Little learners and how they taught me the biggest lesson: outlook on my time at the Early Years Assessment Centre

If you have followed my blog since I started it up in March, you will know my updates have been frequent. Even through exam season. Over the past few weeks you’ve probably also noticed I have gone fairly quiet — that’s not because I have put it to bed along with my bad last year of school. There’s a reason in the form of being super busy in another area: work experience!

On Wednesday I was so sad. The day marked the end (at least for now) of my voluntary work at a pupil referral unit attached to the local hospital for children aged 2-5. Previously I have completed projects and done charity work with adults who have a range of learning disabilities, but this was my first time meeting young children who have only very recently been diagnosed.

About six months ago, I decided to contact several places under my own steam in order to find something to fill the summer weeks. Doing nothing was definitely an attractive thought, but I get bored easily and so sort of always knew the reality of lounging watching Netflix every single day wouldn’t do wonders for me or the provide the sense of fulfilment I was so desperate for.

The lovely lead teacher was so accommodating from the get go. We had a phone conversation after I’d done my exams and she left it up to me as to how many days I committed to. I chose to do 2 full days a week, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, in order to clash as little as possible with other events that were upcoming like a final extra exam and Prom.

One Monday in June, I went for an initial look around to familiarise myself but to also check it was a provision I’d enjoy doing a placement in. We sat in the staffroom whilst I presented my DBS check and other valid documents and then I was briefed on the routine, purpose and duty of the unit.

It was so hands on and active from the start — they were quite laidback and I pretty much jumped straight in with the children. Teaching assistants and other staff were happy to explain why each child had a place in the unit, and what measures were being taken to help them and meet their needs.

The weeks soon flew by and slowly but surely, I felt a growing attachment to the lovely little souls I had the pleasure to spend half a week with. By doing little profiles, I hope I can highlight the special qualities of just a few of the children, present realistically my small insight into the effect of having a medical or learning difficulty on a toddler in a childcare setting, and also share with you why my experience was so so treasured:

Child A:

She was the first little person I encountered, crouched down next to a wicker basket of plastic fruit and veg. A diagnosis of autism means that she was in the centre two years from the age of just 2. All she was doing was lining up the toys — in the same way each time — running around the room and coming back and do it again. Repetition is key for lots of people with ASD and this was depicted clearly by this child even at such a young age. I would say ‘what a beautiful line!’ and developed on this as weeks passed by, tapping each plastic item and naming it as she placed it down, like ‘yellow bananas’ and ‘burger at the end’. She is non-verbal but paused when I spoke, almost as if listening. Children with autism often have additional sensory coping mechanisms, and her way of exploring is to put objects in her mouth. This is common in all young children, but typically they’ve grown out of it by the time they reach their third birthday (hence why you see the warnings on bottle caps and suchlike). A particular new liking of hers was blutac, meaning everyone in the room needed eyes in the back of their head! She was very persistent in this and would scour the room for any hanging off the walls to pick off and chew. All the displays in the classroom ended up at least 6ft off the ground or clean off — the walls were so bare.

She too left this week because in September she is going into mainstream schooling. Though this will undeniably be a massive step for her, her family and the new school, I am sure it will be rewarding and she will flourish with a chance to settle in a Reception group.

Child B:

Met this little boy on my first morning and he was just a delight to be around. Having just had his third birthday, he has been attending for little over a year. Almost instantly I learned he was more logically minded — puzzles and wooden toys of different shapes kept him entertained around the classroom. Although autistic and non-verbal, he has his ways of communicating, his favourite way of doing this being to walk over and take my hand and lead me to what he wanted. He displayed no interest whatsoever in interacting with other children (except for occasionally sinking his teeth in!!) but would often seek out staff members for cuddles and knees to sit on, giggle to himself and look deep into our eyes.

Child C:

Life is difficult enough when you’re tiny and getting to grips with the world and how it works, but it’s made all the trickier when obstacles just keep being thrown your way. This little one has varied mobility problems meaning it has taken her considerably longer to get up and active. On my second week at the EYAC, I met her for the first time. Previously she had been doing lots of bottom shuffling (and still was). Movement was a huge challenge. To tell the truth, I came at a lovely stage in her progress — she was just beginning to totter around with the help of adults holding her hands. June heatwaves were stifling and the garden of the nursery was in direct sun, so there was a period of time where we couldn’t go outside safely. This meant that she was limited in exploring on her feet indoors as another child would always be racing around or toys would be scattered in her path. On my last Tuesday, we got the opportunity to use the big field outside belonging to the school. ‘C’ walked a width of a field with me over to her key worker, then all the way back to the other side again without even stopping. It was such a privilege to watch this little person finally walking and persevering through that and life. Already. At 3 years old. Impossible to quantify how amazing that really is.

Child D:

Recently diagnosed with autism, this little boy also has 16p11.2 deletion syndrome, epilepsy and is fitted with a gastrostomy feeding device. In addition to this, he is not fully mobile and tends to only sit upright or occasionally try to crawl. When I learned more about him through asking staff, I decided to do my own little bit of research to try and understand him and his needs a bit better. ASD tendencies and epilepsy are linked with the chromosome disorder, which research suggests is a casual factor of these. Despite having a basic understanding, I had absolutely no idea that a learning disorder like autism — affecting social interaction and perception of the world — could even be induced simply by a blip in conception where tiny chromosomes did something they weren’t supposed to. It was a challenge for me, intellectually and socially, to change my behaviours in order to interact with him in a more suitable way.

Child E:

Was lots and lots of fun! I started this placement with an open mind, as is the only way to when you’re doing such work. I did however feel slightly hesitant about how I would manage to tailor my interactions to children who cannot give any cues back to you. Initially it was lots of watching other staff and adapting what I already knew, but it didn’t take long for me to suss it all out.

‘E’ is a bubbly and inquisitive little girl who has been given a diagnosis of autism. She is 3 and constantly on the move. For the first couple of weeks, I spent lots of time watching over her specifically in the classroom — there are high cabinets that she goes through phases of loving to climb, and of course not recognising any danger when she’s dangling off one practically head first. Many heart in mouth moments where I found myself with just short of three seconds to cross the room and catch her!

