Back to the Future 1

Back to the Future 1 – personal reflections on my visit to Michaela Community School

What is a teacher from the north of England, living about as far from a free school as it’s possible to live, going to do when in London on a school day? Visit Michaela, of course. I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about regarding the values and methods of this young school.

I’ve often said that I’d love to be starting my teaching career again. I’d make different choices, go down one of the newer routes that are available now to graduates looking for a career in secondary education. Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I found myself wanting to turn the clock back further. If I could start year 7 all over again, (and had the option of doing it in Brent, which I would never even have heard of when I was an 11 year old in Lincolnshire…) I’d start it at Michaela Community School.

At 11, I needed and loved structure, organisation and order. I was the kid who ran her own bedroom library and issued books to dolls and teddies, complete with tickets, a membership log and a catalogue. It mattered to me that everything slotted into its proper place, at the proper time and for the right reasons. It all added up to a type of security that I valued and enjoyed – maybe not for everybody – and it’s the same sort of security at Michaela. Expectations are super clear. Time is used efficiently, every part of the day is a learning experience and the self-control and good manners that are perpetually encouraged in each individual serve to propel the whole school through the day in a positive frame of mind.

Routines at Michaela – a school still less than two years old, remember – are solidly embedded into the running order of the school day. These have been commented on elsewhere, so I’m not going to relay every detail. The important factor from my point of view was that the routines that were most visible were actually the most useful, and they were there to enhance learning. Some routines serve to pace an ‘admin’ activity, such as when gluing a sheet into an exercise book; some serve to signal transition points in lessons, or to ensure that a short discussion returned smoothly to the main topic. With many of these routines though, came gentle reminders, quiet prompts or a clear simple gesture. It wasn’t overbearing. It really wasn’t. It was efficient and made it clear what the children needed to be doing at that point.

Gaining factual knowledge, and remembering it, feature highly at Michaela. I’m one of those people who teaches things to kids. Often not even in my own class. In fact, I don’t even have to be in a school, let alone my own school. Give me a child, and we talk about stuff, and I see my role as an adult as being about helping them learn. That might be learning, experientially, in the moment – “what would happen if you tipped that into there?” – or it might be something away from the child’s direct realm of experience – “why do grown ups go to work?” – but whatever it is, I like the child to have grown in some way as a result. I probably will have done, too. At Michaela, I explained some of the poetry of G M Hopkins to my year 8 guide, and she questioned me about the context in which he had been writing. I discussed the use of animalistic similes in chapter one of Of Mice and Men with some year 7s, and encouraged them to remember the quotations we highlighted. It was great to be able to converse with children who held in their memories a tapestry of increasing complexity, colour and intricacy, representing some important cultural milestones.

Lunchtime conversation threaded through different topics, centring on the day’s theme of ‘rumours’. I listened as the children talked through various hypothetical situations. At the point where they seemed to need more of a framework to hang their thoughts on, I introduced the word ‘verify’ to them, leading into more talk about words sharing the same origins. The Michaela staff and pupils call this ‘family lunch’ and that’s how it felt. It was like a meal we’d have at home, with adults shaping and reinforcing where needed, and children chatting and exploring ideas, asking questions, finding exceptions and then moving into a new cycle of enquiry. Ours ended up with a discussion about rumours and truth, which led to truth and narrative, and whether narrative worlds could collide.

It was when a point of speculation was reached regarding a Harry Potter/Star Wars hybrid, that the dining hall was called to order, with a simple raised hand signal, and appreciations began. A handful of children were selected to offer a simple message of gratitude to another person or group in the school community. A swift double clap reflects the whole group’s acknowledgement, and off we were in to the next. With each child, something was happening beyond surface appearances. My table had also been discussing the appreciations they might offer as they’d been eating together. One boy supported another, helping him with the vocabulary he might use. Another encouraged a friend to speak a little more loudly so that people could hear him properly. Some of the children selected were ‘first timers’ in speaking to their whole year group and this development was recognised too.

Learning really matters at Michaela, and every single minute really matters for learning. We hear a lot these days about teaching to the point of liminality, of spacing and interleaving, of working memory and long-term memory – and we also hear about deep learning and analytical thinking and  independence. I saw all of these in the many lessons I observed, and not just in the content that was being delivered, but equally in the manner in which it was organised and presented. Many of the potential pitfalls that could occur are just eliminated from the teaching equation…kids don’t lose their places when reading, as they always keep a ruler under the words, and lines are numbered to enable reading to recommence after a quick question and answer session. These are simple shortcuts, the sort that a parent might use with their children, to keep to the family to deadlines and keep the clutter organised.

I saw plenty of lessons on my visit. I was allowed to go anywhere and everywhere – thanks to headmistress Ms Katharine Birbalsingh for this. I saw two maths, two English, two French, one history and one music lesson, lunch break time in the yard and a calm and friendly mealtime. I was due to be picked up at 2, but had I been able to stay longer, I’d have been on the brink of offering to take a class or some form tutor time.

If I ever go back, I will.

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