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Losing My Religion

Religion in SchoolsPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Thu, August 23, 2018 21:07:47

My school was proudly old-fashioned. Questions were viewed with suspicion and contempt, especially in the context of religion. We were not allowed to study RE as a subject, since exposure to a variety of religious views would have ‘confused’ us. Instead, we had Divinity with the School Chaplain: we read passages from the Bible and he explained them.

My parents were deliberately neutral in their stance and so I came to my religious schooling with a completely open mind – in many ways, an easy convert. I was profoundly respectful of what I assumed were the sincerely-held beliefs of those around me and I would bow my head during prayers. I was utterly fascinated by the ritual of Chapel and knew all the traditional hymns; I can still sing most of them all the way through, much to my husband’s consternation, and can recite the Creed, some of the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer and several others.

While I would listen with interest during the Sermon, it took me a long time to realise that I was pretty much the only one doing so. On an increasing number of occasions I would find myself enraged by the message that we had been given in Chapel, or puzzled by the hypocrisy of our situation. If Jesus said to ‘sell all thou hast and give to the poor,’ what were we doing in an expensive boarding school? Did God honestly care how I performed in my exams – didn’t He have something more important to worry about? And why on earth did I have to pray for the Queen? Ignored by the staff and ridiculed by my peers, it became clear to me that most people neither listened to nor cared about the lessons that we were taught by the Reverend. Even he didn’t seem to care that much. Yet when I questioned the charade, I was bullied for it – by students and by some of the staff.

Atheists are often accused of being ‘angry’ and I guess it’s hard for believers to comprehend the unpleasant mix of condescension, prejudice and paranoia that some of us have faced, growing up in a society that tends to equate faith with morality. Soon after I started attending school, I went to a meeting that was announced for ‘all students who are not Christians.’ In my innocence, I failed to realise that this was a euphemistic way of gathering our tiny handful of Muslim students together so that their non-attendance at Chapel could be agreed. The Housemistress nearly fainted when I showed up, the only girl in the room without a headscarf. She asked me what on earth I was doing there, so I explained that I didn’t believe in God and was therefore not a Christian. She told me not to be so ridiculous, said that my views ‘didn’t count’ and sent me away. That was probably the first time that I felt really angry.

Despite the pressure (or perhaps because of it – I was a rebellious child at heart), I became more and more convinced during my childhood that an unswerving acceptance of a bundle of ancient writings made very little sense. In addition, a school rife with bullying was a fine place to observe that religious beliefs have no effect on a person’s humanity. Over the years I watched some of the worst bullies in the school pass through their Confirmation ceremony, in which they agreed to ‘turn away from everything which was evil or sinful.’ Some of them became servers in Chapel. My distaste for the whole sham increased, and by the time I reached University I was thoroughly relieved to be away from it.

Yet given that we’re all a product of our experiences, I sometimes wonder what kind of person I would be had I not attended such an old-fashioned ‘faith’ school. I fully support the campaign against them, as in principle I believe that every child should have an education that is free in every sense – not least free from indoctrination and prejudice. Yet for me, my experiences shaped my convictions – and not in the way that the school had intended. Maybe I’m unusual, but if my story is anything to go by and you want to nurture an atheist, then I guess you proceed as follows: send them to a ‘faith’ school, ladle on plenty of hypocrisy and tell them not to ask questions. The result may surprise you.

This piece was first published in August 2014 in Humanist Life.

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Making Every Lesson Count: chapter 2

Classroom teachingPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Thu, August 23, 2018 17:30:44
Chapter 2 of Making Every Lesson Count focuses on explanation and starts with an arresting challenge: just how much quality concrete information do students learn from research-based group tasks compared to teacher explanation? This really resonated with me - it's very easy to be dazzled by the "buzz" that these kinds of lessons commonly used in the Humanities can create in a classroom; as the authors put it, students "have enjoyed the lesson - but how many have learnt anything at a deep level?"

The authors address the inescapable fact that teacher explanation has received a bad press in recent educational theory, as the advice in teacher training has moved consistently away from the "chalk and talk" model. All that guff about being a "guide on the side" instead of a "sage on the stage". Well, you know what? Sometimes the kids need a sage. The authors look closely at the growing body of evidence supporting the idea that teacher-led instruction is actually A Good Thing. They then briefly explore the methodology of how to make your explanations comprehensible and memorable.

Pleasingly, the authors move swiftly onto the importance of building blocks and dispelling misconceptions; they emphasise the key principle that lessons should always build upon prior learning, each building upon the last and addressing problems that may have become apparent in the students' work.

