Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Christmas Lesson (2017 Edition)

The end of term always tempts teachers to go for 'fun' or 'easy' lessons. I remember learning the hard way that students cannot cope with such changes to routine. Doing a quiz or watching a film ends up being harder work that normal teaching. 

I can see why some simply put on a Nativity DVD (but not that one). Tiredness, assessment marking plus the fact students really do need to know the story! However, I always really enjoy teaching the Nativity and try to ensure I have at least two lessons with Key Stage 3 classes to explore it.

I have revamped and reviewed my old resource (I really didn't like the tasks I set even just 2 or 3 years ago). This is not a lesson as such, but a collection of information and tasks that can be adapted, reordered, mixed up. 

Here it is:

Someone suggested that I sell this on TES. I'd much rather you made a donation to Crisis. At the very least, perhaps play this song on YouTube or Spotify - you can also buy for less than a pound via links at the bottom of the page. 

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Feast of St Nicholas

Is there a Santa Claus?

This blog first appeared on the BCYS site in December 2016

For some, the start of Christmas is when they first see the Coca Cola Christmas truck on the television. A real truck now visits towns around the UK over Christmas adorned with a huge image of Father Christmas on the side. It is often claimed that this isn’t anywhere close to the real St Nicholas, but a character largely created by Coca Cola to aid their commercial pursuits over the festive period. What is the truth in the story of a transformation from Turkish Bishop to a gift bearer from the North Pole?

Who was the real St Nicholas?

Sadly there is a lack of much historical evidence. However tradition suggests he was born in Patara, in Asia Minor and his family were wealthy; he was given a good Christian upbringing. His parents died while he was young, so St Nicholas became a priest and decided to use his inheritance for good and the benefit of others.

He was later ordained as a bishop with many stories told about his holiness and generosity - both of wealth and spirit. Some suggest he was imprisoned and tortured by Emperor Diocletian, others that he attended the Council of Nicea after being freed. One tale tells of how he intervened to spare three innocent men sentenced to death by a corrupt governor. St Nicholas confronted him and moved the governor to do penance. A popular story in the Middle Ages suggested that St Nicholas entered an inn whose innkeeper had just murdered three boys and pickled their dismembered bodies in barrels in the basement. The bishop not only sensed the crime had taken place, but resurrected the victims as well.

Perhaps the most famous story is how he helped a widower with three daughters. To save the girls from being sold into prostitution, St Nicholas tossed bags of gold through the window over three consecutive nights. He became the patron saint of both children and gift-giving.

Sources suggest he died at some point between 345 and 352 AD on December 6th, and was buried in his cathedral. However during later persecution of Christianity, his body was taken by Italian merchants in 1087 and reburied in a new church in Bari, Italy. His remains were used to reconstruct his face in 2014:

What happened between the 4th Century and today?

By the Middle Ages, St Nicholas was an incredibly popular Saint and from around 1200 to 1500 he was the undisputed bringer of gifts. Celebrations were centered around his Feast Day, December 6th. He had taken on some aspects of earlier European deities such as Saturn and Odin: white bearded men who had magical powers such as flight. Children were told to be good and say their prayers in order to get presents from St Nicholas.

The Protestant Reformation meant St Nicholas became far less popular. Dutch Protestants wanted to remove all Catholic links and renamed him Sint Klaes, which later became Santa Claus. They stripped him of his bishop's regalia and made him look more Nordic with a red suit.

Gift giving was moved to Christmas and linked to the infant Jesus instead. However as a baby, he was not able to deliver many presents, nor scare children into behaving. As such, Jesus was often given a scary helper to do this part of the job - it didn’t seem right to have baby Jesus threatening other young children!

These scary Germanic characters were given various names such as Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas). The worst was perhaps Krampus: a half-goat, half-demon, horrific beast who literally beat children into being nice and not naughty. Good children got sweets, ‘wicked’ children got dragged off to his lair to be chained and whipped.

The Dutch brought Sinterklaas with them as they travelled the Atlantic and settled in America. Yet the celebrating of Christmas was largely shunned in New England as it had become an outdoor, alcohol-fuelled, rowdy community blowout with no particular magical gift bringer. Things were much the same back in Europe.

Saving St Nicholas

Christmas was to be saved by a series of authors and poets in the early 1800’s. They wanted a return to the family celebration and to revive the legend of the original St Nicholas.

Washington Irving's book Knickerbocker's History of New York (1809) first portrayed the pipe-smoking St Nicholas flying over the rooftops in a wagon. He delivered sweets and presents to good children and switches (sticks) to bad ones.

