6 05 2009

What a range of opportunities I’m having. I’m so grateful to the head of this school and the teacher of the class I’m working with for just allowing me to hang around.

This morning I was privileged to be in the classroom while two interview candidates conducted a lesson. Why am I thinking that’s a big deal? There is a sort of standing presumption that I’ll be around for stuff, but I know how it is sometimes when you haven’t put all the things in the diary together and seen all the implications. Well, I know how it is sometimes because I’m a sieve head. Maybe I’m the only one. Maybe everyone else looks at their diary and sees how it all fits together or doesn’t and acts accordingly. I, on the other hand, tend to work the implications of diary clashes as they’re actually happening!

Anyway, I asked if I’d be in the way. I don’t think this is the sort of place where people would have been shy of saying ‘yes’ if they thought I would. What was encouraging was that it suggests to me that this school was happy to present itself to these new people as a place where they might find me. Probably nobody thought it through to that extent, but at least nobody thought my presence was anything other than a natural part of what people might find here. It’s another expression of the welcome I’ve received here, I think.

I worked with some children today that I haven’t spent so much time with before, again in response to their invitation. It was a good and different experience to work with some more confident and able children. It felt, to be honest, less of a struggle and more like I was helping these children to unearth the ideas that were already within.

One of the children with complex emotional issues was back in the classroom today after a temporary exclusion. This was in response to an incident last week. I mentioned it here, so there’s no need to go into more detail. It was really good to see this child in a much more settle frame of mind and responding well to me and the cover supervisor who was looking after the class between interview teachers.

Later in the morning I was able to provide some close support for one of the academically less able children. Again, there was a specific request from this child for my help. It will be obvious to the teacher marking this work that there was a degree of ‘feeding’ but as much as possible, I tried to help this child develop and express their own ideas. This child seemed genuinely pleased to have produced some good work that I think he might not have been able to produce independently. I can’t speak for the child, but I found this time hugely rewarding. It made me wonder whether there wouldn’t be a bit of a sense of frustration for a classroom teacher because time pressures make it difficult to offer this sort of close support on anything other than a very infrequent basis. I wonder how much scope there is for encouraging appropriate adults to come and offer support alongside the teachers and learning support assistants.

In the lunch break, the cover supervisor expressed his gratitude for my help in the class. Again I was genuinely touched that my presence was not just tolerated but could be welcomed too, by another member of staff who had not been directly involved in agreeing this placement. I also spoke with one of the interviewees and a member of the governing body who was interviewing the candidates with the headteacher.

The governor asked a very insightful question about how I was coping with and responding to the diversity of the school. I was able to reassure her that I was committed to inclusion and that I had worked hard to make the input I was bringing accessible to children of all faiths and none. ‘I am not here to preach,’ I said. Indeed as I commented, my presence would not have been welcome if I were.

In the afternoon, there was another PE lesson with a rugby coach from the University. Once again, this gave an opportunity for some children to shine who might not so much in the classroom work. It was really encouraging to see one of the children who is at times disengaged be drawn into this activity and to share some moments of celebration with him – high fives after passing the ball.

Finally, this afternoon, came the time for the activity I had planned for today. I had each table group in the classroom making a small black and white pebble mosaic in wet sand. I hoped that this would work in two ways. Firstly it would help the children to reflect on yesterday’s trip out in a differently creative way. They have started working on a piece of writing. This gave them a chance to respond by making a piece of visual art. Secondly I thought that the collaborative working would lead the children to reflect on how they relate to each other.

To be honest, I think they loved this activity. I took them through some thinking steps, getting them to think about what sort of design they would like to make as individuals, then in pairs and finally in table groups. Reaching agreement about the design was a prerequisite for actually beginning to make their artwork. This did encourage some genuine collaborative work for some groups that have found it difficult to get on with each other during my time with them. This continued on into the process of making their artworks too.

Initially, as I had asked them to think about a significant moment in yesterday’s ‘pilgrimage’, there was a lot of mention of lunch. Their hunger after a long walk and a later than usual lunch break was clearly a significant experience. But I was pleased to see in the work finally produced that there was a range of moments from yesterday reflected.

This has been a busy day. Demanding in a different day from yesterday. The interviewees’ teaching demonstrations had made for a full programme. The day was a bit of a dash from one thing to another, but that is life in this school. There’s a lot to squeeze in. Every five minutes counts. It’s made me think about my use of time and my personal effectiveness again. I can on occasion run out of steam after getting one significant thing done in a day. School requires so much more of these children and their teachers and those helping them that I feel a bit pathetic in comparison!

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]

Turning back the tide

5 05 2009

cnut_small1Today was the day that I have been working towards and to which the activities on the remaining days refer. This was, if you like, the climax of my two week’s work and presence in the school.

Except that it wasn’t in the school. It was along the seafront at Eastney and along to Southsea.

