Working in a school makes you think about your own school days all the time – the subjects, the teachers, the classmates. Despite the fact it’s 20 years since I did my GCSEs I find lessons are frequently peppered with anecdotes from ‘when I was at school’. It’s not just working in schools of course, nostalgia’s big business and as I type this my Twitter feed’s exploding with suggestions for the best kids’ tv themes (this is what happens when Mr Bennett doesn’t have a researchED to get to of a weekend).
Last week I had an unexpected trip down memory lane as we were watching The Last Leg and all of a sudden I spotted one of my first year uni flatmates (the thrown together by luck-of-the-draw sort) appear in the audience. Right there, grinning with a Australian cork-hat plonked on her head. To be honest it was lovely to see her – and lovely to have the flurry of texting people to confirm it was her. Sometimes things hit you a little bit more than others though.
Michael was in my half of the year from year 7 and part of our friendship group. He went out with one of my best friends for a while, we had various lessons together, I have an official photo of us (and the rest of the Geology boys) at the 6th Form May Ball. In April, having not seen him for 18 years, his face was filling the television. He had been killed.
He was one of those people that is peppered throughout my whole school life. I don’t know what his politics were or where his life took him (apart from what’s been printed in newspapers). I don’t do Facebook or hunt people down and there are very few people I went to school with I’m still in touch with, but the constant little snippets of memories that come with working in a school mean that I realised I think about him a lot. I don’t know who he stayed in touch with but by the few people I’ve spoken to about this with I know there will have been ripples of contemplation and memories across the country – the globe even. But time passes.
Last week I had to cover in science for the morning and it sounds over the top but there was almost something emotional about it. The boys were doing an experiment I’ve done a thousand times using equipment and terminology that’s just ingrained. They needed to be reminded to do things that most of us would probably do automatically. For the rest of the day I was back to thinking about what was. Then this week it was in court and in the news again.
Of course, most of the time it’s little flicks of memory that attach themselves to a school day. I think this has a lot to do with the way we work – whether we want to give the pupils what we had or whether we want to ensure they get the opposite. In many ways working in schools means you don’t move on, but it also means memories are always close to the surface and sometimes they’re lovely.
I mentioned in a recent post that as part of our drive to increase the boys’ reading, we were planning a few events. This turned into a (fairly loose) Book Festival which is lasting for about a month, starting with an author visit for KS2 and ending on World Book Day (which will also only be KS2). The bits I’ve organised so far have been whole-school things including a Blind Date With A Book and a ‘We Are Writers’ book. I wrote about our first Blind Date With A Book here so I thought I’d take the opportunity to briefly explain and write about how it was different this time round.
The idea behind going on a blind date with a book is that you pick a book without knowing what it is and you give it a go. Events tend to happen in schools, book shops or libraries around Valentine’s Day, for obvious reasons, but it’s also useful as the closest Friday is normally the last week of half term so it’s a nice way to finish things off before the holidays. Some people add descriptions of the books, some have a display of wrapped books to borrow, we use it as a way to give each pupil in school a book to keep.
Last time I did all this I categorised each pupil into rough reading-ages, made them fill out a fake dating profile and then the ‘results’ of that told them which colour wrapping they were best suited to. It’s been two years since I did that and the school has grown quite a bit which made grouping each pupil a tricky one. So, for 2016 I went through the whole process of buying 100s of books to suit all size of pupil and then instead of categorising them myself, I got each class teacher to pick a book for their pupils before I wrapped them and added a Valentine’s card.
I bought a lot of books from Scholastic again – free postage to schools, earning money off books and some great January sale offers meant that I could get a lot for my money. They also have a great range of books for lower level readers based on poplar tv shows and films. This meant that I could give a Year 11 a copy of ‘127 Hours’ rather than yet another Brinsford Books classic that he’s probably already read. I did use Amazon for a few extras that I thought they might not usually pick like some Tolkien and Gaiman, plus a few books that featured in the TES lists of books pupils should read before leaving Primary and Secondary school, and I threw in a few from the box of free Book Trust ones I have. I had to be fairly realistic though, it doesn’t matter how well I wrapped it or whether they got to keep it, there are a lot of books that they wouldn’t even give a chance to, so the options weren’t a million miles away from things I thought they’d normally pick (shocking number of books with farting or bums in the title).
