Monthly Archives: April 2014

Trees

I love this time of year.  My daughter (she’s 8) would have you believe that it is because it is the season that contains my birthday.  Now that I have entered my 40s, and my age will soon be unmentionable in polite society, I hesitate to agree, but I don’t tell her that.  Instead I give her a little nod, raise my eyebrows and smile what I hope is an enigmatic smile.  No, the reason I love this time of year is the transformation in the countryside from dull, dead brown to vibrant, springing green.

I am particularly lucky in my drive to work.  I don’t work where I live; every morning I drive across the countryside between one town and another, and, along the way, I see the seasons change.  Back in September, the mists glowed, magical across the vale.  Now, the trees are transforming, almost before my eyes, clothing themselves in their misty cloaks of green.

I love the freshness of this time of year, and the transient nature of it all makes it seem so much more precious.  In a couple of weeks, all this vibrancy will be over, the fragility will be gone  and we shall be into the rich verdancy of summer.

One thing that never fails to surprise is the variety spread out before me.  Not a single one of them is the same colour.  If I look out of my bedroom window, out at my garden, there is a line of trees – lilac, apple, magnolia and yew, each one putting on its fresh green coat, each one a stunner, each on different.

Funnily enough, the top of the hit parade, for me, is one that isn’t even green.  My favourite, the one that makes my heart sing when I see it, is the copper beech.  There’s something about them that appeals to me; the leaves, the shape of the tree itself, its overwhelming size.  There’s one down at the bottom of my road.

I love the way that, if one didn’t know any better and hadn’t witnessed the coming of spring many, many times, what looks dead, stiff and unmoving as the proverbial doornail, suddenly springs, out of nowhere, into life.  The thing that we thought was ready to be chopped down and thrown on the fire turns around and surprises us with its energy, its transformation.

I remember the first time I became aware of the trees in springtime.  I grew up in south Devon, in a village tucked deep into a wooded valley.  When I was six I was terribly, terribly poorly and spent four months in hospital.  At one point, when I was starting to be better, I was allowed to spend the odd night at home, at the weekend.  My journey home took me through the hills and woods that covered the land between one valley and the next.  One week the trees were winter bare, the next, wearing their springtime green.  My mum told me that the trees had done it for my birthday.

They were good at that, my parents.  During that time, when they must have been out of their minds with worry, they turned the simple things, the scary things, the hurting things into little parcels of magic.  My dad helped me to cope with the removal of forty-four stitches along a scar that zipped me back up by encouraging me to use my new-found counting skills.  The thing that marked me, that pained me, turned out to be interesting and absorbing, something to be celebrated, not half so bad after all.

Every spring I am reminded of those stories; the way the trees put out their leaves for my birthday, a poorly little girl of six, the way that one minute it all seems dead and dull, the next full of eye-wincingly bright life.  The marvel of nature, stunning in its complexity, beautiful in its display of difference.

 

 

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Testing Times

I went into Waterstones the other day.  I was supposed to be buying my mum a birthday present, but, as is my wont, I happened into a book shop as I just happened to be passing.  Knowing that I didn’t have much time within which to complete my shopping, I hurried past those tempting tables of books, the ones where I used to spend quite considerable amounts of my hard-earned cash, and headed instead to the back of the shop, to where the children’s books are.

I love children’s books.  I love reading them, and I love buying them for my children, but I wasn’t looking for something to keep them entertained.  No, I went for a small corner tucked away to one side; the corner where they keep those books full of revision materials, or practice 11+ tests.  I patiently waited for a nice looking couple to move on, and then it was my turn.  I riffled through the books, looking for one in particular.

My younger son, A, you see, is in Year 6 at primary school.  This is the year that is focussed on the end of key stage tests.  In about three weeks’ time he will have his reading, writing, spelling, grammar and maths tested, and his teachers, his school, will be judged by the marks he gets.  As his academically achieving mother (although not as brainy as his father), I would like him to do well, so, knowing what I do, having taught Year 6 myself before, I thought I’d get him a revision book.  Maths.  The subject he flaps about, for some unknown reason.

There I was, book in hand, flicking through the pages, thinking how long it was, how much of it he would have to get through in a short period of time, when I suddenly found myself asking a question.  Just what was I doing?

