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Mountains and Adventures

It has probably not have escaped your notice that we are nearly at the end of the year. Through the complex mix of sports days, reports, end of term assemblies, and with a gentle roasting of summer heat, we will soon finish our first year as a school community. The end of a school year can be an emotional time. As adults we are often drawn to look back at and remember children as they were at the start of the school year and to compare how much they have changed and grown. We sometimes regard the end of the school year as a time of completion, of having finished the race or ended the journey.

But learning isn't a race and the journey isn't complete. I think we owe it to children to share a different view, to see the end of the year not as a conclusion, but as a reaching the next level of the adventure where they can go onto even more exciting things.

The educational thinker Jerome Bruner described learning as a spiral. He was trying to challenge the notion that learning is linear, that children absorb one thing after another with no reference to what has come before or will come afterwards. Instead, Bruner argued, learning is like circling a mountain. In each cycle of learning we come around to the same points and see things for a different perspective. Mostly we will have gained a broader view and as we have change, so to our views and understanding has changed.

I like Bruner's metaphor because it contains both the notion of repetition, coming back to the same things again and again, as well as the notion of internal change. We come back to the same ideas but with changed vision, with a different perspective because we are different. Good learning is an adventure, an exciting journey into the unknown, but one that doesn't have an end of year conclusion.

For our reception children that adventure has only just begun, and our new cohort of families who will join us in September are just preparing to start their adventurous journeys. There will, no doubt, be some unexpected challenges, so difficult times when they will need to grit their teeth and over come the difficulties, but there will also be the exhilarating times, the moments of joy, of excitement and achievement. I think this is to be expected. After all, it is an adventure and one I look forward to continuing.

Not Being Bossy

A recent ad by Always about the term '... like a girl' and work by Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, have both challenged language relating to girls. The video campaign asks what it means to do things such as running, hitting or throwing 'like a girl'. The creators, who describe their campaign as a social experiment, film a number of young people being asked to do actions 'like a girl' in order to explore why this term is frequently used as an insult. Initially, many of the young women and young men react to the request in ways that reinforce a negative stereotype about girls being less powerful or effective than boys. The film then shows younger girls, aged 10 and under, being asked the same question – they react very differently, running, hitting and throwing with power and determination. The message the film suggests that whilst younger children have a less limited views of the world, as we grow older we imbue more negative views about women through our language and culture and that often we fail to challenge our assumptions.

In her book, 'Lean In', and her TED talks, Sandberg has been highlighting bias and working to ban the use of the term bossy, often used to define girls in negative ways, as opposed to appreciating the good qualities they are exhibiting. As Sandberg puts it, "That little girl's not bossy. That little girl has executive leadership skills,

Teaching children, for me, is about the development of civilised individuals, as much as it is about the development of understanding, knowledge and skills. It is about helping children to learn to behave in ways which may not be of immediate personal benefit to them. Education is learning to treat others with respect, to talk instead of hurting, to give as well as receiving. This starts from the earliest years, ensuring our school is a place of equality as well as respect.

Ghandi's advice is to be the change you want to see in the world. Start with yourself. Examine your own actions, your behaviour and language. See the effect of the things you do and use that as a launch pad for the things that you want to change, for the difference you want to make. It is particularly true with the terms we use. From time to time we all need a reminder to consider the impact of the words we are using on the self-esteem of those around us and on our society.

Towards the end of the campaign film, the young women who reacted in stereotypical ways when asked the question are given an opportunity to 'redo it'. Like many of us, given a chance to reflect they realise that they can do better, so they do. That is good education.

Who Cares About Henry?

When public personalities behave like infants it raises questions of emotional literacy, acceptable behaviour and morality, which affect us all. This week Oscar was bothered that a famous footballer had bitten another player during a World Cup match. Our class explored this inappropriate behaviour, along with the consequences. Role models have a powerful impact on children, and the individuals they encounter through their school experiences make a difference to the views of the world that children develop.

I believe in the power of individual stories and potential that real lives offer children in modelling  a range of virtues such as perseverance, moral standards and dedication of a worthy cause. That is why our curriculum deliberately exposes children to the interesting lives of people in the past and present, but it is vital that we carefully consider who we hold up as models for children. Not everyone will do. If we want to foster creativity and resilience in children, then it helps to introduce them to imaginative people who persevered in the face of adversity. If we want children to choose healthy dietary choices, then it makes sense to expose them to historical characters who took care of themselves. If we want to nurture morality, then it is important to expose children to morally upright individuals and explore the choices they made in their lives. If we want to inculcate equality, then we need to expose children to personalities who model respect and decency.

