The Quest is on…

One of the strangest ironies for me as a Teacher of English is my perennial inability to actually finish a book more than about three to four times in a calendar year. Most of my days and evenings are consumed with school-related stuff and I don’t give over enough time to engage in ‘reading for pleasure’. Although, in the current climate of self-isolation, I have managed to start realigning my priorities and I am reading more, as well as often. This, in itself, is liberating and inspiring.

And thus, it happened, this morning. I finished off a volume started in the depths of a not so freezing winter and I wanted to briefly share my thoughts on ‘Go Ahead In the Rain – notes to A Tribe Called Quest’ by Hanif Addurraqib. Divided neatly into twelve chapters, Hanif sets out an enduring tale of love for his favourite hip hop group. Published in 2019, this volume is composed of part biographical detail set against personal and often soulful reflections upon his lifetime affection for a quartet that heavily influenced his musical listening over three decades.

Including open letters penned for individual members, the format is disarmingly honest and emotive without ever becoming hagiographic in approach. Most of all, however, Hanif dwells on the magic of the music that often became obscured by the rifts and divisions between the two frontmen, Phife Dawg and Q Tip. This is music created by brilliant minds, using samples from five different tracks to compose a single drum track, forming architecture ‘based on extending the sounds laid by other hands‘.

Hanif proclaims the history of hip hop on the East Coast of America, through a travelogue incorporating the sounds and voices of different influencers within the burgeoning Native Tongues movement: Queen Latifah, The Jungle Brothers, Black Sheep and De La Soul to name but four. Hanif describes the mindset in this way : ‘To be aware that your presence in a space is political is to sometimes assume and take on the responsibilities that come with that presence, whether or not you feel as though you should have to.‘ This generates a sense of responsibility, a feeling of community, a desire for change through clear expression of thoughts and ideas, seeking a way forward, a way to progress. I remember those times myself when I was falling deeply in love with the myriad levels of connection that rap and hip hop were throwing into my headspace. All I heard was a celebration of possibilities.

I wasn’t aware of the developing tensions between Tip and Phife, which Hanif details with enormous sensitivity and a growing sense of dread. He does this with skill and aplomb, charting the meteoric rise and fall of the Tribe over seven short years, from being feted and producing some of the most influential albums of the mid 1990s to disappearing into relative obscurity before rising from the still glowing ashes with a fist pump of a swan song, released just as Trump took malicious hold of the Presidency.

Sadly, those tensions altered the rhythm, put the skids on that meteoric rise, projected an ending before it was warranted. Adopting a fan’s persona allows Hanif to display honest, naked emotion and palpable regret, not only at the group splitting due to creative differences between Phife and Tip but at the subsequent, all too early demise of Phife himself due to complications with diabetes. Yet the tone is eternally hopeful, never self-pitying ; in fact, it remains celebratory and defiant till the bittersweet end.

Hanif is a fan, a true fan and this shines through, golden and undaunted through every sentence, a perfect homage to an almost perfect hip hop group who could not quite make it all the way but deserved to. Whether or not you are a fan of the music itself, this tale, true indeed, leaves the reader feeling inspired and energised, eager to explore new avenues of sounds, just like the Tribe did and still do.

ResearchEd Brum – a journey towards enlightenment in 2020 and beyond…

Inspiration has the potential to be eternal, fill one’s soul with hope for the future and allow you to haul yourself out of your peaceful slumber on a daily basis. Inspiration can be found in many places : a waterfall, the new born baby’s yawn, a freshly sprung leaf on the branch of a tree that has been helping us to breathe for however many years, the smile on the face of a sloth, the films of Truffaut, Shane Meadows and the Coen Brothers. Yet, most of all, inspiration comes from the company of others, discussion, discovery of new ideas and opinions, arguments for and against and the hubbub of mutually agreeable conversation.

As I swept smoothly into Birmingham New Street station on Saturday morning, I knew, for the second time in five months, that I would seek inspiration and find it, in spades, forks, soil bags and whole damn allotments. So, here is my real CPD, in the company of strangers who can just as easily become friends and some of whom now are : I still find that bizarre, incongruent yet brilliant that I can meet people that I have communicated with online in person and they are so accepting, loving and welcoming. It’s a bit like a merry go round, in slow motion, that never stops and you can have some more candy floss and throw a smile into the ether and someone catches it for you and stops you from falling or feeling lonely. That’s what it is like when I am with some of those twitter educators : these people who are so brilliant, furiously intelligent, yet so magnificently generous with their time both on and off line.

So I arrived at Nishkam High School, just in time to catch the end of Claire Stoneman’s opening introduction, swiftly followed by her partner in crime, Andy Brown, the Assistant Principal at the school. All set up for Amanda Spielman , Ofsted Chief Inspector and her key note speech. I took notes, loads of them, but I’ll try to keep it relatively brief.

