Night weaning, a Herculean challenge

This is slightly off topic for this blog as it has little to do with English teaching, although it most certainly is a feminist issue. If feminism is about women having choice over their lives – to work or to parent or to work part time – it must also be about being able to choose to parent in the way that you want: returning to work shouldn’t rule out breastfeeding, bedsharing, general hippy parenting…should it? 

Before our baby was born, my husband and I set up our cot as a co-sleeper – attached to our bed – and thought we’d have her in our room for the NHS recommended first 6 months and then see how we felt about it. Nearly 2 years later, it’s still there, although she also has a bed in her own room. Breastfeeding led naturally into bedsharing for us, and for the first 14 or 15 months of the baby’s life I was completely happy to sleep with her next to me, feeding on demand throughout the night. It was easiest, cosiest, cuddliest  and we both got great sleep. My partner also loves having our daughter in our room/bed  and waking up together (which is important, because obstructive partners seem to quite often encourage night weaning or putting the baby in their own room, but that really wasn’t the case with us).

But some months after returning to work part time, I started getting ill, as I mentioned in a previous post. For the second half of the academic year I suffered with constant tonsillitis /ear infections /tummy bugs, which became more and more difficult to deal with. I had to take far more time off work than I was comfortable with; I started to feel quite depressed about it; my parenting certainly suffered, as did my relationship. I had thought I was doing the best thing for both of us by continuing to breastfeed and bedshare with my daughter, but gradually I came to believe that maybe my body just couldn’t cope with the demands of breastfeeding all night, working all day. Eventually I identified night weaning as a positive change that I could make to try to get healthier. (I decided to hone in on the breastfeeds specifically because I could control them, whereas I can’t really control whether she sleeps through the night – although I realise some might say that I could control that through sleep-training. Regardless, this was the decision I took for my family).

The first thing that I have to say about our night weaning experience is that it was really, really hard. I had 7 weeks’ summer holiday from school and it took that whole time, I suffered more with sleep deprivation than I had since the very first days of motherhood, and I had many doubts about what I was doing. I don’t think I would have been able to stick to it if it hadn’t been for the illnesses giving me a really concrete reason to make a change, and if I hadn’t been really desperate, really convinced that “we can’t go on like this”. I think that we are seeing benefits and better sleep NOW, but that’s 10 weeks in. The majority of people, including my own mother, who is usually helpfully realistic about babies, say “oh once I stopped feeding them in the night, within a couple of nights they were sleeping through”. That’s not been true for us. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing, though. Baby sleep is really an area where you sometimes have to shut your ears and ignore some of the well-intended but unhelpful comments of friends /colleagues /strangers. 

So now to practicalities! I’m a reader, and I read a huge amount of advice but ultimately went with my own method. Some ideas I followed and some I adapted. Almost all strategies suggest mum (as the breastfeeder) should move away and let dad (or I guess the non breastfeeding partner, to be less heteronormative) take over for nights so that the baby learns to settle without milk. My husband has a fantastic relationship with our baby and she really loves him, but at night she just wants me, so I ignored that advice. Similarly, many people suggest putting the baby in their own bed before night weaning, so they are further from the milk  source. Bedsharing works for us and I didn’t want to make too many big changes at the same time, so we ignored that too. But how did we night wean a 20 month old bedsharing toddler?

The first thing I did was write a little book to (try to) explain things to her. Many people recommend one called “Nursies while the sun shines”. That wasn’t quite right for us because I’d already day-weaned my daughter at 12 months, so my goal was just a bedtime feed. Therefore, I wrote my own in a bit scrapbook, illustrated with photos of us. It was, at my mum said, a work of pure fiction. It told the story of how mummy was getting too tired to feed all night, and how while our little angel would be sad at first, she would soon stop waking in the night and would just be very happy to see mummy in the morning. Ha! We read this every day for weeks before starting and during night weaning. No idea if it made any difference. 

I decided to aim for a feed-free window each night and then gradually extend it – so at first, no milk between bedtime and midnight, then until 2am,4am and finally 6am. In reality, because her waking times were so erratic, it never really worked like that (there were a few nights when she’d woken up multiple times and it was still only 10:30pm) but it was helpful for ME to decide those limits and stick to them. Someone on a Facebook group where I was asking for advice pointed out that “babies can’t tell the time,” which is clearly true, but the point was to gradually get her used to going 12 hours (actually she now does 23.5hours!) without milk. The Dr Jack Newman method involves first finishing the feed and unlatching the baby before they’re asleep, for the whole night, and then moving to no feeds at all, all night. That sounded too stressful to me: knowing I only had to struggle to settle her until 2am,and then we would both be able to relax and feed /sleep for the rest of the night, helped to motivate me when it was tough. 

Equally, some might say that I made the process harder/slower this way, and that it’s better to go quick and abrupt. I guess there’s no right /wrong answers here. I did agonise over whether I was making things harder for my poor baby, upsetting her, confusing her, but I had the conviction that a change was necessary.

