Friday, March 18, 2011

fights, competitions and being a teacher...

Yesterday was school day.
I've already unloaded a bit to Nic which is really nice, but I like sharing what I'm learning here as well.
But since this turned out to be super-long verrryyyy education based, I'll understand if you don't want to read on!
But if you want to hear about a fishing game almost turned to violence, or how competition and incentives produces bad results, or how worksheets are taking the place of actual teaching and what I feel about that particular scenario, then please, do read on.

For the first event of the day, the teacher, E., asked me to play a 'fishing game' with three children, where basic words such as 'I', 'is', 'as', 'a', 'that', 'the' were put on the floor with bulldog clips on them. They then had a 'fishing rod' with a magnet on the end and were to fish out the words. E. suggested I tell them which words to fish so they could look for them and associate the sound of the word with what it looked like.
Apparently they'd played this before because they had very strong ideas about how this game is 'meant' to be played. They didn't want a bar of my idea at all. Then I suggested that we could make stories out of the words we pick, which should be pretty easy because you could say "Last year I was in prep", or whatever. So, these are year 1 kids who can't read the word 'that'. Anyway... the two boys hate this idea but don't want to tell me why they don't think it's good, just that they don't want to do it, and the girl says it's good, and we should have a vote- being as there's 3 of them and the two boys have already said they don't want to play, I could see how this vote was going to go down, but vote they did. And she lost.
So this is a girl who thinks she knows better than everyone. Who needs to get her own way, and if it's not her way, it's not the right way, or she doesn't have to do it because she doesn't want to. It's as though she's been brought up with the mantra: "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do." and taken it literally, for every situation.
As I'm trying to help her read the word 'that' which she had fished up, the boys start arguing over whose turn it is- wrenching the fishing pole back and forth between them, and refusing to give in. The girl starts yelling at them that they shouldn't be fighting and to stop being stupid. Having to make a call, I tell the boy that I consider the 'more mature' of the two that it's the other boy's turn, and then promised him a go straight after. He sits back, folds his arms over his chest and tries to hold back tears. Tears. Holy crap dude, it's just a stupid word fishing game, calm the freak down. Anyway, he gets his turn and luckily didn't seem to hold it against me for the rest of the day. I did try and explain to him why I had done what I'd done, but I don't know if it helped. And I saw the problem of letting them fish their own words, because they all wanted "I" and "A" and maybe "Is" because those words are much easier than "was" and "that", though it's not like they read them anyway unless I prompted them to tell me what was on the cards.
So a lot of what i want to do as a teacher involves play and games and making things fun, but kids- young kids, can get so competitive and so involved... So I think... Yeah, I think what I'll need to do and be really mindful of is my games need to be either team-work games without competition, or games in which 'winning' or 'finishing first' isn't the objective. Because if this is the case, it clouds the whole point of the learning.
In the sign-language class the last 2 weeks, the teacher- who is trained for highschool, not primary, has played games - awesome. But she puts them in teams and they try and win... yesterday it was a version of 'Chinese whispers' where she'd sign them a sentence like "my brown dog" and they had to pass it down the line. Great stuff, except they were so focused on getting it across quickly that they didn't think it'd be easier to remember the phrase and sign it if they focused on the meaning of the sentence rather than just the gestures. The first person usually knew the gestures but after that it was generally just a bunch of motions. I read a lot about this last year, about how rewards and competitions and incentives can actually produce less learning and worse results than no rewards or competitions- at work and at school.

