Tag Archives: Teaching

The Roman Bath

The first time we visited the Roman Bath, it was snowing. Newly married, we had booked a City Break; it snowed, R had the flu and I…well, I convinced him (through some sort of Early Marriage Force) to ignore both the weather and his internal temperature. It was not the most successful weekend away there has ever been. We squashed ourselves against an 18th Century window, I failed to convince him of the exciting ness of Jane Austen and it was some years before we attempted to take the waters again.

The next time we visited, taking a young S and an even younger A, it wasn’t so much an Austen influence as Arthurian. As we explored the complex, instead of ladies in their dampened muslin gowns, I imagined the soaring roof and the steady decline and fading out of a Roman era, the smoke of tallow torches drifting upwards into the gloom, mingling with the faintly sulphurous steam rising from the green water. I’m not sure it was the start of my mission to take my children to sites of historical and cultural significance (I’ve always been a bit of a visitor to such places), but, wherever it sits in the chronology, it was certainly one of the earliest.

Over the years, I have taken them (not dragged, I hasten to point out, despite L’s latest protestation – half term is coming up and she is fighting a rear guard against being forced away from the computer game) to castle, cathedral, ruin; anywhere, in fact, that looks like it has an interesting story to tell (or features in one or other of the novels which form a part of my internal world). Our local church, an abbey saved by the townsfolk from the dissolution of Henry VIII, was always good for a wander about should we feel the need to get out of the house. I enjoyed the appearance of historical characters, firmly lodged in my imagination, they the quirks of architecture: angels playing harps and drums and weird pipes with, no doubt, even stranger names, chests with unimaginable locks, or the size of grand pianos. Or even grand pianos. The odd rehearsal of a visiting orchestra or choral society.

Museums are always tempting, but I don’t know…apart from the entrance fee, there is something ‘managed’ about them that I just don’t like. Someone else’s interpretation. Someone else’s idea of what we should know. So little left to the imagination. Millions may have been spent on a visitor’s centre, but give me real over plastic reconstruction any day. And definitely don’t give me one of those hand held, silence inducing guides either, you know, the ones that force you to stop and crowd around the same points as everyone else, while you listen to the prescribed story and haven’t got any time to look around you and ask, I wonder?

I did it once. I hired the handsets at the Roman Bath, convinced, for once, to give the conventional a try. They didn’t last. It wasn’t long before I was carrying them all, chatting our way round, seemingly inconsequential, quirky questions flowing from my knowledge of my children and the place we were exploring. They couldn’t access someone else’s explanation, someone else’s idea of what a child should know. They were too young; they didn’t know enough about yesterday – they didn’t have enough yesterdays – let alone two thousand years worth of them to make sense of it all. They needed to experience the place, to follow their interest (channels and watercourses and throwing coins into water, bubbles and steam and funny smells, lions in the rock and golden treasure), to be given the opportunity to return, again and again if need be, at their own level, at their own pace, until they were ready to meet me at mine.

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The Mirror and the Window

One day I am going to write a book. Yes, I know, I know, I’ve already written one; what I mean is that one day I am going to write a work of fiction. I’ve had the idea batting around my mind for a while now. It keeps knocking on the door of my subconscious and this week, after designing a workshop on representations of disability in fiction and why this matters (or critical literacy aka asking awkward questions) I have re-decided that I’m going to write a book with a ‘real’ disabled character in it; one who is, just like S. I read this book, you see. It’s not about disability in a broad fashion; it’s about the narratives of intellectual disability, and how they influence stories more than you might think.

I’m not a literary theorist. I’m not even a critic. I found large parts of the book a difficult read (partly because I didn’t know the stories he used as case studies) and I’ve got a long way to go in understanding how understanding the role of disability in fiction can unlock insights into what we think of ourselves as human, but I made a start.

