Neurodiversity Week 2019

This week has been Neurodiversity Week at Churchill, as we have been exploring together the variations and differences in our brains that help to make up our rich community.

Neurodiversity is term adopted by sociologist Judy Singer in the late 1990s. She was frustrated that differences in the make-up of our brains were too often being seen as problems or challenges to be overcome, rather than part of the natural variations in our human makeup. She proposed that neurological differences – differences in our brains – should be recognised and respected as much as any other human variation.

It’s a well-accepted fact that everyone’s brain is different. We are all unique. We recognise that our individual brain is “wired up” differently to anybody else’s. My brain, for example is wired up so that I am left handed. As a small child, I reached for objects with my left hand, and instinctively kicked a ball with my left foot. Despite the fact that everyone else in my family was right handed, it’s just the way my brain was made!

There are many other differences in the ways our brains work. Some people are naturally more organised than others; some have better hand-eye coordination; some see colours differently; others have superb memories for names and faces. What Judy Singer recognised was that some differences in the ways our brains work were characterised with negative stereotypes. Labels such as dyspraxia, dyslexia, ADHD, dyscalculia, autistic spectrum disorder, Tourette’s Syndrome and others were seen as problems to be “fixed” or “cured;” Singer argued instead that they should be respected and recognised.

Neurodivergent individuals may have many strengths that those without the differences lack: perseverance, creativity, problem solving, oral communication, resourcefulness, visualisation, and practical skills being just some examples. This may be why there are so many highly successful individuals who have neurodivergent qualities:

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This week students have been learning about neurodiversity. They have been discussing how we all need to value our differences, and not to see people who differ from us as “other.” How boring would life be if we were all identical? What can we learn from each other? And how can we celebrate our strengths?

Above all, whilst we are all born with different strengths and weaknesses, what we also know is that our abilities and intelligence are not fixed. Through hard work, careful practice and determination, we can improve on all aspects of our natural ability – and that this process continues throughout our life, not just at school.

 

Lessons from the Champions League

What a week of football it’s been! Liverpool and Spurs both overturned seemingly overwhelming odds in the second legs of their semi-finals to set up an all-Premier League final.

There’s no doubt about it – Liverpool were immense on Tuesday night. Coming back from a 3-0 deficit in the first leg to defeat Barcelona 4-3 on aggregate and book their place in the Champions League final is the stuff of legend. When Trent Alexander-Arnold took the corner for Divock Origi to score the fourth Liverpool goal, he caught a team of legends and international superstars napping and dumped them out of the competition.

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It’s not the first time it’s happened, either. Last year, Barcelona were through to the quarter-finals and carrying a 4-1 lead into the second leg against Roma. They were defeated 3-0 in that second leg, and it was Roma that went through to the semi-finals (where they were beaten by Liverpool!)

This fact did not escape the Barcelona players in the painful aftermath of their defeat this week. Luis Suarez, ex-Liverpool striker now playing for Barcelona, summed it up in a post-match interview:

“We have to do a lot of self-criticism because this is the second time that the same thing has happened to us. We cannot commit the same mistake two years in a row. There are many things we need to consider and think about.”

What struck me about Barcelona is that they went out of the Champions League because the players weren’t concentrating. Liverpool, on the other hand, were completely switched on, focused on the task in hand, and playing every single second as though their lives depended on it. For Liverpool on Tuesday, the idea of “giving up” wasn’t even a possibility. The incredible support at Anfield certainly gave them the belief and the boost they needed.

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Then, the following night, Tottenham Hotspur pulled off a second incredible comeback – this time overturning a 3-0 deficit in just 45 minutes of football, away from home against a really strong Ajax side. Just like with Liverpool, the first-choice striker was unable to play, but the team showed in their battling determination that they just refused to be beaten. Lucas Moura was quicker, more focused, more switched on than the Ajax team, and poached the final goal as the final seconds of stoppage time ticked away.

