Tuesday, 6 July 2010


To stay true to my procrastinator lifestyle, I will make no comment on the fact that it has been 4 months since my last blog. Mooooving right along...

So many ideas jotted down in my apple notebook (nudge nudge A.Z!) and so little time to blog about all of them.. or perhaps better to say - SO much time that it is stifling. Supply teaching = my day ends at 3:30, one of the only luxuries of relief work. I joke, it's THE ONLY luxury of relief work. I work well under pressure as we know.

Today's topic (brace yourselves): religion. I know, cringe right? It's actually quite the big issue being mulled about in my brain right now for so many different reasons. I have a note jotted in my book dating all the way back to March that says, "schools teach morality?" At the time, I had been having these huge late night discussions with my housemates about religious vs. non-denominational schools. We come from a variety of backgrounds, and one of the topics that always comes up in such discussions is - how can we teach morality without religion? Or, can we be "good" without God? I love a good alliteration any day and this one is particularly poignant because as I grew up in a Catholic school I am obliged to say.. well, not 'no' but.. no. One of my housemates went through the public school system and her parents didn't really practice any particular religion. "So, do you think I'm bad?" she challenged us. "Has my upbringing lacked the pious teachings of moral judgement? Do I spit on homeless people and kick dogs?" A bit extreme, but her point was made.

Later that week I sat in on a school assembly (note: schools here have assembly everyday for about 30 minutes. They are either put on by each class showing what they have learned or they are for the school to discuss any major issues as a community) during which I was daydreaming about how and when we develop our notions of 'good' and 'bad'. In one of my religious studies classes in uni I read an article about this issue that said something along the lines of, "do we really want to believe that we are only 'good' because we are afraid a big giant bearded man in the sky might do something to us? Or, because when we die we want to go to heaven?" We've painted a fairly bleak picture of the human race with that one. Not much of a chance we've got, seeing as how we can't even agree on a religion to follow!

However, I always come back to my experience growing up in the Catholic church, think about it this way - once a week we gathered as a community (tick) discussed the things we 'should' be doing, such as charity and being kind (tick, tick) were reminded not to be angry, selfish, greedy (tick, tick, tick) and were made to take some ownership of our mistakes (tick!). That's 7 for 7 folks, all good things but we're left with the problem of labelling it "religion" and having to choose a God to represent us... so while the Headteacher droned on about the school announcements, I began to dream of a moral utopia. A place in every community where the people gather and discuss things that are bothering them. Where they tell each other to be kind, look out for one another and be charitable to those in need. A place where everyone is reminded of their own inner value, told they are loved and important to the group. *Sigh* it would be lovely, and yet probably wouldn't be quite as effective unless we told them, oh ya and also if you don't come and do all these things the Flying Spaghetti Monster will ooze her noodley appendages all over you (google that one kids!)

Startled back into reality by a sudden outburst of applause from 400 children, I straighten up and try to pay attention to the assembly (what school am I at again? which kids are mine? I'm lucky I make it through the day sometimes..) Having simultaneously created and abandoned my microcosm utopian community in a matter of minutes, I give myself over to the kind voice of the teacher now leading the assembly. "...and as we all know boys and girls today is Friday which means it’s our Golden Rules Assembly!" - cue applause and random fidgeting of excitement - "let's read out our Golden Rules together (400 voices in unison): We are gentle, kind and helpful. We work hard and look after property and each other. We are always honest and listen to others. We do not hurt people, and we do not hurt people's feelings. We do not interrupt and we do not cover up the truth." Next the teacher highlights this week’s special rule - We are gentle, kind and helpful - and asks the students to remind her what this means. A small year 1 student at the front speaks directly into the microphone which muffles his voice as he says, "It means we love each other and help everyone in our school." The teacher beams at him, "Correct! Who can tell us about someone who they have seen being a golden example of this rule this week?" About 399 hands shoot in the air, give or take, and the teacher patiently tries to get to them all so they can say nice things other students have done for them this week. A behaviour problem child in my class even receives a special certificate for his hard work in the Nursery lunch hall the day before, and he is absolutely glowing as he walks back to his seat to the sound of his peer's approval and admiration.

