Tick the box.

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Before the summer holidays, I embraced the concept of Empty Classroom Day and International Mud Day with enthusiasm. However, I must confess that in the past I haven’t been great at getting my pupils outdoors regularly. I do more than some and less than others. My pupils have had some great experiences learning outdoors but not enough.

So this academic year, I have challenged myself to do something outdoors every day with my P1-3 class, with Fridays being our ‘big’ outdoor session. I have just come across a note I wrote about outdoor education before the summer which said it is ‘not about ticking boxes’. But now I think it is. I’ve changed my mind. Because when you tick the box, lots of other lovely stuff happens along the way. And ticking the box is the first step.

I think that, for many teachers, it’s about dipping their toe in the water. I literally have a box on my daily planner for the outdoors and I love ticking it at the end of the school day (I know… I’m sad!). We’ve taken boxes of toys outside to play, we’ve had planning sessions for our topic using an upturned table and a giant sheet of paper on the grass pitch, we’ve been on a long scavenger hunt in the rain, we’ve explored our school grounds and noticed things we never paid attention to before, we’ve made chalk people and we’ve got our hearts racing with some exercise.

Recently, I heard a teacher say that they would rather do something meaningful outdoors rather than just tick a box for the sake of it. That’s excellent if you have the knowledge and ideas to make that possible, but I think a lot of teachers shy away from the outdoors as they think they don’t know how to do ‘proper’ outdoor education. Teachers who aren’t good at gardening, who can’t name wild birds, who freak out when they see a spider and who don’t view themselves as ‘outdoorsy’ may think that they don’t have the skills or know-how to make learning in the outdoors worthwhile. I appeal to those teachers to give it a go – starting with transferring simple activities from the class to the outdoors e.g. mental maths, spelling games using chalk on the path instead of white boards or storytime. Tick the box for the sake of it.

Things don’t always go smoothly. I had the bright idea of using big sticks/branches donated by a parent and a variety of types of string to create 3D shapes in groups and it was a disaster. There were more than a few pupils who did not engage in the activity, the midges were out if force, the sticks were all different sizes and by the end we had nothing resembling a 3D shape. To make matters worse, parents were passing through our outdoor classroom to take their children to nursery and I was very aware of the fact that it looked chaotic! But we encourage children to learn from their mistakes and so should we. Rather than let it deter me from the outdoors, I saw it as a sign that we needed more practice. It was clear that pupils had a lot of work to do on their teamwork and perseverance, and I had a thing or two to learn about what would and wouldn’t work for my young class. I don’t need to justify our presence in the outdoors with a knowledge-based learning intention and I don’t need to know all about wildlife to make my class’ time outside meaningful. If working a bit better as a team is ‘all’ my class get out of an outdoor activity, I count that as a result.

I think that getting outdoors is particularly important for our new P1 pupils. School is full-on and the days are long. If I think they would enjoy a walk around the school grounds to see if they can identify the muddiest part, I’m taking them outside. Maybe the next day, we’ll go on that same walk and notice that the ground is dry and talk about evaporation… but maybe we won’t. I don’t have to make it academic to feel that it was ok to do it in the first place. One of my favourite moments a couple of weeks ago was running down a hill holding a new P1 pupil’s hand whilst we both wailed ‘Aa-a-a-a-a-a…’ every time she demanded ‘again!’. The same girl had been in floods of tears when the bell had rung at 9am as the first few days at school had taken their toll. She didn’t learn the names of the trees we passed or the difference between vertebrates and invertebrates on that class walk but she had fun and that was what she needed the most.

Once you start ticking that box, and exploring the outdoors the pupils will guide their future learning experiences outside by what they notice and what they ask when you’re outdoors. The teacher (no matter how inexperienced in outdoors education) will start to see ways of using what is on offer to complement what goes on in the classroom. Don’t worry about doing it properly, just make a start.

Or go big … throw a tree party and invite a tree to tea! https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/naturedetectives/blogs/nature-detectives-blog/2016/07/tree-party-picnic-2016/

Tick the box for the sake of it.

