Friday, 3 June 2016

Learning to study...

Over the past ten months I've been working with DK Publishing as a consultant on their new book, 'Help Your Kids with Study Skills'...

I should make it clear before I go further that I am not here to sell the book, I will make no profit from sales - my school received a payment for the hours I put in to the development of the book (the equivalent of supply cover costs) but that is all.

I have now had a look at the final copy and I do think it is a really good piece of work. I think it will prove to be a useful guide for parents and carers, form tutors, mentors and learning support teachers in terms of the overarching skills a young person requires as they reach the increasingly academic pressure-zones of Key Stage 4 and 5. It might also be something that would guide a Year 9 'Preparing for GCSEs' programme.

What I like about the book is that it is visual in its presentation which is good for the current generation of internet-minded readers. I am also really pleased that it takes seriously the emotional and social aspects of learning. These were priorities I pursued as I was sent page after page of briefs and drafts. I think the editor and authors have done a great job.

On a personal note, contributing to this project was an entirely new experience for me. I was contacted out-of-the-blue by DK Publishing after one of their senior editors, Carron Brown, had noticed my own attempts at study skills resources on TES. These attempts were a response to the fact I could find no 'school ready' books / materials on study skills out there to really direct and shape my tutor slots. 

I realise TES has now taken on a 'teachers pay teachers' aspect, a model which appears to be successful in the United States, but I have resisted moving over to this. This resistance is partly because I am naturally sceptical of commerce creeping too much into the teaching profession and partly because it is a minefield in terms of copyright and the taxman (read this blog post for more info). 

When teachers ask why I share my resources so extensively, I would say that it was initially simply 'just something I did' - an extension of my previous involvement in TES forums where teachers would habitually exchange resources by post. For my part, it usually involved me getting sent resources by more experienced colleagues, as I started out a newly qualified teacher.

One of my earliest memories of the benefits of resource-sharing was on taking over on a temporary contract from a History and Geography teacher, after he had been awarded a sabbatical as part of a government scheme in the early 2000s. I remember quite vividly helping him with his boxes into the car, as he explained he was 'off to do some research... and sitting in the garden'. There was a Zen-like air of calm about him which, in hindsight, was probably more relief than anything... What ensued was me trying to get to grips with some very rowdy classes, and with very limited experience in geography to boot - cue an SOS call on the TES forums!

In recent years, I have gained added motivation to share resources due to the encouraging emails from colleagues (new and old) who are taking things I have created, developing them further and putting them to good use - and the fact it brings along with it new opportunities such as this. I would certainly recommend teachers getting 'out there' online for these reasons - to borrow a well-known phrase...

Monday, 11 April 2016

It's been a while...

This is a quick update to let viewers know I am still online (mainly via my Facebook page), still teaching, still creating and sharing resources (mainly via TES), still working with students with special educational needs...

I even got a mention some months ago in the national press (no invites to 'Celebrity Big Brother' yet though). Oscar Quine, a journalist writing for The Independent, visited the Pendlebury Centre during the Autumn term as part of research into pupil referral units and alternative provisions judged to be 'outstanding'. In turn he wrote this article:

I am pleased Oscar Quine draws attention to the fact 24% of PRUs are judged 'outstanding' by Ofsted compared to 11% of mainstream provisions. As much as I think Ofsted judgements are simply one measure, and in an ideal world shouldn't be viewed as the be-all and end-all, I hope it goes some way to challenging stereotypes that these places are 'youth clubs' rather than important educational provisions. 

Such stereotypes are quite widespread and I even had one friend once question whether I was a 'real teacher' because I worked in such a setting. There are more positive responses but again, they tend to stereotype all the same. Usually when I tell people I work in a Pupil Referral Unit (and when they look puzzled, then go on to explain it's a specialist provision), the response is one of admiration tinged with the 'problem kids' fear - "oh, it must be so tough working with them kids..." I'm sure as they say this, in their mind's eye, the daily scenario being played out is not far from this:

From the film, 'Clockwork Mice' (1995)

The truth is it's not like this. The way I describe behaviour in a PRU when asked is that it is in fact ordinarily much calmer than most mainstream schools (this is deliberate, as many of our students have sensory sensitivity) - but the speed with which students become stressed is much faster and the way students then express their state of distress can be, occasionally, more extreme.

The truth also is, yes, the students I work with do come from complex backgrounds - sometimes it feels like you are 'wading through darkness' as you unpick particular situations. But again, most pastoral staff in mainstream schools will be able to identify at least a dozen students with similar stories. Perhaps the difference in a PRU is the intensity.

