Are you reading me?

Just before the schools closed, if you can remember that time, it was World Book Day, and I started writing this post. Given what is going on now I decided to put it on hold, but having read a great blog post from Paul Watson (@paulwat5) and in particular what he’d learnt about class novels, I thought I’d put this post out. This topic also seems timely as we may have more time right now to settle down with a good book. I also believe that reading is an important part of primary education, but like many things in teaching needs considering with nuance.

Considering World Book Day, and I won’t get in to the debate about dressing up, this got me thinking about how much attention we give to reading, especially in primary schools. In some ways it receives attention like no other curriculum area. This extends into wider society and at times makes me feel slightly uneasy. Before I go on I want to stress that reading is phenomenally important. There is no doubt how important reading is. So I’ll stress this again I believe reading is really, REALLY important. However, there are times when I feel as if we are trying too hard and as an area of the curriculum reading occupies an elevated position above all else. I’ll try and explain what I mean. But please remember I think reading is VERY important.

The ability to read, to access information and knowledge, or for enjoyment, has undoubtedly transformed humanity. Although it should also be recognised that many civilisations did pretty well before this development. Perhaps in several hundred years reading printed word might not be as vital as it is now. We will be able to communicate with people verbally around the world, even in other languages as real time translation systems evolve. Already shorter communication can be achieved via emojis or gifs. Again I’m not saying this will replace reading but will supplement how we communicate and is a wonderful opportunity to understand the world, and each other, better.

A bit of (slow) reading

My argument is reading is held, by some, above all else. If you can’t, or (and this is where I get uneasy) choose not to read, then you are silently judged. The reasons aren’t discussed, the implicit ‘goodness’ of being an enthusiastic reader is unquestionably accepted. And this is where I start to feel a little uncomfortable. I can read, and think for myself, but when I see posts about the best fiction books people have read recently, or pledges to read even more, I start to feel guilty and panicked. I think that perhaps I should be reading more, so I put aside some time and ‘do my reading’. Occasionally I look around my otherwise empty flat for an approving glance from someone! When I do read for pleasure it can take ages to finish a book, and there are times when I’m not entirely sure of how much pleasure there is in a guilt induced process like this.

Some books I’ve read, and some others which I haven’t (& I’m now feeling guilty about).

No other pastime seems to illicit the same emotive response as reading. It is held in such high esteem that I worry about the negative impact this might have on people who struggle to read, or who prefer to access information or entertainment in other ways. We can watch films, documentaries, listen to podcasts, or scan online content and get similar enjoyment or enlightenment. But for some people it is less admirable than ploughing through a great work of literature, which was foraged after a few hours in a charity shop.

Going back to the blog post from Paul Watson he gives his view, based on experience and reflection, of how to teach reading well. The takeaway message is that Paul has invested time, thought and effort in getting this right for himself and the learners. I hope this approach will go a long way to changing the simplistic way we sometimes view reading, and whether we are ‘good’ readers, or not. Oh, and thanks for reading this 🙂.

Online teaching & learning – the first few days

A week ago most UK teachers were desperately trying to prepare for teaching and supporting learners remotely. As HE lecturers some of us have a little more experience of this, whereas as I suspect the challenges faced by many teachers and learners in schools is very new. We are now a few days in and a picture is beginning to emerge of how schools and teachers are approaching this. From a relatively small sample of online conversations and observations I thought I’d share how teachers and schools are managing the situation.

Some schools and teachers have set up systems and even clear daily timetables. They have thought in advance about what they wanted to do, and the argument about a clear timetable is this provides much needed structure. One school set up a virtual school, with a carefully thought out daily plan, posts and updates are scheduled, but learners can also return to these later. Teachers and learners without technology borrowed this from the school. The virtually school day is shorter, and it seems this approach is working well. Underlying this seems to be a clear management strategy, which has allowed teachers to learn within this system.

Living rooms have become virtual schools, for teachers and learners.

Of course the formal timetable approach also has some downsides. There are examples of schools who sent home an adjusted 9-3:30 timetable, then have been posting lots of activities or worksheets. In these cases it seems as if the school and leadership hasn’t had the time to think through what they are trying to achieve, and given the circumstances this is understandable. The advice, if using this method, that seems to be emerging is take it easy, don’t overload learners, family members or yourselves.

