Thursday, September 9, 2010
46. Images of ‘great’ and ‘not so great teaching’
1. When Jack Kerouak’s stream of consciousness novel, On the Road, was first published, Truman Capote stunned the literary world with his dismissive, five word review: “It’s not writing, it’s typing.”
2. John Dower was my Form 4 (Year 10) History teacher at Moreland High School. We were all more than a little afraid of him. When we lined up outside the classroom, Mr Dower would already have been there for 10 minutes.
‘Come in, sit down and start work,’ he would say.
‘Work’ meant copying what he had been writing on the board: The Six Causes of the First World War. The blackboard stretched across the front wall of the room, and was divided into four panels. When Mr Dower had filled the whole board with notes, he would ask, ‘Is there anyone who hasn’t completed the first panel?’
He’d then rub off what he’d written on the first panel, and keep writing.
That’s how we learned History in 1958.
When it came to the exams, we would ‘cram’ or ‘swot’, trying to crowd into our brains the notes we had so laboriously copied. There would be questions like: ‘What were the six questions of the First World War?’
John Dower was a respected teacher. Nobody misbehaved in his classes; nobody spoke out of turn. No one dared.
3. When I first started teaching, in 1965, I taught English and Social Studies at Glenroy Technical School. Glenroy Tech. was pretty tough, but pretty typical. My classes contained 48 students. What passed as good teaching at the time was the ability to control the class. My supervisor during my first teaching round – in late 1963 – had been the legendary John Kennedy: footballer, coach of Hawthorn FC , a tough man on the football field, a tough coach, a tough teacher. John Kennedy commanded respect. Few boys in his class dared to muck around. His presence in the classroom ensured order. In the adjacent room, a young Maths teacher presided over chaos; the noise was deafening. John Kennedy was not amused. He left his class briefly, and things next door quietened down almost immediately. All he’d had to do was stand in the corridor outside the room. Kennedy made it clear to me that he had little time for teachers who could not exercise control.
4. Capote, though, might have said of that time: “It’s not teaching, it’s crowd control.”So what is good teaching? Does it simply consist of the ability to maintain order in a classroom?
5. Charles Dickens created the archetypal teacher Thomas Gradgrind – a central character in his novel Hard Times. Gradgrind was a dogmatic, bombastic, power-hungry tormentors of children. Gradgrind knew what ‘good teaching’ was. Children were empty vessels into which he, the teacher, would pour facts. For Gradgrind, ‘learning’ meant ‘rote learning’. When 10 year old Bitzer defined a horse as ...'Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.' Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
Gradgrind was ecstatic.
‘Now,’ he told the rest of the class, ‘you know what a horse is!’
6. In 1969 I taught Stephen to read. When I met Stephen he was in grade 6. His work book was full of ‘work’. One assignment was on ‘Australian Aborigines’. It began:
Above Left: The intestines of a kangaroo that have been lightly roasted.
Above Right: Honey Ants (meloforus inflatus) A favourite food among aboriginal people. The sweet nectar is sucked from the swollen bodies.
Stephen’s total reading vocabulary consisted of maybe a dozen words: I, me, my, it, the, a , dog, cat and a few others. Like Bitzer, though, he had given his teacher what she had asked for: he had completed the task. He had copied four pages of material from the Australian Encyclopaedia. And he couldn’t read a single word of it.
Our work together involved Stephen in writing simple sentences about his life. These sentences grew into very short stories and became his ‘reader’, and in time, he wrote long stories and started to read published books.
7. Michael Yapp came to Australia to complete a Masters in Education; I was teaching at Latrobe University, a subject called Introduction to Australian Schools, and Michael was in my class. He was from Brunei. Our first field visit was to Eltham South Pre School. We arrived there at around 10 in the morning and everything was in full swing. There were children at the easels, painting; children building towers with blocks; some were playing in the dress up corner; others were creating patterns using potato ‘stamps’; some were finger painting. The teacher and her assistant moved around the room, praising, encouraging.
Afterwards, Michael said, ‘It is not like that in my country. In my country, in kindergarten, the children sit in desks and learn to write their letters, and how to read. There is no play.’
‘How many to a class?’ we asked.
‘Fifty,’ he said.
8. Ask a group of students what makes a good teacher, and they will say things like:
Good teachers can control us; they’re fair; they don’t play favourites; they’re passionate about what they are teaching; they treat us like human beings; they’re fun to be with; they have a sense of humour.
Neither Gradgrind nor John Dower had a sense of humour.
Moments and contexts
1. The Little School
In the mid-late 1970s I was involved in setting up The Little School, a sub school within Lalor Technical School. At its largest, the Little School consisted of around 150 students – a sub school in the context of a school with over 1200 students. When it comes to schools, we argued, they need to be of ‘human size’; that is: small enough for everybody to know everybody else. ‘Relationships’ are important; as teachers, we need to know our students. And ‘knowing’ students means knowing what engages them, what they’re interested in, what they find difficult, how they best learn. We had eight teachers in the team – teachers of English, Maths, Science, Needlework & Craft, Art, Woodwork, Sheetmetal.
The Little School was established in portable classrooms with 100 randomly assigned Year 7 and 8 students – four Home Room groups, each with two Home Room teachers.
The 70s were a time when each school was expected to develop its own curriculum. We saw curriculum planning as a joint activity; and everyone contributed to devising every aspect of the program.
