Writing independently..The devil is in the detail

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What is independent writing? The requirement for independence in pupils writing sits firmly in the assessment framework, yet in truth I don’t think anybody has a true picture of what it means.

Getting writing right is a massive challenge.

I do however see a drive towards overly structured writing. I see structure strips,  models of what teachers want pupils to produce that essentially just tell pupils this is what we want you to write, I see ‘Slow writing’. All are really valid and important scaffolds in the development of writing. What  I see less and less of is the teacher and the children creating a toolkit for writing. I see less of the children writing independently. Structure strips are not independent. Excessive modelling is not independent. Slow writing is not independent. They are all great, nay vital in explicitly teaching writing but they are not independent. Stepping children beyond the scaffold is the one of the hardest things to do.

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So how do we get independent writers?

  1. Give them something to write about. (I have seen numerous children asked to write with nothing to say. I have read more atrocious ‘news’ reports than I care to mention)
  2. Give them the knowledge to write about it effectively. If it’s a story the time spent planning is key. If it’s a time-slip in World War 1. The time you spend learning about the conditions in the trenches is the bit that makes the writing sing. (the devil is in the detail)
  3. Create purpose. Give children a reason to write. (Audience’s for work are immensely powerful.)
  4. Underpin with lots of talking first, whatever the age range or ability, so that children have practiced the vocabulary, ideas and structures so they can fully understand the requirements.  sea
  5. Read really good books to them. Talk about really good books with them. Guided reading does not just benefit Reading. Models are vital, using great models allows children to understand the flow of writing.
  6. Teach grammar as a tool to improve writing, not a bolt on. Use examples when appropriate, don’t shoehorn it in. (Teacher knowledge and precision of writing forms tied into a well mapped grammar curriculum means grammar becomes part of writing and not an add-on.)
  7. Sometimes let them just go for it. A first draft is just that…let them splurge their ideas and get it down on paper.
  8. Don’t ban words. Sometimes sad is the right word, not melancholy, not lachrymose, not distraught, just sad …(Said is often the right word in my opinion. If what the characters say is right you don’t need to explain how it’s said)
  9. Practice. Rinse and repeat, give opportunities to revisit forms of writing they’ve done before. (Preferably with less structuring)
  10. Give them the chance to choose. If we’ve taught it, give children a choice in how they will respond. (One piece of truly independent writing after you’ve taught it will tell you more about them as writers and your teaching than 20 scaffold-ed pieces.)
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Menus of choice work brilliantly after you’ve taught all the stuff  (Before not so much)

So the real question is “Where does your writing teaching lead?”

Does it really lead to children being writers?

Only you can answer that.

Other writing blogposts

Independence day…How independent is independent writing?

Writing…Honestly, we need honesty.

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Exclusion…between a rock and a hardplace.

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I’ve been stewing on the issue of exclusion for a while now and I just feel the need just get down my thoughts. Firstly I want to say that actions that put people’s safety at risk should never be tolerated also that people sharing horrific stories need to be listened to. As a head my job is to keep people safe and to create a space where all children can learn. To exclude should be the hardest decision a headteacher ever has to make. (though after the recent snow I’m not so sure)

The thing that bothers me is the lack of understanding with regards to the bigger picture. I don’t know whether this is a regional thing but in my experience the idea that exclusion gets a child the support they need is just idealistic piffle.

I know what the legalities say about LA providing provision on the 6th day I don’t however think the reality matches the rose-tinted perspective that some have. Equally the doing it for the good of the child argument is at best naive in my opinion. It may be the case in larger cities (though that is not my experience of it) where there is a provision or a space but in  many less built up areas there is little or nothing. The child is either moved on before exclusion or the child ends up out of school. Locally I am aware of a significant number of pupils whose education equates to one session a day or one day a week the rest of the time they are feral, when you exclude you are putting that child back in the chaotic place where much of that behaviour has stemmed from…nowhere to go and nothing to do and their downward spiral continues.

As a head if you know exclusion means this then whether you like it or not exclusion becomes an ethical nightmare, a moral quagmire. When you know that by excluding you are essentially stripping that child of any chance or hope then you think long and hard about that as an option.

Systemic pressures whether we like it or not add to this. Exclusion can be a quick way to turn around a school! All done for the greater good.

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Another option is the idea of a managed-move.  I have experienced it from both sides. I have sat as a classroom teacher as a child appears in my class, moved from one mainstream school to the next. They arrive with little or no information. Passed from pillar to post. Set up to fail in another environment. Occasionally you get it right, you make it work more often than not that is not the case.

