I’ve had a good moan about the state education system in recent posts, and how it doesn’t meet the needs of growing numbers of our children. But criticism is the easy bit. Far harder is to say what should be done instead.
I’m certainly not claiming to have all the answers, but I thought it would be interesting to post some information about a highly experimental class I helped to set up in a very ordinary state primary school in England several years ago.
I could rabbit on for hours about those kids – the huge problems in their lives and the consequent lack of self-esteem, but I’ll let the pictures and a journal extract made at the time tell the story.
The children’s names have been changed, obviously, but every word is true.
Quick scan round the class – and my eyes settle on Jack. He has a pinched, anxious look which makes me wonder if he’s been hit again.
“How was the weekend?” I ask, quietly.
“Fine,” he mumbles.
Then he pushes his home-school log towards me. A note from Mum tells me a much-loved relative died last night.
As I put my hand on his shoulder and commiserate, Laura is beside us. She asks what has happened.
“Come on, Jack – we’ll look at a book together, shall we?”
He allows himself to be led away, giving her a slight smile.
Sam and Carly are both busy writing messages for the ‘worry box’. (A drop box for any problems or issues individual children wanted to share with me.)
Sam’s says, ‘I got to recod a vidoo staytmet on my burfday and im a bit wurrid.’
It emerges that he is acting as a witness in the court case against his stepfather. He’s due to spend his birthday recording his statement on video. We chat about the nice man who came to video our class play and I agree to let him rehearse with me nearer the time. He settles to draw a picture of himself on camera.
Meanwhile, Carly’s message is ready. Her father has his check-up at the hospital today ‘to see if the cancer has gone’. Shaun was watching her write. He moves in to chat to her. He always pitches it right. He lost his own dad to cancer two years ago.
Then Jose approaches me. “They found my Dad.”
“That’s great!” I say. He’d been missing for about three months.
“Well, not really,” Jose sighs. “He was in a right state. They’ve shoved him in the Nut House.”
Not much you can say to that. “At least he’s alive and safe,” I reply, lamely.
Neither of us mentions the dreadful nightmares Jose’s been having since he vanished without trace or medication.
“Don’t worry, Miss. I’ll take care of Jose,” Sian grins and they head for the dolls’ house.
This is not a scene from some harrowing piece of fiction. It’s a real 15 minutes in the life of my class of 22 kids with BESD (education-speak acronym for Behavioural, Emotional or Social Difficulties). They range from 8 to 11 years old. Partly, they were brought together because many of them had been causing mayhem in other classes and several were heading towards permanent exclusion. Mostly, though, they were brought together because the system was failing them and it was time to give them a school environment they could function and feel safe in.
Jack spent most of the day getting on with his work, but he’d been told that if he felt sad, he was to take himself off to his choice of zone.
We have ‘zones’ all round the classroom.
There’s a thumping zone, with cushions to hit (‘Never hit anything with a face’); a scribble zone, with red and black wax crayons and piles of scrap paper (‘Draw out your anger’); a chill-out zone, with ice cream themed table cover, beautiful posters, cuddly toys, headphones and relaxing CDs; a dark cave, with a blackout curtain, where you can only feel your way around, and a rainbow cave, with crystals and sun-catchers and sparkly, shiny toys.
There are floor cushions and a blanket in the discovery station (aka book corner). They’re good for lounging on when enjoying a book, but they double as a makeshift bed for Sam, when family battles have kept him up all night, or Sian, when her Mum’s come home wasted at 2am and climbed into bed with her to tell her about all the goings on at the nightclub. If a child is too tired to work, I let them sleep, and the rest of the class creep around so as not to disturb them.
Most popular of all is the dolls’ house, where toy knights, princesses and wizards mix with the family dolls and any child can build an alternative reality, when their own life seems too much to cope with.
Targets and levels are kept well concealed from the class. They have enough pressures, without these. The emphasis is on relentless praise and encouragement. Even sitting in your place is rewarded, and for some, it’s remarkable progress.
The curriculum revolves around a scheme called Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning.
When working on ‘co-operating as a member of a group’, a literacy plenary involved sitting in a ‘clan’ group and letting each member read his/her ‘Celtic legend’ to the rest. Each child then offered a positive comment to the other clan members.
A lesson on magnetism was followed by a group challenge to build a magnetic game in a set time. First, though, they created rules to make sure the exercise was enjoyable and successful. (Don’t strop off; no put-downs; take a vote; listen to everyone; share the jobs, etc.)
Reflection is also a vital part of classroom life. They need the looking-glass held up, to show them how they have progressed.
“How did you do?” “How does that make you feel?” “Could you have done that last year?”
(“No way!” grins Liam. “Would’ve been World War Three!”)
Oh there are bad days, believe me. The effort of holding back the waves of negativity, aggression and self-hatred leave us close to breaking point at times. It took over a term to get them to like, or at least tolerate, themselves. Only now are we starting on tolerating others. It is a gruelling job; not for the faint-hearted.
Just sometimes, though, on days like today, it works. And then, it feels wonderful.
It cost £100, along with lots of hard work from some very special people to set the classroom up. It took a visionary head teacher to trust our wild experiment. It took its toll on all of us – my wonderful support staff and myself as teacher – but after the year was over, every one of those children who had started with us had returned to a ‘normal’ class and was coping. All of them had made huge progress – academically, socially and emotionally.
I’m certain that year changed their lives as much as it changed mine.
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”