Friday, October 7, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different...

Yesterday I had the privilege of going back to UCT to run one of the English Method sessions. I had been tasked with doing some creative stuff with writing and talking about the methodology behind teaching students to write as well as basic planning.

I'm not going to bore you with the finer details of what happened, but I will say simply that I had the most wonderful time. It was very interesting for me to be on the other side of PGCE again. I ran a session earlier in the year, but that was more looking at what to expect on Teaching Practice and answering queries. Yesterday was about methodology and how to approach this thing we call 'teaching English'. I ran through a little exercise that I came up with and I talked through the approaches one can take when undertaking the exercise. It was most refreshing not to be asked 'Is this for marks' for once! It was a particularly rewarding experience for me to run through the activity as reflectively as I did, because it forced me to re-evaluate and justify everything I was doing. Fortunately, I'm still happy with the approach I took and the students who I was teaching didn't have any negative criticism about it either, which I think is a good sign.

After going through the writing stuff and talking about it, we did a session on planning. Luckily, Nigel had had a few teachers in to talk to us about planning last year, and so I had some idea about how to manage the session. I did put my own spin on it a little bit, but most of the groundwork had been done for me. I think perhaps I should have pointed this out to the students. Throughout my 'presentation' I emphasised that teachers need to be collaborative with each other so that the very best content and methodology is used more often in more places. I don't think that it's vain for one teacher to say to another, 'Here's an activity I used and it worked really well. Use it if you like.' This process can lead to a lot of 'peer-reviewing'--for want of a better phrase--and can be tremendously beneficial. There is a risk of some people feeling threatened or sensitive when a colleague criticises their work, but this is something that has to be gotten over. It is only through critique and editing that ideas can be honed and perfected--if ever anything in teaching can be perfected.

The planning session proved to be very beneficial to the students, because it is a real application of their minds to a task which, I presume, many had not really thought about. The Teaching Practice environment is one that is isolated from what real teaching is, because one has to teach things that might already have been started, and one usually has to fit into a plan that already exists. The idea of simply having a list of necessary tasks and subject content that needs to be covered within a time frame does not quite filter through here even though it is such an integral part of what one does when one is teaching full time. It was interesting to see the various approaches the groups took to planning their term structures. Some wanted to go for regular sessions where the class covers either language or creative writing once a week. Others debated whether it is necessary to introduce permeating topics before one begins to teach a set work, or whether it is more prudent to do so after the class has gotten into the novel a bit more. We also spoke about reading at home and whether or not students actually respond to the expectations of their teachers when they are asked to do a good portion of the reading at home.

This term I have chosen to get my 8s to read The Hobbit largely at home and then we have done peripheral activities in class. This saves me having to read through the book during lessons, which many students find incredibly boring, and gives me more time to do more in depth work on the novel itself. That being said, I'm sure that the weaker students have found this a bit of a tough ask and I will have to make a very careful assessment of where the students are at the beginning of next term to see whether my less intensive approach has worked or not. As I pointed out many times yesterday, I'm also learning and hope to continue learning for as long as I am in this career.

We ran out of time towards the end, so I had to rush through my schpiel about being able to push the boundaries of what is expected of one. Even within a rigid framework like a term plan, there are still areas with which one can exercise creativity. We talked about how language and writing can easily be integrated with each other and I talked briefly about looking to overlap things. With The Hobbit, the students were required to write an informal letter to a friend while pretending to be a troll who was upset by the portrayal of trolls in the novel. With this exercise, the set work, informal letter writing and language all overlapped to form a combined assessment. The students loved it and generated some really wonderful stuff and I think that if this type of activity can be done more often, we should see very pleasing results. I finally rushed through my approach to unprepared orals:

  • Generate a list of 30 random topics (some examples: Interesting uses for earwax; It was pink, fluffy and smelled vaguely of cinnamon
  • Sit at the computer (or print out the list) and ask students to call out a number.
  • Whatever number they choose they speak about. They have a minute to prepare.
  • It's a good idea to give the next student his or her topic before the person before them has to speak so that they have the time to prepare without having to wait for a minute each time.
My experience with using this approach has been that my students really do enjoy the random topics and they are able to come up with some really entertaining stuff. I do think that I need to do some more conventional stuff at one point so that we can test whether their ability to speak spontaneously has improved or not.

The response from the English Method students was very positive and I hope that I've been able to make them feel a bit more comfortable with the journey upon which they are about to embark. I know that not all of them will become teachers and even those who do might not stay in the profession for long, but if I got them to think differently about things, then I achieved something.

