Monthly Archives: November 2016

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.

The importance of being inept

Tai chi in the school hall every morning can only mean one thing: wellbeing week.  Wellbeing week has become a regular fixture in the calendar, but the school recognises that there is more to creating a culture of wellbeing than simply practising the ‘white crane’. A commitment to physical education and the embedding of mindfulness in our ‘Learning 2 Learn’ curriculum are just two of the strategies in place to stem the tide of anxiety, depression and eating disorders which is increasingly affecting modern teenagers.

Wellbeing week is important to keep our mental health high on the agenda, but it is also about having fun and doing something different. I myself took the opportunity to attend a life-drawing class for staff and to accompany the school’s musicians to a concert at the Royal Festival Hall.

The few times that I have attended an art class, I have enjoyed the activity. I have never done that much art and so when asked to draw a female nude, I am pleased if the lines on the page resemble anything relating to the human form and I try to ignore the work of those around me, which is more akin to Egon Schiele or Lucien Freud.  This week, I was also quick to jump at the opportunity to go with a school group to see the violinist Anne Sophie Mutter playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto.  My own music-making has gone little beyond playing the recorder at primary school, but even I could appreciate the ease with which she could make the strings of the violin sing and the notes soar.

I could have left these two experiences feeling very inadequate. I have never shown much talent at art or music and could never recreate what I could see others doing.  However, I think finding and indulging in activities at which you are inept is incredibly important, especially as a teacher. There are obvious applications such as reminding us of how some pupils might be feeling as they struggle with your subject in class, such as trying to untangle the tricky Latin of Cicero’s oratory.

Yet, what is eminently more important is the chance to feel the sense of liberation of knowing that we cannot be an expert in everything and this is a crucial lesson that we should pass onto our pupils. While I am firm believer in trying everything, appreciating the struggle and not giving up when the going gets tough, it is also ok for us to be ultimately inept at an activity.  If we allow ourselves to be content in our incompetence, then we can  appreciate and rejoice in the small steps forward that we might take even if we know that we will never become a violin virtuoso. We should be happy in our haplessness rather than worrying about what we cannot achieve. I think if we can all revel in being inept at times, then it will add immensely to our sense of wellbeing and it will certainly be more worthwhile than a week’s worth of tai chi.

STREAM and my new role

What was I doing at school, up a ladder and hanging bunting at 8am in the cold on a Saturday?

In September, I started a new role as Director of Co-Curricular Studies and Outreach at Streatham and Clapham High School. I have spent the first half of term finding my feet, not only coping with my new responsibilities, but also dealing with an ISI inspection. I thought that I would start a blog to reflect upon my experiences, but in the words of Robert Burns, ‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft agley’.

This half of term has kicked off with STREAM, the largest children’s book festival in South London, which has been run by my school for the last three years. It is an amazing event with packed-out venues around the school hosting sessions and talks by a range of illustrators, poets and authors. I jumped at the chance to get involved, even if it meant hanging metres of bunting.

It is perhaps fortuitous that STREAM  coincides with my new blog as in many ways it exemplifies what my new role is all about.

Co-curricular Studies

I think STREAM highlights what is so important about ‘co-curricular’ activities. As a book festival, it is closely allied to the curriculum subject of English, but it offered so much more. Young people were able to engage academically with a whole range of subjects supporting and extending what they do in the classroom and completely free of examination-pressure. We learnt about the weird and wonderful world of beetles in MG Leonard’s energetic explanation of why she chose a beetle as the hero of her debut novel ‘Beetle Boy’. Marcia Williams, the author of ‘Bravo, Mr William Shakespeare’ treated us to an impromptu production of ‘The Tempest’ and the sheer joy of the whole audience split into three sections to recite the speeches of the witches of ‘Macbeth’. STREAM also delivered important advice and skills for life. There was career advice as authors explained their route to success, such as Rob Biddulph demonstrating how far he had come from his schoolboy drawings of comics to prize-winning illustrations. Our sixth-form helpers demonstrated leadership  skills in looking after high-profile speakers and confidently introducing them to huge audiences. It would be too difficult to express the full impact of STREAM on those who attended, but even these small examples serve to demonstrate what significance c0-curricular activities can have.

Outreach

The other aspect of my new role is ‘outreach’ which can broadly be seen as making connections between my school and the local, national and international communities of which it is a part. STREAM is very much a community event and even its name reflects the local area of Streatham. It is free and open to everyone. It was a joy to see so many people come and enjoy our facilities and gain access to the likes of Malorie Blackman, the former Children’s Laureate. Books play a very important part in helping us to think about ourselves as global citizens.  I’m sure there wasn’t one person who did not reflect upon the plight of refugees today as Judith Kerr spoke about her own flight from Nazi Germany described in her novel, ‘When Hitler Stole the Pink Rabbit’. STREAM helps my school feel rooted in the community and helps others to see that we are part of the community too.

I am already looking forward to next year’s STREAM Book Festival and cannot wait to see the exciting line-up. The festival achieves so much in only one day. If my role as Director of Co-curricular Studies and Outreach requires me to be up a ladder in the cold on a Saturday morning to enable excellent events like STREAM to happen, then I cannot think of anything more worthwhile.