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    Andrew :)
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20 Minutes for Change

Welcome to a recording that might change the way that you think about neglected and abused children. Press the grey play button to hear it (and make sure that volume isn’t muted). The recording lasts 20 minutes.

IWB choice

If, like me, you use an interactive whiteboard (or IWB for the acronym obsessed) for much of the active content of lessons, then you’ll often find yourself feeling frustrated by the software developers behind such devices.

In the UK there are two varieties of IWB that have found favour in our secondary schools, abbreviated by teachers to the terms ‘Promethean’ and ‘Smart’. Of course each of these IWB ‘platforms’ has its own software to support resource development and lesson delivery.

In the case of Smart boards, this means using their proprietary ‘Notebook’ software and in the case of Promethean, ‘Activstudio’. Both have their merits. Travelling from school to school, I have had to make myself expert in each though this often means having two copies of the same resource depending on which board I’m using.

Smartech’s Notebook software is relatively easy to use and ‘feels’ much more polished than its main competitor’s effort. Currently in version 10, it uses a flip chart metaphor to produce lesson materials that can have multiple pages, attachments, simple animations, text and tables. Its most accomplished feature is its ‘gallery’ through which one can add interactive and multimedia elements that build very attractive active learning resources quickly. For example, using Notebook it takes less than 5 minutes to make a ‘vortex’ sorting activity that could be used as a starter for a lesson (see below).

16-03-2009 08-53-47

By contrast, Promethean’s Activstudio is much harder to learn but, once mastered, offers greater control and flexibility of page objects. It does give a user access to additional resources via its website, Promethean Planet, but to build interesting interactive resources with Activstudio is a labour counted in hours rather than minutes. In addition, no one could claim that the Activstudio’s interface is anything other than uninspiring and, let’s be frank, ugly. The software interface is highly reminiscent of Windows 98 and looks outdated to the modern eye yet it can produce some very pleasing results if you are prepared to stick with it.

The trouble is, of course, that many teachers are not in a position to choose which IWB or attendant software platform they would prefer. To most of us, we are restricted to whatever is screwed firmly to our classroom wall. We are stuck with whatever choice our school managers made when these devices became de rigueur.

So in a ‘betamax-versus-vhs’ sort of way, teachers are caught in a format war that pits ‘easy but limited’ against ‘compex but versatile’. For what it’s worth my vote goes with Smart. And my reasoning? Well, an interactive whiteboard is no more than a useful tool for teaching and in that respect anything that allows teachers to make engaging interactive content quickly and efficiently has got to be the better option.

How to write a scheme of work

Whether its the renewed Secondary Framework or the revamped National Curriculum, I have found that much of my outreach time in recent weeks has centred on writing schemes of work. And yes, I do agree that they should properly be called Schemes of Learning or even Learning Schemes but we teachers are an odd lot when it comes to name changes. In this season for remembrance let’s spare a thought for the recently departed NC tests – NC tests? Well, that’s ‘SATs’ to you and me. Thus I find referring to ‘planned-sequences-of-learning-activities’ as a ‘Scheme of Work’ is a reassuring and universally understood ‘teacher shorthand’. Mind you, that doesn’t mean that we can’t slowly shift our terms of reference…

Schemes of work, however you dress them up, serve the purpose of providing teachers with a thinking pathway through a section of the curriculum. They take the unit of teaching, the lesson, and transport the learner from one place to another via sequences of activities that stimulate thought. To be wholly successful a scheme of work must seem as clear and obvious as any other sort of map, simultaneously making the reader aware of complexity but at the same time making it easy to navigate. To produce one is a tricky job and it’s no wonder then that there are so many poor examples out there. Not convinced? A quick trip to one or two of the best known teaching resource websites should prove the point.

tired The trouble is, like many elements of a career in teaching, writing a scheme of work sounds easy. I mean surely it’s just about planning a lesson and then another and so on? It’s seen as one of those ‘self-evident’ parts of our job, so self-evident in fact that teaching managers routinely suggest it on a department’s development plan without necessarily giving sufficient support to the teachers who are faced with the task of writing one.

Understandably, teachers are stressed by the scale of this task. So, what’s the big deal? Well, it’s just that there is little official guidance out there about precisely how to go about writing a scheme of work. Examples of that one can find all look different or contain different elements or highlight different features as significant. At their simplest, they are glorified lists of (largely pointless) tasks, and at their most complex they are overly prescriptive, needlessly specific and unusable outside their immediate context. Whenever I support hard-working and committed teachers charged with writing them, it is these confusions of form and purpose that hover behind our conversations. And no wonder, after all thinking that the task is to encompass all the teaching possibilities and all learning opportunities inherent in a body of content is enough to make anyone’s head spin.

