That Candle Thing

Way back, a long time ago – as in before I had become a teacher (i.e. before I had QTS), Lynne Scholefield produced an interesting article called ‘Can we do that candle thing again?’ (British Journal of Religious Education, Volume 5, Issue 2, 1983). I found it inspirational when, a few years later, I began to train, first as an RE teacher and then teaching in a variety of schools. That Candle Thing used a candle to focus a brief meditation session, an exploration of prayer that was part of experiential RE.

It comes back now as I prepare a series of short sessions for the Westminster Chapel here at Harcourt Hill, a non-faith-based experience of what I am calling “mental refreshment” which will draw on the traditions of mindfulness I first met the same year as I read Scholefield’s article, in the work of Thich Nhat Hahn.

Fifteen minutes of settling, sitting and then… well, classes for some, buses and the weekend for others. And a hope that I am doing something that people will find useful, not jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon.

Or at least jumping on it mindfully.

12:35  – 12:50, Semester 2, 2016, Westminster Chapel.  

‘That Candle Thing’

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Provision and entitlement

“…Cowl, tunic, stockings, shoes, belt, knife, stylus, needle, handkerchief, writing tablets.

What is the equipment the lecturer needs? St Benedict gives a quick list of what a monk needs – interesting to note the needle, I always think – and the communal way of living of Benedict’s first communities finds other tools safely in the cellarer’s stores or in the library. What do I need that the University can provide me with?

What it provides me with (apart from being couched in terms of office space, desk, bookshelves, &c) is not so very different from what the early monastics sought: management; a structured semester (if not a day); tools.

But today (15th Jan) is the feast of SS Maurus and Placid, and other, Benedictine writers  such as IBenedictines are writing today much more coherently on aspects of the feast.  The only thing that struck me – partly after feeling put upon yesterday (and messing up some paperwork) – was that it is very well to talk about HE provision and entitlement, and dress it up in early medieval clothes, but that is to overlook other aspects of organisation: that odd new(ish) [?] idea of followership, and what Benedict rails against: grumbling.

But is questioning the same thing? An ex-colleague (and neighbour) retweeted this news from Oregon this morning. What does the follower do when parts of an organisation need changing? I suggest that the answer is (in part at least) again found in Benedict, back with the Cellarer:

“…one who is wise, of mature character, sober, not a great eater, not haughty, not excitable,  not offensive, not slow, not wasteful”

Because this obedience – in the sense we see it  in Placid and Maurus – is a community practice, an “ethos statement,” where an organisation listens to its constituents. Followership is therefore not as new an idea as I teased with earlier; it is a modern-dress version of a proper obedience, in which trust is at the heart and the leaders are listening and responsive as much as anyone.

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A Return to Green Knowe

I want to come back to a previous post, in which I reflected on adult perspectives on children’s literature by asking what certain adult characters might have made of their part in a child’s story. Here, I want to reflect as an older adult on the transformative character of the Great Grandmother in Lucy Boston’s Children of Green Knowe.

At the start of the Green Knowe sequence, Toseland – Tolly – is a rootless child, in need of a place to belong. I think that’s why I first liked him; I felt a connection. On the other hand, his great- grandmother, Linnet Oldknow has almost nothing but belonging, and it’s sometimes tempting to think that before Tolly’s arrival she has almost nothing but shadows. Occasional friends, some contact with her gardener and his family and then… then evenings in a big house full of history: whispers, half-heard singing, childhoods she can sort of remember, sort of touch. Evenings and evenings of silence.
As I grow older (and in welcoming my children’s children into our house I can see the pleasure she gets) I find myself wondering about what the incidents at the heart of The Children mean to her. She is challenged to allow Tolly into her life, and while she does so with exceptional good grace it requires her to share her history, good and bad with a boy passionate to share her sense of belonging, to share her shadows. Such, perhaps, is family.
What I share with my father and shared with his mother, was Lancastrian Catholicism, and the Laudian Anglicanism of the Oldknows both chimed with me and intrigued: like but unlike. I wasn’t much bothered about – and still don’t really know – how very minor seigneurial Catholics ended up in a terrace house in Blackburn (no Green Knowe for me!), but I was concerned with our family ghost, Lady Dorothy, and with our more-than-ghostly connection to a C17th past in Blessed John Southworth. My grandma went to Rome for his canonisation in 1970, much as, if she’d “been spared” (a phrase of hers) she might have come to her grandchildren’s graduations. Grandma shared stories of the Grey Lady at Salmesbury Hall, the stories of John Southworth, the stories of the Pendle Witches. I guess, to be crass, it’s called heritage, (and heritage was what Lucy Boston wanted (like Tolly), so she wrote herself into the history of her own house in the persona of the great-grandmother much like Kipling wrote himself into the valley where he lived). She -and my dad – changed our family into one full of possibility.

