Back to School: Some Reasons to be Cheerful.

With the supermarket seasonal aisles stocked up on Back To School products since mid-June, it’s no surprise that many teachers have been thinking about September since before Summer began. Even the most experienced teachers know that heading back into the classroom can be a daunting experience. There is no feeling of solidarity quite like the one shared by all teachers on August 31st; the impending certainty of a sleepless night, the horror of a 6am (or earlier!) alarm and the depressing acceptance that you have once again not been appointed to a position at Hogwarts. Tomorrow you face an Inset Day of GCSE/KS2 results analysis, school priorities, new policies, and last-minute timetable changes. You’re ok with giving up your classroom so it can be turned into an office for the new Strategic Director of WOW (What Ofsted Want), right? 8B can have their lesson in the toilets; if they turn around on the seat, they can use the cistern as a desk!

All of this awaits both old and new teachers once the glorious summer is over. It’s tough sometimes, but there are ways you can try to maintain your sanity over the coming term:

1. If you’re anything like me, you may find all the post-summer ‘How was your holiday?’ small talk a little tiresome, especially from the humble bragger who insists on telling you how it was just SO exhausting having to spend the entire summer on a luxurious Caribbean cruise. My tip is to take control of the conversation with unsettlingly irrelevant and peculiar questions such as ‘Well that sounds wonderful, but tell me, if ghosts can walk through walls, why don’t they fall through the floor?’. People will be so perplexed by your weirdness they will leave you well alone.

2. Invest in some new stationery. You simply cannot have enough new stationery. For some people pure joy is an evening sunset, a day spent with their darling children, or a gourmet meal looking across the table into the eyes of their loving partner. For me it’s a new Lamy fountain pen. Or a pack of pastel shade highlighters. Or a Pukka pad. A new planner from Paperchase. Oh god, I’m getting carried away… Seriously though, when you’re writing down the list of Y9 detentions you’ve needed to issue on Day 1 it feels so much better to do it with a new pen in hand, into a thick, white pad, underlined with a personalised ruler.

3. The return to school coincides with the return of The Great British Bake Off so a department cake rota is an absolute must. If you’re talented enough you can even bake an actual cake on your actual own! Or you can do what I do and get a chocolate, fresh cream filled dream from the shops. For the vegans amongst us, there is bound to be someone in your department that can source a tasty dairy-free cake that doesn’t taste like cigarette ash (they do exist, I promise!).

4. Make social plans. Seriously. The start of the school term does not need to mean the end of you taking care of yourself and having fun. In what is possibly my only serious suggestion, it has taken me many years in teaching to reach a point where I have started to seriously prioritise my wellbeing over my work. Right now, before summer ends, book in some plans with friends for the weekends. Tell them that when the time comes you will need support to not bail on them and spend the weekend marking. They will help you if they know you need it. Also important is to try to keep doing some of the other things that have made you feel good over summer. Going to the cinema with your partner ON A SCHOOL NIGHT will not cause a large-scale disaster the next day. You will tell yourself you are too tired and busy to continue the things you love once term begins whether that be exercising, reading, crafting etc, but half an hour of whatever you do will make you feel so good. We all need that in the run up to Christmas.

Hopefully this advice will help some of my fellow superhero teachers as we prepare to return to school. I will gratefully receive free stationery in the post, should you wish to thank me.

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Unseen Poetry – Building up a Collection

This week I’ve been reading Chris Curtis’ brilliant book How To Teach English and one of the many things that I noted down and covered in post-it notes was Chris’ advice that all of us English teachers should have a bank of poems that we can teach at the drop of a hat just because we know them and like them. Despite always having enjoyed the study and teaching of poetry, I’ve never been much of a poetry reader. This is at odds with what you may find on my bookshelf – I always pick up collections of poetry in second hand bookshops but more often than not, they sit on my bookshelf, doing nothing more than creating an impression that I am a poetry reader. Yet, when I am faced with teaching an unseen poem, where do I turn? Old GCSE anthologies. Poems I have taught before, many times, tried and tested… and comfortable. But while comfortable is fine, and those old anthologies are indeed filled with many great poems that deserve to be shared with our pupils, comfortable can also be boring and predictable. I am an enthuastic believer that all teachers should constantly be learning so I decided to take my own advice and do some ‘unseen’ poetry analysis of my own.