So, when I worked recently with a group of teachers in Barnsley I spent some time devising a clear and logical route to help them to devise their new learning schemes. The task was to present the process of writing schemes for learning as a sequence of steps, to break the larger task into smaller and eminently achievable steps. It’s this work that I’m sharing in the link below. My hope is that this guidance sheet might just help some teachers feel more confident about tackling such a large task and, if nothing else, may serve as a starting point for discussion.

Writing a scheme for learning.doc

The polyhedral curriculum (at last!)

tollboothAs a boy I remember being captivated by Norton Juster’s story, The Phantom Tollbooth. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s an allegorical adventure that takes the main character of Milo on a journey to a fantasy land known as Dictionopolis, where all the world’s letters are grown in orchards. A rival kingdom, Digitopolis, where all the world’s numbers are mined, is in dispute over which is the more important. On his journey he meets many marvellous characters including a Tock (a watch dog – literally!) a Whether Man (sic); a Mathemagician and a Dodecahedron. The latter is a figure having twelve faces, each of which expresses a different emotion.

A Dodecahedron? Surely such a thing (like walruses) cannot really exist I thought. But there it was, on my page and in my imagination. My world, through reading, enlarged.

I was enraptured by the sheer playfulness of Juster’s vision and loved the idea personifying both figures of speech and mathematical concepts. Yesterday, as my school got to grips with the revised National Curriculum, I found myself transported back to that book especially the preposterous Dodecahedron. How? Why? (leaving aside the “You are just plain weird, Andrew”). Well, dear reader, it’s just that the revised National Curriculum has, it seems, finally made it to polyhedral dimensions.

The first few versions of the National Curriculum were pretty dull and two dimensional. The Education Reform Act of 1988 introduced the idea of it along with SATs and League Tables and those marvellous market forces to make everything better. Well, that was 20 years ago and ‘better’ is a highly relative term. Eh-hum. Moving swiftly on, hardly a month since then have the politicians resisted fiddling with the curriculum, introducing this and that until it became clear that just releasing another bolt-on was not going to cut it. This thing needed a complete overhaul.

And lo, it came about that the ‘new’ National Curriculum was published. It combines (deep breath required) the 14 main subjects; the 5 outcomes of the Every Child Matters agenda; the 3 functional skills; the 6 personal learning and thinking skills; and the 7 cross-curricula dimensions. That’s 35 glittering facets in all – polyhedralism to make even the poor Dodecahedron look plain by comparison.

Rotating Dodecahedron

Don’t misunderstand my light-hearted tone here – I am not mocking the complexity of our new (revised?) National Curriculum. Far from it. In fact, I’m am rather glad that our educational thinkers have conceded that education is complex. Actually, I think that they still haven’t charted all the dimensions of the thing. For a start, what about adding all the complexities of the emotional aspects of the curriculum or learning styles or curriculum provision for additional needs…

Anyway, at least they’ve made an effort this time to acknowledge the glorious intricacy of our work.

Oh and just in case you were wondering, a 35-sided (solid) shape is known as a triacontakaipentahedron.🙂

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How to kill a love of reading

Just when we think that teachers have no standing in our communities, one of those delightful and flattering conversations occurs. You know the ones – they begin with a circuitous preamble (about the weather or a statement beginning with ‘I don’t know how you do it’) and then move towards the request for one’s opinion on reading or education or, best of all, learning.

I’m always a bit surprised when it happens. I know I shouldn’t be but it’s just that immersed in a world of educational giants as I am, I forget my position as ‘expert’ to many of my friends.

Such a conversation happened recently at the end of a busy school day. I almost missed my cue: after all, it seemed that I was just chatting inconsequentially. Then, the friend moved our conversation towards the subject of her daughter’s reading. I should explain that her daughter is 7 years old and a pupil in a local primary school. The girl, let’s call her Susan, has been a keen reader for a while and has shared her reading daily with both mum and dad, graduating from first readers to some quite challenging books and enjoying every moment of it.

facts 1

Recently, however, things have changed. Whilst reading a story, Susan has told her mother on a number of occasions, “Right, Mummy, we have to stop now and I have to tell you what I’ve noticed about the characters, the writer’s methods and what happens next.” Once, whilst reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda, Susan stopped short and pointed out to her mother, “There’s no comma in that paragraph.” When her mum asked what she meant, Susan replied, “Well, he would have got more marks if he’d used a comma.”

lrgmobile2Susan’s mother is, quite rightly, concerned. Just what is happening to her daughter’s love of reading? The answer, sadly, is in an ill-informed (but wholly predictable) Gradgrindery from her primary teachers. You see, we live in an educational world of TARGETS, TARGETS, TARGETS. In this world THE LEAGUE TABLE dominates common sense ( I do apologise for my Swiftian capitals – but I am incensed). Susan’s primary school teachers are clumsily trying to push her to meet a target of Level 3. No doubt they are doing it with the best of intentions but the fact remains that she, like many other children, is being taught that ONLY THE TEST MATTERS. They are also simultaneously having their love of reading warped by utility. Did I mention that she is SEVEN YEARS OLD?

