#TMRGS presentations – Geography TeachMeets really are awesome

RGS So last night saw the very first TeachMeet hosted by the home of Geography, the Royal Geographical Society in London. The event was organised by the amazing Claire Brown from the RGS, Steve Brace (Head of Education), sorted by David Rogers and a tiny bit of effort myself.

What an evening! Geographers really are an awesome bunch. It was a later start than usual to allow for travel, but the enthusiasm in the room and in the virtual room from Twitter was palpable. We missed the company of other illustrious Geographers like @aknill and @robgeog, but did get a wannabe geographer from @Miss_J_Hart. And thank you to Richard Allaway for sponsoring refreshments!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I’ve got the fun job of sharing the presentations from all the amazing presenters that night. In true TeachMeet style these were 6minute snapshots into truly professional teachers’ work and their presentations won’t be the same as hearing them speak, so for questions I suggest getting in touch! The great thing was seeing such a wide range, and each presenter kept coming back to the need to have carefully thought out sequences of learning, building curiosity and developing rigour and skills, but also making everyday lessons memorable. There was also the challenge by David, to remember that Geographers change the world!

So here’s a rough idea of who did what!

  1. We kicked off with Steve Brace defending the importance of Geography, and how statistically speaking geographers still are more employable and that the skills of GCSE and A Level v highly valued by universities and employers alike. Did you know that 10% of all PLC revenue is based on data from the OS…and geographers?! Slideshare link to presentation.
  2. The adventurous Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop from Digital Explorer shared the beautiful resources of D:E. including citizenship materials so critical to current key global issues such as refugee crises such as My Voice, My School. He also reminded us of the stunning Catlin Seaview Survey resources, e.g. virtual dives (Oh, and he’s a historian that is now working for geoscientific research!) His slideshare link here
  3. The wonderful Liz Pattison shared a range of differentiation ideas, including lead learners, learning grids (always love a learning grid!), silent debates, use of SOLO.Her slideshare presentation here
  4. Deborah Syme talked about underachievement and barriers to learning, through ‘executive dysfunction’, and potential smart solutions to these. Slideshare link
  5. Andrew Boardman shared his use of ActivInspire software for verbal feedback through sound recording and screen capture for students to keep coming back to. Loved that he emphasised the need to ‘talk like a geographer’ – so critical for success. Link: tinyurl.com/qxuheao
  6. Richard Maurice shared ideas for developing more challenge and use of better questioning. The 5Ws are not enough, we need better deeper questioning. I also liked his suggestions for subverting the #5minlessonplan by getting kids to use it as a structure for note taking / forming and answering Qs. His presentation here
  7. Rachel Hawke shared lots of ideas for encouraging creativity and curiosity, plus great use of SPAG model for proof reading – CUPS: capitalise, understanding (do your sentences make sense), punctuation, spelling. In fact, by 10pm @dukkhaboy had already created his own style version of this and was preparing to use in class next day – and he was only following on twitter! #TMRGS making an immediate impact. Slideshare link
  8. Deborah Gostling spoke about making real world links to architecture and urban design, through tricky projects such as redesigning Cairo. Building rigour and knowledge while using Google Earth and CAD software to add challenge Slideshare link
  9. Rupert Littlewood talked about making favelas and creative hands on learning – always love a bit of model making and really getting the feel of things. Slideshare link
  10. Anna Forshaw gave loads of practical ideas and suggested activities for embedding DME skills and problem solving activities Slideshare link
  11. Ewan Laurie shared some fab ideas for ‘hijacking Geography’ and getting it taking over school. Love the idea of the Pop-up classroom, or teaching something for ten minutes in the corridor at lunch, letting geography take over the school.Slideshare link

My own presentation got a little distracted on Monday night when I stumbled across some tweets claiming that Geography is ‘confused’ or ‘not a subject’. The controversy! Some were claiming that because Geography is diverse, this is a weakness and makes it confused. It’s the same story as has been heard before, but it does frustrat me that this is seen as a weakness, and also that people don’t appreciate that other subjects are equally diverse – it just goes unhidden. There is no one History: there’s a vast difference between ancient and modern history, and I’ve yet to meet a Historian that likes every era. There is no one English: pit a medieval romantic literature lover against 21st century science fiction lover and there are sparks – the skills employed to decipher the different English types vary as well as the content, and the language itself has clearly evolved. There is no one Music! I could go on. And as with all these other varied subjects, it is not a weakness to be a diverse hybrid. There is always something to hold it all together – and in our case it is the way that Geography marries together the world of hard scientific fact and process, with human interaction and reaction, through skilful application. That is the strength. We don’t study for the sake of it, we problem solve. We don’t learn skills to sit in a room and stare at them, we go out and fix issues. There were some great responses to support Geography’s corner from @RobGeog @RJCGeog @Jennnnnn_x as well :-)

