Monthly Archives: February 2014

Looking through the eyes of a child

Whenever I tell anyone I’m using motherhood as an excuse to start writing novels they look at me like I’m bonkers. But you’d be surprised how conducive a new person is to writing about the world.

Firstly, they go an awfully long way to giving you the discipline that’s needed to be a proper writer. It’s remarkably motivating to have a small creature attached to you who could go off at any moment. I know I can rely on about an hour and a half of quiet time, so that’s now how long it takes me to write my 1500 words.

Secondly, and this is actually entirely an addendum of the above, they remind you what’s important. I am at home with my son because I’ve managed to convince myself and those who are close to me that I’m a writer. So if I stop writing… Well, I’d just have to go and get a proper job, and I doubt I’d be able to bring my son along.

The third reason is the one that brings me to this week’s prompt:

‘Seek the wisdom of the ages but look at the world through the eyes of a child’ Ron Wild

I’ve studied writing for forever. I could tell you exactly what you need to do to produce something worthwhile. And yet there are still moments when I am trying to write and I have no idea what I’m doing.

I could think about the accepted wisdom, about the writers whose work I admire. I could think about the theory, about the tricks I know would manipulate my reader. But actually what works better than anything else is to think about my child.

My child, who has no idea of what a cliche is or why you might want to avoid one. My child, who can help me see anew the world which has made me weary over the years. My child, who inspires a fresh approach to the most mundane of experiences.

I spent years as a grown-up trying to conjure the time and the confidence that I needed to write, but it is only since I’ve been a mother that I’ve been able to make that a reality.

The wisdom of the ages has its place in what I do for sure, but it is my son who is my biggest inspiration.

mumturnedmom

Word of the Week: Penguins

Today the word that sums up the week that was is:

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There are many great things about living in Brixham. Getting to see the sea every day is just exhilarating, and especially when the sun is shining just stepping outside the front door can feel like going on holiday. But one of the best things about living in a tourist destination is how many cool things there are to do on our doorstep. And this week we decided to take advantage of one of my favourites.

Living Coasts is a zoo with a difference. It is full of all things watery – from octopuses to otters, from seals to sting rays. We took Arthur when he was smaller, and he was mesmerised watching the sea birds swimming underwater.

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He’s getting much more aware of all the different creatures we share this planet with as he gets older though, so when a friend suggested a visit to Living Coasts this week I jumped at the chance.

We were particularly excited by the prospect of watching the newly-toddling Arthur waddling amongst the penguins, and he didn’t disappoint. In fact he quickly made friends with a 3 month old chick called Kevin.

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He was pretty keen to go and join the rest of the penguins on their beach, but we just about managed to distract him.

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Arthur was generally fascinated by the creatures he saw, especially when he could watch them interacting with humans. The spectacle of the otters being fed with a whistle and a ball on a stick could have kept him transfixed for hours.

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It was definitely the penguins who excited Arthur the most though. We went back to see them having their lunch, and it was all I could do to hold him back as he pointed and shouted out with glee. If it hadn’t have been for the keepers’ warnings that they could nip I would have been tempted to let him go in for a cuddle…

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Despite the lack of penguin cuddles it was a lovely afternoon, and it was a very happy and sleepy little boy who cuddled up to me in the sling for the journey back to Brixham.

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The Reading Residence

Why ‘passivity’ in our learners is most definitely something to be criticised

Some weeks ago now, Michael Wilshaw sent a letter to OFSTED inspectors impressing on them the need to leave out of their reports any comments on how teachers teach, focusing only on the outcomes of said teaching.

This missive has been lauded as a breath of fresh air by teachers, school leaders and unions – a sign that perhaps this Michael at least has some respect left for the professional autonomy of teachers. It has also been welcomed by those who believe that today’s teachers are wedded to ‘trendy Left-wing ideology’, and that it is this that holds our students back from excelling in global league tables.

In this letter, Wilshaw said that ‘on occasions… pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning’ and that inspectors should not ‘criticise passivity’. This struck me as a little odd when I read it, and I touched on my concerns last week in the context of calls for schools to build character and resilience. But his choice of words has been playing on my mind since then, and I just couldn’t let it go without examining the implications of this statement further.

There are several definitions of passive, none of which sit terribly comfortably with me as descriptions of a child in a learning environment. We surely wouldn’t want them to be ‘not active or not participating’ and certainly ‘not working’ would be the opposite of our aims for a school pupil in lesson time. Perhaps there are those who would like young people to be ‘unresisting and receptive to external forces’, but it is my experience that other humans, even little ones, don’t tend to be that malleable without actively engaging in a process themselves.

Looking at synonyms for passive is even more worrying. Do we really want our young people sitting in classrooms to be described as ‘apathetic’, ‘indifferent’ or ‘uninvolved’?

