National Writing Project Launch, 11th October

The National Writing Project UK launch on the 11th of October saw the inaugural meeting of the first NWP group in Scotland.  Emily Gillies, NQT English at Springburn Academy, reports on the event. Inquiries about NWP Glasgow can be directed to Lisa Hamilton at gw17hamiltonlisa@glow.ea.glasgow.sch.uk . Lisa has written about NWP on here own blog, here .

On Wednesday, October 11th I had the pleasure of attending a National Writing Project UK event at Springburn Academy. The event was a launch for not only the first National Writing Project group in Glasgow but indeed the first in Scotland, and was an exciting opportunity to learn a little bit more about what the National Writing Project does, as well as learning about some practical approaches to teaching creative writing in the classroom. The event was well-attended by a mix of both primary and secondary teachers, and offered opportunities to share good practice and to discuss and reflect upon what we had learned.

Simon Wrigley, one of the co-founders of the National Writing Project UK, opened the workshop by explaining the philosophy behind the project and stressing the importance of creative writing, for both pupils and teachers. We were then asked to think about our own experiences and memories of writing, and encouraged to share these with the other members at our group, which opened up interesting conversations about the emotions associated with writing. We reflected on how these experiences – positive or negative – have influenced our adult relationships with writing, thus highlighting the importance of allowing children to have opportunities to write creatively in an encouraging, positive environment.

We then engaged in a free writing activity, in which we wrote about one of our memories or experiences for five minutes, without stopping to plan, review or edit our writing. These five minutes flew by and afterwards, we were once again encouraged to discuss and reflect upon the activity, with many in my own group describing the experience as “freeing” and “cathartic”. I very much enjoyed this writing technique as it forced me to write without worrying too much about whether it was “good enough”, which I believe is one reason I myself am hesitant to even begin writing in the first place. Many of us found that, once we had started writing, the ideas flowed very easily and the most difficult thing about it was writing quickly enough to get everything down on the page within the allotted time! We were not forced to share our work but simply to read back on it and reflect on the experience of writing itself.

Almost the instant we started reflecting on the free writing activity, I could see how it would be a useful activity to use in class. I have a National 5 class who are very reluctant to begin writing their Personal Writing pieces for their Folio, for numerous reasons, including not knowing where to start when it comes to writing about a personal experience. However, I feel like an activity such as this, where pupils and teachers are all engaged in the writing process together, where there is no pressure on creating the “perfect” piece of work, and where pupils are not forced to share their writing unless they absolutely feel comfortable doing so, is the ideal jumping off point. I will certainly be using this with my National 5 class and have plans to use it as a starter activity in BGE classes as well.

 

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ASLS SChools’ Conference, 2017

Leanne Welsh, SATE’s new local authority representative in Falkirk, reflects on the annual ASLS conference.  You can read Leanne’s excellent blog here.

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Yesterday, I attended The Association for Scottish Literary studies annual Schools Conference in Glasgow.   This conference is a vital resource for teachers wishing to explore Scottish literature and language in the classroom.  I left the event with many new ideas that I plan to use with my classes in order to enhance their understanding of Scotland’s heritage.

Eleanor Ormerod - landscape panelThe day started with Scottish war poetry presented by David Goldie and Rory Watson talking about a new collection edited for the ASLS, From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914-1945.   A poem that stayed with me was Mary Symon’s The Soldiers’ Cairn. This poem would be a great way to explore the impact of war with a class as it represents a different perspective than that of a solider.  The Soldiers’ Cairn is written in the dialect of North East Scotland and I believe this use of dialect helps emphasise the nature of home life and the pride people have for their country.  This can be explored in the first line of the poem ‘Gie me a hill wi’ the heather on’t’ which immediately transports me to the beautiful Scottish hills and the scenery that we have become so familiar with.  However, we soon learn that those bereaved by the war are ‘biggin’ the soldiers’ cairn’ in memory of the loved ones they have lost due to the horrors of war.  The speaker states that the driving force for building this cairn is the heartbreak that the families now feel, and perhaps this cairn will provide a little comfort and bring back the memories of happier times before the soldiers’ deaths.

We also learn that many of the soldiers will be ‘still’ in lands that their relatives will never see; which again highlights the raw emotion in this poem and creates a contrast between the safety of home and the dangers of unknown countries.  The families can only imagine what has happened to their loved ones and this ‘lanely cairn on a hameland hill’ helps them represent the overwhelming love they felt and, to some extent, brings their child back to the familiar scenery of Scotland.

In the final stanza loss is further presented through, ‘But oh, my Bairn, my Bairn’ showing a parent’s worst nightmare: outliving their child.  I believe this also represents the idea that a parent’s need to protect their offspring never diminishes, even when they watch them leave home and live their own life.  Therefore the death of a child, at any age, can never be forgotten.

