Author Archives: countrygate

About countrygate

seedsower, firelighter, mother of three

An Inspector Calls

“We are all members of one body,” declares the eponymous inspector in a play that has been a set text since I was taking my O Levels, back in the dark ages. I’m gearing up to teach it again this Autumn. I never tire of it. Every class brings a slightly different perspective and I have developed the kind of expertise and automaticity in teaching it that makes lessons engaging and learning deep. It’s what every teacher strives for.

Teaching is a team sport – and never more so than when we return to the classroom in September. With teachers moving between ’bubbles‘ of students rather than waiting at the door of their classroom to greet their charges and tutoring responsibilities temporarily assumed by the teacher of the first and last classes of the day there is a shared responsibility vibe that can only be good for the profession as a whole. I have long been an advocate for shared resources and collaborative working. Some of the most successful exam prep we did with our GCSE students last year (when the exams actually happened!) was to take the whole year group through scripted walk-through papers in real time, with each member of the department leading on one of the questions on the paper. We also took charge of one of the set texts and ran masterclasses and revision sessions. The feedback from students was really positive. They said they felt they were part of a team effort to get them over the line, rather than working in isolation. For teachers it cut our workload considerably as we only had to prep one set text and one question on the language paper for revision. It’s an idea I want to embed in our approach to A level teaching in my new school – shared resources, collaborative preparation and planning, making the most of teacher expertise, building a team ethos…

One of the negative aspects of teaching from home or only going in to school occasionally when you’re on the rota basis is the feeling of being isolated. There has been so much teacher-bashing in the press recently that we need to build each other up more than ever. There is talk of OFSTED visiting schools in September to ensure that they are getting students back on track after the lockdown. Some of the teachers I know are already dreading this ‘last straw’. But they are marketed as ‘visits’ rather than ‘inspections‘. I hope this marks a turning point where OFSTED acts (and is perceived as) a supportive critical friend who listens to teachers, makes them feel valued, recognises their professionalism and rewards their hard work and flexibility. Inspector Goole championed the ‘hopes and dreams’ of the ‘millions of John Smiths and Eva Smiths’. Let’s hope OFSTED does the same for teachers.

Creative thinking

Pembrokeshire coast

I’ve been caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of too much schoolwork and all the home chores I wanted to catch up with in the first week of the summer holiday – achieving not very much in either sphere. No surprises there! When you’ve been working from home since late March, the lines become somewhat blurred. It’s hard to know where to focus the limited energy you have left after spending hours on Zoom. Time to get away and give myself space to recharge and rethink. Cue a few days away beside the sea in Pembrokeshire, walking, reading and spending time with those I love. Yes, the very ones I’ve been holed up at home with for three months.

I never fail to return from a holiday with some ideas for lessons, a determination to maintain a healthy work-life balance and renewed vigour with which to tackle the pile of work which is waiting for me. Usually I have an idea for a novel too – but that’ll have to wait until I’m retired. This time I took a break from my phone too and social media, with which I have had a less than easy relationship of late.

Twitter has provided the most marvellous group of people for me to get to know over the years – gardeners and teachers mostly. I’ve magpied some fabulous resources for lessons. Since lockdown I have indulged in hours of really useful professional development – all free of charge. But I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the rise of the edu-celebrity tweeter. By this I mean a group of teachers (or ex-teachers) who are never short of an opinion (or a book to market), retweet and recommend each other as experts and have lost a little humility and kindness in the way they engage with other teachers, especially those who hold different opinions and have different ways of working. Perhaps it’s a given when you have part-time celebrity status on the echo chamber that is Twitter? having Saudi that, the gardeners I follow – professional and amateur are never less than generous and humble in their interactions. I know that gardening brings happiness whereas teaching sometimes does not. It’s true!

A break has allowed me to curate my Twitter feed – an excellent idea on a regular basis. Muting the white noise has given me space.

Space to be creative is just as important for students as it is for their teachers. I’m so glad that summer school is not a ‘thing’ around here. After weeks of Zoom teaching and work packs from school and the media-hyped idea that the current cohort were the ‘lost generation‘ blighted by three months of home-learning in its various guises, these students need a break too. Just as I encourage my daughter and her friends to continue with netball training on a Tuesday, even when there is a test the next day, the summer holidays is a much-needed time to recharge the batteries, organise yourself for next term and approach your courses with a more creative mind.

