This much I know about…how we own, we shape and we celebrate our curriculum

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how we own, we shape and we celebrate our curriculum.

My friend and collaborator, Tom Sherrington, recently said this of a school’s curriculum: “Your curriculum defines your school. Own it. Shape it. Celebrate it.” His sentiments have stuck with me these past 24 hours and prompted me to share a moment of teaching magic which exemplifies why we do what we do at Huntington School.

We are an old-fashioned, stand-alone local authority comprehensive school of 1,527 students. We serve our local community, which, in socio-economic terms, is diverse. Our students come from the full range of socio-economic backgrounds and arrive at our school with the full range of prior attainment. We teach a great deal of our lessons in mixed prior attainment groups because we find that mixed prior attainment groupings serve our most vulnerable students best.

Currently, however, we have a small group of Year 7s in a nurture group for English. That group has an English lesson for at least one hour every day. We have a curriculum for that nurture group that includes Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Not a modern English version of the Scottish play, but a full blown study of the original text. We do that because, in a state comprehensive school we believe that all our students should access “the best that has been thought and said”. Those nurture class students’ counterparts down the road at the renowned York independent schools will be studying the Bard, so why shouldn’t they?

And so it came to pass, on the Friday before February half-term, that I covered that Year 7 nurture group. They were in the computer room, aided by two of our teaching assistants, Libby and Jack, typing up their essays: “To what extent does the character Macbeth change during the play?”

Their teacher is one of our deputy head teachers, erstwhile head of English and one of the best English teachers you could wish for; she had told the class I would be taking them. Every time one of the class, let’s call her Mary, saw me in the corridor, she asked me whether I was really going to teach them. Even though I always replied in the affirmative, the next time I saw her she would ask the same question. We both got unbearably excited by the prospect.

The day duly arrived. I hadn’t taught Macbeth for a while. I wanted to begin the lesson with a bang! I know (or thought I knew) the first scene by heart. I got them to swivel 180° on their seats, away from their PCs, to face me. I stood in the centre of the room. I got them to imagine we were on a windswept heath. It was raining, the lightning was crashing down and the thunder rolling around our ears. I began, loudly and dramatically, to recite the opening scene…“When shall we three meet again?”

I swung round, getting louder. The ICT teacher in the next room began looking through the door to see what the hell was going on. “In thunder lightning or in rain?” It was at this point that doubt began to set in. As I roared the next line, I was thinking “What the hell comes next?” “When the hurlyburly’s done…” And I stopped for more than a beat because I had lost my rhythm and my banging start to the lesson was about to fade into a whimper.

I looked around the room, desperately, when I saw Mary up out of her seat. She caught my eye and, barely able to contain herself, she yelled “When the battle’s lost and won, That’ll be ere the set of sun.” Oh my goodness! I glanced at Libby and Jack who were transfixed in utter delight. Mary carried on and the whole class finished with a rousing, “Fair is foul and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air!”

Now, I recount this primarily because, in a career in the classroom which spans over three decades, it was one of the most magical moments. But I also record it here because it is about Huntington School. It is about putting great teachers with the students who need great teachers most (none of that would have happened without my amazing colleague), it is about deciding that what is good for the highest starters in curriculum terms is good for everyone, and it is about creating a culture where we educate children for the pure joy of it.

So, Tom, we own our curriculum. We have shaped it based on what is best for our students. And, here, and in many other places, we celebrate what our challenging, rich curriculum can do for girls like Mary.

 

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This much I know about…the creative writing process, Don McCullin’s photography and Vic Goddard’s auntie and uncle!

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about the creative writing process, Don McCullin’s photography and Vic Goddard’s Auntie Vera and Uncle Clay!

What inspires art? I have written a couple of sonnets recently; the first was motivated by a tale Vic Goddard told on Twitter about his  Auntie Vera and Uncle Clay, whilst the second derived from a visit to Tate Britain to see Sir Don McCullin’s retrospective exhibition.

The process between the stimulus for the poem and the finished artefact is complex and fascinating. The first sonnet, Park Love, began with this sequence of Tweets by my dear friend Vic:

I had thought about this tale for a couple of weeks and finally sat down to write after I had clarified a few things with Vic:

I also researched that period of history and discovered the St. John’s Inter Racial Club in south London.

