Category Archives: teaching English

SATE Seminar: Teaching the Holocaust through literature, 21/9/16

Some English teachers reflect on the SATE seminar, delivered by Tom Jackson of the Holocaust Education Trust.

het1Gareth Webb, SATE student member

I was expecting the Holocaust (or Shoah as I learned is the preferred name by many in the Jewish community) seminar to inform me and guide me on how best to teach the topic in the English classroom. This was achieved without doubt, but the level at which I was challenged emotionally and professionally was not so expected.

I took from the seminar that Shoah education is a responsibility that I as a teacher should be accepting and carefully planning to ensure that my students are being properly informed and educated, and that I am treating the topic with the respect and enormity that it deserves (although this will always fall short).

It became clear to me that there is no one experience of the Shoah that can be shared in the classroom. The possible texts that I may use in the future cannot be conveniently bundled and packaged to convey one message. Each piece of writing, whoever it may have be written by, needs to be treated as that individual’s personal experience. I must, as a teacher, not refer to the victims as a homogeneous group but open up channels of communication for each voice to be heard to help construct a bigger picture of what happened. The Nazis used dehumanisation to achieve their goals, and Shoah education must always focus on the human so as not to perpetuate the tactics used to commit these crimes.

I was also personally challenged by how to approach texts, especially written by those who were murdered. On the one hand, what right do I have to pick apart the expression and final testament of someone who suffered such brutality like I would any other text? On the other hand, what right do I have to deny the writer equality of reception that I would afford to other writers?

What stuck with me most is that Shoah education, perhaps more than any other ‘topic’, needs to be constantly reviewed and refreshed by me on a personal level. Understanding the Shoah through literature is definitely a journey without an end and whilst being complacent about any aspect of education is wrong, there is absolutely no room or excuse for it when it comes to Shoah education.

Sally Law, Principal Teacher of English, Marr College, Troon.

The recent SATE seminar ‘Teaching the Holocaust through Literature’ was thought-provoking and certainly sparked a number of ideas of how to introduce and tackle this complex and harrowing topic to young people. I was particularly interested in the idea of using a range of poetry, personal accounts and experiences (in the form of letter and journal) to allow learners to explore and better understand the impact of the Holocaust on the individual. Now more aware of the variety of literature and resources to draw on, I can confidently say that I won’t again be using the novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in any context in my classroom. Tom Jackson made clear the failings of this text if it is used as a tool to ‘teach’ the Holocaust and I’m embarrassed to say that they are things I hadn’t considered even although they are patently obvious now they have been pointed out. I only taught it once before it was consigned to the book cupboard but that was on account of protagonist Bruno being woefully naïve and irritating. What I hadn’t considered were the implications of engendering feelings of sympathy for the perpetrators and the blatant distortion of reality most obviously, a child being housed next to one of the death camps. While I don’t think it is wrong to explore and consider different perspectives, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas presents an over-simplified version which suggests no-one really knew what was happening in Germany. With the Nuremburg Laws introduced in 1935 and anti-Semitism dating back two millennia it is improbable that anyone, including children, could have been so ignorant.

Susan Brownlie, English Teacher and SATE Local Coordinator (South Lanarkshire)

Having used Holocaust-related texts with pupils in the past and with an ongoing interest since my early teens in how the subject is explored in children’s and young adult fiction, I was very keen for this seminar to take place. Prior to it, I confess to having felt a sense of unease in the classroom, sometimes unsure how detailed to go with context, gauging how much or how little pupils already knew from elsewhere and occasionally challenging the view that they’d already been ‘taught it’. In the seminar, both the content of Tom’s presentation and his delivery challenged a lot of what I thought I knew about the Holocaust, both personally and professionally. Tom provided me with an opportunity to look closely at what I’d come to believe was true. As a classroom practitioner, a strong desire for a shared understanding and the importance of acknowledging and remembering, had led me perhaps to not interrogate texts in the way that Tom explained is absolutely necessary. So much of the seminar’s content can and should be shared by participants with other English colleagues and those in both History and RME. This cross curricular approach is incredibly important. As a result of the seminar, and the excellent materials published by the Holocaust Educational Trust, I feel I can now make much better use of existing texts, whilst also introducing new ones suggested by Tom.

