The pen is mightier than… no pen

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. As a second year teacher, stepping into the classroom this year I have benefited from having a deep understanding of the expectations and processes that are in place at my school. I have been assertive in setting ground rules and all the more clearer to my students because I am not just following intuition, but confidently believe what I am saying.

From day 1 of Term 1, 2013, this has materialised through particular routines and expectations, some of obvious importance, others seemingly mundane. For example, students must line up before coming into the classroom, enter quietly, rule up their books and immediately begin the task on the board. Last year, the size of margins in a student’s book were lower on my list of priorities, somewhere behind coming to class on time and not using phones. This year I care.

Why? Through conversations with colleagues, we have discussed the benefits of using the Cornell note-taking system, specifically how it can help students to be more organised and precise in their learning.

The routines that I rigidly enforce, such as this, are what I believe will help students to be successful learners.

After visiting a KIPP school in New York over the summer holidays, I decided to also adopt some of their practices. This school is renowned for taking students from disadvantaged backgrounds and showing that “demographics do not define destiny”. On entering a KIPP classroom, it is hard to ignore the many routines; such as the way students take out their folders, recite the times tables and respond to peers during class discussions. One particular routine I took back to my own classroom related to student organisation and responsibility.

“Six pens. This is how many pens you need to bring to every class”, I told my students during our very first lesson. I proceeded to ask who had ever lost a pen. Hands shot up. Who had broken a pen? Again, more hands. Who had lent a pen to a friend and not gotten it back? So now they started to get the picture. If three pens can become unusable so easily, then it’s probably a wise idea to have three more.

Now this might seem a bit silly harping on to high school students about needing pens.. haven’t they been practising this school thing for the past seven or more years? And so surely a pen is the most obvious thing (aside from lunch perhaps) to bring each day? Wrong. There is nothing more frustrating when you are trying to execute a carefully planned lesson and a hand shoots up. Great, you think, this student has been deeply engaged and has a question or insight to share with the class. Instead, the words that tumble out go something along the lines of, “Miss, I need a pen”. Unfortunately this scenario is not uncommon.

Admittedly, this is why teachers are often accused of being boring. We could easily fill an hour or two discussing what to do and say next. The point, however, is that students who don’t have pens disrupt the flow of lessons and themselves are not prepared (mentally and physically) for learning. So to avoid this scenario, the expectation of six pens was put in place.

Undoubtedly as I progress as a teacher and as my context of students, subject area or school changes, so will the routines I enforce. Currently, my practices are motivated by the idea that for students to be well-prepared and in a position where they are best able to learn, minor yet unnecessary disruptions must be avoided.

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I would be interested to know, what routines and expectations do you set as a teacher, or do you remember experiencing as a student when you were at school? And in what ways have these helped students to become better learners?

Learn to Live

It is a fallacy to assume that the school teacher is just an academic educator. If our role was solely to develop lesson plans, teach content, mark assessments and report on students’ ability levels in a subject area, then our job would be relatively easy. As it happens though, students (much like the rest of us) are not Econs, but humans. They are developing, young individuals, prone to error and emotion.

The students who walk into my classroom each day are not just learning how to manipulate linear equations or find an unknown angle in a triangle, but they are learning how to interact with those around them and how to live.

Incidentally, at the first two schools I attended when growing up, the mottos were Learn to Live and Learn and Live. These were an explicit acknowledgement of the holistic teaching that took place to assist in my growth and development.

I began writing this post this morning, and since then have attended a PD on positive behaviour management by Jo Lange. Jo emphasised the important role that teachers have, not in tutoring individual or small groups of students, but in teaching them. This is a careful distinction: for students to succeed in future workplaces and in relationships with their colleagues and their communities, they must be responsible for their behaviour and learning. It is not the role of the teacher to hover, attending to their every need.

