Change is in the air on New Year’s Eve. It’s always been a time to reflect over the past year – what’s been good and not so good – and to get to grips with how you want to move forward into the new year, or in this case the next decade. Deep winter is a good time to look closely at the structures in the garden, prune away the dead, overgrown and ugly and open up areas for new growth in the spring. With that in mind we’ve been doing a spot of pruning of the hazel at the bottom of the garden. The same is true of life in general. A spot of pruning does you good.
Twenty years ago today, on our wedding anniversary we took a trip into the Cotswolds for lunch and returned home to discover that we two would become three, some months into the new decade. Eleven years of being a couple were over and it was time to let go of old ways of being and embrace a different kind of life. In fact we became five within a couple of years. As we face the next decade we’re contemplating changes as gradually the children fly the nest and make their own way in the world.
Change is in the air.
In my classroom too it’s time for reflection about how to better inspire and support my students. The best teachers are always looking for ways to make the classroom experience better for themselves and their students. I’m focussing a lot on supporting independent learning strategies in the students I teach, letting go of resources and ways of working that have served their purpose, learning a few new tricks myself and making an impact beyond my own classroom.
The netball World Cup is over and, for our family,the netball season is over too for a few weeks. What a delight it was to head over to the village courts last Tuesday for the end of season jamboree – fun and games, parents and coaches v players challenge match and presentations. You know you’re getting old when a coach hands over the shooter’s bib and reassures you that “there’s not much running around in that role” – but the husband showed a nifty turn of speed and some ‘moves’ which warmed his daughter’s heart.
I can’t recommend highly enough the benefits of getting involved in netball for women and girls. Fresh air, exercise, and camaraderie in training and games builds confidence, strong friendships and teamwork.
The ladies who started netball in the village should be proud of what they have achieved – dozens of women and girls turning out to train and play every week on the village courts and in the local league, come rain or shine, with a smile on their faces. And it’s so great to see how the girls encourage one another to be their best selves and support each other through the tough times.
If you want to change the world, it starts with your next thought.
Several years ago, when I was developing an outdoor education programme for primary schools, I signed up for a permaculture design course. I endured the inevitable jokes from family and friends about knitting my own sandals out of lentils but it didn’t take me (or them) long to realise that what had started as a way of making school growing spaces sustainable and productive, in fact, was going to change my approach to more than just gardening. Permaculture design has the power to reframe how we see the world. It is truly transformational. Holistic, solutions-focused, creative and with a firm belief in the power of making connections and working cooperatively, it has much to offer the classroom teacher, school manager and student.
As a teacher I try to employ permaculture principles in everything from classroom management to curriculum design. Nevertheless in the cut and thrust of daily life in the classroom with its focus on an increasingly heavy knowledge-based curriculum, assessment objectives and target grades, it’s sometimes difficult to get beyond a ‘design’ and ‘do’ approach to solving problems. The school holidays provide the time and space for the reflection, thinking, researching and redesigning necessary to do the best job possible in the classroom.
This afternoon, while my daughter spent a few hours running around a rugby pitch training for the next Dorset and Wilts game I read Looby Macnamara’s accessible book on creative thinking, permaculture-style. Much of the advice I already knew but a gentle reminder about what’s important is vital when you’re reflecting back over the last six weeks and deciding upon your approach to the second half of term, especially with GCSE and A level classes. It’s a good read.
I have highlighted below my top ten pieces of advice from Looby, which any teacher or student might find useful. They are in no particular order but all are part of my approach to teaching and learning.
Celebrate what you have done, rather than focusing on what you have left to achieve. Glass half full, in other words. A positive attitude can keep you afloat even when your workload seeks to drown you.
Talk and respond to each other in nurturing, kind ways. Kindness is monumentally underestimated. Try it. You’ll be surprised not only how good it makes you feel but how much more productive it makes you and those around you.