I was absolutely buzzing as I walked my kids back to class that day. All I had time to jot in my notebook was - "schools teach morality?" but obviously the gravity of the situation stuck with me. Afterwards I thought it was almost too ridiculous to mention to anyone, of course schools teach morality that's not a big mystery. But the important point here is not just that schools tell us 'this is right and this is wrong'. What moved me in the assembly was that school is possibly the only place in the world where we are good to each other for the sake of being good. Where we are taught to respect property because we have to share it, and to do our best because it makes us feel good. We are rewarded for our kind acts and generosity not by an invisible man but by our fellow students who are also working hard to do their best and recognize the value in these achievements. School is a place where children come and try to work together, to help each other realize their full potential.. and all of this 5 days a week no less.

Homework tonight (because I wouldn't be a teacher otherwise): when you are good WHY do you do it? When you are tempted to do things that are technically 'bad', why do you feel bad doing them? If you really think about it, I bet the answer will surprise you... :)

Sunday, 7 February 2010

"1.. 2.. 3....... 4"

Aaaah I can't believe January is over!! Only one more week until half-term break - woohoo! Well deserved I think :)

The title of my blog is actually a quote by Socrates, the founder of Western Philosophy, that says in full: "I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think." He believed that asking a series of questions (the Socratic Method) was the best way for his students to learn and this is actually the basis of our scientific method today, that we always begin with an hypothesis. I love the quote because I think it sums up the way I feel about education. The best we can ask for really, is that our students will 'think' on their own. The purpose of the teacher is to eventually enable the students to get along without the teacher. Consider anything in your life about which you might be an 'expert' - sports facts, a musical instrument, a crafty hobbie. All of the things which humans do well are those which we sought out on our own; the things which we found interesting and wanted to know more about. Unless students take an interest in what they learn, some of them may be able to regurgitate it on a test, but they won't remember it or pursue it - the information is stagnate. The ideas that we give our students should be as such that once they have a taste and swish it around a little bit they will want more!

Obviously this is something that will be very important in my own classroom, but as a supply I am mostly just doing what I'm told, trying desperately to make it through the day without any of the students killing each other (quite literally). But I realized the other day that one of the nifty tricks I use to make 30 students sit in absolute silence is in fact an example of this. It's pretty fun (and you will probably go try it yourself when you're done reading!)

Over the Christmas break I read a really interesting article about how our brains measure the passing of time. Generally since our understanding of time is just a psychological construct, we can feel like it is going way faster or slower than it actually is depending on what we're doing. We measure time in blocks of events and how far apart they seem. The article told the story of this researcher who locked himself away from any natural light for a period of time that was unknown to him.. when his team brought him out after about 2 months and asked him to estimate the date he believed it was a whole month earlier than what it really was!

The point is something very scientific I'm sure, but for me it just means something really cool to share with the kids. I actually didn't do it on purpose, but during one of my first days back teaching this term I had the kids sitting on the carpet ready to go home really early - we'd read two books and they were starting to fidget. I knew I had to tell them something interesting so I quickly told them that story, then asked them what things made time seem faster or slower. They were SO interested! It was the only time all day that I had all 30 of them hanging on my every word. We decided to do our own experiment: everyone closed their eyes and from the time I said go tried to measure the passing of one minute, when they thought one minute had gone by they kept their eyes closed and put their hand up. Seems simple right? They went absolutely silent, I swear some of them didn't even breathe. I watched the clock and it's hilarious to see some of them shoot their hand up in the air with absolute certainty after only about 25 seconds.. and others who sit with their eyes closed, fully concentrating well into the second minute. Go ahead, I know you want to try it! Our brains play tricks on us - and we love it!

I'm not sure what point I'm trying to make by doing it everyday with all the different classes (I have noticed not surprisingly, that the older students have a much better grasp of time) but I do know this: they probably won't remember what I taught them in Math that day, or even what book we read in Literacy. But I guarantee you that most of them leave school and tell someone about that experiment, or try it at home with their parents. They all leave with this weird look on their faces that kids get when they're really thinking about something... it made them question something, take something new that they had never thought of before and smash two neurons in their brains together (or however it happens when we encounter new ideas haha). The point is we can't TEACH anybody anything - you can't force feed ideas in a valuable way - but when we make them THINK? I love it!!

Sunday, 24 January 2010

"Boys and girls, it's called SILENT Reading!"