Raymond Soltysek, Nationahet2l Coordinator of SATE

This was an enlightening, humbling, difficult experience for me.  Tom’s faithfulness to historical accuracy had me physically flinching when he said that no extermination camps existed in Poland during the war because Poland didn’t exist during the war.  And yet, I know that many of my relatives, my Polish blood kin, would have been living in that place in that time, working and playing, loving and laughing in the shadow of the camps.  Were they aware?  How did they feel?  Could they even have been, perhaps through inaction, complicit in some way in that awful, awful crime?

The Holocaust has always loomed behind me because of the questions I can never ask, and what Tom taught me was that we have to be utterly truthful about it.  There are no other topics we teach in English where the accuracy of the context is so important – the poetry of the First World War is perhaps the only one that comes close – and so we have to be extra vigilant, extra sensitive, to ensure that we honour those who suffered as best we can. I’d like to thank him for making me so aware of that.

Reflections on a First Year Teaching

A SATE local coordinator reflects on her NQT year…

Teacher by dcatcherex

I sit here writing this blog with a strong cup of coffee. It’s the last week of term and my drastically reduced first year class are watching a version of ‘Frankenstein’ after studying the Philip Pullman adaptation.

I am very tired. A weekend of end of term dinners and drinks has left me feeling drained at the start of the last week. But, it was worth it. The celebrating was well deserved and I am happy to suffer the consequences.

I’ve learned a lot about myself this past year. More than once I’ve surprised myself. For example, the first time I was told to f*** off, I didn’t even flinch. Or the time I went against advice to plan a unit where group work was the basis of activity and assessment. The unit was a success – although it was more work to teach it, the pupils enjoyed it and had valuable learning experiences. Some of my pupils surprised me too, and well exceeded my expectations. Like Nicole, who started off the year in my National 5 class dejected, negative and with a real aversion to hard-work. In January, she sat her prelim and did not achieve what she was capable of. Afterwards, Nicole started coming to Supported Study and participating in class, asking questions, etc. Together we worked to get her knowledge of texts and skills in Reading up to National 5 standard. She went in to her exam filled with confidence, and left the exam hall full of optimism. I really hope Nicole gets the grade she wants, because she worked hard – for at least half the year…

Other pupils who will stand out in my memory when I look back on this year are the S2 pupil who came to school in August with an attitude problem and no desire to work and improve. He left the year a happier boy who is now reading age appropriate books with an enthusiasm I didn’t think was possible. Then, there’s the S3 pupil who struggled to write in paragraphs and is now writing critical essays about Jackie Kay poems. And the S4 pupils who refused to read anything who is now an avid reader of car magazines. These pupils, amongst many others, have taught me that many small steps can make huge developments, and that by having the right attitude you can achieve anything.

The school I have been working in is in an area which sits high in the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. I was nervous before I started working at the school. I didn’t know what to expect. However, on my visit in June last year, I could sense the positive atmosphere and everyone –  pupils and teachers –  seemed happy and relaxed. At the time, I put this down to it being the second last week of term, and went back to feeling nervous.

Returning to the school in August last year now feels like a blur of getting to know names and planning lessons like they were crits. Looking back, only a few moments of the first month stand out. This period was a flurry of getting names wrong, observing other teachers, late nights and strong coffee. During this time, I didn’t socialise very much and I didn’t see my family as much as I should have.

Around November, I found Martyn Reah’s campaign on Twitter, #teacher5aday. I learned a lot from reading blogs, and following other teachers from around the country, about wellbeing and a healthy work/life balance. I took up yoga and started being more aware of what I ate. But, most importantly, I learned not to beat myself up. I had been very hard on myself during my student year, and had started off my probationary year in the same way. I learned that I didn’t need to be perfect, that I was learning every day, and that my colleagues around me were there to support me and that I could learn from them. After this point, the heat was off slightly. I started to really enjoy the job.

Teaching English this past year has been a joy and a privilege, peppered with moments of bitter disappointment: for example, when my S2 pupils did not share my enthusiasm for Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry. Lesson learned. For the most part, I’ve been able to build positive relationships with my classes and, after relaxing into the year, used humour in some cases  to manage behaviour as well as to motivate. However, there have been those pupils who have been hard to reach. Most of them called Lewis. That said, for every Lewis, there were 10 Emmas or Davids who worked hard and were as enthusiastic about the learning as I was.

