Reflections on a year of teaching

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What a year!

There’s been highs, there’s been lows, I’ve laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time and I’ve most definitely cried. But after all is said and done, it’s been a great year and tomorrow is the last day. I will be genuinely sad to see my class leave me and move on to year 6, as they have grown so much this year and made so much progress. (And no, this hasn’t all been academically and recorded on a pretty spreadsheet!)

I have been lucky enough to have an amazing trainee this year which has really cemented my love of working as a mentor. She worked so hard and made so much progress throughout the year and I was over the moon for her when she not only secured her first teaching job, but one that started before the summer holidays. Clever girl. Not only was she a fantastic mentee, she has become a wonderful friend. I am looking forward to spending some time with her over the summer holidays and catching up!

I have also been lucky enough this year to be re-teaching several children I had when I taught in year 3, the year I left on maternity leave. (I left at the February half term, just before the world went mad with the pandemic!) To have the opportunity to teach these children again and to see them really beginning to flourish and shine has been a pure joy. I absolutely love my job and the children in my class this year have genuinely made me want to go to work every day. Don’t get me wrong, there have been those who have pushed boundaries and buttons and those who have made me question what I am doing. But I am pleased to have stuck it out with them to the end!

Teaching year 5 this year has been a challenge as it is a year group that I have not taught as a single year group before, but it has also been great fun getting to know the curriculum. I am pleased that I am staying in year 5 next year, and although our curriculum is changing slightly, I will be able to cement many of the things we have covered this year.

Seeing how both children and adults have coped and adapted to life ‘after’ COVID has been one of the on-going challenges this year. We have endured bubbles, endless amounts of hand sanitiser, uncertainty, confusion, last minute changes, illness and absences and lots and lots of questions. But, we’ve got through it all. We’ve also been able to leave the school site again for school visits and the children made us incredibly proud with their behaviour and manners.

We’ve endured the hottest heatwave in history and rearranged production peformances and adapted teaching and classroom environments to reflect this. But again, we have survived. If this year has taught me anything, it’s that we are all more resilient than we think and we are capable of getting past any boundary that is put in our way.

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One of the less-obvious things I love about my job is the opportunity to improve and get better. With lockdown, that has made life a little harder as courses aren’t running as frequently and the opportunity to meet face-to-face and have that professional ‘mingling’ can’t happen for obvious reasons.

But (and we don’t always love a but) but I have found the flexibility of online webinars and ‘courses’ absolutely brilliant. Being a full-time working mum of now two children, one of whom is just over 1, means that I rarely get the time to be able to attend webinars and courses live. However, a recent change has been where people offer tickets to events with recordings sent out afterwards, or my most recent, a recording only ticket. Yes, this does still mean I am missing out on the professional ‘mingling’ as I like to refer to it, but it means I can catch up whenever I have a spare moment or two. It also means that if I miss a bit, or get distracted by something else, I can return to it and re-watch it which really helps me out.

I have managed to catch up on one so far and have two more sitting waiting for me in my inbox. I am so grateful for the organisers of these events for catering to people like me who are just unable to attend live, but who still so desperately want to take part and improve their own skill set.

It’s so reassuring to be able to write something so positive that has been an outcome of lockdown for teachers and educators. Keep up the good work guys!

What it’s like returning to work after a year of maternity leave…which covered the whole pandemic!

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So I’ve been back at work for three weeks now and those three weeks have been intense. I had the most respect for all my colleagues who had worked the whole way through the lockdowns and ‘school closures’ but that respect has doubled since my return! Teachers are amazing and anyone who wants to say otherwise can come find me to discuss further!

I was really looking forward to returning and knew that I was to have some time in the first week catching up and getting the time to learn how to deliver lessons via Teams etc. That all changed the minute I got out of my car in the car park! Poorly teacher meant I was thrust straight back into the classroom after a lateral flow test to ensure I was ‘safe’! Not quite the start I was expecting, but being back in the classroom straight away was fantastic. Oh and we had no internet or server for the first morning so I really was thrown in at the deep end!

I ended up spending 8 days straight teaching a year 4 bubble and then two days preparing to take over a year 6 class as the teacher who was in there was now pregnant and would be going on her maternity leave before the end of the year. I love year 6 and I know most of the children from being in and around school so I wasn’t fazed at all, just two days to get your ahead around every new change and get a classroom ready is hard work! I don’t think I got home before 6pm on any day in the first two weeks!

Which leads me to this week. My first full week back in the classroom, with all the children back in, teaching a normal-ish curriculum! We’ve had assessment week so it’s been a little different, but probably the best thing for me as I’m able to now carry out detailed QLA (question level analysis) and see really clearly, quickly and relatively pain-free what the gaps in my class’ learning is and begin to plan for these for straight after the Easter break. I am loving working with them. They’ve adapted really well to having me already and having assessments and I’ve been so proud of how they’ve approached things.