I always had water on hand to offer when I was refusing to feed, and a few times we offered warm cow’s milk. She never really took much of that, which was a relief as I really didn’t want to exchange night breastfeeds for bottles… But those were desperate moments. My husband, who was theoretically on board with the project, turned out to be way less stubborn/more tender hearted than me,  and when I was rocking a screaming baby a few times he appeared saying “for goodness’ sake can you please feed her?! She’s upset. She’s starving!!!” (She wasn’t starving FYI).

The first nights where I withheld milk were difficult and involved a lot of crying. Never actually hours and hours though. Probably only 15 or 20 minutes of crying in my arms before she developed new methods for falling asleep. It helped that she already sucked her fingers. I found I had to pick her up at first, and take her to sit in the rocking chair: no chance I could pat or stroke her back to sleep in bed, either in our bed or, during the evenings, in her mattress in her room. Cuddling her with both of us sitting quite upright seemed to help.

So fairly quickly, maybe in 10 days, she learnt to fall back to sleep without feeding on wake ups. I continued feeding her to sleep at bedtime. The long crying jags stopped. Was this the end of our troubles?

NO!!! it very much wasn’t, because now we were in a situation where I had to be a lot more active on wakeups (of which we had around 4 a night on average). I was getting out of bed, lifting her up, cuddling, pacing, rocking. She wasn’t crying so much but she was staunchly un-put-downable for 30mins + at a time. I was exhausted. My husband tried to help and sometimes could get her back to sleep, but often she screamed til I took over. During this phase I was very grateful to be off work and able to sleep with her for her midday nap.

But gradually she was getting better at falling back to sleep with less intervention from me. Instead of pacing, I just had to sit up in bed with her. Some nights I was able to sleep like that myself.

But alongside this process she also began an early waking habit, where she seemed ready for the day at ludicrous hours like 3:45 and 4:18am. A couple of times, NOTHING we did could get her back to sleep. Sometimes, 30mins of concentrated rocking in a pitch dark room worked. I kept thinking she must be hungry and offering cow’s milk, toast, etc… But she was entirely indifferent. It was tough, but the wake times got later and later(&hence closer to the magic time of 6am when I could do my “morning” feed… After which we would both sleep a couple more hours until 8am catching up on missed nighttime sleep).

Swimming came in handy here. We sometimes woke up at 8:30-9and I would worry that as a result, nap time and then bedtime would creep later and later. I wanted to be consistent with a 7-8pm bedtime as part of the process. A morning swimming pool trip would tire her out enough to get back on the no-later-than-midday nap time that I needed for a normal bedtime. Plus it’s super fun and she loves it. One week we went 3 times.

And so on. We kept working at it (and it really felt like work). Slowly she learnt to fall back to sleep in bed with me just cuddling close with my arm under her head so I could go back to barely waking up. Gradually her wake ups got less frequent and we now have only 2 on a good night. I stopped needing to always nap with her in the daytime. And when I went back to work I dropped the 6am feed so she just has milk at bedtime. 
It’s not been a simple, easy or straightforward process and I 100%would not have had the s conviction needed if I hadn’t truly believed I needed to do it for my health…but that is how I night weaned my now 21 month old! 

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Working nights, or why never to walk a group of teenagers anywhere near a McDonald’s

Something I realised I forgot to mention in my post yesterday about being back at work was the massive and personal resentment I feel now about having to stay late for parents’ evenings etc. Before having a child, parents’ evenings were an annoyance; they make the day too long, I almost always lose my voice, I’m scared a parent is going to shout at me, and I would miss out on dinner with my husband. Since having a baby, I feel like it’s a personal affront that I’m expected to stay at work until after bedtime. Evenings away from the baby should be exciting opportunities to catch up with friends and get drunk, not to repeat the same boring target 20 times to worn out parents.

I remember an old head of department once remarking, after a very poorly attended year 10 information evening, that she was  upset that “I gave up an evening with my own child for parents who don’t care enough to show up” and I have so much more appreciation for that sentiment now.

So when I was asked to accompany a trip to see An Inspector Calls with Year 10 students, I was unenthusiastic to say the least. Not that it wasn’t a valuable experience for the kids – it is a fantastic production and I think they got a lot out of it. But did I have to be the one to go? It meant going into the West End, on a weeknight, supervising dozens of teenagers on public transport, and not getting back until after my own bedtime, let alone Angel’s. But this was the second trip my head of department had organised, so most of my colleagues had already gone; I really had to.

The day came and things went reasonably smoothly, overcrowded buses notwithstanding. The play was gripping, if full of school trips (I did feel rather sorry for the members of the public there for an adult night out, faced with a sea of school uniforms outside the theatre). The girl sat next to me made it all the way to the revelation that there was no such policeman as Inspector Goole at the station before checking her phone…so I think we can count that as a success. But it did go on until rather late, and we were shepherding our respective groups of students back towards Whitehall to catch the bus back to South London well after 10pm. I was imagining Angel waking up and my poor husband having to keep comforting her after a long day at work…and suddenly just really, really needed to be back home already.

