My action research thoughts

Previously, I completed action research as part of my Open University studies, namely for the “English Grammar in Context” module. The context was my teaching and I specifically focussed on an adult literacy class at a Birmingham probation office.

The problem I had identified to solve was seemingly about grammar, but turned into something much broader.

Initially, I had identified that some students could struggle to develop their writing due to incomplete sentence structure. I wished to investigate the barriers that students had to developing their writing. To enable me to do that, I asked the question:

What does a grammatical analysis of a piece of everyday writing by my own students reveal about its effectiveness?

I chose to follow a Hallidayan approach to linguistic analysis, particularly because he identifies that lexicogrammatical choices are not just about the language in use, but also about the social setting as well. The focus of my study was largely social, considering adult literacy through the lens of popular policy dialogue of the time[1] that apparently poor basic skills can impact on an individual’s life to the point of social exclusion or a higher probability of offending.

When collecting data for the analysis, I encountered an unexpected issue, namely the lack of everyday writing for the cohort. Using the categories of ‘writing to maintain the household’, ‘writing to maintain communication’, and ‘personal writing’, from Barton and Padmore (1994), I found that, from all the students within the cohort, they only identified with a maximum of one of the categories. I also encountered considerable anxiety around writing outside of their comfort zones, apparently linked to fear of making mistakes in spelling, punctuation or grammar.

Although not part of my initial study, I believed there was sufficient evidence that a lack of everyday reading and writing practices affected progress. Within the group was ‘student 4’, someone who had joined the class very enthusiastically, had excellent attendance, but whose progress had plateaued quite quickly. I was convinced the answer lay in his everyday literacy practices, or rather a lack of them. I compared his progress against another student, in a mainstream literacy class, who was also completing a counselling course alongside the literacy course, and who was reading and writing large amounts. This student’s progress was expediential.

Although small, my initial study allowed me to develop my teaching practice and pedagogy to ensure that students have the opportunity to develop their grammar to understand sentence structure, as well as lots of opportunities to write (therefore practising the art of writing). It also showed me the importance of using real-life examples and of modelling good writing. I believe this has the positive effect of building student confidence in their writing ability and, therefore, their ‘voice’.[2]

However, ever since, it has always felt important that I also promote everyday literacy practices. This led me to the Reading for Pleasure research and work, plus various writing for pleasure activities, which I promote to my students and are often the topic of this blog. I’d like, therefore, to be able to investigate further how effective this approach is and am intending to apply for the ETF/SUNCETT Practitioner Research Programme to give me the opportunity to explore this further.

I believe that raising everyday literacy levels would build confidence, voice and skills for all students, regardless of subject studied, so therefore hope to develop transferable models that can be used by other teachers and educators.

 

[1] The Skills for Life national strategy: https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/7187/7/ACF35CE_Redacted.pdf

[2] For me, language and literacy have a strong link to identity, which I am currently exploring, looking at the work of Kate Pahl and Ruth Finnegan – to be followed up in a further blog post.

Barton, D. and Padmore, S. (1994) Roles, Networks, and Values in Everyday Writing, in Graddol, D., Maybin, J. and Stierer, B. (1994) Researching Language and Literacy in Social Context. Avon, The Open University.

 

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ReimagineFE – sparking new flames

At Reimagine FE, I shared the story of my blog, launched almost exactly a year ago in Isla’s kitchen, over a pile of biscuits and big mugs of tea. I shared my story in the hope of inspiring and empowering other adult, community and offender learning colleagues into what’s possible if we start to reimagine our work. Reimaging the FE sector is good work; important work.

And in FE, we kind of like fairy tales and I really love fairy tales… so, please, gather round my campfire. I have a tale I want to tell.

Once upon a time, last year, there was an old woman who lived deep in the woods.[1] The old woman’s work was spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving. She knew it was good work. Important work. Life-changing work. And she also knew the work was for everyone, important to spread and share.

At night-time, the old woman lit her candle so that she could continue that important work. Spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving. But sometimes, in the half-light, just as she was weaving a particularly beautiful thread of gold, the candle would blow out. The old woman would stand, slowly cross the room to light the candle again. But when she sat down to her work, she would exclaim in frustration, ‘I have lost my thread’. And the work would stutter and falter.

