Behind The I (Blog Published in HCE Review)

How much do we ever really see? In today’s ever-hectic society, with its never-sleeping cyber world and a thousand different tasks to do at all times, our eyes and our every sense are becoming too distracted; there never seems to be a moment to spare. A moment to step back. To observe our world. To see.
Interestingly, we are becoming, quite literally, more and more short-sighted, with up to 60% of the world’s population now requiring glasses or contacts. Indeed, eye strain is an increasing issue with proven links to alterations in lifestyles, particularly the constant virtual pressures on our vision. Many studies over the past decade have shown the undeniable connections between the plummeting rates of people with perfect sight and society’s soaring addictions to all types of technology. Research by King’s College London in 2015, for instance, documented the rising number of diagnoses for myopia in the UK, with those of us between the ages of 25-29 most affected (a frightening 47.2%) and with the majority cases recorded in those with higher education post-16. The study concluded by deducing the central contributing factors: we spend more time studying and reading texts, we spend less hours outdoors and, most worryingly, we spend more and more time tied to computer screens.
This escalation of literal eye problems, however, could be the start of a whole different article. It could kick-start a persuasive piece about the ever lucrative laser eye surgery market, for instance. Or perhaps rant about how reading books offline and online is actually a health hazard. By spending more time indoors, buried in books and, crucially, stuck to the glaring screens of laptops, phones, iPads and whatever other gadgets have most recently hit the headlines, we are becoming dangers unto ourselves.
Perhaps one particularly prevalent learning point here is the extent to which our fading eyesight is symptomatic of wider societal concerns. We are, it seems, living in a world with a population less and less able to step back and see the details of its experiences and environments. This article, though, is of course far from being a warning against too much reading! Books are a beautiful gateway into exploring other ideas, experiences and emotions, into developing empathy and a wider cultural understanding, into escaping our own fraught and faulty surroundings by diving into all sorts of imagination-firing fictional worlds instead.
However, this recent research is a wake-up call; it is a warning that we should consider what other factors are stopping us from stepping back in order to see and to sense the streets of our habitual comings and goings. Our incontestable collective addition to all sorts of screens and smartphones suggests that such overwhelmingly addictive technology is not, perhaps, all that smart after all. Proven to make stress levels sky rocket and to skew self-perceptions about the importance of our own individual problems and priorities, our societal short-sightedness runs far deeper than just a statistical report of the rising number of myopia sufferers. Whatever the condition of our corneas, we are failing, not only literally but metaphorically, to see the details of our everyday existences.
We live in a country scattered with all sorts of sounds, sights and smells, with so much for our senses to make sense of that it can be hard to know where to start. Although this is particularly apparent for the busy bees bustling through London’s streets, it is apparent in all sorts of urban and rural locations across the country. With faces forever glued onto gadgets, everyone’s eyes remain diverted onto email checking and social media obsessing and away from observing any of society’s often spectacular specifics. What about the magical colour conglomerate of an autumnal sunset? Or the mysterious expressions of a row of city centre gargoyles glaring down on the pedestrians below? Or that one gorgeously flourishing evergreen, still growing strong along the side of an otherwise empty fence, despite the cruel winds weathering attempt’s to tear it down?
It is an increasing concern that we are too absorbed in our omniscient online world and too dangerously distracted by the tens of thousands of things we assume we have to be juggling at any one time that we forget to ever really see. This is not to say, of course, that we are not continuously overloaded with tasks and to-do lists, or that it is wrong to use commuting time to cram in as many catch ups as possible. There are quite palpable pressures to meet deadlines to be to available long after hours or to manage fast-paced family life alongside work’s difficult deadlines and do-now demands. And, after all, if we can tick off our admin and odd jobs whilst walking from one meeting to another, or when travelling from the office towards whatever more relaxing post-work destination awaits, or whilst taking a train from one stress to the next, then we can, theoretically, get everything done and put away the work later on, focusing entirely on an evening with a partner, family and friends, or simply to soak up the change of environment and the headspace it should bring.
We can all see, figuratively, that this is simply not reality. Not only do we miss actually looking at the little details of our routes by trying to reply to those last minute requests or complete that one final chore– from architectural anomalies, to the magical skyline and its magically moving shades, to protesting posters and paint patches that scratch out heartfelt messages – but our inability to notice is so ingrained that it stays with us even when we’ve met up with friends and family. Even when we have supposedly, but only superficially, switched off our devices and switched off all other demands on our thoughts. Even when we’ve arrived at the time that we’ve theoretically decided to set aside.
But would benefit would this article be if it simply complained about the state of society, without making even the simplest suggestions about how to make us start seeing once again? Let’s celebrate the already evident attempts to awaken us to the world. From tour buses to themed walks to free exhibitions across many cities’ most spectacular sites, there are opportunities for us to get observing. However, whilst such examples allow us to nominally notice what’s happening around us, they can actually encourage us to actively hide our eyes behind a screen, camera-shot or smartphone; we can become too busy tweeting, texting and taking pictures of what we’re seeing to really take time to see it. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with snapping away in this way (indeed, photos are special ways to keep our memories alive), we must make seeing, and not selfie sticks, the new normal. Like taking up exercise after a long stretch of lethargy, or cooking fresh new recipes rather than falling back on the same tried and tested dishes, observation will only happen when we make it a habit. And, like any new hobby or habits, change takes perseverance but it can absolutely be learning, improved and enjoyed.
Here are two examples of recent London events that focused on encouraging participants to really observe. The first was an Alternative London street art tour, winding its keen walkers through East London’s streets to see all sorts of rather talented graffiti and to learn about different artists and genres of graffiti. Whilst there is an overload of tourist-attracting walking tours to choose from in the capital, what made this particular event stand out was the walking group leader’s insistence that we keep phones silenced and, most importantly, refrain from camera-clicking. More than just off-putting fellow participants, our guide made clear just how much it would stop us really seeing. And how right he was! We spotted small and intricate designs on the edges of lampposts, in the hidden bits of buildings, as well as patterns or repetitions in the art as we walked along. Having arrived with next to no knowledge of well-known graffiti artists or what graffiti meant beyond some late-night spray paint on street walls, we soon found ourselves able to recognise the unique style of certain artists and to see where faded designs had been drawn upon with new ones, with such layers giving us insight into how London itself has changed over time. We saw, too, political angst and injustice-driven anger behind many pieces of art and became able to detect tiny shifts in messaging or tone, depending on the street or sign or wall or window that the work was created on. Although the attendees of the walk will inevitably go on to wander East London’s streets with heads buried in social media and sending messages, when there is no longer a guide to bring us out of ourselves, such events undoubtedly help to change perceptions of what it means to see.
The second example also took place on a similar section of East London, but with a creative writing focus. We were given observational foci on each new road. For instance, what eclectic examples of red do you see between here and our next stopping spot? What do those different shades mean? This second walk was so creatively engaging, it also served as a sad reminder of how much our imaginations can ebb when we don’t let our eyes mindfully soak in our surrounding sights more frequently. Nevertheless, these examples are undoubtedly replicable across other boroughs, other cities, other counties and, hopefully, other countries, making more reflective behaviour a regularity.
It can be easier to start honing our observational ways in a new place, where each detail is a new discovery. We often overlook the intricacies of our home environments and experiences simply because we assume we know the details of our doorsteps. However, approaching familiar faces and places like a stranger can help our minds to reimagine and to start to see all the finer sights we have somehow previously missed, engaging with our environments through new, more thoughtful eyes.
Even if we have to force ourselves, at first, to properly pay attention to the details of our daily grinds, it’s still a start. It is such a habit to be too busy bouncing around inside our own minds that forget to be present. We are simultaneously sorting out the day ahead, whilst worrying about our loved ones, or a heated conversation we had with a flatmate or friend the night before, whilst also making sky-high plans for the trillions of as yet unmade plans, such as squeeze in that run, or re-learn the dust-covered cello from your childhood, or sort out the pile of half-nearly completed knitting projects that have grown over the months – or years. We are too busy ovr-thinking to step back and notice how distracted we’ve become.
The advantages of taking time to observe are too many to mention in detail. This is the simplest of starts: we are, contrary to what our stress-soaked brains may think, decreasing our risk of burning out by buying time to see, we make smarter, more thoughtful decisinos and, as one study by the University of Amsterdam excitingly revealed, a more mindful attention to detail makes us more creative. With attention fully aware, we have far more descriptive capacity and our imaginations are almost instantly released.
We have, due to the draw of creating cyber connections rather than connecting with the world around us, become worryingly too secluded. Now, that
And we have become a species that spends too much time secluded! Now, this isn’t to say that we should be skipping work hours to stand around outside just absent mindedly observing. But being outdoors a little more is not only a huge victory for our health (fresh air, Vitamin D, the sun’s nourishing effects on the eyes… the evidence is pretty solid). but being outdoors psychologically alters the way we see things. Staring at a screen plays damagingly with our eyes, whereas outdoors, observing, things tend to present themselves in clearer ways. We can re-connct with our creativity if we leave the screens inside just for a while.
Finally, perhaps the biggest gain from taking more to observe is the impact on our emotions. Our online obsession does, it seems, makes us far too self-obsessed – and often without realising it. By taking time to see and sense and soak in our surroundings, we can move away from becoming unhealthily absorbed in our own lives and can gain perspective beyond all those individual situations and stresses. Slowing down helps to boost our memories of life’s moments, as we take the time to step outside our minds and experience the world and its wonders vividly and meaningfully.
I have – until this sentence – refrained from overdoing the ‘I’. By replacing our ‘Is’ with our ‘eyes’, after all, is the central message. Let’s step back and really see the details of who and what we have around us; let’s experience the wheres, whens and whys of our surroundings; let’s see if seeing more can help us become a happier and healthier society.

