Learning not to schwa

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me since starting my new job has not been the step change from leadership to teacher, nor the move from state to independent sector, but the move from Junior to Infant (or Prep to Pre-Prep as we would say in my school). And in this move teaching phonics has been the single biggest difference.

The principle of teaching phonics is simple enough: teach phonics well and children will read. They can use their phonic knowledge to decipher, sound out and blend words, becoming increasingly fluent. When I started teaching twenty years ago (admittedly in Year 4) I remember hearing readers and teaching them to look for contextual clues in the pictures or the sentences they had previously read. Not so anymore: phonics is king.

And I thought I had a pretty good grasp of phonics myself, until a teaching assistant pointed out that I sometimes ‘schwa’ my letter sounds. Schwa may be a word you have not come across before. Mr Thorne (my go-to Youtuber for all my phonics teaching) gives a pretty good explanation of the schwa here. If you watch the video you ‘ll see that obviously learning where a sound is a schwa is really important. But I was adding schwas to letters I shouldn’t have been.

For example when I said the sound for the letter ‘S’ I would sometimes say ‘suh’ not ‘ssss’. Or I would say ‘huh’ instead of the breathy ‘hhh’ for the ‘H’.

As I write this, the school leader in me is screaming ‘Teacher Standards’, because as everyone knows a good working knowledge of phonics teaching is part of the 2014 UK Government Teacher Standards document, teachers should:

if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics

Well. I’m working on it.

The problem for me is that I’ve come down to Year 1 from older years. Many year 1 teachers come up to Year 1 from Reception and have taught the phonics knowledge that children learn right at the start. I’m lucky though because I have a helpful and experienced team around me who all have excellent knowledge of the Early Years curriculum and I’ve been enjoying learning off them!

Focus on where you are going, not what you’re doing.

The rather narrow Edgbaston Tunnel
The rather narrow Edgbaston Tunnel

This is the Edgbaston Tunnel. It’s on my cycle route to work. The distance between the fence and the wall isn’t very large and on my rather clunky bike there are only a few centimetres to spare on either side. It would be easy to hit the wall or the fence as I ride through it.

I’ve found that if I keep focused on the end of the tunnel – if I keep my attention straight ahead it’s fine – I can get through with no problem. However, should I look down at my hands to see how far I am from crashing into the fence, I have to screech to a halt as my bike starts to wobble. Focusing on what I’m doing does not actually help me with what I’m doing. Strange that.

In teaching it’s easy to get distracted with the mechanics of the job. Will my lesson plan cut it? Is my voice control good enough? Have I thought about every nuance of classroom management to ensure that the lesson runs as smoothly as possible?

But actually it’s more healthy to keep the focus on where you are going – where do you want the children to be by the end of the lesson / week / term / year?

Of course practice is important. If I hadn’t practised riding my bike on wide paths I wouldn’t be able to ride through the narrow path that is Edgbaston Tunnel. But now I have sufficient skill to do it, focusing on my practice doesn’t help me as much as focusing on where I’m going.

One of the great things about my new job is that there is an implicit trust that I have the skills of teaching sufficient to do the job well. Now I can focus on where I am going with the children. I think too many schools try to refocus their teachers on the minutiae of their teaching when actually their teaching would be better served by focusing on the big picture of where they are going with their students.

And for that the key question is set by the ambition of the school – do we want our students to:

  • have great individual lessons in which progress can be demonstrated by the end of them?
  • have great units of work?
  • make great progress over an academic year?
  • do really well in a test?
  • become great citizens who can contribute to society?

Teachers who then are released into seeing the big picture will only by limited by which of the above questions is closest to the ethos of their school.

What I’m enjoying about my new school is that it is definitely the kind of school where the big picture is closest to how can we make our students great citizens who can contribute to society.

ClassDojo is Awesome

I’m new to a school and wanted a way to motivate the children but use the school’s behaviour system at the same time.

I’ve come from a school where I was both the technology lead and the behaviour lead to a school where I am neither. At my previous school I had built up Google Apps from scratch and a behaviour system that worked. At my new school I was just getting my head round Outlook for the first time in about 10 years.