Meanwhile, the old woman hadn’t noticed that the important work was valued. The good people of her sector, who valued it the most, spoke kind words of encouragement, and tried to keep her working. Spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving. But once again, late into the night, the candle would blow out. The work faltered again and was lost.

Then the good people started to reach out. They reached out, and they wrapped their hands together, shielding her flame. Now the old woman could work. Her candle flame was shielded and protected, so she could sit and work: spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving, spinning and weaving. No longer could her work falter, no longer would she lose her thread, no longer was the candle flame blown out. The light of the candle illuminated it all and more; the old woman could see ALL the threads now, all the threads linking and flowing, connecting all the people together. Indeed, there was much good work.

And when the good work was finished, she put it down and went outside, dancing into the night.[2]

  1. Although I might not be considered old in our times, I was certainly feeling it a year or so ago. And, I’m trusting you know that old women in fairy tales represent wise women, right?
  2. Daley, M., Orr, K. and Petrie, J. Eds. (2015) Further Education and the Twelve Dancing Princesses. London: Institute of Education Press.

(I couldn’t resist a Dancing Princesses reference.)

Advocating FE; advocating SET

Just over a year ago, I joined the Society of Education and Training (SET). I’d been having a difficult time, working part-time out in the community, rarely walking onto college premises and, in hindsight, was feeling quite isolated. I was also feeling frustrated in my professional development, as Sarah Simons recently described perfectly in Tes. I have always felt like I was the over-keen geek in a room full of scepticism, as CPD was becoming another annoying acronym in education after years of being linked to a deficit view of teacher development.

I loved the new look of SET when it was launched and was really enjoying the opportunity to connect with other SET folk through Twitter. It feels to me like perfect timing for SET to fill a void, as I think that there is a really great need for it within our sector. Not just for a collected voice (which our union amply fills), but to help us find commonality and promote our professionalism. It is well reported we are living through difficult times in education but, I believe, some of the most difficult times have been in FE. I feel that we aren’t helped by the widespread nature of our sector, which gives us an even greater reason to band together as a community. We talk about FE and skills… and training… and adult and community…. and offender learning… which is a broad and difficult reach. I feel it’s time to club together behind one banner to stand up for our professionalism.

Last autumn I attended the inaugural SET conference. I was feeling brave (and not only in leaving my classroom for the day) and it did feel like a no-brainer as it was being held in the most amazing location that is only 10 minutes up the road from where I should’ve been teaching. Even though I arrived alone, I immediately met some lovely folk in the car park and we walked to the venue together. Even though I hadn’t yet walked through the door, I knew I was in the right place, that these were ‘my people’. The whole day was the same: every room I walked into I met people who were as passionate about FE as me; who were as committed to their professional development; who were as excited as me to come together. I had scanned the delegates list, eager to see who else was there, and was so inspired to see the range and breadth of our sector represented.

It wasn’t just the theme, ‘Pride in Professionalism’, but the venue itself reeked professionalism. Gone were the CPD rooms of old: stuffy conferences in backrooms. The location was fitting for the occasion. The Vox Centre is modern, light, well-purposed, central, and all this coupled with delicious food and fantastic workshops, which gave me the opportunity to participate, not just sit and listen. David Russell’s keynote inspired me further, getting me thinking how I could take pride in my own professionalism and, as a result, I enrolled in the next cohort of professional formation leading to QTLS. Although I had attended alone, I felt like I had found my community.

Since the conference, I have been engaging with SET whenever the opportunity has arisen. I was excited to hear about a new Local Network Group being founded in my area and felt keen to get involved. I’ve got stuck into the professional formation process, particularly enjoying the use of the self-assessment tool against the Professional Standards, and really valuing the opportunity to engage in greater critical reflection and build bigger, better, more concrete communities of practice.

When I saw there were vacancies to join the SET Practitioner Advisory Group (PAG), I saw a wonderful opportunity not only to give something back but to ‘put my money where my mouth is’ in supporting and advocating FE teachers’ professionalism. In truth, my desire to advocate for SET comes from a desire to advocate for FE.