The art room had some awful pink paper buried in a corner so I stole that (with permission), and I decided that instead of simply writing each pupil’s name on the front of the packages, I would give them all a Valentine’s card from their book. They had poems. As we’ve only got a maximum of 8 in a class, I wrote 8 poems and put them in 8 different cards using my all my best TA skillz. Wrote ’em, glued ’em, stacked ’em. I was pleased with myself.
Class teachers were given their pile of books and able to choose when they gave them out and how they followed it up in class etc. I only saw a few children throughout the day but the ones I did see seemed fairly chuffed with their books and I get the feeling it was a success! We also used that day to display the entries for our We Are Writers front cover design and have a vote, and it was the last day for pupils to submit their stories for the book too. I’ll write more about that further along in the process.
If you are interested in holding your own Blind Date With A Book and want some little cards with awesome poems in, you can find mine here:
In part 1 I talked about motivating pupils to read, particularly in Catch Up sessions. Obviously there’s a bit of a difference between persuading a Year 8 (who’d rather have a fight down the corridor) to come for a reading session, and getting a whole bunch of them to pick up a Penguin Classic* over playing Potty Racers on their laptop at break time. The art of encouragement is a thin line between showing them something that will develop into a lifelong passion and creating a force so stubborn they will refuse to even judge a book by its cover. *or Horrid Henry to be honest.
We’ve got a few things on the go at the moment to encourage a culture of reading and quite a lot involves simply giving them books. Our approach is reasonably subtle and we don’t force them. I would suspect this a natural reaction to having so many pupils with low levels of literacy and poor relationships with reading. That’s not to say they get away with not reading of course, just that we’re more likely to whack some bonus points towards kids that do some awesome reading than take breaks off one who doesn’t.
Anyway, some of our encouraging things. Probably best to list and explain.
- World Book Day – Key Stage Two are pretty good at doing this each year. I’m mostly aware of it when I see Iron Man or an Oompa Loompa traipsing down the corridor. I know they’ve got a visiting author coming this year.
- 10 minutes reading – This is during tutor time after lunch and it’s supposed to be the whole school. It settles the kids down from whatever has kicked off during football and hopefully encourages a culture of reading across school. We’ve probably slipped a bit. I don’t know if everyone who doesn’t have pupils with them at that point reads anymore, but I love my 10 minutes sitting by myself with a book (‘Us’ by David Nicholls at the moment).
- No library – This isn’t particularly a good thing. We’ve got scraps of space and the room that was the library has now been turned into the catch-up room. What has happened though is that the books have been moved into classrooms so hopefully there are more that are instantly accessible to the boys. We’ll get our library back with the new build hopefully, but I also hope we keep a lot of books in classrooms.
- Trip to Waterstones – With some ring-fenced money we had an open-to-all-staff trip to Waterstones one Saturday. General books were chosen and class teachers had got their pupils to make lists of what they would like in the classroom. They could pick anything.
- Blind Date With A Book – I did this a couple of years ago and I’m doing it again in a couple of weeks. Read my BDWAB post for a full rationale, but it’s basically an excuse to give each child a book to keep. I’ve put a few in that I think will challenge them and that they probably wouldn’t try given a free choice, but I’m not stupid so I’ve gone for ones that won’t alienate them completely.
- We Are Writers – We’re writing a book. Scholastic run a scheme where you can get your pupils work published – a chapter each to write whatever they want. We’re using the pupils’ creative writing and I set it all up the other day so hopefully we’ll get started soon. In addition to the BDWAB books, we’ll give each pupil one of these from school, and let parents buy more if they want them.
