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Reviewing the School Year: A Lesson

30 May

The last lesson of the school year is often a tricky one to manage.  Often, neither you or the students are in a particularly useful frame of mind – the energy and creativity is dwindling and it can be difficult to persuade students of the value of learning things for the sake of learning things: “But, teacher, we did the test already.”

This year I have made an End of year Review booklet for my young learner groups.  The idea is for the students to look back at what they have done and to think about what they did well, what they could have done better and to identify a few goals for moving forwards.  I have printed it as an A5 booklet and the hope is that they can take this home with them to share with their parents as a reflection on the progress they have made and the progress they could have made – along with some concrete goals for things to do in the summer months away from the pressures of the classroom!

Grammar Graph

The Grammar Graph is not really intended to measure knowledge or attainment in the language feature, what it really does is measure the confidence the learner has in their ability to use the target item.  The features listed are all those that have come up in the past year and I hope that it will reflect the extent the learners feel they can use the feature appropriately and accurately.  There may be students that have better control, but less confidence or there may be students that are very confident and fluent speakers but who have less control.  These conversations will hopefully help learners to see where some of their strengths really lie.

Word Championships

The Word Championships are partly a vocabulary review and partly there as a mingle activity to get students up, moving around and talking to each other.  The learners choose two or three words from the year that are their favourites – or possibly from their own knowledge.  They then mingle and find out what the other students think and record the answers.  After about five minutes (they don’t need to ask everyone for everything), the students work in small groups to share and compare the answers they got and to work out which words are the top three favourite words for the year.

 

Difficult mountainEasy mountain

The difficult and easy mountain is a simple enough reflection on course content – with any luck it should tie in to the grammar graph activity at the beginning – but with a bit more focus on where the focus needs to come in the future.  I opened this up as a kind of pyramid discussion to the class to try and decide what the most difficult thing and what the easiest thing we did in class this year was.  This not only gives some interesting feedback on the content the learners find difficult, but on which of my teaching techniques have proved more accessible.

Lesson Pie Chart

The lesson Pie Chart is intended as a reflection on behaviour in the classroom.  It is really up to the learners to decide what constitutes “being good” and extending this discussion out to the classroom can lead to some interesting revelations.  The intent is also not to demonise L1 (in this case Portuguese) use, but more to point out how much class time they spend using Portuguese as opposed to English.  If I was to do this differently next time (and I will!) I would separate these out into three or four smaller pie charts as while this gives an interesting insight into what happens in a lesson, it isn’t quite so useful for differentiating behaviours, which was partly the aim.

English Learning Goals

Most of my learners are in the 10-13 year old elementary range, and therefore encouraging them to do self-study work over the summer is an uphill task.  The purpose of this activity is to get the learners to arrive at ways in which they can keep their English up over the summer and not forget it all, and still have a degree of fun!  I am less interested here in getting them to do grammar practice or vocabulary learning, than I am in getting them to interact with the language in some way.  One of the goals might be to read a book in English (we have graded readers in the school for them to borrow) or to learn a favourite song in English – to watch a TV show or film in English and write a synopsis or review.  It will be up to them to decide.

 

Superlatives Yearbook 01 Superlatives Yearbook 02

The Superlatives Yearbook is a bit of fun really – it serves partly to review some of the language from the course – but it is really a bit of a break from the personal development review and a chance to engage in a heated discussion.  You may have come across similar “end of year award” lessons – this is a slightly shorter version.  In this version, the students are put into three large groups and have to decide who should be given each award.  No-one in the class can be given more than one award and everybody in the class has to be given an award.  An extension of this is to re-group the students into groups of three, one student from each of the larger groups, and to ask them to present their choices and agree on a final decision.  The learners can then report back to their original groups on what was decided.

The last page in the booklet is a list of useful links that the students can access over the summer:

These are what I came up with, but I would welcome any extension of this so please feel free to add any ideas in the comments!

I hope this proves useful, if you try any of this and want to give any feedback, I’d welcome it – or if you’ve tried similar ideas in different areas, I’d also like to find out what you did and how it went.

