To teach and to inspire: balancing exam preparation and the joy of learning

Teachers take delight in inspiring their students. They must prepare them for exams. Sometimes this creates a tension; concentrating too heavily on assessment objectives may jeopardise the sense of wonder in a topic while too little consideration of them risks failing to prepare students for their exams.

In my role as an education officer, I contributed to a recent article ‘Chaucer’s World’ Study Days: Enhancing Learning and Encouraging Wonder, which explores how teachers, university academics, and Public Engagement colleagues have sought to achieve both. As the lead author Professor Marion Turner puts it, ‘to teach and to delight’.

Our collaborative essay, published in New Chaucer Studies: Pedagogy & Profession, reflects on the ‘Chaucer’s World’ study days co-organised for secondary schools by the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum, and the University of Oxford. The event is aimed at A Level students and is intended not only to help them with their preparation for the A-Level English Literature exam but also to inspire in them a wider appreciation of Chaucer’s works and medieval literature and culture in general.

In a nod to Chaucer, the article is structured as a collection of ‘tales’. In The Education Officer’s Tale, I describe the structure of the Chaucer’s World study day, explain how we have sought to overcome the challenges schools face in engaging with such events, and reflect on how we adapted to a remote delivery model during the pandemic. Materials we created are available on the Bodleian’s website on the Resources for Teachers pages. Please feel free to use these with your classes.

From the Bodleian’s perspective, the study day has been a huge success, becoming a key part of our annual offer. The combination of access to contemporary texts, exploration of the historical and cultural context of Chaucer’s writing and real engagement with experts in the field has proved to be a popular combination with several schools returning year after year. Elsewhere in the article, Charlotte Richer considers the positive impact on her students in The Teacher’s Tale.

I hope you enjoy reading the article and agree that it provides an example of how we can both enhance learning and encourage a sense of wonder through an extracurricular experience. The Bodleian’s next Chaucer’s World Study days will be in March 2023. If you would like to know more, please email education@bodleian.ox.ac.uk

Image: Bodleian Libraries

Turner et al. 2022. ‘Chaucer’s World’ Study Days in Oxford for Post-16 Students: Enhancing Learning and Encouraging Wonder. New Chaucer Studies: Pedagogy and Profession 3.2: 70-78. https://escholarship.org/uc/ncs_pedagogyandprofession/| ISSN: 2766-1768.

© 2022 by the author(s). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 4.0 license. New Chaucer Studies: Pedagogy and Profession is an open access, bi-annual journal sponsored by the New Chaucer Society and published in eScholarship by the California Digital Library. | https://escholarship.org/uc/ncs_pedagogyandprofession| ISSN: 2766-1768.

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Help Save Bees With The Big Bee Bonanza!

I wrote this post for the ‘Crunchy on the outside’ blog from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It’s a Zooniverse citizen science project that might be of interest to anyone running a school science club from KS2 upwards.

Measure beautiful bees from around the world to help biologists understand why bee species are declining. The Big Bee Bonanza is a new citizen …

Help Save Bees With The Big Bee Bonanza!

Insects Online

A short post I wrote for the HOPE project at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, highlighting some of the online resources about insects. Most are aimed at upper KS2 and the scientific investigation ideas are suitable for secondary school age.

When the weather is chilly there aren’t many insects about, but we still have lots of online ‘Crunchy’ insect activities for you to try. We hope they…

Insects Online

Looking forward to spring term 2022

The coming spring term seems as uncertain as that of 2021. The Omicron variant has created a spike in Covid-19 cases, including many teachers. At the time of writing, the government has stated that it wants schools open, but, beyond mask wearing, has announced no new mitigations. The controversial DfE call for ex-teachers to return to the classroom has not been met with enthusiasm. It looks as though teaching will be remote, at least in part because of staff and student absence, as it was for many schools before the Christmas break.

Despite these uncertainties, there is still plenty to look forward to this term. As last year, perhaps the regular routine of the school calendar and observance of familiar events may help us look towards a brighter future.

January

The first half of this term is time to take part in the annual RSPB Big Schools Bird Watch 2022. Get your pupils involved in some citizen science by surveying the birds visiting your school site. You can find out more and get class resources from the RSPB website. Registration is open now and you should submit your results online by 21 February.

Registration for the Show Racism the Red Card Schools Competition 2022 is open from the start of January until 4 March. Young people can enter work about fighting racism in any medium – art work, creative writing, song, film, and T-shirt designs. You can find out more on the competition pages of the SRtRC website. The deadline for entries is 18 March.

