Always will.

Glass, Shattered, Window, DestructionTen years ago, I was just finishing the most terrifying, exhilarating, exhausting and arguably the most successful year of my life as an educator.

I’ve spoken about it before, but not for a while, and a few things have happened this week (like the message from D) to make me want to look back at it.

Briefly:  I worked in a primary school at a time when everything was controlled by THEM – the curriculum, the standards, the targets, the methods.  As educators we were under stupid amounts of pressure to conform and jump through all THEIR hoops.  The alternative was Special Measures.

Ours was a smallish school and – as sometimes happens – in that particular year, we were struggling with an above average number of, um, challenging pupils.  The reasons for the challenges weren’t hard to fathom – parents in prison, parents who had died or were seriously ill, parents with substance abuse issues, violent and abusive siblings and step-parents, family break-ups, history of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.  Those are just the bits I can remember.  There was also peer influence and imitation; children would pick up on the behaviour of others and copy it.

Run Riot, Anarchy, City, Urban, GraffitiEvery class in the 7-11 age group had a few hard-core rebels and several who copied their behaviour.  Teachers felt their standards slipping as they struggled to deal with daily disruption.  Some were refusing to teach certain children or to have X and Y in the same class.  Exclusion of these youngsters wasn’t an option.  It was frowned upon by THEM, and anyway, we wanted to help these kids.

As a senior management team, we pondered long and hard on how we could organise classes for the next academic year.  No combinations worked.

Until I had my crazy/wonderful idea.

I opted to teach a mixed-age class of just 16 pupils, containing every one of the challenging children and a few others who had their own issues and difficulties, despite not being disruptive.  My conditions were that the National Curriculum would not be followed, testing would be optional – and then only at the very end of the year, targets would be replaced by frequent ‘look how far you’ve come’ reviews, the education would be holistic, with a different programme of study for each individual based on their personal circumstances and emotional needs as well as the educational ones.

Luckily, I had a brave, supportive head teacher and some brilliant, visionary and courageous support staff.  I was also able to buy in help from a very talented play therapist/counsellor.  Annoyingly, the local authority insisted on adding in its Behaviour Support Team, who tried to get me to run the class along the lines of Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s rats.  Not helpful.

My curriculum was, very broadly:  Term 1 – learn to tolerate and begin to like yourself.   Term 2 – like and take some responsibility for yourself and begin to tolerate one or two others, so you can manage to work in a very small group.  Term 3 – take responsibility for your own behaviour and actions and begin to tolerate and work with larger groups and the whole class.

Girl, Boys, Children, DevelopmentEach of the 16 who stayed at the school (such families travel around a fair bit, so some moved away) went on to rejoin a normal mainstream class the next year.  All of them opted to take part in the end of year tests and did as well or better than expected.  In the final term they did a whole class project and cooperated as well as any group I’ve ever taught.

Obviously the hardest bit – so hard I still have to fight back tears as I remember – was to get these lovely young people to tolerate and, later, like themselves.  Once that was achieved, the rest flowed relatively easily.

As I mentioned earlier, several synchronicities have turned up recently, drawing me back to 2007.  Some will have to wait for another post, but I will mention D.

He was one of the oldest in that class – an intelligent, painfully sensitive, deeply troubled young lad who somehow transformed during the year from having always been the class weirdo to becoming an excellent and much admired role model for the younger boys in our group.

Last night – as he does from time to time – he messaged me.  Said he hoped I was doing OK.  We chatted briefly.  I told him what was happening in my life; he told me a little about his.  Then we signed off.

“Thanks for remembering me,” I said.

“Always will,” came the reply.

I’ll always remember him, too, and the rest of the class who taught me that once you can like yourself, there are no limits to what you can do.

 

 

 

 

The Cornflour Test

Hand, Hands, Smudging, Create, ChildrenIt used to be one of my favourite science lessons – cheap, easy and fun: give the kids a bowl, some cornflour (I think Americans call it cornstarch) and a jug of water.  Tell them to try mixing the cornflour and water slowly and they’d get a nice, smooth liquid. Tell them to hit the mixture with the spoon or try beating it vigorously and it would splatter them with goo and/or become a slimy solid.  ‘A non-Newtonian liquid’, I’d tell them; ‘a thixotropic substance’   from the Greek thixis, “the act of handling” and trope, “change”.

So why am I reminiscing about my teaching days?  Because it’s just occurred to me (with a little help from my Guides) that our lives are – like the cornflour goo – thixotropic.  The way we handle them changes the way they work in exactly the manner described above.

 

20170222_150446As regular readers will know, last year I started up a very small cottage industry with one of my sons, making steampunk-style miniature figures, gadgets, dolls’ house rooms and jewellery.  He set up an online store.  I started a blog to link to it.  It all looked very promising and there has been plenty of interest.  Sales, though, have been almost non-existent.  The stock was piling up and we were getting disheartened.  20170119_085337So, encouraged by my other son and daughter, I’ve spent the last few weeks madly learning new tricks (difficult for an old dog) – attempting to master Instagram, creating a new business page on Facebook, approaching museums, shops, magazines… and generally running myself into a state of anxiety and frustration.