To work in a PRU, you definitely need a level of emotional literacy and resilience matched with a sense of perspective, a sense of humour and a sense of mission - it's not a job you can ever just show up to and go through the motions (which teaching job is?). But to speak plainly, in a well-led provision, the job is not any harder than mainstream teaching.

Oscar Quine observed my lesson and noted in particular the lack of behaviour issues - which he puts down to my ability to engage the students. This is high praise, I guess, from an outsider and somebody clearly skilled (as a journalist) in observing people and situations. But this should not be judged as a reflection of my individual skill as an entertainer or enforcer - what it in fact reflects is the wider culture of our alternative provision. 

I have worked in a number of 'behaviour provisions' (I hate that term but we'll go with it) and at the Pendlebury Centre, there is a lot of 'background work' to ensure teachers and students have the right platform in which learning can take place. There is not really a magical formula I can list but, for me, the key features that make our particular PRU work include:

> There is a focus on Social, Emotional and Mental Health Needs (SEMH) rather than Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties (SEBD) - this shift in terminology has taken place nationally now but at the Pendlebury Centre, it has been an real and ever-present ethos for the past twenty or so years. Recently, it has manifested in a significant investment in the Duke of Edinburgh Award, with a view to providing opportunity for students to achieve a well-respected alternative award for their CVs but, crucially, also with a view to actively broadening horizons and building resilience (see here for a good report on this aspect of education).

> There is a well-kept balance around 'behaviour management'. There is a compassionate perspective on 'acting out behaviours' - understanding the individual has an unmet need - alongside an assertive stance that the wider school community requires protection. What this looks like, in practice, is the use of a consistent, graduated and communication-focused behaviour policy. We don't make excuses for unacceptable behaviour but nor do we take a simplistic view that 'these kids just need sorting out' through overly-punitive measures.

> There is a high expectation around achievement and a pressing focus on the future for our students. This involves strong partnerships with mainstream schools, to enable students to access a wider variety of subjects and, wherever possible, keep our students engaged and experienced in 'mainstream life' - because the reality is this is where roughly 95% will eventually end up longer-term. This also involves, in the PRU, a constant focus on learning - from detailed assessment to unpick how our students learn (and identify any underlying difficulties) matched with, as Oscar Quine notes, engaging and productive lessons.

> Finally, there is a strong focus on working with families through multi-agency working - that the job doesn't start and finish at the school door. There is ongoing liaison with CAMHS, social care and other agencies. We also are fortunate to have a very good PCSO. This work is relentless and it has to be, as there are no quick fixes.

What you will note is that these things are in many ways 'common sense' and are not things that cannot be undertaken by a mainstream school - and it's clear from my previous work experiences and through continuing contact with mainstream colleagues, that many mainstream schools are doing this already. It is work that can't always be measured in the way governments would like (see here for a good critique of this) - but those of us working at grassroots level, seeing first-hand the breadth and depth change that can take place in young people, it's a big part of what helps us get up in the morning.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Millionaire status!

I received an email on Friday just gone which took me by surprise - it turns out my resources on TES have now reached over a million downloads. Naturally, I have since wondered, 'Hmmm... if I just had a pound for every download...' - or for that matter, even a penny for every download!

This news of a million downloads certainly makes the days of teachers using the TES forums to get in touch and then posting each other envelopes of resources - as it was back in 2004 / 2005 when I first started sharing resources - feel like a lifetime ago!

Although I haven't updated this blog in terms of actual posts for some time, I do continue to share resources. I've also tended to make more use of my Facebook page to share articles on education I find interesting - please do look it up and give it a 'like'.

I also appreciate the encouraging emails I receive from teachers out there - it is good to know that others are benefitting from my resources. More generally, I think the share and share-alike culture that has developed amongst teachers - still largely non-commercial and altruistic - is something our profession should be proud of.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Revision Time...

I've not given this website any TLC for a while but plan to have a blitz on uploading resources in the summer term, after my students have made it through their GCSE exams.

In the meantime, I recommend the website - 'Get Revising' - to anyone else trying to get Year 11s through this intense period of study. I hasten to add that although the website has a pay-for section, this is not an advert - I simply like the website and the free section seems to be enough.

These revision and coursework planners, a more paper-based resource, might also come in handy over the coming weeks.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Education for Social Justice

This week I had the pleasure of delivering a one hour talk at the University of Manchester as part of the 'Education for Social Justice' Conference. I promised those colleagues attending that I would put the presentation online as soon as I had chance. So here it is:


The presentation can also be freely downloaded here - and viewed with animation here.