I also have taken on the mentor role of a student teacher we have in school. I’ve had two previous students over the last two years and it is definitely something I enjoy doing within my role.

On top of everything in school, we’ve had a week of leaking boilers, not hot water or heating, blown fuses from the leak leading to no electricity on days and a poorly baby to contend with at home. It’s been one hell of a week, I’m glad it’s the weekend and I’m hoping and praying next week goes a little smoother, but I am loving being back at work and doing what I love every single day again 🙂

“But we didn’t learn it like that when I was at school.”

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How many times have I heard that as a teacher!? Lots! But there is a method behind the way in which we teach today, so I thought I would share the current thinking and methodologies behind three key areas of teaching; Reading through the acquisition of Phonics, Mathematical operations and the methods in which we teach these and Grammar and why we need to ‘know’ what things are called in order to use them.

Reading through the acquisition of Phonics

Phonics: most parents nightmare. But it really doesn’t need to be! Phonics is simply the process of breaking down a word into its constituent parts in order to identify the sounds that make up said word. We all, or the vast majority of us, can read and know our alphabet. We know the names of the letters and the order in which they come. We know that when these letters are combined we get what’s called a word and then when we string a load of these words together we get sentences, paragraphs and complete texts. We can then read and enjoy these.

However, in order to get to that stage we have to go right back to the beginning. We have to start by identifying the different letters and the sounds each one makes and then the ones that make sounds when joined with others. It’s all well and good knowing the names of each letter, but that isn’t going to help you to learn to read. take the word ‘cat’ for example. A simple 3-letter word, or for those in the education system, a CVC word. That is a word made up of a consonant, a vowel and then another consonant. These are the most basic of words and where children begin their reading journey. BUT, in order to begin to decode this word and think about reading it, they need to understand that the word ‘cat’ is made up of three letters (c, a and t) but that these letters each make a sound. Think about the word in your mind for a second, even say it out loud if you want. Does the word sound like the name of each letter? (Bearing in mind this is quite difficult to get across in type!) Or do the letters in the word have a sound? Of course they do and it is those three sounds that when blended together (technical phonic term there for you) make the word ‘cat’. If we were to blend the names of the letters together, instead of getting the word ‘cat’ we would get something like ‘seeaytea’. So this is why the teaching and learning of phonics is so important.

But, I hear some of you begin, I never learnt to read through phonics. Trust me, you will have done, it just won’t have been as defined and obvious as it is nowadays! And of course, there are always words that don’t fit the phonics teaching. These are those words that you just have to learn through repetition I’m afraid! I remember teaching my eldest daughter to read and words like ‘was’ and ‘because’ always foxed her because she was trying desperately to apply the phonological knowledge she had learnt to them. I remember her saying to me, but why? Why doesn’t it work? And how am I ever going to remember that ‘was’ is said as ‘waz’ and ‘because’ isn’t the complicated mash of sounds I’m trying to form together (ok, she might not have said it quite like that, but you get the general idea) and I remember clearly just having to say to her ‘you just have to remember these ones’, and do you know what, surprise surprise, she has. But, she is now 13 and she still uses phonics, she just doesn’t realise that’s what she is doing. When she comes across an unfamiliar word in whatever it is she is reading, she begins breaking it down. She uses the sounds, the digraphs (two letters one sound – think ‘oi’ in ‘foil’ or ‘ea’ in ‘ease’) and the trigraphs (three letters one sound – think ‘ing’ in ‘flying’ or ‘air’ in ‘chair’) and she can then usually work out the word from there. This is what we all do, we just don’t realise because the phonics has become so embedded in our knowledge. It has become second nature, in the same way that reading has, in the same way that walking has. We don’t remember learning to walk, but we’ve all mastered it!

For those of you who are interested, or want reminding, here is a fantastic video that goes through the different sounds with examples to accompany them. These are the sounds we teach and the start of the reading journey.

Mathematical operations and the methods in which we teach them

Maths methods: again a familiar area of terror for many many parents. When we were at school we tended to be taught one or maybe two methods in order to solve a calculation problem. Nowadays we give the children many different methods. Why? Trust me, it is not to confuse them, or to make their life harder. In fact it is actually to empower them and to give them the tools they need to be able to solve any mathematical problem.

Again, there will be people out there going ‘but I never had all these methods and I know how to solve calculation problems.’ My answer to you is simple. Yes, you can solve them even though you were only given one method, because you are now an adult and you have the understanding now to be able to use that method effectively. However, think back to your school days. Think back to the children in your class who maybe didn’t understand that method, maybe you were one of them. What we do now is we structure the teaching of mathematical calculations in such a way that it is explicit how the progression moves from one to another in order to be able to fluently and efficiently solve more complex mathematical problems. Not all children will ever reach the final ‘method’ and that is fine, as long as the method they are comfortable with allows them to reach the final solution as effectively as possible.

