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Friday 8 July 2011

Moving On

This Blog has been good to me but I'm moving. Transferring to Wordpress. Hope to see you there.


Sunday 26 June 2011

Nothing Should Be ‘beyond our reach’

While reading Bill Strickland's ‘Making the Impossible Possible’, an engrossing memoir of one man's successful quest to change lives, I, as usual, took copious notes on my Kindle. In this story of the Manchester Craft Guild and Strickland's inspirational tale of 'living the dream', the reader discovers how a simple lump of clay sent him on his way to an amazing life, and amazing lives for others.

Strickland's life story is extraordinary. His belief in creating beautiful things to enhance the lives of those who may not experience anything anywhere near beauty resonates very strongly. The power to create wonderful ceramics, to grow orchids, to play amazing jazz allowed individuals with low expectations in life to completely turn around their worlds and make a success.

What a refreshing reminder of the reason why education is important. Strickland not only provided amazing things for his students to make and do, he also showed them what a better world looks like. Isn't that something we should all keep in mind? If we want our children to be lifelong learners then we must show them what a learning life looks like. We must model being learners and share our thoughts and challenges and difficulties, not just tell them; we must share our strategies for overcoming difficulties, not just tell them; we must admit our confusions, that being wrong and making mistakes is okay and not just tell them. Strickland did and still does this every day of his life.

I have finished the school year now and this book has both enthused me and reminded me that all learning is wonderful. I’m delighted to have a few weeks off but am already mentally preparing for next year. Strickland’s book has inspired me to provide great lessons which are more active for the pupils than they are for me. Let them do the work and watch the magic happen.

‘...all of us have the potential to make our dreams come true, and that one of the greatest obstacles blocking us from realising that potential is that what we believe, or are told, the things we want most passionately are impractical, unrealistic, or somehow beyond our each.’
Bill Strickland
‘Making the Impossible Possible’  p.9

If I have learned one thing this year it is exactly this; nothing should be ‘beyond our reach’. Our children deserve every learning opportunity we provide.  This is a book which will stay with me for some time.

Watch Strickland's TED Talk here:

Saturday 18 June 2011

A Summer of Learning

The seven weeks of summer holiday with which I am about to be blessed are, of course, very welcome. I could also add words like 'well-deserved', and spout cliches like 'time to recharge batteries','take stock' and I'm sure, various others. Their overuse should not dilute their importance.

What is very clear, however, and always has been, is that the summer holiday, perhaps, highlights the greatest of social divisions in education. For, while better off families holiday in wonderful cities around the globe, visiting historical sights and experiencing other cultures, the less well off forget about school and learning altogether, relieved at the six-week release.

I've been thinking about a summer project for some of my senior pupils but the obstacles can seem like too much at times. My school does not start a new timetable in June so I have no idea who will be sitting in front of me in August - school structures don't really provide the conditions to make summer projects possible.

Even so, if I'm expecting students to continue to learn over Summer, should I do the same? Do we teachers view the six or seven weeks holiday as a break from everything? Should we? Or should we set ourselves a project? I don't mean school work but something that engages and excites us. Lifelong learning is for all of us after all and we must model good learning for our students.

I've written recently about how this year has been one of the most stimulating of my teaching career. I am exhausted, however, and in need of a break from school but I would argue that the most exhausting part of teaching is not the preparation and the marking; it is the every day performance, the standing up in front of an audience all day, every day, forbidden from having an 'off day' in front of your students. I find this the most exhausting part of my job and the prime justification for a lengthy holiday. Even so, if learning is so important, I must try and be a good model.

A challenge, then. For those of you about to go on holiday - in Scotland - and those with holidays on the horizon, what about giving yourself three learning targets. Forget school, but focus on learning how to do three things you've always wanted to do. Blog about your experiences if you like but of course that's not necessary. Reflect on the experience though; become a learner again.
Here goes.

By August I will have taken my first piano lesson.
By August I will be able to bake great bread.
By August I will make something amazing out of wood.

