Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Running an Election With Primary School Children

Last election I had a fabulous time running school elections, these were on issues the children decided – relevant to the school. While the issues didn’t mirror the national elections we attempted to mirror their structure as much as possible. This meant we had debates and polling, newspaper articles talking about the next big thing and live reaction tracking during debates.

Newspaper articles were used in guided reading sessions and there were discussions about how to carry out statistically valid polling. It created a buzz around the school and there were a lot of lovely moments: a boy confidently telling the school hall they had a decision to make – something he had picked up watching Ed Miliband. Another boy, who had had various behavioural difficulties at school, telling me he had really enjoyed the whole process, particularly how everyone had listened to and respected each other. The best thing about it for me was how conversations on the playground and in the corridors started to follow the forms of those happening around the country. Who had performed best in the debates? Did you trust the polls? Which policies would be best for the school? This provided many pupils who might not have previously engaged in politics a voice in, and understanding of, this national conversation.

Here is one of the articles a child wrote for the election, accompanied by the graph it quotes:

image

Sun Shines on Rainbow

It’s a happy day for Rainbow politics as they head the running list for Larkrise elections. Though in the initial poll Loyal were leading with twice as many votes after hustings there is a dip in their support. It is surprising that Prime have done so well after coming last in the poll, showing that they appeal to a wide range of people (but maybe not as the first choice). It seems that the people’s favourite is Rainbow, as mood in the audience significantly rose when they performed their polished speech. Though all the parties agree on the subject of food on the floor Prime, showing leadership, was the only one to offer a solution. Despite uniform being Rainbow’s most individual point the mood was lowest when it was mentioned. The same thing is true for Loyal, despite their extremely different views. Curriculum was exceptionally popular for Rainbow, scoring an average of 9 out of 10 compared to Loyal with 6 and Prime on 7. Though this is the current mood it could all change after the KS1 assembly. We can also report exclusive hints from an insider that they will be producing some new policies early next week. Voters should gather in their circles to vote on 6th May, until then we can only wonder who will win.

Election Correspondent ____________

What next? – We are now discussing what we will do this year. Initial thoughts are tending towards a closer shadowing of the issues of the actual election. I will probably use the Political Compass test with my class to give them a bit of a theoretical background before exploring some specific issues. What are your schools planning to do? What have you done before and how has it worked?

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Power of Stories–Reflections on Oxford Reading Spree

Whenever I sit down to write a blog I feel nervous. This was exaggerated for this blog, many people have already written good blogs on the conference and I wondered what I could add.

I am going to focus on a single thread of the conference and leave aside both the wonderful experience of meeting so many passionate, considerate and talented people and the feeling of energy to try new things I left with.

The thread I am going to talk about is story. Many of the presenters at The Spree delivered their talks in some way through their personal stories. This engaged us and drew on our emotions. This is part of what made the day so uplifting, inspiring and funny. It was a beautiful example of form reflecting content, being encouraged to share wonderful stories by people who were in turn sharing stories. It really highlighted the personal nature of reading, dependent on situation, company, expectation, and much much more. To quote Martin Galway reading is indeed a “Many splendored thing”.

I love the short story “Piere Menard: The Man Who Wrote Don Quixote” by Jorge Luis Borges which explores the idea that a modern man writes and identical text to Don Quixote and contrasts identical paragraphs. This relies on reading as an interpretive negotiation between writer and reader.  I have often imagined what it would have been like to have read a series in a different order and I have recently enjoyed the second in Abi Elphinstone’s Dreamsnatcher series much more than the first due, in part, to reading the wonderful descriptions of nature in the sun of spring.

Besides being a fascinating topic to ponder this has made me very keen to read a little Borges with my class as a way into the idea that in many ways each person reads a different book while they read the same text. I hope to be able to use this to encourage bookish conversation. Writing this has made me wonder whether part of many children’s unwillingness to discuss books, even those they have greatly enjoyed, stems from an assumption that everyone who has read it has read the same book as them.  