An anonymous illustrated poem called The Children’s Friend (1821) portrayed a much more familiar image of Santa Claus and linked him with Christmas. Notably, there was no return to any religious connections in this portrayal of St Nicholas. It is the first instance of him with a reindeer:

The following year, Clement Clarke Moore wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas, more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas, for his own children. Despite its anonymous publication, the book became hugely popular and further developed the image of Santa Claus. In the book, he was plump, jolly and had eight reindeer.

Despite a variety of different versions of Santa being found during the remainder of the 1800s, by the end of the 19th century, his recognisable image had been fully established. He was an older man, dressed in red and fur, who lived at the North Pole and had a sleigh driven by reindeer. Cartoonist Thomas Nast (1882) is credited with the jolly, chubby, grandfatherly like face:

North America’s Santa Claus, then did a reverse migration to replace the scary gift bringers. He adopted local names such as Père Noël (France) or Father Christmas (Great Britain) but the image was largely the same.

Of course, Haddom Sundblom, an advertising artist for Coca-Cola (1931-1965), ensured Santa Claus would always be known as the red-suited, larger-than-life, Coke-drinking jolly character found on the side of the Coca-Cola Christmas truck. It is this image that has grown over the last 150 years and remains popular with both children and adults today.

Some countries have resisted this image, and have anti-Santa movements. This is either trying to keep their own traditions alive, or trying to return to a more religious celebration of Christmas.

A young girl called Virginia wrote to the New York Times 1897 to ask, “Is there a Santa Claus?”. The editor replied:

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.... Nobody sees Santa Claus but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.... Thank God! He lives, and he lives forever."

This certainly reads like a testament to the original St Nicholas. He continues to bring joy, generosity, kindness, love and excitement into our Christmas. For that, we should be incredibly grateful.

St Nicholas, pray for us.

Monday, 4 December 2017

The Great Textbook Battle

Last week I attended I attended the Policy Exchange event hosted by John Blake and featuring Nick Gibb, Emma Lennard, Robert Orme and Robert Peal. The event has been widely reported already (TES - Nick Gibb: 'Teachers will lead the move back to textbooks'). I am a textbook writer myself (GCSE and KS3 RE) and I realise the value of a good textbook, and want all my students to have access to one.

18 arguments for the use of textbooks in schools:

  • Knowledge has already been fact checked - rather than relying on Wikipedia on a Sunday evening
  • Knowledge is carefully sequenced - enabling students to successfully develop schema
  • Environmental impact is lessened - photocopying is often wasteful in schools, costs can be similar, if not less for textbooks over a number of years
  • Workload - Using a textbook rather than producing a resource from scratch is hugely time saving
  • Literacy - Students should be reading books; reading is good 
  • Differentiation - A well planned and constructed textbook can aid with differentiation not hinder it 
  • "DBPP" - Death by PowerPoint - Why do teachers spend hours typing up a textbook into a PowerPoint?
  • Tech Issues - Wifi not working, iPads not charged, Student X has downloaded Angry Birds...
  • A launchpad - To further reading, to carefully constructed activities... they do not kill creativity.
  • Social leveller - Geographical areas that struggle to get specialist teachers do not disadvantage students. 
  • Non-specialist areas - Even a history specialist may not be a specialist in all areas of History in new National Curriculum, or an RE teacher in all religions. 
  • Primary education - Is it possible to be an expert in all areas of curriculum?
  • Standards / Quality - How many lessons does a teacher deliver that are okay, but not brilliant?
  • Student preference - Many students prefer actual books rather eBooks
  • Student learning - Students appear to comprehend more, and remain more focused with actual book rather than digital resources
  • Academic study - A good textbook will cultivate a student and introduce them to more academic and rigorous content - rather than Horrible History approach. 
  • Copyright - Has already been sorted rather than resources 'nicked' from all over.
  • Resource sharing - If teachers are using the same textbooks, resources can be shared with ease. Some textbook writers have shared their accompanying lessons resources for free.

