Saturday, May 05, 2007

Random moments from the last few weeks

Well, hello. Sorry I've been away. I've been sorting out IT coursework with a completely dead network; buying a new house; and trying to get access to Blogger, which decided to forget that I existed for a while.

We were in Manchester a few weeks ago; the police cars there bear the legend Greater Manchester Police: 'Fighting crime, protecting people.' My beloved was quite taken with this, and suggested we too should have a car with a slogan on it. 'Teachers. Drinking tea, shouting at children' was his suggestion.

I am astounded at the mess up with ballot papers in the Scottish Election. Every teacher knows that you cannot use more than one piece of paper in one sitting unless you photocopy them on different coloured paper. A yellow ballot paper and a pink ballot paper would have sorted it.

Overheard in my department:
"Sir, I know I didn't write enough. Couldn't you just imagine it in more detail?"
"Of course. And you can imagine getting a higher grade."

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.

Saturday, March 31, 2007


I saw a young man reading one of the Tim Berners-Lee quotes on my 'quotes about IT' display, and disagreeing with it out loud, to his friend, who argued back.

A girl who started the year full of angry incomprehension at A-level work came to my class, in her breaktime, and handed in a complete coursework project, a day early.

I saw a kid open a door for a teacher overburdened with a box of marking.

Two young women, who had been withdrawn by their parents from an event I organised that was designed to promote religious tolerance, told me that when they had kids of their own, they would make sure that they went to events like that.

You feel you're getting somewhere.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

How to make the shortlist

OK, I have pontificated on previous occasions about how to deliver a good sample lesson when attending an interview. But you can spare yourself the ordeal of that sample lesson by failing to get invited for an interview.

Firstly, remember it doesn't really matter if you don't fill in the application form. We understand how busy you are: just send us a printout of your 10 page CV (listing every INSET you have ever attended) and we will cross reference it ourselves. It's not like we're busy.

Spelling, grammar and capitalisation errors are great. They show how happy-go-lucky you are and what a casual, easy-going approach you take to the written word and the process of checking over your work. They are really good indicators of how you will approach marking, planning and writing resources!

Illegibility and poor handwriting don't matter. Crossings out are not a problem. This is the era of the computer; you don't need to be able to write clearly to be a teacher.

If you are applying for an IT job (or if you mention your effective use of IT anywhere on your application) it's rather witty to back up your claims of being a well skilled in word-processing with an absolutely hopeless desk-top publishing job. Random font changes, embarrassing spell-checking errors, inconsistent indentation, inappropriate fonts... I know you're just showing me how aware you are of the commonest flaws in our students' work. And we love MS Word CV templates. They're so....unique.

Seriously, folks, it's not rocket science. If you can't be bothered to take care over an application form which I am duty bound to read from beginning to end, do you really think we will trust you with a teaching post? With, you know, real kids writing real essays and all that?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Some of the things I say to my students are true

Whenever I teach the Data Protection Act, I expend much energy communicating that knowing about the DPA could be one day prove very beneficial to them (unlike a lot of things they learn). The DPA is widely misunderstood; and it is hugely useful, for example if you should find yourself in the position of being unexpectedly turned down for credit.

Now to this we can also add the fact that the DPA could one day help you out if you become a Doctor and your application for a job is turned down after electronic processing by the infamous MTAS system. This is the story of Dr Palak Trivedi, who used the powers of the DPA to enquire as to why... and got an interview.

Further MTAS horror stories can be found elsewhere on the good Dr Crippen's blog.