Mrs Beasley's Blog

Learning from a tutor's perspective

Jamies’s Dream School, Have Your Say!

Have you been watching Jamie’s Dream School? (9pm, Channel 4, Wednesdays) I have been avidly following it since the first episode, two weeks ago. Strangely enough, nobody else I have spoken to has seen any of it, but, as a teacher, I was glued to the set from the start.

It is about Jamie Oliver’s attempts to motivate and encourage back into learning, a group of twenty young people, average age seventeen, by providing them firstly with a building, made into temporary classrooms, but, more importantly, inspirational people – not necessarily teachers – in an attempt to inspire the students. The criteria for choosing this particular group was that none of them achieved the requisite five GCSEs, and neither did Jamie, of course, a fact which has spurred him on to help these students.

The team working with the students has so far included David Starkey, Rolf Harris, Alistair Darling, Robert Winston, Simon Callow and Alvin Hall. There is also a real headteacher, John Dabbro, in charge of the day to day running of the school.

My initial response to the programme was, quite literally, shock and horror. I have never witnessed behaviours such as these, and I felt profoundly depressed. There was no attempt by any of the students to exercise any form of self-discipline. Indeed, I doubt whether any of them know the meaning of the word, let alone be able to practise it. They talked incessantly amongst themselves while the teacher was speaking, they chewed gum, they insulted each other and they constantly used their mobile phones to send texts, completely ignoring the lesson which was going on around them.

Halfway through his first lesson, David Starkey walked out. He had insulted a boy by calling him fat, and described the whole class as ‘failures’. This did not go down too well with the students, and they responded in kind!

It is interesting to watch the way the experts handle the pupils, some of whom, admittedly, come from difficult backgrounds. Their behaviour is enough to try the patience of a saint, and even the headteacher rounded on one girl last week, and excluded her. Her diatribe against him, in which she loudly and vociferously denounced him for what seemed like five minutes without pausing for breath, was unbelievable. Even her own mother, who initially took her part, was appalled when she watched the recording, and told her daughter off for her rudeness and dreadful behaviour.

This programme raises some interesting questions. How do children in school get to this stage? Why do secondary school pupils think that this is acceptable behaviour? David Starkey described them as ‘feral’ and many people would agree with him. When the camera focuses on a particular student, they actually come across as pleasant and sensible. It is just that, when they all get together in the ‘classroom’, the pack mentality cuts in, and the behaviour becomes obnoxious. Some students do, admittedly, come from difficult backgrounds, but not all: one boy comes from a home where both parents are working professionals, but they have, as they admit, “given up.” The students have had a very rocky three or four weeks, and their behaviour has been appalling. They think nothing of getting up and walking out of the lesson if they feel like it, either because they are “bored” or because they want a smoke. They yell at each other across the room, carrying on their private squabbles, despite the fact that there is a lesson going on, and this week (23rd March), they reduced the very capable headteacher to tears, and almost caused him to quit.

However, there does seem to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, whose first class ended in utter chaos, tried a different approach, and it worked. He spoke to each student individually, explaining how he could not teach in an environment where he couldn’t make himself heard, and offering the students the chance to stay away from his lesson if they wished – only two did. When the others turned up, he made it very clear that he expected silence and attention, and he got it.

Another success was Alvin Hall, teaching maths. He, too, was able to engage them, and ended up with at least two of the students choosing to do extra maths in their own time.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? Yes, in my opinion there is. Several, in fact.

Firstly, we need to impose discipline and structure within the classroom at a very early stage, because, as these students demonstrate, when the classroom situation descends into chaos, nobody learns anything, and pupils become disaffected.

There is a strong case for banning mobile ‘phones, which were constantly being used during lessons for texting (and chewing gum!).

Secondly, the most successful lessons so far have been the ones which relate to “real life”. For example, Alvin taught maths from the point of view of going shopping – how much things cost, giving change, etc. All the lessons which identified with the students’ lives were successful. However, by becoming more engaged in one subject, they became more engaged in another, and so, gradually, a new understanding of, and respect for, learning is growing.

I will have much more to say on this subject after this week’s programme.

How to Pass the Grammar School Entrance Exams

Where Do I Begin?

How can you help your child prepare for the exam?

As a parent, you will know how bright your child is. This, obviously, is the starting point.  You need to be thinking about taking the entrance exams when your child is in Year 4, and be ready to begin the preparation when he/she enters Year 5.  There are lots of things you, as a parent, can do.

Buy the Bond Assessment Papers. You can get these online at www.assessmentpapers.co.uk,  from Amazon, Waterstones or W.H. Smith.  Make sure that you get the right level for your child, and don’t start him/her on one that is too hard – you don’t want to put them off! The tests are all age-graded, from ages 5 to 13, and children enjoy working their way through them, particularly the Verbal Reasoning ones, as these contain little crosswords and codes. If you read the information on the first page of the Bond books, it explains how the tests practise a wide variety of skills and question types, so that the children are always challenged to think. The answer sheets are in the middle of each book, and are designed to be removed, so that you can keep them separate from the questions. Bond will even send you a replacement copy if you lose yours!  Get your child to work through about four papers in a week. They don’t take long, and help children develop their skills.

