Category Archives: Teacher education

Teach for America/Australia is the equivalent of rice and fresh water.

I try not to be controversial. Today I will fail.

I have just read this in one of the more respected Australian newspapers:

“The government is also planning to increase the number of Victorians in the Teach for Australia program, which accelerates non-teaching graduates into disadvantaged schools.”

This is a spin off from the American program “Teach For America” and it has siblings in other countries around the world including the UK.

This initiative takes high performing graduates from pretty much any discipline and places them in disadvantaged schools after a six week orientation course during the summer. The idea is that they will teach from the beginning, but under the guidance and support of more experienced and highly skilled teachers.

We all know that disadvantaged schools could benefit from more teachers, smaller classes and more individual attention, so what’s the problem?

Well, look at it this way. We have long waiting lines in many hospitals for orthopaedic surgery, so maybe we need to fast track some surgeons. Give a high flying archaeology graduate a six week crash course in hip replacement and a mentor to provide a bit of pre and post op advice and we’re hunky dory. In some communities there is a lack of police, so let’s get an A grade English student, giver her six week’s training, a gun, a set of handcuffs and a police car and the community will be safe. Can’t find a mechanic to fix the electrics on your car? We need to fast track a few Fine Arts graduates. And so it goes.

If this sounds crazy in each of these professions, why is it OK for teaching?

To make matters worse, these graduates are placed in disadvantaged schools, where teachers are already under extreme pressure simply trying to keep up with the academic, social and emotional needs of their students. Additionally these schools are often under resourced with top notch teachers. The best teachers have the choice of the best schools. I have had first hand experience of how hard it is to attract first rate teachers into a super challenging school environment.

We know from experience in the USA that Teach for America graduates tend to burn out fast. Their initial contract is for only two years and there is frequently a high turnover as they return to their original career paths, fortified by the experiences they have gained in these low income, disadvantaged, struggling schools. One of the greatest advantages of this fast turn over is that school districts save money because they avoid the salary increases that come as employees attain greater seniority.

Teach for America, Teach for Australia and all the other manifestations of this short cut to teaching are dismal examples of our lack of understanding about what quality teaching needs. They demean and undermine the profession of teaching in a way that would never be countenanced by any other profession. It grows out of the misapprehension that since everyone has been to school, everyone can teach, as long as they are smart enough.

If a six week trained teacher in a disadvantaged school is getting better results than a fully trained teacher then I suggest we need to look closely at the fully trained teachers. A starving child may do better on some rice and fresh water, but that doesn’t comprise a balanced, healthy diet. A balanced healthy education needs teachers with the full range of skills and knowledge, just as a balanced healthy diet needs the full range of proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

Teach for America/Australia is the equivalent of rice and fresh water.

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Handwriting – the beauty of variation

Keyboards are everywhere. I marvel at the speed with which my own kids manage to pump out text on a full sized keyboard or with their thumbs on a smart phone. In the USA there is a growing debate about whether or not children need to be formally taught cursive writing. The new Common Core State Standards do not mandate its teaching. In Australia we have seen frequent discussions about the problems faced by final year high school students being required to write extended passages long hand in exams, when they are unused to the practice during their school year. They feel they lack fluency and their hands ache!

For some years now I have been troubles by the weird and wonderful ways in which I see young adults holding pens and pencils. They look awkward and they revert to keyboards as soon as practicable.

When I taught grade one and two children  a major part of my curriculum was teaching them how to hold their pencils efficiently and how to form letters that would lead to fluent, legible, effortless handwriting. The refrigerators in the homes of my students were festooned with examples of their early attempts.

There are those who regard this particular learning process as a waste of time,  as clinging to an old, outmoded technology.

I disagree!

How often do we set things that are essentially different up against each other for comparison and competition?

Which is better, the movie or the book?

Which side of the brain is most important, the left or the right?

Who is smarter, men or women?

Which do you prefer, oysters or chocolate cake?

Which is better, a photographic or a painted portrait?

These comparisons don’t work.