Yesterday I stopped.

I turned off the social media and tuned in to my Guides.  “What am I doing wrong?” I asked.  “I’m trying to create my own reality.  I can’t push any harder.  Whatever I do, it’s making me feel bad and it’s not having any appreciable results.”

I felt the smile they sent me.  Into my mind they placed the memory of that science lesson.

“I’ve been bashing the goo, haven’t I?” I exclaimed, as realisation flooded in.  “That’s why it has blocked up.  I need to slow down, to go with the flow, to drift lightly and follow all the synchronicities that come along.  As simple as that.”

‘As simple as that,’ my Guides agreed.

So maybe old dogs can learn new tricks after all.  I may never master the intricacies of Instagram, but in future I will apply the Cornflour Test to the way I move towards my intended goals.

Positive steps

darkmarked: ”Down with this sort of thing!” ”Careful now!” Father Ted This feels much better!

I’ve been moaning on about the state of things in education for weeks now and doing my own Father Ted-type protest.  (You’d have to have seen the sitcom to know what I’m talking about, but some will know and love it as I do…)

That kind of negativity didn’t sit well with me, though.  It got even worse when the TES published a short article I’d written some weeks ago and still more people started wringing their hands and demanding to know what could be done to stem the flow of cramming-junk-education-into-small-kids-for-political-purposes.  That, of course, is the important question.

So now I’ve stopped protesting and done something positive instead.

Taking my WordPressing skills to their limits, I’ve create a new blog to provide free – and freeing – resources to stressed teachers, disillusioned and worried parents and, of course, home educators.

I only started it last night and already have my first follower!

If you’re interested in ‘this sort of thing’, do head over and take a look.  It’s very small and modest so far, but I’m hoping to grow something lovely, as well as keeping the metafizzing going over on this site, of course!

Here’s the link.

 

 

Down with Education: Bring Back Educetion

No, it isn’t a typo.  There’s a subtle but world-changing difference, you see, in the vowel.

Education comes from the Latin educare – to bring up or train.

Educetion (which I’ve just invented, of course) is derived from the Latin educere – to lead out, to draw from.

See the difference?  In the first, we have malleable individuals who can be trained in whatever way those in authority prefer.  In the second we have innately wise people who, with a sufficiently nurturing environment, can develop and hone their own skills, perhaps in entirely new ways.

Let me give an example of educetion from my own childhood.

Long, long ago, I sat in in a grammar school classroom ready for the first art class of the year with Mr Sutcliffe.  Our group was studying art as a ‘relaxation subject’, timetabled in as a break from the many hours working towards academic A-levels.

Bob Dylan, Musician, Joan Baez, Singer, 1960S, ComposerMy classmates and I had, for the past couple of months, been vicariously enjoying the Summer of Love, via our transistor radios and magazines.  The times, as Dylan had foretold a few years before, were a-changin’.  We were sixth formers now.  We felt ourselves to be groovy and trendy and hip – yet Mr Sutcliffe was about to do something so shocking, so daring, so different, that we would walk out of that room as changed people.

No paints.  No pencils or pastels even.  Just Mr S at the front of the class, holding up a magazine advert for washing powder.

“Persil Washes Whiter!” he boomed.
We stared in confused silence.
“Than WHAT?” he demanded.
He seemed to require a response. We glanced at one another.
“Than – other brands, sir?” one boy suggested, nervously.
“Does it say that?” Sutcliffe snapped back. “Is there proof?”
“No,” we mumbled.
“No,” he agreed, his voice returning to its usual friendly, comfortable tone.
“No.” He sighed sadly. “And yet – just because of things like THIS,” (shaking the magazine page accusingly) “millions of people spend their money on this product rather than another.”

We sat, mesmerised, while Mr Sutcliffe went on to demonstrate, clearly and convincingly, how we – the unsuspecting public – were constantly duped by advertisers, politicians, the media and anyone else with a vested interest in manipulating our minds.  He showed us how colour, design and typefaces created a desired attitude.  He showed us how empty words and clever phrases would place ideas in our minds.  He entreated us to stop and think and avoid being led blindly into behaving as They wanted us to.

“You are wise, intelligent young people,” he said, his voice almost cracking with emotion.  “You have the wit and the ability to make your own choices, to decide whether or not you believe what you are being told.  Be critical.  Be wary.  Be sceptical.  No one has the right – or the ability – to tell YOU what to think!”

Mr Sutcliffe had put his job on the line – even back in those liberal, relatively unmonitored times.  He had not given us an art lesson.  He’d given us educetion.  He’d shown us that we were not empty vessels to be filled with facts and instructions, but autonomous people with the ability to make our own choices.  Such behaviour was unheard of in those days.  We were being trained to be obedient little consumers; that was how capitalism worked.  We were being trained to believe those in authority; that was how politics worked.

Today, of course, things are very different.  Advertising is (somewhat) regulated.  Conspiracy theories and debunking explode from the internet in every direction.  Students in schools are taught critical thinking skills and encouraged to form their own opinions… aren’t they?

