My Journey to Writing a Book

I am extremely excited and proud to announce that my first ever book, Wellbeing In The Primary Classroom – A Practical Guide To Teaching Happiness was published on Thursday 6th September, 2018. A dream had finally come true! Except, the reality was that I hadn’t ever really dreamed about writing a book. Ok, so I had thought about it in the past now and then but a dream? No, not really. So, for all you budding writers out there (ones that are dreaming about it and ones that aren’t even aware you will actually write a book one day), here’s how I wrote a book about teaching happiness to children:

  • My ‘quarter-life crisis’

In my late 20s, I experienced a period of acute anxiety which led to a period of depression. Up until that point, I had always been quite a positive and happy-go-lucky type of guy. This was easily one of the most difficult periods of my life but I learned something very important – nothing matters more than your physical and mental health.

  • Researched what happiness isBlog 1

As a result of my ‘quarter-life crisis’, I began to research the causes of anxiety and depression in order to make sense of what had happened to me. In doing so, I also learned about the key factors that contribute to good mental health (regular exercise, good diet, strong personal relationships, a strong sense of purpose, and meditation all help) and began to make changes to my life.

  • Started to practice happiness

The Dalai Lama once said, “Happiness is not something ready-made – it comes from your own actions.” And he’s right. Leading a happy or happier life takes action and effort. Just knowing what contributes to wellbeing doesn’t make you feel any better. So, I signed up to mindfulness courses, I took up weekly sports again, I made space for spending quality time with friends and family and I started journaling. I talked the talk, and I started to walk the walk.

  • Volunteered

A key thing that came up in my research about happiness was that happy tend to volunteer and help others. So, I signed up to become a mentor to a 9-year-old boy at risk of being kicked out of school through the charity, Chance UK. I also took up the offer of a teacher friend who was looking for a governor for the school she taught in. Both of these experiences gave my life a lot more meaning and purpose and had such a profound impact on me that I decided to retrain as a primary school teacher.

  • Realised our education system is broken

Schools are generally not set up to focus on the happiness and wellbeing of their pupils as a primary concern. I learned this through mentoring (the boy I mentored had a school that showed little interest in helping him fit in there) and through my first year as a primary teacher. With such a relentless focus on academic attainment, and the need for children to make rapid progress, children’s emotional concerns are often ignored in favour of the mighty god, ‘Data’!

  • Started to take positive action

Fed up with ‘the system’, I started to make changes to my classroom to integrate some of the things I was using to support my mental health and happiness. I introduced a morning meditation practice, we started exercising daily and I taught my class mini neuroscience lessons about how their brains learn and how ‘happy hormones’ affect their mood. Despite working in a challenging inner-London school, the behaviour of my class improved, their grades went up and they enjoyed being in school more.

  • Learned more and spread the message

I became a passionate advocate for ‘teaching happiness and wellbeing’. I completed more courses in positive psychology, I read more books about neuroscience and Blog 2happiness, and I attended conferences and talks about the science of wellbeing. Every time I learned something new, I’d make subtle tweaks to what I was doing in class. Other teachers in my school noticed the positive impact it was having on my class, so my headteacher gave me staff meeting time to share the research and ideas with my colleagues and also with parents. A charity called Action for Happiness heard about the work I was doing in schools and invited me to speak at one of their events. It happened to be an event where their patron, The Dalai Lama, was also speaking. It was definitely one of the proudest moments of my career, especially because three former pupils spoke on stage in front of the 2,500 capacity audience!

  • Planned to write a book

In all of this research I was doing, I couldn’t find any books that focused on teaching happiness and wellbeing in primary schools. At the Dalai Lama event in September 2015,Blog 3I promised a fellow speaker that I would write a book about teaching happiness to children. It wasn’t until World Book Day, March 2016, as my class were writing stories to go with their comic strip drawings, I took the template they were using and sketched out the chapter plan for my book.

  • Wrote a book about teaching happiness to children

I then did what most people do which is procrastinate. I filed the book plan away somewhere and forgot all about it. Around November 2016, I rediscovered and thought to myself, ‘Sod it, why not?’ and I began writing the introduction. I then wrote two more chapters and got my wife to read them. My wife is a fantastic writer. She has a Masters in English. I was extremely nervous about what she would think. ‘I love it! It’s brilliant!’ was her only feedback. Having a cheerleader when you write is very helpful!

