Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fight Club & media beat up


Here we go again. Another beat up by the media of a topic that will waste immense amounts of time within schools. Here's a forum post on the topic.

Amount of research done by media? Positive outcome for the community? None.

I feel for John Forrest SHS as they were just the poor school that was focused on this time. Morley kids in fight after school - hardly headline news..

I wonder if the genius that suggested keeping all students in school until the end of year 12 (especially those students too lazy to get a job) thought through the consequences properly. Couple this to increased scrutiny on suspension rates and we end up with the situation of dangerous students being kept within schools and encouraging/bullying students into situations like the 'Fight club' scenario. How long before we have metal detectors looking for knives, police required on school grounds, security guards patrolling a regular occurrence and schools feeling bullied with little support, with blame pointed squarely at schools? Oh that's right - it's already happening.

We (parents, media, community, government) need to support schools not finger point. We need solutions (exclusion of troubled students is a starting point) not blame. That means parents taking responsibility for their children, programmes that empower social workers with real consequences (such as removal of welfare payments), society taking responsibility for ill prepared parents (like removal of the baby bonus), support for academic students (whether aimed at low or high ability students with grading on progress rather than state based comparison - abolish the smartie chart and myschool!), and no in-school baby sitting programmes (students, not clients/customers).

Senior school is now effectively many things: pathway to university, pathway to vocational studies, home of unsure students and a dumping ground for kids that don't wish for a job nor to study further. There is no pressure on these latter students to perform away from home and little leverage to ensure that they enhance the school environment by contributing to the school. They are disenfranchised, lack enthusiasm, see little in their future beyond today. They need babysitting to prevent them from causing social ill. This is a social problem, not an academic one; worse still it only defers the problem by two years and has significant negative impact on schools. Children that cannot be directed into contributing students (despite all attempts) of the school community need to be directed out of school so that they either come back wanting to be a student or find a new pathway.

Teachers are not social workers, entertainers or babysitters, they are academics there to guide the learning of students and should be valued as such. Schooling is a privilege and a responsibility offered to all but should never be seen as a right. If a student brings a school into disrepute - they should be looking for a new school with fairly tight restrictions placed before re-entry into the school system. If we want better schools we need desperately to make schools academic centres of learning with spotless reputations, place clear boundaries around students, provide power to principals to act; and empower teachers effectively as tools of learning.

Class load next year

I don't know if I like or dislike my proposed timetable for 2009.

It looks like I will have 3 dot periods in a row next year (on a Thursday) which will make life a little difficult. The saving grace is that most of my class sizes are around 15 with taking the level three year 11 classes, modelling in year 12 and some of the alternate eduation kids. Only my year 10 class bodes to be larger than 17.

This time only 3 of my five classes are first timers rather than all five (I've taught year 10's and modelling before). The level 3 classes and the alternate education kids have the potential to draw a lot of time.

So far I'm one period down, which will make me a lightening rod for reliefs too. At least I'm not teaching out of area!

Upper 10's and exam preparation

My upper tens have begun revision for their exam. I've pushed them over the last week, getting them to complete twice as much work as my normal expectation per class as a prelude to expectations in year 11. Next I wanted them to experience the expectation of exams and model how to study in year 11. I set aside four days for them to revise and they did the following:

Day 1: Identification of material that could be in the exam
Day 2: Finding of resources (where in texts, portfolios) and identification of areas of weakness
Day 3: Preparation of notes / judging detail required via marks allocated
Day 4: Review and identification of material to study over weekend

Key findings
Students tend not to use contents pages in texts very well. Even when given words to find (solve, substitute, trigonometry) they can't find where in the text to examine. Students also need to consider that higher order questions are more likely to be in the exam therefore they should make sure they can answer questions at the end of exercises.

It was interesting to note levels of anxiety from the beginning (a couple of students with high levels) and the anxiety decreasing as they realised that they had mastered most of the content already. I look forward to next year when I can show them the progress made from year 9 to 10 by showing them their own year 9 exams and comparing it to their year 10 exam.

Students can now produce notes quite well and after a year of reinforcement they can see how to both use and benefit from them.

Students are starting to see that exam hints can be used to improve marks and how necessary it is to follow up and fix any areas of weakness.

Probability & statistics

I have running battle with my lower tens getting them started but found that a game of craypots generally helped. I've bought some foam cubes from Clark rubber (2 for $3.50) 125cm x 125cm x 125cm.

I've labelled the sides storm, storm, last, fine, fine, fine in red marker so that the students can see what the weather is and decide how to play their craypots to maximise the chance of profit.

It's been great to see students find the maximum possible value, the quickest way to get out of the game (eg. the riskiest route), see their mental mathematics in action and their ability to follow a process. It's a game that's easy to set up (it needs a worksheet and a teacher with dice) and one where the class highscore can be kept to be aimed for. Here's a copy of the online version. When I remember I'll bring home my worksheet for upload.

A fair few other dice games can be found here.

It's also a bit of fun to throw the foam cubes around the room near students not paying attention.


For the first time we reached 500 hits for the month and already have over 500 unique visitors this quarter - well up on last quarter and we still have a month to go. I attribute all this success to the rabbit banner and his joke.

Most popular topics this month were:
CAS Calculators (by far)
Performance pay


Monday, November 24, 2008


Sometimes teaching year 10's you get so caught up in your lesson you miss the bloody obvious.

Today we were looking at distance from origin, Perth to Meekatharra, Perth to Newman and so forth using trip counters and odometers. My students were finding it hard to find the distance between two locations (I forget the real distances so please excuse my made up ones)..

They could understand that the 259km and the 1600km indicated distances from Perth but could not understand how to determine the distance between Meekatharra and Newman. So I tried something similar but with smaller numbers.