Neither does the question, ‘which should we teach, keyboarding or handwriting?’

There will always be a place for the handwritten, just as there will always be a place for the painted.

Just because a child can easily take a photograph of a tree doesn’t mean that we should not give him the opportunity to draw or paint a tree. There is something about the artist that is revealed in a painting, a personal response to the subject matter and a reinterpretation of the literal truth that comes about when a subject is painted or drawn.

So it is with handwriting.

We know that every person’s handwriting is unique. Why? Because the movements of the pen on paper are influenced by the character and experiences of the writer. They keyboard gives us the vocabulary and the syntax. The pen gives us something of the person. Another manifestation of the marvelous variations between people can be seen in the formal, controlled and perfectly formed handwriting of one person, the tight, tiny, cramped writing of another and the expansive, impetuous scrawl of yet another.

Our handwriting is one of the things that proclaims our individuality.

How many of us hold dear the early attempts of our children to write us notes, the love letters of an early sweetheart or even the handwritten name of a long dead loved one in a favorite book of poems?

We seem to be very good at throwing out our babies with the bath water in education.

Let’s not do it again.

Let’s continue to teach our children the intimate, expressive art of handwriting as well as the efficient, expedient skill of keyboarding.

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Filed under Classroom practice, Language and literacy, Teacher education, technology, Thinking

The Power of ‘Yet’

I can’t do that.

I’ve never been any good at that.

Nah, its not something I’m any good at.

Too hard. Always has been.

How many times have you said that?

How many times have you heard that?

It’s a cop out!

Carol Dweck, the author of ‘Mindsets’ has described the word YET as powerful.

Every time you allow one of those ‘can’t’ comments to pass unremarked and unchallenged, you contribute another brick to the wall that surrounds and limits human achievement. In yourself, your children, your students.

Every time you add the word ‘yet’ to the statement “I can’t do that”, you remove a brick, you begin to create a doorway, an opening in the walls that hold us all back from achieving above and beyond what our limited expectations tell us is possible.

Make ‘yet’ a powerful word in your vocabulary.

brick-wall-with-sky-showing-thrublog

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The Second Time Around

The upheaval in our politics over the last couple of days, together with an invitation to act as a mentor, have got me thinking. Can it really be “more wonderful, the second time around”?

In the small number of years since I left my role as an elementary (primary) school principal I have frequently thought, “I would be a much better principal now, if I had the chance again.” Why am I thinking this way?

I am an artists as well as an educator. I have an easel in the house and there is usually a painting on the go. I find myself irritated when people stand with their noses up against the canvas, perusing every brush stroke. I like to do that with my work and with the work of others because I am interested in the techniques. But I want people to stand back from a painting and take it in as a whole. As a practitioner I need to understand the bits and pieces that go to make the finished product. I need to understand how colors are laid on the canvas, which ways the brush strokes go, how one area is blended into another. But to really understand the painting, I need to stand back.

So it was with being a principal. To really understand the profession, I needed to stand back. While I was in my school, walking the hallways, sitting in my office, talking with teachers, watching lessons, I was almost entirely preoccupied with the technique. Every day was so full of technical decision making and procedural, managerial necessities – the brushes, the paint, the mixing and the application. Teaching too. I now have the time to read, to explore the reasons for teaching the way we do, time to examine the details of approaches that seem to work better than the ways we have traditionally done things.

We don’t often get a chance to do things a second time around, but mentoring can be a surrogate. I enjoy my work with schools as a consultant because, among other things, it gives me the opportunity to communicate a point of view that isn’t enmeshed in the close up detail of practice. My contribution to a school is firmly rooted in years of experience as a teacher and a principal, but just as importantly it has the added element of having been able to stand back and take in the whole picture. I may not get a chance to do things ‘a second time around’ but I hope this opportunity to stand back and see a bigger picture can be useful.

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Let them move

I have just watched a very interesting News Hour report on a school district in the USA where project based learning is being introduced district wide. There has been a lot of learning for teachers as well as students, and some teachers have moved out or been moved out because it simply wasn’t for them.