  • Published a book about teaching happiness to children

It took a chance conversation with my best friend at Christmas, 2016. I told him I’d started to write a book and that I might approach Bloomsbury. ‘I know someone that works there!’ he replied and before I could procrastinate for another six months, he’d emailed his friend, told her about my book and that was it. His friend at Bloomsbury asked for a paragraph summary. She forwarded it to the commissioning editor who liked my idea and asked me to fill in their book proposal form. It got approved and then sent out for review (to see if teachers would actually buy it) and it passed that test, and then it went to the editorial board meeting. Blog 4In April 2017, I signed a contract to write my book about teaching happiness to children. I submitted the finished book December 2017, a few rounds of edits in early 2018 and then my editor, Hannah, (pictured with me above) handed me my first printed copied in July 2018.

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If I can do it…

So, that’s how I wrote a book about teaching happiness to children! There’s nothing special about me as a writer. Yes, I enjoy writing. Yes, I have an English degree so reading and writing was a big part of my higher education but, ultimately, I’m just a primary school teacher with a passion for teaching children how to look after themselves and each other.

If you’d like to be a writer too, my advice is: you need passion, a plan, and some luck.

 

Adrian Bethune‘s debut book, Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom, is out now.

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History is All About King What’s-His-Face, Isn’t It?

I’ve spoken to lots of people and groups over the years and I always ask if anyone in the audience doesn’t like history, a question which is always followed by a forest of raised hands that seem to grow out of the faces below them, all looking bored, snotty or argumentative. And then when I ask exactly why they don’t like history the answers are usually ‘coz it’s boring’ or ‘it has nothing to do with us today’ or ‘it’s just about a load of blokes with power and other blokes who want power’.

Good answers. I used to feel the same, but then one day something stupidly obvious occurred to me…history’s actually about people! Not just rich people with power, but all people. All of us today make up part of what will become the history of our time. We all make it, like house bricks, which when they’re all put together, make a building, sometimes a huge building! King What’s-His-Face, and Queen Thingy-Ma-Bob wouldn’t have got or kept their power without the ordinary people to help them. Kings and Queens and Presidents and Generals are just the bodies who give a name to whichever part of history we’re looking at; most of the real makers of history are people like us.

So, why do I write about Kings and Queens? Because they’re like the key that opens history’s door and shows us exactly what’s inside and also who’s inside. In The First King of England, I talk about Athelstan Cerdinga (what a mighty name), but I also tell of Edwin the shoemaker’s son. Not a person you’ll actually find mentioned in any of the history books, but a character who’s based on the ordinary everyday people who helped to make the history of their time.

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They lived when the Vikings were raiding and pillaging and taking the land from the Anglo-Saxon people who lived on these islands. And when you ask anyone today about these times, if they think about it at all, they believe the Vikings were unstoppable and that the Saxons spent their time running away from these nutters armed with axes. And at the beginning that was mainly true, but then came along a group of men and women who learnt how to fight back. So began a time of powerful people with wonderful names like Alfred the Great, Edward the Elder, Aethelflaed the ‘Lady of the Mercians’. Leaders who took back control from the Vikings, but who could only do it with the help of the ordinary people of those times who were just like you and me.

But if you think the Saxon people drove out the Vikings after they’d defeated them, you’d be wrong. The Saxon rulers allowed them to stay as long as they acknowledged them as their rulers too. This was the beginning of the country that would become known as England. A country made up of different peoples from different lands, just as it is today. And King Athelstan Cerdinga was the very first ruler of that new land. Read about him in The First King of England.

 

Stuart Hill is the author of the Icemark series of historical fantasy novels and winner of the inaugural Watersone’s Children’s Book Prize. Stuart’s newest book, The First King of England, publishes on 6th September.

 

 

How to be an Outstanding Nursery Leader

Being a successful leader takes time and commitment. Leaders need to learn the ropes and be on top of their game in order to motivate and inspire their team. But being a successful nursery leader brings with it a whole host of different challenges.

As a nursery leader you are not just leading a team, you are leading a team who is responsible for helping to bring up our next generation and you only have one shot at it so you have to get it right!

Leadership isn’t something that comes naturally to everyone. I know, because I have spent years trying to perfect it and can honestly say I am still learning.  Just as I think I have the ‘perfect’ team, someone goes on maternity leave and I have to go back to the drawing board again!  Just as my team have got to grips with one set of Standards, Ofsted, in their infinite wisdom, decide to update them and, just as we have settled the most introverted child into the toddler room, his parents announce they are moving out of the area!

Challenges occur daily and the nursery leader must rise to these challenges and perfect the impossible to ensure the smooth running of the setting.

The outstanding nursery leader will need to wear many hats throughout the course of the day as I have explained in my book How To Be An Outstanding Nursery Leader.

