Monthly Archives: January 2013

This is a bit of a must read.

The random musings of iesha small...

“Britain was a society run mostly by cliques and groups of friends who had first met at public schools and Oxbridge.  Public school education remained the key for anyone hoping to make a career in the City, the civil service or the higher echelons of the army. Schools such as Eaton, Harrow and Winchester might educate only some 5 per cent of the population but the still provided the majority of political leaders, including many of the cabinet” – A History of Modern Britan. A.Marr

The above describes a Britain of the past, 1945, to be exact.  Mired in tradition and social inequity and trying to create a new identity in the aftermath of two recent, devastating wars.  However, as I sit writing this post in a Britain 70+ years later, I wonder just how much has really changed?

This post is my response to the #blogsync initiative, with this…

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Punctuation for meaning

Could we improve children’s understanding of punctuation by making a more explicit link between punctuation and meaning right from the start of the learning to read process?

NC English wordle

I’m going to share a poem that I encountered many years ago (top infants, as it happens; I’m in my early 40’s now).

One day when I was feeling sick,
I paid a call on Dr. Nick,
Now Doctor Nicholas said to me:
“You must use hair oil in your tea,
Put plenty of sugar in your ears,
Use cotton wool when the weather clears,
Take country walks when you go to bed,
Use feather pillows on your bread,
Use butter for your daily dip,
Good soap and water you should sip,
This tonic for you I will prescribe,
And if you do as I describe,
Rarely, if ever, will you feel sick.”
“Oh thank you! Thank you, Dr. Nick!”
I took my coat I went my ways
And I’ve been healthy all my days
I’ve followed the doctor’s words to the letter
To tell the truth I’ve never felt better.

I’ve tried to find the author of the poem, but to no avail. All I know is that appeared in an British reading scheme book. It was paired with an article about the loss of an American space rocket on launch, because of an erroneous hyphen in the launch programme code.

I do have a good memory, I suppose, because the poem has stuck with me. What I love about it, as the sharp-eyed reader has already spotted, is the way that shuffling some of that punctuation actually renders Dr. Nick’s advice fairly sensible, if of questionable medical benefit.

Paired with the space article, they made concrete the idea that punctuation itself is often the final arbiter of meaning. You put that comma there, your sentence now means something a little, or a lot different. This is a point which is often overlooked during the process of teaching pupils to punctuate. I think that there may be a sound reason for this. As they learn to read, children encounter punctuation in the texts they are learning from. Generally this will happen substantially before children are dealing with punctuation in their own writing. In this context, it makes sense to teach punctuation from a reading-focussed perspective. In reality, I suspect common practice reinforces the idea that punctuation’s purpose is as an aid to the reader, rather than an aid to allow the writer to convey meaning more effectively. Yes, I’m thinking of the dreaded “small breaths at commas, bigger breaths at fullstops” habit. Worse still I’m-thinking-of-the-teacher-reading-a-text-without-expression-pause-or-modulation-and-certainly-without-any-nod-to-any-kind-of-punctuation-to-try-to-show-what-writing-without-punctuation-sounds-like. I’m sure we’ve all done it at some point!

The corollary of this is that by the time children encounter punctuation as writers, many of them still have a preconceived idea of the main purpose of punctuation, which is not often enough debunked. By the time they start using “more ambitious” punctuation, many children will take an approach that treats punctuation as little more than cake decoration, chucking in exclamation marks as though they are going out of fashion, not daring to use anything as mundane as a full-stop.

The wordle at the top of these page is made from the full text of the UK National Curriculum document for English Trying to find the word punctuation in there is a little like “Where’s Wally?” That’s “Where’s Waldo? for my American readers.

I’m not going to say much more than to repose that opening question:

Could we improve children’s understanding of punctuation by making a more explicit link between punctuation and meaning right from the start of the learning to read process?

