Posts Tagged ‘students’

As the creaking educational locomotive grinds ever more slowly towards the buffers of the long summer break and we can leap onto the platform of unexpurgated freedom I can thank my lucky stars that last week is finally over. As is now tradition and to conceal the fact that our national curriculum is so thin on content that in truth the teaching of it finishes several weeks before the official end of term, we are obliged to suffer the agonies of Activities Week.   A misnomer if ever there was one, judging by the ‘activities’ to which I was assigned. My Activity Week was mostly sedentary and largely involved elephants.

I understand the ethos – to allow students to experience things they otherwise wouldn’t due either to financial restraints, unimaginative parenting or sheer youthful malaise – a condition which sadly is becoming increasingly contagious. I understand all of that – but to have to sit in school uniform in one classroom all day playing board (bored) games is reminiscent of an interminable wet weekend at your grandparents’.

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This was the fate of our unfortunate year seven’s who, lucky for them (but not me), then had a day off site to visit the Globe Theatre before returning to spend the next day welded to a stool in the art room following step by step instructions to make a clay elephant. All day: with a short break for lunch. By the afternoon, with the searing heat outside and the stuffiness of the classroom I felt my eyes drooping and had to make a conscious effort to stay awake. I sympathised with one of our older students who incurred a detention recently for falling sound asleep in a history lesson. I now know how he felt.

The following day we were treated to Africa Day – the possibilities of this sounded promising. But again, the students sat for what seemed like hours in a large circle in our acoustically challenged canteen while a lovely man from Ghana, dressed in traditional costume spent the day with the students telling stories of his African village and showing them how to make toys from recycled rubbish. image

Another forty elephants were made from old plastic milk cartons after which there was a spot of potato printing. A quick break for food and drink and it was back to sitting while they practised the art of African drumming. In the aforementioned echo-y dining room. There were enough drums for each child so you are lucky you only have to imagine the cacophony. I had to sit through it.

I don’t mean to carp on, but I would’ve preferred spending the day at a nearby fishing lake with a collection of year nine yobbos who turn into the politest, nicest shoal of lads you could ever wish to meet – once they are attached to a rod with a box of maggots at their side. I did this trip several years ago now and was as heartened at the students transformation as I was astonished at how adept I became at picking up a maggot or helping disgorge the unfortunate little fishes for those more squeamish. I have obvious skills in this area – why have they been overlooked? The main reason this activity is so popular and why staff members trample each other to take part is fact that the bacon rolls at the shop there are to die for and the opportunity to hear the trip leader tell one of his new ‘fishermen’ to go to the counter and ask for a tin of tartan maggots is legendary. I obviously need to improve my pitch for next year.

So, with only two days left of term time to fill with word searches and videos while the teachers complete their admin, the terminus approaches – the exit gate is in sight.

This post forms the first part of a challenge thrown down by Sherri, over at her Summerhouse. I normally avoid things like this like the proverbial plague but as she is such a regular visitor to my imaginary kitchen and we have shared so many odd and weird coincidences I felt it only fair to have a go. As Sherri herself has already changed the rules of the challenge which originally was to post five pictures and five stories on consecutive days (ha! not a chance!), I shall be taking a more relaxed attitude towards the rules myself. I’m supposed to nominate someone to take up the challenge after each of my next five posts but I’m not going to do that. Suffice to say, if you feel the urge to challenge yourself to five pictures/five stories (fact or fiction) then please feel free. I thought it would be a good discipline to make me write more regularly. Goodness knows, I’ve been pretty lax of late.

 

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As we trundle inevitably towards our new school year next week amid threats of redundancy, more cut backs and an ever shrinking national curriculum, here’s a reminder of why we do what we do.

Queuing up in our corner shop the other day, I recognised the young man in front of me as one of our ex students. He bought a couple of cans of coke and a pack of cigarettes.

“Still smoking then Danny, I see,” I said smiling, but trying to force a look of disapproval.

He turned and grinned at me. “Orright, Miss? Hey, do you remember when….?”

We reminisced a little before he left the shop. I watched him drive away in smart little car.

