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Good thinking!

This week I have felt that I and my class are beginning to turn the corner – I can almost feel that we are becoming a true learning community – not quite yet but almost. For most of the class behaviour is improving and so we are able to move forward – the special children remain a huge challenge but the majority are usually a delight to be with. I have been thinking about the language we use when we talk about behaviour with the children – the most common phrases are ‘Good sitting’, ‘Good listening’, ‘Good thinking’ and ‘Good choice’. What do we mean by this? What on earth is good thinking?

Let me begin by telling you a story passed on by the reception class teacher. They had been talking about the three little pigs but had changed it so it was about three little birds who were building their nests in the trees, pursued by a cat. The four year old children had been discussing how the birds could stop the cat from climbing the tree to destroy their nests. There had been several ideas – wrap the tree trunk with sticky tape so the cat would stick to it as they climbed up; spread honey over the tree so it was slippery; throw water down from the top of the tree over the cat. All the ideas were received and praised by the teacher as ‘Good thinking!’. Then F. shared his idea – ‘The bird could just shout ‘F*** off’ to the cat.’ Was that good thinking? I suspect it did not get the praise the other ideas received – but maybe the thinking behind the idea was as good as any of the others.

When we praise children for ‘Good sitting’ we mean they are sitting on their bottoms with their legs crossed – probably the most uncomfortable position imaginable. Have you ever tried it? When we praise children for ‘Good listening’, we mean they have been listening to us not to their friend, the conversation they can hear in the corridor or even the ideas inside their heads. When we praise children for making a good choice, we mean that they conformed to what we wanted them to do at the time.  In other words, while creating the illusion that the children have decided what to do, in fact we are imposing our own wishes on them.

Tom Bennett (2016) in his recent report on what trainee teachers should be told about behaviour management identified the three ‘Rs’ – routines, responses and relationships. I have been using these to reflect on my past few weeks in the classroom. Before the term started my partner teacher and I talked about the ethos we would have in our classroom and how we would establish it through the routines; some of these ideas were translated into practice but others have been abandoned because of the nature of the class. The school behaviour management policy has both rewards and sanctions which are used but some children make no connection between these and their long term behaviour. For me it is the relationships we create between ourselves and the children which are crucial and my relationship with my class is that of teacher and pupil – not friend, not parent, not social worker. The reason I am in that room with those children is so that they can learn what the government intends them to learn and it is my responsibility to ensure that happens. In order for it to happen clear boundaries need to be established and expectations set – in my mind these are not negotiable. The children need to understand why certain behaviours are appropriate in school and others are not.

In a recent circle time the children talked about what helped them to learn; nearly all of them said that a quiet classroom was best. We then talked about how that means we all have to take responsibility for that – a quiet classroom will only happen when each person keeps the noise at an acceptable level. We practised talking at different volumes and decided what was best for learning. Of course, that does not mean the classroom is now always quiet! It does mean though that when I tell the children they are making too much noise they have a frame of reference for what is acceptable.

A teaching assistant commented to me a few weeks ago that she noticed I used, what she described as ‘the ‘n’ word’. Before you get too shocked, she meant ‘naughty’ – or maybe you are still shocked! She told me that previously she had been told never to tell a child s/he was naughty. The dictionary defines ‘naughty’ as ‘disobedient’ and so the use of the word implies a hierarchy of authority within a classroom; if we say children can never be naughty we are saying they have an equal status. Is that the case? The problem is, that as with the noise question, children have no frame of reference for behaviour which leads to successful learning in school – and that is not always the same as behaviour which leads to successful learning at home or in other contexts. They need to be told what is acceptable. It is not fair to ask children to make good choices when they do not know what a good choice is and what the consequences of making a ‘bad’ choice are.

S chats all the time in school; sometimes she chats about the focus of the lesson but sometimes about whatever happens to take her fancy. She will chat to me, to other children or to herself – it depends who will listen. She will listen to the lesson and then follow an idea which springs into her mind – talking to herself or her neighbour during carpet time. In independent learning time, she will wander around the classroom tidying the book corner, picking things up from the floor, explaining to other children what they should be doing – anything except do what she should be doing! She does all this with a happy smile on her face – she loves life and all it offers her. Watching her interact with her parents it is easy to see that this behaviour has been reinforced at home – she is endearing, a delight to talk to and full of ideas. In school this needs to be channelled – S needs to know that this behaviour is not appropriate in the classroom because it is getting in the way of her school learning.