I am intrigued by how Mrs Oldknow reacts to Tolly in those first meetings: warm, but clear in her expectations, she leaves nothing to be unsettling and yet everything is unsettling – for both of them. Mrs Oldknow, as Lucy Boston writes her, brings out the stories she has lived with, in the ghosts and the artefacts of the ancient manor house and allows Tolly to be drawn into them with near-fatal consequences. At the climactic confrontation with the family’s curse she is almost powerless.

But it is her stories and her presence that brings all this to life: as they survive (and they do, through other books), her calmness, her understanding of the past transforms the manor into something truly wonderful. Story as represented by Linnet Oldknow (and my grandma) does not necessarily transform into a hubristic new-and-improved, but illuminates the past and therefore brings a greater understanding .

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Nature writing


“We went on a worck to the medow and we called for an owl. the owl calld back.”

We went out into the dark to Warneford Meadow – daughter, son-in-law, two grandchildren, with my new Tawny Owl call, a little flute-type thing that you can make “to-whoooo.” We used the owl call, and in the distance (how far, I don’t know) we heard an owl call.

And on the way home, Maisy, making that unreproducible high-pitched squeak young children can do (and which I associate with our pre-language ape-troupe ancestors, with no evidence, really), got a call-back from a barn owl in the trees by the hospital.

Magic. Such magic I am putting it here without further comment.

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Dura et aspera

I hear, from time to time, echoes of other people’s jobs and lives with young children. It is usually a welcome insight into children’s lives that, because of its piecemeal nature, is unlikely to have the validity of a peer reviewed article surrounding it but which nevertheless seems to have an interesting point to make.

I might cite my colleague Dave’s anecdote about around the spelling competition in his boy’s class as an example, or the recounts of children’s insights around nativity plays.

However, this set of stories comes from something I’ve been pondering from the Rule of St Benedict (agane).

The hard and harsh things the new monk will meet are to be announced to him as part of his formation “Praedicentur ei omnia dura et aspera” (Rule of St Benedict LVIII).  No such provision really exists for parenthood. This is partly because we assume prospective parents meet other parents (their own, older siblings, &c) and learn something from them about what they are letting themselves in for. Penelope Leach and co don’t always cut it; childhood is not linear enough to be a railway timetable, parenting is too subtle to be paint-by-numbers – but I wonder: do the ambiguities of books for children which discuss tell the reader something important? At any rate here are some of the unexpected things gleaned from personal experience and anecdotes from friends and colleagues, arranged in a personal spectrum of what I would consider difficult.

  • Lack of sleep when child is ill.
  • School uniform.
  • Food fights over spinach baby food &c. with a one-year old.
  • Bad tempers in a toddler.
  • Trips to the doctor.
  • Clothes arguments with a pre-teen.
  • TV/Screen time with a child.
  • Lack of sleep when child is little.
  • Food fights over spinach &c. with a seven-year old.
  • Battles with school over homework.
  • TV/Screen time with teenager.
  • Battles with school over progress, attitude, &c.
  • Lack of sleep when child is no longer a child but is out on the town.
  • Battles with teenager over progress, attitude, &c.
  • Food fights  with a teenager.
  • Crying baby.
  • Battles with school over progress, attitude, &c. for child with additional need
  • Bad tempers in a teenager.
  • Anger in a teen or young adult.
  • Lack of sleep when child is worrying.
  • Lack of sleep when adolescent is worrying.
  • Lack of sleep when child is a baby and you have No Idea.

and to these, as unexpected as they are dreadful, might be added

  • all or most of the above (in varying guises) with young independent adult, e.g. undergraduate
  • stealing
  • bereavement
  • mental illness
  • and death.

