Saturday, 29 April 2017

A pen licence? It is only just a stupid piece of plastic

I am a dad.

A wise teacher once told me that when you become a parent, your view on teaching changes. And, in truth, it does subtly. I feel I understand some parents better. I feel I understand children better. My experiences as a parent has put me in the situations that many students and parents deal with daily and weekly. I have seen bullying, friendship fallouts, a lack of confidence and many more things from the perspective of a parent. That’s not to say that a teacher must have a child to be a better teacher. My goodness, no - I don’t want to spark a quick increase in the national birth rate. Some teachers are naturally astute and empathic and can understand things far better than I could ever do. Having a child just jumped started those dormant empathic tendencies.  

I am a dad and as a dad I was put in a situation that made me think.

I have twins. This week, one twin got her pen licence.

A pen licence is a privilege for students. It allows them to write with a pen, if their handwriting is good enough. Students, in some primary schools, have to demonstrate a certain level of proficiency in their handwriting before they get their licence. The purpose of it is to raise the standard of handwriting with a dash of healthy competition.

Being married to a primary teacher, I knew of the pen licence and thought nothing of it. I assumed it was a good idea. As a secondary teacher, I thought it okay and acceptable as it promoted legible handwriting. It must work if lots of teachers do it.
Then, only one twin got her pen licence. And then my thoughts and feelings changed. One child was happy. The other child was in absolute tears. I was faced with a situation I had never been through before. A child crying over a pen. Yep, a silly stupid pen. We have hundreds of the bleeding things at home. I have loads at work too. A pen. But, for a nine year old this pen meant so much more. To her, it was a badge of acceptance. To her, it was badge of her friendship group. To her, it was her social standing in the class. The absence of a lump of plastic had transformed her view of the classroom.

She cried and cried over this piece of plastic. My attempts, as a father, failed to console her. It is only a stupid pen? I just hadn’t got it. All her friends had one except her. She had worked so hard for one.
The use of a dunce hat had been rejected in society a long time ago, but the lack of pen is just another form of that hat for my daughter. She felt stupid, less and different. But, here is the rub. She had a visual cue to show that she was different. Her friends had pens; she had a pencil. For in the eyes of a nine year old, pencils are for babies and pens are for grownups. One simple handing out of a pen changed the social make-up of the class. People on the same level before are now on different levels. She felt stupid, less and different.

I am a dad and a father to twins. One twin got a pen licence. One twin did not. The twin that got the licence was able bodied. The twin that didn’t get the licence was not able bodied.

The daughter, who struggles mentally and emotionally to see herself as equal to her peers because she has a disability called Cerebral Palsy, felt stupid, less and different. My daughter walks and runs differently. She wears different clothes and different shoes to her peers. Now, added to those differences she has another visual sign of being different to others. It is just a stupid pen!
At times, I think is it just me. Am I just sensitive because I have a daughter with a disability? These are some of the following things people have shared with me.

A boy was teased in his class because all his friends had a pen licence and he was the only one in the friendship group that didn’t have one.
A girl would never get a pen licence because she had Cerebral Palsy and she used a laptop.
Dyslexic children never getting a pen licence.
A boy never getting his pen licence throughout his whole time in primary school.

The more I talked about it, the more it alarmed me as a parent. I keep thinking there must be another way to make students write better. My daughter’s world crumbled. Thankfully, she is better now, but it will have an impact on her time in school. But, she will return to the classroom and write with a pencil while her friends and her sister write with a pen. Students are not always of the same ability, but we don’t stick a badge on students that can’t read or write. Only when you look at a student’s work do we see that they struggle to spell, yet a pencil is a badge. A badge that says you are not grow up enough to hold a pen. So if the pen licence is such a good thing, let’s have other licences. For each one, give students a badge.
A badge for reading.
A badge for spelling.
A badge for counting up to ten. 
A badge for writing in sentences.
A badge for using commas.

My daughter might not be ready for the pen licence. That I can handle. However, I can’t handle the impact it has had on our lives. It has upset my daughter, my wife and me as a result of this lump of plastic. Becoming a parents makes you see the tiny ripples and the big waves they make. A pen licence is a tiny ripple but it makes huge waves, emotionally and mentally.
I love primary teachers (I have a ring on my finger to prove it), but I am asking a question as a dad now and not as a teacher: is a pen licence an effective way of improving handwriting?

Convince me, a parent, that a pen licence is worth it. I have only really seen the demoralising impact of it.

Thanks for reading,

Note: I am not questioning or judging any teacher using it in their lessons; I am questioning and challenging the idea and its use.

Friday, 21 April 2017

A novel approach

I was a little bit excited when the new GCSEs were being compiled by the different exam boards. There was a big sell. I recall being at one event where I had representatives from different exam boards telling me about how their course is the right one for me. There was the odd difference, but the main selling points were focused on support and resources. This exam board offered exam papers. This exam board offered online materials. This exam board offered KS3 assessments. I admit I was persuaded by the last one. Ooo. It suggested to me some thorough planning and thought. The sad reality is I got watered down GCSE papers. Should KS3 just be watered down GCSE work? Should we be getting Year 7s to start with the English GCSE papers? After all, five year’s practice will help.

