Preparing for Uncertainty

During these strange times we believe individual stories can help the collective find new ways of working.  We invited Katy Anderson, a teacher in Blackburn Primary, to reflect on how she prepared her class to continue to learn and grow through periods of uncertainty.  This is her and her pupils story . . .

Over the past two years, I have been on a journey with my class. A journey where I intended to prepare my learners for uncertain times. In a world that wants to have all the answers. A world that craves instant gratification. I wanted my pupils to think for themselves and see the unknown as having endless possibilities. Little did I know the path would lead us to a time where the world is filled with more uncertainty than ever before. This is how I believe I supported my P5/6/7 class to become independent and take ownership of their learning.

I began with something very simple. Simply asking my P5/6/7 class what they valued about school. After each had listed their top five, it emerged that art was top of the list. This, to me, was a pleasant surprise as prior to teaching I had originally trained as an artist. However, I did feel like I was letting them down somewhat. I realised that my skills as an artist were an untapped resource within my classroom and I began to recognise that I had to think differently. So, I set off on a journey with my class to make new meaning of the curriculum as it currently stood.

I began to look at my classroom as a studio. Somewhere my learners (or should I say artists) and I were able to explore, experiment, question each other and begin truly collaborating. I tried to really tune into my class. What were they already bringing to the table that I hadn’t noticed? Just like I hadn’t noticed their appreciation of art. I tried to pick up on the things that mattered to them. As William Butler Yeats said “Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire”. Well I wanted to light fires.

The first fire saw the creation of a Super Noodle topic. Formed through an autobiography project which followed our trip to the National Galleries; a catalytic, lived experience for my learners. My class loved Super Noodles and I began to wonder. Could the curriculum be found within a packet of noodles? My learners rose to the challenge and the answer was a definite yes. We found maths, where we estimated and then measured a packet of Super Noodles – with the added problem solving around how we would actually carry out such a bizarre activity. We found music, where we created Super Noodle lyrics to the tune of ‘We Will Rock You’. We found literacy in the shape of Super Noodle comics – alongside his accomplices Franky Fork and Peter Pot. Of course, we had food technology. My pupils demonstrating to me (a novice apparently) how to cook Super Noodles to perfection! Art, Science, P.E – you name it, my pupils could find it.

We even had our own Super Noodle hoax inspired by the BBC’s Spaghetti Tree hoax in 1957. My class felt that they could trick people into thinking people in China had started making wigs using Super Noodles. China has always been known for making new products right? My pupils couldn’t believe they were allowed to be mischievous. They couldn’t believe they were allowed to have a Super Noodle topic. If we could push the boundaries here, where else could we push them?

My class had found their voice and were channelling it positively. I didn’t have the same challenges I had previously met regarding behaviour. I didn’t have to coax them to get on with their work. Their opinion of school was changing and becoming increasingly positive. They could see the purpose of school and they wanted to participate. They wanted to take action. It was brought to my attention that they didn’t feel the current layout of our classroom was fit for purpose. The table plan didn’t allow for group work to flow and they wanted more choice around who they worked with.

So, in response to this, I planned and carried out a maths lesson whereby they were tasked with drawing table plans to scale and pitching their ideas to the rest of the class. The winning designers then hired people to help them arrange the room accordingly. They were given more freedom to choose where they sat. Often my learners would look to me to make decisions but here I was setting a timer and telling them they had to work it out themselves. And they did. And they still were almost one year later. I’ll admit I’ve had to reign that back in again more recently for a number of reasons; increasing class size, additional support needs etc. but this isn’t a case of saying “Do this and it will solve all of your problems. Let learners choose their seats and they’ll never look to you to make decisions again”. Absolutely not. This is about paying attention to what’s going on in classrooms. What’s really going on and then responding to it.

Which brings me nicely to the next event. The creation of our very own pop up shop. During our local walks my pupils were discussing the closure of the local shopping centre and the issues they felt this would cause. It’s important to note that without this shopping centre local residents would need to travel on a bus in order to reach the nearest local amenities. It was clear that the pupils were keen to take action and so they were asked to think of ways they themselves could make money. Resulting in the decision being made to host our very own pop up shop in our school. Groups were formed by interest of each product and they were given £10 per group (on loan from the Virgin Make £5 grow initiative).

