Tag Archives: Teaching

We need to talk about writing

Every so often I decide that I ought to be a Responsible Parent, and I take against technology.  I hide the iPad in my desk (you can rarely find anything in there, once it has been sucked in – this is partly because the drawer handles have fallen off and been put in some unknown safe place that is not entirely obvious, even to me, the putter of things in safe places), and refuse to tell anyone where I have put it. This makes the children cross, but after they have shouted at me (and each other) for about half an hour, they go and find themselves something else to do.  Usually this involves books, or lego, or a bit of colouring or a jigsaw.  Sometimes, this means writing.

When I was a little girl I loved to write; my dad got into the habit of squirreling away little bits and pieces that amused him.  In the days before photocopiers, accounts I had written in school were copied out, phonetic spellings and all, and every so often, when I find something they have written, I do the same.  The odd book they bring home, at the end of the year, makes its way into the bottom drawer, and I smile to myself at their turn of phrase, or the little things they chose to write for news.

It’s difficult, though, to put the teacher-me to one side when I read their writing.  I become easily annoyed at the absence of full stops, concerned that the sentence appears to have been left behind in the desire for wow words. I’ve read an awful lot of children’s writing, you see. I’ve sat in countless meetings, discussing the merits of spelling and handwriting, whether, on balance, a collection of work denotes a specified standard – or not.  I have become boggled by reading the same subject rewritten by countess childish hands.

It’s a funny business, this assessing of children’s writing.  Very quickly, in order to make your judgement, you find yourself sliding down into a grammatical morass.  Noun phrases, extended or otherwise, ambitious vocabulary; the hunt for shifts in formality (google it) clutches at you as you pass by, pulling you into a swamp of disconnected detail. It’s very easy to lose track of what it was they were trying to say, when they put pen (or pencil) to paper.  It’s oh, so easy to forget that they are, in fact, children, adopting as they do, as if they were clacking round the garden in their mother’s high heeled shoes, the voice of an adult addicted to purple prose.  Sometimes, I wonder if the purpose of teaching children to write hasn’t become in order that they may fulfil our official (if temporary – hopefully) checklist.

Until, that is, I see my children writing at home.  Here, there is no purpose other than their own pleasure (or rage, if you are my daughter and you have filled a notebook with all your plots for revenge upon your older brother/s* *delete as appropriate), no teacher with a red (or purple, or green or pink or any other colour you care to mention) is going to come along and tell them what it was they did wrong, to force them to fit their ideas into the convention.

Sam used to write only lists (and occasional notes on the calendar when he had decided that it really oughtn’t be a school day and instead he was declaring an INSET day).  Now it seems he, as I have done, ever since my teenage years, can be found using writing to tell whoever cares to read about his day.  His words, his voice, are there on the page and I, his proud mama, will put them in the safest of safe places and think upon what it was he was really trying to say.

 

 

There are two consultations at the Department of Education that will close on the 22nd June.  They are about school assessment; one on primary assessment and the other on the recommendations of the Rochford Review.  Please take the time to read them and let them know your thoughts.  You can find the link here.

A Poisonous Atmosphere of Fear

One of the things I miss most about teaching children is the way they take you into their confidence.  I have lost count of the number of times I have been called ‘mummy’ (although never yet ‘grandma’, thank the Lord), I’ve been asked if I’d be allowed out to play, and I have had to fill in many, many, many child protection forms in my time.  This last is partly a consequence of working in small groups.  In the intimacy of small spaces and with smaller numbers of children, the barriers are reduced, and the tales come tumbling out.  Standing at the front, doing the teaching thing, isn’t exactly what you might call conducive to confidences.

Even as their mother, the stories come out in dribs and drabs, a little bit here, a little bit there; a slowly growing testimony to their ability to understand the world.  Sometimes it is relatively easy to make sense of it all, the day Sam was incensed that a game of ‘throw the shoes about at playtime’ ended up with a lost arch support (it was lying at the bottom of the shed and had to be retrieved by the caretaker) was a simple mystery to solve (although, in the heat of the moment, at school, he couldn’t make himself understood), making sense of the slippery world of social relationships is altogether another.

As a young person, I remember wondering why I was so unpopular.  I’d look in the mirror and think I was nice enough, not unkind, and wonder what it was I was doing wrong.  I couldn’t seem to figure it out at all, and I gloomily concluded, as I tried in vain to fit in, straighten my hair, mould my accent into something more acceptable and change my behaviour into something more traditional, that it must, somehow, be my fault.

I never told my parents.  It didn’t seem worth it.  Not that I wouldn’t be believed, but that it wasn’t important enough, somehow, to make a fuss over.  Something that happened to everyone, nothing special about me.  I did take it up with one of my teachers, though, I remember that.  I sat in his office, after a lesson gone wrong, one I refused to return to, explaining what had happened.  He told me that the other girl had a hard life, the implication being that her behaviour to me was somehow understandable, acceptable.  Inevitable.

But there is nothing inevitable about bullying.  It is only when we, as a community of adults stand aside, when we fail to call it out when we see it, or don’t bother to take the time to understand what is really going on, that we allow bullying and belittling to flourish.  A poisonous atmosphere of fear is entirely within our control.