These were two magical nights of football, even for a neutral like me. As a Watford supporter, I hope that my team can capture some of Spurs and Liverpool’s “never give up” fighting spirit in the forthcoming FA Cup Final against Manchester City. And as a Headteacher, I hope that our students can capture some of the same spirit in their endeavours. I hope that our students see that lapses in concentration can cost you, and remember to stay focused all the time. I hope they see that, whilst we all make mistakes, we have to learn from them – and that there’s really no excuse for making the same mistake twice. I hope they see that with hard work, effort and determination, nothing is impossible; and that, with the support of those around you in the community, you’ll never walk alone.

 

The book that made me

On World Book Day this week, I was reflecting on the books that I have read and which one I would choose as the most significant – the book which made me. There is really only one choice: Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath.

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My copy of the Collected Poems

I can remember my first encounter with a Plath poem like it was yesterday. In actual fact, it was upstairs in a sixth form classroom when I was in Year 12, in the summer of 1992. One of my English teachers, Mr Rattue, presented us with two poems called “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. Reading those poems was like an electric shock. I had never read anything like them before. The fury and fire in those lines blazed off the page and scorched themselves into my mind. I was dazzled by a poet who was an absolute mistress of her craft, writing about her personal trauma with almost clinical precision, without sacrificing any of the emotional content. The fiery-haired, powerful and terrifying voice of the poems mesmerised and enchanted me. After the lesson, I remember asking for more, and Mr Rattue lending me a copy of Plath’s collection Ariel from the English office. I was hooked.

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My copy of The Bell Jar

I read more and more Plath, seizing on The Bell Jar next. I was bewitched by the imagery, the detachment of the narrator, the autobiography of it. I held on to Ariel, reading and re-reading the collection. I typed out “The Moon and the Yew Tree” on my Nan’s typewriter and kept in my wallet for years afterwards. I remember reading its steady, dead rhythms to calm myself before my university interviews. I still carry it with me, tattered now after many years, but intact.

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Inside my copy of The Collected Poems

My copy of  The Collected Poems came later, in a really important week of milestones. After taking part in every school play and production going, I was awarded the Service to Drama prize for my work on lighting the school plays. This was the first time the prize had gone to a backstage performer rather than an actor that anyone could remember; I was incredibly proud to win it then, and it remains one of my proudest achievements. All school prizes were given as book tokens; we had to buy a book to be awarded at the ceremony. There was no question what I would choose. I remember the frustration of waiting the week from handing the book in to school, to being awarded it on Tuesday 15th December 1992. Wednesday to Saturday I was behind the lighting desk for Twelfth Night, our school play that year and the last one I was involved with. And on the Saturday afternoon of 19th December 1992, I got my acceptance letter from Oxford University.

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Analysing Ariel: my university notes inside The Collected Poems

I took the Collected Poems with me, writing about Plath’s poetry in my first year and returning to it for my finals. In my teaching career I have taught The Bell Jar and Ariel as part of A-level English Literature. Whenever I return to the poems, even to write this post, the experience is as gripping, chilling and breathtaking as it was in 1992.

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Tattered but intact – my copy of The Moon and the Yew Tree hand-typed over 25 years ago

The Collected Poems is the book that made me because it is tied up so tightly with landmark experiences of my young adult life. The voice of the poems speaks so clearly, so personally, with such craft and skill, such poignancy and power, that I measure everything else I read against it – but nothing comes close.

A good night’s sleep

It’s well known that a good night’s sleep is one of the most significant factors in making sure that we are at our best the next day. There are multiple research studies which show that sleep helps with concentration, memory, insight, creativity, and even our immune systems.

It’s also well known that most of us aren’t getting enough sleep, so we are not benefiting from the improved performance we could be seeing in school. So what can we do to make this better?

