Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Becoming a HoD, Part 2

I've been in the job now for eight working days, and in terms of energy and the heavy weight of my eyelids, it feels more like eight weeks.  The good news is that in terms of motivation and eagerness, I'm still pretty bright and bouncy, like a mad puppy.  It's odd that the ability to make decisions and simply make things happen does this to a person, but explains where dictators get their boundless joie de vivre from, I suppose.  I am working constantly in school from 7.30am until around 4.30, and thanks to the endless multitude of different tasks, I am always able to re-energise myself with a new or more interesting job.  I must stress here, however, that for me looking at levels of progress on a spreadsheet is a genuinely interesting job.  And fun too, once you break out the conditional formatting.  It's like being allowed to use crayola when in a restaurant as a child, carefully colouring in the line drawing of a circus that the place kindly proferred on entry.  I can't get enough of it.  Someone pass me the Burnt Sienna.

So I'm maintaining a spookily high level of motivation, which is good.  But I'm also focusing even more on my lessons.  I had heard from many corners that one of the first things to suffer when you shuffle into middle management is the teaching itself.  Happily, so, far, this is yet to happen; I'm treating every lesson like a particularly vital observation.  This is bound to be down to my high levels of motivation and the strange new confidence that promotion brings.  I aim to keep it this way, but we all know an ill-timed cold or bout of insomnia can play havoc with our best teaching intentions, so I will have to see how it goes.  There is also the matter of 'setting a good example' which is now a major factor.  The reality of being a classroom teacher is that you never feel responsible for the practice of your colleagues.  As Head of Department, you suddenly are.  It is imperative to practice what you preach, and so you become even more aware of what you are doing than ever before.  I think it'd be fair to say that this week has seen some of my best ever teaching.  How exciting.

In terms of the 'other stuff' - things to keep the department running - my primary realisation is how much there is to do, and how disparate it can all feel.  One thing I'm having to do, against my character really, is be more outgoing and positive with my colleagues.  My natural habitat, or indeed my cage were I ever to find myself incarcerated in some human zoo, would be a dank cave packed with electronic gizmos and Lego.  It certainly wouldn't contain other people.  So I find myself hoisted bodily from my comfort zone, going around the department chatting away and being as 'motivational' and 'nice' as I can muster.  Joking aside, it has been very pleasant, and I have a good role model to look up to - our Head of Maths has got this aspect of his role nailed, and is incredibly good at making his department exude positivity and optimism.  Their results are supernaturally good, and I think a good portion of this success stems from this - thus, as desperately odd it must seem to anyone who knows me, I must follow in his footsteps.

More about the admin side of things next time.  Right now, I've got to get some forms filled in.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Becoming a HoD Part 1

In five days time I will be at work as Head of English for the very first time.  At results day I could still hide a little, safe in the knowledge that at that point, I was barely more than a cabin boy with some weird primary transition duties and a wee snifter of KS3 to look after.  However, come the beginning of the new school year, I have nowhere to hide.

This is an interesting position to be in, as I've never been in charge of much more than an EPQ before now.  As such, I expect this year to be jam-packed with trials and problems and issues and disasters and, with a fair wind, some successes too.  I have worked with some inspirational and excellent HoDs in my 7-year career, and would be ecstatic if I could measure up to them in any way.  I have also met some quite difficult leaders, and I hope that I may well have learnt from the experience.  Whatever happens, it will all be new and I will be under a great deal of pressure, so I think this could be the start of a healthy and possibly therapeutic series of blog-posts outlining my time as a proto-HoD, and the many adventures I have along the way.

I will attempt to blog weekly, as far as I can manage, but for now I shall content myself with outlining the focuses I have given myself for the first week, so we can track how they go over time.