Thank-you to all those who made Oxford Reading Spree such a wonderful event. This is but one of many things it made me think about.

False Comfort

I love numbers. I have done all my life. This means I am often excited to look at data, compare percentages and look for patterns. There is a certain comfort there. A solidity of fact. I take this same solidity from research. Both data and research give me security in an often messy and confusing job.

There are 26 children in my class. If 1 child has done something that means nearly 4% of the class have done it. Thus as a way of looking at a class percentages are extremely volatile. This isn’t to say the data is useless but rather that for small samples collecting an aggregate is seldom useful, much more useful is to consider trends in individual children’s performance.

There is a natural human need to make meaning. I enjoy numbers so I often start looking at data in the whole before withdrawing to individual cases. What I need to constantly remind myself of is the need to interrogate the validity and scope of this data. Far from being something that makes me feel comfortable data is something that should make me question and investigate. What does it show? Did it come from asking the right questions? Why did I get the results I did? Am I measuring the right things? What might the causal factors be? How confident am I in my conclusions? And many many more.

I mentioned research as another source of comfort. The issues here are different although the motivation is not, in our busy working lives it can be easy to grasp for easily applicable truths, but many mistakes can be made by using research at face value without deeper interrogation. The methodology, the caveats, the context in which something was introduced. Mary Myatt said that “Growth Mindsets need to be lived not laminated.” The same is true for research, we need to explore the intricacies and depths of research not just brandish it out of context as justification or cling to it for certainty. This is something I hope the Chartered Collage of Teaching will aid.

On my best days I put aside this attraction to certainty and think of teaching with the curiosity and joy of discovery. Often it seems easier or safer to be drawn to solidity and comfort but wonderful conversations with friends remind me that simplicity is a false comfort and that the true comfort is the solidarity of shared uncertainty.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Open Space

I start this as many things should start with a statement of excitement. I am extremely excited about Oxford Reading Spree this weekend. For those unsure this is across between a conference and a party celebrating reading with a host of fabulous speakers. For tickets go here. For more information here.

One of the areas of the programme you may have been unsure about is Open Space. Open Space is an idea that came out of the feeling that the most useful conversations at conferences are had while standing round eating biscuits between formal sessions.

The agenda comes from what people want to talk about. When you come into The Spree you will see me at a table, come over and talk and suggest topics you would like to discuss in Open Space, also feel free to tweet me @jack_m_brown before the conference.

The way Open Space is often explained, and the way you will hear me explain it at The Spree uses one law, 2 rules and 3 animals.

The Law:

feetThe Law of Two Feet – Open space is based around giving people a structure to talk about what they really want to talk to other people about. In this structure it is not at all rude to get up and move from one discussion to another, it is encouraged. If you feel you want to talk about something else use the Law of Two Feet and move.


The Rules:

Whoever came are the right people – Don’t sit in a discussion thinking how great it would be if someone else was there to share their expertise, throw yourself into the discussion. If only you goes, great, you have some time to sit and think about something you are interested in.

When it’s over it’s over – Similar to the Law of Two Feet. When you feel you have got what you wanted out of a discussion or said what you wanted to say don’t prolong the discussion to fill time, use The Law of Two Feet and move to another discussion.

The Animals:
beeThe Bee: The bee is a great animal to be, it flies from discussion to discussion ensuring a healthy cross-pollination of ideas.








butterflyThe Butterfly: Not everyone will want to join in one of the Open Space discussion topics. You might want to have a cup of tea, eat a cake, or browse the stalls. This is fine, Open Space is about having brilliant conversations only loosely bound by constraints. The Spree will be full of fascinating people, chat to them however you want.

giraffeThe Giraffe: This is the animal you don’t want to be. The Giraffe sits in one group and gets distracted listening to another group’s discussion. If you find yourself Giraffing use the Law of Two Feet and move to the discussion you are more interested in.









