Reflecting upon my first ResearchEd experience

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I covered those 50 miles from my address in Oxfordshire in good time, relaxed and bubbling with anticipation for new knowledge, new experience and to finally meet some of the Team English luminaries. The fact that this was happening on a Saturday, during term time and that I was one of perhaps 300 others who thought it worthwhile giving up their free time, is testament to the high regard in which these events are held by teachers around the UK and other parts of the globe.

Organised by Sam Strickland, the principal of The Duston School, and his band of – as he sweetly referred to them – CIA agents, this acted as a coming together of expert front line teachers and educators with the distinctive aim of showing what evidence-based research and experience looks like in the classroom. It was, indeed, a day to be in awe of other people’s minds and the free exchange of ideas : concrete, brightly-coloured, sensible and workable ideas.

On a personal level, the £30 I forked out to attend is possibly the most efficient use of my funds since I last had a hip hop CD splurge on Amazon. I also felt so incredibly fortunate and blessed to be amongst other humans who care so deeply about education and its immediate future. When I was a lawyer, before my almost Damascene conversion to teaching, I had to rack up 18 hours a calendar year in order to justify my practising certificate. Most of the courses, except for the last few years, involved sitting at a desk absorbing huge amounts of information about new cases and statutes and depressing statistics about lack of funding in the legal aid system. After those courses, which cost the firms I worked for about £250 a pop for 6 hours CPD, I would line the notes up neatly on a shelf and, generally, not look at them again.

Now, events like this are an opportunity, a breath of very fresh air, a place for my mind to expand and be surrounded by fellow enthusiasts eager to update and stretch our wings a little further still. All the sessions gave me a boost, some felt like rocket fuel, all made me question myself yet also realise that I am doing something right, day by day, lesson by lesson, starter by starter, greeting by the door every lesson. Most of all, though, I found myself smiling a lot, and broadly ; and, in one session, I wanted to pinch myself and found my eyes welling up with a feeling of release and pure, unalloyed HAPPINESS. Yes, happiness at the possibilities that abound for my teaching and the teaching of others by being willing to take a risk, delve deeper, rearrange methods a little and look at things from a fresh perspective.

Today reinforced my belief that teachers can change the world and make a difference because they actually bloody care about the students they teach and it’s not just about a pay cheque – although the holidays are very welcome, genuinely – it’s about stretching and trying to improve and being passionate about your subject and the reasons you are doing this fantastic, exhilarating and crazy job that is WAY more than just a job.

So, here’s a swift recap on my experience in each session:

  1. Matt Burnage presented effusively on Knowledge in the curriculum, citing Hirsch and proposed the three futures of education, the third of which appealed most to my fevered brow – knowledge as REAL, not static and set by academic discipline and a distinct quest for the truth, as exemplified by Michael Young. He expounded upon Subject communities and taking the opportunity to argue, discuss and debate what YOU want to teach your students.
  2. Kat Howard occupied the 6th Form Hub with serious aplomb, offering practical advice on how to improve her modelling of examples, yet being humble and honest enough to realise the mistakes she had made, which we ALL do, as we think we are imparting the all important knowledge to our students in the best way possible. It was beyond refreshing to hear someone speak with such candour about how she was grappling with the issues and making the whole process more accessible for students at all levels.
  3. Doug Wise spoke about his failures as a teacher from his NQT year to becoming Assistant Principal at The Duston School, where he currently teaches. His honesty, like Kat’s, had me nodding furiously in agreement. Mixing humour and humility, he provided clear evidence linking to his methods and how he has strived to improve year on year, whilst joking about his ‘mediocrity’ as a teacher : a cursory glance at his website or any of the resources he so selflessly shares via Dropbox and Litdrive will remind you that the thundering opposite is the case. Key quote – ‘Anxiety and discomfort are all vital for growth’ : he doth speak TRUTH!!
  4. Mark Quinn provided a fascinating insight into Improving outcomes for disadvantaged students through TAR [Teacher Action Research] where he worked with 8 teachers to discover the impact of research-based strategies on outcomes. It comes down to finding the ‘sweet spot’ through examining the sufficiency, validity and reliability of the findings. His research provided a clear exposition upon the power of research and made me contemplate how this methodology could be used more often in schools.
  5. Caroline Spalding is a whirlwind of focused and shining energy. Explaining the impact of motivation, cognition and metacognition on breaking down barriers to learning and creating EFFECTIVE learners, she introduced the ‘habit loop’ and seduced all those in rapt attendance with statistics about her Period 6 revision sessions attended by close to 90% of year 11s before the end of September – BOOM x10! She assaulted us with pithy bits of essential research and sparkling ideas that made so much bloody sense. She swore a bit as well and we loved it. We love the fact that we were being spoken to and amongst other teachers. It felt like a movement towards greatness. I could go on but it is getting late…either way, Mrs Spalding is a miracle of enthusiasm for actual, credible change that can truly IMPACT upon the lives of students and make them BELIEVE that they can ACHIEVE. Yes, that. And more.
  6. I have no notes on the last session because I was standing up and walking around the room for the vast majority of the time. Why? Leigh Wolmarans – who won’t read this, as he doesn’t do Twitter – is a force of nature, a drama teacher who clearly explained that everything we do and say is DRAMA. He was chatting with me about The Hulk and Star Wars outside before the session even started and he carried that ridiculous enthusiasm into his session. By the end, we were reading Shakspeare in different ways – loud, whispering, changing multiple directions due to punctuation and then going deeper and deeper into the essence of the WORDS without actually feeling like it was teaching. ‘All you need is a space’. I felt so inspired, so bloody lucky to be in that room, that the tears almost started to flow – tears of JOY and disbelief that I could be doing this now, here, considering how hard and almost insurmountable I found the whole PGCE and NQT process. I left with so much new found confidence.

