Archive for December, 2011

Personal Responsibility

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

During this course I am being a ridiculous girly swot (yes I watched a lot of Young Ones as a teenager). I am doing a lot of work for this course. I am making myself aware of the requirements of the course. I am keeping on top of the admin. I am doing as much of the preparatory reading as possible. I am doing extra reading when possible. I am hassling my tutors for extra help, guidance and clarity on the work being done.

This must be both irritating and reassuring for my colleagues and for the tutoring staff. My colleagues probably do get annoyed with me for being a ridiculous girly swot but then on the other hand they know they can ask me if they have a question or confusion. And I like to think that staff are relieved that I am putting in the effort, even though they probably do get somewhat fed up with me. (One of my colleagues thinks that one of my tutors is quite scared of me and reads all my emails because he’s too frightened not to (I don’t think this is true, I think he reads my emails because he’s diligent and fundamentally interested in doing his job well).) 🙂

Basically, I am here so that I can be a better teacher. This course is structured so that I can become a better teacher. But the course structure can only help me and guide me. I have to do all the hard work myself. Having a strong desire to become a better teacher is a sufficient, though not necessary condition for passing this course.

As I do things that make me better, I pass various parts of the course. Some others on the course are only thinking about passing the course components. They see each task as a hoop to jump through. They see the course work as being completely separate from the practice of teaching. And the more they do this, the less effort they put in to the course components and the less value they derive from them. This further reinforces their view that the course components are valueless hoops to jump through.

There are others on this course who are working as hard or harder than I am. And the amount of work that we are each putting in is not necessarily an indication of how suited we each are to working in a classroom or to how successful we will ultimately become as secondary teachers.

But one thing that has struck me is that there is only so much that the tutoring staff can do for us. The rest we have to do for ourselves. It is up to us to take responsibility for our own learning and our own professional development. This is true not just for my colleagues on this course. It is also true for my students as well. And perhaps the greatest thing that we as educators can do, is to teach our students how to take responsibility for their own learning.

My PST Topic

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

After starting with a short list of 15 topics, narrowing it down to 4 and then going for one of the original 15 that wasn’t in the top four, I’ve finally decided on a topic. And it wasn’t in the shortlist at all.

After placement, my professional studies tutor gave us a series of reflective questions about our experiences on placement. I dutifully thought a lot about these and answered them. And as a result of this I realised what I should be doing my PST on. Respect.

So I did a quick plan of attack. I went to see my tutor and he agreed. I’ve spoken to several of my colleagues who think it is a good idea.

My plan for these three weeks of holidays is to get as much background reading done as I can and try to formulate a bit more precisely my question and my data collection methodology.

But my main focus is things that I can do to engender respect in the classroom and the effect these strategies have on behaviour. I’m really excited about this topic. I think one of the reasons why there is such a lot of low-level disruption in classrooms is that many of the people in classrooms do not have sufficient respect for themselves, the room, the others in the room and the learning that is taking place there. And when I say ‘people in classrooms’, I don’t just mean the students. For many of these students respect is not something that their home environments are filled with. Which makes it even more crucial that we as teachers are treating each other and our students with respect. If our students don’t see it modelled and don’t feel the force of our respect for them, it will be difficult if not impossible for them to show respect for themselves, their peers, their teachers, their classrooms and their learning.

Placement Overview

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

My first placement was one hell of a learning experience. It was intense.

Each lesson was either 50 or 55 minutes long. I was teaching 12 lessons (4 lessons a week for three classes) and I was observing 4 more each week. Though by the end I was teaching those four as well.

I was writing lesson plans and lesson evaluations. I was observing other teachers in the department and in other departments. I was getting feedback from the class teachers after every lesson I taught. I stayed back after school for departmental meetings and to help with study support (a few maths teachers hang around for an hour and a half two nights a week and any student who fancies can come along to get help with the work that they are doing – it’s relaxed, informal, useful and great fun). I went to a CPD course one Friday afternoon. I stayed for a Parents’ Evening. I went to assemblies. I met with the other student teachers in the school.

It was a lot of work. I say a lot of work. I mean I was working 60 or 70 hours a week. And that’s a lot of work.

One class was a bottom set first year (12 year olds) class of 14 students. I had another first year class (2nd set) of 25 students. My third class was a top set of 22 second years (13 year olds). I had several ups and downs with all three classes. Behaviour was an issue. Nothing too major. I heard stories that were much worse from others, but persistent low-level disruption in some classes made teaching difficult. I’m in the teaching business to teach people, not to do crowd control.

I’m not good at crowd control. I don’t enjoy crowd control. So that meant that behaviour management was my major focus throughout my six weeks and that large parts of it were not particularly enjoyable.

