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Working with Billy

I have been working with Billy twice a week since the beginning of term. It is great fun and I think he is enjoying it and beginning to make progress.

I began by giving Billy a photograph of himself and asked him to tell me about the picture. I wrote his sentence under the picture and we read it together several times: ‘Billy is leaning on the tree.’ I wrote each word on a ‘Post-It’ and we mixed them up, matched them to the sentence, played pelmanism and lots of other games. The first session ended by us reading Mr Magnolia together. I read the story out loud and Billy read the words he recognised from his own sentence. We re-read the sentence and together identified all the rhyming words.

In the next lesson we began by re-reading Mr Magnolia and then read Oi Fox. Again we identified the rhyming words. We began by looking at cat and made a list of all the words we could think of which rhymed. We discussed the onset and rime without using those terms. We made sentences using these ‘at’ words and the words ‘on’, ‘the’ and ‘is’. Billy enjoyed manipulating the words and creating lots of sentences. We then repeated the process using ‘ox’ words. At the end of the session all the words were stuck into Billy’s book.

Similar activities have happened during each session. What has characterised my approach to helping Billy become a reader? Firstly, and this is very important, books are at the centre of every session. We read them, enjoy the story together and respond to it through talk and other activities. Our talk is about what we enjoyed, what we didn’t like and we share words and phrases we enjoy. After reading Funnybones Billy commented, ‘What a lot of darks there are on this page.’ It is the words in the books that prompt our word recognition games; after the comment on ‘dark’ we listed all the ‘-ark’ words we could think of. So far this term we have looked at just four books and each one has been revisited several times; our word games are based on words to be found in the books.

Secondly, all the word recognition activities are done in the context of a meaningful sentence. Using already known words we create and read different sentences; we play about with the sentences working out how changing or adding just one word can change the meaning completely.  As the sessions have progressed Billy has begun to compose his own sentences and sometimes I have had to write different words on the Post-Its.  I have found it interesting that Billy tends not to sound out words he does not remember; he works out the first sound and then uses the context. Remember that all his previous reading experience has been following a synthetic phonics approach which encourages him to use phonics ‘first and foremost’. This does not appear to be his preferred approach. Billy now has a book almost full of lots of words on Post-It notes; he enjoys reading these and putting them into sentences.

Thirdly, Billy is beginning to transfer what he is learning about words to reading whole books. At the end of today’s session we began to read Funnybones together. I was using what might be described as the ‘apprenticeship’ approach (Waterland 1991) when I read the text and Billy read along with me; when we came to one of the known words I was silent and Billy read it alone. At the end of this reading Billy appeared to believe that he had read the text himself and was very proud. I must say that he was the most focused I had ever seen him when reading and was really concerned to make meaning from the text. For me this raises questions about what we are teaching when we teach children to read words; where does the meaning of a text lie and what are the many different ways in which readers access this meaning? How does this discourse impact on the way in which we teach children to become readers and what are the implications for teachers’ subject knowledge?

This blog has been mainly descriptive; next time I shall try and analyse more deeply what is going on as Billy takes his first steps towards becoming a reader. Please share any thoughts you might have.

 

The end of a year in school

I have finished my year in school. It was an interesting experience and I have a lot to write about in future blogs. There are lots of questions in my mind:

  • What is the relationship between the curriculum and assessment?
  • Has child-centred education disappeared?
  • Why are teachers so compliant?
  • Who decides what happens in classrooms?
  • What counts as learning in classrooms today?
  • Who is accountable for learning?
  • What does progress look like?

These are just a few of the things I am going to explore over the coming months.

I have retired from full-time paid work now but next year will be doing a few things, including tutoring some trainee teachers. I am most excited though about working with Billy during the year. Billy is a six year old boy in my class who has failed to learn to read. He has had numerous interventions and support but still cannot read a text independently. He knows all the simple GPCs but cannot blend. Next year the school is adopting RWInc wholeheartedly and the whole of Key Stage 1 will be divided into ability groups for phonics. For Billy, this would mean repeated failure and I want to work with him to try other strategies for helping him to become a reader. I am going into school for 20 minutes, two or three times a week. I will report progress here each week and use my experiences to try and address some of the questions above and more.

Share the journey with me.

Sensitivities

The new term has begun and my class has been a delight. Worries I had about slipping back to past behaviours and attitudes were unfounded and the first two days were great.

Apparently however, my blog has been upsetting some of my colleagues in school. This is the last thing I want to do because they are all wonderful and hard-working teachers. I have been thinking hard about what to do; I do not want to write anything which is bland and feel it is important to maintain a sense of criticality. My comments reflect the system of education as it is at the moment not any individual or school but I appreciate that for those within the system it is difficult to separate the personal from the generic. I need to say though that the head teacher has had no problems – she understands and supports what I have been doing.

