Sunday, 12 February 2017

From resilience to activism - Art and Reflective Practice

'...art-based learning provokes radical and creative visions of an alternative world; ‘as if’ things could be otherwise – a hopeful goal much required in these neo-liberal times.' 

If life as a teacher is hard, life as a trainee teacher is even harder. For my in-service and pre-service Cert Ed/PGCE trainees, navigating new identities, battling behaviour issues, balancing work and study and the daily grind of planning and marking is challenging to say the least. Recent research suggests that more than half of teachers in HE are on insecure, impermanent contracts (The Guardian, 2016). In addition to this, 84% of teachers who undertook the Education Health Survey (2015) reported suffering from a mental health problem within the past two years. I would say that around one quarter of my students have had to deal with significant levels of anxiety, stress or depression within the past year.

In the midst of this, trainee teachers have to produce significant amounts of reflective practice to evidence a mindful approach to teaching and learning improvement. Often this takes the form of a journal or diary, which can often be repetitive, restrictive and boring to complete. For a while I have wanted to explore whether the use of art in reflective practice presents an opportunity for teachers to reflect in a different way.  Can expression and creativity in reflective practice help teachers to break free from an oppressive and harmful education system, even if that freedom is fleeting? Can art provide ‘freedom of spirit’ (Gordimer, 1984) and can this influence trainees' own resilience? What might be the impact of creating art or poetry on the teachers themselves and the wider world?

Not everyone considers themselves an artist, although I would argue that every single human being has the capacity to be creative in some way. For teachers this creative impulse often shows up through a love of their specialist subject. In observations, talking through a concept or exciting idea I will often catch them in a state of 'flow' where the rest of the world disappears for a while.  Given the decline in the study of creative subjects (Art and Design at AS Level, for example has seen a 33.4% drop in candidates this year) my first idea was to use art as a stimulus for initial reflective work.

In Barnsley, we are lucky enough to have the Cooper Gallery on our doorstep; the exciting Picasso lino-cuts exhibition is on until the end of April. The challenge for my students was to visit the gallery and find a piece of art that spoke to them, in some way, of their journey as a teacher.



 

The resulting reflections are worthy of much more than I will say here, but proved to be a pathway to a much deeper level of self-awareness and understanding.  Connections were surprising, and emotional for some.  Yet for us all, the process was affirmative and enlightening; as Clover and Stalker (2007) point out Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience’.  

Some trainees are going on to create their own poems, stories and pieces of art to illustrate their journeys as teachers. This is perhaps the next stage in the use of art for reflective practice; moving from stimulus to creative experience.  Where this is happening it is proving therapeutic for many; a form of escapism, exploration or distraction, with a tangible and often beautiful outcome.  We plan to move our art from the private to public sphere, in order to share with the world our painful, emergent and embodied experiences of 'becoming teacher'.  This posthuman idea of affirmative action for social change (Braidotti, 2013) has proved to be an exciting and unexpected by-product of our new approach to reflective practice.

Art is clearly a vehicle for trainee teachers to explore emerging thoughts and subjectivities, rejecting fixed identities and allowing scope for ‘becoming’ teacher, in a posthuman sense. It seems clear that there is scope within a heavily academic teacher-training qualification to push the boundaries of the curriculum, allowing creative expression to give teachers a form of almost meditative escape, which may in turn allow scope for greater creativity and innovation in the students’ own classrooms.  In a time where FE teachers need resilience and community more than ever, encouragement of this kind of practice seems paramount.

This research will be presented in full at the 'Beyond Words: Privileging the unspoken in arts and communities in a posthuman world' Conference, University of Plymouth this March.


Trainees' own works of reflective art will be exhibited at Northern College this summer in an exhibition entitled 'Becoming Teacher'. Join us for the full education conference here.

Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Clover, D., & Stalker, J. (Eds.). (2007). The Arts and Social Justice: Re-crafting Adult Education and Community Cultural Leadership. Leicester, UK: NIACE.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2002). Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. London: Random House.
Gordimer, N. (1984). The Essential Gesture: Writers and Responsibility. Available: http://tannerlectures.utah.edu/_documents/a-to-z/g/gordimer85.pdf. Last accessed 22th Nov 2016.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Beth

This is one of those posts that I hoped I'd never have to write.  Teacher education doesn't prepare you for the biggest challenge of all - coping with the death of a student.  It feels outside the normal order of things - unnatural and alien.  At a time when I should have been encouraging, cajoling (and for some, nagging) my Northern College students towards their final stages of their Cert Ed/PGCEs I've had to go into class to share the hardest news.