Do I remember? How could I forget? Eight years ago Danny (not his real name) was a student in a class of sixteen listless, under-achieving kids with bad attitude. I supported their English GCSE lessons alongside a young teacher who has since become a firm friend. I shall refer to her throughout as TF (Teacher Friend). She was patient, innovative and determined to get the best from this rabble who were not overjoyed to be in school at all, let alone have to struggle with Shakespeare or, heaven forbid, visit the library and select a book. I admired her enthusiasm but worried that she was being overly idealistic.

Nevertheless, we took them on for two years from the age of fourteen and from the outset they were a challenge. Their target levels were understandably rock bottom. They never produced homework. A detention was not a deterrent – they never turned up for one anyway. Their reading wasn’t fluent; none of them could spell or at least, didn’t bother. They would arrive in the classroom without their exercise books or even a pen. Because they were such a small class and they had most of all their other lessons together as well, they formed a tight bond: they worked and moved as a pack. TF wasn’t having any of this – she set about finding the pack leader and working on him. She wisely reckoned that with him on side, the others might eventually follow.

(I ought to point out now that it was not Danny who was leader; if anything, he presented as slightly anxious. He was content to follow the crowd, take the path of least resistance).

And follow the others did. Amid much groaning and sprawling on desks, we started studying “Much Ado About Nothing.”  Instead of making them write reams and unpick unintelligible quotes, TF got the students acting the play out. Pack Leader was Benedict; our feistiest female played Beatrice. The others took turns in having a go at the other parts; they began to understand the play and, dare I say, enjoy it.

When we finished with that, we moved to a modern text by Willy Russell called “Our Day Out” – chosen because it is a short play about a load of dysfunctional kids going on a school outing. The irony did not pass over their heads: they thought it was hilarious. We began to love these kids: as hard as they found this subject, they had a sense of fun: they began to work for TF and produce essays of sorts. It was more than we had hoped for.

During one lesson, one of the pupils mentioned that she had never been on a school outing. Most of the others agreed. I was appalled. TF and I exchanged glances and before I knew what I was doing I had suggested that we take them to the theatre to see Willy Russell’s musical play, “Blood Brothers” – at that time showing in London.

Well, what can I say – we had opened the floodgates – the kids were thrilled with the prospect. A few of them had never even visited our capital city. They were nervous. To them, London represented a terrorist target.

Of course, we hit massive resistance as well as disbelief in the staff room.

“Take that lot out – you must be mad!”

“You’ll never get the risk assessment passed,”

“Of course you can’t take them by train – far too dangerous!”

“Imagine them in a theatre -they’ll disrupt the performance! You’ll get the school a bad name …”

 And so on…

TF dug her heels in. Management suggested she team up with the Drama department who were running the trip later in the year but she politely refused. She didn’t want our little band of oddballs mixed in with a lot of high achieving students who regarded a theatre trip an everyday occurrence. She wanted this to be an occasion for them.

I dug my heels in. I don’t like being told I can’t do something either, surprisingly. I filled in a lengthy risk assessment form, got it begrudgingly signed and then I set about ordering subsidised tickets, checking out the school minibus schedule and acquiring a driver. My heart sank when I saw the state of the minibus. Used virtually exclusively by the PE department, it was filthy and smelled of unwashed bodies and football boots. Not suitable for a theatre trip to London. I called in a favour from an old ex-colleague who had started running her own hire company. She provided us with a vehicle and driver at minimal cost. Our trip was on – hurrah!

The kids were uncharacteristically enthusiastic. They all paid their fees within a couple of days. We finished “Our Day Out” and started on the poetry, expecting some opposition. There was none. The class continued to work well.

A couple of days before our outing, Danny dropped a bombshell. We were rounding up a lesson when he stood up, said he hated English and wouldn’t be coming on the trip. He stormed out. We were mystified. Nothing appeared to have provoked this outburst.

Pack Leader took me aside and explained conspiratorially that Danny couldn’t come because he wouldn’t be able to smoke. I almost laughed, but not quite. Pack Leader went on to explain knowingly that Danny was addicted to nicotine and “got the shakes” if he didn’t have a cigarette. When I realised that PL wasn’t winding me up, I was horrified. Apparently Danny had been smoking regularly since about the age of ten – with his parents. I thanked PL for his honesty and told him to leave it with me.