I have decided that I am going to keep writing my weekly reflections but I will not publish them each week on this blog. I will publish them at the end of the academic year when I am no longer working in the school and am considering what format that will take.

I am aware that many trainee teachers and NQTs are following this blog and some find it helpful and supportive. If anybody would like to receive my weekly reflections – please contact me on margaretperkins55@btinternet.com and I will send them to you as a Word attachment.

I close with just one observation. I have frequently said I am turning into a grumpy old woman – one little boy in my class the other day called me ‘Gran’ by mistake!! It is time for me to accept the bitter truth!

End of Term 1

The turkey is eaten, the presents put away and I have been to the gym twice to try to counteract the effects of Christmas excess! I  have also completed the first term of my return to the classroom and as my thoughts are already turning to planning for the second term I want to think back over the time since September to see what has happened and what I have learned from it. I certainly have learned a lot! I left work at the university in December and in my farewell speech to colleagues I was reflecting along the lines of ‘If I knew then what I know now!’

I thought I knew what life was like in schools; I  had visited many of them regularly and frequently and had talked with trainees, teachers, senior leaders and head teachers. I have friends who are teachers and my daughter is a teacher. Hearing about something is not the same as experiencing it for yourself. So what are the things I have learned? Let me start with the positive.

The class was challenging at the start of September and it was hard work to get to a position where we can work together as a learning community. I believe we are in that position now and I am looking forward to some exciting things next term. However, there were some magic moments which I will always remember and most of them are based on using quality texts in the classroom. I am Henry Finch was superb and I was really surprised at how much the children loved it. I have been reminded over and over again of the power of story; Barbara Hardy was absolutely correct when she described narrative as, ‘a primary act of mind.’ All learning experiences were enhanced by narrative – usually arising from a text which acted as the basis of the curriculum but sometimes just by creating a story to make a concept meaningful and relevant. Story is one of the things which, I believe, identifies us as people and should be at the heart of all we do in the classroom.

The children in my class are delightful and throughout the term I have got to know each of them as individuals. One of the special children has now left to go to a special school and that will be more appropriate for his needs as it will be better for the rest of the class. There remain five other special children and it is hard work to ensure their needs are met. I think one of them would be better served in a special school but while parents want their child in a mainstream school it is down to us to do the best we can to address the particular and individual needs. The other special children are making progress but still it is demanding to plan for their very different needs and to ensure they get the time and attention they need to make progress. I feel I have a good relationship with the class now; one where we can work together, enjoy a joke and explore ideas. It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get there but we are there and in the next two terms we can build on that. It will be challenging work though as I think we are now at the place where we should have been in September.

I am feeling I am getting to know the rest of the staff better. I have been so impressed by their hard work and dedication; sometimes I am not sure how they do it and most of them are much better than me at keeping on top of the work. It is all consuming though and leaves little time for much else in life. The pressure of work most teachers experience is not sustainable long term and I am not surprised that retention is a problem nationally among teachers. There is a real sense of collegiality in the school though and it is good to see how staff support each other and work as a team. It is a privilege to be part of that.

I have enjoyed getting to know the parents and working with them. I was surprised to find that parents would email me to talk about how their child was doing and would frequently come into the classroom to talk about their child. That happened much more than I have known before. It was not a problem – just a surprise! I have found that most of the parents responded very well to an honest and informed account of their child’s progress; of course, they know their children very well and recognise when teachers know their child well too. I have found that the present me is much more confident in talking with parents than the me who was a teacher in former times;  I suspect that is because I am a parent myself now, I have had many years of articulating my practice and am secure and confident in what I believe about teaching and learning – also I am old and so less worried what people think about me!!

Last but not least  in my positive reflection is the ethos of the school – that truly comes from the head teacher and the relationships within the school community. It is a joy to be part of such a team. I have talked before about the many ‘Wow’ experiences we had during the term: harvest, isingpop, a visiting poet, yoga, reindeer, tree trimming, productions, parties, etc. Sometimes it has felt like a bit too much ‘wow’ but it has served to draw the school together and establish a sense of community.

There have been a lot of positive elements about my first term back in school but there have been some things which have also proved challenging. What are those? Those who are regular readers of this blog will not be surprised when I list them.