Internation Mud Day 29th June

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Wednesday 29th June was ‘International Mud Day’ and so I decided to get my class muddy. Very muddy. I read an article about another school which had taken on this muddy challenge to get my creative and practical cogs in motion;

http://www.muddyfaces.co.uk/download/mudpack2016/case_studies/Tighnabruaich_Primary.pdf

I took the recommendation for an outdoor changing area on board and made two big shelters (one for the boys and one for the girls) using giant sheets of tarpaulin and lots of pegs, ropes and blankets. The children were all asked to wear their swimming costumes under clothes which they would be prepared to get very muddy, and they had to bring a towel, a plastic bag and a clean change of clothes. Once the muddiness had begun, no one was allowed to re-enter the school building.

The children’s parents had been invited in to hear the class talk about our topic on space that day, so we provided them with space themed biscuits and cakes while we set-up our muddy activities and then they were asked to join in on the action.

We eased ourselves in gently with a muddy team treasure hunt. The children were split into 4 groups according to the colour on their name tag. They had to use their map of the school to find the 7 buckets hidden within the grounds. In each bucket, there were golf balls marked with a big dot using a sharpie pen, and these dots corresponded to their team colour. The children rushed to get their parents involved and dashed around the school grounds racing to get all 7 of their team’s balls.

While the children were busy doing that, I had time to create a mud kitchen with lots of different utensils, pots, tins and pans. I had a big, thick plastic sheet which I laid on the mushy grass and covered in muddy water for the children to skid and slide on. I used my tuff spot (an essential for all early years teachers) for gardening utensils and pots. I had painting rollers at the ready for some mud painting. I had big sheets of paper for making footprints and I had made big signs with bubble writing for children to fill in with muddy finger paint. Most importantly, we had lots of bins, buckets and watering cans filled with compost and water.

I loved seeing the children who were really reluctant to get dirty at first, get more and more involved as the activities commenced, and the parents were certainly entertained by our antics. Most of us were covered head to toe by the end of it – our motto of the day was ‘between your toes and up your nose!’.

I was delighted when I found a slug near the kitchen to top off my mud cake. One of the highlights of the afternoon for me was presenting this to the children to see if they fancied a taste, as their reactions were priceless! Another highlight was visiting the hair salon where I asked for a shampoo and colour treatment. The girls happily obliged! I also took great glee in declaring children far too dirty before proceeding to ‘clean’ their armpits and behind their ears with a very muddy sponge. A highlight for them was probably getting to use their teacher as target practice for mudslinging, and being allowed to pour buckets of mud and muddy water on me (I’m sure I enjoyed doing it to them just as much!). There were many highlights! I wish I could share some of the pictures to give an indication of just how much fun we had!

I love being silly and playful with my class. Whilst I’m sure their parents must now think I’m bonkers, they seem to appreciate my type of bonkers and they were all so thankful for the efforts that went into the afternoon. I didn’t worry about permission slips but I did make extra sure that they were all fully informed of our plans, and that all the children had a towel and clean clothes with them at the start of the school day (as that was a good indication that their parents had remembered about our plans, and that I didn’t need to call home for anyone).

I did consider pinpointing the skills and learning that took place during our afternoon but I don’t need to. Play has enough merit in its own right. The benefits are clear in my relationships with the pupils in my class. I had a ridiculous amount of fun on mud day but it was also probably the most exhausting school day I’ve ever had… next year I will master the art of delegation so I don’t spend the last day of term cleaning mud off buckets and kitchen equipment!

Empty Classroom Day 17th June

Today our School took part in ‘Empty Classroom Day’, a global campaign to inspire learning and play outside the classroom. All 6 classes rotated around 6 outdoor activities and we had a whole school picnic at lunchtime. The nursery enjoyed taking part in some of the school activities as well, and they had some fun of their own by inviting their parents to join them in playing with water outdoors. We had prepared to be outside whatever the weather but the sun very kindly shone all day for us! I almost hoped it would rain just so we could prove that we were taking our outdoor learning seriously but I think most people were glad it didn’t!

Many children brought in materials to build dens with, including blankets, ropes, pegs and even bunting and sails. Staff were encouraged to take a back-seat and let the children take the lead. They were allowed to take risks / be adventurous and figure things out for themselves. They climbed up the trees to secure their structures and did a brilliant job of creating very elaborate, sturdy dens where they could read stories in the afternoon.

Another teacher set up an obstacle course on our grass pitch. We also had orienteering and a filming project on the go, and a fantastic chalk mural which all the children in the school helped to create.