When Marie Heaney reflected upon living with her poet husband Seamus, she knew when he had a poem percolating: they would be sitting watching television together in the front room when Seamus would begin tapping out the rhythm of the words in his head on the arm of the sofa with his fingers. It is that essential iambic beat of poetry that begins working in my consciousness when a poem comes on. From that point, when a phrase or two develop in my mind rhythmically, I commit the words to paper. I began Park Love by merely writing out what Vic had disclosed in his Tweets, phrasing things iambically where I could:

The sonnet then developed in five further drafts:

At this point I word process what I have and some word choice decisions are inevitably lost, such as the change to the opening line.

I am a terrible tweaker; a poem is never quite finished. Even preparing this blog saw me change a word or two. This is the current version of Park Love:

PARK LOVE
for Vic

Boy, could he run! An athlete’s graceful stance
And, oh, those slim Calypso hips which threw
The finest shapes the Inter-Racial dance
Had ever seen. She caught his eye and knew,
Right there, he was the one! But dad did not,
And forced their fledgling love into the sun
Of Crystal Palace Park, where they forgot
Themselves and kissed between his training runs.

Damp winters took their toll and she fell ill.
A Christian man, he prayed to God above;
Defied the Priest’s Last Rites through force of will.
When she pulled through, her dad had seen the love
Of one who’d stayed bedside both night and day –
And blessed this Windrush son, young Vera’s Clay.

The story behind Clay Gibbs is remarkable. Here he is training with Olympic medallist McDonald Bailey, looking the epitome of cool!

Clay Gibbs and McDonald Bailey
Sprinter Clay Gibbs and Olympic athlete McDonald Bailey, training together at Hove Stadium, July 8th 1953.
(Photo by Meager/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Whilst I had thought for a fortnight about Clay and Vera’s story, this second poem came very soon after visiting Tate Britain to see Sir Don McCullin’s retrospective. I have not included the drafts here; instead I made a video of the poem.

 

I published a version of the poem on this blog a couple of weeks ago and since then, it has evolved. The current version below has been honed in response to comments by fellow poet and head teacher, Jonathan Taylor. When I get close to finishing a poem, metaphorically I hold up every word to the light so that I can inspect it closely to decide whether it is precisely the word required. If I am honest, I am still unsure about the second, third and fourth words of the first line…

MCCULLIN

Death confronts us all. I steal past slaughters.
Cruel tortures. Tiptoe round our country’s dregs.
Skirt a foreign father, his dead daughter.
Amputees. Spent beggars on their last legs.
Protruding ribs. Unwarranted arrests.
Executions. Slain bodies gape, unsewn.
Lost souls. The dispossessed. McCullin’s best.
His greatest hits. Shot after shot rips home.

He haunts each room. His liver-spotted hands
Birthed every print. In reverential awe
I stand, transfixed. This gentle artisan,
For one last time, displaying what he saw.
Here is my work, he seems to say. Enough!
And injured, there, beneath the gore, breathes love.

February 2019

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This much I know about…the Don McCullin retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about the Don McCullin retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain.

I have five heroes, the majority of whom are dead: Seamus Heaney (poetry); Seve Ballesteros (golf); Joe Strummer (music); Eric Cantona (football) and the last, who is still, miraculously, alive, Don McCullin (photography).

I visited McCullin’s retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain yesterday. It was overwhelming. The review I want to write has already been written, by Adrian Searle for the Guardian newspaper. Instead, I have spent this morning writing this sonnet:

MCCULLIN

Death is everywhere. I creep past slaughters.
Amputees. Grey beggars on their last legs.
Skirt a foreign father, his dead daughter.
Cruel tortures. Tiptoe round our country’s dregs,
The lost, the dispossessed. McCullin’s best.
His greatest hits. Dead bodies gape, unsewn.
Protruding ribs. Unwarranted arrests.
Executions. Shot after shot rips home.

He haunts each room. His liver-spotted hands
Birthed every print. In reverential awe
I stand, transfixed. This gentle artisan,
For one last time, displaying what he saw.
Here is my work, he seems to say, enough!

And what suffuses every single frame, is love.

 

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This much I know about…looking after our own mental health first

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about looking after our own mental health first.

