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Thursday, 31 October 2019

Working yourself to DEATH!

I thought I'd put a little Halloween slant on this week's offering.  And yes, I did just spend five minutes debating whether or not to use an apostrophe in 'hallowe'en'.  I went with not.  See, I can roll with the times.

Anyway, workin' hard is hardly workin' for most of us.  By this, I, of course, mean that it isn't working as a model of good practice at all.  A quick look at #edutwitter will give you the zeitgeist hot-take but it boils down to this:

WHEN DID WORKING AGREED HOURS BECOME
NOT GOOD ENOUGH???

I once worked in a school where the Headteacher would often crow about how they had been awake for 48 straight hours 'sorting out the data'.  They wouldn't even go home (not sure how their family felt about that - I suspect relieved, but that's a whole different post!).  And some of the other teachers would swoon about how dedicated the Head was.  Not me.  My comment of 'wow, that's some poor time management, right there' was about as well-received as a zombie corpse in a yoga retreat (I'm guessing - I've never been to a yoga retreat).  I was told that I wasn't a 'team player' and that I should 'hope to have that sort of dedication one day.'  If I did, maybe even lowly little me could aspire to the heady heights of management.  
Well, I don't want to make that sacrifice for my career.  To paraphrase a well known Broadway/West End witch, if that's success, it comes at much too high a cost.

But so what?  If this person chooses to burn the candle at both ends, and in the middle, and then throw it into the fire wholesale, so what?  It's their funeral, right?  

Well yes.... and no.  Because that sort of behaviour rapidly becomes the expectation, then the norm, then the minimum requirement.  It was not unheard of for members of staff, from NQTs to SLTs (newbies and old-timers for you folk over the pond) to get in at 7am and leave at 7pm.  And these people would also take books home with them to mark.  

And I was one of them!  Although, I refused to take work home.  If I was in school for 12 straight hours (maybe a 20-minute lunch break, but honestly, not very often), then I was getting everything done there.  But even this was seen as an act of rebellion.  Once, in a different school, I was caught 'sneaking off' at 6pm one Friday evening by a Headteacher.  When they saw that I didn't have any crates or suitcases (not kidding) of books and/or paperwork with me I was asked to explain myself.  Looking back, I should have just chuckled and treated it like the absurdity it was but I was a young teacher in my first school, so I explained.  I have friends staying for the weekend so, realistically, I'm not going to get any work done.  

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"Tough.  You'll just have to excuse yourself.  Your friends will understand, if they're real friends, when you're a Year 6 (Grade 5) teacher, you have no weekends."

Genuinely what was said.

This is silly.  We are human beings.  Yes, as teachers, we have decided to give a little bit back to a community.  Yes, we (most of us) enjoy our jobs.  Yes, on balance, we probably all do a little more than we should.  But that doesn't mean that we're slaves.  We do a job.  We are contracted for a certain amount of hours every week.  Beyond that, WE DON'T GET PAID.  Let's be honest, we don't even get thanked.  Again, overworking, whether it be spending holiday time perfecting a classroom display, or evenings marking books, or even time after school meeting with parents, all of it just reinforces this ridiculous belief that we are duty-bound to 'go the extra mile.'  

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It's stupid.  I'm sorry but the person who went the extra mile simply ended up a mile away from where they were supposed to be.  And, to repeat myself, we don't get thanked for it.  When we move our own goalposts for the good of the school, the school resets our goalposts to that higher position.  It stops becoming 'above and beyond' and starts to normalize at a higher point, pain tolerance.  


On top of that, overworking is hazardous to your health.  Not just your mental health, although that should be enough, your physical health.  Susan Michie and Anne Cockcroft, from the Occupational Health and Safety Unit of the Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine, wrote an article for the British Medical Journal entitled: Overwork can killWithin this fascinating, if a touch macabre read, they found:
higher workloads increase disease and death rates
They go on to explain that overworking and work-stress-related situations can lead to heart disease, neurogenic and hormonal problems, citing a case in Japan where a man literally worked himself to death.  

So yeah, it's a thing.  

However, I have no intention of simply ranting and retreating.  I think we can do something about this.  I have mentioned a few times in this blog the NUTs guidelines to acceptable responsibilities for teachers.  This includes work hours.  Work to them.  If some books don't get marked, no-body is going to die.  In fact, read my post about how to ease marking strain (Mark My Words) to help with this.  

Give yourself a day once a week where you walk out immediately after the last child has left the school gates.  Stand out there with your coat and bag and let nothing get in your way.  You are leaving.

Make sure you have a lunch break.  You are entitled to it legally for one thing.  Your contract has been adjusted (even though you're salaried and technically don't get paid by the hour) to account for it.  Take it.  Go to the staff room; sit down; eat.  Actually chew your food.  Don't accept any interruptions from those children who 'just want to speak to you really quickly.'  Tough.  It's your time to breathe.  

