Ten things to look forward to in the Summer term

The weeks between Christmas and Easter may have seemed a long haul and the new term will bring the challenges of revision and exams for many, but there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the Summer term. Here’s my top ten list:

  1. For some of our students, the holidays can be difficult and, although they might not always show it, they’ll have been be looking forward to the new term. Make it a good one.
  2. Easter isn’t over! It isn’t just a bank holiday, it’s a whole season and the biggest festival in the Christian tradition, so keep on celebrating!
  3. Easter and Spring are traditionally times for thinking about new life and new beginnings. What aspects of your practice could you revitalise? Is there something new you could try?
  4. We’re now well into British Summer Time – no more waking up before sunrise and coming home darkness: the days will be getting longer and (hopefully) warmer. Take some times to soak up those rays. Even on overcast days natural sunlight will do you good (remember sunscreen though).
  5. While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the signs that spring is turning into summer. Take notice of small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike.
  6. How did you do with any New Year resolutions? Now is an ideal time to commit to your own wellbeing, making those resolutions not just a one-off but part of a healthier, happier lifestyle.
  7. There are plenty of holidays and festivals during the Summer term including the May Day bank holiday (1 May), Spring Bank Holiday (29th May), Shavuot (31 May), Pentecost (4 June), Fathers’ Day (18 June), Summer Solstice (21 June), and Eid-al-Fitr (26 June).
  8. You may have pupils taking exams this term, but you don’t have to sit them! I always hated exams and while I’m proud of my qualifications I’m also glad that I no longer have to sit exams! We all survived the process – use your experience to help students be successful too. I’ve written about avoiding exam stress here. The article also contains links to useful websites.
  9. Some of the best bits of school happen in the Summer term: school trips, outdoor education, Summer concerts, PTA barbecues, sports days, proms, end of year awards. These and more enrich the curriculum and help build communities.
  10. At the end of this term… Summer holiday!

So, what are you looking forward to this Summer term? Why not share with a comment? 

Festival dates from timeanddate.com

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Chalking the doors: the importance of a welcome

This Friday we started the school day by marking Epiphany with the Christian tradition of chalking the doors. Each lintel or door was chalked with:

20+C+M+B+17

This isn’t a mathematical formula, but a blessing on all those who enter, ‘CMB’ standing for Christus Mansionem Benedictat – may Christ bless the house – and also the traditional names of the three wise men, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

I work in a Catholic school and this is a tradition particular to some branches of Chritianity, but it felt very special to offer a blessing to students as they entered a classroom, or to colleagues in an admin area or office. Relationships are at the heart of any school community and the first step in forming positive relationships is making people feel welcome.

We encourage all teachers to welcome students into classrooms each lesson, trying as much as possible to timetable each colleague into one room. As well as a verbal greeting, welcome message on the board can also be a nice touch. Displays featuring children’s work shows them they are valued, as well as providing exemplars. Several colleagues rotate work on a continually updated ‘wall of fame’.

This welcome becomes all the more important for new pupils arriving mid-year, especially those who don’t have English as a first language. We have an orientation day for new students and our EAL department will work with them and their family or carers on an initial programme to support their language needs. This enables all staff to receive a single-page profile of the pupil before they commence classes.

One of the many advantages of being a very diverse school community is that whatever first language a new pupil has we can usually ‘buddy’ them up with someone who speaks it. The new pupil is placed in a tutor group and, where possible, classes with their buddy. Staff are informed who the buddy is on the new student profile.

We need to be particularly aware when pupils have experienced trauma before arriving, such as being refugees.  I have written about supporting children who are refugees, and the problems they can face once in Britain here. One thing we always do is warn staff to be careful when using media such as news articles and films that depict conflict.

These are some of the ways we extend our welcome, from the planned induction of a new pupil to the daily interactions across the whole community. We hope this makes coming into class feel like a blessing, not just at the start of the year but every day.

Constructive comments are always welcome. I’d particularly like to hear about other ways of extending a welcome in school.

Ten things to look forward to in the Spring Term

Christmas may be over and the New Year welcomed in. Long, warm summer days may feel a distant prospect, but don’t despair, there’s plenty to look forward to at the start of the Spring term in 2017. Here’s my top ten list:

