Capture your passion for teaching in 3 to 4 sentences. A very tough challenge, but here goes:
Even in the darkest times in a classroom, there are always tiny glimmers of light. Breakthrough moments, when every single child is focussed, engaged and loving school, fill you with pride and renewed enthusiasm. Looking at the children, and knowing there is always something you can do, no matter how small, to make a difference in their lives. Remembering that is key: you can’t always solve their problems or take away what goes on in their lives outside of school, but for the 6 hours they spend in school, we can do something they will always remember.
I have been meaning to write this post for some time now, but – teachers, you may find this hard to believe – I just haven’t had ten minutes spare to sit down and do it. So, here it is.
Life in schools at the moment is pretty crap. In the 16 years I have been teaching, morale has never been so low. I don’t mean in my school in particular, I mean nationally. I have friends who are teachers, I have many Twitter associates who are teachers, and no one is happy. I could use my time to write a long, ranting post about how crap teaching is, but I’m not going to. There are three reasons for this:
1). I am armed with my opinions, not all the facts, and so I would never write a post full of half-correct ideas;
2). Ranting isn’t my style, and
3). Why would I waste my rare few spare minutes of peace and quiet getting myself all riled up and angry, putting me in a bad mood for the rest of the day?
I thank those amazing educators and bloggers out there who do have all the facts: they are the people you should turn to if you want to find out why we are all miserable.
Instead, I want to spend my time trying to be positive, because that is what I do.
Yesterday, I spent a few minutes completing a survey set up by Emma Kell, looking at teacher wellbeing. One of her questions asked why I had gone into teaching. So far, she has surveyed almost 1000 teachers. I’d like to bet that not many of them chose “because it suits my lifestyle” or “for the holidays”. I’d like to think that the majority chose “to make a difference in society” or “I like spending time with young people” as their answer. In these trying, frustrating, exhausting, infuriating times, that is what we have to remember. We are in this job for the young people we teach. Yes, the government may be failing them, yes, our education system is in complete turmoil at the moment, but we have to remember those children we are there to teach. As part of my NPQSL course, I have been reading a lot about creating a positive culture. Positivity is infectious, and it is necessary to help children to succeed. Equally, negativity is infectious too. The children pick up on it. The negativity that so many teachers are feeling at the moment is completely understandable, but we can’t allow it to permeate our teaching and our classrooms. We need to make the best of what is a dire situation, in order to help our children to succeed – whether that be academically, socially or just to help them to be good people. Yes, we have to teach boring lessons about modal verbs and identifying the past progressive and using fronted adverbials, but we can at least try to make school fun by teaching with a smile, even if inside we are crying about the subject material. The children we are teaching will be shaped by the education they receive – on paper, that may not be the education we want to give them, so we have to do all that we can to ensure they enjoy their time in school – we need to still make sure we give them the educational visits and the fun days and the amazing experiences that they remember for far longer than their standardised score and the random letters that are assigned to show their English and Maths ability.
We need to give each other a break. We are all in this up to our necks together. No-one really knows where they stand in school at the moment – it seems every day, another new and crazy, work-creating change is being introduced. Yes, we’re fed up with it. Yes, we are constantly on the back foot as we never know what’s going to happen next. And yes, we need to have a point of blame for all of this; someone to direct our anger and frustrations at. But we need to stop and think about whom we are directing this anger at. I know a fair few Headteachers, and I know that none of them woke up one morning and thought: “ I know. What I’ll do is: I’ll get rid of the curriculum that everyone is familiar with. I’ll scrap the assessments they all know. I’ll invent some crazy assessment system that no-one really gets, and I’ll make it up as I go along, but I won’t tell anyone what I’m doing. I’ll take away all the fun lessons and fill the timetables with loads more writing and maths. I’ll give them some stupid grammar stuff to memorise, and, while I’m at it, I’ll change the names of stuff like calling “Data Handling” “Statistics”, we’ll change “SPaG” to “GPS” and change subject names like “ICT” to “Computing”. That’ll be a laugh.” I’m pretty sure that’s not what happened. The Headteachers don’t like what’s going on any more than we do, yet they’re the ones who have had to enforce the changes, knowing it would make their staff unhappy. They are feeling the pressure too – even more than we are, as the buck stops with them.
These are trying times, and not everyone will come out of the other side still working in education. That is guaranteed. But, while we are there, we have to do the only things we can do: stay positive, through all of the $*”! that gets thrown at us, talk to each other, be open and honest if it all gets too much, and support each other. I have a suspicious feeling things may get considerably worse before they get better, so we need to help each other get to get through this.