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Make a list at the end of every day and colour-code it for the next morning.  Appreciate that you will never get everything done, so put the most important things in red - even those really important things that you would rather not do.  Things that are important but NOT URGENT get an orange.  Things that would be good to get done go green and things that would be a little boost get blue (those were the colours for me, anyway - you can pick your own; I'm not your dad).  You'll be surprised how quickly all those red things get ticked off.  You'll also be surprised at how much time you're spending on THINGS THAT DON'T EVEN MATTER.

Try to avoid procrastination through gossip.  I had an open-door policy in my classroom for both children and staff but that came with an understanding that, while I would be listening, I would also be getting stuff done.  If it was something really serious, then I would offer the person some 'closed-door' time, of course I would, but most of the time, people just wanted to rant, vent, or share.  They didn't care if I was also marking my books.  A few of the teachers even went to get their own books and we had a mark-and-moan session.  

I think it's fair to say that, as a profession, teachers are inclined to martyrdom, but it shouldn't be expected.  And let's not forget the reason we became teachers in the first place, those little angels who are the only people in the building by legal decree.  If we burn ourselves out then we have nothing left to give for them.  You can't be a good teacher if you're dead.  
Thanks for reading this far, I hope it's been useful.  There are lots of people on Twitter who feel the same way as you do (however you feel) and it costs nothing to reach out to them.  It is the biggest staff room in the world and (most) of the people there are very friendly and quick to offer support, recourses, a shoulder to cry on or a wall to punch until the voices stop screaming.  I'm one of them.  You can follow me @mr_m_musings.  Another person who I know feels the same way, and inspired this post, is @morris9_emily.  Also, the people who lurk around the #teacher5oclockclub are always up for a chat and a giggle - it's the only sane way to face 5 am!

Seriously though, mental health is really important and if you're overworking then you are not looking after the most important person of all - you.  Take a break.  Unwind.  Speak to someone if you're stressed.  Oh, and happy Haloween!

Carl Headley-Morris


@mr_m_musings         tragiclantern@gmail.com       bit.ly/carlslearningplace

Friday, 25 October 2019

Why I BANNED Roald Dahl

I have tried, over the years, various methods of enticing children to read not only more books but a wider variety of authors.  I've employed such nefarious methods as 'Blind Date' books (where you wrap a selection of books up and the children have to simply pick one and give it a go); Reading Races (where I start the same book as a selection of children and we all race to the end.  This comes with the additional fun of each of us writing a comprehension style question at the end and challenging each other to answer it); paired reading; buddy reading; 'crazy' reading (where you can read whatever you want wherever you want - most children dive under the table immediately)... Each method has had its impact but, since they are essentially reading novelties, the impact does not last long.



No, there are only two things that I have done in my career that have seen long-term gains in reading for pleasure.  The first is using Reading Chains (more about them in a later post).  And the second is the controversial topic of today's offering. 

I banned Roald Dahl books from the classroom.

That's right.  Banned.  Forbade.  Disallowed.  No BFG, No Matilda, not even a cheeky Magic Finger.  I gathered them all up (in front of the children) and took them to Year 5.  Well, I had one of the children take them to Year 5, why have a dog and bark yourself.  Then I proclaimed (and yes, it was a grand proclamation - if you knew me, you'd know why) that, from that day, there would be no mention of that terrible peddler of second-rate stories within the boundaries of the classroom.

And not a single person cheered.



So why did I do it?  Well, it wasn't just because I loathe Roald Dahl books, it was to create a buzz of contraband.  By labelling the books as taboo, suddenly they were the must-reads of the class.  If you didn't know who Bogis and Bunce and Bean were then you were secretly handed a copy of a certain fox book either under the table or in the playground.

So great was the controversy that I even had Year 3 children coming to my room at break times asking if the ban was true.  After a very solemn confirmation, the children would walk away saying how they would make sure they read George's Marvellous Medicine before they got to Year 6.  I had parents asking me in the playground and at parents' evenings if it was true.  And every time, I said yes.  I never broke character.  It had to be real.

Of course, this was easily achieved through my utter dislike of Mr Dahl's books so it was no great hardship.  And this disdain was also helpful when, as happened every so often, a child would approach me and ask why I hated the books so much.  And I would tell them.  They are patronising to children; they are pulpily written; the characters are archetypal and obvious; he was an emotionally abusive egotist and a womaniser (those last two points were omitted depending on the children I was speaking to - I'm not an animal!).  This encouraged some great debate.  One child even asked if she could do a homework project entitled Why Mr M Should Read Roald Dahl.  Of course, I let her.  It was very well written.  

I also reassured the children who asked that, having read all of his books, I felt I was in a position to voice my objections to them.  I also conceded that he was a brilliant ideas-man.  I freely admit that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a fantastic story premise.  But it's been done better by other people (no, not Tim Burton).  This gave the children first-hand experience of someone they trusted (and liked) voicing an opposing viewpoint respectfully.  All of a sudden, when children decided they did not want to finish a book they had started, I began to receive well-argued, thoughtful reasons and not simply 'I don't like it, that's all.'  They had been given a licence to an opinion provided it came with reasons.  That was very empowering for them.  