We took some inspiration from geocaching and had groups hiding a plastic box containing their ‘treasure’ (post-it note messages to their friends and a laminated word) in the school grounds and they had to mark the spot on a map. After 10 minutes they met back at base to swap maps with another team then raced to find their treasure. Each of the words went together to make a sentence to complete the activity (My favourite was ‘We are all silly sausages!’).

The children (and staff) had an absolute blast being outdoors for Empty Classroom Day. Everybody got involved and it was lovely to see the older pupils so keen to volunteer to help the junior classes, even when it meant forfeiting their own activities. There was learning in abundance through exploration and team work, and the excited buzz around the school was fantastic! Whilst we were all sad when it came to dismantling our dens, we have lots of photographic evidence of their brilliance already on display in our corridors. And we now have a decent stash of ‘loose parts’ to entice more teachers into the outdoors!

International Mud Day on the 29th of June anyone?!

TEDxGlasgow

13001330_1104148052976354_7949543145644802841_nI recently applied to be part of a team which will be creating online resources for the SCEL (Scottish College for Educational Leadership) framework, based on ideas shared at the recent TEDxGlasgow event. I felt so privileged to get the opportunity to go and listen to so many inspiring talks, all crammed into one day. I loved how varied the talks were, covering such a wide range of topics and delivered by people with completely different backgrounds (www.tedxglasgow.com/speakers/). As we move onto the next stage of looking at how these talks can be used by develop educational leadership, I went back to look at my notes from the day in the hope that the task may seem a little less daunting(!). My head is once again buzzing with all the ideas and enthusiasm of the speakers (with my own added on top of that) …the trouble is knowing where to start.  I took a look back to my own words which got me a place on the team and I found them oddly reassuring;

Ted Talks makes us think about the bigger picture. Working in education, we can get restricted by the bubble we live in within our establishments or local authorities. Sometimes we feel that ‘thinking big’ is futile because we don’t have the power to change policy or make decisions that will result in real change. However I think that SCEL is giving power back to the teachers and, with it, the realisation that we are the vehicles which can drive our classes, our schools, our educational system into excellence.

Educators need to be encouraged to ‘think big’. It is easy to get bogged down by an increasingly exhaustive workload, and we sometimes need a shake to remind us of what our ultimate purpose is as teachers. Some may view this as ‘to honour and develop humanity’, others as to help each and every child fulfil their full potential – whatever your definition, we need reminding of it now and again.

To me, providing teachers with encouragement and opportunities to share and talk is at the heart of what teacher leadership is all about and I believe that TED talks are a brilliant way of generating healthy professional discussions in any staffroom (=collaborative learning) . TED talks certainly have the ability to make us reflect on our work as educators. We have the ability to diminish or spark creativity in children, we can set them boundaries or encourage them to follow their dreams, and we can fuel anxiety or passion in our pupils… all areas of discussion raised in TED talks. In fact, TED talks are a fantastic resource to use with the upper years in primary school and at secondary level for this very reason. It’s something which I’m sure we could be utilising more as practitioners – what better example of flawless presentation skills covering current topics which could really engage and challenge your classroom audience?

In my view, the true value of a course, conference or resource like TED talks, is in the impact it has on our practice and on our learners (the pupils) and the TEDxGlasgow event has the potential to impact on the framework which guides our practice. I get frustrated by the theory that comes with ‘thinking big’ when it isn’t followed by how that actually applies to me and my classroom, or my establishment. I am really excited to be part of a team which incorporates ideas from TED Talks into the SCEL framework for educational leadership. My aim is to always bring it back to ‘…but what does that actually mean for us as teachers (as leaders)?!…What does it look like in our schools?’

Is it really the hardest word?

014bb61cd8ea31d7bc33b230e81fc46cc7e28c684fI feel like I’ve been apologising an awful lot to my pupils recently and, actually, I’m glad. I think one of the most important things we can teach our pupils, and our children, is the art of saying sorry. We encourage children to do it all the time (whether they genuinely mean it or not) but do we say it often enough? How else will they learn to say a heart-felt sorry if they don’t see us model it for them?

“Max why are you wandering around the classroom when you are meant to be doing your maths work?!” Oh yeah – I sent you to the office to run an errand for me and then forgot about it, so actually you were doing exactly what I asked you to. Sorry Max!

