Archive for November, 2017


Bleak November

 

Tis the season to be…utterly miserable!

I bloody love Christmas. It’s one of my favourite times of the year and getting to experience it in a school adds something extra special.

However, this time of year I get faced with the same old barrier. It’s bleak November. On the precipice of Christmas season, I just can’t help getting anxious and miserable. I know I’m not alone but for some reason my body just decides it hates this time of year and goes into over-drive. I’m over-anxious, restless, tired and I end up dealing with the same horrible symptoms no matter how much I prepare. I tried to write about it last year, but once I’d finally hauled myself out of the pit I found revisiting it too upsetting. After a tough weekend, I was close to finishing the post I started twelve months ago but, I’ve had a word with myself, and I’m not prepared to dwell. Perhaps one day I’ll publish it but for now I’m off to get cosy, eat chocolate and watch Ab Fab. Message of the week – Put self-care at the top of the list.

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This week blwyddyn un stepped into 2017. That’s right, we have Seesaw.

For those of you unfamiliar, Seesaw is an app designed to make it easier for pupils to share their work with their teacher and their parents. It’s a bit like Facebook for the classroom. I’ve heard whisperings of Seesaw for a few months but it was following a very inspirational ICT course that we, as a staff, decided to bite the digital bullet.

I was nervous at first. I can be a bit of a technophobe and I’m always cautious of over-complicating matters in the classroom, particularly as one lesson generates so much paperwork and admin already, but I can honestly say after the first week of having it in our classroom, Seesaw is a success.

I started off with a class demonstration on Tuesday morning, taking the time to explain and model how children can access the software. The children were in awe as I told them we were going to start using a very special new app and they were immediately enthused when they saw how easy it was to use. Seesaw works by scanning a QR code, which I’d placed in several spots around the classroom to ease congestion. The children can then select their name and add a photograph of their work to their own personal profile. This is automatically shared with the teacher, who can approve posts for those already panicking. A notification can also be sent to a parent’s device once their child uploads a piece of work. There’s also an option to annotate with a caption or recording, giving the children a change to explain their work.

It’s not just a great way of sharing work between student-teacher-parent, but it’s also a good form of reflection and evaluation. We’ve already found ourselves taking the time at the end of the day to scroll through Seesaw and share the uploads from the day. This then gives the children a chance to talk about their work and discuss how they feel about it. As a teacher, I can also comment on pieces of work, similar to comments on social media, but the voice record feature is a great tool to cut down on marking time, allowing me to make clear reflective comments as I would if the child was standing next to me. Parents can also get involved with this, but as we continue to train the children and ourselves on how to use the app, for the time being Seesaw is only being used in-house.

A huge perk is that it’s simple to use. The children are already familiar with uploading work after just a week of getting to grips with the app. It’s also proving very useful in the challenge areas as the children are able to take pictures of their independent tasks, which I can then see at the end of the day. For example, today I asked them to build animal enclosures in the construction area, thinking carefully about measuring out the areas so they were big enough for the animal. It can be a struggle for me to see all of the children’s challenge area work as I’m often pre-occupied with the focus tasks, but today it was lovely to see the children uploading their work proudly to Seesaw which gave me a change to look at it and appraise after school. The children love it and, although I was tentative at first, I’m already pretty confident that seesaw will have a positive impact on the learning in Blwyddyn Un.

It was the first week back after half term so the usual ‘stepping back on the treadmill’ stuff was happening. Planning, prepping, panicking, etc.

Then on Thursday, I was sent on a course at the last minute. It meant driving through picturesque Wales to Llanrwst, taking part in a drama workshop and, the clincher, a free lunch so, of course, I was on board immediately.

The focus of the course was Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert strategy. Having spent a lot of time researching this particular area of Heathcote’s work as part of my PGCE dissertation, I was really excited to see how a school in Brecon had put the strategy and pedagogy into practice. Mantle of the Expert is all about engaging pupils in a task by adding a sense of theatre. Obviously, this was my jam. After some hands-on examples of how this can be implemented, I certainly left Llanrwst feeling motivated and re-energised. It was a much-welcome boost.