The other class I was teaching (the one that started as observation) was a group of 4th years (15 year olds) who were doing higher maths over two years (A level equivalent). Those classes were a lot of fun. Firstly, because there were no behaviour issues and secondly because I think I’m better at relating to kids of that age than to the younger ones.

My supervising teachers were incredibly supportive and gave me good feedback (by which I mean useful, not overwhelmingly positive) and advice for how I could improve.

I found it tough. I think I decided to quit teaching about 5 times during placement. I burst into tears only twice at school and only about 3 other times. My aim for next placement is no crying on school property. I have high hopes! 🙂

After I finished placement I had a chance to really think about and assimilate my experiences from placement. I realised that my issue wasn’t so much dealing with behaviour, but it was dealing with behaviour in the way in which my supervising teachers were suggesting that I do it. This was what I was finding difficult.

They were talking a lot about a tone of voice that I needed to practice and use. It is not the encouraging tone (I’m good at that). It’s not the raging tone (I never got to that one). But it is the one in the middle: “stern and pissed off”. I was not good at it. And when I thought I had done it, I got told that that would have been a great opportunity to use it. I think I managed it twice. And I absolutely hated doing it. I was also being told not to ask students “Can you look at the board?” but to tell them “Look at the board.”. And I found this very difficult to do too.

And I realised that students know when you’re being inauthentic (as I was for much of my time on placement). They notice it and they don’t respond well to it. They resented it and they resented me.

I have been doing a lot of reading on positive behaviour management. And I will do my action research project for my Professional Studies Task on engendering respect in the classroom. I have a list of strategies that I want to try in my next placement.

My supervising teachers were all correct when they said that I wasn’t dealing with low-level disruption as effectively as I could have done. And their methods of dealing with the behaviour seem to be methods that they are comfortable with and that work for them. They were, however, methods that I was neither comfortable with nor good at.

I’m hoping to find methods that are effective and that I feel comfortable with. And I’m hoping that means that my next placement will be as much of a learning experience, but will be a lot more enjoyable.

Being a Mature Student

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

I’m really enjoying being a mature student. I’m here because I really want to be here. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy my undergrad degrees – I did. But I am enjoying and am committed to this degree to a much greater extent.

And being a mature student comes with all the perks of being a mature student. I get to be a nerdy swot and actually do the reading (before the lectures). I ask a lot of questions. I answer a lot of questions. I send emails to my tutors to ask them about things. I arrange extra sessions with some of the other students so I can go over stuff with them. And like all of the other mature students I’ve met throughout my various courses of education, I don’t care!

It’s great!

It’s nice to be in a position where I can be totally selfish about my education. I’m here to learn to be a better teacher. Doing the reading helps. Talking to people helps. Asking questions in tutorials helps. Answering questions in tutorials helps. And I try not to dominate at the expense of others, but if a tutor asks a question and the rest of the room is quiet I will answer.

I know that I am the one who has responsibility for my education. All Moray House can do is give me the opportunities to develop. And I want to grab those opportunities and make the most of them. 🙂

My Experiences as a History Student

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

I’ve been reflecting on my experiences as a history student when I was in secondary school. History was a subject that I did not engage with. I found it challenging because I didn’t pay sufficient attention so missed key bits. I found it dull and boring and pointless. I did pick up some things. I have some good memories of some of my history classes (something about castles I think and striking candle makers being the cause of the dark ages), but even during the good times I never looked forward to history classes. I was not a particularly disruptive student. I did my work, begrudgingly.

I don’t want to say that every history teacher I’ve ever had was a bad teacher. Because while I suspect that they weren’t particularly good teachers, I think the main problem was a mismatch between what I wanted as a student and what they could provide as teachers. I think another student might have done very well with any one of those teachers.

And my lack of engagement with history surprises me, because looking at history now, it is something that I should like and that I should engage with. I love stories. I love investigating and understanding the relationships between people. I love different cultures and understanding why they are different and similar to my own. I love scientific and technological development. And yet, I find history to be tedious and boring. I think it gets bogged down in details (I’m much more of a concept person than a detail person). And I think that history is often presented as indisputable fact, when in actuality history is very much open to interpretation and a lot of it is best guess. It is still based on fact and supporting evidence, but there is a layer of interpretation.

So what was the answer for me as a teenager? Should I have found myself a more engaging history teacher (assuming that such a thing exists – and it probably does)? Should I just have struggled through doing what I could do and trying not to annoy other people in the process (which is what I did)? Should I have excluded myself from history and just given up? I don’t know the answer. I wish I’d learnt more history because I’ve found that when I’ve done politics and philosophy and when I’ve travelled, I’ve wished that I had a better historical understanding than I have. I feel that my lack of historical knowledge makes it difficult for me to put current world and political events into context.