In some cases  the child’s parents are encouraged to find another school, encouraged to try a fresh start by the school they are in, not official like but subtle encouragement. “Maybe we’re not the right school for you.” “I feel that maybe you would fit in better”  this often goes alongside veiled threats of sanctions and exclusion. Some are encouraged to home-school. That doesn’t count as an exclusion does it.

Whether we like it or not the current patterns of exclusion will ultimately have significant consequences not just for the young people involved but also for the communities they live in in the future. When you have had to make that decision come back and tell me I got it wrong.

What I learnt from picturebooks…My Top 10 tips for leading a school.

When Gaz Needle asked me if I’d like to present at #PrimaryRocksLive I jumped at the chance. Having attended the year before I knew it was an education event not to be missed full of fun an energy and most importantly an evident love for primary teaching. I randomly threw out a jokey title and then thought no more about it really… well that was until I saw it on the program. Then I was stuck and had no choice but to see it through. I have to say I think I managed to get away with it.

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1.Build a culture of trust. Let them feel safe in taking a risk (Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak)

Sendak is the godfather of picturebooks and Where the Wild Things are is undoubtedly his Masterpiece. For me its a book about unconditional love and care and more importantly Trust. When Max sails away ultimately he knows and believes that his mum will be waiting. In Leadership terms it has a simple message about creating trust and belief. I know my school has been a better place for the development of trust both in adults and children. Staff free to take risks. Systems built around trust and belief change the dynamic of your work. So many systems in school have been set based on not trusting the staff. Performance management, data drop, excessive marking policies, lesson observations and much more based on the belief that staff aren’t doing a good job. I genuinely believe staff come to school to do the best job they can. They almost always live up to that trust. Trust is equally a two-way street, staff believing in you is equally important and that takes time to get people to authentically believe in you. Running alongside that is honesty. Creating a climate where honest discussions about children inform the work should surely be the goal of every school. I’ve sadly seen to often spurious data used as a stick to beat up staff and  the data increasingly become a nonsense. Trust and honesty solves that.

TRUST ME… You gotta believe.

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2.Grow the seeds, even if others come and pick the flowers (The Promise by Nicola Davies and Laura Carlin)

The Promise is a stunning book about changing our world, growing and nurturing things and the impact the can have on our spaces and our lives. As a Leader in a school this is one of the most important things we do. Growing our staff to be the best they can be. That doesn’t necessarily mean Leadership. Helping your staff take the career paths that are right for them is and supporting them to do that is a key part of what school leaders should do. Sadly this means that sometimes those carefully nurtured plants are picked for other gardens. That ‘s OK though you get to plant the next seed and do it all again. Having just appointed two new staff for September I am really excited to start that process all over again.

Chelsea Flower Show is not the only place where blooms need to be nurtured.

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3.Make the space to think about and reflect on your actions (The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito and Julia Kuo)

Sound of Silence is a quiet and contemplative text about the hunt for that moment of true silence. It’s thoughtfulness and calm completely hits its target. As a bit of advice for Leadership it’s simple really, find your space and time to think about your work, both to reflect and plan. Stepping back. sometimes is vital. If you don’t your leadership can become reactive rather than pro-active. So whether its bobbing on a surf-board in the North sea of sitting on a hill. Find the place to step away and think.

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4.Listen and pay attention. Don’t ignore the signals (Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems)

Knuffle Bunny is just one of the most wonderfully funny books ever. A simple tale told well. The frustration of the child as her Father both doesn’t listen or understand what she is saying is fantastic. The facial expressions are just magnificent. For a Leader again the message is simple. Just look, listen and read the signals.  Ask questions, pay attention and be sure to read between the lines. Almost anything can be solved with clear open communication and honesty.

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5.Pay attention to the detail but keep an eye on how it fits in the bigger picture (Zoom by Istvan Banyai)

Zoom is on of those books that completely blows your mind when you first see it. It completely pans out and out and out, going from micro to macro. As a leader it’s vital you have an eye on both. The clarity of the big picture and what you are trying to achieve has to be supplemented by an eye on the detail. Precision actions and getting the detail right will make it stick.

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6.Understand that sometimes the apparent rules are there to be broken  and we need to be brave (Don’t Cross the Line by Isabel Minhos Martins and Bernardo Carvello)

The book ‘Cross the Line’ is just the most brilliant book about breaking the rules and standing up for something The fantastic use of the gutter to create a barrier sets up the story perfectly an creates a moment when the pressure becomes too much and you have the character have to stand-up and break the rules.