If you were one of the students from that English Method session who have chosen to follow this blog, firstly, thank you. I am deeply honoured that you care about what I have to say. Secondly, if you have any feedback from the session, good or bad, please let me know. I've explained how I feel about criticism :)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hearing voices

My grade 8s have had enough of studying Billy Elliot and, frankly, so have I. While I appreciate that it is necessary to cover the subject matter carefully and thoroughly, there comes a time when the film in question is, well and truly, dead. Unfortunately, there were still some things that needed to be covered, so I knew that I would need to spend at least another lesson working on it. As I had two lessons left with the class, I decided to give them (and myself) a break for one day.

I am very fortunate to work at a school that is built in possibly one of the most beautiful places I know. In every direction there are mountains rising up and they are covered in paddocks, vineyards and forests. The weather yesterday was perfect and, what with it being Spring and all, nature was out in full force. The scene was so perfect that my headmaster actually commented on it that morning. The school had met outside to hear the results of the recent Student Leadership Council election and so he took the opportunity to get everyone to take stock of exactly how privileged we all are. Using this as my inspiration, I hatched a plan...

When my class arrived, I had them all get out paper and writing implements and then I took them outside. I gave a brief speech about the natural splendour and then instructed them to get on with it.
"Get on with what, sir?"
"Writing. Prose or poetry. Whatever blows your hair back."
"Yes. Have fun." And then I strolled off to admire some trees or something.

After about 10 minutes I began to go to the little clusters where the students had gathered. They had dispersed themselves naturally all about the field area. Some of them were struggling to get started and so I sat down next to them and talked a bit about what was going through their heads. This worked to give them a foothold to work with and they set of at a merry tilt.

When there were 10 minutes left in the period, I called everyone back and we returned to the classroom. Once we were there, I took the opportunity to give this little speech:

"As I have walked around, I have been most interested by your different responses. Some of you have elected to write poems while other have preferred to write prose. What is particularly interesting, however, is that even though all of you have been in the same area and have been given pretty much the same set of instructions, you have all written something different. You have all seen something different and it is on this that I want to put special emphasis. Each one of you is different and because of that you each have a unique way of experiencing and interpreting the world around you. Let me tell you that each of those interpretations is important and beautiful. Let me also point out that because only you know how you experience the world, the only way you can really share that with anyone else is through words. If you do not learn how to communicate what you experience through your voice, both written and spoken, the rest of the world is never given the opportunity to see the beauty that you do."

And with that, the lesson ended.

Now, I've not shared this because I wish to glorify myself or have everyone going "Oo, look how clever/sentimental/inaccurate that was." I just think that it's a valid point. Those of us who teach writing need to remember why it is we're doing what we're doing. Some of you who read this and who teach writing might have a different reason and that's great. This is mine and having realised this yesterday has made such a difference in the way I think about my work. I'm just using my voice, you see :)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The long kiss goodnight

We're now in the final week of the term. All of the marking, moderating, correcting, commenting and reporting is, for the most part, done and now I'm sitting trying to catch my breath after what has been a hectic term, to put it lightly.

I've loved all of the different types of content I've been able to work with this term. Film study proved to be most exhilirating and the students responded to it really well. I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that this generation is such a visually stimulated one. Give a group of Grade 8s some film stills to work with and they quite come to life. The depth of their interpretation is already rather impressive and I'm excited to see how this group will far with the more challenging stuff that will be required of them as the years pass. They do still tend to generalise, but that's to be expected.

Accounting has also gone well this term. Having now moved to the transitionary point in the year, it was the Grade 8s' turn to learn how to do basic book-keeping and they really have risen to the occasion quite splendidly. That being said, I continue to be amazed by how some students really struggle with stuff that I had thought was very straight forward. I suppose it's like teaching grammar. You can explain how to punctuate direct speech until you're blue in the face, but some students just cannot get it. I was getting very frustrated by this and then, today something happened that made me realise something...

I asked my colleague for the time and she pointed to the analogue clock which hung above my head. Now, I've never been able to read analogue time and no matter how many times someone tries to explain it to me, I don't get it. I realised at this moment that this is precisely how some students must feel about the work I'm trying to get them to understand.