To cap the day off, Christine Counsell delivered an astonishing, fairly jaw-dropping keynote address on the BREADTH of curriculum and why it matters SO MUCH. Her examples were focused and salient, her delivery breathtaking, entirely without notes, like an actual worthwhile politician in full flow. Focusing on schema, reading as an essential for life improvement and not allowing ANY student to be deprived of ANY opportunity. By the closing syllables, I sat in my seat, in quiet contemplation, abuzz with newness and hope.

Yes, I know I become a bit hyperbolic when recounting events but this stuff is crucial to everyone, every student, every molecule of thought. If we take this and run with it, give it a really good go and maybe fail some along the way, that is fine. At least we know we are trying ; and that is more than half the battle. Onwards to victory!

A stone for a pillow

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The end arrived and left as suddenly as a swift rain shower with a shockwave that reverberated in our hearts for the whole weekend ; still, it rumbles.

Our little family have been lucky enough to become sometime Lords in the land of moggies. Two fine feline friends blessed us with their presence for a goodly amount of time. Custard, our ‘first born’ left his shadow behind last September, after battling severe diabetes for over two years.

We moved from Devon to Oxfordshire and had to leave him behind with our wonderful cattery people, since we were renting and his bladder could simply not be trusted, especially without a cat flap on hand. He was put to sleep whilst we were only available on the end of a phone line. It was daunting and we were inconsolable for a while but the sadness turned to happiness as we returned to grateful memories of his sincerely loving personality : he may have suffered from dodgy fish breath but craved hugs and licks all the live long day. To this end, we often referred to him as a ‘cog’ or ‘dat’, so cunningly canine was he with his affections.

Cookie, our white cat – Custard was almost pure black with a little grey splodge tucked under his chin – travelled with us and settled in well to life in leafy Oxfordshire. Unfortunately, due to old age (she was 16 and a 1/2 when we moved) she started to do her duties in the wrong places so, somewhat disconcertingly, we had to purchase ‘puppy pads’ – such are the vicissitudes of life, even for animals.

Meanwhile, she really found her voice and we would often be greeted with chirrups and lots of chat, no doubt vying for our attention. When she roamed the garden in rural Devon, she would bring us warm-blooded gifts on an almost daily basis, sometimes several times a day : small mice, voles, even moles and whole rabbits – one was as large as her, in fact slightly bigger and she was engaged the whole morning consuming it, entirely devoid of seasoning but loving every last piece. That was pretty much what she left – a bit of an ear or paw was all that remained to remind the casual onlooker of her prey’s former existence.

By the time we had arrived in our present domain, Cookie was already taking regular medication for hyperthyroidism. Her liver and kidney levels were up and down like a slow motion yo-yo for several months but she seemed to be coping pretty well. Then the fits started.

The first happened late one evening whilst she was consuming some of her dry food, medicated to prevent renal failure. My wife started exclaiming ‘I don’t know what to do!’ and I rushed into the kitchen. Our white princess was choking and writhing on the floor for what seemed like minutes but was probably only 20 or 30 seconds. It ended and she emitted two, deep-throated screeches of pure bewilderment and confusion. Thereafter, she wandered about in circles for a quarter of an hour before settling in for the night.

I was convinced we would find her sprawled out, comatose or even dead on the floor later in the morning. But no… she wandered up to our room at the allotted time – around 6am – and greeted us with a vigorous ‘bree – up’ sound, like a sped-up wood pigeon. We carried on as before.

