Saturday, April 12, 2014


Quick link to the crowd sourced homework doc in case you have just dropped in for that.

A highly contentious issue, homework matters have made me groan inwardly, grit my teeth and smile on many occasion. From complaints of too much, too little, or the lack of spellings, to the families who ask for more, but neglect to 'hear' their children read, I take the criticisms and try my best to do something about it.

 When I first became an infant teacher it was in the wake of an outstanding OfSTED inspection. One of our next steps was the suggestion of taking the EYFS learning journals into the 2/1 classes, so I devised a way of doing this with my colleague. I had a strong idea, she had a strong name for it! We named our homework folders Learning@Home and put in a new sheet of A4 each week. We wanted the homework activities to be as practical as possible - activities that could often be done in the car, walking home from school or at the dinner table, so that lack of time could not be a reason for not doing them. We were keen to make sure that families were as involved as possible in their child's education, so rather than hand over worksheets, we tried to think of activities that would generate discussions and extend children's learning.

Last week I did a massive 'grin and bear it' after after I read in a school survey how the homework was too easy, a child did it in five minutes and although they were given additional challenges, these were on an ad hoc basis. Bearing in mind that reading is a daily homework activity, I felt a tad gobsmacked about this (gobsmacked enough to be bothered to write this post). I was annoyed at the fact that the very same week I had phoned the family to explain how, after putting an additional challenge in their child's tray, I had found a few that hadn't been taken home. This smacked of 'I don't want to do these' to me, so I suggested that the family take their child to the library and start an 'expert project'. The children in my class are 6/7 years old and the last thing I want to do is switch them off. Despite this, the comments were still made on the survey and I felt I had to justify what I had done (unnecessarily - my HT wasn't asking me to, I was needing to. Like I said, I was gobsmacked!) This is because, alongside daily reading and the weekly learning@home activities I had sent the following, additional activities home, most purchased at my own expense:

  • Brain academy maths challenges
  • Brain academy quests
  • Achieve level 3 English
  • Boggle
  • Brain box geography game
  • A choice of brain teaser puzzles (like the picture below)
  • Level 3 maths activities
  • Level 3 English activities

I've already said how reading is supposed to be a daily activity and I provided questioning sheets during parent's evening so that effective support and extension can be continued at home. I feel I've done my duty as a teacher and have been thinking about Carol Dweck's Mindset again. What I need to do is encourage families to take more responsibility for extending their children and enriching their knowledge, rather than it being my responsibility to continuously extend them. I don't want to switch children off at such an early age. So here's where you can help. I started to put a list together of extension activities that can be done at home. They are based on the things my family did with me when I was a wee one! Can you add anything?


Although I find the comments were unjustified,  I do applaud parents who show interest and involvement in their child's education. One child in my class regularly brings in arty, creative work that they have completed at home, but complements topic work, and it is delightful. Although this is an entire new blog post, I do think that if we are to recreate the education systems that our current government aspires to, we are going to need to promote these kind of parental attitudes too. 

Responses from my twitter colleagues within 12 hours. Thanks as always! :-)

These ideas are additional to ones on the document.

  1. How about create your own board game - inspired by my 8 year old who is currently doing just that!

"One of our takes on "Takeaway Homework". In the style of Dominos this is a high school e.g.

  1. thank you! Do you mind if I add to crowd sourced doc, or can you add to comment on blog so
  2. will do - got others too. Parents encouraged to take the idea as far as their child wants
  3. but the most important in my book is still reading - for meaning. I give parents questions

topic was celebrations, had meeting for parents to explain &showed examples I made to give them some ideas.

Shared by @Mrs_Twit24 though layout was devised by someone else

  1. I like those philosophy for children questions....would you rather...?

    1. hmm I don't agree with home learning so young which is why we do projects giving them half a term

      I have the same issue with Y2/3. I'm going to do takeaway h/w next term and explain that they need to expand not just advance

Friday, April 11, 2014

Well rounded children...

is not a phrase that I use. It has been debated on twitter this week and a friend used it today during a conversation that had started about a prescriptive numeracy package that her authority adopted way back when the National Numeracy Strategy was introduced. We had been talking about Read, Write inc and the surprise of my ex colleagues that I was more than a little bit positive about it. Their surprise comes from the fact that my usual whole class approach is based on mantle of the expert - immersing children in a dramatic enquiry approach and scooping up the children who need additional support with more structured interventions at other times. What I feel that the mantle approach does really well is repeatedly rehearse the skills that children need to become as 'well rounded' they can be for a primary aged child. My colleague used it to mean that each child has experienced a broad and balanced curriculum; 'well rounded' might not be the right term. She hadn't really reflected on it before. Thinking about my aspirations for the children I teach, I want them to be able to read for pleasure (and to use a dictionary to learn new words), to be able to communicate coherently in writing and when speaking, to have good numeracy skills, behave well, use their initiative, be able to work effectively both collaboratively and independently, show compassion and manners, voice their opinions whilst able to listen to other's, try new things, have the knowledge and skills to find things out and a desire to learn. I could go on. The list could be endless and it's the same for any year group-I want them ready for the next chapter in their life. As a primary practitioner I aim to find out which of the many lessons I teach sparks a passion that will carry them into the future. Does this make them well rounded? Maybe a well rounded primary aged child?