Today was the ‘pilgrimage’ day. Pilgrimage is maybe a problematic word to use – it has distinct religious connotations. But I think like the word ‘retreat’ it belongs to so many faith traditions that it can belong to all and none. It was the word I used in my proposal for this time with the school and it didn’t seem to cause an issue at that stage. So it was a word I used with the children. As I said to them, it often involves traveling to a sacred or special site, but in almost every tradition, it’s the journey that’s important not the destination.

So it was today. The destination – it’s impossible to say this without sounding like a comedy hippy – was ourselves (and our relationship with each other and the world).

I know that there are children in this city that have never been to the sea. I don’t know if there were any in that category in this class until this term. Their topic this term is water and they have already been on one trip to the other end of the seafront to look at the geography of the Solent. And I know there is a plan for them to go again later in the term. And in a sense it doesn’t matter. Though it was in my mind, I wasn’t suggesting this trip simply in order to address a particular deprivation.

In the Rapid Parish Development workshop I attended a couple of weeks back, we were asked about the places we loved to visit. The seafront came up on nearly everyone’s list. It is a significant place for all sorts of reasons. People go there for family time, for fun and for exercise. None of those things are disconnected from spirituality – far from it. But there’s also a sense in which the seashore is a place of more obviously spiritual experience. The sea offers an encounter with all the moods of nature from calm beauty to awesome, destructive power. It’s one of the places where one can encounter a big expanse; both of sea and sky. It’s a place to find peace and an encounter with the sublime – a place where we can reflect on our place in the universe; a place where paradoxically, because we are faced with our insignificance in space and time, we can find value in ourselves. My hope for this trip was that I could create the space where the children and we adults accompanying them might touch some of that. I didn’t want to force that on anyone. And, anyway, how could I?

So the first part of the experience for them was a long, long walk. All the way from the heart of the city to Eastney, right down beyond the caravan park. They were tired and began asking lots of ‘are we there yet?’ questions, but I think it was good to take them on a walk that was beyond ‘utility’ (into futility?!). We could have stopped when we arrived at the sea front and done all the activities in one place, but I thought it would be valuable to enter into an experience of ‘journey’ as that is such an important metaphor for our growth, learning and spiritual development. There was something too about pushing ourselves on, keeping going beyond what is immediately comfortable to see if we could find value in doing so.

We arrived at the spot I’d pre-arranged with the class teacher for our first ‘station’. I think some of the immediate novelty of my presence in the classroom has worn off a bit and the attention is proving a little more challenging to draw together. Today, of course, was already a very new environment with lots of different views and materials from their usual learning space, so some of it could reasonably be put down to excitement.

EXCURSUS: excitement.

I nearly put ‘over-’excitement there but why shouldn’t children experience and express excitement? It’s one of the paradoxes of the school environment I think. The people I’ve met who work at this school all genuinely like children and enjoy their company. They want them to flourish as themselves and to enjoy their time at school and the new experiences and knowledge they’re encountering. Part of children’s natural response is excitement. Children are inherently enthusiastic people when stimulated in a way that engages their interests. But school isn’t a playground. There is an agenda. A big part of that agenda is set by outside bodies – the government for the most part. Sometimes that means that school makes huge demands of children’s intellect and for some of the subject matter there’s not always a big pay-off in terms of its being hugely stimulating. My perspective, after a few days in this school and somewhat longer married to a teacher, is that there is a degree of prescriptiveness, not only in what has to be taught, but how it has to be taught. That can stifle the creativity of teachers and make it difficult for them to make the learning as exciting as it could be if teachers had more freedom. And there’s a nagging thought in my mind that this is actually their (the children’s) time. Nobody is paying them. The rewards for doing the hard work could be so deferred as to make them irrelevant to these children. That’s not to say their achievements – no, not just their achievements – their efforts aren’t celebrated because they are. 

The agenda, as I hear it in the media, is to equip children for adulthood and most especially for the world of work. But what about their lives now? What about them getting the best out of life as the people they are now, not just the people they will become? I haven’t got an answer to that. But after a few days in this school there’s this little ache of grief in me that these children (my children too) are having to give up something of their childhood for the sake of what the adult world demands of them. What we demand of them. I don’t blame these teachers; the staff of this school. I’m deeply concerned as I write this, that any of them reading this understand that this is not a criticism of them. It’s more of a philosophical – actually I’d say spiritual – question about our society’s understanding of and relationship to childhood. The adults I have met in this school are dedicated to these children, to their education, yes, but also to these young people in their care for who they are right now too. I suspect that the little ache of grief is in their hearts too – not just for those whose lives outside school are  difficult lives but those whose lives are just fine too.

It’s possible to make too much of that, of course. In any other setting where one is working with children, their excitement does need to be managed. They are wont to get over-excited. They cannot be wholly relied upon to make good choices about behaviour that would endanger them or others around them. They need a degree of guidance and structure. They need boundaries in order to feel safe. Often for those in chaotic home settings, the boundaries that school provide, much as they might want to test them, kick against them, do offer some real sense of security.