This is Beth, our beautiful, kind and funny friend and colleague.  She passed away suddenly at the age of 45 and words can't really do justice to how it feels, or what I want to say. But I want to write about her and what she meant to us.

Beth taught at Learn for Life in Sheffield.  If you're not familiar with this wonderful place, you should be.  It is a hub in the local community for local residents, refugees, asylum seekers and older people; people can learn English and maths, ICT and arts and crafts.  Beth taught English there for seven years and was very much loved by her students and colleagues.

I was lucky enough to observe Beth's teaching on a few occasions.  She had a very warm style and gentle humour that was reassuring and endearing.  She also had the knack of offering a calm and caring presence, helping her students to navigate the many learning barriers - but also being firm where needed, due to an absolute belief in the potential they had to succeed.

Colleagues and students made a remembrance book which we gave to Beth's family at the funeral today. In it were many lovely stories about her time at college, tales of joy, laughter and companionship. We learnt more about her life, from friends and family who talked about her childhood, teenage years and time at work. Stories were important in Beth's role as a teacher of refugees; she would help them to share their own journeys while giving them the skills to forge new paths.  The stories we heard and shared came together today to give a picture of the whole lovely person that was Beth. 

Teacher education is truly a two-way process; you learn just as much from your students as they do from you. In my last conversation with Beth she talked about the stories of the refugees she taught, and how little their original careers or previous talents were known about or respected. She reminded me of the importance of getting to know individuals and not making assumptions about their abilities; but instead celebrating their stories and journeys. I try to remember this every day.

The story of our Cert Ed/PGCE will go on, but it won't be the same without Beth.



Monday, 12 September 2016

Final report - Exploring Prevent and FBV through philosophical enquiry


We are pleased to share here the final report for our Huddersfield- Consortium funded project into Prevent and Fundamental British Values (FBV). Our aim with this project was to facilitate spaces for educators to explore the issues arising from this challenging agenda; using community philosophy as a tool to enable critical thinking and meaningful debate.  As a result of undertaking the process, teachers were overwhelmingly keen to instigate 'pro-social' methods of student engagement, considering ways to encourage belonging and a shared sense of identity in their classrooms.  You can read more in the report below; comments and observations very welcome.

Kay Sidebottom and Karol Thornton
Northern College, September 2016



Sunday, 28 August 2016

Pro-social education in posthuman times

I originally wrote this piece after Brexit and the murder of Jo Cox.  Having recently returned from the 'Posthuman Glossary ' summer school at Utrecht University, I am more convinced than ever of the need to re-examine our educational worlds, structures, challenges and conflicts through an affirmative lens.  We need to accept that regardless of how frustrated we feel by the systems we are in (be it our own organisation, educational system or even more widely, advanced capitalism) we do not sit outside of it, we are part of it.   We are, in the words of Rosi Braidotti, 'agents of the very forces we try to resist.'  If we agree that this is the case (and some of course may not!), what might we do differently?  How can we continue to resist, but also sustain ourselves - working with traditional forms of power, but necessarily seeking out new possibilities, for a world moving rapidly beyond the 'human'?


Canals of Utrecht
'Think, we must' (from Three Guineas, by Virginia Woolf) was the recurring phrase of the summer school, and the emphasis was on collective and collaborative reimaginings of the world we find ourselves in.  Not for or to our students, but with them, be it through pedagogical relationships which may be rhizomatic and go beyond the classroom walls, creative, art-based processes that allow students the scope to think 'what if?,' and co-constructed curricula that fill in the missing voices of past and allow us to think about the present.  The pro-social models of democratic education I wrote about back in June may be helpful here too in a practical sense.  I would love to know of any other ideas you have for moving us forward in a spirit of resistance and affirmation.


Since the death of Jo Cox last week, the phrase I keep returning to in my mind is 'educate out hate'; and it is present here today in this important New York Times piece by Henry Giroux, who writes about the 'violence of forgetting':

'..education is fundamental to democracy. No democratic society can survive without a formative culture which includes but is not limited to schools capable of producing citizens who are critical, self-reflexive, knowledgeable and willing to make moral judgements and act in a socially inclusive and responsible way. This is contrary to the forms of education that reduce learning to an instrumental logic that too often and too easily can be perverted to violent ends.'