1. Teach my lessons.

2. Get through the first day without forgetting I'm meant to be in charge of proceedings with my dept and waiting for someone else to start the meeting;

3. Finish the organisation for the year, including dates for CW, exams, moderation, meetings, reports and all the usual bumf;

4. Get my poor head around the intricacies of Performance Management and CPD;

5. Set my stall out re: expectations of behaviour, effort and progress;

6. Make my first major target for the dept clear: to be a 'famous' department that the students chat and yammer about, because interesting and chat-worthy things are happening there;

7. Have a chat with the new headteacher and see what he can offer English;

8. Sleep well;

9. Look after our two new starters in the dept, and make sure they know what's going on and how to get on well.

10. Minimise sobbing to around 5 minutes per day.

We shall see how it goes.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

My year as a 'Cross Phase Leader' Part 2

Now I had managed to communicate with the primary schools and agree to work with them, what did I actually do?

As I have already said, the main reason my job existed was to push our school and make it a more attractive proposition for Year 7.  I may have managed to soften this objective for my own sense of well-being into one that was primarily about helping students, but I still had to deliver for the powers-that-be.  This meant that any time working with Year 6 was essentially time wasted, as they had already made their minds up.  Far better to work with Years 4 and 5, as the decision was still pending for them, and therefore there was plenty of opportunity to get them to consider our little school.  The trouble was, the primaries were very keen indeed for me to work with their Year 6s - the looming SATs were clearly on their minds, and my offer of helping with 'reading and writing' was very attractive.  For the first two terms of this outreach (Christmas and January terms), Year 6 was all I was offered.

Aware that it was unhelpful to my main objective, I took the work anyway.  I reasoned that many of the students I was going to work with were to end up at my school anyway, so it would aid transition (especially useful now I am Head of English, so quite a useful 'familiar face' for them to have - though I didn't know this at the time).  It was probably going to help raise my profile within the schools too - allowing me to work with the Year 4 and 5 students later on in the year.  So I planned some a detailed writing unit for these Year 6 classes.  I had them once a week, for around an hour, for a whole term.  This meant I needed seven full lessons that really engaged them with writing (the skill their teachers had identified as being weaker).  I created a unit based loosely on The Demon Headmaster and Boy, by Roald Dahl: the concept was a short story, with character development and clear structuring, about a new headteacher who turned out to be 'odd' in some way.  Each week focused on a different skill, utilising 'slow writing' techniques a great deal: cohesion one week, detail and imagery the next, punctuation a third and so on, until the students were ready to create their delightful little tales.  With a clutch of level 5 and 6 workunder their belts, the students were happy to have made progress, and the primaries were more willing to let me work with students from further down the school.

I did some reading work, again based on Boy, with some Year 5s, focusing on the skill of inference and evidence gathering.  Year 4 students worked with me on a writing topic based on the Titanic, focused on finding the 'joy' in writing and developing vocabulary and simile creation.  Some Year 3 students, and goodness me they were tiny and quite frightening at times (they are so very different even to Year 7s), worked on a speaking and listening topic, again based on the Titanic (stick with what you know, that's my motto!) where they created really quite startlingly professional TV news reports on the sinking.  Jabberwocky was a focus for another group of Year 5s, where we worked on creating meaning through language, ensuring every word counted.  All of these units were around one hour a week for about a term, and I think in total I must have worked with over one hundred students from around the town.

However, there was a problem.  I was able to collect work, mark it and share it with them, but I had no idea about progress over time.  It was difficult to liaise with their class teachers, so by the end of the year I was aware that I had no idea - really no idea at all - whether I had had a positive impact on their progress.  It dawns on me that this is likely the biggest downfall to the programme.  As a teacher who is very much led by marking and then developing work, this was hard to handle; in the end I had to content myself with the fact that I was very unlikely to be doing educational harm to these students, and to liaise with the primaries over their SATs results whenever I could.  As these things should always end with an evaluative note, checking progress would be an area of development for the next time I make it to the primaries.

