Faith, Hope and Hilarity

I was a little taken aback by the reaction to my resignation post. I braced myself for charges of ‘traitor’ and instead all I got was a current of support that carried me past tears into hopefulness. So thank you for reading and responding. And I’m not leaving teaching per se – I’ll still come and play in any school that will have me. I’ve not abandoned hope. And hope was very much in the air today with the Year 5 class I was working with in Huddersfield. It is the same school in which we’ve been wizarding – see this post –¬†https://debrakidd.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/lying-is-just-lovely/ for more on that. But in the mornings, we’re Tudoring and so I thought I’d share some of our process and our work, because these kids blew my socks off today.

When we co-planned this unit, the Year 5 teachers were keen that the children would be exposed to the complexity of the Tudor monarchy, particularly some of the issues facing Henry VIII. They didn’t want children to simply reel off the dates, names of wives and to chant how they died. The wonderful head at the school is clear “History matters because it gives us an understanding of who we are today” and she is keen that the children really engage with that through line, connecting, empathising and understanding. We wanted to lure them into learning – entice them with a starting point that would fire their imaginations, but also open up some deep questions and so….we built a secret little priest hole in a cupboard in the library and put a ‘body’ in there with a lot of religious artefacts and a coded letter.

On our first day, we went into role as Heritage experts called in by the owner of a house whose builders had come upon a hollow section of the wall hidden behind an old tapestry. We talked about what values we would have as a Heritage team – what our responsibilities would be. What we would never, ever do (in still image) and from these, we created our code of conduct.

1. We will treat the dead with dignity and respect.

2. We will never touch ancient objects with our bare hands but always wear gloves.

3. We will keep a list of everything we find so that nothing is lost or stolen.

4. We will take all measures necessary to make sure that we don’t damage anything.

5. We would never steal or deliberately harm anything or anyone.

Once our code was in place, we went to the hole. Each team had a special job. One to photograph and record everything (without flash of course). Another to keep careful lists of everything that came out. One to remove the body with care and respect. Others to collect and wrap the objects and carefully transport them back to the ‘lab’. Once there, we analysed the objects and the class came to the conclusion that this must be a holy man. The skeleton was still holding rosary beads. There was a communion chalice in the room, icons and statues and a large brass key with a crucifix on it. Whoever this was, they decided, he was religious and cared about these objects. Perhaps he had taken them from a church. One Polish child declared that she thought the man was Catholic because of the rosary beads. “Aaaahhhh” said several children and their latent knowledge of Catholic/Protestant poured out of them. We created a list of things we knew for sure and things we had better find out. “But what about this”? I asked, putting the ancient letter on the visualiser. It made no sense.

This day the 31st January 1539

“Our Dearest Friend,

Snowy trees overhang near Ely. Its simple drooping elegance arcs divine. Flying larks enter evening with everlasting, heavenly, angelic voices ere swooping and floating, endlessly pleasing. Long are Christmas eves, toasty hearths, even keen incensed nights gone. So may enter none who insist lying lazily, complaining of moods eternally saddened or morose. All kin, even horrors, are sleeping tonight entertained by ever snowy, wild in freedom trees.

M and C”.

First of all the children looked for clues in the text:-

“Angels, horrors sleeping….has someone died?”

“Maybe the trees are telling him that he is going to be hanged?”

“Maybe it’s in code”

In teams they try to work out what the code might be. And one team hits upon using all the first letters of the words. “Stone is dead. Flee. We have safe place. The King’s Men Will Come. So make haste, be swift.”

Over a number of days, the children and their teacher explore the situation together, building both knowledge – who is Stone, how did he die and why? What were the differences between a protestant and catholic church? How has the Church of England affected who we are as a country today? And they worked on their imaginations – so why did our priest die in the hole, what happened to M and C – why did no-one come for him? They create a house, a coat of arms, a history of the relationships between these characters. The priest, the teacher names as Father Catesby – a nod to the future gunpowder plotter – the children name Lady Catherine Leigh and deduce that she must have been arrested. They write fearful and heart wrenching diary entries from the priest and they explore why and how the Church of England was established. By the time I go back, they’re pretty clued up.

Today, we wanted to explore the situation from the point of the king, but also to round off our little story. I told them that we were going to imagine that we could bring back a witness – a maid of the Lady Catherine to cast light on what had happened. They had to think of questions to ask her. In role, I became the maid. They probed into her background and asked what had happened to Lady Leigh. They discovered that her son had fled to Spain and that she was being held prisoner in the tower on suspicion of assisting his departure and hiding a priest. The maid told them that there was no evidence of this – that the house had been turned over and that “poor father Catesby seems to have disappeared – no-one has seen him for over two weeks.” At that point, the children, somewhat exasperated, shouted out that the priest was in the house and that if he’d been there for two weeks, he was probably dead by now. The maid was shocked. So shocked we came out of role.

“We must send her back to the past” I said “What do you think she will do and what will the consequences of her actions be?”