Some issues to overcome:
  • Some current GCSE / A Level books have been rushed due to speed of reforms - corrections can be made, but not helpful for schools who already have class sets.
  • Some are prohibitively expensive - schools need to carefully work out how to deploy funds, and budget accordingly. 
  • A culture (high stakes / accountability?) where there is a huge demand for board specific / exam focused / 'endorsed' textbooks - which naturally go out of date. 
  • Why...
    • Are teachers who use textbooks considered lazy? ("Just one page ahead")
    • Are (newer) teachers often actively discouraged from using them by colleagues?
    • Do many claim they "kill creativity"?
    • Do some refuse to even consider there could be good textbooks and dismiss them all?
    • Should we refuse to even look at international systems that successfully deploy textbooks?
If the problem is quality, let's write them. I have been fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to do just this. If this could reduce workload, and help ease recruitment and retention problems, surely it must be considered? 

Of course, no one knows your class like you do, but for how long can you make everything from scratch? Will the profession consider the evidence presented to us, or will we simply reject the idea because Nick Gibb said it?

Related blog: The Life of a Textbook Writer

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Greatest Story Ever Told?

The Greatest Story Ever Told?

This blog first appeared on the BCYS site

  1. How did Mary travel to Bethlehem?
  2. How long before Jesus’ birth did Mary arrive in Bethlehem?
  3. Which animals were present at Jesus’ birth?
  4. How many innkeepers did Mary and Joseph speak with?
  5. What kind of building was Jesus born in?
  6. When did the angels appear above the stable?
  7. How many wise men visited Jesus?
  8. What did the angels sing?

Despite the Nativity being one of the most frequently told, and certainly acted out, stories in the Bible. It is often inaccurately shared and its richness, depth and complexities overlooked. Few Christians realise that it only features in two of the four Gospels, that the Magi probably visited anything from six months to a year after Jesus was born, and that only Luke refers to the shepherds. Even Pope Benedict XVI felt the need to address commonly held Nativity myths in his book, Jesus of Nazareth - The Infancy Narratives [2012], after which the Daily Mail labelled him a ‘killjoy’ who ‘crushed’ nativity traditions.

The word Nativity has it’s roots in the Latin nativus ‘arisen by birth’, and gives us the start point of Christianity; the moment “God became flesh through Virgin Birth”. This monumental occasion deserves the undivided attention of all Christians; can we afford to be ill informed about such an event?

Often people's’ understanding of the story can be vague and superficial. Indeed the classic retelling of the story of the Nativity through primary school plays has adapted so that a cast of Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men is no longer sufficient. Reportedly in some schools there are now parts for aliens, punk fairies, Elvis Presley, footballers, a lobster and a drunken spaceman. Naturally carols have also been replaced with Christmas-themed pop songs including those by Justin Bieber and Michael Bublé.

As an RE teacher, I try to cultivate a love and interest in scripture study with my students. Anyone who says the Bible is boring or dull really hasn’t bothered to invest any time into understanding it’s rich and varied cultural, historical and poetic content. An example of this is its intricacies and complexities in the story of the Nativity.

It is easy to look at the two accounts and dismiss their differences as evidence that they are inaccurate. However to look a little closer, with even the most basic background knowledge, it becomes evident that they are far easier to reconcile than on face value. Luke is writing to a Roman official and Matthew is writing to Christians who were formerly Jews. In simple terms, Luke is writing to the oppressor and Matthew is writing to the oppressed.

Luke carefully omitted those things that would upset the Roman official, Theophilus, or any other Roman official that Theophilus might show Luke's gospel to. This included the Roman atrocity of Slaughter of the Innocents and the highlighting of Jesus’ Messiahship, which could be considered a political threat to the Empire. The shepherds were lowly, marginal visitors and so permitted for inclusion.

Matthew has similarly left out those things that would upset Jewish Christians. He only briefly deals with the virginal conception and birth of Jesus and then rushes on to the Magi. This story, with gifts of exotic and expensive gifts would have impressed a Jewish audience. Luke doesn’t include it as the Romans may have suspected that the Christians were making alliances with powerful people beyond the empire.

Such prudence is not sinful as St Paul says, "...try to fit your answers to the needs of each one." (Colossians 4:6) and as Jesus instructs, "... be cunning as serpents and yet as harmless as doves." (Matthew 10:16).

The symbolism of the story has been discussed by biblical scholars for generations. It was clear that there is much of Jesus’ nature and purpose being shared right from his birth, thirty years before his mission really began. Not only did he arrive without fanfare and riches, but his concern for the lowly was evident as he dwelt among humanity. The wisemen provided an insight into Jesus’ life to come with their gifts indicating his kingship (gold), priestly mission (frankincense) and significant death (myrrh).

