Ed Tech Creative Collective

I like the idea of being part of a collective. It’s a good, solid, wholesome word. I’m not a self-starter, so I’m hoping that being part of a collective will give a bit of focus and direction to my meddlings.

I like the euphony of ‘collective’ and ‘creative’.

I don’t expect that anyone has read through this blog thus far, and I certainly don’t expect anyone to do so now. But if you did, you’d see that I’ve blown hot & cold, and hither & thither with it. I also have other bits of online projects scattered in various bits of cyberspace. I want to be a bit less of a flibbertigibbet and a bit more of a getupandgetit.

To be creative, I think I need constraints, as well as cues. So, a collective it is then.

(I just hope, and – as far as I am able – intend, that this will be, for me, not just another kind of failure.

“Flow” – is it time for me to un-ban it?

My A-level students, and doubtless some others, have had the experience at one point or another of me going berserk about someone using the word ‘flow’ to describe a piece of text, followed by my theatrically banning its use, usually to the accompaniment of a less than edifying toilet-based description of how ‘flow’ can take so many different forms from the trickle to the torrent that it’s pretty useless in any discussion that’s aiming at analytical precision.

Reading this the other day, led me back to the source whence it flowed, thereby reassuring me that it’s not only my ‘pet peeve’, but also confirming what I’ve always felt: that even though it’s not useful in itself as an analytical term, its use by students nearly always reflects the sense that they are grasping at something important and worth saying, but do not yet have the conceptual tools and critical vocabulary to define and describe adequately.
My A-level students will also notice that one of the examples used by David Jauss is an extract from D H Lawrence’s Odour of Chrysanthemums which uses stylistic techniques very similar to those used by Lawrence in a passage I nearly always use towards the beginning of the course (it’s the first paragraph here ), and which I contrast with extracts from Hemingway and Austen that use very different syntactical structures, and also ‘flow’ but in very different ways. (I think I first saw those extracts juxtaposed in an early English Language resource book called Some things to do with English Language.)
(Anyhow, both articles are well worth a read, I think.

That ‘Catholic Ethos’ thing

Yesterday we had an Inset day, most of which was on the Catholic Ethos of the school. We were led in this by Fr Paul Farrer from Middlesborough who specialises in youth ministry. After the darkness of  last half term, with its tragic deaths of two of our students, the diagnosis with cancer of a year 9 student whose mother is a member of staff, and the death by cancer of a much loved colleague, it seemed fitting to focus on our distinctively Catholic ethos.

Fr Paul emphasised the meaning of Catholic as ‘universal’, and I remember thinking last term that I would like to have been able to take those who see faith schools as necessarily divisive into our community on the morning after our two students died, or on the day we held mass for them, or in the after school liturgy we held for our colleague and friend, Jo.

I understand the objections that some people have to state funding of faith schools. Yet, especially at times of grief, crisis and celebration, but also in both the still small moments of calm, and the daily bustle, the Christian focus of our school offers something of value that I think is perhaps impossible to find outside a faith community, and which I think is worth preserving – and it is not only people of faith who can see that.

At one point during the morning we were asked to consider, among other questions, WHY we do what we do, rather than how we do it which is so often the focus. This links for me with the wider purpos/ed discussion that was kicked off last month, in which I was not the only person to suggest that ‘love’ might have something to do with it.

At the end of the day, the words of St Teresa of Avila were used. Those words had prompted me to write a morning briefing prayer several years ago:

Christ has no body now on earth but ours
No hands but ours, nor feet; no pair of eyes.
Only compassion should we radiate
from eyes that on the world we cast Christ’s gaze;
Only good actions should we ambulate
with feet that tread their footfalls in Christ’s ways;
Only soft blessings should accumulate
from hands that offer Christ’s work in this place.

(If that’s not why we do it, then why are we even here?