‘Oh, really!’ I hear you cry. ‘I mean, what’s wrong with encouraging children to be analytical?’ Absolutely nothing of course but there’s time enough for that once our children have an unshakeable love of reading for its own sake. Just show me where ‘reading for pleasure’ is promoted with the same fervour as examinations in our school system and I’ll shut up.

facts 2

What would Susan’s preferred author have thought of such teaching brutality? Would Mr Dahl have got more marks with children everywhere if he had used more commas? Are we, as teachers of reading, becoming just a little insane?

It is de rigueur to place all society’s ills at the feet of its teachers but in this case it may well be justified. Yes, the government dictates; yes, head teachers bow to pressure as OFSTED intimidates; but do we as teachers really have to play along to this extent? I mean it’s one thing to crush the joy from reading in our lessons but quite another to extend such brutishness to the bedtime story.

In case we’ve forgotten the phenomenon of turning enquiry into a quest for the RIGHT ANSWER devoid of wonder, is not new. It was most famously satirised over 150 years ago by Dickens. To educationalists everywhere I urge you to re-read his novel, Hard Times; for pleasure.

[By the way, there are 40 commas in this posting. Take that Mr Dahl!]

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How to comment

“O brave new world,
That has such people in it!”

So says Miranda, alone on the island, save for her ageing father and two otherworldly creatures, both his slaves. Her sentiments are echoed by many of us getting to grips with the technology-rich world with its blogs and social networking sites and heaven knows what else!

It’s a bit of a steep learning curve at times but then one could say that of anything worth doing. Take this blog for example. When Barbara first suggested the idea, I had little notion of what a blog actually was let alone how to write one. Now it’s second nature.

Here in the UK, blogging is still to become mainstream and that means that its conventions and routines are yet to be widely understood. So, in the spirit of sharing and maybe even sparking a few new bloggers into production, this posting is all about the interactive element of blogging.

Each new posting by the writer or writers of a blog has a title that, when clicked, reveals a comment form (see below).

comments 1

The comment form is positioned at the end of the posting (also shown below).

comments 2

Simply complete the form to contact the writer via the fantastic systems of WordPress (or whatever other ‘host’ company the writer uses). For example, if you wanted further information or resources just use the comment option and I’ll do my best to provide them speedily.

There is another way to reach this form by looking at the end of the posting. There you’ll see a list of categories that the posting is filed under. The last of these says “x Comments” (where x is a number). Click on that and you’ll also reach the comment form (shown below).

comments 3

Like many writers I enjoy getting feedback. In fact, the immediate and social side of blogging is one of the main reasons I selected this form of communicating ideas. Sometimes exceptionally kind friends say “Have you ever thought of writing a book?” Flattering though that is I resist precisely because of the potential for immediate feedback in this form of writing. Maybe I share that trait with many of my learners: they can’t wait for praise, certificates, stickers and I feel similarly impatient for comments on a posting. Too needy? Possibly. It’s also that, when I set to writing this blog, I had a notion that it could be ‘forum-like’: that through dialogue we could move things on a pace. That’s ASTs for you – always impatient to share.

Just as Miranda’s gasp set in motion engines that revealed a new and better world, isn’t it about time we talked?

Sir, you taught my mum

It’s finally happened: the moment I always knew would come but secretly dreaded.

Today I was blithely checking the books of a Year 7 class when a girl with bright red hair chirped the words, “Sir, you taught my mum.”

Like many of those profound moments in life, I didn’t see it coming. Sure the hair should have reminded me of that feisty girl in my first Year 11 class at Northcliffe School but there have been quite a few auburn students since then.

As teachers we would probably struggle to calculate just how many students we have taught in our professional lives – 10,000? More?

Of course I remembered her mother. She was a joy. Like so many students she had a real love of learning and a talent for expressing herself. Surely it can’t be thirteen years. But it is of course. If I reason coldly, the first group I ever taught must be in their thirties by now.

In the compression of the instant that it took me to respond I felt my mortality acutely, but there was something else too.

The day’s tasks distracted me until it was time to head home and I could stave off the reflection no longer. What was that feeling? Disbelief? Certainly that, as I struggled to think of what had happened to the intervening years. Awkwardness? No, the Year 7 student was not having a dig. If anything there had been a curiously positive tone to her voice. Perhaps, I reasoned, it was regret or shock or even irritation. No, not those either. And then it struck me: what she and I had experienced in that moment was not at all dissimilar.

It was pride.