Monthly Archives: September 2014

Scrapheap Challenge

Ah, the behaviour of children.  The eternal preoccupation of every parent, and certainly every teacher in the land.  The subject of newspaper headlines, innumerable books, studies, and inspection reports on a local and national level.  It might almost be a national obsession greater than the weather.  Almost.

When we were considering the best place of education for our precious boy, back in 2004, behaviour was one of our main concerns.  As a little one, our son was biddable, if random, happy (mostly) to go where he was put and do as he was told, so, knowing that children learn from each other, the thought of what he might pick up from his classmates was a concern.  ‘We need him to be with good role models, not be the role model,’ we told ourselves, and duly sent him to a mainstream school.

It shouldn’t be too difficult for them to fit him in, I thought, teachers do it all the time, fit kids in.  It’s called differentiation.  He can have his activities, suitable for his needs, be in the class with his genetically ordinary peers and benefit from having the best of both worlds.  They can benefit by learning Makaton and difference.  Inclusion, working for everyone’s benefit.

Except, now that I’m back on the inside, instead of out in the playground looking in, I’m not entirely sure.  You see, differentiation is a hard task master.  In some schools it requires worksheets re-written five ways and pages-long, colour-coded, checked-and-approved plans that take hours and hours to prepare for every lesson (at which point you can guarantee there will be a bee and all the careful plans will fall into the dust), in others it demands reams of marking, in prescribed colours (we teachers like our colours and our stationery, especially if we can come up with a little rhyme, or better still an acronym, to go with it, like ‘pink for think’ or ‘D.I.R.T.’), because everything we do, even though we know that the best sort of differentiation is in the way we relate to our pupils, the way we talk to them, tailor what they need to do next in that instant, must be evidenced, must be written down somewhere where the inspectors can see it, mark it for approval.

It’s the reason why many primary schools have gone down the road of setting for ability in Maths and English, at younger and younger ages.  In many ways it makes sense.  If you can put the children together who are working on the same kind of thing at the same kind of level you will be able to pin point your teaching, and everyone will get along quicker, right?  Your teachers will be teaching to a smaller bandwidth of ability, making their lives less complicated, won’t they?  Makes life easier for everyone, doesn’t it?  Yes?

Except where the set is the same for Maths and English.  That’s a tricky one.  The thing is, that some children will be good at both subjects and some children won’t.  Some children will show a marked preference for one or the other and what do we do then?  Put them up a set, and they struggle in a class where the work goes too quickly, their confidence in their abilities slowly eroding?  Put them down, where they will be alright in one subject but bored and un-stretched in another?

And what about the children like mine, those who could just as well go to the local special school as the local mainstream?  Or the children who are new to English, working hard to make sense of an alphabetic code that doesn’t tally with the one they have already started to learn?  What about them?  What happens if they are in Year 6, but they still need some of the kinds of activity that go on in Year 1, or Reception even?  What do we do about them?  Do we send them down to the other end of the school, a giant perched on tiny chairs?  What does that do to their self esteem?

And, when it comes down to the nitty gritty, what about their learning needs?  Children are complicated little creatures, and, when they are in a great school with great teachers and they’re in every day and yet they still don’t seem to be getting along as they should, then something must be at the bottom of it.  It’s easy to see with my son, after all, his condition has been named and studied for a long time; it is instantly recognisable when you meet him.  But the others, the other children with hidden things, like ADHD, or Autism, or any other number of –isms or delays, or the even more invisible, the unquantifiable consequences of neglect or abuse, of poverty or parenting that doesn’t quite make the grade, what about them?  Do we lump them all together, place them in a group designed around a letter or a number, or do we concede that it’s a little bit more complicated than that.

Again and again, I have seen and read reports that talk in disparaging terms of setting on grounds of ability.  While it might be nice for the academically able, the ones who will get As and A*s when they are barely out of the womb, the ones in the classroom with the teacher, what about the ones who find themselves swimming around the middle or the ones who scrape the bottom of the barrel, out in the corridor, what happens to them, what do they learn?

Do they learn how to listen to other people, to take turns, to apply themselves when they find something difficult, to ask a friend or teacher for help, to battle on through no matter how great their challenges?  Or do they learn to hide the gaps, the holes in what they know with silliness, with low, or high level disruption, with behaviour that throws us off the scent, distracts us from finding out what is really the matter?  Are they hiding the bitter suspicion that, even at nine years old, they aren’t in the high flyers pile, but already sneaking onto the scrapheap?

