Friday, 23 February 2018

Storytelling - A way into writing

If you have been following me for a while, you will know I have a keen interest in the teaching of writing.  In fact in the teaching of literacy in general.

My approach to the teaching of writing has changed significantly since I started my journey into play and I now prefer to look at writing as storytelling. 

This is an old blog post...just in case you have not read it.

If you have read my latest book you will know that I did stumble across some research that shows children become better, more engaged writers when they are allowed to engage with the storytelling process and journaling, rather than being pushed early into formal writing where the topic is prescribed by the teacher. 

Regardless of research, I can, from my perspective clearly tell you that children become much more capable, engaged writers when they are allowed to see writing as storytelling. 

I have taught writing both ways...formally through modelling and experience, and informally through play and storytelling.  The marked difference between the two environments is the amount and type of writing and the level of engagement.  You know those reluctant boy writers everyone goes on about?  Well they don't exist in this environment.  They access writing at their own developmental stage, they do what they can and feel successful....even better after the initial teacher directed time (which feels more like a narrative) they are free to finish and move back to play.

We are only three weeks in and already I have noticed progress.

So what is it I mean by storytelling?

Basically I encourage children to see that what we write, is just what they want to say.  If  you have something to say, then you have something to write.  We talk out loud and make up stories.  We talk about our play, about imagined stories.  We talk about a story having a beginning, middle and end.  I draw and tell a story from my picture.  They learn that the first stage of writing is a picture, that when we start school the picture is our story.

We watch silent animations and talk about what is happening and what story they are telling us...what would this story look like written down?  This is an example, but there are a huge range of these on youtube, a quick search for silent animations for children will bring up a range of choices.  There is always the literacy shed too, along with fabulous pictures that can be found online to make up stories from.

The idea of sharing these, is not for children to write directly about is to show children what storytelling looks like and to really enhance the power of the image.

So what does it look like actually?

Writing does not look the same everyday...but this is  an account of what we may do at least once a week to promote writing development.

(It is important to understand that some children are not cognitively ready to learn to write, but the oral component of these sessions is the important part of learning for them.  They are not pressured to anything beyond their capabilities)

1) We have blank journals that children have access to every day at any time.  If we choose to write together on that day we all come to the mat, with our journal and our name card.  Children all have a go at their name.

2) While they are doing this, I am also writing my name in my scrapbook.

3) We talk about writing being the painting of the voice.  That the first part of learning to write is to be able to tell a story out loud and draw a picture.

4) Out loud I talk about what I might write about...this could be my play, and imagined story, something from home, anything...

5) I encourage children to get a story into their heads and to talk about it out loud as they draw a picture of it.  We may watch an animation or read a story as a lead into this.

6) As they are drawing, I am drawing, I talk out loud about what I am doing and why.  I might draw more than one picture and talk about a beginning, middle and end.  Those that want to, will watch me, those engaged in their own picture will tune me out.

7)I then start to write my story.  I will sound some words out and they will help me.  I make it clear that sounds can be represented by symbols or pictures which we call letters.  Sometimes I will just write the letters I can hear...some will tune in, some will do their own thing.  We talk about stretching words and I use a slinky to demonstrate this.  The slinky is then represented as an arrow on the page, which I write the word (or the sounds I can hear) onto the line.

8) Children will have a go.  At this point they can stop, put their book away and go back to their play.

9) While they are writing, we tune into what they are doing and support them at their level.  Showing some blends or word endings as appropriate.  Talking about features that match the stage that they are up to and what they are showing an interest in.  Helping others to sound out and in some cases showing them what the words look like that they are trying to write.  Children do not have cards to help them and we make it clear that all that is important is trying.  Is spelling!  

10) As each child wraps their writing up we talk to them about it and they gradually begin to put their books away.  They are free to 'quit' at any time and because of this they persist far longer than we would expect them to.

A writing 'session' probably lasts for ten - fifteen minutes, what do they do after that?  Well they play of course.

I believe the way into writing is storytelling.  Children need to be freed from sentence starters and word cards and allowed the time to just write.  We do not need to be constantly sitting over their shoulder and we don't need to be scribing for them.  I certainly don't think we need to overload ourselves with writing groups or constantly worry about writing tasks....just let them express themselves and everything will click into place.

As they become more developmentally ready, our children write longer stories, they are interesting and often have beginning, middles and endings.  They are not restricted by topics defined by adults, but given the freedom to write about what truly interests them.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

I love drama for learning! A glimpse into today....

Today we learned the space game.  The idea of this game is that children move into a space.  They are simply finding space.   This leads to them being aware of themselves and their movements. 

