Initial snapshots of possibility: Writers in Schools revisited

Every possible use of words should be made available to every possible person: this sounds like a good motto, with a very democratic sound. Not because everyone should be an artist, but because no one should be a slave.
(Rodari Grammatica dell Fantasia)

I’m walking down along an English corridor with the Advanced Skills Teacher in English, Chris, when a lad strolls by and Chris calls out to him Hi! You’ve grown! Stop growing! The lad acknowledges the call but continues his walk. A ridiculous command if ever there was one. This seems to be what corridors are for: the placing and issuing of ridiculous shouty instructions “Keep left! Stand up straight!! Health and Safety! Punctuation!”

There’s lots of old written material here which is out of date and irrelevant: decrepit texts with no significance any longer, speaking of old regimes, older authorities and matters of older importance. They have no current didactic value and no learning value but try their best to remain authoritative. Public places in schools – like these corridors – have their fair share of texts which have lost their power, written in a language which exerts no pull or push of influence. And whilst they might not be chronologically out of date (where they might advertise an up and coming Senior Managment meeting for example) they can be ignored through over exposure (keep left!).

We talk about whether anyone reads these notices and figure probably not; and so see how writing in this school offers some dreary role model examples to work from. No wonder that, according to Chris, reading is sometime seen as a chore; writing is limited with little spark; there’s little ‘natural’ interest.

Chris wants children ‘to fall in love with writing’ and wanted them to care about how they express themselves; especially those who he thought didn’t have that culture at home. Not that the school doesn’t focus on writing at all. Chris feels that it was the kind of writing that was the issue here: there is sometimes a habit of concentrating on writing with style as opposed to content.

Not that this means that the project has to become overly serious or academic : we want to inject fun and enthusiasm into literacy, he added as we continued our tour of the school. He also was intent on exploring the possibilities of new, original writing through this process, and thought that by dedicating future CPD sessions to the theme of original writing, the project’s possibilities could be communicated and extended to a wider staff grouping. According to Chris, schools are sources of certainty and not so much of possibility:

Schools are very much about what is certain, you know, about passing exams, about repeating facts and knowing that you can jump through those hoops – in some respects. What we need to do more is explore creativity, possibility. What you’ve been doing is discovering what is possible; you’ve come out with knowledge that you didn’t go in expecting, you’ve suddenly learnt things that you didn’t know you were going to learn in terms of the creative process.

The importance of heightening possibility, as opposed to the desire for probable, pre-determined outcomes is an important contributing factor to the work of the writer in residence at this school: and the stories of the writers working here are stories of the tension between the worlds of the possible and the worlds of the pragmatic.

A long time ago: the retelling of very old stories. Writers in Schools revisited

It’s a bright Saturday morning deep in the frosty Staffordshire countryside. Greg (teacher) and Pat (writer) arrive simultaneously at the school gates and we’re all let in by the caretaker who’s come especially to open up the building. There are no children in sight yet: it’s the weekend after the half term so there’s some anxiety about whether they’ll remember to turn up or not. Placing this outside the curriculum and even outside the mainstream timetable suggests that this is driven by an agenda of ‘enrichment’ rather than ‘entitlement’ – relying as it will do on students memories, parents encouragement and the absence of lesser distractions such as boy / girl friends, imminent football matches later this afternoon an all the usual distractions of a (cold) Saturday morning…. We’ll see….. and as I write, one girl arrives, Laura.

Pat starts with a story he learnt from his great aunt – “who would be 115 years old if she was still alive. A long time ago….” and he continues with the story of a woodcutter, a version of Hansel and Gretel – but without the wicked stepmother – and after some five minutes, someone’s mobile goes off which generates a moment of distraction and embarrassment for Laura who’s sat to his right.

But as in the case of where Pat relates his story to new, non-committal and inattentive ears of young children and teachers, the re-telling of the old stories of writer, teacher and children is not without its own diversions, asides and re- interpretations.

Pat moves onto a second story, one from Nigeria – “I’ve found that is popular with secondary school children…” He points out that the story will have a dilemma in it. The kids are still sat still, listening in their own ways – but let’s not forget this is a Saturday after half term and the group are here voluntarily… the session is built upon focussing for a presentation at some point in the future in a middle school, working with younger kids.