There are many reasons that we chose a special school for Sam’s secondary education, and, to be perfectly honest, if I’d known then what I do now, I think I may well have been tempted to make the jump a hell of a lot sooner; the fantastic facilities, the dedicated, knowledgeable staff, the high expectations of children living with the greatest of difficulties, the priority placed on learning for an independent life, all these things played a part.

But you know what?  In the mix, a big part of the mix was setting.  Just as when we were looking for a school in the very early days the same old chestnut kept rearing its ugly head.  In a system that plays lip service to inclusion, where the way to provide a personalised curriculum is to group the children, ostensibly by ability, but often, in practice, by behaviour, just what, exactly, will he be learning?

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Immaculate behaviour wherever we go. Honest.

 

 

We’re going on a Journey

We’re going on a journey,
It’s going to be a big one.
We’re not scared.
Not really.
Excited, forward looking to along the way fun.

We’re going on a journey.
It’s going to be a big one.
We’re not scared.
We’re setting off at the same time, and the sun is shining in a bright blue sky.

We’re going on a journey.
It’s going to be a big one.
We’re not scared.
Except we can’t go as fast, we must take our time, go our own speed.  
Left behind.

We’re going on a journey.
It’s going to be a big one.
We’re not scared.
But I can’t hear anything except the sound of my breath, the thud of my heart.                        
Crashing.

We’re going on a journey.
It’s going to be a big one.
We’re not scared.
One step, one stop,  one step, one stop…
Hares pass.

We’re going on a journey.
It’s going to be a big one.
We tortoise the incline;              
Passed, passing, passed.

We’re going on a journey.
It’s going to be a big one.
Sweat-crusted, selfied summit scaled.

Team of two.
Together.

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What It’s Not

Inclusion is a funny thing that seems to mean all sorts of different things to different people, so I thought I’d put together a list for those of us who have special people in their lives, be that professionally or personally; you know those people who find it difficult to learn things or have specific disabilities.

  1. It’s not saying that everyone is welcome and then being flummoxed as to what to do with them when they turn up and sticking them in a corner or out in the corridor with a Special Helper and a box of cars or an iPad.
  2. It’s not having the exact same expectations for them as for the rest of the class/group, all in the name of aspiration.
  3. It’s not letting them get away with whatever they please because, aww, look at them, they haven’t got much, or they can’t understand, or they can’t process that bit of information.
  4. It’s not making no allowances for differences in behaviour because that would be singling them out for special treatment.
  5. It’s not playing with them because that’s what your role is, and you feel the need to justify your job.
  6. It’s not rushing on before you’ve checked they are ready, because that is the next thing to learn on the list and they’ve done it three times so we can highlight in green.
  7. It’s not putting them through a fixed curriculum, regardless of how useful it will be to them in adult life.
  8. It’s not saying everything is alright when it’s not because that’s what you think people want to hear.

 

What it is is this:

  1. Getting to know that person, so that you can respond to what they actually need (and that includes physical needs).
  2. Getting to know that person’s family, and involving their primary caregiver in making decisions about their education, activity or whatever else it is they are joining in.
  3. Always keeping in mind the purpose of an education: of fitting them out with the knowledge and skills they will need in order to enter into society and live an independent life.

 

It doesn't mean you don't do ordinary things.
It doesn’t mean you don’t do ordinary things.

In order to do that you need to have:

  1. An understanding, and it doesn’t have to be a huge in depth one, of the hurdles the child has overcome to get them where they are today, and an inkling of some of the mountains they will need to climb in order to get them where they need to go.
  2. An open heart.
  3. An active imagination, tempered with realism.

Finding Lost Things

Every so often I look at my children and I wonder at how much they’ve grown. It doesn’t seem five minutes since Sam was smaller than a Baby Annabel, as long as my forearm and lighter than half of one of my legs, and now, here he is, nothing fitting, his voice sliding downwards, losing the little boy highness I never realised he had.  I don’t think about it much, this slow growth towards adulthood, after all it has taken Sam thirteen long years to get to the top of my shoulder, but every so often you come across something that throws it in your face.

Yesterday, it was the unexpected discovery of a pile of old exercise books.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I throw away as much as I can possibly get away with when the children bring their old school books home at the end of July, but every so often I keep one or two, not out of a sense of nostalgia but for the simple reason that they had only just started them and there was a load of unused pages, and, you never know, they might come in useful one day.  It’s a teacher thing.