Throughout the year I have tried to engage with as much professional dialogue as I could. Twitter has been a great source of professional connection and learning. As well as this, being a part of SATE has meant that I have met some likeminded teachers, who are passionate about teaching English and who inspire me to be a better teacher.

Next year, I am staying in the same school. I will be in charge of the school website, something I am looking forward to learning more about, as well as running a Film Club and co-chairing the debating club. I hope to be involved in more collegiate discussion throughout the year, inside and outside school. I realise now that the positive atmosphere I noticed on my initial visit to the school was not just down to the time of year – pupils and teachers are happy and relaxed. I am glad to be continuing my work in this school.

At this point, as I finish my coffee and my first year of teaching draws to a close, my resounding feeling is one of excitement and hope. My summer reading list contains books about the history of the English language and the psychology of teaching. I am ready to continue on this path of lifelong learning. I’m so pleased that I decided, two years ago, to leave my job and embark on a career in teaching.

I feel at home.

SATE Seminar: Teaching the Holocaust through literature

12418089_1013105888730920_4606222812187926593_nEvent Details

In partnership with The University of Strathclyde and the Holocaust Educational Trust

The Holocaust was a defining event in human history and there is no doubt that studying it through literature can help students think critically about the world around them and their place in it, through the discussion of a range of questions about what it means to be human. The use of fiction and non-fiction prose, poetry and drama texts allows English teachers to enrich pupils’ learning as they begin to reflect critically on issues of identity, behaviour and ethics.

Learning about the Holocaust encourages pupils to confront fundamental yet challenging questions which cut across academic disciplines, and it is here where English has a specific role to play. In teaching texts exploring the Holocaust, it is essential English practitioners are secure in their own historical knowledge and understanding to ensure learners are supported as they study Holocaust-related literature. In our shared responsibility in helping all learners develop skills and attributes in line with the Four capacities, this seminar will allow English teachers to collaborate with other subject specialists, for example in schools’ commemorations of Holocaust Memorial Day on the 27th of January each year.

This short seminar will focus on the pedagogical issues surrounding Holocaust education. It will also provide English practitioners with the opportunity to update their own subject knowledge and build confidence in teaching the Holocaust through literature.

Participants

The seminar will be led by a lead educator from the Holocaust Educational Trust. The Trust’s aim is to educate young people from every background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today.

When

Wednesday 21 September 2016 from 17:00 to 19:00

Where

Please note that the seminar will now be held in Room 554 of the  Graham Hills Building,  University of Strathclyde

Cost

£10 for NATE members, £15 for non-members. There’s also a limited number of free places available for Student Teachers.

Sign up here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/sate-seminar-teaching-the-holocaust-through-literature-tickets-26266500811

For further information, please contact Susan Brownlie: sbrownlie@st-a-and-st-b.s-lanark.sch.uk

Blue Skye Thinking

Tom Coles recently wrote about his experiences as an NQT for Teaching English, NATE’s classroom practice magazine.  You can read Teaching English by joining NATE, which gives full access to the magazine and its companion research journal, English in Education, as well as a huge array of other resources.  Find out more at https://www.nate.org.uk/ .

 

Blue Skye Thinking

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It’s a joke in staffrooms that no-one complains about workload more than an English teacher. After four months in the job, the joke has already worn thin. Like all black humour, it operates as the nervous recognition of something truly horrific. Alongside the normal day- to-day workload of any staff member, my year as a probationer has the added challenge of naivety. For a few weeks I would ask if I could take on any more planning tasks, if I could run a club at lunchtime and after school, if I could get a look at some more marking… I was told by incredulous colleagues that I should probably get some sleep, while there was still time.

I’m having fun and I haven’t a minute to spare. Four months on, and I’ve settled into this community on the edge of Europe and the Atlantic Ocean – sheltered a little by the Outer Hebrides across the Minch. Portree isn’t quite as far west as education in Scotland reaches, but this week, as the snow fell on the astroturf and the Cullin, as the wind birled sleet over the sea cliffs of Skye, it began to feel isolated. The Total Heating – Total Control system has turned on my radiators via a radio signal from Perth. I have had my first absences due to snow and ice, my first absences due to power cuts, my first absences due to ferry cancellation. The students who wait for buses on cold mornings are beginning to envy the school boarders – with family homes too far away to travel from every day – in the hostel.

