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...