Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Learning To Fall


"If you can't ride, can you fall?"
"I suppose anyone can fall," said Shasta.
"I mean can you fall and get up again without crying and mount again and fall again and yet not be afraid of falling?” 
― C.S. LewisThe Horse and His Boy

Picture this:
A skatepark on the edge of a council estate. The rubbish bin burns to keep the midges away. I've just regained a few of my old tricks and got a bit of confidence back. I realise one of the young lads watching (the ones who set the fire in the bin after asking us "Do you mind if we put the fire on?") is a former pupil and strike up conversation; he's now 17 and studying welding at college. His mate asks me how long I've been skating; I tell him a long time but I haven't been doing it for about 10 years. He seems surprised, impressed. He goes on to compliment me on the way I fall - I had fallen a fair few times whilst he spectated and at first it seemed an odd observation to make. After a moment's thought, my reply: "You learn how to fall faster than you learn how to do anything else."
Learning to fall. I knew there must be an analogy in there somewhere. 
Most participants in extreme sports know the importance of learning to fall in order to minimise damage. Falling is such an inevitable part of learning an extreme sport that it is accepted, not looked down upon. Falling and its associated injuries are a rite of passage for any skater, skateboarder, skier etc. Whilst every skater I know is a perfectionist, they don't beat themselves up about making mistakes (they're bruised enough as it is), instead they learn to fall, sometimes even making it look stylish or turning the fall into another trick.
It would seem that, like skaters, teachers are usually perfectionists, however there seems to be so little allowance for 'falling' in education.
'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.' - Samuel Beckett
There are plenty of similar maxims out there and many of us encourage that try, try again attitude in our students. But do we allow ourselves, and others, as teachers to fall as part of the learning process?  
To be clear, I'm not talking about teaching's catastrophic falls - the ones that spell the definite end for some - the equivalent of a sporting injury which totally takes the player out of the game forever. I mean those day-to-day small falls, a terrible lesson observation, extending even to a poor set of results. And yes, students' futures are at play here so we can't be glib about this and the reason why most of us are perfectionists is because we know the stakes are high.
But 'to err is human' and we all need to remember that - teaching staff and SLT members. 
If you are in leadership you must create an environment where, when you say 'Don't worry, it's supposed to be a supportive process' about lesson observations and the like, that it really is. Teachers will take your cue when responding to mistakes they've made - in feedback the mistake should be framed in such a way that teachers go away determined and excited to nail it next time. And the next time should come quickly. Usually when I miss a trick skating I'll get up and have a go again straight away - allow your teaching staff that opportunity to have another go. If a leader sees a list of errors rather than a list of development opportunities then that's what their team members will see too. And racking up a list of mistakes is hardly conducive to wellbeing and decent classroom practice. As a leader you can help people learn to fall by helping them to look at their challenges in a positive way.
But how can teachers learn to fall?
Have a positive and reflective response to a fall - be kind to yourself, see it as an opportunity to improve, and above all, find the good in the mistake; perhaps the good is that you at least tried it in the first place, or perhaps it's that you've learned how not to do it. Remember, Dale Carnegie wrote 'Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.' You could even go so far as to celebrate the mistake as another step in your journey of progress.
Have a practical response to a fall - once you have responded positively and reflected to out and seek advice on how you could change things next time. It might just be a colleague, it could be a middle leader - you could even ask Twitter. It of course helps if you begin to be solution focused when approaching others for help so you could begin to think beforehand about your own ideas for what do change next time. One of the most important aspects to this stage of having a practical response is that you get up and try again; that you don't write it off immediately as something you'll never be able to do.
Make the best of a bad situation - in the moment, at that actual point in a lesson, for example, where you feel yourself falling, you could begin to think how you can react quickly. Think about how you can rescue yourself. This will come more as a result of the first two steps; as a result of you learning to fall. It is this that the boy at the skatepark was commenting on - because of past experience of falling during a trick I have learnt to almost carry on regardless, eventually righting myself and rolling away from the fall. In my blog post 'Freestyle Teaching' I discussed more about what it's like to get into the flow state; it may help with thinking about how to 'freestyle' your way out of a fall.
Look after yourself after a fall - I've touched on this already in the first point, also this step may sound contradictory to the advice I gave about getting up and trying again. You must acknowledge that falling hurts. There will come a time when you have to decide not to punish yourself more, for the time being. Sometimes you might just need to crawl away and nurse your wounds. But always with that positive mindset already mentioned - a time to recuperate and reflect on what went wrong and what you could change for next time.
Perhaps the steps I've laid out aren't all that helpful to you, but what I do hope you take away is the idea that as teachers we can, and need to, learn to fall. And that it's OK to fall. And that actually it might even be beneficial to fall.
Falling is not failing. But not getting back up and trying again is. Learn to fall and eventually you will learn to fly.
 “There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask "What if I fall?"
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?” 
- Erin Hanson

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Being A Reading Teacher

At the beginning of this year I decided to shake myself out of a long slumber, to blow the dust off my 'library' and to become a reader again. I joined the 'fifty book challenge' and promptly got my wife on the case too; fifty books in a year (we are both currently on track).