Anyway, that’s a digression, though an important one that I needed to give space to.

Back to our day on the beach. After arriving at our first stop at Eastney, I recounted the well known episode in the life of King Cnut (as told by Henry of Huntingdon in the 12th century) using some props and getting a child to play the part of Cnut (without actually getting them wet!). He set his throne by the shore and pretended to command the tide to halt. When his robes were soaked by the waves Cnut leapt backwards and said ‘Let everyone know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ He then hung his gold crown on a cross and never wore it again. The point I drew out from the story is that human beings are not able to control everything and that there are some forces of nature that are just bigger than us.

Then we went and threw stones into the sea. Mostly for the sheer joy of it. I showed some who didn’t know how to throw a skimmer. This is the sort of useless skill children absolutely need to learn! It was a source of joy for us all, I think, to spend those few minutes skimming stones across the sea. We did reflect on how our stones made absolutely no difference to the sea and its relentless interaction with the land. I talked the children through the enormous lengths of time involved in the processes of erosion and the cycle from solid rock to sand and back again. Attention was wandering a bit again, but I think some of them at least connected with the sense of awe and wonder I was trying to convey through this and through asking about how many stones there might be on the beach and relating that to the number of people in the world. I asked them to choose a stone to represent themselves and remarked that each of them, like each of their stones is unique and precious. Finally I spoke about how none of the stones has become what it is on its own, but that each has helped to shape the others. I then suggested that we too are shaped by the people we bump up against and that we shape others too.

There was a lot of me talking in that first activity. I wonder whether some of that might have been better interspersed with the other activities, but I think they coped as well as they were going to at any point in the day with that sort of input. And it wasn’t devoid of hands on content, we skimmed stones and chose stones and lots of them also picked up other things that interested them: shells mostly.

By this time, it was apparent that making them wait until after the next activity to have lunch (as had been the plan) wasn’t going to work. It was already very nearly their usual lunch break time and they were expressing their need for food! So we walked on to the planned lunch stop. It was a salient reminder for me, if I needed one, that providing for children’s basic everyday needs must be a priority. That’s true of itself and it’s true if you want them to do anything that makes demands on their brains! This is stuff I know from my own children too. I’ve learnt to spot when they are hungry from very obvious changes in mood or behaviour.

After lunch, we headed down to the beach to make some pebble pictures. I divided the class into two groups and got them to collect two different shades of stones in the two buckets I had brought. Then I asked each group to collaborate on making a picture. Overall the children seemed to really engage well with this and enjoy the activity. It was interesting to watch the dynamics of each group. There were one or two who didn’t participate at all in either group. Others who took issue with the way things were progressing in the group, drew aside and did their own thing. Others still seemed more prepared to argue their case in the group. With a little prompting they also divided their labour. At this point some of those who had found themselves on the margin while the creative work was dominated by a smaller group, found they could have a renewed involvement and seemed to revel in the responsibility. I think some self-excluded and others did get pushed out to the margins by the larger group because their involvement was more disruptive. Partly that came about because the size of the pictures they were producing meant there were only so many children that could fit around the artwork. There were two children who hadn’t reintegrated with their group who produced their own artwork using the sand on the beach and stones and shell fragments. One of those was particularly fine and I have just realised that we didn’t record it photographically as we did for the group artworks. Perhaps it’s right that we didn’t because it would be inappopriate to celebrate non-participation in a required group activity, but it was an especially gratifying piece of work because this particular child finds much of the classroom work very challenging.

We then walked on further and stopped on the beach on the western side of South Parade Pier. Here I invited the children to use their non visual senses to take in the experience of being on the beach for a moment. They  have found some of the more meditative work a bit difficult so I was pleasantly surprised to find that they all, almost, were happy to do this without much silliness. I asked them to take out the stone they had chosen a couple of hours before and to think about how they would feel about leaving it behind to represent their individual mark on the world. I asked them to decorate their stone with the paints we had brought and then to do just that: to leave it behind on the beach. While half the class started on that, the other half built a cairn as a way of marking their presence as a group. The children seemed very engaged by both activities. They entered into them without protest. Members of each half of the class expressed disappointment about having to swap to the other activity because, it seemed they were really engaged with what they were doing.

Time was running short by this point, so we began the walk back, stopping for a toilet break. The children’s behaviour was pretty good all day and despite there being the usual challenges with sustaining attention at some points, my impression was that they were engaging well and enjoying what we were doing. I didn’t provide the same sort of opportunities for reflective feedback as I have on other days. I hadn’t planned to because of the pressure of time. So I don’t know how much of this has really gone in. I look forward to seeing over the next couple of days with some of the reflective activities I’ve planned what response I might get.

