Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Let's Keep Things Shrimple

Firstly, thanks to @Super_Work for the shell fish pun that is my blog title. Hopefully all will become clear as this post progresses. I will add the rest of the tweeted puns at the end of the post as a reward for getting to the end.
After what could best be a described as a traumatic start to the week with a particularly difficult Year 11 class, I had all but mentally composed a resignation letter and started tunnelling my way out of teaching. Twitter chums responed in their droves to my plea of help with this class, and morale was lifted a little out of the cesspit it was in. 
The part of the lesson with a Year 8 set 4, a delightfully small class of amiable pupils who have brighter bulbs in their heads than they give themselves credit for.  They are, most of the time, quite adorable.  Today, they made me skip to my whiteboard to note down a comment that one of them made, although bitterly, I am struggling to remember what made me skip. Damn my Dory brain.
Our current SoW is 'Developing Writing Skills' and it suggests we look at an opening chapter of a novel to work out how an author reels the reader in.  With a few well known tweachers comments ringing in my ear - @JamesTheo,  @LearningSpy and @TheRealGeoffBarton to name but a few, I plumped for the opening chapter of 'A Christmas Carol'.  It was bit of a gamble as their reading ages are quite low, consequently the complexity of the language could potentially alienate them. I ploughed ahead anyway. 
I did an on the hoof lesson starter, that mutated into taking up nearly half the lesson, but I believe it was time well spent. After reminding each other who Scrooge was and what he was like as a character, we re-capped some of the text by listening to the glorious Patrick Stewart's reading of A Christmas Carol - easily accesible on YouTube (with the original text in front of them) Hurrah!
On an English teacher whim, I stopped the recording and focused on a simile that described Scrooge with surgical precision:
"Scrooge was as solitary as an oyster"
Remembering the wise words of Geoff Barton at the Wellington College Education Festival and some posts by @GoldfishBowlMM, I took nothing for granted and assumed no knowledge on their part.
I ask the class, "Do we know what 'solitary' means?"
The class respond with an honest, "No Miss" and a sea of fairly blank faces.
I was glad I asked, and taking a leaf out of @kevbartle's penchant for using synonyms to explore the fuller meanings of words I adapted this for words that have the same root.
"Right," I continue, "the word solitary as the same root as solo and solitaire, a card game you always get on computers for free."  There is a pregnant pause.
A, who prior to this half term was so very quite to the point of mute, offers an answer, "By yourself Miss?" 
"Bingo!" I respond with, I continue, "So, any idea what an oyster is or what it looks like?"