When we look at the non-Biblical additions to Nativity scenes, it is important that we realise that many are there for a reason. The swaddling on Jesus is a symbol of the burial shroud, Mary wears red (lifeblood) and blue (sky and heaven) as the link between God and mankind, the Magi are often portrayed as coming from Europe, Africa and Asia to represent all nations. The ox represents patience, the ass humility, while the lambs are reminders of Jesus’ role as the Lamb of God; a cock is also often present in prediction of Peter’s denial. Sometimes you will also find contemporary figures linking the timeless importance of the Nativity.

This Advent, first of all consider carefully the story we are celebrating. Take the time to return and reflect upon the scripture. Read what is there, yet allow time to consider what is unwritten. Also look carefully on any Nativity scene you look at, what is included beyond the scripture? Why? The Nativity story is perhaps the greatest story ever told because over time it has grown into the story not only of Jesus’ birth but also the entire story of Jesus’ life, mission and ministry, as well as the story of our own salvation. The Nativity is unexpected, complex, yet absolutely joyous.

Back to the quiz...

  1. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  2. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  3. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  4. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  5. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  6. We don’t know, it doesn’t say that they did.
  7. We don’t know. Read more <here>
  8. We don’t know, possibly nothing. Read more <here>

Read more:

Friday, 24 November 2017

More Catholic Schools?

This week Humanists UK have revisited a briefing that contains 5 claims. This is, in part, in response to MPs recently asking questions about the Conservative policy from September 2016 to remove the 50% cap on new school admissions. Jacob Rees-Mogg MP cited the Conservative party manifesto pledge while Catherine McKinnell MP suggested it would be a way to improve education in the UK.

Their main claim is one relating to Canon Law. Humanists UK cite the Catholic Education Service (CES), “which claims that the 50% cap on religious selection ‘contravenes canon law’ and that Catholic schools must select 100% of their places on the basis of religion.” (see article in full <here>)

Firstly, Canon Law is not a book of law as many would understand it, and crucially it is not the same as UK law. Canon Law is the law of the Church, as interpreted by the magisterium, and is essentially, not a useful tool for critics. This is because, a bishop is the ultimate jurisdictional authority of Canon Law in his diocese. If he rules an action contravenes Canon Law, then quite simply, it does. 

Whilst there is no canon which explicitly states word for word that an admissions cap is illegal, the inevitable consequences of a 50% cap would put the Church at odds with its own law. A Catholic school which turns away Catholic pupils because they are Catholic and where a bishop does not have total control over the school’s governance cannot be recognised as a Catholic school. This principle is the same all over the world.

Other faith free schools that have opened (Islamic and Hindu, for example), do not have the demand for places that Catholic schools do. This is why the 50% rule has demonstrably not worked in creating diverse schools. It is ironic that the only faith provider the cap has affected is the Catholic Church, and it does so specifically because Catholic schools are popular with families of all faiths and none.

The bishops simply want any new Catholic schools to be allowed to accommodate all the Catholic pupils who apply. For more than 150 years the Church has been able to do this, but organisations like Humanists UK want to strip parents of this right.  

Returning to their opinions on Canon Law, I give this short rebuttal.  

a) the vast majority of Catholic private schools in England do not select all their places with reference to religion;

  • This is due to the fact that Catholic private schools are not oversubscribed in the way other Catholic schools are. It is without doubt that if private Catholic schools had sufficient Catholic families willing to pay for education, they would be prioritised, and certainly not turned away.

b) many Catholic state schools in Scotland do not religiously select their pupils

  • Again, there has not been the demand. However, due to the the increasing popularity of Catholic schools in Scotland, many are now implementing faith admissions.

c) a recent OECD survey identified only the UK, Ireland, Israel and Estonia as countries that permit religious discrimination in state school admissions;

  • Many Catholic schools overseas are missionary and do not operate in the same way as the UK. They often, charitably, provide education to those who would not normally be able to access free education. It is also worth pointing out, the Church saves the British taxpayer tens of millions of pounds each year through the management of land and buildings. The Catholic community also raises a significant amount of money to support its schools, saving central government funds, which seem ever more scarce in education. Therefore it is only fair that Catholic students get priority. 

d) there are already Catholic state schools in England that do not select all their places on religion;

  • Some areas have an abundance of Catholic schools places and can easily meet the local Catholic need. If a school in this position wanted to allocate places to children of other faiths it is more than entitled to do so. Crucially however, this is the local bishop’s decision to make. An arbitrary, state imposed cap contravenes the bishop's canonical right to have this total autonomy. 

e) the Catholic International Education Office – of which the CES is a member – states that a ‘Catholic school is an inclusive school, founded in intercultural and interreligious dialogue. A non-discriminatory school, open to all… It must constantly promote intercultural and interreligious dialogue’.

