Sunday, 25 September 2016

The assumptions we make about quiet, obedient females and the noisy, confrontational males

I walk into the room, holding a soap box. I place it in the middle of the room and step on it. I begin:

I am going to be incredibly honest: I felt incredibly uncomfortable this week when I typed for a document that, in English, we study boy-friendly texts. Why did I feel uncomfortable? Well, I felt uncomfortable for several reasons.
One: In my heart I know Macbeth isn’t a play we teach because of the boys; it is a play we teach because it is clever, engaging and rich in language and techniques.

Two: I worry that education is being driven solely by and for boys.

Three: I am a father of two quiet, friendly girls who, I think, are lost in the education system because they are female and they are quiet; their success is assumed because they are female.  
There is a national issue with girls outperforming boys. I don’t deny it is an issue and I don’t deny things have to be done about it.  But, I tend to think it is something more complex than the explicit things we do in lessons. A book choice is not the answer. Making lessons visual and active is not the answer. Picking topics boys like is not the answer. It has to be the culture. The culture the boys exist in is the key driving motivator for change.

The problem with an over-emphasis on boys is it neglects girls. It is a common joke my daughters have about the Friday star of the week. Their primary school has a number of naughty boys, as viewed by my daughters, featured as ‘star of the week’. In fact, some are regular stars, and, they then go on to bully kids in the playground for the rest of the week, according to my daughters. To be honest, the stars hardly fluttered between exceptionally bright and over performing students and naughty boys, and occasionally, naughty girls. The curse of being a teacher and a parent is that you see through systems. My daughters were employed by a previous teacher to befriend all new students, which they did with aplomb because they are kind and friendly. Did they get the praise for this? Not really. But, the teacher relied on this approach again and again. Every time a new child appeared in the class, my daughters were asked to look after said new pupil. While my daughters did this, Tom got a star for being quiet for one day. The parameters for behaviour in boys and girls in not equal. Girls are generally praised for exceptional work. Boys are praised for behaving appropriately. There are two measuring sticks for boys and girls.
Now, I don’t think for a second this is isolated to one classroom, one school. I think it is everywhere. It permeates our culture. We are more likely to praise boys for their behaviour and the girls for their work. Is it any wonder that girls perform better nationally if all we are praising boys for is their behaviour?   I am more concerned about how there is a large proportion of girls who are neglected in our system and that’s because they are the nice, quiet, obedient students in the system. Every leader should be challenging both sides of the coin. Focus on one side and you neglect half of the school population. If SEN students were being ignored, there would be an uproar.  Yet, I think girls are heavily ignored, neglected and forgotten in all aspects of education. It is assumed they will succeed and it is this assumption that happens daily, weekly, month that is dangerous. Because girls don’t take a teacher’s attention, time and energy as much as the boys do, they are assumed to be doing well.

The more I think about the gender issue, the more I think it is something cohesive that is needed to address things in the secondary schools. Personally, I think the cohesive element is a careers focus. There was one boy in a previous tutor group who really embodies this aspect to me. From Year 8, he had it in his head that he wanted to be a dentist.  Throughout Years 9, 10 and 11 he kept this thought at the centre if what he did. It motivated him. It drove him to work and succeed. This was a boy motivated to succeed.  He had a clear goal.
I am conscious that the careers’ education in schools is a mixed bag. I have yet to see it done successfully. It can be non-existent, sparse or misdirected. A child with a clear goal is a child with direction, yet we often lead that direction to the students and their parents. The assumption that a student knows what they want to do in life lies at the heart of most schools. Over the years, the boys and girls I have seen underperform have underperformed because they didn’t have a clear pull and a relevant push.
For me, growing up in a small, parochial coastal town was the pull. I wanted to escape. I worked hard to escape and escape I did. That drove me as a male teenager. I wanted out and that’s what I worked hard to do. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in the town I grew up in. There was very little push. My parents didn’t push me. The school didn’t push me. For example, the career’s advice told me to be an archaeologist.  All I knew was that I wanted to escape. The geography pushed me in a way.

Schools are pushing academically but are they pushing students to the end goal. Boys, especially, are goal orientated but our goals are different. A teacher’s goals are academic progress and attainment. A student’s goal should be their future. Are we too narrow focused on the teacher’s goals and not the student’s goals? It is assumed that a teacher’s goal and a student’s goal are one and the same thing. When I look at exam performance, a student with a clear idea of their future goal performs much better than a student who isn’t clear about their future. A teacher knows a grade C can open doors, but that is meaningless to a student unless they know what doors are opened for them, and, importantly what doors are closed to them.

