“In Early Years, children just play.”

By Abbas Jaffer

I am delighted to share a guest blog post written by my colleague and year group partner Abbas Jaffer, who works at Central Primary as a Year 1 teacher and KS1 leader.

 

If I had a penny for every time I’d heard this, I’d have £1.48. At least. It is not so much the sentence that gets me, but the intonation with which it is said, often by people who mean well.

Firstly, play should never be under-estimated. It is the most powerful vehicle and catalyst that we have as teachers and parents to expand our children’s minds. When children are playing, they don’t realise they are learning. This helps them to truly engage in the learning. Secondly, as well as ‘play’, the children also learn to read and write, solve complex maths problems, eat communally, paint, create, imagine, draw, investigate and explore the world around them.

Whilst I won’t go into it now, there is much research into the benefits of learning through play, which is known as ‘child-initiated learning’ (CIL for short). This is not the children teaching themselves, but them choosing from activities that adults have carefully considered and planned, based on the children’s interests. Adults are crucial in making this work. In fact, they are the difference in transforming “just play” into “outstanding learning”.

As you can probably tell, I am a firm believer in child-initiated learning. This is down to the 3 years I spent in Reception, working alongside some of the most diligent and extraordinary teachers you could hope to meet. I saw and was a part of outstanding CIL. However, most Year 1 settings do not continue with it, which can be a huge shock to children who had been getting over 2 hours of CIL a day.

This said, with me being in Year 1 this year, I wanted the children to continue learning through exploration, by following their interests. However, after a few weeks of trialling CIL in Year 1 as it was working in Reception, I realised that I cannot just replicate Reception-style CIL in Year 1. It just does not work, for several reasons: smaller classroom sizes, less adults, raised expectations, a broader curriculum, children being that much older, and basically having too much to do and not enough time to do it.

This is where (after a bit of trial-and-improvement) the idea of Project Time was born. The afternoons in our Year 1 classrooms are now split into two Project Times. The first is similar to a typical lesson and the second is similar to child-initiated learning. Both of these are centred around a weekly theme (so far we have had ‘The UK’, ‘Kings & Queens’, ‘Light and Dark’ and ‘The Gingerbread Man’). During the first session, the children have a lesson, then do an activity in their books or sometimes a more practical activity, which prepares them for the even higher expectations of Year 2. The second session of Project time enables them to explore a variety of activities, which cover a range of curriculum areas. This enables them to continue what had been and should be an integral part of their education. In this way, Year 1 becomes the stepping stone from Reception to Year 2.

We live in a world where children are growing up too quickly and under a government that is increasing expectations year on year. However, when all is said and done, we must remember that they are just children. And if they want to “just play”, then let them. But do it well.

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Teaching children to read, and talk

One of the key aspects of teaching Year 1 anywhere in the world is most likely to be teaching children to read. This was definitely the case in Finland, where during my two years of teaching, I was able to teach in my mother tongue, children to read in their mother tongue, since majority of the children I taught had Finnish as their first language. Also the children in my classroom back in Finland were ready and eager to learn to read at the age of 7 and had been exposed to the language for their whole life. Many of them already read by the time they stepped into my classroom. Without sounding too naïve, I dare to say that teaching children to read in those circumstances was relatively straightforward.

Now let me give you a short summary of where I found myself after I relocated to the UK. I now teach in my second language a group of children of whom majority did not speak English as their first language either. The children are two years younger, had not been exposed to one culture and language for the first years of their lives but instead often to a mix of cultures and languages. I teach them a language (English) that by all measures is very demanding phonetically.

No wonder, teaching children to read in my new job turned out to be a bit trickier than in Finland.

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One Hundred Lessons of Solitude

People who do not know the ins and outs of a teacher’s life does not believe me, when I say that I used to be very lonely in my job. “How can you be lonely in a classroom full of children?” one would say. Or “we are all lonely”, another might comment. And while both of these are valid points, they don’t take away the feeling I had. Although your days as a teacher are filled with laughter, cries and bubbly chatter in your classroom, sometimes you feel like the loneliest person in the world.

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The schoolbooks I once had

Finland really is the promised land for schoolbook publishers. I wasn’t able to find any real data for this, but I feel confident to say that a very large majority of primary schools use schoolbooks in their teaching. Every subject had its own book series and teachers followed them quite happily. Students are very proud of their books, especially the first Finnish book that you get to keep as a memory from the first year of school. Things are changing in Finland with the new curriculum and the call for active and multidisciplinary teaching, but the books are still there and don’t seem to be going anywhere. At Central however, they are long gone.
It’s not really one of the things you’d come to think of to ask in your job interview. “I do have one question. Do you use schoolbooks in your school?” Coming to think of it, maybe it should be, since the answer can make quite a difference to your job as a teacher. I had some colleagues back in Finland who took a job in a school that was experimenting with bookless teaching. I heard their stories and thought, that’s a lot of work, and not for me. Only to find myself a few years later in that exact situation.

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A lifelong learning journey

It’s a beginning of a new school year. How do I know, you ask? Set aside for a second the fact that I spent a week getting my classroom ready for the new children, ordering and labelling books, sorting through resources and now getting to know 30 new children and their parents, what really made me realise that it’s a beginning of a new school year is that my head teacher handed over a three-page form that I need to fill in outlining my personal development targets for the year. It’s part of my performance management. And it’s no joke; it really is three pages long.

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My first year at Central

The last day of term I ran into my head teacher in the dining hall on my way in. “Congratulations, you survived your first year of teaching at Central!”

I said thanks and walked into my classroom thinking, yes I did indeed. Not that I really ever had a doubt in my mind. What I didn’t expect was that I would actually enjoy it as much as I do. Don’t take me wrong, this year was no walk in the park. Actually quite the opposite, but the mind works mysterious ways and maybe that is exactly why I feel this way right now. I got through it.

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The joys of report writing

It’s common knowledge that teacher around the world find writing reports stressful and challenging. I was not expecting it to be any different here. I was also not expecting that every child in our school gets a report that is two pages long and includes individual comments about the progress of the student in every subject also including the highlights of the academic year. So you can imagine my surprise when I opened the Word document and realised just how much work it would be. Far behind were my days in Finland teaching in Year 1 where I would just choose the suitable option from three step assessment, evaluating each subject as a whole. There were no individual comments, actually not even a possibility to comment because it was all done through a system where you would juts input the numbers.

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