I attended my first PAG last Friday. It was great to meet all the SET team and to finally meet some Twitter friends too. Again, I found myself in a room full of committed colleagues and again they represented the range and breadth of our sector. But, most importantly for me, it was a chance to witness first-hand just how member-focussed SET is. The Practitioner Advisory Group is just that – a group of passionate, committed professionals coming together for the good of our sector.

I have found my campfire to gather around. I suggest you give it a try too!

Putting evidence-based teaching & learning into practice

One of the concepts of QTLS is a developmental ‘thread’ running throughout. As I’ve blogged elsewhere, for me, one of those threads has been developing a more inclusive approach to dyslexia. QTLS has been an extremely useful opportunity for me to make the time and space to explore and to learn.

However, although I’ve been busy maintaining that and other ‘threads’ for my professional formation, it has actually been a really rich tapestry of learning, once I opened my mind and made a commitment to embrace any arising opportunities.

For example, some of the (unforeseen) lessons I learnt from FE Showcase have been serving me well for the past few weeks, as I help my students prepare for their upcoming exams. I recently confessed on Twitter that it took me until I was at least 30 before I worked out effective strategies for revising. Previous to that it was decidedly hit-and-miss. (I still haven’t forgiven myself for gaining a ‘first’ all year for my English Grammar module, only to drop my mark right down through my exam result – hands up, I didn’t even revise, including not using the past paper I was provided with. Idiot. But it is the reason I worked how to revise from then on…)

It’s worth noting that understanding how exams work is important in our current education system, which favours a lot of testing in all sorts of forms. There is, rightly, a lot of push-back against teachers ‘teaching to the test’, but I do think there is a lot of scope for teaching how tests work and how to negotiate them, from understanding how questions are asked and what language shapes them, to understanding good, practical ways to process the knowledge learnt in the best way to ‘showcase’ what has been learnt.

At this year’s FE Showcase, the second keynote speaker was Dr Flavia Belham, from SENECA, and her keynote was entitled ‘Helping Students Use Effective Learning Strategies’. It was excellent. She highlighted that the ways that our students choose to study aren’t really the best way for them to learn, i.e. re-reading material, writing summaries, and highlighting their textbooks.

I decided to take this to my students – asking them how they thought they should revise. Several said reading their notes and handouts, a few said rewriting their notes, a few genuinely had no idea where to start.

We formed a plan based on retrieval practice, whereby we separated the six types of texts into six days with one rest day in a week, and then the cycle would repeat again and again for as much time as they had or needed. For example, on Monday they might work on speeches and on Tuesday it could be articles. We agreed that revising these at the same time could be very confusing, as we’d struggle to remember the differences between the two. 

Next, we planned in the work that would be the most effective way to learn, i.e. we could break down our notes into quickly grasped points, such as brainstorms, and we even did a few in class, with me modelling a useful approach.

Finally, the next step would be a practice exam question. This meant that they could put it all into practice there and then by working through the type of question that they could be asked. It also meant that they were actively testing themselves, which Flavia stated is a strong learning tool in its own right.

Me being me, there were one or two last points of my own to add. I understand that, as adults, my students have many other commitments, so might not be able to dedicate a session a day over several weeks. In that instance, I’ve suggested to them that the most important topic to revise is the one that worries them the most. It never ceases to amaze me how tempting it is to keep practising the thing that we’re good at, presumably as doing it well gives us a nice dopamine hit not too dissimilar to a like on Twitter. My other advice, as always, remains constant. If you want to be good at reading and writing, you need to read and write.

Has it been successful? Only time will tell but, so far, the feedback from the revision sessions has been good. But, as one student grasped the ideas, she exclaimed out loud “wow, that’s clever!” I’m sure Flavia would be glad to hear so!

 

Ethical thoughts (or how to tell stories that aren’t my own)

I think there’s an ethical consideration in education blogging, just like in educational research, that some of the stories that we are trying to tell aren’t ours to tell.

It probably doesn’t matter if it’s a blog focusing on research, techniques, content, etc, because it can be broad brushstrokes. What works, not ‘who’ it works too. However, in telling the story of using evidence-based practice, it inevitably is about a real-life situation and the impact that work is having on real people. Not hypothetical ‘students’ as a catch-all.