It was a good day. Once again, I was proud of the children.

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]

What your soul sings

3 05 2009

So there’s me, saying I don’t think singing is where it’s at. And two significant things today revolved around singing.

First. This morning.

It was rather discouraging in a way that there were just eleven of us at the Sunday morning service at St Luke’s today. I console myself with the fact that it’s a bank holiday weekend and that there probably aren’t so many around at the mo. And we didn’t have a musician. I knew our most regular musician was away. But I planned that we would listen to one song and sing another.

The song I thought we would listen to has been bugging me all week. I first heard it last summer at New Wine — a happy clappy church conference. It isn’t a naturally comfortable place for me, but last year as curate of a church that was going it allowed me time away with the family without using up holiday entitlement. So it was a no brainer really. The kids loved it and so despite myself, we’ve booked to go this year too.

Anyway, the song is called ‘Mighty to save’ and it’s from Hillsong (Aussie mega church). Now there are things about it that trouble me. First it’s that whole conservative, Pentecostal mega-church thing with its hardline morality and prosperity teaching. But then singing a song doesn’t mean you’re buying into the theology of the church what wrote it. But then the song is very definitely in that Christian soft rock style about which I have been so disparaging. Then it’s troubling on so many levels: ‘saviour, he can move the mountains/my God is mighty to save/he is mighty to save’. First off there’s all that ‘mighty’ language — there in the Bible of course (in relation to the crossing of the Red Sea especially) but the song is about Christ and if he is mighty then it’s such a different sort of might as to render the word irrelevant. I see the cross as representing God’s vulnerability in the world; God’s frailty; dare I say: weakness. Then there’s the (male) gendered pronouns for God (not uncommon I know but a personal bugbear of mine). It just means that as much as I studiously avoid gendered pronouns in my leading of liturgy, I am undermined by songwriters. And finally there’s the possessive in relation to God: ‘my God’. It just has too much of a hint of the ‘God on our side’ mentality for me, which, by extension, suggests not on the side of others. God is either for all the peoples of the world or none of them. The Bible is chock full of stories that show the danger of imagining that we possess God rather than being possessed by her.

And yet… Despite all that, this song has been buzzing round my head all week. It’s catchy so it’s just the sort of song one finds one’s self singing/humming, but why this week? It does have a hook that makes it appropriate in Easter time: ‘he rose and conquered the grave/Jesus conquered the grave’. So I put the words up on the screen and as well as listening, we all sang along. (‘All’ here covering a very small number of people!) I have learned/am still learning to trust those moments where something comes at you or you have an inner sense that suggests doing a particular thing. I think this song might be just what a couple of people needed this morning. That would always be important but even more so when they represent, as they did this morning, a significant perecentage of the congregation! So, much as I might harp on about singing actually being offputting for people in our locality, this tiny community is going to feel bereft if there are no opportunities to sing these sorts of songs.

Second. This evening.

I was a couple of minutes late arriving at the Fleet. For no good reason really. I just didn’t get myself moving quickly enough. Actually the same thing happened last week except that I was an hour ahead of myself. I set off late for 7:45 pm and arrived at about 7:50. But I was actually 55 minutes early instead of 5 minutes late: I invited people to come at 8:45. There’s no way I’d be late for a service in the church building so why did I act as if it is okay when meeting people in the pub? This coming week I’m determined to be there early.

All that meant I was worried this week. If people had arrived and not found me, maybe they would just have cleared off again. Especially as I hadn’t realized that it was karaoke night. Anyone arriving for a discussion evening would have thought they were in the wrong place. It was heaving and loud.

So not finding anyone I knew, I got myself a drink and stood in the archway next to a fruit machine to see if anyone was going to arrive. At one point I was gathered up in an embrace by one chap I’d met through my previous ministry at St Jude’s. He was at that moment, as most of the other times I’ve met him, quite well refreshed. What’s amazing is that he always expresses great appreciation for what I do, when all I can remember is just having spoken to him. Maybe I’m being a bit disingenuous there because I do think simple conversation is hugely important and that for some just having someone take the trouble to talk to them (and listen) can be very significant.

Anyway after that I decided to plant myself at a table and watch the door to see if any of my crew were arriving. I was joined after a little while by a group of people I didn’t know who asked if they could sit at the table. What was interesting was that there were empty tables so I wasn’t occupying a space they needed. It was pretty central for the entertainment. After a little while of getting used to sitting around the same table, we gently eased into conversation (shouted over the music). They were a group of three girls and two chaps who know each other from having studied at the Uni a few years’ previously. They didn’t all live in Portsmouth. They were having a sort of reunion time in their old student boozer.


We actually got on really well. Our conversation was a mix of friendly banter and joking about the karaoke performances along with some deeper stuff about faith or my work, usually prefaced with: ‘Can I just ask you a question…’

I was persuaded, ostensibly by being bought a Guinness, to have a crack at the karaoke. While someone was off getting a round in, one person I had been expecting did turn up. She quickly joined in the shouted conversation and banter too and was warmly welcomed by this very friendly bunch.