Call me sceptical and cynical and so forth if you like, but I was taught by Mr Sutcliffe.  I’ve learned to smell a rat.

Exam, College Students, Library, ReadingThe tide is turning.  Times are a-changin’ again.  Our leaders – fearful that their authority, and even their purpose, are being eroded – are fighting back.  They are being very clever about it, too.

The British education system is being overwhelmed by Junk Learning.  It is imposed by the government.  It isn’t in the National Curriculum – that would be too obvious.  It’s in the tests they are imposing on our children.  If schools want to survive, they need good test scores.  To get good test scores, the teachers must teach what will be tested.  It’s no accident that there has been a sudden leap in the amount of difficult, obscure and downright pointless material primary school children – as young as six – are required to learn and regurgitate on cue.

A recent study found – unsurprisingly – that a group of university academics, even when they were allowed to confer, were unable to complete the tests being given to 10 and 11-year-olds this year.  Needless to say, the stress caused to teachers, parents and children is utterly unacceptable.  Thousands of English parents are planning to ‘strike’ and keep their 6 and 7-year-olds out of school next Tuesday to show their displeasure at the test system.

Man, Suit, Leave, Marker, Text, FontSo why is it there?  Well, I venture to suggest, there are a finite number of hours in the school day.  The more of those hours that are devoted to the rote learning of pointless grammar and complex arithmetic, the less are available for educetion.  Children who are not given the chance to develop their innate talents and creativity, not encouraged to consider alternative viewpoints, not allowed to have any choice in what they study or how they study it will grow up believing themselves to be successes or failures, based on their ability (at the age of eleven) to identify a prepositional phrase or a modal verb or to multiply a fraction by another fraction.

How much easier will it be to manipulate such citizens, broken by a harsh, unreasonable and destructive system, than those who have been empowered to think and reason for themselves?

Guidance…

Well that was unexpected.

A request from a potential new Facebook friend.  The name’s distantly familiar.  So is the face, when I take a look at his profile, and those dim bells clanging at the very back of my mind are telling me he’s somehow connected to the school I worked at, before everything changed.  His profile says he’s from my old town.  Slightly bemused and curious, I press the Accept button.

An hour later, the young man messages me.  He’d been a student teacher at the school for a few weeks, it emerges, while I was working there.  We’d chatted several times in the staff room.  I feel slightly less embarrassed now that my recall was somewhat dim.  In the intervening years, he’s moved around the country, married, had children and is now back there and doing my old job – teaching Year 6 at the same Essex school.  Somewhat synchronous…

He tells me about life there these days.  Sounds ghastly – endless new initiatives imposed by clueless, reactionary politicians, ‘special measures’ imposed on the staff, ‘academy status’ whatever that is – more and more control from above, obviously – and packs of disaffected kids prowling the building and contemplating escape.  I suddenly feel very safe and cosseted by my present easy lifestyle.  Also mildly guilty for getting out when I did.

Then he totally amazes me.
“I read your book,” he says.

Available in paperback and Kindle editions

Really?  I can’t imagine anyone in Essex reading my book.  He tells me it inspired him and that he now has a totally new attitude towards education and is considering getting out of the crumbling system and educating in other ways.  He’s been on a Forest Schools course.  He’s thinking about working for a local wildlife trust and using that as a base for educating.

Good grief!  What did I write in that book?  It’s been a long while since I read it, so I take it off the shelf and have another look.

It most certainly isn’t about education, or how to educate.  It does have a rather teacherly style, though.  Re-reading it makes me wince slightly.  Did I really explain a multi-dimensional universe by instructing the reader on how to make a paper model?  It reads like the script of a 1980s episode of Blue Peter, for those who know what that is.  And yet it kind of works…

English: 42, The Answer to the Ultimate Questi...

What I was trying to do, when I put it together, was to write a book about the meaning and purpose of Life, the Universe and Everything which avoided all the wafty new-age psychobabble, mystical ramblings and cliches, (How DO you insert an acute accent on WordPress??) that were so prevalent when it was published in 2012.

The video game analogy is hopelessly overworked; the style (in an attempt to draw in a ‘youth’ audience) veers much closer to patronising than I’d now wish, yet it still has a sort of raw charm and honesty, I suppose, and a few ideas and insights which I haven’t seen expressed anywhere else.  Not a complete waste of time, then.

So how the young man discovered it and chose to read it, I’ll probably never know, but I’m all about encouraging everyone, myself included, to move out of the comfort zone and into newer and greater experience.  That appears to be – so early indications are suggesting – what 2016 is all about.

And what is the message for me?  There definitely is one; it says so in the book:

These synchronicities act like a sort of mental sticking plaster and are strong enough to hold the two of you together; to keep you talking and interacting until you both get the information or experience that you need…

Is this episode telling me to stop faffing about and to get on with writing the next book… and making it better?

Probably.

 

Education, education, education (repetition for emphasis)

What follows is based on the English (not British – this aspect of leadership is devolved to member countries) education system.  It would be interesting to hear how my experience compares with that of people in other countries, though.