Some frogs from my youth put it beautifully, so I’ll leave the final word with them…
It was with some slight dismay that I realised this week that I needed to work on “counting in multiples of 7”. An essential skill, admittedly, but counting in multiples always brings a little shiver of dread when planning it, as there is such as range of mental maths abilities in my maths groups. I know from previous experience that some will come to the lesson with this skill already, whereas some will still be uncertain after several days. I needed inspiration.
Luckily, I found it. It came from two places. One in the form of the Kahoot website, and the other from an amazing YouTube clip.
I have been meaning to get to grips with Kahoot for a long time: the children use tablets to log into an online quiz, and then compete against each to answer questions from the interactive whiteboard using their tablets (in our case, LearnPads). I used one of the public Kahoots: a quiz created by another user to test the 7x table. Before starting the quiz, we did a quick bit of counting in 7s to just get their brains into gear, and then used the Kahoot as a pre-assessment tool. I was expecting the children to enjoy the quiz, but I had not anticipated their level of enthusiasm – they loved it!! As soon as we had finished the quiz, there were cries for more, so I promised it the next day, providing they made a big effort to improve their skills over the coming lesson.
For those who could already confidently count in 7s, they had a series of timed challenges at their table which they had to complete with a partner, armed with a stopwatch and a will to increase their speed. Those who were able to fluently answer a range of 7x table questions were given an NRich challenge to solve with a TA, where they had to apply their knowledge of the number facts using a logical approach. The children who had struggled to answer the questions in the quiz worked with me to develop their confidence using the Counting Stick approach. I had dabbled with this before, but I had never actually watched the YouTube clip all the way through, and so had not really done it properly. The results were amazing. After only a few minutes of counting, adding and removing numbers from the counting stick, the difference in confidence was incredible. The children were beaming as they counted in 7s, and realised that they could actually use this new knowledge in the quiz the following day (We used the counting stick without numbers at the beginning of the second lesson, and the children had retained it all!).
As promised, we repeated the quiz the next day, and there was a noticeable difference in the number of children who were getting the questions right (in most cases, 28 out of 28 were correct). On the first day, most of the children who worked with me were completely stumped when faced with 11 or 12 x 7. On the second day, I watched them closely when they reached these questions, and, even though we had only gone as far as 10 x 7 with the counting stick, they instantly knew that they just had to add 7 or 14 to the end of the stick. The sense of pride the children had at increasing their ranking or reaching a greater score was palpable: one child was so proud at having reached the leaderboard, we had to take a screen shot of his placing and hand it into the ClassCloud so he could print it off and show the headteacher his achievement (“I had to shake his hand and everything, Miss, it was brilliant!).
By the end of 2 lessons, every child in that class was able to count in multiples of 7 and rapidly answer questions from the 7 times table. Counting in multiples holds no fear for me now – I know the approach I shall be taking from now on!
Every term, we have a new strategy to teach the children to use when problem solving in maths. Earlier in the year, we used trial and improvement, and then working systematically, taught through the use of NRich activities. This term, our focus has been spotting patterns.
For many activities, the approach to recording a finished activity is obvious, as there is something to stick in their books, but the approach used is lost. I wanted a way to show how the children actually worked, and so I used the LearnPads to add to the recording process. Our activity this week was Domino Sets, again from NRich, where the children had to spot patterns in the numbers on their dominoes, sort them and work out which, if any, were missing. I could have given them photocopies of dominoes to sort and stick, but the children found it more meaningful to be given boxes and bags of real dominoes: especially when we discovered that some had what appeared to be full sets, some had fewer than 2 dominoes in, and some bags had remnants of 5 sets mixed up together! The joys of getting out resources before the lesson without having checked each pack indiviually! However, this provided an instant differentiation – the more logically thinking children were given the mixed up bags and asked to try and create a full set, whereas the less confident were given those sets which were almost complete.
The children had great fun sorting the dominoes, some choosing to just move them around on the table, others getting whiteboards and making lists and jottings to help them.
Once they had formed what they believed to be a complete set of dominoes (or as close as they could get), the children then used the Annotate app on the LearnPads to take a photo of their set and annotate it to show the process they used to sort their dominoes. These were then handed in and printed out as evidence (The new ClassCloud layout has made this process far simpler and much quicker to get the work from the LearnPads and into the children’s books). The quality of explanations varied massively, and was excellent evidence to show just how well the children understood how they had reached their conclusion – was there a system or just good luck?! Thinking back to the lesson now, I would also get the children to make a short video explaining what they did – handing in and uploading to somewhere like Dropbox would mean the children would have a QR code to stick in their books and show their parents at the end of the year (I am kicking myself now that I didn’t think of this yesterday!).