When asked the distance between Mary's house and the shops, this time students were able to say 1km. I asked them how they did that and they gave me the answer 9+1=10. I asked if they could think of another way. A sea of blank looks from the new kids in the class. I think to myself OMG. No wonder these kids couldn't do the previous problem. I showed them that subtraction could work and they were able to complete the exercise finding distances between various destinations. By the end it was obvious that they could learn the pattern for solving the problems but did not have an understanding of the underlying maths - thus had forgotten the method by the next problem.

So I went a bit further and used my favourite diagnostic tool. I wrote the following on their page.


And asked them to add one to each number. Thankfully only one student couldn't do this. Then I write 10526 and 52679 at the end of the list and moved to each asking them to say the numbers quietly to me. This was not as successful. This was the trigger to split the class (again) and start these kids on a different programme of work.

The integration of low ability or underschooled students into the mainstream and removal of dedicated remedial classes has meant that many students are falling through the cracks. It is no wonder that some of these kids can be disruptive, disheartened and are having confidence issues. Students that cannot read numbers above 100, can't identify simple operations or understand place value have little chance in mainstream classes. It's enough to make you physically upset and reminds me why I originally intended teaching year 7 rather than senior secondary. The impact of intervention is greater at an earlier age than now.

I have many of these kids next year and have identified areas of focus, we're designing entry tests for new students and aim to improve numeracy with low performing students. It's frustrating the amount of time that it takes to find these issues and detect the underlying factors behind avoidant behaviour. Time will only tell how much success can be made of it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Building a better future for our kids

Getting kids to see opportunity rather than negativity is a key objective for 2009. As times get more difficult and unemployment rises, it is ever so important for kids to use their education for a new start in life and bring hope not only into their lives but into their families.

There are inspirations in every year group, the child with a terminal illness that strives for A's, the child that works every spare second to send money home to parents in Africa, the student that couldn't read two years before and now is able to contribute to mainstream classes.

Once an opportunity is presented to a student we get limited opportunities to demonstrate that effort leads to success. Any success with some kids needs to be celebrated, even staged to ensure that they get on the right road. If they are going to fail at a task (and they must learn how to cope with failure) they need to be supported, prepared and lead by the ear to see the achievement gained in failure. The learning of resilience is important beyond any skill.

We need to believe that they can do things. They have enough doubt in themselves, it does not need to be reinforced. Push them hard, see what they can do - it will always surprise you. Work to drive them to a better place - a good work ethic is an an achievement in itself.

The little darlings need to learn that boundaries are ok and are there to protect them. The world may not be fair or cheering them on, but generally it's not against them. All of us old folk fight for a better future for them. Learning the rules is a precursor to learning how to interact with others and the community - simply modelling polite language can save them from being instantly judged the minute they open their mouths.

Value systems now that religion is no longer impressed on kids are lacking. Without a value system kids lack a knowledge of right and wrong. In a world where everything moves so fast and knowledge is valued over experience, it is hard for them to see that there is wisdom in older folks. This is of course every generations fate - but with the rapid pace of the information age it is being exacerbated. They don't believe in our values (what would we know!) and lack a better system themselves.

Parents, rather than argue at the end of a hard day at work, just give in to an argument - kids do not understand no as an answer being used to the last word. At least until they do something that has a consequence that cannot be overlooked. When this happens, the gentle leading of them to their errors is a hard task that requires patience that I need to develop further.

We need to protect students that have good qualities from students that are developing them. Once an academic student is identified they need to be driven forward. Students developing good qualities need to have champions that mentor them through and help them through difficult times.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reflecting on streaming

We streamed the year ten mathematics classes this year. To our mind it was a success. Other learning areas had heterogeneous classes and had a lot of difficulties with behaviour management issues that streaming helped us avoid. We have our 3A, 2C, 2A and 1B classes for 2009 where many doubted whether they would occur.

The success that we have had has put some pressure on the lower school to stream classes to better cater to our more capable students. There has been some regrouping in lower school classes and teachers have reported improvements in the ability to teach mathematics topics.

The start of the Maths/English streaming debate started this week. Should we stream on mathematics results or English results? Being a mathematics teacher, to my mind it requires little consideration. English teachers on the whole don't want to stream - after all English is a subject that lends itself to the heterogeneous approach - an essay can be assessed on many levels. Mathematics on the other hand tends to be hierarchical with a concept impossible to learn without the building blocks before it. Therefore stream on mathematics.

It doesn't need to be that black and white either. Some clever timetabling was done for us and now Maths, English, SOSE, Science can use a good compromise. We have grouped all yr 10 students into two bands, an upper ability band (class A & B) and a lower ability band (class C&D). A&B's are timetabled at the same time and C&D's are timetabled at the same time.

So for the situation above, in the first example maths students in period 1 are streamed into four classes (movement of students between A&B or C&D can be done freely for each learning area). In period 2 for English, the upper ability group is mixed into two classes and the students from C&D are mixed.

The main issue occurs when students in the C are not streamed correctly (eg. maturity raises their output, students are not assessed correctly etc.) and need to be promoted to the upper ability block. This involves the changing of many classes. All four areas have to be flexible in the promotion of students and the consideration of who can move to the upper band. We try to avoid movement by setting entrance tests before the start of the year and re-examining students after four weeks at the start of term 1. New students are to sit the tests before entering an ability block. The main advantage is the reduction of the level of teaching diversity required - there is less gap between the top and bottom student in each class.

It is not perfect as students may not settle into classes as well as they constantly encounter different student configurations (as typically happens with options classes).

Furthermore, it would be interesting to know if our success would have been the same if students had been streamed in all classes. Maybe the novelty of the streaming process is a factor in the success itself.