An alternative approach seems to be teachers and schools who are taking a more relaxed view, they sent home some activities, but are not putting huge pressure on the learners to complete tasks at certain times, or follow a regimented routine. The downside here is that in some cases the learners and their families may actually be looking for a little more structure. Obviously context here is key, and schools are best placed to know what the learners need.

One of the major issues amid all this is how we communicate effectively. Many other homes do not have the access to technology to support multiple learners. In Scotland most people are using the online intranet for schools, called Glow. This often maligned resource is now being put under a huge amount of pressure as thousands of users try and access it and upload work. Despite some issues I think it is just about coping so far, and my advice is have patience, especially if trying to upload files. I would also suggest getting your own informal support network, or PLC working, google and queries and get on Twitter, even if you have resisted it, #edutwitter will help you!

Adjusting to teaching remotely takes a while, and requires good technology.

The final observation is that some staff are struggling with the technology. This may be down to knowledge and skills or because leadership or the local authority (in Scotland anyway) having fixed rules. In one authority all devices have been set to only work into school. So where staff and pupils are trying to work using their own personal equipment, lots more tech sits locked up in schools. None of this could have ever been predicted and it is very easy to criticise, which is not the intention. It seems family members, friends, school staff and the learners themselves are doing really well. There is one final thing I am sure of, this entire experience will have allowed us to learn like never before.

Team Trad vs Team Prog (No, you’re a troll…)

I’ve written before about the value, and potential of twitter for teacher CPD. For movements like TeachMeets, ResearchED, Pedagoo and #BrewEd Twitter is invaluable. Events can be publicised, teachers can share ideas, and professional networks can be built. But the democratising potential of Twitter is, paradoxically one of the weak points. This is best illustrated with the battles between Traditionalist (Trads) and Progressives (Progs).

Subjects such as behaviour management, research in education, or direct instruction vs enquiry learning can lead to heated exchanges. At times this can deteriorate, quickly, in to people taking sides who then through around accusations or insults. Watching these interactions unfold I’ve had to resist the urge to recommend a spell in an isolation booth, or suggest some restorative justice, depending on which side of the argument these educators sit. If someone on either side goes too far there can be a ‘pile on’ with the partisan supporters rushing to defend, or in the worst case examples, attack the other side.

At times these edutwitter spats become demoralising and so I’ve unfollowed people at either end of the Trad/Prog continuum. However, more recently I’ve started to take a more pragmatic position, refollowing so that from a distance I watch and try and understand both perspectives. This is the objectivity that comes as second nature to those in the natural sciences. But in our social science and the education sector it is so very challenging, if possible at all, to step back from beliefs, values.

In the past I was very certain of what was ‘right’ and coming from a politically leftist view would dismiss anything, or anyone, to the right of the political centre ground as being a step away from fascism. I learnt the hard way by applying this to individuals, and seeing the polarisation around Brexit has troubled me more. It is a version of this that I see in the Trad vs Prog debates. I’m sure those on each extreme are certain they are right too, and in education probably come from a good place. What I’m less sure of is how this either helps or hinders debate and discussion. When these ‘spats’ get really bad it can lead to accusations that the opponents are trolling… and then the school yard name calling begins: “You’re a troll!”, “No YOU are a TROLL!”. At this point I imagine each side being hauled into a headteachers office and given a dose of the nurturing relationship building, or tough love sanctions that they had probably been arguing about.

Over the last few years as I studied and researched I realised how little I really knew about the subjects I was investigating. This has made me even more confident about my uncertainty. At the back of my mind I am constantly questioning if there may be another way of viewing an issue. Research evidence in education is phenomenally complex and I’m ok with this. I also think this is subtly different from worrying that I am ‘wrong’ because I might not be accepted, or I might not belong, which might be part of the issue when people worry about imposter syndrome.