I look forward to seeing many of you at The Spree.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

My Year in Books 1-21

Yesterday I wrote about how I have been sharing books with my class. Here I want to share a bit about what I have been reading.
blacklight expressBlack Light Express – Philip Reeve: I enjoyed this mostly for the ongoing discussion of humanity Nova, a very human artificial intelligence, provokes. This was the strong point of the book, its mystery was weaker than Railhead which thrived on a sense of moral ambiguity. This was still present but necessarily lessened by the more familiar nature of the world, both to the reader and the characters. I love the universe that Philip Reeve has created here but again the most interesting world-building was done in Railhead.





hole in the heart
Hole in the Heart – Henny Beaumont: A beautiful and thoughtful graphic novel that really gets you into the mind of a parent of a child with downs syndrome. It is really well drawn and reminds me of the many subtle and not so subtle ways culture and language support normalisation of limited metrics for success. The book gets much of its power from its honesty, the author is unafraid to explore complex feelings. The fact this is a graphic novel adds simplicity to this exploration and allows the reader to develop their own understanding.  As a teacher it also reminds me that all parents are experts in their own child.




moomins
The Moomins and the Great Flood – Tove Jansson: The Moomin books are books I often feel like I should have read. I decided to take the fact I hadn’t read any to read them in chronological order. This puts me on the other side of a thought experiment I have often had about how my perspective of a series would be different if I had read the prequels first. The series I most often think about this with is The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordon as the prequel there gives a previously unknown perspective. I enjoyed this book without loving it, the production values are amazing and the illustrations lovely but the story didn’t carry me away. I will be interested to see how it effects how I read the other books.


 
sweet pizza
Sweet Pizza – G.R. Gemin: This is an uplifting infectious book that remind me of a Frank Capra film. It provides a positive, excited vision of community and the acceptance of immigrants. It links the past and present beautifully, everyone I have given or lent a copy has read it very quickly. My class are also very keen to try the recipes at the back.








wind The Seamstress and the Wind – Cesar Aira: This comes from the independent publisher And Other Stories who translate literature into English. They have a lovely participatory model of book selection and work on a subscription basis. I have read lots of brilliant books from them but wasn’t enthralled by this one. There were some nice ideas about the power of language to modify expectations and a wonderful pursuit scene but the overall story never caught me.






inside out and back again
Inside Out and Back Again – Thanhha Lai: Probably my favourite book of the year so far. It is a beautiful free verse exploration of the journey of a girl from Vietnam to America in the Vietnam war. The isolation the character feels in America is beautifully done and little touches emphasise her nostalgia for Vietnam. One of poems inspired me to write the blog post Feeling Dumb and I love the complexity of the main character’s feelings about her new and old homes. Definitely a book I will read to a class in the future.






edward tulane The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane – Kate DiCamillo: I love the concept behind this book. The total lack of agency of Edward Tulane, only able to act as others determine. This creates a contrast to many books where the reader’s mind is on what they think the characters should do, here there is no choice creating a simplicity of focus on his internal journey. His powerlessness allows him to be a perfect lens to perceive those he interacts with. This is not only an elegant concept it is beautifully written.





raymie
Raymie Nightingale – Kate DiCamillo: A lovely depiction of friendship, the distinct characters interplay beautifully. I went through a period where I didn’t want to read blurbs. I had read Anna Karenina and the blurb had talked about readers falling in love with the character of Anna, I had been quite looking forward to this! When it didn’t happen it coloured my view of the book. In Raymie Nightingale the opposite happened, the blurb really added to the book. I got so caught up in the story I forgot the original premise, a digression that felt very human and led to a lovely surprise.




skellig
Skellig – David Almond: A book I thought I must have read but it turned out I hadn’t. I enjoyed Mina’s perspective on education and the way Michael evolves throughout the book. His transformation feels like a response to the increasing complexity of life with increasing complexity of character.  I love the curiosity on show throughout the book.