As in many things, when it comes to education Scotland is different, whether you live on a rural island or the ‘central belt’ between Edinburgh and Glasgow where most of the population lives. There is no Teach First, no School Direct, no academies or free schools, and no National Curriculum. Half as many students attend private school as in England. Most students are educated in schools controlled by a local authority – and mine, Highland Council (Comhairle na Gaidhealtachd), is almost as large as Belgium. My school, Portree High School, has a catchment area larger than Greater London. It has a little over 500 pupils.

A Scottish curriculum

The curriculum we teach, such as it is, is a policy landscape collated as the Scottish ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. It does not prescribe any content – instead focusing on what ‘experiences and outcomes’ students have. For instance, a typical outcome might be that a student should be able to say:

To help me develop an informed view, I can identify some of the techniques used to influence or persuade and can assess the value of my sources. (LIT 4-08a)

To many teachers, this is an admirable liberation; to many others, it is frustratingly vague. In practice, it seems teachers do what they have always done – they talk to each other, they interpret their task, and then do what seems right. Even if input from government to classrooms is pretty loose, there is a bright side: input from government into classrooms is pretty loose. In fact, my lessons have been improving because of the support of colleagues around me who know what they’re doing, and at times make it seem impossibly effortless.

I’m learning to understand the people in the room with me – the students. In my first lessons, I wanted to find out something about them, and let them know something about me. Our learning intentions were ‘ to be able write questions, appropriate to the audience and information we wish to discover’. In groups they questioned each other, and then were allowed to choose one query for their new teacher. The questions were a mixture of curiosity and self-protection.

  • Why are you here?
  • Do you know how wet it gets?
  • Do you know how cold it gets?
  • Where in Glasgow were you born?
  • Tennant or Capaldi?
  • Can you use a passing place?
  • Can you speak Gaelic? Mostly easy enough: but the last two were difficult.

Never mind passing places, I couldn’t drive at all at the time. And as for Gaelic – it was outwith my experience. Had I heard of Sorley MacLean (the Gaelic modernist whose birthplace, the island of Raasay, I could see from my classroom window)? No, I knew nothing beyond the name. He went to this school? He taught locally? I’ve lived in Scotland, studying literature, for 10 years and the name is as far as I got.

NATE Conference in Newcastle

The summer before I arrived on Skye, I was back at ‘home’ for the NATE conference in Newcastle. Some students on Skye thought I was a species of Glaswegian – I’m actually a Geordie. Ten years ago, I left Newcastle for the West of Scotland. Sorley MacLean wasn’t my first encounter with submerged histories: it took a move to Glasgow before I’d ever heard the name  of the Newcastle (Scotswood) -born modernist poet,  Basil Bunting:

Dung will not soil the slowworm’s

mosaic. Breathless lark

drops to nest in sodden trash;

Rawthey truculent, dingy.

Drudge at the mallet, the may is down,

fog on fells. Guilty of spring

and spring’s ending

amputated years ache after

the bull is beef, love a convenience.

It is easier to die than to remember.

Name and date

split in soft slate

a few months obliterate.

(from ‘Briggflatts’, 1965)

Approaching the conference venue, I couldn’t help thinking that even reflexive civic pride couldn’t make the giant hotel on the Gateshead side of the Tyne inspiring. It sits on a historic site of my teenage meandering, imposed into the arms of my favourite of the gorge-spanning bridges, and as a prominent reminder of what was lost from further up the hill. The brutalist, evocative, ‘Get Carter’ car park which was loved by some for the same reasons the Angel of the North is now (brash, prominent front teeth, unapologetically ugly) – had now been knocked out of the horizon.

Conference-going can be deadening – a series of obligatory but uninspiring pitches designed to improve efficiencies, outputs, or allow us to collectively moan. But they can also be an inspiring opportunity to discuss, to share experiences, to set out a collective understanding, and to discuss next steps. I am living through a time in Scotland where collective projects pop up with disarming regularity: this is the long tail of the independence debate. It was, then, a very recognisable thing, the NATE conference, despite being my first, and despite being a new teacher.