So going back to the issue of educational Trads vs Progs, I’ve largely resisted the urge to join in on either side, or to follow the sensible advice to block or mute. I have gradually come to recognise the importance of listening, and trying to understand their positions. However, I also feel people should be able to question and challenge. But this is very difficult when people are convinced that they are right, and it is the other side who are the trolls. Will this be resolved anytime soon, probably not. If you have thoughts or comments on this I’d love to hear them. And if you disagree with me, then that’s ok…

Facing your fears and learning from them

The academic year has just started for the latest group of PGDE students at the University of Dundee and I imagine that as the year progresses there will be times when they will be apprehensive about placements, assignments, or the other day-to-day challenges whilst becoming a teacher. It is important that lecturers, and mentor teachers understand this. I teach primary science pedagogy and this is an area where some students have concerns, and can suffer anxiety. As a result I try hard to deliver this carefully and pitch the level so as not to disengage the students. However there have been times in the past where I have forgotten what it is like to be a beginning, or preservice, teacher.

Last weekend, although in a quite different situation, I was reminded what it is like to be apprehensive, and how that can quickly lead to panic and fear. Along with several friends I attempted a challenging hike, called the Ring of Steall, which turned out to be a valuable learning opportunity. Given the level of challenge of the walk we had been planning the trip for a long time. Last year we all headed to Fort William but due to late snow fall we had to cancel the attempt and climbed Ben Nevis instead. The pay off that time was that had a phenomenal view of the four snow-capped Munros that make up the Ring of Steall. This encouraged us and we rescheduled for the August bank holiday weekend this year, we planned ahead, did lots of research, and got in some physical training. In the week leading up to the walk two of us spent several days gradually increasing our walking distances and climbs.

My big concern was that I am not good with heights, in fact I wrote about this and stressful situations a while back. As a result, earlier this year I started indoor climbing and was making real progress and can now look back down from a 10 metre high wall with increased confidence. The day before our walk two of us climbed Ben Nevis, and physically I felt great, walking up and down in under 6 hours. At the summit where, due to a lack of snow, some walkers stood on the edge of the north face marvelling at the drop. I suddenly felt really uneasy. This was very different from the climbing wall, and the sheer drop of hundreds of metres made me question how I would manage on the Ring of Steall. And although this walk is completed by many people every year it has a certain Tolkeinesque quest quality about it, especially given the landscape.

Setting off, in high spirits, on a glorious summer day.

The day of the walk came and the stunning weather meant we had perfect conditions. The five of us had spent the night before going over the route, deciding where the challenges would be and what to do at certain points. The guidance notes included details of the sheer ridges, and which sections would be most challenging. And a boulder where you need to step out, and around a sheer drop, with no foothold. Great, I thought, that sounds lovely. We got an early night and woke ready to take on the walk in glorious sunshine. I had not slept well as thoughts of sheer drops and exposed ridges, and that boulder, ran through my mind. The video we had all watched in preparation made it all seem like it would be too much. But, I told myself, it would be ok, and my friend with the most experience of walking in such circumstances, like the Alps, reassured me that these videos often look worse than reality.

We began walking at 8am and reached the fantastic Steall Falls in good time, crossing the river on the wire bridge was straightforward, and I was feeling good. The foot of the falls also proved difficult, but we all got over, even though some were wetter than others. We traversed some really boggy ground, and I was enjoying the challenge, but it took a while before we reached the base of the first climb. I was thinking positively especially as I’d been encouraging some of my friends across the river (I’m far more comfortable when I can see the ground, even if it is underwater!). What I did think is that this first section has been harder than I had expected, and perhaps the ridges would too.

Chris conquering the rope bridge.

The first peak is An Gearanach and after an hour and a half walking and a bit of scrambling we approached the peak. My friends were doing great. But I was very quiet. Every time I glanced back I felt dizzy. I was holding the side of the hill as we traversed the steep path. It must have looked quite amusing to anyone else. My friends strolling along whilst I leaned into the solid ground for security. Now I knew this was not rationale. Lots of people climb this route and science tells me I would not fall off unless something very unusual, like an earthquake, happened. But that thought of ‘if’ was enough to maintain a high level of personal anxiety.

Eoin, showing more enthusiasm for the first peak than I did.