A friend has recently transferred her nine year old son from the private to the state education system.  Her comments surprised me.
“I’m amazed,” she said, “how much this state school involves parents. I’ve been sent a pack of information about what they will be teaching my son this year and how I will be expected to support him in this. In the private sector, you just pay your money and they get on with it. You have no idea what they’re doing.”

Having spent all my working life in the state sector, this difference had never occurred to me.  It might go some way to explain how a succession of government ministers and their staff (almost all privately educated) know an embarrassingly minute amount about how children learn, what they need to learn and generally, as a headteacher friend remarked, ‘where the children and childhood are in all of this’.

So why am I off on another rant?  Well although I washed my hands of the system some seven years ago, I’ve been tutoring individual boys and girls ever since.  I basically teach what their parents ask me to.  If they are home-educated, I work on open-ended projects that interest the child, along with skills they will need in everyday life.  If they are in school, I help them to catch up with or understand whatever parts of the curriculum they are struggling with.

Duncan (10 years old) is already stressing out about the SATs tests he will be made to sit next May, before transferring to secondary school.  He’d asked me to tailor this year’s lessons to help him get through the tests.

students-377789_1280My heart sank.  I taught Year 6 (age 10-11) for many years.  Loved the kids; hated having to spend so much time teaching to these tests, rather than allowing the wonderful, vibrant, enthusiastic young people in my care to make discoveries, to explore different viewpoints and to find their passion.  Still, I owed it to young Duncan to help him cope as best I could, so I decided to update myself on the way SATs work these days.

The mental maths test has gone.  At first I was pleased for Duncan – rapid mental calculation is not one of his strengths.  Then I thought on.  Surely being able to work out how much two or three items will cost in a shop or whether the ‘special offers’ on display will save or cost us money is a useful life skill…  so teaching and even testing it makes some sense.  No, there are now three long written papers.

There used to be one paper that tested mathematical skills, while a second (calculator permitted) checked the ability to use those skills in more inventive or open-ended ways.  The calculator is now banned.  Well obviously.  Although almost every member of the population carries a mobile phone which includes a calculator, our children are being trained not to use it.  Oh dear.

I turned to the English tests.  These are being changed for the coming year.  All I could find were some sample questions showing the type of thing they will now be asked.  Here’s one for your consideration:  (aimed, remember, at children of 10 and 11 years old)

Tick one box in each row to show whether the word before is used as a subordinating conjunction or as a preposition.

Sentence                                                                       subordinating conjunction    preposition


 

We left the cinema before the end of the film.

The train ticket is cheaper before 9:00 in the morning.

I brush my teeth before I have breakfast.

 

I’m in my sixties; I’ve been a teacher all my working life; I’ve held posts as Head of English, English Co-ordinator, school librarian and so forth… and I have NEVER needed to identify a subordinating conjunction, far less compare it to a preposition.  I’ve yet to find anyone who has.

In case you’re clinging to the hope that my country’s government still has some semblance of a grasp of what education is about, and has just made that one rather glaring mistake… sorry to disappoint you, but here are some more extracts from the same document:

Fill in the gaps in the sentence below, using the past progressive form of the verbs in the boxes.

Rewrite the sentence below so that it begins with the adverbial. Use only the same words, and remember to punctuate your answer correctly.

Which option correctly introduces the subordinate clause in the sentence below?

Which option completes the sentence below so that it uses the subjunctive mood?

I could go on.

blackboard-156494_1280I spent much of my time as a teacher, trying to help children cope with the very complex spelling patterns in a language with so many roots, dissuading them from using text speak in their written work and explaining that ‘we was‘ or ‘could of‘ were not standard English.  This was in one of those rare areas of the country where almost all the children had English as a first language.

I can imagine the increased levels of stress that parents, children and teachers will suffer to jump through this latest set of ridiculous hoops.  What I can’t imagine is what goes on in the minds of the people who set such an inappropriate, boring and irrelevant curriculum.

Depressed now.  Need some light relief.  Please don’t watch this video if you are offended by bad language or simply don’t get the English sense of humour; otherwise go ahead and laugh or cry, depending on your mood.

Video of Fascinating Aida’s Ofsted song

Minglish!

English: William-Adolphe Bouguereau's La leçon...

Sam and I invented Minglish.  I teach him for an hour a week after school and as we only have that short time to build up his skills in both maths and English, I sometimes have to find ways of combining the two in a single piece of work.  Minglish is – obviously – a hybrid of maths and English.

Right now, I’m being tasked with teaching him his four times table, improving his reading skills and expanding his vocabulary so that he uses more exciting and adventurous descriptive words in his creative writing.  I’ve spent most of today dreaming up a way of combining the ‘three rs’ in a way that should appeal to Sam (inasmuch as the four times table ever could).

Since that leaves me little time for blogging, I thought you might like to join Sam on the adventure I’ve planned for him.  Hopefully as, over the next few weeks, he reads the words, finds suitable vocabulary to fill the gaps, answers sums and memorises the numbers, he may make progress in all three targets.  Not exactly the style of teaching I’d choose, left to my own devices, but needs must when the National Curriculum drives.