It was invigorating: a group of people gathered to talk of taking charge of the future of their work-lives, to determine for themselves what they wished to do, to share stories and skills about a job they love. Despite that, there was also a sense of being under siege, of being backed into a corner. Speakers and delegates repeatedly talked of the idiocy of policy makers, the sinister ideas of ministers – and then got down to the business of better, more humanely, delivering the curriculum. Softening the blow.

From the front of a classroom, it’s easy to wonder if education has always been like this. I revisited my old high school. It had dropped the ‘Comp’ from the title, was re-graded as an ‘Academy’, and no longer ‘Roman’ but simply ‘Catholic’. I remember a lingering ‘technical boy’s school’ mentality, and I remember feeling trained for the shipyard offices which rotted down the hill. The Spice Girls were at the height of their powers. Going to university wasn’t expected – a newly-built panoptic social security office was next door, and ending up behind or in front of its desks was likely. My graphics teacher insisted on giving some of us skills in something called ‘technical drawing’, and we learned the Hail Mary in Spanish.

I was there last year to see if anyone could remind me which exam board my Maths GCSE (modular) was awarded by – and whether it still existed. The board does, the school doesn’t, completely rebuilt a few years ago in one of the last PFI schemes. The old filing cabinets with my records had made the move; the ‘demountable’ classrooms (huts) which I’d taken every English lesson in hadn’t. It was there I first read Viz, and Shakespeare. It was there I got into my first real fight. It was there I slipped out of the school gates to march against a war.

NATE and the new teacher

What does any of this have to do with being an English teacher at the start of a working life? A few points from a position of naivety:

  1. We have an obligation to affirm the voices, languages and histories of our students.
  2. We should be duly suspicious of the ideas that are handed to us.
  3. We should be open to the idea that what we teach by accident will be more important than what we teach by design.
  4. What we leave out matters.
  5. It’s okay to be angry.

It is this attitude that I recognise and value in NATE. It is not simply a trading floor for coping mechanisms and interpretations of policy. It is a place of real professional, political, and cultural commitment. An attempt to remain autonomous from all the strains and demands of a job, and to serve students, not systems; to pick your head up and look to the horizon. I’m having fun, and I’m learning a lot.

Greed and social pride

left Screapadal without people,

and the iron band of laws

that put a vice-like grip on the people,

threatening to raise above them

the black Carn-Mors of hunger

and the Meircil rocks of famine

on which grow the poisonous bracken

from which come the deadly rocket,

hydrogen and neutron bombs.

(from ‘Screapadal’ by Sorley MacLean, translated from the Gaelic by Sorley MacLean.)

 

Tom Coles is a Local Authority  Co-ordinator for NATE in Scotland,  as a member of the Scottish Association for the  Teaching of English (SATE). He teaches in a high school on the Isle of Skye. These views are his own.

 

 

English in England: testing, attainment and teaching; SATE Seminar 16/03/2016

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Dr Gibbons introduced the theme of the seminar, outlining the main concerns with high stakes tests. Admittedly, my knowledge of the English exam system is fairly limited and I can never quite remember which KS stage translates into primary or secondary level here, so the historical context was useful.

The main criticisms of England’s National Testing system don’t come as a surprise. Over the last 25 years, a culture of assessment has become embedded, with assessment leading learning. Simon Gibbons’ list of criticisms includes the obvious concerns many Scottish teachers have of our own Government’s plans for standardised school testing. Teaching to the test, a narrowing curriculum, validity and reliability, pressure on pupils, teachers and schools and shallow rather than deep learning all feature prominently on Simon’s list. These are concerns none of us want to become a Scottish reality, in another quarter of a century.

Simon went on to reference an Institute for Public Policy Research report which raised concerns that the current system in England is failing to consider some crucial aspects of a young person’s development. Simon cited a Commons Select Committee Report which recommended that the National Testing system be reformed to remove the need to pursue results ‘at all costs’. In the Scottish context, I think we’d all concede this is a concern.

He came back to a key question several times – did these tests work? Simon repeated his view that whether or not a teacher disliked them, if they did what they were supposed to and raised attainment overall and for the majority, then they were worthwhile. According to results, SATs scores have gone up. Attainment for white British children eligible for Free School Meals (FMS), a key indicator used to determine economic disadvantage, has improved significantly in the last seven years. Success. In part. Here’s the thing though. The FSM gap for white children has barely changed and in fact, this gap widens as children get older. Ultimately, success in part, given the stakes, isn’t really success at all.