So, my year was over.  I had managed to get myself promoted to Head of Department by May, so it is clear to me that I will be spending far less time in the primary schools in 2014-15.  Cross-phase standardisation, moderation and joint planning had taken baby steps, but were by no means fully implemented, and I had worked with more Year 6s than I'd wanted to.  On the other hand, the units of work had been enthusiastically received, and communication routes had been set up between the schools, and we saw a raise of around 25 students entering for Year 7, so all in all, it wasn't a bad year.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

My year as a 'Cross Phase Leader' Part 1

Back in May 2013, I was given a promotion.  It was a Second in Department job of sorts, having responsibility for KS3 curriculum and assessment, and a 50% timetable.  This seems very generous, but I was expected to spend that time doing something else entirely - working with primary schools.

Schools try many different methods of communicating with their partner primary schools, and can spend a lot of money, or very little.  The importance of such work is generally accepted, though it is often hard to pin down exactly what benefits we are expecting to reap from transition efforts.  Often it's a simple case of attracting Year 4 and 5 students to our schools - advertising the quality of the place to the main consumers; sometimes it's a worthy desire to help the students cope with the terrifying change of scenery and routine; occasionally, and I whisper it, it can be through a need to tick the appropriate box.

Happily, in my case, the first two reasons were paramount.  We are a small school, struggling in a very competitive area with two other, much longer-established secondaries.  The work of the four Cross Phase Leaders (English, Maths, STEM and PE) was in many ways simple: attract more students to our school, to help keep it viable.  However, this is a desperately 'private sector' approach, and clashed with my woolly lefty personality of education being for the kids, so I had to smother this core concern in a more Pete-friendly smock of 'helping students'.  I reasoned we in the English department could learn a lot from our peers in the primaries, and could engage in very practical issues such as cross-phase moderation, standardisation and possibly even planning.  I also wanted to take my own particular brand of teaching down to the Year 4s and 5s, hopefully working with them on projects that they wouldn't normally get involved in.  In short, I was trying to achieve quite a lot.

Once September 2013 came along, the order of the day was networking.  It's astonishing how few contacts we had with the primary schools.  We could easily get in touch with the heads of our main 'feeder' schools, of course...but what about the other schools - the ones we were interested in, as they would enlarge our catchment?  By the end of the year I had made contact with, and worked with, about 70% of the town's primaries, but what a hell of a job this was.  The break-through came in the form of the town's primary Literacy meetings which take place three times a year.  These have a teacher from every primary, and they spend time discussing curriculum changes and SATS.  Once I had infiltrated this - actually inviting them to have their January meeting in our school library - the rest was easy.  I chaired the meeting, chatted to everyone, got their emails and that was that: easy access to every primary.  Having a key contact in every school is very useful - it may be their Literacy Co-ordinator, their deputy head, or a class teacher, but it doesn't matter.  What you need is an ally who will organise things at their end, spread the word and act as a point of contact whenever you want to work with the students at their school.

Before starting the job, we CPLs had been warned of the difficulty of communicating with primary colleagues.  We were told horror stories of teachers who never check emails, or who are actively hostile to any secondary teachers who dare to enter their domain.  I was expecting to meet endless walls of resistance, but what I found in reality were warm welcomes and eager requests for help.  Most of the primary colleagues were incredibly keen to let me work with their students on 'different' work.  Any extra input on reading or writing skills was instantly snapped up, to the point where it became difficult for me to juggle everything.  The 50% timetable began to look too heavy.  In truth, I was astonished at how willing primary teachers were to get me in front of their students; but then I considered - if someone was willing to drop in and teach my Year 10 class once a week, freeing me up, I'd jump at the chance too.

The horror stories had been over-elaborate and exaggerated.  The job of working with multiple primaries across town seemed to be a little more achievable.

Part 2 will be about what I actually did in the primaries.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

A teacher and his ticks.

We teachers all love ticking work.  That green, unaccompanied tick on every page of an exercise book - a solemn nod to the Ofsted inspector that this work has been read by teacher, and that the student must, therefore, be making lovely rapid progress.

