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.

Turn Your Phone into a Microscope

In case you need a microscope but only have… some honey!

Wrote this for crunchyontheoutside.com, initially so kids could take part in a fruit fly survey even if they didn’t have a hand lens or microscope. I produced two versions of the video, the more sedate version included in the blog post and this 45s one intended for social media platforms with a faster pace. Let me know what you think.

45s portrait version of video

What if you need to look at something really small but you don’t have a microscope? You can can try taking a close-up picture with a smartphone or …

Turn Your Phone into a Microscope

Supporting Learning: Thinking 3D

New resources, for Mathematics, Art & Design, and History of Medicine, all inspired by an exhibition celebrating the legacy of Leonardo da Vinci.

The exhibition Thinking 3D ran at the Bodleian Libraries during 2019. It explored the legacy of da Vinci and his contemporaries for portraying, modelling and thinking about three dimensions. In my role as Education Officer, I and colleagues developed several resources for use in workshops with visiting school groups. Usually the resources we create for temporary exhibitions have a finite lifespan, but I was keen to develop these that into versions that teachers could use with their own classes in school.

Three resources are now available for free download from the Bodleian Education Teams’ TES shop.

Was Euler Right?

Link: www.tes.com/teaching-resource/was-euler-right-a-maths-investigation-12588555

‘Was Euler Right?’ is a KS2 Mathematics resource exploring 3D shape and space. Students can build a variety of polyhedrons from the nets provided and use them in an investigation to test Euler’s hypothesis that for all regular convex polyhedrons:

Vertices + Faces – Edges = 2

Creating 3D

Link: www.tes.com/teaching-resource/creating-3d-techniques-to-create-the-illusion-of-depth-in-2d-media-12593487

‘Creating 3D’ is aimed at KS3 Art students and explores a series of techniques used by artists to create the illusion of depth in 2D media:

  • Overlap
  • Relative size
  • Shading & shadowing
  • Single-point perspective

While each resource can be used as a standalone activity within a lesson, they combine in a progressive sequence. A final activity challenges students to draw a room using one-point perspective and the other techniques they have learned.

Build a body

Link: www.tes.com/teaching-resource/build-a-body-vesalius-dissection-and-anatomy-12587078

Andreas Vesalius’ Renaissance anatomical work De humani corporis fabrica revolutionised the understanding of human anatomy. His painstakingly detailed drawings were based on his own direct observation of dissections and achieved a new level of accuracy. Such was the interest in his work that he produced a shorter version, the Epitome, in which he helped readers gain an understanding of the 3D complexity of the body by including paper template pages for the reader to cut out and build three dimensional models. This resource is a simplified facsimile enabling students to follow in Vesalius’ footsteps and build their own model.

Accompanying questions prompt students to consider the significance of the models in their historical context.

I hope you find these resources useful and I’d be interested to know how you got on using them with students. If you download any, I’d really appreciate a review on the resource site. Thanks.

Supporting Learning: a sci-fi / fantasy writing pack

Who writes the future? is a creative writing resource for schools from the Bodleian Libraries. Based on materials and activities used in a Summer School writing course, I developed this pack into a workshop for visiting schools. Drawing on lessons learned from these workshops, the pack is now available for free download from the Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage.

Image from the  Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage
Link to the resource from the Bodleian’s Resources for Teachers webpage

Background

The original course was the brainchild of researcher Jacob Ward and a project in public engagement with research. A group of fifteen young people explored speculative writing from the past and learned about current research in computing at the University of Oxford before developing their own stories under the guidance of author Jasmine Richards. They also worked with illustrator Nurbanu Asena who developed a striking image to accompany each story. Their work was published in an anthology, a PDF version of which is included in the pack. My role was to plan, facilitate and evaluate the project.

Developing a writing resource

The summer school achieved all its original aims successfully, but we wanted to ensure that the format and resources we had produced would help young writers beyond the original group. We first developed a workshop in which visiting school groups developed one aspect of the original five-day course. This was usually conceiving a story idea, world building, or developing a central character. The process of drafting and revision could then be continued back at school.

