Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Dear Father Christmas...

Dear Father Christmas,
I know it has been several years since I last sent a letter to you, but, you know, 2016 has been a funny year, so I thought I try and improve on things somehow. Plus, I have been a really, really, really good teacher and I’d rather have something meaningful instead of a certificate praising me for 100% attendance*. So, it would be really nice if you would let some of my wishes come true.
Right, the first thing I’d like is less change. If you can’t get me less change, then, at least, make small subtle changes instead of massive Copernicus scale advancements to the education system. For the past few years, we have had a conveyor belt of education secretaries and each new one wears a different costume.  Like Mr Benn, they enter the magical shop and decide what to wear. One was a cowboy. Then we had a pirate and so on. Each one wants to make their stamp on education as they believe it can’t be improved unless you are changing big fundamental aspects of it.
Also, Father Christmas, I’d also like people to consider people’s feelings more. We have had new assessment systems for KS2 and GCSE, yet we haven’t had much help to guide parents, students head teachers through the process of change and understand what is really going on. People like security and in one simple move we have made parents, students, teachers and head teachers become little pots of insecurity. It would be nice, if changes were made and that all the people were included. Where has there been a TV campaign explaining the new system to adults, parents and business owners? Where has there been a leaflet sent to parents explaining what is happening and why it is happening? Nothing. We have been left to manage a massive change with a photocopier and some yellow paper.
Another thing, I’d really like it if there wasn’t an air of mistrust around teachers. Teachers don’t go to school to make students stupid. They go to work, because they want to improve students and make them better. Make them succeed. Make them achieve. There has been a lot of empty rhetoric thrown around implying that teachers don’t want students to improve. The increased level of accountability and use of target setting has only added to this mist of mistrust that spreads through the media, SLTs and schools. Trust teachers to do their jobs. Openly speak about that trust. Stand by them publicly and support teachers. Don’t question and belittle and undermine them. We need rhetoric related to trust, security and reliability and not the rhetoric of fear and instability. People improve teaching and learning. No tickbox or clipboard has ever improved  my or anybody's teaching, so stop using them.  
Furthermore, I wish that money wasn’t an issue in schools: I don’t mean that I should have a golden cheque book; but I wish that money was used fairly in schools. There are schools where the corridors are lined with buckets to collect the drips from the leaking roofs, and then there are schools where the door sing hymns as you open them and each room is kept at the optimum temperature for learning. Stop treating schools as businesses where each one has to fight over the same scraps of money.  Stop providing teachers with substandard equipment and classrooms. A teacher shouldn’t feel that they have to buy things out of their own pocket, because there is no money in the budget. You want the best education? Spend some pennies.
Another thing: I know this is a big one, but could we have peace on Twitter. Now, peace on Earth is an even bigger one, but could we just have a little bit of peace on Twitter. There are lots of ideas in teaching I disagree with. My disagreement is reflected in my kindness, support and questioning. If something disagrees with my philosophy, I don't position myself as an opposite and, therefore, in a position of being in the right; there's more than one way to crack a nut, so surely there's more than one way to teach. Calling someone a 'racist' or openly attacking unpleasant viewpoints aggressively , only fuels that person to be hold on to their opinion and keep it. Attack an idea and all rational discussion goes out of the window. Hug a troll and you might get a reasoned and rational discussion on Twitter. Attack a troll and you'll get more than a few goats trip-trapping over your bridge. Twitter is a symposium. We have to take thoughts and ideas good and bad. All ideas need discussing. A position of right or wrong isn't discussing. Talk about the flaws, the weaknesses or the strengths, but never outright say things are correct or incorrect. Just hug it out, guys. Peace on Twitter.    

I suppose, finally, Father Christmas, I’d like the young people to have more thought and respect in society. I teach some great students with some great teachers, but they are sometimes unhappy. Unhappy because they are never considered when some choices in education are made. Unhappy because they never have a say in what happens. Unhappy because they have very little control. The main thing I want is for students to see they have a future and that the school, and more importantly, the education system has their best interests at heart. Sometimes, they don’t see that because it doesn’t have their future in mind. They have a target to meet. They have a deadline to hit. They have voters to win. They forget that the students are soon-to-be voters. They forget that students want a future and in growingly tough world society is neglecting them.
I know that I have a lot of wishes. But, if you can’t make those wishes come true, at least, make this one come true: tell me what a grade 6 and 5 look like in the new GCSE English exam.

