Time to say goodbye

Amidst the arctic weather and travel chaos of the last week I have been at two, quite different, funerals. My great aunt Sheena passed away aged 98. I have fond memories of visiting her in Buxton where it often seemed to be snowing. My father said some lovely words and reminded us of her unique personality, accomplishments and interesting life. She had a most amazing memory for dates and places and I think she learnt things without thinking about it too much. She was clearly a lifelong learner, and I’ve now got some of her school books, from the 1920s and I will enjoy looking over these, probably using them when teaching myself (see below). I think Sheena would’ve liked that idea. She also loved life, enjoying Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, playing bridge and eating good food. She never bothered to count calories, and she was happy to admit she didn’t waste too much time cleaning. Enjoying life is something we can all lose sight of, so I’m going to keep this in mind – and when I do I’ll think about Sheena.

A few days later I attended the funeral of my cousin Ben, who sadly died far too young. He was 47. I hadn’t seen him for quite a long time, but growing up we would visit them in Oxford, and as Ben and my other cousin Susie were a few years older than me and my brother they made a real impression. During the service, and afterwards talking to Ben’s many friends and family members, I learnt more about him – and would like to know more. Ben was a proper leftie, an active campaigner in a variety of areas, a vegetarian, and an avid gamer. He worked for York Council ensuring SEN pupils got the proper support they needed in spite of diminished funding in this area. He also had an eclectic taste in music (singing McFly’s ‘All About You’ at the service was just brilliant!), and apparently he liked to dance. He had crammed a lot in to a relatively short life and when he found out about his terminal illness, and as a true Internationalist, he reflected that he had been fortunate to have these opportunities. Above all Ben was kind and caring.

I will remember him as bright, honest, and really very cool; the fact that he embraced being a geek made him all the cooler to a young me. I don’t know if he knew this but it illustrates how you can influence people, and impact the lives of others, even when life moves on. So in the same way Sheena influences me and Ben inspired me I hope you can take time to think about those that have the same impact on you. And also realise that somewhere in the world there will be someone thinking about the impact you have had on them.


Ph-Do or Ph-Don’t…?

After my last post doubting if I should continue with PhD study – and the very nature and the purpose of education – I’ve been talking and listening to a range of people. This has made me realise the importance of opening up, being vulnerable (a key factor when developing trust), and realising how it is helpful to see things differently. Each time I go through this sort of experience I think I start to understand learning and education that little bit more.

The way people reacted to that last post was fascinating. I received some amazing messages of support and love, so thank you to everyone who commented, contacted me or spoke to me. Some people were a bit unsure what to say or do but I would have been just the same. Some have encouraged me to kick on, as I’ve come along way. Others seemed, I think, to question themselves, which I hadn’t expected. I received lots of useful practical advice too; the advantage of working in a University is there are critical and creative thinkers all around. One final conversation, with the head of the PhD programme, stopped me in my tracks and led me to a startling conclusion (to me at least). I wondered if, without the structures and systems of formal education such as within the PhD, would I have anything to push back against? Perhaps the presence of authority or hierarchy provides the conditions for descent and alternative thought. This is something I need to consider more. My supervisors have also offered to let me do a practice viva. Then we’ll decide together what I should do next. I think this is a sensible compromise. So I’ve been working on putting together a presentation summarising the research so far and I’m quite enjoying it.

Alongside all this I’ve also had a week of learning from other learners which has been a great motivation. This has included undergraduate and postgraduate students as they have shared their ideas with me for planning and teaching (see above). I also attended a brilliant presentation and discussion organised by a secondary school student, working on a research project, who had investigated Curriculum for Excellence. The way they presented the findings to the invited guests was really impressive and the conclusions came back to the debate about very purpose of education – whether this is to pass exams and achieve a goal or simply for the value of learning. And finally I had the chance to join a primary class who had designed and created amusement arcade games from cardboard, inspired by Caine’s Arcade, and to let me learn from them. As I explained they were teaching a teacher who teaches the teachers one pupil pointed out ‘it’s a cycle!’. And they are right, so whatever I end up doing with the PhD this cycle of learning will go on.

Shut up and write

I’ve had my ups and downs over the last year and the last week or so hasn’t been great. There have been a fair few sources of stress at work and at home. I’ve had some really sad news that brings life sharply into perspective.