All of which prompts me to wonder why schools in England spend so long teaching children about Henry VIII. Of all the monarchs that children are exposed to in the English school system, Henry is the king who is given the most ‘air time’, but it ielizabeths hard to see what is so attractive about him. Henry VIII had a complex relationship to women and even more complex relationship to food. He was arguably an intolerant despot, whose reign did little to improve the lives of most people. I'm also not convinced that studying his life will encourage tolerance, something which is currently being held up as a core English value.

Set Henry's life against that of his daughter Elizabeth and we can see a dramatic contrast. Her reign saw the expansion of knowledge, culture and exploration. She sets a far more engaging personal model in both her personal and public qualities and devoted herself to the common good. Although her reign saw wide spread religious persecutions, Elizabeth herself is acknowledged as a remarkably tolerant person who saw herself as queen of both Catholics and Protestants. She is an engaging historical individual who embodies at least a few virtues. Of course Henry does have some historical significance: the dissolution of the monasteries had a profound effect on English history, but the importance of such a complicated act is probably better suited to study at secondary level, when the nuances of his character and the political changes he instigated can be more readily understood.

For my money, Elizabeth’s reign is far more interesting than Henry's both in content and values. If teaching values is now to become a foreground focus of schools (it has always been in the background), then we should be prepared to rethink the characters in different domains (historical, scientific, sporting and cultural) who exemplify those values, since we all learn more from people and their stories than we do from the bare facts we are exposed to.

We should be in no doubt that individuals make a difference, and the personalities our children are exposed to can influence them in profound but often complex ways, so let’s be careful about who we hold up as an object of interest.

The Beginning of a Journey

dolls

There is a conundrum at the heart of schooling, to do with conformity and independence. Learning is ultimately an individual process, but schools have conformity built into them. From the organisation of lessons and the school day, through to eating and toilet breaks, schools enforce and encourage conformity in all sorts of ways. This isn't, of itself, something negative: most of us probably accept that society requires a degree of conformity, however an excessive amount of conformity can be harmful to children, especially if we are interested, as I am, in nurturing imagination, independence and reflection. But I don't think it needs to be this way. A school can be a place where children are independent learners and schools can allow children the opportunity to nurture imagination and reflection, and to become deep learners.

Today we launched the Learning in Depth (LiD) programme at Alma. It is something that I have been talking to parents, governors and staff about for over a year, something I passionately believe in. The simple idea behind Learning in Depth is that each child is given the opportunity, time and support to become an expert, but an expert in something unique, something different from everyone else in their class. LiD means that children can become individually immersed in something meaningful, and in doing so can gain the knowledge and understanding which allows the imagination to flourish. Kieran Egan, the founder of the Learning in Depth project, identifies an additional benefit: by becoming an expert a child can develop their own self-esteem and can learn to see the difference between opinion and knowledge, something too often confused in our society. Egan also suggests that by developing deep understanding of a specific topic, a child can come to appreciate what knowledge is and how to organise learning. In our ceremony today, each child was given a sheet with their name, their topic and a single fact to start them on their journey, which they have taken home to read with their family.

It is the task of educators and schools to recognise what is unique and wonderful about each child, to celebrate that individuality and to help each child to acquire the skills to become the best person they can be. Launching the Learning in Depth project today felt like that exciting first step on a journey, a journey you know if going to take you to some exciting places and which has the potential to change the way you see the world. The famous Chinese proverb says that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. When our ceremony finished, Gilad, one of our children rushed up to his mum, asking if he could go home to start finding out about his topic. That is what learning is about: like Gilad, I'm excited to see where the journey leads.