So this led into my presentation: that not only is Geography not confused, but actually the 4 key strands that hold it together as ‘awesome geography’ are essential. The talk was a variation on the #GAConf15 theme: Shakespeare was a Geographer, so was Pythagoras. Looking at embedding whole school priorities of literacy and numeracy through simple Geography activities in different year groups. My main point is that since we are all responsible for teaching these components, and since we should do anyway as it empowers students to become more successful Geographers let alone having great skills, we should make sure we use the same language as our Maths and English departments. I was responsible for numeracy across school last year, and each department (or faculty for smaller areas like Hums) has a lead teacher for literacy and numeracy who takes part in regular reviews and auditing the curriculum of every area in school. We met as a full staff on Tuesday, and going through the list of key skills for Maths and English as a Geography team we could easily say ‘Yes!’ or ‘Tick, Tick’ to every kind of skill since we are so literacy and numeracy heavy. The weakness at the minute, is that we do not use the same language as our specialists in schools. I don’t often say to a class ‘oh that’s a homophone, be careful on the spelling’ or ‘great use of compound sentences’ or ‘don’t forget your factoring operation’…it’s not my natural patter. But it needs to be. Having a uniformity of language in the classroom for core concepts will develop transparency for students, and encourage the idea that these skills are actually pretty important in a range of different environments and situations. Otherwise, how often do you hear ‘yeah but when will I need to do that in the real world’?!

If you’ve made it this far and want to read a brief kind of summary of what I said for each slide, here you go:

My presentation notes:

Slide 1: The controversy! Twitter debate on Monday evening. Some claiming that because Geography is diverse, this is a weakness and makes it confused. Great responses to support Geography’s corner from @RobGeog  @RJCGeog @Jennnnnn_x

Is Geography confused, or is it a brilliant blend of science and art that is held together by that essential application.

Slide 2: The strengths of Geography are clear within the new national framework – there are 4 strands to being a great geographer: those of knowing, thinking, studying, and applying like a geographer. Value of skills and knowledge combined but with the life-skills essential component of having to apply those, to problem solve. Synthesis and making relational links is the key to Geographical genius.  And what makes Geography strong, is how we meet whole school issues of literacy and numeracy, as well as building whole child skills.

Slide 3: So meeting whole school aims of literacy and numeracy – because if we do, we not only support the wider school community but we will empower children to get power results in geography and across the board. Particularly with more rigorous examination systems, content, and emphasis on skills we need to be building these skills from day 1 in year 7.

Slide 4: So Shakespeare. 21/38 plays were set in the Mediterranean…yet he never really left London, apart from a brief trip to the Netherlands. So it was entirely based on geographical imaginations. Imagination is key part to our subject, and to curiosity. Many of our students, particularly our disadvantaged students, may not leave their own areas either – so we need to encourage imagination.

Slide 5: Use Shakespeare quotes / DARTS text analysis to talk about describing places. Encouraging the idea of speaking like a geographer. Analyse text for context, introduction to places, to listen to silently and picture, descriptive mapping, and for picking out use of literacy techniques e.g. synonyms, compound sentences, rhyming couplets, metaphor, etc.

Slide 6: Read the text (perhaps excluding some bits that are too obvious!) and kids have to guess what the feature is being described. Then turn into modern descriptive text.

Hamlet piece- read it to them, and tell them it was written in Denmark and finished in 1599. Ask them to figure out what the features was that was north-north west from Denmark and sulphurous (Hekla in Iceland that erupted in 1597)

Slide 7: Compare descriptive text of geographic features through the ages. What are the similarities and differences? How does the language, and the understanding of science, change over time?

Slide 8: Use text to describe climate as Shakespeare recorded the Little Ice Age

Slide 9: BUT – since he didn’t visit locations, there were misconceptions! So give children the text and then get them to prove what is real vs unreal, fact and fiction

Slide 10: Example of differentiated activity with class

Slide 11: Where does our subject meet maths? Everywhere! The key thing is to be liaising with our maths departments and ensuring we teach at similar times, but most importantly that we all use the same language and teach skills in the same way. E.g. Science and Maths teach line graphs differently, do we? Are we using the language of everyday maths classrooms in our classrooms? Because we certainly do plenty of data analysis and graphicacy, just need to hit the terminology to make it explicit to learners.

Slide 12: Using Google Earth polygons to identify shape patterns of landmasses – just simple shape work but builds confidence with using Google Earth tools. Can also use alongside measuring tools and estimating area, discussing different types of shape and calculating area from them.

Slide 13: Create layered data presentation, e.g. climate mapping: base layer for temperature, tracing overlay for precipitation – then analyse. Helps with learning locations and climate patterns, as well as analysis skills. Or proportional mapping for tourist locations. Key is using different methods to learn locations, become confident with features of the UK, and having to do numeracy skills.

Slide 14: Use your school for urban steps. Calculate the number of steps required to climb the equivalent of different mountains indoors. Have to measure each step, multiply it up, divide by number of kids, etc. Make it a House competition challenge.

Slide 15: Links to STEM. Produce equipment. From simple weather equipment to earthquake sensors. This example was a beautiful cloud cover measuring Oktas device. Student had to scale it all up, measuring and calculate, etc.

Slide 16: Geocaching – measuring distance, direction and bearings.

Slide 17: Make graphs 3D and tactile. Brings to life population pyramids and statistics, easier (especially for lower ability) to analyse and interpret the data.

Slide 18: Use numbers and ask students to discuss, interpret, tell a story with them.