The obvious immediately sprang to mind. Auggie, star of Wonder, Will, from Me Before You (aka the disability snuff movie), Long John Silver and Richard III (the Shakespeare one). As I continued to read, and to mull it over, I remembered Albus Dumbledore’s sister (and other squibs); even Harry Potter himself could audition for the role. Look:

The Dursleys often spoke about Harry like this, as though he wasn’t there – or rather, as though he was something very nasty that couldn’t understand them, like a slug. JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Bloomsbury, 1997

There are a host of characters and once you start looking,  you notice how writers use animal references to signify disability. Look:

[Lennie] flung himself down and drank […] with long gulps snorting into the water like a horse. J Steinback, Of Mice and Men, 1937

Or make out that they are seriously scary. Look:

Inside the house lived a malevolent phantom […] people said he went out at night when the moon was high and peeped in windows. When people’s azaleas froze in a cold snap, it was because he had breathed on them. Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

Or:

In the midst of them, the blackest and largest in that dark setting, reclined James Hook, or, as he wrote himself, Jas. Hook, of whom it is said he was the only man that the Sea-Cook feared. He lay at his ease in rough chariot drawn and propelled by his men, and instead of a right hand he had an iron hook which ever and anon he encouraged them to increase their pace. J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan and Wendy, 1911

It’s all a bit depressing.

On the other hand, some disabled characters are really quite saintly. Look:

He lived with his mother on the farm. Never was there […] a creature more popular with the young or old, a blither or more happy soul than Barnaby. C. Dickens, Barnaby Rudge,1841

Or you might want to use Tiny Tim as an illustration instead, or Beth from Little Women. Or even, as the ultimate in ‘positive about being different’: Elmer. Look:

It was Elmer who kept the elephants happy. Sometimes he joked with the other elephants. Sometimes they joked with him. But if there was even a smile, it was usually Elmer who started it. D McKee, Elmer, 1989

Mind you, you wouldn’t want to use Colin from The Secret Garden as an illustration of the saintly. If ever there’s a character who was a pain in the ass, it’s Colin. But look:

So long as Colin shut himself up in his room and thought only of his fears and weakness …he was a hysterical half-crazy little hypochondriac who knew nothing of the sunshine and the spring and also did not know that he could get well and could stand upon his feet if he tried to do it. When new beautiful thoughts began to push out the old hideous ones…strength poured into him like a flood. Frances Hodgeson Burnett, The Secret Garden, 1911

Seeing as I know and love someone who is disabled, and he is neither a demon or an angel, someone or something that has to be explained or cured with a dose of positive thinking and fresh air, he doesn’t exist to highlight how lucky we who are not intellectually disabled are and he most certainly is fully human, it all starts to feel a bit problematic. Given that most people don’t know and love someone disabled (or they think they don’t anyway) and how children, just like adults, use books to help them make sense of the world, it struck me that we might like to start asking some of those awkward questions and encourage children to do the same.

And this is why;

“the interpretive stakes are always high when the subject is intellectual disability, because the stakes are ultimately about who is and who is not determined to be ‘fully human,’ and what is to be done with those who (purportedly) fail to meet the prevailing performance criteria.” Michael Berube, The Secret Life of Stories, 2016

And this is why:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAXBOcv6AS4

And this is why:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6i97xnZCfU

“We read to know we are not alone” C.S. Lewis

The stories we read and tell are both a mirror and a window.

 

 

 

Read a book review of Wonder here.

You can find a useful booklist with ideas for primary aged children here.

 

Demand, Support, Control

I have to admit that it was with a supressed sense of reluctance that I set off for the third Research SEND conference on Saturday morning. It was drizzling. It was cold. The hubs was stripping wallpaper and the kids were full of snot. It was one of those times when I had to force myself out of the house, mindful that I had said that I would contribute and safe in the knowledge that, joy of joys, it was only half an hour away.

Of course, I was late. Of course, when I got there the hillside upon which the campus was built was cold, windswept and deserted. I found the café (eventually), but of course, there was no one there to ask. When I finally found the lecture theatre, the keynote was just finishing. Everyone was very interested in what was said – but I have to admit that I was more relieved that I had made my way in without drawing too much attention to myself by falling over the chairs with a clatter and a stage whispered ‘sorry, sorry’.