Unlike much secondary work which gets kids to focus on (and be frightened by) their future employment prospects, the future in this session is relatively benign event in which younger kids will benefit from the efforts of the group here. This is about a contribution to the local community’s future; not about the future achievement or attainment of a specific individual (although that of course may well be an outcome too).

Laura writes some notes on one of the scraps of paper; the collection of pieces on the floor suggests a small scrap yard of paper clippings which might eventually be elaborated into some kind of artefact…? Mark demos a story he remembers, using his folded boat paper as an aide memoire to the story telling; he starts the story of a shipwreck, and tears something off to indicate the progression of the story. They start to think about telling the Hansel and Gretel story of earlier. Pat talks about how the brain can remember anything… and how we emphasise aspects of stories in order to persuade, ask for sympathy etc.. He splits his group into partners; they have to share memories and see how they can be turned into stories: “Put your hand up when you think your memory has turned into a story…”

The final part of the session and Laura feedbacks the stories she’s read through the course of the day – without props in some cases but with fragments of learning of presentational skills – variation of voice for example in order to surprise the audience… both Greg and Pat comment on linguistic specifics which make the story her own: in the process Pat refers to the specific nature of the Leek / Staffordshire accent. I wonder if she is aware of this accent. He finishes off by asking for any questions from the group; these revolve around how they will get time to practice their newly acquired skills and stories; the logistics of the mainstream timetable; the issues of how to catch up work; the confirmation that other teachers are aware of the demands that the children now face in their short term futures.

Do you like my claw hand? Writers in Schools revisited

Roy, front of the class, is demonstrating through a simple walking exercise five things which are involved in writing: the children recognise these as the five senses – smelling, tasting, touching, listening, looking and Roy says you need all five in order to write a story. He elaborates by suggesting that it’s the senses that make characters and places of stories come alive and also help you get ideas and help you describe situations.

It’s a large class – the whole of KS2 and year 2 : there must be at least 50+ kids in the room together with 3 staff who are sat at the back, watching. He stands front on to the class; behind him is a data projector and 2 school benches upon which are placed, stood up, a selection of about 20 of his books. These help draw the gaze to him and give him a status: another form of disguise perhaps.

The attention of the group wanders: a small group of girls look at each others socks, a small group of boys natter quietly to each other. We’re in the afternoon, feeling a bit post lunch lethargic and we’re post serious education of the morning. He moves on to the ‘shed in the heads’ concept – ‘where all the things you’ve sensed go, you can see what’s lurking around’. He points to a red bag he’s previously planted in the hall – an example of something which is in his shed in the head…. He brings out a box of fish fingers and points to one of the books on the bench as including a box of fish fingers. “This book by Roy Apps…” he refers to himself in the third person.

He starts to read out from one of Roy Apps’ books and offers the group a chance to join by calling out ‘Cheerios’ as he reads out sentences in the book which have the ‘c’ word missing. He points to a magic word in the paragraph which suggests something is about to happen: SUDDENLY.

Suddenly, he points to another bag which he’s planted in the hall earlier. He collects stuff out of the bags – ketchup bottle, garlic, blood stained stake, capes – the competition in the book is a device to get rid of mum and dad so that lead character, Jonathon, can go and stay with granddad who’s a vampire. He reads out and splits the group so that they can listen for things that Jonathon senses. He calls out for a gold bag – kid pulls out blank piece of paper (scary! He explains the fear of the blank piece of paper to a writer) and goes onto suggest that the five senses aren’t everything…. The magic of stories needs imagination too (which he describes as a word with a silent letter c – imagi©nation…

Imagi©nation causes a shift from the ordinary to the extraordinary. How? He hands out sheets of paper to kids who line up.. which spell out ‘I wonder what would happen if’ when aligned properly. He relates his own background to the family story – his Uncle Watte, the cook in the navy who would scare people and had teeth which looked like vampire fangs: ‘Do you like my claw hand?” Uncle Watte would ask when playing with a piece of chicken tendon. Years later, Uncle Watte’s claw hand has metamorphosed into the hand of the story teller.

Calling teachers interested in educational and cultural exchange in the Caribbean

Over the last two years, Aspire has organised international  conferences for Principals and Head teachers from India, Nigeria and the UAE to visit UK schools.  We have also produced student exchange programmes for students from Nigeria, Serbia and Macedonia.