It also gave them something to attack me with in discussions.  If I disagreed with something in a shared writing task, for example, it was not unheard of for one of the little angels to pipe up with 'Yeah, Mr M, but you don't like James and the Giant Peach, so what do you know?'  I would encourage this sort of respectful rebellion (it was always respectful).  It made me giggle.  And they had a point.  My tastes were not their tastes.

The end result was a class who were not afraid to share their literary tastes with each other, even if they were not always popular.  It's how I ended up reading (and absolutely loving) Mercedes Ice.  It's how I was introduced to the Skulduggery Pleasant series (superb - if you haven't read them; do).  It's how I was forced to read Zoella's first book... so it doesn't always work.  

To this day I still ban Roald Dahl books because I still, truly and honestly, can't stand them (I would also ban David Walliams' books as well were I not on sabbatical for my MA).  And I don't think there is anything wrong with that.  Don't get me wrong, banning books with an aim to outright bar them from the lives of the children, or indeed anyone, is barbaric and I am not condoning that for a second.  Remember, my ban was only within the classroom.  I would invite the children to read whatever they liked at home.  And most of them chose Roald Dahl, which is fine.  Because they were doing so not only for the pleasure of circumventing my silly rule, but also for the simple pleasure of reading.

Speaking of reading, thanks for reading this and not being put off by the title!  Time for some shameless plugging of products!  Christmas is coming and, for reasons still unclear to me, children love Roald Dahl's books.  In the interest of fairness, you can get them all here.  You can also get my brand new Super Challenging range of comprehension papers here along with other revision-y, helpful things.  I truly hope you're all having a wonderful time with whatever it is you are doing, and remember to give yourself a break; you've earned it!

Carl Headley-Morris


@Mr_M_Musings     tragiclantern@gmail.com     bit.ly/carlslearningplace

Thursday, 17 October 2019

We’re waiting in the corridor, My dad, my mum and me...

If you spotted that my title this week was the opening lines of Allan Ahlberg's fantastic poem 'I'm Waiting in the Corridor', then you get all the bonus points (I hope you're keeping track of your score).  I saw a request for advice on parents' evenings for newbies and I thought to myself: heck, I've done loads of them in the past.  Let's have a stab at it.

I'll aim to cover some of the more awkward/uncomfortable questions and ways to either skirt around them or answer them honestly but sensitively.  I am not saying that I am right in my approaches - I know several people who think I am a little too dismissive of parents - I'm just saying that I have about a 95% success rate at keeping my parent/teacher meetings at or under 10 minutes, and have always come away from the evening(s) unscathed.  

Unless you count the on-going debate of where the apostrophe goes (for me, the evening belongs to all the parents, so I make it a possessive plural but you do you (or, probably more accurately, you do your Head/Principal!).  I've had some very heated conversations about that.  #KeepingItReal!

A quick Google search (or, indeed, an Ecosia search, if you're concerned about the trees) will return a lot of websites about parent-teacher evenings, each with their own list of Dos and Don'ts.  So I'm not going to make those kinds of suggestions here.  Except to say that they almost all say that you absolutely must be thoroughly prepared; many of them advocate writing a little report on each child.  

Don't do that.  My post last week was all about unnecessary tasks that add to an already exhaustive workload (read it if you haven't already; it's good!).  This is one of them.  You know these children already.  Your job is to talk about them.  You do not need to write a report.  If the parents want something to take away with them, provide paper and pens and invite them to make notes (or even record the meeting; you're not going to say anything incriminating).  Don't waste your time on a report.  If you have a Headteacher or Principal who is insisting on it, direct them to this NUT report (p.26, point #63).

One more bit of context before I get into the meat of it this week.  I have been a Year 6 (5th Grade) teacher for pretty much my whole career.  I bring this up because, at that age, I rarely see the parents in the playground as the children tend to come to school and go home on their own.  So, if you are a younger-years teacher, you may have to adjust any advice (I mean, that's a good idea anyway; we're all different).

Preparation

As I said, this need not be onerous.  Have your books ready (get the children to do this at the end of the day, don't spend your own time on it!); ideally, they are marked up to date according to your school's policy but realistically, they won't be.  Don't panic, we'll get to that later.  Just make sure they are there.

I have created (and used) a Pupil Reflection sheet that you can give to the class.  This covers positives and concerns from the children's perspective.  It also provides you with the names of the parents right next to the names of the child (extremely useful).  Plus, you can call it Handwriting or PSHCe, so it can be done in class.  Boom, you now have 30 reports without lifting a pen.

I have a very handy list of emerging and expected end-of-year outcomes for Years 1-6, which make for very handy quick-target sheets.  You can get them here.  I have sometimes printed one out for each parent and a rough guide to the year.  Depending on the child, I would say that the emerging targets should be met my Christmas - February and the expected targets by May-June.

