Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas to all

A Merry Christmas to all,  may it be filled with joy, children and the gifts that fill your world with love and happiness.

Next year promises to be another great one.  I look forward to posting again in the new year.


National Curriculum

Here is a table that comes from a National Curriculum broadsheet.  It contains some interesting insights.

The first is fractions and decimals finished at yr 6.  I haven't seen many year 10 classes confidently performing four operations on decimals or fractions without a calculator.

The second is that I haven't seen many students enter year eight with adequate algebra skils.

With the movement of year 7 to high school we can address some of these issues but it does not really address the core issue of the declining ability of primary to progress students through mathematics outcomes.

The national curriculum writers seem to acknowledge this issue here, "In comparison to the Singapore mathematics curriculum, the Foundation to Year 10 Australian Curriculum: Mathematics content is introduced more slowly in the early and primary years to ensure students have the opportunity to develop deep understanding before moving on. By Year 10, the conceptual difficulty is similar to that described in the Singapore documents."

The responsibility has been placed on secondary school to accelerate through the course.  This will have an negative impact on the second tier of students to be able to absorb the information in a developmentally appropriate method through upper school.  It seems we may be revisiting the forgotten middle.

The issue of why students need extra consolidation in primary is probably more cultural than educational in origin.  With the loss of value and payoff of education in Australia, families are not supporting education in ways previously found.  With changes to compulsory education, the value of graduation has decreased as a workplace differentiator.  There are clear payoff changes exacerbated by the relatively high incomes available for manual labour related industries during mining years. Unless of a recent migrant group  - education is a social occupation.

Two parent working families have not been able to make the commitment to assisting students reach their potential.  Sadly, even families making the commitment (to embed tables, assisting with homework, taking an active interest and are reading together regularly) are not gaining the benefit as the majority now lies on the other side of the divide.  It is going to take considerable commitment by the department to turn this around, I think the community has already given up.

(...and Mackenzie reminded me of something today.. writing anything legible listening to Yogabba gabba is near impossible - having distractions in class for those who concentrate singly (like me) must be exceedingly frustrating.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The five years ago game.

Five years ago..

I didn't know how to play guitar
I didn't own an awful lot of board games
I didn't have this blog
I didn't know how to teach well
I hadn't experienced 5 years of wonderful kids seeking to excel
I hadn't worked with some exceptionally dedicated peers

I didn't have the joy of my beautiful daughter and the perspective of a parent

I miss my nana and could probably be less cynical.  All in all, I think, these past five years have been very good.

Point Systems

Extrinsic reward point systems often end in probability based rewards to reduce cost.  The more points in for the week, the higher the probability of winning a prize.  Like most extrinsic reward systems they have instant impact and then reduce gradually over the year unless continually renewed.

The system though is fairly one sided and lacks the concept of the win/win.  It's more the instant gratification/self gratification than something based in development of values, delayed gratification and development of the caring person.

I'm wondering if we could extend the points system to make a true currency of it.

Kids value when extra input is put into the classroom, they value when they can help someone else, they value when their effort contributes to something bigger, they value things that may help them improve.  Or at least this is what we want them to value.

What if kids could:
donate points towards a teacher doing extra PD to bring a clearly stated idea back to the classroom (points not generated in that classroom)
donate points towards the charity child (and the school converts them back to cents/dollars)
donate points towards the house points competition
donate points towards evaluating an overseas event
donate points towards a school speaker / event

Kids want ownership of their environment and these sorts of ideas help them get a feeling of self worth by expressing their value beyond themselves.  The feeling of self worth, I think, is a key goal.

Our kids are in an interesting place, I think it might be timely to investigate avenues for this type of idea.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Getting sick

Sickness is a constant issue as a teacher.  By the end of term, we're all a bit run down and as soon as the adrenaline cuts out, you tend to hit the wall.  If it's not the flu, it's migraine..  I'd estimate that at least half of the staff report to be susceptable to migraines. 

As curriculum demands on teachers become greater and society itself is asking more of teachers, I suppose the maintenance of teachers will become more of an issue.

Well... this time has been a doozy.  First four days after the end of term my fever has been spiking up to 40 every time the panadol runs out, sleeping 20 hours of the day and having lucid moments (like now) where I think I might just be getting better.