These events have been very powerful in establishing links between UK and overseas schools, developing educational exchanges, facilitating visits by UK Head teachers to India and offering unique insights into our mutual educational cultures.

Next year we are planning a similar programme of conferences in the Caribbean in conjunction with schools and universities there. To set up those programmes, I have been invited to visit Barbados, Trinidad and St Lucia in the first week of February to participate in a trade and culture mission with schools, the University, teachers and other colleagues.

If you would like your school to benefit from my visit – e.g. by making links with schools, connections with head teachers and pupils, curriculum developments, CPD opportunities or other possibilities – then please get in touch to discuss how I could facilitate connections and exchanges between those schools and your own. I can be contacted at nick@aspire-trust.org.

Driving down standards? Why it might be better than driving them up!

Who on earth would want to drive down standards in schools these days? In our target ridden output obsessed culture, the mantra of driving up standards is never far from the pursed lips of school bursars and head teachers. Increasingly from the bursars in fact as they are only too well aware that if standards are seen to fall – or worse, be driven down – then their school’s future health and well being is not the bright sunny road that’s painted in the school prospectus and which resembles that Start Rite shoe graphic of many years ago.

So we’re all on message when it comes to standards. They are to be driven up, not ratcheted down. They are to be maintained, not devalued. They are to be hoist up high, and their benefits proclaimed to the hills. So far so ok.

But your standards may not necessarily be my standards. You may want your kids to reach level 5 in their literacy by the time they are 10; I would prefer it if they could actually read a sentence; or even better a string of sentences that take the form of what used to be called a book. You may want your kids to take home 10 A* GCSEs this June; I would prefer it if rather than have a clutch of certificates they could demonstrate amongst other things – they had read the whole of Hamlet – including the difficult bits – and could write some semblance of an argument about it.

The standards you hoist high on your academic mountainsides may be nothing more than flags which flutter in the wind but are then swept away in an avalanche of real life challenges which the Level 5 literacy and A* in English have done nothing to prepare you for. By all means drive up your standards – but know too when its time to take them down and replace them with snow shelters, bivouacs and tins of corned beef.

5 Stanislavskian tips for teachers: role play made easy

1. Characters have objectives. This is expressed through the use of an active and transitive verb eg kick off gracefully.

2. Superobjectives  link objectives through a line of action.’ eg kick off gracefully then retire to the bar to recuperate.

3. In analyzing an action, the actor answers three questions, ‘What do I (the character) do?’ ‘Why do I (the character) do it?’ and ‘How do I (the character) do it?’ eg what on earth possessed me to kick off, go to the bar and then end up having a full day of assessment?

4. Truth on stage is different from truth in real life. Just because you are acting a full day of assessment in role, does not mean that is what you are actually doing.

5. The aim of the actor should be to use his technique to turn the play into a theatrical reality. In this process imagination plays by far the greatest part. So, an act of assessment would be much better accompanied by acts of fanciful daydreamings. E,g this school should be closed down… But would be so much more effective if it was placed on the top of a mountain.

The feeble child: why being feeble is a neat strategy to survive school.

Feeble children don’t fit and don’t come up to the mark of what is being demanded of them by their teachers or politicians. The feeble child isn’t – and doesn’t aspire to be – independent – or develop skills as an independent learner. They are highly dependent on others, whether consciously or not. The call to be prepared for an independent life fills them with horror.

The feeble child may not actually have many aspirations at all, is content to muddle through the day and has no view to the future. The feeble child is neither gifted nor talented – or is even in special measures and has no serious weaknesses. The feeble child is just that – feeble, weak, and dependent – and as such sits outside of the gaze which is directed at their peers who may variously be described as gifted and talented, ‘hard to reach’; dysfunctional or socially excluded.

The feeble child is not hard to reach at all, indeed their feebleness and utter dependency means that they are hard to shake off. We might harbour desires to exclude the feeble child as their dependency is so exhausting for us – but their strength (for they have many) is their instinct to be included, to include themselves in others co-dependent lives.

Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning: how schools are ahead of the political game

After two years in the making, here it is. Finally.

Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning shows teachers of key stages 2 and 3 how to introduce creativity into what is often seen as a prescriptive and stifling curriculum, and addresses the tensions that can exist between the requirement to follow the curriculum and the desire to employ innovative pedagogies. It offers readers a range of practical and realistic ways that curriculum changing ideas can be applied to individual projects, classrooms and even entire schools.