The main frustration I have felt is down to assessment led by accountability. Assessment is a key part of effective teaching and no teacher can afford not to be continually assessing children’s learning and modifying teaching accordingly. Learning, however, is a complex process and does not happen simply and smoothly. It has many hitches, plateaus and diversions along the way. I have been exasperated by systems of recording and tracking learning which do not recognise this and reduce learning to a tick list of over-simplified sentences which bear no resemblance to the complexity of the process. These ticked statements are then counted and turned into data which are supposed to indicate the degree of progress pupils are making; it is all nonsense and increasingly frustrating because we are supposed to be in a time which is ‘beyond levels’. I am sure I will come back to this over the next two terms!

I have now finally left my work at the university; the time was right but I do feel more sad about it than I expected to. The main reason is that I shall miss the conversations I had with colleagues about teaching, learning and the curriculum. I feel more naturally ‘at home’ with colleagues at the university and I find that interesting and slightly disturbing. It is something I am thinking hard about – it could be just a matter of time and custom.

Lastly I  have found the physicality of teaching 30 five and six year olds tiring – I am 61 years old and a day with young children is tiring! My head wants to do lots of things which my body is not so keen about!

In conclusion, what are the things I wish I had known when working with trainee teachers? I wish I had really understood the power of the accountability agenda; I knew about it but did not appreciate the relentlessness of its impact on daily practice. I did not know the pressure in schools to conform to systems leading to many aspects where classroom teachers have no power to make decisions about their practice. I wish I knew  how time-consuming much of the paperwork required of teachers is; it is not necessarily very demanding and often is recording the same things in different places and ways but it takes a lot of time which I would prefer to spend on planning. I wish I knew about the tendency to divide learning experiences into little boxes with the danger of losing the view of the whole. If I had known all this in my heart as well as my head I think I would have spent more time helping trainees to understand processes and articulate and justify practice powerfully so that the professionalism of teaching can be protected and strongly asserted. I always told trainees that teaching was a very political role and maybe teachers need to be trained in political skills in order to be able to stand up for their professional skills and judgements.

 

Priorities

Christmas in school is always a busy time and when I came out of the classroom the first time, Christmas really did not feel like Christmas. I loved the decorations, the play, the singing and the excitement. That is still there and there have been some really magic moments during the last couple of weeks.

Some of these had nothing to do with Christmas at all! For two consecutive Friday afternoons we have had parents and relatives in the classroom; the first time is was MAGs (Mums, aunts and grandmas) and the second time it was DUGs (Dads, uncles and granddads). The mums came in at the end of an RE lesson – we have been exploring the theme of ‘Our wonderful world’  and the children had written prayers. The MAGs sat with the children to illustrate these and it was wonderful to see adults and children sitting next to each other drawing, colouring and talking. When the DUGs came in it was a beautiful cold but sunny day and I gave them a list of things they had to find and sent them all out into the playground. Again it was great to see adults and children digging the earth to look for ants, peering in crevices to look for spider webs and working out why there was not a cloud to be seen in  the blue sky. At the end of the afternoon, they all came back into the classroom and I read them all a story and I hope modelled to them how to talk about a story with children.

I loved this and saw it as a really valuable exercise – I would love to do it more often. Some of my colleagues did not enjoy it so much – they were anxious about parents looking at books and, in one case, dads making and throwing paper aeroplanes around the classroom. It might be because I have more experience of and so am more confident at talking to adults but I had no such problems.  I organised the adults in the same way as the children and they seemed very happy with this!

The tree trimming assembly was lovely. Every child made a tree decoration and parents came into the hall while each child went up and hung their decoration on the Christmas tree while singing Christmas songs. It was very atmospheric and a delightful experience. It was simple but effective.

We then had somebody coming to do poetry and yoga with the children. This was not good and I am not sure what the children gained from it. There has also been the Christmas fair and a visit to the school by reindeer. The latter two were good.  We have  had a group of parents come in to decorate cup cakes with the children and three non-uniform days to collect things for the fair. The Christmas party, lunch and production are still to come.

I agree completely with the headteacher that these ‘Wow’ experiences are important. I do feel however that you can have too many of them – too many means that the ‘wowness’ of each is minimised. These experiences are like anything that happens in school – the purpose of them has to be explicit. That means that, as a teacher I want time in my classroom to prepare the children for them and to reflect on them afterwards. When there are so many of them and they also happen at a very busy time of year it is not possible to do this and so each loses some of its effect and, maybe more importantly its impact on the children’s learning. Is it enough to offer these experiences or should we use them as ways in to learning? I think the latter but then, as a classroom teacher, I need to have good notice of things happening and what is involved in them so that I can build them into my planning.