M will not sit still and does not listen; he never knows what he should be doing and usually has no idea what the lesson is about. He will crouch down instead of sit; he pokes and pinches other children to see how they will react; he plays with anything he finds on the floor or on his table; he never looks at me in case I ask him a question or want to talk about the empty piece of paper in front of him. M needs to learn why it is not a good idea to hurt other children in the class and why the reason I constantly interrupt him to remind him of what the lesson is about is so that he can share in the learning – which is why he is there!

J has been taught how to do a lot of things at home and believes that is the way things are done. The other day when we were playing about with number sentences and writing them as both 3+2=5 and 5=3+2, he was most emphatic that the second one was wrong. He told me that I was teaching the class wrongly and did not know how to do Mathematics; he would not discuss it – he said he knew and I clearly did not. J needs to know that learning requires an open mind and the ability to take risks, that knowledge is not tightly defined and learning opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities.

I have described just three of the wonderful children in my class and have not even begun to talk about the ‘six’ special children who bring their own particular perspectives to learning and behaviour. In the first paragraph I said I felt we are just about turning the corner to creating a positive learning environment; I believe this is because we have been very firm in defining our expectations of acceptable behaviour in the classroom. The children have learned that as members of a group they have to conform and not behave in a way that disrupts others. As teachers, it is our task to define and ‘teach’ those expectations. It is only when those boundaries are made explicit and are clearly understood that the idea of children making choices is meaningful; they know the expectations and can decide if they are going to conform or not – in other words if they are going to be good or ‘naughty’.

So what is ‘good thinking’ in my classroom? It is thinking which takes account of all the possibilities and weighs them up; it is thinking which is able to respond and justify that response; it is thinking which listens to  a whole range of ideas from other people; it is thinking which works out solutions to problems. So yes – F did demonstrate good thinking but maybe needs to learn about how his ideas can best be expressed – some forms of expression are not acceptable in school!

What counts?

Over the last two weeks we have been continuing our work on The Jolly Postman and the children have enjoyed writing. On Thursday they looked at the Hobgoblin Supplies sheet and ordered something to buy from it; on Friday they described a witch’s hat from the Reception class dressing up box and created an advert to sell it. There was some good spoken language and good attempts at writing. How does all that fit into my assessment of their learning as defined by the system the school is learning? This is what I find really difficult.

The school uses an online recording system – the curriculum is broken down into simple statements and for each child I have to record if it has been taught, if it is almost achieved, if the child is secure of if the child is exceeding. What on earth does that mean? This coming week I also have to carry out an assessment test on every child which is supposed to tell me if their progress this term is below expectations, at expectations or exceeding expectations. Looking at the text, I cannot for the life of me work out how on earth the short test will tell me that. To add to the pressure, at the SLT meeting it was agreed that for performance management each teacher should have 85% of the class being at a secure level.

How do I relate that to the children in my class? Let me try and talk about last Thursday and Friday’s lessons in the discourse of secure progression and my accountability as a teacher for that progression. On Thursday the class was in a lively chatty mood. They enjoyed looking at all the things for sale by Hobgoblin Supplies and discussing them. They particularly enjoyed the ‘Little Boy Pie Mix’ and so we decided that we would order that. I write the order, as a shared writing activity; we composed a sentence orally and then I transcribed it – even adding a clause starting with ‘because’. The children then went away to write their own orders – several of them included the word ‘because’ many of them copied my sentence exactly. I am happy with that.

Last Friday we wrote an advert for a witch’s hat because, to out surprise, we found that Hobgoblin Supplies did not sell them. We described the hat and talked about how we could make it really attractive to prospective customers. The children thought about the design of their advert and chose words and phrases carefully.