Occasionally she would have her less active moments where she again, like Child B, would take my hand and sit us both down on the sofa next to the window. I’d point out the things outside to see, like the children playing and the sunshine in the sky. Sometimes she would look and seem to process what I was saying, other times she’d turn and reach out for me to sit back on my knee and tell me her own tales (incoherent, babbly strings of noises like oi-oi-oi or other singsong words).

Child F:

Had the pleasure of seeing a new starter in advance of September begin her time at the EYAC after I had started myself. New environments can of course be daunting for us all, but even scarier for children who are used to only being in the care of parents and other close relatives.

She is only 2 and has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which affects the function of each of her four limbs. The main teacher took her for the first week and pretty much held her for the entire three hours. This little girl would be easily unsettled and startled by other children and people, often causing her to scream for prolonged periods of time. As time passed by, we all discovered what she liked — the puppets and watching bubbles pop when sitting in her chair. Pulling funny faces even meant we got a smile!

Child G:

The EYAC typically sticks to their policy of enrolling children from their second birthday until the July before they’d start compulsory school, so aged 4 for the majority. This little boy came for the afternoon sessions until the end of this week despite being a year too old. His age dictates that he should have been in a Reception group this year, but due to behavioural problems and exclusions from different establishments he was referred to the centre instead. On a personal level, without even knowing this child, I believe it was perhaps the best thing. Mainstream schools have it so that there is little freedom, even from an early age, and sitting in a plastic chair for long periods of time in a uniform is expected for the masses but not the right pathway for all.

My first impression was that he played just like any other child of his age might: in the sand, in the home corner and with some musical instruments from one of the toy boxes. However, as time passed, I noticed he was using very explicit language and I also witnessed him becoming very angry. Not only with himself, but the teachers, escorts and sometimes even other children. I cannot fault the staff and their abilities of both coping and calming him down whenever this happened. They did not lose patience and gave him the attention a school perhaps could not have the resources or time to. Behavioural needs are in no way less significant than any medical ones and I now appreciate even better how important it is that people stop to consider why before jumping to conclusions about ‘naughty’ children they see in supermarkets, and perhaps just go without judging or dismissing it as too many E-numbers. This child is easily upset and empathy has never been more crucial. As soon as he settles, he is back to a smiling, chatting and contented little human who wants to tell you about his new iPad game! Weathering the challenge where people are concerned is a valuable lesson I’ve picked up.

Child H:

This child took me aback when I first met her with how crazily intelligent she is for just 3. Despite having cerebral palsy affecting her movement, she would be more than able to have a conversation with me about the day of the week or the colour of her Grandad’s hair — which she convincingly claimed to be pink!

The centre itself:

Classroom

The massive main room is where all the children typically play. There are brightly coloured displays, rugs of different fabrics, interactive whiteboards, screens and boxes of toys like you could never imagine. Between sessions the floor is a sea of different blocks, bricks, cars and toys!

Light room

This room was my favourite, and certainly a popular one amongst everyone! It was opened a few years ago after charity donations. Since many of the children have ASD and behavioural problems, sensory spaces can be really calming and comforting to them. There is a bubble tube, interactive lights walk, fibre bunch, disco ball and lots of projected images to look at and watch. I will confess to feeling sleepy — it definitely had the desired effect on me!

Garden area

A safe space has been designated for use by the EYAC only, but it is tiny and so we could only stagger taking the kids out in small groups. It sometimes is hard to access because they have to coordinate with the attached primary as to when it is vacant, as the KS1 children next door also use the outdoor bit with swings. Of course the hot weather has meant we were doing pretty much anything to escape the oven that the classroom had become! Walks were a pretty standard thing, especially on Tuesdays, to Sainsbury’s cafe for snack or even a play park. Sometimes we would take the bus out and visit museums or bigger parks for the morning.

Ultimately I have had a fantastic time and was beyond gutted to leave behind the wonderful children, encounters with highly educated therapists and other professionals, but also the five staff members, who welcomed me with open arms and willingly educated and shared tips and bits of wisdom. It’s been a great way to spend time and interacting in a new environment has done me the world of good. What feels to matter the most is that I have these memories on a personal level, as well as experience and better insight into the profession I’d very much like to go into. Honestly couldn’t fault one moment and would repeat it all in a heartbeat, yoghurt stains and aching arms included.

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Year 11: a long and honest reflection

Finally, though I thought it would never, the day has come. I have officially left school but for an exam next week. It feels a bit surreal because regardless of how good the experience was, it’s now over. Done and finished! The amount of tears I’ve shed over the past two weeks has been silly: exams and leaving and endings and relief. It marks the end of my school life which is quite monumental. We finished on a Physics exam, which used to be a subject I loved to make projects on just before secondary school. Oh how things change…

I would be happy to put all thoughts of this year to bed now, but it changed the way I felt about things and for a time had quite an effect on my mental health. I have tried to be balanced. There are aspects of this I’ve never shared before now but it was an important write — if for nothing else but to just to wrap things up for a final time.

On our first day of each academic year, we spent the morning in form, an easy start to the busiest term. The highlight was always putting the display boards up for the flag of the form’s allocated country (searching the entire school for the correct coloured paper, not finding any and doing an amateur job of colouring white A4 in with marker pen). We would then start lessons in the afternoon with our new timetable. Though this routine was typical and had been my fifth round of it, the usual feelings of routine just didn’t come this year.

We did UCAS applications in October. I was excited, if a little nervous at the thought of leaving everything behind. It’s a hard decision to know what you want to study and where, because what if you get it wrong? College interviews happened quickly and I remember coming home and having a wobble. I despise change and hate leaving any comfort blanket, even though the places I went to did seem amazing. Starting afresh in a new environment seemed like an awful idea at the time.

December 8th 2017 was any other Friday but the date is one that sticks in my mind. We sat down for an assembly that was about thirty minutes in length. It was the standard early exam preparation talk only more focused on the ever-decreasing time frame and our responsibility to make sure we were studying very hard, even at that point. Standard in message but it felt like a bit of a bashing. One quote about believing and achieving on the front page, essentially rendered null and void by the twenty minutes of negativity that followed. Of course the kick up the backside is needed by some in order to focus and recognise the significance of exams, but it wasn’t right for everyone. Now it’s not realistic to tailor talks to specific groups, to determine from the masses the right approach for the individual, and nor is it very time efficient. But could it be? Should it be? All just through the sausage machine, every last one of us.

