Twitter: our school playground

I was lucky enough to go to a lovely village junior school. There were two playgrounds, one of which was a patchy Tarmac slope with a covered barn-like area at the top end, an extension of a beautiful old building. This covered area, I think housed some PE equipment, but I could have got that wrong. I seem to remember utilising an old vaulting horse as an impromptu stage under there. With a few of my friends we performed lunchtime concerts to the other children. These concerts (fifteen minute events) consisted of songs (Bananarama covers) from our new album (a C90 cassette). Whilst these ‘concerts’ went on, other playtime activities continued as normal, boys played football, girls plaited hair and teachers drank tea. The playground was a world in its own right. It was where historic battles were fought, intergalactic invasions thwarted and romances born, flourished and sadly expired. All the different factions within the school met together, exchanged ideas and settled disputes. Lessons were an unfortunate necessity, a background hum, that got in the way of these important gatherings.

Over recent weeks I have begun to reflect on the similarities between the congregation of pupils in the school playground and the interactions of tweeters on Twitter, particularly those within the educational Twitter community. There are such clear groups that exist within our playground. There are the naughty ones who play up all the time, pulling at the bunches of the pretty girls’ hair, calling them names and sometimes making them cry. The girls shout at them and tell them they are stupid. On Twitter the trolls fulfil this role, playing up to gain attention from everyone. Their behaviour usually works within the boundaries of their virtual playground. Jealousy and ignorance are a potent mix and behind the anonymity of a computer screen, people say things without thinking, forgetting that their fellow tweeters are human beings too. This kind of dehumanisation can also be seen in the actions of the playground bullies.

Playground politics were essentially all about which group you were in, the more popular your group, the more power you wielded and the higher your playground status. Take for example those people of high status. Maybe it was because they had an important role, perhaps they were form captains, milk monitors, or classroom prefects. You couldn’t touch these people, they were the pro’s. The rest of us would just look up to them in admiration. Unless you were in their inner circle they would just be seen from afar. You felt happy if a prefect asked you to move out of the way – suddenly your existence had meaning. Twitter has those top dogs too, in the educational sphere as well, quite often their importance marked by the elusive blue tick. You have been verified! You belong to the upper echelons of our Twitter society. The lowly amongst us sometimes timidly include their Twitter names in the hope that our existence too will be acknowledged – they read what I wrote! My words have meaning!

Not surprisingly there are obvious parallels between the existence of the in-crowd on Twitter and the ones in the playground. Those not in the cool-kids-clique are merely spectators on the outskirts of the exchanges that happen between these holy elite. I have wondered whether there was an equivalent of the Twitter no-no of retweeting praise. Did the in-crowd go around the playground telling everyone how great they were? Perhaps they did, and perhaps that’s why they still do it today. The cool kids of the playground are able to get everything right with, what appears to be, effortless ease. They had the best bags, the sharpest shoes, the coolest coats, not for them the cheapest cagoule from C&A. The really cool kids didn’t have to try to be cool, they just were. Of course this inner circle, both on Twitter and in the playground, generates another group, the wannabes, those that doggedly aspire to be part of that group. They cling on with gritty determination and huge amounts of effort. It makes me think of the months I took trying to persuade my mother that ‘donkey jackets’ were THE thing to wear and not the outfit of choice for dustmen. By the time I had tipped her over the edge into agreement the in-crowd were already pioneering a different fashion trend. Twitter has its effortless tweeters, those that are ahead of the news, making the news, setting the trends and then there are those who are trying to escape their perpetual struggle to do more than just retweet others.

Our choice of words is something that defines our experiences of playground life. The part of the country that I came from had its own language and terminology. I know, I’ve checked with others from other parts. For example, do you know what a ‘jitty‘ is? That time of life is also full of its own meaningful language, so it would be quite natural to chastise another by remarking that they were ‘in a right eggy Jeff‘. These words have the action of giving you an identity, you are part of the crowd, you belong. It is so obviously the case that this is true of Twitter, how some fellow tweeters might laugh should you not know the meaning of ‘twitosphere’. This is true too for the educational tweeters that not only sprinkle tweets with selections from the plethora of educational jargon, but add in a new layer of terminology uniquely formed from mixing education and social media. Language is about belonging, to shamelessly cherry pick from Wittgenstein, ‘don’t ask for the meaning, look for the use’. Twitter newbies, watch and learn, but most importantly get stuck in.