Originally, I set aside a small portion of time for them to work on their given product. However, the time quickly increased due to the valuable learning experiences becoming increasingly evident. They made video adverts and prototype products. They budgeted their own money. They pitched their ideas. Gave and responded to feedback from one another. They visited the local Scotmid (found within the local shopping centre itself) to buy products. Here, they negotiated with each other, compromised and problem solved. Parents were invited via group calls and leaflets (both organised by the children) and we achieved high parental engagement.

The five groups included – Foodie Fellas, Cakes and Bakes, Arty Kidz (previously joined with Cakes and Bakes but soon became a partner company), Second hand toys and Lovely Loom Life. I had spent a lot of time worrying that things would not go as well as they seemed to believe they would. Their prices were high and we were relying on a lot of the completed work turning up on the day. The open day arrived and I could not believe the amount of home baking brought in by three of my pupils alongside their parents. The number of cakes, scones, meringues, shortbread (I could go on) was typical of the amount we might expect from the full school when asking for baking donations.
Trading hours saw persuasive selling techniques and high quality customer service. It also led to the Foodie Fellas buying products from Cakes and Bakes and selling them at their stall for more money. Prompting high levels of competition and debate. A real experience for all involved. Through this project my pupils achieved real success. They increased their independence. The learning was meaningful. They seemed to realise that if something was happening in their local area or the world in general they could do something about it. I asked them if the event had been a success. They said – yes. I asked them why – ‘because we did it, we did it all’. Now of course I had a part to play, however, I could see that my role was slowly changing from teacher to facilitator.

They already felt a huge sense of achievement which was multiplied when they received an Enterprise Award from the Chamber of Commerce for their efforts. In Education we often talk about building resilience. This event built resilience. My learners were more open to challenges. They were more able to resolve conflict without the intervention of an adult. Throughout the process of organising this event things were chaotic and at times myself and my colleagues wondered how on earth they were going to pull it off but we went with it and I am so glad we did. This made me realise that we really need to trust children more.

Following on, after the summer, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the celebration of the school’s 60th birthday. My class had so many amazing ideas about how we should celebrate it. Collectively, they came up with 60 questions about Blackburn’s past, present and future. Possibly one of their most interesting questions – who will answer these questions? This opened up the possibility of finding partners to work with. Beginning with parent interviews held in school and led by the pupils. Parental engagement was high. This project concerning their local area mattered to the children and it mattered to the parents.

We began the creation of our own timeline in class, analysing their local area, from 1600s to the present day. We added newspaper articles, photographs, entries from an old log book and drawings created by the pupils. We mapped the local bus routes, made contact with businesses and even wrote letters to celebrities. All of which were connected to their home town. There was energy and real purpose around the learning and when it came to presenting their work they spoke confidently. They were eager to share the many amazing things they had created inspired by the timeline; animations telling stories of miners, a life size sculpture of the ‘owner’ of their local area, designs for new school logos, robots for the future ready to tackle possible challenges…

And now, as I write this, Education is facing a huge challenge. The school buildings have closed their doors to pupils and staff, making a move to ‘distance learning’. The school closures saw a huge amount of uncertainty and it was a stressful time for many. There were many questions asked – How will pupils access the curriculum? What learning resources should we provide? How will schools close the attainment gap when teachers are unable to teach? Many believing that this would lead to the attainment gap widening. That pupils wouldn’t do the work that was set. That they would fall behind and anything taught through distance learning would have to be taught again.

I didn’t have those types of questions nor did I share the same concerns. Instead, I felt hopeful. Hopeful that I had prepared my pupils to not only survive in these uncertain times but thrive. I was also hopeful that this would bring about much needed change to our Education system as it currently stood.

On the first day the schools closed to pupils myself and my colleagues were still in school. Keeping our two metre distance from one another and wondering when we would be sent home. The whole situation was bizarre but what seemed as though it was going to be nothing but a stressful, anxiety ridden day was made joyous thanks to my pupils. I had set them their first assignment – create your own timetable for the week. All week I had seen and heard of staff in schools up and down the country frantically photocopying work to send home and posting links to resources.