My wife encountered the second fit and we still carried on. Then, about a week ago, she experienced the third incident in about six weeks. This was perhaps the worst of all. Again, she was thrashing about like the hare in that Ted Hughes poem, and we were helpless to stop it, apart from gentle strokes to her delicate scalp. Eventually, she stopped shaking and the plaintive, gut-wrenching cry reared its ugly claws that said ‘What is going on? What is wrong? This isn’t fair. Make it stop!!’

On GCSE results day, I popped to the vets and they booked her in for a blood test. I travelled back with my wife last Friday. We arrived at 5.30pm. By 7.00pm, our cat was asleep, destined to never wake again. Cookie was severely dehydrated and would need to have fluids for up to 48 hours, then an ultrasound , followed by a possible operation if the vets discovered a growth on her liver. Her results were shocking – the reading for the thyroid was close to double again compared to July. All her other results were raised to dangerous levels.

Even as we are talking about her, she lay very low in her cat basket, unwilling to move; it was almost as though she knew what was about to befall her. The vet explained carefully and sympathetically that Cookie’s seizures were most likely linked to all the bad stuff going on inside her tiny, reduced frame – she weighed only 2.7kg.

We had always said that we wouldn’t put a 17 year old animal through a series of tests and procedures with no real positive outcome likely for her. So, we made the decision to have her gently put to sleep. In any circumstance, that was a hard, if necessary decision. You have to be pragmatic when your soul is searching frantically for an alternative : there was none, not really.

So my wife softly stroked her fur and her paw, whilst I stood around feeling helpless and both of us inconsolable. This was it – it was really happening, in front of us. Five minutes later and it was all over.

That evening, the next morning and over the Bank Holiday weekend, we have been out and about to Blenheim, some Roman Ruins and Hidcote House. Those trips have made things easier to bear. I know I haven’t yet suffered the loss of a parent, as so eloquently and heart-rendingly depicted by the wonderful Claire Stoneman in her recent blog posts. You can’t compare a family pet to a human. Yet, we had loved and cared for Cookie for the best part of 18 years and it was ending so abruptly.

Later, my wife described this loss we had experienced as akin to a small but significant change in our family dynamic. A presence that once inhabited our lives had departed and the silence left behind felt like an ache larger than than the world itself, at that moment. It is hard to describe but now there are fragrant memories to pocket away and bring out to generate sunshine in future days.

Having an animal in one’s life perhaps makes us more empathetic, more human, I don’t know for sure. All I know, as I write this, is that our lives are a little emptier than they were last week.

[PS -The title – in case you were wondering – refers to Cookie’s innate ability to fall asleep with unusual accessories to hand that could double up as a head rest…]

Quotes can start a revolution

It started with a quote – at least that’s how I remember it…

Essay writing for English in my secondary school was an exercise in exploration and significance. My teachers would exhort us to locate a pertinent and memorable quote and then launch into a discussion about how it all related and interlinked with the thoughts and ideas of the given author : whether that be Milton, Shakespeare, Henry James, James Joyce, Turgenev or the poetry of Dryden.

We would have spent fruitful hours listening to each other ruminating on the relevant themes, structure, language and overall meaning of a text before plunging [in my case] headlong into a – hopefully – insightful analysis of the writer’s craft. In those days, the heady 1980’s, there were no assessment objectives (AOs) that I was aware of. We just, literally, got on with it. So what did come before the actual ‘writing’ that leads, inevitably to a comment, observation, sympathetic critique and a grade? It was letters in those days ; numbers were for Maths.

Whilst reading from Grayson Perry’s hugely enjoyable ‘Playing to the Gallery’, a funny and clear-sighted exposition on contemporary art and how it can be understood in myriad ways, I came across this intriguing quote: ‘Memory and understanding are not purely intellectual processes. They are also very much emotional.’ This had me thinking, ruminating in the way I used to at school and do even more now I am teacher of English myself.

We are encouraged to explain the GCSE and A level AOs to our students, so that they can fit their responses neatly into the marking rubric – to an extent setting aside individuality on the altar of progress and grade chasing. I was never taught HOW to write a grade A essay, whatever that amounts to. I remember, clearly still, that I adopted a very subjective outlook when writing, allowing myself to become entangled in the sheer beauty of language, wrapped up in the lives of the characters and twisted into the fabric of the plot until I almost lost my breath. This certainly applied to Joyce, influential to me even now, some 30 plus years later. I lived for reading, inhaled words like the smoke from a strong cigarette, returning to the page, heart aflame, searching for more meaning than was maybe permissible. Why, you may ask? Because I was fully immersed and the emotional side in me was reacting, perhaps over reacting.