When we get accustomed to finding space in our normal persona, we go into role.  Today we went into role as a snail finding space, a grumpy giant and a busy robot.

It is always such fun to watch children grow in confidence as they realise that any effort they make in drama is appreciated and accepted.  The establishment of this culture of acceptance is vital to Number Agents working effectively.

Because they did so well with this I took it a little further today.  They got into partners, one in role as the giant, one as the robot.  The idea was they were angry, someone was in their space and they had to get this across using the same message and their body language.  They also had to maintain eye contact. 

Initially this was difficult, but with a little modelling and watching of others they were eventually all able to go into role and showed real confidence.

A fun drama activity that took about fifteen minutes, but that was full of a huge amount of learning!

A giant and a robot :)

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Why I Believe Growth Mindset Has So Much To Offer Us...

I have been giving a lot of though lately to maths anxiety.  Not in terms of children, but actually in terms of maths anxiety in teachers.  You don't have to go far to have a conversation with a teacher about their experiences in maths and how they now have quite extreme maths anxiety.  In fact some, like myself have quite a strong reaction to even the thought of being tested on their maths ability. 

This level of anxiety has been caused largely by an approach to maths that was very much drill and skill.  You learned the rules, but you never learned the why.  Tests were timed and children had a very clear picture of their ability in maths, based on the group they were put in.  Sadly many of these practices still persist, and it has been many many years since I was in a maths classroom.

What is more worrying is that now as teachers with a high level of maths anxiety we are given the huge responsibility of teaching maths to children.  While this statement may be confronting for many, I believe some teachers will avoid teaching maths if they possibly can, or be unconsciously passing their dislike of maths onto their students.

Having an anxiety of maths is not conducive to encouraging growth mindset in children, however I believe that it is the concept of growth mindset that could really help. 

Have I overcome my anxiety to not completely.  If faced with a question that requires a quick response, I still get that good old panicked response.  But I have learned that maths is not about speed, and my inability to answer at speed does not mean I am 'bad' at maths.  Teaching and learning about growth mindset has also helped me hugely.

If someone had told me in primary school about growth mindset it would have all begun to make sense to me.  If someone had stopped with the timed tests, given me time to answer and uncovered the wonderful secret that maths was not about speed, but about patterns and connections, they would have pulled away the veil of anxiety for me...this anxiety totally cannonballed my high school experience and I took to becoming the class clown, rather than admitting it was hard for me. 

I want to share with you two experiences from my maths learning that I remember vividly, one is from the time I was maybe 7 or 8 and the other is from high school when I was 15.  They were the two best experiences I can remember from maths (actually amongst only a handful of maths memories) and they have something in common.

The first experience was when I was about 7 or 8.  I am not sure what the question was (but very typically from teaching of that time, there was one right answer.)  We were seated in a circle, and very luckily for me I was in last position in the circle (this story wouldn't be a positive one if I was first or even second but last position gave me think time and it also allowed me to hear the answers and thinking of others.)  The teacher asked the question and one by one each child had a go at answering it.  One by one they got it wrong.  About halfway round I twigged to the answer.  She was being tricky, the answer was 0, but no one had clicked.  It got to me, I answered 0 and I was right.  Now this never happened, ever, never did Leslee ever have the right answer, or ever be brave enough to answer.  The elation I felt at being right was overwhelming.  The sense of pride and belonging I felt at the warm smile and praise the teacher offered seems silly now, but it was very real.  I loved her, she was an amazing teacher, she had just never been proud of me for my maths skill and boy it felt great!

The second scenario was in my high school class...the old 5th form, the new year 11.  Usually we would sit in rows at desks working away from books, but on this day we went out with the javelin to explore angles.  I think we may have had athletics coming up and we were looking at the perfect angle to throw it out for the maximum distance.  I didn't learn a lot, however it made angles very real for me...if we had gone out a few more times, or followed up with similar authentic sessions that assisted me to make connections, I am sure I would have 'got it' in a deeper way.  Unfortunately my anxiety about maths was so far entrenched by then, I didn't really make the most of it. 

While these experiences are quite different they do have a couple of commonalities.  First of all, time, I had time to think.  In both instances, there was no pressure on me to answer quickly.  Secondly, talk, I had the opportunity to listen and learn from the talk of others, not just the teacher.

The second scenario is a lovely one because it really shows how an authentic situation can add real meaning to was also enjoyable and this was not something I could regularly say about maths.