The dura et aspera are not be be denied, and I think any prospective parent might attempt a similar list in the abstract, give or take a few. Where they are at their hardest is when reality bites: when it really is 2:00 am and you are still waiting for the front door to go; when you are listening to excuses from a teacher rather than solutions; when Christmas looks set to be ruined by a family shouting match. Some of these are first intimated in children’s literature: Mrs Lather’s Laundry tells in a comic way of the parent that just can’t cope any more; Piggybook is acid in the way it explores parental shortcomings; Outside Over There walks through the valley of the shadows of sibling jealousy and bereavement… I know I gained an awful lot from sharing the Ahlbergs’ Starting School with my Reception class all those years ago. The adult reader picks up the message, which is why Go The F*ck to Sleep was funny but also powerful.

It strikes me that this rather oblique plea for parenting help also means that parenting advice needs not be seen as a set of skills to be acquired, a compendium of answers like the Teacher’s Book in a Maths scheme, but rather (to return to St Benedict) a balance between warning and encouragement, delivered by a person who is “aptus ad lucrandas animas,” well set up to win over hearts and minds. There is no set way; only possible strategies that may or may not help you get through the day or the night. It may be that Moomins can help.


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EPPSE and beyond

October’s report on pre-school and early home learning effects on A-level outcomes (DFE-RR472A) has some heartening things to say for us who are struggling as Children’s Centres are closing, reshaping or simply looking gloomily at their money being taken away. Lasting impact to AS level; lasting impact beyond that for young people whose background is more problematic.

I’m going to put up part of the executive summary, partly for my students (yes, you: now look up the full text, linked above), but also because it never hurts to keep saying these things:

• There are continuing effects of pre-school at age 17. EPPSE students who had attended any pre-school were more likely to enter AS-level exams (mostly taken at age 17) than those who had not. In addition, if they attended a high quality pre-school they were twice as likely as those who hadn’t attended pre-school to take AS-levels.
• However, for most students the pre-school effect had disappeared by the time they took A-levels (generally at age 18) as there were no continuing effects of pre-school at entry to A-level exams or on the grades students achieved in them.
• Separate analysis for the Sutton Trust (Sammons, Toth and Sylva, 2015) showed that there is lasting impact of pre-school for the specific sub-group of disadvantaged young people who were classed as ‘high achievers’ at the end of primary school.
Home learning environment
• The quality of the home learning environment EPPSE students experienced before they attended school does have a continuing effect at ages 17 and 18. EPPSE students who experienced a good early HLE were more likely to enter AS-levels, A-levels, and have higher attainment in terms of KS5 point scores.

And beyond? Well, the implications for how we and the Higher Education students with whom we engage see the role of Early Childhood is a start: coming into the sector “to make a difference” really does seem to work.

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Pas Devant Les Enfants

A spat of sorts came and went in the Guardian and places where they tweet last week over A Song for Ella Grey, and Lynne Reid Banks’ reaction to its marketing – or placing it among “children’s books:”

In the first five pages there is lesbian love, swearing, drinking, and enough other indications that, once again, this is not a book for children. Children are people up to the age of 12. They are not grownups of 17. The books are going straight back to Waterstones.

Woe to us who really do write for children! No prizes for us. Publishing is not a children’s world any more.

I can sympathise with her to some extent, in that I feel that better categories and prizes associated with them might actually lead to a celebration of quality that is more discernible.  I am less sure about the tone she adopts, which has an acerbic tone of distaste reminiscent of  Joyce Grenfell‘s “George! Don’t do that!

I have to ask myself if there are stories or parts of stories that I would avoid reading with children. I do find Roald Dahl’s casual racism hard to get round – unacceptable even in the dates of publication, something  that I have always edited out. Even this isn’t perhaps a reason for editing them out of children’s experience completely. C S Lewis is not immune from this either, and his views on how young women grow up strikes a sour note at the end of The Last Battle to say the least. But then we have the Junk shouting match from the 1990s, and a pious Christian asking me if I would “let” my teenager at much the same time read His Dark Materials. There is debate here about childhood, agency and censorship.

However, what it raised for me, in discussion with my colleague Mat Tobin today was something about the transferability of children’s narratives. Is one of the marks of whether a story “holds water” as to whether it might be told to adults or from the adult perspective?

Two brief examples:

  • What might The Children of Green Knowe be like if written for adults and from the perspective of Mrs Oldknow? Mrs Oldknow’s comfortable magical realism is disrupted by the (welcome) intrusion of her great grandson, whose curiosity forces her to come to terms with a series of horrific deaths. I think this could work.
  • Or what of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness? Torak’s path through adolescence (which takes, in its physical form, a few weeks and is described in the present books in terms of a change in his smell) and his struggle with evil might become precisely the kind of literature Lynne Reid Banks would take back to Waterstones.