Alongside the normal work pressures I’m still battling on with my PhD study. Today was a pretty low point and I am seriously considering stopping. I’ve competed the research, I have analysed the data and I am on my 4th or 5th full draft. I am 90% there. But I have a feeling of futility and am questioning the point in continuing. The reason for this is that, and given my topic is self-initiated learning this is ironic, I think I have learnt as much as I can. My supervisors are encouraging me to keep going but I can no longer see the point. All I have left to achieve is to complete the ‘task’ and collect the ‘reward’. To do this I must jump through certain hoops and tick certain boxes. This, I am convinced, is what is fundamentally wrong with education. By going along with this I feel I am being, just a bit, hypocritical.

Some people have told me they are doing a PhD for the recognition or kudos or for the letters after their name. This goes against everything I have been researching and my personal conclusions. Other people have suggested that completing the PhD will open doors for me and provide new career opportunities. I totally understand this. However, recent life events have also got me questioning if this really matters to me. A year ago my cousin was diagnosed with cancer, he was only a few years older than me, and he died this week. Life, I now realise, is too precious to waste on things you don’t believe in or need to do. I have a good job. I have opportunities. I can research. I can write. I can teach. I can learn. Having the PhD title will make no difference to this.

So having moped about today, getting cross and moaning to friends, I turned to Twitter. There was a tweet suggesting EduBloggers should get on with blogging and then post whatever they’ve written. The immediacy and authenticity of this sort of writing, I think, gives much better opportunities for learning – for reader and writer. So that’s what I’ve just done, without worrying about academic convention or if it is ‘right’. And I feel better already.

Open mind – trying new things in 2018

I’ve never been one for New Year resolutions. But following a fairly busy time celebrating the festive season I decided not to drink alcohol for a month. Fairly ordinary I know, but let’s see how I feel at the end of the month. To compensate I opted to do something a bit different. In the interests of trying new things I asked a friend (thanks Taskmaster Chris!) to help me out. I suggested that he send me something new to try each day. We joked this could be a bit mundane, like ‘eat baked beans’, but might also be quite amusing, or even educational and possibly mind expanding. So this blog post details the various tasks and things I have tried over the month… (there are only 28 days as we started late)

Day 1 Task – Eat baked beans

Baked beans on toast. Not new but it’s been a while. Verdict: Lidl value beans aren’t bad.

Day 2 Task – Read a poem before bed

I googled ‘best ever poems’ and after ruling out ones that were incomprehensible, including some Shakespeare sonnets, I settled on The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. It seemed to resonate with me. I also read the analysis which gave me additional perspective. Verdict: I should read more poetry.

Day 3 Task – Try a new cheese

Ok this is easy. Me and my Taskmaster Chris are big cheese fans. As my degree research project, 20 years ago, investigated blue cheese I opted for a Highland Blue. Verdict: Soft, creamy and mild; an entry level blue cheese. Develops well after a few days.

Day 4 Task – Listen to a song you’ve never heard before

As a fairly recent convert to new music (see earlier posts) this should be easy. A Spotify search for ‘great songs you’ve never heard’ led me to a fair few playlists. I listened to a range of artists but my favourite was by a band called Nordic Giants, the song was Together. Verdict: I liked this a lot. Apparently they are excellent live too.

Day 5 Task – Watch McMafia

I don’t watch drama on TV much, and hadn’t seen previous episodes so I wasn’t really sure what was going on. Verdict: This was quite violent in places and there was plenty of tension. Don’t think I’ll watch it again though.

Day 6 Task – Watch Rita Pierson’s TED talk

TED talks are really good. I’ve used them in teaching and learnt a lot about presenting from watching them. I’ve never seen this talk but several teachers I spoke to knew it well. Verdict: This talk is inspiring. I didn’t agree with everything Rita said but will share with students.

Day 7 Task – Read ‘Existentialism Is a Humanism’ by Jean-Paul Sartre

This was a challenge. I’ve not read much philosophy and this was an interesting introduction. But I persevered. Chris asked if I picked out a particular quote. I had and it turned out to be the section that preceded the section Chris liked. Verdict: Not sure if I’m a convert to philosophy yet. But I might revisit this essay again.

Day 8 Task – Call a friend I’ve not spoken to for a while

Well this is a lovely idea! I randomly scrolled through my contacts. I tried a former football team mate, Fordy, sadly no answer (though he called me back later). Tried another former Garnett Bohemians team mate, Churchy this time, no answer again, so left a message (he rang me the next day). Finally succeeded in speaking to Dr Rich, a mate from uni. We chatted about work, family and when we are going to meet up again. Verdict: I need to call more people, more often. And I will. You should. Do it now!