What emerged instantly was how engaged she is with the research community. I cannot imagine Wilshaw ever being as approachable. She emphasised that Ofsted wants to work ‘with’ (not against) schools. ‘Stuck schools’ were her starting point, making it clear there were no substantial differences between those who are stuck or unstuck ; it is just that the level of advice may have been too much, well-intended but without the intended impact. In order to create positive change, the content of any such support must be focused and direct.

She covered ITT and the need for efficiency in a well-sequenced curriculum, taking account of the needs of novice teachers ; a ‘below the radar’ report about low level disruption and how to determine what good behaviour looks like ; and moves towards making CPD more intellectually satisfying, acknowledging that it needs sustained support with opportunities for teachers to develop professionally and personally.

Her speech felt supportive, encouraging and welcome in light of our dear PM’s move towards no notice, 3 day inspections – just to add to teachers’ already substantial workload!  What a catch and a favourable reflection upon the ResearchEd movement and its important, progressive, forward-thinking approach.

Following this keynote, off I went to a number of subject specific presentations. In hindsight I wish I had mixed things up a little more but I felt the need for more subject knowledge, especially because I am just a humble classroom Teacher of English and my current focus is on self-improvement.

First in line were Prof Malberg and Dr Wiegand, both from Birmingham University and joint creators of a fascinating and fantastic website which is FREE to all users and offers support in the way of resources for English teachers of 19th century novels at both GCSE and A level. I picked up on corpus linguistics and concordance – linked to the number of occurrences of a specific word in a text – as well as co-location [i.e. some words like each other more – really, that is a true WOW moment for me : like, certain words are actually drawn, inexorably, physically towards one another? Yes, it seems.] Go the free web app called for more information and free, yes FREE, resources. There are myriad possibilities here – from classroom activities, help with homework, to lesson planning and links to NEA projects as well.

After this eye opener came the Panel chat – I am afraid I cannot remember all of the names of the speakers but there were four with a charismatic, cheerleading chairperson. Whilst there was a lot to take on board, some juicy soundbites emerged, such as cultural capital not just being a ‘list of what is best known’ but, as so delightfully expounded by Nimish Lad, ‘the route to truth‘ ; that education is about ‘changing lives and advancing civilisation’ and that good teaching involves conceptual understanding, over time, which becomes broader and deeper. Further discussion centred upon implementation under the new Ofsted framework, that it should not lead to mimicking or mutations and that subject communities should be encouraged in Universities, linked to ITT, with guaranteed access to subject knowledge and cultural capital. The overall feeling was that students need to know what it is or means to be good in certain subjects.

My second session was led by Tom Needham, an all round research geek who applies all the cognitive science in his classrooms, whose aim was to develop 6 propositions to the Application of Theory. There actually turned out to be 8; however, he genuinely thought that he couldn’t fit them all in. Well, he did! Starting from the basis that learning is a change in long term memory, he took his audience on a whistle stop tour of recap quizzes, retention, recap lessons, explicit instruction[EI] being superior for novices linked to direct instruction itself. The latter supposes that fully guided is better than ‘discovery’ learning, since such EI requires ‘attention driven’ effort on the students’ behalf and translates into teaching ‘from the front’ with whole class, teacher-led instruction.

Other propositions included : novices use thinking skills whilst experts use knowledge; for examples to be most effective, they must be accompanied by a problem to solve; thinking reading [i.e. drawing correct inferences and acquiring good background knowledge] as to which Ed Hirsch commented that any reading comprehension requires knowledge of words and – importantly – the World. This same proposition links to the building of background knowledge. Tom explained this very bluntly as – ‘teach them stuff and get them to apply it, without endlessly devoting practice to inferring.’ He managed to briefly cover comparative judgment, a much faster and more reliable way of marking essays and, finally, whole class feedback.

So, in essence, this talk was designed to confirm to us teachers that the best route is the most direct one, as research explains : it is fine to stand at the front, provide the requisite  knowledge in your given subject and show students how to write well-crafted responses without falling into cognitive overload territory.

Next up, more intellectual, mind-expanding discourse with Marcello Giovanelli and the fascinating title of ‘What is Cognitive stylistics?’ Something until Saturday morning that I had never heard of, if I am being totally honest. This title incorporated the mind-enhancing  duopoly of conceptual metaphor theory and text world theory and started with the simple proposition that reading a text amounts to engaging with language. This dived into the word-rich waters of metaphor referenced by using one ‘domain’ of knowledge to explain another – and there was me thinking it was when you say something is something else but not literally!