I picked up The Penguin Book of Poetry of the First World War and went for the first two I saw: Thomas Hardy’s Channel Firing and On the Idle Hill of Summer by A.E.Housman (click the links to see the poems).

Having read and annotated both poems, much in the manner I would whilst teaching a class (but with less precision and more question marks!) I made some notes on how I would compare the two poems. This is what I came up with:

  • Neither Hardy nor Housman fought in the First World War. I wondered why until I realised that both men were probably too old (Hardy was 74 when war broke out in 1914) but they were both old enough to have remembered the Crimean and Boer wars (amongst others) and to have seen the senseless pain and horror war can bring. We often think that ‘War poets’ who are not writing from a direct experience may be lacking in some sense of the reality of war. It seems to me that both men would have seen enough loss in their lives to have felt great sorrow seeing young men marching off to another war, one from which, as can be seen in these poems, they never expected them to return.
  • Both poems deal with the inevitability of death. From the outset of Channel Firing Hardy takes on the persona of a dead man, sleeping in his coffin, surrounded by “many a skeleton”, waken by the rumbling cannon fire of the military in the English Channel. My trusty Norton Anthology of English Literature told me that this poem was written only a few months before the outbreak of WW1. He addresses the reader directly, with the accusatory “your great guns” and mocks the living as “mad as hatters” for our determination to continue to make war. God speaks to the dead men telling them “Just as before you went below; the world is as it used to be”. Far from being a message of reassurance (all is well), this creates a feeling of regret and despair. These men died in war, and nothing has changed. In Idle Hill Housman’s inevitable war is symbolised by the growing noise of the drumming soldiers as they march by; “far and near, low and louder” suggesting war is inescapable. The drummers have come to recruit men and he will not escape the fate of the “soldiers marching, all to die.” The final line of the poem “Woman bore me, I will rise” I admit to being confused by at first. But then I remembered Macbeth’s prophecy and all became clear! I believe Housman is saying that, like all men, he must rise and join the war. It is futile to think he can escape.
  • In both poems a sense of peace is broken by the noisy arrival of war. In Hardy’s narrative, the cannon fire literally wakes the dead and continues to do so as revealed in the final stanza; “again the guns disturbed the hour”. If even the dead have no peace then what chance do the living have? Housman’s poem begins with an idylic, almost heavenly scene. The “idle hill of summer, sleepy with the flow of streams” is abruptly disturbed by the arrival of the drumming soldiers who, like a nightmare, march into the dreams of men, turning the light dark.
  • The structure of both poems is clear and simple: quatrains of ABAB rhyme. The steady, regular beat can reflect both the cannon fire and the drumming of both poems but also create a sense of order, tranquility and peace that is broken by the reality of war presented in the language. Housman’s poem ends far from the idyllic setting in which it begins, with the narrator realising he must join the soldiers and most likely die. In contrast, Hardy’s poem ends exactly where it begins, with the dead men woken again by the sound of gunfire and wondering if the world above them will ever change.

I’ve really geekily enjoyed studying these two poems this afternoon and hope to find time to do a few more before the madness of September starts. It’s a nice way to spend a rainy afternoon (I don’t know about you but Manchester is pretty much submerged at the moment!). I’m always very keen to learn and I’ve tried to study these poems without the aid of any Google searches but that also means I could have wildly misinterpreted them! Any further notes that I can add to my scribbles will be gratefully received.

Thank you for reading.