Answer in this case: it’s all to do with elderly dependency

Slide 19: Transform one kind of data presentation into another form of graph – have to recalculate, compare, translate. This is from the London National Park statistics on the amount of green space in the city. Analyse the patterns.

Slide 20: Because it all comes down to skills. Skills web based on GCSE criteria. Geography ticks off so many skills and really builds literacy and numeracy, so make it explicit!

Slide 21: And at the end of the day, it is worth the challenge!

The next bit of Geographical TeachMeet fun will be at the GA conference in Manchester at Easter. Check the conference pack for more details, the GA website, and follow #GAConf16 

Women in education leadership…I may be naive

From my Staffrm post.

It’s been a while since I wrote anything, anywhere. Not out of a lack of interest as I’ve certainly enjoyed seeing what others have shared online. But I’m trying to collect and rebuild myself a little and needed a step back.

I’ve followed most of the #WomenEd posts and discussions, and before I start please don’t think I’m against the movement in any sense or attempting to be disparaging or puerile, but I have to admit to finding a thought keep popping in to my head all the time. That thought: maybe women don’t actually want to be headteachers. I may be being naive. I see the statistics shared, and can see that the proportion of female heads is distinctive and could automatically raise alarms for people wanting to know the reason why. But I also think sometimes we might overthink, and be looking for a sinister cause or barrier that might not actually exist. I would certainly never want someone to hire me because I ticked a box as being female and they needed to fill a quota. I’ve known that happen.

Now I’m not disputing that there will be cases where women across the world have had a door shut, faced discrimination, been steered a certain way, and have felt hindered. But I also think that there may well just be a case for saying that maybe there are fewer women in headteachership because they are happy to stay in other positions. After all, there’s no denying that the psyche and makeup of men and women is different. Same as within each gender there is plenty of difference. These ultimately influence our decisions, our passions, our drives. And maybe, just maybe, more women actually want to remain in the classroom than men. Maybe more women don’t want to lose that face-to-face contact, the relationship building, the daily spine-tingly moments, the feeling of having personally been responsible for a deep change in a child or for their progress. Maybe we want to retain that feeling of closeness to a child that means you get goosebumps knowing that you, yes you, made a child’s day when you gave them the first positive feedback they’ve ever had. Maybe we just want to be up close and personal to the reason we are in teaching: to make a difference. Because at the end of the day, when you move up the ladder that is something that gets sacrificed. I’ve known plenty of SLT who on a regular basis regret the move (especially if they moved up the ladder rapidly) because they miss the buzz of being at the chalkface, they hate having absolutely no time to be creative, they feel burdened by constant data analysis and administration, they don’t get to know children as well, they feel isolated from their colleagues and from students. I’ve had headteachers say to me that being a middle leader is the best job in the school – after all, we are the powerhouses who drive everything through. And I say all this based on having a mum who was a headteacher, a sister who is the personnel manager for an international organisation, friends who are business leaders, and on myself who thinks ‘you know what, you’d miss this’.

I went to an all girls’ school where we were berated if we had the audacity to suggest that our future might include marriage and children since we were told we ‘should be career focused’. Ironically my future doesn’t include the former, and I don’t lack ambition but ambition doesn’t have to mean we keep making every step until a pinnacle…after all then the next step is actually downhill! There’s nothing wrong with ambition meaning being the best darn teacher and leader you can be, at whatever level. This situation is not unique to teaching, there is low representation of women in senior roles across every industry…but is this because they’re held back, or just because they are happier in other roles? I’m not talking about the pay gap by the way, that’s a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned: if you do the same role, have the same responsibility, and have the same qualifications then you should get the same money. Perhaps I am naive, having not experienced being held back, but I actually trust that whatever rung of the ladder I go to next I will be judged as worthy or not based purely on me. Will I ever want to be a head? I don’t think so, I know what I’d miss. Does this make me held back, stereotyped, weak, or unambitious? No way. It makes me, me. My choice. For me, that’s what WomenEd should be about – celebrating and empowering choice.

‘I am not a leader’ (or Yes you are! Every ONE of us in education is)

Post taken from my Staffrm story in response to the Leadership Artefacts thread. Well worth visiting.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has read the #ldrartefacts thread on Staffrm with interest, and also someone that’s thought ‘I’m not quite there yet, so I don’t have anything to contribute’. After all, I’m ‘just’ a middle leader, not SLT, so does that count? I had been inspired by some accounts, and also thought ‘hang on, that’s what I do!’ when reading them but kept putting off getting involved in the thread as not feeling competent to. Well that was until someone said to me ‘you’re not a leader’…and that caused a reaction. I wanted to slap him (not for the first time!) and my immediate response was indignation…which is of course what he’d wanted. See although I believe I am good at my job, I don’t like to shout about it or pretend I am anything better than others, so tend to shy away from getting involved in social media / public face leadership discussions as if feeling unqualified.