  1. Christmas isn’t over until 6th January (twelfth night) – and this year that’s a Friday! I’ll be keeping my decorations up till then!
  2. If that isn’t enough for you, Orthodox Christmas Day this year is on Saturday 7th January.
  3. You may have just exchanged cards or greetings with friends or family you don’t see much. You could take up the opportunity of the new year to reconnect with them. Why not arrange to meet up?
  4. If you’re like me, you may have received books as Christmas presents and can look forward to reading them. I really enjoy just a few minutes of reading for pleasure at the end of each day. Why not get together with some colleagues and start a book swap in the staff room? This is just one of many ways to achieve workable wellbeing.
  5. On our return to work both pupils and colleagues will arrive with their presents from Santa. Why not exploit the entertainment value here and  play ‘Spot the new jumper/tie/shoes’, etc? (I don’t know why this is, but there seems to be an invariant rule that whenever I wear any thing new it gets noticed, but only the third time I wear it). With pupils you can use pencil cases or stationary to monitor trends in popular culture – which comes out on top, Rogue One or Fantastic Beasts?
  6. You may have to set off for work in the dark to start with, but from now on the days will be getting longer. Getting outside in daylight each day will help beat the winter blues. Even if the sky is overcast, that natural sunlight will do you good.
  7. While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the little signs that spring is on it’s way and take notice of small changes – already you may see some leaves of bulbs poking through the soil, or some buds on trees or shrubs swelling before they blossom.
  8. The start of a new year is an ideal time to commit to your own wellbeing. Why not take a look at the #Teacher5aday from @MartynReah for some ideas? You can join in with teachers all over the country. I was slow to catch on to this but found it really helpful over the past year.
  9. It’s not all cold wet misery in winter – there are plenty of feasts, festivals and holy days. Here are some dates in 2017: Burns’ Night – 25 Jan, Chinese New Year – 28 Jan, Valentine’s Day – 14 Feb, Shrove Tuesday – 28 Feb, St David’s Day – 1 Mar, both Holi and Purim are on 12 Mar, St Patrick’s Day – 17 Mar, Mothering Sunday (and the start of British Summer Time) – 26 Mar.
  10. The best thing about teaching in 2017, and every other year, is knowing that what we do makes a real positive difference to the children in our classes. For some of them, the holidays can be difficult and, although they might not always show it, they’ll have been be looking forward to the new term. Make it a good one.

So, what are you looking forward to this Spring? Have I missed any key dates from this list? Why not share with a comment? 

Happy New Year!

Reverse Calendar for Advent

I wrote this post at the start of Advent 2016, then followed it up with an update when the project finished at the end of term.

This is a seasonal post for Advent. I want to share the work of a couple of my colleagues at St Gregory’s, Fran Walsh and Grant Price. They’ve put together a great a fantastic programme for tutor groups during Advent. It’s easily adaptable should others want to use the idea.

For several years we’ve raised money for the Oxford Food Bank in the run-up to Christmas, linked to a ‘Follow the Star’ activity where pupils follow clues to find the location of a star within the school, picking up instructions to complete a task. This has proved popular but feedback this year was that KS4 students wanted a change. 

Fran and Grant have worked to produce ‘reverse’ Advent calendars – instead of getting something out of them each day, you put something in. This originated (we think) with an idea posted on www.muminthemadhouse.com as a seasonal activity. KS3 tutor groups will be making a Jesse tree, building it up each day in Advent. They will continue to collect for the food bank, as in previous years. Each tutor group has one of these sheets. Pupils commit to bringing in one of the items so that as a group they collect them all.

KS4 students will be focussing on work being carried out by CAFOD to help those most in need, especially refugees. They will be collecting teenage items for a local charity, Stepping Stones. They work with vulnerable and homeless people and have requested particular help in collecting care products for teenagers, so the reverse calendar includes these.


Fran introduced students to this on Friday 25th November, in preparation for the start of Advent this Sunday and the launch of the activity on Monday. The initial response of students has been really heartening and full of generosity:

“But Miss, you can’t have pasta without pasta sauce. I’m gonna bring both!”

“What do you mean by ‘bag of rice’? My parents only buy 10kg bags, can I bring one of those in?”

“What sort of sweets should we bring? Probably best to get gummy, we don’t want an old person to break their first teeth.”

“We don’t just want to get the cheap brands because we want people to feel special.”

“I live right next to Sainsbury’s; I don’t mind bringing more in.” (Other supermarkets are available) 

I hope you’ll agree that this looks like an excellent start to our focus on giving this Advent. Please feel free to pick up on any of these ideas. It would also be great to learn about what other schools are doing for Advent and Christmas.
Update – 19th December 2016

The project went extremely well with students and staff all pulling together to collect items for both charities. The idea really caught the imagination of the wider community: several families decided to put together a whole box themselves and the appeal received coverage in the local press including this Oxford Mail article

The happy end result this generosity was that we collected far more than we had originally anticipated. In fact we had to make two runs to the Oxford Food Bank to get everything there! It was truly heartening to see the way that students took a lead in demonstrating a practical response to our school value of compassion. We’re pleased to have been able to support two charities whose work is needed more than ever. 

