Hi Hywel. How are things?
Good thanks. Busy, which is always good. Doing stuff I never thought I’d be doing when I resigned my full time post a few years ago. Feel lucky, and working alongside great people and wonderful children.
The idea of this series is for each link in the chain to pick someone to interview who they are inspired by. We'd better explain. We've never met you, but first came across yourself via your book 'Oops' - which we loved and, since then, have been inspired by your ideas. But for anyone who doesn't know who you are or what you do, can you explain who you are and, er... what you do?
I was a full-time Head of Drama and teacher of English and Media Studies at a town centre 11-16 comp in Barnsley, South Yorkshire for many years. I was part of a team of teachers looking at how we could do things differently at Key Stage 3. This was about ten years ago! We did lots of innovative stuff and I found myself at conferences talking about it; I also met some great educators and was privileged to work with many of them. I decided to become a ‘travelling teacher’ and basically work for myself in 2009 having been bitten by the bug of working in a variety of settings. I started doing work in primary and special schools which acted as a catalyst for reflecting on my own classroom practice. I guess I’m still doing this, whilst also focussing on curriculum coverage, creativity, new teacher development and the professional ‘soft’ skills that are really hard to keep a grip of when you’re in the day-to-day of teaching. I still teach which keeps my feet on the ground, however I would say I often teach like the floor is on fire.
One of the central ideas in 'Oops' is the idea of using a hook to lure students into learning. This is what made the book chime with us. Some would say that this is dumbing down, that we're not entertainers and that if the best way to learn something is by rote, so be it. What would you say to these people?
The dumbing down suggestion often gets my hackles up. As teachers, we have to teach the curriculum to the best of our individual and collective abilities. I never consider myself as academic but I do see myself as a researcher into effective practice within the classroom or school I’m working in; I can confidently report back what happens in these classrooms and can offer very reflective narratives around what goes on. When I ask teachers what their ‘essential habits’ are, the word performer always comes up. I prefer to say that we are versions of ourselves. I occasionally meet colleagues who say that they’re not funny but they’ll use humour in the classroom as a tool of engagement. My experience (ongoing) working in SEBD settings tells me that a lot of what we rely on are these so-called soft skills – I’ve called it banter-for-learning – and I’ve definitely caught myself ‘performing’, but that’s me just using what I’ve got in my toolkit. I also know that there are many ways of communicating learning and information to be learnt, what I have found out is that everything is subjective. Rote learning may work well in one setting, but I can confidently report back that it won’t work for everyone, teacher or student – for example, in the EBD setting. My son is 9 and he’s doing really well with his times tables. He needs to go beyond chanting them on the stairs at me, and work out the dimensions of the new piece of carpet required to give the stairs a fresh breath of life; in other words, apply the knowledge. ‘Oops’ offers some thoughts about how to do that.
So, when you look at your learning objective for next week's lesson, what's the process you go through in order to find that hook? Suppose what we're asking is, what questions do you ask yourself and where do you go to answer them?
I’m often invited into primary schools to model an enquiry approach. I’ll talk to the teacher about the children’s prior learning and what is hoped to be achieved in the lesson. In my case, and it’s just a suggestion, I look for the relevance to the real world in what we’re asking from the children; a real world where decisions have to be made, solutions found and responsibilities taken. This takes the form of a context. With young children, having made clear we are doing a story (ie it’s not REAL), I often start with the lovely inductive question ‘Can you help me?’ which functions to elicit investment from the children themselves. So the hook (or lure) is a job that needs to be done. With some Y9s in the SEBD special school (@springwellcss) recently, I was a kebab shop owner needing advice about healthy eating. I don’t need to tell you what their unit of study had been. A way of putting it I suppose is ‘where is the curriculum in this real world event?’ or ‘where is the real world in this curriculum focus?’.
You like your films. They keep cropping up in your writing, training and, no doubt, your lessons. Which three films have served you best in the classroom over the years? (when we say "classroom" we include "teacher training classrooms" too).
1. Jaws – my love for this film is peppered in my book and my training. Like the other films here, it is rooted in my own childhood – I reflect everyday on my own schooling – and, in a sense, is a mark in the sand for the day I realised (as a 5 year old!!) that monsters exist. Alongside the original King Kong, Jaws catapulted me to a world of the fantastic, the horrific and the heroic; I’ve been a committed film geek ever since. I also love the film because it’s so layered. Sitting answering your questions now, I see Quint the sea dog (Robert Shaw) as representing the traditionalists in education, with Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) as the so-called progressives. I think most people identify with Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), stuck in the middle, trying to do his best and left at the end to take care of things himself.