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NUHA Blogging Competition: Find Yourself Within Stories

I posted the blog below a while back and am delighted that it is now part of the NUHA Foundation Blog Competition. Any’likes’, tweets and comments really appreciated!
http://www.nuhafoundation.org/home/blog/bloggingentries/2017/adult/find_your_self_within_stories_a_penfold#.WdXqY1tSyig

By Alice Penfold. Alice, 26, was a secondary school English teacher. Alice now works for the National Literacy Trust and is starting an MA in Children’s Literature. She lives in London, United Kingdom. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

___

“She remembered, as every sensible person does, that you should never never shut yourself up in a wardrobe.”

Clearing out my cupboard of children’s classics several months ago (a perfect procrastination from the mountains of marking that became a permanent feature of every weekend last year, when working as a secondary school English teacher), I rediscovered an old, well-thumbed copy of The Chronicles of Narnia; as I started to read it once again, I simply couldn’t put it down. This subsequently inspired one holiday homework idea, ahead of the upcoming school essay.”

I’m not going to set a single essay, comprehension test or written assignment for this half term!” I exclaimed to my rather disengaged Key Stage 3 class, with misplaced enthusiasm. “Your homework is, instead, to read a book. For pleasure.”

What I naively supposed to be a superlatively generous suggestion was met, unsurprisingly, by silence. As the class groaningly grabbed their school planners and began obediently – almost robotically – to fill in the task and due date, one particularly annoyed (and book-avoiding) child popped up his hand.