  • English Catholic schools are inclusive. They are the most ethnically diverse schools in the Country and educate significantly more pupils from the poorest households than the national average. What secularist campaigners often forget (or possibly try to ignore) is that despite their mantra that religion is on the way out, the Catholic Church is the largest religious organisation the world with a presence in every country on earth and a following encompassing a sixth of the planet. Therefore the mission of Catholic schools around the world are going to be completely different. Some are there to educate the world's poorest free of charge others are designed to bring different communities together. Arguing that a Catholic should be allowed to attend a Catholic school does not make English Catholic schools discriminatory. 

Catholic schools are popular and in demand by parents. Whether it is ethos, mission, pastoral care, results, or a combination of all these. There is a plan to open 35-40 Catholic free schools in areas of need.

Unless the policy changes, Catholic schools could have to turn away Catholic students. This is not a compromise that the Catholic community wants to make - many of our schools were built by the hands, and out of the pockets of the Catholic community. They have served the UK education system well over the last 150 years. We have a unique history of Christianity and education in the UK and want to continue our positive relationship between Church and state.

What can you do?

Write to your MP requesting the 50% cap is lifted, as promised in the manifesto - do so via <here>
Invite you MP into school - see <here>
Sign this petition - <here>

Image courtesy of Laicismo

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Life of a Textbook Writer

I've now written two textbooks, one for GCSE and one for Key Stage 3. I've also just completed a revision guide to accompany the GCSE textbook. I honestly don't think there are many things for a classroom teacher that provide better professional affirmation, you quite literally have "written the textbook on it". I am incredibly humbled and grateful to my two fantastic publishers, Oxford University Press and Harper Collins. 

The latest exam reforms have been somewhat different to those in the past. For a start, gone are the hard copies of the of specification - in come the ever changing electronic versions. Secondly, everyone is far more accessible via email and social media: exam boards, Ofsted, publishers... and textbook writers. Thirdly everyone is far FAR more results and exam focused than ever before - stakes are high!

My journey began at the London RE Hub in April 2015, when OUP where one of our two brave sponsors. The LREH team remain ever grateful for OUP and TrueTube for taking a huge risk and sponsoring our brand new grassroots conference. I got to know some of the team, and then by June, we were sat in a hotel in London planning a textbook for the new Edexcel GCSE in Catholic Christianity. This ended up as an amazing, but tough journey. Writing began in the late July 2015, but final accreditation for Edexcel only actually happened in July 2016... when the book was due for publication in September 2016! Somehow we pulled it off. There were some incredible people behind the scenes; thank you all. I wrote over 50% of this book, and helped oversee all the sections I didn't write myself.  

My son was born in October 2015. He here is, aged 18 days, with me writing... 
Since then, I was invited to be part of the Knowing Religion writing team for Harper Collins, using my improved understanding of Judaism to write a Key Stage 3 "knowledge focused" textbook. This allowed a great freedom not experienced while writing the GCSE textbook. This series provides a new approach to Key Stage 3 RE, which seems to be proving popular.

Finally, I have nearly completed my third book, a revision guide to accompany the GCSE textbook. Even with the difficulties of the original books with Edexcel's late approval, this one has probably proved to be the hardest of the lot. The further reduction of material, as well as focusing on exam questions and support has proved challenging. I think Religious Studies, and particularly the Catholic paper makes this even harder. Is my hugely condensed version of complex Catholic teaching accurate? Could the exam board ask a question on this? How can I ensure students are not being pushed into writing heresy? 

It is impossible to not see, or often avoid being tagged into, discussion of GCSE textbooks on social media. It is hard to not get overly defensive when you have been as involved as I have been - and made huge sacrifices to actually get one written. I do get frustrated, and annoyed, at some of the comments made - both the general and specific. I think it's normal, it would be easier to log off Twitter, Save RE on Facebook etc, but I am happy to engage. I want the very best resources for students and colleagues; I also know how frustrating it is when something you want, or feel you need, isn't there.