 

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Is it worse when bad students do well or when good students do badly?

5 Apr

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This is a question that occurred to me in a frenzy of test marking that took place last month…  I’m interested to know what people think!

I’d appreciate your answer before you read on….

Having gone through fifty odd tests and looked at the scores, there were quite a few surprises in there.  Students who are attentive and hard working in the classroom who scored very poorly and of course the opposite – students who do the bare minimum and who mess around and who lack focus and who confound expectations by doing well.

So what does that tell us?

Mostly it tells me that labelling students as “good” or “bad” is not a particularly helpful activity and in fact I know this already and have written about it before in “The Myth of the Good Student“.

It also tells me that behaviour does not equal learning and just because something looks like learning, doesn’t mean it is learning.  I remember a student who, at a previous parent teacher conference had been exhorted to try harder, started sitting up and writing stuff down more during lessons and doing the coursebook exercises promptly and with reasonable efficiency.  Upon slightly closer monitoring however, it turned out that he was literally just moving his pencil over the page in random squiggly lines and then putting it down and saying “finished” when there were enough other students doing the same to hide in amongst.  I’m not sure what he thought it would achieve, but it is probably a tactic that works in other contexts, where there are thirty odd students in the class and the teacher doesn’t get beyond the first row very often.

There is a part of me though that believes effort, when it is made, should be rewarded.  When I see the “good students” who proactively write things down and try to do the activities and exercises properly and who try to practice the language, and who give every appearance of being bright, keen and engaged – when I see them fail or score poorly it gets to me.  I want them to feel like the time and hard work they put in was FOR something.

The flip side of that of course, is that it ever so slightly annoys me when the students who don’t do any of the work and who muck about in the lessons just breeze through the tests without any apparent effort at all.  There are of course any number of reasons why they might behave the way they do, one of which might well be that they know it all and don’t need to make the effort because it is familiar ground to them.  Or they could be swans.  Effortlessly gliding on the surface whilst underneath they are paddling furiously – they might go home to parents who sit with them for an hour a day doing homework or extra reading….  You just don’t know.

So my answer to the question is that it’s probably worse when the good students do badly, but there is a third option which I didn’t put into the poll:  when bad students do badly.  I think this is probably worst of all, just because if the intention and motivation isn’t there, it’s very difficult to get them back on track again.  But let me know what you think…..

child staring school window

5 Highly Effective Teaching Practices

21 Mar

Earlier this year, a piece from the Edutopia website was doing the rounds under the title “5 highly effective teaching practices”.  I automatically question pieces like this as I doubt somewhat whether the purpose of the piece is actually to raise standards in the profession and develop teachers – or whether it is simply to get a bit more traffic to the website.  But perhaps I am being unnecessarily cynical?

To be fair, the practices the article suggests are generally quite effective:

  1. State the goals of the lesson and model tasks, so that students know what they are going to do and how to do it.
  2. Allow classroom discussion to encourage peer teaching
  3. Provide a variety of feedback, both on an individual and a group basis.  Allow students to feedback to the teacher.
  4. Use formative assessments (tests the students can learn from) as well as summative assessments (tests that evaluate student ability, mostly for reporting purposes)
  5. Develop student metacognitive strategies so that students can become more aware of their own learning and how to make it more effective.  (Learner Training)

What surprises me though is that these practices are considered novel enough that they need to be put into a blog post?  CELTA tutors may correct me (please do!) but aren’t these things considered essential on a CELTA?  Aren’t we meant to be doing all these things anyway?  I suppose it speaks to the audience of the Edutopia website, which is not primarily language teaching.  Maybe language teachers are just more responsive and methodologically up-to-date than mainstream education…..