I felt close to tears in the last lesson of that day. I couldn’t just let it go over my head because it was not fair. Most things stay with me and play on my mind and that’s just how I’m wired up — not very good at “switching off”. A few people in my period 5 lesson dropped their table tennis bats and came up to me, concerned. My PE teacher got off my back about actually participating (which was extremely rare) and told me to go home and have a good cry. And I did.

It was April time when I felt everything began to collapse. Particularly for science. Though the subjects aren’t core, I wanted to do well since I’m carrying Biology and Chemistry on at A level.

The specifications are first examined in 2018, but everyone has had access to the material since 2015. It was a cover lesson when me and four of my friends looked through a textbook before revising and realised a page was completely new. And then another page was. A chapter was. You get the idea.

After counting and making a list, it amounted to roughly a quarter of each subject that was just completely brand new. And there was no clear reason why. The exams were about five weeks away at this point. We told several people on different occasions yet nothing was done. It was a losing battle and so I resigned to teach myself. I tried every resource I had but still ended up despairing most weekends, feeling guilty for the things I hadn’t done. For not starting earlier. For not realising the weight of it months before. For not being able to understand the words in the textbook which had no meaning whatsoever.

There were many teacher absences beside the ones who left, our timetables were swapped and changed around and we continued with the third cycle of mocks. Often our lessons in some subjects were just video watching or filling out another sheet. It was repetitive and I could feel my mind switching off.

I started to take a couple of days off most weeks after the Easter holidays simply because I was getting more done at home. I could gather my thoughts and concentrate whilst being comfortable with where I was. The curriculum was ‘finished’ at this point (though arguably never started in places) and so my own efforts were all that counted. Lots of people actually took self-initiated study leave because productivity in that environment all day was, I feel, much of a gamble.

My closest friends are in very different social cliques and so I’ve been in the middle for a couple of years. I have known ‘A’ since we were tiny, so towards the end we decided to stay together where possible at breaks rather than imposing on anyone else who one of us wasn’t as friendly with. Instead of being in the very loud, very rammed cafe, we went to a music practice room for lunch where sixth formers spent most of their day. It was the last few weeks and both of us were done with being amongst it all for separate and similar reasons. The conversation was better, the 4G was better (!) and nobody was judging anyone else. In the least antisocial way possible, an ideal lunch was peaceful and not ten minutes to eat a sandwich before the phrase “shall we go to the quad” was said by someone, resulting in half the school outside on a square piece of concrete, in absolutely all weathers, to throw food at one another or talk about the latest reality TV and plans for enjoying Saturdays traipsing fields. I was counting down until the next lesson and then counting down until it was time to go home. Finding a sanctuary, albeit a small one, was better than getting absolutely no social stimulation whatsoever.

Exam season itself soon came and was everything I imagined and knew it would be, only minus the anticipated worry. A sense of calm took over as we were on the home straight and starting exams meant the beginning of the end. My final exam is on Thursday and then it’s all over. Under the circumstances there is no room for regret whatsoever in respect of results. I’ve tried my best in spite of the circumstances. People often talk about all you need to do is “try your best”, meaning academically, but I’ve realised sometimes “your best” is to be kind to yourself. And to let it all go.

My eyes have definitely opened. I have watched the place I’ve learned in both peak then disintegrate and have seen people brushed away and reduced to tears. One of those people being me.

I was so torn at the start of the year as to whether to stay or leave, but things could not be any clearer now. I owe the circumstances I’ve hated my gratitude for making this decision such an obvious one. I leave with my head held high and bearing no grudges. It won’t be a year I miss. The era, yes, but not the year. I would hate for anyone I care about to spend a period of time anywhere feeling so out of place like I did.

However — and I have had to dig quite deep for this however — it is just one big sorry coincidence. Everything that has happened has not been a personal attack. The ethos of the place is not wrong, the leaders themselves are not wrong, the testing is not wrong, the regimented routine is not wrong, inaction is not wrong, the culture is not wrong. It just goes against what’s right for me and what I believe in.

If I had a school everybody would sit out in the sunshine all day, which would surely be a disaster too! I really don’t have a solution but applaud those who set out to educate because it really isn’t easy. However, my admiration soon sours the second there is a disregard for people, whatever the reason may be.

Though the purpose of Y11 is exams by default, there are more important factors beyond that. I have stewed over the whys and the hows of events of this year for a long time. It’s felt like an endurance test simply because my values are so integral to me and every single day has felt like swimming against the tide: absolutely draining both mentally and emotionally.

The reason I’m leaving to college in September is not because I want an easy ride — far from it. I am leaving because I want a challenge and to do well and therefore I cannot stay and do that whilst being the worst version of myself. It has felt cold and lacking in camaraderie and directed praise was very scarce indeed. Opting to settle for anything less than being at peace with myself is not sustainable for a further 2 years, which isn’t long but is long enough if you clash so majorly with where you are. Travelling will use hours out of my day and will mean an earlier start but I think it’s a small price to pay.

For the sake of my wellbeing and success, I have to make the move now. There is no guarantee that the grass is greener but a fresh start is never a bad thing.

But…

There are always lessons to be taken from any situation and these are the things I have gained:

Independence:

Of thought and of action. Although my knowledge of school subjects is far from rich, I feel I have learned about the world, and about people, connections, values, important things that can’t be taught. All of these things have made me grow up.

Always keep up the fight — until someone hears it or hears you:

This year I’ve been writing quite a lot to rationalise my thoughts and share perspective. I am much better writing than I am talking as I often struggle to get the words out in the right order or with any remote sense of fluency. Before he left last year, my old form tutor’s advice was ‘keep your head down’. Only have I learned the value of that advice now that I’m at the end. My opinions have divided a few and there are times I would have had an easier ride if I’d just shut up and put up. However, it’s reached many, and I’m glad if nothing else that people are reading and getting to form an opinion on matters thy are so important.