Thanks... a lot

Does it bother you if people say please and thank you? It bothers me because I believe in the power of gratitude. Our ability to appreciate and acknowledge the things that others do for us is, for me, an essential part of our humanity, so I notice when people take the time to say thank you and, in turn, I try to make sure I thank others. Learning to express thanks, sincerely and meaningfully is key, so this week in class we have been speaking about saying thank you. In our discussion Noa put her finger on the heart of the matter by explaining that 'if you don't say thank you people won't want to play with you'. She understood that gratitude makes a difference to our others feel about us. It also makes a difference to how we feel about ourselves. A 2008 study of 221 kids published in the Journal of School Psychology analysed 9 and 10 year olds who were asked to list five things they were grateful for every day for two weeks. The study found they had a better outlook on school and greater life satisfaction three weeks later, compared with kids who were asked to list five problems. Another study of 1,035 high-school students, published in 2010, found that those who showed high levels of gratitude, such as a strong appreciation of other people, made better academic progress and experienced a more positive attitude than less grateful teens.

Of course, not everyone in our class agreed with Noa. Asher was one of those who could see another side of gratitude. 'If you keep saying thank you it is silly' he suggested. I have to admit, he has a point. It's not that you can over do the thanks, but merely saying the words 'thanks' doesn't always have meaning. That's why, in our lesson we role played the different ways we can say thanks and discussed why it is important to say thank you.

Later on in the day Miss Wheldon bought Asher to show me some work he had done. It was a thank you card he had written for his sister. 'Thank you for putting the clothes in the laundry basket' he had written. The writing was fantastic and so was the intention. Appreciating the small things in life can have enormous benefits for us as well as for those we help.

Since my eldest daughter was a little girl, we have had a Friday night tradition in our family. Each week, after we have recited the blessings and before we eat, we take turns to say something that we give thanks for. At times it gives us an opportunity as a family to share our relief at problems or challenges we have overcome. At other times our small ritual allows us to appreciate that even when things are tough, there are blessings we can count.

A Strong Sense of Belief

The inventor of the modern car, Henry Ford, is quoted as saying that 'whether you think you can, or you think you can't, you're probably right'. It's an eloquent summary of the power of positive thinking. Whilst we are sitting on the carpet, Asher explains to me why a train system needs two tracks. He is using our class train set and pointing out that if there is only one track then the trains will crash. I guess even positive thinking has its limitations...

During our learning in depth event for parents last night, we discussed the phenomena of professional players in the Canadian hockey league, explored by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, 'Outliers'. In the book, which explores the factors which contribute to success, Gladwell shares an idea explained by psychologist Roger Barnsley. Whilst at a Hockey match Barnsley's wife, Paula, noticed that seventeen of the twenty-five players on the team had been born in the first three months of the year. When Barnsley checked the statistics of other teams he found that in any elite group of Canadian hockey players, 40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, and 30 percent during the other six months of the year. It is a powerful statistic: a child hockey player born in January has a much greater chance of making it into the professional league than a child born in July, whilst a child born in December has virtually no chance of making the grade. Barnsley went on to explore the effect in other sports and found the same thing to be true in baseball and football.

Gladwell goes on to explore the simple reason behind this phenomenon: the cut off date for joining a junior hockey team is the first of January. A ten-year old child born in January could be playing on a team with someone nearly year younger than them. At that stage the eight-, ten- or twelve-month age gap will have a great effect in terms of physical development and coordination. As a result the oldest children in each group are more likely to be picked for the better teams. This in turn means they received better coaching, better equipment and, crucially, they are given an enormous sense of self belief by being identified as 'the best'. They started with a small advantage (a little bigger and better coordinated) but are then given additional advantages, support and encouragement to be much better. The end result is that they become the best. It is a self fulfilling prophecy or something that sociologists call an "accumulative advantage".

But there is another interesting question. Why did some of the hockey players born at the end of the year make it to the team? How, despite all the disadvantages they faced, did a child born on December 20th make it into the professional hockey team that the Barnsleys first noticed? Why? Why didn't those children born in November and December just give up?

Within any statistical probability we can find exceptions. People who managed to succeed despite the odds being heavily stacked against them. Those children who did not have the advantages of size and better coordination managed to develop the resilience to keep going. No doubt they were talented, but I would suggest there is something equally important going on here. I suspect that those younger, slighter players had a different advantage. They had parents and teachers who believed in them, people who were able to give them self-confidence when they weren't picked for the A-team, or didn't get the best opportunities.

Our self-belief is important, but for our children the belief we their parents and teachers have in them has a powerful effect on their lives. In addition to whatever advantages we are able to offer our children, we all have the opportunity to believe in them, to help them develop the resilience to over-come the challenges they will face and to believe in their own abilities. To borrow from Ford, 'whether you think your child can, or whether you think they can't, you're probably right.'

