Monday, 9 June 2014

Dealing with the wreckage left by Northern Rocks

Saturday.  Heavy rain.  Leeds.  At least 2 out of 3 of these are reasons to stay in bed.  I'm glad I didn't.

Like around 300 others, I attended the inaugural Northern Rocks event.  (The title of this post is from an Independent article about the collapsed bank of a similar name but adequately reflects my brain after Saturday's event).  Below are some thoughts, not in any particular order.

There's been a large number of great blogs appearing after Saturday so I won't try and detail everything that was said and I'd ask that you don't judge me against them as I'm just splurging (that's my excuse)!

1. Debra and Emma.  Wow.  It takes some cahoonas to organise an event like this and they nailed it.  Most impressive though was the genuine warmth, passion and respect towards everyone; there was always time for a quick chat to complete strangers and nothing was too much trouble.  No doubt there was some frantic leg paddling going on under the surface but the smiles never left their faces and they both deserve knighthoods (or is it damehoods?), for pulling this together, although this is unlikely as they are both probably on some secret service watch list for being enemies of promise.  It is saddening to hear that Debra is all but leaving direct teaching - I would have loved her to teach my own children.  (My post on why I'm leaving the UK system is here).  Bravo ladies, I'm tempted to fly back from Brunei for next year!

2. Lunch.  Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding the size of a plate.  Enough said.

3. The People. It was like my Twitterverse came to life, so many names that I've connected with previously!  I suppose it could be taken for granted that there would be a large number of like-minded people there, what with it being a Saturday (and raining and in Leeds) but the passion and positivity was palpable.  There was a subtle air of pride about being part of something exciting and different and, whilst there was justified criticism and exasperation expressed, becoming 'militant' and outright 'anti' everything was avoided and positive alternatives explored - in particular, Debra handled the panel meeting expertly, there must surely be a career opportunity there?!  As always, Hywel Roberts and Mick Waters got right to the heart of matters and motivated the thronged masses (although I think the rally song may need a bit of work!).  These guys are awesome and, like everyone else on the day, have no pretentious air about them, happy to chat with anyone.  Not an easy thing given the celebrity status bestowed upon them by us mere mortals!  I haven't met many DfE staff but I suspect that would be a different experience.

4. So what?  Yes, it was a nice day out (have I mentioned lunch?) but it has to make a difference.  On a personal level I got loads out of the SOLO and Flipped Learning workshops and I can see how they could link brilliantly together.  So, given the time of year, my role and the fact that I'm leaving my current school in 6 weeks, I'm limited.  I'm going to get some children to create some 'how to...' videos for key concepts that the staff have noticed too many children struggling with.  This will tick the flipped learning box and could be used to discuss various stages in SOLO - "are you pre or unistructural?  Watch the video." type thing.  I'm then intending to introduce SOLO and Flipped learning in my new school once I get settled.
What about a difference on a wider systematic scale?
I believe and hope that events like these, combined with Twitter and TeachMeets are the best way to empower teachers to make a difference.  I feel the challenge is to get headteachers to buy in.  I am often surprised and disappointed by fellow heads who haven't been to/heard of TeachMeets.  In my experience it isn't that heads don't want to do relevant, different learning, I think it's a combination of having time and overcoming the fear of doing something alternative to what they perceive will keep outsiders happy.  This isn't a criticism, I fully understand the pressures.  I was fortunate to get into Twitter years ago and so have accessed years worth of exciting resources and thinking whereas some heads are just coming to this way of thinking; ironically the new curriculum has stimulated some to truly consider what their school offers.  Perhaps there's a need for a headteacher only event where they can see the types of learning their teachers could/want to offer and be helped to implement it.
One final outcome for me is the hope that, with an increasing critical mass of educators like those at Northern Rocks, maybe, just maybe, our wonderful profession will be given the respect it deserves and those in charge will consider the children rather than the voters.

Later this week I'm off to Birmingham for the Inspiring Leadership conference.  I suspect I won't get as much out of it!

Hmm...A Review of 365 Things to Make you Go Hmmm

Whatever you do don't buy this book!  At least, not if you want to be remotely productive, focussed or are required to feed a small child regularly.  365 Things entertains, inspires, frustrates, befuddles, baffles and amuses in equal measure and, although the concept is to use one 'Thing' per day, it is impossible to not read on, wrestle with a 'thing', read on, wrestle with another 'thing'...You know this book has you completely hooked when you can hear your own brain arguing with itself!