These workshops also helped me to develop the resources from a series of individual elements into a coherent pack. I used the feedback from visiting groups to refine some of the elements. These refinements included clearer definition of the elements in world building, redesigning the character template, and explaining other sections more clearly. I also produced a set of teacher notes to assist those using the pack in class or in a writing group.

Contents

The resource pack includes the following elements:

  • Teacher notes
  • Student Booklet, designed to be printed as an eight-page A4 booklet.
  • Historical examples of speculative fiction, written at the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries and including predictions made about our present.
  • The Who Writes the Future? anthology produced by the young writers in the original summer school.

Student writing pack

The student booklet takes students through seven steps, culminating in a first draft of their short story:

  1. Decide on a specific setting. Start to build a world for the story.
  2. Select your story idea / concept. Students are asked to think about the particular impact of a technology, but taking this ‘hard sci-fi’ approach is not essential.
  3. Select a theme. There is a list of suggestions but students may wish to choose another.
  4. Decide on the point of view, i.e. first, second or third person narrative.
  5. Develop your character. A template is included to help students think about the central character(s) in their story.
  6. Outline your story. Students are encouraged to plan an outline before writing their first draft.
  7. Write your story. We have included a few lined pages.

I hope the pack will prove as successful for school classes and writing groups as it has been in our workshops. I’d love to hear feedback from teachers who have used it. If you have enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in my other posts on Supporting Learning.

Decolonization in exhibition trails: first steps

Increasingly museums and galleries are addressing the colonial nature of their collections with audiences. My work as an Education Officer involves producing resources to help school groups explore the themes of exhibitions and displays. Roots to Seeds is an exhibition exploring 400 years of plant science in Oxford, currently open at the Bodleian Libraries.

The curator, Professor Stephen Harris, and the team at the Bodleian Libraries and Oxford Botanic Garden who are behind the exhibition, have acknowledged the colonial nature of some of the material on display with statements at the centre of the exhibition space.

A Matter of Justice

A matter of justice acknowledges the marginalisation of people involved in the collection and exploitation of their knowledge.

Supporting Decolonization

Supporting decolonisation explains the current frameworks under which botanists operate and the work to address centuries of inequality.

I wanted to address the issue in an exhibition trail I created for Roots to Seeds. The aim of the trail is to help children and young people explore themes of the exhibition. The content touches on themes within the exhibition, rather than providing comprehensive coverage. Open questions encourage exploration of the texts and objects on display.

Trails can be used by visiting school groups making a self-led visit and the Education Team may also use them as a starting point for a taught session; we also make them available for use by visiting families.

A trail is usually two A4 sides and includes text, questions, illustrations and, in the case of Roots to Seeds, some space for responses.

I decided to include a version of the A Matter of Justice statement in the section about plant collecting called ‘A World of Plants’:

As European botanists began to explore the world, they found many plants they had not seen before. Local people explained which plants were useful as foods or medicines. We often don’t know the names of these people because the explorers didn’t record them.

I was aiming the language level at Key Stage 3. In a later Art Trail, I changed ‘local people’ to ‘local experts’ because I thought this phrase better emphasised indigenous understanding of local flora rather than simply the knowledge of where to find particular plants.

I’m interested to know readers’ views on the approach I took. Is this enough? Should I have included something about current practice? Could I have taken a different approach? I’m interested to hear your views.

Roots to Seeds is open at the Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford, until 24 October 2021. Admission is free.

Not the moment to move on mobiles

A recent announcement about the DfE Consultation on Behaviour indicated that Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, was minded to require schools to ban mobile phones. This is a view he has expressed on several occasions in recent months.

Regular readers of this blog will recall that, a few years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on this subject. At the time I was a Deputy Head with responsibility for behaviour at a large secondary school. We decided to ban the use of mobile phones during the school day, and I wrote about our reasons, including academic research findings, our early progress, and the positive impact of the ban for students’ attention, behaviour and wellbeing.

