Listen to the Silence

Whole-school assembly delivered on Friday, 2nd February

Good morning!

(Silence for 30 seconds)

For many of us the last few seconds were awkward, uncomfortable even. We don’t like quiet and we find it difficult to hold back the urge to break the silence by whispering to our neighbour, or coughing, or attempting to fill the silence by taking out our phone so that we become less aware of it.

In the past silence was normal, but now it has become almost non-existent. Noise pollution is a companion to modern life, with traffic, ringtones and other people’s conversations providing the soundtrack to our daily routines. Block out these sounds and our minds are still noisy with our attention constantly  pulled in all directions: continuous feeds from social media, ever changing fashions, news stories from every part of the world, multiple conversations happening all at once on text, phone, whatsapp…. We are constantly on the go; multitasking in a multimedia world.

Those moments when we are immersed in quietness are all too rare in today’s world. One of the best moments in my day is when I actually get that calm and stillness as I walk across Tooting Common in the morning and enjoy the world as it is waking up. It is chance to admire the beauty of the sun rising, listen to the cacophony of birdsong, watch the swans as they glide across the pond, notice the first spring flowers starting to push up through the sodden earth.

On my walks across the Common, I was particularly taken with the super blue moon the other night when the moon appeared about 7% larger and 15% brighter than usual. It was such a clear night that I was able to make out even some of the craters on its pock-marked surface. I wouldn’t have achieved the same wonder at the awesomeness of the universe if I was texting my wife about what I should make for dinner.

Holly, who left us last year to read Music at Oxford, gave a very interesting musical performance at a Socratic Society where she played us some of John Cage’s most famous work, entitled 4’33.

She picked up the bow of her cello and then nothing, no notes, just silence. In fact, 4’33 is made up of three movements where the musicians are instructed not to play their instruments at all.

Obviously Cage wasn’t just being lazy by not producing a score, but indeed composed the piece as a stark contrast to the noise of modern urban life.

However, in the piece what we are listening to isn’t silence, it’s the everyday noise around us and Cage is asking us to focus on it rather than ignoring it as unimportant. He understood that moments of quiet are important for us to allow us to pay attention to the smallest of details whether it is your breath, the scrape of a chair or the fold of the curtain on the stage.

Keeping silence is not about creating an absence of noise, but providing us with the chance to be reflective, thoughtful, curious. When I looked up at the super blue moon the other night, I thought about the relation of the moon to the earth, the length of time it had been in existence, how it would have changed its appearance as it was struck by successive meteorites, the universe beyond the moon and the place of us in it.

The importance of silence as an opportunity for deep reflection has long been recognised by a number of religious orders and indeed certain orders of monks, such as the Trappists, only speak when it is deemed necessary.

However, psychologists now know that these monks were onto a good thing as self-reflection is important to human development and learning. Giving us a time to reflect allows us to weave meaning from the threads of our various experiences. The function of self-reflection is to make meaning, and the creation of meaning is at the heart of what it means to be human.

But, how are we going to give ourselves more time for reflection?

One answer is simply to ‘get away from it all’: leave behind the noises and stresses of London life. The Cambodia expedition team will be doing exactly that as they travel to South-East Asia this summer. They will have plenty of opportunity for stillness and quiet as they wander among the evocative ruins of the Angkor Wat temple-complex, trek through the peace and serenity of the Cambodian countryside and sleep in hammocks in the jungle.

However, this is a once in a lifetime experience, so how can we build in time for reflection every day as we go about our daily lives?

The easiest thing is walking. Next time, you are tempted to take the bus one stop, try walking it instead. However, avoid having your headphones in your ears so that you can actually take stock of the world around you. Going for a walk is particularly useful when you are revising for a test or exam as going for a walk causes brain growth in the hippocampus region, resulting in better memory. Taking a walk gives the brain uninterrupted focus and helps with memory consolidation.