We reached the first peak and my friends stood on the edge and took in the magnificent views. I lay, face down, in the middle of the tiny plateau. To quote my friends later I was “hugging the mountain for security”. As we rested the anxiety mounted as I could see the route ahead along a terrifying exposed ridge. The glorious conditions made it so much worse, I think I’d have been happier with heavy cloud cover. My main worry was I might freeze on one of the ridges, and the Mountain Rescue would have to come and get me. I thought that if I turned back I might freeze on the descent, which was going to be worse as I would be looking down the hill. I made up my mind, and said I was going down. I said I would go on my own but my friends wouldn’t allow it. So after a short discussion Ian sacrificed the chance to accomplish something we’d been planning for years.

Ian, reaching out to touch Ben Nevis, just before he guided be back to safety.

So our intrepid group split, with Ian and I (Merry and Pippin in the Tolkien metaphor) going our own way, whilst the other three headed off to complete the journey – just without the end goal of throwing away a magic ring. Getting down wasn’t that easy, but we kept seeing people running, yes running, the route in preparation for the Ring of Steall Sky Race. This blew my mind, and gave me further thought for reflection, especially when applied to how experienced teachers must seem to beginning or preservice teachers. We finally reached the bottom and rested by the falls, watching families enjoy the crystal clear waters. The difference in how I felt, compared to a couple of hours earlier was marked, and made importance of ‘safe places’ in other walks of life too.

The walk back to our car was pleasant and we were pretty tired by the end, having still covered 7 miles including a considerable climb. We met up with the other three a few hours later and they were exhausted but really pleased to have finished the challenge. We headed back for a well earned pint and to reflect on the day. My friends shared their photos and agreed I’d made the right decision to turn back, especially as some of the ridges were really challenging. I think I would really like to try ridge walking again, to try and overcome this fear, but the real learning for me was how we deal with situations that cause high stress and anxiety. And in future if I think someone is in that position I can try to handle this with sensitivity that my friends did, and pitch how and when to encourage and push someone. I learnt a lot about myself that day, but a huge amount from my friends too.

If you want to see the highlights of the day, and track the route, Steve used a great app called Relive to put this video together. (And I think it would be a good teaching resource… so just a little more learning for me.)

Pinterest classrooms and a spot of edu-retail therapy

The school holidays are just starting, and the dust has barely settled on the last academic year, but social media is full of posts from the latest batch of NQTs, plus experienced teachers, who are already planning their rooms for next year. They are proudly showing pictures of wall displays, bemoaning that they ran out of display borders so walls are no longer all ‘matchy matchy’, or sharing the latest great find from Pound Stretcher.

This whole issues sits a little uncomfortably with me for several reasons. I’m not the only one thinking this, an educator in the US (Dawn Kasal Finley) posted about this recently and it sparked a debate, so clearly this issue divides teachers. As a result I thought I’d share my views on this, and as always please comment, reply and feel free to disagree.

My first personal objection is that teachers should not be buying resources. If there is an educational need then it should be provided by the school. If the office, or whoever you go to, says there is no wipeboard markers, or worse still no money for them then speak to the head. If the answer is still no, then escalate this and ask the governors or parent council, your Union or even local politicians for help. Once teachers start buying resources becomes the norm no government is likely to object. And it isn’t long before teachers go full Gollum to protect their precious resources.

They are my wipeboard pens precious…!

From some of the posts I see there seems to be huge amount of time spent preparing the ‘perfect’ classroom. Which at times seems to fall into the ‘cute’ category mentioned in the tweet above. Ok, I get this more if you are a primary teacher, but do all your kids want this? Why not ask them, you might be surprised by the reply. A fair bit seems to fall in to the category of colour printed, then laminated, Twinkl spew, which might get looked at, or used, for about two minutes. Which brings up the issue of kids who might get a bit distracted by all this stuff dangling from ceilings, and every centimetre of wall space covered with memory jogging displays or show casing work.

