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!

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