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Image Credit: Pixabay

The piece is based on a book by John Hattie, who is the director of the Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne.  He has made his name in the field of meta-analysis, effectively taking in all the data from studies that have looked at educational attainment and looking at it to see what patterns emerge.  In 2008 he published “Visible Learning”, which was based on 800 meta-studies from around the world and which identified positive and negative processes in classroom learning, such as the long summer break that has now led some schools to adjust their school calendars to teach over the summer and provide more shorter terms punctuated by more, shorter holidays.  In 2011 he published a follow up book “Visible Learning for teachers” that looks at the practical implications for teachers and suggests strategies they can employ to maximise the learning that takes place.  The article is based on this latter book.

I don’t disagree with the suggestions made in the article – but it made me wonder what my five “effective teaching practices” would be.  This is what I came up with.  I can’t claim that I do all these things all the time, but I generally try to do them most of the time!

(1)  Have fun.  Obviously, it doesn’t necessarily follow that if the teacher is having fun the students are too (“Dance, my minions!  Dance!”), but if you’re bored and pissed off then the students probably will be too.  You can’t be happy all the time, and some activities and goals are more serious than others, but fun should always be there, like a background harmonic.

(2) Make it valuable.  Time is precious to everybody, young and old, and we’ve all sat through too many meetings where at the end of it we walk out thinking “That was three hours of my life I won’t see again” that we should probably make sure our students don’t feel the same way about us!  Again, difficult to achieve with ALL the students ALL the time, but possible to do with MOST of the students MOST of the time.  And if you have a student who is getting nothing out of it at all, then they’re in the wrong class.  I had a 15 year old CPE student whose main school teacher used to send him to the library to look up words in the dictionary because she felt it was a better use of his time than being in her class….

(3) Make them DO stuff.  We’ve been having this discussion in the forums on another post, and again, it isn’t something that you can do for every language point or for every skills focus, but my everlasting bugbear with the majority of materials is that the students aren’t required to be active producers of language, but that they are mostly seen as passive receptacles.  There is room for both aspects and indeed, both are needed to give the students time for input to become intake – but I don’t believe that is where it should stop.  Involve tasks and activities that ask the learners to USE whatever language they have.

(4) Know your students.  This ties in a bit to the first two because if you don’t know your students well, then you probably won’t have as much fun or make it as valuable as they need.  But essentially as a teacher, your job is to help the students get from where they are, to where they want to go.  If you don’t know them, you won’t know either of these things and won’t be able to help as effectively.  I am a big fan of needs analysis, in particular using google forms for this process, and I do this with all my adult and exam classes.  I haven’t yet come up with a decent needs analysis form for young learners, so if you have – please share!

(5) Teaching not testing.  The majority of summative testing or formal assessment is completely pointless.  The majority of tests don’t do what they are actually meant to do, which is measure what the students can do with the language.  Very often in a language learning context what they measure is the learners ability to manipulate a grammatical structure under controlled and guided conditions, so I do wonder what getting seven out of ten in an exercise where the student has to put the verb into the past continuous tells us?  Given the choice I wouldn’t bother with it.  Including a test in a course makes a mockery of the idea of needs analysis and student centered learning, because as soon as you put a test in the course, it becomes about test centered learning.  Alas I am not in a position to follow through on this idea completely, mostly because other stakeholders in the process want to be able to reduce an abstract concept like “language ability” to an easy to read number on a report card.  But there we go.

So – these are my five!  I’d be interested to know what other people think.  It is a largely subjective process (despite all the research that John Hattie put into his ideas), so do feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

Getting to know you: teaching on and offline

15 Feb

I have mixed feelings about Getting to Know you tasks in real world teaching.  I do use them, but it really depends on the class, their age and ability.  For example, if you walk into a corporate client, where all your students have worked together for years, the only person who’s a stranger is you – the teacher.  Many of my real world classes have come up through the levels together and they all know each other for the most part and this is why what I tend to do in my first lessons is more about rapport building than “Getting to know you” per se.

