Finding out the facts

Way back before Christmas, I was talking to someone about the introduction of the New Curriculum and all the new topics I was going to have to read up about. “That’s stupid,” she said, “how are teachers meant to know everything they’ve got to teach if the topics are being changed?” A good point, but as I said to her, remarkably few primary teachers actually come into the job with a broad enough knowledge to teach all subjects straight away. Take me, for example. I did well at secondary school: I listened to my teachers, worked hard and left very happy with my grades. The same can (mostly) be said of college and university. But my subject knowledge of history and geography reached its peak when I took my GCSEs all those years ago. When I think back to what was then (and possibly still is!) called “humanities”, I can think of very few times where my historical or geographical knowledge was being improved. My humanities course work consisted of me writing essays on what life was like during “the war”: an exceptionally important historical topic, but it couldn’t have been taught that well as I couldn’t even tell you which war. My work was basically Forrest Gump’s time in Vietnam regurgitated as a soldier’s diary. There was another essay on animal testing and one “topical” one on how TV violence influence the behaviour of children. All very interesting, but it didn’t help me to know where the countries of the world are or when important historical events took place.
As someone who considers herself to be fairly intelligent, I’m actually ashamed of my historical and geographical knowledge. I think the secondary school system failed people of my generation by not teaching us about the world around us. So when I saw the content of the new curriculum, I was both enthused (mostly by the geography, it has to be said) and bewildered. I was going to have to do some learning myself. When I discovered I was going to be in year 4, I dutifully went out and bought books on the Romans, Anglo Saxons and Vikings. All of which are still unread in my cupboard at school. The time finally came today for me to plan the work on the Romans, and a slight panic set in. I’ve taught the Romans once before: it was a long time ago and I probably didn’t do it very well. I’ve been to Caerleon a few times, and managed to blag my way around by sneaking peeks at the guide books and hastily reading the signs in the museum. I convinced children I knew what I was talking about, but there was always that little nagging fear that I was going to be caught out getting it all wrong. It reminds me of the time, back in the day, when I was confined to a pod on the London Eye with a rather large group of over excited year sixes who needed distracting, so I pointed out all the landmarks they could see. But actually I completely made it all up. I left the pod in one piece, as did the children, but they have probably wandered around London since then making complete fools of themselves sharing “fascinating facts” about the sights which are completely untrue.
Anyway, back to the Romans. As I sat staring (one eyed!) at my laptop screen this morning, I did what any self-preserving teacher did: I googled “new curriculum Romans year 4” and hoped. After a couple of false starts, I stumbled across the keystagehistory website. It looked promising, but then I spotted the sign in box. Not so good: it looked so hopeful that I was sure there would be a subscription involved. There was, but then a little lightbulb pinged on… An email from the history coordinator, way back last year, saying she had subscribed to an amazing website. Could I be that lucky? Yes, it seems, I could. As I signed into the site, I could actually feel myself getting more and more enthusiastic about teaching the Romans. The lesson plans and the resources are fantastic- inspired ideas! I can’t wait to get started next week. If it weren’t for websites such as keystagehistory and The Hamilton Trust, teachers’ lives would be far harder. I’ve learned more of the essential information this morning than I ever would have done trawling the net on my own, and I’ve got reliable sources of information if I need to answer the children’s questions. More importantly, that feeling of dread and fear that I had this morning has been transformed, in a very short space of time, into enthusiasm and excitement. I’m not professing to being an instant expert- far from it- but I know enough for what I need to teach. Some of the activities involve the children researching, so we will be discovering the rest together.
There are a lot of free websites out there promising to help save you time and provide resources, and there are a lot of expensive ones that don’t give you what you need. But some are worth every penny, and I shall be campaigning to have our subscriptions renewed next year!