I remember very early on in my teaching career and as part of a staff meeting we were given a calculation to solve. I immediately went for the method that I had learnt at school (the column method that so many of us are familar with) and I got the answer. However, the teacher next to me also got the answer, and they didn’t pick up a pen or pencil and did everything in their head, AND they got the answer twice as fast as me. Why was this? Because they had used a much more efficient method. I started to change the way I thought about maths and mathematical methods and instead of going for my ‘old favourites’, the methods I was comfortable with, I started the think more efficiently and use the methods that would get me the answer in a quicker, more reliable way. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I still revert to my ‘comfort’ methods in order to check an answer, but I now use a more varied approach to solving problems. And this is what we are striving to teach children.

Let us take addition as an example; the first operation that children are likely to be taught. Way back when they are little we start by counting objects, be it blocks or teddies and then we add one more. How many do we have now? Do we reach for pen and paper to write it down? No of course not, we do it mentally, or at first the children may re-count all of the objects including the newly added one. Soon they will begin to hold the original number in their head (or on their fingers) and add one more to it. As soon as children can master this, we start to add two more, or three more and this is where it then becomes a little more complicated. In order to do this, children need to have an understanding of a numberline. In essence, they need to understand that numbers are a continuum. Numberlines are a fantastic tool in the classroom and I regularly use one when teaching, even with my year 6s who try and fight it all the way! If we understand where numbers are in relation to each other, we can use this knowledge to add on any number of digits. (This becomes problematic when the numbers become too large and that’s when other methods come into play.) Through the identification of the start number (i.e. the number of objects we have) and through ‘jumps’ of the amount we are adding on, we can find the total.

We have started with three, we have added on four more and reached the total of seven.

This is a really visual way for children to understand what is happening when we add numbers together. This then leads into the manipulation of practical resources. My favourite ones to use in the classroom (which I have blogged about before here: https://missmblogspace.wordpress.com/2021/02/01/the-best-tools-ive-used-in-my-classroom/) are diennes or base-ten. They look like this:

…and these are brilliant for developing the understanding of the relationship between numbers. Before this, numbers are abstract, or simply a quantity of items. Now children can see the relationship between these numbers. They can line up ten ones next to the ten stick and see that they are equivalent. They can line up ten ten sticks on top of the hundred square and see that these are equivalent. Numbers start to mean something in relation to each other. This is important for the next stage of learning. We introduce the concept of place value. That is the value of each digit in a number. So, for example, the number 12 is made up of 1 ten and 2 ones. We, as adults, all understand that, but for children, this can be an increasingly complicated concept. So we use place value grids and we ‘build’ the number on the grid. I really like this visual below which shows how the number 235 is made up of the different values; hundred, tens and units (although we now call these ones).

Once children can build these numbers and have an understanding of the values, they can start to manipulate them by adding. They understand that there can only be 9 of any value in each column, before it has to be moved to the next and we show them how to exchange their blocks to do this. For example, if we have the calculation 125+66 we are going to have too many ‘ones’ in our ones column. However, we put all of the ones in that column to prove this before we ‘regroup’ ten of these ones cubes and change it for a tens stick. This then gets moved into the tens column as tens sticks are not allowed in the ones column! 5+6=11, so ten of these are now in the tens column and we are left with 1 in the ones column. We now have 2+6 which equals 8, but we need to remember to add on the extra ten stick that we have moved across from the ones column which means we now have 9 ten sticks in our tens column. We only have 1 hundred square and we don’t need to add anything further to it. So we now have 1 hundred square, 9 ten sticks and 1 one cube. The answer to 125+66 is 191. When children are confident at manipulating these in order to correctly find the answer, we begin recording these calculations with written numbers, but we keep the grid. This ensures that the children understand the transition from practical to abstract. Something similar to this:

Then, once they are confident with the addition using the grid, we remove the grid and the children use the numbers in what we are all more familiar with as a ‘column method’. We tend to at each transition point, almost take a step back and revert to simpler calculations that do not require any ‘regrouping’ in order to ensure that the children are comfortable with the method, before moving on to the more complex calculations with that method.

This works the same way for subtraction, multiplication or division, the methods are just different. We always start with manipulatives, move on to using these with a grid or visual of some sort and then progress to the ‘formal’ written method. Initially this will be with the manipulative or the visual and then this will be removed. This process really does help children to understand what we are doing at each stage, but most importantly why.

Grammar and why we need to ‘know’ what things are called in order to use them

Grammar underpins everything and it is so important when learning any language. According to google definitions grammar is defined as:

the whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics.

Google definitions

This is why it is so important. It is the whole system! Everything! Spelling, punctuation, sentence structures, word choices, the whole kit and caboodle. So let’s break this down into each constituent part.