Perhaps the answer is that I needed to learn history in a way and at a time that was relevant for me. Which may have meant not studying history at school at all, and then coming back to it to access it later when I had a need for it.

This does not mean that I think history lessons should be banned from secondary schools. Nor do I believe that history is an inferior subject. It’s not. I don’t believe in a hierarchy of subjects. I think they are all important. They all have their place, they all have their problems. Some students are more interested in some subjects than in others. Some subjects are more useful than others for some vocations.

But my question is this: should we necessarily be assuming that all students should learn all the same material at the same rate? And perhaps this applies for all subjects. I love maths and I think maths is important, useful, valuable and interesting. And I love trigonometry. It’s great fun! But I can see that some students will not see the point to it, and in some cases, they never will. But for some, they may find that trigonometry becomes more relevant to them later on, and perhaps that is then the time to teach them trigonometry.

Having said that, the teenage Kath didn’t like history and didn’t engage with history. The adult Kath wishes that the teenage Kath had.

And I’ve been hearing a lot about how it is the responsibility of the teacher to make the subject engaging. I hear this from trainee teachers and from specialist teachers who are passionate about their subject. But I think that even the best teacher in the world would have failed to engage me with history when I was a teenager. In fact, I think they may struggle even now. And I don’t think the teacher should be seen as being a failure in that case. I think it is as much the responsibility of the student to engage in the learning (or at least to keep quiet and not bother the other students who are engaged) as it is the responsibility of the teacher to make it interesting.

Though I will be doing my damnedest to make maths as interesting and as engaging as I can. I do believe that a healthy dose of passion, excitement and energy from the teacher can make a difference.

The Observer Can Affect Behaviour

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

I am aware that my presence in lessons has an effect on the behaviour of both the students and the teacher. In particular, the teacher.

I have only noticed one or two slight things that make me aware of this. One is a teacher making jokes about maths that are well beyond the level of the students. (I certainly appreciated them and I think he appreciated being able to make them.) But in one other case a student made a comment about a teacher being in a strange mood or acting in a slightly odd manner. And this may not have anything to do with me being there. But it might.

It would be nice to be able to observe classes without any of the participants being aware of the observation. Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to observe classes without warning both teachers and students of the observation. But given that teaching is such a personality driven experience, having an extra personality in the room (regardless of how much they do or don’t take part in the lesson) does have an impact on the students and the teachers.

Observation Week

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

I had difficulty deciding on a research topic before going in to school. I had a list of 15 that I narrowed down to four. I wrote observation schedules for those four and took those with me to school. I made observations over several lessons of all four. I found that none of them were going to be very useful for me for my Professional Studies Task.

The four that I had were:
1) Use of proof in maths lessons. I only saw proof used once, and then there was an error in the proof. I don’t imagine there will be much use of proof in maths. Which is an interesting topic, but not one which lends itself to observation.

2) Use of real-life examples in maths. I didn’t see any real-life examples in lessons, though there were one or two being used as part of a maths homework exercise that I saw at the maths support group.

3) Use of rhetorical questions. There weren’t any. In fact, there were very few non-directed questions. So while this is an issue at university, it seems it is not an issue at school, or at least not in this school.

4) Use of the text book in maths classes. This was more fruitful, but not particularly interesting. There are some issues involved here (whether students have access to the text outside of class and are able to do completion homework is one issue), but none that really grabbed my attention.

There was one issue that I did find really interesting. And this was something that had been in my original short list of 15. It is about time of day and the effect on the students. There were two different classes that I saw where the teacher made comments about how much harder the class is in the afternoon than the morning. And both of these classes have lessons in the mornings on some days and in the afternoons on other days. I wasn’t sure at first how I could measure this (concentration, on-task behaviour, etc) which was why it had not made it to my top four. But I have realised from being in the school that I can count the number of times students get informal warnings for behaviour and the number of times they get given a time out (which is to stand outside the class for a couple of minutes and then get spoken to by the teacher). I can also look at what sort of tasks are being set for morning and afternoon lessons (one teacher said she never does group work in the morning, it’s a waste of a lesson when she knows they can get through lots of examples). I can try different techniques myself, and see if these make a difference. So I think this is interesting, observable, measurable and researchable. I do need to focus on a specific question, but I’ll get there soon enough.

Reading List

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

I’ve been finding it a bit difficult to keep on top of the reading list.