Connections are crucial and the inherent good of people always exists:

I love people more than just about anything else. It has been a gift this year to be in the same corner of the world as some wonderful characters, both familiar and new. From my cheeky 7-year-old cousin to the overly-friendly bus driver and everyone in between, it is a privilege to know people. I’m very lucky.

Nobody’s invincible and everyone’s just trying to get by:

As cynical as this might seem, it’s very much the case. All one big game that some people play fairly, some safely, others cheat and others sabotage. Everyone perfects a social front and is as complex and motive-driven or as simple and transparent as you decide they are.

Patience and understanding:

Listening or just being listened to is something I’ve found so critically important and is something I’ll try and take with me.

And things to look forward to:

Shadowing placements:

Much as a 12 week break has been well-earned, I didn’t want to waste the months away doing nothing but watching telly. My aim is to do all the things I haven’t had chance to and to exist outside the confinements of the world of studying for exams. Until August, I’m volunteering for 3 days a week at two different places, one assessment centre and an adapted school for 2-11 year olds with additional needs. I’m really excited to work in a new environment and gain some insight into both the strength and adaptability of the children and the dedication of specialist staff.

Uni open days:

Looking quite early, but it is an excuse to visit some pretty cities with my big sister before she moves out to her flat. Seeing unis reminds me that there is life beyond the chapter that has ended and the one that’s yet to come. I have a few degrees in mind but it will all very much depend on how the next 2 years go.

Reading new things:

I’m so excited to sit down and actually read minus any guilt. My time has been stolen this year but I’ve now got chance to spend as much time as I like with a book and visit the library for reasons other than to study!

Seeing friends:

I was texting a friend the other night trying to arrange shopping and lunch in Leeds, but not finding a weekend we were both free — except it doesn’t have to be just weekends now. We’ve planned to get the train in on Tuesday and it feels so nice to have the opportunity to mix with people whenever the fancy takes, irrespective of day. Everything will become more meaningful because it shifts from seeing people because you have to, to seeing people because you want to. There is value in that.

Eating consistently healthier:

I’m going to make a concerted effort to cook more recipes daily rather than make freezer food and broaden my horizons in doing so. Having a plant based diet is difficult but even more difficult when you’re fussy about the plants you like. I need to go to Aldi and buy vegetables and bite the figurative and literal bullet.

Starting college:

Feeling like a person with actual subjects and things to learn about, and meeting new people to make memories with.

The long rest:

Well, this goes without saying! Watching old episodes, new series, sleeping (a lot a lot a lot) living by a clock only if you feel like it… time to just be without having to think about it. I need to feel refreshed otherwise I can’t hope to function at optimum.

Ultimately I’m neither happy or sad. The thought of leaving is definitely strange but I feel no major attachment to most of what has featured in my final year of school. I disagreed on a grand level with the values which made me uncomfortable and found it largely dull and uninspiring. A weight is slowly being lifted and I am more ‘me’ than I’ve been for a very long time.

It was lovely to go out on a good note and see everyone so happy today. I genuinely wish people all the best and hope they go on to make choices that are right for them.

We all deserve to be found in our surroundings and not lost in them.

On my last legs vs last leg of the journey

I’ll start by conceding that the title choice is awful. Creativity is just a bridge too far and one ask too many. Words aren’t my strong suit when I am exhausted. But, it really is the last leg.

Much as I don’t want my posts to get repetitive or pointless, since it’s still exam season, I thought I would do a last update before all my exams are over whilst I’ve got the opportunity to. I did set this up with the intention to document my thoughts & experiences so it would make little sense to just abandon this altogether until I’ve left school!

The half term holidays are here, and thank goodness for that. It is my last proper week of “holiday” for the foreseeable — I have some shadowing lined up for summer which is super exciting and gives me a real sense of purpose that I’ve been after for a while.

Despite the fact I only went in for exams this past half term, the relentless cycle has been exhausting and I needed to stop. I’m sure that’s something everyone can empathise with. Going through the motions is worse than the questions on the exam itself. Sit down, shut up, this is it. Also knowing it’s the beginning of the end is very weird to come to terms with, though I’ve been longing for the day to arrive!

It is starting to sink in that I am leaving school in the middle of June. I remember starting. Leaving school. And never ever returning, ever ever again. Except for my stats exam the following week. And maybe prom, definitely for results and December when it’s time to collect the certificates, and providing I don’t change my mind and decide to stay on (which is exceedingly unlikely).

Am I ready to leave school? I think I’m ready to swap the dependency and always colouring inside the lines. But, as with anything, it can be hard to reach the end of an era when what lies ahead is uncertain.

These exams now are a culmination of it all, the results a product of what I have and haven’t been taught and have and haven’t enjoyed. Not the sort for regrets but it would be incredibly easy to dwell on a lot. I wouldn’t change any of it though. Character building I suppose. You can’t ask for much more.

My time in school has probably been run of the mill, highlights and lowlights dotted in and amongst. It has not been awful. Would I repeat it? Not for any money. Would I change anything? Probably not. Even the worst times have given me something, be it a connection, a memory or something to think about. Of course there are improvements I see clearly that could be made. I’m but a drop in that specific ocean and I’ve finally (thankfully) reached the shore.

We booked a holiday earlier this year with the intention to take my books. We’re in Santa Eulalia, a lovely little resort in Ibiza that we’ve been to a few times before. The flight was short and it’s a nice week in the sunshine to relax after a busy few months. Pretty pretty pools and scenery, nice drinks and we won’t talk about food other than to say bread and berries are unsung heroes!

(Third wheeling their 29 year marriage but at least I make an alright photographer)

Events have unfolded differently to how we needed and hoped they would and so we’re sadly coming back a couple of days earlier than planned, Thursday evening. It is a late flight and we are ‘unfortunately’ sitting by ourselves. Not bothered in the slightest because I like being by myself and also like chatting to strangers. Do wish I hadn’t put my duvet and pillowcases in the washing machine before I’d left home. But, sleep is for the dead. I’m learning this more and more.

Nevertheless I have managed to get some work done after a 3 day break. I am a slow reviser and still haven’t mastered going over things I don’t like, which is arguably my biggest priority. Paper 2 sciences are so much more content heavy and half of the topics were only introduced to us in the last few months, if at all. I’m hesitant to do any more memorising because everyone found the first papers were guesswork based on threads of knowledge here and there. Pot luck and common sense did more for me than anything I revised, which is more than annoying. I suspect that anything I focus on now won’t be of much use, but psychologically, sitting down and working on at least something makes me calmer.