I’m also beginning to think that some teachers like to spend their money on their job. Perhaps engaging in retail therapy seems slightly less guilt ridden if it’s for the kids? The process of scouring charity shops, or cheap discount stores (Pound Land, B&M Bargains etc) might even be enjoyable, and result in you finding a great resource. But my worry here is that suddenly the resource now leads the leaning. Can you imagine a medical professional doing something similar, and finding a £1 bargain to help them carry out an operation? No, neither can I. (I fully expect someone to find an example and prove me wrong now…). What medics are more likely to be doing is reading the latest research, in their field, so they have a better understanding of their specialism and treat their patients. So why not get out of the discount shop and invest in a bit of DIY CPD, read up on your first term teaching topic or read a blog post… I also suspect much of this stuff falls into the mass produced plastic tat category. Instead of buying the giant glittery dice, you might want to see if your IWB software, or tablets have a digital equivalent that isn’t made from oil.

A perfect resource for a science dissection class… (I actually quite like this, and it isn’t made from plastic).

So in conclusion I’m not saying don’t get your classroom well-organised. I actually believe the opposite. Make sure your room is properly resourced so you can teach, and the class can learn. My preference is that it is student, not teacher-centred, but it’s also important that you enjoy teaching in your room, so a degree of personalisation might be a motivator for you. But the room doesn’t have to include triple-backed wall displays and piles of mass produced tat. You can use genuine working walls, and a few really useful select resources. In a primary class I would always have a large scale map of the UK, map of the world, number square and number line. Each table would have enough pencils, rulers, rubbers, mini wipeboards and markers, plus a couple of spares, for each child sitting there.

Ultimately if the things you put in your classroom will benefit your learners then go for it, but keep asking if there is a benefit. And whatever you buy, make sure you claim the cost back.

The fruits of community labour

The town of Tayport, where I live, has a great community garden, which I’ve written about before. But in addition to the well-known growing beds and poly tunnel the founding members set up a community orchard, or fruit tree walk as it is also known. This is situated on the way into the town, situated in marginal land that wasn’t being used for anything else, planted by volunteers and local residents back in 2013. There are a great variety of fruit trees which after several years are becoming well-established and next to a kids play park there are wild strawberries, gooseberries and blackcurrant bushes.

I particularly love the soft fruit as the Tay valley has a great history of cultivating these crops and before the time of European imports there was a train that used to deliver strawberries picked fresh all the was to Convent Garden in London overnight. And as I haven’t got my own garden I am very grateful for this supply of pick your own fruit, right on my doorstep. On a sunny day it is lovely just to pause and pick a handful of berries to snack on, and I imagine prehistoric humans doing something similar as they explored, foraging and eating as they went. I find this connection to our ancestors fascinating and makes me think that in many ways, we have hardly changed despite developments in other areas. Although if I was to rely on this source for all my food intake I might struggle, the strawberries are a little small!

With continued fears about will happen with our increasingly chaotic climate, especially due to recent human ‘developments’, projects like this may only be a tiny step in the right direction. Although there are other added benefits such as the positive feelings we get from seeing these wild fruit ripening in the sun. I also suspect they are providing a good food source, not just for Tayport’s humans, but for local wildlife too helping, ever so slightly, slow the decline in biodiversity. Of course we need big action on a national and international level, but projects like this raise awareness and will hopefully encourage more local communities to try similar things. So if you are passing the fruit walk in Tayport why not stop to pick a some of this tasty, free fruit but you’ll have to be quick, as I suspect they won’t be there long!

Find out more about the fruit tree walk here:

And watch the video from when the trees were planted back in 2013:

Something to report

It’s that time of year when, across the country schools are breaking up, young people are preparing to move from primary to secondary school, and teachers are getting a well-earned holiday. But before they do it is time, in primary at least, to get the end of year reports written. So it seemed like a fitting coincidence, whilst looking for Christmas decorations (getting well-planned…) that I found my old primary school reports. I sat reading them, over a beer, and laughed out loud.

I have mixed memories of primary school. I loved going to see my friends, and things like the school shows, fund raising events, and especially playing football at break time. I was less enamoured with the ‘educational’ experience, which I found rather pedestrian. All this changed when I got to secondary school, the variety of subjects and range of approaches of teachers gave me the chance to learn, especially from my mistakes. In contrast primary school was a hours of tasks to complete. Times-tables and spelling tests, workbooks to slog through, and I found little of anything different to engage and interest me. Whilst at home I enjoyed lots of interesting experiences, and lots of chance to explore and learn independently, it was almost the inverse of having any Adverse Childhood Experiences.