Spelling

Spelling is hard. Like really hard. And it’s even harder if you don’t like reading. That may sound strange, but if you are not reading regularly, then you are not seeing these words written down regularly. The more you see words written down and have to decode them in order to understand what they are saying, the more you are unpicking their spelling. And learning spellings this way is much more beneficial than a list of words learnt by rote. Why? Because it puts the word into a context, it gives the word a value and a meaning and it becomes something more than simply a combination of letters that have to be learnt for a test and then forgotten. Repetition also has its place when learning spellings, but again, only when words are used within contexts. If a child is simply given a list of words which they have to repeatedly practice in order to spell, sure, there’s a high chance they’ll get them right in their test, but will they retain them? Where I currently work we have 3 daily spellings which are taken from the national curriculum’s list of tricky spellings for that particular year group. And yes, the children write them out repeatedly, BUT, we also use them within our sentence work for the week and they are also chosen specifically for each week to match with the English unit so the children can see them being applied first hand through modelled texts and shared writing. Immersion!

Punctuation

All those extra squiggles and wiggly bits that help a reader essentially be able to read. Imagine a text with no punctuation whatsoever. How would you know how to read it? How would you know when one sentence ended and the next began? How would you know if a character is speaking? How they are speaking? When a question has been asked. Of course there would be clues within the words themselves, but anyone who has ever received a text message from that person who doesn’t use punctuation will know what I mean. It takes a few minutes to work out what on earth they are talking about. So punctuation is important. And again, believe it or not, the more you read, the better you will be at using it. Because, of course, you will be used to using it when you read and you will understand it’s impact.

Sentence structures

This is a new-ish one. As educators we’ve always taught basic sentence structures. Simple sentences, compromising of one idea; compound sentences, where two simple sentences are joined by a conjunction and then complex sentences which are built up of main and subordinate clauses where one is dependent on the other. And then a brilliant man called Alan Peat came along and introduced a whole new bunch of sentences. I mean they’re not actually new at all. They’re there in every text, in every book, they just never had names before. So he named them. And children love things it’s names! The absolute outcry in my class when the girls found out there was a BOYS sentence (sentences that use but, or, yet, so to join them) but not a GIRLS sentence was brilliant. And now, 2 years later I have some of those same girls and they still remember. The names are used to help the children remember exactly what they need in order to write the sentence and I think they are fantastic. Gone are the days of dreary two-dimensional texts from children who relied heavily on basic sentence structures and now we welcome in the days of children who are more willing to play around with sentence structures (even if they aren’t always successful) in order to engage with their reader. And that, at the end of the day, is what we want them to do.

Word choices (vocabulary)

And finally, if you’ve made it this far well done, this is by no mean feats a short blog post, we come to word choices and vocabulary. I remember on a cpd day being told that chn should be able to attempt difficult words, even if they didn’t know how to spell them. This was, albeit a simple one, a revelation. I quickly introduced the use of a dotted underline in my teaching to signal to whoever was reading that I had attempted this word but I wasn’t entirely sure I had spelt it correctly. Now, this stops the child from using basic, boring vocabulary and also stops them from stopping their flow of writing to go and fetch a dictionary to then spend the next ten minutes trying to find a word that is inevitably started with a different letter entirely. Now I have children who are able to go back and edit their work through the use of dictionaries and support in doing so at a more suitable time, or who are just able to continue their writing and let me check their spellings for them afterwards. I always make a point of ticking a word if it has been dotted underlined but actually spelt correctly as I feel it is important to embrace the child’s attempt. I also tend to self-correct the attempts that are incorrect to model how to correctly spell said word. I am now the proud teacher of several children who use word in their writing that I am not sure even they thought would be possible once upon a time, all thanks to a little dotted line!

International Women and Children in Science Day

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11th February saw the International Women and Girls in Science day celebrated. I thought it would be a great opportunity to have a delve into the books that are out there who celebrate these women and to leave a little inspiration (hopefully) for the next generation of women and girls who want to venture into the world of science. I have picked just 5 books that I feel are worthy of note in regards to this topic. Enjoy!

1. Women In Science – 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Women in Science – 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

What a beautiful looking book. This is definitely one I need to acquire and add to my heaving bookshelf. With pages about such women as Mary Anning, Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, this books hits the big hitters straight off, but there’s more. There are 50 (yes 50) amazing women in this book to discover. Women, who quite ashamedly, I’ve never heard of. The pages are beautifully illustrated and describe each woman and their achievements in a really accessible way. What I love even more, is that this book was written by a woman as well.

Just look how beautiful the pages are!

2. Black Women in Science: A Black History Book for Kids

This book looks great. This year I am trying to diversify my reading a little more and especially get into more black literature and culture. It’s just so fascinating and definitely an area I think myself and others need to pay more attention to. So this seems like the perfect book to start with! I’m all about celebrating diversity and difference and this book definitely does that. Although it isn’t as beautifully presented as the previous book, there is much more information inside from what I can see, and it looks great! Another to add to my ‘to buy’ pile which seems to be growing ever longer!