“Miss, why would I read a book for pleasure in my spare time, when I could play Call of Duty and have more fun?”

The question left me speechless. I could give the obvious answer, one I unthinkingly ramble to anyone asking anything about why reading books really matters. Reams of research proves to us over and over again that reading for pleasure outside the classroom is life-changing: it raises your grades; it enhances your empathy and emotional awareness; it helps you to understand your own and others’ identities; it empowers you to be an active citizen, promoting a healthier and happier society for yourself and others. It improves not only your literacy levels but your wider well-being and likelihood of future success. (1)

That answer, however, would have switched off my audience in seconds. After all, teachers are designed to dictate what you must do! Homework will always be a horrible hardship, and that includes being told that you must read! As the class scribbled down ‘read a book‘ in their student homework planners, before scurrying away to their next lesson, it was clear that I needed to rethink how to not just tell but to properly show young people that reading books really can be favourable and more fun to plugging into the play-station, again, or wasting time on silly and often unsafe websites, again, or hanging outside on the streets not really doing anything, again.

C.S.Lewis gets it right. Books – and particularly children’s books – should not be seen as simply something to keep children occupied. Reading for pleasure, whilst it remains as something that we adults do not actually engage with ourselves and therefore actively prove is pleasurable, will continue seeming to children as a chore and not a choice. And it is that word – choice – that makes the difference. The benefits of reading for pleasure are undoubtedly bigger and better when reading is something students self-select through their own free will. Of course, we know that the concept of free-will is a fallacy. There is much detailed research into the subjectivity of choice, from debates about self-determinism to conversations about social and experiential conditioning. This is not, though, a blog about the endlessly unsolvable psychology of choice. Crucially, what underpins arguments about reading children’s books, both as children and as adults, is the question of how far the choices we make (freely or not) are made by the choices of those around us.

For now, let’s take at face value the fact that teachers and families have an irreversibly huge impact of young people’s decision making. Telling students to read for pleasure (as I mistakenly did) can end up having a detrimental effect, turning reading into a to-do list task rather than an enjoyment. Throughout my teaching career, the difference between students (usually but not always those in higher sets) who had been brought up with book-loving friends and families, where reading recommendations would be swallowed up more speedily than their sugary break-time snacks, and those who struggled with reading or for whom reading for fun was not a normalised part of in or out of school life, never failed to shock.

However, by observing adults – teachers, professionals and, most importantly, parents – actively reading, not only adult fiction but children’s literature too, students are far more likely to pick up a book. They’ve not been told to sit and read, if it’s promoting passively in this way; it is (fallacy or not) something they have selected to do themselves. Whilst C. S. Lewis’s views about choice are connected to his Christian faith when he suggests that “every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before”, this message undoubtedly speaks to us on a bigger level. As we adults choose to let go of phones or laptops (even if infrequently!) and give a dedicated space for reading stories a go instead, I have no doubt that we’ll see the transformative effects that reading for pleasure can have on the mind-sets of both children and adults. (2)

Indeed, C. S. Lewis could not be more right. By consciously demonstrating that reading for pleasure is not compulsory but is a choice that we, as adults, freely, unfailingly and frequently select, young people will subconsciously seek out more stories for themselves, their behaviour influenced by those around them. Not having time to read is – like free choice – a fallacy. We can find a few minutes each day to dive into a book. If parents, teachers and all grown-ups give explicitly increasing importance to reading both adult and children’s literature, then gadget distractions and unhealthy attitudes to reading will diminish. Currently, children see us adults (who are all role models, really, whether we like it or not) continuously answering emails, scrolling through social media and generally giving in to technology’s addictive power, they will inevitably be more likely to follow suit, picking up a smartphone rather than a good story in their free time.

But it’s not too late to reclaim the power of children’s books. C. S. Lewis’s belief that children’s books are also meant for older audiences reminds us of how reading for pleasure can change the perceptions and perspectives not only of young readers but adults too. To see children’s fiction as irrelevant once we’ve grown up and grown more grey is – like free choice and our self-convincing lie that we don’t have time to read – yet another fallacy.

As adults who actively read so-called children’s books, we will not only be re-immersed in their magic but can also dive into deeper meanings. Us adults will also be taken on memorable adventures and re-adventures through fictional worlds (as we always tell children they will), form more meaningful relationships and re-learn to understand ourselves and others a little better, as well as discover new values and appreciation of different cultures and human behaviours. The emotions and experiences explored in good children’s literature remain at the heart of human experience, regardless of how long we’ve been adults.

Reading children’s books, then, as both young people and adults, opens the metaphorical wardrobe door, left too long locked. Like Edmund, Susan, Peter and Lucy, C. S. Lewis’s fantastic protagonists in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, re-visiting children’s books, particularly when read collaboratively with young people, unlocks deeper ideas and insights. ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ provides a wonderful insight into the transformative potential of reading. As C. S. Lewis’s captivating character Arslan claims, “This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” Young people will continue to disbelieve that reading can be about real life until we model it and make ourselves re-find the deeper meanings in children’s fiction. Let’s stop simply parroting the positives of ‘reading for pleasure’ and make space to do so ourselves.

(1) Wilkinson, S (ed) (2015), https://readingagency.org.uk/news/The%20Impact%20of%20Reading%20for%20Pleasure%20and%20Empowerment.pd, p.4-31.

(2) Clark, C and Rumbold, K (2006), ‘Reading for pleasure: a research overview’, National Literacy Trust.