I love homeostasis more than all the other topics. I am fine on Chemistry too.

But. I. Am. So. Bored! So bored! If only I knew how to engage with other content and make it a little less like watching paint dry. If I could muster up enthusiasm, all obstacles would be cleared. I would be productive. Videos, colours, mind maps, reading, I’ve tried the lot. For some subjects it just doesn’t work.

I googled the science behind disinterest and I’ve come to the conclusion that some subjects just aren’t compatible with some minds. I took 20 minutes of my day to do this which probably tells you a little about how I get on with quadratic functions and iteration.

You can sugarcoat it with growth mindset all you like, but once you hit a wall, you hit a wall. Growth mindset can be an unnecessary, unhealthy idealism when used an answer to all people who struggle with a certain thing. An excuse to find fault with the person instead of acceptance that not everything suits everyone. Not justifying laziness when that is the cause, but nobody needs extra guilt when they are already trying their damnedest elsewhere. One of my closet friends can’t stand English yet they’re excelling in Biology. “Growth mindset to conquer all” is an insult. What I imagine they might need is a break, if they’re any similar to me.

Continuing to chill this week, arranging my summer (which is exciting) and sorting out some last minute bits before the end of term rolls round. Planning on looking round some unis and doing some bigger city overnighters with a group independently, just to explore and see what the rest of the UK is like. We are thinking of Newcastle first because of shopping and sightsee-y things but need some recommendations so we can begin an itinerary.

The first 6 months of 2018 are nearly through (already!) and I’m beyond excited and hopeful to see what the next half year brings.

Exam central

At long last exams have arrived. I have to remind myself as honestly it still feels like mocks, probably because we’ve had three rounds this year: some in November, some in January and some in March. And I do think it’s one set too many beyond good preparation.

Today I (productively) worked out my total exam time for my subjects to be exactly 27 hours, not much less than the average amount of sleep over a working week. x3 for mocks is 81 hours I will never get back only this year. I would be as well to pack a bag and move in to the sports hall. On second thoughts, definitely definitely not…

We have practised exam technique and completing papers and practically neglected to do the content itself and focus on actually learning it. This gives the impression that purpose is recall and memorisation. Whilst that’s true, knowing that doesn’t make anyone feel more inclined to take it in. Thinking about and discussing material more thoroughly would have been of use too. All the mocks have resulted ultimately in making us more self-reliant. A good thing but not good enough by itself. Help matters too, as does balance.

Most my friends too agree that it has never felt less important to try, and from what I’ve heard from others, this is a bit of a theme.

Luckily there are positives to be taken from doing the mocks to death:

• Not bothered = not as stressed.

I haven’t panicked anywhere near as much as I thought I might, touch wood so far (Physics and Maths are yet to come!)

• It feels like just another day. Which you could take as just another day or you could take as just another day!

• Overly familiar with the environment. This isn’t a deal breaker as the paper in front is all that matters, but being in the same room helps with having the right frame of mind

The whole approach seems to be sink or swim with the tide of it all. My position is a subjective one but I’d be interested to see others’ opinions on the value of the mocks.

Only time will tell the effects they have (or don’t have) on actual results. I can say for sure that they’ve detracted from my experience of Y11 as I hoped it might be. It is notoriously the year of exams, but being on the hamster wheel constantly for the last few months of school for many is exhausting and demotivating — in terms of further education and life in general.

The whole world harps on about equality, we tiptoe around as to include everyone and not shut out others or discriminate against their beliefs on the grounds of race, religion and gender — everyone should have equal involvement in life matters concerning them.

Instead what feels to be happening is a subtle form of reverse ageism as we’d expect it to be; all of this is disguised under ‘doing what’s best’. This is fine whilst you have people that aren’t competent to make a decision, but what about when they know what they want? When they think mocks don’t help them? When mocks make them feel unwell? When they would rather be exempt? Nobody says anything because we put faith into systems and hope they will do right.

I mentioned someone in a past post who had said ‘an adult learner would cope fine doing ten evening classes and sitting a GCSE’. Thinking about that example again. An adult learner would be consulted about rounds and rounds of practice exams, because of age and general common regard. They might even have some input. They could certainly say it wasn’t for them, or if they thought it wasn’t conducive to success and increased life chances, the very sentiment any exam is premised on in the first place. And people would listen. The past is the past on a personal level but the whole process is exhausting and completely unsustainable. Holistic and alternative education is far from perfect for its own reasons but at least value and meaning is learned. I don’t have a panacea but I can’t say I’d want my own babies in a similar system in years to come.

Unable comment fully on the ins and outs of the political side of things as my head has been in the sand for the last nine months. Even if it hadn’t been, any sort of relevant topical input is very remote in the curriculum. I am loosely up to date with the world around me, never mind my family, friends and the connections I’d hoped to foster. It is more than frustrating. Busier and worse times lie ahead and I try not to be naïve to that. However, with respect and hopefully due personal value, I’ve every confidence it will feel easier.

GCSEs to A levels are like SATs to GCSEs. It’s all relative like lots say. Although there will be harder qualifications, more noteworthy ones, these do matter too, don’t they? They clearly matter enough to be concerned about, otherwise why all the unrelenting mock exams since the beginning of the year? Why have I had to stay up revising in order to cover content, been encouraged to stay behind two hours for three nights a week since September on top of 5 hours of lessons a day? Why have so many been pulled in for intervention in subjects I could sit aged 12 and fly through with relative ease? Why have I been plied with books and booklets and papers and folders? Why all of this if only English and Maths matter? It screams worry and lack of preparation since day one, whose I’m not exactly sure. Staggering that anyone has kept a lid on it at all. Maybe they haven’t, and maybe that’s just it. Therein lies the answer to the near-disaster of a year* that’s thankfully drawing to a close.

Getting ready for the coming weeks, firstly today by lugging a bag for life splitting with textbooks to the park for some peace and quiet. I didn’t last long because I forgot to take an antihistamine but the effort was made! Preparing mainly (albeit passively) by accepting what I can’t change in the least defeatist way possible. There will be results I’m surprised with and ones I’m unhappy with too. Trying your best under the circumstances is all you can hope to do. Anything gained will not be because of, but in spite of.