Too often, we as teachers are trying to set students up for a tunnel vision ideal of academic success, working to provide the perfect learning conditions. I know that I am guilty of this – unquestionably and without hesitation providing students with pens, for example, so that they at least do not have an excuse for not doing their work. After all, why should a lack of equipment be a reason not to learn?

As the teacher, what I am doing however, is saying that content learning must be given primacy, and as such, I am neglecting some basic life skills that these students must develop (namely, responsibility and organisation). Even in maths classes, I am not teaching maths, I am teaching students. If a student cannot prioritise bringing a pen to class after they have been practising being a student for sometimes over a decade, what use is that algebra equation going to be?

Looking back in order to move forwards

Over the past week, I have spent a lesson with each of my classes setting goals for next term. At first thought, this may seem like a lot of time for the one task.  However, I am a strong believer in continuity: being able to reflect on what you have learnt, in order to plan for the next stages of your learning.

Goal setting, in this way, places emphasis on student responsibility for learning; as the teacher, it is my role to facilitate the learning, but the student’s job to make the most of the opportunities that are presented for them.  Spending some time reflecting and setting goals, enables the student to take ownership of their learning.

In each of my classes, students were given individual goal setting sheets.  On these, they noted down standardised test scores, reasons for why they have achieved certain results this term, what scores they would like to aim for next term and how they can get there.  While I am not the biggest fan of standardised tests, they provide a useful benchmark for students.  With this in mind, I have suggested to students that these tests are not always 100% accurate in indicating their true abilities.  The students themselves should know whether they are keeping up with the work or not.

Aside from setting individual goals, I see it as important to set class goals. Students should not just see themselves as individual learners, but as one of a cohort who are learning together.

Having shared goals enables the development of class cohesiveness and collaboration, and ideally will result in social facilitation – that is, where the presence of others, improves individual performance. Clearly what is required for this, is a class that is comfortable with one another and has a relationship that is built on mutual respect.

From each student, I collected a class goal then typed them up and popped them into wordle. Below is an example from one class:

For some classes, working towards a goal as a group will be easy, while for others this will not be the case.  Either way, the sort of improvement that can be gained from reflecting and thinking ahead, will take more than just the short school term that has now passed us by.

A Lesson on Failure

One of the first messages that came through to me loud and clear when I began my teaching studies is that failure is okay.  This is an important message that applies just as strongly for teachers as it does for students.

Just as you need hatred in order to understand love, you need failure in order to understand success.  I believe in these polar opposites as being integral tools for gaining perspective and insight into your own learning.  By making mistakes, you can plan, form goals and reflect upon mistakes made so that you may improve for next time.

In my classroom, I have been told, don’t worry about making mistakes or about having terrible classes – they will happen.  This is not to say that you should move on past a terrible class and forget that it happened, but use it as a learning exercise.  Even talk to the students about why that lesson did not go well and why you each believe that was the case.

Last week I gave one of my top-performing classes a test – however, the moment I handed it out, I realised it was testing them in the wrong way.  Instead of providing a set of questions that asked for a clear demonstration of skills, the test included challenging questions within too short a time frame.  In theory, most students would have been capable of solving all the questions, but given the allocated time, speed was prioritised over ability.  I have decided that since I would like students’ score to be a true reflection of their ability, I will talk to them about whether they would like to spend some more class time to complete the test.

While the structure of the test has reflected a failure on my own behalf, I must be careful to communicate to students that their own mistakes in the test do not indicate a catastrophe.  A student may fail the test, but they are not failures.  The distinction between being a failure and failing – a term that I do actually avoid using in case of confusion – is crucial. Much in our society is ridden on success, and constant progress.  If our students are only fed this mantra then it is all the more difficult to take imperfections in their stride and appreciate that failure is a natural part of life.

What I am trying to encourage students, and to display through my own practices, is that much can be learned through the habit of risk-taking. Risk-taking allows the individual to be autonomous in their learning, whilst also confronting challenge and potential fall-backs.  A thought to contemplate some more later: is risk something we are losing in our education?