  • Role model
  • Mediator
  • Counselor
  • Teacher
  • Friend
  • Boss

Knowing when to wear each hat can be a challenge in itself.  You might find yourself wanting to play the role of friend when a member of staff telephones in tears to say she will be late in for the third time this week because she has slept in and, despite her obvious despair, you know you need to put on your boss hat and tell her to get her act together and buy an alarm clock like everyone else!  Sometimes a nursery manager has to say things that staff don’t want to hear and it won’t make you popular. However it will, if done correctly, gain you respect.

Respect, well what can I say?  A small word with huge definition! Respect has to be learned, it cannot be commanded. However, earning respect takes time and patience.  You will need to prove yourself to your team; you will need to give them confidence in your abilities and show them that you are in it for the long haul. Your commitment, drive, passion and enthusiasm must be apparent all day every day and, when staff are feeling demotivated and downhearted, you will be the one to bring them back to life!

But being a manager isn’t all about long hours, enormous pressure, worry and the constant fear of an Ofsted inspection, there are some good points as well.  What are these I hear you ask? Well there is pride when your team gets the outstanding recognition from Ofsted that you’ve all been working so hard for.  There is camaraderie – the mutual trust and friendship brought about by a team that spends a lot of time together and supporting each other. There is passion for the job well done and most importantly, there is the love in every little face that looks to you for reassurance and support – staff and children alike!!

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Having spent such a long time in the early years sector, I am now finding myself enrolling the children of the children I used to care for decades ago and, although this makes me feel very old, it also makes me feel enormously lucky to have been such a valued part of each child’s family that has crossed my path and for that I can place no value, it has simply been and continues to be an enormous pleasure.  This is a not a privilege afforded to many!

 

Allison Lee owns three day nurseries and a training centre, and her latest book, How to be an Outstanding Nursery Leader, is out now.

Just Be Yourself

I am a writer. I see the world differently and this causes me to document my experiences. But as a teen growing up in a Caribbean family in Birmingham, I wasn’t always so sure of my identity.

When I went to secondary school, being eager to learn was seen as “acting white”. I listened to Evanescence, Linkin Park and Nickelback. I enjoyed fish and chips and chilli con carne which weren’t exactly Caribbean food. On Saturdays my mum or even my Nan, who lived with us for a short time, would fill a pot with tropical vegetables and meat. They made “Saturday soup,” which was something I didn’t really enjoy and to this day still don’t. At school it was all about Nelly, Ashanti and of course Beyoncé. I was obsessed with Busted and was subsequently devastated when they broke up. My cousin introduced me to manga which I loved.

George, Misfit‘s main character, is mocked for liking different things and in some ways, so was I.

Growing up, I was aware that there were rules about being cool and fitting in that I didn’t understand or couldn’t be bothered to follow. While my family weren’t as harsh as George’s, I was aware of my difference. I was the eldest, but all my younger siblings knew what was “in” and knew how to “act”. I didn’t use many slang words like “rinsed,” “packed” and “blud”. George also finds himself straddling two different worlds. He is at grammar school but finds himself going to the local secondary school. He sees how difficult it is to present yourself in two different environments which is a challenge a lot of young people face.

My three reasons for writing Misfit are….

  • To encourage those “misfits” to be themselves. I questioned why I didn’t fit in for years, now I’m glad I stand out. More than anything, I’m hearing how cool it is to be a geek, or to indulge in alternative entertainment. Suddenly my pastimes are considered interesting. The message of the book is to explore your differences and learn to accept them.
  • To help others accept that different people have different likes and interests, especially when it deviates from your community. Whether the message is that we shouldn’t like reading or rock music because they aren’t part of our culture; we need to accept that our interests can vary.
  • To remind young people that bullying is never ok, regardless of the source. Bullying occurs within George’s family, and freedom came with acceptance. While there are many ways to deal with bullying, you may feel as though you don’t belong for a long time. Something I have found out for myself.

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The message of the book overall is: be yourself.

It isn’t about whether you act the same way as your peers, it’s about finding out who you are and accepting that. It’s about conquering your fears, standing out and being proud of how unique you are. We’re all different and while we might be encouraged to fit in, it strikes me that writing a book counts as standing out.

 

Misfit, Kimberly Redway‘s debut novel, is out now. Part of the Bloomsbury High/Low series, it is ideal for readers aged 11+ with a reading age of 9+.