It was soon my turn to sing with the band. (It was live karaoke.) I sang ‘Spirit in the sky’ — in a knowing and ironic way, of course! It was highly amusing (if to no-one else then at least to me) to be singing ‘gotta have a friend in Jesus/so you know that when you die/he’s gonna recommend you to the Spirit in the sky’ to this pub full of quite drunk people who were in some corners engaged in some pretty advanced affectionate activity! Funnily enough it seemed to go down a storm.

Another drink was enough to persuade me to have another go. There followed an awful rendition of Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a place in earth’. That was me. And then a third priestly performance. This time I discovered that one of the girls on our table — table ten — had set me up to sing Shania Twain’s ‘Man, I feel like a woman’. I’m game for a laugh so what else could I do but to go for it and ham it up completely. Again, the performance, complete with backing vocals from one of the girls from table ten, was greatly appreciated. I do wonder though, after camping it up a but, how I managed to get out of the place alive!

I really don’t think this crew were just having a laugh at my expense. A couple of them took a turn at the mike thenselves and I think we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.

So, once again, after a wobbly start, I found myself meeting some new people, sharing the experience with a Christian friend and maybe even getting a bit of profile in the pub as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. All in all a good night’s work and huge fun to boot. And singing, even about Jesus (!) was very definitely a part if it.

I can’t wait for next week. I have no idea what will happen. But that’s what makes it so exciting.

Auguries of innocence

1 05 2009

Interestingly, but not surprisingly to me, the previous Ofsted report on the school scored the extent of learners’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and the extent to which learners make a positive contribution to the community in the ‘good’ category. When the head and I first explored the idea of spirituality and where our common ground might be (basically that we’re talking about all of the categories listed immediately above), she thought that the school was strong in those areas. My experience is that it is. That’s what led me to question in a previous post what it is that I might bring that is not already happening. Nothing was the answer I came to. But my presence I think has been worthwhile in recognising, highlighting and celebrating this aspect of the school’s life.

Maybe that’s reflected too in the work of the artist we looked at as part of the activity I led today. Andy Goldsworthy is a scottish landscape artist and photographer whose work, I think, invites its audience to pay greater attention to what is already there in the natural environment. This it seems to me is an expression of what visual art, at its best, can achieve. My own training as an artist was especially focused on drawing. Drawing, unlike more finished artwork, is, above all, about really seeing. It offers a way of looking that gets the artist beyond the mind’s symbolic register of objects in the world to the truth of their form in space. When you start looking like that, it’s breathtaking. It’s so powerful that it would be overwhelming to see like that all the time. (Actually, if you’ve ever read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, it seems that this is what it’s like for some people with Asperger Syndrome.) The world is full of wonder and is absolutely amazing when you truly look, in its most mundane details. And it’s a spiritual experience. This is what William Blake was reflecting in his ‘Auguries of Innocence’:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Goldsworthy goes a step further by communicating this artistic vision. through transforming the natural environment with natural materials, he reveals the inherent wonder and beauty in both the environment and the materials he finds and uses there.

This is a wonderful metaphor for my experience at this school. The spirituality work I have been doing and my refections in this blog haven’t been about bringing something that isn’t there. It has been about communicating the joy and wonder of what is already there. This is a rich environment for an artist, poet or any reflective person. All of life’s light and shade is here, but, oh, there are wonders! This is tune too with the approach of the Rapid Parish Development programme that St Luke’s church is engaged with. It’s about celebrating what’s already there. I think all of these things really come together in a very powerful way within this school that is also about celebrating the light and life within this community, wherever it is to be found.

And I think these children are getting it. To an extent their default is to kick against the system they’re in. So getting them to engage with anything, even though you think it might be a lot of fun for them is a challenge. Today, as previously, one group in particular struggled with the meditation.

I thought it would be good to do this work in the school grounds. The class teacher suggested one of the play areas outside that is very popular and would provide a rich source of found objects alongside the pebbles, shells and driftwood I brought with me. There was quite some excitement about working with in this area. The opening meditation was not just a struggle, it was almost impossible. It’s one of those things that only works if everyone joins in. Some members were downright uncooperative and the learning support assistant and I had quite a job on our hands just keeping the group in the area we had gone to outside. Others were also disruptive but on a lower level. So today, the meditation really, if I’m honest, didn’t work. Maybe they got something from it. But really it‘s about stilling ourselves inside and it didn’t seem to have that effect today. Of course I can’t tell what was going on inside for these children and it may be that even sharing the aspiration to approach the work that followed from a ‘stilled’ place helped them into it.