Getting the CPDeebies

Last week I delivered an after school session about the value of developing a Personal Learning Network (PLN) to a handful of colleagues who had signed up. I had considered doing one as part of our CPD programme last year, but bottled it. Towards the end of last academic year when the call came for volunteers to deliver sessions (we opt in to three twilight sessions in lieu of a disaggregated Inset day) I bit the bullet and put myself forward for a session on Building a Personal Learning Network using Social Networking. In retrospect, maybe I could have thought of a snappier title.

I was more anxious about it than I know rationally I should have been. It’s just that I’ve sat through enough sessions thinking “Who does s/he think s/he is?!” to imagine that nobody would be thinking the same about me, and I’m thin skinned enough for that thought to really bother me.

Anyhow, nine colleagues turned up after school on Tuesday. I hope I got across the fact that I hadn’t put the session on as a “hey look how great I am” ego-fest, even though I did chuck in the handful of examples of webby things I’ve done with kids that seem to have gone down well. I felt it was important to show some of the things I’ve learned from developing a PLN that have made on impact on classroom practice to give a context and sense of purpose to the session. I also introduced Edmodo as an immediately practical tool that can be used for networking with students, and because I thought for the very un-techy ones it might be a bit less alarming way in than immediately putting something out there in public in the way Twitter does. You can see some of what went on that bit of the session here (just to betray that sense of security!).

The Prezi that I used is below. Some of it may be a little mystifying without my accompanying commentary. I’m adding bits of explanatory text  here and there as I come back to it now and again.

So, was the session a success?

A couple of colleagues have started using, or re-using Twitter, (@emsiwemsi & @Nad1neB) while @antmcride and @mariedarwin signed up but haven’t tweeted yet. Maybe you could give them a tweet and see if it wakes them up! @mbelleini by contrast not only began to use his new Twitter account, but was also moved to write his first blog post: http://mbbamused.blogspot.com/

Of the nine participants, seven filled in the feedback and their evaluation was largely positive:

Of course the two who didn’t return the form may have found the session useless for all I know, but I’ll take “It has reignited my joy of teaching” and “I think this should be introduced to all staff”  as indications that it was worth the effort.

If nothing else, it’s given me a bit more confidence to start sharing more of what I’m learning from my external PLN with my colleagues in school.

(The big question now, is ‘how?’

A love of learning, for the learning of love #purposed

Back in 1992, I applied for my first teaching post, and wrote the following:

Usually, I think I can still stand by what I wrote back then. Part of me, though, thinks it sounds mealy-mouthed, and evidence of a fence-sitting mentality that may have paralysed my effectiveness as an educator. I often joke that if there are two sides to an issue, I can see all five, and am usually unable to make decision among them.

I guess my dichotomy is encapsulated in the two tweets I put out on the day purpose/ed launched:

[blackbirdpie id=”32391234345508865″]

[blackbirdpie id=”32407908528427008″]

On the one hand: a sense of what education could and should be, and on the other:  deep unease about the structure and functions of the education system. Similar reservations recur in many of the purpose/ed contributions so far. I was particularly struck by the link made by Lou McGill between parenting a child who was failed dramatically by state education, and the sense that “capitalist societies want educated populations to operate the means of production, but don’t really want people who are able to question the very structure they are living in.”

I have always felt out of place as a schoolteacher, but rarely as a teacher. Perhaps this can be traced at least in part to the fact that when I made the application above, I was still testing what I felt to be a vocation to the Anglican priesthood. A couple of years later, my wife and I were received into the Catholic Church, which rather put paid to that idea. But though my faith has often wavered, and my ideological convictions vacillated, the sense of pursuing a vocation has never left me. Even when I’ve wanted it to.

Underpinning that sense are notions that do not depend on the sort of religious impulse that gave rise to it in my case. It is there in Stephen Downes’ assertion that “education is sufficient to lift a person into a life of self-awareness and reflection. It is the great liberator, and even should an educated person never rise out of poverty, that person will never again be poor.” It is there in Ewan McIntosh’s idea that “the desire to learn is woven into the concept of contentment and that, for me at least, is the basic purpose of any education system.”