Like all New Year's Resolutions, I'm starting with real enthusiasm and good intentions. These are
genuinely things I'd like to learn to do. I hope to continue blogging over the summer and will, no doubt writes about my progress. For now, however, I'm away for a lie down.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Teachmeet - What A Great Way to End the Year

It has been almost a week since my first Teachmeet - tmlothians11 - and I'm only now beginning to reflect on the experience. The night itself, while being a thrill from start to finish, seemed a blur at the time; it was only when I watched myself on the recording the next morning that I realised what I had said and how I had said it. (my spot comes about 2 hours 55 minutes in if you want to scroll forward on the playback ). The talk itself was not particularly ground-breaking; it won't change the world but the huge personal satisfaction it has given me is very important. And it comes at the end of the most important, exciting year of my teaching career.

A year ago I would never have been able to stand up and do that. I didn't have the confidence, was in awe of those who could, and really didn't think I had anything interesting to say. Two things changed all that.
Almost a year ago to the day I had a conversation with a non-teaching friend about Twitter, a conversation during which I smirked and dismissed this new fangled kid speak. Why would I want to tell people what I was up to? By the time I returned to school in August, however, I had signed up and it completely changed my career.

The contacts I have met through Twitter - too numerous to mention here; I'd hate to leave anyone out - have enhanced my teaching life, given me the confidence to share my ideas and to believe in the possibility of a truly bright future for education in Scotland and the wider world. It has been the greatest Professional Development tool, the best Inservice Day, the most fulfilling Departmental Meeting, the most helpful support system I could ever have imagined.

I 'met' educators who shared my beliefs and thought the same things about education as I did. These great people blogged and tweeted, tweeted and blogged and, on January 1st, as part of a vaguely negotiated resolution package (don't ask) I began blogging.

'How can I tell what I think until I see what I say?' said E.M Forster and never a truer word has been said, in terms of Writing.

Just Trying to be Better that Yesterday will never be a great blog but it is mine and I'm very proud of it. It has allowed me to get things off my chest, to articulate learning occurring in my classroom and to focus on ideas which I've been playing around with. It has made me a better teacher. It brought me to the Scottish Book Trust in Edinburgh on Tuesday night, presenting my thoughts to a room full of great people.

While I'm looking forward to a well-earned summer break, I'm already mentally planning for August. Teachmeet was a wonderful way to bring this year to an end. I cannot wait for the next one.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Teachmeet - What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

I’m about to take part in my first Teachmeet and I’m terrified. Terrified of the unknown. My hands sweat when I think about it, my heart beats just that little bit faster. I think of excuses to get out of it. Possible family crises or work load issues which mean, well, so sorry to let you down but, as you will understand being a teacher as well and all that, that these things do happen. Sorry. Maybe next time. I won’t, of course; because Teachmeet is the way forward and I want to be a part of it.

I stand up and talk for a living; I do it every day of my life. I’ve spoken to huge groups of kids and other teachers many of which, I would almost guarantee, were not interested in what I was saying or, even, nodded politely and went about their day.  Somehow this feels different. Teachmeet seems to suggest groups of optimistic, creative human beings actively looking to meet up with likeminded others. These people might actually want to know what I have to say. Aye there’s the rub. No hiding place. There is a real risk that I might have to ‘walk the walk’ instead of just blogging the talk.
The DIY style of CPD which Teachmeet seems to promote is one of the most exciting ventures I’ve come across in Education for many a year. The near flash mob mentality of a group of educators meeting up to talk about great stuff is exciting and what many of us have needed for ages.  It seems to be the natural extension of Blogging and Tweeting, both of which have transformed my teaching career. But what use is an interesting piece of writing if no-one does anything about it? If it doesn’t change anything, what’s the point? Perhaps Teachmeet will force me to follow up my ideas, develop them, batter them into submission and do something to follow up on my ramblings.

I won’t be breaking any new ground on Tuesday; there will be no rallying cry or revolutionary ideas. I don’t think that is the point. I will stand up for two minutes and let loose a thought, see where it takes me. However, I will look around the room and consider it a real privilege to be there and a reminder that, when we get bogged down in the minutiae of school or departmental issues, teaching is an optimistic profession, filled with optimistic, creative, amazing people.
I’ll only be up there for two minutes; what could possibly go wrong? Wish me luck.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Why We Must Persist with Glow

If I turned the clock back a couple of years, my experience with ICT in the classroom had not really progressed beyond having my classes word –process essays for English Folio. I could muddle about with e-mail and the Internet but most of it was completely alien to me. Glow, Scotland’s national intranet, changed all that. Glow has turned me into a Blogger, ICT geek and a much, much better teacher. I know there will be those of you who will harrumph and dismiss, but I remain convinced that, despite the flaws, we must persist with Glow if we are to engage all teachers in Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland.

