Involve Me and I’ll Understand

If you ever hang around my blog long enough you may come across a long list of ‘educational books which you may enjoy’. I read a lot of these: primarily because I enjoy reading about the teaching experiences of others, but also because I like to keep abreast of new strategies, new techniques, new research. I am, some may say, a teaching geek; and I’m not ashamed to admit it. As a professional, I believe it is my duty to keep up to date with research and change my practice accordingly. There is, however, a problem with that.

Teaching is, to all intents and purposes, a situational undertaking; we make hundreds of decisions during our day, many of them instinctive, based on years of experience; many of them based on school policy or moral values; many of them borne of the professional development we undertake as part of our every day duties. Being a teacher means your day is, as Thomas Newkirk says: one of ‘virtually constant decision-making’. (Newkirk, 2009) So where does academic reading fit in then?

We can be an obstinate lot, we teachers, can’t we? We have our own theories about ‘what works’ in our classrooms and, while I would hope that we are all open to new ideas, we are wary of new research from academics who may seem to be somewhat distant from the classroom. And, no matter how well a theory has been researched, no matter how well promoted a new strategy has been, it is the teacher who has to ensure its success. So researchers and academics do not create theories and tell us ‘what works’. We are the ones to make it happen and we are the ones to blame if it doesn’t.  There is something about that that doesn’t quite sit well with me.

‘A teaching method that is effective in the voluntary and supported environment of a research study is not likely to be as effective in a textbook-driven, mandated system with less expert support and less buy in from teachers.’ (Newkirk, 2009)

Having thirty teenagers in front of you, day in, day out, is a complex business. Thirty different personalities, thirty different moods, thirty different lives. Spinning plates doesn’t even begin to paint an accurate picture. So the additional pressure of test driving – and that is what it is – new theories can be fraught with danger. Imposing strategies which have worked elsewhere is almost a guarantee of disaster if the teacher is not involved in the process. Imposing new ideas on classrooms merely absolves the teacher of responsibility if it goes wrong.

‘Whenever teachers and students feel disempowered and subservient, they both react by adopting a stance common to those who feel powerless and put upon: they try to get through their assigned tasks, get by them, get them over with.’ (Fried, 2005)

Teachers are not being childish and stubborn if we don’t bow down to the great God research. We merely want to be involved in the process. Great opportunities pass us by when that new initiative is passed on to us at the next in-service day. Give us time to work with colleagues, time to gear that strategy towards those thirty kids in front of us; time to make it work. If that happens, I’ll do it, you know. I’ll definitely do it.

Newkirk, Thomas, (2009) Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones (Heinemann, New Hampshire)

Fried, Robert L, (2005), The Game of School, (Jossey-Bass, san Francisco)

Invisible Genius

‘To see things in the seed, that is genius.’ Lao Tzu

I was reminded recently of Ken Robinson’s story of Paul McCartney and George Harrison being in the same Music class at one point. He imagines the pressure on the teacher years later when he, just perhaps, underestimated the potential of these two spotty youths as they messed about at the back of his classroom. Gulp! Perhaps a moment on which you can dine out for years or, worryingly, one you might like to forget if you’d dismissed them as a wasters after a couple of weeks, as my Music teacher did to me about thirty odd years ago. I never recovered.

We’re fast approaching the summer holidays in Scotland and many of us met a new batch of senior classes this week, who’d returned from exam leave. They’re a fascinating blend of eagerness for the holidays, resistance because of the holidays and ambition to do well in English. Any potential geniuses in this class? Who knows?

The first time we meet any new class is always daunting. I tell the trainee teachers I mentor every year that this feeling never goes away.  Even after thirteen years I know I will be slightly nervous before meeting new classes in August. But Sir Ken’s story got me thinking. Potentially in my room could be seated a future musician, physician, politician, scientist who will cure cancer, inventor of something which may change the world.

About a month ago I received an e-mail from an ex-pupil. He was contacting me to pass on the great news that he’d had his first novel published. I could have wept at the thought that he wanted to tell me after so many years.  He was always a talented boy who saw school as an occasional necessity but I secretly admire him for missing a day because he ‘had to watch The Godfather trilogy yesterday’.  I am delighted for him.

I suppose my point is that, even though the session is fast coming to a close, we have to remember the impact we can have on the learners in front of us.  In the midst of the day-to-day grind, it may not seem that we change the world when we do what we do. We may not seem to be having the impact we expect when we get to the end of that well-planned lesson with the difficult class.

The impact doesn’t occur straight away. But somewhere down the line we do. Somewhere along the way that kid will remember what you did for them; the way you showed an interest; the way you asked about their life; the extra time you gave them over lunchtime; the book you passed on or the film you told them to watch.  Our impact can be far reaching.

A music teacher with half the Beatles in their class might seem like a great story but it’s very normal. Einstein was in someone’s class. Hemingway. James Dyson. J.K Rowling. I had a future published author. Geniuses start somewhere. Could they be sitting in front of you this week? An incredible thought, isn’t it?

