I’m Now a Qualified Forest School Practitioner!

After a year-long course, which both inspired and challenged me to levels previously unknown, I heard this week that I passed my Level 3 Forest School instructor qualification. I’m incredibly proud of this because not only did it involve a gargantuan amount of work, but the practical element of the course i.e. sawing, carving, bill-hooking, setting fires etc. was worlds out of my skill-set and comfort zone.

You’d be forgiven for asking: why would I even sign up for such a course?

It all comes back to wellbeing, of course!

I’ll summarise in the following points:

  1. In the last few years, there’s been more and more research into the benefits of being outdoors in terms of our wellbeing. We’re talking changes in blood pressure, cortisol levels, blood sugar and more. I’m butchering the data here – if you’d like to read the fine-tuned details, click here.
  2. After numerous camping trips (and lots of arm twisting) I’d come to realise that active relaxation – whereby you’re focused on the essential actions of putting up a tent, cooking your dinner, building and lighting a fire – is actually an active form of meditation. I found myself ‘switching off’ and relaxing almost immediately, whereas usually, it takes me a while to stop thinking about my ‘to do’ list.
  3. Having forgotten most of what I’d learned as a former Girl Guide, I was curious – about trees, plants, animals, weather and the natural world in general. So too were the children I taught, curious and keen to know more. Curiosity causes us to look more closely, listen more intently; it lends itself perfectly to mindfulness.
  4. I noted myself that time spent outdoors, being curious and mindful, resulting in a natural increase in gratitude, appreciation and ease; not just for nature, but for everything.girl nature

With the course now completed and a shelter-building day already under my belt, I am more convinced than ever as to the benefits of Forest School practice (and just getting outside in general) in terms of improving mental health.

Now, I’m all about finding opportunities to take mindfulness outdoors, in order to increase curiosity, gratitude and mindfulness practice itself.

I’m equally keen to engage children in active meditation through tasks that require their attention to be in one place at a time (i.e. carving, making, crafting etc.)

But if all of this means very little to you right now, that’s the only advice I’m going to give you: to get outside, kids in tow if you have them.

And look, hear, touch, smell, feel the natural world around you.

That’s a better place than any to start.


Interested in some outdoorsy Mindfulness? Looking to book a Forest School Shelter-Building day? Call 07719330358 or email jo@skillswithfrills.com to check options and availability.

QUICK READ: 5 Teaching strategies to benefit the shy and socially anxious

When I was at school, I was a massive ‘swot’. I wasn’t overly intelligent, but I worked incredibly hard. I’ve always loved to learn new things and I took a great deal of pride in producing work that reflected effort and creativity.

Yet, I hated school. I was just so unbearably shy – so socially anxious – that any area of the curriculum or school life that required confidence/social interaction/public speaking, caused dread, misery and upset. I saw everyone else as being super relaxed and confident – I was a pathetic freak because I couldn’t cope with normal life situations. As time went on, I was able to drop the ‘out-there’ subjects like Drama and PE and throw myself into academic subjects which tested my essay-writing skills, while allowing me to hide my inner-freak. I left school with awesome results, but my self-esteem was in the toilet. I’d had some fantastic teachers who had pushed me academically, but other than annual comments on my report that ‘she needs to put her hand up more,’ my lack of confidence was never tackled. Teaching ‘soft skills’ like confident public speaking, just wasn’t part of the educational dialogue at that time. Everyone was just expected to get on with it.

Nearly twenty years later with the roles reversed, I am driven by the need to make things better for the students I teach. More than anything, I want them to challenge themselves socially and grow their confidence and self-esteem, just as they would work towards targets in their academic subjects. It’s my hope that by opening up discussion of nerves and anxiety, we might just save our students from future years of avoidance, missed opportunities and feelings of worthlessness.

Here are 5 teaching strategies that I’ve found really effective in encouraging confident speaking and discussion: 