We were then treated to different images representing different schema and different contexts for metaphors which led neatly into text world theory which propounds reading as a ‘navigation’ process, which I really really love, very much indeed. Essentially, your mental representations come from different knowledge and backgrounds. By the end, I felt cleverer, also slightly dumbfounded, yet thirsty for more. Respect due, genuinely, for providing the opportunity to engage with extracts by Shakespeare and Keats with some teaching ideas and selected reading as a most welcome addition. Deep joy indeed – I now want to return forthwith to University to perform a second degree, yes please…

Lunch came, as promised, consisting of a fruity, spicy curry and the opportunity to chat to friendly strangers : like at every education conference I have attended in the last couple of years.

The afternoon’s final presentation came courtesy of the inestimable Chris Curtis, entitled ‘Talk your way to excellent writing.’ There is so much to communicate here, apt, since the whole session centred upon the spoken word. He posited an opening thesis that the majority of the curriculum misses out on ‘talk’ and that we rely on doing reading and writing in our lessons because we can control those two disciplines. Although talk is both MESSY and NOISY, it is an area where we can become more passionate and can be used carefully to UNLOCK boys where they obtain SPACE to talk about and articulate an idea.

Chris proceeded to flesh out his already enticing argument by contrasting girls and boys : girls are aware of the sequence [using highlighters helps here!!] and boys are very task-orientated – it’s all about the end result! He later employed a lovely phrase – ‘the green shoots‘ – that relates directly to the showing of potential. The proposition is to arrange precise, short term goals that are achievable but thrive on being prioritised as important and timely. Having the ‘green shoot’ helps to motivate and English does not have to be ‘all about writing.’

Developing this appealing train of thought still further, Chris opined that teachers need to challenge the Question Answer Response method [QAR], slow things down and ask students to question them instead. His words: ‘talk takes time / it takes probing / it takes questioning.’ We don’t have to like an idea and quickly move on. We can dwell, linger, reflect, expand, journey with it, until we have started to exhaust our options. It then leads to the nature of questioning in order to extend ideas and thought processes. Chris suggests, quite properly, that we link questions to dialogue, with command verbs like EXPLAIN, CLARIFY, DEFINE, ARGUE and CONSIDER ; it comes down to working with functionality. This eventually leads to automaticity, steering away from false confidence but a ‘build up’ is needed to reach this point.

This talk proved to be both inspiring and emotional to me, since I was reminded of my own teenage son who currently finds it close to impossible to express how he feels and meaningful conversations are limited. Yet, this is how Chris finished his wonderful talk and left me reeling at new possibilities towards self-expression:

‘Talk is messy, dirty, chaotic but it is the thing we are missing out – if you can speak it, you can write it!!’

This, so it seems, is what we must all try to do, regardless of our subject discipline.

And so, back to the Main Hall at Nishkam High School to be calmly confronted by the seer-like Christine Counsell, present to talk with authority and extreme interest on the twin topics of curriculum and research. It carried the sub-title of ‘the retrieval of what‘ and spent the first ten minutes providing a captivated audience of close to 750 teachers with a history lesson based on storytelling in its purest form. There is a need for contextual knowledge when we are trying to open up ‘ancient worlds’ for students, that myths and legends have power and that we need to tackle texts as a whole, interrogate it, take historical critical thinking seriously.

Curriculum is what? The deliberate crafting of readiness – how elegant is that?  Oh my, I made so many notes! Curriculum needs to be critical and disciplinary. There are four things that need to be tackled, head on : SCOPE, RIGOUR, COHERENCE and SEQUENCING. Naturally, she tackled each with clarity and focus, underpinned by control and sensitivity.

The ‘what’ is far from obvious and surfaces through subject sensitivity. So, context can include crowded scenery and the density of meaning creates a sound world of music. Yes!  The curriculum must be VALIDATED, CONTEXTUALISED, TRANSCENDED ; we must have a sustained and critical conversation with the content, subject teachers need to be informed on the debate, need to be lovers of content, having a living relationship with it. This, yes, this!

There was so much to admire here : pace, delivery, conviction. And presence, such presence.

And Claire Stoneman’s closing remarks, well I rushed to scribble them down, so you can revel in their significance:

‘We need joy and beauty, to think, craft and design. We need to have cradled ideas in our hands, wrestled [with them], handled [them] and put aside to consider. They shine a light: to help us think, question and reflect and consider our profession. 

The more we know, the more we see.

It is, indeed, because of people like Christine, Claire and all of the amazing speakers who presented without payment that I am so proud to have left one profession to join another where I feel moments of transcendence, being amongst like-minded souls, people who care, who want the best for students, who want to improve their practice and attend these more frequent gatherings to do just that. Words like these above and many others shared with hundreds of teaching fellows are what we cling onto, when we are beset by data drops and deadlines for marking. We cling onto the reasons we do what we continue to do. It gives us purpose and, if 700 plus of us want to take time out from our busy lives to be together to learn, reflect and come away inspired and eager, then who needs to question that choice?