Wednesday (week 7, term 1)

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, while you’re going through your litany of cuts you should add that the Federal Government cut $3.9 billion in education last year… They have cut the laptops in schools program completely… And they’ve cut the trade training centres completely so…

Indeed, more stories came in about self-mutilation on Wednesday.

Q&A AUDIENCE MEMBER: Can you answer my question about your funding, please? My question about your funding.

Last year our school began a Year 7 mentoring program, to assist disengaged students or those at risk of becoming disengaged. The program ran successfully, with staff members spending upwards of 20 minutes a week with a nominated student. This year I have put my hand up to help out and on Wednesday attended an information session on it. Out of our 50 or so staff, four turned up.

It’s not that no one cares or doesn’t want to become involved. I spoke to a number of colleagues afterwards who responded positively to the program, noting how important it has been for those students who took part last year. Maybe under different circumstances they would put their hand up. Some said that if they were really needed they would consider becoming involved.

The limiting factor for the majority of our staff is time, a precious commodity particularly in the current Victorian political climate. For months now, Victorian Australian Education Union (AEU) members have participated in various actions designed to sway the state government in their stance on pay and other conditions. One of the more prominent actions has been the implementation of a strict 38-hour working week policy. Teachers participating in this, will teach all their classes, talk to parents, attend meetings, do planning and so forth, so long as it is within the 38 hours for which they are being paid. For many, this has meant a drastic shift in school commitments: camps, productions, extra-curricular activities have all been cancelled.

For our disengaged year 7 students, the time limitations mean that teachers are unable to take on the extra commitment of working one-on-one on a regular basis as the mentoring program necessitates. It’s unclear at this stage whether all the students nominated for the program, will have the opportunity to take part.

While I question the utility of the AEU in promoting such a stance, I respect teachers’ adherence to collective action. It is a pity that the failure of negotiations between the AEU and state government are having such broad-reaching effects.

Tuesday (week 7, term 1)

Q&A AUDIENCE MEMBER: Mr Pyne, the O’Farrell Government cut $1.7 billion from education and 1800 jobs, the Newman Government $0.9 billion and 14,000 public sector jobs and Ted Bailleu slashed $555 million from education before he himself was slashed. Why should we not expect similar education cuts from a Liberal Federal Government?

Slashing. Cutting. Scars.

Sorry, I’ve moved on from the discussion of where the next billion dollars worth of school investment is going to go – as much as it does concern me.

The more immediate concern on Tuesday was physical. At our school, there is a trend among students to use blades or other sharp objects to self-inflict wounds. At some point in the day, a student ran up to tell me that this was taking place and that a student was bleeding.

Young people cutting themselves is by no means a new phenomena. So as worrying as this is, I was not completely surprised to hear about it. What is new, is that it is currently a trend. “Many of the kids who are doing this are not doing it for the same reasons that kids normally cut themselves”, the school social worker told me. Normally, these are kids who are using their body as an outlet for extreme internal pain. But many of the kids currently involved are harming themselves as a result of peer effects: because their friends are doing it. Bizarre, right?

What can be done to stop trending self-mutilation? Is some kind of macro-level intervention needed?

(Note, Reach and the Kids Helpline are two organisations that provide help and support for young people.)

Monday (week 7, term 1)

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: We believe that a school funding system should be based on need, so that the money should get to where it is most needed. 

No school on Monday due to a public holiday. Instead I spent the day, preparing lessons for the week and contacting university students who had just applied to help out at the school’s Homework Centre that I run. Needless to say, the extra day off provided a welcome respite in the middle of the school term.

The Homework Centre is a free service for our students that provides them with a healthy afternoon snack and one-on-one assistance as needed. It was started last year in recognition of the barriers that many of our students have at home that limit their ability to properly complete homework and assignments.

Each student who attends comes with differing motivations. Some have no desk or quiet space at home where they can study uninterrupted, others have no internet. Some have no adult of older sibling they can turn to for assistance: their parent(s) or guardian could be at work in the evenings, or looking after multiple children. In some cases, the student comes from a non-English speaking background meaning that for the adult, despite best intentions, any school-work is unintelligible. Other students attend simply for the food: the platters of fruit and sandwiches offer an enticing sight and a meal that isn’t often found at home.

