Thursday, 21 February 2013

Reality Check

As children we're generally oblivious to our own mortality but that wasn't the case for me. For some reason as a young'un I recall crying for hours (or maybe it was mere minutes and it felt much longer?) when I realised that I would die one day and then crying for even longer once it sunk in the same was true of anyone close to me. I have no idea what triggered this realisation but have always felt in some ways I got my crying down with.
Since distant memories of tearful days, I've never been particularly emotional but in more recent years have found myself more susceptible to cheesy films, often rather paradoxically feeling the old tear ducts welling during more uplifting scenes. I've also become a regular reader of Metro's “Good Deed Feed”, and have even taken to reading out-dated “feeds” (daily printed text messages thanking random folk for assisting people in distress - for carrying bags, giving up a seat, returning lost/forgotten goods...).
In the last few years the threat of death has been increasingly apparent after Old Dear was diagnosed with myeloma and a great Aunt passed several months back. As soon as the C word reared its ugly head, I increasingly discovered many of my friends had relatives and friends who'd survived or were undergoing treatment for different cancers.
Today, I experienced a whole new reality check. Walking to Leeds train station, I saw something in the distance blocking the road. As I got nearer I realised with horror it was a body with another figure hunched over it. I mentally prepared myself to help whoever it may be but before I was near enough, a small crowd had already formed. Before long more people from the offices opposite were running out to offer further assistance. It's not the first time, I've seen road accidents with pedestrians or cyclists lying helplessly on the cold concrete floor but today is something I can't shake.
As I walked past the clustered people, out of respect I tried to avoid staring or looking too closely. The final snatch I caught will, however, always stick in my head. The body on the ground was an unresponsive man of around the same age as my dad and over him stood an unsurprisingly distraught woman – presumably his wife. The final image I have of the scene is of the woman desperately crying out “Colin”, his face and the sizable puddle of blood flowing from beneath his head. Actually seeing the red of the blood somehow acted as an unwelcome reminder of our own fragility. I hope you're OK, Colin, whoever you may be. 

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

If Teenagers Could Set Homework...

Every week the same Year Ten students attempt to derail their drama lesson by asking my opinion about various bands and films. As my time with them is fast coming to a close, I decided to humour them by allowing them to set me a homework each in our penultimate lesson. The only instructions they were given? Avoid overly personal questions and anything that would alone take me several hours to complete. During the lesson I left the fate of my weekend in their hands by passing around a piece of paper and a pen.

If you've ever pondered what kind of homework teenagers would set given the chance then here's your answer:

Q: What's your favourite band?

A: I'm not sure I have one favourite.

Q: Do you like Panic! At The Disco?

A: They're probably the most instantly likeable out of my listening homeworks set.

Q: Do you like Enter Shikari?

A: They're a bit nu-metal for me these days.

Q: Do you like Vybz Kartel – Straight Jeans And Fitted?

A: I made a few seconds into this song before having to relieve myself of the torture.

Q: Do you ever go to festivals? If so, which ones? Do you party?

A: From 16 up I went to two festivals a year until I started teaching and school term dates meant Glastonbury was tricky.

Q: What is your favourite song and what's your favourite R n' B song now?

A: I don't really have one favourite and the last “R n' B” song I remember liking is Estelle's American Boy.

Q: What's the most embarrassing thing you did in school?

A: There are far too many to list but the most relevant memory I have is during a play rehearsal when I was sitting near the edge of a stage and the teacher kept telling me to move my chair nearer the edge, despite my protestations. Inevitably my chair eventually toppled over the edge causing me to fall onto lots of upturned gym equipment and severely wind myself.

Q: Research about wombats – what do they eat?

A: Funnily enough, I have appreciated wombats for many years since first meeting one when visiting the east coast of Australia. They eat plants, roots and grasses.

Q: Do you like 80s' films? (Hint: Say “yes” and talk to me about The Breakfast Club)

A: I do indeed like 80s' films and The Breakfast Club is one of my favourites.

Q: Have you seen Con Air or read Salem's Lot?

A: I watched Con Air years ago but not recently and haven't read Salem's Lot, although I used to favour Stephen King novels in my youth.

Q: What's the worst thing you did as a child? Did anyone know?