TES Education Resources: An Open Expression of Concern

This post has been agreed by several teachers and is shared across several blog sites. 
In the last couple of years, we have openly expressed concern at the approaches taken by Tes Education Resources to plagiarism and copyright violation, theft of resources, and the selling of resources that violate copyright. This is not a blogpost intended to cast disapproval on those who sell resources. It is a simply an open expression of concern at the approach taken by Tes Education Resources, when these incidents are uncovered. We also wish to make clear that this is not about an individual or anybody working for Tes Education Resources. We believe that this is a systemic problem that should not fall on one person to solve.
We feel that the following issues need to be properly addressed by Tes Education Resources:

  • The fact that people upload and sell plagiarised resources, which have been clearly copied from free shares on Twitter, Facebook, and sometimes from colleagues.
  • The fact that although Tes Education Resources offer ‘goodwill’ gestures to those who give public challenge, and offer compensation when they recognise plagiarism, the onus is on the victim of theft to report and prove the theft.
  • The fact that customers are being advised to buy resources to check the content if they suspect a theft has occurred, and then claim the money back.

These issues need addressing because:
Plagiarism can constitute copyright violation, which is covered by legislation in both UK and EU law, as well as being a feature of international treaties and agreements. We believe that this is not being taken seriously by Tes Education Resources, who provide a platform for the sale of resources which have been taken, copied, and presented as original resources by the thief. Tes Education Resources describe themselves as ‘one of the world’s largest peer-to-peer platforms for teachers to trade and share digital teaching resources’ (Tes Education Resources Ltd: Annual Report and Financial Statements – Directors’ Report 2017). We feel that a company of this scale, regardless of financial status, should not be placing the onus on individuals to identify instances of copyright violation.
A goodwill gesture is something given on a case-by-case basis. It means that those with the time and tenacity to challenge instances of copyright infringement are being offered compensation, but there are victims who are unaware of the issue, or perhaps who do not have the time and resources to prove the provenance of the resource. We believe that the Tes Education Resources could and should ensure there is parity here.
Tes Education Resources have conceded that only 5% of their resource downloads are purchased. The rest are free downloads. We appreciate this valuable resource, but feel that the 5% are being prioritised over the 95%. It is understood that the 5% is the download, rather than the upload, figure – but the point still stands – 95% of people downloading from Tes Education Resources are downloading free resources.
We also believe that asking people to buy resources to check for copyright issues, in order to then claim a refund, is an unfair and illogical request. Perhaps most pertinent is the fact that all of these issues are contributing to our workload. The Tes recognise this too. In fact, they have an entire section of their website dedicated to this issue – you can read this here:https://www.tes.com/news/hub/workload. In refusing to adapt their practice, either by demonetising the site or by taking further steps to prevent these incidents, teachers are being forced to spend time searching the site for their own resources. When teachers locate stolen resources, the expectation that they buy their own work and prove its provenance is onerous and frustrating.
What Tes Education Resources Can Do:
  Have a long-term aim to demonetise the site and subsidise it, to enable an entirely free sharing platform for those working in education.
In the meantime:
  Improve checks on resources to identify plagiarism and/or copyright infringement.
  Allow for full download with retrospective payment, rather than asking people to buy resources simply to check for copyright infringement.
  Enable reviews of paid content without purchasing – so that copyright infringement which is clearly evident in the preview pane can be challenged in a review.
What you can do:
  Avoid downloading from Tes Education Resources until the long-term aim (above) is fulfilled.
  Use your Social Media account to inform your followers that you are doing this.
  Share your resources through Dropbox and any other suitable medium.

Language Paper 2 Writing – An Introduction

This term we’ve been preparing our Y11s for the second round of mock exams. We do Paper 1 Lit and Lang before Christmas and both Paper 2s around Feb/March. This works for us as a way to structure pupils’ revision but more importantly (and I strongly believe this is of massive importance) it eases teacher workload.

So, this term has been all about Paper 2, arguably the hardest of the two language exams. Why? Twice the reading in the same amount of time and no choice of tasks for Q5. After having read a pair of texts about such varied issues as festivals (interesting) and snow (less interesting) pupils then have to form an opinion on the issue, an issue which most or many 16 year olds may never have considered before.