We have already seen there is an elite society built into Twitter, but there are even more ways that the Twitter community echoes the dynamic of the playground politics. Twitter is a world where you can actually nominate tweets to be favourites! It would take a strong, independent soul to deny that it’s rather nice to see that another person has favourited something you said. That moment of recognition has its equivalent in the playground. Can you remember that time when you went out on a limb to say something funny and the kids laughed or better still someone said, ‘that’s funny‘. Oh the sweet acknowledgement!

I’m a great fan of Twitter. I had been on Twitter for a while before I really saw the power that lay in its format. I think it was about the time of the London riots that I realised that Twitter was the best and quickest way to find out what was happening. Needless to say I’m not sure I was always the quickest in the playground to find out what was happening, but as a teacher and deputy, pupils used to wonder at how quickly I knew about the latest ‘news’. Of course, just as it is with the playground, there can be a great deal of misinformation on Twitter and discernment is needed in both arenas. Maybe you too, honestly followed the ‘Boston charity’ that appeared almost instantly after the marathon bombings promising to donate a dollar for every follow, that was quickly shown to be fake. It would be good to say there was more evidence of discernment on grown-up twitter, but recent examples of thoughtlessness, e.g. Tweeters in the public eye chastising Yorkshire schoolgirls, seems to show evidence to the contrary.

What light can this Twitter/playground analogy shed? I think there are lessons for us to learn, perhaps even from the mistakes of playgrounds past. Firstly, Twitter should be an open community and the range of ‘hashtag chats’ does suggest opportunities for sharing. In their schools, teachers genuinely want everyone to be able to be comfortable at break times and lunchtimes. We act swiftly to counteract any sense of intimidation and endeavour to stop bullying. It was not surprising, therefore, to see some teachers step in and challenge recent examples of trolling of school children. Beyond those obvious objections I think the playground might make us remember the outsiders. Those that don’t have a natural ease in the situation but want to be part of the community. It is possible to spot cliques emerging even within the educational Twitter community. There was always a fair bit of showing off in the playground and there certainly can be some of that on Twitter. With the wonderful gift of hindsight we can look back on playground memories and realise just how much we were all the same and at its best I think that this is something that Twitter can show too. Sure there will be private jokes, the in-crowd, the effortless cool kid, the wannabe, but 140 characters is actually a pretty good way to break down those boundaries as well as establish them. I learnt a lot about people, the world and life in general in the playground, I’m pleased the same is true for Twitter too.

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Why I like (writing) assemblies

Teachers have a rather odd relationship with assemblies. There are some who will do all they can to avoid even attending them, such is their loathing. They hide in distant classrooms or time their arrival just as the doors shut and the hymn begins. It is always a little surprising to me that some colleagues feel assemblies are not part of the deal, not what they signed up for and therefore to attend them is to place an unnecessary burden upon them. They tut and shuffle in staffroom briefings when Headmasters and Headmistresses make their termly reminder to attend assemblies in order for them to be “part of the community”. Of course more sympathy can be felt if their attendance is simply a matter of crowd control. No one wants to take on the role of ‘steward’ first thing in the morning and, contrary to popular pupil opinion, there are not many teachers who actively enjoy hushing children during mass gatherings.

There are those teachers who are more than happy to attend an assembly as long as their role is entirely passive. They absorb what is going on and can even express dissatisfaction with its contents, although they would never want to be involved themselves. Whenever it is their tutor group’s turn to take charge they swiftly pick the most vocal and eager tutees and let them get on with it, offering enough encouragement as and when required. I could well have ended up in that group if it had not been for my first school. All teachers were on a rota to lead an assembly maybe once or twice a year. As a new teacher the mere thought of this was enough to turn my stomach, add into that that the venue for aforementioned assembly was a cathedral and you can see why I began to dread my date many months in advance. In the end I sort of semi-cheated. I wrote half the assembly and the other half consisted of a friend of mine who happened to sing like an angel and looked like the latest object of schoolgirl desire. Not surprisingly his presence helped enormously.