This Thursday we thought about wolves; we read the book Beware of the Storybook Wolves and had great fun spotting the traditional stories mentioned in the text. We discussed the characteristics of wolves in different stories and listed the commonalities. We then put a big outline of a wolf on the wall and did a ‘role on the wall’ activity.  Again I modelled the activity and then asked the children to close their eyes and compose a sentence in their head to describe wolves ; they then turned to their learning partner and shared their sentence. Each child then wrote their sentence on a large post-it note and stuck it around the wolf. This was a really successful lesson and the sentences were imaginative and well constructed. I felt the children had made real progress as writers from the previous week.

So what happened today? We carried out the half termly literacy assessment test. The children had to read a two paragraph ‘story’ which was phonically decodable. They then had to tick pictures and words to show which would fit into given sentences; there was no inferential understanding required and there was little opportunity for response to the text as a reader. The answer was either correct or wrong – no negotiation. The second page of the test consisted of five sentences about the ‘story’ and the children had to tick either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. There were five sentences but if the children just ticked all the Yes boxes they would obtain three points without any indication they knew what they had read; I am sure quite a few of my children did that – just going down the list ticking all the Yes boxes which were laid out in a column. This test gave each child a mark out of 10 and in the handbook was a table which told me whether each child was making the expected level of progress, below the expected level or exceeding the expected level. Ridiculous!

I have been looking at CLPE’s Writing Scale (www.clpe.org.uk) and have found the statements in that really useful in helping me to comment on my class’s behaviour as writers. But, as my head teacher, told me there are no numbers and all those who make judgements about my performance as a teacher and my class as learners  want numbers and so things have to be counted. What is counted seems almost irrelevant as long as there is an increase over time in the numbers.

I have been reading about all sorts of ways of looking at progress and describing it and  would love people to share their views and practices. However, day to day I continue to count, with the nagging knowledge that I am compromising my long held principles.

Whose class is it?

Ofsted is over at the university and I returned to school on Thursday. It was quite difficult to get back into the mindset of the classroom especially as quite a few things had happened since I was away. Working part time in school has both its advantages and its disadvantages. My partner teacher and I get on really well. We text and e-mail each other a lot and write copious notes in a shared record book. It is probably true that more is recorded than if I were the sole teacher of the class. There are several things that I find difficult though.

Firstly, the physical arrangement of the classroom and the resources used and stored in the classroom. At the end of the week I was feeling irritated that the classroom was getting messy so I stayed quite late and did a big clear up. I am sure my partner will not mind but I felt bad about doing it as we have shared ownership of the classroom. That’s a minor point but one that impacts on how the classroom works.

Secondly, the consistency of how the classroom works – relationships, teaching styles, behaviour management and expectations. Despite constant conversations and sharing of thoughts and ideas, it is almost inevitable that there will be nuances of difference. Wenger (1998) talked about ‘communities of practice’ and defined them as,  ‘groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.’ In my classroom there are several who are there to learn and to learn how better to learn: the two teachers, the teaching assistants, the children and the other teachers in the school, including the head teacher. All those are part of a community within the wider community of the school which is seeking to inspire and extend learning. There is no doubt in my mind that we are all working together with the same aim in mind but I do think there are some differences in how we approach this? Does that matter?

I am trying very hard in this ‘return to the classroom’ experience not to keep thinking, let alone saying, that ‘in the olden days we used to…’. Sometimes it is difficult to keep to this resolve! I remember when I would spend all day every day with my class; we would follow lines of enquiry or interest as they evolved and would explore our environment or interests. I remember one day when there was tumultuous rain and we spent the whole day reading about rain, finding out what makes rain happen, writing about it, measuring the amount of rainfall, designing umbrellas and even jumping in puddles! This took a whole day even though none of it had been planned in advance and it certainly challenged and extended knowledge and understanding across a range of curriculum areas. However, there were no learning objectives or steps to success although the children’s responses and achievements were recorded and built on in future lessons. Some of you reading this will think how wonderful and some will think how awful! The truth is probably somewhere in between. The success of the day’s activities came from my knowledge of the curriculum and of how children learn, but in particular from the strong relationship as learning partners which existed between me and my class.

Back to the present. We were starting a unit on traditional tales, based on the book The Jolly Postman. I had wrapped the book in brown paper with a stamp which had been ‘franked’ and the parcel had been addressed to the class at the school. Inside the book was a letter to the class from the jolly postman himself. I was disappointed that I was not there to open the lesson and start the unit off because I had to leave for Ofsted. The TA took over the class and did a brilliant job but it was not the same and although she followed my plan completely, there were things I would have picked up on which were not because I had not written them in my plan. The learning objective was addressed but the learning experience was not as rich as I would have liked.