“What do you mean, ‘where should I sit?!’ There is only one seat left – hurry up and sit down next to Charlie!” But I forgot I told you last week not to sit next to Charlie because you were chatting too much and you have obediently remembered this.

“Why are you not wearing shoes in the classroom AGAIN?! I’ve told you before, you must have shoes on your feet at all times (unless you are in the tent). I’d hate for you to stand on a pin!” Ah but I’ve just come across a really interesting article about how children may actually behave better and do better in school if they leave their shoes in the cloakroom like they do in Scandinavia. Maybe the teacher is actually wrong about this insistence on wearing shoes at all times and just not drop pins?! Surely not… we’ve been taught that the teacher is never wrong?!

www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2016/05/23/schoolchildren-with-no-shoes-on-do-better-and-behave-better-in-t/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

Then there’s that awful moment when you realise that you forgot you asked a child to hang back as the class went to the dinner hall so you could have a chat to them about their behaviour, and you taught them a bigger lesson than you had intended by leaving them there whilst you went home for your own dinner. (Or is that one just me?!… I did remember to go back before I actually left the car park!)

But sometimes sorry just isn’t good enough. This week my class performed a fantastic little play about Highland aliens on a ‘proper stage’ with fancy lighting and a smoke machine. Luckily for them, I forgot to make a very important prop (a chocolate cake) and had to send somebody out to go on a mission to buy the real thing. I was so proud of my little troopers that I couldn’t deny their polite request to eat this very tasty prop we had acquired and I promised them we would eat it in celebration of their achievement at school the next day. (Far too many children had been sick on the bus that day for me to even consider eating it before our return journey!). However, despite a rigorous bus check  at the end of our journey, I suddenly realised (whilst watching Eastenders on my couch that night) that the cake had been left on the bus! Now this is an instance when sorry simply won’t cut it (no matter how heart-felt) and a replacement was promptly bought.

I’ve found myself apologising to my class for the amount of time we have had to spend on learning this play. We had rehearsal upon rehearsal and my class would all tell you that I am very particular about where to stand, how to say your line, what actions to do, which hand to use – I’m hard to please but when they ‘get it’ (and they always do) we are elated together. It’s hard work to get there though and, especially with younger children, it’s so important to acknowledge this with an explanation as to why we are doing this. “I know we have done the play once already today but we have to do another dress rehearsal this afternoon. Sorry, I know you are getting a bit fed up of it, but who can tell me why we’re putting so much work and effort into this?” I’m confident each and every one of them would say that it was worth it.

I recently did a discovery session at the SCEL 2016 conference and spoke about my action research on play. Since completing this project, I have used elaborate play areas in our class for our topic work and I’d say that I’m a strong advocate of play. However, it was only when I revisited my research that I realised that I actually don’t let my class play freely as often as I used to – and my research was all about the benefits of just leaving them to it (especially when you have went to all the efforts of creating a fabulous topic-related play area with them!). I went into class the next day with a big apology for not letting them play enough and a pledge to change this (which they were delighted to hear!). As I proceeded to sit back and watch them at play in our space themed classroom, I was heartened to see them working together to make up their own little plays about aliens in Gaelic and excitedly show me pictures from books about space or make Lego models of the space probes on Mars. They demonstrated beautifully how much they have been learning, and all of their own accord.

I think that teachers are more and more worried about apologising to children, and their parents, as it acknowledges some form of wrongdoing that can potentially be used against them. In today’s climate of blame and accountability it can be a dangerous thing to do. But, in my limited experience, children who hear you acknowledge an error are much more forgiving than those who feel wronged and have had this brushed under the carpet. And those parents who know you have acknowledged an error are much happier parents than those who find a fault which hasn’t been addressed.

Twitter – a swiss army knife tool for teachers

It has been a week since I entered Twitterland and (despite my initial reservations) it has opened my eyes to an abundance of opportunities – I already feel like a better teacher because of it.

At the end of a fantastic ‘discovery session’ at the SCEL 2016 conference on teacher leadership, we were vehemently urged to join Twitter (or to encourage somebody else to do so). I was intrigued enough to enter this unknown world which, in return, welcomed me with open arms to a network of like-minded professionals with a passion for their vocation. The buzz I felt from the conference did not wear off, but was fuelled by the ongoing conversation (or twittersation?) via #SCELConf2016.