Now, I have found myself in the unenviable position of disagreeing internally many times on the issue of homework with my children’s primary school.  Sam has always been the most reluctant of home workers, and his little brother and sister have pretty much followed in his footsteps in their dislike of worksheets that encroach upon their free time.  As a teacher-mother, I have seen how hard kids work in school, and I can’t imagine that my own are great exceptions to this observation.  I have seen how tired they are, how they kick off their shoes and lie, comatose, upon the sofa on their return home, how much they need instant feeding.

And, after all those years of kicking against the traces of homework that encroaches upon family time, A’s teacher has done something I think is eminently sensible.  He has given him no homework to do over the Easter holidays.  Despite those tests, there is no revision, no ten questions a day, nothing.

Instead of sitting at a table, sweating over calculations that worry him, A has been busy on a whole lot of other stuff.  Last week he was in his first ever play – at a real theatre, mark you.  He has, for the first time in his life, experienced the jolly japes of backstage, the satisfaction that comes of overcoming your very real stage fright.  He has learnt his lines, and sung songs of far greater complexity than he has ever done before.  He has made friends with children who don’t go to his school, been looked after by incredibly talented older kids whose age I can’t work out (they seem everso big to me).

And when he hasn’t been performing he’s been out in the glorious sunshine, building dens and digging holes with other little boys who live nearby.  He’s played Minecraft with his little sister until the cows came home.  He’s stayed up late reading Swallows and Amazons.  He’s disappeared into enormous play parks with friends he only sees in the holidays.  He’s been to visit a newly refurbished local art gallery.  After a busy term where, along with the rest of us, he’s struggled along being just under the weather, he has relaxed.

It’s been lovely.

So what was I doing with that Maths book in my hand?  Sometimes I find it hard to switch between my two roles: teacher-mother.  As a teacher I want my boy to do well, to show what he’s capable of.  I want him to work hard, do his best, and take a number up to secondary school that will mean he finds himself swimming in the right set, preferably not one where there are kids for whom behaving well and working hard is an anathema.  As a mother I find it difficult when everyone seems to be talking about which school their kid is going to, what level their kid is at.

Because, you see, for a long time, I never had to put up with any of that nonsense. For a long time, Sam, with his label and his disability, gave me a Get Out of Jail Free Card.  Parental pissing contests don’t mean much when someone else, and their kid, is on a different track.

And in that bookshop, at the back and in the corner, I gave myself a talking to.  As a teacher and a mother.  I reminded myself of the decision I made, back when I was stuck in the maternity unit, waiting to be told that I could take my baby home.  Back when Sam was only a few days old I realised that I didn’t have a baby so that he could reflect well on me.  I didn’t have children so that I could live vicariously through them, or bask in their reflected glory.  It was, and is, my privilege, and my responsibility to bring them up, to give them the foundations so that they can go on and live an independent life.  The rest is up to them.  My worth as a parent is, perhaps, only going to be known when they are parents themselves.

And I reminded myself that I am not a failure if my kids don’t live up to some arbitrary standard set up by someone else.  I am not a failure, either mother or teacher, because the children don’t have the right number of chromosomes, or the ‘right’ letter or number following their names on a school tracking system. All I can do is my best, and sometimes, with no reference to me, other things happen.

And that’s why I don’t like the end of key stage tests.

 

 

Image courtesy of the BBC

Who’s That Girl?

Who’s That Girl?

 

A friend of mine gave me a bit of a shock a while back. We hadn’t been in touch for years and years, and then there was Facebook.  Shortly after that there was a picture of me I hadn’t known existed.  There I was, in what must have been my third year at university; me and my bike, my torn jeans and my Doctor Martens.  I can’t remember the photograph being taken, not at all, but I can well imagine the scene.  Friends were lolling around, probably after having finished our finals, I was passing, and stopped for a chat.  Someone took my picture, as simple as that.

What shocked me wasn’t so much that there was a picture of me that I didn’t know about, nor that it had been posted without my permission.  No, what shocked me was the slightly diffident, unknowingly confident smile of the girl on the bike.  Where did she go?  Just who was she?

