Monday, 26 September 2016

Teachers! Be More Batman!


You'll be unaware, but across the internet a debate rages: is Batman a superhero or not? The first result from a google search adamantly suggests that "In the strictest sense, Batman isn't a superhero because he has no "amazing" powers (e.g. powers that are magical or pseudo-scientific)." 

Superman was born with a whole range of amazing powers: super-human strength, the ability to fly and X-Ray vision to name a few. Spider-Man was imbued with powers by a radioactive spider, mutating to possess precognitive spider senses and the ability to cling to most surfaces, among other capabilities. But Batman is just human like the rest of us; perhaps why he has probably enjoyed so much success as a fictional character.

If Batman doesn't have powers, what does he have? Abilities. He has genius-level intellect, peak physical and mental condition, is a master martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant, a skilled detective and he utilises high-tech equipment and weapons. Yes, his vast fortune helps with the last one, but otherwise his abilities are all realistically attainable to a certain extent.

Teachers often have very high expectations of themselves. This may result from the pressure put on them 'from above' to perform. But it often comes from a personal sense of responsibility, stemming from the same emotional place that led them into education in the first place. Teachers expect themselves to be superheroes, amazing powers and all. And it is unrealistic and damaging to their health. A superhero without actual superpowers who tries to behave like he has wouldn't last long. If Batman flung himself from the top of a building (without a gadget) he'd meet an unfortunate end: if Superman did the same, he'd swoop off into the horizon, a silhouette passing the setting sun. When teachers try to live life as if they are super-human, the consequences are potentially disastrous for themselves, their families and their pupils.

"With great power comes great responsibility" is a true enough maxim. But how true is "With great responsibility comes great power"? Not true at all. The responsibility we are given doesn't come with a free helping of superpowers, yet so many of us are pushing our human abilities to the limits, expecting to be able to do what only super-humans could.

Yet we have a job to do. An important one and a difficult one. Whilst Batman battles to clean up crime in Gotham City, we have our own dark enemies to face as we protect the innocent ones from their influence. And we must do it all with human ability only.

So how can we be Batman-like teachers? What are those shortcuts to becoming a superhero teacher without actually having superpowers and without killing oneself in the process of trying? Let's revisit his list of abilities:

  1. Genius-level intellect - perhaps we don't quite need to be geniuses but a good amount of knowledge and understanding are key to operating as a teacher. As JL Dutaut once put it so eloquently: 'We need to be knowledgeable as teachers, not just about our subject, but also about pedagogies, not just about practice but about policies. And the knowledge we as a body have and create every day in classrooms should be heard, and should inform those that make the policies, because teaching is an informed profession.'' There is no need to expect yourself to innately know everything about how to teach but there is a wealth of information out there which will begin to inform your practice. Read the blogs, the articles, the magazines, the books. Listen to your colleagues, your boss, the guy doing the training day. Consult the research that's already been done for you.This is your first step to becoming a Batman-like teacher.
  2. Peak human physical and mental condition - at risk of sounding like a broken record, I must reiterate in the context of this article that these things are important. We need to be doing all we can to ensure that we are well. And yes, our leaders must ensure this too. Being rested and alert can make or break a lesson, regardless of time spent planning it (in fact if you've stayed up late planning it, chances are it'll go to pot if you're tired as a result). As difficult as it may be to prioritise wellbeing it is absolutely essential that it is top of your list: without being well you'll struggle to teach well. Even Batman takes time off from fighting crime in Gotham when he gets a bit bashed up; when you're feeling a bit worse for wear the best preparation you can do is get a good night's sleep then reassess in the morning. Getting rest, eating well, exercising regularly, spending time doing things you love and with family and friends are all essential to your success as a Batman-like teacher. I've written about wellbeing a lot - follow this link to read more.
  3. Master martial artist and hand-to-hand combatant - right now, many teachers feel they are in the midst of battle. Our colleagues the country over are feeling oppressed. Whilst some would advocate political engagement, I think quicker gains can be made by challenging the status quo in our own schools. We have much more chance of changing policy and expectations by directly petitioning the leaders in our own schools. Sometimes it won't even take a battle - sometimes your senior leaders just need to know that one of their edicts is difficult to put into practice, or that you are struggling to complete all your tasks and that you'd appreciate some extra time. Many teachers are afraid to be honest about these matters - if they were willing to stand up for themselves, fighting hand-to-hand (however peacefully) they could effect personally beneficial change. And if they fight with stealth and patience, as any martial artists would, suggesting solutions to problems, showing willing and a positive attitude and perseverance, they are even more likely to win over their leaders in order to bring about improvements leaving you with more time to focus on what really matters: the children. Perhaps a tenuous link, but there are many who would testify to the success of this type of combat. For more on this read my post 'Rise Up! (Being Militant Teachers)'
  4. Master detective - there is nothing more like sleuthing in teaching than assessment. Putting more effort into assessment allows a teacher to spend less time on planning. If you are making effective use of time in lesson to continually assess children's needs then their next steps become more obvious; you won't need to agonise over what to do in the next lesson, you will just know. Keeping a record of all this - nothing more detective-like than a notebook - can make following steps in the teaching cycle much simpler. More time spent assessing and giving feedback in lessons also means less time spent marking books after school. This one works well with the first point: the more you read about your subject and pedagogy, the easier it will be to recognise the clues which will help you to work out what children need and how to teach it to them. If Batman were a teacher he would definitely know his data!
  5. Utilises high-tech equipment and weapons - I have to be careful here; no way am I wading into the debate about the use of tech in classrooms. Nor will I speak on any kind of pedagogy. We all have our weapons - our go-to tools - and successful teachers have a particular tried-and-tested arsenal of methods which ensure children learn, time is not wasted and behaviour is managed well. These Batpeople of the classroom will also have tools which make their lives easier too: the ones that keep them in peak condition. In order to survive, and have the appearance of a superhero, you will need to build your own batcave and fill it with equipment (physical and metaphorical) that you know supports the way you teach and the way pupils learn. It's worth remembering that with every new Batman incarnation comes a bigger and better car, the addition of helicopter or whatever else: our arsenal can always be improving, especially if step 1 is followed.
Teacher, no matter how great you are, you are not a superhero with super powers. You are a human being with great responsibilities who, admittedly, might often be expected to deliver super-human results. You do not have powers, but Batteacher, you have abilities - don't be afraid, or ashamed, to use them. Please don't kill yourself in the process of trying what is humanly impossible - your citizens need you in one piece. 

And they won't quibble over whether you have super powers or whether you simply have abilities.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Greener Grass (or 'Finding A Better School')

Reading Keziah Fetherstone's piece in the New Teachers supplement from the TES (Friday 9th September) reminded me of this interview I did with a teacher who left one school for another and found that actually the grass is sometimes greener on the other side.

Having qualified in 2011 our interviewee is in their 6th year teaching. They have taught across Key Stage 2 in two schools: the one they left, and the one where they work currently. The interview explores the differences between the two schools and provides an insight into the experience of someone who has made the leap because they were unhappy in their school:

How did you feel working at your old school?

In the beginning of working at my old school I loved it! It was the only place I had applied for because it was the one I felt was closest to my own views of teaching. University gave us a great chance to form our own beliefs, and I really feel like I stuck to them when searching for a school to start my career.

Towards the end however, it simply wasn't the school I joined. So much had changed. I was trying to stick to the methods that I knew worked, methods I had been praised and commended for, yet somehow they were no longer allowed and I was suddenly seen as a poor teacher; not because the children weren't learning anymore, but because of how it looked. It became very superficial. I tried to follow the strategies I was being criticised for not using, but because I didn't believe in them, that came through my teaching and progress decreased from the high rate I was used to. The children were 'doing' lots (which therefore, superficially, looked great on the surface. But I could see they weren't learning anything; any independence I tried to give them was wasted, because they didn't have the skills to apply to anything (although their sparkling book looked like they could!) Those who had been there longer than me were a lot smarter at 'playing the game' but I was unwilling to join because it felt wrong. I thought 'these little people need to leave here capable of achieving a job, or we have failed them'. In order to do that, they needed to be equipped through good teaching and ample opportunity to learn; not listen and copy because their page is more important for the moderation coming up.

