I’ll apologize for the break in blog entries. I’m in summer school, taking a course on visual journals and alternate learning environments in the community (museums, art galleries.) It’s fun stuff, and I’m learning to draw again.
The best thing about final exams is that they don’t last long. Classes ended this week, and exams are now in full swing. Students who normally put a lot of effort into their personal grooming are showing up in sweats, with binders, flashcards and textbooks in tow, and that glazed look in their eyes that tells me they have not slept well, anything they have crammed into their brains overnight is probably less secure than it was before they started studying, and they’re living in the moment because they can’t even think about tomorrow’s exams yet. Ah, exam stress, it brings back fond memories of burying myself in the Engineering library with 3 days to learn an entire course. I have the fortunate perspective of an adult, who knows that exams will pass, summer will begin, and life will go on. I can joke about exam stress because, as an adult, I don’t take exams too seriously, however, I do see the effect of this stress from the student perspective. The source of the stress doesn’t matter because the physiological effects are real. To some students, this effect is serious.
Yesterday, I was supervising an English exam. A short time after the intial quiet while the students read a story for analysis, three students started to become restless. One, nearly in tears, had to be escorted (quickly) to the washroom with nausea, the second couldn’t focus to read the story, and the third student couldn’t figure out what was going on with his brain- it was completely in a jumble, and he wanted to leave, immediately. All of these students have learning disabilities, and these types of reactions are typical of them, but the interesting commonality between them wasn’t just their level of test anxiety, it was their lack of awareness that they were experiencing stress. None of these students was able to acknowledge that their physical symptoms were being caused by stress, they were only focused on the physical symptoms they were feeling, and none of them knew how to cope. Now, technically, if these students were writing a standardized, or “Provincial” exam, I would be allowed to provide them with a computer, with spellchecker, and a maximum of double-time to complete their exam. Officially, they would be allowed to sit still with their thoughts for four hours. I’m not very good at following rules if the rules don’t make sense, especially if these rules might cause harm to children, so I helped out.
I swear, I did not facilitate any form of cheating, but what I did do was use this opportunity to teach these students the very important lesson of how to deal with stress. For all three students ( starting with the obvious first priority, the barfer) I helped them calm down. Taking a student down off a ledge, of sorts, doesn’t take much. The first student just needed to step out of the room for a minute. One at a time, I took the other two out of the room, talked them calmly through starting to plan a written response and helping them to deal with their anxiety by acknowledging it then moving on to the task at hand. I was insistent, but I pushed them nicely. I doubt that any of them ended up with their best written work ever, but I know they each learned something. I’m sure of this, because today I also had to supervise this same group of students in a second exam. None of them freaked out. One student, the most extreme yesterday, needed a little guidance from another teacher, but he showed no signs of stress. The other two students wrote excellent papers on their own today.
IEPs for students who have learning disabilities are designed to be fair. Students are given allowances to help them with processing and fluent thinking, but there are no objective accommodations that can be consistently allowed that would fit nor match the needs of an anxious student. This type of support requires judgement and sensitivity on the part of a teacher. I need to find some way to address this discrepancy. I’m starting this conversation here.
When I describe Gamers, I mostly mean boys. I don’t worry about boys and their games. I expect that they’ll grow up and broaden their interests, or not, and they’ll end up living in their parents’ basement. This is the threat we hold over our boys when gaming becomes a singular focus for them. Boys can unplug though, and go and play some other kind of game outside. As long as they’re playing something, they’re happy. But girls, now that’s where I find challenge in teaching. I find most of my female students to be simply delightful. They love to talk to me, as an adult girl. I really enjoy teaching girls because we speak the same language. Actually, we don’t even have to speak to understand each other. I usually find that the girls in my classes can see the bigger picture, and they know what it takes to learn. My concern for many girls though is their lack of self confidence. I see so many girls who are really great kids-they’re clever, ambitious, creative, and yet they see themselves in comparison to others, often sure that these “others” are better/more skilled than they are.
