I taught a girl for a year before I realised she was from Birmingham

I once taught a girl who was, apparently, disruptive in every lesson bar mine. She didn’t do any work in mine, but she wasn’t disruptive. She wrote stuff down and at least began to answer exam questions, but nothing more. She was, for a year or so, lost in her own daydreams, a sort of history cataracts with the odd moment of, “Jemma, sit up, please” to jolt her sight back into focus.

She didn’t turn up to the parents/parent’s/parents’ evening in Y10, but surprisingly did at the beginning of Y11.

“Jemma, the thing is, I don’t think we’ve ever really spoken. You don’t answer my questions in lessons, and you barely murmur to announce your presence when I take the register, and you don’t even return my hello when you walk in. In fact, I don’t know what I’d say to you in the corridor if we passed each other!”

“That’s sad, Sir”, she said, in a Brummy accent which I’d not once previously noticed. It was as many words as I’d ever heard her strong together.

“I know!”, I replied, taken aback. 

“Why don’t you think we could have a conversation?”

“Because we never have in lesson, I suppose. I’d like to, but I’ve not been able to drag the historian which chose this GCSE out of you. What have I done wrong? Is there something I need to do more of?”

She was stumped, as was I. And then, as per the norm, she said nothing more as the conversation continued, now with mum. 

Jemma ended up getting a G, which was an incredible result given she’d done virtually nothing for two years. But that second year, after I realised she was from Birmingham, she did actually speak in lessons. Just occasionally her hand would flash up, too, and she’d have the right answer or sometimes even questions. 

At the end of the year she said goodbye, and that she knew she’d get a poor grade, but that it was her fault and that she wished she’d spoken more in Y10. I said that I regretted not having had that conversation in Y10, early on, when it was obvious that she wasn’t putting the work in. We both silently agreed it was too late. 

I have a couple of children like that in Y11 now, the children who’ve never spoken up for fear of being wrong, or just with the experience of never being listened to by peers, or even at home. They’re my focus right now, and it’s tough, but I think I’ve made headway with a couple. I’m determined that, if nothing else, they don’t feel like taking history was a waste of time. And at least I know they’re from Devon.

Want to work at Torquay Academy?

That’s right, I’m hiring myself out as a human-advertising board.

We, Torquay Academy, need a Head of Humanities (or HOLA*, as we call them here) for January 2017. Our excellent previous HOLA has moved across to a Head of Year position and so a vacancy has appeared. You’ll have to work with me, but don’t let that put you off! We have an ever-improving team, with new faces and an absolute determination to teach great History, Geography and Religious Studies.

The school is really something to behold. After the appointment of a new Principal a couple of years ago the school’s results have skyrocketed, the Ofsted grade has jumped to Good, and we’re even winning awards.  There’s a real emphasis on getting better, both in terms of the children’s success and teacher practice, with a focus on using Teach Like A Champion to help capture those really successful, but often small and ignored, parts of our teaching.

Here’s what the school’s website says about why you should work at TA:

Torquay Academy is an exciting and rewarding place to work. We expect our students to work very hard and all of our staff lead by example; a growth mindsets approach applies to everyone in our community!

We know that a world class school can only be built by having the very best teachers. A lot of time is spent ensuring we all improve – every teacher has two weekly coaching sessions: one in class and one analysing the lesson. One twilight each term focuses on T&L and we have biweekly TAPD (Torquay Academy Professional Development) sessions. We kick off the year with a Teaching and Learning Conference at the Grand Hotel. You will be working with colleagues who share a passion for teaching. We implement Teach Like a Champion strategies and take time practising them to ensure we are at our best when we “go live” in the classroom.

“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam.

In 2015 Torquay Academy was one of the three most improved schools in the South West. Student progress in English and Maths far exceed national averages. We have been awarded the “Outstanding GCSE Results” by Pixl for our 2015 results. In spite of this success every member of staff at TA knows that we can do even better for our boys and girls in the future.