In trying to gauge opinion on this amongst other education professionals, the general consensus seems to be that Wilshaw probably didn’t really mean ‘passive’, at least not in the way that I’ve defined it above. But if that were really the case then why not choose another word? Why pick a word – and then repeat it – which has so many connotations that are the antithesis of what we would like to see going on in our classrooms?

I fear that teachers have been so quick to welcome Wilshaw’s statement because they are desperate for someone in a position of power in education to throw them a lifeline – to tell them it’s ok, I trust you to teach however you like as long as you get the results. I would argue that if that’s the case why are inspectors bothering to go into lessons at all? Why not just look at the results if they don’t care about what’s happening in the classroom? Actually reading further into Wilshaw’s letter there are plenty of pedagogical preferences evident, from what resources teachers are choosing to use in the classroom to how they choose to set homework, but apparently questioning these choices does not ‘infring[e] the professional judgement of teachers’.

To be honest, though, it’s not really the teachers I’m worried about. Ok – there are probably a few who will use Wilshaw’s words as an excuse to make their workload lighter, will stop worrying so much about whether pupils are engaged or not because hey – even the HMCI says it’s ok for them to be passive. But in reality the vast majority of teachers want their students to be engaged and to learn, and they have the skills and professionalism to help them achieve that in a myriad of different ways.

What concerns me is what this acceptance of passivity – or in fact its promotion above more active learning methods if you look at the right wing interpretation – says about this governments aspirations for its young people.

Does it want to nurture a generation who can think for themselves, who can question the status quo, who can come up with new ways to face the world’s problems? Or does it want to create a society who will be easily controlled, accept authority without question, carry forward a canon of knowledge whilst quietly going about their business and being exploited by those in positions of power?

Certainly the tactics used by the Tories so far, from their denigration of the right to strike to their desire to curb peaceful political protests, from Gove’s attempts to falsify information and then rewrite history to hide his tracks to their incredible attempts today to rebrand themselves as the worker’s party, would indicate the latter. As Tony Benn articulates so clearly, ‘a healthy, educated and confident nation is harder to govern‘.

Casual references to passivity being an acceptable mode for the classroom effectively discard decades of educational research aimed at creating empowered and effective citizens to return us to a model of learning whereby the child is an empty vessel waiting to be filled with the superior knowledge of the teacher and of wider society. This is not how I want our world to view young people, either as a teacher or as a parent, and I think we should be very wary of anyone who has such low expectations of our future generations.

Becoming a mum: a birth story

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As it finally begins to sink in that my baby is now well over a year old and fast growing into a little boy, I have been thinking a lot about how much my life has changed over the past fourteen months. This feels even more pertinent at the moment as two good friends are just embarking on this journey: one gave birth in the early hours of Friday morning, and the other is due any day now. I don’t want to forget any of the seismic shifts I’ve gone through this year – neither the joy nor the pain that becoming a mum has brought.

And so with this in mind I’ve decided to put together a little series to document my journey. From birth to breastfeeding, from babywearing to sleep, these posts over the next few weeks will attempt to capture at least some of what Arthur has taught me in the days and nights we’ve spent together so far.

The story begins with an account I wrote in January last year to share my birth experience with my new friends from the NCT course Leigh and I attended in an attempt to prepare ourselves for what was to come. Reading it back now it’s a little clinical in parts, which is ironic as I definitely don’t remember it that way at all. I suspect I was still a little shell-shocked when I wrote it – and considering how exhausted I must have been am just glad I managed to get anything down at all.

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My waters broke in the middle of an extended family outing on the Dartmouth-Paignton steam train at twelve thirty on the afternoon of the 28th December, and contractions started soon afterwards. We were home by about two, and decided that we definitely wanted to stay there if at all possible! The initial call to the midwife was met with a request to stay calm and call back when things were more established – which ended up being less than an hour later as things progressed pretty quickly. The tens machine was great at this stage, and in between pretty intense contractions I managed to wolf down some pasta to give me some energy.

By the time the midwife (Helen) arrived soon after three I was 4cm dilated, progressing to 9cm over the next three hours. I continued to use the tens machine over this time, taking it off to get into the bath – somewhere I’d imagined spending much of my labour – but found that I was actually much happier on dry land. The birthing ball was invaluable as a support for different positions, and there were also periods when I just wanted to sprawl out on my bed – the whole process was pretty exhausting.