My problem with analogue time has always been that it takes too long to read the time precisely. Sure, it's easy to give a rough estimate at a glance, but you have to go and count the exact number of notches if you want to know what the time is exactly. With a digital watch or clock, this information is instant. Having this technology at my disposal has, in my little world, negated the necessity for analogue time and so I've almost forced my brain not to learn how to do it.

I'm guessing that this might be the case for some of the students I'm teaching. They couldn't give two hoots whether or not they can punctuate properly, because MSWord does it for them, nor are they interested in how to balance an account in the General Ledger, because this information is, for all intents and purposes, useless to them.

What is the solution to this, then? As I sit here, I can still hear my own arguments against analogue time ringing in my head. Am I going to ignore those and go and learn it now, to correct the error of my ways? No. Probably not. How then do I try to convince my students that what I'm telling them has any value? And let me point out that I will not resort to telling them that they need to know it for the exams.

I think the answer has to do with value. We often need to distinguish between what is classified as 'effective' teaching and 'valuable' teaching. Effective teaching is when one is almost entirely centred on assessment, and one then tailors one's methods to ensure that students are adequately prepared for assessments. Examination coaching is an example of this particular approach. What tends to happen in this situation, however, is that students then do very well in whatever the assessment is, but they do not not possess any real knowledge or understanding of the work that has been covered. They are, essentially, like houses that have been built without using any cement or bonding agent whatsoever: they will look the part, and might even be beautifully decorated, but if you push on them even a little bit, they will collapse.

Valuable teaching, on the other hand, is not focused on assessment, but more on the development of the individual's ability to reason, to grapple with the subject matter and to formulate one's own, unique conclusions about it. This approach sounds like the best, but it can be very difficult to assess and when one has classes averaging at 25+ students, finding time to nurture each individual's voice can be extremely challenging. I'm in a very privileged position in that my largest class contains only 23 students, but I still find it nearly impossible to give each student the individual attention that he or she requires and deserves. This means that while the house is a lot more solid, it also takes a lot longer to build it, and it might also mean that the house is lacking in some areas. One wall might be taller than another, for example.

It would seem, then that the solution is to teach somewhere in the middle. As a teacher, one needs to figure out how to give students the space to express themselves as individuals, while still maintaining a reasonable marking and teaching load and, simultaneously, assessing them so that their parents can see some kind of tangible evidence that something is going on at this place to which they're sending their precious children.

My own--largely experimental--approach has been to cover the content and work through it fairly systematically, but also provide spaces for students to express their thoughts, to discuss, to wrestle with what's being taught. I've had students disagree with me during poetry analysis and I welcome it. The stuff that comes up is stunning. I try to ask a few fairly open and challenging questions rather than a pile of questions, many of which serve little REAL purpose in the first place. Perhaps I'm mistaken for following this route, but I'd like to think that I'm not. It is my hope that by doing this, I might be able to entice the reluctant students to have a go at "learning analogue time". Perhaps if they feel that they can have some kind of freedom within the structure, they will feel like there is some relevance hiding in the content after all. If not, then at least I've held a door open for them.

This is now turning into a bit of a waffle. I think I've made a fair point, though and I'm hoping that what I'm saying makes sense to someone more than just me. Ok, that's enough...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Here we go again.

I've not blogged in months and this can be attributed to a many factors, the biggest, and most important one being that I've not really known what to write about. While this has still not changed for the most part, I'm trying not to give in to lethargy and write something.

Much has changed in my little world of teaching since last I posted. I have made discoveries and blunders that have altered my outlook in some regards and cemented my opinions in others.

I suppose the most pressing thing to discuss would be Shakespeare. I'm busy teaching Romeo & Juliet to my 9s and Macbeth to my 10s and I'm loving it. Let me put that more clearly: teaching these two plays has given me an energy and zest for teaching beyond anything I've experienced so far. There's something about the richness of the text, the possibilities for performance and the engagement of my students that just makes it the most marvelous thing to do in the world at the moment. I'm still figuring out how best to teach it to get the students to understand the text and to become competent at answering questions on the setworks, but this will come in time. For now I'm more concerned with getting the students to fall in love with something that I feel so passionately about, because I really do believe that Shakespeare (if used correctly ;) ) can change someone's life.

I remember how I hated the stories and dreaded studying Shakespeare with a passion when I was in primary school. That all changed in grade 9 when we did a film study of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet which was--and still is--one of the most incredible films I'd seen. Watching that film took all of my preconceptions and threw them through the nearest window. The stale, boring and pointless plays that I'd heard people complain about for years suddenly became fresh, vivid and engaging and awakened an appetite for more. I must point out that I didn't immediately launch on a quest to read everything, but I had a new way of looking at things.