I knew there was a reason I looked forward to holidays!

Update:  It seems having temps of 40C+ for 6 days indicates pneumonia.  Off to get checked.
Update:  This high temp thing is great, xrays and blood test in under 20mins.  It was like an olympics.
Update:  It is pneumonia (the second math teacher this year).  The drugs are working now and the temp stopped overnight (yay!).  Hopefully I'm on the mend.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

WACOT and the Teachers Registration Board

The King is dead.  Long live the King.

For those that don't know, WACOT is being repealed and a new Teachers registration board is being set up.

I just read through the new bill. Teacher representation on the board is now at the discretion and invitation of the minister. Requirements for registration become the primary mandate of the board.  The new bill gives the board the ability to define what a teacher needs to be and do for registration and re-registration.

Hopefully they will treat the new board primarily as a body for weeding out miscreants and keeping teaching institutions honest, not as a body responsible for monitoring and developing professional development.  A school is the best level for monitoring, mentoring and developing teacher effectiveness, the mentoring programme organised by WACOT ended up being little more than paperwork.  The change might be recognition that a registration body is not the right vehicle to monitor teacher competence.  If a case ever reached the Teachers Registration Board, one would have to imagine that it would be serious enough to involve police.

Given that the registration board is nominated by the minister, embarrassing events such as the "Teachers for Australia" (the 6 week teaching course) being rejected by WACOT will now more likely be prevented.

With a fairly limited mandate, hopefully they can get on with getting the job done, not worry about costly fringe activities and keep the fees and paperwork down!

Reflective posts

Four years ago, I started posting here to record the journey from practicum teacher to teacher.  Stats on the blog have shown that reflective posts are the least interesting and posts that relate to improvement in the classroom are the most read.

I have often wondered why.  It could just be that my reflective posts are boring.  Personally, I find that they are the most important because they make me consider my own teaching practices and drive me towards the successful classroom interventions.

It could be that we don't want to know what we do badly and we do want quick fix band aids.

Often we don't want to be reflective or introspective - we don't have time, lack the will, we're scared of the results and are unwilling to make the effort.  Given all I have learned here, having worked with the blog for a reasonably long time, it's fairly easy to say I think reflective practices are worth the effort.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I must be an idiot

I'm an idiot.  I really must be, because I don't understand and I can't understand the logic of the criticism no matter how the concept of "Empire Building" has been explained to me.

We have an inspirational maths department (not my words but that of a teacher outside our department).  Kids say to us that they want to come to school to do maths and they're not always the geeky ones.  We have a high level of energy in the department, kids actively choose our subject and we have fewer behavioural issues each year than ever before.  Kids don't even look that embarrassed when we talk to them in the yard.  We actively seek to help other departments and we do our share of tasks around the school.

And for this we are accused of empire building.  By this (and I sought to get this clarified) it was meant that we have created a "cult" of mathematics where kids actively seek maths in upper school over other subjects.  Let me be the first person in history to apologise for having engaged kids.

Now if we were preventing students from completing work of other subjects by loading them up with extra work, you might think this could be true.  We don't.  If we advised them to take higher maths without having grades and work ethics to suit, it may be true; but we are diligent documenting how we justify our subject selections and unfortunately now have to turn kids away in upper school.  If we loaded up in school committees and ran an agenda (of any sort) and bullied them through, it may be said but we rarely volunteer for committees and are more frequently tutoring kids between classes than being in the staff room.

I don't think we're victims of tall poppy, but our relative popularity (??!!??) with kids seems to be threatening in some way.  If a kid selected Drama, Phys ed, Computing, English or any other subject because they liked the teacher group not an eye would be batted.  If this meant that they had to do a higher maths and they were motivated by their involvement in the other subject, we would work with them and find them a course that they could do.  Another student with a viable path to uni - that's fantastic.

If year 7 kids are choosing our school because of maths one would think that the collegiate group (not just the principal) would go, great guys, we'll get behind you and create a wider vision for us.  If kids are clamouring for a staffed and funded maths camp, what possible reason is to not get behind it.  Five years ago we arrived and the atmosphere was toxic towards the ATAR classes, I don't think anyone believed we had long left before we became a vocational school.  Today we have a growing group of TEE kids, a wonderful team that guides them into uni through ATAR and portfolio pathways and a teacher group that can and does support them in their final years.