3. The Bluest of Blues – Anna Atkins and the First Book of Photographs

Oh my goodness, this is a beautiful book, and one that I actually own and have used in the classroom! It is gorgeous. It tells the story of Anna Atkins and how she developed the first book of photographs using the Cyanotype Photographic process. Each page is blue (from the cyan) but there are hints of other colours dotted throughout, which are usually red or yellow. I love this book so much and can’t wait to use it again, mainly because then I get to read it again! Anna Atkins was someone who I’d not come across before and it was lovely to read about such an inspiring woman who’s life spanned 72 years.

4. Girls Think of Everything: Stories of Ingenious Inventions by Women

Again, this is another book that I hadn’t come across until I started my research for this blog, but who wouldn’t want to find out which of the inventions that we use today have been invented by women?! I certainly do, and I’ll hazard a guess that they were perhaps ones that have been invented in order to make our lives a little easier and more ‘manageable’? Just reading the blurb of the book on Amazon and seeing that women have invented things such as windscreen wipers and chocolate chip cookies means that this has piqued my interest straight away! I can’t imagine having to drive without windscreen wipers and having recently found an amazing double chocolate chip cookie recipe that has very quickly become a firm favourite in our family and may or may not have been baked twice in the last month, I am forever thankful to the woman who invented them in the first place. Another book to seek out I fear!

5. Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries

Well this book just looks fascinating. Did you know that since 1901 there have been over three hundred recipients of the Nobel Prize in the sciences and only ten of them, which is around 3% have been women. This shocked me when I read this fact. Well, I like to think it shocked me, I think it actually saddened me more than anything. This book is an updated version of a previous book which examines the lives of 15 women scientists who have either won a Nobel Prize or played a crucial role in a prize-winning project. It covers women who have faced gender discrimination, those who have raised families, become political and religious leaders, mountain climbers, musicians, seamstresses and gourmet cooks. The one thing they all had in common though; they were passionate about Science and discovery. A bit more of a meatier book compared to the previous books which are aimed more at children, but I just couldn’t not add this one to the list!

So there you have it. My 5 picks of books related to women in science in order to celebrate (albeit a little late) International Women and Children in Science Day. I hope you have enjoyed reading this and maybe, just perhaps, you have also been inspired to go and seek these books out as I have!

The best ‘tools’ I’ve used in my classroom

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I thought I’d share some of the ‘tools’ that I have found to be the most helpful in my teaching. Some of these are conventional, some less-so, but they have been fantastic for me and I have really enjoyed using them with the children I have taught.


General –
Whiteboard tape; this stuff is amazing. I picked it up on Amazon and it was brilliant. Essentially it is duck tape that is writeable on one side like a whiteboard – meaning you can write on it, wipe it off and use it over and over again. I used this to best effect when I was teaching Year 6. Each child had a small piece stuck to the table in front of them and we used it in so many different ways. My favourite way was to use it when the children were writing. I would be circulating the room and when I noticed something that a certain child had possibly missed or needed to remember to focus on, I could jot it down on the tape. For example, I had a child who would always forget their capital letters so I used to just write a capital ‘c’ on their tape. For others it might have been a specific piece of punctuation I wanted them to try and include or a spelling word. This was brilliant as it was a reminder for them in that moment, but could be removed as soon as they had included it, or simply at the end of the lesson.
I also used the tape for changing seats. On a Monday morning I would go around the room and write the children’s names on the tape so they knew where to sit. It was a great start to the day as the children came in and searched for their new seat for the week. (I still do this with my Year 3 children every week, but they have to look for their books which I have put out on the table ready for them instead.)
We also used it if a child was in need of support during a lesson. They would simply put a sad face on their piece of tape and then as myself and my TA were circulating we could spot it and support where necessary. This really worked for those of my class who weren’t confident at asking for help in front of their peers.

English-based
– Ikea frames with statutory spellings; I love this as it was so simple and yet it works so well. Thanks to Twinkl I printed off the statutory spellings for the year group I was teaching and slotted them into the Ikea picture frames. Twinkl had designed the document so they fitted perfectly. This meant that when it came to extended pieces of writing I was able to put the frames out on the desks for the children to refer to easily and quickly, without having to flick through their organisers. That meant they could have their organisers open on a different page to support them, and the spellings on the table at the same time. Time-saver!
– Ball pit balls; this is a great fun activity when you need to get children to write sentences. It can be really difficult to think about what to write your sentence about, so I give them a box full of ball pit balls, which I have written words onto. Some of these words might be the statutory spelling words, some might be related to the subject or topic we’re currently focusing on, some might just be pure random words I thought of. The children select a specific amount and then form their sentence around them. Fun, active and engaging.
– Border paper; This is great for rearranging sentences, particularly complex and compound, to show children how the same words and ideas can be structured in different ways. Write the sentence, rip it up and rearrange it. Brilliant.