Reading
Many children nowadays do not read for pleasure.  This is a problem but it must be addressed.  Children who do not read struggle with comprehension and understanding texts.  They also lack a good vocabulary and this can make an enormous difference.  A good vocabulary is vital to writing interesting stories but also in understanding verbal reasoning questions, saving valuable time in the test.  Try to encourage your child to read and learn new words.  Make a game of learning one new word a day and give them their own little dictionary to look up unfamiliar words.

Grammar and punctuation
This is another problem which I frequently encounter.  Children do not remember parts of speech and punctuation, especially the use of the apostrophe.  These skills are important as written English and presentation are sometimes overlooked in busy schools!

Maths
Strong mental arithmetic skills are very important.  Quick, reliable arithmetic can make all the difference in maths and reasoning tests.  All entrance exams are timed and children need to be able to answer questions quickly and accurately.  Mental arithmetic sharpens these skills and helps the brain develop.  Make little games out of the weekly shop, encourage them to add up the bill and work out the change, etc.

The other side of the coin
Not all children are grammar school material.   If a child does not have the intellectual ability to do well at a grammar school, then even if they “scrape through” the exam, will they benefit from the education if they are constantly at or near the bottom of the class.  Children need to be happy to be able to learn and to be always lagging behind the other members of the class is a very dispiriting experience.

Children can also suffer from over-tutoring.  The concern is that children can miss out on having fun, playing sport, socialising with their friends and so on.  These things are important as a young child develops.  If tutoring time goes above a couple of hours a week, then it is getting too much.  I have had children arrive for their lesson who are too tired to put in the effort that is needed to pass these exams or who do not even have the right personality or skills to sit the exam with or without extra help.

The benefits of a tutor
Tutors have knowledge of what the schools are looking for.  They are able to assess the children and give parents an idea of whether the child will be successful in the exam or not.

A lot of children can do maths, but when the problem is presented in a slightly different way, as a problem, for example then tutors can help the child to solve it.

Tutors can also show children how to manage their time in the exam.  It can take a few months to get the child to the point where they do not spend too much time on one question – tutors can help the child to fine- tune their exam technique.

Over the months before the exam tutors build up a strong personal relationship with children and can encourage and support them through the process of working towards the exams.

Of paramount importance is that a good tutor will help a child to understand that learning can be fun and that knowing and understanding different subjects is an asset that will benefit them throughout their lives.  A good tutor’s aim is to enthuse their pupil, to encourage them to want to learn and to make that learning fun.  The result is a child that can pass the exams but who has also learned how to learn and how to manage their time effectively.

Finally
PLEASE have a fall back plan!  I have seen families devastated because their child only sat for one school and did not pass.  Children only get one chance at this and it is important to put your eggs in as many baskets as possible!  If you have any doubts, queries or concerns, ring me and I will be pleased to discuss these with you.

Above all, good luck!

Times Tables

Why don’t schools teach tables any more? According to them, they do. According to my findings, they don’t! I have been tutoring children of all ages now for 11 years, and I consistently find the same thing – children do not know their tables! I have a student in Year 9 who doesn’t know her tables, (I hadapuil in Year 13 who wanted to teach, and didn’t know her tables!!) and nearly all my Key Stage 2 pupils don’t know them. What goes wrong, and, more importantly, what can parents do to help?

First of all, let’s just consider how many areas of maths require knowledge of the times tables: multiplication and division problems, long multiplication and division sums, fractions, percentages,ratio, algebra, volume. The list is endless.

So what can you, as parents, do? The first thing is to accept responsibility for the teaching of tables yourselves. Do not assume that the school will do it, because the teaching of tables now is very patchy, and is subject to ‘fashionable’ methods, which, in most cases, do not work. (The mother of one of my pupils, whose daughter was at a ‘good’ school in Hazel Grove, once asked her teacher if the pupils in her class chanted their tables. “Oh no!” came the horrified response. ”We don’t do that these days!”)

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of tables, and the fact that the best way of learning them is by chanting them. This takes time and effort on both parents’ and children’s parts. It is one of those things that people start with great enthusiasm, and give up after two weeks, because the child is ‘bored’, tired, wants to watch something on TV ……… You have to be committed as a parent, and realise that you are in this for the long haul. Explain to the child that you are going to be ‘doing tables’ together, and try to get across to them how important tables are. (They soon cotton on to this if, as happened to one of my pupils, the other children began asking her the answers to tables problems they could not solve – but she could. She grew noticeably taller and her self-confidence soared!)

Set yourselves some goals – “This week, we’re going to learn the 2x” Write them out on a piece of paper, and put them up on your child’s bedroom wall. Sit down together for ten minutes and say them. You can break the table up into two equal halves, and just learn one half at a time. Get the child to write them out, and time them with a stopwatch (on your mobile phone) or an egg timer. Children are extremely competitive, and love to try and beat their own times. When they have written the table out two or three times, get them to write it out backwards!

