Sunday, 7 October 2012

Snake-wrangling in the Midlands

Ok, I know I said I'd focus on the Bard on this blog, but I'm female so I can be fickle. I've decided to digress again. I'll come back to Old Bill when I have more time to give him the pondering he deserves. 

So, what this time? Well, currently, my work environment is tough. I think that can be true of so many of us teachers at this moment in time. I arrived back to school in September fairly demoralised after the combined efforts of Gove and Ofqual made the two years of totally hard graft of myself and the pupils appear to mean nothing.  That was not a great start. 

In September, we began under a worrying and black cloud. At the moment, things are compounded by some tricky work politics. It would be ludicrous of me to divulge the whys and the wherefores here in such a public place, so I won't.  It is one of those times when you can often feel happiest and most content in your own classroom with the hormonal ones. It is a time when remembering the positives is absolutely vital.

Snake-wrangling? In the Midlands?

Am I having a giraffe? Well yes, trying to. 

The phrase 'snake-wrangling' was coined by a dear departed friend, Anthony Fairhurst while he was doing his English PGCE. 

He never finished it, ill health, then a sudden, fatal heart attack saw to that in May this year. 

What on earth could it refer to? A class that is 'less able' or 'challenging' or any other more pleasing to the ear euphemism.  

The thing is, we all get them on our timetables. The class that exhausts every possible teaching and behaviour weapon you have in your armory, so that you have to go off and discover some new ones (and wine). 

So, snake-wrangling, it makes perfect sense now doesn't it?

Volatile snakes.

I have introduced you to these snakes before using the word 'bonkers' in an affectionate rather than a derogatory way. They are my Year 10.  I look back on how the year began with them and I could easily crash my head on the laptop. 

I was so often faced with a barrage of hostility, or 'I can't be bovvered', or playing the 'bat the rat game' as one part of the room settled, a new 'rat' would pop up to disturb that moment of order and calm. It did not feel like I did much in the way of teaching. I'd walk out of the classroom exhausted and drained, flummoxed as to what to do; disappointed at yet another custard pie moment in the classroom.  

The snakes make progress up a ladder

This week they have delighted and surprised me in numerous ways, not all of them directly teaching or learning related. 

1. Relationships are improving

How can I tell? Well, for a start my shoulders are no longer hunched around my ears like the Honey Monster; my stomach is not permanently clenched during the lesson; my palms are less sweaty, and I rarely have to raise my voice. 

The classroom banter is the other way. I have a lad in the class I taught (this is a whole other story, but the word 'taught' is used in its most loose sense here) in Year 7 and again in Year 9. We have a bit of shared history and he can be daft as a brush, punctuated by moments of genius or, in SOLO lingo, extended abstract thinking. First, to the anecdote and the banter:

I had just nagged a couple of female students about their mobile phones, quickly, and gently and not for the first time. They were at last chance saloon time before confiscation took place. 

I also have 'wonky eyes' or a lazy eye which sometimes comes up in lessons.  They don't always know who I'm looking at, and to be frank, sometimes neither do I. 

Pupil, 'Miss?'
Me, 'Yes, JLK, what is it?'
Pupil, 'It's good that your eyes can go in different directions.  It means you can look at different parts of the classroom.'
Pause for a serious bout of laughter, then I mention, 'Well, I have really flat feet too, but they are great for swimming.'
Pupil, giggling along with me, 'See Miss, everything can be an advantage, even your wonky eyes and flat feet.'  

2. They are actually talking about their learning.

Now, this surprised me even more than our bit of banter above. The class were writing sentences using abstract nouns and connectives to describe and explain the characters emotions in Chapter 5 in Of Mice and Men.  This lesson we were focusing on Curly's Wife. The same pupil as above had one of his genius moments as the rest of the lads were joking about the word 'slag' in relation to Curley's Wife, he made this comment:

'The word 'slag' is used in engineering, It's about the bits that are not used.'
I beam back at him, 'Ah yes, you get 'slag heaps' in mining too. What do they have in common?'
Pupil, 'Neither are wanted.' [the next bit of what he said was all him] 'That's why we can use the word 'slag' when we talk about Curley's wife. She's a reject, not wanted by anyone.'

If I was sat on a chair, I would have fallen off it. 

3.From an agitated to an amiable Cobra

Another pupil joined in the conversation, I'll get to it shortly.  In Year 9 this lad could not cope with putting pen to paper; he was crippled by fear of failure; convinced he needed a TA to write for him (he doesn't) and that he was stupid (he isn't).  Consequently, he had a huge range of work avoidance tactics at his disposal, and the attention span of a gnat who had just consumed some Red Bull. 

Pupil, 'Oh yes, slag. Do you remember Lady Macbeth and 'Is this a dagger I see before me?' 
Me, 'Good grief, you just spontaneously quoted Shakespeare at me!'

Now that may not seem that profound, but are Lady Macbeth and Curley's wife that far removed from each other? Had I even instigated the conversation? Had I led them into that thought? No. It is a leap of thought, or faith, that reminds me the moment in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom' when he has to make the leap of faith, to put his foot in a seemingly non-existent bridge,  so that he can make progress towards his prize. 

At the end of this lesson this same pupil asked to take his book home so he could practise writing about the characters emotions in Chapter 5, telling me he really wants to do well in his Controlled Assessment. 

How do you charm snakes?

Hmmm, we must be all of these things in the classroom: 
Fair, calm, consistent, persistent, creative, ambitious, hopeful, optimistic, enthusiastic, in every respect stubborn, positive, encouraging, funny, caring, maternal (or paternal), stern, charming and never, ever, ever let them say, 'I can't do it.' Their self-esteem is already crushingly low, teach them self-belief equally with the course content. 

Out of the classroom: make positive phone calls home and send post-cards of praise for those doing well that week. You'll need to make some not so positive phone calls home too, but keep negatives down to a minimum. Sadly, these kids are all too familiar with negative attention from adults. 

Plan as well as you can but be prepared to adapt and think on the hoof frequently.  If they are just not getting it, find a different angle and go again. 

You can't go far wrong with stickers and sweets...although not necessarily at the same time, it could get messy. 

Oh and drink wine...or real ale, or vodka and coke, whatever your happy weekend juice is. Maybe even drink wine and tweet your tweacher buddies at the same time, you could be in for an amusing and morale boosting evening.  

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