It is thanks to goodwill that the homework centre  is able to exist. Staff and tutors volunteer their time to help out the students who attend. La Trobe university provides funding that goes towards stationery and the weekly food supplies.

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.

***

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?

Google’s 20% policy

At some point in the short history of Google, employment practices have included what is known as a 20% time policy. The policy specifies that staff at Google spend 20% of their working week putting their feet up and being creative. During this time, staff do not work on specified Google projects, but instead focus on innovation, thinking about whatever it is they want to think about…

Earlier this year I became aware of this policy and began thinking about the implications that it could have when applied to education. My ideas have since taken two different paths.
20% creative time for teachers

An obvious alignment of Google’s policy to education, is to provide teachers with time off for 20% of their working week. This does not mean a day off each week to sleep in or go to the beach. Rather, the 20% would be set aside for teachers to develop projects at school, construct innovative curricula, do professional readings, design learning spaces and so forth. If a teacher with particular expertise wanted to spend some of this time working with groups of special needs students in order to achieve certain goals or explore learning pathways, then perhaps this could also be made possible.

Over the course of this year, I have been fortunate to have my own “20% time” of sorts. Specifically set aside for study that I am concurrently doing, I have used much of this spare time to consolidate my learning inside the classroom whilst being in my own space, free from distraction. Other graduate teachers at my school, working a full load for the first time, have looked on enviably at this apparent freedom. As they have told me, the extra classes that they are now teaching limit time for reflection and enhancement of teaching practices. For these young professionals, who are keen to perfect their craft, they are finding themselves managing to just teach and nothing more.  Could allocated time to think, reflect, plan, discuss and be creative make all the difference?

20% creative time for students

The idea of providing students with ‘creative time’ in which to explore their own ideas and interests under the guidance of a teacher sounds ideal in the current pedagogical climate of differentiation. Since a key role of education is to foster the development of young minds, why not try something similar at school? Why not push aside the time constraints set by the curriculum and allow students to experiment a little?

I initially had no idea of how this might play out. So many factors seem to limit this being feasible: disruptive classrooms arising from problematic behaviours, a crowded curriculum needing to be taught, and limited face-to-face time each week (not to mention excursions, camps, assemblies, strike days, professional development days, etc.).

For one of my classes in particular I have been wanting to make this happen though. In this class are students who have been a year ahead of the expected level since the start of the year, and who I feel I have not adequately catered for.

Over the weekend I saw a number of students from this class participating in the school production: on stage singing and dancing, in the band and backstage managing props and scene changes. The diversity of these students’ talents and interests jumped out at me, in a way that made me realise that the class work and whatever differentiation I had been providing up until then only pushed them back. Sure the odd bit of group work, competition or interesting, yet challenging mathematical problem spiced things up, yet the bulk of the learning itself has been traditional, expected and uncreative.

To implement this “20% time policy”, next term one session a week will be spent on an inquiry-based learning project. Whether it is science, English, music or mathematics itself that they are passionate about, students will research that area, devising a key question for exploration that is linked in some respect to their learning in maths. For example, if a student is a keen musician, they might look into the music of pi and potentially compose a song of their own. At the end of this process, students will then teach their peers and myself about their findings.

 

The ideas spelled out above are only preliminary thoughts that are still to develop. These thoughts are propelled by the sense that thinking outside the square will facilitate new understandings of concepts and ideas. Potentially, the allocation of time for creativity will also enable paradigm shifts in learning amongst students and teachers alike .

In defense of Algebra

Recently I have started reading the book Unknown Quantity: A real and imagined history of algebra by John Derbyshire. For any history (or mathematics) students, the book is a fascinating read, detailing the development of the number system, algebraic notation and use from over four thousand years ago to as we know it today.

From time to time I have shared with my students snippets of what I have read. For example, the ancient Babylonians didn’t have a conceptual understanding of the numbers 1 to 10. Instead they worked with a base 60 notation, which explains why this same notation appears in various instances of our numerate world today. For my students, who were studying trigonometry and the breakdown of degrees into minutes and seconds, this explanation proved helpful.

Derbyshire’s book has highlighted for me how complex the development of algebraic thinking, language and writing has been. Mathematicians struggled over the course of generations trying to figure out how to represent the unknown number (i.e. a pronumeral or variable, often written as ‘x’). Each step of the way, they didn’t know how their findings would be of use to secondary students today, nor did they often know what had immediately preceded them or was being simultaneously discovered somewhere else in the world.