 

Powerless

I remember once trying to explain to my dad what it was like to be a teacher.  It was around the time of the introduction of the Literacy and Numeracy Hours, they had maybe been in full swing for a year or two, and I was young and tired. “It’s like being a hamster on a wheel,” I said, “only it goes faster and faster and faster; it never stops and I can’t get off.”  It wasn’t long before I had thrown in the towel, sinking into years of motherhood and domesticity with the determination (much to R’s despair) never to wear a watch again.  I suppose what I was trying to say, with my clumsy description of a job I enjoyed, but which was wearing me out at the same time, was the strange sense of powerless you experience when you are a classroom teacher.

I’ve found myself caught in the teaching trap many times, before and since that moment.  For all the appearance of consultation, I have been subject to new curricula, testing regimes, changes to school structure, pay and conditions, all of them without my consent.  And, then there are the school-, rather than nation-wide policies. The marking, the planning, the behaviour, the way we do things here, all policed by observations, pop-ins, book and planning scrutinies, the subtle and not so subtle undermining of professional autonomy.  Unless you are higher up the management (sorry Leadership) rungs you have very little chance of influence.

And, of course, the power that the Management holds over you extends even when you leave.  Find yourself on the receiving end of a boss who doesn’t like you, for whatever reason, and, given that they have to write you a reference before you’re even asked to interview, the chances of you walking into a new job if you found yourself in the wrong job are depressing.  You can find yourself in the position of starting from scratch, working your way through the supply list (if it still exists) to give yourself a new start, or calculating just how long it will be before you can hand in your notice, for fear of being trapped til Christmas.  You could, when you think about it, quite easily persuade yourself that you were a victim, as powerless as a fly caught in a spider’s web.

But. And here’s the thing.  I think about the children I have taught over the years. Children who sat, spellbound, as they listened to a story.  Children who gave me leaving cards and cuddles, little notes and gifts, a bookmark, a pen I still have tucked away in a drawer somewhere (the countless mugs with ‘World’s Best Teacher’ and adorned with kittens are presumably in a number of staffrooms I have frequented over the years). Notes from parents, the reply slip for the school report, filled in and resting in the far reaches of my memory. Those moments when I realised that I was the one who stood between joy and tears.

I look on my years of motherhood, the ups and downs the road to school, in and out of favour with the teachers who hold that same old power over my own children.  I think about the power we hold even though we no longer serve our time at the front of class, flowing from our fingertips into the digital world.  I remember the echoes of the power teachers held over me, over my child, their disbelief or belief in him – or me –  making the year – or not.

And I think about how lucky I am that I have friends and colleagues who will tell me the truth.  That when I said what I said, or did what I did, or the way I acted or wrote and indulged myself in my weakness for hyperbole and long, fine sounding words, that I forgot my power. That as well as having the power to help, to heal, to teach, I also have the power to hurt and harm.  That despite my self-perceived helplessness I have a voice – and my voice is heard.

Sats Hell

Next week will be first time in a while that I haven’t been involved with end of key stage two assessments in a professional capacity. I don’t miss it, I’ll be frank. I don’t miss creeping through the school, shushing younger children, or sitting with the anxious ones, reading questions and watching them squirm in their seats and yet still plump for the wrong answer.

I don’t miss hour after hour of practice papers. (And hour after hour of subsequent marking.) I don’t miss sending home homework involving page after page of sums in those shiny brown revision books (also to be marked). I don’t miss spelling tests and mental maths tests, explaining how it will be on a CD just the same so get used to the funny voice and no, there will be no second chances, no opportunities to go back over a question you missed.

I suppose the quizzes and games were quite fun, and visiting schools with the LA badge was endlessly fascinating, even if I used to come away with a frowny sense of perplexion that our schools should be materially so different, and yet so similar; so full of hot and cold writes and purple polishing pens (it’s probably something different now, fashions change quickly in edu-land), so many guides to keeping miptors to assess. But I don’t miss the sight of science books with one date in September followed by pristine empty pages, the heavy knowledge that the Borderliners spent a dry year doing two subjects in the morning – and the same two subjects again in the afternoon. I don’t miss the negative, waste of time answer to the question: where is the poetry? Did you study any poetry?

This year, it is different. This year, although I am working still in education, I am not in the classroom, and, instead of guiding other people’s children, with a smile and an encouraging nod, this year I must support my daughter.

I’ve seen my sons through the experience. Sam, divorced as he was from the goings on of the class, wasn’t aware that Sats week was even a thing. A, assessed on a curriculum he had completed and supported by a teacher who made him feel special, funny boy that he is, enjoyed it. But L, my baby, born into a year, 2006, a group of children who have had their increasingly tired looking teachers attempt to squash four years of learning into three, is having a very different experience indeed.

She doesn’t say much, but she has changed this year. She still likes school. She still goes willingly into the building, obediently walking because running is forbidden. But she who has always been Little Miss Enthusiasm has started to complain. There are tests every day. Homework is met with deep reluctance and music practice and lessons with tears. Her sleep is disturbed, and I am worried about her, about her health and her mental wellbeing.