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The same is true of leadership. Sometime you just have to cross the line and break the rules. Sometimes things are thrown at you and you have to know when to say NO. Pointless data is one such line, lots of people ask you for pointless stuff, being brave enough to not do it for the right reasons is vital and scary in equal measure. I have often said NO. Sometimes it is blummin’ scary to do so. In the blog below I became an accidental hero, often by being brave you find you’re not the only one.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE … In your office no one can hear you scream!

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7.Remember one Yes is stronger than countless Nos. Don’t let detractors stop you doing the things that are needed (The Yes by Sarah Bee and Satoshi Kitamura)

The Yes is a cheerful orange creature who sets off to explore the big wide Where. But the Where is home to the Nos, who travel in packs and discourage the Yes at every turn. The book has a great message about overcoming obstacles and not being put off.

Do I really need to explain this one? Essentially just keep focused on where your going and the reasons why and you will get there. Equally stick to the things that are important to you and you won’t go far wrong. Finding the important things is the challenge.

Those three words… a lens on your work.

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8.Understand and know your community both its strengths and its challenges. Schools are not islands (Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz and Sydney Smith)

Town is by the Sea is a melancholy, wistful delight. It talks about lack of choice and how destiny and future is set. Most importantly it evokes its community. I was struck on reading it to the parallels to the community my school is in. The rhythms and the potentially limited futures. Knowing and understanding your community is key to truly making an impact. Getting your community to support and believe in the work you are doing can significantly change the work you do.

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9.Be honest when you get things wrong, take the knocks then get up and try again (After the Fall by Dan Santat)

A brilliantly clever picturebook that uses all the tricks to get the reader to truly understand the dilemmas faced by Humpty Dumpty following the ‘fall.’ Colour and perspective are masterfully used to draw us in.

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The message is simple. Get up and go again. If the mistake is yours, then own it. Be honest! Equally make sure the successes are shared. The true job of a leader is to create the space for your teachers to do the best job they can.

Be More Alfred! (Let Batman be Batman)

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10.Don’t forget what the job is really about… Children. Put them at the centre of every decision (Love by Matt De La Pena and Loren Long)

“In the beginning there is light/ and two wide-eyed figures standing/ near the foot of your bed,/ and the sound of their voices is love,”

A beautiful book about the true meaning of Love with children at its heart. For me as a Leader it’s that signal to look at the choices we make and to make sure that the children in our school are at the center of those actions and decisions . This doesn’t mean increasing workload in fact it means the opposite. It’s about doing the things that work and getting rid of the rest. Equally the best deal for our children is teachers who aren’t worn-out and exhausted. Children should always be the lens you use to look at your work. Sadly they can sometimes get forgotten.

TOP 10 TIPS FOR LEADING A SCHOOL (Picturebook Edition)

  • 1.Build a culture of trust. Let them feel safe in taking a risk
  • 2.Grow the seeds, even if others come and pick the flowers
  • 3.Make the space to think about and reflect on your actions
  • 4.Listen and pay attention. Don’t ignore the signals
  • 5.Pay attention to the detail but keep an eye on how it fits in the bigger picture
  • 6.Understand that sometimes the apparent rules are there to be broken  and we need to be brave
  • 7.Remember one Yes is stronger than countless Nos. Don’t let detractors stop you doing the things that are needed
  • 8.Understand and know your community both its strengths and its challenges. Schools are more than an island
  • 9.Be honest when you get things wrong, take the knocks then get up and try again
  • 10.Don’t forget what the job is really about… Children. Put them at the centre of every decision

Thanks to the @PrimaryRocks team for inviting me and  letting me waffle. It was a brill day with lots of amazing primary practitioners.

We all need days like #PrimaryRocksLive to remind us about the brilliance of our job.

Can you recommend a book?…Maybe, or maybe not?

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I recommend a lot of books, I am however becoming increasingly worried about suggesting books to people. I worry that people spend their precious school budget on things I have recommended, a recommendation at the end of the day is just me saying I liked something.

I personally think we are in a bit of a golden age for children’s literature with some truly fantastic books being written. Twitter is awash with recommendations of new children’s books. I worry about our quality control however. I wonder about how some of these books will stand up to the great books already out there. Sadly I see a lot of older books disappearing, not because they are not good but because they are not new or shiny. I still firmly believe that Tom’s Midnight Garden is one of the finest children’s books ever written alongside Charlotte’s Web and don’t even start me on the merits of why The Graveyard Book should be read to every Year 6 class. Unfortunately  it is increasingly rare to see these books in our classrooms.