Even though I have never worked in a school with the same kind of teacher rota, I ended up going onto a job which included organising and/or delivering four assemblies a week. It is not surprising that twenty years later I imagine I have written at least thirty thousand words of assemblies. Just writing them because you have to is one thing, but liking assemblies and enjoying writing them is quite another. Why do I like assemblies? I think that assemblies are a genuine opportunity for gathering together on a regular basis. This is particularly important if you work in an extended community with junior schools and infant schools as important parts of your world. I used to love it when the ‘little ones’ came in and fidgeted their way through your carefully crafted message. Somehow you had to speak to six year olds up and eighteen year olds with equal meaningfulness not forgetting your gathered colleagues who you always hope to impress in even the smallest way. Where else would you have the opportunity to speak to such a varied group? I think you have a real sense of ‘the school’ when everyone is together. It makes you think that new building developments for schools and academies that don’t include some kind of communal hall are missing a key ingredient of school identity.

Another reason why I think that assemblies are a good thing is that an assembly message is unlike any other kind of lesson that might be delivered. Ideally you want the assembly to have a meaningful message, whether it is a thought for the day, a moral dilemma to be considered, a reflection to take with you into the day or a spiritual encouragement. It is often an opportunity for genuine inspiration to be shared and for leadership to be demonstrated. It is an opportunity for imaginations to be stimulated in ways that perhaps they are not always able to be, just due to time and subject constraints. As it is often, but not only, leaders that deliver those messages it is also an opportunity for genuine connection to be made between members of the school community that otherwise might be usually distant. There is nothing quite like that feeling of walking out of an assembly hall with the rest of the school after a really great assembly.

Finally why do I like writing assemblies? Well there is an element of ‘Just a Minute’ quality to being able to respond to the challenge of coming up with, instead of 1, 8 minutes of funny, interesting, challenging and thoughtful material on a subject that is given to you. I also enjoy the challenge of trying to connect a big life-changing concept or idea to everyone’s everyday experiences. I think one of the reasons why teachers understandably do not like doing them is that they are or can be hugely personal and revealing about your own thoughts and ideas. Standing up in assembly there are no specifications to hide behind, ideas can be fully exposed. Most people will have childhood memories of a teacher who came out and swore, or had a cigarette in their mouth or offered to give away cash as a shock-inducing gimmick that would inevitably lead to a thought for the day. There are those that feel the best way to ensure compliance and acceptance in the vulnerable position of delivering an assembly is the hurling of fun size mars bars, in a way that rattles the Health & Safety officer. I think that smacks a little bit of cheating, but then maybe its because I’ve been the one who’s had to stay behind to pick up wrappers between seats on more than one occasion.

So there it is, I like (writing) assemblies. I’d be happy to respond to the challenge on twitter (@imisschalk) of coming up with an idea for an assembly based on any idea that’s thrown at me. Assemblies can be amazing, memorable, challenging, long-lasting, laugh inducing, tear inducing, vision delivering, tone setting and uplifting. Of course they can be excruciating too, but if that’s the case…at least it’s over in another five minutes!

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Why would we want to watch schools on television?

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With the overwhelming number of adverts for ‘Educating Yorkshire’ it is not surprising that education is yet again in the spotlight. Thoughtful columnists have been extolling the virtues of the wonderful pupils and teachers we have been introduced to in a school far, far away. It seems that everyone has expressed an opinion about the way in which the school has come across. It is not the only school to have let the cameras in as we have been allowed into the exclusive, mysterious world of ‘Harrow’, although by contrast its camera work is less ’24 hours in A&E’ and more ‘Inside Claridge’s’. Add to this the wonderful dalliance with education created by David Walliams and Catherine Tate in ‘Big School’, Jack Whitehall continuing to have fun in a school setting through his ‘Bad Education’, and the on-going bizarre world of ‘Waterloo Road’, it all makes you start to wonder. Is working in a school the funniest and best job in the world? Would everyone want to work in a school if they could? Here are some thoughts on why schools make such essential viewing:

1. Everyone has been to school.
There are not many professions where everyone can claim to have an experience of what it is like to be there. We’ve all been to school and we all know teachers. Therefore there is a universal appeal of the classroom. Everyone has a story to tell from their childhood and people tend polarise their experiences so that they fulfil one of the stereotypes of either naughty, rebel child or swotty golden pupil. Either way there is a humanistic appeal that we can all relate to, even if it is noticing that the first year ‘Shells’ cheat as much as state school kids in ‘Harrow’.