And Another Thing…

One of the many joys of being a children’s author is fan mail. From painstaking prose in elegant cursive to almost illegible print (not unlike my own scatty hand), they delight and fascinate and rarely fail to make me smile. Even the ones that pick me up on typos or factual errors (I know now that Viennetta was NOT invented until the 1980s and that you do NOT get Bounty bars in a Mars selection box). Until, a year or so ago, this landed on my doormat.

 

Well, why indeed? I wondered. Or rather, why not? Because, was that actually a rule? And, if so, why? And, oh, hang on, I’ve just done it again.

So I thought about it. And I thought about it some more. And I realised a couple of things:

Firstly, that I’m of a generation that missed out on grammar lessons at school. I say missed out, but, what I really mean is, we weren’t taught the rules, just to read, and then encouraged to write our own stories. And we’ve done okay overall.

But, secondly, that I’m a trained proof and copy editor, and a former government speechwriter and journalist, and not once have I ever pulled anyone up or been pulled up on this. Because, and here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change the sense of a sentence. It isn’t grammatically incorrect. What matters is the story. What matters is imagination. What matters is making the words work best. And if that means starting a sentence with an ‘and’, then so be it.

And so I wrote back:

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The letters went viral – a few po-faced people disagreed, but in the main the support from teachers and parents (in the middle of dealing with SATS and the horror that is SPAG) was overwhelming. And so I’ve done it again. And again. And again.

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In It Wasn’t Me, my new Bloomsbury Young Reader, I’ve counted seven in Chapter One alone, not including the dialogue. I may also have used a comma splice. I may even have split an infinitive somewhere. I’ve certainly not ‘displayed my knowledge’ of semi-colons or used a plethora of ‘wow words’. What I have done is used my imagination, in a story that is all about thinking big, and thinking wild, as Alfie blames all his misdemeanors on a gremlin called Dave, whom he claims lives in his sock drawer. Admittedly, Alfie gets his comeuppance for telling big hairy whoppers when Dave appears and causes real mischief and mayhem. But, throughout, we side with him, understanding the urge to tell stories, to break rules, to do it our way. The pay-off being that,Joanna Nadin- Alfie while Alfie fesses up, he doesn’t entirely mend his ways.

And nor should our young readers and writers. Let them break grammar rules. Let them mis-spell. Let them use capitals in the wrong places. Above all, let them loose their imaginations and fall in love with story itself. The rules and boundaries – the necessary ones – can come later. But for now, words should be playthings. For some of us – the lucky ones – they will remain so forever.

 

Joanna Nadin is a former broadcast journalist, speechwriter and special adviser to the Prime Minister. Since leaving politics, Joanna has written more than 70 books for children and teenagers, including the award-winning Penny Dreadful series, the best-selling Flying Fergus series with Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy.

Her new book, It Wasn’t Me: A Bloomsbury Young Reader, publishes on 18th October 2018.

You’re Not Alone

If I had to summarise my book, How to Survive in Teaching Without Imploding, Exploding or Walking Away, it would be with these three words: “you’re not alone”. Whether you’re nearing retirement after three or more decades or are a few years in and ready for a change of context; whether you’re a leader working to balance teaching with leadership or a parent negotiating the tricky landscape of parenting and teaching: you’re not alone.

Representing the voices of almost 4,000 teachers, trainees, former teachers and educational professionals, How to Survive provided both a comfort blanket and a source of nightmares during my year of writing. From it, I can promise that you’re not alone if you have:

  • Collapsed into giggles at the umpteenth filthy Shakespeare joke and been openly disapproved of by teenagers.
  • Sobbed in the store cupboard after your showcase lesson went to pot.
  • Spent ten extra minutes in a toilet cubicle during the school day just to enjoy some SILENCE.
  • Walked away from the job but never for a moment stopped loving working with children in the classroom.
  • Been surprised to the point of tears by a touching goodbye card from a student whose life you never imagined you’d touch.
  • Evacuated the classroom due to an unwelcome rodent visitor.
  • Evacuated the classroom due to toxic flatulence from a student.
  • Progressed from wild excitement at being offered a job to crippling depression when it wasn’t what you’d hoped it would be.
  • Taken five years out of teaching and decided to give it another go – and love it now.
  • Thrown caution to the wind and sung and danced in appalling glory on the school stage.
  • Just reached your half-century and want to give teaching a go for the first time.
  • Used the words: ‘I see more of you than my own family!’ to your students in exasperation and exhaustion.
  • Mourned as a community the death of a student or former student.
  • Been turned down for an interview for a job you knew and felt was yours, and your professional purpose twisted on its axis.
  • Then stood up and brushed yourself off and embraced new teaching opportunities.
  • Taken students outside London and watched them swim in the sea for the first time.
  • Hugged a teacher at the news they’re pregnant and hugged another after the loss of their baby… in the same week.
  • Never got tired of ‘Vater’ and ‘Grossvater’.
  • Trailed toilet paper along the corridor; worn your dress inside out; pulled out a tampon instead of a board pen; overslept and driven at law-breaking speeds; set yourself alight; hurled yourself into the middle of a fight; forgotten to check the French film before showing it to Year 9…

You’re definitely not alone in these.