You’re not a leader‘ kept ringing in my head. Grinding away. How patronising I thought! But then, I don’t have any major evidence of whole school impact or long-term change in my own right I suppose? I mean, I lead a department that is gradually transforming and kids have actually learnt something, found high expectations, feel challenged – so there’s a whole culture change there right? I lead whole school numeracy but that’s only been this year so can I really claim much? At my last school I was HoD for a year following from a bit of a high maintenance bloke who I’d helped transform the dept…but he’d take credit for that of course ;-) So can I really say I’m part of this leadership group?

Answer: definitely yes.

You see I’ve been an education leader for a 7 years. How? I’ve led in my classroom. Or on the astro turf. Or in the corridors. Or on school trips. I’ve taken a claim to my physical space, laid groundwork for the mental and emotional space of that learning environment, and every day fought battles with myself or with others to just be the best I could be and ensure that kids got a good experience and were led to be the best they could be.

Every single one of us from day 1 of PGCE stepping in front of your first class and taking tentative steps is a leader. We lead by example. We lead by our body language, the words we choose to use, whether we give ‘the evil teacher stare’ or give a smile, we lead by holding doors open for students and modelling good manners, we lead by the way we encourage them, how we don’t let them give up, when we motivate or praise them, when it is time to sanction them or hold them to account. Aren’t these the traits that ‘real’ leaders portray, whether in education or business? Does it make any difference whether we are leading a class of infants and teenagers or leading thirty sales assistants? It’s the same principles.

After leaving university I fell into a job in fashion retail almost by accident. It led to me becoming a deputy manager within three months and then successively becoming store manager to two large stores, and setting up a national flagship. The stores I ran were filled with staff of all ages and experiences. Some were keen trainees, others were jaded and resigned with a ‘this is the only job I can get’ mentality. Some felt overlooked by previous managers. Some felt they’d not had their potential realised. Some kicked off and didn’t like change. Some didn’t appreciate being given targets and boundaries and expectations (it’s shocking that I wouldn’t let them swing on the fixtures in the loft and steal from the till really). Does this sound familiar in a school context? My wise sister once said to me ‘children are just like adults, only with shorter trousers’ and it’s true. Leading children and leading adults have massive parallels. It’s always a joke at Inset isn’t it how much like naughty kids the teachers suddenly become? And none of us like being treated like a homogenous group and given the same diet of CPD or being made to feel hard done by or overlooked. Same feelings, similar baggage, similar needs.

Day 1 in my classroom as an NQT I started leading. With 19 classes I was effectively leading 490 ish children on a weekly basis. But even just with my tutor group of 26 from that first day I was a leader. Even before I got into any other roles. Being just a tutor is a profound leadership opportunity. I set up my classroom with a photograph of my dog or favourite places on the tutor board and built relationships with those tutees based on their pets & places and from the first meeting I was leading them. In retail my decisions affected a team of 27 and a turnover of over £2.6million a year. Now my decisions affect the Hums team, our students of about 850, and a budget of just a tiny fraction. But those decisions and the leadership we each give day in day out will affect those students potentially for the rest of their lives. Even if they only learn to be polite to each other! I have been doing performance management and leading teams for 11 years now in retail or in school, and I use those retail skills all the time. Same issues, same leadership traits.

And one day, when I am SLT, it will still be the same principles that make me lead: motivate, cajole, inspire, hold to account, recognise, empathise, humour, train, develop, trust, etc.

So my actual leadership artefacts?

1) A quote on the wall: ‘just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly‘. I refer to this with kids or adults often. Something unattractive or seemingly at its end can become something beautiful and a new beginning.

2) Postcards/cards: to give as thank you notes, messages of support, pick me ups. Do them unexpectedly and sneak them onto someone’s desk (or into a student book to find later) so it doesn’t make a big show of it and allows the recipient to just have a surprise.

3) The open door: mentioned by many others but still true. My door is open whenever I am in there and I’m happy for anyone to come anytime. I encourage an open door policy in the department so we will wander in and out and see each other and speak to students. No need to have secrets: we are all on the same team! And the open door extends to meeting minutes and data tracking too using Google Docs. Everyone can see how well or how poorly my classes (and others) are doing or what we are working on so there is transparency. I think this is important.

At the end of the day, we are not chained to a title and we don’t only have an influence when we plan to and have prepared for it – we lead from the first moment we walk through the door. That is both humbling and worrying! It can be the smallest thing that sticks in someone’s mind, so let’s lead in a way that can change the world :-)

Leadership is not a title.

Thank you to the lovely Staffrm folks for your response to this story. I hope you don’t mind me copying them here.


Saying goodbye…how one student changed me as a teacher

imageI’ll be honest, I’m writing this with tears in my eyes and often falling. I’m torn between feeling the need to write, and wondering if it is somehow inappropriate. I hope you’ll bear with me.

This morning a former student of mine named Elliott died from cancer. He was just 19. I taught him for four years and first met him when he was in Year 8 and I was starting my NQT year. He was in the bottom set. All boys. A sink group some say. They were difficult. Obviously I was new so would say that anyway, but there were some real characters known across the school. Elliott wasn’t one of those. He wasn’t a ‘naughty boy’. He faced massive challenges. His mum had suddenly died the year before. No dad either. He suffered from Neurofibromatosis and as a result was only partially sighted, had difficulties with writing and comprehension, and wasn’t always too steady on his feet. But…he always had a go. I don’t believe I ever heard him complain. He took life as it was, and just got on. Didn’t ask for special treatment or expect it.