2. Stand by Me – Stephen King is my favourite writer. He’s often pigeon-holed as a writer of sleazy pulp fiction, but he’s so much better than that. His book On Writing is essential reading for anyone hoping to be published. I read the original story ‘The Body’ on its publication (along with Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption’) in the 1980s. When it was made into Stand By Me, I saw it at the cinema (I was 15) and identified with the characters (apart from the discovery of a corpse bit). When I look at it now (I’ve gone from owning the VHS, to the DVD, and now the bluray), I’m still moved, especially at the poignancy of River Pheonix’s ‘fade away’ at the end. I used it as a media text as part of the AQA syllabus back in the day.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird – Essential. Springboard for so much work. When there was all that fuss about Mister Gove dropping the novel from English classrooms, my reaction was one of the much-criticised emotional and knee-jerk variety. Still a great book, and important reading. The film is a great interpretation. Let’s hope no-one tries to remake or reimagine it.
Three films has been a challenge Sparky, so I must mention The Wizard of Oz and Kes, otherwise I won’t sleep tonight. All these films remind me of being young, hopeful and the warmth of my family upbringing.
You can rest easy, Mr Roberts - five films is OK by us. What about music? What's on your playlist when it's time to be creative?
In terms of planning, writing – when I’m on my own, I like using film soundtracks. When we still had VAK, I guess I’ve a little of the auditory in me. Headphones on when on the move, soundtrack to Local Hero and all is well. In terms of music that inspires me, I’d include King Creosote and The Manic Street Preachers.
Without referring to the list of teachers' answers that you recently posted on your blog, what is creativity?
In teaching, it isn’t shallow firework lessons, it’s the teacher’s ability to ensure appropriate strategies for all the students in class; it’s genuine differentiation and the motivating and hooking in of Declan who gets angry and Clara who gets scared. Being successful at that is, at the very least, creative. It’s also offering oneself up as someone who is trying to ‘grow good people’ who will go into the world and contribute to it. To do that well, I think we need to show children the world we live in. It sounds soft and a bit ‘jazz hands’ perhaps, but I would argue that it’s so much easier to get children copying, chanting and shutting up, than it is to sherpa them into our very complex world.
Love the idea of teachers as sherpas. That's an interesting metaphor... Staying on the subject of creativity, is it possible to teach it?
Yes. We can ask big open questions that require children to articulate an opinion. To say what they think having been helped to critically consider what they have been offered to think about. By helping children build their own articulacy, we may be able to rely on them in the future to make good decisions.
You're currently writing a new book and, back in August, you wrote a blog about the pressure of writing something inspiring and how it seemed like your "difficult second album." How are things now and how does someone going through that phase find their mojo again?
I need to listen to my own advice. I think I said it in the blog. To be honest I see myself as quite naïve at times in this edu-world I find myself inhabiting. I have naturally veered toward people whom I admire and respect (and have done for years) as I think everyone does. When I wrote ‘Oops!’ I thought everyone would think the same way as I do about teaching and learning. Twitter, which in itself is just a small reflection of this edu-world, demonstrates that not everyone does think the same way – which is great, as long as the respect is maintained. This realisation however put the fear into my writing so, after 28,000 words, I stopped for a bit of a ‘step back’. I’m back on the saddle now, having had some ace classroom experiences and having had my own thinking challenged. I’ve also realised I can only be myself as a writer and a teacher. I may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but no-one is forced to read what you write. I prefer to be someone who is sought out rather than offered on a platter. I like to liked, but, I’ve discovered, some people hate everything anyway :-)
It's a grey November Monday morning at 6am. What takes you into school with a smile?
The nature of my work enables me to occasionally do the school run for which I feel very lucky. Our boy loves Iron Maiden and AC/DC so having that blaring out makes for an amusing start to the day (as well as strange looks from some other parents).
I also think that teaching is one massive anecdote and when I’m working with children I gather all the stories with humour and enthusiasm, even if the lesson goes pear-shaped! Laughing at your own failure can keep your feet on the ground. And that credibility is really important.
Staying with the subject of being positive, you've talked before of the terms 'drains' and 'radiators' - those who sap enthusiasm and those who spread it. For someone starting out in teaching - full of enthusiasm - what advice would you give them to stay a radiator for as long as possible?
Choose who you sit with in the staff room (if you still have one) very carefully.
Don’t invest in anyone who clearly dislikes the children in your school. They’ve given up.
Don’t mistake cruelty for banter.
See yourself as an innovator and researcher: your laboratory is your classroom.
Concentrate on what you can influence.
Well, thanks Hywel. Teacher as innovator, researcher, sherpa and even kebab shop owner. We couldn't ask for more. You've given of your time to answer these questions which we really appreciate. Now's your chance to take advantage of the air space. Have you got anything you'd like to plug?
Thank you Sparky and for all you do to support teachers and children. I’m really proud of the ongoing work I’m doing in Barnsley around curriculum and middle leadership. I am also incredibly proud of my work as part of Independent Thinking Limited where I am an Associate Director. ITL works with integrity, honesty and humanity in all fields of education. There is a real sense of drive, confidence and commitment in the organisation. It does great stuff in the UK but need to trumpet its international charity work a little more. Take a look here for more info: www.independentthinking.co.uk.
I’m also getting involved with an organisation supporting reading and literacy in prisons. It’s early days yet, but I’ll share more when the mist lifts!
All the best. Hywel