Saturday, June 27, 2009

Inspirational educational stories

Here's to making a difference in your own life. Sent to me from one of my educational heroes. Ta Keith!,3,3233106.story

It reminded me of an 'A' student that I met that had cystic fibrosis that knew she would pass away before she was 17 yet still searched for excellence.

Inspiration in education is one thing we are never short of.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Isolates within a school

In primary if a child is isolated, with few if any friends, teachers are relatively quick to pair them up with students of like interests or with similarly few friends. There is a process that happens with new students and other for socialising kids with new friends.

It's pretty easy to spot when it happens and it's a fairly major issue in primary years.

In high school it's completely different. It's not uncommon for a group of students (normally girls) to ostracise a student over some perceived misdemeanour, whether it be based on appearance (cheap clothing, lazy eye, red hair, braces), socioeconomic background, race, perceived intelligence, jealousy, personality... Forms of bullying often manifest in this sort of behaviour where physical violence carries a heavier penalty. It's humourous in a sad sort of way that in our school, there is pride in being a misfit and the 'normal' kids tend to be the ones that may find it difficult to fit in.

Isolates can be completely miserable in the playground and find the classroom a haven, as it removes some of the pressure to find, create and maintain friendship groups (at least until the first group activity). A classroom environment doesn't remove the loneliness. Some students can remain in this state for all five years of school.

What can we do as teachers to assist these students? Typically these students erect barriers that make it very difficult to assist them. They truant, gain attention through misbehaviour and defiance, become introverted, lack purpose and direction, lack social skills, can be depressive and generally unpleasant to be around. These are protections to hide their remaining self esteem.

It's easy to overlook them in amongst TEE preparation, programming, testing, assisting the students that 'need' our help. Typically they would have dropped out of school at year ten and found their way (I'm not sure what happens to them after school..).

It rankles to know that there are a number of kids in the yard that only get spoken to when I walk past and say hello as I rush to my next class. You see them every day, walking around on their own, waiting for the bell to go back into class and away from the hell of the playground. Any attempt that I've made in the classroom to assist has been ineffective, maybe as I am only one teacher who sees them for four hours a week.

On a priority basis, do you deal with the violent kid, the kid stealing from bags, the truant or the kid who is lonely in the yard and not causing any trouble? I've seen schools deal with this issue as a primary purpose of pastoral care... but they were green leafy schools.

Do we have the resources to examine the issue in state high schools?

Probably not. ... but we should anyway.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Lockharts Lament

Lockhart's Lament was recently /.'d and is a really good read about one person's thoughts of where mathematics has diverged from being an art to a science (yes you read that correctly, was an art form now a science). It was interesting to read how a classroom could be transformed from a fact finding mission to a place focusing on the development of ideas, more akin to a history and art class than as a science. I've read a few different variations on the same theme, but this is one of the better ones.

It would be funny (thinking of pure maths as an art form) if there wasn't some truth in it. True creativity and inspiration is at the heart of any discovery. On the other hand, if I was hiring people to build a bridge or a skyscraper I'd want a person doing it that had been drilled in maths and understood how to apply it rather than some introspective, dreamy, philosophy driven hippy. The approach suggested infers putting even more language in mathematics, running the risk of removing maths even further from those students that find it a refuge from humanities based subjects.

There's nothing stopping us implementing or re-introducing some of the ideas in the article into the curriculum. I'm always looking for ways to reinvigorate my classes and this may be one! I would though be wary of any approach that took more maths out of mathematics. After all, we don't all have the genius to discover maths the way of Gallileo, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Newton and Leibniz... but like the writer I can appreciate and revere the simplicity and elegance of their findings.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Report time again

Here's the time of year when the most important communication will be made between the teacher and parent. A paragraph of words can lift the confidence, invigorate flagging academic performance or deflate a student to the point of giving up.

Identical paragraphs given to two students may have completely opposite effects.

Teachers for the most part create these paragraphs straight after marking exams and under some fairly tight deadlines. It's usually at the end of a term and we're far from fresh and chirpy. After the exams are marked, reports are finished, students are at their ratty worst at the end of term then we get to talk to parents.

It's week 8.. that time when we think, OMG I'm a little tired.