As usual, I have resorted largely to talking about things which I are not terribly invaluable to anyone in particular, but let me cut through all of the melodramatic pouring out of emotion and say this: when I discovered Shakespeare, I found myself. That is pretty significant, if not to whoever's reading this, then at least to me. I teach Shakespeare not because it's in the syllabus, but I teach it to show students that it is alive, powerful and potentially life changing. If I teach for 40 years and only convert one student, it will all have been worth it.

Right. Enough guff. 'Til next time.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A New Approach

Having been away from my computer for a few days, I've had time to think about what I've been posting online and about why I'm doing it. I can hear those of you reading this groaning at more personal reflection, but I'm afraid that this is what I do: I reflect a lot. The path to improving anything is to reflect on what has been done and in so doing look for places that are lacking a certain degree of polish.

My first few posts have been a nostalgic look back on the first term of being a full-time teacher, but they haven't been particulary helpful to anyone. Even if I stick to my guns and follow the fact that I said I was writing this for me, it makes no real sense to go through my methods for planning terms or for structuring classes. What would be beneficial to everyone involved would be for me to reflect, so that is what I will try to do more of. You may lift your head from the desk now, I have (hopefully) finished with all this philosophical blog guff.

What I had originally wanted to look at during my previous post was to go over what had worked and what hadn't worked during the English lessons I taught this term. Off the top of my head, I've identified the following major issues I have with my teaching:

1. Teacher Centered-ness

I'm very lucky in some regards in that I'm quite good at getting kids to laugh, either by making jokes or simply at my ridiculous antics. I have the philosophy that if I make a fool of myself in the class, my students will be less scared to try things that may seem weird, because they can't possibly look more stupid than I do. This has worked to a certain extent in that I know that my students aren't scared to voice their opinions in my lessons. I do also encourage proper engagement, but I'll get to that later.

The problem that this particular approach has is that I tend to take centre stage during the lessons which is something I have a big problem with. I am adamant that lessons are about the students, and not about me. I put all of my effort into planning lessons that have a minimal amount of involvement from me--at least, that's what I should be doing. For the most part, I've stood in front of my classes leading them through texts and activities, which means that I'm getting it wrong. The students are still learning, yes, but they're not guiding themselves as much as they could be. Sure I've got to start somewhere, because most of them are not used to this approach, but I think I could have done it better.

2. There's sharing, and then there's oversharing...

After the regional IEB conference, I was very inspired by a talk given by a Mr Pete le Roux at Elkanah House. One of the many aspects of teaching he touched on in his talk was the fact that educational offices seem to tell us teachers to keep our students at arm's length, to protect ourselves (and them) from uncomfortable relationships developing. Pete pointed out that teachers should indeed wear a type of armour, but perhaps that armour should be like skin. Skin protects us from a great deal of environmental damage and keeps everything where it should be, but it has the ability to feel. It does not inhibit us from being people.

Part of the reasons for my becoming a teacher was the fact that I wanted to touch lives in some way--I wanted to make a difference to people. I knew that one can make a difference in one of two ways: One can be a negative influence that will hurt, maim and crush people in ways that will linger for possibly the rest of their lives, or one can be a positive influence that will help the person to enhance their lives, to make them better somehow. I'm not suggesting that I'm an improvement to people, but what I am saying is that if I have the choice in how I affect other people, I want to somehow enhance their lives so that they can go on and do something that fulfils them. A bit bleeding heart, I know, but there you are.

Now, the reason this was a problem this term is that I think I may have overdone the sharing thing. I tried to be transparent with my teaching methods. In other words, I told my grade 10s why I was doing certain things, I went through test structure and the thought process behind it, I told them the pedagogy of certain approaches. This is, I feel, taking things a bit far. Sometimes it can help to tell a class, 'Yes, this might not be for marks, but do you really think I would ask you to do it if I didn't feel it was worth your and my while?' If you have a mature bunch of students, they will respond quite positively to this.

Ok, I've said enough for now... more tomorrow, perhaps.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Term's Worth of English

I adore English, and I especially adore teaching it. That doesn't mean that I haven't struggled sometimes over the previous ten weeks.

I teach grades 8 to 10 and the differences between each class are very marked. Not just ability, but overall work ethic, attitude and personality too. Another little ingredient to add to the mix is that I don't have my own classroom and so I move around the school for most lessons - except for my 10s who I see in the same room just about every day... but I'll come to the implications of this later...