I managed to get Danny on his own for a quiet word. I asked him to explain his reason for the outburst. With a little coercing, his reason bore out what PL had told me. I asked Danny if he ever managed to go to the cinema and sit through a film. He had, many times. I told him that a theatre performance was just about the same length as anything at the cinema. It wasn’t the theatre he was worried about, however. We had suggested to the kids that because we would have to leave school in the late afternoon and they’d probably be hungry, we’d go for a burger before the show. Danny told me that after food especially, he needed a ‘fag,’ otherwise he got the shakes and started sweating. I told him that no way was he missing this trip and I’d sort something.

I mulled it over and discussed it with TF. I hatched a plan of which she wanted no part as it might compromise her professional position but she agreed to turn a blind eye.

Can you guess what my plan was? And what would you have done given the circumstance?

Here’s what happened.

At last our much anticipated evening arrived. The students met us back at school having gone home to change into their ‘smart-casual’ clothes. The girls teetered on impossible heels, looked a few shades of deeper orange and carried huge handbags filled with goodness knows what. The boys wore nicely pressed shirts and jeans. Because it was coming up to Easter, TF put little bags of chocolate eggs on each minibus seat which were scoffed down as we drove the forty odd miles to London’s West End. Any affectation of being ‘cool’ dissipated within the confines of that bus. As we crossed the river their excitement grew as they spotted Big Ben and then Nelson’s Column.

Our driver dropped us at Leicester Square and arranged a rendez-vous point for later on. We trooped off to Burger King where the kids were at home ordering their meals. TF and I withdrew a little with a bag of fries and a coffee. I kept a surreptitious eye on Danny, who was having a whale of a time with the others but who was, I noticed, unusually fidgety. When they’d finished, he was definitely looking sickly; I wasn’t imagining it. I nudged TF who, in her teacherly fashion, grouped the kids together and suggested we move across the street to Frankie and Benny’s for ice cream. This was our pre-arranged cue. I stayed behind to make sure the rubbish had been cleared by our party, and Danny stayed to ‘help.’ Then he and I sauntered off in the opposite direction, into the Square, and he (self-consciously, I have to say) lit up. I stood by the gate while he wandered up and down dragging on his horrible cigarette.

Eventually I was joined by PL who had cottoned onto what was happening and didn’t want to miss out, so he had a quick couple of drags too. Understandably, we received a few disapproving stares. I turned a blind eye to that one and, as we walked back to meet the others, while I impressed on them that I thought smoking was a disgusting habit and that it would affect their health this occasion was not to be discussed or mentioned back at school. They promised me that the incident would go no further – and it never has.

Having met up with the others again we walked crocodile fashion along Charing Cross Road to the theatre, our students keeping to a tight, nervous formation. It was interesting to see a bunch of supposed streetwise kids so far out of their comfort zone.

Their amazement and appreciation of the old theatre was gratifying. They gazed about them in wonderment at the old Victorian building. They were awestruck. We had fantastic seats along the front row of the dress circle. TF had grilled into them the need for excellent behaviour as the other theatre-goers had paid top dollar for their seats. We told them there’d be time for sweets in the interval. They were as good as gold, and as the music began, they leaned forward in their seats and became absorbed.

As the play came to its final heart-wrenching scenes, the sound of muffled sobbing came from along our row. Feisty Girl left the theatre with black mascara tracks coursing through her powdered orange face. Our party was buzzing. Danny gave me the thumbs up as we waited for the bus – he looked calm and chatted to the others about the performance. When our driver saw how much the kids had enjoyed themselves he suggested taking them on a short tour of the sites before we left the capital. So they took in Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament to round off their evening. We arrived back at school after midnight and we dared any of them to bunk off the next day. None of them did. It was business as usual and back to poetry in the classroom.

On my desk I found a scribbled note which said simply ‘thanks for last night.’ It wasn’t signed, but I recognised the writing.