On the day we are officially charged by the DfE with supporting the mental health of our students, I think it is worth taking a moment to reflect upon how the way we think might help preserve our own mental health. It’s a little bit like how adults need to fit the oxygen mask first on aeroplanes, before attending to their children.

I always take time to read Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column. Oliver is one of our alumni. After establishing his philosophical foundations during his Huntington sixth form days, he has grown into an increasingly wise thinker. His urbane philosophies are just the tonic for any mildly-anxious head teacher who wants to remain sane in a world of budget-cuts, teacher-shortages and job insecurity.

Over the last few months Oliver’s words, along with the wisdom of several writers and thinkers, have resonated loudly for me. I have collected a list of aphorisms which sustained me as I watched, to borrow from Kipling, the things I gave my life to, (almost) broken.

For starters, Oliver’s column on managing anxiety is superb, based upon Massimo Pigliucci’s marvellous book, How to be a Stoic. Burkeman reflects upon the notion that almost all of our worries are hugely overblown. He suggests that, “Next time you worry that something’s going to ruin your life, it’s worth remembering that if you’d ever been right about that before, even once, your life would presently be ruined”.

Another source of philosophical strength came from Karen Pierce, the UK representative to the UN. I had never heard this before, but her Sunday supplement advice was simple: “It’ll be alright in the end and if it isn’t alright, you haven’t reached the end yet”. She also pointed out that, “You have to work though problems, not round them”. Quite.

The Pierce lines came from her recent Times interview; Caitlin Moran, a columnist for the same newspaper, contributed this next line in an article for the chronically anxious: “You will never, ever, have to deal with more than the next 60 seconds. Do the calm, right thing that needs to be done in that minute…You can do that, for just one minute. And if you can do a minute, you can do the next.” I find that, occasionally, breaking that minute down into two lots of thirty seconds even more useful.

Not all the philosophies come from the weekend broadsheets. Twitter threw up this gem from Hilary Mantel: “The things you think are the disasters in your life are not the disasters really. Almost anything can be turned around: out of every ditch, a path, if you can only see it.” In my experience, she’s spot on. And William H. McRaven claims that to change your life or the world, you should start off by “making your bed!” For me, that is shaving every day, even when I don’t have to.

I found McRaven’s book on Waterstones’ stocking-filler table last Christmas. And Richard Holloway’s On Forgiveness popped itself into my hand when I was last in Hatchards’ St Pancras station book shop. I found it truly illuminating. Ultimately, Holloway explains how forgiving the unforgiveable enables you to own your future unencumbered by the transgressions of the past: “Human beings do terrible things to each other and the tragic thing about it all is the way the remembrance of past hurt can rob us of our future and become the narrative of our lives.”

My accumulated list of timeless advice is all too long. But I can’t end this post without mentioning the Stoics. I have been reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, translated by Gregory Hays. They are profound truths. Shakespeare’s “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”, is rooted in Stoic philosophy. Here, lastly then, is Aurelius on enduring threats to your wellbeing: “Remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune”.

None of which can do you any good, unless you accept that you can control how you react to life’s vagaries. You can choose how you think, and knowing this has helped keep me sane!

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This much I know about…why Christine Counsell is right about teaching knowledge and cultural capital

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about why Christine Counsell is right about teaching knowledge and cultural capital.

This post’s genesis lies in a recent Christine Counsell tweet in defence of RE education:

It interested me because I teach “War Photographer” but, despite having a  Roman Catholic wife and children, I have never referenced transubstantiation once when teaching Duffy’s poem:

WAR PHOTOGRAPHER

In his dark room he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands, which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black and white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.
From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns his living and they do not care.

The guest revision lesson I teach across Year 11 is essentially an hour’s lecture which gives the background to the poem. I don’t really touch on the poetic techniques; rather, I explain exactly what the poem means on a quite literal level. I do not venture much beyond the denotative; connotative interpretations of the text, such as the parallel between the photographic development process and the bread and wine of Holy Communion I leave to the students’ main English teacher. The lesson and all its resources are available on my blog.