Curriculum, parents

A is for Arts

This week at school, it was time for our annual Arts Week. Being an Artsmark Gold school (and very proud of it!), Arts Week is always a big event each year. This year’s theme was “A is for Arts”, cleverly titled as it enabled us all to pick a different topic beginning with ‘A’ and yet still link it across the school. We covered everything from Africa to Aliens, Apatosaurus to Archaeology, with lots of creative ideas in between.
Each year, the prospect of the approaching Arts Week evokes mixed emotions: excitement at the prospect of all the fab activities there are to come, but also some trepidation as there are inevitably children who don’t cope well with the change in routine. This year, however, I had no qualms about the week ahead: I had every confidence that my children were going to cope admirably, and we were going to have a brilliant week.
And I was right. Clay modelling, making jewellery, dances with shields (chaotic but fun!!), singing songs about the Romans and making mosaics all went really well on the first couple of days.
And then, suddenly, my fantastic Arts Week was ruined. After a quick trip to A&E last night, it soon became obvious that my final day of fun was not going to happen today. Up until that point last night, I hadn’t actually realised how much fun I was having. As I dutifully called a supply teacher and explained what she would be doing, I was devastated as she cooed and “aaaahed” over the activities. I wanted to be doing them! This evening, I had an equally enthusiastic message from her, telling me what a wonderful day she’d had while I’d sat in waiting rooms, and how proud she was of the children. Of course, I was proud of them too, as they’d held it together amid all the chaos of Arts Week with a supply teacher in their class, but I wanted to be the one making gorgeous things with them.
I’m not sure I’d realised just how much Arts Week meant to me. I knew the children loved it, but I realised today just how much I love it too. Someone commented yesterday that Arts Week takes a lot of preparation. It does- endless sorting of resources, cutting up bits of card, washing up paintbrushes, but it’s all worth it. The pressure is off the children for a week. They can sit and chat while they’re sticking, work together to make dances, they created collaborative mosaics without a single argument (a huge achievement!), and everyone has been engaged. Even those children who aren’t overly keen on art have had a whale of a time- of course, a lot of it has been to do with the choice of activity: we’ve chosen things they can all succeed in, but the fact that often, the teachers say down and did the tasks with them helps. We’ve all laughed together at the manic-ness of our dances, they’ve laughed at me prancing around the hall and we’ve celebrated the resulting videos (of them, not me!) together. They get a break from the daily pressures of English and Maths, we get a break from the daily pressures of marking (and even sometimes catch up on it!), and we all relax a little.
This year, there’s been the added incentive of an “exhibition” tomorrow: all of the children get to visit every year group to see what they’ve been up to, and then the parents can come in to see their work, videos etc at the end of the day. They’re all very excited about that, which is another huge disappoint for me: I’ve been a big campaigner this year for getting the parents into school (see my post here), but tomorrow is my day off. It would have been lovely to see how proud the children were showing off their work, and to get to talk to the parents about what they’ve been up to. However, at least I know they’re coming in. Even from the two days I was with them, I can visualise the buzz that will be in the classroom at the end of the day tomorrow. I can already see the big smiles the children will have, and hopefully the parents too.
It’s a very, very long way off, but I’m looking forward to next year’s Arts Week already.



Assessment in crisis

When I took on the role of Assessment Leader, I didn’t fully think through the implications of what it would involve. Always happy to create a table or a graph with pretty colours, in my naivety, I thought I would be in my element. Two years down the line, and it’s a pretty lonely place to be. My head is constantly full of ideas and “what ifs” and questions, none of which are any closer to getting answers. What I really need to do is sit down and thrash out ideas with someone, but I’m not sure anyone at school is any closer to having the answers than I am. So today, I’m appealing to that wealth of knowledge and understanding that exists in the Twittersphere. I’m sure there are many schools out there who are close to perfecting an assessment system. Ours isn’t one of them.

Our school adopted Target Tracker as our tracking system 12 months ago, and I was hoping that this may provide some help in assessing against Age Related Expectations. We are investigating using the bank of Statements on Target Tracker to generate a “level”, but it could be very time consuming and formulaic (i.e. 1/3 of the year’s objectives should be secure by Christmas, 2/3 by Easter – very crude, I know). We are also looking at different tests to use in maths and reading, but are they going to be helpful? How do we know what expected ATTAINMENT is at different points in the year? If I carry out a maths test in term 1, is it going to give me a judgement against the whole of the year’s objectives? In which case, what’s the point of doing it if every child is going to come out with “working below expectations”? The more I start investigating possibilities, the less sure I am of what we should be doing. It’s my day off today, and all I can think about is the different maths tests I have been looking at and the questions I need to answer about them. It’s driving me mad.

At the start of term 3, my year group switched from assessing against levels, and we are about to carry out our first assessment week against Age Related Expectations in 3 weeks. Whilst my year group colleagues are becoming familiar with the New Curriculum, they are going to be looking to me very soon for answers about how we are going to assess our children. And I can’t give them. So, wonderful Twitter people, I turn to you for some guidance. Any support you can offer would be massively appreciated, especially in regard to the following questions:

  1. How do you determine where your children should be at your assessment points in the year?
  2. Are you using published tests to generate your assessments, or using teacher assessment? If you are assessing yourself, are you creating a judgement against the whole year’s objectives?
  3. How are you showing progress for the more able children who are secure against there ARE midway through the year?