Elliott changed me as a teacher, and probably didn’t ever realise quite how much. It was November of my NQT year and I was really struggling with this class. One day I remember blurting out something like ‘why won’t you all just give me a chance, I’m trying to help’ and his response will stay with me forever: ‘what’s the point of us getting to know you Miss, you’ll only leave us like everyone else does’. It cut me to the core. The sense of abandonment that a lot of the kids had. Either physical abandonment of people leaving (including a high turnover of staff I guess!) or perhaps apathetic abandonment – of teachers assuming these kids would never amount to anything anyway and so not pushing them or trying their best. It changed me. Made me realise I wanted to work where I was really needed. Wanted to give kids a chance. Wanted to not give up on them.

By February I had the class onside. They realised I wasn’t going anywhere. We had fun. We shared. I learned lots about their experiences too. We had good discussions. They weren’t angels but we made progress and they did well. They respected me and we had each other’s backs – they knew I would support them, and equally they supported me. I remember one time when a new lad joined the class who was quite violent. We got off to a bad start when he took offence at me asking him to not damage another child’s book and when he stormed out of the room he pushed me into the filing cabinets. The reaction of the rest of the boys was protectiveness of me, and Elliott stood there saying ‘you better apologise to Miss, she’s our Miss, and you’ll have to answer to us otherwise’! This from a lad with tumours growing in his fragile body bless him! (Obviously I did talk to them about threatening language but you get what I mean!)

One lad changed my attitude to teaching and my way of dealing with situations. I look for reasons more, try to find solutions (not excuses), I don’t give up straight away on what looks hopeless. He wasn’t a naughty lad, but he had an influence on them. The toughest kids respected him. And seeing the comments on the news and Facebook in memory of him today shows that he made a difference to a lot of people. One comment really tugged at me where Elliott had said he wished he had had a talent. Heartbreaking. He did. His talent was being Elliott, a brave young man who didn’t complain and just had a go despite everything. Can’t ask for a better talent than that. Thank you.

“The greatest battle is not physical but psychological. The demons telling us to give up when we push ourselves to the limit can never be silenced for good. They must always be answered by the quiet, the steady dignity that simply refuses to give in. Courage. We all suffer. Keep going.” (Graeme Fife)

GA conference 2015 materials #GAConf15

Well it’s been a long time coming but I’ve been a wee bit distracted with leading an Iceland trip and getting back to school mode! The Geography Association conference this year was ace. Really enjoyable. Thank you so much to all of you who came to my Revision Games workshop! I was truly surprised to have standing room only and flattered by the lovely comments you gave in feedback. I really hope that you can find one tiny thing that is useful and then take it and make your own.

Below is the presentation from the Revision Games session. If you download the file you can see in the comments box in powerpoint which explain each section.

I was also privileged to help with delivering a Discover the World workshop alongside Simon Ross sharing the website resources from Discover Geography . This excellent site shares teacher resources for Key Stage 3 – 5 for a range of locations including Iceland, Norway, Azores, etc. that have been created by teachers from experiences in the field and can be used before, during and after trips or as virtual fieldwork and just great case studies. I shared some materials from the website that had been created from a teacher inspection trip to the Azores, and just explained how I have modified and used these materials for myself in the classroom. If you want to have details on the different sites and what we saw in the Azores, then check through my posts from the visit in April 2014.

Finally, this year’s GA conference saw the first ever TeachMeet courtesy of David Rogers‘ badgering which was an epic success. Lucy Oxley and the GA team organised a fantastic event, and it was thanks to sponsorship from Discover the World. When we first stepped into the venue I got nervous – worried we wouldn’t pull it off, that nobody would come, that it was such a big room and I would muck up, all sorts! But it was so so good. The reason it was good? Purely down to the range of presenters in the room, the Twitterati interacting online (thanks to Rich Allaway for live streaming it), and the networking and rapport going on in the room itself. Particular credit has to go to Alan Parkinson for sharing some great ideas in a hilarious way (‘who is David Rogers anyway?’!) and to Paul Berry for closing the show in style. I had known Paul as a fairly quiet, unassuming, gentle kinda chap with a cheeky smile and penchant for vino…but he blew me away with his presentation at the end. Coming up to retirement in a few months he bounced all over the stage squawking blow-up parrots, throwing inflatable globes around, sharing all sorts of whacky and brilliant ideas, and showing that he is a brilliant educator. Loved it. All the other presentations were fantastic as well, and great to see new people who haven’t spoken before too – I merely mention Alan and Paul because they made me laugh so much. Epic evening so thank you all. David has a full run down of the event and the Google Hangout video archive on his blog here. Cannot wait for next year’s!

My own TeachMeet 6 minutes was based on a title thrown on me: ‘Bill Shakespeare was a Geographer’ and just has a few ideas with quotes from text for how to embed good old Bill and literacy in general into geography lessons. Ticks the boxes of ‘literacy in every lesson’ and ‘we are all teachers of English’ as well as just being good fun, useful, enlightening, and ultimately improving literacy and writing analysis which good geographers have to be able to do. If you want to know what I was rambling on about during each slide then look at the video on David’s blog, scroll to about 44mins and you’ll be able to hear some waffle.