Thursday 27 January is Holocaust Memorial Day, an occasion many schools mark or build into their teaching. This year, the theme is One Day which can be interpreted as one day to mark the Holocaust, one day when there will be no more genocide, one day in history, or the struggle some face to live one day at a time. You can find more information for schools on the HMDT website.

February

Tuesday 8 February is Safer Internet Day when many UK schools will focus on cyber safety. The theme this year is Together for a better internet which aims to make the internet a better and safer place for all, especially children. You can find out more, and download resources for different age groups on the Safer Internet Centre website.

Tuesday 1 February is Chinese New Year, celebrated by Chinese communities throughout the world, which in 2022 ushers in the Year of the Tiger.

Monday 21 February is the start of Fairtrade Fortnight which runs until 6 March. The focus for 2022 is the Choose the world you want festival. You can find out more, order school resources, or request a virtual school visit from a speaker, from the Fairtrade Foundation website.

March

1 March is Shrove Tuesday (or ‘Pancake Day’) when, in the UK pancakes are traditionally made to use up eggs and sugar before the start of Lent, in the Christian calendar, on the next day, Ash Wednesday.

1 March is also St David’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Wales. While not an official Bank Holiday in Wales, some schools may have a half-day holiday.

Thursday 3 March is World Book Day in the UK, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary (I know, I can’t believe it either!) You can find out more about this day, events throughout the year, and resources for different ages from the WBD website. As usual, a selection of £1 books will be available for purchase with WBD tokens.

British Science Week, the ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths, runs from 11 to 20 March. The theme this year is Growth and includes a schools poster competition. You can find out more from the British Science Week website.

Wednesday 16 March is Young Carers Action Day. Championing the needs of Young Carers, the theme this year focuses on Tackling Isolation. You can find out more and download resources from the Carers Trust website.

Thursday 17 March (starts on the evening of the 16th) is the Jewish festival of deliverance, Purim, marked by shared food and gift-giving.

17 March is also St Patrick’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland, celebrated there and by the Irish diaspora world wide. It’s a bank holiday in Eire and Northern Ireland.

Friday 18 March is the Hindu and Sikh festival of Holi, or ‘festival of colours’ celebrating the coming of spring.

By now we will all be noticing the hours of daylight lengthening and the clocks go forward by an hour at 2am on Sunday 27 March, marking the start of British Summer Time.

27 March is also the date for Mothering Sunday in the UK and Ireland, although the date varies internationally.

World Autism Acceptance Week (note the change of name from ‘awareness week’) runs from 28 March until 3 April. You can find out more and register for the schools’ newsletter from the National Autistic Society website.

April

Thursday 1st April is April Fool’s Day, which will make for an interesting last day of term for some schools, so watch out for practical jokes!

The Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover) begins at sundown on Friday 15 April and ends at nightfall on Saturday 23 April.

The Good Friday bank holiday is on 15 April this year, with Easter Sunday on 17 April, and the bank holiday on the Monday. Let’s hope that by this point in the year, a successful booster vaccination programme will enable us all to share the holiday with friends and family.

Hopefully, this list contains something for everyone and plenty to look forward to. Please let me know if I have missed any important dates and I’ll add them.

My ten most read posts of 2021

Here’s a run down of the ten most read posts on my blog in 2021. Topics range from perennial issues facing teachers to questions arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

10. Things to look forward to in spring 2021. I write one of these for the start of each term but none have contained truer words than “This spring term may be more uncertain than any that have gone before”!

9. Lots to look forward to in autumn 2021. Another ‘looking forward’ post; this one for the autumn term. For some reason, Summer wasn’t as popular, at 17th place.

8. Volunteers returning to teaching – Seven practical questions. A recent, topical post on the DfE call for ex-teachers to return to the classroom.

7. Wasp in the classroom. A perennial summer challenge for teachers – I was even asked this once at interview! This advice draws on my experience at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.

6. Ten ways to gain a class’s attention. Visiting schools means I see a lot of techniques to gain attention. Here are ten to choose from.

5. Looking for a little inspiration? A post pulling together all my downloadable picture quotes posts in one place. The only ‘resource’ post to make the top ten. I update this regularly so it’s worth returning to.

4. Progress on behaviour – haven’t I seen this graph somewhere before? An older post from 2016 on the ups and downs of improving behaviour in a secondary school.

3. Thank you teachers! I wrote this ‘thank you’ when some we might hope would be saying it weren’t forthcoming, despite the challenges teachers had faced.

2. Learning and long-term memory. Another older post that’s still proving popular. This one is about different types of long-term memory and learning.

1. Do windy days wind children up? Once again, a post I wrote back in 2016 is the most read! It’s about research on that perennial teacher topic: does windy weather make children’s behaviour worse?