I have only taught in year 6 for one year (I confess I hated teaching to KS2 SATs) but my aim was to ensure that children were as 'secondary ready' as possible. This came about through careful transition planning, working alongside our secondary colleagues. I have been in transition meetings at our local high school when our children's attitudes and behaviours have been praised, so I assume we did it well.

I know the way I teach works, so don't feel I have to justify it; the measurable progress my children make is proof. Since teaching in a mainstream primary (across KS1-2) I have learned how an enquiry approach naturally supports both able and weaker children, enabling children to show skills that I may not see in more traditional teaching. However, I know that there needs to be a balance. Out of 38 weeks only a handful (around 6 weeks) of maths lessons are taught this way, though children use and apply skills through mantles at other times throughout the year. When I was in KS2 pretty much all of my English work was integrated into the mantles, though on my outreach day another teacher taught a structured grammar/spelling lesson and guided reading happened daily. I understand that these skills can be taught through the mantle, but actually it's sometimes best not to mess around with tenuous links and get the job done in a more formal way so that they are ready to apply the skills when needed. This is even more important with the introduction of the SPAG tests.

I am very aware that we all learn differently, so regularly ask the children's opinions, collectively and anonymously; I have learned that a scattering of children really don't like being taught through an enquiry approach. Some have surprised me as they have really embraced the activities, especially the speaking and listening parts, but I listen to their views. The older the child, the more likely they will say things to please/agree with you (or they refrain from saying things they think will hurt your feelings) whereas the children in my current year 2 class mostly express their opinions freely without regard for the feelings of others. This is good.

Some of their opinions challenge my thinking, much in the way that some of the things I read on twitter challenge my thinking (mostly from the more traditional secondary colleagues). I might not want to agree, but I have a duty to consider the facts - and I do. For example, my children tell me they love handwriting lessons. I used to find this incredible, because I find them quite dull (this is a word that will never be applied to my current children!)

This is how the lesson progresses. I have already set out the pages in their handwriting books (two red lines between two grey) with one letter at the start of each line and 3 letters from one handwriting family repeated down the page. We sit on the mat and practise each letter formation using a model from Espresso, writing the letter in the air, then on a white board. They then go to their tables. I insist on correct posture and will only put background music on if they are quiet. I remind them of 'Neat or repeat', then I wander round looking over shoulders. If they don't form letters correctly, they get another line. Being only 6 or 7, they have been unable to give me a reason why they enjoy these lessons (I think it's their age that prevents them putting their finger on it), so I assume that it is the black and whiteness of it all. No surprises, clear expectations, clear learning intentions, no prospect (fear?) of failing and they all have the same starting point.

This leads me back to why I have embraced Read, Write inc. I can see why the structures and routines feel very safe for our children. Yes I will be bored with the routine and the books by the time I teach it for the third year, but that's my problem, not my children's. The things I like are:

* It's systematic (yes, I like the systematic phonics bit. You know you've got the job done)
* Children have made progress, significantly so in most cases
* It incorporates regular assess and review sessions
* It promotes 'juicy' vocabulary
* It encourages the children to develop proof reading and editing skills
* It assumes that high quality texts will be read at other times (the books themselves won't inspire reading for pleasure in my opinion)
* It supports TAs to deliver high quality first teaching (as opposed to ad hoc interventions)
* It supports all teachers to teach writing to a certain level.

I know that I teach writing well (in terms of measurable progress) and I believe it's because I am inspired by the books, scenarios and drama situations that I use. However, as a senior leader I have to recognise that the last points are very important to the school as a whole. Our TAs feel empowered and I feel confident that when OfSTED come knocking we can show how high quality first teaching is supporting progress in English.

Aside from my impending boredom, the only problems I have found with read write inc so far is that sometimes children get placed in a group based on their reading ability and they cannot write at the same level. This can be resolved by either regrouping or providing additional support for the children to catch up with their writing skills. I hate that the workbooks seem to restrict the children's writing at times, but I make sure there is always additional paper on hand for those with larger writing or a lot to say.

Read, write inc doesn't sit well with writing across the curriculum, though next year my year twos should be off read write inc before Christmas, leaving me the rest of the year with a bit more freedom. I have also made the decision to drop it for the next few weeks so that my children have practised the skills needed for SATs, such as writing a character description and creating a fact sheet.

Incidentally, Read, write inc won't work in a small school, because it needs a lot of staff and a lot of teaching spaces for it to be effective.

I'm unsure how to finish this post at the moment, as it started and finished seemingly on different threads. I should probably return to the point about well rounded children, but I'm tired and it's the holidays, so I'm going to finish in a Sheli like manner. Cheerio!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

9 go to the DFE

I'm at that point in my career where trawling twitter for current news and inspiration has had to take a back seat as there really aren't enough hours in the day. This week though I have caught up on some interesting developments and thought I'd share them. (In between the rambling accounts of what goes on in my classroom, I like to think I am writing posts that share useful information and save others the time to research themselves.  This is one of them. As always, 'scuse the grammar. This post could go in the 'should have paid more attention in those boring grammar lessons' file.)