All I had was the internet and the memory that someone had once recommended using Class Dojo for classroom management.

So on Monday morning I realised I had failed to print out any sticker charts for the school’s house points. I wasn’t that confident with the school’s printer or indeed using Publisher, which I am well out of practice with. But I had the internet.

Twenty minutes later Class Dojo was up and working, filled with the names of the children in the class with the generic rewards rep[laced with the rewards that match the system of the new school. I had even grouped the children into their ‘houses’.

It is literally awesome. It had saved me time, the school paper and the boys love it. Ace.

Gender discrimination in my classroom? Never!

“You’re running like a girl!”

It was some time ago now when on a field somewhere in Birmingham I was shocked to hear the teacher in charge of the other school’s football team shout that. Presumably he was trying to encourage one of his football players to do better. And with righteous indignation I relayed what happened to my colleagues the next day. Of course I would never do anything like that.

And so for many years I have taught in various places and circumstances, content in the knowledge that I offer equal opportunities to the girls and boys in my class. Or so I thought.

This year I have started teaching at an independent boys school. One of the big changes has been getting used to calling the children in my class ‘boys’ and not ‘children’ or ‘kids’ or even ‘kiddiwinks’. (Sorry about that). But an interesting and more subtle thing has happened too. Starting the school has challenged how I view class dynamics.

Here’s an example. When I joined the school a couple of that staff who taught them last year informed me that a certain boy ‘is a lively one’. I immediately started thinking about which sensible girl I could put that boy with to calm then down. And then I realised there were no sensible girls, because you don’t get girls in a boys school.

And another example. I printed some display banners in outline so that they could be coloured by the children. That way the children could have more ownership of their classroom. And I wondered to myself which girls would volunteer to do the task. And then I realised no girls would do that task, because there are no girls in boys schools.

How fascinating.

Of course the boys did the colouring. And the lively boy is just that – lively, but quite able to respond to instructions. So there are no problems. But it’s made me wonder about the assumptions I’ve made for years.

Is there anybody else out there that does the ‘sensible girl’ thing? Or lets the girls do the colouring while the boys play with the marble run and the Brio? Or is it just me?

Passcode on iPad Google Drive app is genius

Look! You can set a Passcode on the Google Drive App
Look! You can set a Passcode on the Google Drive App

If you’ve read any of my #necessaryendings posts then you’ll have realised that by now I’ll have started a new job. I have. And by the second day with the children I was itching to do something with technology.

Like many schools, this school has a cabinet full of iPads. These iPads get some use but it would be fair to say that their use has not been maximised.

Like many teachers I got my children to write about their holidays today. It’s one of those assessment activities you do to find out how many can hold the pencil properly, form letters, apply phonics, write sentences and all that. So with that done, I thought it would be good to get pupils to explain their holiday writing to camera so I could compare what they write with what they say. The iPads were the obvious recording choice for this activity.

After the initial hilarity of five year-olds seeing each other’s faces on an iPad screen, many of the pupils settled down to try and hold the iPad still enough and close enough to actually record what their partner was saying and most of them said some good stuff.

All done and dusted. Children gone home, settled down in my classroom with a cup of coffee. Now to get all the videos off the individual iPads and edit them together so that tomorrow’s lesson could start with a bang, reminding the pupils of what they had been doing and how they could improve both what they have said and written.

And that’s where I hit a problem.

It seemed that there was no App on the devices for getting the videos off them. And when I plugged them into my classroom Windows PC I discovered that there was no way of transferring the files directly (the PCs are quite locked down and I don’t have administrator access).

Then I noticed Drive. Each iPad had an unused ‘Google Drive App’ icon on it. Problem solved. I quickly signed in and began transferring the videos to a Google Drive account.

But then I realised that with each iPad being used by any of the 180 pupils in the school, I had signed them all into a Google Drive account that I didn’t want anyone else accessing. Whoops.

But things have changed with Drive on the iPad since I last used it. I fiddled around and discovered that in ‘settings’ there is a ‘passcode’ option (pictured above). Now I could set each iPad to only use the Drive account I had signed in with when a certain passcode is entered. Genius. IPads have always been a brilliant tool for creating content, but now they are also brilliant for collecting that content.