I’ve asked me about this before. I am very careful about what I use and how I use it, always asking permission and never using anything that hasn’t had the OK. I have a super photo of my whole class reading their Quick Reads at Christmas and it would’ve looked ace in my blog, but I don’t have everyone’s permission to use it and, actually, I wouldn’t ask either. As lovely a photo as it is, there was no real need to use it as it wouldn’t serve any greater purpose than the existing shot of me doing a reading selfie.

This week I’ve been sharing a video of my student’s poetry. I’ve her permission to share it; in fact, I have her blessing to share it as she knows I’m doing so for positive reasons. I’ve been trying to support her in setting up her own digital identity as a poet, getting in touch with The Prince’s Trust to look into a loan for self-publishing, and encouraging her to start going to open mic nights.  So, there’s a fine line to tread: telling enough of her story to give power to her voice, but not the whole story as it’s not mine to tell.

Another example is from a recent blog post here. I wrote about some lessons I have learnt through choosing to develop a more inclusive classroom. This has felt so important to me for so many reasons: partly as someone with dyslexia can easily be disadvantaged or even taken advantage of. Partly because it is an area I feel gets a lot of attention, but not necessarily much understanding of how to make a real difference. Partly I have a vested interest as a primary school governor with a focus on SEND.

However, to be able to tell the story of what I have learnt and how I have affected my practice, I need to be able to tell the stories of some of my learners. This, then, becomes an ethical issue, as it is really not OK for me to share details of my learners in any way that is identifiable, damaging, or disrespectful. If I did, then it would be me exploiting them for my own uses and gains. So, I’ve chosen a route that enables me to tell the stories, without doing any harm. I’ve chosen to mix it up a bit. I’ve changed a few details that don’t damage the story-telling, that don’t add dishonesty, but still can demonstrate key points. Maybe someone’s gender has changed, for example.

Because the point of my work is empowerment, enabling people to use their voices.

The Value of Adult Education

Transformational Further Education: Empowering People & Communities”

Recently, the women in my English class were invited to contribute their writing to an exciting research project, ‘Transforming Lives’. The project aims to provide learners with the opportunity to tell their stories, linking to the impact their education has had on their lives. The group wrote poems, articles and speeches about the value of adult education. We have all been extremely excited and moved to see their words published in the research blog.

It’s an honour to share their writing below, especially as I know some of the journeys some of the women have travelled. I know the centre is as proud of their writing as I am, and I am looking forward to them showcasing their writing a future event at the centre.

So, in their own words:

Fear used to keep me paralyzed
Till I couldn’t move.
She said, come on now
It’s time to put on your shoes
Time for you to choose.

For I am no longer a story to be deferred
I am a story to be heard
I am embodied with words
For I am the art, poetry.
I am a dreamer, who is no longer scared
Because I know knowledge is nothing
Without knowledge of self.
That is the real wealth.

Adult education can transform lives
Hi, my name is XXXXXX and I am here to share my experience of getting back into education.

As an adult, it is a fantastic opportunity to be educated and to improve your knowledge.

I was married at a very young age and did not complete my education. Because I had no proper qualifications, I found it hard to get a job. I was constantly nagged as I had no proper education and I did not have enough confidence and knowledge.

Education is important for every single girl as she can grow up to be a confident individual and independent woman, not just for herself but also to improve her chances in society.

In the 21st century, no girl child must be left uneducated. There is a saying: “If we educate a boy, we educate an individual, but if we educate a girl, we educate a family and a whole nation.” An educated woman can educate future generations. An educated mother can raise a family with knowledge, skills and as respected citizens of society.

Educating women at an early age is the best gift for the future generation. Education has a positive influence on the social-economic situation of the country. However, many girls and women lack education due to financial barriers.

Let’s educate ourselves so that we can educate more women for the future.

Adult education can transform lives

Hi, my name is XXXXXX. What do you think about adult education? Do you think it can transform lives?

Well, I think it can! I believe that you never stop learning, no matter how old you are. I’m in education for myself, to improve the skills I already have and to refresh them.

I believe education increases your knowledge and joining education can encourage your children to see how important education is.

I have always had it in me and I have raised my daughters to have the same attitude to education. Me and my daughters have a craving to want to learn more and more and more! The value of education has to be passed on. I value it, which is why they value it too.