- Read to them – Underestimated I think. For most of us this is our first experience of reading. Pupils love it no matter how old they are. You can get them to follow in their own book or let them just listen. They hear how you intonate and express yourself; they hear words they’ve never read. A couple of weeks ago we had a heating and electricity failure at school. As I cursed the powering off of my computer halfway through an email, I heard the teachers in rooms either side of me both start reading to their groups and it was lovely (not as serene as you might imagine. The power had gone which is almost as thrilling as snow to a 13 year old boy).
- Prizes – Comes under the ‘give them free books’ banner. Money and chocolate are lovely prizes but books are great for prizes too and less likely to be frowned upon.
- Book crossing – Haven’t tried this with them yet. It’s that thing like geocaching but with books. My thoughts are along the lines that they’ll have to pick a book they love and then leave a copy for people to find. We could do it in-school and have a map with pins or go wild and do it properly.
The Rights Of The Reader by Daniel Pennac
I bang on about this book every now and again. It’s essentially an essay about reading, and there’s a lot of it that makes sense – especially if we’re into getting pupils to enjoy reading for the sake of reading. It’s not a book about strategies or methods, it’s just something that made me stop and think about what ‘gets in the way’ and how we might learn to love reading again. I would love for more people to read it (there’s a poster illustrated by Quentin Blake you can download too. I have it above my desk).
He starts by showing a child’s journey through reading. From bedtime stories and learning to understand words, or being told to put a book down and go out to play; to analysis of texts and the use of ‘If you don’t do your reading, there’ll be no television’. At some point, it’s possible for reading to cease being a wonder and become the enemy.
There are stories from Pennac’s teaching career with ‘reluctant’ readers, uncovering the pleasure of reading and developing a thirst. Stories from his youth and from parenthood. The book concludes with the ten ‘Rights Of The Reader’. There is an explanation for each right, and in the words of Pennac, ‘if we want my son/my daughter/ young people to read, we must grant them the rights we grant ourselves‘. So here they are:
- The right not to read.
- The right to skip
- The right not to finish a book
- The right to read it again.
- The right to read anythihng.
- The right to mistake a book for real life.
- The right to read anywhere.
- The right to dip in.
- The right to read ou loud.
- The right to be quiet.
I would love it if all my boys adored reading and shunned the real world as they opted to bury their heads in the pages of their imagination…
There are a few who are like this, but they’re more likely to be up until the early hours playing XBox online with some kid in America than up until the early hours reading books with a torch under the duvet. I know that’s the case with a lot of children, not just my rock-hard behavioural gang, and it’s certainly not a new issue. I’m not sure what the statistics are for the amount of books children have at home, but I do know that quite a few of ours aren’t likely to have a duvet, let alone a bookshelf, so it’s one of our priorities to give their love of literature a boost.
I work with various literacy interventions, but the most structured one I use is Catch Up Literacy (EEF project here). We’ve been running this successfully for about 8 years now and the impact on pupils who receive this intervention goes beyond learing how to read. The EEF report highlights improvements to pupil motivation and attitude to learning, as well as confidence and enjoyment – certainly something we’ve found as well. Quite often our pupils crave attention and recognition from adults, and dedicated time for 1-1 interventions gives them that. I generally have a whole lesson for a 20 minute intervention and the luxury of that extra time means I can focus on a particular target, work on other skills or look something up that they’ve been reading about. If they spot a book in the room that they’re interested in I’ll let them have a go no matter the level and give them a hand.
They’re eager to read. They see it as something mature and aspirational. They want to read about Biff and Chip because it’s safe and familiar, but they’re aiming for books with a spine and no staples because they’re ‘proper’ books (doesn’t matter whether there’s one word on a page, that spine makes a massive difference). It’s hard when they’ve got bits of knowledge. They (like many others) have been in and out of school (sometimes several) picking up the occasional topic; great with graphs, not so hot on shapes; learning about ‘igh’ but no idea what to do with ‘th’. We’re gap filling and when they think it’s too ‘baby-ish’ their enthusiasm can wane.