So, perhaps it was a risky move to ask pupils to decide how they should plan their time but if I couldn’t get my pupils to take ownership of their learning now would there ever be a better time? Did everyone send me their timetables? No. Did everyone turn up and login to Microsoft Teams? No. However, the timetables I did receive were great. It was clear that pupils knew which areas they had to work on e.g. square numbers, multiplication strategies etc. One P7 pupil wrote that he would ‘practise how to tell the time as it would come in handy in these circumstances’. On top of all of this my pupils supported each other. They offered help when others could not get things to work. Made suggestions when some pupils were unsure how to spend their time and offered words of encouragement to motivate each other. The first week of ‘distance learning’ with my class has now came to an end and what I have seen from my class has been incredible. I’ve been sent photographs taken during dog walks, drawings of my very own cat, shadow puppets, three pages of reasons why the band ‘System of a Down’ are incredible, album cover designs, a Scotland topic, cleaning ‘to do’ lists, home baking…

The list is endless but one particular piece of work stood out. A story written by a P7 girl. On Wednesday she sent me the story via email explaining that she had worked on it for the past two days. To me, her story was mind blowing. Maybe I’m biased. I had always known she was a good writer but had often received pieces half finished before she moved on to writing about something different. Now here was this story, ‘Grace Hills and the Wicked Witch of the Woods’. 1300 words of sheer brilliance. The vocabulary, the structure and the vibrant imagination echoing through it. Part of me couldn’t believe what I was reading; another part of me knew that she was absolutely more than capable of producing such a piece. Maybe she already had written similar pieces at home and I just didn’t know it.

The creation of this story got me thinking. I’ve been thinking A LOT this week. It’s been nice having the luxury of time to think. We as teachers are either cramming the curriculum into an already packed timetable. Resulting in certain things either being skimmed over in a desire for ‘breadth’ and being able to achieve coverage of the experiences and outcomes. Alternatively some areas are set aside or forgotten about as we choose to prioritise a specific area that hasn’t been seen to be working (according to attainment data). So we focus our efforts and make a big push in an area e.g. literacy. That is until we realise we’ve been forgetting to focus on an area in numeracy and now that’s dipping so we better focus on that. Oh but wait…

So, I set my pupils the challenge of simply choosing one thing to focus their time and energy on. Then report back and let everyone know what happened. One pupil spent four hours making a flip book. Another girl wrote a story about a UFO – the variety of fonts and structures she used looked like they had been picked straight out of a published author’s book. Another set about cleaning and tidying his house from top to bottom (parents you can thank me later). Another created a very accomplished 3D drawing of a hand. She tells me the drawing itself took her one hour but that she did lots of practise examples first. These pupils took on this challenge openly and excitedly. They were eager to report back and we have already discussed possibilities about what could happen next. Are there pupils I’ve still yet to hear back from? Of course. Am I worried about that? For some, yes. In this current situation we find ourselves in I hope that they are safe and well but am I worried that they are not attaining? Missing out on school work? Absolutely not. I trust that they will achieve great things in this time and that I’ll hear all about it in the weeks to come.

This week is, of course, not the first time I have opened up the timetable for my learners. I’ve placed question marks in the school timetable. An open invitation for them to participate in the designing of what happens during this time. We’ve engaged in ‘off piste’ days (and weeks), where my learners are able to lead their own learning. Make their own decisions. I paid attention to what really mattered to my learners and ran with it. Not knowing where it would go. By doing all of these things I believe my pupils are embracing the current situation. You don’t get much more ‘off piste’ than the current COVID 19 pandemic.

I don’t know what will happen next where Education is concerned but I do think it’s about time we all paid attention to what really matters. I think it’s time to stop over-planning for children. Stop filling every minute of their days. Stop answering all of the questions for them. They already have the answers. They just need time and the trust of adults to allow them to realise it.

Katy Anderson @MissAndersonBPS

P5/6/7 Blackburn Primary


3 thoughts on “Preparing for Uncertainty

  1. What a wonderful, insightful, thought provoking, honest and humour filled account of your and your pupils’ journey.
    I am so pleased that you wrote this and proud to call you my colleague.
    Thank you Miss Anderson

  2. As the Head Teacher of Blackburn Primary School the creative journey and pupil participation has been both challenging and rewarding in equal measure but well worth it! I am very proud of the work that Miss Anderson has undertaken with her class and Hidden Giants and will remain in partnership as we go forward in this time of uncertainty. In the last few sessions Miss Anderson has changed her practice significantly and I am proud to have such a courageous colleague on my staff and I want to thank her for such a thought provoking and powerful article. Miss Clarkson: Head Teacher: Blackburn Primary School and Hopefield Nursery.

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