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9 Common Sleep Mistakes, courtesy of Inner Drive

  • TV before bed: the temptation to watch “just one more episode” of that Netflix box-set can be hard to resist – that’s how Netflix is designed! “Just one more episode” will lose you an hour of sleep. The episode will still be there tomorrow – but the sleep will be lost for good. Shut the laptop and shut your eyes!
  • Bed times: if you go to bed at different times each night, your body’s internal clock gets confused and it can disrupt your sleep patterns. Having a regular routine really helps to get a consistent night’s sleep.
  • Go to bed before you fall asleep: if you find yourself dropping off on the sofa, you’ve stayed up too late. Get to bed earlier, with a good book, and read a chapter before you turn the light off.
  • Naps: research shows that short naps can be useful, but anything over half an hour can prevent you from sleeping well at night because you won’t be tired until later. If you need it, slot in a ten to fifteen minute “power nap” – but set an alarm!
  • If you’re wide awake, get up: if you find yourself tossing and turning, unable to sleep, get out of bed and do something that occupies your brain without stressing you out: a jigsaw, tidy your room, organise yourself, read another chapter of your book. Then go back to bed, so that you associate it with sleeping, not being awake.
  • Put your phone away: the bright light from your phone or tablet tricks your brain into thinking it’s day time. This stops melatonin (the sleep hormone) from being fully released, making it harder to drop off. Put your phone away at least an hour before you want to go to sleep.
  • Cut the caffeine:  energy drinks, cola, tea, and coffee all have delayed effects on your energy levels. If you drink them before bed, the caffeine will be trying to keep you alert as you are trying to fall asleep.
  • Don’t kill time online: don’t waste time scrolling social media, letting YouTube autoplay the next epic fails video, or spectating Fortnite kills. This is time you could be spending asleep. If it’s not productive – don’t do it!
  • Try not to overthink tomorrow: try not to make lists of everything you need to do whilst you’re lying in bed – this can lead to a stress response. Make those lists and get everything organised before you go to bed – then get that book out, read another chapter, switch off the light and drift off to sleep.

Good night!

 

Thanks to Inner Drive for their help with this week’s blog.

Memory Hooks

…or “how to spell millennium.”

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Last week we had the first round of our annual staff spelling bee. This is a hotly contested competition, and the final takes place immediately before the students’ spelling bee competition in February. I have made it to the final for the past three years, so I have a reputation to uphold!

Round one consisted of six words:

  1. Definitely
  2. Indefatigable
  3. Melancholy
  4. Millennium
  5. Acquiesce
  6. Tracheotomy

I was delighted to get them all right! So at least I’m through to round two…

However, the presence of the word “millennium” was a bit of a gift for me, because I definitely know how to spell it. At least, I do now…and I have for the past nineteen years.

Back in the year 1999, I was in my first teaching job at a school in Nottinghamshire. My tutor group and I did an activity thinking about our hopes and wishes for the year 2000 – we called them our “millennium pledges” and we were going to use them for the display board in our tutor room. I duly stayed after school one day, backed and edged the board in new display paper, got my tutor group’s pledges arranged artistically on the backing paper, and cut out and stuck every letter of the display title using letter stencils, in silver and then in black. I stuck the black behind the silver to create a neat shadow effect. I then covered the display in clear sticky-backed plastic covering film to protect the children’s work. Two hours after school, I was standing back to admire my handiwork, when my Head of Department came in to have a look.

“There are two “n”s in ‘millennium,'” she said.

Yes, you’ve guessed it, my display said “our millenium pledges” – with one “n.”

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It turns out, once you’ve covered a display board in clear sticky-backed plastic covering film, you can’t peel it off again without ripping the paper. And ruining the students’ work. And the backing paper. And the edging paper. And, really, the whole display, which had to be completely re-done from scratch, including the children’s millennium pledges. I did make a teaching point out of it, and I hope that those children (who will now be about 33 years old!) can still spell ‘millennium’ correctly too…

Memory hooks

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Whenever I see the word ‘millennium’ now, I am reminded of those hours of time cutting stencil letters out. Twice. The memory is painful, and very funny – in hindsight. But it is strong and powerful. It is a memory I can return to when I am thinking about how to spell that tricky word, and it provides a “way in” for me to the knowledge that I need to ensure I never spell it incorrectly again. Although this memory hook was created by accident, it is also possible to use this technique to enable you to remember key information, for example when revising for tests, by deliberately creating a memory hook to link you to the information you want.