When…we turned on to Whitehall to be confronted with a couple of the other teachers on the trip just hanging, sans students.

“Where are your kids? What’s happened?”

“Er…they’re in there.” The Head of Year 10 grimaced and jerked her head towards, shock horror, MCDONALD’S. “We gave them permission as they’ve been so good and we thought we were further ahead of you lot…we thought they’d be out by the time you caught us up…”

As she spoke the other groups surged up and a ripple effect took place as tired, hungry teenagers realised that their school comrades had been granted permission to slip under the golden arches and stock up on fat and sugar-laden goodness. Some students joined the rapidly growing queue without a further thought; others sought out their group leaders to ask permission, prefaced with a “the other group’s been allowed…”

Within minutes we were in full-on crisis mode with our whole school group crammed into the Whitehall MaccyDs. The queue was snaking out the door; members of the public were looking startled and none-too-pleased to have 50-odd noisy teenagers joining them in their quest for Wednesday night burgers and fries. I checked my watch and wondered how long it would take for them all to order food, collect it, and make it to the bus stop. Would any TfL bus driver be prepared to stop for us under the circumstances? I imagined Angel’s little confused face asking for Mamma and wondered if I could get away with just leaving them there…

But I needn’t have worried. My colleagues sprang into action and a unilateral decision  was made to withdraw all permission to get food. A much braver English teacher than me was dispatched inside McDonald’s to round up the troops and get them out, stat. There was plenty of grumbling and a resounding chorus of “it’s not fairs” (as only the very first few kids had actually got their hands on any fries) but somehow we got them out, to the bus stop and onto a south-bound bus within 10 minutes. I was home not too long after 11, to a peacefully sleeping baby and husband, and it really was worth it to give those students a West-End theatre experience.

Working/parenting, one year in!

I’ve done almost a full year as a working parent, and the fact that in that time I managed to blog about the experience exactly 0 times reflects one of the characteristics of this year…lack of time. It’s only now in the 6 week summer holiday that I feel I have a little time to reflect.

It’s been an incredibly hard year, no doubt about that, though not always in the ways I’d have anticipated. In terms of the mum-guilt about dropping Angel off at nursery and delegating her care to other people for 8 hours…well, there were times when I felt that, but actually in many ways I have really enjoyed and appreciated the mental shift-of-gear that I get from focusing on something totally different 3 days a week. Plus I have to admit that in this year of work I did approximately 0 drop-offs: nursery duties have all been taken on by my amazing husband, making my work mornings so much less traumatic. Especially early on, I felt incredibly enthusiastic about being at school and thinking about curriculum, the new GCSEs, and how to make Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde relevant and accessible to the lowest-attaining year 9 boys (that last was a massive failure though, I must admit; needs a more creative teacher than me to figure out how to make that Victorian prose comprehensible enough for that particular group). I organised a theatre trip aimed only at the pupil-premium-indicator students in year 7 (ie the most deprived part of our cohort); I chased up all my tutor group’s UCAS references and I marked all my students’ books in depth every 3 weeks, as per department policy. (Around January I realised I was working around 33 hours a week for only 60% of a full-time salary, and needed to cut back a bit).

Having a gorgeous, active, fun-filled toddler to come home to has really helped with my ability to switch off from work at the end of the day. I often struggle with feeling upset or anxious about confrontations with students (or parents), or bad lessons, or frustrating situations, and in the past I’d often bring those home with me and find it difficult to unwind. That still happens sometimes, but in general the change in priorities and perspective that comes with having a baby has really helped with my role as teacher, because I have less head-space to stress pointlessly about past situations that I can’t change.

However, being a parent myself has suddenly filled me with doubts about the way I approach other parents about their children who I teach. I’ve found myself confused about how it’s possible that some of the truculent teenagers in front of me were once adorable babies whose parents loved them more than anything else. How could someone’s darling child be such a little sh*t in school? The first term I was back, I didn’t phone a single parent to discuss their child’s difficult behaviour; I couldn’t bear to, imagining how defensive and upset I’d feel if someone criticised Angel’s behaviour to me.

As time went on and some of my change-is-as-good-as-a-rest enthusiasm wore off I found myself resenting more and more the change in status that I was forced to accept in exchange for going part-time. My school has a blanket policy that part-time staff are not allowed to have TLRs (Teaching and learning responsibilities, or middle-manager roles like head of department, key stage co-ordinator etc) at all. Full stop. Which is a rubbish policy that patently contradicts the government’s aims in introducing flexible working legislation – to make work more accessible for people with commitments outside work, and to help employees achieve a positive work-life balance – and is ultimately sexist, because of the fact that caring responsibilities fall disproportionately on women due to sexism in society, so then it is more likely to be women who request part-time/flexible work arrangements, and so refusing part-time employees access to middle management positions means making the career ladder inaccessible to a predominantly female section of your workforce. I was really unhappy about this and argued with the policy, with support from my union, but failed to get the school to change their minds, and so I returned to work as “just” a teacher rather than a teacher who was also responsible for managing the A level English teaching. Of course, I could have gone back full-time instead, but I really didn’t want to – full time teaching is such an overwhelming job and I wanted to have more time and energy for Angel while she is so small. Working 3 days a week rather than 5 means I am with her for the majority of days each week and additionally I’m able to get my marking done in nap times on my days off, thus avoiding having to work at weekends at all, which means we get more valuable weekend family time together.