In our Learning 2 Learn lessons, we have talked about using learning logs to aid reflection. Reflecting and writing down what we have been experiencing and learning is a good way to pull together the threads of what we have been doing. Even keeping a diary of our thoughts and feelings can be helpful.

Thinking about how and when we use digital technology is also very important. Wimbledon High School, part of our GDST family, has come up with digital rules to help create some much needed space in our digital lives, for example putting our phones away at meals and leaving our phone downstairs at bedtime. You have all heard of FOMO (fear of missing out)  and FOMO often means that it is difficult to switch off social media. Well, pupils at Wimbledon want us to reject FOMO and replace it with JOMO (the joy of missing out) and revel in not being invited to parties or tagged in photos online. If we embraced JOMO, we would find it easier to take time off from social media. Let’s all have some ‘JOMO time’.

We could also just sit in silence, not talking. The brain is the most complex and powerful organ, and like muscles, benefits from rest. Research shows that regular times set aside to disengage, sit in silence and mentally rest boosts our ability to process information.

By shutting off speech, it heightens awareness in other areas and we become much more aware of the sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and emotions. In particular, immersing ourselves in music is another good way to enable us to focus and concentrate on the here and now. In a moment, Joely is going to play for us Debussy’s Arabesque No. 1. As you sit in silence, I want you to concentrate on the present and avoid thinking about what is to come in the day ahead whether it is the anxieties of a test or your plans for the weekend. I want you to focus on the music, how it makes you feel,  what emotions you notice, the sensations that arise. If your mind wanders, then bring it back to the music and enjoy this moment of peace, quiet and serenity.  Remember, silence has an immense power, if we only stopped to listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s in a name?

Delivered at a whole-school assembly at Streatham and Clapham High School on 15th September, 2017

Eloise, Josie, Rosie, Emily, Milana, Bella, Emma, Elodie, Keira, Leila, Maddy, Marlo, Ashali, Jemima, Thisbe, Elif, Lucy, Lily and Olivia.

These are the names of the Upper Third girls in the first class I taught this year, and from the start I was trying to learn their names. Remember, you only need to learn the name of one teacher whereas the teacher has to learn the name of the whole class! In fact, I am privileged to be teaching all of the Upper Third this year, but that is 82 names! A lot of names for me to try to remember!

Why do I bother? Why shouldn’t I just say ‘Girl, what does the accusative singular end in? Or ‘You picking your nose, what date was the Battle of Hastings?

Why not?

Because names matter to us.

But ‘What’s in a name?’

This is the famous question asked by Juliet in Act II Scene II of Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Juliet, who is a Capulet, and Romeo, who is a Montague, belong to rival families and so their names are keeping them apart.

Juliet goes onto say, ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet’.

Juliet seems to argue that it does not matter that Romeo is from the rival house of Montague: his family name shouldn’t matter, it doesn’t affect who Romeo is and that any relationship should not be banned.

However, names do matter and the fact that Juliet is a Capulet and Romeo is a Montague ultimately leads to tragedy.

Names were particularly important in the ancient world.

Odysseus is the hero of the Greek epic poem, the Odyssey. He is very clever and knows that when he is trapped by the monstrous Cyclops, he must not give his name. Instead he says that his name is ‘No-one’.

When Odysseus and his men manage to poke out the Cyclops’ one and only eye, the Cyclops is not able to get anyone to come to his rescue because when he calls out to his fellow Cyclopes, he shouts ‘No-one is causing me harm!’ and so they don’t come.

However, when Odysseus is free and sailing away from the Cyclops, who is standing on the shore, he doesn’t want to leave without the Cyclops knowing who managed to get one over on him. Odysseus wants the glory and does not want his name to be forgotten: He says “Cyclops, if any man asks how you came by your blindness, say that Odysseus, sacker of cities, son of Laertes, a native of Ithaca, blinded you.”