Ah, sarcasm.  Can't beat it.  But as a slightly foolish and over-excitable relative of irony, very relevant indeed.  For this week, the ticks were not a teacher's best friend at all; no, they made life a complete misery.

Exmoor is a beautiful, wild zone separating the Bristol Channel from the A361, a realm of heather-smirched rounded hills and terrifying steep descents into sleepy seaside towns.  It is famous for its scenery, its cider, its horrifying 1950s floods and its beautiful population of red deer, which have wandered the place since God-knows when.  These deer are content to bellow maniacally and smash each others' heads in, seemingly oblivious to the grim creatures that stud their exterior.  Deer, you see, are the Pearly Kings and Queens of Exmoor, studded with tiny, shiny humps of pearlescent white and marbled brown - often resembling the branch of Selfridges in Birmingham, so cloaked in blood-sucking ticks they are.  For these arachnid vampires are a very real presence anywhere that large mammals such as red deer, roe deer, dogs and people interact with each other through the medium of long grass: a lesson I have learned well this week.

Exmoor's coast, near Lynton.
A picture of a tick would just gross you out.
Pitching a tent by a river on a flattened plain of trampled long grass seemed a splendid idea at 6pm in the evening, after a long drive along apparently endless hills of 25% gradient and above.  Get the tent up, crack open a beer and sob by the camp fire - that was the plan.  And it worked.  The tent was up in no time, the beer was rivaling the stream at our feet in volume and swiftness of flow, and the exhausted sobbing of amateur campers could be heard in Tiverton.  In fact, the whole time there went reasonably well.  Maritime vistas were photographed and instantly spread by Facebook, steak was consumed in dusty old inns tucked under perilous cliffs and dogs were befriended and sat by the campfire like sentinals.  It wasn't until we had packed our tent and made our way home that we discovered we had stowaways, presumably picked up from the long grass that had become our carpet.

No red deer had been seen at all in the week, so ticks had been of little concern to us; our hubris would have made Macbeth tut and shake his head in worry.  For my part, I had never even seen a tick in the wild, and was of the opinion that ticks only ever happened to 'other people' - people who liked carrying maps in plastic envelopes around their necks and ate Kendal mint cake more than once a year.  They never happened to folk who drank lattes and drove a Fiesta.  Well, they did happen
.  Four separate ticks, all nuzzled in that peculiarly intimate way of theirs into just one individual.  Four tiny little beasts - spiders drawn by toddlers - all eagerly burrowing down to the artesian well of blood that lies beneath the skin.

Cue a brace of days frantically tumble-drying every single item of clothing taken on the trip, at a high heat, for twenty minutes.  Cue panicked research online into the order of symptoms and likeliness of death from Lyme Disease.  Cue endless - limitless and deathly boring - examinations of bare skin every time an itch was felt.  Believe me, the experience was so icky that itches were a constant, dull reminder of the body's ability to freak itself out unnecessarily.  Everything itched.  I'm fairly certain that for a short time, even my pockets were itching.

It's all over now, but I'm painfully aware that should another darling little critter rear its abdomen at any point in the next week, we'll have to go through the whole de-ticking process once more, at which point I will probably just give in to their whims and allow them to turn me into a walking nosebag.

I look forward to September, where I will once again be dishing out the ticks, rather than being a dish for them.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Minecraft - the whole span of human history in a week.