Chant the ‘Table of the Week’ in the car, on the way to school. A really good way to learn tables is to sing them. It has been proven that anything we learn as songs sticks in our memories far longer than facts – just think of the songs you learned when you were at school, chances are you can still remember the words, I know I can! There are some good CDs available from places like WH Smith and Amazon, and again, you can play these in the car and sing along to them.

Another little game is to write out the table you are learning onto strips of card, cut them up and place them over the doorways in your house. Each time the child goes through the door, he/she has to look up and say the ‘fact’ until it is committed to memory.

Fire tables facts at them at unexpected times, and make a little game of it. Children remember things that are fun. Fire division facts at them, too, because multiplication and division should be taught together. It is amazing how many children don’t realise the connection between the two.

TWO DON’Ts:

PLEASE don’t let your child say, “I know my three times”, and then go 3,6,9,12,15 etc. This is NOT knowing the three tables, this is counting in threes. There is a big difference. The table should always be chanted as one three is three, two threes are six, three threes are nine, etc, etc.
Lastly, DON’T STOP AT TEN TIMES! We need to knowour 12s as much as ever, otherwise children end up working out sums involving 12x as long multiplication and division, which is totally unnecessary.

Please let me know what you think, and whether you have any tips you would like to share about the learning of tables.

Handwriting Report

One of the things that I notice a great deal in my pupils these days is their poor handwriting and presentation. I quite often ask them if anyone has ever taught them to write, and, as I expect, the answer is no. This makes me angry, because these children are being abandoned to their bad writing habits for the rest of their lives.

Handwriting is just one of the bees I carry around in my bonnet! I hate to see badly-formed, untidy, scrawly writing, and children with no pride whatsoever in their work. I have tutored children from different areas in and around Poynton, Cheadle Hulme, Bramhall, all from so-called “good schools” and all with poor handwriting.

So what goes wrong? As I am not in schools to observe at first-hand, I can only surmise. However, I suspect that the problems begin when a child is taught to write in Reception. I would say that a good 80% of my pupils do not hold their pencils correctly. Furthermore, they do not sit properly at the table, with their left hand resting on the paper, to keep it steady. (Vice versa if they are left-handed.) No, they sit with their left hand dangling down by their sides, and the paper wobbling about whilst they write. The way some children hold their pencil or pen has to be seen to be believed! I have pupils who grasp the pencil like a knife, others who contort their fingers into all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes, and others who wedge it between their thumb and forefinger in a position of their own devising. Habits like these should be corrected from day one, but apparently are not.

The important thing about handwriting is that it is a skill like any other, and should be taught and practised on a regular basis. It is a very personal thing, and habits are created in Key Stage 1. Once bad habits creep in, is virtually impossible to change them,. What happens is that children may get a brief lesson in forming letters, or, more frequently, be given the ubiquitous handwriting sheets to copy, but nobody ever checks that they are forming the letters correctly, and this is the basis of all good handwriting. The way the letters are formed is all-important. If nobody checks that the child is starting from the right place on the line, he/she quickly devises his/her own way, and so the first bad habit is formed. I am not exaggerating when I say that these habits are with that child for good, because, when under stress (tests, exams, note-taking) he/she will automatically go back to the way he has been forming his/her letters for years. The brain goes onto “automatic pilot”, and any different method which someone like me has been trying to teach him/her flies out of the window!!

Handwriting tends to change as we get older. Many students find that their handwriting becomes much less attractive when they are at secondary school, and have to take down notes. Many of the students I tutor, who are in their 3rd, 4th and 5th years at high school, don’t even bother to write in a joined-up style at all. They just print. However, children learning to write need informed teaching (in other words, the person doing the teaching should have a good, clear style themselves) and a firm but flexible method to ensure that the students develop good habits that will last a lifetime.

(This week, I lost a good friend. He was 95, and had been a friend of my family ever since I can remember. At the buffet following his funeral, I commented on the fact that he had sent me a birthday card only the day before he died, and that his writing was beautiful. One of his nieces echoed my sentiments. “Well,” said a friend of mine who went to the same primary school as I did some 56 years ago. “We were taught how to write properly in those days.” !! Maybe teachers these days don’t give so much attention to their pupils’ handwriting, but to me, it is inconceivable that some children have never been taught the basics of letter formation. Many employers now ask for job applications in handwriting Who can blame them? They can learn a lot from you from your handwriting.

I have given this matter a great deal of thought, and have researched the market for tools to assist children with poor writing. I have found that a slant board is a great help, because it supports the writing arm, and encourages the child to rest the other hand on the edge of the paper. Another little tool which helps considerably is the ‘Tri-Go Grip’. This is a small device which fits over the pencil but, importantly, it has three holes in it so that the child’s fingers are actually touching the pencil. This encourages him/her to hold the pencil correctly.