Think in terms of ‘responsibility’ not ‘blame’ and ‘contribution’ not ‘gain’. We live in a fractured society where who is to blame and what we can gain seems king. A classroom where everyone is encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and make a contribution, where blame is not the culture and competition is second to cooperation is a happy and productive place. A microcosm for society I hope.
Identify the outcomes you hope for; then actively seek ways to bring them about. Every journey starts with a single step. It’s not rocket science. Working backwards from the end point allows students to plot a course through the most demanding times in their school careers – public examinations. Often they will visualise a worst case scenario and how they got there so that behaviours can change before it is too late.
Foster beneficial working relationships; build a sense of community; align yourself with like-minded people. Think beehive or ants and what they manage to achieve together. It’s powerful.
Harness the natural ebbs and flows of energy of yourself and others. There are times in the day and times in the week when I feel more or less energetic. It’s a waste of time marking at midnight, for instance. Saturday morning lessons with my students are not the times to introduce new concepts. Experience has taught me to schedule work according to energy levels. There is no point fighting this. I work with it.
Take time to be still and reflective. All the better if this also involves a walk in the fresh air. Creativity can only happen when you have time to do nothing. And I mean nothing. No phones or tablets. We would all be wise to heed this mantra.
Live in the present but think for the future. Does what it says on the tin. Live every day as if it is your last, but bear in mind it probably won’t be and act accordingly.
Seek ways of moving from your comfort zone into your stretch zone. Solutions come through movement. If water doesn’t move, it becomes stagnant. And so do we. Be prepared to take some risks. Students and certainly parents in general seem more risk-averse than they did when I started my teaching career in the 1990s. This is not a good thing.
A diversity of interests, skills and opinions brings about the best solutions. This is true for individuals and groups. Harness the power of teams of individuals with different skills. Encourage students to use skills developed in other subject areas in your own classroom. My love of gardening and cooking has taught me much about being a good parent; directing large-scale theatrical productions has improved my ability to lead whole-school initiatives and deliver them on time and under-budget.
Judging by the amount of tweets from teachers over the weekend, I’m not the only one taking time to review my classroom practice and think creatively in the down time of Half Term. It’s what school holidays are for – along with cooking, sowing a few seeds, reading and spending time chilling with my own children.
All teachers are actors, right? We’ve had a theatre company in school today and the whole experience was energising for me and my students. Above all it made me reflect on how much of a kick I get out of acting and of working with a group of friends and strangers who become friends on a creative project. There’s fun and camaraderie to be had, skills to develop and a sense of a achievement in putting on a performance which brings joy to so many people. I even enjoy the inevitable stresses which come with working under pressure.
As my students (and my own children) approach the final leg of exam courses it seems vital to me that they continue to pursue creative and sporting endeavours alongside their studies. Balance is all for a healthy and fulfilling life.
My children have been outdoor explorers for years.
Teenagers now, one of them is halfway up a small mountain in the Lake District with a small band of Explorer Scouts on a quest to secure a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. His mobile phone has been unused, but I’m sure we’d have been contacted if he wasn’t safe.
The other two have occupied the first few days of the summer holiday alternating between sorting out their wardrobes, recycling an accumulation of bits of paper and string, pre-season rugby training, playing badminton in the garden and emailing their friends about swimming dates, shopping trips and holiday plans. It’s hard to stay away from screens entirely but my three are not completely bereft without laptop or phone. (We don’t have tablets or games consoles)
It seems parents who want their children to spend time having outdoor adventures in the school holidays have a champion in Chief Scout Bear Grylls. Recently he launched a summer manifestoof suggestions to get young people out and about enjoying the great outdoors. For those of us who work with children in this context it is nothing new, but Bear Grylls gets noticed so why should I complain that he’s taken up the flag that others have been waving for years?
Not so many weeks ago, school children were stuck in classrooms for days on end tackling examinations – SATs, GCSEs, A levels,school’s own. For weeks beforehand many pupils were undergoing booster sessions or completing practice papers on a daily basis in an effort to improve their chances of obtaining a higher level and the school’s chances of creeping up a few places in the performance league tables. PE was on the back burner for some. Yet in enlightened schools, headteachers prescribed time spent outdoors as relaxation for stressed out pupils.