But going from being in charge of something to…not being in charge any more is difficult. Suddenly my predecessors were able to make decisions I disagreed with and I was in a position where I had to follow their instructions. I mean, it was made as easy for me as possible, because my job was taken on by 2 very good friends of mine who always asked and listened to my advice. But nevertheless, there were times when I really missed my small area of responsibility. Teaching can be so soul-destroying – so much of the curriculum is dictated to us by the requirements of the new GCSEs/our organisation’s policy decisions, and we’re having less and less opportunity to control how we work. This year I didn’t get to choose any of my own texts – department policy dictated exactly what I taught, on what time-frame, and because I was sharing so many of my classes with other teachers (my fault for being part-time, though with some help from timetabling decisions) I had even less freedom about what I did. So not having even my key stage where I was the one selecting texts and devising assessments had a real impact on my work satisfaction. Additionally, giving up my TLR also means I’m no longer a part of the department management structure. I’ve gone from being a line-manager (of one person, but still), attending steering group and curriculum planning meetings, conducting lesson observations and learning walks, using assessment data strategically and reporting to managers on our A level cohort’s performance and progress…to nothing. Sure, walking out of school at 3.30pm sometimes is really nice, while my colleagues are stuck in middle-management meetings. But I really, really miss feeling like I had a voice in how things were done.

It’s so, so rubbish that I honestly feel I have to choose between a decent work/life balance in favour of my daughter and partner, and job satisfaction…as I said to a friend the other day, the second-wave feminists were supposed to get this problem sorted out for us! Obviously my school is just one organisation, but I’ve talked about this a lot this year and a lot of my fellow working mothers/ part-time workers have similar issues. And I don’t even have space here to get started on the cost of childcare and what a barrier that is to women/parents going back to work. (From September Angel’s nursery will cost us £72/day. Think about how that would factor into your household budget).

The other thing that really took me by surprise was the illness. A lot of people talk about babies picking up virus after virus when they first start nursery, and the stress of having to take family-leave days if nursery/childcare won’t take them with a fever. Instead, after a couple of initial viruses Angel has been fairly healthy. It’s just me who has been plagued by illnesses constantly…tonsillitis, sore throats, ear infections, vomiting bugs, and bad colds. From March – July there were only really a couple of weeks where I felt ok. I took 10 sick days this year, which is far more than I ever would usually (I hate taking time off: just the act of setting cover work is really, really stressful) but there were far FAR more days when I struggled into work sick, taking ibuprofen and paracetomol to get me through the day. That has really taken the joy out of the job. Battling through my Wednesday afternoon year 7 boys double lesson, just trying not to shout so much that I’d actually lose my voice was bad enough, but worst of all would be later that night, sitting in the twilight reading my daughter a bedtime story and resenting every word forced out of my sore throat. Getting through the week’s teaching would take all my energy and I’d feel like I had nothing left for Angel, let alone my partner. I have been so lucky to have so much support and help from my husband, who has taken over so much of the housework duties and had to spend so many weekend afternoons entertaining Angel on his own while I stayed in bed…and so much help from my parents too, who have stepped in for emergency childcare multiple times.

But all this sickness led to a really bad moment in June where I went to my GP practice nurse in floods of tears feeling I just couldn’t go on like this (in an entirely non-suicidal way). I ended up taking a full week off school after that to help me “recover fully” (inverted commas because it didn’t actually work – a few days back and I was ill again! but by then it was close enough to the end of the school year that I could hang on for summer) and also taking the decision that I needed to night-wean Angel, who was still breastfeeding throughout the night.

That process is still ongoing, my summer holiday project, and will be the subject of my next blog post as there are so many things I want to record about it (and because, from a range of angles, it can be seen as a feminist issue).

Chat

Churches of Old Kent Road

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Since we moved to New Cross, I’ve been amazed by the number and variety of churches in this area of London… mostly evangelical, and often incredibly exuberant. And using all kinds of premises, with only a few occupying traditional church buildings.

Yesterday I finally got round to going out to photograph some of them.

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Holy Ghost Zone, or HGZ, is a personal favourite…

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What was really interesting about looking more closely was the way the language of Christianity has permeated other businesses, as in “Print Ministry” here.

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And “Divine Touch” beauty salon…

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This is another fave because they have an LCD display on the side of the building… now reading “Jesus Saves” when I passed it 24 hours after taking the photo.

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All Saints has the most traditional building, but some of the most busy and fun services, judging by the music and crowds.

And to refuel after worship you can head to “De Lords Canteen”.