My greatest success with girls whose confidence is impairing their progress, is with one-on-one or partner work. While boys seem to thrive (in general) in the team approach to group work, I have found that girls who are vulnerable to self-inflicted criticism are most successful in a supportive setting. I once taught a math course for students who had weaker math skills. After a lot of experimentation with group dynamics, I found that I could set the boys up with working teams of 4-6 boys at a table. Some girls chose to join in, but most of them were happier working with one buddy. I reserved my individual attention for the girls (and a few boys) who had nearly given up on math. Two to three minutes of uninterrupted individual instruction with these girls went much further than any group instruction. Then I would leave them to work alone , solving problems on their own, and returning to check in (while keeping order with the big tables who were racing each other to be the first done.) None of these boy or girl-only boundaries were fixed in this class, but I left the option open for students to choose. The majority of students who both chose and succeeded with individual or partner work, were girls.
There are, of course, so many factors affecting self esteem in students. I consider the knowledge and skills I have to offer all of my students to be far less important than helping them to develop confidence. I wish that lack of confidence weren’t an issue for any child, but I know its root is beyond a teacher’s control . The best thing that schools can do is to avoid reinforcing self-doubt. For now, I’ll just continue to share my ideas and successes here. I think the best place for educational reform to begin, is in the classroom.
Some of my students refer to themselves as gamers, not just serious gamers, but high-level advanced gamers. They have made a personal commitment to their computer games, and they make no apologies about it (when they are talking to certain people.) For some reason, they like to tell me about the amount of time they spend playing online. I have been trying to look at the gaming phenomenon in comparison to rock music, a generation ago. I grew up surrounded by popular music, but I know that parents who were older than mine just hated everything about the music industry. They saw the time that their kids devoted to listening or playing music as being completed useless. They couldn’t see any purpose in the activities, and felt threatened by the entire culture surrounding it. Is the parallel sounding familiar? I know my students see gaming as something that belongs to them; adults don’t ‘get’ them. I know I don’t understand them, but I do understand the attachment they feel to an activity with which they so closely identify.
I used to play piano every day. I know how it feels when time evaporates while you are absorbed in something that engages your brain, your body, and your heart. I can’t imagine that a computer game might engage a player to this same level, but I try to accept this possibility and the ramifications of this. When I am engaged in music, whether listening to it or playing it, time is irrelevant. Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “flow” to describe this feeling. In teaching, the ultimate goal is to provide opportunities for this level of engagement. Whereas video games are seen as addictive, or an escape from reality, activities such as my piano practice are still socially acceptable, though no less addictive. I have been thinking about the elements of gaming that are engaging these students, hoping to find ways to include the positive aspects of them in my own curriculum design.
Gaming is never passive. Gamers are problem solvers, often playing in teams, working together on a quest. It is collaborative group work, solving questions that have some personal meaning to them. The competitive aspect attracts players, not because they might win in the end (there really is no end to the games, as far as I know) but because they want to beat another team, to get better. Individual success is not as satisfying as a team win and increasing status. I have seen the difference in engagement when my students work in teams. Not all students enjoy teamwork, but often those who struggle on their own are completely involved when they get to work with other students. They enjoy talking to (and over) their teammates, and thrive on the pace of the activity. Speed is also an issue. The action in gaming is constantly incoming, challenging the players. Nothing is simplified. Players will push themselves until they succeed, while the bar is continually raised. Gamers are intelligent, active thinkers. If teachers can approach lesson design, keeping in mind some of these elements of video games, we may just be able to interest our Gamers in school.