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As I feel the need to stand on my soap box and get something off my chest this week I apologise in advance for  my work-related rant and won’t be at all offended should you wish to click away now…

picture courtesy of Anxiety UK

picture courtesy of Anxiety UK

So, two weeks back into term time and already I have signed a petition to remove the Secretary of State for Education. I don’t add my name to anything lightly but I really do think it’s time for Gove to go. His unrealistic and ever changing demands on teachers is creating an exhausted, de-motivated and de-moralised staffroom; the delivery of our national curriculum with its incessant assessing puts unnecessary pressure on students, creating stressed and apathetic pupils. Do children actually enjoy school these days? Ask a few – I did – and they looked at me as if I’m barmy. As far as many of them are concerned, it’s a place to meet their friends – what goes on in classes is just a damn nuisance.

To maintain league table positions, schools have to chase grades. Targets are imposed on students and it is up to the staff to make sure these targets are met, never mind the anxiety felt by hard working children who aspire to, but sometimes fall short of, their aspirational targets. The government recently implemented performance related pay for teachers. In any other profession or line of work (except perhaps the front line of the health service) I’d say this is more than acceptable – in the corporate world it is probably essential. But teaching?  Where we are dealing with the lives and minds of young people? I don’t think so.

Some kids, however hard they work, however much they try, however much guidance they receive from dedicated teachers just aren’t going to reach that magical A-C banding which means that staff, not fulfilling their quota of ‘passes’ will find their pay packets lacking. This system is just crying out to be abused by unscrupulous heads of department who could cream off top students for their own classrooms thus ensuring a constant flow of suitable, remunerative grades.

A-C grades at GCSE (exams taken at age 16) are the keys to moving onto further education and eventually university. Grades convert to points which in turn, convert to cash for funding. It is not unusual nowadays for many top level students to achieve ten A or A* grades at GCSE, which is great for the students and for the school coffers but how does this happen? Are that many students good at everything? In my dim and distant past people generally leant towards either maths/science or English and the arts with only the odd few who were more than competent at everything. What can this possibly mean? Are we breeding a race of super students now who are as good at creative writing and art as they are maths and physics? Who can turn their hands to practical subjects and still be ace at computing and chemistry? No of course we aren’t. Our national curriculum is tailored to ensure that kids jump through hoops with the drained direction of their dedicated teachers.

When they’re not taking exams, pupils are being constantly assessed. I’m sure this has always been the case – just not so obviously to the students as it is now. The students are shown a framework for success criteria and in some cases, the mark scheme, before they even open a book and assessments are churned out in every year group, from ages 11-16, sometimes as close together as one every three weeks in one subject alone. Multiply that by the number of subjects on the timetable and you have one hell of a lot of assessments not to mention BORING BORING BORING.

To what end? Where’s the learning? More importantly, as far as I’m concerned, where’s the fun? It seems to me that we are only teaching them to pass a test, to excel in assessments and that any actual knowledge they may acquire is a happy additional benefit. I wonder if this is all a government ploy to create a generation of analysts… because that’s what they are learning – to analyse, not to create. Short sighted, in my opinion. Eventually, without creators, there will be nothing left to analyse. Rather like when our government got rid of all the manufacturing industries. They really don’t think things through, do they?

During my schooldays which, incidentally, I loved, we were afforded the opportunity (and the time), in English classes, to spend whole lessons discussing books plays and poems around set texts. We were taught to love Shakespeare and poetry before we had to start picking it to bits: we were given a lifelong love of literature which is why I get so exasperated with our older students who think that reading seven novels about an irritating little bespectacled wizard is sufficient recreational reading material for a potential A* student. (I ranted controversially once before about Harry Potter, which you can read here if you’re interested).

My Art lessons were peppered with visits to galleries and History to museums while Geography offered field trips which included wading around in the River Dart and getting lost on an unknown fell in the Lake District. We survived without need for all the health and safety legislation required now to take groups of students anywhere remotely interesting.

(Actually a colleague and I did manage to evade the red tape once and take a group of our students to the theatre. This trip is probably worth a post in its own right, as it turned out).

I know things have moved on substantially since I was at school – of course they have and facilities these days are fantastic. Just what is the point of it all if the learning is secondary to the testing? I wonder if, a few years down the line, our students will remember anything about their schooling or whether their memories will be of one long assessment – and how sad if that is the case.

Hopefully equilibrium will be restored next week but in the meantime, should you feel inclined to sign the Remove Gove from Office petition, you can do so here and if you’d like to read my poem on ‘Free Range Children,’ just click here.

Phew, that feels better…

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