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Teaching while pregnant

Sorry for the long absence first of all…I moved house and we didn’t have the internet for a good 6 weeks. Then once we got it sorted I was too busy trying to survive the day to day as a teacher to make the time to blog about teaching: you know how it is (or you do if you’ve ever done this job). Now it’s half-term (my school, for oblique but very welcome reasons, follows the private school 2-week half-term in October) I finally have the time for an update.

I started back in September at 25 weeks pregnant and now I’m at 33. I’ve been extremely lucky so far in my pregnancy in that I am still fairly fit and mobile, I have minimal back pain, and no problems with blood pressure or anything. “It’ll be easy!” I thought. “Or rather, just as ridiculously hard as surviving the September teaching term normally is! I feel just as usual! There’s no reason I can’t work up to 38 weeks pregnant!”

I quickly learnt my lesson. True, in a lot of ways I do feel normal. However, the first-trimester tiredness that had lifted during the fun-filled second trimester soon descended and I found by 6pm the only thing I could think about was bed. My ideal day involved returning from school early to fit in a nap before dinner time. I think I managed that twice in 7 weeks: meetings, planning, marking, and stress generally got in the way.

Then there is the abdominal workout of teaching. Now, some teachers can walk into classes of year 10 boys, quell any chat with a raised eyebrow, sit down behind a desk and orchestrate a fantastic 100-minute lesson from a recumbent position. I assume.

I can’t do that. Keeping 25 13- or 14- or 15-year-olds engaged on Macbeth/Of Mice and Men/poetry for nearly 2 hours for me involves a lot of standing up, setting up different activities, raising my voice to reclaim the frequently-waning attention of my audience, using my voice to help indicate the emotional content of what we’re reading (whether exciting, tragic, shocking…), jumping out of my seat to prevent a discussion or disagreement from totally leading the whole class off the topic I want them to focus on…it’s basically exhausting. What teaching with a substantial baby bump has taught me is how abdominal-intensive all that talking at a raised volume is. After a double lesson my whole bump would feel tense and achey for hours, and I would struggle to find a way to relax those muscles when I got home.

You might think classes would give their 7-month pregnant teacher a break. A couple of times I found myself shouting over the noise “I am 7 months pregnant and I really don’t think I should be shouting!”, or pointing out to the students that the baby could hear their voices and hence whatever nonsense they were arguing about, or just holding my bump and looking pained in an appeal for sympathy. It didn’t really help. Not because my students aren’t decent, sympathetic human beings, because the vast majority really are, and were very interested in the baby and very solicitous at a one-to-one level, opening doors, picking things up and carrying things for me. It’s more the group mentality of a pack of teenagers. Individually, they want to help their poor teacher. But they also need to retaliate to the student who’s just dissed their trainers/hairline/mother, and then they need to respond to their friend who’s trying to discuss the line-up for the lunchtime football game…these issues are just too pressing to put on hold.

So in short, it’s been well and truly exhausting and there were a good few occasional where I thought I wouldn’t make it to this point. I’ve brought my maternity leave forward to 36-weeks which means I only go back for one week after half term. It’s a shame not to have the time after the birth, but my sanity demanded it.

End of the year, or, is 2 weeks of films a waste of kids’ time? OR, Freedom Writers: best teaching aid ever

I’ve now been on holiday for nearly 2 weeks so school is already feeling very, very far away. At this time of year it’s hard to remember what, exactly, makes it all so hard; all those challenges and terrible classes just make for good anecdotes and a sense of “oh, it’s not that bad really…” hmm.

This year seemed worse than many previous ones in the sense that, from quite a few weeks before we broke up, there was a feeling of lethargy, of “oh, it’s too late now to do any actual WORK” and “why aren’t we watching a film, Miss?!” I think the usual situation was exacerbated by the fact that there was some weirdly hot weather (remember that 35 degree Wednesday? Try experiencing that inside a small room with windows that open to a very limited degree with 24 sweaty teenagers) and that we had set end of year exams for all year groups which were over within 2 weeks of half term, leaving us 4 weeks to fill with the full knowledge that we’d already covered the year’s curriculum. It was tough. A lot of films were watched. Certain parents started emailing in to say their offspring were not authorised to watch any films rated above a 12 certificate. I didn’t see any emails myself from parents complaining about all the films, but I’m sure they were written. Worse, however, was the reaction from a class when you did NOT just stick a film on but tried to get them reading/thinking/discussing/writing/doing something. You’ve never seen righteous indignation like it.