Fantastic Four: A fourth year of inspirational education quotes

I collect inspirational education quotes. I use these for ‘quote of the week’ on our staffroom notice board. This is the fourth year of quotes – 38 are listed in each collection, enough for one for each week of the school year. You can read the collections from previous years here:

Quote of the week – inspiration for Monday mornings

Quote of the week 2 – more inspiration for Monday mornings

Quote of the week – a third year of inspiration

As with the previous collections, I have done my best to ensure that each of the quotes below is accurate and attributed correctly. My apologies if I have made any mistakes – please let me know of any errors and I will rectify them. I hope you find these quotes as inspirational as I have.

  1. Your attitude is as important as your aptitude. Tanya Accone
  2. Music is an element that should be part and parcel is of every child’s life via the education system. Victoria Wood
  3. There is no system in the world, or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. Sir Ken Robinson
  4. Persistence can change failure into extraordinary achievement. Matt Biondi
  5. Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth. Muhammad Ali
  6. If you want the best out of life you have to be ready when the opportunity comes. Heimir Hallgrímsson
  7. Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great. John D. Rockefeller 
  8. Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better. Dylan Wiliam
  9. Millions saw the apple fall but Newton asked why. Bernard Baruch
  10. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in. Isaac Asimov 
  11. Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching. C.S.Lewis
  12. I wasn’t one of those kids destined to be a champion. It was a slow, steady slog. Sir Chris Hoy
  13. There are no shortcuts to any place worth going. Beverly Sills 
  14. Amateurs call it genius, masters cal lit practice. Thierry Henry
  15. You’ll never see a video game advertised as being easy. Kids who don’t like school will tell you it’s not because it’s too hard. It’s because it’s boring. Seymour Papert
  16. You can’t teach people everything they need to know. The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it. Seymour Papert
  17. In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety. Abraham Maslow
  18. Skill is only developed by hours and hours of work. Usain Bolt
  19. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Dr. Wayne Dyer 
  20. Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom. Marcel Proust
  21. Success… Is the result of continual preparation, hard work and learning from failure. Geraint Thomas
  22. True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge but the refusal to acquire it. Karl Popper
  23. What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to a human soul. Joseph Addison
  24. In order to succeed, people need a sense of self-efficacy, to struggle together with resilience to meet the inevitable obstacles and inequities of life. Albert Bandura
  25. Teaching is a beautiful job; as it allows you to see the growth day by day of people entrusted to your care. Pope Francis
  26. Teaching is a wonderful way to learn. Carol Dweck
  27. The best thing about being a teacher is that it matters. The hardest thing about being a teacher is that it matter every day. Todd Whittaker
  28. A prudent question is one half of wisdom. Sir Francis Bacon
  29. Ask at the end of each & every day: “What Went Right Today?” Angela Maiers 
  30. Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will. Mahatma Gandhi
  31. Education is transformational, the force that erases arbitrary divisions of race and class and culture and unlocks every person’s God-given potential. Condoleezza Rice 
  32. The answers you get depend on the questions you ask. Thomas Kuhn
  33. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Henry David Thoreau (via @AbdulRazaq_DPH)
  34. I find the quietest times of my life speak the loudest. Regina Dugan
  35. If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years, educate children. Confucius
  36. By being yourself, you put something wonderful in the world that was not there before. Edwin Elliot
  37. Children have to want to learn. So give them the love of story first and the rest will follow. Michael Morpurgo via @Booktrust
  38. A river cuts through rock not because of its power but because of its persistence. Jim Watkins

I hope you find these useful. Comments are always welcome and Ibalways appreciate hearing about words of wisdom that inspire you.

Seymour Papert: Computing and Creativity

Seymour Papert, mathematician, computer scientist and educational philosopher died on 31st July, aged 88. He was a passionate advocate for computing in education, not because he thought technology could provide useful teaching tools, but believed programming could unleash the creativity of children. 

Born in South Africa, Papert studied mathematics, going on to gain a PhD at Cambridge, and then to work with Jean Piaget in Geneva. He later drew on Piaget’s ideas while developing the Logo programming language and its associated floor ‘turtle’ at MIT. His aim was a simple programming language which nevertheless included the versatility to solve complex problems. The experience of Logo for many children in the 80s & 90s will have been using a physical or screen turtle to draw geometrical shapes. Papert saw this as important, giving children a way of exploring geometrical & mathematical concepts, but he  only intended this as the start. Logo was conceived to put the child in charge of this exploration; connecting the abstract to the concrete, learning creative problem solving, and gaining mastery of new technology as active developers, rather than just passive users. Sadly for many children in the UK their experience of Logo may not have gone much beyond following instructions on a worksheet to draw shapes on a screen, the antithesis of what Papert intended. For those, however, who were allowed to explore logo further, or it’s commercial inceptions such as Lego Mindstorms, a world of possibilities opened up.