As educators, what can we do to help create the kind of citizens that Giroux is talking about? We are currently caught in a cleft stick of education where we have to tick so many boxes that there is no room left for critical thinking and dialogue. We are even counter-terrorism surveillance officers, as we look out for individuals at risk of 'radicalisation' under the Prevent agenda (as an aside, it must be time now to shift the focus of this to the far-right, if we must have the agenda at all).   Yet my challenge here is to suggest that there IS room for democratic education, but that we need to look, not at content, but at the processes by which we are teaching.  Shoe-horning in a stand-alone piece about equality may be important and worthwhile, but democracy and social justice need to cut through the very heart of what we do.  The cult of 'embedding' needs shifting to a movement of 'promotion' where we model behaviour, enable thinking to happen, and become more overt about what we are doing to create those transformative spaces of belonging and community.  This is possible wherever we gather people together for the process of learning.  And of course it is not limited to classrooms, but also our social and work spaces.

In our lessons now the individual is king (or queen).  Connecting with individual identity and experience, and differentiating effectively is vital of course, but in doing this we can overlook the social settings in which our students find themselves.  Too often all dialogue goes only from an individual to a teacher, and back again.   We need to use pro-social interventions that encourage students to talk to each other, to learn about each other's lives and experiences, to agree, disagree, and to celebrate difference.  Tools such as philosophical inquiries can help; or simply a restorative circle or thinking council where interaction and understanding of difference are the order of the day.

For me, the Thinking Enviroment processes of Kline's work are a great place to start.  An easy introduction is to start every class with a thinking round, where students take it in turns to answer a positive question.  This is based on the principle that 'no-one has arrived in a room until they have spoken'; and even with a class of 20 plus, this doesn't have to take more than ten minutes.  But you do have to enforce the rules of listening without interruption, paying absolute attention (keeping your eyes on the person who is speaking) and allowing students to speak for as long as they need to.  It can take time for students to get used to this idea; we sadly live in a world that values extroversion and allows (or even encourages) people to talk over one another. For many, the chance to have their voice will be a new and perhaps difficult experience.  Persist with it though, and you will teach people to really listen to each other - and what better 'functional skill' than that?  (If, at this point you are concerned about what Ofsted might make of this approach, first ask yourself - what are you assuming, that makes you think they wouldn't get it?*)

So, how do you teach for social justice, for transformation, for a better world?**  It may depend on your teaching context, but there will be many ways in which we all instigate positive change; not through what is dictated in the curriculum but by means of the processes we use.   Perhaps like my student Jason you greet each student that enters your classroom with a handshake.  Maybe, like my colleague Karol, you use restorative practice; regular circles and dialogues to resolve conflict or build relationships.  There will be many things that you do, so please share ideas and techniques and make critical education an explicit part of your practice. By doing this we can begin to reclaim our pedagogy, and start to build a world that we and our students would really like to live in.




*I was inspected by Ofsted in two separate inspections last month.  The Thinking Environment processes used in both classes were viewed as an excellent means of initial assessment and for promoting British values of democracy and respect.

**To focus our minds, the kind of questions to ask ourselves could include:
- What am I doing to foster a sense of belonging and community in my classes?
-  How am I preparing my students to play a positive part in a globalised and diverse world?
- How am I enabling my students to express their views and respect the views of others?
- How am I helping students to gain 'cultural competence' and how secure is my own knowledge of people who are culturally different from myself?









Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Educate out hate


I'm in the midst of a #brexit fuelled angst, caught between the highs of marking inspirational, transformative Cert Ed/PGCE work, the lows of despair about the death of Jo Cox and the image of Nigel Farage's face.  It isn't a great place to be.  When Jo was murdered last week I felt the rising of a deep anger and a desperation to continue doing whatever I can (little though it may be) to educate out the kind of hatred that kills an innocent woman; a woman of my age who worked so hard for the ward in which I lived for seven years.

'Educate out hate' is the phrase I keep returning to.  It is present here today in this important New York Times piece by Henry Giroux, who writes about the 'violence of forgetting':

'..education is fundamental to democracy. No democratic society can survive without a formative culture which includes but is not limited to schools capable of producing citizens who are critical, self-reflexive, knowledgeable and willing to make moral judgements and act in a socially inclusive and responsible way. This is contrary to the forms of education that reduce learning to an instrumental logic that too often and too easily can be perverted to violent ends.'