Here are my top tips for students who want to be more creative In their approach to their studies when they return to school.

  1. Establish some rituals. If you get up at the same time every day, check your emails or instagram feed at certain times, exercise on the same evenings every week, this will become second nature and you’ll free up time to be creative.
  2. Have fun, connect with others, especially those who have different ideas to you. Be open-minded and kind.
  3. When thinking about solutions to problems believe that there are no bad ideas. Don’t self-filter. Jot everything down as viable. Then think through the options.
  4. Watch films and read books – especially the read books bit.
  5. Exercise and do it alone, without music and your phone at least some of the time. Silence and exercise = creative energy.
  6. Practice devotion not discipline. The former has more of a positive vibe.
  7. Learn to love lists. Unloading your cluttered mind onto paper is another beneficial way to shift a creative blockage.
  8. Know when your peak work moments are. These are the times when you are at you most creative. Leave the mundane jobs for when you’re more tired.
  9. Create something every day. Practice makes perfect. Sowing a seed which will become a beautiful plant, making the best scrambled eggs on toast you can, knitting -yes, I know. Me recommending knitting – anything you’ve made is beneficial to your mental health and your creative confidence. If you can do something small then the next step is much easier.
  10. Do it now. This is about having the confidence and an open-minded approach to allow you to take risks, have a go, avoid the shackles of perfectionism.

I’m going to follow my own advice starting today.

Why doodling in class is good for you.

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What an adventure it is to venture into a teenager’s bedroom to retrieve their washing  or a pile of mugs. Sometimes the surprises you get are rather pleasant however, like today when I happened upon a beautifully organised A4 notepad containing a set of notes on the opening chapters of ‘The Great Gatsby’. What’s more, it was a Cornell notepad, the best £5.99 I ever invested pre-lockdown to support said teenager rationalise the volume of notes she was making whilst revising for GCSEs, now repurposed for A level preparation.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about note-taking. Lockdown has afforded me the time and energy to do a oodles of online CPD. Hours of the best teacher development I have EVER undertaken and so I have notebooks full of excellent advice to share with my colleagues and students.

I’ve started writing a manual to support the A level English students at my new school get off to the best possible start to their A Level studies, when we return to face-face teaching in September. It will be supported by some Loom videos – because, frankly, teachers are now pretty expert at teaching online as well as in person. It’s uber-sensible to have the wherewithal to switch seamlessly between the two. And why wouldn’t you give yourself the pleasure of being able to say “here’s the link to what I covered in class” for anyone who is absent or ‘here’s what I would have taught if I wasn’t suffering from laryngitis’  to a supply teacher in November.

Handwritten notes are the bread and butter of the knowledge- acquisition part of A Level courses. In fact the knowledge-communication part (the end of course exams) is handwritten for most students too, so it makes sense to get as much practice as possible with a pen and paper.

Take a look at  this article on the reasons why you shouldn’t use a laptop or tablet to take notes in class. I’d long suspected that ditching the tech and engaging in the physical act of writing engaged the parts of the brain that make sense of the information you receive and that you listen more actively if you are having to summarise the lecture notes in your own words or images (ideally both).

Doodlers, list-makers, Cornell-note takers you rule the world – or soon will. And yes, here is the proof that you should turn off the tech and reconnect with the real world some of the time, at least. Live in the moment but plan for tomorrow is one of my mantras. Handwriting your notes allows you to do both. Job done!

Work-life balance

 

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It’s been hard to get the balance between work and home life right in lockdown. And as this has eased, many teachers have continued to do most of their teaching online from home right up to the end of the Summer term. Being a teacher means I seem programmed to work really hard for a few weeks at a time – often putting in 60+ hours a week – and then refuelling during the holidays. In the topsy-turvy world of COVID 19, I’ve had to change the way I teach entirely. It’s nigh on impossible to keep a healthy balance when your home is also your classroom and there’s SO MUCH to do. Even now that term has ended I am still finding it difficult to switch off, knowing that there is a lot of planning to do for the ‘new normal’ back in school in September – whatever that will look like. The same seems to be true for some of my students.