Aged 5 weeks. Mummy was in bed. Daddy needed to write...
Over the last few weeks, many comments have been focused on 3 things:
  1. Why are there errors in the textbooks?
  2. Why aren't revision guides ready for Year 11 mocks?
  3. Why aren't there more model answers / exam guidance / support in textbooks?
As such, I have tried to put together a 10 Things About Textbook Writing list:
  1. Writing a textbook on top of full time teaching is incredibly hard. However, I still believe teachers who are encountering students on daily basis, who can trial things, who know what students 'get' and what they don't, are best placed to write textbooks. Thankfully my amazing wife has been incredibly supportive, and my son seems proud as he is always stealing copies of the book from my desk and carrying them around the house. There were days when he was not sleeping and I was trying to survive on two hours sleep a night. In the end, however, it is incredibly rewarding and I am really proud of every book.
  2. Awarding Organisations, ie exam boards, are not the same as publishers. Textbooks are accredited and then endorsed by exam boards. Edexcel, for example, does not publish textbooks. OUP and Hodder do. Naturally there are working relationships between the two, but someone wrote "Andy has unrivalled access to the chief examiner at Edexcel"  suggesting my own students are unfairly advantaged - this is simply not true. We do check everything we can, of course, however any teacher can email the exam board in the way I do - Email <here>
  3. The speed of the reforms has been incredible. People wanted textbooks, and revision guides, as soon as the specs were approved. The GCSE textbook took over a year to write - imagine if we had waited until the Edexcel spec was finally approved? (However, this was heartbreaking at times... there was a number of pages written which simply had to be cut as spec changed) We did have a short break, before the planning and writing of revision guide began... ready for publication in the January before the final exams for Year 11. Publishers tried to get things to teachers as quickly as possible, and the result was errors. Thankfully nothing major in ours! 
  4. AOs / exam boards do not have the capacity to support in the way teachers believe they should. This is, in some way expected, due to the relatively small number of staff needed in-between reforms when question writing and examining are the main focus. Many of their senior examiners are also full time teachers. Like with textbook writers, this seems to make sense. I think biggest problems have been with exam boards who made lots of promises, and then failed to deliver, especially when those promises were made as people were selecting their new specs.  
  5. The education world has changed incredibly since the last reforms. Schools are under far more pressure to get results, even in a non-Ebacc subject like Religious Studies stakes are high - for some their risk losing their place on the timetable if results are not good enough. Teachers are far more results driven, and schools more exam focused. With high accountability, comes high levels of stress. For RS, many issues lie with lack of curriculum time, or non-specialists. Textbooks were/are needed, and they weren't there (See point 3).
  6. No-one know what the full range of student answers will look like yet. This makes writing model answers really hard. Most teachers were good at writing them for the old spec, as they knew approximately, what a top level answer was. Pitching model answers in a textbook, without seeing a full range of answers is really hard. I would imagine that some model answers created at this stage, will be 'beyond' full marks. This can't be helped. 
  7. We don't know exam boundaries; we don't know what a 'Grade 9 answer' will look like. Nor do any of the exam boards. They will know August 2018, when we all will. Textbooks may need to be reviewed after this. 
  8. Writing exam questions that are reasonable, answerable, and in keeping with the spec is really, really hard. I have far greater respect for exam writers now; it is much more of a skill than I first realised. Doing these in bulk to try and cover every eventuality has been one of the trickiest parts of the revision guide. Time will only tell if I have succeeded! 
  9. People always point out things you could have added... without suggesting what you could have dropped, or having any appreciation for the strict word/page limits. Everyone knows a good teacher goes beyond the spec, and beyond the textbook. No one wanted a book full of my anecdotes, funny stories and asides did they? It is incredibly easy to criticise books and resources and say "Well I would have done it like this instead..." - I am always looking for helpful and constructive criticism - yet often it is neither of these things! 
  10. The pressure you feel as a writer is incredible; people will literally hang off your every word. Being on social media is great promotion for the book, but it means you are very accessible and people expect you to have all the answers. It is great to work with other teachers, and this has always felt like a vocation, a call to provide a resource to the Catholic community, but at times incredibly tough. 
Hopefully this provides a bit of an insight into the life of a textbook writer. No doubt there will be a follow up to this when I get a barrage of abuse... 

Thursday, 2 November 2017

CoRE: Interim Report (2) - Building a Knowledge Curriculum

Recently, I wrote a first response to the Commission on RE Interim Report (see <here>). My final paragraph was this:
I would love to see the Commissioners sit down, with all their expertise, experience, knowledge and understanding of religion and belief, and set out a knowledge based curriculum, that teachers then help develop into Key Stage standards of attainment. I honestly think this is the best thing we could do for the students in our care. 
I have also written about ED Hirsch before in a series of blogs (see <here>), and it seemed like perfect timing when a video appeared online of him discussing how to develop a list of core knowledge. This is what I believe the RE community needs to do.

