Saturday, 26 August 2017

Pruning to let the light in- an analogy

Now I am no great gardener, but as I was pruning back my grapes earlier this afternoon (I can now feel some of you are nodding ‘yes, you are no great gardener, way too late!’) I was struck with a small epiphany that I needed to put into words. And now I am sharing this with you… but first I need to give a little more context…

You see I didn’t just wantonly run out to the glasshouse with my clippers and start hacking willy-nilly, not at all. I know enough to check (and already had an inkling that the best time to give the vine a good hacking was in the middle of winter dormancy) so I did what I often do in these circumstances, search the net until I find someone else who has done things not quite at the right time and got away with it. Invariably, I always find some obscure chatroom that provides me with the green light, and often a little sage advice to go with it. Today, I found my green light (obviously, although I was fairly committed to the course of action anyway) and also a possible answer to a problem that had vexed me with my grapes last season.
Last season I had a bumper crop of grapes on the vine, there were bunches upon bunches upon bunches, a sea of little greenish-purple orbs dripping along the roof of the glasshouse and I eagerly awaited the time they would reach full, juicy, delicious ripeness. 

Oh, the anticipation. 

Oh, the disappointment. 

Yes, some ripened and were delicious as anticipated but most just didn’t get there. I thought it was the dodgy weather we’d had, and I know I hadn’t been very attentive to the needs of my garden as I was toiling in the fertile soil of masters research writing instead. But in my search for a green light to prune back I happened upon a little statement that suggested if the vine was overladen with bunches that selective pruning of some bunches could help as it allowed the light to reach the others so they would ripen better. As I said earlier, and some of you will possibly be nodding vigorously in agreement now, I am not a great gardener and I don’t know if this is true or not but it sounded feasible and herein lies the reason why I am writing.

As I was hacking away, and trying to, not altogether successfully, avoid the cobwebs and dead leaves falling into my hair or worse still down my top, it occurred to me that letting the light in to help things reach their juicy, delicious, full potential is what I have started to appreciate in my classroom teaching. We are advised to accelerate our learners, to choose target students and provide specific interventions to ensure they meet a required standard. (I do wonder at the turn of phrase ‘target students’- is that like putting some kid in a firing line and then shooting additional resources and interventions at them until they reach some arbitrary standard so we can move them along and bring in another target for our attention? I digress.) Please know, I am committed to all my learners achieving their potential and reaching for greatness in their own way, I want the best for my kids. But I wonder if sometimes we crowd them so they struggle to reach the light and therefore miss the opportunity to fully reach their potential.

Now I am not suggesting we prune out learners, heavens no! Although a class size and adequate support to be able to engage meaningfully with the learners in our care would seem sensible to me. I do think however we need to prune back some of what is happening in classrooms to allow our learners to ripen and bloom when the time is right for them and our job as teachers is to provide the conditions to do so. Since returning to classroom teaching three years ago, I have noticed that cutting back some of what I was doing is leading to positive outcomes for my learners. I used to try to see all my reading and maths groups at least every second day and have set activities for them to follow up independently from the learning session we had had. I also tried to make sure I conferenced with every child for writing at least once a week. I ensured my special needs and target students were getting time with teacher aides for revision/over learning whilst I saw them more often for guided sessions on top of all this. Poor wee guys were probably exhausted with all this extra support! What I was doing in actual fact was setting myself and my learners up for failure. My group sessions were often rushed if they happened at all as more often than not I couldn’t actually see everyone I had planned to and so I was rewriting planning or then planning day by day to cater for my lack of ability to push everyone through. If I did see everyone as initially planned then I didn’t engage in thoughtful or meaningful conversations because I was distracted by time and also monitoring what others were doing around the classroom in the various ‘meaningful’ follow up activities I had assigned for them. Now it wasn’t a complete disaster and there was progress made but it was stressful and I posit that much of the stress was unnecessary.

As with my gardening, I am no expert teacher but I am a committed learner and this is what I have learned. I have shifted my focus, I now do less but I feel I do it better. I see some groups more often and some groups less often depending on what they need and what we are doing. Some groups of learners are undertaking set assignments within our classroom programme where it makes sense. My students have a lot of choice about how they respond to a text or a maths lesson, sometimes there will be little follow up, other times a lot may happen. Recently I had two learners who made a frozen confectionary after they created a recipe, were given the ingredients and told that the most important thing about baking is cleaning up then left to it… this came in response to a novel we had been reading. I spend time talking with, and most importantly listening to and observing my learners and I feel like I know them better. I see my writers at varying times, sometimes with self selected teacher groupings after a specific inspiration for writing but other times because they are at a stage they want feedback from the teacher or when I am roving around the classroom between group sessions. I trust my learners to get on with what they need to and we are building a culture where this is creating success. Yes, just in case you were wondering, I still have interventions for my target students (I don’t make them wear a shirt with a bullseye on it or anything though and they don’t get paranoid that I am going to leap out and teach at them when they are look like they might be relaxing).

The systems in my classroom are far from perfect and I feel like I have a long way to go but I can appreciate that what I am aiming for is creating space so that the light can come in and great, juicy, delicious, flourishing can occur naturally. We don't have standardised brains, we don't learn in standardised ways (oh, how easy, and how dreadfully dull teaching would be if this were true) so teaching our students with an expectation that they will achieve, or flourish, in a standardised time frame seems somewhat counter-intuitive really. By letting the light in, and noticing when I am not, I feel like I am giving my learners a better deal than I was and am seeing the growth in confidence, self management and personal drive to learn. It's a start and it all came from pruning back a little, even if I was a little late! 

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