Maths based
– Base 10; Oh my goodness, where would I be without my class box of base 10? The BEST invention for classroom manipulatives ever. Shows children so clearly how numbers are constructed and what happens to them when we increase and decrease them. I use this for ALL of my calculation methods and it really helps to understand the method. (Look out for a later post on the different methods we teach and why they are necessary to follow!)
– Numicon; I love Numicon and I am saddened by the fact that my current school doesn’t have much stock of this. Again it is a great resource for showing children the relationship between numbers. I used it for number bonds to 10, symmetry, patterns, sequencing, adding odds and evens and discovering generalisations, the list could go on and on!
– Beach ball; This was so much fun. I wrote numbers on the ball and then as a class we threw it to each other and when the child caught the ball, depending on the number a chosen hand landed on or nearest to, they had to multiply that number by the selected times table. Great fun, active and lots of thinking (and maybe a few giggles when I couldn’t throw the ball properly!)

I’d love to know what ‘tools’ you’ve used to great effect, so let me know in the comments below.

Why teaching is one of the hardest, yet most rewarding jobs in the world

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Warning – this is a long post! Sit down, settle in, put your feet up and enjoy!

I went for a run the other night with my friend and the whole way round our 7.5 miles I talked about work. I love my job and I am passionate about it and this became evident as we ran and I talked and talked and talked.

I’m not even at work at the moment as I am still on maternity leave. I have less than a month to go until I return, but I still love the job that I do. I have always wanted to be a teacher and I have now taught for the last 12 years. There have definitely been ups and downs and moments where I’ve wondered whether this is the job for me, but the fact that I am still teaching after 12 years, I am still passionate about education and changing children’s lives, tells me that this is definitely the job for me. Don’t get me wrong, it is by far one of the hardest jobs in the world, but it is also one of the most rewarding, in my opinion. Where else can you hold conversations with people that not only challenge them, but also you, on a daily basis? Where the work you are doing will have a direct impact on the people you work with, for the rest of their lives?

So I thought I’d take this post to explain just a few of the reasons why I love my job so much, even though it is so mentally and physically draining, all-consuming and exhausting!

The children. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t enjoy children, being with them, talking to them and learning about their little personalities, then teaching really isn’t the job for you! I’ve always loved children and being around them. I was always one of the oldest when me and my sister used to play out, so used to love ‘mothering’ and ‘teaching’ the younger ones in our group. It’s always been that innate part of me I guess! They will completely take over your world and for the year or so that they are in your class, they are so much more than that. My class become my children. I come home and worry about them, I think about them and how best to help them in that next lesson in the weirdest of moments (like cooking dinner or when I’m running), and you really begin to build connections with them. I count myself very lucky to have been there for the children I’ve worked with through some of their toughest and equally happiest moments.
I remember talking with a child as her parents were going through a separation. Just listening to her and discussing how things made her feel. Years later when I bumped into her when she was working as a waitress in a pub where I was having a meal, she reminded me of this and how much it meant to her.
I remember children when I had year 6, thinking that they couldn’t achieve in their Maths SATs. One girl wasn’t even going to sit it, but through my encouragement she did, and came out with a level 4 (back when we used to have grades – showing my age now!), she cried with happiness when I told her, and in the same class, two lads who had always worked hard, but never really over achieved, received level 5s. I will never forget the pure happiness on their faces as they leapt into each others arms and jumped up and down as I told them.
I have worked with children from looked after families who have found it difficult to connect with school and learning – I’m not saying that I was a miracle cure for them, but I like to think I made their lives a little easier and I still think about them regularly and wonder how they are and what they’re up to. One of these fosters parents had not always seen eye-to-eye with the school and had struggled to build relationships with the child’s teachers previously so I worked extra hard to make these links with her and to build that missing relationship. Again, I’m not saying I am Wonder Woman and that I was amazing, but I like to think that the conversations we had were in earnest and they meant something to her.
I’ve had parents come to me asking me to give their children extra support outside of school (tutoring if you will) because they can see the value in what I have bought to their child’s education and they want to get the very best for them.
I have been there when a child has needed to offload about home life, siblings, parents, friends, happy events, sad events. I have sat and held a child’s hand while they cried and cried because their pet had died, or their best friend had moved away. I have jumped for joy with a child when she was accepted onto the football team she’d had a try-out for. I have taken time out of my weekend to go and support a child in my class who was doing a walk to raise money for charity and been introduced to extended family members.
I’ve had parents connect with me via social media once their child is no longer in my class as they have wanted to continue to relationship that we had built up over the year and this has meant so much to me. I have had past pupils connect with me, once they have become much older I might add, and one of these pupil’s mum I know from working with her. She sent me the loveliest message over Christmas I believe when I had liked some photos on Instagram stating that her child had commented when a certain song had come on that he remembered me teaching them a dance to it in PE, probably 9 or 10 years previously. Things like that will never cease to amaze me. That something I have taught a child has stayed with the, for all this time. But then again, why shouldn’t it? I remember my teachers, the ones who inspired me to teach. Mrs. Dovey, my amazing Year 4 teacher. Probably wasn’t actually amazing by today’s teaching standards, but she gave me a love for learning and taught me to love education. Mrs. Bishop and Mr. Coslett in Year 6, because of them I continued with my love of learning and overcame barriers to my own learning that had previously been missed and mismanaged by other teachers. I can still recall my squared-times table today because of a lesson I vividly remember with Mr Coslett in maths. These are the things that have stuck with me and I wish I had had the chance to go back to these teachers and say thank you. I have no idea where they are now, so this is my way of thanking them.