Logo may no longer be the first programming language of choice in schools, but several versions are still popular and the derivative NetLogo modelling tool is still going strong. The principles (and particularly turtle graphics coding commands) live on in tools such as Scratch and text-based languages like Python. I have recently taught some computing at KS4 after a break from the subject of ten years. I’m pleased to see students captivated by the the ability that coding gives them to take charge of a task and create imaginative (and often elegant) solutions. When I look at the youngest pupils in our all-through school embarking on their journey into computing, I can only wonder at what they will be achieving the next ten years. I think we need to understand that, while we teachers may be the facilitators, it will be them taking us there, not the other way around. I believe a curriculum and pedagogy based on creative exploration would be a legacy of which Seymour Papert would approve. 

As ever, I welcome constructive comments. If you want to read more about Papert’s contribution to computing and creativity in schools, I recommend this excellent article Papert, Turtles and Creativity written in 2015 by Miles Berry. 

NetLogo is a programming language developed by Uri Wilensky at Northwestern University and is available here.

Lego MINDSTORMS is a trademark of the Lego Group.

Python is an educational programming language produced by the Python Software Foundation.

Scratch is a free first programming tool developed by the MIT Media Lab and is available here.

Image created using Logo interpreter by Joshua Bell.

pendown 

And now for something completely different

We spent last week at school doing things that were completely different. We do this every year, using gained time from years 11 & 13, and year 10 being on work experience to suspend the timetable for years 7, 8 & 9 so we can challenge ourselves to work in different ways, try something new, combine knowledge and skills from different areas and hone our skills.

This year we had trips to Germany and France, we put on Macbeth in a day, we fought to survive on Mars like Mark Watney, built a WWI museum to commemorate the Centenary of the battle of the Somme, painted portraits, then designed and made frames for them, sang our hearts out, pitched products to dragons, ran year quizzes entirely composed of student questions, hosted a fantastic art show will all years represented (Y7 Terracotta Army in photo) and held a brilliant sports day, the best one ever (although I tend to say that every year). We may not be able to do it again.

Why not? One reason is that Year 10 work experience looks increasingly untenable. There are now whole fields such as healthcare where you need to be over 16 to get a placement. Work experience at KS4 is based on an idea of leaving education at 16 which is no longer true. Maybe this is a local issue, but it seems to be harder than ever to get quality placements – and we appreciate all the employers who do provide them – and more expensive to complete the process. This year more placements seemed to fall through at the last minute, sometimes because of the employer, sometimes because of the student or their family. We are thinking of moving it to year 12. They would be over 16, more likely to have a career in mind, and we could link it to their A Level / BTEC subjects. This change would make our alternative week more difficult, but we would still have some released time and could probably adapt.

The second problem is workload. Traditionally the people organising the week have to spend the next one lying in a darkened room. We made changes last year to ease the load, and this year to distribute leadership to year teams and clusters of subjects. My colleagues were their usual brilliant, enthusiastic creative selves, but they are also tired. As well as the ‘usual’ of improving standards, we have all worked hard to help disadvantaged pupils make better progress, introduce our new KS3 assessment model, we have had new GCSEs to learn, plan and implement, and the same for post-16 qualifications. Meeting the challenge of these changes will continue over the next few years. It’s a simple fact that something has to give.

The third factor is attendance. Last year our attendance fell dramatically during this week. We took steps to counteract this, flagging it, simplifying the programme, explaining it and, to be blunt removing some elements that were less aligned with the core aims. At the start of the week this seemed to have worked; attendance was 3% on same period the previous year. I looked at the figures for Friday in despair, however. They dragged the week to worse than the year before. We had to close partially because of the strike on Tuesday. We had been expecting Eid on Wednesday & Thursday, we know the proportion of students who will be celebrating. The attendance codes that concern me aren’t ‘Y’ or ‘R’ but ‘I’ and ‘N’. I know the jump in ‘I’ isn’t all illness, and the number of as-yet-unexplained absences on sports day was just dispiriting. It was a joyous event. The triumphs, large and small, the enthusiasm, the encouragement & support, the achievements, the enjoyment, ‘This Girl Can’ ambassadors proudly wearing their pink t-shirts, the camera dearie, the celebration of community – all of it lifted the heart. I’d really like any help readers can give about how to engage those families who think that all that is just pointless and not worth their children coming to school. My point here, however, is we just can’t afford a drop in attendance like this. We’re RI and while our last HMI letter was very positive, attendance remains a key issue.

I know that we created memories last week that will stay with students for the rest of their lives, helping form the ‘what’s left when we’ve forgotten all we learned’, but I wonder for how much longer we can afford to step away from the timetable and do something completely different given the constraints we face.