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Social justice in teaching and the value of caring

There are many nice things about doing research with other people but one of the best things about being part of a group is the possibility of reflecting on your progress and sharing the responses you have to what participants tell you.

I was doing just this one evening last week, 16th June 2016, as a member of my research group had shared how her students had responded to her telling them about an incident or a turn in her own life and experiences.

We are researching the place of social justice and socio-cultural issues in Physical Education Teacher Education programmes. I am in my share of the data generation phase in universities mainly in the UK at the moment (it’s an international project covering the USA and NZ as well). I replied to my research group to appreciate the story that had been shared and to express what value there is in doing work on social justice: it can be hard but energising – vital maybe. I said that a recent interview participant of mine had said something on these lines recently: we teach social justice because we just have to … it is about fairness in all aspects of life, not just in sport or physical education but because those fields feed into and from all our social worlds. Because we care and want a better world.

We were reflecting at the time on the aftermath of the Orlando shooting in the USA so our thoughts were geared towards how we can respond to these events and the hate that caused them in our teaching and research about social justice. I had also seen the news that day that MP Jo Cox had been attacked and was in hospital.

It’s not just an abstract concept, social justice; we are dealing with real lives and events, not political correctness. The personal stories make all the difference.

After I sent the email, I looked at the news and learnt that Jo Cox had died as a result of her injuries. The email conversation then seemed to mean so much more to me.

There are not always opportunities to tell our students we care nor might we often demonstrate it (emotional labour being something that might be sidelined in neoliberal academic practice) but one of the elements of teaching social justice and socio-cultural issues must be being a socially just and caring teacher. Addressing the ‘isms’ in education (Dodds, 1993) gets more complex all the time: no longer just sexism, racism and ablism but homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia affect teaching and learning in physical education, and then I can’t forget teaching about privilege: class, racial and male privilege, also British citizenship privilege and English speaking privilege seem important now.

I support the things Jo Cox stood for and worked hard for, though I didn’t know of her before 16th June. I am also REMAIN for the EU referendum. I have read so many powerful arguments for remaining over the last few days and cannot articulate it as well, so in brief. We are better as a part of the EU for our environment, our universities, our rights and because being part of something larger – not turning away from others – is important. Being in the EU isn’t just about immigration and refugees, but a lot of the words being expended around the referendum have been about those topics. While anyone’s individual vote to leave might not be xenophobic, that is what the leave campaign has been built on. Leave proposes a Britain that is insular and right wing (also, they aren’t going to spend any saved money on the NHS). I vote remain to say that the type of country I want is one that welcomes, connects, cares and works with other people across difference because this is part of social justice work to me.

Dodds, P. (1993). Removing the ugly ‘isms’ in your gym: Thoughts for teachers on equity. In Evans, J. (ed.) Equality, education and physical education, 28-39. London: Falmer Press

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Further writing tools and tips part 2: recent successes

This is the second of two posts of my latest favourite links on writing and planning for writing. The first covered tools or ideas that I tried but didn’t have success with (although I still recommend you try them). It’s worth a try of any tool or structure you encounter, giving it a good go, and then considering how well it is working for your writing. I’m not affiliated to any of these websites and programmes. Here, I introduce some tools which I have had more success with lately.

Thomas Basboell (at http://secondlanguage.blogspot.ca/p/40-paragraphs.html) says that a standard academic journal paper should be written in 40 paragraphs:
1-2 Introductory remarks
3-7 General background
8-12 Theory that informs the analysis
13-17 Method
18-22 Analysis / Results 1
23-27 Analysis / Results 2
28-32 Analysis / Results 3
33-38 Implications
38-40 Concluding remarks
We need to be able to articulate ourselves in these structures because this is the kind of set up that readers will expect to see. He suggests 40 paragraphs at approximately 200 words each. This was a structure that I could instantly apply to a paper I’m writing, and I plotted out a numbered list 1-40, as above, noting the topic of each paragraph. This proved really useful. I have a habit of writing page long paragraphs, so now I am conscious of the point of each paragraph and how long it should be. However, 40 x 200 words makes 8000 words, and most journals in my field want papers of between 5000-8000 including references. So, personally I set on paragraphs of approximately 150 words, to end up with a paper of about 6000.