Anything I was doing in class was based on everything we'd be told at our rousing annual first INSET day of the year. Every year there was a big presentation, the school's aims and such, and I left wanting to try these ideas in my classroom. That's what started it all. I think, once they saw these ideas in practice, they got scared because it was something they'd never seen before; all the ideas were from Shirley Clarke's 'Outstanding Formative Assessment'.

Did you ever think of leaving the teaching profession as a result?

As a result of how I was treated, and the awful feedback I was getting, I fully expected to receive a terrible reference. For this reason only, I did consider other careers, although I did only apply to teaching jobs eventually. All applications I sent were successful, and I turned down all offers other than for post I am now in - I still wanted to stick to my values. My reference was great although I was, to my surprise, asked to stay. This made me feel like anything I had been told wasn't really true; as if my time as "the teacher to support" was over and they'd move on to "upskilling" someone else. It made a lot of what had happened seem worthless. A tick box exercise for "Staff Discipline" or someone else's chance to boast at Performance Management about their generous input into my seeming improvement, thus evidencing their own contributions as a Leader.

Has moving school changed your perspective?

My new school hasn't changed my perspective in the sense that I enjoy my job; I mostly always have. But it has motivated me again.

What is it about your new school that is different?


My school is different because teachers have so much freedom, but still with the expectation to do a good job! I think the fear for SLT is that freedom makes lazy teachers who don't work. My school is full of hard workers, making sensible sequences of lessons that their class benefit from. Although the pressures and the workload are still exactly the same, the atmosphere is totally different, making for happier staff able to deliver better lessons. I know personally, that if I have put my heart and soul into a plan, or sequence, or strongly believe something will work, it will come across. In the same way that not believing in what I was asked to do previously came across.

What are the characteristics of a school that you should leave? How can you tell that you need to leave a school?


For me, it was once I was receiving conflicting feedback that I realised it was time to go. I couldn't perform when the criteria for a lesson was the complete opposite of the pointers I had been given previously. I was being judged on that - the school's leaders were forming opinions of me based on that. If you're in a situation like that then, depending on the ethos of your school, the impact that opinion has on you, and those around you, can have a big negative effect.

The feedback I was getting wasn't really based on anything. I guess the easiest feedback to give, is to advise you to do the opposite of what you're doing. And giving feedback makes people feel important, "I told them to do that" - but ultimately, the effects of you acting on what they say (managing the change, teaching and learning implications and associated data trends), aren't seen as their problem.

What were the tell-tale signs (when you went to look round and when you went for interview) that your new school was going to be a better place to work? What was the initial impression compared to your old school?

Firstly, after a few years of full time teaching, the 'walk round' is so totally different to when you're an NQT. I could feel myself asking different questions and looking for different things.

That said, I asked every single school I looked at about their approaches to classroom layout and lesson design. From my experiences, I wanted to make sure that my new school was a place that valued differences among the children, and were encouraging teachers to act on those differences in order to make the best learning.

The Head, (my new boss) showed me round and he had such a good sense of humour; I'd never known anything like it! It really is a great place to be. I spoke to children, looked through books and got a feel of their expectations of me should I be successful.

However, I also looked for things that I could make an impact on and change. I think one of the things about my previous school is that I was always seen as the new boy, so a position of responsibility was almost laughable; an awful prediction that I had nothing to offer. Yet here I saw and heard things that I knew I could do something about in time, and I made that known.

The tour, interview and interview lesson, were enjoyable. Although it's important to say, when I started at my new school, I went through this strange transition in the first few weeks of trying to teach in the way I had been forced to, as if I had forgotten the methods I used best. Of course, I carried some strategies over but I needed to return to the core of what I used to do, the methods that were successful before someone quite simply changed their mind, based on what was "fashionable", and I was no longer good enough.

As a person, I needed a short period of reinvention; I felt very worn down by my experiences. Being told you're not good enough, yet seeing so much misconduct being swept under the carpet was almost humiliating. It made no sense to me and I found it difficult to brush off. Being asked to stay was even more confusing as I didn't understand why! Why would you want me here if I've been doing such a bad job?