I thought, after I’d managed to miss the keynotes so spectacularly, that I’d better get into the swing of things, so, with a focus on mental health as the theme of the day, I went to see what the boss had to say about staff wellbeing at work.

I don’t suppose that I am unusual in having had a difficult time at work, at one point or another, over the years. I’ve never endured a toxic workplace for very long, but they have certainly touched my life, and I was taken aback to find, instead of hints and tips on how to balance your work life with your home life and not lose yourself somewhere in the middle of it all, an almost perfect description of workplace bullying. (Demand, support, control model, Karasek, 1979.)

I read an article in TES the other week, and I had a similar reaction; I knew that I had been bullied at work before, but I could never quite put my finger on it. How were these people making me feel so bad? And why was I so powerless? It was strange to see it represented so well in diagrammatic form.

You see, place someone in a circumstance where they have high demands placed on them (particular groups to teach, perhaps), give them no support at all (they always behave for me OR ‘I’m going to come and give you some support) and take away any control that they thought they had (curriculum, timetabling, environment for teaching, scripts) and there you have it. It was almost enough to make me wonder whether it wasn’t the ‘how to get someone to leave’ part of the leadership course. It’s supposed to be about how to keep your staff, but as I started to get cross, I started to wonder whether or not we have the toxic version of the model at play across the entire education system.

You see, I spent part of this afternoon looking through the latest in the rash of consultations from the DfE and thinking about improving life for teachers, ensuring that members of the profession stay, thus keeping their expertise in the system and saving the nation shed loads of money in sick pay and training costs and I thought to myself, I wonder if they know? I wonder if they know what giving teachers some control would do towards solving the retention crisis? I wonder if they know how teachers would feel about being supported rather than constantly criticised? I wonder, if they reduced their demands, just a little bit, what the effect would be? Would we stay? Or would we go?

You can find the first post I wrote about the way that teachers are treated by the DfE here: http://www.notsoordinarydiary.wordpress.com/an-open-letter-to-mr-tristram-hunt/

Because, mark my words, it is impossible to work your way out of a toxic workplace. If someone has you in their sights, there is nothing you can do, in terms of your own performance, to make the situation better. Nine times out of ten, the only solution, the only thing you can do, to give yourself back the control, support you need and reduce the demands you feel, is leave.

An Unreasonable Lack of Unbelief

I don’t know if you are familiar with the unwritten rule that there is Always One. There is always one child who is looking out of the window when they should be paying attention. There is always someone talking when there should be quiet. And there is always, always a vest, and you can guarantee that it will be a new one, left over from the first PE lesson of the year, and it will stay, in lonely state, unclaimed at the front of the class, even after parents’ evening has come and gone, until July when you finally consign it to Lost Property.

I have noticed that this rule operates amongst the adult population too. For instance, there is always one midwife who tells you, right at the wrong moment, to Buck Up (or words to that effect). And, and I don’t know if this is a Down’s syndrome thing or not, but there is always someone, in the early days it seemed to constantly be a speech therapist, now, it seems more likely to be someone on the internet, who seems to feel the need to disabuse you of your self-deception. Things are nowhere near as rosy as you keep on insisting on painting it, Nancy.

I do wonder if it has something to do with the ‘not getting your hopes up’ mentality. You know the one I mean; that if you don’t expect too much you won’t ever be disappointed. I get it, I really do. Most people mean to be kind, and they don’t want to see you struggling with the aftermath of a proper crushing in the hopes and dreams department (why they think it’s better for them to do the crushing, I have no idea, now I come to think about it). You can see it, every time someone justifies the termination of a pregnancy discovered to be carrying a little extra in the chromosome department. Cruel to be kind. Yeah, right.