The authors really put the boot in when it comes to everyone's favourite sport of "guess what's inside the teacher's head", a game which we've all ended up guilty of playing in a desperate bid to keep our lessons interactive and question-based. The truth, of course, is that this is a seriously pointless way of approaching things. Their sound criticisms of this and similar methods has made me reflect again on the Cambridge Latin Course, which is based on the principle that students miraculously work out what's going on by observing it; anyone that's tried to teach like this knows that students need a huge amount of guidance to get there and sometimes - frankly - it's pointless. Just tell them, for God's sake, before we all lose the will to live.

In their defence of teacher explanation, the authors are never in danger of encouraging a static or dull classroom environment. They advocate storytelling and bringing the classroom to life. They conclude the chapter with some interesting reflections on why teacher explanation has been so overlooked in professional development, as well as a salutary reminder that poor explanations which fail to achieve student engagement will always remain one of the worst ways to teach.

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Classroom teachingPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Thu, August 23, 2018 14:17:18
Well after a sleepless night and a morning of feeling thoroughly queasy, the new GCSE results are in.

I could not be more thrilled! My cohort of 20 Latinists worked so hard and ended up with fantastic results. Four 9s, seven 8s, seven 7s and two 6s. On top of all that, I have also heard that my private candidate gained a grade 7!

The best news, though, is that the vast majority of my students met or exceeded their target grade, indeed 50% of these results were higher than their official target. My students rock!

Congratulations to each and every one of them, who worked incredibly hard to achieve phenomenal results.

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Waiting for GCSE Results

Classroom teachingPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Wed, August 22, 2018 15:17:45
Last night I had my first teaching-related anxiety dream of the late Summer. It was the usual scenario, repeated many times over many years; however experienced you become, they never go away for good. What is the usual scenario? A class that won't be quiet. That age-old problem. Sometimes, I've woken myself up shouting. It's not a good look!

So why last night? It doesn't take a genius to work it out: we are on the countdown to GCSE results day. In less than 24 hours' time the results will be there, in black and white, for better or worse, for all to see. This year is, of course, a particular watershed moment for schools with the first full cohort entering the new GCSE across most subjects. For the first time I will be running my finger down a list of numbers rather than a list of letters; for the first time in quite a few years, I have no real sense of surety as to where those indicators will settle and whether they will reflect my predictions with any kind of consistency or fairness.

I hope with all my heart that our students don't know just how much we worry about them. It is not their job to fret on our behalf; it is their job to do their very best and our job to help them. But on days like this, the night before the final judgement is shared, it is hard not to feel the ponderous weight of responsibility. Did I prepare them well enough? Did I coach them clearly? Did I give them the skills and the knowledge that they need to realise their potential?

This year I was blessed with a wonderful group of students. All I can do now is hope that all their hard work is rewarded and that my next blog post will be bursting with joy.

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A Warning from the Chalkface

Teaching & tutoringPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Thu, August 16, 2018 08:42:14

An extreme case of unprofessional tutoring ...

To illustrate the risk that I believe parents are taking when they employ a tutor without asking the right kinds of questions, I wish to share the story of a student in my current school. It is perhaps the worst case I have come across of a family being let down at the hands of an unqualified, inexperienced and frankly unprofessional tutor.

At the end of Year 9, this student opted not to continue with Latin to GCSE within the school Options system. However, her mother decided that she would like her to pursue the subject outside of school through private tuition. Sadly, this parent did not seek my advice, and the first I was made aware of the situation was when the child came to see me in the January of her final year and asked if she could sit the Latin Mock examination along with my students. She explained that she had been receiving private tuition over the last two years and hoped to sit the exams that Summer.

It was fine for her to sit the Mock that I had written, I said, but there would be a problem if she had studied different texts from the ones that my students had been working on.

She looked at me blankly. “Texts?”

“Yes,” I said, “the verse and prose literature that you have studied. Which texts have you covered?”

To cut a long story short, it quickly became apparent that she had not studied any texts or indeed any sources material. This meant that she had not covered around 50% of the examination material. When I pressed further, it transpired that she also had not been given the required vocabulary list of around 350 words to learn. I was aghast.

I contacted the girl’s mother urgently. Upon further investigation it turned out (of course) that the child had not even been entered for the exam, her mother completely unaware that this is a formal process that must be done (and indeed paid for) well in advance – it doesn’t just happen by magic. It took me some considerable time to explain that not only was it probably too late for her child to be entered that year, it would also be simply impossible for her to sit the four compulsory written papers and perform well in them given her lack of formal preparation; even giving the tutor the benefit of the doubt that she had taught the grammar well (I must admit I am doubtful about this), the child did not know the required vocabulary and the literature papers would be a complete mystery to her.