About halfway through the first stage I started on the entonox – and that was amazing. It left me very spaced out initially, but really helped ease the pain as things progressed. The second stage started around six thirty, and Helen began trying to get a second midwife. It was a very busy night at Torbay hospital as we later found out, and it was two hours before Rachel, the second midwife, turned up. All in all the pushing stage lasted for about two and a half hours and there were various points when I really didn’t think I could do it, but Leigh and my mum were an amazing support, physically holding me up, pushing and breathing with me and generally keeping me strong. I ended up having to have an episiotomy as things were taking so long and I was at risk of tearing – and literally one minute later, at nine fifteen pm, Arthur arrived weighing 3460g.

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I kept the cord pulsing for a while whilst Leigh and I marveled over this tiny human we’d brought into the world – I’d fully intended to go for a natural third stage, but the contractions were pretty painful and, especially after I realised the entonox had run out, I asked for the syntometrine – which got the placenta out straight away once Leigh had cut the cord.

Then followed a couple of blissed out hours of skin to skin as we got to know our new baby, broken only by the need to stitch up the episiotomy which Helen did under local anaesthetic using Leigh’s head torch and two kitchen chairs for my legs! Helen left at midnight, and we enjoyed a glass of champagne whilst introducing Arthur to his uncles and aunts, grandparents and even his great Grampa who’d all been waiting in the pub getting updates from my mum.

We’ve had a wonderful week and a bit since the birth, spending very little time out of our bedroom which has become overrun with nappies and breast milk. We have had a bit of trouble with getting breastfeeding established, with a stressful couple of visits to the special care baby unit when we found out that Arthur had lost 14% of his birth weight in his first three days – and his weight has been hovering around 3000g since, though he’s otherwise perfectly healthy. We’re now supplementing him with cup feeds of my expressed milk on top of three hourly breast feeds, and have an appointment with the breast feeding consultant tomorrow at Torbay hospital. The likely diagnosis is a posterior tongue tie which is making it very difficult for him to suckle properly. Hopefully if this is the case we can get it sorted quickly as it’s not much fun for any of us at the moment!

Overall the whole experience has been amazing, and we’re now left with this gorgeous little man who we’re falling more in love with every day.

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The Reading Residence

 

Word of the Week: Relief

Today the word that sums up the week that was is:

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Arthur had his final vaccinations in the seemingly never-ending first year cycle this week. Every time he’s had a jab, right from those very first ones when he was eight weeks old, he’s reacted badly. Not the extreme but very rare allergic reactions you read about thank goodness, but still enough to make all of our lives miserable in the aftermath.

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These latest jabs seem to have had a particularly lengthy impact. He had his MMR at the beginning of January: after I voiced my concerns to the nurse about the reactions he’d had previously she suggested that I might like to ask for these ones to be split up, delaying the boosters until his system had a chance to recover from the live MMR vaccine.

I gratefully followed her advice – one of my main concerns has been about the effect of the combination of vaccines on his system  – and I’m glad I did. About a week after the MMR vaccine he developed a cold, which turned into croup (terrifying) for which he was prescribed a course of steroids, after which he developed vomiting and diarrhoea which resulted in him losing almost a kilo in weight. He had an on and off fever for about a month, and a niggling cough which still hasn’t quite gone away – and which has regularly made him retch and vomit over the past six weeks. On the basis that he had no actual fever we went back for the booster jabs this Monday (we’d already delayed them again once), and he then had 48 hours of feeling rotten with new cold symptoms and a fever. Through all of this he wouldn’t accept calpol – the smallest amount makes him vomit, something which is possibly our fault for trying to avoid it entirely in the early months – and was almost permanently attached to the boob.

I would still rather have all of these side effects than the potentially devastating effects of the illnesses he’s been vaccinated against – I am not for one second suggesting that I’d rather we’d skipped the vaccines. But I still can’t help feeling guilty for putting him through all of this – especially as with the most recent jabs he was fully aware of what was going on, pulling against me as we went into the nurses office.

I wish as well that I felt more able to speak openly about vaccination side effects without feeling like I’m promoting the anti-vaccination camp. Neither the nurse nor the doctor I saw whilst Arthur was suffering would really engage in conversation about his symptoms having anything to do with the jabs, even though the only times he’s been ill in his fourteen months have mysteriously coincided with vaccinations. I understand that they need to promote the vaccination programme, especially in the light of all of the damage done by Andrew Wakefield’s unfounded claims about the MMR vaccine. However I’m not sure a ‘one size fits all’ approach is appropriate – and as someone committed to vaccinating my child, I just wish I could have an intelligent conversation with a healthcare professional about my concerns.

Anyway. I’m not going to turn this into a rant. The whole vaccination trauma is over for us – at least for another couple of years – and what I’m left with now that Arthur seems to have recovered is an overwhelming sense of relief.

And on the plus side, this week’s feverish insomnia did bring with it some very cute middle of the night storytelling sessions. I’m strangely relieved to see that breastfeeding and books rather than calpol seem to be my baby’s medicine of choice!