He wants to be remembered and so he boastfully declares his name, and we often hear people talking about how they want their ‘name to go down in History’

However, Odysseus was actually very foolish. In the ancient world, there was a belief that knowing someone’s name gives you a certain hold or power over them and now that the Cyclops knew Odysseus’ name, he was able to put a curse on which caused Odysseus to suffer many trials on his journey home.

Therefore, it is clear that names have always been important throughout history.

Names often tell us something about the person. In Medieval times, people were often known by the job that that they did and these names come down to us today, for example, one of Mrs Baker’s ancestors was probably a baker and one of Mrs Cooper and Mrs Cowper’s ancestors was probably a barrel-maker as a ‘kup’ was a barrel.

Children are sometimes named after a quality that the parents want their child to possess such as ‘Faith’ or ‘Hope’ or they might be named after an inspirational figure from the Bible, history or literature. The name of someone that we should look up to and emulate throughout our lives.

Our new Houses have all been named after inspirational women. I am enjoying learning about the amazing things that Philippa Fawcett, Angela Carter, Winifred Knights, Beryl Paston Brown and Rosalind Franklin achieved. These women are certainly examples that we should all want to follow.

However, there is one name that we all share here in this room. One name that unites us. We all belong to the family of Streatham and Clapham High School and just like all great families, we have a crest and a motto. Our motto ‘ad sapientiam sine metu’ (Towards wisdom unafraid) summarises who we are as school and what our identity is. The motto actually condenses down one of our primary aims: ‘to empower pupils to pursue ideals and knowledge unafraid’. The word ‘sapientia’ (wisdom) is designed to encompass both the sense of ideals and knowledge.

Ideals are very important and at our school, we want everyone to pursue ideals such as justice, equality and fairness. We want people to be kind, caring and to be thinking of others. Therefore, the name of Streatham and Clapham should be synonymous with generous, thoughtful and compassionate people. Are we living up to our name?

At Streatham and Clapham, we should also be pursuing knowledge. We should be intellectually curious, avid readers, seekers of the truth. Are we living up to our name?

At Streatham and Clapham, we should seek every opportunity to pursue ideals and knowledge without fear. Are we bold, do we take risks, are we resilient? Are we living up to our name?

Always remember that we are part of one family with one name. Our name is Streatham and Clapham High School. Let us live up to our name.

TeachMeet Streatham 2017

This year’s TeachMeet Streatham took ‘creativity’ as its theme. At the end of tiring half-term where exam classes are finally sent off to face their fate , most teachers are feeling anything but creative.  However, the chance to meet colleagues from a variety of schools and hear some inspirational speakers is exactly what was required to energise us for the final push to the summer holidays.

After Dr. Millan Sachania (@millansachania) opened the evening with an anecdote about the importance of creativity, James Mannion (@rethinking_ed)   took the floor. He helpfully looked at the difference between understanding and creativity and discussed how we can be creative in a fixed system. He believes one of the answers lies in schools running ‘Learning to Learn’ courses to give the pupils the freedom to think creatively as they complete a number of project-based tasks.

The enthusiasm of Nikki Snelgrove (@NikkiSnelgrove)  encouraged everyone in the room to take risks in their teaching which might mean letting go of the traditional teaching model. She extolled the power of flipped learning and shared some of the practicalities of how to make it work.

Having moved into a senior leadership role this year, I was particularly interested to hear Dr Jill Berry (@jillberry102) on ‘creative leadership’.  Although her recent research has been about making the move from deputy to head, she was adamant that we are all leaders as every teacher is a leader in their classroom. She encouraged us to think about the best and worst leaders we have experienced to help us understand where we are aiming and what  pitfalls to avoid.

As leaders we need to not only value our teams, but understand them and get the balance right between supporting them and challenging them.  Using an analogy of animals, we must  think about the foxes, owls, lambs and donkeys in our schools and how to get the best from each one of them.