Merry Christmas,

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Let’s get a bit of perspective on things

I have just marked my first set of mock papers for the English Language GCSE and I have seen some marked improvements from my set. They are a set 4 out of 6. A lovely group. But, boy have we battled to get ready them for the mocks, but a few things clicked in the exam.

There were two things I felt worked really well. One was a simple case of numbers. The pattern two, two, one. For question 2, it really helped to focus them. Find two words. Explain effect. Find two techniques. Explain effect. Find one interesting thing to say about the sentences. I’d go on to say that the structure worked for the literature papers two. For less the confident students, it worked as a way to get them to have a stronger focus on word choice. I have students who find tonnes of techniques, but they miss out on simple exploration of word choice. The 2/2/1 pattern also helps students to avoid over searching in a text. Limiting things to two words, two techniques and one thing about the sentences, gives them more focus and thinking time to comment on the effect.

In fact, I regularly now get students to find me 2/2/1. I am that sad I get them to remember the 2/2/1 pattern with the fingers on their hand. Word of warning: make sure their hands are pointing the right way. Might change that next time we have a lesson observation.  

The other thing that worked was about narrative perspective. And, more importantly, how students comment on the effect of a narrative device.

We memorised the following effects of narrative perspective:

1st person – closer – understanding – building relationship – connection

3rd person – distant – mystery- revealing – helpless

Then, I got students to memorise the following effects of the tense of a narrative:

Past – fixed – inevitable - predictable – helpless

Present – changeable – unpredictable- involved

As a result of these things, the students wrote very well about the structure of the text when looking at the start, middle and end. Most of them commented on the helplessness of the extract and how the extract developed this sense of helplessness throughout the text. The extract started with a dream where the protagonist felt helpless was reinforced and developed by the boy’s helplessness in relation to his mother’s illness. This was supported by the writer’s use of a 3rd person perspective.

After marking the papers, I am coming to the idea that we need to focus more on narrative perspective and probably look at some simple choices by the writer. The gender of the protagonist is a structural device. The age of the protagonist is a structural device. The background of the protagonist is a structural device. Why that person? Why that voice? Our rush to get this question right in our heads has meant we simplify the question to referring to repeated motifs and opening and closing sentences. But, maybe, we are missing some important questions that need some time for thinking. We need students to think about some obvious questions.

Take ‘A Christmas Carol’. Yes, we have an omniscient narrator, but our protagonist is an old, rich, lonely, miserable man. There are five structural choices made just there.

Old – fixed attitude towards things which they have had for a long time – hard to convince

Rich – a position of power and could cause change or improvements

Lonely – might have a desire to change his life

Miserable – seeking some form of happiness

Man – a voice that will be listened to in Victorian society – quite stubborn

Now, I love Charles Dickens, so when I teach ‘A Christmas Carol’, I can’t help thinking back to ‘Oliver Twist’ and making connections between the two. You know ‘Oliver Twist’. The story about a poor, orphaned, outspoken, troublesome boy.

Poor – a position of weakness and without power

Orphaned – reliant on others for guidance / help

Outspoken – a refusal to accept the situation

Troublesome – a sense of being unsettled – not in the right position

Boy – his identity is not fixed yet and there is chance he can become something different

We all know that Dickens want to change society and its attitude towards the poor. It is interesting to compare ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Oliver Twist’. One it about a rich man learning to embrace the poor. The other one is about a poor boy becoming rich. There are some interesting points then to make about the structure in relation to their narrative choices. Take Oliver. At the start he is a poor, orphaned, outspoken, troublesome boy. By the end he is rich, part of a family, polite and a little bit older. The story is structured around his growth. Oliver is placed in a number different situations and each one highlights how he doesn’t belong to that world. Each setting is described to highlight how he contrasts to that specific world.

When looking at Shakespeare, we probably miss out some clear structural choices. Here’s a speech from Juliet. What is her attitude towards love? Back up a bit. How old is she? What is her experience of life? What has she loved? Has she experienced love? What are her views on love? All these questions need answering before you even start analysing the character and speech. What is her point of view? How does she see things? What is her perspective?

So, where next for me? Well, I think I am going to get students to narrow the narrative perspective down to five key words. Then, get students to see how this impacts on the overall structure. For me, I think the narrative perspective needs to be at the heart of any explanation. The starts the story with the character is a terrible situation so we empathise with his plight and see the events from his perspective.

Mind you: I think I probably need more perspective – it is only eight marks.

Thanks for reading,