Remarkably, the child’s mother defended the private tutor hotly, insisting that she was happy with the service she had provided. I pointed out that this tutor had taken her money, claimed to be preparing her daughter for an exam that she knew absolutely nothing about and failed to advise her on the entry process. Still, she defended her; it was quite extraordinary. In the end, we agreed to disagree on the woman’s professional qualities. The only other contact I had with the girl’s mother after that was when she passed on a brief request from the tutor in question – could I send her a link to the subject specification?! Unbelievable. Given that this was publicly available information and something she should have looked at two years previously, I’m afraid I refused.

This case is obviously extreme, but it does illustrate the potential risk that parents are taking when they assume that all tutors are the same.

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Should you employ a tutor who is not a teacher?

Teaching & tutoringPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Wed, August 15, 2018 13:47:26

Writing this makes me nervous. It has been on my mind as a topic for several years, but until now I have avoided committing my thoughts to writing. This is partly self-preservation: I am not keen to receive an onslaught of complaints. Mostly, though, it is a desire to protect other people; I have met numerous private tutors without formal teaching qualifications, all of whom seem committed and passionate, many of whom clearly do a great job. I do not wish to denigrate what they do.

My concerns about the explosion of unqualified tutors offering their services do not mean that all tutors without professional qualifications are to be avoided; however, I do have serious concerns about some of them and I believe that parents should approach the situation with their eyes wide open.

Let me be clear from the outset that my core concerns are in a particular area, namely tutoring support towards a specific examination goal. If your child is struggling in a subject and you would simply like their confidence boosted, there are a huge range of tutors that can probably help with this, including your enthusiastic nephew in his second year at university. However, if you would like your child tutored to a particular examination, and particularly if you are relying on the tutor to prepare them for that examination in its entirety, I would urge parents in the strongest possible terms to think carefully about what kind of tutor they employ.

Private tuition has exploded in recent years and the number of parents choosing it as an option for their child has risen to a record high. More and more parents are spending money on the service and the plethora of private companies touting for business in this field is frankly bewildering. I have been approached by dozens of providers keen to add me to their books and to take a slice of my profits for doing so. I have registered with some services that allow tutors to maintain full control over their work, and some have been diligent in chasing up evidence of my qualifications and experience. Most, however, have not.

It is my belief that this industry will soon face regulation; the government is already under pressure to address the fact that there is no current requirement for tutors working with children to have a DBS check. It would not surprise me if, within the next three to five years, tutors are forced to go through some kind of registration process at the very least. Will this make a difference to the concerns that I have? Highly unlikely.

If I were seeking a private tutor to guide my child towards a particular examination, these are the questions that I would be asking:

1. Is the tutor a qualified teacher? If so, what experience do they have? What was/is their specialism (both subject and age group), what kind of school did/do they work in and for how long? What were/are their results like?

2. If they are a retired teacher, has the syllabus that they will be teaching to changed since they retired? How have they ensured that they are up-to-date with the new specification? (Full time teachers in service have training provided, much of it directly from the examination boards; when I retire from classroom teaching, I will choose to set aside funds to pay for my own training when required).

3. Have they ever worked as a professional marker? If not, why not? I would make this a priority question if I were considering an unqualified teacher. Anyone with the right subject knowledge can apply to work as a professional marker; you receive superb training and you get paid for it! If a tutor hasn’t opted to do this it would suggest to me that they have no interest in gaining an insight into the examination process.

4. How much experience have they had with one-to-one tutoring? Can they give examples of students that they have helped and can they share testimonials from parents who can vouch for previous successes in the relevant examinations?

In addition to these questions, a fairly recent article in the Telegraph, written by a qualified teacher and experienced tutor, gives some really good advice on how to choose the right tutor for your child. Ignore it at your peril. In my next blog post, I will be sharing the most shocking case I have come across to date of how an unqualified and inexperienced tutor can let you down.

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Making Every Lesson Count: chapter 1

Classroom teachingPosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Tue, August 14, 2018 09:20:51
My school has asked us to read Making Every Lesson Count by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby, completing chapter 1 by the start of term. So far, it's been an absolute pleasure.

I find it hard to recall and distil information without doing something with it, so I have decided to blog as I read.

The first chapter addresses challenge and the fact that "all too often challenge is presented in the context of 'challenging the most able'" rather than with the mindset that all students should be engaged in "healthy struggle". This has certainly been my experience; happily, this culture is shifting.

The ludicrous expectations placed on classroom teachers to differentiate for every child are addressed: "we believe that much that is promoted as good differentiation practice is both unmanageable and counterproductive: it is not humanly possible to personalise planning for each and every child, nor, as often suggested, is it possible to create three levels of worksheet for every lesson."