Day 9 Task – Watch a foreign language film

I’ve seen a few Spanish films before and thought watching another one might be a good learning experience (I have a very basic grasp of conversational Spanish, and need to practise more). However, I drew a blank on Netflix, but did find the Oscar winning Japanese film, Departures. Verdict: I would never have picked this film normally but I really liked it. It gave me was a fleeting but fascinating insight into a culture I know very little about. And the really unusual subject matter is handled with amazing sensitivity.

Day 10 Task – Draw a picture… of the sea

This is unexpected. In school when I decided not to pursue art beyond the age of 13 my teacher thanked me and wished me well, I suspect with a sense of relief. And I can’t remember the last time I did anything ‘arty’. Luckily I have some friends who could give some advice. Cue an impromptu art lesson. Verdict: I didn’t draw, I created, using things from the kitchen. And I really, really enjoyed doing this, and I think it’s rather good.

Day 11 Task – Watch an old film

Given the relatively young age of my Taskmaster most films I’ve seen probably class as old. Chris suggested Brief Encounter but I couldn’t get it. Then I remembered Chris often talked about Annie Hall, which I only knew about beacause it beat Star Wars to the best film Oscar in 1977. So I thought it might be time to see what it was like. And it was released before my first birthday, so I think it is pretty old. Verdict: Woody Allen starts the movie talking about turning 40. There were quite a few other parts I could relate to as well. It’s a good film. Better than Star Wars? Not sure…

Day 12 Task – Try meditation

I do yoga but thought this was a bit out my comfort zone. I googled a meditation website and picked ‘Meditation for Moving On’ (seemed appropriate), then set the audio guide away. Verdict: It is harder than you think to clear your mind. Although it must have worked as a I drifted off to sleep for a short while. I think I’ll give this a try again. Especially when I’m feeling stressed.

Day 13 Task – Take photos

I like taking photos but do it very rarely. I spent some time looking around campus. Verdict: You can decide. I like quite the montage below.

Day 14 Task – Listen to Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas

Well this is something I’d never have done without Chris’s encouragement. Apparently he drinks in a pub that Dylan Thomas frequented. He also suggested I try the Richard Burton version. Verdict: Not really my ‘cup of tea’. Quite surreal.

Day 15 Task – Look up the dictionary of obscure sorrows

This was unusual. I like investigating words, especially new ones. Verdict: I’m not sure I need all these words. But ‘onism’ resonated with me. It means: ‘the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time’.

Day 16 Task – Learn a cooking skill

I enjoy cooking so this should be fun. I also watch Great British Bake-off and am always intrigued by spinning sugar. So I thought I’ll give that a bash. Verdict: Biggest failure yet. The lack of a sugar thermometer didn’t help. But either way this is a lot harder than it looks on TV. Think I need to try something simpler. (* I revisited this Task and made some quite good chocolate mousse).

Day 17 and 18 Task – Write a poem

This was a tough challenge. Chris gave me a choice: sestina or sonnet, I had to admit I knew what neither were. So I was directed to write a sestina. Luckily the internet can teach you anything. The next couple of days were spent working on my poem. Then I sent it to off to Chris for criticism. Verdict: I really enjoyed this, and learnt a great deal. Chris liked it too.

Day 19 Task – Perform a handstand

Not good as I have a sore arm, from playing American football (that’s a #humblebrag I know). Therefore a handstand was out of the question. But instead, with aid of the wall and a cushion, I managed a headstand. Verdict: I’m going to work on this. It would make a cool party trick if I could get the hang of it.

Day 20 Task – Choose a motto

I don’t really know where to start with this one. I run through a few options. Have a quick look online. Then decide to go with a cliche, based on my background in teaching. Verdict: My motto is ‘It’s your own time you’re wasting’. Don’t know if I’ll use this much!

Day 21 Task – Write your own eulogy

This is a bit dark… I’ve been meaning to rewrite my will so I could put this in at the same time. Ok then I’ll try this. Verdict: Actually this was quite fun. I think planning ahead like this isn’t such a bad idea.

Day 22 Task – Do origami

As a teacher of Primary school teachers this could be really useful. A friend gives me a origami set and I decide to try a butterfly. Verdict: After a bit of thinking, and careful reading of instructions, I work out how to make the butterfly. It is quite good, I am pleased with myself 🙂

Day 23 Task – Research your family history

This Task represents a challenge as my own father has already researched a couple of branches of the family tree. So I spend some time reading these and enjoy finding out about people I never knew. Then someone points out that my dad has only researched the paternal lines. Verdict: I am going to try and research the maternal line from my mother, and her mother.

Day 24 Task – Improve your swimming

Talking to the Taskmaster on the way to have a swim we discuss tumble turns and perfecting front crawl. I’m a breast stroker so side to side crawl breathing is my challenge. Verdict: After 30 minutes of gasping for breath I’ve managed to drink a good quantity of pool water. This is gong to take some time to perfect.