They create short scenes with no more than ten words in them.

Some choose for her to return to the priest hole and give the priest a proper Christian burial. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. Rest in Peace.”

Some find the priest half alive “Water” he gasps “Miracle” she replies.

Some show the maid being arrested as King’s spies see her. “in the name of the King we arrest you – traitor”

Some show her weeping as her Lady is tried for treason, knowing that she led the Kings men to the evidence

No-one leaves the priest where he is. Why?

“Because even if there is the tiniest chance that he might be alive, she has to try to save him.”

“Because he deserves to be buried.”

We create a moral continuum. Is it right to open the priest hole? All bar one child stands at the Yes end. He alone stands at No. Why?

“Because he is probably dead, but if she leads the King’s men to the hole, her Lady will die and she might as well. One death is better than three.”

I ask the others “knowing what might happen, and thinking that this is still the right thing to do, how many of you think you would be brave enough to do it?”

Half of them move away. They know it’s right, but they recognise that it would be a hard thing to do. “What did she do?”

“We don’t know.”

“You do.”

” She didn’t go back – or we wouldn’t have found the body.”

We return to our ongoing role on the wall profiles of the King and add new information and questions. On an opinion continuum they stand in judgement of him and they think he is bad. The hanging, drawing and quartering of John Stone and other Catholics is their evidence. They also think he is cruel to divorce his wife and foolish to upset the Pope. So we decide to question the king.

“Who,” I ask, “would have enough power and protection to challenge the King”?

“The Pope.”

“Would he come himself?”

“No – he’ll send his people.”

“Which people?”

The children discuss – they decide he will send Spanish delegates – the Spanish king is angered by Henry’s decision to divorce his aunt. He is loyal to the Pope, but they know that both he and Henry might need each other in the future. The Spanish King’s delegation will be safe to question the king. So we begin.

They quiz me about my choices, my feelings for Catherine and for Anne. They want to know why I am so fat! (A king can’t be seen to turn down food – rumours might start that he is unwell and he cannot admit weakness. And anyway, weight is a sign of wealth). The king speaks of his fears for the security of the throne. His sorrow at the loss of his children. His hopes for a male heir. He outlines for the children that a secure line makes for a secure country – he will not risk civil war or destabilise the country. This is an act of sacrifice for England. “Why”, they blurt out, “Do you put people’s heads on sticks outside the Tower of London?” “Because if they were on the floor, no-one would see them would they?” They supress their giggles.

When he is gone, they look at their role on the wall profiles again and add new comments:-

“It was hard to be King – you had a lot of things to worry about.”

“He was cruel but did it for some good reasons”

“I still think he is bad.”

“It’s complicated”

“It’ll be a long time before the Spanish trust him again.”

And the morning is over. I put on my wizard hat and go to play with Year 3. And I can’t wait to go back for more. Tell me this is not knowledge based learning. That it is not memorable and meaningful. I dare you :p

When you know it’s time to go.

I’m leaving my job. Not right away – I’d never leave children half way through an academic year – but I’ll be off in July. I think back to the post I wrote on teaching forever and I blush with the charge of hypocrisy, though, to be fair, after 21 years I think I’ve probably earned the right to say I did my bit. And hopefully I will continue to do more bits, but not again, I don’t think as a full time teacher in a school. So why? Well, it’s complicated.

It’s not because of the kids…

But they’re not easy. Last week one pushed me pretty hard and told me to fuck off. He’s vulnerable and floundering. We used restorative justice to talk through the situation and I got one of the most heartfelt apologies I’ve ever had. He beams at me in the corridor now. I’m not leaving because of him. In fact, thinking of leaving him makes my heart hurt a little. But I won’t miss all that constant low level disrespect from children whose parents have instilled in them a feeling that teachers are not worthy of their attention. Is that a child’s fault? No – I don’t think so. We see a downward push from the top – where the image of a lazy blob of failing, scruffy teachers is pushed onto parents’ breakfast plates by those hoping to win votes and sell papers. If we want to look for blame for the attitudes of some of the young people in our classrooms, look no further than the words of those in charge of education. They need to run round a field and write some lines themselves. “I must not undermine the authority of the profession I am expecting to educate our children – no matter how popular it makes me”. So no, I’m not leaving because of the kids. And certainly not because of the hundreds who make my days full of surprise and joy.

I’m not leaving because of my SMT

They are lovely people, working hard under difficult circumstances and I’m fond of them and will miss them. But they are under such pressure to maintain targets that I constantly feel I have to compromise my integrity to do my job. I know that learning is not linear, that our data is a farce, but to show willing, I spend hours putting the meaningless drivel into computers so that all looks well. I know that the way to improve teaching and learning is not through Mocksteds, but through close collaboration between colleagues, networking and sharing good practice in a supportive, formative and developmental process. But I smile wearily as yet another HMI consultant is wheeled into my classroom and wish I could have spent his fee on something that might have an impact.