If you’re an educator or parent, feel free to copy or adapt, although a mention of the originator would be kind and obviously passing it off as your own work or making a profit from it would not.

 

Sam was wandering along the ______________ path, when a _________________ dragon swooped towards him.

“What on earth…?” _____________ Sam.

“I am Foraytes,” the creature ____________. “I have come to help you with a problem you’re having.   I have come to teach you your 4 x table.”

Sam groaned ______________.   “Thanks, but honestly, please don’t bother.”

Foraytes let out a _______________ shriek and grabbed Sam’s shoulders in his _______________ claws.  

 “I will teach you, whether or not you choose to learn!” he cried _______________.

 “Right, okay, fine,” said Sam ______________. He decided it would be best not to annoy this creature.   Miserably, he sat down on the _______________ ground.

 “Can you count in twos?” asked Foraytes, settling down in front of Sam.

“Sure – easy,” said Sam, and did so. “___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___.”

 “That will do,” said Foraytes ______________. “Now say them again, but this time miss out the 2 and every alternate number.”

This was harder, but Sam had a go: ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___.

 “Oh!” ____________ Sam.   “I just counted in fours, didn’t I?”

“Indeed you did,” ______________ the creature, with a reptilian smile. Then it pointed a wing towards the distance and said something that sounded like ‘Fort Ooze.’

“Huh?” said Sam.   “Where?”

Foraytes hopped up and down in ____________. “Say 8,” he shrieked. “When someone says Fort Ooze, you must reply 8. It’s the password.”

“Oh, four twos!” Sam ___________ . “I get it! Yeah – Fort Ooze. Eight.”

 “That’s better,” ____________ the creature. “Now go to Fort Ooze and remember the password.”

Sam thanked him and headed in the direction Foraytes was pointing. He didn’t much like the sound of Fort Ooze, but he still wanted to ______________.

“By the way,” Foraytes called after him. “Do you know Fort Ends?”

Sam thought for a moment.   “OH, you mean four tens,” he ____________. “It’s ____.”

He heard the flapping of wings as the ______________ creature rose into the sky.

Sam walked ______________ along the path leading to Fort Ooze. Eventually he came to a wide river.   The only bridge was broken and had a huge gap in the centre.

 There was a rowing boat tied to a post on his side though. Next to it was a tall ______________ box with this notice on it.

Five Oars.

Insert correct change in the slot.

 

Sam was getting used to this by now.

“I think it means Five Fours,” he _____________. He took a _____p coin from his pocket and put it in the slot on the box. The door swung open ____________ and Sam grabbed a couple of the oars and started to row across.

He tied the boat up _____________ at the other side and kept walking.

After half an hour or so, he heard something above him. At first he thought it was Foraytes again, but he looked up to see a ____________ dragon who looked much younger and more friendly.

“Hi,” called the small dragon, “Are you Sam? I bet you are. You met my uncle Foraytes, didn’t you?”

Sam managed to nod before the creature carried on, “Thought so. Can you work out how old my uncle is?   If you can, I’ll tell you my name.   Then you’ll be able to figure out my age, too. Isn’t this fun!”

Sam smiled in a ____________ way. “So your uncle is called Foraytes. That sounds like four eights. So I’m guessing he is ____ years old,” he replied.

The little dragon clapped all of its wings together. “You’re clever! Now guess my age. Go on, go on! My name is Wunfor.”

“Then I think you must be ____ years old,” ____________ Sam.

 “Oh you’re VERY clever!” squealed Wunfor. “Tell me all the bits you’ve learned.”

Sam sighed. “OK. I know Wunfor – one four is ____. Two fours, I mean Fort Ooze is ____. Then I found five oars – five fours – was ____, Foraytes – four eights – that’s ____ and Fort Ends, wherever that is, is four tens, which is _____.”

“Fort Ends is quite near here,” Wunfor told him. “Do you want a lift? I could carry you on my back, you know.   I’m ___________ strong!”

By now Sam’s legs were aching __________, so he was happy to accept a lift. They flew far above the treetops and the lands below looked like ________________.

“See that place with the four tall pine trees over there?” Wunfor shouted. “It’s called Four Trees.”

“That makes sense,” said Sam. “Is it ____ miles away by any chance?”

 “Wow! You’re magic!” _________ the young dragon. How did you know that?”

“Four Trees sounds like four ___s,” grinned Sam.

 “Well you’re going to do fine on the rest of the journey if you’re that __________,” Wunfor told Sam. “Here we are now. This is Fort Ends.”

They landed by some ruined stones.

“There was a _________ fort here once,” said Wunfor ___________, “but it ended ____ years ago. You need to keep walking in that direction, Sam.   Oh, and if you run into my grumpy Uncle Sevenforce, just shout 28 at him as loud as you can, then he will leave you in peace.”

“What if I forget?” Sam asked _____________.

Wunfor shook his head.   “Well you know most dragons breathe fire? He does that with a force seven gale thrown in, so you’d better remember!”