I apologize for my recent blogging absence- I have been reading. There are times, as a teacher, when reading becomes all-consuming, and for me this month has been filled with reading my students’ work (aka, marking!) I actually love this kind of reading. It starts as a short conversation when I ask my students to show me what they know, then the floodgates open, and the writing starts piling up on my desk. There are a lot of kids who are just desperate to be heard. They need a place to voice their ideas, without interruption, and in writing for school, on any topic, they get an audience. And yet, some students still feel so threatened by writing. It’s a shame we have to confine most writing assignments to being something “for marks.” The limits that are imposed by getting the right answer or trying to sound knowledgeable are the hardest to break. The challenge I pose to my students in their writing is to tell me what they think, not what they have read. Reading, and adding in the ideas of others can come later, but if I can convince my students that their ideas are valid, and that I want to hear them, then, that is when I start to see growth in their writing.
One of the most freeing experiences in my own writing happened in my first graduate course, when we were given permission to write our papers in the first person. In fact, we were told that personal authoethnographical writing had more validity than standard, objective research. This concept was incredibly difficult for me to accept. I had learned, and I had been teaching for years, that an author’s opinion was not valid information for any credible journal. Apprehensively, I tested the waters of writing in the first person, and I found that the depth of my own thinking expanded, as I read other authors, reflected upon their ideas, and made connections to my own world. Now, I’m completely sold on the value of writing as thinking, using the personal perspective.
I use this approach in teaching my students to think about the material they read, and I’m starting to see much more thoughtful writing coming from them. I have 14 and 15 year-olds asking important questions, questions that make me think too. So , I have no complaints about the number of hours I have spent reading my students’ writing this month. This time, for me, is the culmination of a year of learning, and it’s probably the greatest reward I can have for the work I have done.
Every year around this time, I meet with teachers and parents from elementary schools to set up an intake plan for students who are coming to the learning support program at my high school. Here is a collection of descriptors of a typical student who will be coming to my school next year, one who I see as the “modern” child.
- highly verbal, active participant in class discussions and projects
- charming and engaging personality
- loves to read; reads above grade level
- highly capable with the use of any form of technology
- kind, empathetic, has lots of friends
- enjoys being active, outside
- plays piano and guitar
- talented in performance: singing, acting, public speaking
- weak math skills
- poor organizational skills
- difficulty getting started with writing, or completing written assignments
- easily distracted, impulsive/ or/ daydreamer, slow to get started (it’s often one or the other, not always ADHD, but often showing some signs of inattentiveness)
- some history of failure in school
- some conflict with teachers, but very cooperative if he likes the teacher
I call this an example of a modern child, because these are the qualities of so many students today. (I have taken bullet points from the Individual education plans of a random selection of my students.) Most of the students coming into the support program for students with learning disabilities have many of these traits in common. The severity of the challenges that these students face describe the nature of a learning disability, these students have so much potential as learners, but lack success as students.
I think it’s time for all educators, not only teachers in “special education” to take a look at the challenges that schools pose for the modern student. (What if the school could be adapted to eliminate many of this modern child’s challenges?)
I’ll start with his strengths-who wouldn’t want to meet this child-he’s bright, affable, interested in learning, and he enjoys reading and the arts. Is this not the renaissance child? Now, the needs, or challenges he faces in school. How are his impulsiveness, lack of organizational skills and inattentiveness so severe that he cannot perform at an age-appropriate level in math and in his writing? What are the expectations for him in these subjects? Is there not some way that he can be taught math? What is inhibiting his writing voice? I may sound frustrated, but I have met so many of these children, year after year, who have so much potential to learn, yet they are fed up with school by the time they’re 13. Some arrive in high school, ready to give it a try in a new setting, but they are stepping onto a train that is going in one direction. My job is to keep them on track.
The traditional student, one who has relatively easy success in school is one who follows direction, always gives their best effort, is responsible, respectful,and a diligent worker. This child will succeed as an employee, and as a functional member of society. There should be room for both the modern and the traditional child in schools today. The idea that one curriculum should fit all learners is absurd, but it continues to drive our planning. I include myself in this, I am not criticizing teachers -it is very difficult to design learning activities around the needs of each student. But it’s not impossible.