2. It heals those that suffered
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I think it is odd when some people try to say that school days are the best days of your life. For many they are excruciating times of huge insecurity when self-esteems are trailing along at floor level. What is hugely frustrating for many is that they felt so powerless, either having to keep up with the ‘in crowd’ or to dodge their tormentors. By laughing at all the shenanigans on the television versions they remind themselves just how secure they are now and how good it is to be grown up and past all those school days. Viewers can empathetically share in the experiences of these schools, real and imagined from the safety of their sofas.

3. Everyone has an opinion on how to teach.
Most teachers are fully aware of this, whether it is the on-going debate about Gove, examinations and levels. It is one of those professions where most people think they know how to do it, even if they have been trained for an entirely different job. Think about the average parents meeting where the educated professional lawyer parent is quite happy to explain to you how you should be teaching their child, when you would never tell them that they hadn’t completely understood the law with their latest case. Admittedly we see very little actual teaching in the comedy series, other than mayhem, starters and well plenaries…sort of. It has been gratifying to see non-teachers recognise the authority, good judgement and patience already demonstrated in ‘Educating Yorkshire’

4. Teachers are funny
Now how they are funny is somewhat debatable. Are they funny ha ha or funny peculiar, well of course they are both. There are so many odd balls in the teaching profession that we are most of us just a hop, skip and a jump away from the caricatures that we encounter in the comedies. Teachers are Kings and Queens of their own domains, who are allowed to thwart any challenge to their authority. Is it any wonder that we all go a little power crazy at times? Is it bad that the teacher encounter that has made me laugh most so far from the ‘Educating Yorkshire’ stable is the scary Deputy shouting “Do Maths!” in the corridor at some random child. Haven’t we all felt that at some point. Just me then…ahem.

There are other ideas of course, the appeal of funny interactions of youf and old people (teachers) for example, but these are few immediate thoughts. My sense of nostalgia is now making me miss ‘Grange Hill’ with its opening gambit of bullying via forceful,use of bangers and mash. Come back Mrs McClusky and take charge again, I think Miss Jones has been at the whiskey. Ahh those were the days. Now shush because I want to hear more about Bailey’s eyebrows…

Making your mark

image Well this is my first post so I thought that I would write about making your mark.  This is something that we teachers are in a privileged position to do each year, because we, like the pupils, get a fresh start every new academic year.  I know that I share a keen interest with many teachers in brand new stationery and it means that this is the perfect time of year as shops are busting all over with ‘Back to School’ signs.  Of course shopping centres are full of parents equipping their children with correct Teflon uniform and graffiti resistant pencil cases and the sense of relief of handing their little wonders back to the teachers is tangible.  The newness of a pristine unopened notebook almost makes it worth the return to school in its own right.  I wonder whether you, like me think really carefully about what is going to be on the first few pages.  We all want to start as we mean to go on and if, heaven forbid we make a mistake then we are compelled to rip out (spiral bound) or pull out matching back pages (stapled) in order to have a better go at it.  Just like the students we might remember to write the date on that first day, we might even underline a title.  The first page has so much hope on it it hard to match it to any other moment.

The great thing for staff and pupils alike is that the new term is just like that first page.  It is currently pristine, ready for everyone to make their mark on it.  I have always really emphasised with teachers how important it is to grant pupils the clean slate that comes with every September.  Try to rid yourself of every previously held prejudice, because we all change after a summer holiday.  Even worse, do not take on other people’s prejudices, let the students make their own mark.  I’ve never been a believer in New Year’s resolutions so this is the next best thing, the pristine first page of the new notebook.

Thinking about new schools, or new teachers, or new NQTs.  Well you might think you’re situation is more daunting, but it is even more free.  Your notebook is so pristine that you can create any impression you want.  You can carve out he right way forward for you.    It’s the notebook equivalent of getting to use a fancy gel pen…even better.  Summer holidays are ace.  I would hate to lose them.  They are long enough for adventures, long enough for bad memories to disappear into a hazy hot afternoon.  Everyone has the chance to make their mark with a new term.  The point of blogging for me? To make my mark.  To take time to think, reflect and hopefully encourage others to take a moment to share that.  We shall see.  At this point, it’s all good.

“Birds flying high…you know how I feel…sun in the sky…you know how I feel…reeds drifting on by you know how I feel…it’s a new dawn It’s a new day…it’s a new life for me & I’m feeling good” Nina Simone