*less held back reflection of the final year post is already almost finished weeks in advance

Good luck to everyone in the midst of their exams!

Forget about ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ and start to be kind

Kind is a word we see and hear a lot lately. It’s near impossible now to go anywhere without someone talking about ‘Random Acts of Kindness’, which are normally carried out and less frequently said aloud. There are even days dedicated to being kind brought about by social media, all of which I think are very lovely in principle.

‘Kind’ is used that frequently I feel we’re almost taking its meaning away. The importance behind it is too often overlooked.

Little gestures matter a lot. Giving up your seat for someone on the bus, holding open a door, picking up dropped items — all very noble. Perfectly fine and all great things to do. Still much better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, right? It demonstrates that you are willing to consider others and then act upon it. But this is only half of it.

‘Actions speak louder than words’

Or do they?

My lovely Scottish grandma used to use this phrase. My mum has too adopted it, using it most to help me and my sister through problems we’ve had. If I genuinely manage to be half the person she is in years to come, I will have achieved all I could’ve wished to. But I do think the saying shouldn’t just be accepted. It doesn’t always work.

We empower others around us through using language and words. What we physically do accounts for only a fraction of the thoughts in our head. It’s so important to verbalise what you think and let others know. If we are gifted enough to communicate full stop we owe it to do just that. And for everyone who can’t use or find words, we have a duty to send nice ones their way anyway.

Mimicking the ‘kind’ acts we see in the media, or the stereotype of helping someone across the road is better than nothing but the copying aspect screams lack of originality to me and therefore meaning. Interactions and gestures should be done with your heart behind them or not at all.

Kindness can’t be taught but it can be learned. There is no need for contrived videos or making a song and dance out of it. For all ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ examples are great, they are a false version of the quality we’re trying so desperately hard to seek and promote. Kind is so much more than watching a video and reenacting what you see time and time again. You have to interpret it for yourself and make it your own. The moment you remove the intuition from the kind is the same time it becomes inconsequential, hollow.

The more others build you up, the more you start to see ways to build others up. Leading by example is the only way to foster qualities in others rather than churning an impersonal version out to the masses. You can only watch the YouTube video of the man who waters the plant on his way to work so many times before you’re either left thinking plant hydration is all that matters, or you want nothing to do with plants ever again. The point I’m trying to illustrate is exposure to the same thing is repetitive and prescriptive and serves only to make mini robots who think the only good thing must be gardening-related. In fewer words, thinking outside the box seems of so much more value.

Of course gestures can be of some worth too. Smiles and actions with clear careful thought, eye contact at the right moment to grow the right connections — all things we wouldn’t function without. However, I’m not so sure how the world would turn if we had these alone whilst using words meaninglessly or to damage rather than uplift. Probably not very well.

Being cruel to be kind

I sometimes wonder how much revolves around this. More than I’d like to think. I’ve always liked to live in a bubble as much as I can and keep myself from things that definitely are cruel. Myself and my biggest little cousin are Christmas babies and I still get stupidly excited with him for Santa coming as soon as Halloween finishes. I love to believe more than almost anything: in people and good intentions and causes and the future.

Sometimes being cruel is necessary. I think it’s probably an antonym or close opposite of ‘nice’, and nice is different still from being kind. You can pretend to be nice but you can’t pretend to be kind.

Judgement comes from generalisation because people make their minds up and make snap decisions whether to be kind or not too quickly. Everybody is able but sometimes it’s overshadowed by misunderstanding or just never seeing it demonstrated. We all need more kindness and to show others it too. Not because we want to be seen in this light, but because it goes such a long way.

Keeping unkind words to yourself

In the past year particularly I’ve done lots of reflecting on values, which is both a good and a bad thing. I think it’s easy to feel as if you’re without a purpose or role whilst you’re approaching exams, whatever those exams are. You question everything right down to the minutiae and it’s really bloody exhausting! The monotony becomes too much at times and there has to be an outlet of some sort. The idea of traipsing fields whilst drunk or other typical age-related activities didn’t seem my idea of perfect way to deal with the loss of direction. As long as you’re bound within the late stages of the system, there isn’t an awful lot you can do to feel like you’ve got some degree of purposefulness about you.

Back in November when I was feeling a bit lost I tried to think back to all the ways I’d recently addressed people and how I could change my words for the better. I can say with honesty I don’t experience unkind thoughts that have come out of absolutely nowhere. I’m neutral for the most part. I figured if you can’t be at peace with your surroundings, you have to find a way to be at peace with yourself. No matter how you do it. It is the only way.

This post is a little less directly related to education but I felt important to raise and write about all the same. It’s anecdotal in principle after one of many interactions on Thursday made me reflect.

Being kind matters the most in education. It is the biggest motivator of all.

One of my teachers described how they’d seen an ex student passing in town who had met them with enthusiasm. They described jokingly how they hadn’t really been fussed for seeing them and actually looked forward to the interaction to end, which received laughter from everyone sitting nearby. We all have awkward situations. But I couldn’t help but wonder how necessary it really was to judge someone for their genuineness, for their smiles, for being pleased to see you…

I left upset on more levels than one. Despite it not being personal to me, it was in fact alarmingly personal to students on the whole. Wherever there’s people and you choose to be there you must like them. If your heart is not in it, whatever it is, then you are being unkind by staying in that situation. To yourself as much as others.

I love any encouragement of kindness but struggle to settle comfortably with it being reduced to ‘random acts’. It is a start but it is not a solve.

We need more time

https://www.tes.com/news/exclusive-exam-board-leaders-criticise-three-year-gcse-courses

I came across this article linked above earlier today on Twitter. I read it to the end and then part way through again because I really don’t understand.

It’s true that three years is a long period of time, even longer when you’re still finding your feet in life and not just school. As the chief executive of AQA points out, “youngsters shouldn’t have to take three years to do a GCSE. (He) would be very sad if qualifications were narrowing the experience”. And “narrowing” in particular is interesting, suggesting the exact opposite of growth. Which is what we’re all aiming for in some shape or form. I’d hope exam board leaders of all people would be aiming to promote it. I feel the empathy is nice but it seems almost a bit wishful, like learning in the way they’d prefer can only happen in the ideal world. This is an examining body. I appreciate not with direct authority over the state of education, but with likely a little higher positioning and influence than those who read it.