So: the challenge of liberation and the security of contentment; these, for me, are joined in that greatest purpose of education (because it is the greatest purpose of life): love. Not the emotion we think of as the calendar rolls round to Valentine’s Day, but the disposition that chooses to go beyond self-interest, because to do so is for the greater good of others, which in turn leads to greater self-fulfilment.

(We may not get ‘love’ into many policy documents, but surely the highest, most deeply personal, and most profoundly relational of ideals should inform all our thinking about what we actually do to shape the purpose of education.

From curriculum borders to learning horizons

Watching a ‘Horizon’ programme on how illusions shed light on how the senses operate, I experienced the familiar sense of feeling that the fairly arbitrary distinctions we make between ‘subjects’ in school are as illusory as some of the common-sense perceptions we cling to, but that empirical observation reveal to be false.

I like being an English teacher, but, on the whole I don’t much enjoy the inter- subject rivalry that tends to characterise secondary school life, albeit usually at a fairly lighthearted level. You see, really I want to be able to bring everything I learn about into my teaching practice. And I want to be able to lend the particular areas of expertise I may have picked up, and borrow in turn those of others, in the service of richer, deeper, broader learning experiences that I and my students can share.

How to do that in the confines of a rigid timetable and a curriculum geared towards discretely examined subject areas is difficult to engineer. On a personal level, I try to do a little of it simply by making connections. For example when teaching about the way language and perception may interact I find myself talking about the relationship between the wavelength of light and the perception of colour, showing how the ‘white’ of an interactive whiteboard, and the ‘black’ parts of an image projected onto it are in fact the same (in fact the ‘black’ is actually slightly brighter than the ‘white’ as some light from the projector still bleeds through onto the ‘black’ areas).

That kind of exploration fascinates me, and I think that the insights being gained in perceptual psychology are directly applicable to, say, literary criticism. Obviously that, in itself, is hardly a new idea. ‘English’ at university level has long been the site, at some places at least, of interdisciplinary innovation, but that has filtered down to school level, if at all, in very weakened form.

That I was watching that ‘Horizon’ programme on BBC iplayer on my phone while lying in bed several days after it was first broadcast, and was then able immediately to begin composing this response on that same handheld device, before uploading it for potentially anyone to read also acts as a reminder that ways of learning, thinking about that learning, and developing and disseminating the products of that learning are changing in ways that the education system as currently constituted is only beginning to take the first lumbering cognisance of.

(And in the current political climate it may even be lumbering in quite the wrong direction…

Ed reform day

I saw on twitter that Tom Whitby had put out a call for bloggers to write a post on Ed reform today, and to collate the posts on a wallwisher wall.

At first I thought that this was likely to be a Stateside dominated venture, probably with a specific US context in mind. Then it occurred to me that even if that was the case, the mere fact that I knew about it illustrated that national boundaries are much less of a barrier than they once were. This was brought home last week when my developing writers in year 8 were thrilled to find that their tentative first pieces on our class blog had drawn – thanks to my publicising it on twitter – an audience of readers from around the globe.

So, I mentally planned a post that was to include reference to the value of global online connections, both to teachers and students. It would also have ranged (again, it’s a recurring theme for me) over the difficulties that crop up in trying to foster independent and collaborative learning using the wealth of tools that technology has made available.

However my plans were scuppered when my 8+ year old cable modem finally gave up the ghost this evening. A common worry, and reason for avoiding tech for some teachers, is that it can easily fail. Yet, despite my broadband Internet access failing completely for the first time in years, this blog post is here. Shorter, less carefully written, minus inline links, and with a different focus than it might have had otherwise. But nevertheless incontrovertibly here.

I am still connected by my phone. I was able to use it to troubleshoot the initial modem problem, then call Virgin media (in India,as it happens) to get a new modem ordered. I am using it now to write and post this blog. Our students will be using similar technology tomorrow to access sites that we have blocked for their ‘safety’, and on which they will find few models of responsible behaviour because we have largely withdrawn from their online spaces out of fear of ‘safeguarding’ issues. In the meantime they will he struggling to use computers that take an age to load up, before prematurely losing battery power, and that have their utility further denuded by a confused and ineffectual filtering policy that denies access to some of the most wonderful learning materials that human creativity and ingenuity has produced.