If you join TA you will be signing up to the belief that “everyone succeeds” and that “every student who joins TA is capable of going on to university”. If you join a school it is important you share its goals and values; Doug Lemov describes this as a strategic choice:

“the process of both teachers and school choosing each other explicitly based in part on shared mission and a set of core beliefs — is our work measurable? Does knowledge matter? How important is writing? How much orderliness is required? Do we care how classrooms are arranged? Do we care what books teachers choose to read? Do we care how they read them? When schools are explicit about these things, and seek likeminded teachers who want to be “good” by the same definition, the prime beneficiaries are often the teachers themselves”.

We care about all of these things. If you do as well please get in touch (you can do this even if we are not advertising as we maintain confidential lists so we can contact you when a job opportunity arises). I am always delighted to talk to colleagues who are interested in joining our community and signing up to our Vision.

Steve Margetts (Principal).

There’s even a video (where you might spot me**) of one of our T&L conferences here.

So, fancy it? If so then email Stella Morgan at admin@TQacademy.co.uk or, if you’d like to know more, get in contact with me at tfrench@tqacademy.co.uk or on Twitter at @MrHistoire.

*Head of Learning Area.

**Having just re-watched the video it turns out I’m all over it.

Five ways to use Pokémon in your classroom

1. Art – draw a Pokémon.

2. Maths – count the number of Pokémon.

3. PE – run around like a Pokémon.

4. History – create a timeline of a Pokémon’s life.

5. Drama – act out being a rubbish teacher who uses Pokémon in the classroom because they think it’s an engaging hook for all manner of cross-curricular, domain-lite, culturally-relevant fun and giggles. Call yourself Mr Creepachu and gradually evolve into a consultant who’ll sell said giggles to schools through a website covered in white apples with little bites in. Rename yourself a “Thought Catalyst”, tweet photos of yourself speaking at conferences, create your own hashtag (#pokefun) and stop wearing a tie. Then get over yourself.

Tough school? Just keep them engaged.

This morning I woke to find approximately 7,000 notifications regarding a screen grab I’d posted. It was a lesson idea for using Pokémon in a history classroom: “create a timeline that shows the history of Pokémon and the Pokémon games.” All sorts of discussions ensued, although these three caught my eye:

  1. The task is about chronology, so what’s the problem?
  2. I’m an Ofsted rated “Outstanding” teacher and I’ve taught this way for years (since deleted).
  3. Lesson content should be changed in tough schools.

Of these, it’s the last which is the most problematic. This idea, that certain children whose parents don’t have much money, or who didn’t have a great education themselves, or whatever it may be, that their education should be tailored to fit their current existence is unfair, elitist and completely at odds with comprehensive education. This idea, as Stuart Lock put, helps win the grammar school argument.

Why should a child from a council estate not have access to the best that has been thought and said? Why should a girl from the inner-city be funnelled on to the Health and Beauty course when she could be studying the intricacies of post-war Europe, or ontological arguments for the existence of God? Why does a boy from a farm in rural-nowhere have to settle for the evolution of a computer game, which he might not care for anyway, when he could be learning to play the piano, or reading HG Wells? We can either treat these children like idiots, assuming naivety and dull-headedness, or induct them into the conversation of mankind.

Engagement comes from the subject itself, not the pedagogy in which it’s parcelled.

Talking a lot II

Such are the size of the classes, and such are the number of classes, that it appears every single Y9 has opted for GCSE History. This isn’t the case, but now that I type I wonder if it actually might be ..? I dunno –  there are a lot of them. I have two classes, my colleague has three, in a year of 150-odd. And you know that year group which everyone thinks is, y’know, the more challenging one? Yeah.

So, carrying on from last year we’ve been talking a lot. And reading. Talking and reading more than ever before. 

Guess what happens each time I talk more? Guess what happens every time they they read more? No, they don’t lose interest. No, they don’t start to piss about. No, they don’t look at their phones, the clock or the glorious, bright outdoors.