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Find Your Self Within Stories

“She remembered, as every sensible person does, that you should never never shut yourself up in a wardrobe.”
Clearing out my cupboard of children’s classics several months ago (a perfect procrastination from the mountains of marking that became a permanent feature of every weekend last year, when working as a secondary school English teacher), I rediscovered an old, well-thumbed copy of The Chronicles of Narnia; as I started to read it once again, I simply couldn’t put it down. This subsequently inspired one holiday homework idea, ahead of the upcoming school essay.
“I’m not going to set a single essay, comprehension test or written assignment for this half term!” I exclaimed to my rather disengaged Key Stage 3 class, with misplaced enthusiasm. “Your homework is, instead, to read a book. For pleasure.”
What I naively supposed to be a superlatively generous suggestion was meant, unsurprisingly, by silence. As the class groaningly grabbed their school planners and began obediently – almost robotically – to fill in the task and due date, one particularly annoyed (and book-avoiding) child popped up his hand.
“Miss, why would I read a book for pleasure in my spare time, when I could play Call of Duty and have more fun?”
The question left me speechless. I could give the obvious answer, one I unthinkingly rambled to anyone asking anything about why reading books really matters. Reams of research proves to us over and over again that reading for pleasure outside the classroom is life-changing: it raises your grades; it enhances your empathy and emotional awareness; it helps you to understand your own and others’ identities; it empowers you to be an active citizen, promoting a healthier and happier society for yourself and others. It improves not only your literacy levels but your wider well-being and likelihood of future success.
That answer, however, would have switched off my audience in seconds. After all, teachers are designed to dictate what you must do! Homework will always be a horrible hardship, and that includes being told that you must read! As the class scribbled down ‘read a book‘ in their student homework planners, before scurrying away to their next lesson, it was clear that I needed to rethink how to not just tell but to properly show young people that reading books really can be favourable and more fun to plugging into the play-station, again, or wasting time on silly and often unsafe websites, again, or hanging outside on the streets not really doing anything, again.
C.S.Lewis gets it right. Books – and particularly children’s books – should not be seen as simply something to keep children occupied. Reading for pleasure, whilst it remains as something that we adults do not actually engage with ourselves and therefore actively prove is pleasurable, will continue seeming to children as a chore and not a choice. And it is that word – choice – that makes the difference. The benefits of reading for pleasure are undoubtedly bigger and better when reading is something students self-select through their own free will. Of course, we know that the concept of free-will is a fallacy. There is much detailed research into the subjectivity of choice, from debates about self-determinism to conversations about social and experiential conditioning. This is not, though, a blog about the endlessly unsolvable psychology of choice. Crucially, what underpins arguments about reading children’s books, both as children and as adults, is the question of how far the choices we make (freely or not) are made by the choices of those around us.
For now, let’s take at face value the fact that teachers and families have an irreversibly huge impact of young people’s decision making. Telling students to read for pleasure (as I mistakenly did) can end up having a detrimental effect, turning reading into a to-do list task rather than an enjoyment. Throughout my teaching career, the difference between students (usually but not always those in higher sets) who had been brought up with book-loving friends and families, where reading recommendations would be swallowed up more speedily than their sugary break-time snacks, and those who struggled with reading or for whom reading for fun was not a normalised part of in or out of school life, never failed to shock.
However, by observing adults – teachers, professionals and, most importantly, parents – actively reading, not only adult fiction but children’s literature too, students are far more likely to pick up a book. They’ve not been told to sit and read, if it’s promoting passively in this way; it is (fallacy or not) something they have selected to do themselves. Whilst C. S. Lewis’s views about choice are connected to his Christian faith when he suggests that “every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before”, this message undoubtedly speaks to us on a bigger level. As we adults choose to let go of phones or laptops (even if infrequently!) and give a dedicated space for reading stories a go instead, I have no doubt that we’ll see the transformative effects that reading for pleasure can have on the mind-sets of both children and adults.
Indeed, C. S. Lewis could not be more right. By consciously demonstrating that reading for pleasure is not compulsory but is a choice that we, as adults, freely, unfailingly and frequently select, young people will subconsciously seek out more stories for themselves, their behaviour influenced by those around them. Not having time to read is – like free choice – a fallacy. We can find a few minutes each day to dive into a book. If parents, teachers and all grown-ups give explicitly increasing importance to reading both adult and children’s literature, then gadget distractions and unhealthy attitudes to reading will diminish. Currently, children see us adults (who are all role models, really, whether we like it or not) continuously answering emails, scrolling through social media and generally giving in to technology’s addictive power, they will inevitably be more likely to follow suit, picking up a smartphone rather than a good story in their free time.
But it’s not too late to reclaim the power of children’s books. C. S. Lewis’s belief that children’s books are also meant for older audiences reminds us of how reading for pleasure can change the perceptions and perspectives not only of young readers but adults too. To see children’s fiction as irrelevant once we’ve grown up and grown more grey is – like free choice and our self-convincing lie that we don’t have time to read – yet another fallacy.
As adults who actively read so-called children’s books, we will not only be re-immersed in their magic but can also dive into deeper meanings. Us adults will also be taken on memorable adventures and re-adventures through fictional worlds (as we always tell children they will), form more meaningful relationships and re-learn to understand ourselves and others a little better, as well as discover new values and appreciation of different cultures and human behaviours. The emotions and experiences explored in good children’s literature remain at the heart of human experience, regardless of how long we’ve been adults.
Reading children’s books, then, as both young people and adults, opens the metaphorical wardrobe door, left too long locked. Like Edmund, Susan, Peter and Lucy, C. S. Lewis’s fantastic protagonists in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, re-visiting children’s books, particularly when read collaboratively with young people, unlocks deeper ideas and insights. ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ provides a wonderful insight into the transformative potential of reading. As C. S. Lewis’s captivating character Arslan claims, “This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” Young people will continue to disbelieve that reading can be about real life until we model it and make ourselves re-find the deeper meanings in children’s fiction. Let’s stop simply parroting the positives of ‘reading for pleasure’ and make space to do so ourselves.