There, in that picture, was a girl who had just finished a much enjoyed degree in History.  At the end of three years of study, where she’d increasingly got the hang of what she was supposed to do, she was poised, ready, so she thought, to take the leap from academic study to training in primary teaching.  She could have gone for a PGCE in secondary History, but she didn’t really fancy trying to engage disaffected youth in her favourite subject ever.

That girl doesn’t know a thing about being a primary school teacher.  She doesn’t know about the hot competition for jobs that will mean that she will spend the majority of her teaching life on a temporary contract.  She doesn’t know how hard she will have to work once she finally lands that permanent contract, how closely she will watch the clock, making sure her lessons are pacey and well-timed, how much like a hamster on a wheel she will feel.  She hasn’t yet embarked upon the journey that will take her from idealistic student to fully fledged adult.

This girl, the one with the world at her feet, doesn’t know that she will need to transform again, once she becomes a mother.  She hasn’t the slightest inkling of how she will enter that birthing room and emerge, baby in her shaking arms, an almost completely different person.  She doesn’t know that her firstborn will arrive with an extra chromosome, Down Syndrome, and that his appearance in her life will make her re-evaluate the expectations she had of children, of who her children might be.  She doesn’t know that it will take her ten years, and two more babies, before she feels strong enough to return to the job she loved, and wore her out in equal measure.

The girl in the photograph hasn’t learned yet about compromise.  She is still in the midst of discovering who she is, what she wants out of life.  Would she be shocked to find that her older self would limit her options in order to put the people, in particular the small people, she cares about most in the whole entire world first?  Would she put her ambitions on hold, take on a smaller, part-time role?  That girl hasn’t yet learned how her heart can be, if not broken, wounded.

It wasn’t the easiest of things, getting back into teaching after that long break.  I didn’t stay at home, changing nappies, cleaning the house, getting used to the school run for the entire time.  I started and ran my own mother and toddler music group for seven of those years.  I did a two year stint in direct sales.  I wrote two novels, and had a number of small articles published in parenting magazines.  I campaigned for traffik free chocolate, was interviewed on the radio a couple of times.  Even so, I had to exercise all of my powers of persuasion to get a head teacher to take a chance that I hadn’t forgotten what to do in a classroom, that learning how to do other stuff was relevant.

So now here I am.  I haven’t got a classroom of my own any more (I haven’t lost my keys – yet), I haven’t even got a class.  And yet I know that I am doing important work.  I teach some of the most vulnerable children in a school packed full of vulnerable kids how to do the basics in reading and writing.  I teach children who barely speak a word of English how the alphabet works.  Thanks to an understanding boss, I teach these children on a timetable that allows me to be the parent I need to be for the son who needs me to be there.  I might miss the challenge and creativity of day-to-day teaching, and I’ve never lost the feeling that almost overwhelmed me on my first ever day of my first ever job, that of disbelief that anyone would give me a teaching job, but doing what I do allows me the freedom to write this, to think deeply about education, and where I want to go next in my school journey.

I could look at that photograph and think that that girl has nothing to do with the me of today.  I could think myself morphed into a different being altogether.  But I am particularly blessed.  I have the faith that convinced me when I was sixteen, even though it has taken a battering.  I have a husband I met when I was that bike riding student (I still have a bike; not that particular bike, but a bike nonetheless.).  And I have friends who knew me before I met him, before I became a teacher, a mother.  And when I see them, when they smile when I comment upon the role of sport and its related clothing in the emancipation of women, and, even better, they nod and agree, I know that I haven’t changed so very much at all.

I still want to change the world, one person at a time.

 

This post also appears on http://whoiamwhatido.edublogs.org

 

You Can’t Stop the Beat

When Sam was about a year old, I was infected with a serious case of Even-Better-Than-Thats.  It’s a terrible disease that affects teachers in particular, especially those with a bit of time on their hands and a fertile imagination (ie. me).  Back in 2002, instead of buckling under the pressure to attend every baby-learning group possible (OK, I fell for the baby swimming one for a bit), I decided I would go into business and set up my own.  So Music Time was born.

I learned a lot from my little enterprise; not least the pleasure I got out of sharing my joy in making music with other people.  I developed a simple structure: a half hour of singing everyday nursery rhymes and songs with signs and actions, playing and exploring musical instruments, accompanying songs with instruments and a bit of listening to music from different times and cultures (which usually included jigging about).  I ran it for about seven years, by which time all three of my children had attended, from babyhood to pre-school.