Being outdoors is good for children. There have been numerous studies citing the positive mental and physical benefits of being outside looking at nature. Nature has a rejuvenating effect on the brain, boosting levels of attention and improving performance in cognitive tests. As well as outdoor PE, some schools run Forest School sessions and horticultural programmes as an alternative to traditional classroom based lessons.
Children are genetically predisposed to move, to explore the space around them, and to discover its contents. All green spaces offer physical activity and free-range learning. The richer the environment, the richer the learning will be. Schools with extensive grounds have an advantage but for those who don’,t local parks are a great alternative.
For some time now I have been working with Eco Kids in Northampton on a lottery funded project to explore Abington Park,an urban green space with a rich history, as an outdoor classroom.
Many outdoor learning programmes already exist which cater for children’s emotional and social needs and provide practical, problem solving opportunities in an outdoor environment and an antidote to the sedentary, screen-based activities which fill the days of a number of youngsters.
Heritage sites provide rich hands on activities for studying history and the natural environment is well catered for in environmental education centres up and down the country.
Many children do not learn effectively, exclusively within a classroom. They need alternative, hands-on learning environments to match their varied learning styles.
The packs I’ve written for Eco Kids,in addition to learning about the flora, fauna and history of Abington Park itself provide teachers, parents and youth leaders with the tools to encourage them to take learning outside and reap the rewards of this approach.
Learning in the open air builds resilience, encourages creativity, develops resourcefulness, sparks discussion, fosters team building and inventiveness.
Years of research show that involvement with the creative arts is closely linked to almost everything that parents say they want for their children: academic achievement, social and emotional development, life skills and equality of opportunity among other things. As creative arts subjects in schools are squeezed further by the demands of the National Curriculum and the current regime of being in thrall to league tables and continuous testing, one of the few places where valuable life skills can be fostered in teenagers is by involvement in a local drama group. You know the skills I mean? All together now.
Working to a budget
These are the skills everybody needs beyond school. Testing does not prepare a student for the real world. Life skills are what students need and what employers want.
Last week my local drama group put on a production of Hamlet in a fourteenth century Tithe Barn in the heart of town. It played to an audience of 900, over four nights and involved a team of over 60 diverse members of the local community, some of whom were under 18. The team has been working on the project for three months. Some of the youngsters appeared on stage, but there were more in the backstage crew and I am so proud of them all and what we achieved.
So exactly which skills did we foster in the last three months. Let’s explore my observations from last week.
Project Management. A stage production is basically a business project involving multiple teams of people working together to bring in a project on time and on budget. If you do it well, you’ll make a profit and entertain a lot of people. Choosing people with the right mix of skills to get the job done, empowering them to make things happen and supporting them whilst they do it is part and parcel of the production manager’s job. Then there’s monitoring progress, filling in any gaps, trouble shooting and ensuring deadlines are met. It’s all in a day’s work for a production manager. Having youngsters assist or shadow a production manager is one of the most valuable opportunities you can offer young people.
Learning to improvise. The great thing about being on stage is that almost anything can happen when you’re in front of an audience. Forgotten lines, missed entrances, or malfunctioning props require you to improvise while maintaining your cool. You learn to focus, think quickly and find solutions. The same is true off stage if a prop goes missing, an actor is not where they ought to be or the lighting fails.
Working hard Entire weekends can disappear in the building of a stage set. Members of a production team can be set painting at midnight and sewing into the wee small hours. They may have banged more nails into their fingers accidentally than they care to remember and have to turn up early after a production to clear away the set and tidy up the performance space rather than basking in the glory of a job well done. In life there will be periods of time with unbelievable workloads in which there are sleepless nights, endless days and tireless work on projects that will be presented and then will be over. Sometimes the critics and the audience don’t like what you’ve presented, irrespective of how hard you’ve worked. This will happen in life too.