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The Reading Residence

Why all this talk of character and resilience education is totally topsy turvey

In 2007, a new National Curriculum was born. It wasn’t perfect, but as a teacher and leader in Secondary English I liked it.

It was largely skills based, with the scope for teachers to use their professional judgement to build programmes of study which suited their students and their schools. There was lots of potential for cross-curricular work, with signs that we might be able to move away from the subject-shaped boxes that learning was often inefficiently forced into. The arts were promoted both as subjects in their own right and as vehicles for learning elsewhere. And at its heart were the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills (PLTS) which aimed to look beyond the needs of school to set students up for a lifetime of learning, complementing the older initiative of Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL). Fresh creativity was injected into our pedagogical approaches as teachers focused on ways to engage students as active learners in the curriculum. Couple all this with a government who had raised the status of teachers beginning with the ‘Those who can, teach’ campaign back in 2000, and you had an environment that was full of potential and ripe for further development of teaching and learning.

Fast-forward three years to 2010 and the Tories, albeit in coalition, were in power. I remember distinctly the sombre mood amongst the senior leadership team and the rest of the staff at my school as we mourned for the impact this would have on education. We were not wrong: under Gove’s watch, PLTS and SEAL have been scrapped, the arts have seen their funding slashed and have been reduced in status to the extent that they are being sidelined in many schools, speaking and listening has been removed from the sphere of assessment, active learning methods have been denigrated and teachers have been continually undermined and demotivated. All this in favour of an easily quantifiable facts-based curriculum and exam-based assessment that will begin as young as four and continue throughout children’s school career.

And now we have a cross-party group saying ‘there is a growing body of research linking social mobility to social and emotional skills’, that schools must be ‘more than just exam factories’. They call for the ‘requirement to participate in extra-curricular activities [to be] a formal aspect of teacher’s contract of employment’ – something which fits very conveniently with Gove’s plans for an extended school day. Tristram Hunt agrees that ‘instilling [character and resilience] in young people “should not be left to chance”‘, calling for ‘a holistic approach that goes beyond extra-curricular activities and into the classroom’.

But aren’t they all forgetting something?

The only reason we don’t have these so-called ‘soft’ skills at the heart of our curriculum is because Gove ripped them out. All of the aspects of character and resilience that the APPG assert are so important in their manifesto were already embedded in the curriculum through SEAL and PLTS, given life in different forms by schools using the structure of Building Learning Power, the International Baccalaureate Learner Profile or numerous other well-researched and intelligently put together schemes.

Teachers do not need to be told that we need to build character and resilience in our most vulnerable children in order to level the playing field, and, as with so much else, they certainly don’t need the private sector to tell them how to do it. Despite the attacks on their own resilience by an increasingly unsupportive government, it is something they do on a daily basis, both within and beyond the curriculum. In lessons it is something they do through facilitating group work, through encouraging independent learning, through supporting students to set their own goals and structuring the ways in which they can achieve them. It is something that evidences itself particularly strongly in arts subjects – drama or media studies for example – where students work on a creative project for an extended period of time, often far surpassing their own or others’ expectations. Though with the threat to the place of the arts in the curriculum, and without the clarity of purpose offered by PLTS and associated schemes, it’s going to get harder and harder to do all this.

I realise I’m treading dangerously close to the territory of advocating ‘trendy left-wing ideology‘ in the name of a more holistic and human education system. And for that I make no apology. It’s not easy to empower children to take charge of their own learning journeys, even harder to demonstrate to those who do not understand what it is they’re learning in a snapshot of sometimes-rowdy group discussion, but all of my experience as a teacher has taught me that a child-centred approach is one we should aspire to. There is a wealth of research that backs this up, indicating that collaborative learning and actively engaging students in the learning process can be an extremely efficient and effective way to improve achievement. Rarely do I believe there will be a period of twenty minutes in a classroom where students will be ‘rightly passive‘, and I think Wilshaw has started down a very dangerous road by saying passivity is ok.

Whether or not Gove will entertain a further revision of approaches to teaching and learning in schools to embed character and resilience education in the classroom or, more likely, use the APPG’s manifesto as fuel for his drive towards longer school days, I’m finding the lack of joined-up thinking in the world of education policy making frustrating to the extreme.

Being used as a political pawn is destroying our education system. Why throw out a raft of extensively researched and sound initiatives before they’ve had a chance to embed themselves, only to then have to work out how to put back in what you’ve lost? Babies and bathwater come to mind…

In the longer term I definitely believe we need to look towards a way of running our education system that is beyond party political point scoring. But in the meantime, and especially whilst character and resilience education is on the table, I just wish Gove et al would look back in that bathwater to see if there any babies they can nurture back to life without needing to start the whole process from scratch.