This is where Perry’s quote takes hold. Teaching to the text or exam is all very well but there has to be more to it. There may not be time in every lesson to slow things down and focus on the minutiae of a paragraph or an opening line. What we, as humans and teachers, have to strive for is to enable students to engage in that ‘great debate’ : not necessarily about what is or isn’t worthy of canonical status but what sets our hearts on fire and makes us look at a text from a number of different and fascinating perspectives.

A twitter disciple was waxing lyrical about ‘inspiration’ the other day. I feel that this quality is so important. Infusing a text, a novel, a play, a poem with significance and deep meaning helps us to feel inspired and to inspire our students : to make their time within the four walls of our classrooms become more than just knowledge but to form memories that are gilt-edged and golden, because we, as their teachers, allowed our own emotional responses to channel furtively into their spoken and written responses.

When I encounter a poem for the first time, I might be taken in by one line, one word, one little gobbet of structure. I might become caught up in the headlong rush of emotion. It might take me three readings before I start to understand it all. When I hear a new song, it could be the bass line, the lyric, the purity of spine-tingling vocal tumbling around in my head that captures the moment. I could return to a song I haven’t heard for a decade and I will be taken back to the moment I first heard it – the magic is reborn, over and again.

Being a teacher of any subject is a distinct and incredible privilege. Instructing upon content, retrieval practice and interleaving are all, of course, vitally important to learning and knowledge retention but we need to keep blowing students away with our own abundant and sometimes outrageous passion for our subject, so that they can tap into that emotion not just ‘in the moment’ but when they reflect upon the stage directions in ‘An Inspector Calls’ or the use of oxymorons in Romeo and Juliet’s speeches about the overwhelming power of love. That way emotion and memory have the unique ability to knit and intertwine. And if a student retains that emotional connection, one can further hope that will, in time, lend itself to more memorable and invested responses that stand out on the page, like beacons and satellites.

Edu Lit is on fire – ‘Boys can try harder!’

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Let’s get this straight from the start…

The first smile came with the subtle pun in the title ; I was instantly teleported back to my early teenage years, buying records in WHSmiths on Whiteladies Road, on the edge of the city, a supernatural semi-suburb within spitting distance of somewhere really special. Such was the romanticised lot of a young man struggling to find himself in an all-boys boarding school on the edge of Bristol. I think I later purchased the Cure’s smart punk debut when abroad, but its own title is more than merely prophetic…

Reading Matt and Mark’s keen memories about their own treatment at the merciless  hand of others of the same sex made me reminisce and realise that these types of memories linger beneath the surface and they help to make us what we are and become. Ridicule is how I remember it.

I’d left home, some 60 miles away, packed up to a middling male-dominated boarding school, plonked there at the tender age of 13. I was going through the system – pre-prep, prep, Common Entrance exams. I just went with the flow, stayed close to the middle of the road, always tempted to explore the verges, yet always holding myself back a little. Then the bullying started.

At first, it was name-calling, comments about my weight, my high-pitched voice, the usual stuff ; I can’t remember the exact detail. It hurt me, emotionally, then physically when the older boys- the ones who were meant to protect me, the ones I looked up to- started punishing me with pull ups on the iron stairways. Next came the wet towel flicking, the disparaging comments about your ‘nethers’, the punches, the harsh treatment. It became so unbearable that I considered leaving the school – self-expulsion from the gaping maw of nasty, painful macho behaviour. My soul was maybe too sensitive; I was a bit of a sissy, couldn’t handle the pressure. I found solace in prayer – it did really help at the time, took me out of myself.

One day, I spoke to a 6th former. He said to me, quite simply : ‘Don’t try be anyone else, be yourself’ [Frank Ocean’s mum says the same to him on one of the many interludes from his second album ‘Blonde. She repeats it, several times]. I stuck with that snatch of teenage philosophy and it really, really helped me. My fortunes changed and I progressed, gaining respect rather than derision, vowing never to treat others the way I was treated. Fast forward 5 or 6 years…

Chapter 8 hit me, hard. Entitled ‘Violence’, Matt’s kebab shop encounter brought a similar feeling of helplessness mixed with seething anger back to febrile life. I was 21, in Chester, crawling my way through Law school, on a night out with a male friend.  We were dancing, probably to some Andrew Weatherall remix of James or Happy Mondays. We were having fun. Arrayed round the dance floor, some sullen, slightly older males draped themselves over railings, pints in hand, looking vaguely menacing : not so vague as it turned out. Two of them casually approached us. One stood directly opposite me, eyeing me up, now with true menace, a pint glass by his side and the other hand going somewhere I wasn’t sure.