Now I don’t think this is a bad thing, not at all. The enormous variety of possible topics allows for many opportunities to provide our pupils with a breadth of reading material over the course of the curriculum and build up their cultural capital. I enjoy teaching paper 2 but it does have its challenges.

Like all English leaders, I spent the days following results day last year using AQA’s ERA tool to pore over the areas in which our pupils achieved well and those in which they needed more help. The pattern was clear, and not unexpected; Paper 2 writing was the section of the exam in which our students, (91% of whom are EAL) struggled the most. So what have we been doing to tackle this?

Firstly, I am a firm believer in empowering teachers with confidence and subject knowledge through in-house CPD ( I’ve blogged about this here) so our department meetings this term have been dedicated to Paper 2 Writing tasks. I have asked those teachers in my team who have a talent for writing to set tasks in meetings, talk us through how they would plan/teach this task and then we all have a go. In the time we have we often only write a couple of paragraphs but we then share these with each other, in a totally supportive environment, and someone types them up so we all have a copy of what everyone has written. These models are then shared in class with pupils. So far, pupils have responded positively to models written by the English department as we share the different approaches we’d take to the question and acknowledge the challenges we face when attempting the questions. Some of us are not naturally gifted writers and the pupils appreciate that we don’t expect them to be either.

One of the biggest challenges our pupils face is knowing where to start with the writing tasks. They struggle to form opinions on topics about which they care very little and they don’t read enough to know that articles do not start with the phrase “I agree with this statement because…” We have very high expectations of all our pupils and the fact that the overwhelming majority of them speak English as a second language, or are Pupil Premium is never used an excuse to explain away any underperformance. These challenges are barriers which we all climb over together. However, this does not mean we don’t need to give pupils a great deal of support and scaffolding to help them climb over those barriers.

In a recent CPD meeting we shared the idea of starting the writing tasks with a reference to a recent news event. For example, an article on advising young people to take care of the environment may being with ‘You may have seen the news coverage recently of the devastating forest fires in California”. I found this useful so I decided to develop it further for my grade 3-4 pupils in intervention. We came up with the following structure for writing introductions:

  • Reference to a recent news event (doesnt have to be real but should be realistic!)
  • A rhetorical question or a statistic
  • An emotive statement of intent/call for action

The introduction will look something like this:

Q: “The internet causes more harm than good. It is the worst invention in human history.” Write a speech for Parliament in which you argue for or against this statement.

A: The news has been dominated this week by the tragic death of Molly Russell, the 14 year old girl who killed herself after being exposed to a series of images promoting self harm and suicide on Instagram. Her father has said that Instagram killed his daughter. He, like over 60% of parents we surveyed, monitored his daughter’s social media use closely. He thought he knew what his daughter was accessing. But how much do we really know about what our children are looking at when they are in their rooms, staring at their phones? This tragedy is the alarm we all need to hear, the alarm that should wake us up to the danger of mankind’s greatest invention: the internet.

For those of you groaning at the inclusion of those overused AFOREST techniques in the plan (urgh, AFOREST!) they are techniques that our grade 3-4 students are already familiar with and can write easily. Remember, our aim is to make them feel confident and capable as they approach this difficult task. As a result, these pupils wrote introductions which were engaging, outlined their argument for the body of the essay, and helped them stay focused on the task. I will add some examples to this post when I’ve typed some up.

Hope it helps!

Taking a DIY approach to CPD

This month I wrote a blog for TES about how middle leaders can take control of their team’s CPD. Follow the link below to read the full article.

With school budgets tighter then ever, most teachers are experiencing a professional development drought. Many schools now do CPD in-house, but this is often of varying quality and is not always relevant to individual teachers.

To be honest, external courses are often not much better.

I haven’t been on a paid-for external CPD course in about five years. The last one was when the film studies specification changed. As leader of that particular course, I was allowed to go on the rather expensive day out to a hotel function room, where I ate some dry sandwiches and had the course specification read aloud to me with accompanying PowerPoint slides.