One day last week I had to leave the class in the afternoon to meet with an educational psychologist to create a behaviour plan for a child in my class. An HLTA took over the class. Again she followed my plans and did exactly what I had written but did not challenge thinking as I would have done. That is not a criticism of her – I would not expect her to do that. She does not work in the class regularly and so does not know the children or the way I work with them well. I found it ironic that one of the things suggested in the meeting was consistency within the class! In the olden days (here I go!) such meetings would have been held after the children had gone home and very little would have been allowed to take a teacher out of ‘her’ class.

Teachers have PPA time and are out of the classroom for various reasons – all very important and no doubt supporting the recording of every detail for which teachers today are accountable. I return though to the title of this entry – whose class is it? The strong relationship between a teacher and her class lacks the continuity there once was and so perhaps the strength and subsequent opportunities for learning are decreased. Learning is restricted to what is planned rather than what happens. Lessons are delivered – planned by teachers but delivered by a range of different people; children are assessed according to pre-determined criteria or definitions of learning. Learning that arises from experiences, questions, conversations, interactions with resources etc. is often unrecognised.

I am sure many who read this will think I am talking rubbish – please tell me if you do. The key question is how learning is defined and I will return to that big question next week – it has been dominating my thinking for several weeks now.

 

 

Ofsted

During the Autumn Term I am still working in ITT. We had the Phase 1 inspection in April and on Thursday the phone call came to say they were arriving on Monday for Phase 2. The university rang the school and I left straightaway to go and prepare. We were in the middle of phonics – we were learning the phoneme /igh/ and had been discussing the fact that it was a trigraph. I had asked the children if they could think of any other words with ‘tri’ in and H offered ‘triceratops’ – he was telling me that they have three horns on the top of their heads when I had to leave!

In the intensity of preparation for Ofsted I have been thinking a lot about this. My question to the children was moving away from the focus of the lesson and H’s response moved it even further away. Some of the children were distracted from the phonic content and wanted to carry on talking about dinosaurs; other thought of other words with ‘tri’ in – it was all good stuff but there was not a focus on the GPC. What a terrible teacher I am!

But maybe not…I have been thinking a lot about the nature of learning and how it is recognised and recorded. My preparation for Ofsted has accentuated my thinking. I will write about it in future blogs but for now I must continue counting – for it seems that only what can be counted or reduced to a simple statement which is explicitly evidenced, is valued.

The Power of Story

For the past two weeks we have been basing our work around the brilliant book I am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon and Viviane Schwarz. I must admit that I was not sure how this class would respond – but they absolutely loved it. We thought about thinking and what we would think if we were Henry Finch; we shared what we were good at and what we would like to get better at; we made a flock of finches with our thumb prints and discovered how we could create different characters with just a few pencil lines. We were scared at the beast and drew our own beasts, describing them with all sorts of wonderful words. We even made up words to describe the noises in the beast’s stomach – how about that creators of the phonic screening check!! One morning when we arrived in school we discovered a set of beast footprints and worked out the beast must have been there in the night. The footprints had numbers on them and so by following the order of the numbers we worked out where the beast had been. It was all really exciting and the children were completely engaged throughout. Of course they are still a lively class who are learning how to learn but they were drawn into the story and gained from it.

I have always advocated the power of story and these past few weeks have confirmed that for me. A text based curriculum seems to be the obvious way to go. It is also the introduction of story into all parts of the day which has reminded me of the importance of narrative to the sense making process. We have a puppet lion called Learning Lion. He asks the children after every session what they have learned and I have had several conversations with Learning Lion about whether we think an activity is too difficult for them – Learning Lion is usually more optimistic than I am!

At the end of a day when they are tired, noisy and fractious the children will sit quietly and listen to a story. This afternoon we read The Wonder by Faye Hanson. It is a magical book with wonderful illustrations which take you into the imagination and beyond. The children were entranced and each double page spread led to lots of ideas and questions. At the end they all closed their eyes and let their imaginations wander to think what they might put on an empty square of paper. Yes – my lively chatty, wriggly, troublesome class sat absolutely still with their eyes closed for three minutes giving their imaginations free rein. Such is the power of story!