One of the things we use to combat this is rewards. We have a range of different reward systems throughout school and with Catch Up it’s stickers. Simple enough; each of them has a bookmark that they pop a sticker on after a session and when it’s full they get a prize and certificate. I like to think I’m fairly well versed on the ins and outs of rewards and motivation, and I know that the ultimate aim is for each and every one of them to be intrinsically motivated to participate. To be honest, most of the time they are, but that 16mm square sticker and the thought of a funky pencil at the end can be the most wonderful carrot when necessary. Intrinsic is great when they’re in a good mood, but we all need a bit of extrinsic now and again whether that’s a shiny sticker or a pay cheque.
Actually (this is the researchy bit) quite often they forget to put their sticker on, or we don’t quite keep track of how many blank squares are left, so all of a sudden we realise it’s prize day and it all gets very giddy. This of course is a great way to do rewards – my own disorganisation turns a spot of fixed ratio/fixed interval reinforcement into variable ratio/variable interval. Brilliant. Also, as a point of interest that I should probably re-investigate, when I was researching rewards and behaviour during my MEd, I found various bits of evidence that whilst extrinsic rewards/token economies don’t necessarily have the impact most teachers want, they do work with pupils with SEN. Wildly searching through old notes and a rescued hard drive, things I’ve found that may support my crazy statements are below. They may or may not be of use:
Capstick, J. (2005) ‘Pupil and Staff Perceptions of Rewards at a Pupil Referral Unit’, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, Vol 10. No. 2, 95-117
Hufton, N. R. and Elliot, J. G. (2004) ‘Motivation Theory and the Management of Motivation to Learn in School’ in Wearmouth, J., Richmond, R.C., Glynn, T. and Berryman, M. (eds) (2004) Understanding Pupil Behaviour in Schools: A diversity of approaches., London, David Fulton.
Witzel, B. S. and Mercer, C. D., (2003), ‘Using Rewards to Teach Students with Disabilities’. Implications for Motivation, Remedial and Special Education, Vol 24, No. 2, 88-96
So is reading its own reward? Most of the time I think it is. Sometimes things need a bit of a boost to get going and I’m happy with the system I’ve got. But what do we do on a wider scale, once we’ve taught them to read? How do we encourage them to read widely and for pleasure? Part 2 will look at some of the things that we’re trying in order to get them going.
The annual celebration of the release of Taylor Swift’s now classic album ‘Red’, took place on Saturday at South Hampstead High School in London.
There were some noticeable absences which was a shame (although there were people I didn’t see at all and I know they were there because of twitter, and I didn’t see one Bennett point-and-wink ALL DAY), but it was another jam-packed, triumph of a day as the researchED juggernaut hurtled through London on its way back round the globe. I’ve already written a bit about my own session so this one’s more of a mulling over of the themes and ideas that I’ve taken away from the day (not at all in the order of viewing).
2013 was the year of ‘no lunch’, 2014 the year of jealously staring towards the single box of air conditioning, and 2015 the year of a steep hill and many, many stairs. The overarching message of researchED though has remained and that is all about taking control, but now with increasing support. There still seems to be a determination to keep accountability away from this precious seed of control and I’m really glad this is the case. We’re still ‘working out what works’ and surely the whole point is that we’re open to shifting ideas – making schools accountable increases the need to find answers right now. I can sense it in the TSA requirement for research and development and I think this is great (certainly providing me with opportunities) but it’s important that there’s still the chance to find our own way.
Becky Allen showed clearly how accessible a role involving research can be – no special equipment needed. Yes, she gave a mention to journal clubs and perhaps I’m biased towards that, but it’s a great example of how you don’t need a dedicated research lead or super access to research to get involved. She had a lot of advice about how to get going and I think the next steps for me need to be around developing areas for research in my setting. I know it’s not the direction for everyone, but I think I’ve got to try. I’ve got the added difficulty of working in a small school so numbers aren’t ideal for any sort of pilot, but maybe there’s room to use the TSA.