The teachers leading the training were inspirational and it was refreshing to hear their realistic opinions and experiences. These were everyday teachers who experienced the same ups and downs as the rest of us, but were enjoying lots of success after taking a risk with their teaching. ‘Mantle’ involves putting the pupil in charge, whilst the teacher takes more of a directorial role. The pupil is given the freedom to explore and lead their own learning, whist in a role as an ‘expert’. For example, their role could be a leader of an expedition to the Titanic wreckage, or a recruitment agent for a Superhero agency. The trainers shared countless examples of how they have used Mantle in the classroom and I was pleased to see some of the techniques were already being touched on in my class. This term I’ve already asked year one to be wedding planners and party organisers, so I felt like a lot of the ideas shared would fit in with my teaching.

So, on Friday I bounced into class with a new idea. I needed to teach ‘Light and Dark’ to the children and I had an idea of how to introduce it. Using a pop up tent, some leaves and plenty of fabric, I built a cave in the corner of my classroom and set up the laptop to play soft snoring sounds into the class. When the children came in I greeted them with lots of ssssh-ing and gesturing to the cave. Straight away they were in total awe and began questioning what could be inside the cave, all through careful whispers so as not to wake our visitor up. I of course feigned ignorance and conjured up a story of how I’d found this cave when I arrived at school and wanted to wait for the children before I went inside as I wasn’t quite brave enough to risk it alone.

I left them hanging for a bit whilst we carried out our usual morning rituals, then got them all riled up by asking them if they’d like to see what was inside. The answer was, of course, ‘YES!’. So, in my most Olivier-worthy performance, I crept over into the tent and performed my side of a conversation. When I emerged, the children were rapt with interest. I explained that inside the cave was a very friendly bear and the reason he was sleeping was because he had such a terrible night’s rest due to his fear of the dark. The children were very sympathetic and before I could explain further they were suggesting ways we could help. Which is exactly what I wanted them to do. So, following ‘their’ suggestions, we researched light sources on the internet and watched a video clip, dismissing sources which we couldn’t use, such as as the sun or car headlights, and made a list of possibilities. We tested a candle in the classroom, but the children were quick to point out that might not be a safe option for the bear. I then gave the children time to, in groups, test out some objects we’d found in the classroom (some handily placed) by taking them into the cave. If the objects helped them see the bear then they were light sources, but if they didn’t then they were not.

I can’t tell you how excited they were. Most notably, the children who are usually less focused and engaged were fizzing with energy and excitement. One boy was so animated, it was lovely to see him dashing around the classroom and testing things out in the cave, keen to find a solution for the bear. He was also using complex, topic-appropriate language within his investigation. It was fab!

The course trainers had shared how Mantle had not only improved standards of work and behaviour in their school but it had also given the children a sense of value. They knew they were being trusted with their learning so they made sure they didn’t abuse that trust. Differing to our usual Topic-based work, which change termly, Mantles can run for any length of time. In this particular school they stressed the importance of allowing a Mantle to run its course and not feel pressured to squeeze as many in as possible. Some Mantles can last for weeks whilst some can run their natural course in just a few days. It all depends on the children’s responses and the ideas they want to explore.

From my initial experiences with Mantle of the Expert I can already see that it is a powerful tool to enhance learning and self-confidence. After last week’s brief session, I’m going to try to develop the ‘bear cave’ idea to incorporate natural and man-made light, shadows and transparent and opaque materials. It was a huge hit in blwyddyn un and from the responses of the children it is definitely something I’ll be implementing more often in the future.

I’m conscious not to make these posts all about me. I know that that is sort of the point of some blog posts but I do try to steer the content away from myself whenever I can. Trouble is, I am all I know at the moment, so it makes it quite difficult, particularly when I’m in need of a good vent. Blogging is cathartic. Yesterday, I read something that was such a blatant massaging of the writer’s ego that it made me audibly shudder and make noises I was even embarrassed to make in an empty flat. I really hope this blog is never seen as self-indulgent, because that’s not my intention, but for the time being you’ll have to put up with the ramblings about half-written stories, experimental classroom content and rants about EastEnders until my life takes a more adventurous turn.