The memory hooks can be anything – an emotion, an image, a place, a person, a piece of music…I have a strong emotional hook to the spelling of the word ‘millennium’! Find something that you can use to trigger your memory, and you will find it easier to remember the things you are trying to learn.

One way to do this might be by putting revision reminders in different rooms of your home. Let’s say you were revising for a History test: you could put facts about people around the bathroom mirror, facts about places on your bedroom door, and information about causes and consequences on the refrigerator in your kitchen. Then, if you’re trying to recall the name of a key person, you can visualise your bathroom mirror and the post-it note you’d stuck just to the left of it…and hopefully, that will give you the memory hook to bring the name to mind.

Memory hooks really work…and that’s why my Joint First Place trophy from the 2018 Staff Spelling Bee has pride of place on the bookshelf in my office, just next to my Lego Millennium Falcon.

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Assembly: marginal gains and resolutions

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

In this week’s assembly, I’ve been talking about marginal gains and resolutions. I started with the picture above: many students had a go at guessing what these objects were! The answer is that these are ‘bum warmers’, used to warm the muscles of Olympic cyclists before a race. The extra warmth means the cyclists can start one hundredth of a second faster than their opponents.

These curious devices are one example of the British cycling team’s approach to the “aggregation of marginal gains.” This approach means making tiny improvements in lots of different areas, adding up to a big overall effect. Other examples include the the cyclists always taking their own pillows and bedding with them when they travel, to reduce the chance of picking up an infection which might interfere with their training. The team tweak every aspect of the bikes, the cyclists’ equipment and clothing, their diet, sleep, schedule and training regime to try and eke out an extra 1% of performance.

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

It’s an approach which seems to have worked. In the four Olympic Games between 1992 and 2004, the cycling team managed to win eight medals; following the adoption of the marginal gains approach, the team won 41 medals across Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016.

Marginal gains in school

I want us all to think about what marginal gains we could make in school. What small changes could we make to our approach which, sustained and added up over time, could result in a big improvement?

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One change could be in making the most of the time we have. Spending five minutes of a lesson off task – daydreaming, chatting to a friend, looking out of the window – doesn’t seem like too much of a problem. But adding it up over a year can result in a lot of lost time…

  • We have five lessons every day for 190 school days in a year
  • That’s 5 x 190 = 950 lessons per year
  • Five minutes wasted in every lesson is 5 x 950 = 4,750 minutes
  • 4,750 minutes is just over 79 hours
  • That’s over THREE WHOLE DAYS of learning lost per year, just from five minutes in each lesson (three days, seven hours and ten minutes, for precision fans).

Ensuring we attend every lesson punctually, and staying focused when we are there, is a marginal gain we can all make that could add up to a big overall effect over time.

Making a resolution

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New Year’s resolutions are notoriously hard to keep. This can be because they are too ambitious. But the advantage of resolving to make a marginal gain is that it involves a small change – or perhaps a number of them! Making resolutions to stay focused, to ensure that all equipment for school is prepared the night before, to avoid distractions, or to be more punctual to every lesson…these are not impossible goals to set ourselves, but added up they could make a significant difference.

What will your New Year’s resolution be?

CRH Marginal Gains Assembly

 

Thanks to Keith Neville for the inspiration for this assembly.

Mistakes

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Your best teacher is your last mistake (Ralph Nader)

It’s horrible when we get something wrong. Nobody likes it! It can be horribly exposing, and it’s perfectly natural to feel upset, or embarrassed, or even ashamed. But, of course, we make mistakes all the time. They are a natural part of the learning process. So how can best use our mistakes to make progress?

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FAIL: first attempt in learning

The first thing is to accept that mistakes are inevitable. They will always happen. Nobody is perfect. Secondly, if you are doing something difficult – which, in school, we expect our students to do – the likelihood of getting it wrong is much higher. So the most important thing is not getting it right first time, but getting it right in the end.