My experience of war poetry is minimal; however poems like The Soldiers’ Cairn have helped highlight to me that war impacts the families, as well as the soldiers, as they suffer from the moment their child leaves to fight in unknown territories.  One of the speakers mentioned that the 4th stanza may lose the reader as the language becomes more sophisticated; however, I believe this is suitable as it stresses the unpredictable thought-process of an inconsolable parent.  The Soldiers’ Cairn can be accessed here:

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Another key moment for me was looking at the three short stories of James Hogg in The Devil I am Sure.   These stories all have an element of the supernatural and Hogg manages to create a contrast in social classes by exploring characters varying from the smooth educated English to the rough pheasant Scots.  These short stories could definitely be explored with classes and could make a refreshing change for senior pupils writing their critical essay.  Hogg creates stories with the intention of stumping his reader and making them think.  He also explores the quirks of the human mind and the impact differing personalities can have on relationships.   These would be thought-provoking stories to read with a class and I will be reading them all soon to discover their menacing nature.

I enjoyed many other elements of the conference, such as learning about the fiction of Nan Shepherd and the connections between home and the wider world.  Ewan McVicar was also entertaining and discussed ways to use Scottish folksong in the classroom. It was interesting to hear about how to keep folksong tradition alive by asking pupils to add a modern twist in order to make the songs relevant to modern day life. This conference is worthwhile for anyone with an interest in how to explore Scottish literature in the classroom and I will definitely attend it again.

 

 

Press Release on PGDE English Recruitment Shortfall 28.09.17

Full text of press release on falling recruitment of English students to ITE English quoted in The Times 29/9/17.

As the subject association for English and Literacy in Scotland, we always want to feel able to encourage new, young, excited, and exciting teachers to join the profession. Teaching is a fantastic job, and (to be a little partial), English teaching even more so. However, there are many issues in the teaching profession which make it unsurprising to hear that recruitment and training of new teachers has fallen below the required level.

Pay Freeze

When compared with other graduate level jobs teaching is at risk of becoming financially unviable. Although undergraduates in Scotland do not pay fees for their education, increasing numbers of prospective teachers are saddled with large debts incurred from maintenance loans or other loans related to their own education. Alongside other changes since 2010, such as the public sector pay freeze, this means that teaching is increasingly unattractive. The EIS has calculated over the last decade that teachers have seen an effective pay cut of 16%.

Career Progression

Similarly, career progression for teachers is limited and unclear. For the thousands of teachers who wish to remain in the classroom, educating young people to the best of their ability, routes for that excellence to be recognised have disappeared in recent years. The removal of Chartered Teacher status, and Assistant PT positions, means that the limited ‘management track’ – taking teachers out of classrooms – has become the only route for career advancement. Teachers are required by the GTCS to take part in continuing professional development (CPD), but then to remain for up to 50 years at exactly the same point in their school’s hierarchy and pay structure.

Curriculum Reforms

Recent reforms to the curriculum have required teachers to undertake huge amounts of retraining, with no extra time provided. Whilst SATE is broadly in agreement with the aims of Curriculum for Excellence, the implementation has not recognised the workload upon individual classroom teachers, who are expected to be increasingly autonomous within their own classrooms. This ‘expanded professionalism’, modelled on the Finnish system, has not been matched by Finnish levels of funding, wages, or full-duration Master’s-level training and education of teachers.

Workload

Teachers in all subjects work incredibly hard, long days, far in excess of the time for which they are contracted. However, it is no secret that English teaching has a particularly high workload. An SQA-examined Higher English class of around 25 students results in a marking burden totalling over 30,000 words for one intake of folio essays. Each of these essays must receive feedback, suggestions given, returned for redrafting, and be given follow-up feedback. This process must be repeated for the second folio essay, and the dozens of essays and practise exercises which students will write while preparing for their examinations. All of this must be completed within the less than 7 hours a week put aside for planning and correction. For a teacher with at least two classes preparing for examinations, as well as junior classes, this is a daunting, draining prospect.

Stress & Work intensity

English asks students to engage critically on individual projects and ideas, with essays on topics ranging from the political effect of Donald Trump, the trials of social media, environmental destruction, teen depression, to self-harm. It is not only the workload, but the feeling that you are not doing justice to the intelligence and needs of your pupils, that can lead to many considering leaving profession even once they have braved the threshold.

Training

There are also questions to be asked of the training process. The postgraduate diploma course (PGDE) is notoriously difficult, with students having to negotiate Master’s-level study with the work of a classroom teacher and, in most cases, a part time job. In their probationary year, new teachers have been asked to shoulder a greater burden to compensate for staff shortages while being under a potentially stressful level of scrutiny; it is important to remember that in its initial conception, probationer teachers were envisaged as supernumerary staff, and given the space to grow and develop supported by a well-staffed department. Having undertaken two such gruelling years, it is unsurprising that many are exhausted early in their careers, and leave the profession so soon. It is vital that ITE as a two-year experience of supported progression is embraced in a more strategic fashion so that the whole process of becoming a teacher is more attractive.