Last week somebody requested some recommendations for KS2 and I was struck by the fact that  they were presented with a list of the newest and the shiniest, often these books haven’t even hit the shops yet. Recommendations are often really unbalanced towards the new and the sparkly. I fear that some truly great books are getting lost in the melee. Pax is a book in question that sadly is criminally ignored in my opinion. Complex, dense , rich language, challenging themes, wonderful story telling.  (Book blog No2 Pax by Sarah Pennypacker) I see some books being written off as old hat. I see schools purchasing class sets of a book they’ve been told is good, I personally think there is something to be said for the test of time. What I’m saying is we need a balance. As a recommend-er of books I need to be cautious

The problem ultimately comes down to teacher knowledge. Many teachers don’t have time to sit and read a book or find one that works for them. This leads to two things

1) They become dependent on the books they knew in childhood.

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2) They take a shortcut and get others to recommend books for them.

There is sadly no substitute for reading the book yourself. I’ve read books that I’ve really not got on with. I don’t say that because I know that it is possibly/probably more about me than the book itself. Using a book with a class is a big risk. It relies on many factors to make it work.

  1. Do you like the book? Do you find the book interesting? Does it rock your world? (There is nothing worse than wading through a book that you can’t stand because it’s on your curriculum plan or it’s the book your school has spent its money on.)
  2. The make up of the class. (knowing your class well is a big factor in picking the right book. That’s not saying don’t use something challenging, but about how incrementally you move that challenge on.)
  3. How you’re planning to use the book? What is the purpose for using the book? (a brilliant book for sharing as a class reader may not hold up to intense scrutiny of being picked apart as a model for writing)
  4. Do you understand the themes of the book? (matching the book to your class is tricky, sometimes it can feel like an arms race. Is it appropriate for the children. This is not about us it’s about them. Raising the challenge is not about using books with more mature themes. I always think would I want my child to be read that…I am a massive prude when it comes to this)
  5. Do YOU like the book? Do YOU find the book interesting? Does it rock YOUR world?

So if this sounds a bit grumpy I don’t mean it too. It really is about me.

I will recommend with caution and with an eye on the past as well as the present because it’s our duty to make sure children enjoy the joys of brilliant children’s books both past, present and future.

Now go out there and find the books that make your heart sing.

It’s SNOW joke! (Sorry for the pun)

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This week I have had to make the hardest decision I have had to make since becoming a headteacher.

Whether I open or close the school due to the weather.

There are so many things to take into consideration when you make the decision.

We are in a rather fortunate position in Whitby that most of the time we are not hit by snow. In the four years I’ve been here this is the first time we’ve been really struck by it. My instinct is always to try to make sure school is open.

Unfortunately a significant amount of my teaching staff don’t live in Whitby. If you know Whitby at all you’ll know it is surrounded by the North York Moors. Whilst in Whitby there maybe no snow the moors can be quite treacherous.

I have a brilliant staff who I know if I said we were opening the school would endeavour to get to there. My job is to make sure those people are safe.

Thing is it’s not easy! Some schools have to shut while others do not, some are able to open while others cannot. It doesn’t make any school better than another. It’s all about each schools context.

This week however we received quite a bit of abuse on social media from a tiny minority of parents some of it pretty foul.

What upset the most is that these people questioned the commitment of our staff to the job. We have a brilliant staff who I know go above and beyond for the children of our school every single day. I know they would have tried to get in if I’d asked. My job is to make sure that they don’t take those risks. If the Met Office is declaring an Amber warning then I have to listen. I have to weigh up the all the information I have and make a decision. Sometimes I will get it wrong, but the heart of the decision should always be safety for all involved.  (Pupil/Parents/Staff)

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The decision to close wasn’t lightly taken and it wasn’t done in isolation, the local heads all discussed the situation, our Chair of Governors was outstanding in helping me make the decision, most importantly our caretaker was a font of knowledge about the town. (I don’t live in Whitby and couldn’t actually get to school myself)

Today  we opened (after three days shut), I arrived at school at 6:45 after an hour drive across the moors. Then proceeded to help my caretaker (He’d already made a cracking start) shovel the paths to school (I even brought my own shovel)

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After after being criticised for closing we were then criticised for opening.

I learnt that I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t…so on balance I’d rather be damned for knowing everybody is safe.

Hey Ho! You can’t win… except I know everybody is safe and that for me is the biggest win.