Saturday, 29 September 2012

Learning to Get Out of the Way..... of Learning


 My return to the classroom this September has me learning all sorts of things both from colleagues and students. I've always loved teaching but the whole 21st Century learning model has me rethinking and reworking some of my professional practice. Students past (and present) tell me that my teaching style is enthusiastic and engaging. I like what I do and who I work with, and hopefully it shows. That won't change. What's changing is my role within a class.

Many of us have heard the old saw about being a guide on the side instead of a sage on the stage. Priming the learning pump and getting out of the way however can be harder than it sounds. English is one of those subjects that, if presented well, should excite and engage students through literature, composition, critical thinking and considered discussion and debate. Getting the ball rolling is the easy part. Extricating oneself from the discussion and letting the students really get into their work is the hard part.

Recently my class examined the Robert Browning poem, "My Last Duchess". After an initial reading of the poem and a short discussion for meaning and clarity, students broke into groups of three and began to really delve into the work analyzing structure and content as it related to our theme of identity. Listening to discussions between students about the characters of the poem, their identities and how they interacted or might have responded to one another was both exhilarating and exhausting. I really wanted to jump in several times with some nugget of knowledge or a clever redirecting question, but without exception the groups all managed to work deep into the themes, structure and content of the assignment without needing my assistance. Instead they sparked off of and came to the assistance of one other, with the result being that every student achieved a top grade. The fact that I was present and available to help if needed, provided students with the structure and confidence they needed to achieve the task without overt guidance or instruction. My job was to set the assignment and spark the initial discussion. I was there to provide structure and support, but more importantly I had to stay out of the way as students discovered things for themselves. The time flew by, and before any of us knew it the class was over, the assignments were complete and I was worn out from the effort of keeping quiet and out of the way.

I'm not alone in this experience. The website plpnetwork.com (Powerful Learning Practice - professional development for 21st century educators) recently posted a blog by science teacher Marsha Ratzel entitled Teaching by Getting Out of the Way. It relates a similar experience to my own in the context of a middle school science lesson. Ms. Ratzel calls her inquiry based teaching style being present without hovering or hammering home the message. She relates that, "By the end of the period, I think they were shocked at how well they were capable of managing their own learning. And it was a revelation to me. I gained so much insight into what my students, individually and collectively, were capable of doing."  Such knowledge helps teachers to build a strong sense of community and caring within the classroom. Students know that their teacher values both them and their efforts, and in return the teacher gains insights into the students and is better able to tailor lessons to meet their needs.

A month has passed and together, my students have done some great work. Absenteeism is not a problem and nobody is falling behind. Positioned, as it is, at the very end of the day, our English class could very quickly become an irksome challenge if it were not interesting and engaging. So far, by structuring interesting and challenging lessons and then getting out of the way of student learning the class has been something all its members enjoy and look forward to!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Advice For Teachers - A 3 H Approach

This fall I am teaching a class. Through good fortune and creative scheduling I get to teach English Literature to 30 very bright students at North Peace Secondary. There are several unique facets to my teaching assignment. I am part of a teaching team that includes the district principal of student learning and the district itinerant for gifted learners. My class includes 14 students with a gifted designation and congregates students who would normally be in grades 9 to 12. It is a very innovative, motivated and unique class.

On the first day of instruction students were asked for advice for teachers. Their journal essay topic for the day (they write 300 - 700 words daily to start each class) was what would they tell teachers about how to better reach their students. Their responses were enlightening. Students wanted their teachers to have a passion for what they taught and to be pleasant and interested in who they taught. There was an understanding that teaching is a tough job, and that adolescent behavior can be challenging to deal with, but overwhelmingly the students emphasized that if teachers obviously liked what they were doing, and enjoyed working with students, students were more likely to enjoy and engage in their class.

One could argue this is a unique group of students, but their advice is supported by considerable research. In their work"What Do Students Expect of Teachers?" J Jones and K P Kwan summed up these ideas as the 3 H approach - Head Hands and Heart. Head represented knowledge of the subject or grade. Having a teacher who knows their stuff gave students confidence that they were in good hands. Hands spoke to a persons teaching skills and management techniques: how well teachers could present materials clearly and systematically, their ability to pitch the teaching at the appropriate level, their creativity and their ability to arouse the interest of the students. Could they encourage students to learn actively and stimulate them to think critically and independently?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly is heart: the appropriate attitudes and values concerning the job of being a teacher. Students want teachers who care about their job AND their students. They don't necessarily want the teacher to be their friend, but they do want the teacher to be cheerful, encouraging and approachable; to enjoy doing what they do and to enjoy being with them.

So far its been easy to take this advice to heart. Being in the classroom is often the best part of my day - and I've let the students know how much I enjoy working with them. In return they have been producing copious quantities of excellent work. The job is not without its challenges. I have a few reluctant and stubborn learners in the class. The marking load is impressive and the time to properly prepare adds hours to my day.  However, bringing head heart and hands to work every day is helping me look forward to every class!


Sunday, 2 September 2012

Anxious to Be Back!

School starts Tuesday and many staff and students are anxious to be going back. Anxious is one of those curious words that can be taken one of two ways. It can mean wanting something very much or, it can mean experiencing worry and nervousness about an upcoming or imminent event.

I'm anxious to get the year underway - anxious in a good way! The challenge of getting the year off to a good start is both exciting and a little scary. Every start up brings its own unique set of circumstances, but its dealing with the unexpected that makes me look forward to getting back. A positive growth mindset coupled with hard work and a desire to do good things for others make getting back to work something to look forward to!

Others will be anxious about going back - anxious as in worried to the point of dread! This anxiety about school runs deep in the public psyche. One has only to look to how the end of the summer holidays are portrayed in popular culture and advertising campaigns. Rather than celebrating the opportunities and potential education has to offer, such campaigns often play up feelings of fear and dread. A few years back the clothing chain Old Navy epitomized this movement with a series of School is Coming ads that likened returning to class to living out scenes from famous horror movies!

So what can be done to ease the dread? Normalizing the event helps. Getting enough sleep, establishing positive routines and celebrating the good things about getting back to school all help. Media outlets, like the Globe and Mail and The Star.com are running articles this week offering more tips on how to help students deal with their back to school anxieties. Common to most of these stories is the advice to listen to and recognize the fears being expressed.

Listening and helping each other overcome our anxieties, find and reach our potential ,and build on our successes definitely takes the sting out of going back.  Hopefully as this year unfolds all of us can overcome any nervous anxiety we experience and help us to be more positively anxious to make the most of the opportunities coming our way!