Make sure you have a copy of your appointments.  Do not rely on the office staff, they have too much to do.  I am quite pedantic, so I write mine up on a Google sheet and alternate the colours (I also provide a column for attendance) and make sure I have at least two copies with me.

Finally, if you have any important letters to hand out, have them to hand and be ready to tick that parents have received them.  These meetings are a great time to update your school's GDPR and media consent forms.

The Meeting: Greetings!

I used to be a firm believer in keeping the child away from the room during the meeting.  It was, after all, a parents' evening.  However, this is nuts; don't do it.  You want the kid in the room.  It is often very helpful to tell the parents that you need their child to do their reading/times tables/homework in front of the child.  I think this for two reasons.  1) There can be no recourse of 'I didn't know; my parents didn't tell me' 2) It is sometimes not the fault of the child.  I have had situations where parents have told their children to not do the reading I had set for them in favour of reading a religious text for 2 hours every night.  That's an extreme example, but I'm sure you can think of other instances where you have actually needed to tell the parents off for something.  This can be done very gently by reinforcing the rules through the child in a friendly and caring way.

I am a little concerned because Jimmy doesn't seem to be keeping up with his reading.  At his age, it is really important, so if you can keep nagging him at home.  I'm sure you do!  But maybe we need to up the encouragement.  Where does he do his reading?  

I love this sort of questioning.  I got it from a Darren Brown book on cold reading.  By pre-supposing an answer (he reads in x location) you remove any direct accusation while keeping the get him to bloody well read message subtly intact.  

Then you turn to the child and say something like:

And you can help by leaving your reading record out, open and filled in so that all mum or dad needs to do in the morning is sign it.  Parents are busy people, you know.

The number of times I have received reassured smiles from children from this sort of line...  It's our job to inform the parents.  It is more our job to help the children get the most out of their education.  Sometimes this means manipulating carers.

Anyway, I was talking about greetings.  Stand up to say hello.  I'm not a hand-shaker as a rule (I'm more of a hugger... but that can be frowned upon!) but I offer a hand to shake for both mum and dad.  We're all equals here with one goal; pleasantly educate the child.  Also, don't be afraid to check whose parents they are.  It doesn't make you an uncaring teacher.  Quite the opposite.  I often refer to my appointment list and say something like:

Lilly's parents, yes?  I want to make sure I tick the right people off!

They don't expect you to know what they look like - they don't know what you look like after all.  It took me about three years to pluck up the courage to check who I was talking to.  Before that, I genuinely spent a whole 10 minutes discussing the wrong child!  I did this by avoiding proper nouns, and being incredibly general.  I don't recommend it.  Far better to have a few seconds of potential awkwardness but get the right kid.

Oh, about the list of appointments... Don't stick to the order.  People come to these things expecting to be held up.  If you see a parent waiting, especially if you know it can be a quick they're doing fine; they're wonderful; I want 30 of them, then let those people skip the queue.  I know it sounds crazy, but it'll save you so much time.

The Meeting: First things first...

Before you say anything, anything at all, ask them:

Is there anything you would like to ask?  Any issues or concerns you want to raise before I get into it?  We only have 10 minutes and I want to make sure you get what you need!

It sounds very uncaring and sterile on paper but, let's face it, it's what they're there for.  It will shape the rest of your meeting with them.  It's also how I have managed to send parents away, very happy, after only three minutes.

It also tells the parents that you are not afraid to talk to them.  By giving them the lead you have already asserted your control over not only the meeting but also the room and the learning.  You are the authority figure and you have answers if they have questions.  Bring it on.  

Most of the time you will get a reply along the lines of 'oh no, not really, just, is Sally doing well; is she happy?'  This is your ideal situation because the parents just want reassurance that what Sally says happens at school paints an accurate picture.  Sally is clearly talking about school a lot; these people are already hip to the school jive (because I'm not sure if I'm allowed to use the term 'woke' in this context).  

Unless you as a teacher have anything pressing to say, tell them their child is wonderful and send them away.  More on the goodbyes later.

If you get the parents who bring out their laundry list of complaints, that's fine.  Listen.  But listen to understand.  Don't interrupt them, even if they are simply ranting.  Let them rant.  They want to be heard.  When they are finished, say:

Is that everything?

Don't say it sarcastically.  And don't make the mistake of being flippant with a jovial-but-well-meant 'goodness, is there anything we're doing right?'  Does not help.  Believe.  But checking that they are finished reinforces the idea that you are listening to them.  If you think they may have taken offence, clarify by saying that you want to make sure you're not missing anything important.

The very next thing you HAVE to say is:

Thank-you.  That's really useful to know.

Even if it isn't.  That's what these parents need to hear.  You want them onside.  If the problems raised are the fault of the child (behaviour, attitude, ability), and the child is there, ask them what they think of it.  Ask:

Is there anything I could be doing to help that I'm not doing?

