Saturday, 22 December 2012

2012 - What a year!

2012 was the Chinese Year of the Dragon. By reputation it is a stormy year, literally and metaphorically, with change as its only constant characteristic. Think of 1916, 1940, 1976 and 2000 and you get the idea. For those who can ride the storm, it's an exciting ride full of opportunities. and such has been the case for me this year.

Specifically it has been one of the most inspiring years I can remember for a long time. It's been the year of Twitter discovery, the year of turning the iPad pedagogy dream into reality, my first year of Outstanding teaching (apparently), and the first year I've begun to accept I may have something to offer at a level higher than middle management. The encouragement and inspiration I've received this year have been overwhelming (a lot of it from Twitter), and have pushed me along at a rate somewhere between uncomfortably hard sprint and mach 2 with lips gibbering comically. So I thought I'd finish my first month of blogging with a reflective one, looking at the things which have inspired me most this year, and hoping they inspire you too...

1) Teachers were heroes, and presidents were real people (whether this a real person with courage still remains to be seen, but I imagine 90% of the world's population will be willing him on in the New Year).

Felix Baumgartner - The mightiest of leaps
2) Science equated to discovery and inspiration: 
Higgs Boson, the Mars Rover, Felix Baumgartner's colossal jump from the edge of space - A year when Science re-discovered its cutting edge and inspirational qualities, but a year in which the real science (of saving our species' place in this planet's history) was once again subsumed by the interests of those with profit as their main motive.

3) Teachers innovated: Teachmeets and Tweachers came of age, and teachers reacted to an ever-growing chorus of criticism from government and the media with professionalism, integrity, and continued strife towards improvement. But these testing times, when politics and ideology rule over education, are also beginning to sift teachers and leaders into two groups: Those who acquiesce to the demands and play the game, and those who have the moral courage to stand up for what's best for their students. The latter group is in the ascendency I think.

4) The little people stood up for their future: Pussy Riot in Russia, democracy protesters in Syria, Libya and Egypt - A year when the little people stood up to be counted, and gave their lives for a better future. And the web played a pivotal role in that process, allowing people to communicate freely with each other across social and geographical barriers: On a lesser scale, we saw the growth of crowd-funded Kickstarter projects, and in the teaching profession we saw the formation of HeadsRoundtable and its massive online petitions, consultations and deluging the DfE with over 5000 tweets in one hour to protest against the EBacc "consultation" (if such it can be called). There's your moral conviction...

5) Gay Marriage Bill: Even though the church continues to object to gay marriage, this was the year that the rest of us saw it as a complete non-issue. For Heaven's sake, if the Conservative Party are advocating a more liberal stance than the church, what is the world coming to?! I just loved the picture opposite, which showed a grown man as though ashamed of his own message, and a young lad with courage and love in his heart. Who says the next generation is going downhill?

(Do love this video response from the gay community on what might happen if we don't let them marry each other: Hilarious!)

6) The Olympic legacy
I'll admit to being a nay-sayer when it came to the Olympics, and then it changed my mind, for so many reasons. The inspirational performances were just one aspect of the whole thing to be honest. I loved the fact that we saw immigrants as accepted parts of our society who wanted to help make this a great country rather than simply a racially homogenous one; I loved the way we came to see 
Paralympians and disabled people as heroes rather than as scroungers, benefits cheats, or a drain on the nation; And most of all (as a media specialist), I loved the fact that the people we idolized were for once not over-paid ponces (footballers, looking at you here!) or people with little talent who'd made it through "reality TV" and been told they were the next big thing. The Olympians were people who excelled at their sports, achieved their success through incredible hard work over a long period of time, and when they'd finally achieved it, had the humility to admit that they were only part of a team, and that their achievements were only a blip on a much larger scale. People who are often aware of their own lack of importance in the grand scheme of things are often the ones who achieve and give most in life. That's a true legacy.