You might then think that I would be in favour of this move by Mr Williamson. I am not, for two reasons.

Firstly, I believe that this should be a decision for individual schools. Back in 2016, we took the decision for specific reasons and had clear, measurable objectives related to our own improvement plan. Just because a strategy is right for one school does not mean it must be a priority for all.

Secondly, it hardly seems be a priority at this time. Schools have had the most extraordinary 18 months, have implemented entirely new ways of working, and are now contending with rising case numbers, increased staff absence, and a mix of in-class and remote teaching. This is all happening in the face of confused guidance from the DfE and a complete lack of clarity about the next academic year.

Decisions over mobile phones, and other such issues, are for schools to make, to choose if, when and how they should be implemented in their particular context. Right now, most schools have other priorities. At a time when clarity from the DfE would be welcome, perhaps Mr Williamson should consider his own.

‘Do earwigs really eat your brains?’ and other pressing questions.

An interview for the University of Oxford Environmental Sustainability Group about my schools outreach work with the HOPE for the Future project at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford:

https://sustainability.admin.ox.ac.uk/article/talking-biodiversity-with-hope-for-the-future-project#/

You might also be interested in the Insect Investigators Summer School we are running in August 2021, and the online resources we produced for young people at home.

First published 24 July 2021

Picture credit: Barry R Dean CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Lost for natural words?

Galium aparine.
Image credit: Eveline Simak CC-BY-SA 2.0

What would you call this plant? For gardeners it might be a weed, for naturalists, a wildflower, and to botanists it’s Galium aparine. For our ancestors, it was an important natural resource: edible, medicinal, useful as animal fodder, and important in cheese production.

For generations of children, though, it has simply been a source of fun. The stems, leaves and seeds are covered in tiny hooks. These evolved because they assist seed dispersal when they become caught in animal fur. This means that the plant will also easily stick to clothing leading to games and pranks that young children love.

Surface of G. Aparine fruit.
Image credit: Stefan Lefnaer CC-BY-SA 4.0

For these reasons, G. aparine has a host of common names. You may know it as ‘goosegrass’, ‘cleavers’, ‘stickybob(s)’, ‘sticky willy’, ‘hitchhikers’, or perhaps ‘Velcro plant’. It has also been called ‘bedstraw’ because it was once used as a mattress filling. It has many other names, and that’s just in English. The plant is known to many cultures because it has a widespread distribution across Europe, North Africa and Asia. It is also found in North America and has become naturalised in Central and South America, and many other parts of the world.

Despite its long social history, our connection to this plant might be becoming lost to modern children. I hope that the wonderful names for this plant are not disappearing as one of the ‘lost words’ described by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris in their wonderful book of the same name.

In my work for the HOPE For the Future project at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford, I visit schools for ‘Insect Discovery Days’, helping them to discover new things about insects and their importance in ecosystems. While we frequently find children who are a fount of knowledge on this topic, when we begin to explore local green spaces, especially in urban areas, I find that children are disconnected from nature and may not have words to describe even common plants and animals that they find.

To my surprise, this happened recently when children were lost for words to name this common plant. There was a lot of new growth across the ground in a wooded area and it began to stick to children’s socks and trousers, as we explored the copse. Some children found that it then stuck to the arms of their coats as they tried to pick it off, much to their delight.

For many of the group this seemed to be a new experience. When we began to discuss it, it became clear that most children did not have a name for the plant. When I asked them what they would call it, I had one response of ‘sticky bobs’, but most children responded with adjectives like ‘sticky’ or ‘prickly’ rather than common nouns.

I responded with some names I knew it by and explained how the tiny hooks made it stick to clothes. We also found some aphids feeding on it.

I was glad to have introduced them to part of the natural world (anof course, the insects we were there to study) as well as a little of its folklore, but remained disconcerted that this information, such an intrinsic part of my own generation’s childhood, was so new to them.