And then there is the Christmas production! Of course it is stressful and time consuming but great fun. Why do we do it and what purpose does it serve? Time is spent learning songs, words, dances, movements, etc. etc. and worrying about costumes. Tempers get frayed; children get bored; space is fought over and the tissue and crepe paper is used up. Of course it always comes together brilliantly and parents beam with pride. Is this worth it? Or is there another way of achieving the same end? I think there is – but that’s another issue!

Where is this taking us? I think I am reiterating my point about the need for ‘wholeness’ in what we offer the children. I believe learning happens best when it is embedded in children’s experiences and surrounded by talk. Children (and adults) need to reflect on experiences and be enabled to use them to extend knowledge and understanding of the world.  Every experience we offer children should have an element of ‘Wow’ to it. We have been exploring the book by John Burningham Harvey Slumfenburger’s Christmas Present. We were looking at the last double page spread which has lots of pictures of Father Christmas’s journey home. We decided we needed to write some more words to go on that page because probably John Burningham had run out of time! I wrote a story saying, ‘Father Christmas went on a horse, then he went on a boat, then he went on a helicopter…’. We discussed how boring this was and thought of lots of different words we could use. The children were each given different pictures to write about; I told them that if they used the word ‘went’ something so awful would happen that I couldn’t bear to talk about I!. The children thought it was not worth the risk and wrote some wonderful stories. I would describe that as a ‘Wow’ experience and it came from a brilliant book, a shared purpose and a collaborative making of meaning.

As a classroom teacher I want to use every experience in the classroom to create opportunities like that but am not able to do so because of events and expectations imposed externally. Do other teachers feel like this or am I just a control freak?!

Workload

We hear much about teachers’ workload and how it is driving many teachers out of the profession and so I thought that I would reflect this week on how I have found it. The last two weeks have seen me working in school for four days each week and I must say I think I am too old for that long term and couldn’t cope with full-time teaching! In many ways it was easier to be able to establish some sort of continuity in the classroom but the physicality of the job was exhausting. I am 61 – my official retirement age is 66 and I have no idea how I would continue as a full time primary teacher if my circumstances forced me to. I work really hard in my university job but it is a very different sort of hard work.

In school there is a relentlessness to the focus and constant demands on your time and energy that 30 five year olds bring with them. There is absolutely no opportunity to switch off during the day for a few minutes and even the official break times frequently vanish into a cloud of rushing around looking for things, dealing with accidents or arranging things with colleagues. There is a constant sense of clock watching – let’s get the register done or we’ll be late in for assembly, you need to clear up now because it’s playtime, the dinner staff are ready for us so we can’t talk about that just now and we need to get everything into our bags so we have time for a story before we go home.  It often feels like a constant rush to move from one thing to the other with  no time to slow down and reflect.

And then the children go home and another layer of work starts! On some days it is a mad rushing round to tidy up before a meeting – CPD, SLT or staff meeting. I must admit meetings have to be brilliant to stop me sitting thinking of everything else I need to do when I get back to the classroom. Once back in the classroom the marking begins and that deserves a new paragraph all to itself!

I have come to realise that there are two aspects to marking and they serve two very distinct purposes. The first, and to me the most important, is the conversation I have with the children about their work. This can be brief or it can take a while. We talk it through and I ask them to explain to me what they have done and we discuss how they could make it better or why they got something wrong. This takes time and I can not do it with the whole class every time but I make sure that I have a conversation with every child regularly. Sometimes this happens when they are in the middle of their work, sometimes when they have finished and occasionally when they have just started. Often there is nothing recorded at the time but for me these are the most meaningful interactions I have with the children and they inform the records I keep of their progress.

The second aspect of marking is when I look at their books at the end of the day, armed with my pink and green pens! Here I look at what they have done in relation to the learning intention and indicate in pink what they have achieved and then in green what they need to focus on next. In many ways this is not marking, it is record keeping. The children can not read what I write and we do not refer to it again. It is more like record keeping and informs my assessment of them on our online system. It also provides evidence of progress / achievement when the ‘book scrutiny’ happens. This seems to be a feature of school life these days (grumpy old woman appearing again!) and Ofsted, when they came to the university, were talking about the ‘books’ being the source of evidence that the children were learning anything. No longer does it seem valid to say it is the process which matters more than the final product because it is the final product on which judgements are made about both the children as learners and me as a teacher.

Marking seems to have extended into two paragraphs which perhaps is an indication of its place in the workload of teachers. I spoke to an NQT at the weekend who was marking all the Year 1 English books for the whole of the past week because the week had been busy and there had not been time to do it. When I started teaching it was said that if you did not mark the books with the children there, it was deemed to be a waste of time. We have moved on from that view but the question still remains as to purpose of the marking and what it is for. If this sort of marking is for record keeping and evidence of learning, where is the marking (or as I prefer to call it – responding to children’s work) that is done with the children and helps them to reflect on their achievements?