You’re also not alone in the following situations either. But they can make teaching feel like the loneliest job in the world:

  • If you’ve been forced to enact policies and procedures which defy your very reason for being in the job.
  • If you’ve lost weight dramatically or turned to anti-depressants and alcohol.
  • If you’ve broken down, physically and emotionally and had to step away for weeks or months at a time.
  • If you’ve been handed a cardboard box, signed a document which says you’ll never discuss what’s happened, and left your school forever in the middle of a working week – without a chance to say goodbye.
  • If you’ve sobbed in front of a class because you just can’t cope.
  • If, after 20 years service, you’ve been told you’re being made redundant and that the pay you’ll get is dependent on you keeping silent about the process.
  • If your family and friends tell you you’ve lost your passion for the job (and indeed life), and you’re too stubborn to admit it.
  • If you’re suspended from work for weeks at a time after an allegation from a student that nobody will discuss with you.
  • If you’ve been forced to go through a miscarriage at work because your boss refused you time off.
  • If you’ve lost your Mum and the only call you get from school is from HR to check you’re off work for valid reasons.

Our job can feel like the best job in the world. It can also feel like the worst.

Four more words? “There is always hope.” So many of the teachers who were kind and generous and brave enough to share their stories are now flourishing. Some have walked away for reasons that are entirely valid and make me steam with fury. Others have stayed on and excelled. Others still have changed schools. I can tell you from my own experience that changing context can feel a lot like a change of career.

I’m proud to call myself a writer, but I’m even prouder to call myself a teacher. I’m still teaching full time. I’m still experiencing the giggles and the moments of blind stress and the exhaustion that has me sleeping like a teenager at weekends. I’m walking (or stumbling, or racing) the walk with the rest of us. And it’s worth every moment.

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Above all of those, I’m a wife and a mother, and I want the best teachers for my own children. If you’re considering teaching and you love working with young people and are prepared for a steep learning curve, go for it! If you’ve left and are considering coming back, trust me when I say there are good places and good people out there.

If young people represent one thing, it is fresh starts, optimism and determination. And hope. Where there are children, there is hope.

 

Dr Emma Kell’s book How to Survive in Teaching is out now! Follow Emma on Twitter: @thosethatcan.

 

Top Tips for Living Well and Teaching Well

I’m an English teacher and, put simply, I believe I have the best job in the world. I cannot believe I get paid for what I do. Does that mean the job is easy? Of course not.

I began working in schools in 2009; I’ve been teaching for 8 years. I’ve worked in 3 very different schools and in that time have held many different roles: teaching assistant; behaviour manager; teacher of English; teacher of law, second in English; head of house; lead practitioner; extended SLT, and I’m currently Director of Learning, English at a state school in London. Through experience I can tell you that all of these roles present their own challenges yet provide wonderful job satisfaction. One thing they all have in common is that your job is never done; there will always be something else to do, and if you let it, it can quite easily take all of your time. And I used to let them do just that. I would regularly clock up 65 hours of work a week. Obviously, this wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle so I decided to make some changes which I think may be of use to others.

Prevent work emails coming through your phone. This one decision helped enormously. It meant that I wasn’t tempted to contact colleagues, or worse still, parents, in the evenings. Your working hours should be the only time when emails are being read and sent. I’m happy to report this is now the case for me.

Leave your work at work. I very rarely work at home. Instead, I prepare my working week at work. It means that the minute I leave the school gates, I am free to spend my time as I wish.

Have a mini-weekend. The aim with this is to leave work as early as possible once a week and spend your time doing something you love: go out for dinner, exercise, go to the theatre. Whatever it is you enjoy doing, just do it. You’ll feel refreshed the next day for it.

Prepare your weekly lunches. This has had a huge impact on my diet. I eat so much healthier than I ever have and it doesn’t take long to prepare it all.

Say no if you want to. This is a tough one, but it’s important to realise that if you want to feel like you are doing a job well, you can’t take on everything at once. If you feel like more and more work is being added to your main role, ask if something can be taken away before you accept another task. Take control of your workload and be okay with saying no.