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The Write Way Forward: The Importance of Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers

After another day of long lessons, Ofsted-prepping observations and mountains of marking (not to mention any of the many unforeseen fights, sudden Smartboard breakdowns and unplanned parental meetings), there is one sentence that will undoubtedly make any time-stretched, over-tired teacher spontaneously combust.

“Could you just find the extra time to…?”

In days filled with decisions, disasters and dead-lines, finding extra time is, quite frankly, a near-impossibility. Stealing a few seconds for toilet trip or a cup of tea is tricky enough in a chock-a-block teaching day, let alone finding substantial time slots, for instance to deliver after school clubs or to run exciting off-site trips. With schools already swamped by performance measurement pressures, exam results reporting and countless different league table targets, extra-curriculars can often be seen as desirable but optional extra accessories, rather than fundamental opportunities to find time for and embed. Indeed, a lack of hours is perhaps the main hurdle facing external organisations hoping to collaborate with schools and run curriculum-enhancing clubs, CPD and/or cultural events.

What is crucial, perhaps, is that any ‘extras’ do not require schools to seek out hours before or after the main teaching day but rather, can fit within already existing curriculums and lesson times. However exciting the school opportunities and offerings are from outside charities or clubs, however clear their purposes and evaluated evidence of how they enhance the curriculum or contribute to children’s out of class learning, they need to slide smoothly into teachers’ already hectic hours in order to stand a chance of long-term success.

So what does this chaotic school climate mean for teachers, writers and, crucially, teachers as writers? The ever escalating need for schools to meet quotas and requirements and achieve routinely excellent results can lead to more regimented, assessment-focused approaches to teaching, with room for imagination increasingly squeezed. Indeed, one central frustration, particularly for English teachers, is the desire to stop creativity disappearing completely from the curriculum. With constantly changing and increasingly over-stuffed schemes of work focused on SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) and very structured exam requirements, there is often little room left for more relaxed and spontaneous story making. Whilst there are thousands of teachers across the country keen to get more creative, nobody wants to deviate too far from strict assessment obligations and then end up anxious about not setting students up successfully for the unavoidable exam hurdles. After all, students’ results do help to open so many doors, and those of us in the classroom want students to achieve the best possible measured outcomes, alongside less measurable educational progress. Having the capacity (and energy) to find exciting and imagination-engaging extras can often feel impossible and, with so many demands and deadlines, making space for creative writing, freed from rights and wrongs and curriculum checklists, can be a real struggle.

However, what use would this article be if it did nothing but complain? This is not a lament about our over-controlled educational climate, or the death of creativity, but instead, a consideration of how we can kick-start creativity within the context of the inevitable reality of our school culture. What better time than now to focus on – and celebrate – the impact that teachers being writers themselves can have on students’ own intrinsic motivation to get their imaginations invigorated and re-discover a love of words, without the worry of what grade their stories may be stamped with? As a former teacher, now employee (and long-term volunteer) at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, I firmly believe in the transformative potential of students seeing their teachers taking part in creative writing tasks simultaneously alongside them, making mistakes, brainstorming ideas and explicitly revealing their enthusiasm for writing. By having the confidence to deviate from unwaveringly exam-linked lessons and actively building in time to write – to really write, free from ‘Assessment Objectives’ or red pen marking, to write without worrying about whether our stories will match up to the current GCSE requirements, to write in a way that celebrates individual imaginations, where all ideas are valued, freed from reservations of being ‘right and wrong’ – we can build creativity into the school day, without trying to find non-existent extra time. And creativity is, of course, more than just a nice little extra. Through writing, students not only develop their literacy but also can make sense of different emotions, different cultures, and different sides to their own characters.

But what might this idea of ‘teachers as writers’ look like? Let’s start by reflecting on the exciting potential of a recent and on-going piece of research by Arvon Foundation, which supports creative teaching, provides extra cultural and CPD opportunities and fits smoothly into existing English lessons, without the need to squeeze creative writing into the tired hours at the edges of school days. Arvon’s ‘Teachers as Writers’ project is definitely worth diving into (http://www.arvon.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Arvon-Teachers-as-Writers.pdf), as it outlines the impact that teachers identifying themselves explicitly as writers and working closely with professional writers can have on the quality of writing produced in class as well as the interest that students take in engaging their imaginations.

Moreover, Arvon’s ‘Teachers as Writers’ project focuses on developing the confidence of classroom practitioners to self-identify as writers and monitors the impact that teachers calling themselves writers and offering students more ‘writerly’ feedback has on classroom teaching. There are so many reasons why encouraging collaboration between teachers and writers is beneficial (and far too many to focus on them all in one article). However, just for starters, involving professional writers can really enhance classroom practice, inspiring creativity during scheduled lesson time rather than attempting to find time for early morning writing or additional after school sessions and, of course, having educators clearly defining themselves as writers helps develop students’ intrinsic motivation and belief that writing is important, particularly when teachers can then make more insightful connections to students’ own personal, social, cultural and emotional experiences. Arvon’s ‘Teachers as Writers’ project has already collected clear evidence of success and indeed, teachers who participated in their control group have recorded the effects of the programme on their pedagogy and classroom practices, particularly the impact that allowing time for free-writing, without immediately introducing the critical red pen to spot the spellings and grammar mistakes or straight away connecting every student’s story to a set mark or level, has on letting students let go of writers’ block. Working with with professional writers also helps teachers to provide ‘writerly’ feedback, focused on craft and content aside from exam board mark schemes, as well as engaging students as autonomous and imaginative individuals, finding ways to draw out students’ inner stories without always connecting feedback to stringent ‘right or wrong’ requirements.