Education has helped me to become a better person and also a much stronger woman. It has helped me deal with my fears too.

Since I started adult education, it has had a great impact on mine and on my daughter’s lives. It has brought changes into our lives for the better.

I want to set a good example, not just for my daughters, but also other women who struggle to learn. I want them to know that it’s not as hard as you think – if you can work hard, you can achieve anything.

The main reason why I want to refresh my maths and English is that my aim is to get the job I deserve!

Education doesn’t have to be boring, but it can be fun, and it depends on you and the attitude you have towards it.

Adult education can transform lives
I remember back in the days people used to take the mick out of each other, especially when it came to education. Every time education was mentioned, my heart would always skip a beat and I always used to get butterflies in my stomach.

Now that I have grown up, I realise that life is quite difficult without any degrees or qualifications. I struggle every time, without realising. I get frustrated and give my children a lecture every day before school, say “work hard”. I use myself as an example to them.

They are my role models. No matter what age you are, remember age is just a number.
Education matters always, even though it might not seem relevant but it always is – trust me. Everyone says, “been there, done that” but this has always inspired my children. If you are going to think, think big, then think bigger.

The key to education in being independent and self-determined. Remember a fact: to start a journey you take one small step towards achieving your dreams!

Adult education can transform lives

In some parts of the world, women and girls are disadvantaged when it comes to education.

Women are told that it is not that important and that they should be better putting their energy into children and family.

But how can a woman educate her children if she isn’t educated herself?

Education is important for every individual. It empowers them and gives them the ability to be an active participant in society. Education provides women with the tools and confidence to contribute to the economy, to be leaders, so to make a huge difference to the community.

We have seen women who had stopped their education returning to it, acquiring new knowledge, skills and confidence and thus starting a new life.

Education.

Well education has inspired me,
To be the higher me.

Education elevates me, stimulates me, motivates me
You see, the rule of three.

My intuition is based off of the words
I had studied, the words I had written down

Through words I vibrate
I mean by the smack of my lips
Emit
Verbs, adjectives and nouns

Education has allowed this poet in hand
To stand unapologetically
To speak freely
To be me

Education has said
‘take my hand and be free with me’

Education is to awaken
Education is set, to set free this upcoming nation.

‘Women on the Map’

Last night I attended ‘Women on the Map’, an event hosted by the Stratford Literary Festival. Jane Garvey interviewed Joni Seagar, the author of ‘The Women’s Atlas’, and Professor Shirin Rai, from the University of Warwick, on women’s place in the world.

I attended, other than as an interested feminist, as an adult literacy professional. I was looking forward to hearing all about how women’s lack of literacy and lack of education can be used to hold them down. In hindsight, I’ve no idea why I thought that’s what I’d take away from it, as I know that already!

My real lessons from the evening link to my understanding of others and, therefore, my empathy for their situations. As a privileged woman, I could look away when I don’t understand my students’ situations, but that would serve no one’s interests.

I needed to hear the harsh facts. The difficult things to hear. That public spaces can be held by and for men by not providing adequate women’s toilets. That women are controlled by (and liberated by) their clothing. That after natural disasters, there is always a rise in sexual violence and trafficking. That voices can be raised in defence of certain women, but others are ignored due to their poverty (so lack of value). That “there are tremendous pressures against women bonding with other women” (says Shirin Rai).

In my own practice, that means recognising that if someone is angry or upset, or possibly behaving in a way that is deemed inappropriate, that this means they need someone to stop and listen to them. To take the time to understand and take care of them. I talk a lot about valuing and a lot about giving voice, plus recently I’ve talked a lot about anger. So, I need to understand where that anger is coming from: if someone is suffering, has been harmed, or is vulnerable, to not turn away from those difficult facts.

As the trolls sing: “People make bad choices when they’re sad or scared or stressed, but throw a little love their way, and you’ll bring out their best!”

So, the lesson I needed to learn from last night is that I need to listen. We can give people a voice but, as the panel told us, there is no point if no one is listening.

(Note – I did get the opportunity to ask Joni Seagar: a lack of literacy is used to keep women down all over the world. Is the answer education, or is that to simplistic a solution? Answer: yes it is, but not on its own.)