 Sam thanked the __________ dragon and hurried down the road. “Sevenforce 28, Sevenforce 28,” he kept muttering under his breath.

He noticed a gate across the road ahead. A very posh looking man stood next to it.

 “Hello,” said Sam, _____________. “Please can I go through the gate?”

The man had the poshest accent Sam had ever heard. “Fwar Fwars,” he said.

“Er, sorry?” Sam ___________.

 “Fwar Fwars!” repeated the man crossly.

 Suddenly Sam understood.   “Oh, you mean four fours! That’s ____.”

The man stuck his nose in the air and walked across slowly to open the gate.

“Thanks Mister,” Sam __________ and he carried on along the ___________ road.

By this time Sam was getting hungry and thirsty. He’d been travelling for ages.  He saw a small cottage ahead, with brightly coloured chairs and tables outside. There were red umbrellas over each table.   ___________ he went and sat down at one.

 A smiling waitress appeared almost immediately. “What can I get you, Sir?”

“I’d like a lemonade, please and slice of chocolate cake.” Sam __________.

“Certainly, Sir,” the waitress ___________. “Our lemonade costs six times four pence and the cakes are all nine times four pence. We also have coffee and walnut and lemon drizzle cake.”

“Your prices are very good!” exclaimed Sam, hunting in his pocket for the money. He took out ____ pence for the lemonade and _____ pence for the cake. “I’ll stick with the chocolate cake, thanks.   I __________ chocolate.”

 “Thank you Sir. I hope you enjoy your rest at the Fourpenny Café.”

 Sam had just taken a mouthful of the ____________ chocolate cake when there was a rushing sound behind him and the fiercest dragon you can imagine landed beside him.

Sam was so startled, he sprayed cake crumbs all over the table. “_____” he said, as soon as he had stopped coughing.

“So you’ve heard my name!” __________ the dragon. “Yes, I am Sevenforce. How much is the cake?”

“Er, it’s nine times four pence,” Sam said.

“Which is…?” The dragon’s eyes narrowed _____________.

____” he replied ___________. And the lemonade was six times four, which is ____.”

“Hmm, not bad,” said Sevenforce. “I may pop back for some later.   Right now I have some burning issues to attend to.” And to Sam’s relief, he flew off in another direction.

 After his snack, Sam found it was an easy downhill walk to Fort Ooze.

“Password!” shouted a familiar voice.

___” replied Sam, ___________.

 “Well remembered,” smiled Foraytes, peering down at him from one of the battlements. Let’s see what you’ve learned.”

Sam smiled. “I know how old you are, Foraytes. You’re _____. And your nephew Wunfor is ____. You have a scary brother and he’s called _____________. I had to shout ____ to stop myself getting burned by him.”

“Excellent,” Foraytes replied. “How many pence did it cost to hire the five oars?”

“Well I only used 2 of them, but 5 x 4 is ____. And I had to get past that posh bloke who said ‘fwar fwars’ by saying ____. Oh and the cost of lemonade is ___x 4, which is ____ and the cake costs ____ x 4 which is ____.”

“Superb,” __________ the dragon. What places did you see?”

 “I got a lift to Fort Ends, which is 4 x 10, which is ____. Oh and we saw Four Trees ____ miles away.”

“Congratulations.”   Foraytes bowed before him (32 times).   “Here is your prize, young Sam.”

And to Sam’s delight, the dragon gave him four wings, which fitted perfectly, so that he could fly straight home.

 

 

Learning with Ruby

English: A "puzzle" ribbon to promot...

What a wonderful start to my new year.

I’m what’s commonly called a semi-retired teacher, although I prefer the term ‘freelance educator’.  It means I’ve swapped the restrictions of the classroom for a free-wheeling life where I can more or less teach who I like, when I like.  Perfect!

Spring Term started this week, and with it a new enquiry from the mother of a home-educated 10 year old.  I’ll call her Ruby.
“She didn’t get on too well with school,” the mum explained. “She was doing okay with the work but had some negative experiences.”
There was a slight pause, then, “She’s Aspergers…”

I assured her that I was pretty familiar with Aspergers and (because I generally do find myself able to react appropriately in social situations) resisted the urge to punch the air and shout, “YESSSSSS!”

You see I love – totally love – working with Aspie kids.  I consider it the greatest privilege to be given a glimpse of how their minds work.  They’re always exciting, unpredictable and endlessly interesting.

Ruby didn’t disappoint. Her soft, slow, dreamy voice was enchanting.  Every word was carefully considered and chosen for exact meaning.

As I knew nothing about what she had learned so far, we started with an assessment of her maths ability.

“Do you know the meaning of ‘parallel’?” I asked.

Her eyes shone.  “I’m familiar with the idea of parallel universes,” she told me, and went on to share her knowledge on that subject, giggling with pure delight at the idea that things we can barely imagine could be happening elsewhere, in other dimensions.

I forced myself back to the maths.  Could she name the different types of triangles?

“Well that one looks the same shape as the Illuminati symbol,” she informed me.  “You know – like on American money…  Do you know about the Illuminati?” and she proceeded to share her knowledge on that subject, too, before I could answer.