A typical paragraph structure from a number of sources suggests that there are three phases to each paragraph.
Topic: one key sentence on what it is all about
Body: core argument
Wrap: pull together, offer conclusions, set up for the next paragraph

Basboell suggests:
One key sentence;
Two sentences explaining or defining the previous;
Keep going like that. Keep writing for 27 minutes.
That is, he suggests concentrating on just one paragraph at a time, for 27 minutes, not deviating from it during that time, and then taking a 3 minute break before the next paragraph. He points out that this means you’re concentrating at a smaller level of detail than you might normally, able to hone your sentences multiple times. This is probably better in editing stages than early draft stages when you just want to sketch out all the ideas. Personally I am reluctant to do any technique like the 25 minute pomodoro or the 27 minute paragraph as I explained in my previous blog post, but give it a try because it might work for you.
One good point about the structure key sentence, explanation, further explanation, is that it made me think about each paragraph having its own take home message, not just a single one for the whole paper that you then try to argue throughout, potentially repeating or contradicting yourself, or drawing out the argument longer than it needs. On a smaller level, there are multiple messages that you can write about.
There’s a whole host of valuable lessons on writing on Thomas Basboell’s website.

Similar advice on arguments can be found in a post on TAA blog (On Textbook and Academic Writing) – on a simple level, avoid writing lists when you create a literature review or academic argument. This is not a new or mind-blowing idea but something worth keeping in mind. The site also has a range of interesting posts on writing and publishing.

My most recent find in terms of writing is a blog, writing guide and podcast series http://jameshaytonphd.com/, self-identifying as a bit unconventional compared to usual academic writing advice – for instance suggesting that “just writing” is a bit panicky, leading to poorer work than if you take some time to plan for quality not quantity. Hayton questions the idea that practice makes perfect, that writing and writing will eventually get you where you need to be. This fits with my own experience of tools designed to just get words out on the page. However, if you recognise the difference between writing for yourself (practice, brain dump, etc) and writing for an audience, you can more successfully use both types.

Of all the latest tools I’ve trialled, the most useful and productive has been the 40 paragraph structure. Coupled with Scrivener, which I recently started using, I’ve been able to refine a paper that I’ve worked on for a long time. It’s got to a place where I can see what the paper can be when finished, because I broke it down into sections and then paragraphs. Scrivener enables you to subdivide your work; creating new files within sub-folders within folders is easy, encouraging you to label each paragraph and section with a heading and, if you like, a short explanation: your topic or thesis sentence, perhaps. This fits right in with the 40 paragraph structure: just create 40 small sections or files and write one paragraph in each. Scrivener’s index card view is useful for then visualising the order of your work. Both these things help you avoid paragraph-less rambling.
Another useful feature for me is having two sections open at once, side by side. I like to be able to refer back to the literature review while writing the discussion, for instance. This gets closer to one of my favourite things on Word which is zooming out to three page view – it ruins my eyes on a small screen but I like to have a broader sense of my whole paper, not just being able to see one paragraph at a time. *And* Scrivener remembers what you had open and where you were last time, opening at the same point or the same section(s). Handy.
However, I have a couple of niggles. The blank screen and slimmed down format possibilities are clean, but if you like page numbers (and seeing how many pages you’ve written) you don’t get that (that I can see). Also, I like Word’s track changes, especially if you are doing a big edit and worry you might cut out something you subsequently want back. I’m sticking with Scrivener, at least for projects I’m writing solo.

Thanks for reading and I hope these practical experiences of some simple writing tools help.

Further writing tools and tips: what’s not worked for me

There are many blogs and books published and still being published on writing. My two most popular posts on this blog concern writing tips and sentence constructions, despite this not being a writing blog. This is all quite telling. A lot of the online academic community like to read about new ways to plan, structure and carry out writing. It suggests there’s a lot of uncertainty about writing. Are we a community suffering from writer’s block? This post and a follow up share my experiences with some of the writing and planning tools and tips that I’ve tried for my own writing lately. Not everything works for everyone; I’ve tried a few methods to help kick start or maintain some projects, and record my successes or failures. I’m going to start with things that have not worked for me.