I was actually looking for something else at the time (this is a not unusual phenomenon), and, equally un-unexpectedly, I couldn’t help having a quick peep inside.  There they were, little scrawly drawings that L did when she was at nursery.  A set of pictures with some sentences, from the first day of a holiday where I had caught the deranged idea that making them sit down and write about their day was a Good Thing That Good Parents Do.  And, tucked away at the front, before the funny little drawings of water slides was a whole load of different writing, school writing.  By Sam.

Now, I want to tell you something quite simple about Down’s Syndrome.  It is a learning difficulty.  It may seem obvious to you, dear reader, but looking through those books, full of writing he hadn’t done, ideas he didn’t have, and yet attributed to him as if he had progressed through the levels just like everyone else has persuaded me that people like me might perhaps have to work a little bit harder at getting the idea across to members of my profession, and society generally.

You see, this big little fact doesn’t mean that people who carry the condition can’t learn things.  Quite the contrary, no, it means that they find things difficult to learn. And the things that are difficult are pretty much everything.  I waited longer for his first smile.  He didn’t crawl until he was 17 months old.  Walking was even later, and running and jumping are still ungainly, difficult.  Seemingly simple things like holding a pencil and making meaningful marks with it took an age to get to grips with.

And here is another nettle that you really need to grasp if you are going to have anything to do with teaching someone with Down’s Syndrome, be they a family member or in your class: these difficult things, these things that present herculean challenges to those with learning difficulties also take longer to get the hang of once you’ve got the beginnings of the idea.  It was more than three years before he fed himself with overcooked pasta, and I sent him to school with a sandwich (cheese and tomato) for the first time only this year.

Let me give you an example from my learning life, just to illustrate a point, like.  When I was eighteen I took my Grade 7 Piano examination.  It was hard.  I practiced for an hour a day, sometimes more, for months.  I sweated over the pieces and scales and arpeggios again and again and again, until my fingers ached and I had to soak them in warm water.  I had hour long lessons every other week and learned the theory, deconstructed the tricky bits, analysed the fingering, figured out, together with my teacher, how to move them most efficiently over the keys, not letting the timing slide, not playing too loud here, too soft there.  And you know what?  After all that practice, the tired hands, the frustration and the dedication, I failed.  I failed the bloody thing.  By a matter of a few marks, I stuffed it up.  It was difficult to do and I wasn’t quite ready.

It is a matter of great parental pride to me that Sam will now write independently.  I find shopping lists all over notebooks (usually spaghetti hoops and cars and caravans) and my heart melts because I remember that well intentioned, swiftly abandoned holiday project where he sat, wriggling and cross, weakly grasping a pencil, saying, ‘I can’t’.  Little fingers with low muscle tone and low sensitivity to things you touch don’t like writing or drawing; weak shoulders and arms and cores don’t support those fingers well, and that’s before you get to the point where you actually have something to write about because you have understood what is going on around you.

And I remember how cross I felt at the time at the reams of fake writing, some of which still exists in those long unused exercise books and how it contrasted to what he could actually do when he was with me, sharing my attention with his little brother and sister, no personal person to hold their hand over his, to prop him up.  Not unlike the way I felt about the carefully coloured Christmas card I could never quite convince myself he had done, and never quite made it all the way to the mantel shelf.

It makes me rage, deep within, that he was forced through a rigid system that purports to be inclusive, yet fails to empower the very people who are supposed to make it work, the teachers, with the knowledge and expertise they need to ensure that a child makes progress in their learning, and does it, no matter how slowly, no matter how long they appear to be ‘stuck’ at the same point, consolidating, on their own, by their own efforts.  Sometimes you get a child who doesn’t fit the mould, who sticks a spanner in the system, and what do we do about that?  Let’s be honest about our answers.

I am glad that the new SEN Code of Practice means that he’ll be in the system until he is 25, because it gives him a chance to catch up on those lost years when the system was stacked against him.  Sam didn’t need to be copying out information he didn’t understand to go with drawings he hadn’t done in order to satisfy some target that didn’t relate to where he was in terms of his learning, small steps or not, marked in words he couldn’t read in a language he couldn’t understand.

I’m glad he’s in a school where the curriculum can be tailored around his needs.  I’m glad that, in a system where you only get one shot at an education, all is not lost.

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Day Trips

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I did not go the ResearchEd event in London this weekend.  Neither did I spend the day watching the live stream, or reading about it via my tweet mates insights.  Yesterday, I went on an entirely different kind of trip.  My sister has come to visit for the weekend and, together with her kids, my kids our husbands and my mum, we went out for the day.  We didn’t want to spend a lot of money going to visit some stately home or another where we had to watch them (ages ranging from little to big) like hawks and warn against touching anything for fear of a bigger bill than any of us would like to imagine; no, instead, we got in the cars, travelled for a bit and went to a (reasonably) local wood.

