Teach Like You Mean It!

I often see Facebook posts from trainee teachers and NQTs asking how to make particular subjects “exciting”, or looking for a hook to draw them in.

While I agree it’s important that children enjoy learning, I also think it’s important to remember that being exciting is not necessarily the same as being engaging. As the teacher in the classroom, we are the main ingredient in engaging the children and we are more than just the sum of the activities we choose.

I always remember one particular lesson I taught as a trainee teacher. It was Y9 French, and the topic was boring. I racked my brains trying to think of a way to spice it up, to make it more exciting. I couldn’t come up with anything and nor could my mentor. This was before Facebook was as big as it is now, so I couldn’t ask around in any of the teaching groups to get advice from hundreds of teachers around the country. I knew I was doomed. If I thought this topic was boring, there was no way I was going to convince 30 Year 9s otherwise and I was dreading the lesson. The closer it got, the more I was dreading it.

Eventually the time of the lesson arrived. With a sinking feeling in my heart I walked to the door to greet my class. Plastering a smile on my face, I uttered my first words: “Come in. Settle down quickly. I can’t wait to get started – I’ve been looking forward to today’s lesson all week.”

The change in the class was immediately visible. They picked up their heads, slumped shoulders perked up and they sat ready to listen to see what was going to be so good about this lesson. It actually turned into one of the best lessons I taught during my training year. The pupils were engaged. They worked hard and asked pertinent questions. They learnt something new and because they were so willing to commit to the learning process, we also cleared up a couple of misconceptions they already had. My mentor was delighted and I got a really good grading for that lesson. It was then I realised that it was my attitude that made all the difference.

Many years later I was given the topic of electricity to teach in science to year four. It was a topic I’d never taught before, and it was one I’d never really enjoyed learning about at school, so I really wasn’t looking forward to it. So I did what I always do in such situations. I smiled brightly and told them how much fun we were going to have learning about electricity. This became one of my (and their) favourite subjects that year. The children worked so hard and enjoyed it so much that we finished everything on the curriculum ahead of time. We were then able to explore other areas which they chose themselves: how electricity is generated and how it travels from the power station to people’s homes, how a battery works, how the ISS gets its power, and even how a Faraday cage works.

I didn’t have a snazzy title for the topic. I didn’t have a great “hook”. I didn’t even have lots of expensive and exciting resources. What I did have was the ability to fake it until it became true. My advice now to NQTs and trainee teachers is, “Don’t stress about hooks and titles and worrying about whether or not they will find it exciting. Instead, just tell them how much fun it’s going to be – and then teach like you really mean it!

How to Study Smart: 20 Scientific Ways to Learn Faster – Daniel Wong

Most of us have to learn something new at some point in our lives. Thankfully my GCSE, A level and BA days are behind me, but I still like to do short courses and if ever a fairy godmother dropped a fortune in my lap I’d love to do a Masters in the future.

These tips, which I found on the Open2Study Facebook page are for everyone who still has exams to pass. I especially like the one about taking notes with pen and paper, because I always feel more creative with a pen in my hand than a keyboard at my fingertips.

How to Study Smart: 20 Scientific Ways to Learn Faster – Daniel Wong.

When is a test not a test?

It’s amazing what a difference a word makes. Say the word “test” and people fly into a panic: I don’t know it! I can’t remember it! I hate tests!

This year, instead of doing tests at the end of a unit, we have had quizzes instead. Now children are not stupid, and if you just swap the words “quiz” and “test”, they still know it’s a test. So we had real pub-quiz style quizzes. The children wrote their team name (which had to include their own name) at the top of the paper and then huddled their arms round it to stop anybody else copying, and before we started they had to switch off their invisible phones.

I put the questions into rounds and read them out in my best Quizmaster voice. For a bit of extra authenticity I made one of the rounds a picture round…. In fact the only thing we lacked was the chance to play a joker for double points! And at the end I announced the “winners” who won a round of applause from the rest of the class.

The children loved it. In fact if anybody was off sick on the day of the quiz I had to delay announcing the winners, because next lesson the children who had been absent would beg for the chance to sit in the corner quietly and do the quiz on their own!

Did it make the children who didn’t win feel bad? Well, actually – no. Because it was a bit of fun not a test, there was no pressure and I found that even the children who found the subject more difficult did really well in the quizzes. Sometimes they even won!

During lessons they became more willing to admit if they didn’t understand something, so any uncertainties and misconceptions could be dealt with more quickly. They became more willing to take risks because they knew that making mistakes wasn’t a disaster – it was just a step on the road to the learning – and this helped them to learn even more. And the more they learnt the better they did in the end of unit quiz.

At the end of the year the children voted the quizzes the most fun thing they had done in that topic, and as I looked at the class I knew that every single one of them had made more progress than I had imagined possible.

Would this work with every class? I don’t know. What I do know is that for this particular mix of children, turning those end of unit tests into quizzes made the children happy, relaxed and enthusiastic learners.