Finally, I had to leave this year's review with two of my favourite videos of the year: You're going to tell me they're the same: Same tune, same theme, same Olympic footage. But there is a subtle difference. While the first is a celebration of the Olympics and its trials, tribulations and successes, the second I think is more powerful.

Because it's about more than the sportsmen and the sportswomen who did us so proud. It's about us as well, and our role as ordinary people. It's about everybody who made it happen, made a difference, and made it such a special time for Britain (not just London). It's about ordinary people clubbing together to show how great a nation's people are, without jingoism or feeling any need to be better than anyone else...

If we're going to do anything to leave a legacy in 2013 (and seeing as yesterday went off without a hitch, and Mayans are still investing in pension funds, we can assume we do still have a future on this planet!), it should be to realise our potential as a species within the great ecosystem which is our planet.

It should be about looking out for each other.

It should be about looking out for our resources, and sharing them equitably.

It should be about realising with humility that our survival depends on working in harmony with this beautiful planet, and not simply in our own selfish interests.

A final quote, to leave you with this year. It's from a book I read years ago that is unique in its ability to constantly remind me of how tiny my place in the world is. As my Christmas gift to you all, may I recommend "Tuesdays With Morrie", and may we all continue to strive to make this a better place to live next year... Merry Christmas!

You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.

“I heard a nice little story the other day,” Morrie says. He closes his eyes for a moment and I wait.
“Okay. The story is about a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old time. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh air–until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore.
“My God, this is terrible,” the wave says. ‘Look what’s going to happen to me!’
“Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him, ‘Why do you look so sad?’
“The first wave says, ‘You don’t understand! We’re all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?’
“The second wave says, ‘No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.’”
I smile. Morrie closes his eyes again.
“Part of the ocean,” he says, “part of the ocean.” I watch him breathe, in and out, in and out.
Extract from the book Tuesdays with Morrie 
By Mitch Albom
All rights reserved.
New York : Doubleday, c1997.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Leadership Philosophy: A first stab

Week three of my ASLDP course, and I had my first chat with my coach afterwards, the venerable @Plestered, and a number of themes are starting to emerge from these sessions, to whit:
  1. I will never get the course acronym right
  2. I will never remember my ID badge to sign in with
  3. Leadership is about moral purpose. And data. And not necessarily in that order.
  4. Leadership is about vision, and knowing how you want to run your organisation
  5. Ok, I only thought of four, but the whole numbering thing got the better of me...
I was discussing this with my coach, as well as talking about the various blogs we're both reading on leadership at the moment, and a recurrent idea seems to be this need to develop one's vision for leadership. At which point he told me I should write mine before my next coaching session.

Let's rewind here: I should write mine before my next coaching session.

OK, rewind a bit further...
I should write my vision for leading a school before my next coaching session.
While I'm still a middle leader.
Before I've learnt anything substantial on this course (and there are those who've rightly expressed doubt that I'm capable of that alone!).
Before I've even started my leadership secondment.
For a theoretical job as a potential Assistant Headteacher.
Before all that, I should try and formulate my vision for how I would lead an entire school.

"Excellent idea!" I said. 

Sometimes I can be a pillock...

This is what I've come up with so far. With virtually every blog I read and every conversation I have nowadays, I learn more and more, and I'm certain of nothing if not the fact that this wil change drastically with that learning. But every journey starts somewhere. So here are my thoughts on the tools I would use to run a school well:

1) Authenticity and integrity, from top to bottom. From leaders, staff and students. We will not produce a generation of people who have genuine integrity if we don't have it ourselves, and model it day in, day out. It's about people, stupid. And those people need to be valued and supported. If you are not able to value and support the people around you, and the students, and have that principle at your very core, why would you work in this profession?

2) Teaching and learning, curiosity and discovery, should be at the heart of everything we do. We should be a discovery community, staff and students alike. We should be learning from everyone around us, and we should create a system where that is systematically facilitated and celebrated. We should be learning from each other, we should learn from external sources, from business, from the community, from anyone who has something to teach us. We should create time within the curriculum where staff development, research and collaborating on best and next practice is not only prominent but a professional expectation.