Bethan Marshall

Dr Marshall opened the second half of the seminar by describing what a ‘standard’ English lesson in a school in England would look like. Many of the elements she mentioned aren’t far removed from what’s happening daily in our own departments. There’s learning intentions prominently displayed (but in every lesson) and the learning objective activities are framed according to the learning objectives. I’m not convinced by the ‘learning objectives in every lesson in every subject’ approach but it was the use of the PEE paragraphs being squeezed into English lessons as standard that took me by surprise. As English specialists, we are familiar with PEE, PEER, PEAR, PCQE etc. However, Bethan explained the pedantic fascination with PEEing south of the Border extends to teachers being required to do it in most lessons. Pupils write paragraphs explaining point/evidence/comment at the end of most lessons – to ensure a ‘product’, to provide evidence that meaningful work has been ‘done’ that period. She explained that in England, PEE paragraphing is introduced in Year 7 (age 11) and that pupils don’t see the purpose of it. OFSTED has, in the past, criticised the over focus on PEE, stating it should be a strategy and a skill built up over time but not used in every writing lesson.

Bethan went on to suggest it is better to introduce PEE later in learning, prior to exams of course, but she sees earlier stages (our BGE?) as the place for reading a plethora of texts with classes. This allows pupils to engage with literature, they can be encouraged to respond imaginatively to it, ultimately, seeing the study as worthwhile, meaningful and possibly, even enjoyable. To conclude the average English lesson south of the border, learners will look at success or examination criteria, with the focus ultimately and always on that end result, the test. The biggest driver in England determining how teachers teach is accountability. The situation is worsening with immense pressure placed on teachers.  Most practitioners will stick to teaching what they are told to and how they are told to do it.

Bethan talked about observing a lesson taught by a teacher called ‘Paul’ on Lord of the Flies, which deviated from the norm. Crucially, there was a lack of explicit reference to any form of assessment in the lesson. Paul directed pupils, but ultimately let them lead the discussion, raising ideas and building on the suggestions of others in the class, while he listened. Bethan explained that Paul’s approach wasn’t the norm, in either his own department or in other schools, where a more regimented lesson structure would be used. Overall, pupils were being asked to really think about what they’d been reading rather than the lesson being mechanistic and ultimately exam-driven. And it worked.

Paul’s breadth of subject knowledge allowed comparisons with other texts eg Coral Island and Of Mice and Men. He hardly used the interactive whiteboard (which would normally be used in typical lessons a lot) relying on it only for the comparison study. Bethan again stressed the risk-taking factor when you are seen to be going against how lessons ‘should’ be taught. A teacher, she said, in a lesson focused on one outcome, can force through what has to be covered and doesn’t always take into account, or allow the richness, of what a cumulative lesson could.  In effect, there are two types of English lesson – the skills-based for exams and the kind during which pupils get to actually ‘do’ English (Simon Gibbons citing Dixon, 2014).

Simon Gibbons closed with the idea that the very pupils failing the tests need a different approach, not just to be assessed in the same way, again and again until they pass. The seminar concluded with a discussion around the fact that in many cases, the most interesting classroom conversations often happen with non-certificate classes where there isn’t the rush to always be assessment ready.

I’ve thought a lot about the seminar since attending and I think, beforehand, I was looking for route map for the way we should be introducing assessment through the National Improvement Framework, to allow cherry picking of the best of England’s experience and ensuring we avoid all of the pitfalls. I was alarmed that Paul was seen as a ‘maverick’, as his lesson style is the sort you see in English classrooms the length and breadth of Scotland, even in certificate classes. What we don’t have, being so time poor at N5 and Higher, is the chance to teach this way often enough. We manage it more within the Broad General Education, for that was partly what the junior stage was designed to incorporate, but even by S3, there’s an increasing move towards assessment and predominantly skills-based teaching.

The seminar definitely provided food for thought and the opportunity to focus on a few of the questions that will continue to be raised by Scottish teachers as we move apace towards the introduction of standardised assessments.