Because both the groups we worked with responded beautifully to the invitation to try out making their own ‘Goldsworthies’. Not only did they produce some really beautiful sculptures but also they collaborated well in pairs or trios. I think the non-verbal communication came to the fore here. There was some talking but also a lot of quiet. I think the children were intuitively reading off each other’s intentions and responding to each other’s contributions to the shared artwork. 

I wonder whether the fantastic musical assemblies in this school that I described in a previous post have been a training ground for this collaborative, non-verbal way of working. The children appeared genuinely proud of their own work, appreciative of others’ but also not so precious about it that they couldn’t break down their creations at the end of the session.

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]

We are detective

1 05 2009

Are you old enough to remember the Thompson Twins? I don’t mean the characters in the Tintin books. I mean the eighties band named after them. I am reminded of their 1983 hit We are detective. Some of the people I’m working with in a school in the heart of Portsmouth were only just born when it was released. That’s a bit frightening. I remember in my twenties that people found it amusing that I had been born in the 1970s. Now I am similarly amused/jealous when I meet those born in the 1980s.

Anyway, the first verse of that (not very good) song began like this:

Somebody’s watching me
And now I’m nervous and I shouldn’t be
Somebody’s got their eye on me
Perhaps I should invite him up for tea?

It could be a bit of a theme song for the staff in this school over the past couple of days. Yesterday and today they have definitely known that they are being watched or that they were imminently going to be. It’s never a comfortable experience to have your work observed. Even the most self-assured person feels a little nervous when their work is under scrutiny. The teachers are feeling nervous. And they shouldn’t be. They’re doing a good job.

How would I know? I haven’t watched them all. I haven’t seen many of them teach. Even if I had, I’m not an educationalist. I’m a priest. Teaching is part of what a priest is called to do, but I’m not qualified to make such a judgement. Nonetheless I have been impressed by the faith that the head has in her staff. And though she’s a very positive person, she doesn’t strike me as the sort of person who is easily beguiled. She is a realist.

In fact that realism is, I think, what lays behind her decision to call in an inspector for a ‘dry run’ before Ofsted get here for real. The last inspection was in June 2006. Inspections are generally carried out every three years, so it’s coming. No-one knows the day or hour, but, like a thief in the night, it will come! The head I think has recognised that an Ofsted will highlight some difficulties and could identify the school as having what would have been called ‘serious weaknesses’ until that language was, quite rightly, changed in recent years. (That category has been replaced with the issuing of an ‘improvement notice’.)

I was pleased that some of the content from this blog has been used as evidence in support of the school’s work and achievements. Part of the issue as I see it is that this school has a distinct ethos and vision. It is committed to inclusion. That encompasses those children who are most troubled (and therefore frequently the most troubling). That’s not an ethos that the wider state education system would take issue with. Where it might be problematic is that in areas where there is a disproportionate number of pupils suffering deprivation and poverty and the concomitant social and emotional distress, the academic attainment that the system requires is self-evidently much more difficult to achieve.

Except that it’s not self-evident to everyone. A union notice in the staff room in this school ironically celebrates a fairly recent recognition by the Department for Children, Schools and Families that this might be the case. The system has been less ready to recognise the ‘added value’ that schools such as this bring, compared to the absolute academic standards. It is, to some extent, blind to a school’s intake.

One answer would be to, in a sense, tweak the intake – to remove from the classroom, the school even, those pupils who disturb and distract their peers (and themselves). That’s not to say that exclusion is a tool that a school can wield easily. It creates all sorts of problems. But it would conceivably be possible for this school to have a less inclusive ethos – to recognise to a lesser extent, the unique challenges that individual children face; to insist that they conform to the same absolute standards. There are clear standards here, but there is also a high degree of tolerance, understanding and compassion that means that emotional, social and behavioural support is individually tailored in the same way that educational support is. I’m sure that’s true in every school but it’s a question of degree and here, I think, they will do everything in their power to encourage each and every child to engage with the learning opportunities offered within a class of their peers. Put bluntly, it’s my impression that the exclusion threshold is much higher here than in some of the other schools in the city.

That means that the staff have to operate a little more cannily to demonstrate the progress that children are making. This is where there might be weaknesses: not in the quality of teaching and learning so much as the care taken to record and present evidence for the children’s progress. If the evidence is not so well recorded and presented that will be reflected in the grading attached to the teaching and learning. But it does not mean that the dedicated staff of this school are failing. They can turn this around with greater attention to the gathering, recording and presentation of evidence of pupils’ progress.

That will require the staff to say with the Thompson Twins: ‘we are detective’. They will need to mine the work that children have already completed and keep really focused on their marking and ordering of future work.

This is a really intriguing reflection for me. It has made me realise how much more rigourous I could be in approaching my own work. I didn’t really feel it until recently, when someone pointed it out to me, but I am being watched too. This is the first pioneer appointment for this diocese. People sympathetic to this sort of mission and ministry deployment will be looking to my work for evidence with which they can persuade others of the case for using limited resources to create other such posts. Those less favourably disposed towards anything other than traditional parochial deployment of clergy will similarly be looking for evidence!