Jonnie Noakes (@JonnieNoakes) then took us through some of the latest research into creativity in education before Toby Cooper and Emily Mundy gave us some practical examples of the creative approaches in dramatherapy.

The penultimate speaker Debra Kidd (@debrakidd) talked about the complexities all teachers face thrown up by the intellectual, physical, emotional and socio-cultural needs of our pupils.  While there is much that is not in the teacher’s control, if complexity is planned for, then it is amazing the impact that we can make.

Jaz Ampaw-Farr (@jazampawfarr) had no doubt about the impact that teachers had made in her life. She breathed fresh air into the room with her powerful personal account of how teachers can make a difference. Using the tragicomedy of her own life, she implored us to see failure as an opportunity. At the end , she gave us an ‘I am a mistak artist’ badge.  Let us not be afraid of failure, but see it as an opportunity to get creative.

What can we do differently? What risks can we take? How can we be creative?

Roll on #TMStreatham 2018!

 

Classics for everyone

Independent schools are constantly under scrutiny to demonstrate their ‘public benefit’ to maintain their charitable status. While my school is proud of what it already does, there has been more and more pressure to prove the impact that the school is making and to ensure that every contribution is measurable and quantifiable. This is starting to obscure the worthy motivations that schools have to improve the educational landscape of this country.

I want my school to do more to benefit the local community, but I have been left scratching my head about how to make a start. How do I make links to local state schools? What can we offer them and what do they actually need? How do I involve already busy staff in new outreach initiatives?

A real turning-point came when attending a GDST ‘Outreach Hub Day’ where representatives from a number of GDST schools came together to share what they have been doing. I quickly realised that there was not a ‘one size fits all’ approach to outreach and ultimately the motivation should be raising aspirations and providing opportunities, not having data to include in a yearly audit.

As I sat on the train back to London with another assistant head and we were chatting about how I could take outreach forward in my school, she gave me the best advice: ‘just go with what you know’ and so I did.

A number of years ago, I was involved in teaching Latin at a local state primary school. Every week, I would teach Latin from ‘Minimus’ the excellent primary Latin course.  Why could I not set up a similar partnership between my current school and a local primary school?

I have been following closely the work of the ‘Classics in Communities’ project which is currently undertaking an educational research study on the impact of learning Latin in primary school on children’s cognitive development.  Their initial data shows how Latin can help to develop literacy skills and has a positive impact on children’s development of critical skills and global awareness.  I was also aware that in the Key Stage 2 Languages curriculum policy, for the first time, Latin can be chosen for study by pupils aged 6-11 in place of a modern language.

Armed with this knowledge, I thought that primary schools would jump at the chance of secondary Latin teachers coming into their school and working pro bono. I was wrong. I sent out about 20 e-mails to the Heads of local primary schools and I only received one reply. Yet, one was a start and now I am teaching Latin to a Year 5 class.

I am part of a thriving Classics department which still has the capacity to share further its expertise of Latin, Greek and Classical Civilisation. In September, the government published its green paper ‘Schools that work for everyone’ specifically saying that independent schools should,  ‘support teaching in minority subjects which state schools struggle to make viable, such as further maths, coding, languages such as Mandarin and Russian, and Classics’.

We want to share our love of Latin, Greek and Classical Civilisation and we work in the independent sector because it allows us to do this daily. However, we want every child to be able to access a Classical education, no matter their background. We are distraught by news of Classics departments closing down because of lack of funding or exam boards discontinuing Classical Civilisation qualifications.  Independent schools are willing and able to support the teaching of Classics, but we just need help to identify the needs and opportunities of state schools. We want to keep Classics alive and accessible to all. We want to make an impact.

PS If you want to support the teaching of  Classical-subject qualifications in all secondary schools, join the new campaign ‘Advocating Classics Education’ on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/groups/1403604912993457/

Trump and Feminism

My school assembly on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States of America:

Today is the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. Today, Barack Obama will stand down and Donald Trump will take over America’s highest office. Today Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America.