In the first instance, this is because information on the required reading is in different places. There is the reading list for lectures, the list for curriculum studies, the list for my curriculum extension. There is extra reading (for the Professional Studies Task for example). And in very many lectures and classes, extra reading is given at the end of the class. Or handouts are given. And some of this is unavoidable, but some of this, I suspect, isn’t. Since many of the powerpoints seem to have been created a year or two ago, it seems to me that the additional reading mentioned on these slides could have been incorporated into the reading list handed out at the beginning of the course.

I have started a spreadsheet for my bibliography so that I can keep track of all the reading that I need to do, which items are core, which are additional. I’m recording if I’ve read the article and am linking to the pdf of it. I’m linking to the text files in which I’m writing notes on the reading. I’m recording a one or two sentence summary of the article as well. This is helping me immensely.

I would have liked to have had the reading list well before the start of the term so that I could have had a chance to locate some of the readings and to get started on actually reading some of them. I feel that this would have taken a lot of the pressure off the first two weeks of the course.

Also, it seems that the realistic expectation is that students will not be able to do all of the reading each week. And given how little of the reading is directly referenced in the lectures it does seem that there is no necessity to have done the reading. This is quite demoralising for those of us who are trying to do as much reading as we can. Perhaps giving a two sentence summary of each article (or a note on the reason why the article is recommended) would help us to be more discriminatory in our choice of reading. And perhaps categorising readings as core or additional (as has been done for our Curriculum Extension and Curriculum Studies) would help us to prioritise.

I recognise that it is important for us to get a base level of competence in dealing with the concepts and the literature which is why I think there should be some readings marked as core readings that everyone should be expected to read and that should be referenced in the course. I also recognise that we do need to do our reading about the areas that we are interested in and start to build an awareness of the breadth of knowledge in the field. To that end, having a list of suggested additional reading with a short précis or summary or indication of the reason for reading it would be useful.

I’m Teaching!

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

(This blog post was written in the second week of September.)

It wasn’t until I was doing my Professional Studies workshop during week three of the course that I realised that I hadn’t done any teaching until then.

I feel this is not good for several reasons.

  1. My tutors, who are training me to be a better teacher have no idea what I’m like as a teacher. Well, my professional studies tutor has now, since he’s seen me, but the others still haven’t.
  2. My fellow students, who are going to be a key sounding board in my development, didn’t know what I was like as a teacher. My maths colleagues still don’t know.
  3. It is hard for me to reflect on my own development as a teacher if I’m not getting the chance to practice.
  4. There are some people who have very little teaching experience, getting them in front of a group of people as early and as often as possible will help to demystify the process and build their confidence.
  5. Lots of teaching practice makes each session less stressful and allows us to try things out that we might not be able to do otherwise (concentrate on body language, timing, questioning, instructions, etc.).

The other thing that struck me was that the first teaching exercise I was given was to present a workshop with a group of four others on a topic that was completely new to us. Now this was great fun and we worked very well together and I think we did a good job. But team-teaching is hard, especially with people you don’t know very well. I would argue that it is harder than teaching on your own. So it seems a little odd that the first time we taught was under these circumstances.

Having said that, I enjoyed every second of it!

Why Literacy is in Three Sections

Sunday, December 18th, 2011

The Scottish Curriculum for primary and secondary schools makes it clear that literacy is the responsibility of all subject teachers (as is numeracy and health & well-being).

Literacy is divided up into three sections: reading; writing; listening and talking. I have been wondering why listening and talking are together.

It seems to me that there should be four sections. Each of the four skills is very different. They require different sub-skills.

There is some cross-over. Listening and reading are both receptive skills. Writing and talking are both productive. Listening and talking are both time-pressured. And reading and writing are not. Listening and speaking both deal with the oral form of the words (pronunciation). Reading and writing both deal with the written form (spelling). In English there is no difference between the written and spoken languages (unlike Sinhala, for example). There is no difference between the words you would produce in writing and speaking; and no difference between the words you receive either through listening or reading.

Someone has said that listening and talking go together because you are always doing both together. But I believe that that is even more true with reading and writing. People read a lot more of their own writing than they listen to their own talking.

The four areas require different skills. They benefit from different types of activities to assist learning. They are assessed in different ways. There is certainly overlap between each of the four and teaching all four together is probably most useful. But to my mind there is insufficient reason why listening and talking should be combined.

Note: since writing this, I went on a search to see if I could find out the reasons why they are grouped as they are. It seems to be largely historic. It used to be the case that only reading and writing were assessed. Listening and talking have only been assessed recently. And an argument was made that it is not possible to assess one without the other and that that is why they are grouped together.

I’m still not convinced.