One of the most exciting part of Arvon’s Teachers as Writers projects, though, has emerged as one central recommendations from their evaluative report: the transformative impact of Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers. In other words, what is the impact of teaching by doing (in this case, writing), where pupils to see their teachers completing creative tasks alongside them? If teachers can find the confidence to call themselves writers and make free writing, content driven creative sessions a part of (not a tag-on to) the curriculum, writing side by side with their students, then undoubtedly this has the exciting potential to improve writing skills and the motivation to focus, engage and improve, as well as to remind us all of how powerful imaginative engagement can be.

This is not a radically new idea, of course; years of well-researched pedagogical practice demonstrates the impact of less didactic and more immersive teaching on students’ sense of independence and interest in writing. Nevertheless, by showing enthusiasm and taking an active part in creative class tasks, students so often feel empowered and motivated, rather than being’ talked to’ that can be a result of more –teacher led lessons. Teachers are essential role models, after all. How else can we expect students to love writing and shed their fears of whether their writing is right and wrong unless we teachers and educators actively and obviously show our own passions for imaginative writing.

By becoming creative writers at the same time as their classes, the role of teachers immediately becomes more impactful and more interesting. Trialling this with one class last term proved to me the importance of children seeing their educators writing alongside them, not simply setting tasks that they oversee but do not actively participate in. Specifically, I decided to emerge as a teacher-who-is-also-a-writer with one of my an exam classes, who were arguably a little too overly used to lessons (not just in English but in all their subjects) which crawled through exam specifications step by slow step, with little scope to think outside the assessment box, let alone be actively encouraged to write creatively, free from restrictions and red pens. Putting in practice Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers (ideas for catchier names welcomed!) showed how effective it is for students to physically see their teachers diving into writing and enthusiastically wrangling with words, writing stories, speeches, poems, anything at the time as their students. No completing a lesson plan at the computer. No circulating the room and pointing out the odd SPaG slip-up. No setting strict tick-box Success Criteria. Every student (including the teacher-student) started with the same visual prompt – a picture of a forest, with the afternoon light starting to dim and the trees lined like front-line soldiers along the tentative edges of the pebble-strewn path. (It’s hard not to get carried away with imagery and imagination once the creativity is given the go-ahead to flow! Creative but not correcting feedback on my writing welcomed…). Unlike most class tasks, in which the layout of the classroom remains untouched, we cleared all desks to the sides of the room, did not set a strict or visible timer, and banned red pens for the lesson. No strict Success Criteria in sight. It didn’t matter, this time, if students struggled with double letter spellings, or hadn’t started a sentence with a subordinate clause, or included at least one correct example of a semi-colon and parenthesis. Accurate SPaG, for once, was not important, with connections to GCSE-style ‘creative’ questions (AQA’s Language Paper 1 Question 5, in which students write a description inspired by a picture, may be coming to mind for some teachers reading this!) sent out of sight. A tiny handful of students inevitably felt a little stuck, frightened to move beyond the rigid and overly ingrained curriculum requirements, checking up words in the dictionary and ensuring that every paragraph had a clear connective, simple sentence, compound sentence, complex sentence, rhetorical question for effect, a simile or metaphor, alliteration, different adverbs… well, you get the picture.

Nevertheless, the patent enjoyment of nearly all the class was nothing short of magical. I let students chuckle and look at one another confusedly as I sat beside them on the carpet, settling down with sheets of plain paper and a pen, showing through my face and body language my delight at moments of inspiration, my struggle with writers’ block, my perseverance and passion for, quite simply, writing. The students got stuck in with a sense of independence and intrigue I had rarely seen previously. Understandably, exam classes can approach any creative task not explicitly linked to the final year assessments with a ‘So what?’ or a ‘How will this raise my grade?’. I completely empathise, of course: having been schooled to associate success simply with the final levels on a page, it is hard to let go of the need to succeed in a structured, curriculum-driven way. This time, though, the group thrived on completing writing free from GCSE requirements and even surprised me with their attentive behaviour, peer support and pleasure in putting unrestricted pen to open-minded paper. Sat on the floor, with plain sheets and their own choice of what pen to get creative with (what freedom!), the class produced writing that showed both potential and personality that I hadn’t previously seen, as well as genuine delight in sitting cross-legged and letting their imaginations run wild. Indeed, by writing at the same time as the students, becoming genuinely immersed in my free-writing response to the picture, it was only after we finished writing and energetically shared snippets of work that several of the students mentioned, giggling, quite how expressive my face became when drifting through the ‘writerly’ feelings of flair and frustration, of concentration and contemplation, of perseverance and pride.

What is exciting, here, is that this style of teacher-student work is replicable across a range of settings, with students seeing their teachers being writers even in exam-based tasks as well as more free writing environments. In addition, it is a reminder of how a change in physical setting and learning style can prompt unexpectedly wonderful results. Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers is a key way to release students from feeling restricted and to realise the transformative power of imaginative immersion. Again, this is not a breakthrough innovation but, in hectic term times, the importance of adults writing side by side with young people can be overlooked. It’s a model that drives not only classroom practice but many successful extracurricular organisations. For example, The Ministry of Stories, a children’s writing charity based in Hoxton, offers creative writing workshops to schools, many of which take place within lesson time, which undoubtedly enhance primary and secondary curriculums in over-squeezed schools and encourage teachers and volunteers to write alongside the participating students. It is an organisation that shows the benefits of letting a little lesson time go towards creative writing that remains adamantly free and untied to exam requirements. The workshops run by the Ministry of Stories, like the feedback already received from Arvon’s Teachers as Writers research, aim to leave teachers feeling re-inspired and reinvigorated about the importance of giving space to write within the curriculum hours, rather than worried that another task has been added to their ever-growing to-do lists or that there is not enough time for imaginative activities independent from Assessment Objectives.