I was really interested to hear about Nick Rose’s research lead role and how he is coaching colleagues in teaching enquiry and using teaching logs as a scaffold. Allowing teachers to engage in enquiry and explore ideas in a low stakes environment, before using the outcomes to help inform professional targets is the best way I can see to encourage teachers to engage with research and use the information that comes out of it without people feeling like they might get it wrong. I’m coming to the end of a few projects this year so I need to keep the momentum up in school. Nick has sparked me to look at the SIP and see where I might be able to suggest ways research can inform our response to that. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before, but I feel I’ve tested the water with the support of other organisations and maybe now’s a good time to push it a bit further.
I’ve managed to gather a few ideas for my next issue(s) of Relay. Particularly drawing on the sessions from Daisy Christodoulou, Tom Sherrington and David Didau. Daisy and Tom both focussed on how we can use research to inform the decisions schools are having to make. Daisy’s was first and discussed using research to develop assessment without levels. I’ve read most of her blog posts on these issues but she managed to put it all into an easily digestible capsule and I’m going to go back and read her blog again. Particularly the parts on multiple choice questions (had a course that used these as the exam at university, hated it but now have a greater appreciation of their worth), and comparative assessment (this is how we do it in art and it’s good to have some back up for our methods). I thought back to one of Daisy’s points on writing multiple choice answers during David Didau’s talk when he said ‘when we’re certain, we stop looking’ and I definitely think it’s something we should consider.
In a more personal way, Tom Sherrington took us through the process he had used to make decisions about literacy provision at Highbury Grove School. It is fairly easy for any headteacher to search for an answer on Google and run with the results, but not everyone would question what they found and email the researcher to ask. It’s actions like this that will change the way we use research in schools. Not by taking part in massive RCTs (although brilliant), not by sitting on government committees ( I know that’s good too), but by understanding how to read the research we find, questioning it and finding out how it really can inform our practice.
David Didau posed perhaps the most important question of the day; ‘Are you a fox or a hedgehog?’. Despite the slight hint of Barnum statement, I am deffo a hedgehog. Mostly because spikes and the grumpy face. I don’t know if this was the answer he was after, but then again, we don’t know what we know we don’t know, if we know we know what we don’t know. Y’know? #teamhedgehog
My final session was in Sam Freedman’s Room of Despair. He took us through the top five issues facing the government including classics such as funding, capacity and infrastructure. Despite the lack of lols, this is a man who knows his stuff. I’ve already paraphrased him several times in school and whilst most of us left feeling a little deflated, Howard left with the new found ambition to become a Regional School Commissioner. It takes all sorts.
So that was my day. I suspect more elements of it will filter through over the coming weeks. Special mention needs to go to Davis Weston’s posture. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing and if you don’t give a fig for educational research, go to one of these gigs just to see him glide.
I’m still on the come-down from last week. I’m sure it’s not just us but everything always seems to speed up for the last few days before a holiday. I think I’m successfully avoiding the ‘funk‘ but I do find it difficult to turn off school-mode.
I don’t have any sort of work to do before next term and one of the only good things to come out of single status is I no longer have any guilt over the long holidays. I have however spent a fair amount of time so far reading about education, I know I’ll end up doing stuff on the school website in the next few weeks and at half eight yesterday morning I was reading the leaked assessment without levels report. Despite that I’m not really missing work.
The thing I am missing though is art. 2014 was a brilliant one for the work the pupils produced and the best results the school has ever seen (a bit about that here). This year has been just as good and even more ambitious, and I’m really hoping for the boys’ sake it’s just as successful.