She’s only in it for the party, she says (a picnic on the school field, the food provided by home). She wonders what Sats stands for, what does it mean?

I don’t want to tell her that she is caught in an international political dance. Instead I tell her that I don’t care if she writes sausages for every answer if she likes. It won’t change how much we love her, whatever she achieves on paper, how high she comes in someone else’s measure doesn’t matter to us. I remind her that to try her best is to be kind to her teachers, because it is they who are being assessed for competence, not her.

She won’t be the only child beset by anxiety, I know that. She won’t be the only child perplexed by the overblown importance of school tests for eleven year olds.  But after another broken night, I look on next week with deep concern, and I find myself wondering what the hell we adults, with our obsession with measuring and testing, of bathing in reflected glory, think we are doing?

Conquering the Mountain

Today, I have very tired legs. I am convinced that this is a genetic flaw on my part, and not because I have been avoiding most forms of exercise for the winter, but my family remains unconvinced. They, unlike me, are tired, but able to tackle the stairs without wincing. And the reason we are tired? Earlier this week, we decided to walk up and down Snowdon.

I’ve written about this plan before. For some strange reason, it has subconsciously been one of those things that R and I felt was something our kids ought to do. I’m not sure why. I never did when I was a child. I never went anywhere near the place. And, when it’s all said and done, we aren’t really a heavily into walking kind of family.  Nothing like it, in fact. But, we had a week off and nothing on the calendar apart from ‘week off’ in it and, as going on an adventure of the far flung variety proved to be a little more expensive than we had anticipated, Snowdon it was.

I don’t know about you, but there is something tantalising about good ideas when they are far, far away.  Everything about them seems positive. Nothing troubling can possibly get in their way. Except, that is, until you are faced with the reality of your endeavour.  There we were, new boots and posh socks for the children bought, accommodation (very nice) booked, and there I was, wide awake in the darkest hours of the night, unable to sleep for worrying.

In a way, it’s a bit like giving birth. After the first time, you sort of forget what it was like. The experience is coloured, airbrushed by the aftermath, whatever form that took. The second baby seems like such a good idea, and it is only when you are stopped in your tracks by the strength of your first real contraction that you think, oh, yes, that was what it was like, and why am I doing this again? After that, it has a tendency not to fade, and, third time round you know exactly what you are doing and you develop a sort of grim-faced determination, gallows humour about coughing in public daytime, and will making in the silent privacy of the night.  Once I was faced with the reality of getting my three kids up and down a mountain, with online guide rating ‘hard’, the euphoria of success faded and the memories flooded back.

So we came up with a plan. R would walk the Little Two (not so little these days) up, Sam and I would meet them at the top, having been transported by train, and we would all walk down together. A plan which rapidly transformed itself into Sam and I would travel as far up as we could on the train (always check train timetables before booking)and then meet the others (at the bit where all the tracks join together, just before the summit), walk the rest of the way up and then back down together, hastily followed by we would all go up on the train and all walk up a bit and down a lot together (the operative word being together). The thought of me on my own with Sam, on a mountainside, and the pair of us getting an attack of the collywobbles was enough to settle the matter. (And that’s before Train Boy stuck his oar in.)

When you’re at the top, it can feel terribly lonely – and the way down terribly terrible.

The thing about plans, though, is that it is always a good idea to have a contingency one. Because, when you get up to the (nearly) top of the mountain, things change. The weather, so kind and gentle when you set out, is cold and chilling; the wind is fierce, and the clouds, so far away when you are sitting, comfortable, on the bus, transform the landscape from majesty to terror in an instant.

We didn’t do it. We didn’t make it to the top. We got to within spitting distance (if the gale that greeted us as we came onto the ridge hadn’t threatened to carry our spit over the cliff and us with it) of the summit and we changed our plan, and our minds.  We took in the frightened faces of our travelling companions, looked through the entrance to the Pyg track, obscured by wisps of cloud whipping past and turned right back round the way we had come. And, I think, for perhaps the first time, I feel no sense of disappointment, or of failure, that things did not go as we had thought.

The weather did not look like this.

You see, and this is something I have found myself thinking Justine Greening could probably do with reading as I have watched her on the news today, you don’t need to terrify everyone or force the issue and put yourselves, and your children, in danger in order to prove a point.  When I wrote my book (details on how to buy it here), at the end I put in a section on what to do if it all goes wrong. Because sometimes you find yourself at the mercy of circumstances which you cannot control, sometimes you find yourself in the wrong and you have to apologise – and there is no shame in that.

This week, we set ourselves a task, and we failed. But, and here’s the thing: we made it back down in one piece (and that in itself is a success). We went the long way round (and even that had its hair-raising moments), we chatted to the people we found ourselves journeying with and shared encouragement along the way. We might even have done a little bit of Down’s syndrome advocacy while we were at it.

We are still here, today, and the mountain, that great big grim-faced mountain we couldn’t even see, will still be there, waiting for us should we decide to play again, tomorrow.

‘I hate mountains.’