moon saw
what the moon sawWhat the Moon Saw – Brian Wildsmith: The art here is a gorgeous collage of colours and life. Curiously the somewhat abstract nature didn’t detract from the realism of the images.







timmy tug timmy the tugTimmy the Tug – Jim Downer and Ted Hughes: The art again is beautiful and reminds me of the razzle dazzle Liverpudlian ships carried in the first World War. I also love the printed hole punch binding, little touches in printing can really bring together a book!
book ate dog
This book just ate my dog! – Richard Byrne: My tendency to get obsessed shows here, I often read in groups as shown by the three picture books on this list all being together. This book cleverly uses the physical properties of how books are made to tell jokes with characters literally disappearing between pages.







sanderson
White Sand – Brandon Sanderson: I love Brandon Sanderson’s world building and magic systems and some of that is present here in his graphic novel set in one of his Cosmere worlds – many of his works are set in different worlds in the same universe which often bleed into each other, a concept I love. Overall though the drawing style felt cartoony, something that doesn’t really appeal to me and I found myself missing Sanderson’s writing.







johnny
Johnny and the Bomb – Terry Pratchett: I enjoyed this in parts but was mostly reading it as a Pratchett I hadn’t read yet. I spent lots of the time I was reading it thinking I would rather be reading something Discworld or Bromeliad. I thought about introducing it to my class as a Pratchett the school has a number of copies of but want their first experience of Pratchett to be one of his best. This is one of the limiting factors of school libraries, sometimes pushing towards books that are convenient rather than the best option.






butterfly lion
The Butterfly Lion – Michael Morpurgo: This was a book I didn’t expect to like as much as I did. As with Johnny and the Bomb I was reading it to see if I wanted to use it as a guided reading book, this predisposed me against it as I like choosing what to read independently. This makes me consider how many opportunities I give children in my class to choose books. The Butterfly Lion the book is named for is a beautiful idea and I enjoy books written with the story within a story format.






girl walked on air The Girl Who Walked on Air – Emma Carroll: This was lent to me by a girl in my class, I really enjoy learning about different historical periods through books and this was one I knew relatively little about. The danger of the high wire is really clearly shown but Emma Carroll also gives a sense of the joy of doing what you love. I don’t think I liked this quite as much as In Darkling Wood but I’m definitely keen to read more of her. Strange Star is next on my list of hers.






dreamsnatcher
The Dream Snatcher – Abi Elphinstone: I didn’t really get into this to start with, I couldn’t get my head round a grand adventure on such a small geographical scale. Everything just felt too convenient. It made me think of The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt which did travel as part of adventure really well. By the time I had finished it I had got really into it however, I like the combination of puzzle and adventure and wild magic appeals to me. Someone in my class is very keen to read the sequels when I am finished with them!





beetle boy
Beetle Boy – M.G. Leonard: I really enjoyed this twist on mystery and adventure, particularly the extra details about entomology. Some evocative scenes, particularly battles. I am really looking forward to where it goes next with Beetle Queen. This book is also a great portrayal of various sciences.









then
Then – Morris Gleitzman: Towards the end of last year I read Once. It, and this, are stunningly good portrayals of The Holocaust. They somehow pull of a heartrendingly sad story with touches of comedy and use repetition of unusual phrase structures to create a distinctive voice. I need a bit of a break each time I read one as they are emotionally draining. I put off lending the first to my class for quite a while because of the challenge of the subject matter but have lent it recently and am looking forward to talking to the children reading it. It needs a conversation afterwards to support those who read it.




cowgirl
Cow Girl – G.R. Gemin: Another by the author of Sweet Pizza, again a really enjoyable feel good book about the power of community and memory. I feel this could be really good for children to have PSHE conversations about peer pressure and bullying.







who let the gods out
Who Let The Gods Out – Maz Evans: I am torn about this book, I love the mythology references and the real life problems Eliot is dealing with. At times I felt it was trying too hard to be funny, joke after joke after joke. Some of them are very funny but at times it felt a bit like a rollercoaster. It grew on me as I read, partly because I got used to the style but mostly because the style seemed to fit more when the Gods were involved. Over the top, sometimes ridiculous, humour fits very well with the overblown personalities of Greek Gods so when they are in the story the humour fits. As with The Dream Snatcher I started off disappointed and ended keen to read a sequel.
What have you been reading this year?