This video from the Khan Academy shows how, as young children, we aren’t afraid to fall down, fail and try again – for example when learning to walk or ride a bike. But, as we grow, we become increasingly self-conscious and easily embarrassed. This shift can actually get in the way of our learning as we are less willing to take risks and try something new, worried that we might get it wrong, and forgetting that mistakes are a natural part of learning.

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Minnesota Vikings defender Jim Marshall in 1970

We can rest easy that none of us will ever make so drastic a mistake as Jim Marshall. In 1964, Marshall played American Football for the Minnesota Vikings against the San Fransisco 49ers. When one of the 49ers players fumbled the ball, it came loose, and Marshall was able to scoop it into his hands. He looked up, saw the goalposts ahead of him, and ran as fast as he could to the end zone to score what he thought was a touchdown. It was when the 49ers players started congratulating him that he realised he had run the wrong way down the pitch into his own end zone, scoring a safety and conceding two points to the opposition.

How do you recover from a mistake as catastrophic and public as that? Marshall did his best to forget about it, and crucially to learn from it. He went on to recover a total of 30 fumbles for the Vikings in his career, still an NFL record for the most recovered by any single player – and he never again ran the wrong way down the pitch. You can watch a video about Marshall’s experience here.

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At Churchill, to learn effectively, we believe in the value of:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

Having a healthy attitude to mistakes, and having the confidence and determination to take risks in our learning and try new things, are all central to our success in learning. So long as we make sure we’re facing the right way before we set off.

 

Making a good start

I am writing this blog post on Wednesday 19th September, exactly two weeks (or one complete timetable cycle) since the start of the school year. I can confidently say: “we’ve made a good start.”

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Since the start of term teachers have awarded 8530 reward points, set against 482 points for concerns. This ratio of nearly 18 to 1 rewards over concerns shows that our students have begun the year in the right frame of mind, with the right attitude, and they are setting themselves up on the path to success.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect! As ever with the start of term, there have been some issues to resolve and some teething troubles. Some students have had to adjust their behaviour or their uniform, and we as staff have had to make some adjustments to put a few things right. This is a really important process: nobody can get everything right all of the time, but when things aren’t right we are committed to sorting them out. This is what we ask of our students, and it is only right that we lead by example.

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A good start is just that: a beginning. Now that we are through the first two weeks, students have been to every class and lesson, and met all their teachers. The novelty of a new school year has worn away. What matters now is settling into the routine and rhythm of the Academy, maintaining the high standards set at at the start. That means continuing to show those learning behaviours which we know give students the best chance of success in their studies:

  • Determined and consistent effort
  • A hunger to learn new things
  • Challenging ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable
  • Viewing setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow
  • Seeking and responding to feedback
  • Encouraging others to succeed

And, even if you haven’t made a good start, it’s important to never give up. The video below shows the 1972 Olympic 800m final, featuring American athlete Dave Wottle (in the white hat). He made a slow start, falling way behind the field made up of the finest runners in the world. But he kept trying, and he never gave up. What happened next went down in Olympic history. We could all do with a bit of Dave Wottle’s determination:

Process over product

 

African Masks

Last week I saw a post on the Art Department Instagram which has inspired this week’s blog.

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Process over product. You art students work mighty hard towards your final pieces, and let me tell you… it doesn't go unnoticed. We call that the process, the hard work (and sometimes downright frustrating part) before we start the final piece. You do most of your learning during the first stages of a project. I sometimes love the development shown in a sketchbook more than the final piece! Shhhh. Amazing pieces of art don't just happen folks. It takes planning, research, and hard work to create a final piece to be proud of. Keep trying, keep working hard. 🤗 . . . Here, yr 7 start making their masks, whilst referring to their sketchbooks. #churchillacademy #Processoverproduct #hardworkpays #masks #ks3art #kidart #creativekids #churchillartacademy #africanart #yr7art

A post shared by churchillARTacademy (@churchillartacademy) on

You art students work mighty hard towards your final pieces, and let me tell you…it doesn’t go unnoticed. We call that the process, the hard work (and sometimes downright frustrating part) before we start the final piece. You do most of your learning during the first stages of a project. I sometimes love the development shown in a sketchbook more than the final piece! Shhhh. Amazing pieces of art don’t just happen folks. It takes planning, research, and hard work to create a final piece to be proud of. Keep trying, keep working hard.