I have used the LearnPads many, many times in my lessons, but never before in this way. Such a simple activity has provided some great evidence and gave the children real motivation to make sure they understood how they had solved their problem. Annotate will definitely be making more appearances in my maths lessons from now on!
Just over a year ago, I took a bold step into the world of twitter and blogging. Whilst most of my forays have just been the random musings that the strap line of my blog promises, one or two have shown me the power that social media can have.
Almost a year ago to the day, I posted a pleading blog as an assessment leader in crisis, floundering in the newly “created” world of assessment without levels. From that blog, I received words of wisdom from many good people. Crucially though, Michael Tidd put me in touch with some wonderful people at the White Horse Federation in Swindon, who helped me on my way with my assessment journey.
Fast forward a short while, and a trial system was in place, and then rolled out across the whole school in September. There have been times when I have felt quite smug about the fact that, as a school, we more or less know what we are doing. However, for the most part, I have still had one or two niggling doubts about what we do, especially when we have made changes mid-year or even mid-term.
No secret was ever made of the fact that this system was developing as we went along – staff, children, parents and governors have all been kept informed of what we are doing. However, I have always known that the system wasn’t completely perfect for us. Not least because it was designed by the White Horse Federation to suit their needs, and we were/are using it alongside a few minimal functions of Target Tracker (purely for the purposes of looking at groups of children, as it links to SIMS). I am eternally grateful for the support the WHF have given, and continue to give, and I know that they too have made changes to the system as time has gone on.
Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to attend the Assessment Without Levels conference at Cheltenham Racecourse, where some wonderful speakers provided me with a huge amount of food for thought. Not least Jamie Pembroke and Michael Tidd (who, I am not ashamed to admit, I was very excited to finally get to meet at last!), whose key message was: do less, but better. Jamie has always been a firm (and vocal!) believer in not using assessment systems if they don’t work for you. He is, of course, completely right, but the only way to find something that completely fits your assessment system is to build it yourself. I don’t want to spend more money and time learning about a different system that still doesn’t quite fit our needs. But sadly, my web/app designing skills don’t quite meet the desired level (I was excited a couple of years ago when I managed to get an Excel spreadsheet to change colour depending on the numbers put in!). If I’m honest, our needs for a tracking system are going to change anyway. I’m not completely sure how yet; when listening to Michael and Mary Myatt yesterday, I knew exactly what we were going to do and how. 24 hours on, and that clarity has faded a little, but I still have ideas.
As a school, we assess too much. I knew that from the outset, but I thought it better to do too much and cut back, rather than not enough and add to people’s workload later on. I know we aren’t in the business of popularity contests, but taking away work rather than adding more is always going to score brownie points! Staff have got to grips with the way we are planning and assessing, and they are doing it well. The children know what they can do and where they need to go next. The parents (hopefully) know where to look to find out how their child is getting on and what they can do to help. I’m not going to change any of that, just streamline the record keeping somehow.
I’m not back to square one, nowhere near it, because this year, I have a very sound starting point, thanks to the WHF. And, a year on, I have the confidence in my ability to develop this, something that I lacked massively last year. I also have the confidence to talk to Ofsted about what we do: my favourite phrase of yesterday was “I’m sorry, we don’t do that here. What would you like to know?” I can’t wait to try that one out when our inevitable HMI visitor comes knocking on the door.
So, for the time being, we carry on doing the bloody good job that were are doing already . But conversations will be had, plans will be made, and hopefully, in the not too distant future, we will be doing less, and even better.
Us teachers are a cynical lot. But we are a friendly lot too.
I met a fair few teachers over the last few days at the Bett Show, representing LearnPad and talking to them about my experiences. We are always wary of sales people, wary of people just pointing out what they want you to hear, so being able to talk to potential customers as an impartial teacher was really refreshing.
My role was to share my experiences in school, talk about a few lesson ideas and, what I was particularly surprised about, to share the negatives with customers. To be fair to the good people at LearnPad, I didn’t really have any negatives to share, but of course customers always came with a list of concerns. Understandable, as they were possibly about to invest sizeable chunks of their budgets in the products, and I really enjoyed the fact that I could help to alleviate their concerns by telling them about the support I have received, both from the Technical Support team and from trainers such as Hannah. I could share a range of lesson ideas, from simple ones using inbuilt tools like Annotate for those who were a little tech wary, to more complex ideas combining apps like Animate and Movie Maker. Some just listened to the ideas and asked questions, but others came back with new ideas that I have pinched for the classroom! Whatever their view though, the teachers were all grateful to have the opportunity to talk to other teachers and hear what we had to say. In fact, many of those I spoke to were in exactly the same situation that our school was in not so long ago: a handful of iPads, lots of old and deteriorating laptops and an ever increasing need to make a decision about what route to go down when spending their budgets. To me, it seemed that technical advice from the experts, practical advice from experienced teachers and packs of free Wonka bar pencils was a winning combination, and so people left the stand smiling!