The feeling of accomplishing something. This is a really simple one. For me I am all about the reward. Now that might sound a little silly, but I am the sort of person that likes, probably needs, to be thanked or recognised for doing something. Not always, I hasten to add, but it helps me. So teaching is really good for me. I work hard, like really hard, to produce lessons for my children that I think will inspire them and engage them in ways that they haven’t before necessarily. I want all children I teach to have that love for learning and education that I have been very lucky to have all my life. So when I plan a lesson, or a series of lessons and I see children engaging, or enjoying their learning, that is the feeling of accomplishment. When I overhear children talking about things that we’ve done or parents tell me they came home and talked non-stop about something they did in school, I am over the moon. I had a TA I was working with come excitedly into the classroom once because she’d been walking behind two of our class members on the way to school and they whole way they had been discussing things from the previous day’s lessons. That is just the most amazing feeling. Something I have spent time over, thought endlessly about, has had an impact. My work here is done!

Being able to share my loves and passions on a daily basis. This again is a simple one. I love learning and education and reading predominantly. I get to share these passions with children, and other adults, every single day. I get to try and inspire them, to discuss things that fire me up, things that have inspired me, things that I have loved and will always love, every single day. There aren’t many other jobs that I can think of, where you genuinely can share the things that you love the most with people (children) who are so susceptible to soaking it all up and getting something out of it. That is pure joy right there. Reading is my biggest passion in teaching, reading has always been something I have enjoyed, I always remember there being books, I’ve always received them as gifts, always bought them as gifts, been read to, read to others, essentially books have always been a part of my life. So to get the chance to lead reading across our school and to share this love and passion of mine with the children and staff every day is just something incredible as far as I’m concerned. I’ve engaged children with books they would have previously not considered looking at. I’ve encouraged children to read new authors, genres, more challenging texts. I’ve introduced a new way of teaching reading to the school and enthused children and adults to involve themselves in this process. I’ve run book clubs where children can come and just listen to a story, be read to and enjoy being read to without having to worry about what the words on the page mean and say and what the author might be thinking or trying to convey with a certain vocabulary choice. I’ve pushed children to develop their love and understanding of books and texts and to strive to be the best readers they can be. And I’ve done all this with the most passion and enthusiasm I can muster, because it’s what I truly believe in. That counts for everything.

So there you go, just three of the main reasons why I love my job so much. There’s so much more I could have gone into in each section, but this is just a taster. If you’re in teaching, I’d love to hear your favourite things about the most amazing job ever, and if you’re not, maybe I’ve inspired you to consider it as a career? Who knows!

When is reading not productive?

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So I volunteered to answer some questions for a member of a Facebook group’s dissertation and one of the questions got me thinking. Is it ok to read below your ability?

The answer quite simply, I believe, is of course.
However, this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. If you always read below your ability, are you doing yourself a disservice? Are you stifling yourself for an easy read?

Now don’t get me wrong, reading is all about enjoyment, so if you enjoy what you’re reading, go for it. But be aware that it is also good to stretch and challenge ourselves through our reading. If we always read below are ability, our ability becomes that level. Reading then can become counter-productive.

This is particularly relevant if you have, or work with, children. Take my daughter for example. She is a bright almost-13 year old who likes reading. However, she likes reading Dork Diaries. There’s nothing wrong with them. I bought her the whole set. BUT, I would like her to stretch herself every now and then, so she alternates. She reads a challenging book and then an easier book. She has the challenge of the harder book (currently it’s Noughts and Crosses – the amazing book by Malorie Blackman) and then the relaxation of an easy read for pure pleasure. This seems to work for her and I get the satisfaction of knowing she’s enjoying her reading.

An insight into the planning of an English unit of work

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So, I have a lot of posts in draft form at the moment as they are not quite ready for publishing just yet, but I thought I’d share today what I hope will be helpful for some people. How I plan an English unit of work. Now, I work with 7-11 year olds, but I can’t see how this couldn’t work with other age groups too. And for anyone reading this who isn’t in teaching, this is the amount of work that a teacher puts into just one subject that they teach! An insight into the inner workings of planning a unit of work!