  1. Always give ‘thinking time’ in class discussion. When I ask a question in class, I usually ask three times, while wandering around the room. I change the expression in my voice, the emphasis and sometimes the pace of the question. I wait ten seconds or more before choosing someone to answer/taking hands up etc. All students, but particularly nervous speakers or low ability pupils, need time to prepare an answer.
  2. Allow them to prepare feedback in pairs. Whether you want them to consider a question, respond to some stimulus or solve a problem, ask them to discuss this in pairs before answering in front of the class. For younger children, you can make this really structured by giving them set amounts of time each to speak, asking them to speak in turns or giving them speaking sentence openers. For SEND students that struggle to remember what they’ve discussed, they can write notes on a mini-whiteboard to help them answer. I tell my class that as I’m giving them time to prepare, I expect everyone to be ready to answer – then I’ll choose a name, use a name generator or pick out a lollipop stick with a pupils’ name on.
  3. Open up dialogue about nerves, anxiety, social anxiety, fear of public speaking. I found it particularly useful to spend ten minutes going over the physical symptoms of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and why our bodies react this way. We talked about everything from dry mouth and palpitations to the need to have a nervous wee! We also delved into why the body is designed this way – how it expels fluids so that you can run away more quickly; why your heart beats faster to ensure blood is circulating to your major organs; that when you feel like time has stopped, it’s because your senses are heightening, ready to act. Not only did this allow students to realise that these reactions were normal, but also put a positive spin on them.
  4. Before a presentation, ask your students to write a ‘recipe for success’ and a ‘recipe for disaster.’ I love this task so much! It really pushes students to think about what they need to do to perform an effective, confident and calm presentation, and contrast how they would prepare if they wanted to do a terrible job and let nerves take over. When I was really struggling with public speaking myself, I found it incredibly useful (and amusing) to write my recipe for disaster. It was a big turning point for me, because I realised that I’d spent my entire life up to that point following the wrong recipe!
  5. Notice – listen – understand – but still challenge. When I come across a child who is too afraid to speak in class, I set them a challenge of putting their hand up once a half-term/fortnight/week/lesson. I usually tell them to get this out of the way at the beginning of the lesson, so they’re not worrying about it. This doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve found this really successful with some students. You can see the mixture of relief and pride cross their face once they’ve ‘done the deed’, and wonder what they were so worried about. Even better, once this becomes a regular pattern, you can see them build up positive momentum. After a while you can’t shut them up!

 

Have I missed anything? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

Slow writing? Quick progress for weak writers.

When I arrived at secondary school, I’m ashamed to say that I’d never heard of ‘slow writing.’ In fact, I only heard about it through a chance encounter with one of the English teachers in the work room. I was grumbling away about the lack of progress in my special needs English group and at the point where I felt like nothing I’d tried was working, when she suggested that I try ‘slow writing.’

Basically, the idea is that students are told what each sentence must include. For example, sentence one must start with an ‘ing ly’ opener; sentence two must include a connective and so on.

It’s true that this is very prescriptive, but it has worked wonders with my SEND writing group.

Previously, these students just couldn’t generate the ideas needed for a lengthy piece of writing, even with planning frames and speaking prep time. Many also were incredibly frustrated because they had the ideas, but just didn’t have the ability to get these onto paper. Then there were the students at the upper end of the group, who can spell and write, but tend to write huge streams of unconscious waffle.

Did they like this style of writing? Not at first, no. The group did complain a lot about having to write what they were told. I also had issues in that this approach relied on them understanding at least basic grammatical words and terms. Even with examples and explanations, I found I would have to recap individually what a simile was, or what a sentence with a subordinate clause would look like. Really though, as I find with any new approach, the key is training students up over time and patience.

We’ve just completed our fourth structured ‘slow write’ this term and the complaints have dropped. The work that my group is producing is of much higher quality and they’re all very proud of themselves. They’ve also built up their SPaG (spelling, punctuation and grammar) knowledge as a positive side effect of this.

I’ve attached a slow writing sheet – Mr. Bean at the dentist – slow writing task and example – that I used with my SEND group at the end of a unit of work based on Mr. Bean. We watched a video clip of Mr. Bean getting up late for the dentist and I showed students examples of slow writing to match this. Their task was then to complete slow writing for the second half of the clip, following the set structure. While this isn’t really my kind of humour, I find that Mr. Bean is a MASSIVE hit with KS2 and SEND KS3 students so the fact that they’re happy and engaged certainly helps! Here’s the clip in full:

Slow writing really is such a simple idea, but it has made a huge difference to the progress, skill, understanding and confidence of some very weak writers. I will certainly be using this again.

 

Are you a resource-miser? Share instead!

If there is one thing that infuriates and befuddles me, it’s the numerous colleagues that I’ve met in different sectors of education, who refuse to share planning, resources and ideas. They keep them under lock and key in filing cabinets; they hoard them on their personal memory sticks; they remain silent when colleagues say they’re not sure how to teach Chromatography to year 6, knowing full well that they have a brilliant lesson under their belt. Even when these resource-misers do put things onto the shared drive, when they move year groups, subjects or jobs, everything miraculously disappears.