A change of scene was very much needed and a fresh outlook on what my primary objectives are; to teach children the skills to apply to various challenges independently. Yes, they will be assessed. But their life goes on after that stupid week in May, and we need to do our bit in preparing them for that life.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

5 Ways To Make Texts With Unfamiliar Contexts More Accessible To Children


Recently, the author Tom Palmer sent me a copy of his latest book Wings: Typhoon. It's a great read aimed at 8 to 10 year olds and is a stereotype-breaking brew of the supernatural, football, fighter jets and the relationship between two sisters. But before I knew all of that I was intrigued to find that the covers of the book extend to contain a cut-out-and-make Typhoon aeroplane model. Is this a gimmick, or is there something more to it?

One of the complaints about the 2016 Key Stage 2 SATs reading paper was that many children would not be able to relate to or understand the contexts of the narratives that were used; certainly none of the children I taught last year have rowed a boat to an island or ridden an albino giraffe across the Savannah. I wrote a lot about this issue in this blog post and concluded that "stories are the means by which we experience events and happenings that our everyday lives could not possibly provide" and therefore we should be exposing children to narratives with unfamiliar contexts. 

So, as teachers (and parents too, if you're reading this), we must ask ourselves how we can make these texts more accessible to children. Importantly, we want them to get the maximum enjoyment out of the books they read, and without understanding what you are reading it's hard to enjoy it.

And that's where Tom Palmer's book comes in. Imagine reading about a Typhoon fighter jet when you have no idea what one looks like. A child might imagine something more akin to a Boeing 747 -  a more typical plane for a child to visualise; they are more common and more present in other contexts. The more inquisitive child these days would probably Google an image of a Typhoon in an instant, but many wouldn't and some couldn't. So it's ideal that before reading the book (or during) a child could construct a 3D model of the jet in question, thus enabling them to easily visualise a key object in the story. Without giving too much away, if a child were imagining a passenger plane whilst reading the story, they'd be a bit confused as to how on earth some of the action could take place!

Many moons ago someone hit on a bit of a genius idea by which readers are granted better access to the texts they read: illustrations. As I finished reading 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' I reflected on the role of its illustrations: they clarify to the reader the appearance of the mythical beasts described (beautifully) in the text. The illustrations in 'Wings: Typhoon' are excellent too - their two-tone comic book style really help to convey action as well as appearance. It's quite obvious why we start children on their reading journey with books dominated by pictures but it's a shame that by the time they reach the age of 11 they are expected to read challenging and diverse texts totally unsupported by images.

One of the key hindrances to comprehension is vocabulary. If a child does not know what the word 'creek' refers to then this sentence is less illuminating than it could be: 'In those days, far south in Calormen on a little creek of the sea, there lived a poor fisherman named Arsheesh...'. A child might wonder how someone could live on the sound that a door makes when it needs oiling, or they might imagine a creek to be something quite different to a little inlet or bay. And even if you then used those terms to describe it to a child you may have to then define the words 'inlet' and 'bay'. If at word level there is little understanding, there is no hope for sentence, paragraph or whole text level comprehension. Whether one is looking to retrieve information or infer it, a good grasp of vocabulary is needed.

Back to our question: how can we make these texts (particularly ones without pictures whose contexts are outside of the experience of the children we teach) more accessible to children? 

A list (not exhaustive) containing the most obvious ideas, and some more creative ones too: 

1. Use images - photographs, drawings, paintings, stills, illustrations from other books, 3D models. If using a text in class, pre-read the intended portion and collect images (particularly of nouns) to support and enhance a child's visualisation and understanding. This goes a long way to bringing a child into the realms of a book - even one set in a basic setting, such as a seaside town where quays and harbours, lobster pots and yachts might be alien objects to some of the children we teach. Just because a children's book is not illustrated, it doesn't mean we shouldn't provide those images ourselves.