Minecraft is a game without an instruction manual.  You download it, and then you're plunged into a strange, vast new world, packed with pigs, sheep and spider-riding skeleton archers.  You have nothing to defend yourself have nowhere to hide.  However, you don't know this yet.  All you know is that you can see loads of lovely, blocky trees, and perhaps a few brightly coloured flowers.  The cubes of earth beneath your feet undulate gently, forming hills and meadows.  The bright blue sky presides over a vibrant world.  You prance, quite content, through this place, taking in the strange vistas, noticing a desert in the distance perhaps.  The weather holds, and you gamely climb the nearest mountain and marvel at the view - a broad Savannah to the west, a thick jungle to the south, a vast ocean with a craggy shoreline to the north.  The sun continues to move overhead.  You see a cave in the craggy mountainsides, and explore it for a while, finding nothing more than a few black specks in the rock that look a little like coal.  Emerging from the cave, back into the sun, you realise that it is now evening.  Said sun hangs heavy in the sky, orange and raw, and the blank above is beginning to darken.  It will be night soon.  You begin to feel anxious.  All of your roaming around was lots of fun, but now it's nearly dark.  You've heard that the darkness in Minecraft is not your friend, and that monsters appear in the black of night. The sun continues to sink, digging into the horizon.  It hovers for a moment, and is then gone.  Darkness envelopes the landscape, and suddenly the inviting land around you seems alien and strange.  Odd noises emanate from the jungle.  Shapes are moving on the grey sands of the desert; you stand on your hill-side perch, and you panic.

The 'first night' in Minecraft is an experience that you will only ever have once.  Eventually, you become accustomed to the game, and any attempt to re-live that dreadfully scary time is undone by your experience.  But it shapes the player, and most Minecrafters will recall their first night with relish.  Mine was spent in a makeshift hovel made from wooden planks in the middle of swampland.  Luckily, I had figured out how to punch trees to gain log blocks quite quickly, and had crafted planks from the logs - I had just enough to build a 2x2x2 hut that enclosed me totally.  I had no torches, so no source of light.  I didn't manage to get the wool together for a bed for about another in-game week.  So I sat in my pathetic hut all night, listening to the moans of zombies as they swarmed around me, with only a thin wall of wood to protect me.  Being totally unencumbered by weapons or armour, I was the epitome of vulnerability.  If they'd somehow managed to gain entrance, I would've died a scary death.  I stayed in the hut for around 3-4 nights as I explored the area and gathered resources, and each night was the same - tedious yet strangely thrilling, like I was experiencing first hand the thrills of being the main character in I Am Legend.

But before long, you will have a secure, well-defended homestead out in the wilds, with farmland, storage space, domesticated animals and interior design.  That's the beauty of the game - you get better, and end up leading a comfortable and safe lifestyle.  You no longer fear the monsters of night, as you have a diamond sword and enchanted armour, so you focus on aesthetics and making your home a beautiful sight, adding wholly unnecessary turrets and flourishes, all to please your eye for architectural glory.  It is a microcosm of human experience, mirroring the birth of culture once the immediate dangers of starvation and being prey to toothy predators had been held at bay for good.  Your home towers, cathedral-like in its splendour.  The surrounding land is tamed and landscaped with great oaks and hedgerows.  You add stables, barns, outbuildings.  You expend once-valuable wool on trivial fripperies like picture frames and carpets, flags and portraits.  Your home is awash with colour and design.  Diamonds, once so vital, are now in strong supply as you expand your mining operations, so you create a throne built of blocks of the precious stones.

Soon, a huge stock of electronic redstone thrusts you into the industrial era.  Now application and efficiency are key.  You begin working on train networks, webs of railway lines threading between your quarries, mines and forests.  You begin to create large scale smelters, using the myriad tools available.  Now you can craft whole stacks of iron bars in moments, and those early days, spent desperately wandering caves searching for minute pockets of iron ore seem long, long ago.  You now have so much material that you no longer know what to do with it, so you make pointless diversions, crafted from various rare blocks, just for something to do.  You build a vast skyscraper out of iron blocks and populate it with furniture, just to get some kind of use out of the gigantic stockpiles of stuff you are now struggling to store.  Your cathedral home is disfigured by necessary extensions for all this rubbish, yet still you crave more, until you have utterly exhausted the world around you.  The trees, the flowers, even the mountain is now gone; they have been ground up, used to make other things.  You stand in a desert of your own making, and despair.