Hard-pressed technicians are running to stand still to keep systems operating that have not been designed with the needs of learners in mind. In the meantime, a cpd trainer, running a ‘learning to learn’ session refers again to the ‘Shift Happens’ video that our school staff were shown perhaps five years ago, around the time of our last such cpd session.

Yes. Shift happens, whether we want it to or not. Whether we embrace it or not. But if we are not actively a part of making and shaping that shift, there is a danger that suddenly we will find that we, and the young people it is our responsibility to guide, have had the ground shifted from beneath us.

(and it’s not just about technological shift; it can also be about matters as simple as shifting furniture, or as profound as shifting the way we think.

Paradise will be a kind of library

Or so Jose Louis Borges imagined.

If Borges is looking down now from his bookish paradise on my town of Doncaster, then I guess he’d be equating it with Dante’s eighth circle of hell, which houses, among other things, the souls of thieves, as our library service is being systematically stripped: a process that started long before the current round of public sector cuts.

One of my students, Olivia, alerted me recently to one of the most startling manifestations of this cultural vandalism. The number of qualified librarians employed in Doncaster Library Service (covering the geographically largest metropolitan borough in the country) has dropped from 26 to 2.

I just sneaked under the wire in completing a well-hidden consultation survey that finishes tomorrow, on the archaic council website, having only discovered it thanks to the Save Doncaster Libraries campaign.

As a teacher I regularly encounter students who are unable to access at home the online resources I (and many of their classmates) take for granted. I advise them to go to their local library where internet access is free. I regularly have students who are wanting to pursue language investigations or extended projects on topics that require material unavailable in the school library. I advise them to seek the expertise of the information professionals at their local library.

For many of them, such advice is already futile as they are likely to find the door of their library closed at the sort of times a student is likely to be able to access it.

Council budget cuts are sadly inevitable, and libraries are a soft target. But the softer the target, the more damage is done when it is hit.

(So: use your local library and get involved in the Save Doncaster’s Libraries campaign.

Why not be done by as you should do

An art critic doesn’t necessarily need to be a great artist, and as we’ve seen all too often during the world cup campaign, the best players do not necessarily make either the best coaches or pundits. Thus went my reasoning as I tried to justify the tedious after school staff meeting we were subjected to by an Ofsted ‘lead inspector’ last week. However, an art critic is not trying to create a work of art; a football pundit is not playing the game. Our Ofsted inspector was, however, trying to teach us something. Perhaps he is excellent at his inspection role, so does it matter that, as a teacher/presenter, he either failed to come close to the standards he was exhorting us to achieve, or perhaps hadn’t even bothered to try?

“The main focus for the meeting”, we were told beforehand, “will be ‘Securing Outstanding’. The lead inspector’s brief was: “ helping us to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ learning and teaching by : (i) raising awareness about the criteria; (ii) deepening our understanding of ‘outstanding delivery’.”

He began by telling us about how, when inspecting, the emphasis is now more on looking at the learning than the teaching, and that therefore rather than the traditional mode of sitting at the back with a clipboard, he now often adopts the position of the teacher and looks at the actions and reactions of the students. I wondered what he would think of his own performance if he were able to look out at the sea of bored and disengaged faces in front of him. He committed the cardinal presentation errors: a series of PowerPoint slides which were too text heavy, with much of his delivery consisting of reading content either directly from the slides, or from the handouts we had been given. Vocal delivery was flat and pretty monotonous. We had been told that he had asked “if colleagues can come prepared with questions as he wants the session to be as interactive as possible.” If your idea of being as interactive as possible is hoping that people will ask questions, you’re going to struggle do much more than lecture. So he didn’t do much more than lecture. There was a desultory exercise part way through, involving looking at a couple of Ofsted ‘quality of teaching’ reports and guessing what grade they had been given.

But enough of the dismal delivery. Did I learn anything?