3) High expectations. It's not OK for a student not to try their best in your class, is it? But teachers get paid to do their job, so why would it be any more acceptable for us not to give our students our best? I agree that you can't hit Outstanding every single lesson perhaps, but we need to find a sustainable way to give at our highest level as much of the time as possible. And make it sustainable for a whole school year, rather than having people break down due to ill health at the beginning of every holiday.

4) Use the strengths of the people you have. Good managers should manage, good teachers who are at the chalk-face day in day out should be listened to, and should have every possible obstacle to outstanding lessons put aside. Use the talents you have well. I'm sure someone even wrote a parable about it, it's that important. I think it was probably Jesus.

5) Openness and open doors: If anyone fears me coming in to their classroom, they will get more defensive. Staff and students have to know that failure is a crucial part of the learning mix, and that they should be doing it together. Failure is fine, as long as you learn from it, and progress from it. Consequently all feedback should be developmental. The same principle applies to those at the top of the teaching ladder, with large amounts of expertise, and a desire to experiment and hone their teaching skills, sometimes even try something outlandish. They need to be trusted. They need to be given the freedom and autonomy they need to develop. But that freedom is always coupled with accountability. One is the Yin to the other's Yang. Or vice versa. I can't remember.

6) Curriculum: We are in an unprecedented era of political interference in education, but we are also in an era of considerable freedom. If we allow our freedoms to be curtailed by our response to how others will perceive us, based on league tables and spurious measures of what constitutes a rounded education which we don't agree with in the first place, then we have lost our moral purpose. We need a curriculum which allows every student to find their light, to find the spark that sets their futures alight, and is right for that individual. If we don't provide that, we fail the students. By consequence, we need to be clear with parents what the rationale behind our curriculum decisions are, and we need them to support us in our attempts to give their children what's best for them, rather than what responds to flavour of the month. The students who leave our gates should be as ready as they can be for their futures, whatever that might entail.

7) OK, I know what I'm like if I get a list that goes beyond seven, so let's not push this. There's bound to be more to write in the future, and I'm likely to be changing my mind very soon about all this anyway, so let's stop here. Treat number 7 as your video at the end of term. And as an explicit statement that anyone who retweets to me any more "1047 new ways to enrich education with a pencil sharpener" will be shot! Malice aforethought. No early release from prison.

You've been warned...

(And as for Michael Gove...)

Saturday, 8 December 2012

My iPad journey - Updated

Cards on the table: I've been teaching 17 years and have always been a huge fan of computers and their potential for learning. I'm not an ICT teacher, nor am I any more than a gifted amateur in the ICT world. I am not a geek, except insofar as I watch The Big Bang Theory. And love it. OK, I'm a bit of a geek. But I have some semblance of social skills, so I'm not sure it counts really.

My journey with ICT began with computers, always Windows, big Apple hater to be honest. Then the iPad came out, and I liked it. I liked it a lot. But it bugged the hell out of me the number of work-arounds I had to find for functions which would have been simple for a PC. As a media teacher, it irritated me that I had to wait until iPad 2 for a camera, but once I had the camera, it didn't take long before the iPad gradually rendered my computer almost obsolete. The iPad started as a replacement for computers, in the classroom as well as at home.

And so the iPad began to replace many PC functions in my classroom, as a simple swap. There were limitations, but more advantages than I'd thought. the "switch it on and it's on" facility (revolutionary, I know: Who thought that one up?) was a huge time-saver, meaning I didn't have to plan whole lessons around computers just to make switching them on and the 10-minute boot-up worthwhile, or introduce lessons with 20 minutes of board-work just to kill time so the damn things were ready to go. (Honestly, all the tasks were really useful, promise)

At the same time I started on twitter, where all my best ideas came from. More or less all my ideas, if I'm honest. I am not one of life's creative thinkers, it's fair to say. But I do have a much under-estimated skill of being able to look at things which are beyond my creative capacity and give them a slight tweak to improve them. This was more or less how I treated most of my PLN's contributions: "Like that, how do I make it work for me?".