I wonder whether the complexities of narrative – and particularly the complexities of the unspoken in “children’s books” – are what make good children’s narratives effective. Is it the every coyness that makes for the complexity? And in which case what would we want to have that makes that coyness work for the intelligent, critical reader, whatever age they are? How explicit does the tension between characters have to be? How explicit the violence, the sex, the drinking?

I’m not mocking here, but wanting to point out that these would both be valid stories. So my first thoughts are around whether this is true of all good stories initially envisaged for children – and if that is (or even might be) the case, then what about stories that perhaps are not?  On whose authority do we age-band stories? And what are the markers that show narrative A to be on one side and narrative B to be on the other?

At any rate, the translation of children’s narrative into adult perspective can provide a bit of a parlour game. Anyone for the Moomins from The Groke’s point of view? Or Where the Wild Things Are in the voice of Max’s mother?

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What did you to in the curriculum wars, Daddy?

When I asked back in March what we do about evaluation that goes against the grain I was asking (part of ) a question that I come back to again and again: What is a curriculum? and the purpose of the rather glib title is to begin to  wonder about whether the contested nature of the curriculum is something I should return to.

We are surrounded by real violence at the moment, and the notion of curriculum wars is a bit silly: there are other things we might take arms, or a moral stance on, and I won’t digress on them here. What I do want to do is look at some possible readings of the OfSTED report “Teaching and play in the early years: a balancing act?” which is linked here.

The Summary begins like this:

“Research has never been clearer – a child’s early education lasts a lifetime.
“For too many children, the foundations for a successful start to their education are weak. In 2014, around two fifths of children did not have the essential skills needed to reach a good level of development by the age of five. Worryingly, in our most deprived communities, the outcomes were much worse.
“The 19 percentage point gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off counterparts has remained unacceptably wide for too long.”

My heart sinks at this; this looks all too like the “beat-up-the-teachers” line of too many politicians. But read on (and I hope I’m not being too selective here):

“The early years providers we visited showed that a strong start can be the norm for all children, regardless of their background. The schools and settings in this survey focused relentlessly on developing children’s communication, language and vocabulary.
The schools and settings we visited did not see teaching as separate from play or infer teaching to mean one fixed view of how things should be done.”

Where is this going? Well, this is the key section for me:

“There is no one way to achieve the very best for young children. Many different approaches to teaching exist. Most of the providers we visited did not think of their time with children as being either teacher-led or child-initiated. They found this terminology unhelpful and sought a better way to articulate the subtleties of their work. They saw their approaches to teaching and play as sitting on a continuum, their staff weighing up the extent of their involvement and fine-tuning how formal or informal, structured or unstructured, dependent or independent each learning experience should be to meet the needs of each child most effectively.”

So is this a contrast with opposition to child initiated learning? Or a compromise? Or a plain fudge?

When we ask what a curriculum is we have to be careful. Is it a programme of study? A set of adult-composed activities through which a child is taken systematically (Swarbrick 2013: 81)? or is it “what it intended to be taught and learned overall (the planned curriculum),; what is taught (the curriculum as enacted); what is learned (the curriculum as experienced)”?  [This is from the final report of the Cambridge Primary Review, Children, Their World, Their Education (Alexander 2010:250).]

I suggest that the ambiguities in Teaching and play in the early years are reflected in the subtitle (and its question mark). Is it “a balancing act?” Who requires it to be a balancing act? Still no nearer to a lasting stability, perhaps, but at least the struggle to keep upright, the wobble of a balancing act sounds better than the violent image of a curriculum war.

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HE and EY – what really makes for quality teaching?

Some while back I made a point about how cycling might be underpinned by similar principles to the key themes of EYFS, and it reminded me of how often I made a similar point about teaching in Early Years and teaching in HE when I first came to Oxford Brookes on my CertTHE (not perhaps always successfully). But recent conversations face to face and on Twitter prompt me to revisit the key themes of EYFS and what might constitute good pedagogy in HE.

Here are the outlines of the key principles:

  • every child is a unique child, who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured;
  • children learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships;
  • children learn and develop well in enabling environments, in which their experiences respond to their individual needs and there is a strong partnership between practitioners and parents and/or carers; and
  • children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates.

and with a bit of translation:

  • Every student is unique, who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured; but how do we show that we are working on this principle? How does systems-led HE do this except on a personal contact level?
  • Students learn to be strong and independent through positive relationships; and what do lecturers do to foster these relationships?
  • Students learn and develop well in enabling environments, in which their experiences respond to their individual needs and there is a strong partnership between lecturers and student support… And how do we ensure that enabling can happen in stuffy or chilly classrooms, in over-flashy or dowdy work areas? Who enables? Save us from the Student Enablement SubCommittee!