750words.com is a “blank page” web-based tool designed as a clean space in which writers can record anything they like. The thinking is that 750 words, or three pages’ worth, is a good start each day, while being enough to feel you’ve accomplished something. I signed up for the free trial which is 30 consecutive days. The web site stores all your writings by the day, can export anything you actually want to use, and awards you points each day you write anything, go over 750 words, and for consecutive days’ writing. There is also a daily email reminder to write your 750 words.

I liked seeing the total word count go up. However, could I say that these were good words? Were they words I could use? Am I “brain dumping” everything in order to start from a fresh mind, those annoying thoughts put aside? It is nice just to be typing: I can see how it is a useful warm up. Other fun things are the gamification of it: once you’ve finished you can look at the stats with graphs and pie charts on how fast you write and how long each day it takes you to get to 750 words (for me, average of 60 minutes), what the main emotions in your writing are. Then you can win badges, for things like writing three, five, ten days in a row, or writing fast. I managed only a three-days-in-a-row badge (it’s a picture of a turkey, which also appeals to my tenpin bowling side). That tells me something. It tells me that I am not truly concerned about writing a 750 word brain dump every day. That maybe I need to be writing quality prose and I don’t think I can do this on a blank screen away from all my previous writing and planning. I feel that when I do that, I am not writing the best writing I could, or it is substance-less, because I am not drawing from the reading and outlining I have already done. I wrote 7000-ish words more than I would have written that month, but I didn’t always find that they were words I could do something with.

Another problem I have is that I am often not online when I would like to be typing 750 words. For instance, on the train to work would be a great time to use for getting started on writing something, even if it is just warm up or brain dump. However, as it’s web-based, I can’t get 750words.com loaded on my wifi-only tablet on the train. Writing in a notepad like Google Keep and then pasting it in when I get to work would be ok, but it messes with the stats on how fast you write (750 wpm!), if you care about that sort of thing.

After a month, at the end of my trial, I saw I’d used 750words.com on about 50% of the days. For me, that is not enough to justify even the low subscription rate of $5 a month. I really like the idea of it, and it is good value for many people, but I found myself looking for more structured tools.

There are probably similar reasons at work in my failure to stick to using the Pomodoro Technique (simplistically, blocking 25 minutes at a time for a task, followed by a 5 minute break) – 25 minutes feels at once too short to do any work yet too long to avoid other demands – although perhaps I am just not protecting my time properly, which is a key objective in successful pomodoro use!

While I started out using the Academic Writing Accountability spreadsheet very well (you’ll find me listed up until June) for first draft writing, once I got into editing it had less purpose for me. The idea is to record your daily word count and, like 750words.com, see your progress building up; there’s space for recording your monthly total, your writing aims and whether you have achieved them. Once you’re editing however, and not producing but cutting words, a daily total of -500 words is less motivating. Some users record instead their pomodoro use: “five pomodoros today”, for instance.

The thing about any writing suggestions is yes, try them all out, but you will need to find one (or a hybrid) that works best for you, and stick at it. Not jumping between different suggestions. If you do 25 minute pomodoros, do that. If you want 750 words first thing in the morning (that you might then edit later in the day), do that. I’m going to turn next to some techniques which have I have found personally more successful.

My personal journey into physical education scholarship

This is an excerpt from my thesis in which I explain my journey towards and through the PhD process. As an “intruder” in the PE field – I am not a trained teacher nor did I study PE before my PhD – I often reflect on my position and would argue that outsider views can be valuable in education especially when working for diversity, inclusion and equity.

Both the academic background and personal life experiences of the ethnographer influence the multiple processes of interaction, analysis and interpretation. Personal narratives have been identified as sensitising researchers to the consequences of their doing and writing research (Ellis and Bochner, 2000; Richardson and St Pierre, 2005). I conclude this introduction with reflections on my relation to sport.