The pen is mightier than the sword Part 1

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Handwriting is not dead. Despite reports to the contrary, despite a plethora of technologies for creating text, nothing yet matches the speed and immediacy of a quick note jotted down with a mark-making implement on a scrap of paper.

It’s probably not a stretch to suggest that a handwritten letter or card remains one of the most intimate means of non-verbal communication of thoughts, ideas and feelings. It is certainly true that the majority of students hand write the bulk of their work, at least at primary level. This will likely remain the case for the foreseeable future.

With this in mind, it is frustrating to witness students struggle to master basic ‘stylus skills’ (a non-gendered alternative to ‘penmanship’). In the UK, we are also in the unfortunate situation where handwriting quality has historically counted for only a few percentage points in Y6 English tests.

As with many things that we could do better in schools, a focus on improving handwriting sits comfortably with the concept of marginal gains, beyond the opportunity to clinch a couple of extra test points.

1. The physical act of writing something down makes a stronger memory than typing it. It improves learning

2. Fluent/neat writers are better able to keep pace with their own thoughts. Laborious writers struggle with this, leading to a loss of coherence, or a tendency to use simple, workaday language.

3. The fluent/neat writer generally suffers lower levels of muscle fatigue; they can sustain their effort for longer and produce more writing for a given time increment. How can a student demonstrate their abilities if they are not able to produce an adequate body of work.

4. The fluent/neat writer can create documents that are visually pleasing in and of themselves. Laborious writers can obviously see the gulf between such documents and their own, yet lack the skills to produce them.

As with any physically expressed skill, we are all at different points on a continuum, and as with any physically expressed skill, there are almost non of us who could not make improvements. There is no ‘just can’t’ get out clause. It will be difficult. It will take work and a certain amount of dedication, but improvements can be made and should be sought.

This is really a plea for systematic, properly taught, properly supported and properly resourced handwriting teaching for every child. More than this, it’s a plea for non-acceptance of bad handwriting.

This is part one of a two-part post.

Why every teacher should be blogging…

I’m going to throw down a gauntlet. Are you a teacher with access to a computer, tablet or smartphone? Are you blogging? No? Why not? You should be!

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At risk of breaking my question mark key, a couple more questions. How many times a week are you asking children to draft, edit, redraft, pieces of writing, to develop a topic from a few simple ideas into a coherent, well edited piece? How often do you make that demand of yourself? (For clarity, school paperwork doesn’t count!)

The first thing that I’ve found as a newly-enthusiastic blogger is that the more I write, the more ideas I have, and the more I want to write. That’s not in itself any kind of quality control; you should see my drafts folder. What it has achieved is to ensure that fresh ideas are not a prerequisite when the o’clock ticks round to ‘writing time’.

This next realisation took a little longer, but I think it’s key. It’s also at the heart of the (good natured) challenge that was set in the opening sentence. I can feel my writing skill improving, even after only a short time, which I attribute almost entirely to the fact that I am writing for an audience. It’s the simple difference between writing for private consumption and opening yourself up to others’ judgement. That potential makes me think much harder about each sentence:

1. Does it communicate what I intend?
2. Is it grammatically correct and properly spelled?
3. Is it reasonably elegantly and economically rendered?
4. Am I still satisfied when I read it 24 hours later?

Simply by addressing the four questions above, I am gaining emotional and analytical insights into the process of writing, and discovering that it takes a certain amount of persistence, a fair amount of effort, and a liberal splash of honest self-critcism. Is there any better platform from which to teach our students to do the same with their writing? The fact that you also get to be a writing role-model is a bonus.

Yes, it’ll make demands on your already over stretched daily schedule, but come on! Can you really not commit just a few minutes a day to making the first steps? If nothing else, when you do get round to writing that epic work in your chosen œvre, you’ll have done at least a little bit of the donkey work!

So there you go. My aspiration for 2013; every teacher, a writer.