As educators, what can we do to help create the kind of citizens that Giroux is talking about? We are currently caught in a cleft stick of education where we have to tick so many boxes that there is no room left for critical thinking and dialogue. We are even counter-terrorism surveillance officers, as we look out for individuals at risk of 'radicalisation' under the Prevent agenda (as an aside, it must be time now to shift the focus of this to the far-right, if we must have the agenda at all).   Yet my challenge here is to suggest that there IS room for democratic education, but that we need to look, not at content, but at the processes by which we are teaching.  Shoe-horning in a stand-alone piece about equality may be important and worthwhile, but democracy and social justice need to cut through the very heart of what we do.  The cult of 'embedding' needs shifting to a movement of 'promotion' where we model behaviour, enable thinking to happen, and become more overt about what we are doing to create those transformative spaces of belonging and community.  This is possible wherever we gather people together for the process of learning.  And of course it is not limited to classrooms, but also our social and work spaces.

In our lessons now the individual is king (or queen).  Connecting with individual identity and experience, and differentiating effectively is vital of course, but in doing this we can overlook the social settings in which our students find themselves.  Too often all dialogue goes only from an individual to a teacher, and back again.   We need to use pro-social interventions that encourage students to talk to each other, to learn about each other's lives and experiences, to agree, disagree, and to celebrate difference.  Tools such as philosophical inquiries can help; or simply a restorative circle or thinking council where interaction and understanding of difference are the order of the day.

For me, the Thinking Enviroment processes of Kline's work are a great place to start.  An easy introduction is to start every class with a thinking round, where students take it in turns to answer a positive question.  This is based on the principle that 'no-one has arrived in a room until they have spoken'; and even with a class of 20 plus, this doesn't have to take more than ten minutes.  But you do have to enforce the rules of listening without interruption, paying absolute attention (keeping your eyes on the person who is speaking) and allowing students to speak for as long as they need to.  It can take time for students to get used to this idea; we sadly live in a world that values extroversion and allows (or even encourages) people to talk over one another. For many, the chance to have their voice will be a new and perhaps difficult experience.  Persist with it though, and you will teach people to really listen to each other - and what better 'functional skill' than that?  (If, at this point you are concerned about what Ofsted might make of this approach, first ask yourself - what are you assuming, that makes you think they wouldn't get it?*)

So, how do you teach for social justice, for transformation, for a better world?**  It may depend on your teaching context, but there will be many ways in which we all instigate positive change; not through what is dictated in the curriculum but by means of the processes we use.   Perhaps like my student Jason you greet each student that enters your classroom with a handshake.  Maybe, like my colleague Karol, you use restorative practice; regular circles and dialogues to resolve conflict or build relationships.  There will be many things that you do, so please share ideas and techniques and make critical education an explicit part of your practice. By doing this we can begin to reclaim our pedagogy, and start to build a world that we and our students would really like to live in.




*I was inspected by Ofsted in two separate inspections last month.  The Thinking Environment processes used in both classes were viewed as an excellent means of initial assessment and for promoting British values of democracy and respect.

**To focus our minds, the kind of questions to ask ourselves could include:
- What am I doing to foster a sense of belonging and community in my classes?
-  How am I preparing my students to play a positive part in a globalised and diverse world?
- How am I enabling my students to express their views and respect the views of others?
- How am I helping students to gain 'cultural competence' and how secure is my own knowledge of people who are culturally different from myself?










Saturday, 14 May 2016

Gift of words - A poem for my students


It's always true that I learn much more from my students than they learn from me.  This poem is for the Cert Ed/PGCE classes of 2016, Barnsley and Northern Colleges, with thanks and love.

Alternative notes from a teaching observation



You're a juggler
A tight-rope walker
A spinner of plates -
In this three-ring circus
Where the show goes on

I observe in the wings
my view obscured
by the cloak you wear
and a blurred lens
that is not my own

It's a spectacle of faith, hope and circumstance
Of fear, joy and love
The best show on earth
I could watch a million times over

And I will wait and return
Because I know
That when the cloak falls from your shoulders
There will be no words left to write

Because the colours will be so dazzling
I'll have to turn my face away.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Prevent and critical pedagogy


As an educator who aims to work affirmatively and openly, Prevent has been a challenge. I've started writing about the topic on a number of occasions and given up (perhaps the very word 'Prevent' itself has had this effect?)  My views on the agenda will be clear to anyone who follows me on Twitter or reads my blogs, but I have been desperately trying to take a stance that opens up rather than closes down debate - that 'problematises' it in the Freirian sense; knowing also that the legal duty applies to me as an educator and public servant. 