I think the place to start is through innovation. Try out new activities that can incorporate your existing learning materials. You don’t have to throw out every lesson you have in your filing cabinet/computer. Little things, like the arrangement of tables and desks in a classroom can change the learning environment, and consequently the amount of learning, significantly. You don’t have to go all the way to creating a flipped classroom, though aspects of this idea sound great, but make the centre of the classroom the student, not the teacher. If you’d like a place to start researching, start with Barrie Bennett’s Beyond Monet for more information on intelligent instruction.
A final note for the end of a rainy long-weekend Monday: I do hope some teachers find my ramblings to be helpful in some way. Please feel free to share.
ref: Bennett, B., & Rolheiser, C. (2001). Beyond Monet: The Artful Science of Instructional Integration. Bookation.
I have been reading about the BC Education Plan, trying to become an informed participant in the change that is going to happen in BC schools. I’m drawn to the first of the five elements the most, Personalized Learning, probably because of my special education background. I think the plan involves significant changes to the options for learning, and whether or not I think they’re the right approach, these options are going to grow. I can, however, look at the changes that are possible in the classroom that exists now.
I am not worried about designing curriculum to reflect the core competencies. We have been doing this for a number of years now-every lesson is planned with goals of critical thinking. I also like the move to fewer but higher level outcomes. I think this will affect secondary level math and science the most, as the rush to cover content has been the biggest hurdle for my students. For my own sons, who enjoy these subjects, I know they would enjoy delving deeper into these subjects, especially if it meant less rush for homework. The increased flexibility is a nice idea-I don’t know what it will look like, but I know it will help with the students who are at risk of dropping out of school. When I was was teaching solely in the Learning Assistance program, my high risk students were the ones who hated school, and only went along with it because they had to. For some students, there was always a breaking point, where they just gave up. If there are more options for these kids, it has to be a good thing. I think it’s easier for a student to accept the need to get over the hurdle of basics, if they also have the freedom to study topics that interest them. My concern will be for lower income families though. For students whose parents are already paying for music lessons, for example, there won’t be much change. I worry about access to enriching programs for low income families. This is where I see a potential discrepancy between different communities in the province. If the plan is meant to increase the number of students graduating with a dogwood certificate, then some logistics are going to be needed to support these families.
I think we have reached the point where our students are more comfortable with a keyboard than they are with a pen. I watch the intense focus my students have for a screen and feel I’m not reading the way they do. I just can’t help but think they’re going too fast! If I look at a screen at the same time as a student, let’s say, on a newspaper website, I’ll be starting to scan through the headlines, and after 3 seconds, the student is moving on to another page. How can they possibly take in information at that rate? Are they actually reading, or just skimming? I don’t know if skimming is a bad thing, but I feel it’s necessary to stop and think sometimes. Well, I am old. My students were born into different worlds, so I have to accept the fact that my idea of reading is not going to be the same as theirs. I know I need to communicate with my students, so I’ve been doing some research (at my own pace.)
Pecha Kucha-this a new term for me. I think this term describes a presentation of images that move at a quick pace. This trend seems to be perfect for a marketing-style presentation. Slides appear on the screen for 20 seconds, the presenter can talk about a slide for 20 seconds, then the next image appears. Just as I might feel frustrated by the lack of depth in a Pecha Kucha presentation, my students will tune out if I try to linger too long with my thoughts.
Assuming the reader of this blog is an adult, and hoping that I still have an audience, I think it’s important to think about the reasons for this trend, and consider applications for the classroom. From what I have seen in “the modern student”, fluid reasoning is still an asset. Students need to be able to think about incoming information, make connections to stored information in the brain, to file it accordingly, and use the new information for greater insight. This has always been true in an educational setting, but students are now able to process information very quickly. I think it is important to consider both the amount of information being presented to students in your lessons, and the level of processing you require. If students are expected only to read and recall facts, then the depth of their comprehension will be limited. Instead, we need to design lessons which acknowledge the ability of students to process a higher volume of information, and require them to look for connections between the different elements of incoming data. If I haven’t lost you yet, I’ll move on to an example.