I hope you find something useful in these posts. If you do, it would be great to hear about it!

Volunteers returning to teaching: seven practical questions

With so many serving teachers incapacitated with Covid or required to isolate, the Department for Education are asking retired teachers and those who have recently left teaching to volunteer for a temporary return to teaching in order to maintain education for children.

The DfE are asking ex-teachers to temporarily return to the classroom

Whatever our views about this move and likelihood of its success, it raises several practical questions.

How will safeguarding be ensured?

Returning teachers are unlikely to have a current DBS check nor will they have up to date safeguarding training. With DBS checks sometimes taking weeks to be returned, it would help if the DfE could expedite this process.

It might also help if safeguarding training was part of the recruitment process, particularly newer aspects of Keeping Children Safe in Education and the safeguarding considerations in remote or blended teaching. Schools will still need to provide training on local safeguarding policy and procedures and time for this must be taken into account.

How will staff health be protected?

As many have commented, bringing retired teachers back into classrooms amidst high infection rates with little mitigation beyond open windows risks endangering them. Former teachers who have moved into other occupations are also unlikely to view a move into a risky school environment as attractive.

Carbon dioxide monitor.
Image credit: Morn CC BY-SA 4.0

I used to teach in schools and now work in the education teams of a university museum and library. My current employer has introduced measures including active ventilation, HEPA filters, carbon dioxide monitors and protocols for safe levels, provision of PPE, mask wearing in work spaces, social distancing measures, and enhanced cleaning regimes.

Schools do not typically match these provisions, do not have equipment, or have not yet received equipment.

What about working conditions?

While some teachers may have retired contentedly after years of teaching, we know that there is a retention crisis in teaching with many leaving the profession prematurely, often for the sake of their health and well-being, or to restore a reasonable work-life balance. Unless these underlying issues are addressed, a return to teaching is unlikely to be attractive under normal circumstances, let alone with the additional pressures created by the pandemic.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much of a real commitment to improve the situation. One area that could be addressed immediately is Ofsted inspections. The introduction of the temporary returnee scheme is an admission that schools are currently operating in emergency mode. The operation of a school with significant numbers of absent staff cannot be a true reflection of its normal provision. Should Ofsted inspections therefore be suspended for the duration? This would have the additional benefit of freeing inspectors to volunteer themselves.

Who pays?

Schools aren’t just facing a shortage of teaching staff, they have also suffered an unprecedented drain on funds. If the costs of the scheme have to be met by individual school budgets it is unlikely to be affordable. Schools may apply to the Covid fund but must meet strict eligibility criteria to be eligible. Wouldn’t it be better for the DfE to fully fund this temporary provision for its duration. This would allow school leaders to plan ahead rather than having wait until finances reach a critical level before commencing an application.

Why use supply agencies?

The DfE scheme asks returning teachers to register with a Supply Agency. We need to ask what the advantage of this is. While agencies may be able to play a role in matching teachers with schools, this will inevitably lead to a proportion of public money going from school budgets to these private sector companies, rather than directly to teachers.

There can be few school leaders who have not been frustrated by the charges of agencies and many a teacher who has found themselves locked into a contract after realising they could be earning more by dealing with schools directly. It’s perfectly possible to secure supply work by contacting schools directly and these surely will be the first port of call for recently retired staff. Why isn’t this option available?

What about remote teaching?

While the aim may be to place teachers in the classroom, remote teaching should not be excluded. It may well be necessary for schools to move to remote teaching in whole or in part, as was already happening before Christmas. Even if it isn’t, provision will need to be made for pupils who need to isolate at home.

Teachers who have worked during the pandemic have become adept at remote teaching following a steep learning curve. Returning teachers are less likely to be familiar with the technology and may not have developed these particular teaching skills. Training in remote teaching should form part of the overall package.

How will it affect pensions?

A temporary return to work could impact adversely on pensions, especially for those older staff members who have final salary pensions and return to a main scale teaching position having previously held responsibilities or leadership positions.

Mix of coins and bank notes

The DfE should clarify the position on pensions with a commitment that a temporary return to teaching should in no way disadvantage teachers’ pensions.

What is your view on the recruitment of ex-teachers to help schools? What other questions does this scheme raise? I’d be interested to know your views.

Reading and freedom

Open book with quote from Frederick Douglass: ‘Once you learn to read you will be forever Free.’

Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) escaped from slavery to become a famous abolitionist and social reformer in the United States. He became known for his powerful oratory and writing, including his bestselling autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. This is available for free download, in a number of formats, from Project Gutenberg.

You can find more inspirational quotes in my post Looking for a Little Inspiration?