It can feel a little irksome to do this, but we're only human; we may well have missed something.  Reassure the parents that, now you are aware of the situation, you'll take steps to rectify it and give them a follow-up date.  This doesn't have to be another meeting.  But by saying 'we'll have a chat in the playground around the end of the next half-term and see how things are going', you reunify the team.  They feel listened to.  The child feels safe again.  You become the hero of the piece.  The next few weeks will be fine.  Catch the parents in the playground (if you can) and smile at them with a questioning thumbs-up (the whole world doesn't need to know after all, and playgrounds are gossipy places).  Show that you have listened and that you care.


The great thing with these sorts of complaints is that they take up ten minutes all on their own.  The parents couldn't care less about the books or the progress.  You get to end the meeting on good terms.

You might get the parents who have decided that you are not pushing their child enough.  Throw it right back at them:

What does Alex enjoy doing at home?  There is a great website that would certainly stretch their brain a little more... I'll give them the address tomorrow.  Also, what are they reading at the moment?  The books we have at school are a little limited, I'm afraid.  I can recommend [insert book title here], maybe they could visit the library and borrow it?  Or get them a kindle for their birthday?  Another thing I can recommend - it's a little strange - get them to listen to Radio 4 at 6:30pm for half an hour.  

Bombard them with options.  Not to shut them up but, again, to reassure them that you care about how talented their child is.  The reality is that you can't suddenly invent resources in the school.  You will already be differentiating the work and chances are the parents don't understand Mastery of a subject, resulting in them disappointed that young Alex isn't learning differential calculus at age 9.  Explain the situation and direct them to the NRICH website.

That Radio 4 thing is genuine, by the way.  It's their evening comedy slot and it's great for those children who need a bit of stretching.  

The other thing that might come up is bullying.  The problem here is that parents do not understand what bullying is.  I bluntly state that it is an unhelpful word to use because it has a very specific definition (behaviour or attention that is deliberate, sustained and intended to cause physical, psychological or emotional pain).  Parents have no problems recognising the 'deliberate' and 'intended' parts but they often neglect the 'sustained' part.  Let them know you'll look into it (and do, it has to be genuine) but never discuss other children:

That's awful and I can totally see why you're upset/frustrated by it.  Obviously, I can't discuss other children here, in the same way, that I wouldn't discuss your child with other parents, but we will definitely have a circle time session about being more friendly to each other.  

If they are still dissatisfied, invite them to discuss it with the Head.  You've done all you can do for the time being.

There is also the chance that you knew nothing about the situation because the child hasn't told you.  Be honest and upfront about it.  Ask the kid why they didn't tell you.  Similarly, if you know the hidden other side of the story, tell the parents.  Invite the child to tell them first but if they don't then make sure that everyone knows all the details.

The Send Off!

Make sure you can see a clock.  Don't be afraid to have your watch or phone facing you.  I've known people set timers.  I've written a lot already, so I'll distil this down to three situations.

1) The easy g'bye

Well, that's everything I have to say.  I could carry on but I would only be repeating myself.  (S)He's a wonderful child and I'm happy to have him/her in the class.  Whatever you're doing at home, keep doing it!  Right, I don't want to take up anymore of your time; you're busy people.  Thanks so much for coming in and [child] I'll see you tomorrow.

Hands are shaken, smiles are worn.  Happy days.

2) The protracted farewell

(Stand up - this in important) I think we've covered the main issues/concerns.  Unfortunately I have another parent waiting very patiently.  Leave it all with me, thank again for letting me know.  I'll definitely keep you informed of the progress we make.  (To child) And I will see you tomorrow, hopefully with a smile on your face?  Don't forget to do your reading/homework/what your parents tell you; we're all on your side, don't forget.  (To parents - shaking hands) Thanks again for coming in.

It might feel like a shake-off.  But that's because it is.  If you don't have another appointment immediately afterwards, leave the room.  Go for a comfort break.  Don't hang around.

3) Bye, Felicia!

I think we need to give this more time.  We really can't resolve [the situation] in a 10-minute interview and I agree, it needs resolving.  Call into the office tomorrow morning and arrange a time after school when we can meet a little more formally and give it the attention it deserves.  There will also be fewer ears around.  Thanks for bringing to my attention and for coming in - it must have been quite awkward for you.  Genuinely though, thank-you.  It's good to know that we are a team. (To the child) Don't talk about this to people in the playground, okay, because it's a serious matter.  We'll sort it out, your parents and me [NEVER 'I'], but it might take some time.  I'll see you tomorrow buddy/pal/sweetheart/slugger/whatever endearing nickname you have for your children.

This one is rare but it does the job.  The follow-up rate from the parents is less than you would expect but it might be a good idea to let your SLT know of the situation before they are told by someone else.

Parents Who Miss It?

Very briefly because we're all busy (and some of us are hungry).  You have your very helpful appointment sheet - draw a picture of a phone next to those parents who didn't show up.  The sooner you can call them (or email if your school will allow it) the better.  You need to have a conference with these people; they don't have to be in the room.  I had a parent once who had to have their parent-teacher meeting via PlayStation Network Messenger.  It was unorthodox, but it worked.

