Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Up late, marking coursework and tinkering with the blog...

...angry at the students who couldn't even be bothered to put the pages of their project in the right order.

..grumpy at spelling mistakes, laziness, students who haven't even used a ruler and a pencil to do their sketches...

...wondering if my recent posts will enchant or bore new readers who come via the Guardian today....

...chatting with M via e-mail...

And he tells me about the shooting at Virginia Tech.

It's remarkable, the way that I now take the 24 hour a day global news stream for granted.

And it's sobering how easily we in Britain identify with American students; feeling much closer to events than the stories that reach us from other parts of the world. We have spent hours and hours soaking up the iconic American College of pop video, date movie and cult TV show... a mythical place to which our teenagers aspire, with its proms and gangs, cheerleading and cliques.

But suddenly it seems alien, a different planet, full of horrors we cannot understand. I may have to tackle ill discipline and mild aggression, but I hope I will never have to live through something like this.

"Schools should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning. When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community." - George Bush

And in a tiny way, even here.
Our thoughts are with you.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Lifehacks for teachers

We teachers are rubbish at sharing ideas. We largely exist in splendid isolation in our classrooms, only mixing with our peers for 'observed lessons' which are fraught, tense occasions as they are usually associated with appraisal or OFSTED. When we do have 'sharing of good practice' INSETs, everyone either wheels out really big ideas that intimidate the hell out of everyone else, or coyly refuse to take part.

It's virtually impossible to share the tiny little tips, ideas and personal lessons we've learned over the years, ideas which help us stay the right side of the line between thriving and surviving.

On the Net, however, there is a home for everything. I have recently discovered the phenomenon of life hack blogs, which seem to be places where IT professionals hold long and detailed discussions on the methods they use to avoid wasting time.

The mother ship seems to be here but my favourite so far is 43 folders. Broadly speaking, the focus on these sites seems to be professionals working on computer-based projects who have a reasonable amount of control over their time.

In contrast, teachers have ruthlessly regimented days, but their weeks follow a highly personal ebb and flow shaped by a timetable which reboots every September. They have 'pots' of free time which can be removed at almost no notice by either a cover lesson or a serious incident which demands immediate attention. But most perversely of all, despite their profoundly structured life, they are completely at the whim of the students, who can constantly and without any warning demand attention; and unlike adult co-workers, you usually can't ask them to make an appointment to see you at a time more suitable for you.

So I am inaugurating a search for teaching life hacks. Any subject - teaching, classroom management, time management, stress management...

To start, here are some things I've picked up from reading the notes on my colleagues' desks.

1) Make small paper slips with the names of everyone in a class. Stick a paper pocket onto the bottom of your register to store them. When asking questions of a class, use the slips to select who will answer each question so the class can see you are making sure everyone gets a turn to answer.

2) When you do the register, ask each student a simple question (e.g. a spelling) after their name.

3) When you say to a class 'You have three minutes to do this brainstorm' use an egg timer. (In fact you can buy egg timers for this purpose but I don't know where from.)

4) If you are using a projected version of a handout you made in MS Word, put the answers in, colour them white and then when you go through them, highlight them with the mouse to reveal them (and then change them back to black.)

5) Instead of writing a 'L' or similar in your mark book when a student is late, write down the number of minutes they are late. It's much more helpful when confronting a student with the problem.

6) Every year most teachers get given a new mark book. And most schools have electronic data stored somewhere, with lists of all students. Yet most teachers spend time copying name lists into their mark books at the beginning of the year! If you are IT literate and want to be benevolent, it's worth investing half an hour or so, copying and pasting the list of names into a spreadsheet. Then experiment with the Row Height setting until you can match the list of names with the lines in the mark book. Then print it out and stick it in. If you can knock up a brief handout explaining the crucial settings, and disseminate it among your colleagues, I promise you'll be appreciated far and wide; people who never normally talk to you will come up to you on the corridor and thank you. Our mark books are 17 on MS Excel; worth a try as a starting point.

7) And finally, I always teach better when I listen to Broadway musicals on the way to work, rather than Radio 4.

Any more for any more?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Blatant plug

I am not a folk music fan, neither is my other half. But after he heard 'Roots' by Show of Hands on Radio 4, he went out and bought their latest album, and we have both become a teeny bit obsessed with the song. Whatever your views on folk singing, I urge you to hop on over here and listen to it (well, the first 1 minute and 30 seconds of it.)

Then peruse the lyrics, which I have to reproduce in full as they are just excellent

Now it's been 25 years or more,
I've roamed this land from shore to shore.
From Tyne to Tame, or Severn to Thames,
From Moor to Vale, from Peak to Fen.
Played in cafes, and pubs and bars,
I've stood in the street with my own guitar.
But I'd be richer than all the rest,
If I had a pound for each request,
For "Duelling Banjos", "American Pie" -- it's enough to make you cry.
"Rule Britannia", or "Swing Lo",
Are they the only songs we English know?

Seed, bud, flower, fruit,
They're never gonna grow without their roots.
Branch, stem, shoots.
They need roots.

After the speeches when the cake's been cut, the disco's over and the bar is shut.
At Christening, Birthday, Wedding or Wake,
What can we sing until the morning breaks?
When the Indian-Asians, Afro-Kelts -- it's in their blood below the belt.
They're playing and dancing all night long,
So what've they got right that we've got wrong?

And the minister said his vision of hell is 3 folk singers in a pub near Wells.
Well I've got a vision of urban sprawl.
It's pubs where no one ever sings at all.
And everyone stares at a great big screen,
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens,
Australian soap, American rap, Estuary English, baseball caps.
And we learn to be ashamed before we walk,
Of the way we look and the way we talk.
Without our stories, or our songs,
How will we know where we come from?
I've lost St George in the Union Jack,
It's my flag too and I want it back!

And then pop to iTunes (or whoever is your chosen purveyor of digital music) and buy it.