We picked our first three GCSEs around Christmas time in Year 8. They were two year courses and we had a wide selection of choice, beginning them in Year 9 and scheduled to sit the exams in the summer of Year 10. Slightly before Y11, we picked three more subjects for the final year. These could include consolidation. When we picked in Y8, the EBACC (English Baccalaureate) was thought to be the must have for all colleges and unis: countless assemblies and talks were planned around the subjects we would take to get it. They include the standard core subjects in addition to one language and one subject from the humanities. The vast majority of the already-huge year group took combinations like Spanish and history, or geography and German. This was pretty flexible so long as you had two. I was actively disinterested in all the humanities except RS, which didn’t count. A DT teacher gave us a talk for 30 minutes of a lesson around the time we chose these subjects. Everybody didn’t want to hear it, myself included, and I’ve no doubts that all thirty 12 year olds in the room would’ve much preferred to continue to design the graphics of the plastic orange key rings. Probably minor in his morning but I’m glad he stopped his lesson. By encouraging everyone to stand their ground and not be cornered doing a subject they’re not so keen on, the two years that followed felt so much better. I did RS, Law and German in the end whilst feeling confident and supported throughout and finished with A*, B and A respectively. And a decision I would’ve made then would still be affecting me now. It’s just, “nobody saw it coming back then”.

Roughly 18 months ago, my year group had been taken into a typical morning assembly to be told their efforts in History and Geography up to that point were all for nothing. It was just before Christmas and we were in Year 10. They spent a full year and some, fully anticipating exams in the following six months. A couple of coursework projects per student had been completed needlessly. The reasoning was such that it would be easier to teach under the new reform for one additional year and then sit the other exams (effectively losing any display of achievement in the coursework plus the opportunity to pick another option for Year 11). I’m not too sure whether this was an internal or external decision. Exams went ahead regardless and it was the last year for the old specification. They could have done it alongside exams for other subjects, yet they didn’t.

Those who haven’t taken either of history or geography are in the minority. The reform was always going to be harder. Because of all the upheaval, implementation of the new spec in lessons happened after January 2017. It is packed full of details, dates, names, facts, theories, comprehension and interpretation. They will have had, in total, a year and a half to learn this alongside everything else. Typically 2 years in length nationally, they’ve missed a quarter of what many others have been given. And they didn’t subscribe to it. It’s not the course they wanted and there was never a way of opting out. It is now taught from Y9-Y11 with younger year groups — double the time my cohort have had. I presume the rationale was ease and ease only. But ease for who? No element of ease whatsoever for my friends who don’t have enough hours or headspace.

It isn’t core and it isn’t the be all and end all, but the point of taking EBACCs was to get good grades and become well-rounded. I challenge anyone to this while you’re occupied constantly with the concern of passing something you didn’t sign on for. It doesn’t matter cause you’re still in school… but if you were an adult learner in an evening class, they wouldn’t be able to just change their minds about course content at the drop of a hat. Not without consulting you prior to making the decision. Nobody would sit you down and say ‘this is it and you’re doing it’. It would be laughable at best, bit draconian at worst. It would probably drive you out the doors never to return. Still, the whole thing arguably does provide you with a topic to talk about on the premise employers and interviewers do indeed worship all EBACC holders: perseverance! Even though that’s not what it ever was designed to show. Something good always comes out of something bad…

I’d absolutely agree that GCSEs shouldn’t be taught for so long and exam boards are spot on for criticising it. They are meant to be relatively easy, accessible for the age group. Two years should be fine. One year if taught well. Focusing on something for so long is going to make you bored and disengaged. Sitting in the same seat with the same book that maybe isn’t of interest to you for not terms but consecutive years is monotony. It bypasses the idea of appropriate discipline in students for further education and stretches into stupid. It’s a wonder motivation in students still exists for certain subjects where the courses are just so incredibly long-winded. And repetitive and same-y.

The however goes like this: the nature of the reform means we need all the time we can get — be it three years or even more.

This thought has been represented this weekend. I’ve not been glued to any work because I don’t want to burn out — it’s bank holiday weekend and lovely weather too which is not exactly conducive to memorising lots, no matter who you are!

I have had a gorgeous weekend despite warm weather being far from my favourite. Much prefer dark nights and fluffy pyjamas and pretty Christmas lights but I’ve joined in and seen family and linked up with a couple of friends in the morning. It has been lovely… chin chin to Mondays that feel like Saturdays!

Taking advice from others and giving myself a break. Things I don’t know at this point I’ll likely not know this time next week — not being defeatist but acceptance minimises stress. Whilst I’ve not sat and forced myself to study, it’s been in the back of my mind. I did pick up a textbook to have a glance through ahead of the week to know my areas of focus. Put it down again soon after because the sheer amount of things to memorise became all-too-familiarly overwhelming. Key words and content, equations and required practicals just gone completely unaccounted for. In recent weeks, if anyone’s noticed this and raised it, it gets met with a curt response of “you did a lesson on this in Year 9”. Except nobody stressed the importance of giving it our undivided attention back then… You would have to have an exceptional memory to recall a specific trivial hour from over 2 years ago, separating it from all the many other lessons you’d ever had. Somebody probably stole your boyfriend that morning, you might have argued with your sister the night before, classroom was too cold, fire alarm went off, or your teacher got stuck in traffic and was ten minutes late so you didn’t get to do the required experiment… that one hour

It is beyond dispute that we should have gone back over many things and just haven’t. After the exams, I plan on writing a less vague insight into the exact specifics. Is it the responsibility of people or a reform to make sure we’re equipped? Should one lesson once, not accounting for any illness or supply teaching, be enough? Is it still revision if you’ve only touched the surface of a topic years ago, or is it as good as self tuition?

There will be more valuable qualifications in the future than these, but surely these are of reasonable importance else why are why doing them? Why bother with a whole reform if only English and maths matter?