Day 25 Task – Get from a random Wikipedia page to the page on Custard Creams by following links

Off I go to Wikipedia, hit the random article button and I start with the Capture of Mametz, then Western Front, next United Kingdom, then Manchester, to Trafford Park, and The Co-operative, next Fairtrade, and then Tea, on to Tea Party, and Biscuits and finally, after about 45 minutes, I reach Custard Cream! Verdict: What a buzz! What a great game! I loved this.

Day 26 Task – Tell me (Chris, the Taskmaster) a bedtime story

I’m glad the month is coming to a close. These are getting a little bizarre! Anyway let’s give this a bash… Using Jack & the Beanstalk for inspiration I retold the story of Kris, his cow (Shearer) and a Magic pastie tree. Chris the Task Master’s verdict: ‘What a journey’ (I think he went to bed happy).

Day 27 Task – Listen to the Art Teacher by Rufus Wainright

Another music based Task. It sounds like it is an interesting song, but not one I’d have listened to normally. Verdict: It’s ok.

Day 28 Task – Write a love letter… to myself

Well this is uncomfortable. But it is my last challenge. Back to google for some encouragement, there are a lot of examples there. Verdict: I’m not publishing this. But it was an experience.

Now I think I need a drink. Seriously though, I got so much more from this than I expected. Thanks Chris!

Being a ‘good’ reader

I like Dave Gorman. He has an excellent TV show called Modern Life Is Goodish, which is well worth watching. He examines things we take for granted and suddenly they seem silly and very funny too. He used to have a radio show and on that he asked people to phone in with what they should be doing, and what they were actually doing. I’m thinking about this now. I should be writing my PhD, or getting some exercise (I’ve put my shorts on, so I’m half way there!). Instead a quick check of Twitter (see pic below) alerted me to an extract from the book Poverty Safari (I’ve not read it, but think I will) by @lokiscottishrap got me thinking about reading.

Loki recounts how, while he loved words and language, he just couldn’t be doing with trudging through the tomes required at school. I felt the same and even today, although I’ll happily consume blog posts, articles and ‘read’ TV documentaries or films, I find reading longer texts, especially novels more of a challenge or even a chore. A little like Loki describes I have read a few shorter classics so I can blag my way through a conversation on classic literature. But I feel intimidated by the apparently unquestioned positive trait in education and academia toward being a ‘good reader’ – whatever that means. And examining this I wonder if in fact this idea of being a ‘good reader’ fits with the dominant trait in most teachers, who then go on (unwittingly) to perpetuate this idea.

But when we say ‘good reader’ do we actually mean ‘good’ as in ‘doing as society expects’? I started wondering if enjoying (ploughing through?) a classic text is in fact a way of putting the thinking for yourself on hold, in the same way watching a soap opera or reality TV show is escapism. I’m currently making slow but steady progress with the Scottish literary classic Sunset Song (then I can add it to my blagging repertoire!) and I am enjoying it. But I read a few pages then stop to think about what I’ve read. It often sends me off on tangents in my mind, which I really enjoy. However, I have a limited ability to get through texts quickly. I suspect this is not unusual and the societal idea that a ‘good reader’ is someone who works through book after book, possibly not thinking too much, might be putting many young people off language, literature and impacting on learning. If, like Loki, they don’t fit the accepted model they may pick up lots of other, unfounded, ideas about themselves too e.g. they aren’t good at English, they aren’t smart/clever, they can’t read/write… etc.

Returning to Dave Gorman he always seems to explore interesting ideas, and question things we accept, and has a creative mischievousness about him, doing it all with good humour. These are things I think we could learn from in education. Language is fabulously adaptable. We should be exploring language, questioning literature and being mischievous and playing. Turning reading and our associated view of language in to a chore, or a tick or star to be achieved, is not going to work for many more like me or Loki.

Now after this quick time out for blogging I need to get back to the PhD, like a ‘good’ student. Although this post was another example of informal professional learning, or DIY PD for me, so thinking about it was time well spent – I think. I just hope if you are reading this post you didn’t find it too onerous!

Christmas Day on my own…

It’s Christmas Day. I’m on my own. And that’s ok. In fact it’s better than that. I’m very happy. Because it’s what I wanted, and I’m not really on my own.