There was the pleasure in seeing adults making friends, through a joint activity, a common interest.  I wasn’t a party to these friendships, not particularly, but I was aware that mothers came to my group because they valued making music with their little ones, but perhaps lacked confidence doing it on their own, and found others who shared their values.

Then there was all the business stuff I learned.  I found out that there is no better marketing than word of mouth; I must have had three posters in and around my town, done about five demos at different toddler groups and that was it.  I was up and running.  That said, I also found out that people want to buy into a brand.  They don’t always believe that smaller is better, that they are getting a better quality experience when they attend an independent group designed by someone enthusiastic and well qualified, rather than one run by a franchisee.  I found that, in the midst of babies and nappies, sleepless nights and vomit, endless washing and potty training, I didn’t have what it took to compete with flashy resources and the power behind a glossy name that everyone recognises.

But most of all there was my pleasure in seeing my children, and Sam in particular, taking part.  I had (in fact, I still have it, sitting on top of a shelf, next to the piano) a box of instruments specially designed for tiny hands.  (I occasionally let them get it down and bang and clash and create and compose to their heart’s content.)   Sam used to dance about and exclaim with excitement when it was time to get them out.  Those simple songs started all of my children on their journey to communication and language.  While I sang them, I signed them.  As well as the rhythms and rhymes of English, they all learned essential signs, such as ‘more’, ‘please’, ‘eat’ and ‘drink’.  Sam was signing long before he was talking.

It was more than that, though.  There was up and down, stop and go, waiting, turn taking, the security of routines and repetition, discovery, counting, early reading; I could go on.  I made coins so that they could come and ‘buy’ currant buns (after counting them).  I had a piece of string for ‘elephants’ to balance on.  I made a set of cards with pictures on one side and words on the other so that we could take turns making requests.  There was eye contact and sharing.  Stories and song.

I’ve been doing a bit of reading lately and it’s been making me feel bad.  I’ve been finding out about how much a parent’s engagement with their child matters, how much of a difference it makes to educational achievement.  And I have mourned the passing of Sam’s primary years, those years when I felt slowly, but surely, frozen out of his schooling; years when the journey of my slow withdrawal from involvement with his school work started.  These days, it’s a rare event when he will read his book to me.  I struggle to persuade him to do his spellings without a fight.  Frankly, I’ve felt a bit depressed.

But something happened today, something quite unexpected, that made me stop and think.  There I was, sitting at the table, surrounded by the debris of a Saturday lunch, reluctantly contemplating the washing up, the wiping down, the sweeping up.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I am not the biggest fan of cleaning, in any of its forms.  I have a multitude of professional procrastination techniques up my sleeves.  However, eventually, the job has to be done, and often my answer is to put some songs on, crank the volume up (not so much as to annoy the neighbours) and sing and boogie the housework away.

Mid-boogie (it may have been one of my Zumba-tunes), Sam came and joined me.  He didn’t attempt a Strictly-fied lift this time (thank goodness); this time he selected the tunes and we walked 100miles, told each other we were fireworks and wondered at the amazing discovery that rock ’n’ roll would save us all.  We grinned at each other and I remembered that we share more, my eldest boy and I, than I normally realise.

When he was a baby, and my only baby, I used to play and play my piano to him.  I lay him on the floor nearby and he would coo and I would play and sing.  Later there was Music Time, and now there is Strictly and dancing and singing; always singing.  It doesn’t matter that you can’t really hear the words.  It doesn’t matter that the tune gets mangled.  We don’t care that the rest of the family is sick of Moves Like Jagger and Scouting for Girls.

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Music is inside us, and the beat goes on.  My son and I.

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This is not my bass.  This is Daddy’s bass.  (My piano is behind the Boy.)