I see more blank faces, thinking about our geographical location, that shouldn't be surprise. 
I try describing an oyster, flailing my arms around, telling them about the shucking knife needed to open them, I even vere off into a tangent about a chat with English teachers working out why on earth it was an aphrodisiac (our conclusions were that they were so vile that you were so relived to still be alive after having eaten one, it made you a bit frisky) but they are still not sure what it is. 
Praise be for Google images, for I hop on the laptop and find photos of oysters.  We have a look at the images, they respond with, "Ewwwww!" and we notice a picture of a solitary oyster, floating in a dark sea and I decide we will focus on this image to analyse the simile. A quick copy and paste, followed by some nifty printing out, they have the picture of the oyster to glue in their books.  Thus ensues a rather in-depth discussion of why Scrooge is like an oyster.
The inital words they come up with associated with this picture are: lonely, isolated, in the dark and THEN the lightbulb moment for one pupils as he tells me that, "Scrooge is contained."  We then try and work out WHAT contains Scrooge in himself, and if this has anything to do with his loneliness.
We then move onto a rather more forensic analysis of the mollusc's shell. "What does it look like?" I ask.
"It is dull and dark Miss" replies one boy.
I respond with, "Thank you, what does this tell us about Scrooge?"
Another boy quickly replies with, "He is not fun, he doesn't really know what fun is."
"Good, what do we think stops him from having fun?"
Another, using what they already know from The Muppet Christmas Carol, chips in with, "It's because of what happened in his past Miss"
There is further discussion of his happiness in his past life, and how he is now, how and why he has changed into this mullusc.
I ask them to look even closer at the shell of the oyster, I tell them, "It reminds me of something else made by nature, that takes thousands or millions of years to form."
A lightbulb pings above another boy's head, "A rock Miss!"
"Good! What do this rock like shell and Scrooge have in common then?"
The same boy replies with, "He's been like that such a long time Miss. Now, it's really all he's ever known."
Others respond with comments like, "It's very tough and hard."  "You can't break it, or at least it's very hard to."
We zoom in to the shape and sharpness of the oyster shell, I ask, "What do you think it is like to pick up this oyster shell or come in contact with it?"
"It will hurt your hand Miss," a lad responds with,
I bat back with, "Right, so how is Scrooge sharp like an oyster shell?" 
A different pupil responds with, "It's how he treats people Miss,"
"Be more specific," I tell him, "How exactly does he treat people, in what way is he sharp?"
"How he speaks to people Miss, he is rude, unpleasant." We find some 'sharp' language and also put that around our oyster picture.
I then tell them that actually oysters are not solitary animals at all, they colonise rocks and stay together, we discuss why they are together, "To proctect each other." a boy tells me.
I think of more questions: "What do they (and we) need protection from?"
Referring to the setting of London, they can find links to the poverty mentioned in the text, the lack of a welfare state and how poor people are treated.
The Nelson interrogation continues, "Ahhhh, so what isolated Scrooge from his community, his protection?"
"HE did Miss!"
"So who or WHAT has made Scrooge into this solitary oyster?"
Again, "HE did Miss, it is the consequences of his actions."
This much deep discussion ensues about the cost of self-imposed isolation verses the benfit of being very much within your community, and how the individual suffers as a result of this self-imposed isolation. 
This 'starter' took up about half the lesson.  Was it time well spent? I think so. They said an awful lot more insightful and intelligent things about our solitary oyster and Scrooge than I have documented here.  Annoyingly, I can't remember them all. At least once, I skipped merrily towards my whiteboard to record their ideas on it, so very pleasantly surprised by the depth of their thinking.
After examing other features of the opening chapter, such as Dickens use of place, atmosphere, and them choosing some of Dicken's best sentences so that we can use them later in our own writing we land upon the tricky thing that is 'tension'. How on earth do we convey this idea clearly?
This leads me onto rounding off with a discussion about what the word 'tension' means, and one of my girls can easily relate it to tension between friendship groups, so I focus on that meaning (rather than narrative tension) and go with it.  She happens to have a hairband handy, so deftly knicking this from @Xris32  I flop the band around likening it to a 'normal' Uncle and nephew relationship, I ask, "Is Scrooge's relationship with his nephew relaxed, like this hair band?"
"No Miss,"
I interject with, "Ok, so what is it like?"
"It is tense Miss,"
"WHY is it tense and HOW tense is it?"
I begin to stretch the hairband with it's owner and ask them to tell us to, "Stop," when it is tense enough then explain WHY it is tense enough. We PING the hairband when we have an agreed level of tension combined with sufficient explanation, linking to the tension between Scrooge and his nephew.
At the start of the lesson, they did not know what 'solitary' or 'oyster' was.
By the end, they had made the connection between the two words, worked out why they had been chosen by Dickens to describe Scrooge and made numerous other connections between the simile and the character, explaining their purpose, and exploring the sub-text in some level of detail.  They also know what tension between between characters in a narrative is for.
This lesson has really taught me how important Geoff Barton's mantra is about making the word poor, word rich.  However we choose to go about it, it is worth while. Those pupils are much more word rich than they were at the start of the lesson.
I would say that was 'good' progress for that particular class.  I'm not sure an observer would agree, nor would they agree with me spending nearly half a lesson on one simile from a text. 
No matter, I remain delighted with what the group achieved in that lesson. That will do me.
The Knowledge/Skills Thingummy
The following uber-tweachers: @LearningSpy @andrewolduk @webofsubstance @pedagogueinthemachine and @imagineenquiry and @daisychristo have written AT LENGTH about this, so I will not.
However, reflecting upon this lesson DID make me give this some thought.
The SKILL was to be able to analyse the simile's purpose in describing Scrooge's character.
The class lacked the rather basic KNOWLEDGE of the words within the simile meant, nevermind what the words did once combined. This did need to be taught. The teaching was done through questioning, extensive questionning to the point of interrogation. They were not 'lectured' however, the method of 'chalk and talk' was nothing new. But it worked.
This SKILL of analysis needs to be further developed so that this becomes much more embedded; so that they are able to do this without me. This, then must be repeated, in various guises, gradually withdrawing the level of 'coaching' by me, so that eventually they can analyse almost anything that is put in front of them.  This will take time.
While they remain 'word poor' this will remain difficult for them. Making them more 'word rich' also takes time.
So, when we think of the lesson observations hot potato also, what happens when a class are at this kind of stage in their learning of language, when they are not YET ready to be completely independent of the teacher? What then?