But, back to Christine Counsell. Our twitter conversation contrasted her intellectual grasp of the poem on a relatively profound level and my more prosaic approach to teaching the poem and its utterly clear reference to Don McCullin, one of our more revered war photographers:

I replied:

Christine’s subsequent tweets are excellent in interpreting the poem:

I replied with further McCullin contextual references:

And I thought about our conversation again this week when I taught my stock “War Photographer” lesson for the umpteenth time…

To begin I asked a student I knew which was his favourite of the AQA Power & Conflict selection of poems they study for the exam. He replied “Ozymandias, because it’s the least boring” grinning around the room for his appreciative audience. And at that point I allowed myself a little rant, about how I don’t understand why students are proud to display their lack of interest in poetry, keen to parade their disdain for learning about stuff; rather, I wish that they would show how much they knew, that they would talk about how Shelley’s poem has accompanied news of the fall of many a dictator over the years, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Ghaddafi most notably, and how even the makers of Breaking Bad named a seminal episode Ozymandias as Walter White’s empire began to disintegrate, and how it is a brilliant reminder to anyone who gets above his or her station that we will all die in the end of things and that we cannot take anything with us and that nothing really means anything in the scheme of things, and how the reader is, perhaps, the fifth or sixth person involved in the poem, because you have Ozymandias himself, the stone mason who carved the statue, and then the traveller and then the speaker in the poem and then Shelley and then the reader… and I went on until my flurry of frustration blew itself out. My rant built to an OTT climax about how it feels to work in a world where students are proud not to be interested in ‘the best that has been thought and said’. I managed, self-deprecatingly, to make them laugh. I apologised for my faux histrionics. And then I taught the lesson.

But I had to explain everything. I had to explain what a Mass was. Who Roman Catholics were. Christine Counsell’s transubstantiation. What happens at a baptism (because, like the multiple assassination scene at the end of The Godfather, the link between hands, water, careful preparation, gentle handling, being newly born, created from nothing and returned to nothing are too obvious to dismiss). What happened in Belfast, Beirut, and Phnom Penh. The source of “All flesh is grass” and its meaning. The photographic printing process. Why “dust” relates to death in the funeral service. What a Sunday supplement looks like. Don McCullin. Vietnam. Rural England.

It was an illuminating lesson in how important it is to give our students the cultural capital they lack. If they don’t know what all this means on a literal, factual level, they cannot begin to discuss the link between the content of the poem and Duffy’s poetic art. Instead they will begin making stuff up and stray beyond, what I call, the perimeter of justifiable interpretation because too often they think, mistakenly, that a poem is a difficult mystery to be solved.

We have a moral responsibility to teach our state school students all that they don’t know. How else are students like the one who finds poetry boring going to find out about stuff? I know how that makes me sound, but here’s an anecdote that sheds light on the social mobility challenge our students face, an anecdote I have never forgotten. At the end of his first year at Durham, my son was returning from his boozy end of year college football team tour. He sat between two close mates on the flight from Kraków, one who went to Eton and the other who went to St Paul’s. My son was watching Youtube videos of US basketball; his mates were reading The Economist and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time respectively. As Christine Counsell says, our knowledge alters what we see…

My week ended on a high note. One of the students from the Ozymadias group came up to me in the dining hall where I was on Friday lunchtime duty and told me she had seen something about Don McCullin on TV. She suddenly had cultural capital and had, according to her, displayed her cultural capital to her parents by explaining all about Don McCullin and where he had taken photographs and how he hated being known as a war photographer.

He has an exhibition, she went on, in London.
It’s my half-term treat, I replied. And we both smiled.

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This much I know about…behaviour management, “flattening the grass” and Mary Myatt

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about behaviour management, “flattening the grass” and Mary Myatt.

A simple truth: you cannot teach as well as you possibly can and students cannot maximise their learning if students are not behaving in the classroom.

For the first time in my 11 or so years as head teacher at Huntington, we had a training day which focused on behaviour management. The day was led by Matt Smith and Gail Naish, two of our deputy head teachers. The training was largely based upon Tom Bennett’s 3Rs of Behaviour Management: Routines, Responses and Relationships. Matt and Gail put together materials which had an immediate impact upon behaviour in school. It was an overwhelming success; on Friday, two days after the training, in a school of 1,526 students we had only three behaviour comments on SIMS, our lowest for a decade. True. Matt outlined seven de-escalation strategies; the slide explaining one of them is below:

The impact of the training was not restricted to the classroom; a couple of colleagues reported to Matt and Gail that they had tried the techniques at home with their own recalcitrant teenagers and they had worked a treat! I think I have persuaded Matt to write a blog about the training. Its impact is testimony to how important it is to tailor training to the school’s context. We are working on reducing low level disruptive behaviour at the margins, rather than confronting school-wide challenging behaviour which borders on the chaotic.