 

Prospective teachers are the best and brightest among us, with a desire to contribute to society. Many are willing to sacrifice much for undertaking this mission. However, they are well aware of these issues, and many will be wondering whether they can really justify those sacrifices to themselves, and their families.  The recent Scottish Government document ‘Education Governance: Next Steps’ is an important development, adding clearer ‘Teaching’ and ‘Senior Specialist’ tracks for professional progression. However implementation of these recommendations seems to be in the distant future.

Literacy and Well-being: some reactions (1)

Laura Jamison is an NQT based at Lochend Community High School in Glasgow. She recently attended the SATE seminar on literacy and well-being presented by Professor Sue Ellis.

As a NQT at the beginning of my school career, the idea of closing the attainment gap in schools is a daunting task which, at times, seems impossible. Professor Sue Ellis highlighted the fact that social class and poverty have the biggest impact on literacy development in Scotland.  She commented that every child comes to school with a virtual backpack filled with experience but only a handful of students get to unpack the bag. This comment really challenged me as I reflected on the content of my classes and realised the importance of trying to make every lesson relevant to every child. This idea seems impossible but Ellis offered some really simple, practical ways to do this and by the end of the seminar I felt more confident in addressing the issue in school.

Professor Ellis emphasised the importance of encouraging students to read, not just for the purpose of closing the gap, but for enjoyment as well. As English teachers it is all too easy to constantly analyse everything we read and ask questions that we already know the answer to. In reality, this takes much of the enjoyment out of the process of reading for many students. Ellis reminded us that reading is an enjoyable task and we should offer students the chance to read texts that they enjoy, whether that’s a guide to fishing or a Steinbeck novel. If students bring prior knowledge to a text they become an ‘insider’ and their motivation to read and learn more is higher. It gives them ownership of their learning and boosts their confidence as they can bring something to the table before even opening the book.

I think that many English teachers would agree that one of the best parts of our job is being able to share literature that we love with students. The seminar reminded me that some students might not appreciate, or be able to relate to, the same texts as I do and it is our job to make sure that every student feels like an ‘insider’ within their own learning.

 

Reflections on the Autism Friendly Classroom (3)

Elaine Cox, Principal Teacher of Support for Learning at Lourdes Secondary School, gives a reaction to the recent Autism Friendly English classroom seminar from Charlene Tait.

As an English teacher and Principal Teacher of Support for Learning, adverts for courses pop into your inbox or newsfeed on a daily basis, but attendance is often prohibited because of cost or availability of tickets or ability to attend due to the timing of the event.  You often have to look at the content of the course/seminar and justify why it would be appropriate for you to attend said event.

So, when a seminar entitled, ‘The Autism Friendly English Classroom’ popped up on my Facebook feed, a seminar costing less than £20.00 which would need no lengthy conversation about class cover, I couldn’t say no.  And to top it off, the speaker was Charlene Tait from Scottish Autism – enough said.

The event itself was really well organised and practical.  Opening with an outline of different complexities associated with autism and narrowing the focus into the classroom and practical approaches, resources and strategies, the seminar provided the right balance of discussion, pedagogy and exemplification to get me thinking about my own practice and the practice of others.

Following Charlene’s advice, I’ve already ordered one of the books she discussed and am in the process of trying to get my hands on the other one.

I’m already looking forward to the next seminar, one focusing on influence of literacy and language acquisition on wellbeing.

 

 

Reflections on the Autism Friendly English Classroom (2)

Linda Harris, educational consultant and former ITE lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, offers her thoughts on Charlene Tait’s recent seminar for SATE.

Charlene Tait, Director of Autism Practice and Research at Scottish Autism, held her audience spellbound in the recent SATE Seminar, ‘The Autism Friendly English Classroom’. Charlene explained that children with autism are as varied in their behaviours and needs as any other learner and that empathy is the foremost requirement of teachers to help minimise the severe stress suffered by those affected.

Autism is a developmental condition that affects behaviours, communication and information processing. Since the presumption of mainstreaming in 2001, there are increasing numbers of these youngsters in mainstream schools and they can appear chameleon-like in that they modify their behaviours to blend in with their peers. However, stimulation overload can overwhelm them and they can opt out of activities or become so overloaded that their behaviour becomes problematic.

