End of term blues

NAPLAN supervision, union-led strikes, the school dance, Scrabble club, birthday morning teas, reports (and then reports again), a teacher vs. student basketball match, the list goes on.. these are just some of the experiences I have had during my first semester of teaching, which is now coming to a close.

Interestingly, with a week left to go the vibe at school is one of winding down. Classes have become smaller. Lateness, tiredness and apathy have increased – and that’s not just amongst the students. From mid-term there have been people around me counting down the days until the holidays begin.

There is a linearity to the school year, a sense of progression towards some sort of finality where the school community is then set free for the summer break and given time to recoup, refresh, relax before starting from the beginning once more.

And during that annual progression towards summer there are interruptions along the way, where students are able to detach themselves from the institutional demands of school and staff regain their sanity. It may be the particular context of the school I am in or the short wintery days, but it feels like in these final days before the next interruption time is being tossed away in impatient anticipation.

It is curious to bear witness to this. Being new to the school community in my role as teacher-learner, I wonder how possible it is to shake off the feeling of end of term blues, or if this is an inevitable dynamic in the school year.

I would be interested to learn about the approaches used elsewhere to successfully maintain momentum throughout the term.

Those perilous young are not learning anything again.  Apparently, if a recent Lowy Institute poll is anything to go by, Australian students show little appreciation or understanding of what democracy means: “A lack of enthusiasm among young Australians for democracy shows civics education in schools has failed… a national poll showing many young adults are lukewarm about the merits of democracy should raise alarm bells among teachers, policy makers and others who care about human rights.”

Really? Is our liberal democracy under threat? Are young Australians planning something drastic like overthrowing the government, imposing martial law, or rampaging the streets in protest of our political system?  Given current political machinations, from Government and Opposition, I possibly wouldn’t blame them.

To say, however, that the civics education program has failed to teach young people, looks at the issue wrongly in two ways.

ONE: democracy, political activism and civic participation has vastly changed in nature over the past couple of decades (not to mention the last decade), since civics and citizenship education was first envisioned in Australia during the 1980s. A program teaching young people about the role of citizens would be negligent to ignore the role that social media can play (think Arab uprisings, Kevin 07, Obama’s Presidential campaigns, GetUp’s grassroots activism, Wikileaks etc.). With this in mind, it is not the students who are failing to reach particular curriculum standards, but the standards that are failing to reach the students.

TWO: how has student achievement been measured? In large part, by surveys and by the National Assessment Program (Civics and Citizenship version of NAPLAN). Since this education is supposed to teach students about becoming “active and involved citizens” (Melbourne Declaration), how can cognitive tests and self-report questionnaires (Year 6 and Year 10 NAP CC information) properly assess this? I would argue that this is an area in which assessment of this kind is not applicable – to know if students have become active and informed citizens, we must think about what type of citizen we are seeking (controversial of course), and then consider whether such values, attitudes and actions can be explicitly measured. We need to also consider whether the values, attitudes and actions can be measured immediately after the education has taken place, or if this education has a longer-term goal of affecting the wider community.

It will be interesting to see in what way assessment of the new national civics and citizenship curriculum progresses.

Stepping through the looking glass

It is very tempting to sit here this evening and write a post about a terrible class I had today, where particular students hijacked the lesson, ruining it for those who came to class wanting to learn. BUT this will only push me further into ruminations about the not-so-enjoyable 48 minutes of my day, when instead I could be focusing on another 48 minutes that went breathtakingly well.

Last week I began teaching my Year 7 class algebra. This is a topic that I have been eagerly awaiting, and have told the students that, almost as a matter of principle, they will enjoy it as much as I do.  Following the advice of my university tutor, the sequence of learning activities is taking place as follows:

  1. Number patterns: introducing the concept of equations e.g.
    Triangles Matches
    1 3
    2 5
    etc
    M
    [find no. of matches i.e. rule]
    [find no. of triangles i.e. rule]
    N
  2. Number machines: spitting out numbers e.g. 3 is input, then x2, output is 6
  3. Number sentences: e.g. think of a number (3), add 2 (5), multiply by 8 (40).  Put this in equation form
  4. Flow-charting/tracking
    S  x3   F                                            a  +2      x4  b
    [] –> []     i.e. F = 3 x S                 [] –> []  –> []           i.e. b = (a+2) x 4
  5. Backtracking: looking at inverse operations
    +2              x4
    [3] –> [5] –> [20]
    <–             <–
    -2               /4

Today’s session was somewhere in between 2 and 3: the introduction of the pronumeral.  Now this might not seem like such a big deal, but up until now everything we have been looking at has involved concrete numbers, such as multiplying decimals, finding averages and reading column graphs about the number of M&Ms in a packet.

So today, we took a leap into the unknown, abstract world of algebraic expressions. Big thanks must go to a former teacher of mine, Tal Greengard, who has helped to make the divide between the concrete and the abstract somewhat less formidable through cups and counters. By modelling physical but unknown amounts of counters in a cup, students were quickly able to grasp the concept of a letter in algebra representing an unknown number.

With a group of students whose ability levels range from Year 3 to Year 9, I had a deeply held concern that those students perhaps classed at the Piagetian developmental stage of concrete operations would not be able to cope.  Interestingly, these students have so far proved my concerns unfounded.