I know that every school in the country will be battling against questions such as these, so if anyone has managed to come up with any answers, I would love to hear from you.

Thank you in advance, lovely Twitter people.


Lifting the weight of the world (even just a bit)

Today has been one of those thought provoking days. From a video clip in assembly this morning, to an INSET on working memory, today has been a day of realisation of what our children have to deal with.

The clip this morning, of a blind boy using echolocation to help him to play basketball, was a fairly extreme but incredible example, but it did make me think about what our children have to deal with before they even come into a classroom. We see children with sick parents, sick siblings, children having to deal with alcohol or substance abuse in the home. Children who have to deal with bereavement. Children who see their parents struggling to pay for new uniform and who are horrified when they accidentally damage the uniform they do have. Children who tell us they don’t want to go on trips because they don’t want to ask their parents for the money. We see children who are having to deal with parents who are going through a divorce, or who don’t want to be together any more but still share a home. Children who come into school having had no breakfast, or who come in with a packed lunch full of sweets and junk as there is no real food in the house. Some children have shared residency, spending two days at one parent’s and then moving to the other. Health issues, confidence issues, relationship issues. All of this baggage comes through the door with them in the morning, and weighs down on them all day.

So what to do we do to alleviate the stresses of these children? We pile on more. We give them targets, with a focus on them succeeding and moving on. We throw spellings at them, sentence types, ridiculous grammatical phrases for them to learn, and we politely criticise when they get it wrong. They have number bonds and times tables to learn, which are tested every week, with “successes” displayed for all to see. We throw facts at them for them to remember in science or history or geography: we can dress it up in fun, interactive, exploratory lessons all we like, but what it all boils down to is remembering stuff. But not only must they remember it, they must show off all they have learned from their spellings and sentence types and ridiculous grammatical phrases in their writing about the facts they have(n’t) remembered.

What must all of this be doing to our children? Many of them will thrive on it: those who are succeeding have their successes celebrated. But for those children who come through the door with the weight of the world on their shoulders, and who can’t remember their spellings or number bonds, surely we are just dragging their shoulders down further? For the child who moves from house to house, do we give them a reading record for each place so that they perhaps have one less thing to worry about taking between homes? Or do we moan at them for forgetting it when they’ve spent an unexpected night at Dad’s instead of Mum’s? The child with really poor working memory: do we support them by breaking down instructions so they can process them? Or do we get exasperated when they wander round the classroom because they have no idea what they should be doing or how to do it?

I’ve always considered myself to be an inclusive teacher, but today really has made me think. It’s really not possible to meet every need of every child, even with a huge team of Pastoral Support Workers or Learning Mentors. We would never actually get any teaching done if we tried to meet all of the social and emotional needs in our classroom. But we can at least consider them. We must do whatever we can. Not at the expense of other children, of course, but all we can to help them and to benefit the whole class.

Lucas Murray, the boy from assembly this morning, had a huge obstacle to overcome in his blindness. What he needed was someone to help him face his challenges. And that’s what he got in Daniel Kish, the man who taught him to click at objects to identify them. The children in my class don’t have obstacles quite like Lucas to overcome, and many of them have supportive parents to help them face the challenges they are given at school every day. But they all have obstacles all the same, and after today, I’m going to try to be the one to help lift the weight from their shoulders, even if it’s just a little bit.


Table for 30, please.

Over the years, organisation of lunch has had varying levels of importance for me. I’ve gone from no lunch to leftovers ,from hearty and healthy salads to piles of carbs from Tesco, even sausage in batter and chips from the local chippy. Of course, this all depended entirely on a). my financial situation and b). what phase of a diet I was currently going through. All of this changed when I was pregnant with my second child. No longer able to stay up late enough/get up early enough to prepare the healthy food I ought to be having, nor energetic enough to waddle over the road to Tesco, I made an amazing discovery: the school dinner. Prior to my enforced laziness, my experience of school hot dinners had been limited to Christmas times only. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised!

Admittedly, the meals might not have been quite as flavoursome as those I would cook at home, and “sweetcorn with everything” isn’t really my mantra for home cooking, but they weren’t bad at all. Those cabbagey smells that often seemed to waft down the corridors really were misleading – cabbage never even featured on the menu! I would regularly sign myself up for a dinner, sneak into the hall, jump to the front of the queue (tut, tut) and run away to the safety of the staff room. The dinner hall has always struck me as a noisy, slightly chaotic place: not somewhere I would go unless I had to. So imagine my dilemma when the new head arrived: he introduced the Duty Lunch. A free lunch for any teacher who chose to eat in the hall with the children. Well, previously, MVNTH (My Very Nearly Teacher Husband, for those of you who are new to this blog.  He’s new to Twitter as well as teaching- follow him and make his day!) would often talk about having his lunch with the children. “Sucker!” I would think. Giving up his lunchtime, sitting amid the chaos and the noise and having to sort out squabbles and cut up lunches while his dinner went cold. Free midday supervision – no thank you!