Performance Management

I do not enjoy the many, many end of term assemblies or carol concerts I attend as a parent.  It troubles me, this dissatisfaction.  After all, I think my children are the bees knees, and I want to join with them in these celebrations, but, somehow, it doesn’t work for me.  Something always jars.  Part of it is down to the fact that at my children’s school, I am an outsider.  I am fully aware of this.  As a teacher my emotions are fully engaged with all of the children, as a parent I only really care about three amongst the assembled throng.  As a parent it’s not my job to interact, to share conspiratorial grins or shush loudly, raise my eyebrows or apologise from the piano keys.  As a parent, it is my job to be entirely passive, to sit, to stand, to clap when I am told to, and it’s not a job I do well, I’m afraid.

There always seems to be, at the back of my mind, the awful feeling that my children are missing out.  As one of the pianists at school, a large part of my job-before-the-kids-arrived was to direct and teach the singing.  I’ve got books and books of parts written for chime bars, recorders and a whole plethora of un-tuned percussion sitting, unused, on my bookshelves and yet, this aspect, this part that was writ large in my teaching life, seems to have touched my children not one little bit.

They don’t know about invisible string.  (That’s the stuff that starts at the base of your spine, goes up your backbone and comes out the top of your head and pulls you to sitting up straight when you are singing.)  They don’t know how many fingers you need to get into your mouth to show you how wide to open it to let the sound out.  They don’t know which parts of their ribs move when they breathe, or how they should be able to sing the alphabet on one breath.  They don’t know to just carry on when the piano playing goes wrong.  In fact, half the time I’m not even sure if I am listening to my own children sing or not, because the canned music is so loud.

And all this makes me unbearably sad.  I couldn’t understand it at first.  I couldn’t understand why the production values were so low, but now that I am back in the game I think I’ve got a better handle on what’s going on.

It used to be, back when I was teaching full time and had a class of my own, that you could pretty much write off the last few days leading up to a production.  Or weeks even, if it was a really big show.  There wasn’t much point planning PE in the hall because you were never sure if you’d be able to get in there, what with all the rehearsals.  Take Christmas.  We’d start learning the carols in November in our weekly singing assemblies, and the timetable, from being predictable in its routine, was liable to fly out of the window at a moments’ notice – usually the point at which the head teacher decided that it was going to be a disaster and no mistake if we didn’t do something drastic.

These days, I don’t think anyone would dare.  Somehow, somewhere, it seems that the only valuable things to learn are those we write down in exercise books, in particular in English and Maths. Somehow, we seem to have forgotten the other things we learn when there is a school play, or concert, end of term assembly or service.  Somehow, in schools stuffed with teachers who play musical instruments, it has become easier to stick a CD on rather than open the lid of the piano.  Or worse, have no-one who can play it all on the staff.

I’ve never been a particularly sporty person (I always have a good idea of the game, but never had the physical capabilities to take part properly); I learned how to be in a team through the school orchestra, the choir and the play.  I’ve watched children internalise song after song after song (who needs poetry recitals?!), I’ve seen them practice and practice until they got it right, take parts that pushed them out of their comfort zone because they trusted their teachers and rose to the challenge.  I’ve refused to accept singing that slides all over the place instead of hitting the right notes,  and have insisted on practising that little bit again and again and again, slowing down the melody and simplifying it so that the children could really hear it, really listen.  I’ve shown children how to enunciate properly so that the audience could make out the words – either sung or spoken.

I’ve felt the buzz of excitement in the room designated ‘back stage’, and I’ve seen how the children take a first tentative step out into the unknown, with no teacher or conductor there to support them, and how they grow when the audience laughs at the jokes and applauds with enthusiasm at the end.

And more than anything else, I’ve experienced how these team events bind us together.  They create a community, a shared sense of ‘do you remember when Johnny Smith fell off the stage and Mr Williams saved the day?’  The magic of going out in the dark, the spotlights that mean you can’t see the audience, but you know that they can see you, creates more enthusiasm for school than anything else I’ve known, especially when it is the kind of performance where everyone has a part to play.

I feel a palpable sense of grief that for my own children, this experience is almost an entirely alien one.  Maybe it’s because they go to a school that isn’t especially musical, but I’m not so sure.  I think it’s got more to do with levels and OfSTED and performance of an entirely different kind. I wish someone would convince Our Great Leader that there is more to learning, and there is certainly more to school learning, than what goes on in formal lessons.

 

Sam learns about stage craft - but not at school.
Sam learns about stage craft – but not at school.