I hope this has been useful.  I quite enjoy parents' evenings.  Never forget that you and the children are on the same team.  It's not always the same team and you and parents either.  You see the kids more than you see the parents; help them out where you can.  Oh, also place some orders.  I have always told my children that parents' evenings make me thirsty and hungry and that I like Dr Pepper and Twix bars.  

The little angels bring them in (much to their parents' confusion)!

Be gentle to yourselves and smile at at least three strangers.  You just might make their day!

Carl Headley-Morris


I have written a pack of 'Super Challenging' English comprehension papers!  They are part of the SVR Education set, which has material covering English and maths from Year 1 all the way up to Year 9.  

You can view them and buy them here or directly from www.svreducation.co.uk.  You can also WIN yourself a set (of the Super Challenging) by following me on Twitter, retweeting the link to the pack and leaving a comment.  I'll open that out to this blog as well.  Subscribe and comment for a chance to win!

Competition closes on Friday 25 October.

Thanks for reading!

@Mr_M_Musings            tragiclantern@gmail.com           bit.ly/carlslearningplace

Friday, 11 October 2019

Just Say No - the Importance of Knowing Your Litmits

Teachers are an odd bunch.  We are forever trying to cram 38 hours into a 24 hour day then complaining that we have no time.  We bend over backwards to help people but rarely accept help from others.  We spend almost 6 hours a day teaching children to produce their best work by focussing on it... then forget to do that ourselves.

We need to learn to say no.

In the spirit of this week's blog post, I am going to be brief because I have a lot of things to do today (my list is colour-coded and time-coded...).  

Image result for too many jobs

I was once asked by a Headteacher to write 30 individual reports for a parent/teacher evening.  There was nothing special about the evening; just a regular mid-term catch-up.  Now, here in the UK we have a teachers' union called the NUT and they produced a very helpful guideline about the sort of work teachers should be expected to do (it's here if you want to see it).  It stated that, as teachers, we could be expected to write one report per child per academic year.  Most of us would take this to mean the end of year report (although there is no legal obligation for a class teacher to write this either - it is the obligation of the Headteacher, who may choose to delegate it to colleagues).  

So I said no.  I would not be writing an extra 30 reports for a parents' evening.

This was not met with hugs and smiles.  I was asked why I would 'disobey a direct order' (it was that kind of place) and I said that I would be writing the end of year report and that was all I was obliged to do.  I added that I would not be writing anything in these extra reports tha I wouldn't be telling the parents directly and that the parents were welcome to make any notes, or even record the meetings if they so chose.  I thought that was reasonable.  

The Headteacher did not.

We 'discussed' it for about half an hour after which I told her that my time is finite and I can only do so much with it.  If these reports were that important to her vision for the school, that I wanted to know which of my numerous other tasks should be sacrificed for them to be written.

This shocked her into silence.  No-one had ever put it like that.  And this is what I'm talking about.
Image result for the power of no

I used to arrive at school for 7am and leave at 7pm.  I sometimes took half an hour for lunch, but mostly I ate on the job.  I rarely stopped to chat in the staff room.  When I was in the building, I was working.  I made lists (colour- and time-coded) and I checked them off.  Honestly, what more could I do?

I have spoken to many teachers old and new and there is a common theme of never doing enough.  As teachers, if we are asked to do something, especially if we are guilted into it with an innocuous 'it's only a little thing...' we'll say yes.  Sometimes we'll say yes at the cost of going home on time.  Or eating.  

We need to learn to say NO.

This doesn't need to be a rude or abrasive thing.  It should be empowering.  Let's look at it from a management point of view...

Let's say you were asked to submit an extra report, or cover a lesson, or anything above and beyond what you're already expected to do.  You agree and you go about getting it done.  Either you get the extra work done on time but your other work suffers, or you get everything done but to a lesser standard than you would like, or you get everything done to a high standard but have had to sacrifice personal time to achieve it.

You hand the extra work in and your manager might be pleased with it, in which case they may well say well done.  Or, more likely, you'll hand it in and, if it's sub-par, you won't be thanked at all and their estimation of you will decrease; or you'll hand it in and they will be impressed but think that you have this extra time available all the time and will raise the bar to this new level.  Worst case scenario, you hand it in late or not at all and end up looking like a disorganised mess.  Meanwhile, your colleagues who don't accept the extra work are not seen as less than you; they are seen as managing their time better because they don't have any spare!

Now consider this...

You're asked to produce some extra work and you reply with the following:

I'd love to help with that.  Realistically, I could only have it done by (insert date) because I have a lot on at the moment.  If you need it urgently, I'll have to put (x, y, z) on hold to give it the proper attention.  Will that be okay?