It begs the question: what is the purpose of our planning, prep, ideas and resources? Surely the answer is that it’s to teach, support and help children to learn.

resource miser

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As far as I can see, sharing your hard work has the following benefits:

  1. Other staff will be really grateful and probably likely to return the favour when you’re in need, saving you time and effort.
  2. More children will be taught a lesson that you created. More children will learn and benefit from your hard work… so without doing anything more yourself, your ‘learning royalties’ just keep totting up. That’s a great feeling.
  3. Teaching can be very insular, with staff only really being aware or caring about what’s happening in their class, year group or subject. Sharing at least allows you to ‘give’ to the school as a whole, without doing any extra work.
  4. Every teacher has their own style and every class is different, so others may well adapt your lesson to suit them, and who knows… you might decide to use their alterations the next time you teach this. No matter how proud I am of a lesson, I always have to make some kind of change to suit the class/time of day/my mood/their mood.
  5. In term time, the majority of teachers work constantly. Keeping up with the ever-changing demands of the classroom can be incredibly stressful. If we can make things a little bit easier for others – if we can give them the odd lesson that saves them an hour’s planning on an evening – then surely that’s a good thing.
  6. It’s so easy to share – just save it on the shared drive.
  7. It’s a really nice thing to do. Doing nice things makes you feel good.
  8. Your colleagues will appreciate you even more and hopefully respect your professional and supportive attitude.

Just to play devil’s advocate, let’s look at the other side. Being a resource-miser has the following benefits:

  1. No other soul will ever benefit from your blood, sweat and tears. Everyone else will have to work and suffer just like you did – no easy rides for anyone.

Point made.

So please spread your resources around school like jam on toast. The more you spread, the sweeter it will taste. And the more mouths you’ll feed.

 

Are we blaming students for things they haven’t been taught?

I love teachers – we work so hard, we care so much – but most of us moan constantly. We moan about lesson planning and preparation. We moan about ‘bad lessons’ and follow-up consequences. We moan about marking and assessment data capture. We moan about parents meetings and open evenings. We moan about not doing enough trips and about having to complete risk assessments when we do. We moan about the government, and Ofsted. Admittedly, it’s hard to argue with the last one.

Sadly, one of the main causes of complaint for teachers, are the children we teach – their attitude; their behaviour; their work, or lack of it; their complete lack of enthusiasm despite our incredible planning; their interactions with classmates; their lack of common sense; their foul language; their need for attention; their disrespect for those who clearly should be respected. I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself at times – certain students drive me crazy!

I’m not saying that we don’t have valid complaints, but perhaps we need to remember – children aren’t paid to come to school – it isn’t their choice.  It’s the law. From some student’s point of view, there is little benefit in listening and learning and being all-round good people, other than us telling them that this ‘the right thing to do.’

Moreover, have they even been taught or shown the skills and qualities that we expect them to use?

We huff and puff because ‘half of the children class 8 have the attention span of a fruit-fly’; but has anyone ever spoken to them about how they can notice their own concentration levels or taught them how to build up these muscles?

Herein lies the problem: we’re assuming that children know how to do things that they don’t, then repeatedly blaming them for doing the wrong thing.

We may as well just bang our heads against a wall. And theirs.

We’re wearing ourselves out and even worse, building resentment between ourselves and our students. Imagine if no one had ever taught you to tie your shoe laces, but complained about how ridiculous it was that you were constantly tripping up? You’d soon become sick of hearing their complaints.

After a particularly challenging morning, when the staff room ranting and raving really gets going, you might start to hear ‘In my day…’ from some of the older teachers. This is usually my cue to leave. I have no doubt that thirty years ago, children arrived at school armed with manners, respect, the ability to tell the time and a heavy sense of fear; but this just isn’t the case in many schools now and constantly harping back to this is pointless and counterproductive. While children cannot choose whether to come to school or not, we did. And we’re paid to teach the children of 2017 – not the children of 1987.

Children today are much more complicated that the generations before them. They’ve grown up in a world with information at their fingertips. In many children, this facilitates curiosity, creativity, connection and ambition. At the same time, our children can be overstimulated, resulting in shortened attention spans, isolated socially and disconnected from reality. Anxiety and depression are a huge problem for today’s youth. That’s why it’s so important that we don’t just give up on them – that we teach them what really matters.

I realise here that there is a need for parental responsibility. We need parents to be reading with children at home; teaching them to tell the time; asking and answering questions; supporting children in completing homework; encouraging a sense of respect towards others and resilience through difficulty. Many parents do this, and their children reap the rewards. Sadly, these things just aren’t happening for a growing number of children. Many parents themselves are exhausted through their own work-life balance pressures resort to the iPad babysitter; some parents don’t feel confident or able to help with homework ( who can really keep up with methods you’re supposed to use in maths when many schools change them every term?); some parents just don’t have the life-skills themselves to pass these down to their children; and a small handful just don’t care. Do their children not deserve the same chances in life?

Regardless of the reasons, our students’ personalities, behaviours and needs have changed, and so we must change with them.

We need to teach life-skills like independent learning in the same way we might teach column addition – initially break down the what, why and how; show children the steps to success; practise and repeat throughout each year; judge and reflect on our progress until the skill is secure. Imagine if we taught life-skills like they were in the SATs; imagine the kind of thinking that we would create in our classrooms.

If you’re keen to find out more about exactly what these skills are, take a look at my entry on FISHING NET skills.