Hallelujah! We've all known this for some time, but it's jolly nice to read it in a volume that my Senior Leadership Team has advised me to read! The chapter focuses on the value of "sharing excellence" with students as a method of support, modelling and demonstrating to them what excellence looks like. It also states the truth that one can differentiate much more simply by outcome.

The importance of subject knowledge in exposing students to content pitched above or beyond national expectations is emphasised. Pleasingly, the authors strike a balance between championing the importance of rich, challenging curriculum content and the importance of excellent teaching, stating the inescapable truth that "hard content is harder to teach". The authors talk about "the long haul" and advise that not every lesson should be challenging - for our own sake and for the students.

The chapter is refreshingly practical but it does draw on other research, most notably Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset and work done by The Sutton Trust on motivating students through content.

Chapter 1 has been a thought-provoking and pleasurable read; I look forward to the rest of the book!

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How to get the most from your online tutor

Tutoring onlinePosted by emma@ecwilliams.me.uk Mon, August 13, 2018 12:03:09

Online tuition is potentially life-changing; transcending geographical barriers, it can connect your child to the perfect provider. As a relatively recent convert, I am a cautious technophile, who places high demands on technology to work pretty much “by magic” – I don’t like wrestling with equipment and I get mightily exasperated when I have to. With the kind of apparatus and software that many of us have access to these days, I have been delighted to find that the technical hassles are minimal.

However … (you knew there was a “however” coming, right?) … there are certain pitfalls to online tuition, some downsides compared to home tutoring. Happily, these are largely avoidable with a little bit of planning.

Never forget: you’re paying for a service, and tuition with an experienced, qualified teacher doesn't come cheaply. Don’t let the fact that you access online tuition in the comfort of your own home lull you into taking it that little bit too casually, or you may well find you get a poor return on your investment.

Is your equipment up to the job?

For online tutoring, there's no escaping the fact that you will need reliable, fast internet access: this is a must. Whatever software your tutor chooses to use, they will be talking to your child in real time on the web – this is very demanding on whatever service-provider you are using. Although it's aimed at tutors, this blog is very useful as a plain-English guide to what you'll need and why.

You'll need to think about how your child will communicate with the tutor. Internal cameras, microphones and speakers are usually fine, but experiment with supplementary equipment if your child struggles to concentrate – students wearing headphones, for example, often find it easier to avoid distraction and focus on the session. Speaking of focus ...

Session location: is your child in the right place?

Aren’t iPads wonderful? Many of my tutees access tuition via an iPad or similar tablet, and the advantages are obvious.

However, don’t let the freedom that an iPad offers you detract from the inescapable fact that your child needs a quiet place to concentrate. If you're having a conversation, cooking or vacuuming in the background, not only are you distracting your child but you may cause noise interference to the extent that the tutor will struggle to hear them. Most children talk quietly to a tutor (even if they're loud and bouncy with you!) and it's important that the tutor can hear your child clearly.

Ideally, your child should be in a quiet room where they won’t be interrupted by noise or curious siblings. You may wish to be present while your child is being tutored for safeguarding reasons; this is fine, but you should prepare to do something quiet such as reading book. Alternatively, and if the only reason you wish to be present is for monitoring, you could consider asking your tutor to record the sessions and email them to you – the vast majority of software used by online tutors allows for this option.

Session timings: is your child ready?

If your child finds it difficult to get out of bed, you will need to think carefully about how to manage a morning session. I have tutored students on a weekend mid-morning that have clearly just rolled out of bed; dazed and groggy, they are not even close to being fully awake and this means (of course) that their focus is poor. So, even if your child is entering that inevitable phase when wake-up time becomes something of a battle, do try to peel them out of bed well before the session is due to start, allowing time for them to have a shower and something to eat. They then have a fighting chance of their mind being on the tuition session ahead, not still under the duvet.

One of the great joys of online tuition is the time it can save you. Some clients that are near enough to me to come for home tuition have still opted to go online; I am based in a heavily-populated area of Surrey and the reality of rush-hour traffic can turn even a 5-mile round trip into a potential nightmare. Online tutoring can open up a wider range of possibilities when it comes to time: take advantage of this and make it work for your child.

One final thing …

Your child is smart! They know that an online tutor’s field of vision is significantly limited compared to a tutor that’s in the room with them. So what do you know? They may well try to use their smart phone during the session! So, especially if your child is currently preoccupied with a particular game or social networking app, do make sure that they leave their phone with you for the duration of the session. Otherwise technology is simply too tempting!

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