Time was slipping by and when I gently pointed out that we needed to complete some of the work on the table, as her mother was paying me to teach her English and maths, she regarded me seriously.
“That’s right,” she said slowly and wonderingly.  “Everyone needs money, because that’s the way they are able to get the things they need.”
She spoke as if she’d just strayed on to this planet and now understood this strange but widespread custom.

“Some of the people in my school found me annoying,” she commented once, but with no trace of malice.

I nodded sadly.  Everyone I’d met who perceived and behaved in the way labelled ‘Aspergers Syndrome’ had suffered at the hands of those unable to tolerate diversity.  Others were unnerved by their honesty, their willingness to question everything and their need to explore the minutest details of whatever was interesting to them at that moment.  Teachers became frustrated and impatient; fellow pupils mocked and teased – or worse.

Ruby selected a reading book from the pile in my study – a Jacqueline Wilson story with a very direct approach to the problems facing a child whose parents had divorced.

“Oh!” she cried, after reading the first page.  “You know this is just about telling the story of my life.”

“Is it going to be too upsetting for you?” I asked, wondering whether I should have steered her towards some lighter reading.

She thought for a moment.  “Not upsetting,” she finally said.  “It is emotional because my dad said just the things her dad is saying to her and I had to choose which parent to live with, too.  But I think it will be good for me to read this book because I can understand what is happening.”

In school, I’d have had to produce comprehension sheets on the set book.  Thank goodness I’m freelance.  With an Aspergers child, it’s wise to throw away all the planning, advice and text books and to gently sit beside them as they make their educational journey.

I feel so lucky to be sharing in Ruby’s for a while.

 

A Raw Nerve

 

Wasn’t intending at all to write about this today, but here goes…

It’s not my normal style, and I’m not posting this story to gain pity or settle old scores, merely to show that once any system is ruled by fear, it is ruined.  In my very long career in the education system, I watched that happen, and it has continued apace since I left six and a half years ago.

I was just told by a friend on Facebook of a horrible incident from her childhood.  She’d been in an excellent school where all the children were learning well and very happy, yet a sour, vindictive school inspector came in, found the one child with mild learning difficulties, reduced him to jelly and verbally trashed the teacher, who went home and committed suicide.

Inspectors – like all manner of ‘experts’ – are people who swan into a setting for about 20 minutes and believe they have the knowledge and ability to sum the situation up and make life-changing judgements.

They don’t.

Let me tell you my inspector story – mild by comparison, but the raw nerve that was touched by my friend’s memory.

I posted once about a very special and experimental class I taught. The link to the original post is here.  The children were in a mainstream school but between them they had a huge range of problems and life circumstances which would reduce almost anyone to a gibbering mess.  Several had been on the brink of permanent exclusion because their behaviour was so extreme.

Well they made massive progress, and the following year I returned to teaching a ‘normal’ class of 10 and 11 year olds – except that this normal class contained a large proportion of the children I’d been working with the year before.

There was Shaun whose dad had died a year or two back after years of alcoholism, Daniel whose dad had just come out of prison and was now back to running a crack house, Isla who had just been moved from her long-term foster-carers and was being rehoused almost every week, Carly whose dad had terminal cancer, Sam who had suffered severe physical and emotional abuse at the hands of a teenage brother and various step parents… and those are just the ones that spring to mind.

By and large, we got along just fine.  Plenty of learning took place and although I often had to make allowances for these damaged and traumatised kids, who had a shorter fuse than most, with help from my brilliant learning support team, I was able to achieve my targets and they were making progress – in the ways our leaders required, as well as socially and emotionally (which to me was far more important).

Then we discovered that we were to be inspected by an OFSTED team.

An urgent class discussion took place.
“We really need to show these people how far you’ve come,” I told them. “That means while they’re here, it would really help if you could stay in your chairs, not have any arguments with each other or freak out if you feel a bit challenged.  I promise I’ll support you all and it won’t last long.”

Shaun gave an agonised scream.  “Can’t do it Miss,” he bellowed.  “I know I’ll get stressed out just ‘cos they’re here and then I’ll lose it big time and you’ll get in trouble.  I can’t handle it!”

That started an avalanche of worries and tears.  In each case it was the same.  They were terrified that they would let me, the class and the school down.  Day to day living was enough of a challenge for many of them.  This was a step too far.

My wonderful teaching assistants and I reassured them, praised them, reminded them how far they’d come and declared our absolute confidence that they could manage this.

The inspector arrived.  A roundish, well-heeled lady with a posh accent.  As she walked in, the children were immersed in the activity I’d set.  All was calm; all were bright.  True, Sam waited for the first opportunity when her gaze was averted and crawled under his table, where he remained trembling but otherwise immobile for the rest of the lesson, but this went quite unnoticed and no one showed any inclination to draw it to her attention.  The kids covered for him beautifully and kept him well concealed.

Children answered her questions politely and participated with enthusiasm and exemplary behaviour.

The blanket and pillow in the reading corner that doubled as a bed for anyone who hadn't been able to sleep the night before.