So with that caveat in mind…  when I do feel the need to introduce myself I often use the True False Sentences about teacher routine: e.g. I give the class the following information (or dictate it, depending on age & ability):

  1. I’m Canadian.
  2. I’m 28 years old.
  3. I’m married and I have a young daughter (called Gillian).
  4. I have been a teacher for five years.
  5. I lived in Poland for two years.
  6. I speak Chinese.
  7. My favourite football team is AC Milan.
  8. My favourite rock group is Pink Floyd.
  9. My ambition is to write a successful novel.
  10. My parents own five dogs.

The learners, in pairs, decide which are true and which are false and then ask me questions to ascertain the answers.

They then write their own list of true / false statements which are posted round the room and the other learners decide which are right and which are wrong.

Adapting this for an online environment is somewhat tricky as the interaction would largely be uni-directional (i.e. T-SSa / T-SSb / T-SSc etc) and probably not even that, because after all if you do this on an asynchronous board, you only need one person to ask the initial questions and then the answers are there for everyone else to read…

So to adapt….

Hmm.

You could turn the tables and rather than provide ten sentences, get participants to create their own list of ten true false sentences for you – though this makes the focus very teacher centered and defeats the purpose somewhat.

I think the best way to do it would be to ask participants to post one truth and one lie about each of the other participants on the course.  This would involve information discovery via private messaging and some degree of creativity and humour which would help to engender the right kind of atmosphere.  The people can respond to each other’s posts and say which they think is the truth or not.

I can see this getting very fragmented and unwieldy though.

So a possible variation might be to ask people to post two or three images, one of which should reflect something of importance in their lives and the other of which should not.  The rest of the group can then speculate on which things are more important to the poster or not.

However, this last one is the one I think I like most – it is relatively simple, introduces participants to a great online tool and should be (a) revealing (b) fun (c) easy.

  • Send participants to http://www.wordle.net/create
  • Ask them to cut and paste the contents of their CV into the wordle and click Go.
  • Suggest they play around with the formatting until they find something they like.
  • Get them to post the wordle image in the forums
  • Ask them to visit each others wordles and then make predictions about their lives based on the information they see there.
  • They can then also confirm or deny the predictions made about themselves

This has nothing to do with the original activity that I  thought of, but now that I’ve come up with it, I’m going to adapt it for use in the real world and try it with my next set of new classes!  This would be great for business groups!

Image credit: pixabay

Image credit: pixabay

Note:  I originally wrote this post as part of my training to tutor online, when I did the IHCOLT in 2o13.  I’m currently rationalising some of my other blog projects and migrating some of the content here rather than lose it entirely!

Brainstorming – Book Review

8 Feb

The process of brainstorming in the classroom is often a rather haphazard and stilted affair.  Learners are coming into a topic area they know little about and feel uncomfortable in, they might feel that they don’t have the language to express their ideas as fluently as they would like, and when ideas do get produced – they immediately get shot down as impractical or unrealistic.  The confident and extrovert students dominate and the weaker or more introvert students sit there quietly not really saying much, so that the teacher ends up getting feedback from only a couple of the members of the group.  Fortunately, however, there is another way….

In their new mini ebook, “Brainstorming”, from The Round, Gerhard Erasmus and Hall Houston take us back to basic principles and the origins of brainstorming in the world of 1950’s advertising.  The focus here is non-judgmental idea generation – it’s not about quality, but about quantity and where all ideas have equal value and where one idea from one person sparks a thought elsewhere in the group and where participants feed off each other’s energy and creativity to generate the largest possible set of ideas in the time given.

Which you can totally see working at half past four on a Friday afternoon with a group of tired teenagers, right?

This is where the book comes into it’s own.  Erasmus and Houston run through a series of clear procedures for working with idea generation that attempt to mitigate some of the issues that might arise:  setting the stage, focusing the activity, avoiding negative feedback, guiding the discussion and remembering the objective.  It occurs to me that there are some groups where this might take some initial learner training, possibly particularly with teenagers, before they understand how the ground rules work here and what the constraints are, but where perseverance would yield huge benefits in terms of the directed creativity that the learners could then bring to the class.