Anyway, last week was half term. A chance for a much needed recharging of the batteries before it’s full throttle into killer Christmas season (which, of course, I secretly love). By the end of half term my mind was typically racing and I was crawling towards that Friday finish. The problem with this job (and, I’m sure, many other jobs) is that you can never drop the ball. It’s impossible to switch off. I’ve spoken to teachers who say that feeling of unrest doesn’t leave you until well into retirement. You’re constantly feeling like you need to be doing something and the guilt that follows a duvet day is unreal. It’s one thing I’ve struggled with, as I appear to have lost the ability to relax. I was always a bit tightly strung but since starting the PGCE, it’s just been impossible to chill. Even on a Spanish beach, drink in one hand, book in the other, I had to take frequent breaks to go for a walk, check my emails or just do something! It’s relentless. And dangerous. Because, along with every other member of staff and the children, I was ready for a break.

Now for someone who enjoys being active, it’s not necessarily a bad thing (at the moment, but I’m sure in a few years’ time I’ll feel very different). I’m so precious about the time I have ‘off’ that I’ve started making a list of all the things I want to achieve over the holiday (that’s right. I’m setting myself targets. Welcome to the system.) On the list last week was; a blog post, work on a new story, edit an old story and another little project which I’m not going to talk about yet, but have been meaning to do for a long time. All little jobs that I’m sure mean nothing to anyone else but they’re important to me because, as I’ve said before, I’m finding it hard to express myself at this stage in my life, so I wanted to take advantage of the break from work to explore my ideas.

Guess what. Very little of it happened.

It’s frustrating because I know I am to blame. I make the choice. But a contributing factor is the many online distractions. I’ve ranted about the online world before and I don’t want to run at it with a pitchfork because, obviously, it provides a lot of support for people, including myself. It’s bloody hardwork though, when you’ve got an idea, but you can’t quite pin it down because your phone is buzzing, or an email comes through, or you find yourself scrolling through Instagram without even remembering opening the app. I’ve heard interviews about the online world being an addictive space and I believe that is true. I can’t help opening up these apps in the hope that something will interest me or that someone has got in touch, when 9 times out of 10 those things don’t happen. So instead it’s just a big waste of time.  Time where I could have been writing.

I worry that it’s not just my written work that is suffering. I’m craving a book that I can be absorbed into. A world where I can just sink in and forget the real world. I’m a constant reader but, even with something I’m so passionate about, I’ll gladly interrupt my reading to reply to a whatsapp or a snapchat or check my twitter. I hold stories so highly yet I’ll stop to check my phone. What the hell is that all about?

At times I feel like I’m losing the ability to connect. I’ll choose the saddest film, because I want to feel sad. Just to know I’ve felt something. But lately, I’ll find I’m bored after ten minutes and reading old whatsapp messages. I’m desperate for a new TV series that will absorb me and distract me from my smartphone, but after watching introductory episodes of lots of programmes, I just can’t get into anything. I long for the days when I was obsessed with Doctor Who, Torchwood, Lost…..this was about ten years ago when I didn’t have the access to the internet that I have today. I used to just sit and binge and enjoy and feel. I worry that I can’t do that anymore. Nowadays I’m checking Twitter during ad breaks of American Horror Story to see how everyone else feels about the episode. Who cares?

A safe retreat from all this is the theatre. The theatre is different. That is a space where I can immerse myself and I can connect. And, what a coincidence – phones are not permitted.

I’ve heard of people going unplugged and I think there’s a lot to be said for it. It’s a brave thing to do in this era where we’re so dependent on technology but I’m sure it would be good for the mind and the soul. I long for a quiet space, physically or mentally, where I can just sit and think and write and flow, but I’m struggling to see where that would fit into my life at the moment. My goal for next year is to figure it out, express myself and find the time to be unplugged.