The core features are difficulties in social communication and interaction, social imagination and sensory processing. However, with the sensitive awareness of others, along with augmented and supported communication in some cases, they are able to develop and indeed display remarkable cognitive strengths and intense interests. Their restricted social imagination can lead to what appears as rudeness as they attempt to align themselves to societal norms. In their need for predictability, they attempt to exert control over their environment by incorporating routines in their lives. There is also a high incidence of synaesthesia for these individuals so in hearing a sound, they may experience a colour instead.

Teaching these learners is enhanced by concrete explanations and the frequent use of visual aids. Personal writing is the most accessible type of writing for them as they can describe what they have experienced easier than creating another’s experiences. Other helpful, practical suggestions offered by Charlene include deploying some of the visible thinking and visible learning approaches. (See Project Zero here and the work of John Hattie here) Additionally, these children need processing time of approximately 10 seconds, so we need to be prepared to wait for their responses.

This was an extremely enjoyable evening of learning interwoven with anecdotes and laughter. I am looking forward very much to the next seminar.

Reflections on The Autism Friendly English Classroom (1)

Sudipa De, a PGDE student teacher at the University of Strathclyde, reflects on the recent Autism, Friendly Classroom seminar from Charlene Tate of Scottish Autism.

“It’s like we have big secrets: we are in it, they are not!” to quote Charlene Tait from her recent SATE seminar: The Autism Friendly English Classroom. Trying to understand what others mean and how to behave can be bewildering and stressful for autistic children.  The ideas presented in the seminar demonstrated Charlene’s deep understanding of classroom management with an insight to the world of youngsters under the spectrum with Autism.

As prospective English teachers, the most important attribute we should possess towards people with autism is empathy. Autistic students have a very poor sense of themselves, and need a lot of reassurance and confirmation of their performance. It is our responsibility as educators to support them in having a voice and enable these young people through their journey in life.

Qualitative research shows that the developmental profile of children with autism is rather spiky and inconsistent in comparison to their fellow counterparts. This is a human condition which clearly explains their difficulties with understanding receptive language, processing instructions and poor sequential memory. They are easily prone to distractions and have delayed sensory processing and lack skills in perception. Their developmental differences make them think, feel, view and react to the world differently. Their perspective of the world is very honest, consistent and truthful – and sometimes appears to be rude and arrogant to others!  Often autistic pupils are unable to organize or put limits to their own behaviour or acknowledge the rules of the society. To help us understand such complex issues Charlene advises the use of appropriate language.The language used in the playground with peers is different to the language used in class or with family. Similarly, the language we use in a seminar is different to the language we would use with our colleagues in pubs! Autistic pupils are unable to differentiate it. They struggle to adapt or model their actions and communication according to the demands of the situation.

As we are aiming to achieve successful learning experiences within the classroom environment, we need to shift our thinking from behavioural management of autistic children to stress reduction. It may appear on the exterior that the students are calm, pacified and relaxed. However, the unpredictability of when something different might happen can be very challenging for autistic students. Consequently, they often choose to stay with familiar activities and resist learning new routines. Repetitive, rigid behaviours are signs of stress overwhelming them. Scheduling daily or weekly events lessens the anxiety level and outlines a framework of ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ for them, helping with transitioning independently between activities.

English is difficult for these children and we need to acknowledge it. Pronouns like she, he, you, we, and I, or concepts of positional language can be really difficult to comprehend. To overcome such barriers in understanding, visual representation of the context by sequencing cue cards to build up a story line;  providing a picture/word dictionary would be helpful. Using emotion cards displaying abstract concepts of happiness, fear, remorse, excitement, and anger can help with better understanding of emotions.

A myth prevails that autistic children suffer from lack of imagination. This is not necessarily so .They suffer from contextual blindness, which is their inability to see the wider picture and think logically. As an example, Charlene refers to a scene in the movie Rain Man where Raymond misinterprets the sign “Don’t walk” and stops in the middle of the intersection. His mind doesn’t understand that “Don’t walk” can also mean ‘hurry up’ if he is halfway through the crossing.

For better understanding of novels or drama, films can be helpful sometimes as it helps the students to visualise the characters. Another interesting approach may be to ask them to create or present a paper cut out of the characters they think resembles them best. Graphic representation, creating online work space, use of speech bubbles with basic introductory sentences such as “The author says….” I know this because…”or The illustrator says….”can help in understanding. Charlene directed us to The Autism Tool Box for further practical approaches and practice grids.

Touching on perfectionism Charlene advise us, “be imperfect yourself”, to enable the pupils feel that it is ok to make mistakes! It’s all about modelling the task set to get it right for every child.

My participation in the seminar has consolidated my learning experiences of working with autistic kids over the last four years. Charlene’s relaxed, friendly and interactive approach combined with her video clips of interviews from autistic pupils generated a lot of productive discussions. Our fantastic hosts at Marr College –  despite their other professional commitments – were very welcoming too.