All in all, GA Conf 2015 was great. Really enjoyable sessions attended and great to take part in. Roll on Derby 2016.

What’s the point of residential fieldtrips? Are they worth it?

I just got back from a field-trip to Iceland with forty students and my team of staff. It was epic. We were straight back into teaching and the new term today after arriving back at school at 10pm last night, but it was totally worth it.

This year is the ‘Year of Fieldwork’ but I still hear / see so many conversations that include ‘why bother’, ‘it’s too much hassle’, ‘my school won’t let me out’, ‘why should I organise it’, ‘it’s too risky’, and see conscientious teachers worrying about benefit vs cost and whether trips are worth the effort. Well, they are. End of. Because it’s not about the hassle, the paperwork, the emails to the British Council, the liaising with parents, the money collecting, the itinerary building, the bag packing, the passport checking. All of the minutiae isn’t worth focusing on. We say life is a journey, that destinations aren’t important, that learning is a process and that the end point isn’t always the actual achievement – well I think that fits to trips as well. Does it really matter whether every student has a better grasp of coastal processes or volcanism at the end, will the trip itself make them more successful at an exam? No, not in itself. Five days in Iceland doesn’t pass an exam, but it doesn’t half make a life changing difference to some students. Because what matters to the students themselves on a residential, and what they remember most, isn’t necessarily what we as teachers are focusing on. Are they bothered whether they stop for twenty or thirty minutes at a waterfall, or are they more concerned with whom they sit next to on the bus? I’ll be honest, I didn’t have forty students asking me deep and meaningful geographic questions every minute of the day – but I did have deep and meaningful conversations, and saw students having them for themselves.

So why bother with residentials? This was some of the feedback from the students last night that I overheard while they were updating our trip blog (www.geogdebens.wordpress.com if you’re interested):

“I really loved spending time with people I hadn’t known before, and finding out we had become good friends by the end”

“I was dead nervous before the flight as it was my first time flying. I was sitting next to a student I hadn’t met before and Miss. They kept talking to me and reassuring me, and making me laugh. Before I knew it I was confident, and I had a new friend. Now I just want to travel everywhere!”

“I loved every minute of the trip. The teachers were fun and I learned so much. But best was getting to know my friends in a whole new way, learning to look after ourselves.”

“I liked that the teachers gave us freedom and trusted us. We could make mistakes but knew that they were there to look after us and help if we needed it. I felt safe to try something. I’ve never crossed a river by hopping stones before, never been on a glacier. I was scared but now I’m confident.”

“I’ve never walked that far before, and when I first started up the glacier and up the waterfall I didn’t think I could make it. But I wanted to have a go, and Sir kept me going and chatting and distracted me from worrying. I realised I could do more than I thought and that fear had been holding me back. My mum was proud when I told her I did it.”

“The trip was epic. We nicknamed the teachers and it was good getting to know them in a different way. They helped us when we had an argument with people in our room and I learned to ignore the little things and not get so stressed.”

As teachers we might focus on what we want students to get out of a trip, in an academic sense maybe. Students will have different priorities. There might be a disconnect between our disparate aims unless we are careful. Of course this is natural to some extent, but no reason why we can’t cross over more.

What do students worry about / ask about most on trips? Easy: food and friendships! The most often asked questions were to do with who they could sit next to, who they shared a room with, what free time they got, what food they will have. The only tears we had were on the last night when a room key was hidden as a prank and this caused hurt feelings of ‘they don’t like me’ before being resolved and forgotten. Right up there alongside glamorous glacier hiking and Blue Lagoon bathing in the ‘what we enjoyed most’ category was the time spent with friends, the ‘girly chats before bed’, the walking and talking together, the food.

As far as I’m concerned, a residential trip is multi-purpose. I took mixed year 9 and 10s, all GCSE Geography students but a wide range of abilities and personalities and circumstances. I had some with serious health concerns, some child protection children, some first-time travellers, some world jet-setters, all sorts. It wasn’t a ‘clipboard-tastic’ trip. If someone has paid £850 and gone in their Easter holiday then I want them to enjoy themselves. The kids called it ‘learning by accident’, which I love. We had snowball fights, laughed at ourselves, told stories, shared experiences but also learned about waterfalls by being inside one, learned about waves by listening to them and watching them smash the shore, learned about glaciers by climbing on them. But on top of this we watched students blossom from being shy to being outgoing, learning how to hold conversations, learning independence, sorting their own problems (if you lose your room key, you try to sort it out first), dealing with fear, building relationships, becoming more well rounded young people.

Residentials also have a purpose for the staff involved. We bonded ourselves, having not all worked together before. The science NQT had some ‘in at the deep end’ learning experience (and can check of some standards in his folder!) – you could see his confidence clearly rise throughout, and his presence with students change both out there and now back in school. The non-teacher learned all sorts of subject knowledge and logistics planning. The member of SLT got to let their hair down and build relationships with teachers and students in a different way. The returning-to-work Geographer had some in depth hands-on CPD and came away buzzing.