The blanket and pillow in the reading corner that doubled as a bed for anyone who hadn’t been able to sleep the night before.

When she’d left, we dusted Sam down and told the children how proud we were of them and how wonderfully they had behaved.  I was bursting with pride when I headed off to lunch that day.

After school, though, I had my feedback session with the inspector.

“Come in dear,” she smiled.  “Yes, a perfectly adequate lesson.  No problems and I could see learning taking place.  But…”  she looked slightly reproachful,  “I mean they’re a very well-behaved, good natured class, aren’t they dear?  I do feel you could have pushed them a bit harder – given them more challenge.”

There was the briefest of pauses where I could have responded.  I considered it.  I think the reason I didn’t was the same as Sam’s or Shaun’s.  The fear and stress and anxiety had been so overwhelming that I didn’t trust myself to say a word, for fear of letting the school, the class and everyone down.  If she believed that my class were well-behaved, then that was all I needed.  Yet I’d be lying if I said that her pronouncement on my lesson – ‘average’ – didn’t sting.

I feel no animosity towards the posh inspector.  She was simply doing her job.  Was she adequate?  Who am I to say?

The next day I told the class how impressed she’d been with their work and behaviour.  That was all they needed to know.  And I began planning my exit from the English state education system.

 

I want to teach Jed

English: Hug a Hoodie! Some of Highworth's you...

What follows is a piece of writing I did about 8 years ago.

I was looking out some of my scribblings and thoughts of an educational nature for a friend’s daughter who has just graduated as a teacher, and thought this piece might be of interest to others.

I still believe and stand by every word.

I taught him last year.  I kept him in my classroom, most of the time.  I found ways to get him back, when he couldn’t stay there, and ways to get myself back, when it got too much for me.

 

Jed is courageous – massively so.  He takes on The Man.  He doesn’t conform because it’s the line of least resistance.  He stays true to himself, as he searches desperately for himself.  And that search, in our education system, could well destroy him.  I want to teach him and help him in his search.

 

Our system tells Jed he is ‘challenging’.  What a world we’d have, if every child grew up challenging, testing, thinking, experimenting and learning from their experiences, rather than their textbooks. 

 

Our system tells Jed his attitude is ‘wrong’.  He should accept unfairness, bias, dreary lessons from exhausted teachers who are buffeted from one new initiative to the next; targets that are number-driven, not people driven; results that compare unlike to unlike.  He should meekly bow down and cope with all these things, because life is like that.  What if it wasn’t?

 

Jed is very unsure of himself.  He swears and shouts loudly.  He throws chairs and punches.  He behaves in ways most people don’t.  He’s constantly told he’s bad and wrong and unteachable and impossible and he wonders who is right and what is right and why his way of reacting causes so many problems to him and everyone else.  He doubts himself.  He doubts his ways of interpreting the world.  He is deeply unhappy, but he doesn’t have a choice.  What if there was another way?

 

As educators, policy-makers, law-givers and law-enforcers, we rely on the fact that adults know best.  Children are young and know less, so we must teach them what we know, what we do and how we do it.  They must listen and work hard and develop self-motivation, so that when they grow up, they can run the world the way we run it.  What a recipe for progress!

 

A child who dares to say, “Hang on – I don’t think this is the right way; I don’t think this is the best you could do,” challenges us.

We left those feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt behind in childhood.  We don’t want them back.  We don’t want children moving us forward – challenging us.  No wonder we call it ‘challenging behaviour’.  No wonder we label them and exclude them.

 

Jed is excluded, again.  He calls back to see me after school.  He tells me what he did, what the teachers did and how much he wants to be back in school.  He has to have a special meeting before they decide whether to take him back.  He’s unhappy and unsure and he knows it will happen again and again until they finally wash their hands of him.

 

It goes without saying that Jed has massive strengths and a burning desire to learn.  With courage and tenacity like his, he could be a massive asset to society.  He could also be a suicide statistic or an inmate in a young offenders’ institution.

 

I want to teach Jed.  I want to teach him that there is another way.  I want to be able to tell him that our world desperately needs visionary young people like him who need to learn through experiencing and trying and testing; not through being told.

 

There are plenty of the other sort.  That’s fine.  Let them shine through the current system and come out with their clutch of A* passes and do the jobs suited to them.

 

Let the Jeds of this world learn in their way.  Let them not take anything for granted.  Let them learn philosophy and inter-personal skills and co-operative discovery and self-awareness from the moment they are discovered.

 

Imagine an education system where the infant school teacher announces,

“I think I’ve got a non-conformer here!”

She would say it with pride, like saying that Kirsty excels at literacy or Ahmed is amazing at sports.

 

They’d need a teacher who taught them how to learn, then let them try.  If they found a better method, they’d tell the teacher, who would also learn.  Targets and tests and results would be irrelevant, for the simple and excellent reason that anything worth being is, by its very nature, incapable of being tested and targeted.  The results would speak for themselves.  Society would be moved on by the people who dared to challenge our deeply imperfect system.

 

I want to teach Jed.  I want Jed to teach me.