I consider myself to be a very confident LearnPad user, but I too learned a huge amount while I was away. Before the stand opened and during quieter times, I had the opportunity to explore new products too – I am going back into school tomorrow with a huge wishlist! I was really excited to be able to tell people about the new ClassBoard app (available from the app store and Google Play), which is available to any school, and is a secure forum for schools to share pictures and work with their parents via their tablets and smart phones. The first thing I did yesterday evening (during my “evening off!”) was to register my school and add a few demo posts, so I can take it to show the other staff. It’s a great way to be able to keep parents informed and engage them in everyday life – something which we are always keen to do! Showing photos and work straight from the LearnPads via the ClassCloud is also a great incentive for those more reluctant users to get them out and use them – they have a whole new audience to share their work with.
I also spent a HUGE amount of time playing on the new Murus board – a whiteboard unlike any I’ve seen before. There was a massive amount of interest in the board – not least from me – as it looks incredible and the idea of using SNAPS on it (simple apps) made it really easy to use. I couldn’t talk to teachers about how I’d used it, as it’s a brand new product, but as the two days went on, I had more and more lesson ideas to show people. Some of us on the stand made it our mission to try and put different lessons onto the board each time we demonstrated it, so between us, we built up quite a bank of ideas! The LearnPad team regularly asked us what else we wanted on the board – as we played with it, we came up with an idea or two which the team took away. I loved the fact that our opinions were valued so much – ultimately, we are the users and the consumers, so what us teachers have to say about a product really matters. Again, some of the teachers we spoke to came back to us with lesson ideas of their own… more to add to the bank in my head!
Having time to share ideas with others is really valuable, and is something we just don’t do enough of. When I agreed to go to the Bett Show, I had no idea what I was signing up for. It was a terrifying prospect. But it was a valuable experience in so many ways – meeting lovely people (both customers and people on the team), sharing great ideas, discovering fantastic new products and, last but not least, a huge boost to my confidence. Yes, the two days were exhausting, but two days that I am so glad I was a part of.
We are only 4 days into a new topic on “Invaders”, looking at the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and already it is clear that the children are loving it. They were amazed by the soldiers, columns and mosaics that had mysteriously appeared in the classroom, desperate to read the non-fiction books in our brand new book area, and thought our opening text of “Vesuvius Poovius” by Kes Gray and Chris Mould was hilarious (thanks to Jo Payne for recommending it!). Thanks to the Key Stage History resources (which I wrote about this time last year), I have a really interesting and exciting plan in place to teach the children the skills to find lots of facts, and activities to help them to use their new found skills. We have a trip to Gloucester City Museum planned, which is full of information about local history, and it was this trip that led me to a new idea.
This year, I would love the children to carry out their own research project about the Roman and Anglo-Saxon history of Gloucester, spanning a period of a few weeks. I spent today reading and re-reading “Children’s History of Gloucester” by Cindy Jefferies, and I was fascinated. If I got so hooked from reading one book, then I am sure the children would be just as interested. However, my problem is this: many of the children in my class are not focussed enough to be able to sit at a computer or a tablet for a few lessons and be able to find and retrieve the information – the lure of other websites would just be too great, as would the opportunity to sit and chat or mess around. We have lots of non-fiction books in school, but of course, they don’t focus on local history. I have already contacted the Gloucestershire Local History Association for some advice (and possibly talks from their speakers), but beyond that, I’m floundering a little. There are lots of sites of interest in the local area, from the remains of the City Walls (which we will visit), to Emperor Nerva’s statue, from the remains of St Oswald’s priory to the splendour of Gloucester Cathedral and all of the Anglo-Saxon residents within it. Sadly though, I know a whistle stop tour of these sites would be a). impractical to arrange, and b). a real challenge for my children. I do, however, feel an optional half term homework task coming on here…
If any readers have any advice for me, having carried out similar projects of their own, be it dos and don’ts, organisations or publications to use, then please do contact me. I have every confidence that the children will be able to produce something amazing through this project, and something that they will remember for years to come, if only I can work out how to do it.