Working with limited budgets.This is one of the most valuable skills you can learn. Most amateur shows are produced on a shoestring budget, which forces you to be creative, imaginative and thrifty. Sounds to me like a sound recipe for life.
Dealing with people/customer service and getting along with colleagues. Working with people of alltypes is essential in life and in am dram. Everyone has a part to play. Some people may be difficult but it’s important to try to understand, appreciate and effectively communicate with them all. The fact that sometimes the pressure is on and people feel stressed adds extra sizzle to the melting pot.
Doing whatever needs to be done. Any amateur theatrical company cannot afford the luxury of too much specialism. Therefore, even if you act, the chances are you’ll also be called upon to do any number of other jobs. You have to learn to do it all. Lighting, engineering sound, directing, production management, PR, marketing, set design, set construction, ticket sales, budgeting, customer service, Front of House duties, make-up, costume. I can’t begin to tell you how valuable it is for youngsters to be involved in developing skills in real contexts, be that woodworking, using their IT skills to work on sound, lighting or graphic design, baking, buying supplies, sewing, selling…. This fosters a can-do attitude in young people and that is a valuable skill to take forward into the world of work.
Making difficult choices and dealing with disappointment In the world of work difficult decisions must sometimes be made. Putting yourself up for audition and not being cast is the start of learning that sometimes things don’t go your way,however much you feel you deserve it or however hard you’ve worked. Being on a casting panel and letting people down gently is a valuable skill to learn too.
Presentation Skills. Whether you’re acting, serving interval coffee and cake or selling programmes the ability to connect with people is essential. Practice makes perfect and youngsters who belong to theatre groups get plenty of that. Taking things a stage further, the abillity to stand up confidently in front of a group of people and effectively communicate a message while being motivating and a little entertaining is rare. To develop this, try acting for a local group.
Doing the best you can with what you’ve got. Am dram teaches you that you can sometimes create magic with no need for the latest technology or gimmicks. A passion for what you do and a sincere commitment to making it work is enough. One of the most memorable moments from Hamlet involved two men totally believing in the moment, a wooden box and a prop dagger.
The power of thankyou Everyone likes to be appreciated. Make everyone with whom you’ve worked feel appreciated and they’ll work twice as hard for you next time. Fact. The actors get the plaudits but the backstage crew are working just as hard. Recognise this and learn to be appreciative of everyone’s contribution in drama and in life.
Sport has been in the news a lot this week – for all the wrong reasons. It’s time to look at the positive.
It’s Women in Sport Week and, in the light of Sepp Blatter’s resignation announcement, I was rather amused to hear some of his more cringeworthy comments. Notably the eye rolling one about increasing the popularity of women’s football by making them wear tighter shorts and low cut tops.
Time to celebrate the postives of women’s sport, I think. Taking part in sport can promote health, wellbeing, teamwork, camaraderie and confidence among girls that can last a lifetime. Something which is much needed if today’s published research on the massive increase in people being treated for eating disorders is to be believed.
School sport has moved on from circuit training in a smelly gym on ancient equipment. Truly there is something to suit everyone on offer in most schools although the demands of the National Curriculum has sometimes forced it into the domain of extra curricular activity, rather than being integral to the curriculum across all age groups. Local swimming pools regularly run free sessions for young people in school holidays and there are hundreds of sports clubs supporting girls up and down the country field including Bradford on Avon rugby above where girls play on a level playing field with boys (excuse the pun) until they join the girls only Bobcats team at age 13. I know girls who do everything from competitive salsa dancing and badminton to triathlon and rugby and everything in between. And the element of competition is as valid for girls as it is for boys.Being able to face victory and defeat with equal grace is a vital life skill.
Celebrate Women in Sport Week by encouraging the females in your life to get active, get competitive and set themselves up for a healthy life, in the fullest sense of the word. There are plenty of sports to choose from.
Yesterday I headed to Bristol for a day’s training with the good folks from The Cambridge Schools Classics project and got caught up in a debate on what schools ‘ought’ to be teaching. An early morning train journey is the perfect opportunity for a trawl through the newspaper, Twitter and a number of online blogs for the latest opinions on the state of education. Yesterday’s hot topic was about the teaching of ‘character’.