So, do you play safe and write bland comments and save the deep and meaningful for parent discussion. From a strictly legalistic point of view, it is the safest option. We are often urged to write detailed reports by admin but as a lawyer once told me.. don't commit anything to writing that you wouldn't want to see in a court of law, and it's far safer to not commit anything to writing.

Are we opening ourselves up to legal issues by writing encouraging words to students and enticing them to try harder in order to reach the potential we see in them? If they don't reach the potential are we opening ourselves to liability issues?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Just in time intervention

Since starting teaching I've endeavoured to provide kids with just-in-time intervention. I'm not sure where the concept originated but I use the term as an in between to "early intervention", "delayed intervention" and "too bloody late intervention".

Just in time ("JIT") intervention is finding an area where the curriculum has failed (such as weak performance found after a test in an unexpected area) and plugging the gap by providing extra tuition or resources to fix the issue, immediately after the issue has been discovered (thus the "just in time"). Examples when JIT intervention would be be needed would be finding BIMDAS problems during the teaching of percentages or discovering negative number issues when expanding brackets in algebra topics. Students needing JIT intervention typically can master new topics but can't apply their new learning due to an associated issue - leading to poor retention of the new concept. Fix the associated issue and fix retention problems of new concepts.

JIT intervention is different to early intervention as early intervention is typically preventative and is sprayed around like a weed killer - "catch the issue before it occurs and hopefully we will stop what happened last year". It's different to delayed intervention as this can be seen as "the next teacher can try again with the same sort of material next year (only more difficult) and try to find success" and too bloody late intervention which occurs in senior school where students are finally streamed into classes where they can find success but have little time left in school to do so.

Until now I have focused on finding worksheets and doing lunch workshops for particular areas of the curriculum. I have avoided online resources as until now they have been overly focused on fun and are not focused enough on addressing requirements of students. As there is only one of me, workshops and worksheets have had limited success - in senior school if you scratch the surface it wells with underlying issues that require attention, more than any one person can address.

Our latest attempt to provide JIT intervention is to leverage some of the developed online tutorials that have shown some promise and direct kids to them. In an art imitates life experience (think 'the Simpsons'), the free McDonalds sponsored "MathsOnline" project is getting a guernsey at our school as the tutorials have found success with indigenous students - which we hope will extend to other struggling students needing help. We are setting up a maths lab that allows students access to the MathsOnline resources and will use them in conjunction with maths resources bought from the ESL budget for low literacy students. The mathsLab is adjacent to my room (connected with a concertina wall) and I aim to be able to monitor students as they attempt to rectify a range of issues and assist where possible.

I do like the maths online implementation as it is not "button mashing" or "timing based competition" but requires listening to a short tutorial, working out answers on paper and then checking them against an online marking key - similar in concept to the pizzazz or mathomat/mathmagic type worksheets (without the awful maths jokes (that I tend to laugh wayy too heartily at))... It also records the attempts of students so that I can investigate when the tutorial is insufficient.

We presented mathsonline today to the IT committee and hopefully they see some benefit in it. Our principal was positive with his praise of the initiative - now we have to find some success to warrant the praise.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Right Angle Trigonometry Meta-language

My prac student is to deliver the right angle trigonometry unit and I was thinking about all the little things that I like to emphasize to students.

The first thing I would like him to consider is to design the course to make connections to previous courses of work (prior learning) especially with regard to language. Mathematics has such a rich history of precise language that it is important to identify ideas correctly to students in a manner that ties together topics to promote abstraction.

For instance before actually doing anything, we need to remind students what the LHS and RHS of an equation is, and how to identify the subject of the equation that we want to work with. Then we might think about how to eliminate coefficients and pronumerals/variables from one side on an equation, transpose terms/pronumerals/variables and multiplying through/simplifying to remove a denominator. What can we substitute into an equation? How do we solve the equation? Do we need simultaneous equations? We need to use every opportunity to reinforce concepts learned in previous algebra topics.

We have geometry prior learning to consider, three internal angles = 180°, a right angled triangle has one internal angle 90°. Line properties give us complementary, corresponding, co-interior, supplementary, adjacent, vertically opposite, exterior, alternate angles. Also the types of triangles, isosceles, equilateral and scalene help us find other angles. Circle geometry gives us tangents, subtended angles, cyclic quadrilaterals. Properties of 3D shapes!