This book tracks the imaginative initiatives undertaken by six schools as they have worked to change their curriculum and teaching in order to put student experiences at the core of the learning process. Stating its observations and suggestions in a refreshingly straightforward and practicable manner, this book explores:

  • Why a new creative curriculum is needed for the 21st century
  • How to encourage teachers and pupils to ‘own’ the curriculum
  • The role that pupil voice plays in a creative curriculum
  • The environment needed to creatively manipulate the curriculum
  • How to introduce innovation to teaching practice
  • What actually works – considering the limits and possibilities of creative pedagogy

Providing case studies and examples of the ways in which teachers have delivered the curriculum in a creative way, Placing Students at the Heart of Creative Learning is an invaluably beneficial guide for all those involved in engaging and teaching young people in key stages 2 and 3.

Fascinating stories of challenge, change and inspiration are found throughout the book.

In Chapter Two, Fulbridge Primary School in Peterborough has developed a local, vernacular curriculum which takes as its starting point local histories, geographies and resources as the means to galvanise children’s learning. This work is based heavily upon Kolb’s model of learning from experience and particularly demonstrates how different mediums, such as sculpture, film, animation and drama can be used to explore curriculum links with writing.

In Chapter Three, Dale Primary School in Derby have looked to early years practice of the town of Pistoia, Italy, as a means of providing immersive learning experiences which are engendered through their approach to ‘slow pedagogy’. Theirs is a stance on personalised learning which allows for engagement in a curriculum which is driven by constant formative reflection, a profound knowledge of children’s progression in skills and learning which is fired by children’s curiosity and questions.

In Chapter Four ‘real world’ learning is demonstrated by Old Park Primary School in Telford which particularly focuses on Learning to Learn (L2L) strategies and connects its work with that of Guy Claxton’s Building Learning Power programme as part of its bigger commitment to the Personalised Learning Agenda.

In Chapter Five, Belfairs Media Arts College, a secondary school in Southend demonstrates how focusing on children as independent thinkers and learners identifies a number of strategies which encourage young people to think about, and learn from, their own learning styles. In addition to the L2L programme, the school also focus on and embed a particular cluster of thinking skills across the school curriculum.

In Chapter Six, Kingstone School in Barnsley adopts a thematic approach to teaching to collaborate in order to develop cross curriculum projects that are taught to Year 7 students in a way that bridges the pedagogical gap that exists between the high schools and their feeder primary schools.

Available now from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Placing-Students-Creative-Learning-Teaching/dp/0415570018

Does your school need an international cultural attache? Here’s how…

Could your school benefit from international links with teachers, pupils and families? Are you interested in exploring some unique professional development opportunities with teachers and other educators on the other side of the world?

Over the last two years, the Aspire Trust has organised international conferences for Principals and Head teachers from India, Nigeria and the UAE to visit UK schools. We ran the All Our Futures conference in Liverpool and Wallasey this summer for Indian, Nigerian and other international head teachers and educators. The success of that and similar events has led me to being invited by the University of Tasmania with a view to establishing a similar event there in either 2012 or 2013. The first step in that process will be between 25 November and 13 December this year when I will travel there to make initial contacts with the University and schools across Tasmania.

If you would like me to represent your school with a view to establishing some active, realistic links then I am able to offer you a number of services:

1. Taking promotional material to schools in Tasmania, complete with contact details, so that schools could contact you directly. I will be doing this for 12 English schools so your information would be viewed in this context. I would take 10 copies of your promotional pack which should be no more than 2 sides of A4 paper and one CD / DVD. Materials should be clearly labeled and packaged.

2. or, I could take a more active role in promoting your school by coming to see you, developing an action plan with you, and taking a more proactive role in promoting your school to the schools I visit. In this option, you could supply me with additional promotional material and I would aim to identify a specific named partner school for you as a result of the trip. As this option would require a heavier investment from me in my time promoting your school, I would be looking for a sponsorship from you of £300 towards the costs of my time in this promotional activity. On my return to the UK, I would then revisit your school with an activity report which would specify who I had met, details of your potential partner school(s) and other information as specified in the action plan.

If this is of interest to you, please feel free to get in touch with me at nowen.aspire@btconnect.com