Working at a call centre for the last 2 years I saw this clearly. Every time they had some sort of 'incentive'- to get more money, or a day off, or a prize or whatever, yep, everyone would pick up their game and try really hard and do really well... but as soon as it was over, the stats would look worse than before the competition begun. Plus, we began to resent those who were consistantly better than us, or, if we were in teams, we resented those members of our team who 'dragged us down' and prevented us from winning. See how damaging this is? And it is, but nobody thinks about it like that. You know how it feels to be 'that person' who's let everyone else down and you know they think that, but you tried your hardest and just had a hard time... And then of course is the problem of coming to rely on these incentives to give any effort at all. The 'why should I bother to work hard because I'm not getting anything out of it' mantra. Which starts, of course, in school. So my challenge will be figuring out games, activities, projects and an environment in which my students don't need these things. And so far I haven't seen E. give a gold star or use any type of reward system, but I also haven't seen any maths worksheets (which are in abundance) given back.

Which leads me to another point. These kids are pretty far behind- some can only count to 20, and don't know what that means. Some can't read. Some misread 'We' as 'I'*. And they seem to do a lot of worksheets. And I would question the value of these worksheets- these particular ones. Maybe there are good ones out there, though I doubt it. Some boys were learning about 'et' words - pet, net, fret, forget. Now, half of them didn't even know what 'fret' meant, so that's useful for a start. Basically what they had to do on this worksheet was: trace, then copy the words then draw what they mean - for pet, net and upset. Then they had to 'think of et' words - and there were about 9 or so blank spaces ending in 'et'... and on the side of their worksheet was a small list of 'et' words so they copied them until they had to think for themselves, at which point they tried 'Iet". And I said: I'm not sure if that's a word. And they couldn't tell me if it was, or wasn't. Then they had to re-write the words in 'lowercase' NET PET WET etc... and that was it. And they all tried to get through it as quickly as possible so they could do more interesting things.
One girl was doing a maths (??) sheet where she had to finish the drawing using straight lines (she couldn't read this on her own, so I helped her), of a picture of a house. Then she had to 'finish the drawing using curvy lines' (of a picture of some snowmen). She didn't know what curvy meant, so I explained this. Maybe I'm just overestimating their abilities, or maybe this is a thing you actually have to do- teach about the difference between straight lines and round/curvy lines... maybe it's just something we take for granted because we already know what a straight line looks like, and maybe they don't. I don't know.

The point I made just before, about the boys wanting to finish their worksheets as quickly as possible, is maybe something I need to consider. The model of my classroom- that kids work at their own speed on what they want to do, so long as they get x y and z finished at some point (but not having 'set lessons') is very similar to the shape of the classroom that I've been in at the School. But is this just going to be a problem regardless- kids wanting to finish one thing really quickly because they don't like it so they can do their art project, or find pictures for their other thing, or whatever.. Because surely no matter how many 'things' they have to do, they're not going to like some of them. I wonder though because I've not yet seen any, I suppose 'formal' lessons. I've seen worksheets act as literacy and numeracy teachers, and this is not the kind of teacher I want to be. I don't want to say: We do a negotiated curriculum where you have projects, and we need to do some numeracy and literacy there too, but since I don't 'teach' in a formal way, you'll have to figure it out yourself.'.
Maybe what I'm saying is that I'm moving more towards a balance of the more 'open', self-guided learning, with aspects of more 'structured' literacy and numeracy times/lessons.

I tried to contact my Prep & Year 1 teacher the other day, because I want to talk to her. I have the fondest memories of my class with her, but I don't remember a lot. I remember small things. I don't remember ever doing numeracy or maths. But we must have, at some point. And how did she teach us? How were we reading by the end of prep, when these kids cannot? What were her strategies? What were her tricks? What were her favourite things to do in a classroom? I'm going to try and call her again today.

Once again, I'm so glad I'm at this school one day a week. The experience I get is going to be invaluable, and get me so much more ready for both rounds in August, but for actually teaching next year. The idea of who I want to be as a teacher and how I want to teach is bending and remoulding a little based on what I'm seeing and feeling, and what I like and don't like about how these classes are run... and I need that. I need it now, so I can go into practicum in August with a better idea of who I am as a teacher, too.

*It's really fascinating to me actually, watching this challenged readers read simple books. The way they see pictures and then replace words they don't know with words that fit the context and the pictures is really interesting.

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