The film that I ended up showing all my key stage 3 classes was Freedom Writers. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a dazzling work of staggering cliche. It’s the Dangerous Minds of the noughties. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0463998/ A keen, sweet, charming, naive young white English teacher (Jennifer Garner) wins over the hearts and minds of her edgy, troubled, difficult, gangland young students and EDUCATES them about big issues like the Holocaust and tolerance. By the end of the film, the rival Latino, black and Cambodian gang members are all embracing and helping each other out. Even the lone white student gets included, though he still can’t dance/pull off a gang handshake! ha, because racism is wrong but cultural stereotypes are just so funny amirite??? There’s a lot to be irritated by about this film (and I should know, I’ve watched it 3 times in 45-minute segments). I think the worst thing is the flagrant disregard of economic and social factors in creating deprivation. There’s the sense that “oh, Miss Gruwell has come through and saved the kids” (and it’s based on a true story by the way) but there’s no acknowledgement of the privileged position of a rich, well-educated white woman with multiple safety nets and support that enabled her to do that. Her pearl necklace (no euphemism) is constantly commented on by other characters in the film, to the extent that my students, watching, would ask me “why do they keep talking about the necklace?” and I told them it’s a symbol of her relative wealth and high socio-economic status (actually, I didn’t say that; I said “it means she’s rich” but I’m paraphrasing). At the end of the film there’s the suggestion that now, with all their new opportunities, the kids will have the chance to go to college, so they too can become privileged, well educated adults, but there’s no acknowledgement of the financial difficulties that that will present them. We see some of the students’ backgrounds, with a sense of “oh these poor deprived kids!” but there is no acknowledgement of the obstacles and intersections of marginalisation that have created those situations and that will make it hard for students to overcome them…instead we meet some Holocaust survivors who arrived in America with “nothing…just the clothes on my back” and the implication is that if you work hard, you too can be successful and rich!!! Financial factors are addressed when the students want to bring over the woman who hid Anne Franke to talk to their class, and they need money to do that, so what do they do? host a load of fund-raising school fairs, cake sales and dance-offs and they raise that money! That goddamn American Dream; the best excuse for avoiding making structural changes to redress deprivation and inequality. (It’s like “Happyness”, a film that is guaranteed to send me into a semi-Marxist rant, because once Will Smith has made it big, who cares about all the other “bums” in the overnight homeless hostel anymore??? they just weren’t working hard enough, doing their rubix cubes fast enough or gatecrashing enough private boxes at baseball games to lift themselves up by the bootstraps etc etc etc.)

The villain of the film, Imelda Staunton as head of English, who in general is blocking Miss Gruwell’s groundbreaking methods everywhere she can because she only cares about status and tenure, and also maybe is a bit racist (that’s just hinted at), actually says something very pertinent – that there are millions of kids in the education system and we need a strategy that will provide opportunities for all of them, not just a few, but no one takes it that seriously because she is a total bitch, whereas Hilary Swank is sacrificing everything (her marriage, all her free time, all the money she earns by working 3 extra after school jobs, jobs which her students probably wouldn’t be able to get, incidentally, because of an institutionally racist system which is the real problem here), so that she can be the white saviour lady who we all love.

So it’s fair to say I have some reservations about the film.

And yet…

I also loved it. It’s so satisfying, watching that predictable narrative arc. It’s purpose designed to jerk as many tears as possible, especially from an overworked and underslept 4-months pregnant English teacher. And more to the point, my students LOVED IT. They loved watching the on-screen students’ hard lives, and it inspired one year 7 boy to yell out “look what they have to go through! No one here has to go through stuff like that! there’s never gang fights like that in our school! we are REALLY LUCKY” (ahhhh). They loved the bit where Miss Gruwell asks the students “raise your hands if you’ve ever been shot at” and all the on-screen students’ hands go up, and then all my own students’ hands would creep up with sly looks at me like “yeah, Miss, you just don’t know what we gotta go through on the streets…”

(For clarity; I don’t believe any of my students have ever actually been shot at. Don’t worry.)

They loved watching the bits at the beginning where the class are so mean to Miss Gruwell and refuse to listen to her and every lesson descends into chaos (one year 9 boy asked me “Miss is this what your lessons used to be like?” and I was incredibly flattered that he said “used to”). The year 8 girls REALLY loved the bit where she wins them over by giving them all journals to write their deep, innermost thoughts and asked me “Miss, are you going to get us journals?”

How could I say no to that? Yes, I did feel like I was ripping off a super clicheed Hollywood film, but I went down to the pound shop and stocked up on 18 A5 notebooks and 18 coloured pens for my set 4 year 8 girls, and it was worth every penny. They seemed genuinely touched that I had gone to that effort, and they all wrote in them, at least in the first lesson. There was some suspicion that maybe I wanted them to disclose secrets about their private lives that I would then betray by passing them on to social services, but rather than do the Freedom Writers thing of keeping their journals in school so the teacher could read them, I told them to take them home and keep diaries over the summer holidays, and that they were their own personal private journals that I don’t need to read. (Although I also said I’d be thrilled if they came back in September and just showed me they were still writing…and I really would be).

It takes a lot to inspire 13-year old girls in the bottom set for English to want to read and write, but Freedom Writers really did that – on the last lesson of term, one girl (who really struggles with literacy and for whom English is a second language) showed me that she’d got the book out of the school library. What’s more, some of the louder, more in-crowd, intimidating girls who would never normally talk to the first one were crowding round her desk asking to look at the book and read the back. That’s what I call a successful teaching experience.

So in conclusion, watching films at the end of term can be a really valuable learning experience, if you pick the right ones and if it works for the students. Even if they don’t acknowledge structural inequality…

Sex and gender in the classroom (and the playground)

Something very specific has been making me reflect recently on what gender identity really means.

