherine.howard@hotmail.co.uk) and #litdrive world is your oyster.
  • Once you have access, please do share how you have used someone else’s wonderful resource, using the #litdrive hashtag! It may be that you have tweaked a resource or used it in a new way which would be invaluable to any teacher. You may just make someone’s day after an hour of pulling glue sticks out of a child’s hair. Make someone smile.
  • Please, please, please do add your own resources- the top folder entitled wittingly, ‘I have something to add!’ is the place to pop it. I get heaps of messages from people saying, ‘I don’t really have anything great,’ or, ‘what type of thing would you want?’ Nonsense to the first- you’re an ace teacher, joining an online community to collaborate and share resources. You’re resources must be awesome. To the second- if you’re sharing a resource, I will find a folder to put it in.
  • Final gigantic plea- please do not delete or modify files. By all means, download it- stick it on your usb but other shared drives are really suffering as a result of this. It’s never deliberate of course, but if your Dropbox is heaving and you want out, just let me know and I will remove you from the drive.

Thank you so much for getting involved with #litdrive- I have had teachers from all over the world say thank you and would like to pass on that thanks to the people that deserve it. Enjoy!