Read the rest of the article here

Why We’re All Doing Just Fine

This is a call to arms to all you teachers out there who sometimes feel inferior when you compare yourself to others. This is a shout out for all you ‘adequate’ teachers, all of us who are doing just fine, getting on with it, feeling fair to middling. This is my chance to say why we’re all doing just fine, and that’s perfect actually.

Over the summer classroom displays were a hot topic on Twitter with lots of people posting their beautiful works of art for all to see. Oh, how envious many must have been. I once would have felt that way myself but, being 32 and having taught for 10 years, I just thought ‘Good on you folks for having the energy to do that!’ My creative juices start and end with what colour socks to wear in the morning. My classroom displays are the product of spending the last 10 years ‘taking one for the team’ and allowing Open Evening to be held in my room. All of a sudden the whole department has to help jazz the place up and turn it from a jungle of ripped backing paper and blue-tack stained walls into a multi-coloured, laminated and fully backed theatre of key quote dreams.

So, if you ever feel a pang of guilt when you see beautiful displays shared on Twitter, remember that it might look nice, but so does a kitten, and kittens are much more cuddly than displays. Get a kitten. You’ll feel just fine.

Next up, resources. First of all, I love a good resource booklet as much as the next person and always find the time to thank those who have shared such gems through Team English and beyond. I know how much hard work goes into them. At this stage in my career my own resources are basic at best. I used to take such pride in a PowerPoint. I even used to spend time downloading new fonts. Just take that in for a second. As an insanely busy new teacher I spent time DOWNLOADING NEW FONTS. What the merry hell was I thinking? My students’ results were no better for it. I needed to find a use for my ever increasing stationery addiction so I now teach with a chunky notepad, a good pen, the text we’re studying, and a visualiser. If there’s no visualiser in the room, I talk at the kids for an hour and tell them to make notes. That’s ok to do because I’m the only person in the room with any qualifications and I’m worth listening to. Our results last year were the best they’ve ever been and I have more space on my hard drive for pictures of cats. What could be better?

I don’t know a great deal about language terminology as I’m a literature student and sometimes on Twitter I see people debating whether such and such is an example of asyndeton or polysyndeton or polycystic ovaries or something like that and I have a pang of “blimey, I should know this stuff… everyone else knows this stuff!” And then I remember that I got a whole entire degree without knowing lots of things that other English specialists may know, and I have successfully taken hundreds of children through their GCSEs without knowing them either. I am certainly not celebrating ignorance; I bloody LOVE learning and try to instil that same love into every student I teach but I also know that I don’t know everything and there are gaps in my knowledge. I do, however, know all the words to the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Don’t tell me I’m not talented.

And finally, work life balance. Anyone who says they’ve got this nailed can go and get in a bin. Get right in that bin and don’t come out til you’ve been up all night trying to mark 120 mock exams where every kid has taken the beach picture prompt to mean ‘shark attack’ but without any of the subtlety or nuances of a Spielberg script.

You don’t work at home? Oh well good for you, now smug off. You had time for a run this evening did you, and you feel great do you? Well I had time for a migraine tablet and an episode of Pointless before I fell into a broken sleep worrying about whether or not Year 11 will have made ‘expected progress’ in their latest assessments.

All any of us can do is our best and big each other up along the way. We need to be cheerleaders for each other and if that means creating a safe space where you can say ‘actually, no, I’m not doing so well today’ then do that. By all means do it right now and ignore all those that claim they’re getting it right all the time.

And on that note, I’d like to use this opportunity to give a massive virtual group hug (because they know I don’t like real ones!) to my own personal ‘safe space’ buddies: Becky, Fiona, Amy, Caroline, Grainne, Lyndsey, Sana, Nat, Freya, Charlie, Rebecca, Sarah, and our token bloke, Chris! My group chats with you lot keep me sane in a cray cray world!