I found the section on “problem statements” to be a useful way of looking at generating ideas for specific issues and the re-formulation of the “problem” into a “how can I…” question seems like it would be a great way of looking at things for students in an EAP context as well as students preparing for writing tasks in ELT exams.  Re-focusing the problem statement is essentially the same thing as refining your research question into something that you can actually answer, or it represents a useful “way in” to some of the exam writing tasks – getting students to move away from simply producing writing for you the teacher and into thinking about the purpose of their exam writing by asking questions like “How can I get the editor to publish my review?” or “How can I get the principal of the college to upgrade the sports facilities?”.  This would almost certainly lead to an improvement in their written work!

brainstorming cover

Three other activities that I particularly liked in the book – and I’m limiting myself here because otherwise I would basically be copying out the whole thing – are:

The problem skeleton:  I think this would be another one that is great for writing tasks and analysing questions, especailly in the way that it breaks larger tasks down into smaller more manageable chunks.  Writing an essay on “the environment” is quite a daunting task, but using the problem skeleton to identify sub-topics and then sub-sub-topics would be a great way of making the tasks more accessible.

Rolestorming:  a brilliant way of extending out of the typical role play scenario.  Even in the most engaging of role plays or mingle activities, there is always an element of the learners essentially reading the information off the little piece of paper in front of them and basically comparing notes as opposed to taking on the role of the person they are meant to play.  Rolestorming is a great way of getting the students to think about the background, motivations and emotions of their characters and to really give them the chance to step outside of themselves for the task.

PMI:  A great follow-up activity for working with the ideas that you have generated in an initial brainstorming task, the PMI process lets you grade and select the ideas that you want to take forwards.  In essence it is a format for critical reflection and evaluation.  Again, I can see this being excellent for writing tasks where the learners need to decide what is relevant to the question and what ideas slot together most effectively.

 

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Who should buy this book?  I don’t see this book as having a limited audience in that way.  I think there as much in there for teachers who have been teaching longer than they care to remember as there is for teachers who are just starting out.  It is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, it gives you the tools you need to achieve a goal and in its own way, it is the spark that will lead you to you own lesson-based light bulb moment.

Brainstorming” by Gerhard Erasmus and Hall Houston is available for £0.79 / €0.99 / $1.00 via The Round.

Instructions: Don’t blame Maria, blame Sharon and Tracy

1 Oct

By day seven of a recent hospitalisation, I had identified four of the non-native speakers who worked on the nursing team.  Apparently there are seven in total, but the ward is large and I may never get to meet the others.  I know there are seven because I overheard a senior nurse commenting on it.  And not positively.   Communication, it seems is something of an issue on ward B5.

Of the four NNS nurses I’ve met, two are Italian and two are Portuguese.  I would estimate that the Portugese are solid B2 level speakers – there are frequent mistakes but these don’t often impede communication and when they do, the speakers are able to correct.  The Italians are lower level – one of the Italians is a solid B1 and the other, who is also older, is somewhere between A2 and B1; listening to her I can see how she might have passed Cambridge English Preliminary exam but her slips and errors are probably more common slightly below that.

And it was this lady, who I shall call Maria, that had to deal with this little burst of language the other day.  If you can, imagine the nurse speaking with a broad south London accent, all run together and rapid with random glottal stops thrown in here and there:

NURSE: “Right.  Maria, so bed 3’s jus come back from her colonoscopy so we know that means she can only have four things, black tea, water, apple juice and jelly.  But not the red jelly cos it’s got that stuff in it she can have the orange jelly though so she’d better have a tea and an orange jelly but it don’t matter cos we ain’t got any jelly anyway and the kitchen’s sending some up so that’ll take a while so it’s probably best if you wayer first and that’ll give the kitchen time to send it up, alright?”

MARIA:  Tea and jelly.  Ok.  I do this now?

NURSE: She’s going the wrong way.  Maria luv?  You’re going the wrong way!  She’s over there.  Go wayer.  WAYer.  Weigh her.

MARIA: ah! I weigh her and then tea and jelly.