I like to present lessons which require multi-sensory processing. I ask students to discuss, draw and listen at the same time. I often have my students doodle examples to go along with new concepts, then I have them narrow down research to the key words that can be used to summarize main ideas. Constantly working with text and images to find the big ideas, I then have them make personal connections through journals or think-pair-share style discussions. The instruction has to be dynamic, and I have to be thinking on my feet to keep my students engaged, but if I keep in mind their facility with incoming stimulus, I will be attempting, at least, to communicate effectively with today’s learners.
We’re approaching the end of the school year, and it feels like all of my classes are thriving. I always hope my students are thriving, but when you can walk into the class, knowing how things will go, I think the class as a group is thriving. It’s a reassuring feeling, because this is the time when I see a great deal of individual growth in my students. I wish I had some systematic method to recommend, to somehow describe the way to get a class to this point, but it’s not really a matter of procedures or routines. I think this feeling I now have with my students is really about relationships. By this point in the school year, I know how each of my students will react to my own behaviours. I can make a joke, and they’ll laugh, (or not) or I can let them call out answers, knowing that they’ll automatically start to put up their hands if the noise level starts to get too high, and shush anyone who interferes. There is a level of enthusiasm at this point in the year, where the students join me in wanting to make lessons go smoothly. It feels like we’re working as a team. This teamwork is something that takes time, but it depends upon the foundation that is built early in the school year.
The community of each class is dynamic. It develops over time until it’s an operational unit. The first thing I do to establish a strong feeling of community in my classes is to take the time to get to know every student. This means not rushing to start or end a class, so that I can have short, informal conversations with my students. It is amazing when you give undivided attention to the quietest of students, to see how drawn they are to speak to you, knowing that they look forward to your class. This individual attention is also very helpful with the attention sponges, who tend to talk out of turn. When you give them individual attention, they will interrupt less often, or at least apologize every time they do impulsively interrupt a lesson. I can’t think of anything more important than making the effort to know each of your students as individuals.
The second priority in establishing a class that operates smoothly is planning. Once you can see how long it takes your students to complete independent tasks, you can set up a dayplan that will be flexible enough to work with. I tend to have a week at a time mapped out, in terms of curriculum. This may vary, but if I plan my activities based upon the success of previous activities, then I can be realistic in terms of time and the expectations for work completion. It starts with big ideas, gathering instructional materials, and then getting a rough plan for the week ready before I go home for the weekend. I never get through everything, and of course, the best stuff is usually something that pops into my head, but I am prepared, with materials ready. By materials, I mean articles to read, visuals to discuss, bookmarked websites on my laptop. My materials are readily available to use, but I can’t predict the outcome; it all depends upon the students. In my mind, the skills (reading, writing, and critical thinking) are the curriculum. The content (eg, Life in the Middle Ages) is just the incidental part of my canvas.
I talked about the power struggle between students and the school system yesterday, but I didn’t take the time to discuss the role of parenting in that post. If I get the opportunity to suggest to parents the best way to help their children as students, it’s usually centred around their own power relationships with their kids. From my experience, both as a parent and teacher, I can say that children who don’t have consistent limits at home are the ones who have the most difficulty working within the school system. The school, as a social agency, has to have parameters for student behaviour. My point about the role of the school is not to overpower the students with inflexible rules, but to provide structure that can be adaptable enough to support students, while guiding them toward functional adulthood. Parents, then, must also be “grey”, rather than black and white. Students who rarely hear the word “no”, seem to grasp for control everywhere in their lives. The opposite approach has the same effect. Students whose parents assume complete control over them also fight to find autonomy. It’s the “Grey Parents”, whose children are most successful in school, and, generally happiest. This is something I have observed over and over again, and I always wish I could have helped out sooner. It is very difficult to have this discussion with parents at the high school level, because family patterns are already set by the time I meet their children. I can, however, hope that my observations will be accepted as support, not criticism of any parents, because I have seen the pain that a lot of families go through when their children cannot work within the current structure of the school system.