I’m 4 months pregnant, and last week I started telling my students (or rather, stopped lying when they asked me, as a number of really vocal year 8, 9 and 10 students sensed it months ago through some kind of intuition, and have been hassling me incessantly to admit it). My all-girl classes (we teach single sex in my school) have been hugely excited about this and I’ve generally had a round of applause after the announcement (weird). I haven’t told any all-boys groups, because they’ve hassled me about it less, but my mixed year 12 class said congratulations in a more low-key way (no clapping – I think they were more concerned about continuity for their A level teaching).

Some of the girls I teach are super excited about the prospect of me having a baby: there’s one whose eyes visibly soften every time she sees me. She’s quite naughty/weird, but doesn’t matter what I’m telling her off for, in the classroom, the playground or the canteen, as I approach she will go all gooey-eyed and fixate on my (almost invisible) bump.

The big question that the kids have asked (and this reflects pretty closely the questions that adults ask as well) is “Are you having a boy or a girl?” I don’t know that yet, because you can’t find out until the second scan which I am having at 22 weeks, and I haven’t decided yet whether I want to know. But I suppose the difference between the adults I tell this to and the teenagers is that the latter seem incapable of taking that fact in (or, alternatively, just NEVER LISTEN TO A WORD I SAY), so no matter how many times I tell my year 8s that “I can’t find that out until the end of July”, the next day when I walk into the classroom someone will ask me “Miss! do you know if you’re having a boy or a girl yet???”

Follow-up question is always “do you WANT a boy or a girl?”

I’ve been talking to different people about WHY these are the particular questions that are asked, and I agree that probably the most truthful answer is simply that it’s one of the only things that you CAN find out before the birth. It’s not that people are obsessed with sex/gender; they’re just trying to be polite and make conversation.

However, another aspect is that people say it’s easier to visualise the baby as a person once you know the sex. This, as a feminist, I feel more defensive about. WHY is it necessary to identify the baby with a sex in order to humanise it? (there you go, the non-gender-specific pronoun “it” is automatically DEhumanising my baby). As someone who believes that most gendered behaviour is socialised and not biological, and that our culture has over-emphasised gender differences in an unhelpful way, AND that we see gender identity as something fixed and rigid when the reality can be more fluid, I want to challenge the idea that it’s impossible to think about a human being without knowing their sex.

The Iliad and inspiration

At this time of year I always make my year 12 students give presentations on a book they like. This is preparation for their coursework essays in which they can compare any two texts of their choice (finally some genuine choice in the school system…) and it is also a fun and low-effort way to fill those last weeks of the school year when the students have taken their AS exams and don’t have much motivation for studying.

Today I picked a student at random to start the presentations, and Joe’s name came up. Joe is a high achieving and confident student who I hope will get at least a B grade (he’s capable of an A but his writing style is surprisingly unsophisticated) and initially when I saw he had picked The Iliad as his book to present on I thought “how pretentious, a student feeling like they have to choose the longest, most seminal and important text they can”. However…his talk was actually wonderful.

Joe told us that he didn’t learn to read until he was 9 years old and he was hugely self-conscious about it. Adults talked to him as if he was stupid, and the books he was given were reading scheme ones without proper story-lines because he was so behind. When he was in year 5, his class teacher read the class stories from The Iliad; the rest of the class was mainly bored, but Joe was fascinated and absolutely loved them, and this was the push he needed to put in the extra effort and get over his block about reading. Now he reads avidly and is doing very well in A level literature, so I told him he HAD to make sure that year 5 teacher knew what she’d started.

He said he found the world of the Iliad so inspiring, because people were able to challenge and prove themselves in meaningful ways and it really mattered. He compared this to modern society and said that he felt like his generation didn’t have anything important to do – previous generations fought world wars, his uncle in Chile fought for communism and what he believed in, but all his peers have is McDonald’s and consumerism. I can certainly empathise with feeling like that as a teenager (and as an adult!) and I suggested that what he needs is to find a cause and go out and fight for it: my suggestion was to join Greenpeace and fight oil drilling in the Arctic, or join the UN and go and help refugees in the middle-east…Joe said that I was over-simplifying things and that this wasn’t just about right and wrong; the Greeks in the Iliad had very little interest in right and wrong. It was about feeling like life nowadays didn’t matter and wasn’t important in the same way.

It was a really interesting discussion which also made me think (though I didn’t say it, as I thought Joe might find it insulting) that this feeling is maybe what causes other 17- year-olds to run away to fight in Syria, something we hear a lot about in the news at present.

Guilty teacher feelings

I have a few facebook friends who blog about home schooling or un-schooling their children, and another friend who’s just decided to start it in September, so I’ve been thinking a bit about what school is for and what is its value. As a teacher, I spend a big part of every day finding fault with the education system: the data-driven decisions, the meaningless targets, and the  pointless tasks I find myself setting after a long day of lessons (“your paragraph sounds too abrupt because it starts with a quotation so you need to go back and re-write it in the PEAR structure”), but then I also depend on the education system for my livelihood and part of my identity, so I feel oddly conflicted. Those feelings made a big contribution to my teacher training assignments at the Institute of Education, a really fabulous establishment that constantly asks questions about what we want from school and why we organise it the way we do.