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Make light work of planning. Reuse old lessons. Tweak what you can. Yes, there may have been lots of changes recently, but there’s no need to start from scratch. Work collaboratively with colleagues. Share what you can. There are so many online sharing drives out there; I am indebted to the likes of Freya O’Dell (@fod3) and the #TeamEnglish community who regularly share their resources. I’m still not brave enough to share my own resources, but I’m building up to it!

If you haven’t already done so, stop the madness that is marking. Challenge school leaders who are insisting on a marking policy that has little impact on student progress yet significantly impacts teacher time. Use live marking/feedback. Share whole class feedback. Have mocks externally marked (I’m planning this one for next year).

I’m currently working in a school that considers the wellbeing of its staff important and I’ve never been happier as a teacher. That’s partly due to the wonderful staff and students I work with but also down to an understanding on my part that, as much as I love it, it’s just a job. I go home happy to have made a difference however big or small, but know that there is a life outside of the school gates that is also pretty awesome. And because of that, I’m a better teacher than I’ve ever been.

If you’re struggling with your own workload, maybe it’s time to reflect on what you could change to make things better? It’s worth noting that if it’s the school that’s making you unhappy, leave. Not all schools are the same. Great schools do exist. I work at one.

These are just a few of my tips aimed at making teaching a truly sustainable profession. For more help and guidance, Live Well, Teach Well has over 90 practical ideas to help you maintain a healthy work-life balance and stay positive and focused throughout the school year.

 

Abbie Mann’s debut book is out now!

 

The Liberation of Learning

We all have a view about what education should be like – and we know what it looks like in reality. In the currently dominant model of education, the focus is on learning prescribed syllabus content, determined by what can be easily assessed by written examination, namely, factual recall, divorced from much consideration of relevance or interest and driven by a remorseless concern for successful examination results. The watchwords of traditional education are rigour, knowledge, examined assessment and opposition to student control over the learning process.

This is, of course, not the only way to think about education. By way of contrast, the educational progressive favours independent learning, arguing with Dewey that the centre of gravity must be nearer the child: their interests, concerns and questions matter when we are determining what is to be learned. Progressivism draws on simple but often neglected insights into the learning process, such that students learn better if they are interested in what they are studying, are able to make significant choices about the learning process and the form in which they exhibit their knowledge, and have time to develop a deep understanding rather than simply memorising facts for short term recall.

Progressive education embraces the realms of the unknown, the imaginative, the evaluative and the creative. Learning is connected much more directly to life itself. It is an active process of inquiry and exploration, involving the individual construction of meaning within the domains of study. Skillful exploration of such domains is often not susceptible to assessment by means of a written examination, not least because the choice of question lies with the student. It can however be assessed, and rigorously so, by means of extended projects, a form of assessment which is for many purposes more valid than an examination, not least because students have many skills other than those which lead to success in short, sharp written tests.

Amongst these polarized views of education, where should we stand? For some years now, I have believed that we need a new movement of educational liberation. The processes of teaching and learning have been shackled by an approach which values only what can be measured and which sees only examinations as a valid form of assessment. Education, which should be about the examination of life, is reduced to a life of examination. As for teaching, since the goal is to succeed in the next round of tests, the dominant method is that of direct instruction. ‘Tell us what we need to know’, the student insists, taking for granted that the ‘need to know’ is determined by what is on the test, and that the best way of learning is for the teacher to provide the ‘right answers’ (meaning, once again, those to be written in the exam).

The effect of this process of the reduction of education to test preparation is to lock education into a matrix which is stifling, uninspiring, ineffectual (much of what is learned for tests is thereafter forgotten), psychologically damaging, pedagogically shallow, economically misguided (for the workplace needs creative critical thinkers, not well-trained sheep) and destructive of the roots of liberal democracy.

Despite the ubiquity of this scheme, it is not difficult to describe a better alternative, and some of us have dedicated much of our professional lives to building it. My book, Bloomsbury CPD Library: Independent Learning, offers a practical guide to independent learning, representing the fruits of a quest to find a new way ahead, whilst recognising the inevitable need, as things stand, to work within a framework where a traditional conception of the curriculum remains dominant.

What is manifestly the case is that we need more radical measures to find a way ahead and to give progressive educational methods space to feed into the educational mix. In my book, I review some of the research evidence which shows clearly that the best education combines the core insight of a traditional approach (some things need to be taught directly) with the insight of progressivism (deep learning begins with the learner’s own questions). We need what I would call ‘directed independence’: a process in which we teach students the skills and knowledge they need in order to be able to go on to learn for themselves.

