Category Archives: Independent Learning

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!

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

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

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

Dear Quaran – teens,

It’s hard to get my head round that this is supposed to be the first week of the \Easter hols at my school. I’m typing from the garden wrapped up in a big scarf and admiring the cowslips. Still no word from the exam boards about what kind of evidence will need to be provided so for now it’s best to keep working on any assignments set by your teachers – including me. Thanks to the members of my GCSE classes who have already sent me their work today. Incidentally if you have papers from your mocks or marked assignments to hand, it might be a good idea to put them altogether in an envelope to send to your teachers, should they need them.

This limbo phase is particularly hard but you have some control over it.

Yes you do!

You can choose to make it easier for your teachers when they have to award assessment grades.

How?

By providing them with the evidence rather than going to ground and hoping for the best.

Once the evidence collecting has happened you’ll be able to move on and choose whether to expend your energies revising for those optional exams in the Autumn (possibly) or preparing for sixth form or college (definitely more fun). Don’t worry. I have plenty of help to offer you when that time comes.

Other classes – have a holiday and prepare yourself for some exciting project work at the end of April. Those of you who missed the deadline for last week’s work. Where were you? I hope you and your families are well. keep in touch especially if you are struggling with the inevitable upheaval.

Members of the Lower Sixth? Yes, it is the Easter vacation and yes you deserve a holiday too. You’ll be coming back to remote lessons for a few weeks afterwards remember, so keep your work ticking over. You’ll never have a better opportunity to fully immerse yourself in a genre of literature during the whole of your A Level course. Read, watch films, check out documentaries, share ideas, keep in touch. Make the most of it.

So let’s move onto today’s mini-victories. No coughing or high temperatures in the house, successfully avoiding spring cleaning the bathroom for another day by pottering around the garden, sowing some beetroot, making a delicious soup, marking essays on duplicity in Macbeth and clearing out my work bag. Small achievements to be proud of.

No, of course I didn’t complete everything on my list.

What have you been up to?

Mrs S

Home Learning – the new normal

Dear Quaran-teens,

Week two of lockdown.

I’ve done a lot of gardening and a lot of school work. It’s been great to hear from all my GCSE students and a fair few others. It’s pretty clear that trying to replicate the school day, whilst initially a good idea to establish routine in the midst of uncertainty, is not a long-term solution. Factor in the inevitable uncertainty about what happens now about calculating your grades (for Year 11 and 13) or exactly when you’ll be back at school (for everyone else) and it’s nigh on impossible. If I’ve taught you anything, it’s that too much screen-time is never a good thing, a little bit of what makes you happy is essential and that a teacher’s role is to light the touch paper whilst you fan the flames. With all that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how to handle the next few weeks, ace your independent learning journey and keep yourself and your families sane.

  1. Routine is important but make it flexible. So replicating the school timetable is a step too far, especially if you have intermittent internet connectivity and a shared pc, a number of siblings, parents who work from home and limited space. What you can do is get up at around the same time every day (trust me on this one!), create your own weekly timetable taking account of work that must be done, household chores, time to relax and be creative and time to catch up with friends or grandparents. Work in blocks, which could be moved around if circumstances change. When else are you going to be in charge of your own time? Step up to the challenge. Be proactive. Your parents will be delighted.
  2. Set manageable goals. These can be small but if you know what you want to achieve by the end of the day, you are likely to achieve it. Start with making your bed. If you can’t do that, how are you going to change the world?
  3. Teach yourself something then apply what you’ve learnt to your school work. When was the last time you wanted to get better at something? Learning to play the guitar, completing a Rubik’s cube in less than 30 seconds, sculpting a six-pack – whatever it was, you probably practised day after day, hour after hour. Back in the day I was a champion hoolahooper. Hours of surreptitious work after dark in my bedroom and popping down to the park with friends to hone my technique long before the days of YouTube videos. That’s the kind of behaviour to apply to your studies. Try to identify one area where you want to improve and apply the same strategy to that. Take some time every day to devote to improving in this one area.
  4. Stay connected One of the most challenging aspects of studying from home is feeling isolated. Keep in touch with your friends, classmates and teachers. Share the experience, ask questions, compare notes, divide up tasks between you and share the load.
  5. Be creative Creativity is one of the most underrated skills fostered in schools. These lockdown days are the perfect opportunity to right that wrong. Make something – it could be art, music, writing, cooking. Whatever it is, it’s good for you. Here’s why.

Until you know more about how teacher assessment is going to work for GCSE and A Level grades keep doing the work set by your teachers. If you are in other years at school, don’t forget to make a distinction between weeks when you would have been on Easter vacation and those when you would have been at school. Everybody needs a holiday but a permanent holiday is no good thing. Balance is everything.

Keep in touch.

Mrs S

School’s Out

I may have wished for my independent learning program to have a real impact but I NEVER expected most of the children in the UK to have to develop their independent learning skills quite so quickly.

What a week! In the strange world of Social Distancing,this is my classroom for the foreseeable future whist I am teaching remotely. School’s out for now – for me, the students I teach and my own three children who have returned home early from Uni or had their A levels and GCSE exams cancelled. But the learning can’t stop.

This blog started as a way of documenting my school-based project but I’m repurposing it into a way for me to stay in touch with my students and offer some support to them through the uncertainty of the next few weeks and months. I’m going to try to offer hints and tips for any ‘quaran – teens’ to make the most of learning independently. So spread the word if you feel it helps.

Let’s do this.

Growing Effective Independent Learners

My research project is ready to launch. I’ve spent the last term reading, researching and making contact with senior leaders in other schools about workable strategies that they use to improve outcomes for students without putting the students, themselves or their staff under unnecessary pressure. Easy gains is what I’m after. Different and smarter ways of working – not putting in extra hours. There is a heap of excellent research-based learning out there and that has informed the design of my program.

It’s a pilot, under construction with some year groups, whilst proceeding apace with others. I have a team of teachers across all departments working with me, some handpicked by me and other volunteers. We have vision, bags of energy, a determination to create something worthwhile for the teachers and the students at the school – and home-baked cake. Having established level descriptors for reporting on independent learning and devised some tutorial materials, now we’ll be looking at the great activities that are already happening in the school to promote independent learning and finding ways to share and celebrate them all.