What is story doing for this class?

  • I believe it is uniting them into a more cohesive whole. Through the shared experiences of listening and responding to stories they talk and compare reactions and ideas.
  • The stories challenge their thinking and inspire them to do much more than they normally might. They provide a framework for their learning.
  • They are introduced to different ways of using language and thinking and sometimes these words are used in their oral and written compositions
  • Story enriches the whole curriculum, broadening it from the rather simplistic statements to which learning often seems to be reduced

It has been exciting to see story work its magic in the classroom this week. Barbara Hardy’s well-worn description of narrative as a ’primary act of mind’ is absolutely true; next week we start to explore traditional stories through The Jolly Postman. It’s going to be fun!

Give me a child until he is seven…

Today I finished my first week; my partner teacher was not available so I was teaching for three and a half days this week. Many teacher friends have been telling me that children have changed over recent years. It is about eight years since I last taught full time and from the limited experience of this week it does seem as though children are different. This manifested itself in different ways: I asked a five year old boy to come and work with me – “I’ll come when I have finished this,” he replied, playing with a toy garage. There was a three minute ‘conversation’ before he eventually came to work with me. Another girl got up and walked across the carpet to talk to her friend about something which was apparently much more important than what I was saying. These were not isolated incidents; the major focus of this week has been learning to line up, to sit still and quietly on the carpet and to listen. Admittedly these children had a disturbed year in reception with three different teachers over the year but I do wonder why they behave in this way. They are lovely delightful children and we have had some good times and some real fun experiences with significant progress being made during the week but there have also been some battles and I have had to be firm and assertive for most of the time.

These children appear to be used to deciding for themselves what they do and when they do it. They find it bemusing that somebody else should be in a position of authority over them. They are happy to conform if it is interesting or ‘fun’ but only if it does not interrupt something they are doing. They are articulate and confident and generally give valid reasons for everything they do. They have lived, to date, in a genuinely child-centred environment. They are surprised that sometimes they have to be quiet and listen and sometimes even have to do things they might not want to do!

I also have an unusually large number of children with real needs who are supported by a range of different agencies. There are usually three of us in the class and that is really not too many people. A couple of the children need continuous one-to-one support. Despite all this support there have   been incidents such as turning over all the chairs in anger, throwing a book across the classroom, shouting out loud during input and even stripping completely naked and urinating on the classroom floor. These are five year olds. I must emphasise that the head teacher has been wonderful and support structures are being built up daily. Nonetheless it has been a challenging and stressful week. Just one of the ‘special’ children would be challenging enough but there are three of them plus another twenty-five who need a lot of focused support as well.

I have been teaching for many years and I have never known children behave in such a way. For most of my classroom career I was on my own with a class of 30 children and did not think anything of it. I am experienced but could not have coped on my own this week. Why have things changed? What has made children behave so differently? It might well be that my class is unusual but I do not think it is unique. I would love to hear what others think.

Behaviour management has become a strong focus and the government appointed Tom Bennett as the so-called behaviour tsar; guidance for ITT has been specified and behaviour management strategies by the hundred are available on the click of a button. My question is more fundamental – why are children like this and why has the number of children with special educational needs in classrooms increased. What impact does this have on learning? My question is not about the value or otherwise of inclusion but rather why children are behaving in the way they do? One little boy in my class went home at lunchtime because he was feeling unwell and had a high temperature; another child in the class walked all around the edge of the classroom because he would not walk across the carpet where N had been in case he caught anything. Where did he learn that from? Who taught him to be so afraid of catching something?

The well-known saying says, ‘Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.’ What sort of adults is society creating? When will these children learn that individualism and personal fulfilment is important but so is a sense of community and the greater good? The mental health of children is becoming a real issue (Dowdy et al 2015) and real needs are often unrecognised. Why is this? As a society, what are we doing to our children? What are the implications for the future for society?