... but we have a long way to go.  When asking our year 9 class, "how many students went to university from our school",  they said none and were shocked when we said close to 50% - they were more shocked when we rattled off the names from three years ago and told them how well they were doing.  There are a number of much larger schools in Perth that can't do this and can't even run stage 3 courses.

I suppose this is a cautionary tale, because sometimes we all are a little disparaging and I can say firsthand how demotivational this last week has been for at least two of the maths department - we both have thick skin (and heads) but it is annoying to say the least.  If others do not want to lead, get behind those that make the time and have the will to do so.  Be careful with criticism especially if it is only to assuage your own conscience about what you should be doing as it can have toxic effects on your school.  Be encouraging wherever possible.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pay rise

I don't know if anyone noticed but SSTUWA negotiated a 3.75% pay rise (12% over 3 years + the 1/2+ year lost already) on 9 December. 

It will be interesting to see what conditions have been traded and if it actually ends up covering inflation over the period.  I shouldn't be skeptical, but SSTUWA are not the most effective negotiators.

News here.  You may have to be logged into the intranet to view it

Oh, and as expected the news of 7's going to secondary school has been done in the last week of the school year to minimise discussion.  They're all in secondary in 2015 (a bit late to save a few secondary schools but better late than never).

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Numeracy drives literacy

It has been asserted that literacy initiatives can assist in developing numeracy in schools.  In disadvantaged schools it is common to place high levels of effort into literacy programmes (often aspirational programmes with few measures attached and responsibility for results thinly spread throughout all staff).  I can't count the amount of times I have been shown how to draw a mind map or a jigsaw in PD and then told that I need to implement them in my classrooms.

It's not that I haven't tried, it's just that there is little measurable improvement afterward.  I think secondary teachers roll their eyes and think 'here is some more primary junk' (I'm censoring here) that doesn't apply well in upper secondary classes.

That's not to say that numeracy based subjects (particularly maths) do not have a part in driving literacy - especially at the pointy end of students heading towards university.  In fact I would say that mathematics has a higher impact on the motivation of students to do well in English than English itself does.

For students in disadvantaged areas, the vast majority of students get to university through math/science pathways rather than humanities pathways.  This is 'generally' due to the raft of reasons  students fail to enjoy reading at an early age.  (I say generally as this is not a simple topic and has been the subject of a lot of angst amongst teachers.  I do not claim to have the answer for this other than to continuing to encourage parents to read to kids and then continue to investigate ESL pathways, bridging courses and technological innovations for avenues to develop reading and writing).

For math/science kids, their fundamental barrier to university entry is in English as English in some form is compulsory.  Math and Science teachers are cognisant of this and draw attention to comprehension and literacy at every opportunity.  We teach explicitly the meaning of words and how to construct strictly logical arguments through proof.  Students learn method and can apply the method with the reasonable understanding that the endpoint is a correct answer (which can be abstracted into other subjects).  We teach students to identify teaching moments, take and make effective notes and prepare effectively for examinations.  These are tangible and measurable improvements to their English language usage/literacy!

We emphasize to students to work hard in English - often to the detriment of our own subjects.  Students have motivation to work in English because it is a necessary evil.  Without success in mathematics and science, they would not even try to succeed in English, what would be the point?  They cannot in most cases succeed in a purely humanities pathway.  They would be relegated to non university pathways as quick as you can say.. well.. Ingrish.

I think in our school I can say that in upper school Numeracy drives Literacy.  Without Maths and science, our stage 2 and 3 English classes would be considerably smaller and we would have far less students with the motivation to even try.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Disengaged students

Being given a class of disengaged students is a difficult task.  It's not something that I can do year after year, although after a break of a few years; the challenge isn't as daunting as the thought of doing it for the third in a row.

I'm not particularly talented with this group of students - I certainly can't get them energised and self motivated, but I can get them working and start them on a path to regain their self esteem.  If I remember this as my goal I can see progress.  If I focus on grades, I put my head in my hands in despair.  Success comes (I love the kids that get to say - "this is my first B ever" knowing that it isn't a charity grade and that they have had to work for it), but it is hard, constant work with a lot of negative feedback from the students.