Our school has been on a three-year drive to improve AfL, and this was brilliantly served by Socrative quick tutorial here if you've never seen it before), which had the advantage of being usable on computers and phones as well, useful for classes where we didn't have enough iPads to go round. In fact, it's the ideal tool for any BYOD environment too. I started realising that the iPads had loads of advantages, but these were often negated if you didn't have a device per person, so using web-based apps helped as I could supplement the ipads with conventional PCs. This was enriching the learning in my class, with a greater variety in my students' educational diet which was keeping them on their toes.

By now I was starting to see the creative potential of the iPads for making movies, podcasts, comic strips, posters etc. It started out as a solution to my attempts to "flip the classroom", buy allowing me to create simple tutorial videos I could set as homework preparation for lessons (Our Youtube channel gives you a few examples which you are welcome to share). I could even put them into Playlists so that the videos became more advanced, and students were able to go as fast in their learning as they wanted to, which was really useful at KS4 and KS5. Using the camera on the iPad and iMovie enabled me to make these short videos within half an hour sometimes, and as they are all online now, they are permanently there for students to refer to. Which means I've stopped repeating myself in class, a lot. Apart from the phrase "Do you know where to look for your answer?" which is getting trotted out more...

My own forays into creativity also showed me the iPad's potential for increasing the number of ways my students could respond creatively to tasks rather than just using them to find out information, browse the internet and write notes. Creation is perhaps the one area the iPad really has it over other tablets, as it has a huge amount of potential. So my students would be using creative apps to illustrate their learning, and this, I realised, was enhancing learning dramatically, by deepening the way the students were thinking, and really getting them to synthesise and apply the information in new and creative ways. Twitter and @Gripweed1 added more apps from a fabulous website of the week feature he does, eg Explain Everything, and the ways in which my students were able to demonstrate their learning continued to grow.

Explain Everything has been a great case in point, one which I am developing my use of consistently. At first it was me making tutorials, or explaining concepts for students. But after a while I started asking the students to use it to explain the concepts themselves. The beauty of it was that it allowed them to use pictures, labels, extended writing, but also make these into movies which they could produce verbal commentaries for. A lot of my students with special needs have benefitted from this new way of accessing and showing their learning, or boys especially who never quite get round to writing things in any more detail than the absolute minimum they can get away with. Tell them they can explain it verbally or make it into a movie and they're mad for it. Tell them how brilliant the answer is but they now have to write it in ten minutes for an exam response, and they suddenly realise that succinct writing is a skill they also have to learn. Importantly though, those who always thought they were not much good in class because their written responses got low marks now realise that the knowledge is more than adequate, and that the only obstacle to good marks is writing. Somehow, that seems to make the task of improving slightly less daunting to them.

Then the enhanced learning led logically into sharing our work. Students were so proud they wanted to be able to show their work to everyone, through the Apple TV, and to their parents. Students sharing their work with each other on Twitter has increased the collaboration in class dramatically, for a start. QR codes, tweeting, Creative Book Builder (another easy tutorial here for those of you who've never tried it), were my first steps into this curating work and bringing it together. Again, @Gripweed's app of the week showed me countless possibilities for doing this, such as Wallwisher, Edmodo, Scoop.It. And my eyes began to open to the number of different ways I could do that.

I ignored virtually all of them, because if there's a down-side to Twitter, it's that it can deluge you with too many ideas. But I had enough to fulfil the functions I was after, and it was clear that sharing work was having an additional unexpected effect: It was extending learning. What students were producing was changing, the way in which they were doing it was changing, and they were now learning outside the classroom much more. I'd been toying with flipped learning for a long time, but suddenly these tools made it not only possible, but also driven by the students.