I think we can use the concept of growth mindset to help ourselves.  Ok, we may be the teacher, but appreciating that we can increase our own mathematical understandings is important for us.  I absolutely believe for us to pass on a love of mathematics, we must first come to terms with our anxiety and teach ourselves again to love maths.  The best way to do this, is to embrace growth mindset, to pass this on to our students and begin to teach maths in an open, visual and connected way.  When teaching maths is fun, we will soon come to terms with our own anxiety. 

Our ultimate aim should be to get rid of maths anxiety altogether, and I absolutely believe that if we can embrace approaches that truly show the beauty and authenticity of maths and give this gift to children as soon as they start engaging with maths in a more formal way, we can save them from that angst that was maths for us.

I believe there are specific ways we can start to do this:

1) Get rid of timed tests altogether.  Speed is not a marker of ability.
2) Provide authentic situations for mathematical learning.
3) Use talk moves and mixed groups.
4) Get rid of streaming altogether.
5) Incorporate problem solving daily and allow children to develop knowledge as they solve these problems.  Set open ended problems that have a high ceiling and low floor that children can access no matter what their knowledge.
6) Encourage the use of mathematical language.  This will help to demystify some concepts and establish a common means of communicating ideas.
7)Use visual problems and material based problems where possible.  Give children time to learn from each other.
8) Revisit concepts over and over again in different ways and allow time for exploration.
9)Maths is not just number, where possible present problems that show the connectedness of maths.  Embrace the importance of Strand and integrate areas wherever possible.
10) Consider the way you assess children.  Give them time.  There is no problem with giving children a problem and allowing then to go away and think about it.  Sitting beside them, looking over their shoulder is not conducive to encouraging the calm that they need to allow those neurons to fire.

These are just a few of my ideas, I think implementing these things will go a long way to eliminating maths anxiety in our students and ourselves. 

Saturday, 10 February 2018

My journey into learning stories and the first few days of play...

We started back on the 7th.  Cohort entry means that we had 13 new little learners all at once, mixed in with our 13 learners that had been with us for several weeks or several months. 

This year we pick up from where we left off, with practices based on developmental stages rather than age or length of time at school. 

Without knowing the ages of the 13 in the cohort it was not clear who was still yet to turn five, what was quite clear from day one through observation and interaction was the developmental differences in the 26 children we are to work with this term.  This affirmed the absolute need to establish practices that are able to cater for each one of these individuals, not to establish a one size fits all approach.  I am looking forward to further developing my practice around this.

It has only been three days, but what I have noticed already is the happiness. 

This year rather than doing a sit down roll as we were last year, we are allowing children just to play as they come in and say goodbye to their caregivers as and when they are ready to.  We are then free to roam and tick the roll, while greeting and talking to children individually.  By 9.15am we are ready to come to the mat for our songs that will become part of our morning ritual this year. 

In these first few weeks, we will establish little rituals and routines, introducing children to moments of teacher direction, using drama for learning, singing songs and finding out emotions, kindness and our learning mindset.  We will not leap in with any developmental or cognitive based goals for the first month, even with the children that were with us prior to the end of the year.  Our aim is for them to just settle, to just be and find absolute joy in learning through play. 

My goal this year is to develop my ability to write learning stories and create provocations from the interests and urges that I notice. 

This goal will be challenging for me, but I have already had a go at a few over the last week with a basic template I have made that includes Key Competencies, Dispositions, Curriculum Area, Urge or type of play/stage seen, with comments around what was noticed, what this means and what next.  The challenge for us is to write learnings stories based on the developmental stage of the child so that we can really be reflecting their learning journey.  We want to show that connection from ECE to school in the child's journey, but are also conscious that it needs to reflect a progression as time goes on.

As an example of this, I observed the play of two children this week, cooperating in their play, negotiating and establishing rules together.  Quite a high level of play, which was awesome.  They were making food for a restaurant, one of them making the ingredients and the other preparing the dish for their customers.  Although the play was similar for both, when observed closely, they were actually doing quite different things.  The first child preparing the ingredients was creating shapes, sorting and counting out the ingredients.  The second child was much more interested in the social side of the play, interacting with her customers and was less concerned with the product.  The learning stories that I wrote for them reflected this.  For the first child I captured the maths I had seen as she was making groups up to ten " 4 here and 4 there is 8, 2 over there, together that is 10"  I was able to look to the curriculum for the learning here.  For the second child it was more a case of focusing in on the dispositions that she was learning and exploring.

We managed to write five learning stories this week between us and noticed a huge interest in fish through the play.  From this we were able to develop a provocation.  This is my goal, to really focus in on urges and interests so that I can further extend on this through snippets of teaching and the development of provocations.