If we’re all to return to school refreshed and ready to move forward rather than exhaused and burnt out, maintaining a healthy balance is vital. One of the better outcomes of enforced home-working is that I have been able to spend time every day in the garden growing flowers and a few veg and go for walks. Usually it’s confined to a snatched hour at the weekend or the school holidays. I am also far more efficient about my marking and should be able to give myself at least two evenings a week away from schoolwork.

It’s only taken me thirty years of teaching to achieve that. I love teaching and it is all-consuming but it is also a job. I was in danger of forgetting that. 

 

Rows and rows

After three month’s of on-line teaching, supporting students and their families, formulating centre assessment GCSE and A Level grades, thinking about a catch-up curriculum for those who have not been able to engage and formulating procedures for a safe return to school, this is the latest thinking from the Minister for Education to assist teachers.

Let’s be charitable and assume that Mr Williamson is stressing that teachers are professionals with voices that must be heard. They are in the best position to help students overcome the challenges of learning remotely over the past three months, away from friends and the usual learning routines, with varying levels of success and hugely different home lives, some untouched by Coronavirus and others suffering trauma of one kind or another. Teachers must be listened to and the way to do this is ……to rearrange the classroom furniture.

On this he may have a point. Any teacher whose classroom discipline is anything other than first rate will tell you that rows can engender a calmer atmosphere, affording fewer opportunities for low-level disruption and students being off task. If you have ample hips then movement around the room is easier, discussion can still take place and everyone can see the board. Equally, anyone who has spent time with young people will tell you that if they don’t want to listen, the shape and orientation of the classroom furniture matters little. His comments on rows started a bit of a storm and not a few blogposts on social media platforms, not least because it is a simple sound bite designed to show the Tory MPs to whom he was speaking that he’s tough on low level disruption  and that teachers have an easy job to sort it out. If teaching was as simple as shifting the furniture to get pupil attention there wouldn’t be so many teachers leaving the profession. Mr Williamson must know that. Mustn’t he? It’s just the other stuff is harder to fix. 

During the thirty years since I first set foot inside a classroom as a trainee teacher I have taught in rooms with desks in rows and in groups, in drama studios where there were no desks at all and even outside in the forest or school garden. I even tried out the ‘horseshoe of doom’ once, misguidedly thinking that this would encourage erudite discussion. In fact it just made it difficult to move around the room whilst providing ample opportunity for throwing bits of paper across the divide. When I shared a classroom and had to commute between sites half a mile apart, turning up at the same time – or later – than the students,  I inherited someone else’s layout – often different on consecutive days. It made me a more resourceful teacher and an advocate for effective partnerships. Teaching is a team sport, after all. Changing the layout of your room is a tiny part of engaging students who have missed out on a sizeable proportion of this year’s face to face teaching. There are more effective strategies and the common denominator is partnership.

Children and young people need

  • proper partnerships between parents and teachers, built on trust and mutual understanding of the difficulties faced on both sides
  • a safe classroom environment where children feel valued, clear routines are respected and expectations are reinforced by senior managers
  • an education secretary who works with the teaching profession, listens to their concerns and values their professionalism

Until this happens, where you put your desks is of little consequence.

Live today, plan for tomorrow

In the interests of balance and practising what I preach to my students I’ve taken a few days off over Easter. Since the lockdown started in the UK, I have worked every day to get on top of new ways of teaching, complete marking and give feedback quickly to my students and consider processes for rank ordering my GCSE students and sending grades off to the exam boards. Whilst social media is full of friends spring cleaning and redecorating their houses, revamping their gardens, organising helpschemes for neighbours, coordinating volunteers to make scrubs for hospital workers, distribute palletloads of donated Easter eggs or just feeling bored, my life has changed very little, except that I’m doing it from home with all my family around me. Switching off and leading a balanced life is SO important.

Now that the Easter weekend is over, it’s full steam ahead to prepare for next term – teaching remotely but with one eye on returning to school before the end of term. I’m in the process of revamping the independent learning programme I introduced at the start of the year and organising some activities for our remote INSET day next week.

It’s a lot of work but the opportunity to rethink and redraft my original ideas is a positive. Proof that the best learning happens when you take some risks, recognise any mistakes you make, embrace them and are flexible enough to change and try something different. Students take note. When I finish the program, not only will I have learned a lot about myself and my leadership but there might be a book about independent learning in this.