I’m not leaving because of Ofsted

If we all refused to play the ‘prep for Ofsted’ game, there would be no threat from Ofsted would there? They’d see us as we are and if the way we were was focused on the very best provision for children, then it would not matter what any external visitor thought. I think we only have ourselves to blame for the madness that results in building an entire school culture around a two day visit every four years.

I’m not leaving because I’ve had a better offer

I’ve had no offers, though I know they will come. But better than what? Being with children? There is no better offer than that. And here’s the rub. Sometimes, I get to work with children in situations where there are no targets, no inspectors, no data – I work in a primary school on Fridays where we are simply focusing on making the learning deep and meaningful and every second is a joy. The head has given me carte blanche to be creative and we’re having so much fun as a little team of teachers, it seems wrong to call it work. And then a few times a year, I get to go to work with children from all around the world with the International Schools Theatre Association and for three days at a time, we unite and create some of the most extraordinarily moving work I’ve ever had the pleasure to be involved with. I always return with a fire in my belly and my teaching flies.

So…

When my Head teacher (rightly) pointed out that perhaps I had taken on too much and needed to choose what to focus on, I thought long and hard. When I take out the data monitoring, admin, emailing, meeting, monitoring of my work, what’s left is teaching. I know what works for my children, based on my authentic teacher self and realise that every day I compromise that self to meet someone else’s agenda. Ten years ago, I could produce some of the best results in the country and how I taught was entirely up to me. That is no longer the case. I see colleagues destroyed by judgements that I know to be false based on an unreliable process. I see children channelled into becoming automatons, devoid of life and hope, sitting listlessly asking ‘just tell me what I need for the exam’ and I want to weep. I stand in the biome at the Eden Project with 140 children singing their hearts out for a better world and I almost cry at the thought of the world they return to on Monday morning. It’s not good enough. We are failing them. I am failing them. And if I have to step outside of the system for a little while in order to shout for change, I will. That’s why I am leaving.

When Lies are Lovely

I’m really lucky this term. On Fridays I am working in a primary school. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching secondary too – but primaries are brimful of a joy that is hard to achieve in a larger environment buzzing with hormones. So I’ve been having a jolly time working with Years 3 and 5.

Some weeks ago, there was a spat on twitter about role play in which it was described as lying to children. Having just spent several weeks telling my youngest that the red light on our alarm censor was Santa’s CCTV camera, I was pulled up very much as a liar. But I justified it because for a few weeks, he went to bed when asked and brushed his scummy teeth. Ends justified the means. But is it ok to lie to children in school?

Well, if you’re skilled at using role play, your really don’t have to. Starting sentences with ‘can we agree that this represents’ or ‘we’re building a story today…’ or ‘if’ mitigates the possibility that children might be conned. There was once an awful example of a school in Blackburn where children were taken into a room while staff let off fireworks outside. The head told the children that WW3 had broken out. And unsurprisingly, the children were very upset. That’s pretty stupid in my book. But to use fiction to entice, to stimulate, to (shock, horror) engage children in learning? That’s just a good thing to do. So….

Year 3 have been pupils in a school for wizards. When they put on their wizard hats, they are wizards. When they take them off, they are human beings. They seem to have grasped this concept well. They are learning science. And in the next few weeks, they’ll be learning about the human body and brain. They think it’s funny that we pretend not to be human when we’re wizards, but it’s been a useful device. On Friday, I told them that we’d be looking at ‘muggle’ brains soon.

“Is that offensive to humans?” asked their class teacher – seeding our planted question. Off we went into a discussion about whether or not we should call people who are different to us names. The children, working in a multi-cultural school, were sensitive to and aware of the many ways their cultures were described by others. No, they decided, it is not OK to call humans ‘muggles’. It might offend.

We continued, in our lab to dissect a ‘wizard brain’. Of course, the children knew it was made of jelly and strawberry shoestrings and jelly worms and lots of glitter inside a hard boiled egg. But they suspended their disbelief and conducted investigations nevertheless. Here are some of their findings presented back to the class:-

” At the top of the brain, there is this hard sparkly section. It has to be hard so that all the magic in a wizard’s brain doesn’t escape and cause problems.”

“This red section is what makes a wizard brave. When danger is near, these (the strawberry shoelaces) are connections carrying messages around the brain and the wizard’s brave brain starts to work so he can think properly.”

“This green section is where all the learning is stored – when a wizard is born, there is no green section, he has to build it up so that he learns how to do magic – it’s hard building up the green section, they have to spend ten years in school, working hard to get it.”

“This section (the hard boiled egg, filled with glitter) is what a wizard is born with. The glitter inside is all the potential that he has so that when he has learned and got brave, all that magic can come out and be used for something good”

Me: Are all wizards born with the same potential

Children: “yes, but they have to work hard to get it out.”

Now I know this is playful – fun, some might say, but I have a load of material to build on now, because when we look at the human brain, we are going to be talking about growth mindsets, potential and resilience a lot. The children have already decided for themselves that these are important. They’ve made my job easy. What a lovely lie.