Maybe I actually should feel nervous. I’ve been keenly aware of the need to present a finished ‘product’ – a proposal for a Bishop’s Mission Order – but I have been less conscious of what I might be able to do to demonstrate that whatever I come up with is the result of effective working. There isn’t much of a culture of being driven by results among the appraisal of clergy. But then most clergy are working in very well established patterns. It’s perhaps more straightforward to assess a parish priest’s effectiveness in terms of their leading of worship, preaching, etc and their involvement in the occasional offices: baptisms, weddings and funerals.

Sometimes, I look back over a week and ask myself: ‘What did I actually do?’ In part, that feeling could be overcome if I actually recorded what I was doing day to day. This blog means there is some sort of record of what I’m doing. But there’s plenty of opportunity for self-selection and spin. The other part of the issue is that sometimes the answer to my question might be: ‘Not a lot.’ I am not an effective worker. I coast then cram. I’ve always been the same. That’s why I’ve always done well at exams and not so well with coursework. And I’m easily distracted. But cramming so often involves late night working and as I get older and the children get no less demanding that pattern is becoming harder and harder to sustain.

I need to break the pattern of a lifetime and achieve some consistency in the degree to which I apply myself in my working time. The coasting time often involves being distracted when I should be applying myself. I have looked at some of the bright children in this class I have been working with and reflected on what they could achieve if they really applied themselves. Well, physician, heal thyself!

Actually recording what I do in some sort of timesheet could be helpful in this regard too. If I actually find someone who is prepared to look them over for me, I think that accountability might help me to ensure that I am tougher with myself when I am working. In this school every minute counts. I need to make my approach to my work the same – especially as family life means I have limited hours available compared to some colleagues who are working ridiculous hours.

Maybe too I will have to join the ranks of the detectives and go back over the recent months and gather evidence about what I have been able to achieve. And I’ll think of the staff and pupils of this amazing school and press on to do even better. 

Onward and upward!

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]

An inspector calls

1 05 2009

It would be overstating it to say there was a different atmosphere in the school today. My experience wasn’t markedly different. The reason it might have been is because there has been an inspector in the school today conducting a sort of pre-Ofsted, Ofsted inspection. That said, I think I would have to be the most insensitive individual in the universe not to notice that there was a little bit of tension in the air. But there seemed to be determination too to show the school as it is.

The staffroom was overflowing with cakes that the head had bought for her staff. They were left along with a note encouraging them in the most simple yet touching way. Simply, she believes in them.

Now I love cakes. A lot. And I don’t think it’s the sort of place where anyone would have minded if I’d had one. There were probably enough cakes for a staff three times as big – an indication of what sort of gesture the head was making. Not cursory. Overwhelming. She wanted them to really know just how much she esteems and admires them all. So – I’m going to use that phrase again – I felt like I was on sacred ground. I would have minded if I’d taken one of those cakes. It would have felt like robbing the temple.

After sitting in and helping members of the class with some more maths work, we went to assembly. I do find myself gravitating in the classroom to the younger ones who find the work a little more demanding. Sometimes that’s because they ask me and I think, why not? I really do think why not? I want to check to make sure that there isn’t a good reason why I shouldn’t such as avoiding getting too close to particular children or that the request isn’t a form of avoidance for the child. I’m also wondering now whether I shouldn’t also see what I could give to/learn from the more able children. Perhaps I’ll mention it to the teacher tomorrow…

I was then privileged to attend a really quite brilliant assembly that was led by a visiting music teacher. There was no explicit religious content to this assembly. But it was certainly, I would say, spiritual. It began without a word and it continued without instruction or comment for some time. Now clearly this is because the school and this teacher have built up a pattern, understanding and rapport. He basically plays short rhythmic bursts on hand drums to which the children respond with claps. The claps weren’t always the same. It was an organic thing. This was an amazing episode of non-verbal communication. The music teacher also gave different parts of the gathering different rhythms to clap out, again without a word. Then they sang a familiar song and began to learn a new one. It didn’t go on too long. It was just the right length in fact. The event created community, joy and belonging. It gave everyone a share in the responsibility to keep the community’s self expression going. If that’s not spiritual, I don’t know what is!

Funnily enough, I’ve done something similar in my previous appointment, both on a dads’ and kids’ camping weekend and at a church service. New ways of expressing worship/spirituality can become all very quiet and passive and not at all attractive to energetic people. Thinking about what really noisy and energetic worship would look (sound) like led me to conceive of an act of worship based around drumming. It worked really well then in the hands of a rank amateur. In the hands of a consummate professional today, it was glorious.

There was another touching moment too today in that assembly hall when one of the teachers shared with me how they were feeling about being observed. It was just a little thing, they were feeling apprehensive and disquieted, they weren’t overwhelmed. Even so, to be trusted with someone’s feelings in that way was humbling.