By giving real credence to the concept of Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers, we can assess the potential it has to impact the way we approach English teaching. In fact, teachers identifying as writers, scribbling out stories simultaneously to their students, can change whole school approaches to working with young people, particularly developing their intrinsic motivation to write, without negatively affecting those inevitably important exam results by taking away time for curriculum-driven lessons. Rather, a small but regular unrestricted writing activity, in which teachers and students engage with creating stories side by side, will undoubtedly enhance their love of writing and have a significantly positive impact on students’ wider school attitudes and achievements.

Exam results are incredibly significant, undoubtedly, not only for schools but for the future life outcomes of students. However, they will only be improved by giving weight to the wordy possibilities of Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers. Of course, there are fewer things more interesting or important for young people than to have their individual voices recognised, beyond grades and spread sheets. Let’s let ourselves enjoy story making, free from Success Criteria or creative-stealing structured requirements, regardless of whether we are students or teachers or neither or both. Let’s keep explicitly displaying our delight in writing. Let’s see how much the Teachers Being Writers Alongside Children Being Writers concept can change classrooms forever.

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Should We Be Worrying About The Worrying?

Never have concerns over children’s mental health been so prominent in the news – and rightly so. Statistics for both adults and children regarding both mental health diagnoses and funding undoubtedly need our attention. In January 2016, NHS Digital began to collect figures regarding the number of under-19s in contact with mental health services; in June, number stood at 235,189. That’s 1 in 50 young people. That figure alone is shocking – on average, that’s at least one student in every other class, and at least several students in every year group in a school. What’s more frightening than that, though, is the unspoken statistics. 1 in 50 only begins to tell the true story: having the confidence, appropriate environment or support network is already a huge step for many young people, who continue to suffer in silence, remaining undetected by such data collections and yet still in need of help.
Whilst there has always been a need to increase the focus and funding on the mental health provision for young people, it has become a particularly pressing issues in recent years, with mounting evidence regarding the increasing pressures that young people face. Not only have the pressures being placed on schools and teachers trickled through to the attitudes of students, but the very climate of our society has changed. With economic inequalities and pressures, tense and unbalanced political and global situations and a range of uncertainties about what our children’s future will actually look like, it is no wonder that so many school-age students are suffering as a consequence.
The symptoms of some common mental health issues amongst both young people and adults (including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety disorder, eating disorders to name but a few of the most diagnosed examples) are hitting the headlines regularly now. Whilst some of the stigma attached to discussing mental and emotional issues has decreased through the brilliant work of organisations such as MIND, it still remains a marginalised health point compared to more tangible or physical issues – partly because to discuss mental health is still seen as a ‘weakness’ (particularly but far from exclusively with males) but also because it is inevitably harder to explain or talk through compared to a tangible problem such as a broken limb or physical illness. Although a £250 million annual funding increase for children and adolescent mental health services was announced before the election, in 2015-16 this was not fully met, and this is most certainly a contributing factor to the fact that discussing and tackling mental health is still such a pressing matter.
Nevertheless, despite ongoing financial battles with government funding and budget cuts (which must continue to be fought), it is imperative we begin to change approaches and attitudes towards mental health in schools regardless of broken money promises, both giving more time and significance to its teaching and creating more open, accepting atmospheres in educational settings in which issues can be raised. One of the biggest issues still in dealing with mental health issues is the inevitable stigma attached to having negative or perceived ‘weak’ feelings, as well as having the language with which to articulate anxiety, damaging thought processes or any challenging emotions in the first place. This must be a focus of PSCHE and pastoral time in primary and secondary education, but it can also be a driving force behind lessons. When teaching Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for instance, I shared a link to a MIND resource regarding split personality disorders, and current research into some forms of mental health issues that were even more stigmatised by Victorian society than they are today; it led to an incredibly vibrant class discussion, and narrowed the gap between learning and real life. By promoting Young Adult reading for pleasure and opening dialogue about some of the issues discussed, too, we can continue to normalise mental health issues and make students aware that they come in all shapes and sizes, and anyone can be affected. Having hit the big screens earlier this year, I read and promoted amongst students the brilliant ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness, which deals with anxiety, dealing with trauma and the very idea that we can all be visited by “monsters” in our minds; what we need to focus on is not pretending those demons don’t exist, but how they best be managed.
So that is my main message, I think. With more reports this week of the increased anxiety that students face (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-38861155), it is imperative that all educational and social avenues become standard forums for the articulation of any mind-related matters. The more opportunities we find to normalise discussions around mental health, the better.