My top ten tips for working with disengaged students in year 11 and 12.

1. Do not allow students to do nothing.  If a student refuses work, accelerate through the strategies for teacher intervention and pass them on to admin to hit consequences that might be meaningful for them.  If they are in a re-engagement programme, teachers have already tried the 4001 strategies for re-engagement, outside intervention is probably required.

2. Be real.  Students will know if you are faking it.  Their life skills relate to outside the classroom, they have a bullsh*t meter that can detect it at 40 paces.  If you don't want to be there, they will understand, let them know that you have something in common and get on with step 3.

3. Be something they don't expect - be prepared with material suited to their level of work.  Reduce the amount of content on the board or page, increase the number of boards or pages over time. 

4. Have clear expectations of behaviour - no swearing, be on time, be respectful of others.  Make them aware of what they are doing and why they need to do it.  Tie it to graduation if possible, being changed out of their class into a work programme for repeated failures, use punitive responses as a last resort, but don't be afraid of using them (such as suspension from class) if necessary to ensure a minimum level of work.  Work closely with the social worker to assist students learn classroom behaviours and how to code switch.

5. Celebrate their achievements using intrinsic rewards.  Extrinsic rewards don't work with these kids, apathy is rife and you will too quickly accelerate through the extrinsic rewards required to bribe work.  With these students, extrinsic rewards are just not a good idea.  Everything about these kids is self esteem related.  Build that honestly, just a little, and it is success.

6. Find out their stories (where appropriate) and share yours, especially with indigenous students. Often by talking to students you will find out what does motivate them and all of a sudden you have a re-engaged student who is seeking your approval for those 5 minutes of talking about manga cartoons or about how to become a chef.

7. Do it quickly, be patient and forgiving.    They have 10-11 years of negative inertia to overcome, so if it takes a few times to change a behaviour it is ok (and forget as quickly as is appropriate if an honest effort to change the behaviour is being made).  They will run out of steam whatever you do, so get as much as you can early.  If they are working do a wad of assessment (by term three you will be pulling teeth to get assessment at a normal rate).

8. Ask teachers about the students.  Someone will know something positive about them and it will give you an in to start a lesson they may engage with.

9.  Acknowledge their existence in and out of the classroom.  You might be the only person to say their name in a week.  You may get a grunt or a finger in return behind your back, but over time they will realise that it is ok to say hi back.

10.  Make it clear that it is ok that they don't have to like you and vice versa.  In many cases they don't know how to like, they have been practicing the opposite for so long.  All of a sudden you become the one person that isn't giving them a hard time and you are the one getting the most amount of work.

Just be aware, if you get good at re-engaging kids, you run the risk of being the disengaged student expert and will get them year after year.  If this happens you need to be strong when you have had enough and insist on a break from it, or seek another school where you can get that break - timetabling will see you as a very valuable commodity whilst you are doing the role.  These students can break your confidence and deprive you of your will to teach - if you feel this is happening, seek assistance and return to normal classes.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Class centric schools

Last post I talked about making a class rather than a group of individuals and how that was important to how I tried to teach.  It reminded me of a large organisation that I did work for.  They changed the name of their administration centre to store service centre (or something like that) to change the thinking in the organisation from an administration 'ruling' the stores, to a service model where they were enablers that assisted stores to sell more product.

The admin vs teachers conflict is a common enough malady and sometimes I think I understand why.  Empire building is not uncommon and importance is placed upon being a gatekeeper for projects to become viable  - goodwill needs to be developed before a project is considered.  Multiple consultations are required before a project can get the go ahead and if someone steps outside of unwritten rules, the project leader is sent back to their classroom tails between their legs after doing considerable work to check that the project is both viable and has clear student support and benefit.  I have no problem with the gate, it's the pre-requisite of goodwill that is the problem.

This scenario is a recipe for reduced initiative and is quite clearly poor management.  An alternate method is to encourage the person seeking the initiative (if valuable) and then assisting in enabling the person make the event happen, to mutually decide it is unviable or send the idea to the third umpire.  Encouragement of initiative is a quality of a good manager.  Let's face it, rarely is a student event fun for teachers - but the kids get a lot out of well run events and it is something that they remember well after school (let's hope for the right reasons).