Hearing and exploring diverse and oppositional views is vital. In a world of lesson planning that currently advocates 'Haynes manual' approaches, speedy bite-size and chunked sessions that tick all the Ofsted boxes, there is little room for debate and discussion (unless scheduled in).  In this world we do not like uncertainty either; yet Prevent itself is an area for fear, confusion and misunderstanding, where people are scared to open up and spaces are no longer safe. The 'fundamental British values' appear sound yet can also be divisive.  I use Twitter* to surround myself as much as possible with diversity - of opinion, culture, race and thinking and am following with interest the stance taken by University of Warwick and the NUT; organisations wishing to distance themselves from the agenda as much as possible.   My dilemma as a teacher educator has been whether to subvert, resist, or facilitate debate, but my biggest feeling at the moment is one of responsibility for my own students  who will be going out into the world needing clarity and having had the chance to think all of this through.

It is always worth going back to the source when discussing policies and regulations, so as a reminder here is a link to the updated Prevent duty:
https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445977/3799_Revised_Prevent_Duty_Guidance__England_Wales_V2-Interactive.pdf


Of course, if you teach you will no doubt have already been trained in Prevent; perhaps going on the government's WRAP training course (Workshop Raising Awareness of Prevent), or working through one of the many e-learning courses (mandatory, in many organisations).  These courses provide basic information about the policy and 'fundamental British values', as defined, not by British people, in actual fact, but by the government.  What these courses do not allow much room for is any discussion of the policy or issues it raises.  I felt it was imperative that I allowed room for this within my own teaching, but struggled for a while with how to do this, and what kind of session to run.  I was also extremely wary of imposing my own values and views but wanted to allow discussion through principles of critical pedagogy.**

Enter community philosophy.

This practice is essentially an enquiry-based process that explores and unpicks language; connects ideas and philosophical concepts; challenges hegemonic practice and assumptions; and collaboratively builds new knowledge.  Much of this is based around the Freirian concept of 'conscientization'; the process of developing a critical awareness of one's social reality through reflection and action.. I love many things about CP but perhaps the best thing in my view is that individuals and groups create their own questions. Sessions usually start with the introduction of a stimulus; a photo, newspaper article, poem, activity - anything really. In responding to the stimulus, groups come up with their own question which they then discuss.

What's philosophical about this? Well, discussion tends to centre around concepts - so that a question around 'community' may lead to debate around society, identity, respect, even love.  There is something very empowering about deconstructing these terms we hear bandied about and lazily used in everyday language ('shirkers', anyone?!). Try exploring and questioning the concept of 'health' or 'radical' to see that interpretations are culturally-informed and complex.  Community philosophy is a positive activity however, so doesn't leave a group feeling threatened by this exploration - as well as deconstructing concepts, groups build new concepts with real meaning and value. Sessions end with a period of reflection, to discuss and take action - where do we go next?

You can see the relevance of this tool for exploring a topic like Prevent; and so I am in the process of running a number of Community Philosophy sessions that allow trainee teachers and teacher educators to enquire into the topic and create their own questions.  So far these questions have been important and far-reaching, including:

- How can we foster a sense of belonging in our classrooms?
- Is Prevent racist?
- What does it mean, to be 'radical'?

Philosophical enquiries always end with a call to action, and for many of my students these have included:

 - re-reading and analysing the original Government guidance
- following diverse voices on Twitter and joining campaigns
- learning more about other cultures and religions
- researching 'non-violent communication'*** as means of facilitating respectful debate
- running a philosophical enquiry on British Values with their own classes
- doing Identity and values work with their own groups
- using Restorative Practice approaches to build classroom communities.

I'm not sure that teachers (and their students) have safe spaces in the way that they did before, but I'm convinced that using community philosophy for critical thinking can help to give educators room to explore their own views and work towards positive action.  And perhaps it is time to reclaim the word 'radical'; as Paulo Freire said:

"The more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it. This individual is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into a dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side."





*Useful Twitter accounts to follow:
@rapclassroom (Darren Chetty)
@writersofcolour (Media Diversified)
@Preventwatch
@schoolequality
@IRR_news
@DiLeed (Di Leedham)
@totallywired77 (Tait Coles)
#educationnotsurveillance

** For more on critical pedagogy, take a look at this article by Tait Coles
http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/feb/25/critical-pedagogy-schools-students-challenge

*** Rosenberg, M.B. (2003). Nonviolent Communication; A Language of Life. PuddleDancer Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Books.