So the next stage was to stop exploring too much, and sit down and rationalise things. I spent time thinking about the functions I wanted my students to be able to undertake using the iPads, and created a list: Mind-mapping, AfL, writing and recording, researching, demonstrating learning, sharing learning, creating posters, word clouds, videos, demonstrations, podcasts, revision, online accessible storage.
Here are the tools I used, for those of you with an unhealthy interest:

AfL - Socrative
Mind-mapping - Popplet, iThoughtHD
Note-taking and recording - Pages, Evernote, GoogleDocs, Keynote
Research - Safari, Skype/Facetime, Khan Academy, TED and TED-ED
Word clouds - TagCloud, Word Collage
Demonstrating learning - Explain Everything, Skitch, Timeli, VideoScribe, Creative Book Builder, iBooks, Apple TV
Creating - CeltX, Cinemek, Pinnacle Studio, iMovie, PS Touch, PS Express, StripDesign, Phoster, Flipbook
Revision - Quizlet
Storage and sharing - Evernote, Dropbox, Cloudon, iBooks, Twitter, QR codes

Way too much info, huh? Up until the list you were busy thinking "Wow, great, cool, I should try this!" And then this turned into those, and I can feel your enthusiasm waning with the immensity of the task! I've been there. I sympathise. I call it "My inspirational Twitter PLN hell". But here's the thing: To quote my favourite philosopher Lao Tzu, "the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". There is no minimum speed limit on this journey. There is only DO or DO NOT. So pick one app. Try it. When you've got it wrong a few times, try it some more, get the students to help you out, or find work-arounds, and get good at it. Embed it. And then add another, and so on.

And add in your other learning styles: Flipped learning works brilliantly with iPads, as does SOLO Taxonomy. As, I would imagine, does co-construction. It's only a tool after all, and there are a whole load of ways it can help you do your job more effectively. The final thing you'll discover on this journey is that, beyond changing how you do things, varying your educational activities, deepening the learning of your students, and extending the ways in which they learn, you will ultimately have empowered your learners to take charge of their own education. Which is technically, I reckon, Outstanding, is it not?

The process so far has taken me a year. I now have four classes using iPads most lessons, for a variety of tasks, and constantly coming up with new ways to learn. Sometimes I feel like a spare part, but it just gives me a precious second or two to sit back and smile to myself. Before I get back on their backs expecting even more!

Thank you. Once again, you've made it to the end of the post. Here's your cartoon... At least I'm getting more consistent with my rewards system, eh?

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Keeping teachers healthy

A while back I read a rather brilliant blogpost by the equally rather brilliant John Tomsett entitled This Much I Know About... Staff Well-Being. It was so inspiring that, like any good professional, I nicked it and tried to pass the ideas off as my own at our staff well-being committee the following week. Unfortunately, my DHT who chairs the meeting was trying to do likewise. Fortunately for us, if rather ironically, everyone else was too sick or busy that week to be there, so between the two of us we quietly buried the whole plagiarism thing and just decided to focus on the merits of the ideas therein.

I've written elsewhere in a post on Leadership and Integrity that the teacher is the most important tool in the education process. Technology is great, supportive management are too, but at the end of the day, the teacher is the tool which crafts the final product, the holistic education of a child: no tool, no product. The logical corollary to this is that teachers are the most prized asset a school has, and should therefore be looked after and enabled to do their job as best they can, rather than prevented from doing so. Staff well-being is a critical issue in this respect, but I can't help feeling we're often our own worst enemies.

OK, so, cards on the table. I'm not one of these teachers who gives everything in the service of the students and the profession. Don't get me wrong: During the hours of 7.30 - 6.00 while I'm in school, I'll be giving my best. And when I'm marking work and doing the other bits and bobs at home in the evening and at the weekend, those tasks too will have my undivided attention. But here's the thing. When I get all my To Do list done, I'm done for the day, and that's that.  I'm damned if I'm going to be one of those teachers who martyrs themselves for the job. Because you know what I've noticed all martyrs have in common? Their deadness. The fact that none of them walk away happy, or indeed walk any further at all. For them, it's all or nothing.