Context matters. Later in the week I heard of a MAT-endorsed behaviour ethos-setting exercise called “flattening the grass” rolling assemblies. Allegedly, this involves the MAT executives visiting the school, en masse, to stand around the edge of the assembly hall whilst the head of school outlines, in emphatic terms to year group after year group, the MAT’s expectations of students’ behaviour. Before the assemblies begin, individual students are identified for the head of school to single out in front of their peers until they cry. If the head of school is not emphatic enough, the MAT CEO walks forward, replaces the head of school and concludes the assembly in a more suitably emphatic manner. The students are the “grass” which is “flattened” by the experience.

I finished the week inspired by the wonderful Mary Myatt. She reminded her audience at the Canons Park TSA conference that we are all people first and learners second, something I can subscribe to, even if, as Tom Bennett pointed out years ago, I haven’t got the evidence…

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This much I know about…reading, vocabulary and missing Alex Quigley!

I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about reading, vocabulary and missing Alex Quigley!

I was privileged to work closely with Alex Quigley for years. He has influenced my teaching greatly and I miss our challenging conversations about reading and writing now he is working for the Education Endowment Foundation.

Alex’s work on reading and vocabulary has been especially powerful and I have been using some of what I have learnt from him in my recent teaching. My mixed-attainment group of 30 Year 9 students is learning how to understand what meanings a writer implies in his or her writing. They have a wide range of prior attainment and socio-economic backgrounds.

Last week we were unpicking this short but demanding passage by George Alagiah, the BBC journalist and broadcaster:

Just take the first sentence: “And in truth, I never really got used to Mogadishu though, as I said earlier, I managed to contrive an air of experienced disregard.” In order to understand the sentence, first of all you need to know who George Alagiah is and what he does for a living. And to know all about George, a student would need to live in a house where the BBC News was staple viewing. Few teenagers watch TV news any more, let alone on the BBC. Important, then, to tell the class all about Alagiah and his career as a journalist. It would also be helpful to explain where Mogadishu is and a little about the conflict-history of Somalia.

All this before you begin unpicking what on earth this first sentence means and what is explicit and implicit about what it communicates to Alagiah’s readers.

Then we come to the vocabulary required to understand “contrive an air of experienced disregard”. Contrive comes from the Old French controver which means ‘imagine, invent’. Nothing much there to enable students to unlock its meaning, but how about “con” which means to deceive, which is a help, even if its derivation is from the word “confidence”. Maybe “confidence” is a show rather than anything genuine, but when you research its etymology, the word “confidence” derives from the Latin, “confidere” meaning “to have full trust”.

Onto the next challenge: what, to a 14 year-old, is “an air”? I could only explain by walking around the room with a confident swagger, pretending to be Alagiah and creating an image in the students’ minds as he pretended to be unaffected by dead bodies on the roadside and casually dismissed the presence of banda-wearing, gun-toting mercenaries.

“Experienced” wasn’t too hard to explain, but “disregard” was trickier. French for “to look” is “regarde” and the benefits of insisting 85% of our students enter a MFL GCSE became obvious. If “regarde” is to look, then to disregard is not to look, to ignore.

As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that back in 2003, when MFL became optional at KS4, we ignored the new freedom; Huntington students have always studied a MFL to GCSE since we opened in 1966. We are a fully comprehensive school. In an insular city on an insular island, successive school leaders have felt studying a different language and culture to be an essential element of a Huntington student’s rounded education, no matter his or her background.

And that was the depth of explanation required to ensure everyone in the group understood just the first sentence. It was enjoyably hard work. By the end of the hour lesson, every student understood the whole passage; next we will explore the sentences where Alagiah’s meaning is implied rather than explicit. What does he really think of the correspondents who mistake “drama for credibility”?

As Alex Quigley eloquently claims, reading really is the master skill of school…

 

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