We don’t tend to produce the sort of work that springs to mind when I think of GCSE Art. There’s no ‘torn up newspaper background’ or ‘bright watercolour dripping eye’. Nothing wrong with that of course, we just don’t seem to do it. The room is set up with pupils in their own space and all their work up on boards that we shift round for each lesson (pro of four kids max at a time). We pop on art documentaries if they’re getting on and this year ‘Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow‘ about Anselm Keifer and some brilliant clips of Bernard Aubertin burning stuff willy-nilly have gone down a storm.
Many use the art room as a sanctuary (even staff if I’m honest). The art they produce really does reflect their state of mind. Kev’s bottomless art knowledge means we can always chuck ideas at the boys to get them thinking and we can cater for different characters – the one that likes repetition and filling an IWB size piece of paper with thick, bold shapes; the one who likes detail and shuts himself in his own zone; the one obsessed with technology that distracts everyone in the room by never shutting up. We try to find something that fits. Last year the moderator seemed impressed at the massive scale of work produced and we really let them go for it this year (regretted it slightly when it came to displaying it all in our tiny room though).
Featured artists this year included Richard Serra, Tony Cragg, Basquiat, Rachel Whiteread, Kurt Schwitters, Mira Schendel, Gunther Uecker, Anselm Kiefer, David Nash, Jean Tinguley, Arman, Bridget Reiley and even Eric Carle. There’s loads more but I can’t remember them all just now. Before we broke up we trawled the used books on Amazon and bought a load for the art room. There’s some brilliant stuff there. Kev’s well into the Zero art movement at the moment so I expect we’ll get more things like Uecker and Arman next year.
Kev and I have developed a way of working that really works. From the set up of the room to the way we mark. This year we’ve put together an assessment scheme for KS3 using our GCSE mark scheme that aims to get the pupils working on mini projects and hopefully KS4 ready. I’ll have to ask at some point if I can share what we’ve done with the internet.
The argument for the place of creative subjects in the curriculum is played out regularly. I’m not going to bang on about it now. I do know that art has an important place in our school. Pupils who struggle to get a grade in core subjects are thriving in art and we will fight at every turn to give each of our pupils this opportunity. We’ve got a Richard Serra quote on the wall (heads up inspirational quote fans) ‘Work comes out of work’. All the kids know it, all the kids use it, and if you at any point decide to come and visit us, the chances are you’ll leave the room knowing it too.
I’ve mentioned the Blind Date With A Book event at our school a few times but I’ve put off writing about it until now because I thought if anyone was tempted to have a go themselves, it was silly to be thinking about it too far away from the sort of time you’d want to be organising it. Anyway, it’s about a year since I started planning ours properly so now’s probably the time for other people to start.
Quick background first. We were in the fortunate position that Ofsted told us we’d got too much money left in our budget and needed to get some spent (I appreciate the money aspect might be the sticking point for most people but you can still do it in some ways). Staff were asked to put in bids for specific items and having recently seen some images of Blind Date With A Book events and wondering if we could do something similar at school, I thought it would be a good opportunity to give each of the boys a book to take home. So I typed up a very official looking bid and was told to go for it.
The premise of Blind Date With A Book is that people get to pick a book without knowing what it is and get the chance to read something they might not normally go for (generally speaking I’m a believer in judging a book by its cover but I understand that we’re not supposed to do that). I’ve seen pictures of schools, bookshops and libraries going about it in a variety of ways – plain wrapping, fancy wrapping, brief descriptions on the front, clues to the book, only the scannable barcode revealed, small and big displays – all around Valentine’s Day*. I’d originally thought about just wrapping up some books in the library, but given the sudden injection of a bit of cash I went for buying an awful lot of books instead. *I also saw a Halloween one with a whole ‘Dare To Read’ theme.
I knew that I’d need more books than boys – they’d need something to choose from. I knew I’d need a wide variety of levels of book – we’ve got pupils from 7-16 and within that, reading ages that stretch in every direction. I wasn’t too concerned with excess books as everything left over has gone in the library or classrooms, but other than that I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to work out.