Anyway, eventually, financial sense overtook my desire to eat in the relative calm of the staffroom (although admittedly, sometimes there is very little to distinguish between the children in the hall and the adults in the staffroom!), and I signed myself up for a duty lunch. To be fair to the children, it was a revelation. I queued up with them, and we all chatted about what we were having and who had made the best choice, when was best to come in to get seconds and which were the puddings to look out for. We sat together at the tables (their bottoms were far more suited to the seats though, it has to be said!) and talked about the meals they eat at home. I got the lowdown on who said what to whom in the playground, got the year 6 gossip and was entertained by some of the infants. I was pleasantly surprised. The hall is a noisy and chaotic place, but on the whole, it’s good noise and good chaos. The children were eating sensibly (although cutlery skills leave a lot to be desired – I’m working on those with them!) and almost everyone had impeccable manners. The children enjoy having their teachers around – there is an inevitable clamour to sit next to an adult (unless you are a cool year 6, when it’s your worst nightmare.   Then you can almost guarantee a teacher will come and sit next to you, just to wind you up). I’ve met children who I would never have come into contact with this year and have been able to keep up with those who I taught briefly last year. I’ve been accosted by year 2s in the corridor who I sat next to once, who usually test me to see if I can remember their names. Those children who need keeping an eye on get a little reminder that they are being watched, and it’s often enough to keep them on track until the end of lunchtime. It’s a pleasant way to spend a few minutes of my lunch hour. Not every day, let’s not overdo things, but once or twice a week, it’s a lovely way to get to know the children better. Yes, I may have to cut up the odd jacket potato and pour a drink or two, but it’s a very small price to pay. Apparently, there very nearly is such a thing as a free lunch after all.

CPD, Curriculum, Learnpad, Technology

Life since the Learnpad

When I returned from maternity leave almost a year ago, I found, lurking in the Computing Suite (although it was an ICT suite in those days!) a mysterious looking trolley. It didn’t look anything like the laptop trolleys that were dotted around the school, no, it was far more interesting than that! My curiosity was piqued – I’m a sucker for anything techy. It turned out that, hidden away in this locked trolley, was a whole class set of Learnpads. Of course, having been on maternity leave, I had missed all of the training on how to use them. Well, I liked the look of them, so I hounded our ICT Coordinator (that was his title back then!) until he gave me some training. Within minutes, I was sold. To be honest, having not had any tablets available in school prior to the Learnpads, they could have done anything and I would have been impressed. So the fact that they were easy to use and had so many resources available was an enormous bonus.

I set to work straight away planning some easy lessons where I could use the Learnpads – one of the first was to set up categories for each of Henry VIII’s wives with information and SimpleMind+ so the children could create mind maps of their information. When the time came for the lesson, I was a little apprehensive to say the least: to say I was anywhere near competent with using the Learnpads would be a huge stretch of the imagination, but I was desperate to have a go. I warned the children beforehand that anything could (and probably would!) happen, and that things could go wrong. But, miraculously, they all managed to do their research, the school wireless held up long enough for them to watch some Horrible Histories video clips (they’re available on BBC Class Clips and they’re brilliant!) and they all managed to electronically hand in their mind maps for me to print. A huge success all round! The children were sold too and were desperate to do more.

Since that lesson, the Learnpads have been a regular feature in my lessons, particularly in maths. I have lots of interactive games set up on them for different topics, and lessons set up ready for each of the Maths Passports they are working on. The children have QR codes printed out in their maths trays for the passport lessons: if they are working on them for part of our mental maths practise, they just scan the codes and away they go. We have used Comic Strip It! in science to create evaporation stories and in literacy to create story boards for narrative writing. If I’m honest, I couldn’t do without them now.

The only way to get used to using the Learnpads is to dive in and have a go. If you were to look at the school diary, you would only really see my year group booking them out. This isn’t because the others don’t want to use them: they do, but they didn’t dive straight in and use them. Completely understandable: we all have a hundred and one things to deal with every day, and learning to use a completely new resource takes up valuable time. And the longer you leave using them, the scarier the prospect comes as that training becomes a dim and distant memory. But all it takes is a colleague to show the way: I’m sure my teaching partner wouldn’t mind me saying that she was wary of using them, to say the least. But after only a few sessions with the Learnpads, and lots of questions, she is now happy to use them and is able to troubleshoot some problems herself. Every year group now has a teacher’s Learnpad which is invaluable: now I can plan my lessons online at home and try them out myself, just to spot any glitches in websites or activities. I’m well and truly hooked on them.