One of the trickiest aspects has been finding a way to focus on this kind of learning where depth of understanding is what is valued, while at the same time managing to do well in the State’s ‘bubble tests’ which seem superficial by comparison. How to do both?

But what really intrigued me was the obvious engagement of the kids as they moved around the classrooms, handled materials and were generally physically active.

How much of their engagement was because they were free to move?

Obviously that’s not enough on its own, but just how critical might it be?

I remember a third grade boy I taught years ago. He would drive the class and me crazy by constantly kicking the legs of his table when sitting down to do work. I was inexperienced. I tried asking, rewarding, growling and grumbling but nothing worked until one day I told him he could stand up or work on the floor if he would prefer to. Eureka! Problem solved. He just needed to be able to move.

Young children in particular need to move and get their bodies involved in their learning. Lots of boys need to move a lot of the time. That doesn’t mean they need to swing from the classroom fan. They just need acceptable wriggle room, a way to get the bubbles out of their joints.

Take a look at your classroom. Here are a couple of easy, rule of thumb guides.

1. Don’t expect your kids to keep still for more than one minute per year of age. A seven year old needs a wriggle after seven minutes. A fifteen year old can keep it together for a quarter of an hour before a stretch or a stand up/sit down might be called for.

2. Watch for the classroom fidgets and find a way to help them fidget in ways that don’t distract or irritate the others.

Let the kids move. They’ll learn better.

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Oh the drama, the drama!

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Why I am kicking myself now.

There are moments when my conscience strikes a killer blow. It happened to me when my son was in his second year at university and clearly facing a few challenges. I knew he was a very intelligent young man (as are all our sons, right?) but his grades did not seem to reflect his ability.

I asked a question that I really should have asked years before. I’m an educator. I’m a parent. Why hadn’t I woven the two together into a seamless whole? Human? Fallible? Guilty to both.

So, what was the question?

“How do you study? How do you read the text book?”

His answer floored me.

“I just read it!” he said, with a look of incredulity that I should ask such an obvious question.

After a moment’s thought I asked him “Do you use a pen or a highlighter? What sort of notes do you take? How do you transfer the material in the book into your working memory?”

He had no clear idea what I was talking about.

Why hadn’t I realized years ago that in 14 years of formal schooling no one had ever actually taught him HOW TO LEARN?

He had been taught mathematics, geography, history, poetry, wood and metal working, literacy … but he had never been systematically, developmentally and consistently taught HOW TO LEARN.

If he was at school today he would be systematically taught how to pass tests. That’s not the same as being taught how to learn. That’s just about how to perform in a task and a context that has virtually nothing to do with life anywhere other than in the classroom. Learning to pass tests is a closed system confined to the school and of no value to the creative thinker and independent, life long learner in the world outside.

What should he have been taught?

At least he should have been taught how to interrogate a text, how to recast the information into graphic form, how to isolate the main points and the supporting points, how to create a mind map that integrates the new information with what he already knew, how to identify new vocabulary and build up a word bank of all the words that belong to that family and understand the threads of meaning that make them family (electricity, electric, electrician, electron, electronic, electromagnetic and so on) and how to formulate questions that demonstrated what he did understand and revealed what he didn’t.

At least he should have been taught that to “just read it” guarantees that the information will be here today and gone tomorrow.

But most importantly he should have been taught how to be a metacognitive, self aware learner. A learner who understands how he learns best, who can monitor his own learning and understanding, who can adjust his learning strategies when he finds what he is doing isn’t working as well as it could, that learner is well on the way to becoming a life long, independent learner.

In our book “Developing Mindful Students, Skillful Thinkers, Thoughtful Schools” we explore and demystify the importance of metacognition and provide a wealth of practical suggestions for the classroom.

And that makes my conscience trouble me even more.

Why didn’t I know all this when my kids were young?

Why didn’t I monitor what was happening at school more closely?

How did 14 years go by without me realizing that my son didn’t know how to learn effectively because no one had ever taught him?

Maybe that is why I am so passionate about it now.

 

 

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