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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.