You have been positive; you have been pro-active; you have been realistic.  Your manager may turn around and say that it doesn't matter, that they'll get someone else to do it, and that's fine!  It's no longer your problem.  They may accept the hold on the other projects (marking, report writing, running an after-school club) because this extra work is super important. Great!  You've got the time to do it.  They may even be surprised at the amount of work you are undertaking and take some of it off of you (this has happened to me before - I nearly fainted!).  Whatever the result, you have been honest about the amount of time you have and you get to stay sane.


99% of managers out there will not think less of you for saying no to an extra task you genuinely do not have the time for.  Be honest with them and with yourself.  

I learned this very valuable lesson by reading Brian Tracy's phenomenal book: Eat That Frog!  I cannot recommend it enough.  If you ever find yourself with more tasks than time, this is the book for you.  I've mentioned my lists a couple times in this post - they are a direct result of Tracy's book.  I used to get so stressed out by my workload and now I breeze through it.  And I have learned to say no.

Thanks to everyone who has read this far!  Please continue to spread the word about my humble little blog and, as always, look after yourself.  You deserve it!

Carl Headley-Morris

@Mr_M_Musings            tragiclantern@gmail.com           bit.ly/carlslearningplace

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Write on, dude!

I am a writer.  I mean, I'm a teacher and, for the next academic year, I am also a student but, in my heart, I am a writer (you might question that proclamation having read this blog!).  I always have been.  I remember when I was seven (eight?), I bought a Ninja Turtles notebook and wrote a bunch of stories in which each turtle (and April and Splinter) got their own focus.  I even started one with the final line and told the story through a flashback.  Oh yeah, I was a total nerd.  I did fan-fiction before it was cool (is it cool yet?).  Anyway, my point is that because I have always enjoyed writing, and was quite willing to take risks, I find it hard to understand children who find it difficult.  I was told during my PGCE (post-graduate teacher training in the UK) that there is 'nothing so scary as an empty page.'  And I just couldn't connect with that.  For me, an empty page was a universe of opportunity.  Admittedly, I would want to know that there were plenty of other empty pages lest I take a wrong turn, but ultimately I loved that empty page.  I still do.  But too many children do not.

How to remedy this?

I learned very quickly that simply inviting children to write something, anything didn't always work.  As much as we try to turn these cherubs into risk-takers, there is always that little bit of resistance (it can go away but you need to have the kids for a l-o-n-g time.  I've taken classes from Year 5 through to Year 6 - that's grades 4 through 5 - and that helped); that reluctance to make a mistake.  Now, I don't think you can make a mistake in writing.  At least, not a creative mistake.  Alas, I have been told by many Headteachers that you certainly can.  I recall a time when my English lesson was being observed during the winter term.  We were going to write a heartwarming winter fairytale.  After agreeing on a snowy village for our setting, a child suggested that three cockroaches be our protagonists. So I wrote this down on the ideas board.  This was the point in the lesson that the observer left.  Skip to my feedback and I was cautioned about not challenging 'silly ideas.'  See, she didn't believe that three cockroaches could feature in a successful fairytale about the magic of Christmas.  My innocent response of 'why not?' was not met with the didactic thought-shower I was hoping for.  No, it was met with a mini-lecture on how, as a teacher, I should be teaching children that some ideas are not good ideas.  
https://thepapersavers.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/frustrated-child.jpg?w=594
To be fair, some ideas are not good.  My Google drive has a dedicated 'Ideas Graveyard' folder for things that just didn't work out... yet.  And that's my issue with this sort of thing.  Just because an idea hasn't worked this time; doesn't make it a bad idea.  But I can rant about that another time - I need to stay on topic.

You cannot make a creative mistake.

In the UK, we have a bit of a writing guru called Pie Corbett.  He pioneered a technique called Talk for Writing (T4W) and until I met him in person, I had no time for him at all.  T4W, in the school I was working, involved allowing literal weeks and weeks of having the children learn by heart entire stories with very fixed, non-challenging vocabulary, only to copy it out changing a couple of words here and there before altering the title and calling it original work.  It was boring.  It was painful.  It was as far from teaching creativity as I could possibly get.

Then I met the man.  I told him (very respectfully) what I thought of T4W and he was horrified.

"You're doing it wrong," he said.

He went on to explain that the idea was to get the children comfortable with certain story tropes and genres; to give them a bank of phrases and plotlines; to enable them to take a story they knew and make it their own.  He was very upset that the vocabulary had been restricted so much, especially when the children were suggesting perfectly acceptable alternatives.  He also said that, certainly with older children, the imitation stage - where they learn the story - needn't take very long at all.  In fact, they don't need to know the story; just be familiar enough with the plot that they can use it and manipulate it.  He even went on to say that from age 9 onwards, the three stages (imitate, innovate, create) could be reduced to just two since the innovation should be more creative by then anyway.
Needless to say, I suddenly realised the power of T4W and have been using it ever since.  By far the most powerful aspect of this technique is the talking.

Say what?