If I can find the time to write it.

Challenges

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Dear Quaran-teens,

You know my expectations are always high but a modern day King Lear might be a step too far. If you were due to sit GCSE or A Level exams in a few weeks, you may be feeling a bit lost. I get that. Even last week your teachers may have been setting you work to complete before there was publication on Friday of the mechanism for teacher assessment.

You may well find that your school gives you the opportunity to sit some semi-formal open book assessments to mark the end of your GCSE and A Level courses. They may well get you started on preparing for your A Level or degree courses.

But what if you’re still at a loose end? What happens over the next few days and weeks?

First have a break. Be kind to yourself. Take stock.

Then get stuck into a new project.

If there is a last hurrah of GCSE and A Level type assessments you’ll be sent details over the next few days. I’ll be working on a preparation package for my GCSE students who are intending to study English at A Level. In the meantime, why not try these challenges, shared by the school my own children attend and slightly reimagined by me? Even your parents might like to join in.

I’d love to hear how you get on.

Mrs S

Not going out

Dear Quaran – teens

Wouldn’t we all love to pop up a mountain like Julie Andrews on a day like this? There has been a lot of talk in the press and on social media about people breaking the lockdown and the social distance rules, getting out an about in the glorious weather this weekend. It won’t surprise you to hear that much of the criticism is levelled at young people. Hardly fair.

My own daughter is bemoaning the fact that we can’t do our usual picnic and jaunt round Stourhead on Palm Sunday today.

Another friend who was planning a family trip to New York and Washington over the Easter hols has come up with an ingenious way of going on their trip. Their entire itinerary (all first class of course) is posted online from their settee. Museums, art galleries, monuments, even restaurants and shops are posting virtual tours online and these are going up for us all to share in the trip with them, along with one or two photoshopped prints. Yesterday they rode down fifth avenue in a pink limousine. Like I said, boredom fosters creativity.

How you cope with the strange world we are now living in is up to you. Where are you on this diagram? I’m in the learning zone heading straight towards growth.

Keep in touch.

Mrs S

Lockdown opportunities

Dear Quaran-teens,

Most Thursday nights I’m either watching my daughter play netball, in rehearsal for a play or catching up on my marking. Last night I sat down with a glass of wine and watched a live theatre production streamed to my pc – One Man, Two Guvnors – which I hadn’t found time or money to see before. What a treat. Next Thursday it’s the National Theatre’s innovative production of Jane Eyre, another one I had wanted to see but couldn’t at the time. (Blocked by a marking avalanche, I expect!)

Lockdown is not all bad.

There are umpteen opportunities whilst we are on an enforced absence from school that will make me a better teacher and you more independent and resourceful students.

I’ve done more reading and signed up for some free on-line courses on approaches to teaching drama and poetry and one about how we learn. Things I wouldn’t have had the headspace to research or follow a few weeks ago. I’m teaching my middle son to cook before he heads off to Uni (we hope) in the Autumn and my days have a new rhythm – work until early afternoon, then doing exercise or chores around the house and garden. In the evening I embark on something creative.

I hope by now you have found a new rhythm of life too. For GCSE and A Level students there’s a little more clarity about how your grades will be calculated and hopefully the ability to relax, move on and set yourself up for a fresh start in sixth form, college or University in the Autumn.

Boredom breeds creativity. Being stuck at home is a real chance to develop your creative abilities, a skill which employers rate highly and feel is in decline in job applicants. It said so in today’s press. And while you shouldn’t believe everything one reads in the newspapers on this one they can be trusted.

Keep in touch with each other and your teachers.

Mrs S

New projects

Dear Quaran-teens,

In the strange world of social isolation and the no-man’s land of ‘what do I do now that my GCSEs and A Levels have been cancelled?’, it’s easy to lack a sense of purpose. This popped up in my timeline earlier from the English and Media Centre. I’d recommend it to any students who are thinking of studying English Literature at A Level or existing A Level students who love a bit of close reading.

Something to get your teeth into, hone your writing and close appreciation skills and get to read one of my favourite Bronte novels. Okay – just a small part of it but once you start you’ll want to read the rest. Trust me on that one.

And if you win you’ve earned yourself some cash.

What have you got to lose?

All details here.

Let me know how you get on.

Mrs S