Back to workload… it seems that much of the workload is to do with the accountability agenda. Planning is recorded, behaviour records are written up, provision plans are created which show how we will deal with individual needs, marking and sticking things into books is done, displays are created, parents are written to, web pages are updated, etc. etc. etc. There is so much to do and most of it is to do with recording what we do with the children – it is ABOUT the children not FOR the children. All those things are really important and happen – and have always happened in one way or another – but they have not always been recorded in such detail and in so many different ways. This is what is burdensome. Most teachers, I believe, come into the profession because they care deeply about children and want to make a difference in their lives; that happens best through getting to know children well, talking to them, working alongside them, responding to them as individuals and helping them to follow their interests and strengths while supporting their weaknesses. That’s what primary teaching has always meant to me – I don’t mind spending hours doing that and thinking about how I can encourage Johnny to write or help him to see why Mathematics will be important in his life. I resent when my time is taken away from those sort of things to record in triplicate things which provide evidence that I am doing my job. Teachers have been de-professionalised over the years – why don’t we trust them anymore to do the job they were trained for and to make professional judgements about the children in their care.

 

Counting and singing

I’m late writing this week’s entry – apologies – my son got engaged and so the weekend became full of other things! Last week and this week I have been teaching for four days a week as my teacher partner is away. In one sense it has been good because I have really felt involved with the class but it is tiring! The week in school was dominated by two things – one positive and one less so.

Throughout the week we had an organisation called ‘isingpop’ working with us in school; one young man spent the week in school, teaching the children pop songs along with dance moves. On Thursday they recorded a CD and on Friday we performed an afternoon and evening concert in the local church. It was an exciting and uplifting week. The teacher, Sandy, was excellent and the whole school fell in love with him! The children were inspired and this joy and enthusiasm spilt over into everything. Children were singing the songs in the classroom, going home and playing the songs on Youtube and drawing and writing about their experiences. The whole school was united and the concerts united the community – parents and others. It was wonderful how the experience of music spilled over into the whole curriculum. It was special.

I want to tell you about G – a little boy in my class. He did not enjoy the singing at all and would stand in silence looking very unhappy. He occasionally became tearful and asserted that he was not going to sing. During the afternoon concert he did not sit with the rest of the children but sat in a pew between myself and another teacher. She tried to talk to him about the songs but he did not engage and did not seem to be listening to the singing; he was reading the prayer book! There is a recognised condition called ‘amusia’; those who have it possess absolutely no appreciation of music – for them it is just a noise and they ‘do not see the point’. Amusiacs are unable to distinguish one melody from another; the word ‘amusia’ means ‘lack of music’ and this is how G appeared to be during the week. The condition is little known but I believe it is important teachers are aware of it for it is likely there will be a child in many classes for whom music makes no sense. A few years ago I had a trainee teacher who was emphatic that he did not like music – any music – at all and never listened to music. For the majority music is powerful but not for all and we must remember the minority.

The second experience of the week was not so positive. We all had to bring our ‘data’ to the staff meeting on Tuesday. The data came from our online recording system. We use an online system which has broken the national curriculum down into statements. For each child we had to indicate if this aspect has not been taught, taught but not learned, almost achieved, met or exceeded. I then clicked on ‘report’ and it gave me lots of data which told me the percentages of my class at working towards, developing, secure and several other words which together gave me six ‘levels’ to which my class was assigned. This data is to be presented to the governors tomorrow morning. So children are given levels from subjective judgements based on invented statements of progression.

For me this bears no relationship at all to the progress my children have made over the last term – and yes I do think they have made progress! If you were to ask me I could give you a long description of what each child in my class can now do and what they need to work on but, according to my head teacher, the governors want numbers. I have shown her the reading and writing scales from CLPE, which I think are wonderful and use for my own benefit, but the response was, ‘The problem is that they don’t give quantifiable data.’ Why do we have this obsession with counting? Progress in learning does not happen smoothly; it is messy and is influenced by much outside the classroom. Most of these things are not able to be controlled but the skilful teacher will recognise, acknowledge and use them as a starting point. During the week’s experience of singing and performing, the children learned a lot but none of this learning was accounted for by the data collecting system. Recognition of learning needs to take a long term view. I am not advocating that teachers should not be accountable for the progress of the children in their class because of course we must be. However, we can not always put that learning into neat boxes; any attempt to do that gives very seductive data which, in my opinion, is meaningless.