How should we feel about this? This presidential race has certainly left America divided and left us all with an opinion. In particular, it has left many angry.

Why angry? Firstly, there was the hope of the election of the first female President of the United States. Hillary Clinton received the Democratic nomination and, against Trump as the Republican nominee, many thought that Hillary would be the clear winner. The symbolism of a woman reaching one of the greatest political offices in the world would have inspired people across the globe, but this was not to be.

Whatever you may think about Trump’s politics, people are particularly angry about his attitude to women and women’s issues. In fact, women across the world are marching in protest. 200,000 people are expected to take part in the Washington Women’s March tomorrow and thousands are expected to march in London in a show of solidarity.

Trump has been widely called out for his objectification of women and his sexist remarks. One of the most publicised moments of the campaign was when a tape came out in which Donald Trump was heard to brag about sexually assaulting women. There was much anger.

In response to this, Michelle Obama made clear her disgust and delivered a masterly rebuke of Trump’s sexist behaviour and comments.

In her speech, Michelle Obama made this point:

‘If all of this is painful to us as grown women, what do you think this is doing to our children?  What message are our little girls hearing about who they should look like, how they should act?  What lessons are they learning about their value as professionals, as human beings, about their dreams and aspirations?  And how is this affecting men and boys in this country?  Because I can tell you that the men in my life do not talk about women like this.  And I know that my family is not unusual.  And to dismiss this as everyday locker-room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere.’

In the eyes of many, Trump is not decent and is not the role-model you would expect the President of the United States to be. When Trump won the election, some said that they would emigrate to Canada because at least there they could find a leader that they could look up to. The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has won much praise for his progressive stances and polices. In particular, he openly calls himself a feminist.

To be honest, I have struggled with the word ‘feminist’ because it has had overtones of ‘man-hating’ and why would I want to be hated as a man? However, for a long time, I didn’t realise what feminism is really all about: it’s about equality. Feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes. When I realised this, then I questioned why I wouldn’t be a feminist. If you want a more equal society for women and men, then you are a feminist.  Justin Trudeau believes that we shouldn’t be afraid of the word ‘feminist’ and he has had a lot of reaction for calling himself one. However, he will keep on saying it until there is no more reaction. He says ‘That’s where we need to get to. If you are progressive, you really should be a feminist because it is about equality. It’s about respect. It’s about making the best of the world that we have’

However, more worrying is that some people don’t recognise that feminism is still an issue whether they are a girl or boy, man or woman. They don’t see that In the UK, the gender pay gap stands at 15%, with women on average earning £5,000 less a year than their male colleagues. Globally only 24 per cent of senior management roles are now filled by women.  About 44% of all UK women have experienced either physical or sexual violence since they were 15-years-old. We may have a female Prime Minister, but only 29% of MPs are women.

If you think women should be given the same respect as men, if you think women should be involved equally in making decisions about our country, if you think women should be able to make decisions about their own body, then you are feminist.

Let’s hope that Donald Trump leads America protecting fundamental rights, safeguarding freedoms and standing up for the dignity and equality of all peoples. However, if the inauguration of Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America is getting you down, remember that there are some decent men out there who are proud to call themselves feminists and are engaged in fighting gender inequality.

 

 

 

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Let’s start at the Finnish

It’s a new year which comes with new resolutions. However, my resolution isn’t new. It has been my ambition for many years to learn Finnish. Why Finnish, a notoriously complicated language with 15 cases belonging to the obscure Finno-Ugric language group? The most obvious reason is that my mother is Finnish, but I think the real reason is my love of learning.

There is a joy to be in the classroom learning new things, grappling with new concepts and developing new skills. There is also the thrill of succeeding and making progress; feeling the sense of accomplishing something worthwhile. I’m sure that many teachers have felt the highs of learning and perhaps joined the profession to enable others to feel the same.