A: I did plenty of shameful things but one that always sticks in my mind is the day when I was pushing my Nan on a swing and the whole thing toppled over into a hedge. I was devastated and felt awful.

Q: Listen to The Joy Formidable, what do you think?

A: They are the kind of angry girl rock I should keep as a guilty pleasure but will admit to quite liking – for this reason they reminded me of Letters To Cleo.

Q: On a scale of 1-10, how amazing am I?

A: Given I couldn't fault the student who set me this taxing question, the answer was an easy 10.

Q: Do you like Fleet Foxes?

A: I have a feeling I should have an opinion on this already. They sound like growers and like Simon and Garfunkel might have been one of their influences.

Q: What's your favourite musical to watch?

A: I'd recommend Taboo to anyone; having seen it years ago, I remember thoroughly enjoying it and laughing pretty hard. It's back on in London for anyone travelling that way:

Q: Listen to The Maine's Pioneer album, do you like them as a band?

A: They're the kind of band I would have liked if they'd been around when I was 19.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Paradox Of Achieving

I've just survived my first short-notice Ofsted visit and as a result have been reflecting on changes in educational practice. Every year when results seemingly improve, around September the news is full of claims exams are getting easier but as a teacher I'm not so sure this is true.

It's shockingly (for me at least) been over fifteen years since I sat my GCSEs and since then the pressure put on schools to ensure students get that all important English C grade has massively increased. In keeping with often unrealistic expectations, teachers have changed teaching styles to more thoroughly prepare students for their exams.

Back “in the day” teachers would introduce students to concepts and literary/linguistic terminology and then leave them to individual interpretation (no disrespect intended to my English teacher - she was brilliant). I don't remember being given essay plans, spoon-fed textual interpretation or being given detailed lessons on how to approach individual exam questions. I was certainly never told how many minutes to spend on each question or shown patterns in question wording.

Today, however, the enormous pressure teachers are under to deliver results means more students have become reliant on teachers and less able to carry out independent study (I often feel like students want you to dictate essay question answers, learn new concepts for them and when marking books, I frequently find notes copied from the board but work that involves analysing language unaided is incomplete). In response to higher numbers achieving the benchmark C grade, examining boards have made exams more difficult, often introducing additional questions students are expected to answer in the same amount of time.

In addition to reduced planning/writing time, boards like AQA have altered the grade boundaries so it is now more difficult to achieve higher grades, resulting in some odd weighting in mark schemes, for instance a top band used to cover As and A*s but now also includes B grades. What mark constitutes each grade seems to fluctuate and change so unpredictably teachers are no longer able to say a piece of work is definitely a C or B. Many teachers are wary of speaking in grades at all for fear of dashing hopes when boundaries later change. The focus being put on Cs has also devalued the achievement of “lower-ability” students who perform impressively but don't reach the benchmark and in turn, many students seem happy to settle with a C grade, rather than aiming high – to summarise, the C has almost become the new A*.

The recent Ofsted visit began with us all being told to “carry on as normal”, rather than plan “show” lessons of the kind commonly seen in recruitment days (when applying for a teaching position applicants have to plan a lesson for the headteacher and department head to assess based on a topic outlined by the school) that aren't always practical on a daily basis. By day two, we were told Ofsted didn't want “teacher-led” lessons and were keen to see independent learning.

Giving Ofsted what they want puts teachers in a “Catch-22” situation. Some students are very unlikely to ever achieve the required C grade without being spoon-fed – after all, not many of us are interested in or good at everything. Other “D/C borderline” students have the potential to achieve or exceed that sought-after C provided they are willing to put in additional independent work outside of lessons but are so unused to working on their own initiative, they have no idea where to begin.

The answer lies in league tables/Ofsted reports backing off to move away from schools being judged purely on statistics and examining boards ceasing to stuff far too much into the curriculum for the typical two-year time scale schools work to. With breathing space, schools and teachers would have the confidence to implement potentially risky whole new approaches to learning that encourage independent work and in turn students would have more faith in their own ability. Of course, changes would lead to an initial dip in results but once students were used to the kind of learning expected during A'level and university courses, exams would be an honest reflection of individual ability; teenagers would be more resourceful and possess the kind of gumption many employers look for. However, expectations in the job market putting additional pressure on students to “get results” means this change is unlikely to happen any time soon and we're stuck in this awful Catch-22 situation.