I started by being completely indulgent and buying books I thought they might enjoy; books I like and recommendations from colleagues and best-seller lists. Then I moved on to bulk buying and making up the numbers like a loon. I got quite a lot of books from Scholastic. They have a good selection of all sorts – you can filter by price and age quite nicely plus there’s the bonus of earning money to spend on books for school as you’re buying. I managed to get quite a lot this way, including lots of free ones. Quite a few of our pupils are into things like Robert Muchamore’s CHERUB series and Liz Pichon’s Tom Gates books. I love these books and I’m perfectly happy that if they’re reading anything, they’re reading and this is a good thing. I did include some of these books in my haul, but I also took the opportunity to introduce things like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, some Terry Pratchett and a bit of George Orwell.
This was about getting them to read something new, but also about getting them to actually give it a go. The most difficult books to get were ones for the kids with a much higher chronological age than reading age. They need books pitched at their interests but often they’re completely beyond them reading-wise. Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature is good for helping to gauge the words, and I found some books published by Dorling Kindersley that have proved quite successful. The DK Readers books have levels (some more subtly than others) from ‘Beginning to read’ to ‘Reading alone’ and include a variety of non-fiction and brands like Lego, Star Wars and Angry Birds. One of our Year 7s with a reading age of about 5y 6m has really taken to these books now so at least something good has come from it all!
In our Key Stage Two group we have one pupil who is working at very low levels. During our whole-school 10 minutes of reading after lunch, he reads picture books with his TA. I decided that a picture book was the best option for this pupil so I got a handful and fell in love with all of them. These were my favourites:
I have genuinely dragged people into Waterstones to show them how brilliant they are.
So. I had boxes of books suitable for 7-16 year olds with reading ages of ‘not’ to ‘adult’. I had the morning of Valentine’s Day to fill and I needed a logical way for 50+ boys to pick something that was at least pitched at roughly the right level.
I decided the best way to make sure they got a suitable book was to divide both the pupils (within Key Stages) and books into similar level groups and get the pupils to select books from the right group. I needed to do this in a way that wouldn’t embarrass the lower level readers and make them stand out so I decided to stick with the ‘Blind Date’ theme and get the whole school to fill in an online dating questionnaire. I didn’t sign them up to anything dodgy, I created my own simple WordPress questionnaire. I didn’t need to know what the actual results were, I’d already grouped them, but I was able to give each class a list of the pupils’ ‘results’ with which corresponded to the colour of heart I’d stuck to the front of the wrapped books. The kids happily thought their result was down to their choice of car or ice cream and none of them were singled out as low readers.
Valentine’s Day was upon us and our very enthusiastic Deputy Head decided that was needed to start the day off was a whole-school assembly, in which we would explain what was happening and also the concept of ‘Blind Date’ the TV show to the pupils. This turned into members of staff acting out a game of Blind Date as book characters and Sherlock Holmes going on a date with Miss Dixon (she turned down the Wicked Queen from Snow White and The Gruffalo). Throughout the morning each class took it in turns to visit the (beautifully decorated) library and each child picked their book. I think most of them were happy with what they’d picked. I had a couple of subtle swaps as children were upset with their choice – I wasn’t going to swap everyone’s but I did want it to be a nice event rather than a miserable one, and they asked nicely. I’m not sure if any of them did get their ‘Dream Date’, but I know at least some of them have been read and now if they’re asked by one of those national surveys if they own any books, at least they can all say yes…
I know something like this isn’t going to be possible for everyone. We’ve got a manageable number of pupils and I had the money to do it. I do think it would be something more schools could introduce to their libraries or for individual classes/ year group to do perhaps. I left it up to class teachers as to whether they followed it up with book reviews or class blogging and gave them some rewiew pro-formas, but as we broke up for half term that day, I think they all left it there. It was a lot of fun to do with the boys, especially as it fell as an end-of-half-term event and we did our own version as a staff team. My reading of 2014 was swamped with those books, but I’ll leave that one for another post.