Google Earth in the English Classroom

I’ve recently been trawling through some of my delicious bookmarks, rediscovering some of the blog posts I thought so incredible when I first read them. Doing so reminded me that the world is such a small place now and the scope for professional sharing in education is a microcosm and a world of unbelievable possibilities.

I came across these posts about using Google Earth in school and a couple of ideas started flashing through my head. As a teacher of English, surely there are huge possibilities for using this in my classroom.

What I started to devise was a Literary Tour of the world. Google Lit Trips are available and it is a great place to find inspiration, but there are tools in Google Earth which allow you to personalise your trips, even allowing your learners to make their own.

My senior class had been studying ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ so we zoned in on Holden Caulfield’s trip through Central Park. We followed his journey, ending up at the carrousel after a trip to the Lake to see the ducks and the Natural History Museum in search of his sister, Phoebe. We discovered exactly how far he must have walked down Central Park West to get to the Carrousel for the final, heart-breaking epiphany.

What else might he have seen along the way? How about some imaginative writing, describing other episodes in Holden’s day, based on scenes close by?  We flew into Central Park to have a look. If nothing else, it allows learners to see that these are real places, with real pasts and presents. We can put ourselves into the minds of the characters in Literature to see what they saw and think about how they might have reacted.

But it is the ‘record a tour’ function with which I have been dabbling. I started playing about with the possibilities of making ‘Macbeth’ seem a lot more real to some of my more disengaged students. This is what I came up with.

It’s not perfect, it’s just a beginning but I can see that for certain classes that I teach, where, let’s say, a four hundred year old play might not be the reason they rush into school, this could begin to hook them in. For other Secondary teachers there could be so many possibilities. Why not fly into Tahria Square to or go to the Louvre or travel along the Nile.

I’m not claiming to be breaking new ground here. But it seems to me that the possibilities for engagement are endless. Google Earth provides a fascinating real life guide to setting and could inspire some amazing real life writing.

However, as I said, this is just a test a the moment. I’m hoping to embed more of this into lessons for next year. Any thoughts?

The Power of Words

We have a problem with labeling in education. Perhaps we’ve always had a problem, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s the way we deal with problems. Stick a label on it. We label students; we label teachers; we label parents and management. We label teaching strategies; Aifl, co-operative learning, solo taxonomy. It makes us feel good. We can have a folder with that label on the spine, poly-pockets inside, preserving lovely worksheets. We tell ourselves that we have covered that strategy or included that strand; we have completed the professional development on that and don’t need to do it again, thank you very much. And therein lies the problem.

You see, the problem with labeling things is that, while we can tick that box, we can also put it away in a drawer or on a shelf. When we label things we limit the scope of its use. When we label things we can put them on a pile or to the back of the queue. When we label things we can easily dismiss them and that becomes a problem; quite often great ideas are lost behind the label.

At a recent conference I asked a panel of experts, including Graham Donaldson, former HM Senior Chief Inspector of Education, whether we are at the point where Glow, Scotland’s intranet, was now tainted and needed to be left behind. This might seem surprising to some who know me as I’ve been using Glow successfully in the classroom for about three years and have done my best to champion its use to colleagues whenever I can. However, I have come to the conclusion that Glow has become a label that teachers have dismissed – wrongly in my opinion – and nothing can save it.

I presented at a Teachmeet 365 some months ago on what I was doing with Glow in the classroom. I discussed the improvements,  explained how I overcame obstacles. I responded to the age old complaint that you have to click on five things to get anywhere by showing the Glow Light page which can be adapted to include all required links. I responded to the inaccessibility of Glow Blogs by showing examples of all of my pupil blogs – from S1 to S5 – and how quickly I could get to them.

I responded to the claims that better tools were available outside by showing my S1 wiki on Anne Frank.

The follow up discussion suggested that either no-one was listening to anything I was saying or that people have made up their minds about Glow and nothing I could have done would have changed that. It pains me to say it but Glow as a label has become tainted. Nothing will bring it back. We use the failure of Glow to disguise the truth that teachers are often resistant to using ICT. We need to change the direction of the conversation.

We are happy to personify Glow, just like we are happy to personify Curriculum for Excellence and the Chartered Teacher scheme. When we label things it is much easier to dismiss them.

I realised that I’ve been going about it the wrong way all this time. Instead of explaining how I use Glow in the classroom to blog and create wikis and use chat room for higher revision classes and homework drop and discussion boards I should be explaining that my classes create wikis, blogs and all of these other things, I merely used Glow as a vehicle. That is my choice. It has made me much more ICT aware. It has enhanced the learning experience of the students I teach. If you choose to use any of these things through Glow or any other way, I’m not sure it matters. As long as you do.

I am a reflective teacher because of the Chartered Teacher scheme

I am much more confident with ICT thanks to Glow.

My classroom is a vibrant, creative, hard working, purposeful, challenging space because of Curriculum for Excellence.

The Chartered Teacher scheme has gone; Glow, in its current form anyway, will go the same way. Some may rejoice, I won’t. But there is one thing left on that list that we need to fight for. The only way we are going to do that is to change not merely the way we teach but the way we all talk about teaching. Language is a powerful thing. Labeling things uses that power in a destructive way. Let’s make an effort to stop it.