I cannot remember learning to read (other than the flash cards my mum did with me pre-school) - I imagine I've always been able to read! As a child, thanks largely to Roald Dahl and later The Hardy Boys series, I was a fairly avid reader - the torch-under-the-covers type. Later in my teens, aside from 'Moonfleet' (still one of my favourite books) I read very little. Studying English at GCSE didn't do much to encourage me to read increasingly complex or canonical texts - we covered Jane Eyre but cannot recall actually having to read the whole book. By the time I was at uni I scraped my 2:1 by skimming through library books for the underlinings and highlightings of more diligent students who preceded me, without ever having to read a book in its entirety. And by that age I certainly wasn't reading fiction. After uni, Ian Rankin rescued me when I picked up a copy of 'The Falls' in a holiday cottage - I spent the next couple of years scouring charity shops and buying new releases; I'm now well versed in Rebus' career.

On one hand I regret that I fell out of love with reading - think of all the books I could have read during my 'dark ages'. But, on the other hand, I get to read them all now of my own volition, now that I'm a (mostly) sensible adult. I'm not one for those '100 books to read before you die' lists but I have begun to try out some of the books that feature on those lists: To Kill A Mockingbird, Brave New World, Candide, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse Five, The Old Man and the Sea. I can honestly say I've enjoyed each one - probably wouldn't have if I'd have been made to read them as a teen.

The benefits of me, as a teacher, reigniting my own passion for reading have been many fold. And consequently, I have come to be of the opinion that every teacher should be a reader - and more than someone who just reads the odd bestseller. In my blog post 'Reading for Pleasure' I outlined some of how my passion has been transferred to the children in my class but here I'd like to discuss further ways in which teachers who are readers (i.e. those who make a habit of reading) will see benefits in the classroom:

I am currently reading 'Reading Reconsidered' by Doug Lemov, Colleen Driggs, and Erica Woolway. It's full of highly detailed practical advice on how to teach reading skills. As I read, it dawned on me just how complex the reading comprehension process is. The authors of the book insightfully break down how to go about establishing and analysing meaning as well as outlining where difficulties lie. They reference many novels by way of giving supporting examples - because I had recently read some of the books mentioned I was able to understand the concepts put forward in the book much more comprehensively than I would if I'd have read it, say, in December. But greater than that, as the book discussed plot type and narrator techniques I was able to recall examples from my own reading: 'Oh! Slaughterhouse Five has a non-linear time sequence!' and lo and behold, a page later it's mentioned as an example.

It was following several similar moments as I read that I realised teachers must read for themselves. Yes, we should pre-read the texts we read and teach to our class, and we should read to help us make decisions on book selection but we should also read for our own enjoyment, at our own level. Why? Because it makes us into readers and it is the only thing that will give us deep insight into what books are like - the varying ways they are narrated, the different plot types, the similarities between two texts, the complexities of older texts, the devices used by authors. Having a continually growing understanding of what books are like is essential if we want to help children to learn how to gain meaningful understanding of a variety of texts. If we aren't readers then we will struggle to model what it is like to be a reader. We will find it difficult to identify why an author has chosen a particular word or why the narrator has left certain pieces of key information out. And if we can't model reading in this way due to a lack of our own experience, are we really teaching reading?

Being able to read does not make one a reader. Reading one age-appropriate class novel each half term hardly makes one a reader either. By skimping on one's literary intake (and I have learned this from experience) no matter how you 'push' for the children to enjoy reading, no matter how well you 'do the voices', no matter how Pinterest-worthy your beautiful book corner is, you will probably struggle to effectively teach reading. To reiterate: it comes down to knowing what books (in general, not individual books) are like.

And the encouragement comes in this form: it is an easy change to make. All you do is pick up a book and read it. And repeat. You won't need to go into too much deep analysis of your own reading - with half a mind on teaching reading you will start to naturally identify text features and literary devices and similarities between books. The very (continuous) act of being a reader will prepare you far better for being a teacher of reading than if you are not a reader. 

Of course, I would also recommend that you begin to read about the teaching of reading too - helpful books like Reading Reconsidered will open your eyes further to what you are reading in your own novels, as well as what is present in the books you read at school with the children. But get into reading novels for pleasure first - get a few of those under your belt as for most folk reading novels for fun is easier than reading non-fiction for learning purposes it it hones those reading comprehension skills all the same.

So, if you wouldn't consider yourself a reader, why not set yourself a challenge? Be realistic perhaps - don't aim to read too many too soon, or don't aim to read the heavier, more archaic classics just yet. I'd recommend using Good Reads (app or website or both) to track your achievements and I'd recommend first and foremost that you read for YOU - not even so you'll become a better teacher of reading, and definitely not so you can feel good about having ploughed your way through the James Joyce that everyone says is 'an absolute must read'.

To be a teacher of reading, you should be a reading teacher.

A version of this article was published in the TES magazine on 2nd December 2016 entitled 'Throw The Book At Yourself'. It can be read online, with a subscription, here: https://www.tes.com/news/tes-magazine/tes-magazine/throw-book-yourself