So, when I write my intervention plan for boys, I have scribbled out the point that books are ‘boy-friendly’ and instead I am focusing on how in the subject and in the school we can improve a student’s view of the end goal of education. What do they want to be? What do they want from school? How will the work in English support their goals? How will we get students thinking about their end goal after school in Year 7, 8, 9 and 10? Let’s not leave it to the last minute, when often the damage has been done already.

A boy who knows what they want from school succeeds.

A girl who knows what they want from school succeeds.

A student who knows what they want from schools succeeds.

Let’s stop the assumptions about gender in schools. A quiet girl is equally as important as the noisy boy. Let’s stop the assumptions about a student’s goal. Let’s ask them in Year 7, Year 8, Year 9 and Year 10.

I am stopping making assumptions about students. I am asking Year 10 what they want to do when they finish their GCSEs. Then, I will go on to the other year groups, finding out what they go to school for. I could use all the boy-friendly books and teaching methods in the world, but they are all pointless unless I address the issue of the ‘push’ and ‘pull’. What will push students to succeed? What will pull students to succeed?   
A culture of education for a purpose is needed. We have to work harder to show the purpose of education.

 I pause. I step off the soap box and lift it up. Slowly and silently, I walk out of the room.


Sunday, 18 September 2016

The Cliché Glass Ceiling

The following is a piece I wrote for a lesson this week:

The dark, gloomy, scary, haunted room was cold. It had a spooky and eerie atmosphere. I could smell rotting flesh. The floorboards creaked under my footsteps. I saw blood dripping from the ceiling. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck tingle and a shiver down my spine. It got colder. My teeth were chattering so hard you could hear them.

BANG. My heart stopped. My heart literally stopped. A book had fallen on the dusty floor.

I continued to walk even though my legs had turned to jelly. I was scared.

Suddenly, my hand was grabbed by something or someone. My heart skipped a beat. I saw the zombie’s face and its teeth and …

… and I woke up. It had all been a dream.

I am currently exploring horror and ghost writing with my Year 8 class. This week I placed this extract on the board. It was based on several suggestions from some helpful teachers on Twitter.

It is quite common for us to use texts to model excellence, but here lies the problem with this extract. For some of our students, this extract could represent excellence, because clichéd writing suggests a level of understanding. Clichés are the basic components of writing. We could easily accept the clichés here because they are relevant to the context. For some of our weaker students, we want them to use some of the clichés so at least some of their writing looks and sounds like the real thing. Otherwise, we might end up with hundreds of conjunctions and endless attempts to scare the reader. For other students, there is a cliché glass ceiling and it is hard to break when writing. Avid readers are able to break through it, but others struggle. It is the jump into creativity.

The problem is how we treat the clichés. We often say what we don’t want. We don’t often say why we don’t want them or it.  Yes, it is predictable and obvious, but there is often more behind it.  Instead of saying ‘it had all been a dream’ is bad for an ending, say why it is so bad. It is terrible, because it insults the reader. They have spent the whole story investing in things and you smack them in the face by saying there was no point reading the story in the first place. A dream undermines the work of the reader and writer. Plus, it is a simple resolution. It says, I don’t have to explain and resolve things for you.

Take these other examples:

Why is ‘suddenly’ not shocking for the reader?

Why doesn’t the word ‘spooky’ make a setting spooky?

Why isn’t ‘heart stopping’ heart stopping for the reader?

A discussion on these choices not only make students explore the technical choices made but explore the alternatives.     

I could smell rotting flesh.

This could be transformed into….

I could smell something unpleasant, repulsive and hard to define.

I get students to rewrite the extract and make it original. They keep the structure as much as possible, but avoid any form of cliché. But in doing so, they know what the problem is with the original phrase. The new bit of writing in some cases is not as important as the discussion and thinking that takes place. The new GCSEs need a more sophisticated understanding of how and why texts are written in the way they are. Therefore, we need a better understanding of the thought processes involved in writing. That’s why we have to spend much more time in KS3 exploring why a word, phrase, sentence or technique is used. A regular discussion of choices is needed in the classroom. Why did the writer use a cliché in that line? In fairness, we need students to talk more about the choices and the reasons behind the choices. 

There is a glass ceiling of clichés in writing and I think we have to teach awareness of it and teach how and why it should be broken.

Thanks for reading,

P.S. See Mark Roberts for more blogs on clichés.