This post captures a key element of our approach to learning at Churchill. At school, every experience is an opportunity to learn. We encourage our students to approach every task with the attitude: “how can I learn from this?” or “how can this task help me to get better?”

With this approach in mind, teachers emphasise what each task is designed to teach, develop or provide the opportunity to practise, whilst students will focus on what the key learning points in each task are. Although students should rightly feel proud of the finished product – whether it be a project, a homework, a performance, an essay, a test, an experiment or a piece of art or design – the learning happens during the process of making it. It is only through rehearsal that a performance can be polished.

Churchill School day 2 June 5th  2018

Even when a piece of work is finished, the learning isn’t. There will always be feedback on how to improve, reflection on what we have done well and what we can do better next time. This feedback is the essential ingredient which helps all learners move forward.

Receiving feedback can be hard. If the work has been the result of substantial effort, receiving critique on its flaws can be difficult. “I tried really hard, and it’s still not right,” our inner voice might say.

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The key to overcoming this is to remember that every experience in school is a learning experience. When you approach every task with the attitude: “how can I learn from this?” or “how can this help me to improve?” it means that you are expecting feedback – you need it. The task is not over when you have completed the work; it is only over when you have received the feedback and acted on it in order to improve, and taken the next step forward in your learning. Then you are ready for the next task, to build on the progress you have made.

If we are going to make the progress we are capable of, we all need to shift our mindset away from “it’s finished when I put my pen down.” The final product is important, but the learning happens during the process. That’s why, at Churchill, we always emphasise the importance of the process over the product.

 

Curiosity: is there life on Mars?

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Organic molecules found on the surface of Mars (source)

Earlier this month, NASA announced that the Curiosity Rover on the Martian surface had found ancient organic molecules by drilling down into 3-billion-year-old sedimentary rocks.

“Curiosity has not determined the source of the organic molecules,” said Jen Eigenbrode of NASA. “Whether it holds a record of ancient life, was food for life, or has existed in the absence of life, organic matter in Martian materials holds chemical clues to planetary conditions and processes.”

Although the surface of Mars is inhospitable today, there is clear evidence that in the distant past, the Martian climate allowed liquid water – an essential ingredient for life as we know it – to pool at the surface. Data from Curiosity reveal that billions of years ago, a water lake inside Gale Crater held all the ingredients necessary for life.

I’m completely in awe of the Mars exploration project. It blows my mind to think that there is a machine, made by humans, rolling around on the surface of another planet and sending back pictures and information. Not only that, but the machine is drilling into Martian rocks, cooking the extracts at 500°C and analysing the vapour.

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A composite selfie taken by the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars (source)

The machine bears the name of one of Churchill’s values: Curiosity. It is this desire to find things out that has driven us on to this incredible achievement. The project combines Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, Geology, Design, Technology, Engineering, Computing, and Mathematics just in terms of the exploration programme. The interest in these subjects started for each of the people involved when they were at school. They have built their careers on applying what they have learned to this amazing project, demonstrating creativity and ingenuity at every turn. When I look at the “selfies” taken by the rover on the surface of Mars, or I see the hole in the Martian surface left by its drill, I am staggered at what we can achieve.

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Artist’s impression of the Mars 2020 Rover on the surface (source)

There are two more missions to Mars planned in the near future: NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover and the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme. What other secrets will they discover about the mysterious Red Planet? These missions are laying the ground work for a manned mission. Perhaps the generation of students currently at school will be the generation that first walks on the surface of another planet in our solar system. I hope they do – and it will be curiosity that takes them there.