 

Susan Brownlie is SATE Local Authority Coordinator for South Lanarkshire.  Any views expressed here are her own, not those of her employer or SATE.

Assessment Seminar with Bethan Marshall and Simon Gibbons: Wednesday 16/3/16

An excellent seminar on assessment with Dr Bethan Marshall and Dr Simon Gibbons of King’s College London, co-hosted with The School of Education at The University of Strathclyde and held in The Technology and Innovation Centre.

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(l to r) Simon Gibbons, Bethan Marshall and Raymond Soltysek

A report will follow soon from one of SATE’s local authority coordinators. In the meantime, here is an extract from my introduction:

‘There’s never been a more appropriate time for Scottish teachers of English to join a strong subject association.  I’m in the middle of interviewing next year’s applicants for PGDE, and I think every year since 2001, I’ve told them that this is a time of great change in Scottish education; this year, that is true more than ever, and as I approach perhaps not the sunset of my career, but definitely the twilight, I don’t think I have ever been less optimistic about the future.

There are good things on the horizon, to be sure.  If PRD is as supportive as it is said to be, teachers will have a real structure in which to plan their own professional development.  As English teachers, membership of NATE offers access to the latest research and classroom practice, as well as resources, and is tailor made for the PRD process.  Social media, Teach Meets and Pedagoo mean that teachers are coming together to cater for their own development needs, plugging the gaps in CPD that denuded budgets and the loss of curriculum advisers have allowed to develop, and NATE offers an umbrella under which we can all shelter and share.  These, then, are exciting times for teachers who are doing it for themselves, and the one huge improvement I’ve seen over my fifteen years in teacher education is how the professional knowledge and skills of teachers has grown, almost exponentially.  When I left Jordanhill College, I knew on average it would take about 8 years to be promoted; I now see my students achieving promoted status with two or three years, and I have no doubt that they are absolutely ready for it.

But there are dark forces gathering in Scottish education that seek to change it irrevocably.  Because of our proudly independent system, we tend to feel that we are cushioned against the worst excesses of the wider world, excesses that have been chillingly demonstrated by the Westminster Government’s ideological obsession with taking all schools out of local authority control, to be managed centrally by government and locally by a patchwork of individual school boards, interest groups and private enterprises.  The disingenuous rhetoric in which those ideas are framed– ‘choice’, ‘parental voice’, ‘flexibility’ – masks what is fundamentally an economic driver behind reform. 

In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina destroyed all but 15 of its 168 publicly funded and controlled schools; in the aftermath of the disaster, the whole school system was privatised, every child went to a school publicly funded but managed for profit by private corporations.  The vast majority of teachers were fired, most  being replaced by deunionised Teach for America apprentice teachers teaching a denuded curriculum concentrated on a brutal testing regime that is cheap to teach but casts the most vulnerable into poverty and failure.  For private enterprise, Katrina was not a tragedy; it was an opportunity.

It was also a crisis created by unprecedented natural events; but man can easily create crises, through underfunding and deregulation, crises in which a system is systematically and deliberately broken and then deemed to be irreparable by anything other than management  from a supposedly more efficient private sector.  It is this man-made disaster that is driving the move towards the privatisation – wrapped up in the educationally aspirational term ‘academisation’ – that George Osborne is building a large portion of the Budget around.

There is a much resistance to such moves in Scotland, where we are proud of our state funded, local authority managed comprehensive states system.  It has served us well, for all its faults.  But those forces which would dismantle that system are undoubtedly gathering, forces which range from groups of parents (usually middle class) rightly anxious about local school closures to influential think tanks to former highly paid public education executives who have slickly managed the transition to become champions of (and I quote) ‘increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility.’ And in a world run by TTIP in which private corporations have the legal right to siphon off profitable parts of public services uninhibited by the democratic will of the people, education services and even individual schools may well find themselves being circled by some very ravenous wolves.