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Car Crash Conversation

SLT has taken a bit of a bashing on Twitter of late, some of it, in some circumstances deserved, some less so.  Within my own school I have a good relationship with most members of our SLT team, mainly because; despite some of the decisions they make that I may not agree with; that I may find difficult to implement; that I may struggle to find time for, they have not lost touch with their humanity, have worked at the school for many years because of an unswerving loyalty to the children in the community that our school serves. 

   On Twitter I have tweeted with many Head Teachers, Deputy Head and AHTs steeped in integrity and a passion for their pupils and compassion for their colleagues.  This post isn't about you.

Rather, this example of a car crash conversation I had with an AHT at a my first teaching school, in Tamworth. She was the line manager for the English faculty, and the conversation is about the first time I had crippling depression after the death of my father 8 years ago. After his death and gradually, over about 6 months, I became a ghost of myself, through a loss of one and a half stone, hair loss, insomnia and adult acne.  I looked a wreck but somehow, when I told this AHT I was not very well at all and I had been prescribed anti-depressents, I had a most astonishing conversation. 

This taken from a different blog I started about 3 years ago, mainly containing self-indulgent, awful mawkish writing. This, though I think  is worth a second airing, not least for two friends who are teachers and not in a good place at all due to a range of stresses, many of which are teaching based.

So here is the tale of the car crash conversation with an AHT and some context.

So, at last the doctor's visit about my depression was done, and me being the conscientious sort, felt it right to tell the people at work, my school. I told my head of department first and he listened, made no judgments or comments and advised me to speak to our Assistant Head, the one, who totally inexplicably was in charge of 'people' and their well-being at school. This was the same woman who told a friend and colleague whose sister in law was dying of the human form of BSE at the same time an OFSTED Inspection was due that, "School is more important, she won't know who you are anyway when you visit."   So, you can imagine I was not overly optimistic about the outcome of our conversation, and boy was I right. Now, this is a conversation I have not really ever forgotten.

I walk into her office, trousers hanging off my hips and palms sweaty, not really from nerves but it was a side effect of my medication. Pleasantries are exchanged and I tell her, "I've been diagnosed with depression and I'm on anti-depressants."
She responds in an all to inappropriately cheery manner with, "Oh, well you disguised that well."
A little dumbstruck I respond with, "Oh, erm, really?" [internal monologue: What do you mean I've disguised that well?! I've lost over a stone and a half in weight, I haven't slept properly in the last 6 months, my clothes are falling off me, my hair is falling out in clumps and my complexion is worse than a teenage boy's.]
Still in the cheery tone she comments, "You should take some more pride in your appearance! Put on a bit of lippy, do your hair, by some new clothes!"
Once again I am dumbstruck, I cannot respond. [internal monologue. I feel the worst I've ever felt in my life and now you're telling me how crap I look. Brilliant. And getting myself in debt buying new clothes will make me feel better how? I said I have depression, not that I'm a bit depressed you imbecile. Doctors don't prescribe you anti-depressants unless you could be a danger to yourself. Are you really meant to be in charge of people? How? Why?!]
She continues in the same irritating tone of voice, same stupid comments, "Go out with the girls, go and get pissed!"
I manage to muster a response here, "I can't, anti-depressants don't mix with alcohol."
"Oh don't worry about that," she carries on, "go and have a few drinks." 
I can't manage a response again. [internal monologue: How on earth can you get to your age (she's in her 50s) and have such low emotional intelligence? Why are you so ignorant about this? Stop TALKING!]
I think I fudge an excuse to leave, and leave I do. I'm astonished at the stupidity of her comments, still am, and the worst of it was, no help was offered. No offers of occupational health, no alleviation in my timetable. Nothing. Nada.

 It is this kind of encounter that, sadly, creates the 'Us and Them' between classroom teachers and SLT culture in a school.  It is regrettable that this kind of incident, something I have never forgotten; produces angry bile when I recall it. 
Is it any wonder that classroom teachers can be distrustful of senior managers in a school?

Perhaps, what is of greater concern is that such encounters have put me off wanting to 'climb the greasy pole' of promotion in a school. If that is the end result, some kind of Faustian pact that recinds you of your soul and integrity, I don't want it. I'd rather be put out of my misery like a horse with a shattered leg after missing a jump in The Grand National, than become 'that'.   I wonder if that is something that crosses an SLT member's mind when they instigate a conversation with a classroom teacher? If not, it really ought to.