Now I know teachers who are like this. And believe me, there is a point up to which I admire their dedication. But here's my question: Who do you think you're helping with this sort of attitude? Are you seriously trying to tell me that your ├╝ber-dedication and consequent constant exhaustion are the best way to help your students? And if you're busy having a jolly good laugh at those martyrs, ask yourself if you've ever come in to school despite the fact you KNEW you were too ill to do so? Cover too much hassle to set? Kids can't do without you? Feel guilty about the cover you're causing? Leave it out! Someone ought to seriously try calculating the knock-on effect of that valiant act. For starters, how many other people did you infect? And how many days of work were lost through that? How many students lost time because of the same thing? (And we're never exactly enamoured of the fact that students miss our lessons, no matter how legitimate the reasons) and how many of those lessons you did deliver were actually good lessons? I can imagine the looks of horror on people's faces as I criticise their devotion to duty, but I can't tell you how misguided it is.

If you're dedicated to your job, you have a duty to look after your health. And to be honest, you've got a duty to look after your health full stop. If your life is one of giving to your students, then they deserve your best, and you cannot give that unless you take care of yourself. If you actually have other centres of interest in your life other than teaching, heaven forbid, like loved ones who need your time, then you owe them too. That means disciplining yourself to stop with enough energy left for those people too. The ones you love. Remember?

Anyway, I hate my own tendency to be critical, so here are my own ideas on how to achieve that balance which might be a bit more constructive. They are by no means perfect, but they really help me.
  • Reserve early mornings for yourself. Bit of exercise, deep breathing, meditation, whatever you want, but give yourself you time. It's not about "allowing yourself", it's about disciplining yourself. It's not an indulgence, it's a need.
  • Learn to cook. Properly. I love lots of sweet indulgences, but they don't love me, so I ditched them and tried to fill myself with good stuff, and find other things I look forward to eating just as much. Check out this banana cake recipe for starters!
  • Set time aside: I set aside two evenings a week for friends and exercise at the same time. My friends are great at keeping me motivated to keep fit. Surrounding yourself with good, positive friends who want the best for you also goes a long way.
  • I started learning t'ai chi the week I began teacher training, some meh years ago, and it really helps. Not just with staying calm under pressure, and giving me bags more energy than I've ever had before, but also with awareness of when I'm over-working my system, and when I need to slow down. It ended up doing me so much good I started teaching it. Now, several years down the line, those people I taught are keeping me from spending my energy unwisely, because they're now teachers in their own right. How cool is that?
  • Professional guilt: Get rid of it. Sacrificing your health for short-term gain isn't worth it, and is actually helping fewer people than you think.
  • Time for loved ones. If you can't spare your children an hour a day minimum, and more for your partner, that's not making you a good person. Why should they have to sacrifice their energy to make up for your lack of it all the time? Dinner times are sacrosanct in our house, and cooking together is an even better way to get time with the people you love. My brother even has a fab "cocktail Wednesday" which he and his wife never deviate from. Oh, and quit trying to multi-task. When you're dealing with people at school, you wouldn't be checking your phone or answering emails at the same time, so don't do it to your family.
  • Weekends: I know working at weekends is inevitable, but try to put aside a full day for yourself, your family, your friends and yourself: You deserve it.
  • Sleep. Lots of it, especially in winter. There is less energy around at this time of year, so you need to conserve what little you have if you're going to stay fresh. The rest of nature hibernates for good reason. If we, the so-called "superior animals", think we can ignore nature's cycles, then we're not as clever as we like to think. Try switching off from work at least an hour before you go to bed, and don't go to bed after eleven. Statistically it is far more difficult to get to sleep thereafter.
And if you look at the actual amount of time you're taking off work by completing the above, it's not too much to expect is it? Assuming you want to have a life, at any rate.

In conclusion, to paraphrase the greatest taoist master of them all:

Get a life. Do not get a life. There is no try.

This post is dedicated in memoriam of the greatest teacher ever, Trevor Edney, who taught me not only to love learning, but also to love the health I'd been given, and to enjoy my time on Earth. RIP