This approach requires space and time for open discussion and debate in the classroom and for students to be able to work on extended projects of their own choosing. In my experience, and the experience of many teachers, it is when we give students freedom to choose and think for themselves, within a carefully structured learning environment, that they do their very best work. Currently, though, this type of rich, deep learning is confined to small pockets and the margins of the syllabus. It should be at the heart.

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Dr John Taylor is Assistant Head (Director of Learning, Teaching and Innovation) at Cranleigh School and is responsible for the development of independent learning across the three schools in the Cranleigh Foundation.

Bloomsbury CPD Library: Independent Learning is out now.

 

Igniting Dylan’s Writing

Dylan doesn’t like writing. His teacher makes him write and then he has to go back and correct mistakes. So, he tries to write as little as possible. He can’t wait to be “finished”. And she makes him “do spellings”. This is difficult for Dylan because he doesn’t talk or read much at home, so he doesn’t encounter as many words as his peers. He doesn’t know what half the words mean, anyway. His latest piece of writing is about 18th Century smugglers, whatever that means. There’s a smuggler museum in his home town of Hastings but Dylan has never been. In fact, he’s never been to the beach, even though it’s only 3 miles away. So, his writing about smugglers lacks context and understanding. Dylan is like many pupils, who associate writing with failure, doing corrections and feeling pretty miserable about themselves.

Dylan is burdened with all sorts of labels at his school, but perhaps the best label would be that he is an able pupil who, at this stage, hasn’t had the same opportunities as his label-free friends. In my experience as a teacher, consultant, headteacher and writing moderator, there are plenty of Dylans out there. If we’re not careful, their experience of writing in the formative years will restrict their progress and overall prospects. Which is inexcusable – because the Dylans of the world have the same potential as anyone in their class.

What does Dylan need? He needs his teacher to look at things a different way. Rather than getting Dylan to launch headlong into writing and then take a soul-destroying look back at things he’s done wrong, the teacher needs to deliver teaching sequences which support Dylan to build up a piece of writing, layer upon layer, with the skills of writing, reading, spelling, talking and listening embedded within. Dylan, like any pupil, needs to make mistakes (or how will he learn anything new?) but he needs to make them as part of a journey through word-level activities, into reading tasks, through drafting “messy” writing by exploring different writing choices, into edited and polished writing – which he can review proudly.

I’ve been working with Dylans for many years and have used my experience to create a sequence containing all the key ingredients for brilliant writing – the WRITER sequence. My new book – Igniting Children’s Writing contains 50 tried-and-tested activities, organised into the sequence, to get pupils thinking brilliantly about their writing.

Take Dylan’s Smugglers piece. Imagine if, over a couple of weeks, he experienced the following sequence:

Work on Words: Dylan gets to read paintings of smugglers, explore maps and talk about the history of smuggling in Hastings. He doesn’t realise it, but by talking about what smugglers wore, their dastardly deeds and where they did them, Dylan is practising all sorts of grammar and encountering new vocabulary. He might even get to go to the Smuggler Museum – and see the sea! The words he’s encountering are displayed on the wall, so he’s already learning to spell them correctly.

Read as a Writer: The class starts to read Moonfleet. Key passages are studied closely and Dylan gets to use different reading skills, such as skimming and scanning for key information and terminology, or thinking about what he learns from the characters based on the things they say and how they speak. He loves the quizzes that the teacher sets after they listen to a scene from the audiobook.

Investigate Writing Choices Together: Dylan hates grammar worksheets (These still have their place, of course – the bin) but now he’s working with pairs and groups to think about the grammar choices a good writer makes. He joins in with some shared writing to practise some of the grammar, which he helps to present to the class.

Try-Out individual Choices: The teacher catches Dylan reading the next chapter of Moonfleet before school. He’s had a good few days and feels ready to draft out his only piece of writing: he’s decided to write a “drop in” scene, featuring an encounter with the ghost of Colonel John “Blackbeard” Mohune. Dylan is hooked by the story of the King’s diamond, which, legend has it, was stolen by Blackbeard. Dylan uses a thinking map to plan his scene and includes key words and phrases. He’s thought of topic sentences of each of his paragraphs. He writes a draft – a first attempt. He’s given the ghost “a burnished, gold locket, which contains the hurriedly-scrawled location of the diamond”. He likes that.

Edit, Perform and Publish: Dylan can’t be finished yet, because everyone in the class has only produced a draft. His partner and the teacher give Dylan some feedback and he’s ready to edit and improve. He tries writing some of his sentences differently. He changes some words. He takes other words out completely because they’re not needed. Because the class is putting together a Smuggler Writing Collection, he makes some final changes and “writes up” in his best handwriting, within the Smuggler border he’s drawn in Art – with maps and lockets and the ghost of Blackbeard.