From the challenging, and in some points uncomfortable, introduction 365 Things sparks your thinking into life by making you reflect on the values and messages that you give learners.  For example, how many times have we said (even though we hate the thought of it) "only 105 days until SATs"?  Most of us have done it, not through some sadistic pleasure of piling stress onto young learners but as a reflection of the externally induced pressures we're put under.  Maybe this book will go some way to alleviating this.  By embedding the messages, values and prompts contained in 365 Things we'd get deeper thinking, self-valuing confident learners ready to take on the world, secure in the knowledge that they're all good at what really counts and see SATs (and other tests) as an opportunity to show those in power just how great they are.

The 365 Things themselves cover a wide range of topics and concepts and are in some ways similar to the 'Thunks' from Ian Gilbert but the Sparky Teaching flavour is unmistakable; lots of value based content, with practical tips and tricks to extend and augment the learning all done in a positive, light-hearted way.  A particular strength of this book is how 'real life' has been used to develop some of the Things e.g. news stories, web content, increasing relevance for your learners and many Things are cleverly illustrated, with the presentation adding an extra 'must-read' dimension.

365 Things, despite seemingly limiting itself to only one year's use, will undoubtedly impact on you and your learners for years to come.  Aside from the value instilling content, the 'Things' will stimulate enough additional questions and thinking that you could end up writing your own book!  (This probably isn't the result the publishers wanted though, so don't tell them I told you!).

With this book in your collection you'll have a ready-made source of stimulating content that can be used from whole-school assemblies through to class debates and corridor displays.  And if you do work out if street dancing is a sport, let me know!

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Learning through a lens - a review

Learning through a Lens by Jane Hewitt

A Review

As an amateur photography enthusiast I’ve fallen into the trap many times of thinking that by buying yet another book about photography it will instantly transform to the level of a professional.  As someone who has been in education for 20 years I regularly read books in the hope that they will continually challenge me professionally and improve my competence in education.  So, what could possibly be better, a book combining two of the great passions in my life?  I have to admit though to being slightly cynical that this would be yet another functional instruction book “use f5.6 at 70mm…” that would leave me frustrated.  And what could I really learn about using photography in education after 20 years of teaching?

First impressions raised my hopes.  An introduction by Mick Waters, someone who I have a lot of time for, immediately sets the tone that this isn’t just ‘another’ photography book and Jane’s own introduction highlights the simplicity of using photography – no need for full-frame highly expensive SLRs and her passion and enthusiasm shines out, showing that this isn’t just some geek trying to earn a few easy bob.

Once you get in to the book, the organisation and useful features included mean that, for a busy teacher, it is highly accessible.  The first section deals with the technical functions of the camera but, and most importantly, Jane speaks human!  No patronising, geeky, superior rhetoric; just down to earth, easy to understand advice to get the most out of your camera.

Chapter 2 is where the fun begins to build.  There are a number of activity ideas that are all easily attainable either at home or in school and that produce results that both children and adults would be instantly pleased with.  What’s more, once again, Jane has considered the needs of busy teachers by using a ‘recipe’ format and clearly accessible information boxes meaning this activity could be up and running in a classroom within minutes.  Pin hole cameras are covered, as are phones and apps with some great examples of low cost apps and their usage.

Now that Jane has got you hooked, there’s an important chapter on the use of ethics in photography (perhaps some ‘pros’ should read this!).  And the rest of the first section carries on exciting and informing and slowly but surely hooking you in…

Boom!  Like an old style flash gun going off, section 2 arrives with a feast of inspiring projects, activities, links and some all-round exciting things to do for yourself and/or your learners.  From ‘little people’ to street art via a highly informative and practical section on visual literacy I was left chomping at the bit to get my camera out, borrow some children (as a Headteacher I don’t see children very often!) and crack on.
Okay, so by now you’ve probably figured out that I really like this book.  It’s informative not patronising and easily and quickly accessible by anyone, but ultimately schools aren’t measured on the quality of their photographs, so what’s the point?  Is it just another distraction from the core purpose of schools as measured by outside agencies i.e. English and Maths results?

I guess that depends.  Do you want learners who can infer, reason, explain, justify, collaborate, create, solve problems, research, empathise and communicate?  What about widening the world to our pupils, challenging them to view and think about things differently?  In my school we’re constantly trying to motivate learners, to improve their ability to talk at length and depth with deep thinking to support their arguments and opinions, to collaborate and empathise and broaden their minds and ultimately to enjoy learning and succeed at it.  This book will go a long way to helping us deliver this.  Through projects and activities in this book, learning becomes relevant, stimulating and can be driven by the learners themselves whilst providing practical opportunities to apply English and Maths concepts.  And they have fun doing it.

Or you could give them a worksheet.

I can guarantee you won't be disappointed with this book and it might just be the book that unlocks a whole new world and way of working that gets your sparky learners fired up, committing that learning to memory like...well...have a guess!