So my advice would be this: if you have a wonderful resource like the Learnpads in school, dive in and use them. Ask around to find out what others have done. Share ideas and resources. You will soon get to love them, and the children will love you for it. Unless they are in my class of course: they are very possessive over “their” Learnpads and will be devastated when everyone else has a go and they are no longer permanently parked outside of our classroom door! Whether it’s a Learnpad, an iPad or any-other-Pad that’s out there, they are the way forward. Give them a go and don’t get left behind!


Dressing to impress

I have always been a teacher who has made a bit of an effort when getting ready for work in the mornings. Not much: I’m not talking full war paint and elaborate up-dos, but I do at least put on a bit of foundation and lippy and brush my hair. I’ve usually looked at least vaguely smart – our school has a ‘no jeans’ policy which helps with smartness, I feel. And I’ve always been a bit of a one for shoes. Anyone who knows me (and I realise that most of you don’t!) will know that I have always loved shoes, and have worn some rather lovely ones to work over the years.

So imagine my surprise when, on more than one occasion recently, people have said to me “my goodness, you look smart today! Who are you trying to impress?” Well, it has never been my intention to up the stakes on the formal wardrobe front. But, it appears I have. And this got me to thinking about what difference it makes. I have always been mindful of a study I saw on TV years ago, where attitudes towards secondary teachers were monitored as they changed the type of clothes they wore (try as I might, I couldn’t find any evidence of it online, but I’m sure I didn’t dream it!). It seemed that the students were far more respectful towards the teachers when they wore smart clothes, compared to when they wore tracksuit bottoms and jeans. It seems the teachers were perceived as being more authoritative when they wore smarter clothes. I suppose that has always been in the back of my mind when dressing for work, but I certainly haven’t made a conscious effort to dress up of late!

When I think about it, the clothes I wear do have an effect on me, which perhaps in turn influences my children’s behaviour. When I wear more formal clothes, I do feel more confident. Perhaps I have a different air of authority because of this confidence? I don’t know. Maybe I have suddenly moved into a different mindset: I have recently begun to think that the time could be right to move into a management role. Is this new wardrobe a subconscious attempt to portray a more sensible, managerial me? Or perhaps, horror of horrors, am I growing up? Whichever of these it may be, it does seem to be having a positive impact. I’m more organised and prepared, and just seem to be viewing school life more seriously. For goodness, sake, I’ve started blogging to share my thoughts about it all! Not that I ever didn’t take school seriously, I just feel more (here comes the awful word again!!!) grown up about it all.

Of course, my colleagues are all teasing me mercilessly, looking out for the “power shoes” which they have decided I wear when I have a meeting with someone important. I don’t wear them just for meetings, but maybe there is something to be said about power dressing: a friend of mine has a special dress she wears when she knows she has a tough day ahead. Clearly, it makes her feel good, and so raises her confidence levels, which means she can deal with difficult situations. Good for her, I say. I’m all for feeling good about yourself. You can’t deal with an awkward parent or a stroppy child with confidence if you’re feeling insecure about yourself. I haven’t reached the ‘special dress’ stage yet, but the power shoes definitely play a part in making me feel good.

There aren’t many things that Ofsted say to make me think “I wonder…,” but in 2014 they criticised the profession for not being smart enough (there’s a Telegraph article about it here) and said that teachers’ appearances were having a negative impact on children’s learning. Now, I’m not sure I’d take it that far, and I do question whether it is their place to be telling us what to wear, but it does raise some interesting issues. I know that, when I have gone into school in casual clothes, fancy dress or even in pyjamas (in the name of charity, of course!), I feel different. Less keen to work, and more laid back. I’m sure I let the children get away with more, too, because I want an easy day. This must rub off on them, surely? Their work is never as good, nor is their behaviour. Is this just because it’s a novel, one off dressing up/dressing down day? Or, if it continued day in, day out, would there be a steady decline in their (and my) standards? I don’t know, and fortunately, I’m not in a position to find out. I don’t want to find out: I like looking and feeling good. So, because I want to, not because Ofsted are telling me too, I shall continue to build up my grown up, sensible wardrobe. And my brand new power shoes will be making an appearance very soon!