Follow me on Twitter – @iorekbyrnisson

Rethinking Childhood

New research from the Policy Studies Institute (PSI) shows that only a quarter of English primary school children are allowed to walk to school alone – yet in Germany, three quarters are. It is easy to think that the decline in children’s freedom to play out of doors and get around on their own is an inevitable side effect of modern life. That is why international comparisons are so valuable: they can show us how things might be different.

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Some thoughts on mindfulness

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If you haven’t encountered the concept, mindfulness is essentially a set of thought-techniques and attitudes which can, through practise and application, help the practitioner develop a sense of calm focus.

In many ways, it sits at the opposite end of the thought spectrum to multi-tasking. It’s all about finding a way to shut out the chatter of competing demands and applying yourself fully and wholeheartedly to the task at hand, physically and mentally. It recognises that even when physical distractions, say kids, are absent, our minds can themselves be hugely distracting.

Many time management philosophies encourage prioritisation based on hierarchies of perceived importance and urgency. This is all well and good, but it often means that a huge backlog of low urgency stuff accumulates. This can be stressful. Alternatively, it can lead to a situation where conflicts arise between big important things (lesson-planning, marking) and mundane but necessary stuff (ironing shirts, washing up and feeding your kids).

Applying a mindfulness based approach to the same competing demands can be a revelation. Using the example above, the mindful individual will be focussed entirely on washing the dishes or on feeding the kids, and mentally being in that moment. They will not be feeding the kids whilst silently mulling over what to teach tomorrow. As they wash the dishes, they will be thinking of nothing deeper than the act of washing the dishes.

In doing so, the mundane can become less onerous, even enjoyable, your mind gets a break and when you shift your mindful attention to those big, important tasks, it will be without the baggage of having spent dinner time fretting about things that you were not in a position to do anything about. A clear mind can work wonders.

Blimey!

You Are Here. Just think about that.

You Are Here. Just think about that.

The number of people who’ve stopped by this blog over the last couple of days is quite overwhelming. At least for me; maybe my bar is set low, but to write something and then have a few dozen people make the choice to read it is quite humbling and strangely exhilerating. Thank you all for making me a happy polar bear!

Most people’s blogs seem, early on, to incorporate some form of objective, core purpose or otherwise. I’m inclined to do likewise, not least of all because I’m still in the very early days of blogging and my objectives are presently a little unfocussed.

Definitely it feels good to write. Writing can lend clarity to thought-processes, demanding that you re-shape, add definition, texture, shade, but more importantly, to establish meaning. To create sense. That, if anything is my present purpose.

If you haven’t read my first posting, I outlined my determination to approach life differently. This too is a work in progress; entrenched bad habits can be very hard to break, but I have come to view bad habits are the biggest barrier to individual human potentiality. This is a theme that I will most certainly explore, because there are so many examples of bad-habits that ingrain themselves in all areas of life, causing problems along the way.

I imagine that most of the postings will be connected to education indirectly or directly, but please bear with me if future posts deviate into non-educational territory. To further set out my stall, I should also add that the title ‘Carping From The Sidelines’ is tongue in cheek! I can grumble with the best of them, but part of thinking differently is my attempt to give up, or at least minimise, grumbling. It generally doesn’t help much, and doesn’t remedy things, so it strikes me as a waste of effort. Unless you really have something to grumble about! At the same time, that doesn’t mean I’m going to judge others if they choose to grumble.

Biographical:

  • My favourite books are Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and Patrick O’Brien’s Master & Commander Series, The Aubrey Maturin novels. Clearly, I’m a bit of a Phillip Pullman Fan too.
  • I love everything to do with space exploration and astronomy.
  • I’m an internet user since 1994.
  • My favourite crisps are cheese & onion.
  • I routinely infuriate & exasperate my wife and kids.
  • The beauty & brilliance of the universe makes my head spin. It is a privilege to be alive here & now.
  • I’m presently to be found on twitter as @IorekByrnisson.