In early 2007 I turned on the television to find a girl of 12, a keen and talented footballer, appearing in a children’s Q and A or press conference with the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown. She had been playing, up until that age, with a boys’ football club. However, the Football Association (FA) disallowed mixed football from age 12 and upwards, meaning that this girl had to leave her club – with no local replacement girls’ club to join. The FA reasoned that the physical changes undergone by boys in puberty are such that they are a risk to the safety on the pitch of smaller girl players of the same age. As a video clip played of her running rings around her team mates, the girl appealed to Mr Brown to influence the FA to reconsider, but he was unable or unwilling to understand her predicament. Watching this, although I was personally not involved in sports like football, I was amazed that assumptions about gender and physiology informed an institutional barrier to the progression and enjoyment of girls in football. I began to learn more, writing my MA dissertation on women and gendered habitus in football (Hill, 2008). This became just one of many stories I heard of the impact of dominant narratives concerning who can legitimately participate within sports as they are socially constructed. As I progressed into my PhD and turned my attention to PE and school sport, I saw that constructions of legitimate or marginalised players are closely tied to embodied self, or how one could have an active identity (Hastie, 2010).

My position in this ethnography is linked to my own school and sport experiences and also my relations to the wider social context. The stories I have about my own PE experiences demonstrate my particular positions in relation to sport, exercise and recreation. The female PE teacher at my primary school played football and rugby every day with the boys but not once with the girls. Halfway through my 800 metre swimming badge endeavour I was ordered out of the pool because, the teacher said, I was going too slowly and would never finish before it was time to return to school. I have danced alone on a stage while singing, but being left without a partner during a PE dance lesson when all around me were paired up left me frightened to perform choreographed modern dance. Hearing others laugh at the way a girl ran during a bleep test made me worry that my running style was also funny. My friends would often hide in a cupboard, hang at the back or claim injury to avoid PE participation. My alienation from my once-favourite school sport, netball, helps to frame many of my feelings. In Year 5 and 6 at my primary school I was on the first team for netball. I always felt I was quite good at netball, although I knew I wasn’t the best on my team. At age 13 I moved to a girls’ grammar school in the South-East. PE had a low status at the school overall compared to academic pursuits, but the academic competitiveness in the school extended into extra-curricular sport. It was a semi-rural area where many girls owned horses, regularly went skiing or participated in other activities with their families, but these were not my experiences. I went to lunch time netball practice but being new and not knowing any of the girls I felt instantly at a disadvantage in a setting defined by social status and popularity. Other players laughed at my inability to remember who I was marking. I lost all confidence to get involved, for fear of making mistakes again. I resented the teacher ignoring me, despite knowing I was the new girl. I never played netball again, nor any other team sport, and did not even own a pair of trainers for a long time.

However, I am a sportswoman, although not according to the definition of sport common in schools and universities. I first went tenpin bowling at age 11, scored terribly compared with my friends, and I went home upset. My dad found out about a weekly coaching session for children and asked me if I wanted to go along so that next time I could save face. I went back every week. From there I went on to play in junior and student national competitions. Between 2009 and 2011 I was captain of the Loughborough Students Tenpin Bowling Club. I was chosen for the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) representative squad in 2011 and have won multiple national student tournaments. Yet this sport is one that, at a decent level, can be played by fat, unfit, old people.

Our active identities are always under development. When I first reflected on these memories, beginning my time at Loughborough, I was a sedentary desk-worker, involved in no physical activity. I have tried to become better at “having a go,” even though I inevitably lose, now that I can reflect on the experiences I have had. I find that the driving force behind my research interests is a desire to understand how my schooling did not offer me an active identity, or if this was ever a part of who I am. My experiences taught me that team sports are designated only for top class, very fit, confident students. I have come through a journey of my own in undertaking this investigation into active identities and bodies. This has all affected both how I have carried out research and the interpretations I have made. My motivation in researching and writing this PhD is in reimagining what PE can mean and finding a way for safe and empowering education about bodies to contribute to all young people’s learning.

Ellis, C. and Bochner, A.P. (2000). Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: researcher as subject. In N.K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.). The Sage handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed.). London: Sage.
Hastie, P. (2010). Scholar lecture at BERA PESP SIG Invisible College, August 2010, University of Warwick.
Richardson, L. and St Pierre, E.A. (2005). Writing: a method of enquiry. In N.K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.). The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed.). London: Sage.

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