My Minecraft YouTube channel is here!

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Vampire Slaying, fifteen years too late.

I've never seen a vampire in real life.  Apart from some questionable characters seen during various festivals at Whitby, my life has been vampire-free, and all the worse for it, it seems.  I've recently been getting into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you see.  The endless joys of Netflix have enabled me to scoot merrily through seasons 1-6, and it is being made increasingly clear by Joss Whedon's critically acclaimed show that vampires make your life a whole lot more exciting.

Anya's Hallowe'en suit - like Bishop
Len Brennan, she is terrified of rabbits.
I should have watched Buffy at the proper time, of course.  It first aired in 1998, when I was fourteen, sitting comfortably in its demographic; however, I somehow managed to miss out on its charms.  Being an American show at a time when  The Simpsons and Friends were still pretty esoteric and niche on this cold, huddled little island made it almost imperceptible to me.  I am vaguely aware that it was on BBC throughout the late 1990s and into the 2000s, but I was busy with the grimy business of being a teenager and later a student.  I simply missed it.  But now, eager to make for lost time, I'm imbibing the contents of this macabre, funny and tightly plotted programme like a crazed man drinking Drambuie before Christmas is up.

It's tricky to define what makes Buffy such a good show.  I should confess that part of my joy is probably taken from my naive assumption that a show with a name as seemingly foolish as 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' must be awful.  How nice it is to have one's prejudices slashed like this - if only the same thing could happen to my view of Tories.  So, part of my enjoyment may stem from this astonishment.  However, the bulk of it is down to the character arcs.  In fact, they are more viaducts than arcs, given their complexity.  Buffy, for example, undertakes challenges and difficulties that shape, distort and bend her into one of the most complex characters I've seen in a TV show.  She dies at least twice (by Season 6 - I won't tell you how or why) and has family members come and go like Pop-Up Pirate.  She has a turbulent love life revolving around the undead themselves, and hates herself for it.  Her best friends are regularly put in mortal danger by her very existence.  She holds the fate of every living creature on Earth in her poor hands.  Watching her life billow and crease and occasionally fall apart is great fun.  The supporting cast have just as convoluted and myriad plotlines that weave and twirl around each other, creating a colourful, emotional and hilarious tapestry of death and despair.  The oxymorons mount up due to the very dichotomy at the heart of the show - it's a true horror-comedy.

So, a complex, involving show that makes you scream, cry and chortle in equal measures?  Yes; that's precisely what Buffy is.  A sample episode - the Emmy-winning 'Hush' from Season 4 - had me squirting hot tears of terror at regular intervals, thanks to the menacing yet oddly camp withered-headed villains that steal the voices of a population, leaving an episode almost devoid of dialogue (usually the show's strongest suit).  The characters resort to crude charades-style miming to convey the plot to each other, and to us.  Yet this is, of course, where the humour comes in - confusion, bewilderment and misunderstood gestures are always a grand source of amusement, after all.  So I dilly-dallied between fear and amusement like a man on a waltzers filled with twirling axes.

As for the archetypal Englishman, Rupert Giles... I cannot stress enough what a fine portrayal of a disconnected yet caring father figure this is.  Anthony Head gives a performance that even trumps his Nescafe adverts of the late 1980s (no mean feat, and you know it), and his departure is a harrowing moment that suggests that a vital safety net has been removed from underneath the Slayer, making her even more vulnerable.  I'm told he returns before the end, and I seriously hope he does, as watching the younger characters flounder and struggle to find answers without his wisdom and security is probably as stressful as actually trying to sort it all out yourself.

So, fifteen years late, I am discovering a show that has shocked me with its quality - a show that I am actually extremely sad to have missed the first time round.  I can only imagine how it would have impacted my impressionable little brain back then.  It even has an episode that is entirely in the form of a traditional musical...