I like projects that can run with little assistance from admin as I tend to think there are things done best by teachers and other things done best by administration.  I think, a project that can be run without generating large amounts of cooperation from 9 members of a committee is more likely to succeed. I normally accompany committee involvement with a swear word - a small skilled selected team is nearly always a far more effective method than a voluntary committee.  Maths Academy, Summer school, board game clubs, the edmodo rollout, the IWBs rollout, 8-12 integrated maths programmes, creation of the maths lab, centralised marksbooks, programmes, newsletters, assessment and electronic resources are all initiatives that were able to be done with little if any admin assistance.  All of these Maths Dept initiatives had clear and purposeful gains for the school as evidenced by the development of a changed profile for year 11 and 12 MAT and MAS classes.

As a team there are things we cannot do, that admin can.  Streaming in year 9, pastoral care intervention, school direction, staffing profiles, funding and the like.  These things have large impacts on the classroom and to be honest we are better reacting to most of these than being involved in these decision making process.  We can have input but probably informal discussion is enough.  Long drawn out processes help no-one where a little leadership of both teams can make a decision happen.  In many cases even a sub optimal solution is better than developing a perfect one (after the need for it or benefit has passed).

In a class centric environment, if the teacher has evaluated that an event is in the best interests of students and a teacher is willing to assist making it happen (in addition to their normal roles as a classroom teacher) it is incredibly poor form to be anything other than encouraging and assisting to make things happen.  When we fail to do this, we need to ask, is it in the best interest of the school, the class and subsequently is it in the best interest of students.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Teaching unruly students

I teach at a school with a few social problems(I'm a little prone to understatement).. I get knowing looks from people when they find out where I teach.  I can hear them thinking, "Who in their right mind would want to teach there?  Can't you do better than that!"

Truth be told, the students are ok and once you understand how they think (since I grew up around my school, I probably picked it up quicker than some), they gave me a job when I needed one five years ago and I have enjoyed it.  Not the most glamorous job, but it is challenging and rewarding.

Probably the hardest time is capturing the kids and positioning them for learning.  Each teacher does it a little differently, but I do have a few tricks.

The most effective strategy is creating a rapport with the kids by making them understand that teaching 30 individuals is near impossible, but everyone benefits by being part of a class.  My strategies for this are quite primitive, but they are effective, especially with the second tier of students - where my teaching interests lie.

Struggling students know that they find it hard to rival the top students and seek attention in other often negative ways.  To counter this I leverage a range of rewards and penalties that focus on team behaviour.  The class gets a high test average (greater 70% mean), I get the class some party food. The class is working hard, the entire class gets reward points. Groups of students working well also receive reward points.  The class gathers 100 reward points, we have a game session (to get 100 points we're ahead of the programme anyway). Students now have a real reason to help each other.  Contrariwise, if some students get disruptive, the whole class is penalised by being kept in after class (I did say primitive!).

Gasp! - penalise the whole class - that's not fair.  Surprisingly, it is fair, because the class as a whole has the responsibility to maintain order, not just the teacher.  I'll manage the class if I have to - but I'd rather teach than be constantly punitive.  Peer intervention is often more effective, can be less disruptive and the student-teacher relationship strain is reduced - attention seeking behaviour from peers quickly turns negative and the behaviour stops.  It doesn't work with the next tier of students (as groups of disengaged/struggling students need other strategies and higher levels of intervention). It's a strategy you have to be careful with and you need the goodwill of some students in the class to make it work.

If it is working, the good kids won't object because the more popular disruptive students are quickly getting less popular.

Individual achievement is celebrated but rarely extrinsically rewarded.  The exception is that I'm always on the lookout for  kids that have discovered what it takes to be a future focused 'student' and promote them into higher classes.  It's always a pleasure to say to a former challenging student, "Grab your bag and head down the hall.  Your work here is done."

Western Australian Secondary Mathematics Teachers Group

If you are a WA secondary mathematics teacher and would like to join a local online teachers forum (there's 25 or so of us so far), join Edmodo as a teacher (it's free and takes half a minute to join) and use groupcode tp39qk.  There's a discussion on national curriculum, IT usage and a growing list of upper school investigations.

After a week or so I'll change the group code to keep kids out, so join soon if this may be useful to you!