The study of Algebra today gives many students grief. They struggle with its abstractness and the ideas of simplifying an expression or working with a balanced equation.

Alongside these students, however, there are others who enjoy it and who get a sense of achievement when they find that they do understand this new language they are learning.

In response to recent debate over the worthiness of algebra in the classroom, why limit what our students are learning because it is difficult for some? Learning is not intended to be easy. It is intended to set students up to navigate and make sense of our world. And who knows, maybe there is another Diophantus or al-Khwarizmi growing up today, who will in the years to come make some amazing leap forward in mathematical thinking.

A great contribution to this debate can be found here in an article by Judy Bolton-Fasman.

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?

Keeping it fresh

A commonly levelled assumption about teaching is that we have short working days and many holidays. True in part, at times, maybe.

Over the last week of the school holidays, I have been surrounded by 40 other teachers, also 6 months into their teaching experience. These 40, while positioned all over the country and teaching different subjects, have one thing in common: we are passionate about the educational outcomes of the students we teach.

At the end of 12 hour days, we have gathered together chatting excitedly about our experiences in the classroom so far. Seriously, can teachers talk.  Stories about students who have blown them away, and turned around behaviours, attitudes, abilities. Stories about terrible days, being threatened, being sworn at, having a lesson plan go out the door five minutes into class. Stories about the funny, the unexpected, the sad, the upsetting, the beautiful.

At midnight each night this week there has been a buzz in the room with no sign of conversation dissipating.

All in all, my young colleagues have discovered a love for their new profession and the students they are teaching. Like me, many are now feeling more settled in their schools, while also realising that this isn’t a job that sits still. Assessments, phone calls, meetings, planning, incident reports, photocopying, yard duties… oh, and classes.

Honestly, the education industry can be overwhelming  at times. I have seen teachers who would prefer to give up or take an easy route, rather than confront challenge. In coming together and sharing our stories, however, I have been reminded about how much can be gained in this profession from being surrounded by like-minded colleagues who motivate you to continue to do your best and to stay positive about what can be achieved.

 

Term 2 completo, and what a way to end it. What job sends you on an all expenses paid trip to a Pacific Island? Teaching of course!

My school was recently awarded a grant to undertake a social responsibility project with a group of students, and I am one of the fortunate teachers to be accompanying them. As a result, my current “holiday” has turned into a series of meetings with community groups, the Australian High Commission on this island, and the other accompanying teachers. For the trip, students will be involved in organising and setting up IT equipment for a school in need.

In many ways, this trip is the sort of opportunity I only dreamed of when entering this profession. The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young People aims for all Australian students to become active and informed citizens. Back in 2010, I wrote my Honours thesis on civics and citizenship education, disentangling the very concept of citizenship. I concluded that active and informed citizenship necessarily involves respect and engagement in dialogue with those around us, so that we can learn about the boundaries of our own thought and discover commonalities with those who appear different.

Opportunities such as this trip, will develop students’ moral and intellectual capacities; they will gain a heightened sense of awareness of their own identity and the roles they play within their (local/national/international) community. The students will undoubtedly meet with confronting situations that will force them to acknowledge the privileges of their lives, but also to realise that, in many ways, young people around the world face similar issues.

In the lead up to the trip, I will be teaching the students for a term. Students will research the nation we are to visit, organise aspects of the project, and develop team and leadership skills, as well as a sense of social responsibility. From the outset I am cautious that “social responsibility” is not associated with some patronising colonial mind-set. It is not our aim to impose a developed nation’s unneeded tools on another, who we perceive as worthy recipients of our generosity.

Instead, the project aims to develop ties between our rural community (which contains many emigres from the particular Pacific Island nation) and the destination country, and provide assistance as is deemed appropriate at their end. For our students, who have never travelled overseas before, this will not be a trip to Canberra to learn about Australian political history (the “textbook experience”), nor will it be a unique – though increasingly common – opportunity to get a taste of the culture and traditions located throughout Europe. Instead, this trip will enable students to become more socially aware, capable and autonomous, deliberate and respectful young adults.

…And yes, this is a public school.

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.