Residential reflections: escaping the classroom

02 Oct 2016

afternoonsSummer is fading:
The leaves fall in ones and twos
From trees bordering
The new recreation ground.
In the hollows of afternoons
Young mothers assemble
At swing and sandpit
Setting free their children.

Philip Larkin’s ‘Afternoons’ seems particularly relevant as September draws to a close.  In all honesty this week has felt a bit more like a challenge: tiredness and irritability have set in, half term is still too far away and the marking pile (“the leaves?”) is ominously falling around us.  The “hollows of the afternoons” is now a time of fatigue and inhalation of much needed caffeine. To continue this delightfully despondent metaphor, the trees ominously circling the “recreation ground” is the classroom itself; already beginning to metaphorically entrap both us and our students. Fear not, however, this is not a Larkinesque diatribe of misery (“deprivation is for me what daffodils were to Wordsworth:” my all time favourite Larkin quotation!) No, this is a call to arms, a call to reflect on the value of what the “young mothers” who “assemble” seek to do: “Setting free their children.” This post is inspired by a weekend of seeing young people out of a school context, of relationship building, of thinking about self-esteem and the learning that can take place outside the classroom.

This weekend a group of our school staff took twenty five Year 11 students to an adventure/study weekend in a rather splendid country house in Allendale, a tiny Northumberland village near Hexham. They are our “hard to reach” Pupil Premium students; some ostensibly demotivated, behind in lessons and often presenting behavioural difficulties. The weekend combined a range of intensive two hour revision sessions for English and Maths with adventure activities: climbing, problem solving, mountain biking, canoeing, gyhll scrambling and much more. This was an interesting cocktail that was filling me with some anxiety as the week progressed,  with a growing fear that the weekend would morph into some kind of North-Eastern version of ‘Lord of the Flies.’

Now deep into Sunday evening and deeply sleep deprived, I feel a little ashamed about such selfish doubts – all stemming from a fear of removal from the structured school bell/school classroom experience. Instead I am profoundly grateful for the experience (although not for the late evenings of chivvying/chasing sugar fuelled Year 11’s into bed!) Given the lack of slumber forgive me if the thoughts offered are likely to be tinged with an emotive melodrama that I might regret on Monday morning!

On regret: I have just re-read my rather clinical post from a couple of weeks ago ( Part of the beauty of the blogging process, I am sure will involve the retrospective groan as you realise limitations in your own thinking and writing. While I won’t be too harsh on myself, I am disappointed that I haven’t even touched on self-esteem in this post. The wonderful group of students we took away this weekend are desperately lacking in confidence and faith in their own potential and ability. What really struck me was the way their confidence grew throughout the weekend, how quickly they started to believe they could achieve things. The tentative girls who turned down the opportunity to climb an admittedly terrifyingly large tree on Friday afternoon were hurling themselves off cliff edges into freezing pools by Sunday morning. They did this because of the skill sets that they had developed in the three days: their resilience, their determination, their motivation, their self-belief. Each one of those students had achieved something they thought they couldn’t, and they knew it. For me it was amazing reminder of a need to teach beyond the narrow curriculum imposed on us, to take every opportunity to build self-esteem, to share successes more visibly with students. Now for us as a school it is about driving this forward in these early moments in Year 11, continue to celebrate their achievements and pushing them to achieve the very best they can.

The revision sessions in the stately country house library at first were difficult, as the students hesitated to offer ideas and share their work. Real and genuine positive enforcement as they successfully completed difficult tasks and they began to grow more vocal, hopefully leaving with some renewed sense of hope about what they can achieve. Opportunity and time to speak to the young people in a way the classroom cannot afford was also a brilliant way to remind them of what they can achieve with effort and commitment. Some  of these moments occurred during heated table tennis battles; another particular favourite hurtling down a large hill in pitch darkness on a tiny child’s mountain bike (no adult sizes left, but I was desperate to join in!) It is an encouragement and nurturing that lots of the students will not receive enough of at home, one of the reasons why taking children out of the classroom can be so beneficial.

Talking of the home, I rather glibly wrote a few weeks ago that “empathy has to be a driving factor”. Spending a weekend immersed in young people’s lives has certainly taught me much about empathy. It has also reinforced that teenager’s lives can be immensely complex and challenging. The only real issues over the weekend we had were due to the intrusion of social media into the country serenity. I will save this rant for another time.  More poignantly was the glimpse the weekend afforded into the daily experience of some of the young people. I found myself welling up as a result of a conversation with a student who had been desperate to come away for the weekend, despite the fact his father had passed away two weeks ago from a long battle with cancer.  His reflections on his father’s influence, the rest of his family, his desire to become a therapist – all so openly shared. This from a young man who is trying to cope with the pressure of Year 11 with ADHD and Tourettes syndrome. Certainly put my own irritation with marking piles into perspective.

It is why the support that is offered to these young people within a school environment is so utterly vital and important. I spent a significant amount of the weekend watching teaching colleagues in awe at how they seamlessly manage this. We are privileged as a school that the students have two people who work very closely with them: an amazing mentor and a Pupil Premium co-ordinator (a man of immense energy and heart!) who have quickly formed hugely positive relationships with this group of students: balancing  clarity of expectation with profound investment in their futures. The students know this, respect them and are hugely enriched as a result. The relatively freer nature of the weekend meant that this was a real focus for us teaching staff: building great relationships with these students so they can focus on academic achievement rather than previous distractions.  The sense of a school community was also deeply imbedded; bringing teachers and students together in a share desire to do well. Another reminder of the need to step outside of the myopic individual departmental focus I often found myself lost in. The energy and drive of teachers, making sure that the students had a weekend that was truly memorable was touching to see and the students couldn’t fail to be inspired. One girl captured this far better than me in her poem she wrote to celebrate the weekend on Sunday: “the flow of positivity/enlightening the attitude of everyone”.

The classroom is the place of learning and of course it is the priority, but it can also sometimes enclose us and perpetrate narrow minded thinking, making us forget the wider world that exists for young people and for us. A residential can really open up perspectives, build hugely relationships that will be the driving force in enabling students to learn and help them to secure a positive future.

Genuinely coincidently, Thursday marks the worldwide outdoor classroom day. Perhaps something to reflect on: what opportunities exist, how can we allow the students to flourish outside of our rooms on Thursday? How might this assist in fostering the various skills we are seeking to encourage them to develop? How might it build further the relationships that can motivate students? Challenge set.

Care, thought, investment in meaningful relationships – a residential and learning outside of the classroom can open up minds and hearts. Even the chief pessimist Larkin himself knew this was a priority: “what will survive of us is love.”





Thanks for reading, some great stuff on learning outside the classroom:

Fantastic Larkin biography if this has wet your appetite for more pessimism:





Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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