On the last night meal we had speeches and awards. Our newly appointed Head Girl made a thank you speech to staff that made me well up. She thanked us all, but particularly made me well up by thanking me for the opportunity that they had never had before and for ‘making life better’ since I joined. This trip wasn’t about the geography, it was about the students. And as far as I’m concerned, it always will be. Why am I a teacher? For spine tingly, eyes-welling up moments like that. Was it worth the hassle of 6 months of planning? Hell yes. Staff happy, students happy. And when else do you get to be on a trampoline under the northern lights with a bunch of teenagers chatting about life?!

Happy birthday to me! (Or ‘On being grateful’)


In case the title is too subtle, today is my birthday. 33 (gulp) years ago I came into the world, and the process nearly killed myself and my poor mum more than once. In a very traumatic labour I ended up without oxygen for quite some time and my parents were told I would have suffered trauma to my brain and highly unlikely I would develop ‘normally’. Mum was given the ultimatum of ‘get her out or you both die’ and then had me whisked away before she could even see me or hear any reassuring cries. I was in the baby special unit for a while and when my brother (age 7) first saw me all swaddled up, tubed, and in furry mittens for warmth his plea to dad was ‘I think it’s best we don’t worry mummy right now, but the baby has paws’.

The moral of the story? Just because something looks impossible, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And just because someone who is a specialist and highly qualified tells you something doesn’t mean they will be right. Mum defied the odds getting us to both survive, and somehow I turned out ok (I know Rogers and Lockyer will contest this :p ). My family says I was born and survived for a reason, and I look forward to finding that reason one day.

Ten years ago today I accepted a wedding proposal. It was romantic, the ring was the right amount of sparkly and pink, the right words were said. But it was the wrong decision.

The moral of the story? Just because something looks beautiful or because words are what you want to hear doesn’t mean it’s good. Take education: we may rant and rave that policies are unattractive and not what we want to hear, but does it really matter? We can change things to suit ourselves. No policy will ever sound good to everyone after all. They’re not beautifully crafted or wonderful words – that bit is down to us to make happen. And just because something was a bad decision doesn’t mean good can’t come from it – I wouldn’t have become a teacher if I hadn’t made that poor decision, wouldn’t have been trained by amazing people, and wouldn’t have met my best friends.image

So what about today? Today involved: pancakes, wine, awesome food, leopard print gifts (lol!), glass making flame-off, a fab personalised map, and furry cuddles.

Today I am grateful for the amazing family and friends I have. Who put up with me, excuse me being busy during term times, come to my aid when needed, help with sorting classrooms and kids books, talk through decisions with me and allow me to rant and vent, and who always encourage me. I saw almost all the people I love most throughout today and I just want to say thank you. I wouldn’t be who I am or doing what I do if it wasn’t for all of you. I hope I do the same for you all in some way at some time too. I don’t need much, and don’t expect presents, I am just grateful for time and lovely words.


Message to my younger self…or what I wish I’d known

Jo_Darren_youngAnother part of the #28daysofwriting Staffrm challenge.

I’m sure we all have plenty of things we wish we had known when we are younger. And how much of the time do we then try and force (not always helpfully) that information on the students in our care? “You’ll regret this…. when you’re older”, or “when I was your age….”, or “I wish someone had said this to me when I was your age….”, etc. After all, what is the perk of getting older if it means we can’t pass on such wisdom as ‘don’t run with pointy objects’ to the next generation?!


The first image was from a family climbing trip when I ‘earned’ my first climbing boots, and the second image from a friends’ teenage trip to Cornwall. Such innocent times. All that mattered was being outdoors, friends and family, pets, and food. So maybe things haven’t changed that much… ;-)

So, what would I have told myself in my youth? 

1) Relax. I went to an all girls’ grammar school. I was fortunate and had teachers I (mostly) liked but we were always under pressure to achieve and exceed. It was frowned upon to say that your ambition was to have a family, and you were schooled from day one to be career minded and ambitious. I didn’t really want that, I wanted simple things. We weren’t encouraged to spend time learning useful things like cooking as it was considered ‘sooooo anti-feminist’. You were seen as failing if you dropped a mark at any point, and guilt tripped for letting the team down. I didn’t learn to relax, and didn’t feel I had time to do other pursuits.

2) Learn a musical instrument. I always fancied the clarinet but we couldn’t really afford it and I wasn’t disciplined enough to teach myself. I did learn to play the piano, ish, but struggled with reading music as left it too late really. It’s a shame as I love music, and love singing, and my whole family are so musical.

3) Don’t fall so hard and fast. Don’t marry the first guy that asks ;-) Mum always said ‘more hast, less speed’ and she’s always right grrr.

4) Maintain a foreign language. I loved learning French and Spanish, but they fade so quick. Why is it that random Latin verbs still stick in my head but useful phrases in languages that still exist do not?!

5) Grow a thicker skin sooner. Risks are fun and exciting. You don’t have to laugh and pretend it’s all ok, admitting weaknesses is not itself a sign of weakness. People who admit they need help aren’t necessarily helpless.