Hirsch begins by explaining that within society, there exists a cultural, competency and language gap - and that if this is not addressed, it is reinforced through the education system. This is true in RE, evidenced frequently in the media - many people simply do not posses even basic religious knowledge. 

In many of Hirsch's books, he sets out lists of knowledge that need to be learnt at different ages. He explains in these books that an initial list was created, studying current culture and trends - what do students need to know to engage with the culture that surrounds them? These books were created in the 1980's, but have since been reviewed. Hirsch acknowledged that the knowledge required for 'cultural literacy' does change.

In this video, he explains further how a consensus was found. His initial, researched, lists were then taken to conferences of between 150 and 200 teachers and other involved in education. The delegates were then able to allocate knowledge to different age groups, and (perhaps crucially) substitute content if they felt it was appropriate to do so. The delegates needed to feel fully engaged with the process. It was also important to have the antagonists involved in this process, Hirsch makes clear. 

He explains that it was important people realised there was no "political axe to grind", and he said people did so quite quickly. It is natural for people to want to equalise educational opportunity... everyone believes in this, but this was an attempt to actually do something in a concerted way. People bought in.

One interesting thing that he makes clear is that he wanted to focus his knowledge based curriculum in elementary (primary) schools. Students can then arrive in high (secondary) school, with a vast amount of knowledge and 'cultural literacy'. Imagine the possibilities. 

Implications for RE / CoRE

Someone has got to start this job off. Someone, or a group of people, need to come up with a body of knowledge that they believe is useful in RE, matched to different Key Stage or year group expectations.

This may well include provisional knowledge, which we know is an over simplification (but appropriate for certain age groups), it might include contested knowledge, it might not include everything we would ideally want for a 'religiously literate' person. Some religious people may not fully agree with what is included about their faith, those with particular interests such as history, religion and art, sociology, philosophy etc may not get everything they feel should be included. I think that's okay.

I quite like the subject content document that the DfE published for the new Religious Studies GCSEs (see <here>). It was initially published, put out for consultation, and refined. It may not be perfect, but it is the closest we have to a list of core knowledge for RE.

Huge thanks to Laura McInerney‏ for asking the question; I hope the Commission take on board this idea for the RE community.

Watch the video (8 mins) here:

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Work-Life Balance & Email

What did schools do before email? I started teaching in 2006 and already email was widely used. I was familiar with that, as email had been a common form of communication at university. However, it was not used at all when I myself was a student at school (pre-2002). It is not uncommon for teachers to get 30 to 40 emails day, and when I was a head of year, 60 or 70 emails a day was entirely possible.

I remember when I started at my new school (September 2016), that there was a brief discussion in a meeting... "Remember no emails after 6pm, or at the weekend, SLT need to be leading on that.". I recall thinking, that sounds like a good idea, but not fully appreciating how much of a difference it makes.

Teaching is all consuming; you can work every hour in the day, and still not get everything done. Likewise, your email inbox is rarely completely empty. There is a great temptation to sit down in an evening and try and 'clear a few' - although even this acknowledges that it may be impossible to ever conquer. These might be your working hours, but they are not the same for everyone. Some teachers will get up early and be working from 5am, some will stay late in school, others will up until 2am. I'm not suggesting you should work at any of these times, but some people choose to, especially if they want to spend time with their partner or children. There is a certain flexibility with working hours.

One issue is the fact that many teachers have email set up on their phone. This can be hugely advantageous, especially during the working day. I know if I send something urgent to our SLT, someone will respond near on instantly. I can also clear a number of emails on the train to and from work. However, the problem is if you have notifications set up (I don't on my phone - only on my iPad), you will be constantly distracted. If there are no guidelines on when emails can be sent, this can then become part of your evening, weekend and even holidays.

I set up a few Twitter polls recently:

I find it incredibly worrying that 5% of respondents send email over the weekend and expect a response. Also that 56% send, but don't expect a response - but is there a consideration about how those receiving the email feel or react?

Can they really just ignore it? Do they feel they have to 'just quickly reply'? They may do this while they are out for dinner with their partner, sat in the park with their child, or enjoying a hobby with a friend? Regardless of policy, if emails are being sent, some people will feel they need to reply. Having now experienced no emails outside of reasonable working hours for well over a year, I think far more schools should 'ban' email from 6pm to 7am, weekends and school holidays if they are serious about staff well-being.