I’ve been part of our school’s GCSE Art department* for a couple of years now and this year I’ve got all the Year 10 and 11 groups. Me and Kev (art tutor) have developed a good routine of lessons and marking, the kids get to experiment with a vast amount of techniques and processes – a hell of a lot more than when I was at school in the olden days, and they are producing some amazing work. I know they are producing amazing work because last summer we got our best ever GCSE results. Not only did we get the best results ever in Art (A, B, C, D), we got the school’s best ever results and the school’s first grade A GCSE in anything ever. We were unbelievably proud.
*it’s pretty much just the two of us
My own exposure to art has increased immensely – I’ve always had an interest and we trek round galleries with the best of them, but Kev’s knowledge and passion is infectious and I’m feeling it for the better. Every now and then I’ll dabble in some arty project or other and these are happily dotted round the house. At the moment I’m filling the house with rusty teabags.
There is a definite influence of old, rusty, textured stuff in the art at school. Anselm Kiefer, Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, and so many more, all work their way into the boys’ projects, and during a research trawl I came across the work of Jennifer Coyne Qudeen. I fell a bit in love with her rusty tea bags and decided to have an experiment. I don’t drink tea but this hasn’t stopped me – we didn’t have any rusty washers either but we do now. Anyway. Having told a few people about my teabags, I thought the easiest way to communicate my endeavours was a quick description.
I started by finding some rusty stuff. We’d got the odd nail and bits of old fence in the garden but for pressing it’s better to have something flat so I bought some washers. After a bit of a mooch online I decided to get zinc plated rather than galvanised ones. The plating is thinner and it’s easier to get the washers to rust. I scuffed the surfaces up a bit and put them in with some other wet, rusty stuff Howard had rescued from burning. It didn’t take too long to get some colour going and the more I’ve used them, the better this has got.
For tea bags, I started by using the few we have for visitors and the odd one I took from hotel rooms etc. I discovered that the best ones are Twinings as they don’t have a seam at the bottom and are easy to fold out into a full sheet. I’ve experimented with different flavours including some herbal teas and there are occasional differences in the reaction of tea and rust. If I could only go with one, it’s probably Assam at the moment, but there’s not a huge difference.
The paper I’ve used is Khadi Handmade Paper. I bought it because that’s what Jennifer Coyne Qudeen shows on her blog. I got a book and A5 sheets. I do like it – it soaks the colour well but the moisture doesn’t destroy the structure. It’s nice to rip, but only on one direction, so I may try different papers once I’ve run out.
My method is fairly simple. Once I’ve got a used tea bag, I open it out and layer it on paper with the washers and any other rusty material. With another sheet of paper on top, I weigh it down with whatever I can find. Mostly recipe books, but I’ve used all sorts as long as they’re heavy.
After at least 24 hours I separate the layers and leave it all to dry. The tea bags take a while to dry out, but when they’re ready I open them up and get rid of the tea (I’m sure at some point I’ll try using that too) and lo, I have lovely flat bits of fabric stained with tea and rust.
It’s taken me a while to decide what I’m going to do with all these tea bags and bits of paper. I’ve bought some thread that I think compliments the different shades of tea and the blue-black marks of the rust so I think I’ll try sewing some of them together. I’ve put together some bits into a couple of arrangements but I’m going to keep having a play with them – as long as Howard doesn’t mind the growing pile of tea bags, I can keep coming back to them and trying out new things. I’ll write a part two when I do!
Art isn’t up there with the biggies like English and Maths when it comes to targets, but it has an important place in what I do and in our school culture. Pupils who have never thought of themselves as ‘artists’ are achieving success and it’s really interesting to see how some of them use art as an outlet. In a school where all the pupils are boys with emotional and behavioural difficulties, a strong, macho element is ever-present. Art allows our pupils to be creative and explore cultural perspectives previously closed to them, alongside the football and the motor engineering. Our ‘A’ grade promised us before left school that he’d visit Venice one day and send us a postcard. We’re holding out hope.