Friendship for Life

At the end of our Pesah morning for grandparents in April, one of our grandparents was overjoyed that she had re-connected with a childhood friend that she hadn’t seen for over 50 years. A friendship rekindled can bring back powerful emotions and memories. The Babylonian Talmud notes the tradition that friends who meet after a period of more than a year recite the blessing, ‘Blessed is the one who revives the dead’. A midrash (homiletic) explains that there an angel is created whenever a deep friendship is formed but that the angel dies when the friends are apart for an extended period. The friends recite that strange blessing to celebrate the rebirth of their friendship. Friends Reunited has a history predating the internet.

Recognition of the power of relationships for our children is embed in the approach to early years promoted by Dame Clare Tickell. The Tickell review noted that developing friendships is an essential part of the life, health and learning. It is because of this that a key section of the early years framework focus on children’s ability to form relationships. It is one of the areas in which we encourage children’s development and which, over the course of the term, we will be discussing with parents in our Reception class.

Another Talmudic episode tells of Honi ha-Ma’agel, Honi the circle maker. Honi was a sage who was famous for arguing with God and once stood in a circle refusing to leave until God sent rain (he clearly didn’t live in England…). In a later story Honi mocks an old man for planting a carob tree, which wouldn’t bear fruit for many years. The old man retorts that his forbearers planted trees for him and he in turn is planting “for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

In a Rip-Van-Winkle like episode, Honi then falls asleep and wakes up 70 years later to see the old man’s descendants playing in the tree and eating its fruit. The story is often told to children as a reminder of our responsibilities to those in the future, but the Talmudic tale has a dark ending, seldom shared with children. After realizing he has slept for a lifetime Honi walks back to his home but nobody there believes who he is. He tries to join a discussion but none of the scholars in the study house are prepared to respect his opinions. At the end of the story Honi cries out ‘Hevruta u’metuta’, friendship or death. The Talmudic tale has a resonance beyond the messages about the importance of planting trees and caring for the environment. It explores the idea that creating and sustaining friendship is as important as food. Friends validate us. They affirm who we are. They help us to make sense of who we are and what is happening in the world. In some cases they can help us to fulfil our potential and become the best we can be.

The stories link friendship and death are no coincidence. Our lives are enriched by our ability to make friends and form relationships, something we value and recognise in our children at Alma.

Counting Each One

The opening of Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly's musical Matilda is quite striking. Based on the Roald Dahl children's story, the musical begins with a chorus of children declaring their own importance:

My mummy says I'm a miracle.

My daddy says I'm his special little guy.

I am a princess and I am a prince.

Mum says I'm an angel sent down from the sky.

As the song continues, the children and their parents display every negative aspect of over-protective, 'helicopter' parenting. Then just as we reach the point of exasperation with their self-obsessive behaviour, Minchin and Kelly introduce us to a doctor who counteracts our revulsion by bringing a sense of hope:

Every life I bring into this world restores my faith in humankind.

Each new-born life, a canvas yet unpainted...

This still unbroken skin, this uncorrupted mind...

At a time when two hundred children can be abducted for the "crime" of learning and thousands more prevented from going to school, for me the media debates about the importance of exams vs. emotions seems to miss the point. School is about nurturing every child to make the most of their time and to prepare them for the complexities of the world.

We are currently in the period of the Omer, the 49 days between Pesakh – the celebration of freedom from slavery and Shavout the celebration of structure and order in the form of the Torah. In Jewish tradition we count each day, say a brakha (blessing) in the evening as the new day starts (Jewish 'days' are counted from sunset to sunset, so Shabbat starts on Friday night and ends on Saturday night).

Why do we do this? Why does the tradition exist? Are we really that obsessed with numbers? Can't we keep track of time in any other way?

In earlier times the Omer was a particularly worrying time. The complex mixture of rain and sun required to grow crops on time meant the different between life and death, and each day was precarious because too much rain, too little sun on each day could spell disaster. We count, because in ancient times, every day counted. It still does. Every day for a child is precious. Every day is an opportunity for growth and development. And every day is also precarious – too little positive encouragement, too little challenge, too much criticism and we can do long term harm. We count the omer and it should remind us that each person counts. Each precious life needs the right balance for growth and that we need to value each day, each moment. Especially when the sun shines!

Why Vote?