Nope. They become more interested. That’s right! It’s wonderful. The questions they’re asking! The links they’re making! The amount they’ve remembered from Y8 when I hammered memorisation and testing and introduced knowledge organisers!


Been told to stop talking? Nonsense. Know your subject and talk about it like you love it. Because you do.

Banana children

By 2:59pm this afternoon it’s fair to say some of my Y7s were looking tired. What a week! I remember my first few weeks at secondary pretty well, though I’d forgotten about the extreme fatigue that being the smallest, the youngest, the newest, the most confused and the most nervous brings. Amongst all the big edu-news of the week, the strange fact that I’ve managed to blog every night this week and the underwhelming response to my most complex post (I get it – shut up), our Y7s, all shiny and drowning in blazers, have been at the forefront of many a teacher’s mind.

One of the tasks for our Y7s is to visit the library by Friday to get a book. We read together but they also read alone when I’m doing the squillion-and-ten things tutors do. A boy who’s arrived with what we might call a troubling reputation from his primary found himself in the library with Dan Jones, our bloody excellent Head of Year. When Dan asked the boy if there was anything he’d like to read in particular the somewhat surprising reply was To Kill A Mockingbird. Now, he had been telling Dan how much he had enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but to jump from one to the other seems like quite a leap. I’m sure we can find similarities, but still.

Intrigued, Dan asked why. “It’s Mr French’s favourite”, he said. And it is. It’s on my door, and I’d been saying to my tutees that they should look at other doors to find out what their teachers liked. When Dan told me I was obviously really pleased – we both were. Now, whether he actually enjoys it – it wasn’t available at the time – isn’t really the moral of tale. Because I see the boy’s choice as his decision to do away with that reputation, not necessarily for our benefit, but for his own: it’s not quite a Road to Damascus moment, but it’s a sign of something positive. After all, Dan didn’t know I’d been talking about To Kill A Mockingbird, and I wouldn’t have expected it had I been in the library, so I don’t think he was just saying something to please us.

It may come to nothing, of course, but I’m damned if I’ll let him forget that choice. This morning I suggested he speak to the librarians who might be able to suggest something similar, because it’s in these first few weeks that the tone is set for the whole five/seven years and beyond. I know many children who’ve turned their behaviour and attitude around (and back again) over time, but there’s a reason we call them sponges. Actually, I think tropical plants might be better, because they use the huge amount of required water to grow further, rather than drying up.

So I’m coining a new phrase: children are like banana trees, and we need to feed them. Think that’s ridiculous? Leave a suggestion!

Grammar

Darth Vader, the near-omnipotent ruler of the Empire, stood, sure-footed on a little visited balcony of his newest genocidal toy, the Death Star. Opposite him, clinging to cables and buzzing wires, hung an injured Luke Skywalker, a rebellious youngster from a desert world.

Darkness and light. 

Both had achieved considerable power and powers, though one had decided to use those powers as they were not intended.

“Luke, I have something important to tell you,” said Vader.

“You have nothing to say to me”, replied Skywalker. “You and I are from different worlds, raised to lead different lives.” 

“Luke. I went to a grammar school and have become all powerful. If you had taken the 11-plus as I had wished, you too would feel the full force of the Dark Side. But your mother wasn’t having it. She believed in state education and look what you have become – a one-armed space bandit! Join me and I will return you to greatness.”

Skywalker fell back with shock, but managed to hold fast at the last moment. “Vader, your anecdotes don’t impress me. My comprehensive education, though once a ticket to failure in certain parts of Tatooine, has improved immeasurably over time, and the power I now wield is for goodness and light, not death and destruction.”

“But Luke”, implored Vader, “if we join together we will become unstoppable. Once I have taught you the way of the Grammar our might will be unrivalled.”