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Sharing of Books

This is the first of two World Book Day posts, the other will go into more detail about the books I have been reading this year. Over the last few months I have been revelling in the discovery of modern children’s books, many recommended on twitter.

This made me consider the state of reading in my class. They are mostly confident readers but I realised most of them read sporadically and had trouble settling to  a book. This coincided with finishing the book I was reading to the class: The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall. The fact this was the start of a series got lots of them interested in carrying it on, I only had one copy of the sequel however, so I brought in lots of the children’s books I had been reading lately and said a bit about each to see if people wanted to borrow one. They went quickly and go in and out on a regular basis. I am currently lending 15 books to my class and wanted to share some nice stories that came out of this:

My class have taken on this spirit of sharing and a reasonable number of children are bringing in books to share with others.

A child with relatively little English borrow and read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (Kate DiCamillo) and their mother with even less English is now reading it using Google translate.

A boy who I had previously struggled to get reading has enjoyed Cogheart (Peter Bunzl) and is now reading Who Let The Gods Out (Maz Evans) and keen to read several more that are going round.

A girl who has read at least 8 books I have lent, often bringing them back in a day or two.

I am now trying to reach those I haven’t yet, all but 5 have borrowed books at some point and enthusiasm for reading in the class has definitely increased including among some who previously said they didn’t like reading.

edward tulanecogheartwho let the gods outpenderwicks

Monday, 16 January 2017

Feeling Dumb

Besides anything else this is a post about the power of poetry to motivate thought. Last week I read Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, it is a deeply moving book written in free verse and tells a tale of a girl’s journey from Vietnam to America. One poem in particular set off an interesting train of thought. Here it is:img080

This reminded me of myself part way through primary school. My mum was fighting a battle to get me support for my Dyspraxia, I knew that I couldn’t put my ideas on paper, my coordination let me down. This left me with a sense of failure and, as I couldn’t write what I wanted to say, I compromised more and decreased my standards for myself. I thought I was stupid. I denied any attempts to contradict this image of myself, people were just saying I was clever because they cared for me. In the end I got more support and was convinced but it remains a key part of my identity.

My situation is almost opposite that of Ha, the girl from the story.  She knows she is clever but this is undermined by the difference between what she can think and what she can do. I knew I was stupid and this was reinforced by the difference between what I could think and what I could do. Asides from the lack of mental equilibrium both situations have the same pitfall, a temptation to compromise and settle for a lower standard to resolve this painful imbalance between what you know how to do and what you can do.

Remembering this feeling put some of my NQT year into context, rich in theoretical knowledge but shallow in practical competence. The gap is most stark at the beginning of a career. I hope I am a little wiser than when I was 8. I don’t think this makes me stupid but the disconnect is still frustrating. I need valves to let off this frustration, for me this involves developing new ideas and discussing new projects. This is because this makes me feel capable, assured and competent.

I am working to bridge my personal gap between theory and practice and this is significant learning that requires me to push myself beyond my comfort zone. Realising the role projects that allow me to feel clever play has encouraged me to think about how I can balance providing challenge to move on learning and providing my class opportunities to feel clever. Crucially, reading Feeling Dumb again, these opportunities must be real, patronising and overdone praise will only enshrine a feeling of stupidity. Real opportunities must come out of conversation and knowing what makes the children in your class feel alive.