When I told people I’d decided to spend the day on my own they reacted in a variety of ways, but the consistent element was the generosity and kindness I encountered. I had so many offers of joining people for Christmas Day I could’ve ended up eating my body weight in sprouts (which sounds amazing, I love sprouts!). For a while I thought about trying to visit all these people, but given the logistical challenges I decided against it. I’ve also learnt how good people really are, and the fact they all made the offer meant so much. I also received cards with very personal messages and a wonderful letter from my brother, which even writing about now brings tears to my eyes. Although these words cost nothing the sentiments they represent are priceless. I now realise these are acts of love, a concept which is too often misunderstood (I’ve learnt a lot about this from reading bell hooks).

Christmas tree and decorations that mean something, and cards from some special people.

Over the last year I’ve been thinking more and more about the importance of memories. So this morning I spent time looking at the things around my flat, and listening to music that means something to me, remembering the special people I have met during my life. Some of these in the last year or so, others going back throughout my life, some came and left my life over a short space of time, others are long suffering! This was a lovely way to spend the morning and made me realise it’s not the stuff or thing that matters but the people connected to these. I’ve also realised social media, much maligned for humble bragging or vacuous content, comes into its own this time of year. Seeing posts and pictures of people I care about, and the personal messages of love they are sharing, with their friends and family, has really made me feel happy. On top of that I got texts and calls from several people. Knowing that people are thinking of you makes such a difference.

I feel I should finish by adding that I’m not religious so I can’t really understand the significance it has to people in that respect. But perhaps the importance of feeling love for people, common to different religions, is something I now understand much better. If you are reading this and I know you personally, there’s a good chance I’ve been thinking about you today, so as far as I’m concerned you’ve been with me. Thank you, I love you.

Policy analysis and learning about teaching

I’m now over 5 years into my career as a teacher educator. This is a fairly long period, I think, but only in the last year have I started to really think about how I educate teachers effectively. This has happened alongside studying for a PhD which has pushed me to take a real critical view of my approaches. Some colleagues – not doing PhDs I should add – have said all you need to do to to pass one is keep working away. And for the odd person this may be the case, especially if it is a route to a promotion, and I thought this for a while. But not anymore. Now I understand it is far more than that, you need to really question yourself and your own understanding. And beyond the PhD I’m also learning huge amounts from other experienced teacher educators beyond my own department, thanks to twitter and blog posts.

I am now looking to learn whenever I can, and to share this learning. To do this I have arranged to view colleagues teach and lead seminars or tutorials, beyond the mandatory single paired observation each year, which in my view is insufficient but better than nothing. Last week I attended a seminar led by a colleague who offered to help with a Masters’ module I am teaching. I could have left them to it, but the focus was policy analysis. I had never considered teaching how to analyse policy but suddenly realised this is fundamental to what we do, everyday, as educators and learners. So I attended the session and learnt a lot from my colleague, and the other students, about policy and approaches and methods of analysis. I also learnt about how my colleague planned and facilitated the learning and I’ll be trying to apply some of this next week when I teach (see images below). The irony here is that the module I teach has a focus on curriculum. This experience allowed me to review the approach to the curriculum I deliver, on a micro, session-by-session level. I am still guided by the module specification, and system imposed by the university regulations (itself a form of localised policy) although in reality my main influence is the interaction with the learners I work with on a daily basis.

This experience also pushed me to reconsider other teaching I am doing. And so I have sought feedback from students in workshops and applied this the very next week (see below) when I taught them again. This might seem obvious but without questioning, deeply, what I have been doing I don’t think I would have made these changes. I was also contacted (via Twitter) by a colleague from a different department who is keen to look at approaches to assessing students. I said I would be very keen to get involved as I think, at times, our approaches to assessment (including my own) can be conservative with too much emphasis on an end product, such as an essay, rather than the process of learning.

I am also learning more about scholarship (see my earlier posts) and this week offered to run a session on this at our school research conference. Unfortunately I was bumped at the last minute, a colleague said they needed to present their research instead, and as I had teaching that afternoon I had to give up the chance. But even this was learning for me. I learnt about the way people interact in such situations and how, at times, academia can be competitive and not everyone sees the bigger picture. Five years ago I’d have been frustrated that I’d missed this chance to present. But now I see this as an opportunity – I am learning all the time. I’ve banked (sorry Freire fans) this experience and it will help me in future.

Returning to critical analysis of my own practice I am not sure all teachers and teacher educators are doing this. This might be because they don’t realise, in terms of the Johari window, that they don’t know, what they don’t know. Educational researcher John Hattie encourages teachers to ‘know thy impact’ and I’d argue that first you have to ‘know thy self’. And be prepared to say ‘I might be wrong…’. As a teacher educator, researcher and learner I’ve only truly started doing this now. My next step is to act on this.