“Vader, you don’t understand: I, and many others, have made it without having a grammar-school education. Your personal success story is not a reason for a revamp of the galactic education system. Also, we know that grammars often have negative effects on the surrounding schools and their poorer children.”

“Do you not want the chance to join me as the imperial tormentor of souls? It’s your choice.”

“No!”, cried Skywalker. “Choice is for the middle-class who can afford tutoring and light-sabre lessons. I want to be a bastion for the poor. If I join you those wretches will face many more years of poor prospects under a divisive system.”

Confusion crept across Vader’s masked face. “But that’s the whole point!”

Tuck your shirt in

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And another thing …

Don’t be that person who lets children walk past you with shirts untucked. Just don’t. 

It isn’t not worth your time.

It isn’t someone else’s problem.

You don’t score points for not being the difficult, less hassly, more easy-going teacher.

You won’t make your own life easier because you won’t have to write up the subsequent defiance.

No: letting children not wear their uniform – whether you agree with it or not – lets everybody else down. 

It is worth your time because t is part of your time – it’s part of the job.

It is your problem because it shows weakness, both personally and in terms of the team.

The vast majority of children don’t like you more if you’re easy-going on uniform. Because you know what? You’re not meant to be cool. And school shirts look dreadful untucked anyway, so even if you’re trying to be cool you’re genuinely not.

Model excellence and have high expectations.

No rules please

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One of the many responses I’ve read about “uniformgate” (can’t we do better than this?) was that if many children are breaking a rule then the school must at least consider the possibility that it might be wrong. With that in mind I thought I’d try that out with a few everyday scenarios.

1. Rule: No talking!

Problem? Children talk over the teacher. They are then sent out which destroys their education! Solution? Allow them to talk and base the learning around their own experiences. They’ll stay in the lesson and be more engaged!

2. Rule: No running!

Problem? Children run in the corridors, especially in order to reach the front of the lunch queue. This is dangerous and chaotic. Solution? Allow them to run. The subsequent piles of inanimate Y7 bodies, twisted and bruised on the bloody floor, will soon act as a filter for success in a kind of Darwinian fight for the fajitas. Also: school of hard knocks innit.

3. Rule: No chewing gum!

Problem: the school is covered in disgusting, sticky gum. Solution: allow the gum as this will make children feel more at home and thus better able to relax in what can be an otherwise fearsome (see Solution 2) environment. 

Actually, if we didn’t have all these petty rules we wouldn’t ever have to worry about behaviour problems and instead could just get on with teaching. These Gestapo-style laws, in which children are treated like cattle, chewing their way through the factory-model cud of vapid existence, don’t prepare the young for real, C21 life. It’s rules like these that are pulling society apart, alienating parents and exacerbating the class divide.

When will schools lie down and accept that rules are stifling our children’s creativity?

Should KS3 be designed with KS4 in mind?

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No.

KS3 is our chance to understand a particular subject and its particular disciplines. When I picked the periods of history and questions for KS3 to answer this year – and what a privilege that is, by the way! I’ve always felt this is one of the greatest joys of my job – I didn’t do it because it would help with KS4, or even KS5.

What I’ve picked will, of course, help with GCSEs, but that’s not the reason for my choices. Y7 will begin their study of history by considering how best to understand antiquity. In doing so they’ll learn about great civilisations, people, ideas, trade and ancient geography. These won’t turn up in their GCSEs (at present). But they will learn some great history.

In learning great history, rather than focussing on exam-style “skills”, whatever these are, they’ll actually be better prepared for their eventual exams. And whilst I do tend to plan backwards I do so in terms of knowledge and with university as my starting point, not GCSEs: I like to think about what I would have liked to know more about in my first year, and how that would have helped so many of my peers, all Nazi Germany’d up to the max.

So no, KS3 shouldn’t be designed with KS4 in mind. But if it’s interesting and culturally rich and seeks to strike that balance between breadth and depth, well: KS4 is more likely to fall into place.