2. Use film - archive footage, movies, documentaries, news stories. I would make a similar point here to the one made above regarding images. In addition, film has the power to convey more than appearance, moving beyond into action and sounds too - film can provide a very immersive experience which stimulates more senses than an image can. Because of this, film moves beyond supporting just word and sentence level comprehension, giving a sense of the bigger picture. For example, newsreel footage of children being evacuated helps modern-day children to understand the beginnings of 'Carrie's War', 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' or 'Goodnight Mr. Tom', not to mention the movie versions of those books.

3. Use other texts - books (both non-fiction and fiction), newspaper or magazine articles, webpages. In 'Reading Reconsidered' Lemov et al suggest that when texts are paired (ie a non-fiction text about the holocaust paired with 'The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas) children better comprehend the novel and they also absorb more of the supporting nonfiction text (Chapter 3: Reading Nonfiction, and the Challenge of Background Knowledge). When considering paired texts it does not always need to be a fiction and a non-fiction; you might choose a graphic novel or a picture book to support a novel, a diary entry to support a non-fiction text - the combinations are limitless but the main point is that other texts can help children learn the context needed to full access another text. It is also worth considering how linked topic work in a cross-curricular approach can really support children's comprehension - choose your novels to fit with your science, history or geography curriculum and use those lessons in part to provide background knowledge for the narratives you are reading.

4. Use drama and real-life experience - act out movements to help children understand new verbs and adverbs, pull faces to show how characters are feeling, go on museum visits to see recreations of story settings and historical artefacts, go on trips to old mills, little villages, steam railways, the countryside, the coast... make the stories come as alive as you possibly can by giving children the experiences that will help them to engage more deeply in a text. Perhaps you can't visit an entirely fictional solar system, but booking a StarDome portable planetarium to begin read your new sci-fi novel in isn't a bad idea (especially if your Science work ties in). Even slightly dramatising the way you read aloud can have an impact - do the voices, pay attention to your dynamics and tone, make gestures to mirror the characters' actions - there is a lot that can be done beyond sitting in a chair and speaking aloud words on a page.

5. Use dictionaries - if vocabulary is a key to understanding new contexts, then dictionary work is a fairly obvious inclusion. Once the words have been looked up and defined there are plenty of follow-up activities that could aid children in their understanding of a whole text: rewrite a line of this poem in your own words to explain what it means, draw the setting that the author is describing, discussions as to why the author has chosen the particular word rather than on of its synonyms or basic written answers to comprehension questions. It may be that prior to using dictionaries, children could write their own definitions of words they don't know using contextual or morphemic analysis (both key word learning strategies - but that's for another blog post altogether!) and then compare their definition to the real one. Those are just a few ideas and there is much more to be said on the subject of teaching vocabulary.  

If we regularly built opportunities like these into our teaching sequences then we would be helping children to connect with and better understand the novels they are reading. The more you understand what you read, the more likely you are to enjoy it and the more you enjoy books, the more you want to read. The Matthew Effect says that the rich get richer - if we can make our children rich in reading skills then they will go on to become richer, even without our ongoing instruction. Even if our children have never been stranded on a desert island, trapped in an apocalyptic landscape or hunted by nightmare creatures, we can use the strategies above to bring books and children closer together to place where unfamiliar contexts become places of new experience and learning.

Having said all this, Anne Kispal's 'Effective Teaching of Inference Skills for Reading', on page 35, states that 'The research conducted by Barnes et al. (1996) and Cain et al. (2001) suggests that knowledge acquired just prior to reading is not as useful for inferencing as that which is well embedded in the reader’s long-term schemata. Cain et al. arrived at the conclusion that …even when they had the requisite knowledge base from which to generate an inference, the less skilled comprehenders did not make these inferences as readily as their skilled peers did. Knowledge availability is therefore not a sufficient condition for inferencing (p. 857).' So it remains that we cannot expect to provide the above experiences in isolation or even just in relation to particular texts, but that we should always be seeking to expand the knowledge-base of our pupils, making links where possible, if we want them to become better when it comes to comprehending a tex

A version of this article was published on the TES blog on 19th April 2017. Click here to read it: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/five-ways-make-books-unfamiliar-contexts-accessible