I can’t remember. So I guess the answer’s ‘no’

But I was deeply dejected by the mechanistic approach to judging teaching that seems to mean that if you’ve got engaged kids you can be ‘outstanding’ even if the teaching actually isn’t, but even the most brilliant teaching can’t be judged ‘outstanding’ if the students aren’t up to scratch.

(So the system is skewed in favour of schools like ours, which is clearly unfair.

It is TeachMeet and right so to do

Last Friday night I went to my first TeachMeet at Doncaster South CLC.

Yes, that’s right: Friday night.

I was with a bunch of teachers and other education professionals from 6 until just turned 10, then joined a few of them to continue the conversation in the pub afterwards.

On a Friday night.

Now, I’ll be honest, it’s not long ago that I would have guffawed at the idea of doing ‘schooly’ stuff on a Friday evening, and the fact I’m starting this post in this way shows that I still feel the need to be a little apologetic about the fact. After all, nobody likes a swot.

But as teachers, surely all but the most jaded and wilfully cynical of us (and believe me, I’ve been both) prefer kids who at least show a bit of enthusiasm, and are prepared to take an interest beyond the bare minimum required of them in lessons. And if we hope for that from our students, surely it makes sense to live it ourselves.

So that’s what I was doing there. Over the past year and a bit, I’ve learned an awful lot from developing what I’ve learned to call a PLN (Personal Learning Network), largely via Twitter. It’s not been a uniform upward curve, and the re-enthusiasm for teaching and learning that has been ignited has stuttered and guttered at times, but when I saw that there was to be a TeachMeet so close to home I decided I ought to overcome my reticence at throwing myself into unfamiliar social situations and just go.

I’m glad I did. Even the most techthusiastic and socially maladroit of us benefit from real live human interaction, and there is a degree of attention you can give to people standing in front of you explaining what they’re up to that is difficult to sustain for such a long time if it’s only on-screen. Another advantage of throwing yourself into the pot-pourri of people such as those few dozen who turned up on Friday is the discovery of ideas that you might not otherwise have chosen to give any further thought to.

I have no direct reason to use some of the particular tools shown to us by James Cross, a music teacherfrom High Storrs school in Sheffield, but I was left thinking about his reference to a ‘folk tradition’ of peer learning and teaching, and how social networking tools and online publishing can help to tap into the creativity that kids naturally have, but which is often exercised in ways that formal schooling fails to harness.

I am not a primary teacher, but the energising experience of seeing David Mitchell present with remarkably engaged and engaging live input from some of his Year 6 pupils; Peter Richardson show how Voicethread can be a powerful tool for peer assessment, and Jim Maloney reveal how his Year1 kids were sharing and collaborating with each other, other classes and their parents in a variety of ways, prompted ideas that I can see gestating into my own practice in various ways.

Catherine Elliott explicitly bridged the phase-gap with a fascinating account of transition work using gps data-loggers for Y6 pupils to record a tour of their new secondary school. Continuing the techy theme, Matt McDonald, a history teacher from the next-door Balby Carr school, impressed with his use of mobile phones as a learning and revision tool, harnessing positively a technology that nearly all the kids have, but that we tend to expend undue energy in censuring.

Lest it seem like TeachMeet is nothing but a tech-geek love-in (though, let’s be honest, there is something of that), one of the presentations I found most gripping and thought-provoking was by Julian Wood, a primary deputy from Sheffield. Eschewing the wealth of presentation technology available, Julian stood and simply spoke, softly but clearly, about a vision of education ‘in a third space‘, in which teachers are just as much learners as their students, and in which the relationships between people, and their environment, come to the fore. I haven’t summarised what he had to say at all well, but like most good stories, its impact is in the ideas it sets resonating, rather than in its reducible content.

Have I mentioned that I laughed a lot? How can a bunch of teachers get together on a Friday night to talk about ‘teachy’ stuff to each other without seeming cripplingly earnest? I don’t know; it seems implausible, doesn’t it?

(I suppose it has to do with finding learning fun.