You see, what these people, these prickers of the parental bubble, don’t understand is the very fine balancing act that happens, when you have a child like mine. What they don’t understand is that the grief you feel is not so much for the mythical child you didn’t have, but for the future expectations you thought you had.

Suddenly, instead of being on a journey of discovery, you are presented with a fait accompli, and more, one described in medical terms of risk and disaster. Terrifying, rather than exciting. A journey of fear and loss, not one of joy and discovery. It’s one of the things I resented most; the idea that my child’s future was written in stone, that because of his genetics, I was somehow not allowed to dream of his future. My child’s book was closed, not open.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at paying attention to such people. Tell me I can’t? I instantly want to prove you wrong. So, the odds may be stacked against an offer for an undergraduate place at Oxford? I don’t care. He may never speak? We’ll see about that.

That’s what it is, you know, to be a mother like me. It’s a wilful act of ignoring the things that don’t help, but instead trap, shut down and dispel hope. Like I used to say when debating nature or nurture and boys and girls, the truth of the matter doesn’t matter in the end, because the most important thing you need to hold on to is the faith, not in what is but what might be, if only we can catch, and hold, that unreasonable lack of unbelief.

 

The things you don’t say

I’ve been a very busy girl lately (no change there, then, I hear you cry), much to the detriment of this blog and, no doubt, my family life, as much of my activity has been to do with work (a girl has to live, after all) rather than running around after the kids (something I fully intend to do this weekend, starting tomorrow). I’ve been busy, not at the computer, but out and about, in schools, training events and, yesterday, at the Academies Show at the Birmingham NEC.

I’ve been speaking about inclusion, and what it means on a personal and societal level, for children and the adults they will become. What I’ve said has, in the main, been well received.

You wouldn’t think it, after all, I am used to presenting things and talking before an audience, but, seeing as I tell my personal story, I’ve found it a nerve wracking experience, and yesterday was no exception. The last time I was in the NEC it was for a birthday visit to the Gadget Show; I felt disoriented and anxious and worried that I would take up too much time from the person following me. So I rushed.

Sometimes when I speak I don’t bother with many notes. I’ve thought about and internalised my stories so often that a picture prompt is all I need to get me going. Yesterday, though, was different. Mindful that not only was I representing myself, but Sam, and my employer, I prepared carefully. I planned my talk and wrote it down. I even timed it. A fact which I promptly forgot when faced with a real, live audience.

So I did what I have often done in the classroom; I chopped and changed, moved things around to suit the circumstance (or at least the situation as I perceived it) and, when I stepped from the stage, and looked down at my notes, I realised that, as in so much of my life, there was vast chunks of stuff that I didn’t say, and that I wished, as I drove home and cautiously negotiated the traffic in the darkening gloom, I had.

I wished that, when I talked about friendship, and the importance of making friends with the young people with whom you go to school, I’d told them that although the same set of children came to all of his parties, he didn’t go to theirs. 

I wish that I’d reminded them that the point of a mainstream education for a disabled boy like mine was not that he could be best friends with a woman older than his mum. 

I wish that I’d followed up with my assertion that those of us with disabled children have just as much right to be happy as anyone else – and that this meant living without the conflict with professionals that you are forced into when the state takes an interest in your family life. 

I wish I’d told them how hard it is to ask for help – and the difficulty of having to ask again, and again, and again, because someone’s policy is to save money and keeping quiet about what you are obliged to pay for is one of the ways you do that.

I wish I’d told them about the fear. Of the future. Of change. Of not knowing what is happening or what is going on. Of the difficulty in trusting someone else with your precious child because experience tells you that not everyone sees the world in the same way as you do, and how that makes you appear from the outside.

I wish I’d told them that I don’t care about the process, or even about the policy. That I just want to work to find a way forward for someone I love, and that I am sick to the back teeth of being told I am wrong, that I am doing all the things the wrong way or asking for the wrong things. That somehow, everything is actually my fault.

But these are all things I didn’t say. There are always things you don’t say.