NURSE:  Yeah go on luv off you pop.  (Exeunt Maria) it’s so difficult when they don’t understand English innit?

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I’ve tried to reproduce this verbally in this recording – it’s the best approximation I can manage of the speed and speech patterns! Click the vocaroo link to listen.

Source: Vocaroo Voice Message

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I later overheard a senior nurse tell the Italians they could leave an hour early the following day to attend English lessons being run elsewhere in the hospital.

Maria could probably use some English lessons, this is true – I wonder though, whether they will be the right kind of language lessons.  Since being in hospital, the only people I have heard speaking in the UK prestige model of “received pronunciation” are some of the consultants and the surgeons.  Everyone else in the hospital is from everywhere else.  This being south London, there is a broad mix of Britain’s colonial and cultural heritage in the accents: West Indian, Jamaican, Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian, Ugandan.  And of course the famous “estuary English” common to the South East of the UK.

Course book accents tend to be clearer, tinged slightly with regionalism here and there as a nod to the existence of other forms of speech and as a way of helping learners tell the speakers apart during the listening exercise.  This is an understandable part of grading the materials to the level of the learner – listening materials need to be accessible after all, but I wonder if, in grading the language our learners hear, we could do more to include a greater variety of dialect and accent.  That perhaps, is a topic for another blogpost though.

The big issue for Maria is the one that probably every teacher picked up on when reading or listening to the above conversation.  It isn’t that Maria doesn’t understand, in fact if you consider the length and content of the initial utterance, Maria has done quite well to pull “tea and jelly” out of it and to use contextual knowledge to figure out that she has to go and get some for bed 3.

The problem isn’t just that the non-native speaker doesn’t understand, the problem is that the native speaker doesn’t have the best communication skills for speaking to a non-native speaker.

INSTRUCTIONS PEOPLE!!!!  INSTRUCTIONS!

The nurse is delivering the utterance at relatively high speed and in an informal mode as is suitable between colleagues who don’t want to make an issue of any power relationships.  She pre-justifies the instruction by giving background information that supports the instruction and then gets lost in her own thinking as she clarifies which kind of jelly and what the best sequence of activities is.  The speed of speech, and in particular the south London speech patterns of catenation, elision and assimilation, make it very difficult to identify the word boundaries.  Likewise, because this is delivered at speed, the stress patterns are not as obvious.

In short, it is a wonder that anybody understood anything.

It might be a bit too much to expect the nurse to grade her language appropriately as this is something that teachers get better at through repeated exposure to multiple levels of ability and understanding what language patterns and lexis are generally comprehensible at those levels.  There are though, some simple things that our nurse could do to make life easier on the ward:

  • Use fewer words. Don’t use three words where one will do.
  • Separate out instructions into single imperative sentences. Don’t front them with polite phrases – keep it simple.  So not “Please, if you wouldn’t mind, could you go and wash bed 8 and get them ready for X-ray?”  But:  “Wash bed 8.  Get them ready for x-ray.”
  • Enunciate more clearly and make sure key words are separated.
  • Speak slower.
  • Try and give stress to key words in the sentence, in particular actions to be taken and names or other key nouns.

I also have a theory, based on limited observation and not borne out by any reading or research (not that I found any research on this, so who knows?), that when native speakers try to simplify their language for non-native speakers, they do so in the same way that they might simplify their language for a child.  This can be characterised by using more “informal” language, which includes more use of phrasal verbs.  Phrasal verbs though, are notoriously tricky for non-native speakers to acquire and differentiate between.  Certainly speakers of Latin based languages might have more luck with slightly more formal vocabulary where there are more cognates.  So in the example instruction “Get them ready for x-ray”, a better instruction might be “prepare them for x-ray”.  But this is only a personal theory…

So there is my free business idea for any teacher in the UK looking to drum up a bit more business – don’t only target the language learners, but look for opportunities in areas where the native and the non-native speaker work together or interact more regularly.  Sell the courses in communication skills to Sharon and Tracy (or their boss in HR), and make sure it isn’t only Maria that gets the blame.