The first hurdle I had to get over right at the beginning of the year was trying to work out what, when and how I was going to be teaching. This might not seem like a terribly daunting task as there is a grade planner for each grade who will then hand out a single A4 sheet containing what must be done for the term. On the sheet some dates are set and others are not, meaning that it's up to the teacher when most of what's done is done. Initially I thought that having my work prescribed to me would be a massive burden (I like doing my own thing, you see), but in hindsight I can say without hesitation that having just that little bit of guidance is so vital.

The solution I came up with to make sure I fit all the crucial stuff in was to make each class an Excel spreadsheet that has 5 columns:

1. Week - Just so I can keep track of where I am in the term. Bridge House also runs on a Week A & B system, so it helps knowing which week is which.

2. Day - Obviously I need to know on what day I'm teaching what. This column also indicates in which period I will be seeing the particular class.

3. Topic - This column highlights what I'm going to be doing and is more of a reference for my own purposes. E.g. 'Lord of the Flies Chapter 8 - Foreshadowing. This just helps to get my head into the right space when I come to planning the lesson in detail later.

4. Class - This indicates what the students will be doing in class. My teaching style has the class doing some form of work during every period. I do not subscribe to 'chalk and talk' lessons at all, and having this column helps me with planning too.

5. Assessment - Much to my chagrin, this is a necessary component of teaching, and so it is important for me to have a record of what I'm using. As I said, I have the students working every period, so I generally have something to mark for them. In the assessment column I indicate when I've handed things out, when I've given a task with a due date that isn't the next day and I bold items that are compulsory in terms of what my grade planner has given me. Part of the hassle of being in a different class all of the time is not really having anywhere to put reminders for myself and my students, so having this assessment column also has reminders for me. E.g. 1st draft of essay due || Complete final for 5th Feb. When I write this entry, I will simultaneously head to the entry on the 5th of Feb and make sure I have Final draft due written there.

That covers the planning aspect, but it still doesn't begin to enter into the actual teaching part. I am, however, done for the day. More tomorrow...

Actually, I must just add quickly - because it fits in with this post, sort of - that having supportive friends and colleagues is one of the most important and necessary parts to keeping your head above water. The English department at my school is very supportive and helpful and have been very understanding of the fact that I'm a first time teacher. I also have some very good friends who are teachers at the school. We've had some good times out and today we're all going rock climbing. Might not seem all that significant to you, but it really makes more difference than you can imagine.

Cool, how do I switch this thing off...

Reflection the first

Having managed successfully to post a blog, I'm going to follow up on this great success by adding another. This one is more in the direction of where I actually want this to go, so it's going to be a lot more full of teachery type stuff.

Now that I've finished teaching my first term as a full-time teacher with classes who are my sole responsibility, I feel the need to look back at term one and reflect on what has happened to me. In my head this is going to be something that takes me several posts to do, but perhaps I will be more concise than that.

The first few days of any teaching year are dominated by inordinate amounts of administration. You have to sort out timetables and clashes, class teachers, where students who have registered late are going to go, who has what duty when, what the big events for the term are, term plans, year plans -- LUNCH -- subject meetings, orientation for new teachers (this year it was basically only me in the college, so I just spent some time with the deputy head going over school policy and procedures.) Thus concludes day one. Day two was a little less intense with most of the time being dedicated to finishing staff meetings. I live in the boarding house at the school, so I had to go for the pre-boarder arrival meeting and then had to help when the boys started arriving at 16:00.

After my first dinner in the cafeteria--which was delicious despite all the warnings I'd had about boarding house food--I went back to my room to plan lessons. Now, this is the first thing I'm going to gush about when it comes to my school. Most schools I've worked with or at generally spend the first few days of the year getting admin sorted out with students. Each teacher has to help their homeroom with when they have which lesson and where, they have to help get textbooks sorted out etc. At Bridge House, the students arrive and are handed their timetables. Each grade is divided into random sets and these sets are assigned teachers. To cut a long story short, I was teaching on the first day of school. Add to this the fact that we started two weeks earlier than most other schools, and you get the idea that this school is focused on getting academics done properly.

I was right, this is going to take several posts. I do fear that this one might be a tad long-in-the-tooth, but as it is primarily for my recording purposes, I'm not worried anymore. Either later or tomorrow, depending on how I feel, I shall take time to reflect on my first term of English teaching. Till then...