I should imagine the summer will create a big thinking point for teachers, and leaders, to look at how the each year prepares students. The GCSEs are not the only measure for developing a curriculum, but they are unfortunately a measuring stick to judge whether your curriculum is robust, challenging and effective enough. That’s why I think just repeating the assessments in Years 7,8 and 9 will not make improvements. We need some big ideas behind the curriculum. Now, I could become obsessed with the assessment objectives, yawn, and bring them down to Year 7. Come on class. Repeat after me: Assessment Objective One is to… Or, I could get students to read ‘A Christmas Carol annually. Come on Year 7, this is the book you will be studying for your GCSEs; we are going to study it every year until you have fully understood it.

In my school, we have units of work each year covering Shakespeare and Victorian Literature.

Shakespeare goes roughly like this:

Year 7 – Look at the context of Shakespeare’s theatre and the opening scenes of various plays 

Year 8 – Look at Macbeth and the structure of a scene

Year 9 – Look at Much Ado About Nothing / Tempest / Julius Caesar and explore a theme across the whole play

Year 10 – Look at Romeo and Juliet and study every scene in detail 

Year 11 – Revise Romeo and Juliet

We are building up knowledge and experience and confidence with handling of texts. We match this with Victorian Literature over the years to include several different characters from various Dickens novels, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. Therefore, by the time students start GCSE they have covered Victorian attitudes towards childhood, education, class and poverty.

But, how do we plan for the language GCSEs? That’s a thought that is echoing and echoing in my head. How do we teach and prepare students for this new GCSE? The simple answer: get them to read lots and lots of fiction and non-fiction. But, surely, repeating the same questions again and again isn’t really developing students. Plus, it will make our curriculums dull and repetitive. That’s why this year I tried a different approach with teaching a novel.

This year, with my Year 7s, I am teaching ‘Treasure Island’. I am blooming loving it too. The last sentence of every chapter is a treat. Anyway, I decided to look at the big things:


Occasionally, I get this slide on and get students to explore the relationship between the two. And, we discuss and measure what we think….I think the chapter is mostly about the character. Nah, I think it is about the setting.

And, then, I raise the simple question: Why should the writer focus on this here?

The combination of the two aspects has produced some excellent discussions about the structuring of the story. It has made a group of Year 7s explore some clever structuring of the novel and created some interesting interpretations. They have been able to distinguish between chapters focusing on character and chapters on plot - and some that do both.  

We’ve had discussions on how the opening few chapters are mainly focused on mood and setting. Then, Stevenson introduces a series of chapters focusing on character. One character after another. We discussed how Stevenson presents us with a line-up of rogues, so when Long John Silver is introduced we are glad for somebody pleasant, friendly and not dull to enter Jim’s life. We also made interesting points about how setting is a massive component of the opening, yet the actual ‘Treasure Island’ is thrust to the side in favour of plot. Stevenson focuses so much on atmosphere in the opening chapters, but we get brief and glib descriptions in the middle of the book.

From this approach, I am starting think that we may need to look explicitly at how these elements interact. All too often we separate these elements of texts as separate components. We might zoom in on character. Or, we might focus on ideas or themes. We usually try to link these components at the end. So, how does the writer present the theme of deception? Surely, we need to have these components interacting continually. They are so reliant on each other.

What a writer is doing with setting, character, plot, mood and ideas at any one moment is important? The fact that one is more dominant than another at a specific moment is telling. However, students can’t see that unless we are discuss all at the same time. All too often, we helicopter from one aspect to another. Look at how Steinbeck uses character and setting in ‘Of Mice and Men’. Look at how Steinbeck uses character and ideas. Look at how Steinbeck uses all the components. All at the same time.

So rather than giving Year 7s watered down GCSE exam papers, we should give them GCSE thinking and ideas.

Teach the different types of characters and ways writers present characters.

Teach the way writers use settings for effect.

Teach the way writers create mood in a chapter.

Teach the different ways writers can develop the plot of a story.

Teach the way writers present events.

Teach the different ways writers present an idea.

But, while we are teaching these aspects, we should link them together. The writer has just introduced this character to us, but how does the character link to the setting? Does the character fit in or stand out with this setting? Is the setting important to the character? Will the character change the setting? Is the character affected by the setting? Why should the writer pick that setting?

The following GCSE questions should not be used to death.

How has the writer used language…?

How is the text structured for interest?

How far do you agree…. ?

Lesson 1 in Year 7 shouldn’t be about preparing for GCSEs. We should be focusing on the big ideas and not the small questions. The question might have a massive impact on lots of things in school, but we are simply narrowing the breadth of study if from Year 7 onwards we repeat the exam questions with different extracts from texts.

We have followed a fairly logical curriculum with prose study.

Year 7 - character

Year 8 -  setting

Year 9 -  themes  

Now, I am looking at what aspects I should interweave and explicitly teach over the different years. Teach explicitly aspects of character each year, developing the complexity as we go along. I am possibly looking at something like this:

Year 7 – Types of character / stock characters

Year 8 – Role of characters in narrative / minor or major characters / foils / symbolism   

Year 9 –Realism / development / character arcs / character journey

This is just my first thoughts, but I am sure I will change and reflect as things develop. At the same time, I will look at setting, plot, events, etc.   

I love a good story and English is the best subject for that: we create story tellers and consumers. We should be growing those lovers of story. Those little GCSE questions have the power to warp a big and vast curriculum. Think about your planning for next year. Think about the big ideas behind those questions and ignore those small questions. Teach character or setting and teach all aspects of it. We limit ourselves if we are driven by the question and the exam. How many times have students started an A-level course underprepared because the GCSE focus was so narrow? 
Thanks for reading,