So for our very first peek into "a day in the life of a supply teacher" I've decided to stick with something light and fun! We'll get into the dark and dreadful stuff a little later :)

Just this past Friday I was covering a Yr. 6 class at a school that gives me quite a bit of work. In the big scheme of things these are the youngest looking (and acting) Yr.6's I have ever encountered, but don't worry they make up for it in other ways... After lunch is my absolute favourite part of the day - Silent Reading! I pick the students up from the playground all smiles, and as we climb the 6 flights of stairs to their classroom I'm sure my class wonders why I am positively glowing with excitement. Please understand - for 30 full minutes these 28 preteens must sit at their desks and not say a word while I get to read a book... hello? (And if I'm being honest, I usually give them an extra 5 minutes or so to read... because I'm just that nice)

Anyway, there have been a few times when, for whatever reason, I don't have a book in my bag, or I've finished the book I was reading and I'm forced to simply sit and enjoy the 30 minute silence. It's during these rare moments that the observational part of my brain begins to run full steam and I start to have some very bizarre thoughts, I will share some with you now:

Why don't we trust students to choose their own reading material?
I have been in classrooms where the students must choose books during Silent Reading - BOOKS as in novels. No comics or newspapers! No non-fiction books with glossy pictures! No books about football facts or magazines with short funny stories! Don't even think about it kids! And when I'm in full-swing unquestioning teacher mode I say, "Yes! You must learn to read novels even if you HATE them - it just makes sense. If we make the students read them enough they may even grow to appreciate them for goodness' sake. Reading novels = high class society, end of conversation." And as I become even more righteous I may think - "I don't need to give a reason for this. Choose a book children and stop asking silly questions - is this your classroom or mine?" Hmm, I shudder at the thoughts now.. But when I sit back and really watch these students, and I drop the 'know-it-all' teacher act, I see some holes in the plan.

If a student is reading - does it matter what they are reading? Is it more important for us to teach them that novels are somehow the highest form of literature (even though most of the novels available to their age group couldn't stand up to the classics) or would we rather teach them the importance of looking over a selection of reading material and choosing what they would like to read - something important to them. Because, and I know this may come as a shock, in the real world people read what they WANT to read. Gasp! Don't tell the children!

There are different skills associated with being able to read well: skimming and scanning, summarizing and internalizing information, being able to navigate different reading materials, and so on. Yes, there are students who are able to pick up one novel and sit for 30 minutes and read it. I am one of those students - and guess what, if our society had decided that Sports Illustrated must be read for 30 minutes everyday? I would have been one of the students that I see during these periods who opens their book and never flips the page: because they're not reading - because they're bored.

The beauty of supply teaching is that I get to try things out and my classes don't realize it but they are often my little guinea pigs for experiments in my head. Crazy, but I digress. During another Silent Reading session in a different school I did not specify to the students what they had to read. Today's newspaper? Be my guest, and fill me in while you're at it. Guinness Book of World Records? Go for it! And you can probably guess exactly what I discovered while I wandered around the classroom that day. An entire range of skills being used that would not have been present if every student in that room was reading a novel. Students learning how to use a table of contents in a book about sports facts, others navigating non-fiction books about Egyptians or car mechanics - and don't forget the glossy pictures, complete with captions underneath! Do we even consider the complex and highly technical reading style required for comic books? Why do we undervalue these types of media?

One of the other things I've noticed during Silent Reading is actually something about myself. I apparently have a big problem with students who missed out on the word SILENT. In my Yr.6 class on Friday (where the students were allowed to choose their own reading material) two girls had sat down beside each other with a Ripley's Believe It or Not, another group in the corner seemed to be drawn towards a Simpsons comic book like it had its own gravitational pull and yet another group of boys had taken notice of their friend reading a book about football (soccer) facts. Needless to say they could not contain their excitement about the fattest woman in the world/the hilarities of Bart Simpson/who scored the most goals last year - and as this was a day that I HAD remembered to bring my own book, I was really favouring independent reading. "Find your own book boys. If you cannot read your own book I will find you somewhere else to sit. Katie I know that must be exciting but this is SILENT reading - do I have to take the book away?" I had a sudden thought that this must be why we make them all read novels - because nobody is going to say, 'Oh, look at this line in my book isn't it great?' I laughed to myself, but then I stopped laughing.

Are we stifling our students? It's called Silent Reading so that everyone can focus on their books, but if they whisper, why is it blasphemy to allow them to share something amazing, or hilarious, or interesting that they've read with their peers? Isn't this the whole point of the classroom community? I think we often act as though we know the exact moment when learning takes place, but unless I missed a lecture in Teacher's College I'm pretty sure we don't quite have it down yet. So my plan this week is to put a little more trust in the kids. Once again the beauty of supply teaching is this opportunity to purely observe students - without prior knowledge of their grades or their behaviour, I get to just watch them learn. It's a pretty amazing thing, and I'll keep you guys posted :)