As a parent and a teacher I cannot fail to raise an eyebrow at the ever-lengthening list of topics which schools are ‘supposed’ to be teaching. Who says? It’s a partnership after all – this business of educating our children. Ultimately the buck stops with parents. No parent can do the job alone and so extended family, friends, teachers at school, sports coaches, scout leaders, orchestra conductors, and any number of others who run the activities in which our children take part have their part to play.
This business of teaching ‘character lessons’ bothers me. Character, grit, determination, resilience – call it what you will – is an attitude of mind, an approach to life which develops over time as a result of exposure to situations which are less than straightforward. It starts at home the moment your toddler attempts to build a brick tower and it collapses. Doubtless having ‘grit’ makes children better learners. The ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and have another go is a recipe for a happy and successful life. I doubt it can be taught in a series of 40 minute lessons over several weeks on a Tuesday afternoon. Anyway I’m more interested in the science teacher explaining fractional distillation to my teenage son – because I can’t. I can do the motivational speech before Cross Country, the blister plasters and sympathy at the end and the encouragement to have another go, though I do rely on the PE teacher to organise the race in the first place.
We all have our part to play in providing children with opportunities to try something new or difficult, even “risky” and to support them through the business of trying and failing and trying again until they get better at it. And – here’s the shocking truth – schools are engaged in the business of doing this right now on the rugby field, in the gym, in the drama studio or the art room, in the school garden, on field trips as well as in the classroom and the examination hall. If we want schools to play their part in teaching character then more time should be devoted to these opportunities, not less, as sport, the arts and the extra curricular programme is squeezed even further by the need to spend more time and divert more resources to the traditional core subjects on which schools are judged by Ofsted and by those who scrutinise league tables.
I’m a black belt in thinking on my feet. Ask any of my friends and family. Some of my best lessons have been planned between the classroom door and the *blackboard/OHP/interactive whiteboard (*please delete as appropriate). It goes with the territory of teaching a subject like Classics or English, where a discussion or topic can head in a completely unexpected but profitable direction. Just don’t tell OFSTED. I’m not sure they would approve of this gung-ho approach.
I have no idea from where the idiom originates. Does anyone know? It could refer to the work of a barrister (or witness) who has to respond under pressure (and on their feet) to the business of the courtroom, I suppose. Whatever the reason, the possible benefits of thinking on your feet have been under investigation in schools recently across the USA and Australia as well as in a Yorkshire school (Grove House, Bradford) and I, for one, am very interested in the results.
Allowing children to stand and even move around the classroom might give some teachers the heebie jeebies but I can see the advantages of being more active in the classroom, both in terms of combating the sedentary nature of modern living and being more engaged with the activities. Early on in my teaching career I was party to the implementation of just such an idea with a “bottom set year 7”. The lesson was broken down into ten minute activities; the children moved around the classroom after each activity and stood up to complete most of them. It worked in that it resulted in a significant drop in disruptive behaviour and children were on task for more of the time.
The link between body posture and concentration is fairly well documented among occupational therapists including Sheilagh Blyth, who writes that “The human body has to work hard to either stand up or keep sat in one position. If we overuse our muscles perhaps by sitting in one place for too long we then can use excess energy. Thus causing us to lose concentration.” Shelagh is more in favour of allowing children ‘movement breaks’ to improve concentration.
Most teachers stand up to teach; those who want to close a deal on the telephone stand up to do so. Why not students at school? Certainly my experience of teaching children outdoors with the Our Flower Patchprogramme bears this out. An active student is a more engaged student, as far as I am concerned. Certainly it requires a different strategy for classroom management but teachers in some subjects manage this already – PE, Food Technology. Children and teachers are infinitely adaptable. Replacing the classroom furniture might be the most problematical aspect of the issue.
What do you think? Does anyone have any first hand experience of managing a standing room only classroom?