This week we celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.  The children had an exciting day, milking a (pretend) cow, visiting the Negev desert and creating a wall display of the people and places in Jerusalem. To help the children understand the event we described it as Israel’s birthday and ended the day by eating a big birthday cake along with an Israeli fruit salad they had prepared.

The European Elections will be held on 22nd May, giving us along with around 450 million Europeans, an opportunity to elect the 751 members of the European Parliament. Faced with those kinds of numbers, why should we vote? As a school we want to enable young people to grow up as engaged and committed participants in their communities and in wider society. Whatever our political stance, our involvement in local, national and European elections affects us all. Whilst our individual votes may not count for much, our collective ability to choose our leaders and hold them to account, even within the various parameters that exist, are a hard-won right and an important part of human dignity.

Although Israel was ‘born’ through the courage and resilience of the members of the ‘yishuv’ (the pre-state Jewish community living in British Palestine during the early 20th century), the opportunity to establish the modern state of Israel was created through the democratic vote of the United Nations in November 1947. The democratic process can make a difference to the world around us and it is essential that we use the opportunities we have to vote. Even more important is that we tell our children what we are doing and why. Children model themselves on the examples then see in us: if we want them to be enthusiastic readers, then need to see us reading, if we want them to be dedicated learners we need to share our learning experiences with them and if we want them to be engaged citizens, we need to show them than engaged citizenship is important to us too.


At the start of our celebrations of Israel’s independence on Tuesday we thought about the things we would like to give to Israel as a present. Along with hugs and trains (the children were enthralled with an interactive map we had seen, which included a moving train!) the children suggested kindness: an appropriate gift to Israel at the age of 66 and a good step towards becoming caring members of society.

Shabbat shalom,

Marc Shoffren

Capital Letters

It’s not often that an economics book grabs headlines, but Thomas Piketty’s bestseller ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ has been prominent in both traditional and social media. It seems that it had been economic wisdom that as societies matured they became more equal, but Piketty argues against this, using a wealth of data (including the works of Jane Austen) to show that societies actually become more unequal as they mature.

As you would expect, there is some debate about Piketty’s thoroughly researched and carefully argued book, but I’d like to set aside any verdict for another question: What if Piketty is right? What if the future for our children is likely to be more bleak and difficult? What if their teens and early family life are likely to be characterised by even greater economic divisions and potential hardship? If this were to be the case, what are the implications for learning and for young children?

I think that if Piketty is right then we have even more reason to ensure that children have both the academic skills and personal characteristics to prepare them for the future. I believe that the role of schools and education is to help children to take on the complexities of the world they are growing up in. In order to do this, children need to develop emotional maturity and resilience. They need encouragement to solve problems and to use their imagination. They need the opportunity to develop their character and their spirituality in whatever form that takes. And alongside all this they need the ability and the motivation to read.

The process of accessing the minds, imaginations, feelings, hopes, thoughts and dreams of others through written texts is a truly incredible phenomenon and one we too often take for granted. As our children go through the process of blending letters into sounds and from there begin to access concepts, they are taking part in the an inspiring part of the human story which pays tribute to our collective ingenuity.

Sunday marked Yom HaShoah, the day on which Jewish communities around the world remembered the tragedy and loss of life in the Shoah. One of the powerful features of Yom HaShaoh is the opportunity to learn the stories of resilience and heroism in the face of the darkness that engulfed Europe and the Jewish people during the 20th Century. A story I find particularly inspiring is that of Erich Auerbach. Auberbach was a Jewish German academic who had fought in World War I. He fled Germany for Turkey where he stayed for the remainder of the war. Whilst there, he wrote ‘Memesis’, an exploration of reality in Western literature encompassing Greek tragedy, the bible and writing of all forms including modernism. What is inspiring is that Auerbach wrote an internationally acclaimed work of criticism without access to any form of library, purely using his memory and his imagination, which in turn had been nurtured on a quality diet of literature.

Whilst none of us can predict the future, I am convinced that helping children to access and enjoy texts, is essential to living a fulfilling and meaningful life. Whatever the world throws at them, whatever darkness our children may face, the exposure to great works of literature, the ability to access ideas which explore our society and human existence, whether spiritual or scientific, and the skill to be able to express themselves through writing, are amongst the most powerful and important gifts we can give them. Reading, whether it is the Hungry Caterpillar, Marie Claire, or Capital in the 21st Century, is a skill which helps us to make sense of reality.