One of the questions I was asked by a colleague - which I loved for its simplicity and ability to cut to the heart of the matter - was,

"Do you like working in a Pupil Referral Unit?"

Since leaving my last post as SEN Coordinator in a large Catholic comprehensive, I've been working back in a Pupil Referral Unit setting for nearly 18 months now and so far it has proved to be both an enjoyable and enriching experience. So the answer, in short, is 'yes'.

Life in a PRU has its particular pressure points. A big one, in my role as English teacher, is the task of guiding each student through their GCSEs in a much shorter time.  Another is the constantly changing social dynamics as we take in new referrals whilst at the same time having to let 'fledge' those students we have come to know so well, as they reintegrate back into a mainstream setting.

As the presentation hopefully shows, the common areas of 'social, emotional and mental health needs' I come across, and am challenged by, on a day-to-day basis are:

- Antecedents - The events, developments and situations that have taken place before a young person arrives at our door. This tends to involve family upheaval and/or a bad experience of school (due to a variety of factors). It also involves the emergence of 'in born strengths and weaknesses' - frequently autism, ADHD and/or processing difficulties.

- Attachment - The extent and manner in which a young person can build and maintain relationships with peers and adults - patterns of interaction generally rooted in their early childhood experiences.

- Anxiety - The levels of nervousness, open-mindedness and resilience a young person presents with - having roots in their personality, day-to-day family life and their history, not least their previous school experiences.

Having said this, there are also many plus points of working in a Pupil Referral Unit. In my experience, there is greater opportunity of getting to know your students better in a PRU due to the much smaller cohort compared to mainstream settings. This also goes for the staff you work alongside with, as part of a smaller, more close-knit team - every colleague is known by name and face (and football club affiliation!), rather than having a whole bunch of colleagues who you only connect with via email.

And obviously, there is the lasting sense of fulfilment that comes with seeing students go on to find success in their studies and more generally in life, when so often at first the picture looks bleak. When things go well, we often declare (with tongues firmly in our cheeks) to one another in the staff room, "Welcome to the Miracle Factory!" - but as cheesy as this may sound, often you do find yourself marvelling at the transformation happening before your eyes.

PRUs can sometimes get a bad press but what is heartening, as I found talking with trainee teachers and newly qualified teachers this week, is that there are many young teachers out there gunning to give it a go, wanting to know how they might get a chance to work in this kind of setting with our most vulnerable young people - teachers with a genuine thirst for pursuing social justice through education, not just a career, not just the pursuit of their chosen subject.

I think it has been a tough few years in schools as a whole - largely due to Michael Gove's tenure as Secretary of State for Education - yet it is heartening to see a passion for the fundamentals of the job alive and kicking amongst so many.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Gone Fishing...

The new academic year is nearly upon us, which will be my 13th year of teaching. Hopefully not an unlucky one!

Last year was highly enjoyable, as much as it was challenging. Through my work at the Pendlebury Centre over the past year I feel my eyes have been opened to an aspect of additional needs in schools that had previous existed on the fringes of my awareness and understanding - specifically, mental health difficulties such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders alongside social issues such as child sexual exploitation, childhood bereavement and traumatic family breakdown. I have also gained a greater insight into the potentially disastrous ramifications for young people with autism who do not receive identification and recognition until their final years of schooling.

Of course, all these issues exist outside of a specialist educational environment - as we have seen with Robin Williams, these conditions occur across human life (see the quote below for one of the best responses to his tragic passing). However, a year on at the Pendlebury Centre, I have deepened my understanding greatly of how to spot such  issues and how to try help the young person begin to unpick them in conjunction with families and external agencies (whilst continuing to recognise the limits of my role as an educational professional rather than therapist or psychiatrist). 


As my second year at the Pendlebury Centre beckons, I will see my teaching timetable change quite radically all over again - gone will be subjects like Forest Schools and Food Tech, coming my way are GCSE English and KS3 Humanities. As much as I enjoyed delivering these practical subjects, seeing students learn in a different way and in a different context, I welcome a return to teaching subjects which are my strongest.

I will continue as Assistant Deputy Headteacher, relinquishing control of the PPR project (an early intervention initiative that will move to a neighbouring PRU), but being able to focus more in-depth on SEN and assessing / tracking progress (being the 'data bod' within the centre). 

As a centre, we are also gradually expanding our outreach programme, delivering CPD sessions to colleagues from a variety of settings. This, I feel, is vitally important if we are to help our partners in mainstream schools identify and act on issues that might in turn prevent students having the upheaval etc. of being transferred to a Pupil Referral Unit. The Pendlebury Centre has a new website and we plan to put some of our CPD resources on there.