Did I already mention that Finnish is very difficult language? While there are highs in learning the language, there are also many lows: trying to learn vocabulary that bears no relation to English, choosing the correct ending for every noun you utter and trying to pronounce combinations of tongue-twisting vowels. Don’t even get me started on consonant gradation!

As teachers, we naturally find our own subjects easy and we can forget what is like to be the learner in the classroom. Going back into the classroom and encountering problems and challenges can remind us that learning can be tough and slow-going. It allows us to empathise with our pupils, but more importantly to develop the strategies which we can share to help our pupils persevere and move forward from failure.

Teachers should never stop learning. I firmly believe that only learners can become effective teachers. How can you teach effectively if you can’t remember the joys and challenges of learning? Teachers don’t even need to take up a new subject or skill as there is much to be learned about teaching itself. There is no excuse for teachers not to undertake CPD, whether it is through INSET days, book groups or Teach Meets. Doing the learning is just as important as what we learn.

On Monday, I start attending Finnish lessons. When I’m finding it tricky to stick with my resolution, I should remember that I can’t expect my pupils to persevere, if I don’t.

Inspiration leads to aspiration

‘I went to the Cambridge Greek Play a few years ago because my tutee was playing Orestes. You might have heard of him – Tom Hiddleston’.  Tom Hiddleston? The famous actor? I was not expecting to hear my host’s claim to fame when I sat down to dinner with him at High Table at Pembroke College on Friday night. It left me wondering if any of the cast of this year’s plays would become well-known actors and add to the list of Cambridge’s illustrious alumni.

This topic of conversation had arisen because the last time I had been in Cambridge was a few weeks ago when I took a group of Year 11s to see the Greek Play.  I try to make the pilgrimage every three years because I believe it is extremely worthwhile for pupils to hear the Classical tragedies and comedies performed in the original ancient Greek.  On such visits, there is also often time to explore the colleges of the university and this year was no exception.

Having left London early in the morning, we arrived in good time to take the girls on a tour. I was particularly proud of blagging our way into Trinity College on a CAMcard and a prayer.  While standing on the steps of the fountain of Great Court, I dredged up stories of famous alumni such as Isaac Newton and Lord Byron. The girls were particularly amused to hear that Byron kept a bear in his rooms because dogs were not allowed.

While telling such stories, I found myself blurting out, ‘You too could join them! None of this is closed to you’ (gesturing to the magnificent buildings surrounding us).  Was this true of each of the girls in the group who were of varying academic ability? But indeed it was true;  the girls had yet to sit their GCSE exams and until that point, the possibility was still very much alive. I knew that some of the girls struggled in class, but it was such a powerful statement and I was proud to have made it. At some point in their life, these girls of mixed ability could hear that there was a chance (however slim) of attending the hallowed halls of Oxbridge. From that moment, you could see each girl growing a little taller and more ready to lap up the pre-show lecture from Professor Simon Goldhill and embrace the joy of their first play in ancient Greek. Could they walk in the steps of Tom Hiddleston?

So often our pupils have a fixed mindset; when they come across a problem, they give up.  It is so important that we nurture the growth mindset so that our pupils persevere in challenges and realise that their skills and talents are not limited. We need to encourage our pupils to exceed the expectations that they, we and society might impose upon them.  We need to give them something to aim for because if we aim high then we can often surprise ourselves.

This visit to Cambridge was clearly inspirational for the girls. By exposing them to the intellectual environment of a top university, they learnt that such goals were achievable and were within their grasp. Their aspirations had been raised and when they discussed their future plans with the Head of Sixth Form a few days later, a number mentioned that Oxbridge might be a possibility…

The Year 11 girls are about to sit their GCSE mocks and are slogging away at revision. I hope that now when they are feeling frustrated and disheartened, perhaps the image of Tom Hiddleston (or one of the other alumni) might come to mind and spur them on to achieve their best.