Only after we consider possible connections to prior learning can we think about actually teaching the relatively small amount of new material. Without these connections we are just teaching students a new trick that will be forgotten immediately after assessment (a key issue exacerbated by the increased assessment required by OBE reporting requirements).

We have to introduce a range of new ideas such as opposite, adjacent and hypotenuse for right angled triangles. We have equations such as Pythagoras' and the three trigonometric ratios. .. and the dreaded bugbear bearings (until vectors makes bearings look easy!!)

We have conventions such as labelling the hypotenuse 'c' and the remaining sides a, b for Pythagoras' theorem problems and opp, adj and hyp in trigonometric problems.

We have good practice such as always writing the symbolic form of a trigonometric equation before substituting values, labelling diagrams, identifying right angles.

We have acronyms to help us remember trigonometric ratios SOH, CAH, TOA.

What is the correct sequence for introducing the material? What resources can we use or have available?

So now prac student, your job is to help students see how their prior learning is necessary to solve these problems!

Touchy.. Touchy...

Often speaking at school you think.. bloody hell.. that's not what I meant.

This seems to happen to me a lot as I am a bit introspective at times but will say what I think - and subsequently seem to live with a constant case of foot-in-mouth.

A couple of students came to me and said, "such and such teacher just doesn't understand.. I ask them for help and they don't listen." I sat down and talked with them about the kind of questions they were asking and it turned out to be a conversation like "I just don't understand anything!", to which even I would respond, "then go back to primary. I can't help you either." I then talked to the students about leading questions, redrafting and investigated what they did know. By the end of it, we realised that they had actually learnt a lot from the teacher already and that the angst they were feeling was that they now had to use this knowledge and that this required work.

.. so I said to myself... job well done.. and mentioned it to the teacher and asked if students resubmitting redrafted work was a problem and discussed the conversation I had with the kids.. this was turned on me as, "don't you think I provide scaffolding for my kids." OMG.. I'd just been praising this teacher to students and pointing out what they had already learned!

Another case in point occurred when I was asked did I have a preference to teaching boys or girls, to which I responded I thought I had a bit more experience teaching girls, therefore found it a bit easier.. to which the scamp teacher cheekily replied.. "I find boys easier to teach, are you saying I have less experience with girls?" ARGH!!!

These were jokey experiences, but sadly in teaching often analysis of our strengths and weaknesses, or sharing our ideas is seen as a prelude to punitive action to rectify a perceived issue. This fear often hampers any reform process and causes much angst with regards to performance management issues.

Oh and don't even think about robust discussion or sharing subject passion or investigating your own perceived flaws.

One of the ways of stopping teacher close mindedness is to nip it in the bud with practicum students and promote sharing of ideas (using new media where a young group of teachers is not at hand) to ensure that we become collegiate as a profession and welcome self and group analysis as a way of improving our performance. With many of our experienced teachers on the verge of retirement beaten down by OBE we will need to accelerate the speed that teachers become competent and we can no longer rely on the "closed door, hide in our classroom and teach ourselves" method of learning. It's inefficient, in a world where people change careers like underwear, it is also impractical.

That's my rant for today.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Unrealistic expectations and belief

As a teacher you hold fragile confidence in your hand every day. Belief in a student is a powerful thing, it can set a child on the path of success and make them believe in their own futures.

When we get caught up in grades and league tables and moderated scores and all other such associated bulldust we forget what a powerful thing belief is. When we believe in the person miracles are possible.

When we don't let students try, succeed and fail, we fail our students. Failure is important when seeking the utmost of our ability.

School is not about high stakes testing, nor about consequences. It is about creating a safe environment for our kids to explore their limits and seek excellence. Sometimes as a society I think we have forgotten this. teachers we see the evidence of our beliefs every day.. as well as the consequences when our belief fails.

It's something to ponder.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The meaning of life

Today, I was talking about the meaning of life with my daughter..

Her response was definitely, "GOOP!".

..and how true she is. We start out as goop, we end as goop and we goop about a lot in between.

In fact there is very little that can't be explained by the word goop..

but.. I was unsure if she was interpreting our existence as part of a predestined global goop entity rather than as individual gooplets with free destiny. Does she lean more towards intelligent goop design or a more darwinistic goop approach? I'll have to check with her later.

Very thought provoking little 3 month old Mackenzie! Maybe she can explain it to me when she learns her second word.