On top of that I have also bought a house this past year and now have the added pleasure (sometimes pain!) of bringing it up to scratch. This is in addition to an increasing role in a local church community - mainly as a Christian Aid coordinator.

So, as I have switched off this summer and had some extended time to reflect, one of the questions I have asked myself is where does this leave this website? I will continue to upload resources and let followers know via my Twitter feed when I do so, but I also think it's time to declare an indefinite hiatus in my blog posts - or perhaps more accurately, openly accept that for all my best intentions it's just not hitting the priority list and hasn't been for a while.

I had intended to finish blogging with a reflection on working in a Pupil Referral Unit but it turns out there's already a good article on this out there - an interview with Tony Meehan, headteacher at the Latimer Alternative Provision Academy - which says more or less the kind of things I was planning to say.

All that's left is to say thank you again to all those readers who took the time and effort to get in touch. I will still be contactable - just a little less talkative!

Friday, 15 August 2014

A Few Quotes about Depression

Following the news of Robin Williams ending his own life, I've been heartened during this sad time that we have at least had people from all walks of life come out to affirm that depression is a natural, common and should be met with compassionate responses.

I always recall hearing a documentary on the late Kenneth Williams which noted his sheer brilliance as a performer on Radio 4's 'Just a Minute', a show which requires a particular kind of improvised, exuberant wit of which he was a leading light - yet his diaries, published posthumously, revealed he was perpetually tortured with doubt, frustration, resentfulness, loneliness and despair. It struck me that for all Kenneth Williams's eccentricity, his experience of depression behind closed doors seemed fairly typical.

Below are a few of the 'highlights' (for want of a much better term) I have come across this past week.

To the person experiencing depression:

“Depression is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that you have been strong for too long." - Anon

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." - Lao Tzu

"If you’re going through Hell, keep going." - Winston Churchill

"Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies." - Mother Teresa 

“In moments of discouragement, defeat, or even despair, there are always certain things to cling to. Little things usually: remembered laughter, the face of a sleeping child, a tree in the wind … In fact, any reminder of something deeply felt or dearly loved. No man is so poor as not to have many of these small candles. When they are lighted, darkness goes away - and a touch of wonder remains.” - Said to have been found on a gravestone in  Britain

To the person who knows someone with depression:

"If you are the lucky one that doesn’t have depression, the three odd out of four that might not understand it and you meet somebody with depression, the worst thing you can do is say “Come on pull yourself together.” Just imagine that inside of their head they are just as ill as somebody maybe who broke their leg or who has diabetes. You wouldn’t say “Don’t take the insulin.” I mean you really have to believe that this is the real thing. When you hear their negativity or they might be abusive, or whatever you are getting from them, that is their disease talking, it is not them. Because they are still a human being and they will get better probably if they take care, or you help them take care. Now this isn’t catching or you know they can’t work or whatever because part of you is still healthy. But please respect the sick part and treat it like somebody who has really got something. Because it does exist. This isn’t your imagination. As a matter of fact your imagination is really ill. So think of it that way." - Ruby Wax

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn't a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. 

Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.” - Stephen Fry

To the person inclined to judge someone negatively for attempting suicide:

"Have you ever seen news footage of a burning building?

Fire ravages all floors of the building, the fire brigade are trying, trying so hard to rescue those trapped within. But the fire is moving too quickly. People trapped within the building have no escape. I’m sure all of you have seen news footage of someone jumping from a building in this situation. I’m just as sure that the image of it is burned into your head. For most people, something that traumatic is hard to forget. We all know that the people didn’t want to jump. But jumping in that situation was better than facing the fire. They had no choice. 

When you are suicidal, taking that jump is suicide, and the burning building is your whole world. You don’t want to do it. But the world is burning and you’re standing in the window and you look down and you know jumping will stop the pain and you know it’ll hurt people, but damn it! The whole world behind you is burning and jumping is the only way, the plan Z, the thing you swore you’d never do. Yet now, the pain is unbearable, the agony tears through you and there is no escape, no escape, no escape but the window. The fire burning behind is not your fault. It isn’t something within your control. You know it will hurt the people left behind. But jumping is better than facing the fire. You have no choice.

When, and only when, we acknowledge that suicide is not a selfish act will suicide rates fault.

When, and only when, we offer help without judgement will we stop losing loved ones." - Abbey, Life with Bipolar Blog

These are only words, and it hopefully goes without saying that for those suffering from depression, they need much more - however, as the late and great Robin Williams once said;