First and foremost I decide what it is that I need the outcome to be. If it is a narrative unit, do I want the children to write a whole story, or part of a story? Are they re-writing a story that has already been told, changing the perspective, the ending or are they inventing something new to add to an existing story? If it is a non-fiction unit, what is the purpose of the chosen text? Are they reporting, sharing information or persuading? Once I know what this is going to be, I can begin to work backwards thinking about the skills they will need in order to achieve this final outcome. I usually work a unit around three weeks so this is going to take up my last few sessions.

Then I really begin to think about what the children are going to actually ‘learn’ in each session. What is the aim of each session going to be? There will then be sub-goals for different groups of children (differentiation) based on their abilities and their levels of attainment. I aim to have all the children working towards the same over-arching ‘goal’ in each lesson, this just might look slightly different in their outcomes or levels of support.
For each lesson I then look specifically at the targets which this lesson will cover. At our school, as we are part of a MAT, we have target sheets in the children’s books which come from the National Curriculum and which have been broken down into chunks. Some of these chunks need to be taught several times over in order for the children to really grasp and understand what they mean, others are much easier to cover. So for each lesson I will pick at least one target that has the ability to be achieved in the session. When I am marking the work, I can then assess whether I feel that target has been met and it is much easier for me to keep on top of recording their achievements than having to keep looking targets and dates up! This then also forms the lesson objective for the lesson (adapted into child-speak where necessary) and the first thing that the children will usually be told at the start of that session.

Once I have worked out what they children will be learning in the lesson and which target they will hopefully be meeting, I can then get to the fun part which is actually constructing the session. What am I actually going to get them to ‘do’ in the lesson? This is really important as what they are learning and what they are doing are often two completely different things. For example, they might be writing the description of a character who is to be introduced (doing), but through this they are selecting suitable adjectives and descriptive phrases and using specifically chosen sentence structures and language choices for effect (learning). This is really important when planning as many teachers, myself included in the past, have gotten confused between the learning and the doing. It is really clear to make that distinction with yourself at this stage and to regularly check back over your plans to ensure that your lesson outcomes are focussed on the learning not the doing.

I have devised a grid to help me plan this stage, before I begin planning each lesson in depth. It helps me and my teaching partner have an overview of the whole unit, plus it means that we can both see from the beginning where the unit is heading, even though the in-depth weekly plan will only be produced a week at a time. This means that before we have even begun week 1 of teaching, I can give my teaching partner the overview and they can see what the outcome is going to be, how we are going to get there and which targets we are going to cover on the way. As this tends to only be 1 or 2 sides of A4 paper, it is also handy to have when marking as it allows for easy reference for the assessment of targets!

Here is an example of the first week of a narrative unit that I planned for Year 3.

Where possible, I always try to include examples of the Next Steps we could use when marking as this also helps to speed up the marking process. It is not by any means a ‘one size fits all’, but it does help!

There, that is how I begin to plan a unit of work in English. The weekly plan will then be much more detailed with the lesson broken down into its required parts, example questions that can be used, differentiated activities for the children to carry out and plenaries to round off the session. There will be clear guidance for the adults used within the classroom as to the expectations of them during each session as well as indications of when heavier, more in depth marking and assessments are required.

I hope this has been helpful, or at least an interesting read! I’d love to know your thoughts, so please leave a comment below!

Is it ok to give up on a book?

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I feel really down when I just can’t get on with a book. Who else feels like this? I’m sure I’m not the only one. Why do we torment ourselves with the fact that the book just isn’t great? It’s absolutely ok for us to not like a book, particularly if it is one that everyone seems to be reading or raving about online.

“I’ve read a lot of bad books. I used to review books for a living, and when you’re a reviewer you read tons of terrible books.”

John Green

I can probably count the number of books I’ve disliked or given up on, on my fingers, which I class as very lucky. I’m quite versatile when it comes to reading material and will pretty much give anything a go. However, when a book has really enticed me and then it lets me down, I feel awful. And that’s ridiculous! Think about how many music genres and films there are in the world. Do we all like the same ones? No, of course we don’t. There are a myriad of personalities and things we revel in out there, which is why we are so lucky to have the variety and breadth of choice that we do. So it stands to reason that there will be books out there that we just don’t click with, that we just don’t ‘get’, no matter the hype around them. Yes, it is disappointing, especially when that book has been calling out to you from the shelf to be read, you’ve invested your time in it (and money!) and you just can’t get along with it. But, move on. There are hundreds, no, millions of books out there to be read. Don’t dwell on the sadness of a failed relationship with that particular book. Unfortunately, it is life and we will all encounter a book that isn’t us at some point.

I’d love to know the books that you’ve given up on or were most disappointed by. Let’s use this as a platform to get that books off our chest, get some closure on it and move on. For me, the most disappointing one recently was I Am Clay, by Markus Zusak. One of my favourite authors and The Book Thief will forever be one of my most treasured books, but I Am Clay just did not hit the mark for me. I found it clunky and the story didn’t capture me in the same way. Will it put me off reading more of his work, absolutely not. Will I let it get me down? Not any more!