 

The Myth of the Good Student

15 Jan

Not so long ago I found out that two of my teenage students have been having a competition in my classes.  Apparently they’ve been trying to see who can say the word “genitais” the most in class – this means “genitals” in English.  They’ve been doing this for the last three months and it only came to light because they clearly got bored of my inability to notice and asked me if I knew what it meant.

Not, I’m sure you will agree, the behaviour of a good student.

But then what is?

The topic came up again with another class today, as part of a discussion on good study skills, so I asked them for their thoughts on what makes a good or bad student.  Now this group is younger, they’re about 13 years old, which accounts for some of the content, and I reformulated one or two suggestions (though I was impressed when they came up with “the class clowns”).

Good and Bad Students

In asking young learners what makes a good or bad student, you are always going to get a degree of polarisation and counter point.  If the good student “always does their homework” then it stands to reason that the bad student “never does their homework”.  Nonetheless three things immediately jump out at me:

  1. The utter negativity of the bad student.
  2. The impossibility of being a good student.
  3. The complete lack of a middle ground.

 

(1) The utter negativity of the bad student.

Bad students here are demonized.  Look at that word “rebel” in there!  It’s so true as well – if you set yourself against the system in any way, you get crushed by the teacher or at the very least you are cast in the role of the villain for the rest of the school year.  The problem is that, if as the teacher, you cast one of your students in that role, you aren’t giving them any other role to perform – what else are they expected to do?  Don’t challenge authority kids – even when it’s wrong – because that way lies destruction!

There’s the social stigmatism there as well, “are idiots and are dumb” – if we can’t control our students ourselves, then let us, as teachers, set the children against each other and let them do the dirty work for us.  We are civilized, we are emotionally in control and we don’t stoop to name calling.  But we all know why the bad students are bad students – they just aren’t as intelligent as us.  It’s got nothing to do with the background of the “bad” student, it doesn’t matter that they’re being bullied in the playground and are acting out because of it.  Bad behaviour is not seen as a sign of emotional need – it is seen as a sign of poor intelligence.

And there’s the performance angle.  Bad students get bad grades.  Yes, that’s right, the fault is with the student.  They are the one who failed to understand.  They are the one who couldn’t answer the question.  They are the one who had a bad day when it was test time and therefore they are at fault.  The failure of a student to understand is not the fault of the student, it is a failure of instruction.  I should point out that I fail at instruction all the time.  I fail at even giving instructions all the time – I see the sideways glances and hear the whispered conversations and every now and again get the question “Teacher, what is to do?”  Equally, I’m not suggesting that it is always the failure of the teacher – most of the time it is the failure of the situation surrounding the teacher – if you have a class of 30 students and you are busy dealing with three of them, you might not notice the quiet one struggling in the corner.  Or you might not realise the student who has taken his trousers down in the classroom is doing all this attention seeking behaviour precisely to divert attention away from the fact that they don’t have a clue what is going on.  But if we continue to decide whether students are good or bad based on their grades, how can we ever hope that our students place a value on things other than performance?  When will our students ever see each other as human beings?

(2) The impossibility of being a good student.

Ok.  The whole “wear glasses” thing was suggested by one of the students who just happens to wear glasses.  And so do I, so I wasn’t going to disagree…..

But let’s look at what else is there:  are quiet, pay attention, have good grades, are polite to the teacher, always do their homework, are intelligent (for a given value of intelligent, which I suspect would probably correlate strongly with “get good grades”).  Once we’d got all this on the board I asked them how many of them thought they were good students.  Actually I had asked them this before we started listing criteria and without exception, they started putting their hands up and saying “Teacher, I got 82% in history!”, “I have 90 in English.”  It was this that started our little digression into what makes a good student as when I asked them if that was the only thing that meant they were good students, some of the other criteria started emerging.

When I asked them again though, about three of them put their hands up.  The others said they didn’t always get good grades, or they weren’t always quiet, or they didn’t think they were very intelligent (how my heart goes out to them there!!!!), or they missed a couple of homework tasks.  So that works out at about 25% of the class.