That weekend I found out about the campaign to introduce a kindergarten stage in Scotland for children aged 3 to 7, through tweets about its launch (@UpstartScot).  I am hugely passionate about providing opportunities for quality play experiences in schools and the support behind the movement reignited this enthusiasm in me. Had it not been for twitter, I don’t think I would have even realised that this was going on in Scotland! What a brilliant forum to spread the word and instigate a change which our educational system would so greatly benefit from. If you haven’t watched the video about the campaign, do so now.

www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=IMaxhELpG7I&app=desktop

Twitter then kindly introduced me to the Tesco Eat Happy Project (@EatHappyProject) which can arrange for your class to skype all kinds of farmers and food producers for a Q&A session. We are currently growing rocket seeds in class, half of which were in space with Tim Peake (@RHSSchools #RocketScience) so are hoping to link this with a Q&A session with a mass producer of herbs and vegetables. The Eat Happy Project can also arrange school visits so children can go behind the scenes and ‘Explore the Store’. Apparently you may even get the chance to bake some bread! When I was little, I used to love Playdays on Mondays because they visited ‘The Why Bird Stop’ and the Why-Tech computer would show you how things were made, so the idea of going behind the scenes in Tesco really appeals to me (and it would hopefully appeal to my pupils too!).

I also noticed through my Twitter feed this week that there was going to be an Authors Live event with Ed Vere(@ScottishBkTrust / @Ed_Vere) which proved to be a huge hit with the P1-3 pupils in our school. He even replied to our tweet! (Oh the excitement… and that was only me, never mind the kids!)

What brilliant ways to provide exciting learning experiences for our pupils, and all at the click of a button (you just have to know that the buttons exists… and now I do, thanks to Twitter).

And apparently Twitter doesn’t just work to our pupils’ advantage, but it has great things to offer teachers too. I noticed a tweet about the opportunity to work with the SCEL team (@TeamSCEL) to develop resources based on the TEDxGlasgow event and I jumped at the chance, so I filled in the online form in the hope of getting a ticket. I couldn’t believe it when I received confirmation the next day that I had been chosen to join the team! What an amazing opportunity!

So my message to everyone is not to live in the moment, as I stupidly suggested in my last post, but to live in Twitterland. It’s a nice place to be.

Live in the moment, then document it!

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I am new to the world of twitter and witnessed a strange new phenomenon this week. At a brilliant conference about teacher leadership the keynote speakers were really interesting to listen to, and yet as I looked around the room I saw an abundance of people engrossed in their phones, ipads and computers. I quickly realised that they had been transported to the world of twitter to acknowledge and share the words and key messages of the speakers.

I was intrigued by this concept and by the end of the day felt like I was missing out by not being part of the club so I took a plunge into Twitterland. It’s all a bit daunting but I’m getting my head around it all…and yet the notion of sitting at a conference whilst on Twitter doesn’t sit well with me. Can you really be in the moment if you are sharing the moment at the same time?

I often have conversations with my class about what active listening looks like (eye contact, no fidgeting) but it seems hypocritical to expect this of children if you look at our own behaviour. If we truly are preparing children for the changing world ahead of them then do we need to put some form of electronic device in their hands whenever we listen to a presentation?

And then, much to my horror, I discovered photographs of myself from the conference in this strange new land. ‘You have to’ apparently and yet nobody asked me if I wanted to! I’m sure I will adapt to this way of thinking and will learn to be more aware of the cameras around me so that I adopt a permanent, happy, interested expression on my face but I’d much rather be focused on what is happening in the room than whether or not I can avoid people getting a profile shot of me and my nose.

You witness the same thing on nights out. Everyone so determined to provide evidence that they are having fun for the purposes of Facebook that I’m not convinced that they actually are. And guests at weddings taking in the whole experience through their camera lens. I’m not against taking photographs (in fact I love to document my memories in scrapbooks) and tweeting is a perfectly acceptable form of behaviour, but are we forgetting to live in the moment?

Perhaps sharing these thoughts isn’t the best way to attract more followers onto my meagre list of 7 (!) but are blogs not meant to stir up a bit of debate?