Before the children write anything, anything at all, they say it.  They tell the story; they interview the characters; they present 'expert' lectures on the plot... anything that involves verbalising what they will eventually write down.  In my classes, we recorded five-minute improvisations in character and discussed the vocabulary used.  We drew our own illustrations and added thought bubbles for every character.  We made dioramas of key scenes (our shoebox garages from Skellig were phenomenal).  We even Dr. Phil-ed the characters.  All of this preparation took time, up to a solid month sometimes, but resulted in the children being ready to write.  It also made for some nice display work.  So the children were champing at the bit; eagre to put pen to paper.  Now I had a new problem...

I love it when a plan comes together...

I had to get these children to plan their work.  This, they did not like.  I could not blame them; I didn't like planning either.  You may have guessed that I don't plan these blog posts (that's why they ramble).  I do edit, believe it or not, but I don't like to plan.  Unfortunately for the children and for me, they had to.  It was on the curriculum.  So I had to find a way to make planning useful and quick.

I read, far too late in my career, I read John Yorke's fantastic book: Into the Woods.  I cannot recommend it enough.  I had learned from my colleagues in Key Stage One (grades K-1) about 'story mountains' and kind of didn't like them very much because I found them too simplistic.  How wrong I was.  They're basic structure matches the monomyth mentioned in Yorke's book and my Year 6s and I had a great time mapping out stories we knew based on the 5 steps.  However, what was revolutionary for me was not so much the journey of the story but the interconnectivity of the stages.  Yorke explains in far more detail but the TL/DR of it is this:
The opening of your story needs to mirror the ending.  The flawed protagonist has to be whole by the end.  If they want something in the beginning; they must have it at the end.  Okay, so far so obvious.
He goes further.
It is a far better story if the character doesn't merely get what they want but instead end up with what they have been needing.  Even better still if they have to sacrifice what they wanted for they what they needed.  Then you have some proper storytelling.  And that's just the beginning and the end!   

The 'build-up' and the 'solution' also need to mirror each other.  The 'build-up' should take the character out of their comfort zone and into a brand new environment.  This call to arms (usually spurred on by a force other than the protagonist) naturally sets the protagonist and reader in pursuit of their want, and we are all introduced to new things at the same time.  So the 'solution' (I don't like these story mountain titles, by the way) should see our protagonist in possession of the want, heading back to their home through the world that was once scary and new and is now familiar.  Their world has grown.  They have grown.  Which brings us to the midpoint.


The story mountain calls this 'The Problem' but I don't like that; it's not always a problem.  And the conflict can be introduced in other places.  Yorke describes this mid-point as being the point of no return.  This is the point where the protagonist can see the thing they want but must make a sacrifice in order to get it.  It doesn't have to be a big sacrifice but it must change their life forever.  This is my favourite thing.  The protagonist must enter 'the problem' as one person and leave it as another (not literally, of course.  This sacrifice - a question; a decision; an actual sacrifice - must have changed the protagonist forever.  It is this change that can allow them to realise that what they need and what they want are two different things.  It is this sacrifice that can lead them to give up their own personal want for a greater need, either of themselves or of others.

An example of boxing up
Using this very simple structure, you can create some very powerful stories in a very short space of time.  Especially when the children are already familiar with the characters and archetypes from all the T4W they have been doing.  Using this approach, I have had children with very limited abilities create amazingly moving prequels to Skellig; eerily disturbing accounts of The Listeners; and even write a Victorian runaway story that we turned into the end-of-school musical.  It is that powerful.

Before I go...

Another useful tool I happened across was what I have come to call Sidebars.  I love them.  Once you have planned and 'boxed-up' (literally boxing your ideas into boxes that will form paragraphs) your plan for a piece of writing, you as the teacher copy them into thin columns, which take up a page or so.  These are then stuck into the margin of the children's workbooks as an aid-memoir.  These help them to stick to their plan and also to write a little more than they perhaps would have done without them.  They really don't take very long to make but have rescued so much writing over the years I have used them.  Some children have them stuck in and individualised; others have more generic copies and the option to stick them in or just refer to them.
A sidebar based on the 'boxed-up' plan
Phew, this one ran on a bit.  Visit my website (bit.ly/carlslearningplace) for examples of everything I've talked about, or just email me or leave a comment below for anything specific.  Speaking of the comments, please let me know if you have used any of these techniques yourself, or have any other ideas that work well.  We need to help each other out!

Thanks for reading this far, those of you that have!  Please share this blog with others - I'm working on something special for December - something I'll give you for free to raise money in your school's Christmas fair.  I've used it myself and it is a guaranteed earner, also, the kids love it.  So I want as many people as possible using it!  Please re-post and re-tweet!  Have w wonderful week and I leave you, look around.  Look at everything you've done.  You rock.  And what's more, you've made somebody smile this week.  You might never know about it, but they know and they thank you for it.  So do I.  You're awesome.

Carl Headley-Morris


@Mr_M_Musings        tragiclantern@gmail.com     bit.ly/carlslearningplace

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