There is less resistance, however, to apprenticeship models of teacher training.  Tom Hunter’s ‘exploration’ of Scottish education recently highlighted a successful academy in London, employing ‘Teach First’ teachers, described as ‘the very best graduates’, as if anyone not on such a scheme is somehow the underqualified dross of the teaching profession.  The Scottish Government’s warm response – a sort of ‘if it works, we’ll do it’ common sense – suggests that they may well look at different models of teacher training.   Let’s be clear, though.  Apprenticeship models of teacher training work on exactly the same principles as your electricity supply. Power is brought to our homes from the same power stations, along the same cables, through the same substations; it is only when the envelope with the bill arrives that a multitude of companies clamour and compete for the right to charge us for that same electricity.  Training providers  – whether individual schools, local authorities or – most likely – private corporations – will still place student teachers in the same schools with the same mentors, still access the same university courses and tutors, will still employ the same accreditation bodies as ever.  But with a product to now sell, with a contract to protect, with profits to enhance – what is the chance that the need to be ‘outstanding’ will (and I use the word advisedly but appropriately) trump the need to adhere to rigorous quality standards?

This is all going to happen, as sure as the sun rises and sets.  After the Japanese earthquake, news outlets had panels of experts that included earthquake scientists, nuclear power station engineers and financial consultants, as if economic activity is as immutable and inevitable as tectonic plate shifts and radioactive meltdown.  And, in the world we live in, it is.  Neoliberalism will have its way. 

But people can – should – speak out; otherwise, we will lose all that we value without a whimper.  Whether it is on these global issues that threaten to swallow education as we know it, or whether it is on the – not unrelated – issues of the closure of school libraries, or the development of a vocational curriculum, or the place of Scottish culture and texts in our classrooms, or the reintroduction of national testing, English teachers can and should have a voice.  For decades, that voice has been NATE, and we have two of its most influential members here tonight.  I won’t say much about them, since most of you quoted Bethan Marshall in your last assignments on assessment and therefore know her work well.  And when Conservative Home (The Home of Conservatives), a body deliciously unacquainted with the concept of tautology, describes Simon Gibbons as  a ‘classic Leftist elitist’ who ‘uses impeccable standard English’, you know he’s worth listening to.  That same august body said of NATE, ‘it’s time is up.’  That was four years ago.  It would be nice to watch it grow in Scotland.’

 

(Raymond Soltysek lectures in Teacher Education at The University of Strathclyde and is Regional Coordinator for The Scottish Association for the Teaching of English.  Views expressed here are his own, not those of his employer or SATE)

Welcome to SATE!

This is the first blog post of the Scottish Association for the Teaching of English (SATE).  Affiliated to the UK-wide NATE, we hope to offer teachers of English in Scotland a professional association that provides them with the opportunities to network professional learning in the context of professional update while also giving them a voice in the formulation of policy that directly affects the teaching of English in Primary and Secondary classrooms.  You can read more about us here:

http://goo.gl/ZHT19y 

We have plans for Teach-Meets around the country, using this blog to publicise and report on events members have organised and attended.  We hope in the future to run a major conference in Scotland in 2017, and to encourage action research in the classroom.  To do this, we need your help.  First of all, join NATE.  An individual or departmental membership provides access to journals of the latest research and magazines publicising the latest classroom practice.  Then – participate.  Gary Snapper of NATE is keen to receive items about classroom practice in Scotland for the Classroom magazine, and SATE hopes to form a Teacher Education committee with top academics from universities to support the publication of your classroom research. If you have any ideas for blog posts, please submit them to the Regional coordinator. And, by all means, if you are interested in furthering the development of a strong professional association in Scotland and would like to coordinate events in your local authority, contact any of the SATE officials below.

This is, potentially, an exciting time for English teachers in Scotland.  If you would like to know more, visit NATE at their national website (https://www.nate.org.uk/), or contact any of the following SATE officials.

SATE Regional coordinator: Raymond Soltysek  raymond.soltysek@strath.ac.uk

Highland Local Authority coordinator: Tom Coles tomcoles@gmail.com

Perth & Kinross Local Authority coordinator: Kerry Fraser kerryfraser@pkc.gov.uk

South Lanarkshire Local Authority coordinator: Susan Brownlie sbrownlie@st-a-and-st-b.s-lanark.sch.uk

North Ayrshire Local Authority coordinator: Jane Wilson gw15wilsonjane@ea.n-ayrshire.sch.uk

Glasgow Local Authority coordinator: Nuala Clark gw15clarknuala@glow.sch.uk

North Lanarkshire Local Authority coordinator: Katie Lane mrslaneenglish@gmail.com

Have a wonderful holiday and we hope to meet you soon!