25%.

Only 25% of my class think they are good students.

How messed up is a system where 75% of the students think they are automatic failures?  Where, by their own description, they are idiots?

Like most teachers, I would love to have a class full of polite, quiet, focused and attentive students who always did what I said and did the work.  What I have in most cases is a group of students who can occasionally be persuaded to do some work, but who would really prefer to be playing games of some kind.  I think the question from the teacher’s perspective is what do you expect?  Should I expect my students to be “good” all of the time?  It’s not like we get that all the time in the real world – just take a drive through the centre of your town at rush hour and see if I’m wrong!  If we continue to set our expectations so high, if we expect our students, regardless of age, to behave as though they were us, then both we and they are doomed to failure and the class is doomed to a year of demotivated learning punctuated by tantrums.

The good student doesn’t exist.  The good student is a mythical ideal generated largely for the benefit of teachers so that students, kids who crave praise and the external validation of the authority figure, know what exacting standards must be achieved and will strive to get that validation.  The myth of the good student tells students that what their teachers really want – is to be left alone.

 

(3) The lack of a middle ground

The discourse surrounding student identity is completely polarised.  Students, it seems, are either one thing or the other and see themselves in those terms.  You are either for or against, good or bad, successful or a failure.  There is a moral absolutism inherent in this view of classroom management that simply does not reflect the reality of the situation.  It requires the observer (teacher or otherwise) to make a value judgement about the nature of an individual based on  subjective interpretation of behaviour – according to standards that as I’ve already said, are unobtainable.

Most societies, even those that spring from more dogmatic perspectives, embrace a degree of relativism in their social and cultural attitudes.  So why is there no middle ground in this?

What disturbed me most about the conversation with my class is that even at the age of 13, they have been brainwashed into this view that they are either good or they are bad.  I know that more nuanced views develop with age, but the fact that students don’t see that they can contain elements of both is troubling.  At any given moment, in any given classroom, an otherwise great student has let their mind float off somewhere.  This is not a bad thing.

I tried to encapsulate this in a diagram – the idea is that at any moment in a lesson, students can place themselves somewhere within the diagram.

the state of the student

 

It’s not perfect and would probably be better as a series of bar charts.  The positives are lumped together mostly because they tend to go together.  If you’re in the right frame of mind to start with, then the rest comes easier.  And so forth and vice versa.  But it serves to visualise the series of dichotomies that students are up against.

Most students would probably put themselves somewhere in the top half of the circle.  Some in the middle and maybe a few in the lower half.  But very few would place themselves at the extremes and this is because by and large, we all occupy the middle ground.  We are rarely completely one thing or the other and if we only see ourselves in these polarised terms, then we run the risk of perpetual failure or stressed out over-achievement.  More to the point, as teachers, if we only ever expect brilliance and good behaviour from our students, we are dooming them to failure before they even start.  If you can’t be brilliant, you might as well not even try.  That’s the message it sends and we end up, inadvertently, teaching our students to be intolerant of anything less than perfection.

We are all individuals and we are all different (or at least most of us are).  As adults we accept each others’ imperfections with relative good grace and we don’t define ourselves with arbitrary labels like good and bad because we accept that we all have strengths and weaknesses, different backgrounds and different interests.  We come together in the middle ground to work together, study together, socialize and start relationships.  Perhaps finding and occupying that middle ground is what we should also be doing in the classroom.

I think the last word in this should go to Joao, who asked me a question towards the end of the lesson:

“Teacher, am I the class clown?”

“What do you think?”

“I think maybe yes.”

“OK.  Why do you think that?”

“Because I’m not quiet and I play a lot and make jokes.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Maybe yes.”

“Why?”

“Because then I can’t get good grades.”

“Well, if you can be the class clown and get good grades, then it’s not a problem.”

“Hmm.  Teacher I don’t want be bad student.”

“I don’t think you’re a bad student.”

“I try to be good student.”