Review Key Learning: Although he won’t admit it, Dylan is pleased with his writing and he’s asked to review what helped him to write well. He decides that using the Spellzone display, and planning the paragraphs, were the most helpful.

Dylan still says he doesn’t like writing, but secretly, he’s starting to feel the buzz of success and creative pride. He hopes that Mum will see his writing on Parents’ Evening. And he can’t wait to see where that Ghost has hidden the diamond.9781472951588 (1).jpg

Mark McCaughan is an experienced senior leader and local authority consultant. He has taken on whole-school, subject and pastoral leadership throughout three ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted inspections and is currently supporting schools where performance was low in the Reading SATs and using the activities provided in Igniting Children’s Writing to great effect.

Mark loves supporting schools to get pupils thinking brilliantly and can be contacted at mark@mcmlearning.co.uk.

From Pirate Sword to Pen

Pirates of Poseidon, the third book in my Ancient Greek Mysteries, has recently published. It’s one that I really enjoyed writing because it twins my two biggest literary passions: Ancient Greece and piracy. It is also set on one of my favourite islands: Aegina.

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I grew up on an island rich in pirate lore. Malta sits right at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, half way between Europe and North Africa. Any empire that wanted to conquer the exotic lands of the Barbary Coast used Malta as a base for their naval operations. The island has been ruled by the Phoenicians, Romans, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans, Sicilians, English and French. All this activity drew the attention of pirates, of course. For thousands of years, they plundered the sea around Malta, attacking ships as they bustled between the two continents. They left an indelible mark on both the Maltese landscape and psyche. Every corner of the island has a pirate story to tell. Here’s a house where a bride was kidnapped by pirates on her wedding day. Here’s a cave where a young girl hid from corsairs on her way home from the fields. That light at the bottom of the sea? It’s streaming out of a church that tumbled off a cliff after the holy saint in its painting came alive to rescue a boy from the evil pirates.

It’s no wonder, then, that I grew up fascinated by pirate stories. When I first had the idea for the Ancient Greek Mysteries, a good many years ago, the first image that flashed through my mind was of Ancient Greek pirates fighting two boys and two girls on a burning ship. I knew the pirate captain would have a highly polished sword that flashed in the moonlight. He would wear a golden mask to hide his true identity, one very much like the ‘mask of Agamemnon’ found in the ruins of Mycenae.  But who were the plucky kids? I toyed with all sorts of ideas: they could be actors in a touring company, or acolytes in a temple. I even thought of making them athletes, travelling around the ancient Greek world to take part in festival games and contests. But how would they come across the pirates? Why would they be fighting them?

For inspiration, I travelled to the Peloponnese islands. On the ferry from Athens, I chatted with a man with a shaved head and a snake tattoo on his right forearm. He claimed to be a detective, heading to the island of Poros.

“On holiday?” I asked.

“No, work.”

Having read that Poros is a sleepy island with a population of less than 4000, I couldn’t for the life of me think what he could possibly be investigating there. I tried worming some information out of him but to no avail. Later in the week I bumped into him a second time, at the famous temple of Poseidon on the northern side of the island. Was he on a break from his detecting duties, I wondered, or was he visiting the sanctuary in search of clues?

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Suddenly I had a role for the children in my stories. They would be detectives.  The boys would be Sherlock Holmes and Watson transported to Ancient Greece when the temple of Poseidon was at its height. They could travel all around Greece solving mysteries and every story would feature a famous temple hiding a vital clue.

In the end, I never did use the temple for the series. A few days later I visited the nearby island of Aegina, and decided to set one of the stories there.

It took me well over fifteen years to find the time to collate all my travel notes and work out proper plots for the Ancient Greek Mysteries. Other projects got in the way. But I never forgot that first meeting with the mysterious detective on his way to Poros. He was the inspiration for Thrax, one of the main characters and the lead detective in the stories.

Like the man with the snake tattoo, Thrax is someone who keeps his cards close to his chest, and he has a shaved head. Not to look cool but for an entirely different reason. A reason that ended up being the backbone for the whole series. Want to find out what it is?  Nico, the narrator of the stories, would love to tell you all about it…

 

Saviour Pirotta is the author of nearly one hundred titles, including Ancient Greek Mysteries Mark of the Cyclops and Secret of the Oracle. His most recent book, Pirates of Poseidon, is out now.