It may well be that my class is a microcosm of society or it may be that my class is the exception. Whatever, there are children in that class whose behaviour and/or emotional needs are hindering their ability to learn. Myself and the school are doing everything we can to support and address those needs and I am confident things will improve. As an experienced teacher this last week has been fun but challenging; I am so glad I have years of experience to draw on and the confidence that experience gives me – I am not sure I could have coped without it.

 

To laminate or not to laminate?

It is now September and I have spent the last two days in school preparing for the beginning of term. It has been interesting to reflect on how the time has been spent and what I, and others, have felt needed to be done.

At the end of July it was discovered that the sink in the corner of the classroom had been slowly leaking into the wooden floor. The carpet was lifted, the floor was repaired but it took most of the summer to dry out. Last week my partner teacher and I went to prepare the classroom but found we could not because it was not dry. As a result the last two days have been really busy – rearranging furniture, sorting and throwing out resources, putting up labels and naming books.

The two weeks before that have been a hive of industry – printing off labels, letters and numerals from a commercial resources site, laminating them and cutting out. Important decisions have had to be made – What design should be on the labels? Should I say Maths or Mathematics on the heading of the working wall? Should I put just first names or first names and family names on drawer labels. Consideration of these issues have taken up a lot of time and added onto this has been the printing, laminating and cutting out. My husband watched in bemusement and asked, ‘Is this really what a professional teacher needs to do?’ Is it indeed?

As we were clearing out the cupboards we found a box of letter templates – my partner teacher, an NQT, did not know what they were for. I explained that we used to draw round them and cut out the letters for display labels. Many years ago we handwrote labels with thick felt pens. How the world has changed but does it really matter?

As I have been making the classroom into the sort of environment I want it to be, it has  been evident that each decision reflects a philosophy of teaching and learning. A colleague from university gave me an old armchair which has pride of place in the book corner; a writing area has different things to write on and different things to write with; there is a role play area with clothes and puppets. Children have not been assigned to groups but will be called to work in focus groups or allowed to choose where they work. There are plants and wicker baskets, cushions, rugs and throws and lots of good quality children’s books in every area. I am sure I will write more about this in the weeks to come but for now my answer to my husband’s question is a definite ‘Yes.’ There was much more under the surface of the laminating and cutting that met the eye.

In the way we were setting up the classroom we were reflecting the ways in which we believe learning happens and is best supported. For example, the book corner demonstrates, hopefully, the importance of reading for pleasure and of using high quality texts in a classroom. We want the children to become independent learners able to make decisions for themselves about their work, rather than just completing activities they have been given.

We met with the teaching assistants, known as teaching partners in this school, and had a really powerful discussion about how we are gong to work. I was so impressed with their real concern to do the best for each individual child and particularly how to address the needs of individual children. They were so keen learn and to know more about how to support the children. I was amazed at how pleased they were to be asked to share their views and ideas. I asked them each to carry with them a pile of sticky notes and note down anything a child said or did which they thought was worth noting. The positive reaction to this was so strong I was surprised and encouraged.

Half of today was training to use an on-line assessment tool; lists of objectives are given relating to the National Curriculum and for each child and each statement we indicate if they have been taught it but not understood it, almost met the objective, securely met the objective or exceeded the objective. I will write more about this as I use it but my initial thoughts are that it over simplifies that complex process of learning. Teachers are under such pressure to record and evidence progress that little thought seems to be given to what that progress actually looks like in reality. As I reflect on this, my thoughts turn to ideas of deep learning from Hattie or learning as a social process developed through talk from Vygotsky or Alexander. Can teachers play the game and create the evidence or does ‘real’ learning (whatever that may be) have to be sacrificed to ensure progress. I’ll return to that idea more than once I think.

Finally, a reflection on planning. I have enjoyed thinking about what I wanted the pupils to learn and how I wanted to achieve it. I have spent long hours reading, investigating but mainly talking. I became excited about the term’s work and what we were going to achieve together. However, writing down all those ideas was both tedious and challenging. The necessity of recording my ideas in an accessible and meaningful form again meant an over-simplification. My plans are fine but do not begin to demonstrate the richness and depth of what I have been thinking and of what I hope will happen in the classroom. It seems that in many ways recording leads to an over simplification. Maybe my expectations are too high and I need to refine and simplify my ideas – let’s see.

The children arrive on Monday – that’s when it all becomes real!