I followed this up after half term:

It is clear that emails slowed down... but didn't stop. Nearly a quarter of teachers were getting 11 or more emails over their week "off". There is obviously complexity behind this data - some emails don't need responding to, some are from students, some might be from mailing lists.

Since tweeting these out, I received a number of DMs from colleagues on Twitter. These are some of the examples of emails sent in schools:
  • Information requests for students sent out at 2am in the morning
  • Staff meeting agendas sent out at 10pm on a Saturday night
  • SLT requests for information send out at 9am on a Sunday morning
  • Department data requests sent out during the holidays
  • Deadlines of 24 hours on emails sent at 8pm on a Friday
This is on top of all the 'general information' and 'all staff' (when they don't need to be 'all staff'!) emails sent during the evenings and weekends. 

How can anyone justify this?

This has a huge detrimental effect on work life balance. Teachers can never switch off, and even if they don't have their email direct to their phone or iPad - if they know these emails are being sent - and it seems part of their school culture -  they feel they need to check. When and why did we become this kind of profession? Instant replies are wanted for things which really could wait...

This can have a huge affect on the stress and anxiety levels of staff; it can make them feel guilty or inadequate when they spend time with family, friends, or on holiday. It also seems to be a competitive 'who is working the hardest?' culture - a dangerous feature of modern teaching.  

There is another way.

Your working hours may be late at night, or at weekends. That's fine; there is an element of flexible working in teaching in this respect. I also think it is not enough for SLT to just say "well don't check it". Most staff want to do their job well; they want to be efficient.

Delay Delivery

My old school used to have email setup through Outlook; it was very easy to 'Delay Delivery'. I used to frequently do this and set up for 8am arrival in inboxes, as I knew many staff checked their email around this time before going off to briefing or to register their form.


For Gmail, this is the ideal solution. It is a simple  add in for Chrome that allows you to send delayed messages (it does have a limit). This also has another new great function of pausing your email while you work on something important - see below for more on this. There is also now a new Boomerang app for your phone, so you can simply write emails in this to send later - even if you don't use as your main email app. 

Other options

Write it, leave it in your Draft folder, and then send when you get in in the morning (after 7am!).

This is important.

I did some reading around email, well being and work life balance while writing this blog. The first shocking statistic is that can take 20 minutes on average to refocus after being disrupted by an email. If you are marking and hear a 'ping', it may take you a considerable length of time to get back to concentration level you had before. If that email is received outside of school and triggers stress or anxiety, then it's impact may last a lot longer than 20 minutes.

It has been proven to be far more efficient to 'cluster' tasks, and so setting aside 2 or 3 occasions during the day to check and respond to emails is a much better work habit. However, the nature of schools doesn't always work this way - but perhaps the trial of slightly better habits may work? It doesn't help when you are stopped in the corridor and someone says, "I've just sent you an email..." - if you send it by email, it can obviously be replied to later in the day when I am not trying to prepare to teach my next lesson, discipline this student, mark this book, or just make a cup of tea!

Would you write better / politer / more useful responses if you were sat at a PC with time dedicated to emails, rather than rushing between a Year 9 and a Year 11 lesson on your phone? You may also not need to send that 'all staff' email about a lost mug, the whereabouts of a child who missed your lunchtime detention or the jammed photocopier if you wait until later in the day - those issues may have all resolved themselves! 

Another key bit of research is that people, even those with busy working lives, who checked their emails less (regardless of volume of email), were less stressed. Flipping between tasks (teaching and email responding) makes you less efficient at both, and naturally more stressed doing both - this has got to be a concern. Teachers, or other staff, who bombard colleagues with emails during the day are potentially effecting their performance in the classroom.

Finally, an incredible statistic from the NY Times found 6% of workers (not teacher specifically), checked their work email while they, or their partner, was in labour! 

  • Don't email after 6pm, before 7am, at weekends or holidays - it can wait. Even if it is not school policy, you may produce a butterfly effect. If your working hours mean you catch up on emails during this time, use technology to delay it's arrival.
  • Try small changes to your email habits - turn off notifications on your device, close your email browser window when marking, deactivate during holidays, 'cluster' your time.
  • Consider the implications of your email on the recipient - you don't always know the interruption, stress, guilt or anxiety your 'quick email' may be having.
  • Always think before you hit send - Do I need to make it an 'all staff' email? Do I need to send that email at all? What happens if someone forwards this email on? Have I conveyed my tone? Have I used the CC correctly? 
  • Would it just be better if I went to see the person face to face instead? 

Further reading: