Monthly Archives: September 2012

Don’t Let Them Steal the Riches

I had made an agreement with myself to write a blog every week. Sometimes life catches up with us and we are lured away from our intentions. The call of a rocky coastline, a box of oil paints and brushes, a canvas and a convivial group of artists was too much to resist. My apologies! But now I am back and here are my thoughts for this week. Please share yours with me.

I have been following the growth of the Victorian State Schools Spectacular for a few years now. It is one of the largest recurring performances in Australia and is a professionally staged production performed at Melbourne Park to an audience of over 10,000 people.

The amazing thing is that it involves a cast of almost 3000 government school students, working towards a common goal in a collaborative, competition-free environment. They sing, they dance and they have a wild and wonderful time. The end product demonstrates the talents, the discipline and the imagination of our kids. And guess what? It isn’t a test! That’s right, it is deliberately NON-COMPETITIVE. Time is taken out of the regular school year to give our kids this experience, and it grows from a long history of enrichment activities that are part and parcel of the school experience in Victorian schools.

When I was a classroom teacher in Victoria we had a school camp every year from grade one up. In grade one everyone slept over at the school. We all bedded down on the floor and giggled and grumbled our way through the night. Next morning we fed all our little people and their parents picked them up around 9.30 am. Each year the number of nights increased until grade 6, when all the kids went camping under canvas for five full days.

We also put on a school production each year. This would be an all singing, all dancing extravaganza and would usually involve every child in grade five and six in some way, on stage or back stage. Once again, this all took time out of the regular school day. Often we would perform the show on two nights in a local theatre and the excitement and pride that was felt by students and the whole community was palpable. This tradition would be continued once they got to secondary school.

We taught all our kids how to swim. The goal was to have them ‘drown proofed’ by the age of 7. For two weeks all our younger children would go to the swimming pool in buses every morning. They would come back bedraggled and weary, so afternoons were usually pretty quiet and low key.

We knew how much our kids learned through participation in camps, swimming and productions. They learned about self-discipline, cooperation, persistence, imagination and about worlds that were often well outside their daily life experiences. We enabled city kids to sit around a camp fire at night looking at stars, we made it possible for the disengaged kid to become the lighting manager’s right hand man. and maybe we saved some kids’ lives in the future because they knew how to stay afloat. We did so much that was valuable. And none of it was tested. Interestingly, our kids have done very well indeed in international measures of literacy and numeracy.

Imagine my horror when I was advised by my supervisor  at the last school I administered that my kids could not take advantage of an opportunity to use the local swimming pool once the end of year tests were completed. The pool was next door, we had been offered access and life guards and it was two weeks before the end of the school year. The reason? “It is an inappropriate use of instructional time”. We should be preparing the kids for next year’s tests.

Things are changing. We need to be on our guard. This is what happens when test scores become more important than education.

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Filed under Behavior management, Thinking

It’s Not The Kids’ Fault!

I had a conversation yesterday that disturbed me. “The problem with teaching is a lack of respect,” I was told. I assumed this person meant a lack of respect for the profession of teaching. But I was wrong. He was suggesting that the poor behavior of kids today was because the kids lack respect for their teachers. He described how, when he was a boy, students would stand up straight, next to their desks when the teacher entered the room, greet the teacher in unison and then wait until they were told to sit down. I remember that too – but not fondly. That wasn’t respect. It was obedience, often without thought and regardless of how the students felt about the teacher. An iron rule will achieve that kind of obedience for even a loathed teacher. It has little to do with respect.

Within the same school, with kids allocated basically at random to different teachers, I have seen some teachers able to have students eating out of their hands, while another has them cursing and throwing objects around the room. What’s the difference? The students are pretty much the same in both classrooms. The difference is the teacher. I recall walking into a grade three classroom where every child was head down, working quietly on some project or other. I looked for the teacher – she wasn’t there. Down the hallway I had had to put a teacher’s assistant in a classroom in order to help the classroom teacher maintain a semblance of order so the kids could learn.

I’m tired of hearing that the kids are the problem. We have always had difficult kids. In the past, order was maintained with the strap and with fear. Kids feared teachers, the principal, and their parents if word got home of misbehavior. Much of that fear has gone and some teachers struggle with finding something to replace it.

What is it that some teachers do in challenging classrooms filled with kids from difficult backgrounds? It really comes down to a small number of powerful, practical strategies. These teachers have clearly established routines. They are consistent and they do what they say will do. Their kids know explicitly what is expected of them and they know what success will look like. Above all this, these teachers know how to engage their kids in activities that grab their intellects, their senses and their emotions.

They also know that if they can effectively teach their students how to think skillfully, they will be able to approach everything that goes on in the classroom from an intelligent, thoughtful point of view. By teaching the behaviors that characterize thoughtful, successful people their students will know how to listen with empathy, to manage their impulsivity, to think and work interdependently.

Where do our teachers learn all this? In my experience teacher education programs today offer very little explicit teaching about the HOW of teaching. They focus on the WHAT. Some of our teachers, those who have completed the short course teacher preparation programs, have only demonstrated that they were good learners. They are then sent into schools where, with the support of teacher mentors, they are expected to learn all these things by watching them in action. That assumes two things – that they will see the best examples of how teaching can be done, and that the teacher mentors have the time to spend with them, to educate them in their profession. Those who complete longer professional preparation programs are still often short changed in the pedagogical education they need to be effective teachers with their first class.

How effective was your preparation to be a teacher? Did it teach you how to teach or were you expected to learn most of it ‘on the job’? How would you feel if your surgeon, your accountant or your motor mechanic learned the techniques of his trade ‘on the job’, just by watching someone else do it? Would you be happy to be one of his first patients or clients?

As we tinker away with curriculum and assessment and as we advocate for better facilities and more technology, let’s not forget that the greatest influence on student achievement is none of these.

The most important factor is the teacher. Improving teacher education may be a long term solution, but it’s the only one that will make a difference.

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Show Me How To Make Up My Mind. Please!

I really want my kids to be able to make up their own minds about things. I want them to check out the evidence, verify it, set it against what they already believe to be true, listen to what other people have to say, add a bit of direction thanks to their moral compass and then make decisions. How do we teach them to do this?

When I taught grade one and two I had a vigorous discussion with a parent because I was not ‘leveling’ the books that his son was bringing home to read each night. The practice was then, and still is in many schools, to classify books according to a set of rules about difficulty – sentence complexity, vocabulary, conceptual levels, they were all taken into account. Children were then tested to determine an appropriate level and they were required to select their reading from that level. I didn’t like this process one little bit.

Research has shown that children may initially select books that are too hard or too easy for them, but in a fairly short time they will develop the ability to self-select the books that interest them and are within their ability.

I wanted my kids to understand their own reading ability, to be metacognitive learners who could regulate and adjust their learning. This begins by knowing which books are too hard. I wanted them to take charge of their own learning by giving them the freedom to select a book with lots of really hard words and long sentences but about something that fascinated them. I wanted them to choose for themselves to struggle with something simply because it was worth the effort.

I had fallen in love with some books in my childhood because of the illustrations, the feel of the paper, the smell of the cover, and I wanted my kids to experience that kind of love affair too. My passion for some of these books had nothing to do with the length of the sentences or the vocabulary, nothing to do with the subject, but something about the heft of the book in my hand, the feel of the cover when I ran my fingers across it. These books would have been way outside my ‘level’.

I wanted to give my kids the experience of making choices so that they could get better at it.

When I became a principal I was able to have some influence over curriculum planning. In one school my staff created unit planners that were wonders to behold. They were created on huge sheets of paper and offered these primary level kids choices about the areas of the topic they would focus on, the primary learning styles they would use, the levels they were working in in Bloom’s taxonomy, the ways in which they would record and then share their learning. With oversight from the teacher, the kids would track their own choices to make sure they were stretching themselves and not stuck, for example, in only visual learning, written presentations, recall and description and working solo. They were being helped to be metacognitive learners who understood and regulated their own learning.

When teaching at tertiary level I have given students the opportunity to write their own exam questions. The only advice they were given was to write questions that would demonstrate how much they knew, and the more they knew (obviously) the higher the grade they could earn. Assessment was something they were doing for themselves rather than something that was being done to them.

How do you organize your teaching so that children are taught how to be metacognitive learners who understand their own learning and can make their own informed choices?

Why would we expect young people to make good choices if we haven’t taught them how?

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Filed under Behavior management, Language and literacy, Thinking