The Coupe Green Primary School class of 1987

Of course my views, based on my selective memory, might have been skewed by my ontological leanings (influenced by my family background) and this post might be a prime example of personal confirmation bias. Here I am looking for evidence to support my opinions or value base. I should also acknowledge that I could be a challenging child. I knew my opinion, and was keen to share it – for friends and colleagues this is shocking I know. I could also badly misread adult or social signals or signs. A teacher once used sarcasm with me, which I completely missed. He was so furious he threw a book at me and told me to get out of the class for the rest of the day. Which I did and quite enjoyed, joining another call instead. Today I might have been tested and diagnosed (possibly for ADHD or ASD), although that doesn’t really matter, the point is that teachers really need to understand the learners they work with.

Before I go on with the post I should add thought long and hard about sharing the actual reports, especially as my class-teacher is still alive (although long retired). But I always argue for openness and transparency especially where there might be a wider interest. Furthermore this dilemma is ultimately one of ethics and these reports were written by an adult and I was 9 or 10 years old. Although I have considerable power now, I had far less back in the 1980s (I was very small and wasn’t allowed to cross the main road on my own!). In addition, I hope that by sharing these reports it may facilitate some discussion or reflection from current teachers. In particular I hope they take a long-term view, when making short-term judgements on learners, of any age.

Primary school report 1986

So what did my teachers think of the 10 year old me? Some of the most amusing comments relate to my ability to complete tasks. For maths I have “a sound knowledge of the subject, but too little done due to lack of concentration.” In English I am a “capable” reader, I “read fluently to different audiences”, and “comprehension very good”. However, “presentation still below required standard”. Given this report predates the National Curriculum by a couple of years I wonder what standard that was! (Mind you my handwriting was very a little erratic, so the advent of word processing came at the right time for me!) what jumps out is the importance placed on task completion and ‘doing’ of work. (Ironic that I now write for work, and blog for fun). Clearly though the content and understanding seems to come a distant second to the output. There are also several positive comments about imagination and creativity, but these seem to be an afterthought, and not seen as important.

One thing that makes me a little uncomfortable was comments about PE. This was a subject I loved throughout school. Here I am described as having, at times, “a poor attitude to teammates”. I have played a lot of sport in the intervening years, and must admit I have been known to not play in the most sporting way. However, this often resulted in issues opposition rather than my own team. If I am am truly reflective then perhaps this is something that now shows itself in my professional life. A questioning attitude could be seen as disruptive or threatening. So this is an area I really need to consider, especially as teachers require integrity, but integrity can be a hugely subjective term.

Primary school report 1987

Interestingly my final primary school report is signed off by the then head-teacher who sadly died only a few years after I finished primary school. Mr Hopkins made a lasting impression on me. At a school fair one year he was officiating the raffle, and loads of kids including me hung around to watch, even though we didn’t have tickets. Someone drew a ticket and the winner couldn’t be found. So instead of redrawing the ticket Mr Hopkins picked out a Blue Peter annual (which even then would not be a very cool prize) and handed it to me saying “you like Blue Peter, don’t you Richard?”. I was beside myself, and I read that book cover to cover many times (which was a rarity, believe me). There was so much in this critical incident. Somehow, possibly by chance, he knew enough about me to make a gesture that had a long lasting, positive impact. I took this experience with me, into teaching, and it still inspires me when I talk to students about acknowledging and truly knowing the learners in their care. It has taken me a while to do this in my current role but I really do know how important it is.

Blue Peter Annual 1984, a book I cherished

The final comment, on my final primary school report, was from the head-teacher, Mr Hopkins. And it sits, quite jarringly, alongside that of my class-teacher. The class-teacher insists I “must develop a positive attitude soon”, whereas the head-teacher, who seems to take a longer term view, commented on my enthusiasm, and suggested, with maturation and time I would achieve my potential. Maybe they were both right, and I’ve actually used the more negative experiences to inspire me to be a different sort of learner and teacher. Either way I’ve done alright, and should be thankful for all the experiences that I had growing up. I should also acknowledge, based on this snapshots, how far education and teaching has come in the past 30 years. Oh, and thanks to my mum for keeping these, they certainly made me smile!