Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fragile Beginnings

A school I visited in Soho way back in 1980 ten Years after teaching in the UK! To this day some of the schools I visited during my first visit still remain as an inspirational to me.Unfortunately things have changed in the UK but now there are now those who want to return to the best of those more creative days. Unfortunately they are now living with standards and league tables!

Decisions all too often have to be made without real knowledge of consequences. Deciding to go teaching after years of advising was such a decision but once made there can be no turning back.

My memories of my first few weeks teaching were one of continual rearranging of my programme to find something that seemed to work. My strongest memories however are of being very tired. After a day at school I needed rest to recapture my energy. I hadn’t imagined how tired I would be. Of course this wasn’t helped by my desire not to implement the traditional daily programme that wa expected of me.

There was an important lesson in this for me. Being an adviser is one thing – being a teacher another! When you aren’t certain what it is you have to do to get through a day. Keeping all students involved and doing worthwhile things, is tiring. And still today those who happily pass out advice as if it is just a matter of putting into practice who haven’t learnt this lesson. It seems the further one is away from the classroom the easier it all seems.

With this in mind my first sensible entry in my diary was entered almost a month after I entered the classroom. Until then I just made notes trying to capture my confusion. All sorts of small decisions I had to seemed major achievements. I wrote, at the time, ‘teaching is an established occupation, procedures, practices have become almost traditional…including expectations that the children bring to the class.’ Ignoring current expectations of other teachers and the students themselves would make my task harder

The Teachers Only Day, I wrote, ‘seemed like the peace before the storm. Student records cards only really show children’s achievement in basic subjects and many showed clearly a record of a number of years of lack of success.

On the first day I feel more anxiety and apprehension than the students – they have had new teachers before. Only one or two more perceptive can identify my insecurity and possibly the shallowness of my programme. But those first days, I noted, were ‘the beginning of my being able to identify the children as real people with individuality and considerable differences.’

By the time the week was up I noted that many children have good working habits but it is becoming apparent that it is difficult to keep the attention of the class as a whole. Their writing based on an ‘important holiday experience’ shows a stereotypical presentation and a lack of ability to express their personal thoughts.

Using an idea I picked up in the UK I introduced a four group pattern that rotated during the day. One group completing personal writing, an art group working on patterns ( part of my maths theme), a topic group observing and drawing wild flowers and grasses - the study I started the year with. Within this structure I introduced class lesson on handwriting, some basic maths (patterns in times tables). Adding in library, swimming and spots and assembles enough structure was developed to get through the day. All the times I was doing my best to assess what each individual was capable of academically and socially.

After a couple of weeks I wasn’t entirely happy with what had been achieved but at least the capable children were enjoying their experiences but too many other were ‘going though the motions’ or simply didn’t have the skills I expected they would have.

At this time I began to consider introducing ability groups in reading and maths as was (and still is) the traditional pattern. I resisted the temptation (it would have been easier) as I believed (and still do) that ability grouping hadn’t solved the problem of those children who seemed to be failing. I did, as a compromise introduce language and maths blocks in the morning but children worked in heterogeneous groups with me doing my best to assist children individually.

I felt considerable pressure re the maths programme as I resisted making use of the current maths textbooks. I was determined to develop in all children a positive attitude towards maths and introduced a history of number study which captured their attention particularly as it involved lots of graphic work which we displayed on the walls. I also introduced maths into graphing, measuring and classifying the wild flowers we were studying. In language, as part of getting children to value writing we made a study of writing from the earliest days.

In the afternoon time groups were developed to complete a range of activities based on the current study. Some of the groups were completing the work based on drafts undertaken in the morning – observational writing, wild plant maths while one group completed press prints bases on their drawings of plants.

By the end of the first month the class had settled down to a reasonable pattern of work and children book work ( personal wring, language, maths , and studies0 ) all showed real improvement compared with the work they had undertaken in the first few days.

The room by now had started to reflect the kind of work I had in mind. There were displays of the history of maths and writing, wild flower study work, personal language and press prints. And all work was framed and well displayed illustrating to the children the pride I had in their work. Along with library areas, and displays the room was starting to look like a learning community.

And I wasn’t quite so tired. And the principal and parents seemed a little less concerned. Perhaps the worst was over and the best was yet to come.

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