He stared at me. I asked him what had I done wrong. He moved towards me, he might have said something, I couldn’t really hear as the music was too loud. My friend escorted me out. Before you think that I was contemplating violence, rest assured that at that precise moment, I was in jelly legs mode, mixed with sharp pumps of adrenaline to every part of my frame. Matt’s story, his feelings of being ‘too scared to do anything’, feeling a ‘failure’, that is exactly how I felt.

After we left, I was close to boiling over with impotent rage: how dare some stranger ruin my evening, cause me to stop dancing? I wanted to go back into the club and have it out with him and his mates, even though I knew, again, that I would come away with more than just wounded pride. That memory is as real and hurtful to me now, some 29 years later, as it was on that foggy February night. Yes, I wanted ‘violent revenge’, just like Matt wanted ; yet, I lived with the shame and made myself feel better, over time, knowing that I was the one who did not lose control. It is one of those instances where you suddenly want to become imbued with super powers and be able to throw miscreants against the wall – it’s fantasy, of course, but haven’t we all, at some point, felt that?

Start making sense

Why have I told you this personal stuff about my past? I guess it is because ‘Boys Don’t Try?’ [BDT] is no ordinary book which gives rise to no ordinary response. It reads like a novel. That is rare in Edu land. I’ve bought loads of ‘education’ books over the last few years, most of which have ended up on the shelf looking very pretty but not being read. This, however, is something different, entirely. I’ve been tweeting after finishing every chapter and I can’t wait to start the next one. I feel like the veritable child in a sweet shop with the very best sweets on offer.

So what makes this volume so extraordinary? First off, it is incredibly well-researched, infused with anecdotes, covers so much subject matter and opens your eyes to the shocking behaviour of not just male students but staff towards other female members of staff. It engages with debates about single and mixed classes and reaches clear conclusions based on reasoned argument.

Did I also say it was hard to put down? I mean, nigh on impossible. It is informing my practice whilst reassuring me that I am doing the right things, most of the time. If I’m not, it is granting me wisdom and resources to help me to develop my existing thoughts and ideas.

Most of all, I genuinely love this book because it pulls no punches, is irrepressible, hugely approachable and could well end up being the equivalent of your best mate. Really. Again, why might this be, pray tell? BDT is raw, honest, reveals and revels in the author’s own insecurities and foibles whilst projecting palpable authority in everything that it espouses to the willing reader. You will be carried along, be dunked under the waves of revulsion that you encounter as you read, despairingly, about the despicable behaviour of some young people towards both sexes, peer and adult until you come close to retching! Yet, you will still emerge and feel buoyant and optimistic about the future of young men upon whom YOU can exert a positive and lasting influence.

Matt and Mark share alternate chapters and cross-refer to each other’s writing which lends it shape and singular purpose and keeps the reader alert as well. The 10 chapters cover relevant and prevalent issues such as Peer Pressure, Expectations – keep them MOUNTAIN HIGH ALL THE TIME – Violence [see above] and, perhaps most importantly, Mental Health. One statistic that floored me is that ‘in the UK, 75% of suicides are male’. The authors deliberately engage the reader with this harsh reality, since a lot of the thought processes that lead to young men contemplating taking their own lives are linked to extreme peer pressure along with pressure to conform to society’s ideals about what a male should do and be to become or feel accepted in the modern world.

This essential volume seeks to dispel those myths and offer alternatives, to consider the concept of ‘tender masculinity’ : that boys don’t have to be obsessed by sport and snogging and getting drunk but that we can, as teachers, be role models for male and female  students through modelling positive approaches to emotions and feelings and not become stuck in a joyless rut of just trying to fit in. This book proposes a revolution in thought and our projections about masculinity from the top down in those microcosms of society that we call SCHOOLS whilst firmly resetting our latent, gender biases.

Matt and Mark address teachers like me and many others when they say that ‘Education is a subversive act’ and that we can all CHOOSE to plan our lessons to ensure that EVERYONE is having a fair deal but, most of all, cause us to reflect upon how we can ensure that masculinity can convert to an overwhelmingly positive word both in the workplace and the real world outside the four walls of our classrooms.

This is a benchmark, a book I will return to again and again and which I unreservedly recommend to TA’s, NQTs, PGCE students, teachers, leaders and really anyone who is prepared to rethink how they view boys of all ages and help them to become the better men of our future society by embracing vulnerability and not settling for low expectations about what it means to be male in 2019.

Hugh Ogilvie