Anyway, one thing that has been bothering me this week is a new data document that a colleague handed me before he left the school last week. It shows the reading ages and levels of every student in year 7, as assessed by computer from them taking the Star reading test in the library. What upsets me about this document is how surprising I found some of the levels. Not because of the variation between my own teacher assessment of these children and their reading level and age as assessed by computer; but because it’s forced me to realise that in one case at least, the computer got to know the child better than I have in 9 months.

There’s one boy – we’ll call him Ken. Ken is super quiet, never speaks in class, or outside class as far as I can tell. He comes into lessons, sits where he’s told and gets on with his work – but in unintelligible handwriting that, I must admit, has reduced me to ticking and writing “good effort” because I just can’t interpret whether he’s doing the right thing or not.

I praise Ken, mainly for his quietness and his co-operation. It’s a rare lesson where he doesn’t earn a place on the “smiley face” side of the whiteboard for “good listening” or some such. But I haven’t got to know him. I’ve assumed he must be somewhat below average for his age group and I’ve given him conservatively low levels when assessing his work because it was too hard to read his handwriting. When I make seating plans for the mixed-attainment class I put him in the front row with my weakest students, so he gets bigger-print worksheets and simplified activities (that’s only in a week where I’ve made time to differentiate work, obviously). Now I’ve got his Star reading assessment, and it turns out this boy has a reading age of more than 12! Rather than below, he’s above average for his age of nearly 12, whereas I’ve been grouping him with boys with a reading age of 6 and 7.

This is embarrassing for me (and please note I’ve swiftly remedied it and moved him to a higher attaining group). Furthermore, this clear lack of individual pupil knowledge on the part of the teacher is probably something that leads to many parents thinking “No thanks, I’ll keep them at home”. Bear in mind I’m a very hard-working and conscientious teacher, who always plans my lessons and marks my books. So what was I doing while failing to notice Ken was coasting with the easier work and perfectly capable of more challenge?

Fighting fires, is the depressing answer. In the same class as Ken I have Marco: reading age of 6 years 2 months (as assessed by computer, not by me) and skilled in finding ways to avoid the moment when he has to put pen to paper and reveal he’s out of his depth. Marco enters every lesson with squeals and bounces, often already involved in “beef”, real or playful, with other pupils. If not, he’s a master of manufacturing it, with a favourite technique being to swivel round and yell “Why are you cussing my dad’s friend’s sister’s dog??!” (he finds this hilarious). If he can find a reason to be out of his seat, Marco will take it. If he can’t, another favourite lesson activity is to bang as hard as he can on the underside of his desk (using something hard for increased impact), then turn around and yell “Stop banging!!!” at the students behind him. There are now no students behind him – I’ve moved them all away. Doesn’t stop him though.

Then there’s Daniel, who has a reading age of 12 so the behaviour is less understandable. Daniel wants attention ALL THE TIME, whether positive or negative, from me, the LSA or other students. Most lessons, by the time Daniel gets to my classroom he’s involved in some kind of fight, verbal or physical, with one of the other boys. Daniel really loses his temper so this is more serious than with Marco. In the past, he’s spat at other boys and been involved in numerous fights. More frequently, though, it’ll be shouting across the classroom with swearwords and insults. I’ll send him out of the room for unacceptable behaviour and language, and he’ll hover at the window in the door, either making faces at the child he’s arguing with or just generally trying to attract everyone’s attention. Trying to get the rest of the students settled down and explaining what lesson activities I want them to do is hampered by having to go to the door and tell him, in louder and louder, more and more irritated tones, to wait for me away from the door and not interrupt the class. At times like this he’ll often decide he wants to be back inside the class and start yelling “I want to learn! I want my education!” which doesn’t help lower my blood pressure in any way.

Orchestrating Marco and Daniel while also dealing with the range of distracting, off-task behaviours going on around the room from the other 20 students (yep, it’s even quite a small class!) leaves me stressed out, snappy, and struggling to find time and attention for the undemanding students like Ken. They’re the ones that lose out in this scenario, with no chance of getting any teacher time beyond a cursory “well done Ken, I can see you’re listening and ready to learn!” directed more at the uncooperative students who I hope will follow his example than genuinely at him.

It’s a depressing picture that’s been going on all year. Every week I think about what interventions I can do to improve the class’s behaviour – seating plans, differentiated work, moving to a new classroom away from the other year 7 boys’ classes (less opportunity for inter-class beef), putting students on subject reports, clear in-class warning system with consistent rewards of credits and behaviour points after every lesson, and phone calls home. It’s exhausting, and so far while I have to think as positive as possible and tell myself there have been some improvements, Ken’s still not getting my time or attention in class.

So there you go – what’s the value in being in school? For Ken, possibly, not much.