Now this wood is a truly magical place.  You step through the gate and it is as if you have entered a different world.  Paths lead around corners festooned with emerald moss, logs step across rust coloured swamps, and along the way, up and down mud-slicked stone steps, you bump into elf-brides having their wedding photos taken and increasingly sheened parents searching for the way out. We had a great time.

And afterwards, while the kids ran around an indoor maze, my mother and I headed for the cafe, a sit down and a chat, and the teacher in me got going.  You might think that she would have made an appearance earlier in the day making sure I spent my time pointing out the different species of trees, feeling the difference in texture between the moss and the bark, looking at signs of erosion and talking about the history of the place, but she was rather more engaged with not slipping over and spoiling her favourite yellow shoes, caught between hoping her mother didn’t get into difficulties with her stick and not losing the children.

While we sat there, a couple of teachers, albeit from different generations, I thought about how much I would want to base some class work on that wood, if I ever had the chance.  For a start there is all the practical stuff, the geography, the history and the science.  Where is it?  Why is it like it is?  How did it come to be?  How fragile an environment is it?  Who and what lives there?  What is it like to be there, under the deep cover of the trees?  My measuring self would have a field day.

But it is your senses that are so assaulted in a place like that.  Outside the wood, all is hustle and bustle, hot sunshine, the animals in the farm, children zipping about, going through turnstiles the wrong way.  Inside, the temperature is cooler, damp.  The real world fades away; the light is tinged green and red rust brown.  What kind of music would you make, after going to a place like that?  When you saw a fairy ring of mysterious fungus, how would you express that in sound?  What kind of bells would you use?

And the art.  I took some photos on my phone, of which I am rather smugly pleased.  No doubt I will instagram them to within an inch of their lives, and then delete all the effects because it’s difficult to go there and not take a good picture.  The wood has been used for filming Dr Who and Merlin for good reason.  In fact, the last time we were there there were cables all over and patches of glitter, and people dressed in black were setting lights up here and there.   But I wouldn’t get children to take photos, no siree.

For a start, I wouldn’t want them tripping over while holding equipment, but more than that, I would want them to immerse themselves in the experience, to feel it, to live it, the way my children and their cousins did yesterday, not see it through a lens or a screen.  They have enough of that in their ordinary lives, after all.  No, I would want children to paint it, to draw it, make some sketches while they were there, some rubbings, something to remind them of what they had seen and felt.  And the clay.  The soil is rich with it. Roots curl out of it in swirling shapes that inspire the mind, make the fingers itch to recreate.

Of course, in typical fashion, my own children had not the slightest interest in the visual aspects of the place.  They haven’t demanded the drawing pencils or the felt tips upon their return to relative civilisation.  Instead, they were fascinated by the journey, the adventure.  How could they find their way to that exciting looking bridge, and later, how to find the way out?  The feeling that they had somehow stepped into some sort of computer game was palpable.  Had I not been caught by the twin concerns for my mother’s knees and my shoes, and the rather surprising experience of sucking my son so far into the introduction to Roald Dahl’s The Witches that he goggled at me when I got to the part where the nice lady reading the story might well be one of those creatures, I might well have joined in, but I didn’t really want to have to deal with wailing and shrieking.

But what an opportunity for story writing.  Who might live there?  How might children have come to be there?  Which path should you take?  Where might the wrong path lead?  I love the notion of journeying in stories; where might your characters have been going when they came into the wood?  How long were they lost there?  And, of course, poetry.  How could we express what we saw and felt in a poem?  What flights of description could we take?

And places like this are accessible on all different kinds of levels. It reminded me of the time I took them to the Roman Bath in Bath, and they charged about, enchanted by the channels the bubbles, the colour of the water, the coins in the pool, utterly ignoring the audio guide, refusing to conform to an adult expectation of what children might get out of the visit and I, their mother, happy to follow their lead, to send them searching for a dragon, or a lion in the wall, to help them to experience the place in their own way, at the edges of their own understanding.  Yesterday  A, at 11 years old a voracious reader, was delighted to know that Tolkien had spent many hours wandering around the wood; Sam, who doesn’t share the same interests, loved the pathways, the adventure, connecting with the mysterious nature of the place.  The last time we went, four years ago, he cried when we found our way back to the gate.  He didn’t want it to be over.  Me?  Well, you never know, maybe one day I’ll write a children’s book.

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