The core subjects nationally are taught from Year 7 anyway. They are skills-based rather than memory and regurgitation of facts. As for subjects like literature, they’re definitely best started early to cover everything. Three years feels about right. The focal theme in schools shouldn’t be GCSEs right from the day you set foot in secondary. I do however feel I and many others would have felt more at ease and more prepared with earlier exposure of topics in science, especially those that came from A level. There was no gradual approach with the reform. We went from ‘cells make up animals’ to ‘mRNA is synthesised and moves into the cytoplasm before attaching to a ribosome and coding for an amino acid.’ Some students have kept up better than others and it varies from subject to subject in everyone. Only time will tell. I struggle to believe most the topics weren’t known about at all before 2017. Everyone knew things were about to change.

I would love for more time. Even if just to balance things a little and spread the work over years instead. Thorough rather than efficient. Over exposure does exist — I agree with that sentiment — but against the demands time is of the essence from the very beginning of Year 9. I resent how the focus on work has detracted from my ability to appreciate my last school year. If we’d had longer with the material, the pressures would’ve been alleviated at least a little.

3 year courses are far from perfect as the article states often, but they’re becoming a realistic option if accounting for missed lessons and both student and teacher absences that are ever on the rise. The breadth of the workload itself needs to be examined by those who with power to do so rather than examining students on the content itself. Squeezing too much in is not sustainable; this has been the only way simply because of how ill-prepared everybody is. The repercussions or rewards won’t belong to any establishment after the league tables are long forgotten. They are the students’.

“Two weeks to go…”

Wednesday marked 1,000 people having read one of my recent posts which is insane. So nice and definitely very flattering for OCR to link my posts to the English board and on the site — thank you! TES have also been back in touch about writing again at some point. Social media is such a big platform and I’m pleased my own journey is of interest to others who can relate. I like to document things week by week even if super busy — this is a wee rushed and probably lots of wonky grammar dotted about so advance apologies.

Monday I spent some time with my sister, who is also very busy at the moment working shifts and sorting her exciting new flat out! We went to the retail park for tea and had a drive. Breaks up the mundanity of usual evening routine. I have a lot of time for Emma and should probably tell her more. So glad we’ve got each other’s back at all times. (Love ya)

This week has been more productive than most. I’ve been finding that I don’t have time to do all the things I want to, like study undisturbed, do a general tidy up of my notes, read a book outside the specifications and just have a day to breathe a little and be part of the outside world. I woke up and I was really off it. From this came Wednesday “well-being day”.

My mum transferred me £25 to do some shopping with for both of us while she was at work. My parents do get groceries together at weekends, buying things like pickled onions, cottage cheese, rice cakes, Ryvita biscuits, bread, green milk, Skyr, quinoa, nuts, the fruit and veg… and probably more. This is what comes to mind when I think of their shopping. All fine at times but being fussy, I like to top up on some things for lunches when my dad is back oblivious down in Birmingham Mon-Fri. He doesn’t get my veggie-ism and awkwardness too well, despite having had to duly oblige with it since I was tiny. Soya milk is always the last straw for him whenever I offer to help with the Sat morning shop!

Caught the bus into town on a Wednesday afternoon and had a coffee before heading to the supermarket. It was really nice to do midweek. You know something is amiss with your typical routine when shopping for food feels liberating and like you’re a real, existing and functioning person…

I managed to walk the dog twice, tidy up (which was therapeutic for a change) and spend some time in town. More importantly, I managed about five hours of solid work in total which is good for me and my painfully short attention span! It was easy to focus and concentrate on what I wanted and needed to do, rather than what my timetable says for a change.

Spent the entire day on Literature as it’s taken a back seat since around Christmas time to make way for the masses of science, however, it is also in three weeks just under! I’m not taking Lit onwards after the exams but essay writing practice is always valuable and it’s something I’d like to do well in. Since it’s not core either, I’ve had to make it a lesser priority for a while.

As to not overwhelm myself, I cut A4 pieces of paper lengthways and made tiny quotes and key points sheets. Condensing it all helps in that I don’t feel there’s such a mountain to climb, and as a consequence feel more ready to take everything in. Lots of colours as is usual and highlighting. I did this for all of the characters from An Inspector Calls. Themes are important too, but I feel if you can recognise the main ones and know the characters well, they tend to follow and slot into place when writing. I then wrote up a few essays from memory to see if I could paragraph the points I’d made on the posters before. This worked well and I hope to use the feedback from them to try and write in timed conditions — if ever I get such a lovely long stretch of time again!

I do recognise the importance of attendance. My current percentage reflects that quite well: came back from Center Parcs earlier than my family members in January to keep it up, and only took one day in March when I was really poorly with tonsillitis. I just feel going becomes less crucial once the syllabus has been covered in its entirety. Lots of places offer study leave, which I can imagine has its advantages and disadvantages too. I don’t think for a second that I’m exempt from the rules set but sometimes it matters to look after yourself a bit and weigh things up. The one goal is to do the exams well and I’ll do what is necessary to get there in these last few weeks.

On Thursday evening I picked up my neighbours’ six year old from after school care. They’re a great family and work long hours in different parts of Yorkshire. They have an older boy who is thirteen and fairly self-sufficient, but their youngest needs walking home, homework help and looking after. We’re on very friendly terms and they’re even attempting to source me some work experience and placements for the summer, which is fantastic! Feels more than a little weird entering my old primary school and seeing familiar faces. ‘A’ is an exceptionally clever child, like out of this world smart. I don’t know who helped who more when we were going over science and times tables! All in all, a lovely spend of an evening and makes me feel glad that I can help in some way!

Everything seems to be coming undone a little in my year group. People bickering, people upset, people too tired — in need of a break of some sort but that break isn’t coming just yet. The stress is palpable and this is another reason why it’s not necessarily the right environment for all at this point. But, for the one half that is arguing, the others are coming together more than ever.

As I like reiterating and mention probably too much, it’s all about doing what is right at the moment. And not doing things for the sake of others or what is expected. Doing whatever is possible to get yourself where you need to be. Sailing through and feeling a little more accepting this week of things out of my control. And not just study-wise.

I am grateful more than words can say for the cluster of people who all know who they are. These days are made lovely by the connections with those I’m close to that I value so very much.