Thank you for reading.

Reading for Pleasure?

This year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to encourage more of the young people I teach to read for pleasure. This is every English teacher’s dream and it often seems like an unattainable goal. If anyone had a solution to the reading challenge then it would be packaged, sold and millions would be made. Billions even.
Disclaimer – If you’re hoping that this blog will be my big reveal of the holy grail then please stop reading now as you’ll be disappointed. I haven’t found the answer but I am working on it…

I’ve had to reflect on the way we present reading in school. For instance, as a younger teacher I used to get pupils to do reading when they were in my detentions. It seemed like a purposeful way for them to spend their time once they’d apologised for the pen throwing or general disruption they had caused in my lesson. But what I was really doing was far more damaging. This is a detention, this is a punishment, reading is punishment. That’s what I was telling them. I soon stopped this foolish practice and would urge any other teachers who have made this mistake to do the same.

As time went on a I became confident that my department was doing everything right in terms of encouraging reading for pleasure. Reading lessons in KS3 once a week, where there is not a pen in sight, are common practice now. Teachers and students read together and pause to discuss and reflect on the story at regular intervals. I also introduced the idea of reading at the beginning of every lesson; this was initially a response to a timetabling disaster which left us running from room to room every period, trying to settle a class and set up the lesson. I decided that having every pupil silently read for the first 10 minutes of every lesson would not only be a calm and engaging way to begin, but had the practical benefit of allowing the harassed teacher to catch their breath and get the resources ready. Finally, we had a massive clear out of all our old and tatty class reading books; you know, the ones you’ve had since 1985 with questionable graffiti on every other page. We donated them to the art department who made some beautiful book art and we used them for black out poetry. The literacy budget was spent on hundreds of shiny new reading books, much to the delight of everyone.

So far so good, right?

Wrong. Whilst our department and school is doing all we can to promote reading (and I must give a shout out here to our incredible library team) I’m still not satisfied that we are making a big enough difference. Kids still pretend to read in our reading lessons and get caught daydreaming or hiding a phone behind the book. A few still regularly forget to bring their own book to the start of every lesson despite a high profile reward system to encourage this. And the shiny new reading books? Some still haven’t been touched. These pupils are in the minority so you may ask ‘what’s the problem?’ The problem for me is that I don’t want any child to leave my school having never experienced the pleasure of a good book, having never experienced what it’s like to feel sad when reaching the end of a great novel, having never experienced the desire that a character was real so they could be your actual real life friend!

My expectations of all the children that pass through our doors is very high, as it should be, but I’m starting to worry that the reading issue is something we cannot tackle alone.

I recently read Daniel Willingham’s Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do. I naïvely thought that this would be the aforementioned holy grail; Willingham’s going to tell me how to get the buggers to read! And he did… Sort of. It soon became apparent that maybe our children reach us too late for us to fix the reading problem. No culture of reading at home? Forget it. Pupils raised in a household with few or no books (as many of ours are) are very unlikely to ever get to grips with reading at all, never mind reading for pleasure. As a secondary English teacher, I’m in awe of my primary colleagues who know how to teach children to read from scratch, but even they will face an uphill struggle to engage reluctant readers if this is not pushed at home.

It seems like parental engagement and community outreach might be the key to this problem; I am proud to say that the community my school and I serve is one of the most culturally diverse in the country and so pupils and families who speak English as an additional or second language make up the majority of our catchment. As a result, the number of English language novels in the home is often very limited and the taboo many teenagers experience about going to the library means some of our kids never have access to varied reading material outside of school.

I don’t know how to fix this. I have no answers, and I’m sorry if you’ve got to this point in my blog expecting some. I do intend to go hunting for them though, and speaking to our library and literacy coordinator about parental outreach is going to be my next step.

I would be interested to hear what other schools do to engage parents in reading or if you have had any success with engaging reluctant readers. Any comments below will be appreciated.

Thank you for reading.
Hopefully it’s been a pleasure.