Fortunately, that school has a well planned and protected wildlife area and are partners in a community orchard – especially welcome in an urban setting. Perhaps, as we all emerge from the restrictions of lockdown, we can take some time to reconnect with nature, and help children share in the simple delight that previous generations found in the natural world around them.

Things to look forward to in Summer Term 2021

I’ve been writing these ‘start of term’ posts for a while now. This time, more than ever before, it feels like we’ll all be looking forward to making the most of what summer has to offer as we emerge not just from winter, but from over a year of tackling Covid.

Times remain difficult and much that would normally happen this term must be postponed, or happen in a different way. Nevertheless, I hope that there is still a lot to look forward to.

The clocks have gone forward and each day is a little longer than the one before. One thing to enjoy is more waking up and coming home from work in daylight. Longer (hopefully) sunlit days help lift our mood, so it’s a good idea to try to make some time to get outside each day; even if it’s overcast, natural sunlight will do you good.

For 2021, The Big Pedal, organised by the charity Sustrans, runs from Monday 19 April to the end of the month. This annual event challenges primary and secondary school pupils to cycle, scoot and wheelchair as many miles as they can. You can find out more, register and pick up free resources from the Big Pedal website.

If you prefer two feet to two wheels, Walk to School Week is back to it’s usual time in the calendar, spring, running from 17-21 May. You can order a classroom pack now from the Living Streets Website.

While you’re out and about, take some time to connect with nature. Look out for the many changes in the natural world as spring turns into summer. Which plants are coming into bloom? Which berries and fruits are starting to form? Which birds, bees and butterflies do you notice? Take note of these small changes and you’ll soon see that no two days are alike. You can even use an app such as iRecord to add your nature sightings to the National database. If your pupils are feeling inspired by nature, the might want to submit a poem for the Into the Green Poetry Project that I’m involved with, run by The Bodleian Libraries and Oxford Botanic Garden to celebrate 400 years of plant science in Oxford. You can download a project pack from the Bodleian’s website. The deadline for submissions is 1 July 2021.

Connecting with nature is one way to look after our mental health and ‘nature’ is the theme of UK Mental Health Awareness Week which, this year, runs from 10-17 May. You can find out more from the Mental Health Foundation who are asking us to share images, videos and sounds of nature on social media using the hashtag #ConnectWithNature.

Lockdown and travel restrictions have highlighted adverse effects of fossil fuel use including air pollution and the climate emergency. The UN World Environment Day is on Saturday 5 June and this year marks the start of the UN’s Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. This could provide a focus for learning activities about human impact and the environment. You can find out more at worldenvironmentday.global #GenerationRestoration

THERE ARE MANY FESTIVALS, HOLIDAYS AND EVENTS THIS TERM:

  • Ramadan has already started and is observed by Muslims until Eid ul-Fitr on, or near 13 May
  • Stephen Lawrence Day is on Thursday 22 April
  • St George’s Day is on Friday 23 April and this is also Shakespeare Day
  • May is topped and tailed by bank holidays, with the Early May Bank Holiday on Monday 3 May and the Spring Bank Holiday on Monday 31 May
  • Friday 7 May is the Jewish Holiday of Shavuot
  • The Christian feast of Pentecost is on Sunday 23 May
  • In the UK, Fathers’ Day is on Sunday 20 June
  • Monday 21 June marks the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year
  • Tuesday 22 June is Windrush Day which marks the anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in 1948 and celebrates the British Caribbean community
  • Tuesday 20 July is Eid ul-Adha, or greater Eid

Many of the most memorable aspects of school life usually happen during the Summer term: school trips, outdoor education, Summer concerts and productions, PTA barbecues, sports days, enrichment weeks, proms and end of year awards.

These enrich the curriculum and help build communities. This year these events will be very different, and some may not be possible at all, but schools will find ways to celebrate their own unique community and the landmark transitions for years 6, 11, and 13.

Hopefully, by the end of the summer term, teachers and pupils alike will be able to enjoy a well-earned summer break after an extraordinary school year.