One thing I do know. My teenage self would have laughed hysterically to find I’m a teacher. Who’s laughing now eh?! ;-)

Moments of Wonder: spine tingly times

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

At school students in Key Stage 3 (just year 7 & 8 for us) have scheduled ‘project style homeworks’ in non-core subjects which are extended pieces of work designed to encourage more independence, pride and creativity. We can set optional homework at other times of course should we wish to, but the idea is to ease workload for staff and students so that what is produced is of much higher quality and takes more effort. Rather than setting something for the sake of it. I know there are always arguments and dilemmas about homework: what to set, when, how often, etc. . Personally I see no point in homework unless it has real purpose and you do something meaningful with it, so generally this means consolidating / testing what was done in class or preparing for the next lesson. But the project homeworks are different in a way. They are still meant to summarise learning, but are mainly for developing independent enquirimagey and celebrating learning. The projects are effort graded and rewarded with prizes and house points as well.

Today was hand-in day for Year 7. They have been studying Amazing Places and their project is one based on the excellent ‘How to be an Explorer of the World’ book which provides quirky interesting activities to do to encourage fieldwork, curiosity and seeing the world through different means. The three tasks were first chosen and developed by Sam Atkins and have tiers of Gold, Silver, Bronze to choose from for challenge. Kids can ‘pick’n’mix’ the challenges so long as they do something for each task: 1) distinctive features of a place, 2) your favourite street, 3) sound mapping that favourite street.

imageWhen we introduced the project I emphasised that we wanted students to just experience the outside, get curious, explore, and just have a go. The emphasis was on being unique and creative. Although I recommended certain presentation / submission styles if they wanted them I set the challenge that they each do something different from others. I think many would probably think the task is a bit mad and hippy but I just wanted to encourage children to have moments of exploration and spend time appreciating their environment and being creative, rather than always doing the same type of activity or it always having an ‘assessment’ element. Just doing something to be proud of and celebrate is enough at times.

So today was showcase day. And wow. Just wow. I was honestly blown away with the effort they had put in. Everything had a unique slant. They all wandered round interrogating each other about where they had been, why they chose that place, the unique features, and we just celebrated everything. I was buzzing. They were buzzing. They were so proud of their work. We had a giant board game, videos, miniature museums in a box, Lego models, even a Minecraft world of their local area. In every class I visited of my colleagues as well there was a real feeling of pride in what had been accomplished, and some truly impressive individual efforts. All credit to the team for encouraging the students so well. It was such a spine tingly day, just celebrating awesomeness. Good times.


Performance Management – hammer down or enjoy the process?

Picture1We are mid-way through the academic year. Wahoooooooo! I’ll just pause a moment and let you check your calendars, synchronise watches, create a countdown (as if you haven’t already :-p), panic slightly about Year 11 time, and generally just breathe it in. (Please don’t gloat if you are in an independent school and only have about 10 weeks left before your 3 months holiday :-p

Today was my mid-way performance management review with my line manager. I’m always slightly apprehensive about such things because it’s difficult to know how others perceive both you as a person and your professional attributes and abilities. My line manager is very professional, thorough, and provided me with a lovely glowing review which I hadn’t expected (of course I’m dead easy to manage, perfect at my job, tick every box and therefore there was no other choice than to be so glowing…I jest).

Although I do feel competent (most days), and can be feisty about ‘doing the right thing’, I do crave that reassurance. Not in a ‘there there’ cotton wool kind of way. I also like to know how else to improve as this job is never a done deal (blessing or curse?). But as much as I enjoy freedom and it being assumed that I’m ‘transforming’ the department (with help from a great team of course but a work in progress) I do still have that little girl inside that needs to hear from someone else. I’m more of a carrot than stick person I suppose. Yet despite liking to hear positives, I also find it quite hard to accept. I tend to turn the compliment into a joke, or suggest something more needing to be done. Is this a teacher thing generally? I come across educators pretty often who are actually shy, praise-resistant, lacking confidence – and they (like me) maintain a professional facade the rest of the time, putting on our ‘game face’. I’ve often said that teaching is acting. In normal life (is there such a thing?) I don’t like making all the decisions, or being bossy, or having a plan. Our personas at school are maybe quite different to at home.

Anyway, this post wasn’t for self-congratulation but reflection about the process. We had PM twilight today and an activity akin to speed dating with pairs sharing targets, progress and ‘proud moments’ from their PM year so far. It wasn’t to be an embarrassment, but to be an honest reflection and mutual encouragement. It’s great to hear what others are doing! To see what collective aims we all have and how we fit into that whole school jigsaw. Performance management can, and should, be a celebration. Sure we are always going to have new targets, and the bar will keep rising, and we can always improve, but part of that process is celebrating what is going well. After all, isn’t that what we do with students? WWW/EBI? I remember one GCSE results day when Geog results had risen and I was feeling cheered but having a senior colleague immediately say ‘yes it’s ok, but it’s not where it should be’. Granted that was true, and we couldn’t be complacent, but there is a time to just enjoy the moment before stepping into the fray again. We needed to take some time to celebrate the progress so far, rather than immediately moving on to the next thing. It would be demoralising otherwise.

So take time, make PM positive.

"I am still learning" (Michelangelo)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,076 other followers