I'm really looking forward to this journey and am already feeling like these learning stories are going to be a great way of capturing not only curriculum, but developmental stages. 

Thursday, 8 February 2018

A personal story....maths anxiety

I wanted to take the time in this blog post to share something personal with you.  Something very real and often completely misunderstood.  

Maths anxiety. 

 I want us to all be aware of the role we play in making maths anxiety a real barrier for students, or the role we can play in removing this barrier for our students.

Maths anxiety starts young and is a huge reason that I started my Number Agents approach, I want children to have positive experiences with mathematics that give them a sense of competence and success.

Why is this personal? Because I myself suffer from maths anxiety, an anxiety that was created by an overwhelming focus on the endless retention of facts, measured by the speed that we could remember them at.  I will never forget sitting for lengths of time with headphones on being 'tested' on my basic facts.  

The fact is that I'm just not that type of learner, still to this day, I am reflective and take my time, I like to think, apply understandings and explore things in different ways and from various angles.  I am not good when rushed.  I have since learned that this is perfectly acceptable and is in fact how mathematicians work...too late for me because although I now appreciate the absolutely beauty of mathematics, I still get the willies when put under any type of pressure to come up with an answer.  

However that is not why this message is truly personal, this message is much more personal because it is about my daughter.

She also suffers from maths anxiety (coupled with very real social anxiety it is not a great mix for high school.)  What makes it even more personal is that she went through my school and very sadly she went through our school when we valued speed of recall.  Although other aspects of maths were taught very well, this emphasis on speed of recall, especially through a certain speed test administered twice a year (so we could prove progress)  has had long lasting effects on her.  The fact that she was not fast (even though she never did badly on the tests) has left her with a lasting fear of any timed based testing and a feeling of failure when it comes to maths.  

Since I have been lucky enough to open my eyes and mind to the work of Jo Boaler I have come to realise that we have been making some key mistakes as teachers.
1) Focus on speed and one right answer (doing this can quickly give children a sense of failure.)
2)Narrow problems that are not authentic and do not allow children to see mathematics as a 'real' part of their world.
3) Not enough focus on visual problem solving or the use of materials.

Since we have made adjustments to our programmes we have been seeing some remarkable changes in mindset.

So I have been working on these with my daughter, who is now 15.  Reminding her of the word yet, constantly reminding her that mathematicians are slow and take their time to problem solve.  Teaching her to remind her brain that when she feels anxious about being fast, to remind herself that she does not need to be fast.  This trick will help her to actually be quick because she does have the fact there, her anxiety creates the barrier that leaves her unable to access this quickly.  Telling her brain she does not require speed, will help to bring down this barrier.  I have also taught her that she is strong visually and spend time encouraging her to ask to see problems in a visual way.

Unfortunately in her first two years no amount of me telling her this would help when the teaching that was going on consisted of fast facts and copying from the board, along with abstract problems she could not see the relevance of.

Her view of maths got worse and worse, and this intelligent, thoughtful, reflective child became increasingly convinced she was absolutely dumb.  In fact by the end of last year her strategy was avoidance, disconnecting and showing disinterested behaviour so the teacher would not know she was really actually feeling very vulnerable and lost.  

Now to the point of this story....because there is hope.  

This year she has a teacher that has already taken an interest, slowed down, introduced problems she can see relevance in.  This teacher has also taken the time to talk and explain concepts, to show how concepts are connected.  Yes she does warm ups, but with no emphasis on speed.  She also asks them to write down how they felt about the session and anything they felt they needed to know more about.  In three days this teacher has managed to turn a light on for my daughter.  She is starting to use the strategies I have talked to her about, to tell her brain it does not need to be fast, to solve problems visually.  Best of all she feels confident to ask.  She has started to see herself as competent.  Today she even spoke of feeling proud because she managed to finish all the problems set in front of her.  Maths was cut short and she was disappointed.

Now I am not saying her anxiety is gone...but in three short days this teacher, through her learner centred approach, and focus on problem solving that requires slowing down, has been able to transform the kind of language my daughter uses about herself as a mathematician.  She is even accepting the power of yet.  

We have incredible power, and with incredible power comes great responsibility.  We need to understand the effect we can have, often unintentionally on students.  

Maths anxiety knows no barriers, all levels of children can have child should be made to feel dumb at maths because they are not fast, need to see things visually or to have something explained a few times in different ways.

Please take the time to read the work of Jo Boaler if you have not done so already, you won't regret it!

Go forward this year and make a difference for all the mathematicians in your closely for those that appear switched off and disinterested, they are often your most vulnerable.

Never, ever doubt your power to make a difference.