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Top Trumps

One educational story to hit the headlines this week has trumped all others; the children’s word of the year is, concerningly but perhaps not unsurprisingly, ‘trump’.
This slightly frightening fact is drawn from research by Oxford University Press, who analysed the literacy of BBC Radio 2’s 500 Words Story Competition. (For the full article, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-40277819). Taking into account the work of over 130,000 children, the word ‘trump’ took the undeniable lead. Although this included many unusual variations on the root word (‘Trumplestilskin’ is a personal favourite), it undoubtedly shows how much our current political climate influences the marvellous – and malleable – minds of the next generation.
Now, we could see this research in a darkly humorous way and enjoy the endless punning potential that accompanies a surname like Trump. We could also see this revelation in a positive way and celebrate the fact this this shows a level of youth engagement with global, cultural and societal issues – or at least, an awareness of the biggest names and news stories. We could also see this result in a worrying way, of course and reflect on the irreversible impact of having a controversial (to put it mildly) world leader with controversial (to put it mildly) beliefs and controversial (to put it mildly) suggestions for the future or our politics and our planet.
Of course, his name (and face) have been endlessly splashed across our screens this year, so it’s no wonder that he has featured so highly in children’s story ideas. What does it say about the impact of our media’s political focus if the president’s policies and personality are so overpowering that his name has overtaken some of the other most frequently used words, such as “super”, the onomatopoeic “arrrghhh” and… and Snapchat.
Yes. The totalitarian triumph of Trump is not the only concern to emerge from the data crunching of this children’s competition; it is not only the announcement of the winning word that shows the new and uncertain world that young people today are growing up in. The emerging trends of children’s most widely used vocabulary is an interesting gateway into our new society, skewed by social media and changed by technology. Now, I would not wish to suggest that our online-driven identities are a wholly a negative issue – with the advancements of communication channels such as Skype, the accessibility and informative potential of the world wide web, as well as the scientific possibilities of technology in industries such as medicine, I would never wish to give a blanket condemnation of our digital developments. (There is a whole new article waiting to be written about the positive impact of technological advancements – watch this space).
However, for me, the dystopian face of technology has led to some of the most damaging changes in the UK and the fact that new proper nouns like Snapchat and Instagram were some of the most popular words in the children’s competition is telling of the troubles that technology can cause: a selfie culture encouraging narcissism and negative self-image, a media mania that influences opinions and twists the truth, and a greater widening of our already frightening social mobility gaps, since technology can be used both constructively, to learn new skills and actively engage with the world, or detrimentally, to waste time and lead social skills to shrink.
The shining light here, of course, is that competitions like this are still running. Perhaps that should be our takeaway message here: children must be encouraged to keep reading (fictions as well as non-fictions and news stories) and to keep entering such competitions, which promote independence and imagination as well as a constructive, creative use of free time – far more constructive and creative, let’s say, than a few lost hours ‘snapchatting’, ‘instagramming’, ‘facebooking’, or whatever else-ing the latest technological trends dictate. Don’t let Trump permanently ‘trump’ the more extensive visions and vocabularies that our children deserve to have.

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A Return of Reading Models

With the upcoming General Election on the lips of every paper and programme, one word in particular has been a star of the rhetoric show. Hypocrisy. It is a tried and tested stereotype, of course, that politicians say many words we want to hear, making emphatic promises and advocating certain morals and values in their manifestos, and yet act in completely different and less beneficial ways once elected.
Politicians are not alone in facing the hypocrisy label, however. Our current political turmoil has highlighted just how hypocritical many parts of our society can be. (I highly recommend investigating the work of Katie Bonna, a female comedian who produced fabulous show on ‘The Lies We Tell Ourselves’, and the hypocrisies humans and societies are capable of). It seems to me that this could be applied to many adult behaviours, where we actively encourage children to behave in certain ways or condemn behaviours we see as wrong or wasteful, and yet continue to act incongruously with our own beliefs. One such example, which is undoubtedly a long term societal concern, is reading for pleasure.
The worrying decline in reading amongst both adults and children is not only a concern for society in general, but for our ever increasing educational divides in particular. The topic was certainly enough to inspire this week’s Secret Teacher blog in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/may/20/secret-teacher-were-not-reading-so-why-do-we-assume-children-will. Cognitive dissonance (a key focus on Katie Bonna’s show) couldn’t be any more relevantly applied to the too-often repeated phrase, “I wish I had time to read, but I simply don’t…”
“I didn’t have time to…”. “I would have, but I ran out of time.” “If only I had time for…”
Cognitive dissonance, or the lies we tell ourselves, has become more and more prevalent in our technology driven, madly busy society. More than anything, perhaps, we must change our perception of time, and how much of it we actually do have. With our attention constantly diverted by unstoppable notifications, overly addictive social media, and demands on our in-person and online time, it can be very easy to fall into the “I simply don’t have time to” trap. This certainly applies to teachers, who actively tell students to read and yet who, anecdotally, do far too little themselves; this was the impetus behind this week’s Secret Teacher blog. We often teach bits of books and disparate extracts (particularly with the new curriculum’s Unseen Papers, where students will be given bits of texts but there is never the time to contextualise and read the whole books, encouraging students’ enjoyment, cultural capital and literacy and contextual knowledge); combined with 60+ hour weeks, extra marking and revision sessions and ever demanding job descriptions, adults in schools are fast becoming the antonyms of reading role models.
I am biased, of course, as an absolute lover of reading and someone who obsessively now ‘books’ time to my day to read– even if it’s just 20 minutes whilst walking to school or before sleep. It’s easy for us to roll our eyes at the overplayed reasons why reading for pleasure is important. Not only does it improve our vocabulary and literacy skills, but it improves our ability to concentrate, remember and reflect (skills fast becoming extinct in the stress of our modern climate!), as well as to understand and appreciate different cultures and varied points of view. We have heard these before, but it still hasn’t catalysed change in the reading climate. Many school reading schemes – such as Drop Everything And Read, Accelerated Reading, allocated form reading time – are designed to be effective but often can just pay lip service to changing perceptions.
We need, more than anything, to challenge perceptions not through telling but through showing. We cannot reclaim a culture of readers amongst children and young adults if adults themselves make no time to read. What does this signal, other than the obvious suggestion that reading is not as important as checking that email, or updating Facebook, or scanning an article or two?
Changing attitudes to reading, I firmly believe, will have a life-changing impact on creating a more equal society and improving social mobility. If we –parents, teachers, tube travellers, fellow coffee shop dwellers, indeed, any form of adult – do not show the importance of reading by habitually doing so ourselves, how can we expect the next generation to give technological distractions a miss and pick up a real (or even digital!) book?

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