On the 8th April some tweeting bloggers got invited to the DFE to discuss the new primary curriculum. I was pleased to see Cherryl (a SEN teacher and advocate) and Tim (fellow Mantle/imaginitive enquiry/inquiry advocate) amongst the attendees. It felt good that these folk who I know share many of my views on education were representing the teaching profession (the other attendees clearly share my views too, but I haven't really engaged in discussions with them). Having read the posts, which I won't ramble on about as you can read them yourself, I asked Cherryl the question 'So what?' She hopes that follow up emails and discussions will shed light on this.

Hopefully I'll get to quiz Tim about it in person, when we eventually get to meet up. But maybe not, maybe we'll prefer to talk about the ways we have approached learning in our classrooms.

So, the DFE. Nine went, voiced opinions and gave some home truths (thank you!) But what will the DFE do with this? Is this merely a veil of 'Let's pacify the primary sector by getting some real live teachers in, who clearly know their stuff because they blog about it and share it on twitter, to show that we do listen to the views of those on the ground who are educating our children (views we have no intention of acting on)'?

Only time will tell ...

In the meantime, I recommend that you read these posts. They paint a picture of what happened and what was said. I was intrigued, flabbergasted, amused, proud (not in a patronising kinda way, in a 'someone has the balls to 'politely' challenge' kinda way) and I sincerely hope that their opinions are considered and acted upon.

The posts so far:

DFE meeting on the new primary curriculum Tim Taylor

Meeting the Big Wigs Miss Smith

Our day out (at the DFE)  Debra Kidd

Yesterday's meeting at the DFE Cherryl KD

DFE @theprimaryhead

The View from Westminster Bridge @educationbear

Additions (10/04/2014)

Judging by her speech about improving teaching and learning today, it would appear that Liz Truss didn't really hear what the group said about differentiation (or what was expressed about text books) or testing ... hmm, maybe she just needed a little more time to reflect?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Being evasive

As a teen my school report often commented on my less desirable qualities, such as 'is highly evasive'. I was reflecting on this today after a wee bit of enlightenment at school. I've been wondering whether this negative quality as a teen afforded what my HT in 2001 described as 'incredible questioning skills for an NQT'. Of course it's nice to be complimented, but to be honest I don't think I realised it was a strength - no-one had mentioned it before. I've always encouraged thinking skills/independence/initiative, but mostly because as a working mum I needed my own children to make decisions for themselves. This is why at break times at school I refuse to peel the satsuma or banana (or start it off), or open the packet of raisins presented to me by our infants. That's what we're there for after all, to teach. Of course it's easier and quicker to do it for them, but then they will just come back next time and ask for help again, so I teach them how to do it themselves. It's obvious isn't it?

So today my revelation came when we were making twig crosses as part of our Easter enquiry. My children had collected their twigs and were given a pipe cleaner to tie them together. That was the scaffolding: a pipe cleaner is much more manageable for a ks1 child than twine. I didn't give them any more information, but showed them one made earlier and hinted that 2 pairs of hands were better than one. It proved to be a great problem solving skill for many and showed me the children who had determination-and stamina! I reflected on the skills that the new computing curriculum is encouraging and how forest school thinking is much the same. It's about processes.

We have a Montessori quote up in the staff room that says 'Never help a child with something in which he feels he can succeed,' and this is something that my headteacher is keen to focus on during staff meetings. During the cross making activity today I observed two other adults' approach to supporting children with this. Their initial response to the children was to take the twigs and pipe cleaner and do it for them(!) When I asked one child, 'Have you tried to do that yourself?' the sticks were quickly handed back and he was encouraged to have a go. Did I help anyone? Yes. I held two twigs for a year one child who was desperately trying to do hers herself and just needed a stronger pair of hands to hold the twigs in place. I also suggested to two children who were complaining that they couldn't do it to put one lot of sticks down and try and work together. I suggested that other children ask someone who has done it to give them a clue. The children were working harder than I was, which is the point isn't it?

During this activity I really understood the logical thinking and prior knowledge that was required to bind the twigs together, from the mistakes that they were making. Although some of them didn't see it as a huge achievement, I could see the significance of their learning. Before the activity I hadn't considered the massive steps that some children would make and the amount of trial and error this task would require. There were lots of twigs falling on the floor, lots of impatience, lots of encouragement from me and lots of children pleased with their end product. Try it yourself, then think about what a big step this is for a year 1 child who won't know that diagonal ties will hold a cross more effectively.

I started to think about how this activity could have a greater impact if I used it to start a conversation about questioning, encouraging independence and using initiative in our next TA meeting. I am going to encourage our TAs to be evasive at times and answer children's questions with questions of their own. My most commonly used phrases are 'What do you think?' and 'How can you do that?' It's amazing how many children can answer their own question. So we need to stop answering / doing things for them that they can easily do themselves.