But what about “students develop and learn in different ways and at different rates”? Can we recognise this? Should we? Where does flexibility support learned helplessness? Where does system-first higher ed fail the rising number of students who come to University with a long way to go emotionally or academically?


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For whom do we write the (outdoors) curriculum?

Morey Schwartz asked in 2006 (J. CURRICULUM STUDIES, 2006, VOL. 38, NO. 4, 449–457) “For whom do we write the curriculum?” and proposes an interesting model around the “rehearsal curriculum:”

“The teacher finds an exciting blueprint in the curriculum that enables her or him to teach from a new perspective—something that could not have been possible without studying the curriculum. In other words, our ‘curriculum-users’ have become the actual ‘curriculum-receivers’. While the curriculum may be designed for students, it is the way that it engages and educates teachers that constitutes the key to its success…

“A rehearsal curriculum is written in a way that prepares teachers for the teaching experience by prompting them to go through the same process of learning that will be used in the classroom.”(2006:454)

I reflected on this as I walked up for my preparatory visit to Cumnor Hurst along the path beyond the campus.  Here are things the students might pick up; here are things I must warn them about; these are the affordances; these are hazards. In some ways it’s not that different from checking the provision in the garden at the start of the nursery day.

However, it has another side to it if we move deeper into the world of educational metaphor. My rehearsal curriculum not only entails a revision of my (self-chosen) learning tasks, for also all those previous rounds of reflection on outdoor learning, the sessions that have gone well, and those that have not – and why. Serious reflection does allow for what Schwartz calls “disjuncture,” and this can be a challenge to the educator (and I remembered the time the students were unwilling to walk any more than 20 mins from campus). This is in line, of course, with the kind of activity I might think of as a spur to quality reflection – and indeed is a point for reflection/evidence is the HEA/Brookes OCSLD audit I’ve been looking at today which asks me to reflect on “Successful engagement in appropriate teaching practices” – because for me, successful engagement isn’t about being a Superteacher (I have been wary of these since my PGCE nearly thirty years ago), it’s about knowing what goes well, what went well, and how it can be improved.

So there’s my first marker on the path: engagement is about reflection, not just delivery. What do the students pick up? If it’s about engagement at HE level, surely the picking up is partly an independent thing: they pick up what might be afforded by the learning, not the things I list.  Their engagement starts from the pact we make in teaching and learning. We engage together, and my “writing” a syllabus/curriculum for outdoor learning begins from this principle.

U70124 arrive at Cumnor Hurst

U70124 arrive at Cumnor Hurst

But if academics see themselves not as creators of syllabi or curricula but as consumers (as Schwartz is suggesting), then the whole process of module design takes on a new dimension. “Module design” is never a creatio ex nihilo; it never springs from nowhere, but has some important elements in its formation:

  • Context in terms of the academic project on a macro level: why University?
  • Content in terms of the local context: why this course? Why this level?
  • Content in terms of restraints – social; resource-driven; interest-driven.

And if we see module design as an iterative process, all three of these come into play each time we open up the module to redesign – termly/by semester, weekly, session by session.

Why is what I have planned for Friday worth thinking about for a University course? Why, for example, do we really not need pond dipping in the module? How do I keep the content of the module current (recent research, the ever-shifting grounds of policy, the constantly changing needs of different student groups), and how do I present the course at an appropriate level?  How (and I began to ponder this in the summer, under Strawberries) do I keep it current without jumping on bandwagons? Has the team got the staff, the kit, the environment it needs? Will the students “get something out of” the class? Will I? For whom do we write the outdoors curriculum – and do I include myself in the plan to learn? Engagement takes into account constraints and context as well as some nebulous “what I want to teach.”

If I follow Schwartz’ argument, the fact that I am asking these questions indicates I see my curriculum (if I can call it that) as a “rehearsal curriculum:” the challenge moves onto how I know I am learning, enacting the things I’ve been reflecting on: how do I ensure (although I dread the word) impact?

On that note of challenge or self-doubt, I’ll leave it there for now: I have a class to prepare for tomorrow.

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