Of Einstein and Fish

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

This is a quotation, attributed to Albert Einstein, which is repeated over and again all over the internet every time our government makes a proposal about education that some people disagree with. To me, it’s one of life’s little annoyances. Why?

Well, for starters Albert Einstein never actually said it. If you don’t believe me take a few moments to Google it now, and if you find any proof at all that he did, please leave a link in the comments below.

Secondly, it’s untrue. If fish had never climbed trees there would be no tree-dwelling animals now and there would be no humans. We’d all still be swimming round at the bottom of the oceans.

Thirdly, it’s even more untrue. There are actually fish, living today, which can climb trees. Seriously. Google it.

Fourthly, it’s a downright lie. Not everyone is a genius. Most of us aren’t. The ones who are make it into the history books.

And Lastly? It’s just a cop out! It’s a way of absolving ourselves from the responsibility of educating our children.

When I look back over my childhood, there are two types of teachers who stand out. There are the ones who made me believe I could do anything if I tried and who then gave me the confidence to try, and there are those who told me I’d never climb trees because I was a fish. I’ll never forget Mr Holmes, who saw the potential behind the timid little mouse and gave me a speaking part in the school play. I’ll also never forget the music teacher (who I won’t name) who told me that with a voice like mine I really shouldn’t sing, because over 30 years later I can’t even sing along to the radio if I think someone else is within earshot .

Our job as teachers is not to look at our class and sort them into runners, swimmers, fliers and climbers. Our job is to equip every child with shoes, flippers, wings and ropes and to make sure that every single one of them achieves all of the skills to the best of their ability.

Some of them may run marathons and some may never run further than the corner of the road; some may swim the channel and some may just about doggy paddle their way to a 5m badge; some may soar high above the ground and some may only hover a few centimetres from the floor; some might make it to the top of the tree and some may never make it past the first branch. But with the right teaching and encouragement, there is no reason why any child in a mainstream school, and most children in special schools, shouldn’t run and swim and fly and climb.

So you’ll never find me retweeting nonsense about Einstein and fish. Instead you’ll find me in my classroom, helping some of the children build a ladder to reach the first branch and holding a safety net to encourage the others to reach for the top of the tree. Who’s with me?

It’s all about the birds

This was the last week of 30 days wild and we’ve managed a few trips out this week.

Last weekend we went to Hill Hook, which was recommended in an email from the 30 Days Wild team. We had an enjoyable stroll around the lake, and watched a wren fetching and carrying things to build a nest inside some ivy. Later we had a picnic on top of Barr Beacon and watched the swallows. They skimmed along at ground level – coming really close to us. There were a couple of times it seemed as if they were going to crash right into us, but they banked at the last moment and missed us by a few inches. I’ve never been so close to a swallow before but they’re obviously not as timid as I have always assumed them to be.

Another day, I spotted a buzzard sitting on top of the direction sign as we came off the M6. I’ve seen buzzards circling overhead on the motorway many times, and I’ve heard that they can be seen sitting on the road signs, but I’d never seen that myself before. That is definitely my favourite buzzard sighting ever.

I’d never make a serious birdwatcher, because I get just as excited about seeing sparrows as I do about buzzards and swallows. We spent a day in the Cotswolds this week, and had lunch at Hidcote gardens. There were lots of sparrows hopping round under the tables picking up any crumbs that had been dropped by visitors. I think sparrows are really beautiful birds – they remind me of patchwork quilts with all the different colours and patterns woven into their feathers.

We had another day out this week to Poncysyllte, Britain’s highest aqueduct. After walking across the top of it, we strolled down to a nearby bridge to look back at it from below. And there on the bridge was a yellow wagtail. I’ve seen pied wagtails and grey wagtails before, but this was my first yellow one. He was an active little fellow, flitting from the top of the bridge, to a ledge about half way down, down to a rock in the middle of the river, across to a rock on the other side of the river, back up to the top of the bridge, and then off again in the same circle – over and over.

No daytrips today, but I enjoyed watching the power struggle in my back garden. This morning there were several magpies in my garden – taking advantage of the newly-filled bird bath, and pecking at whatever they could find on the lawn. All was peaceful until the squirrel arrived. Usually the squirrels in our garden arrive in twos or threes, but today there was just one, and he wasn’t happy to see the magpies there already. If I was a betting woman, I would have put my money on 4 magpies against one squirrel but the squirrel won. He raced at each one individually until it took flight, and then he charged at the next one. If any of them dared to land back on the lawn, the squirrel ran full-tilt at them until they took flight again. Eventually the magpies gave up and decamped to the next-door-neighbour’s garden. The squirrel didn’t get to lord it over the garden for long though. A big crow landed right in the middle of the garden. The crow eyed the squirrel and the squirrel eyed the crow. The squirrel took a few tentative steps towards the crow, which ruffled it’s feathers and strutted confidently towards the squirrel. The squirrel hesitated for a moment or two, and then scarpered!

I’ve watched quite a lot of different types of creatures over the last 30 days, but this week it’s been all about the birds.

Related posts: It’s all about the winged things, It’s all about the little things, It’s all about the stolen moments