After the assembly, we were back in the classroom for some further maths work. I noticed that one child with particular emotional challenges was heading towards another period of disengagement and wondered if a little coaxing from me might help this child back into what was going on. It did seem to help on this occasion and with some subsequent work. It so happened that this was what I was doing when the inspector came to visit the classroom. I was acutely aware at that point that I was not a trained learning support assistant. I did not want to screw this up for this teacher or the head who had also come in to share the observation. The teacher was, in this observed lesson, exactly the same as I have seen him in every other lesson: calm, firm, in control, encouraging, well-paced. There was no ‘show’. It was his everyday teaching that was on display.

This afternoon I led the second of my spirituality sessions with the learning support assistant and without the class teacher. I did it twice with two groups. The first group were more challenging and I found it more of a struggle. They didn’t engage well with the meditation. There were one or two who were trying to derail it, I thought. But that’s okay. I’m getting a full experience! Interestingly, it was those who hadn’s been part of the whole class meditation yesterday who struggled today. The group included some of the children with the most complex needs, but there were a couple of children who really tried who at other times are the most disengaged. When it came to the art activity that followed my input, they really seemed to get what it was about and to really enjoy it. They could tell me the point of the exercise and what they got from it.

Under pressure of time, I cut the meditation shorter for the second group but I did finish with the sharing stone circle which I missed for the previous group because we ran out of time. This was an older and broadly more able group and they engaged well and again, it seemed to me, were genuinely taken with what we were doing.

My contribution to the sharing stone group was the same as the LSA’s. I was proud of them. Actually I was proud of both groups, despite the wobbly start for the first crew. Well done boys and girls and thank you.

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]

Priests make poor researchers. Discuss.

1 05 2009

Part of my training for ordination involved being exposed to some social science and anthropological strategies for getting under the skin of whatever setting one finds one’s self in. Those modules encouraged us not to just trust our hunches and superficial impressions but to dig deep into the culture of the places in which we find ourselves exercising our ministry. In my current MA too there has been a substantial module on designing a research project. That partly informed my current strategy of immersing myself in different contexts for a concentrated, though short, period of time.

Ethnography (an anthropological discipline) is the technique that informs my engagement with these placements where I come as a participant observer. I haven’t come as an out and out researcher. I have come as a priest. And I have come into my current setting – a primary school in the centre of Portsmouth – offering some input that I have developed as I have reflected on the nature of spirituality and how people, especially children might be encouraged in their own sense of connectedness with themselves, each other, the wider world and ‘the transcendent’ (however they name that). I have also come as a learner – offering simply to be another learning and growing presence in the school.

I’m not here as a researcher in the official/explicit sense. That would have required a different conversation seeking permission to be here than the one I actually had. But I am here to learn, and to understand this community and maybe reflect a little how the church might celebrate, support, contribute to its life. So I am informally using some ethnographic strategies to help me in that process. That’s all a very long preamble to the point I want to make…

One thing that is identified in all the books about research is that ‘going native’ is something to be avoided, though it’s an ever-present draw in research settings. Basically researchers are supposed to avoid identifying too strongly with their research subjects because it distorts their findings. But as I said to the headteacher today, three days into this placement, I could very easily find myself being a passionate advocate for this school and its work.

So that probably means I’m a rubbish researcher. Well I can’t say as I care much about that, though it may make my MA dissertation a little more tricky!

Maybe it’s just down to my personality. I remember feeling similar feelings of admiration for the nurses I was interviewing for my pre-ordination placement. But maybe it’s also got something to do with the nature of priesthood too. Going native might be the bête noïr of the world of research but I wonder whether it might be precisely what a good priest should be about: identifying with people; celebrating with them; calling out the joy and hope that is evident even in the most trying of circumstances. These are certainly an aspect of the calling of a priest. There is also, undeniably, a call to relate the stories out of which that celebration emerges to the narratives of faith. How that works in this setting, I am a long way from working out. Certainly it would just be crass, arrogant and rude, to go round the place saying ‘it’s all thanks to God, you know!’ (That’s just so obvious it probably doesn’t even need saying.)

But maybe again it is just about who I am in this place and who I am known to be. Maybe my presence as a priest, subtly and gently raises the prospect that there might just be a bigger dynamic at work here than just the indomitability of the human spirit, impressive as that is. But it doesn’t force that interpretation down anyone’s throat. If anyone wants to explore it further they can ask me. If it unsettles them, they don’t have to be confronted with it in a challenging way. That leaves everyone’s dignity intact and makes no threat, I think, to the properly multicultural (and secular?) nature of this school.

I suspect this obsession with God is quaint and amusing for some who might now be reading this blog, but I hope you will allow that as a priest in the Church of England it’s a subject I might just be reasonably expected to think about!

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]