In case you are unaware or haven’t heard or don’t care, Glow is the world's first national intranet for education which hopes to transform the way the curriculum is delivered in Scotland.  The idea is, simply put, that all teachers, pupils, schools, can share ideas, lessons, everything in a safe environment. We can access all sorts of online tools, including Blogs, Wikis, Chatroom, as well as document stores for pupils, parents and other teachers.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m aware of the problems. It can be cumbersome and difficult to manage at first. Log in can be problematic. Finding your way around can be confusing. However, after a great deal of patience and persistence, logging on for a few minutes every day, the process becomes much easier.

Glow has transformed my classroom. Only last week I had my senior class on Revision Chatrooms for four nights before their final Higher English exam; my challenging S3 class beginning reflective Blogs and S2 class uploading Imaginative Writing. During the year I had an online poll, creative writing Blogs, and I could provide all sorts of important web links and movie clips. Two years ago I couldn’t do that. Without Glow I probably wouldn’t have done that.

‘So what?’ you may say and you may be right in that. Many a computing teacher has smirked at my claims. Of course there are better online tools out there. Of course we have more easily accessible online resources. But I’m sure you are very tech savvy. There are thousands of teachers out there who are not.

If we are truly to expect all teachers to engage with the Curriculum for Excellence then we must encourage them to use available online tools in order to engage their pupils in a manner which reflects their changing needs and to enhance their practice with the new guidelines in mind. I believe Glow can do that. I also believe it is not especially helpful to deride Glow at a time when so many teachers are resisting the temptation of ICT in the classroom. Glow is a safe environment for people to get used to online tools and begin sharing with pupils. Then, perhaps, teachers can develop the confidence to go further. Glow might not be perfect but it is something. It would be foolish to give up on it now.

Thursday 5 May 2011

What if we turned everything upside down?

One of my earliest memories is from about the age of four. I was at home with my family and everyone was eating bags of crisps - or potato chips if you want to get all American on me. The bag, I recall, had a little cartoon man on the front – perhaps made by Smiths or KP – and I had opened my bag from the bottom. The man was upside down. At four years old I clearly couldn’t accept that state of affairs so I turned it upside down to open from the other end. Disaster.
A clear learning opportunity, wouldn’t you say? I never lost another crisp in my life; so isn’t turning things upside down sometimes a clever way of making things better. Even different. Reading Guy Claxton’s ‘What’s the Point of School?’ recently I came across this passage;
‘Imagine a society...in which physical education, design technology and art are the three most highly esteemed subjects, and English, maths and science are obviously less important because they only merit one lesson each a week, and they became optional when you are fourteen.’
He goes on: ‘The outstanding successes of the school are those who are strong, fit and physically agile; who can solve practical problems by inventing and building useful gadgets;  and who can make elegant sculptures and great photographs.’
Now I know there will be readers of this who will be thinking, ‘That’s Rubbish’, ‘Maybe’ or ‘Wouldn’t that be nice?’ but it has rattled my cage somewhat over the last few days. We may indeed mock Claxton’s suggestion but on closer inspection it could have some merit.  What happens when we, the teachers and adults, become jaded, uninspired by work, and desperate for something new? Most of the teachers I know would fit into one of the following groups: we wish we could play a musical instrument in our spare time; we may start to enjoy sketching or ceramics as a creative outlet; we take a photography course and buy an expensive camera; we join a gym.
Quite simply, we desire all of the things which at the moment are, perhaps, the least respected subject areas in our school system, the things we value less. We actively discourage the skills we ourselves desire thirty years later.  Ironic? Perhaps. However, what I think it does is suggest a great conversation to be had. I’m not suggesting we should change everything just for the sake of change but if we are to truly encourage engagement with Curriculum for Excellence we at least need to have these ‘out of the box’ conversations. In fact, we not only need to think outside of the box but, as again I read somewhere recently (apologies for forgetting exactly where), we need to create a new box that doesn’t even look like a box.
Whatever happens, whatever the Curriculum turns out to look like, let’s get talking. And we can start by turning things upside down and seeing what they look like. We can do this, people. Let's do it together.