Vic Luke, an innovative teacher of Woodwork, was encouraged by the rest of the team to develop a revolutionary approach to his subject. Normally Woodwork teachers would start the year with lessons on Workshop safety, and then take students through a graded series of exercise: a copper stick, a matchbox holder, a pencil case. In his first lesson, Vic gave each of the kids a bag of wood: ‘Make whatever you’d like to make. Come to me if you need help.’Later, Vic organised for the students to make camp stools, from wood and canvas – to be used on one of the many camps we ran each year.
We attempted to come up with ‘real world’ tasks; we tried to make as much of our teaching relevant to the kids. The Sheet Metal teacher worked for two months with some of the boys creating a huge brick barbecue and covered outdoor ‘living’ area for The Little School – between the portables. We celebrated the completion of the brick barbecue and shelter with a barbecue tea with the kids and their parents.
We set up a regular magazine – The Little Tech Times. It was published between four and eight times a year; each Home Group took its turn in producing the Little Tech Times: writing the articles, stories and poems, and doing the layout. Teachers contributed. It was our own newspaper for the Little School community.
In our first year, students had free access to the Staff portable during lunch time and recess.
What made this program unique – or special – or significant? Liz Mildenhall, who taught in The Little School for almost a decade, observed: ‘It’s a place where important conversations can take place.’ There were many conversations: between teachers, between students, between teachers and students. We kept a diary of the day’s events – the teachers took turns to write the entry. We’d often sit around after school had ended for an hour or two discussing the program, the problems, the students.
There were obvious differences between the ‘Main school’ and the ‘Little School’:
• The Main school was a traditional Tech. School – in curriculum and in ethos. In the Little School, the teachers were allowed to address their teachers by their given names.
• There were some teachers in the Main school who were affronted by what they saw as ‘lack of discipline’; they didn’t like the fact that students knew teachers by their first names, and that our approach was ‘warm and fuzzy’ rather than ‘hard and authoritarian’.
There were other differences, though – differences in outcomes:
• For instance, when the Little School ran parent/teacher information nights during the year, upward of 80% of our parents attended, compared to around 15% of Main School parents who attended Main School parent/teacher evenings..
• By the time they were in Year 10, there was one student in the Little School who was a smoker. One in three students in the Main School smoked.
• Of the initial group of 50 year 8 students who entered The Little School in 1977, 11 went on to complete Tertiary studies. That’s a ratio of 1:5. The equivalent figure for the Main School was around 1 in between 50 and 100.
2. The Irymple SC Writing Camps
Over the past 16 years I have conducted Writing Camps at Irymple Secondary College, a Year 7-10 secondary school. For three days, students work with writers creating stories, poems, songs ... Each year I am blown away by the commitment of the students – their willingness to write creatively, working from 9 in the morning till well into each evening. A highlight of the camps is the annual concert at which students read their stories and poems and sing their songs.
Erin Wookey, one of the students who attended the Writing camp for four years, wrote of the experience:
‘The energy and passion of the staff’ were in part what kept bringing her back. But it was more than that; she continued: ‘… for me it meant finding a place where being ‘bright’, slightly hyperactive and creative was applauded by staff and fellow students rather than being something that had to be contained to fit in with the rest of the class!’
I’ve been around schools for a very long time. (I started teaching in 1965). Every few years there are changes to the context in which schools operate, and changes in what the community expects, what teachers regard as quality teaching, how the system defines out teaching role, how educational thinkers define it.
The prescribed curriculum of the sixties; the shift to school-based curriculum development in the seventies; the introduction of notions like ‘negotiating the curriculum’; the attempts to re-define the essential core that came with the KLAs of the 80s and 90s, and the VELS of the 2000s. The notion of intelligence as a unitary characteristic, measurable by IQ tests which defined the limits for each child, and which were used to stream children into ability groups (streaming as it was called) has given way to broader definition - such as Gardner’s eight intelligences. Then there are the more recent philosophies – of holistic and transformative education.
So many good ideas, each based on important insights that are, however, only partial truths.
The e5 is just the latest attempt to create a common language that we can use to discuss the infinitely complex transactions that we call teaching.
So what is good teaching? The notion of ‘the teaching moment’
I will end this article with a brief account of something that happened one Wednesday afternoon in term 2 this year. It was the last session of the day, with a Year 9 class. The class was being taught by a young graduate teacher who was completing his Master of Teaching degree; he had a ten week internship at my school, and I was his mentor. I’ll call him Mr. D.
Period 6 with Year 9 on Wednesdays can be rough. The kids are tired; they’re ready to go home. And on this occasion they were particularly ‘ratty’. For the past 4 weeks Mr.D had been working with them on the film Stand by Me.
He asked the students to move the tables back, and to sit in a circle. ‘Oh no’ – I though. ‘This is going to be chaos’. And for a short time it was: two boys began to wrestle over a chair; another two students started a nasty name-calling match. ‘
Mr. D. explained held up a white board duster. ‘You can only speak when you are holding the duster...’ he said, as he introduced this notion of circle time.
“Has there been a time in your lives, when you suddenly became aware of something that really changes you - makes you grow up... a ‘coming of age’ experience?”
For five minutes it was touch-and-go. The kids were restless, resistant. Then Mr D told the class took the duster, and told the story of the time his cousin developed cancer of the lymph system. As he told the story, the atmosphere in the room changed.
The classroom was suddenly silent; students were leaning forward, listening intently. They were engaged. “Did he die?” they asked.
“'No - he's in remission, he survived”. I answered them honestly trying to hold back the emotion welling up inside. “What's remission?” they wanted to know.
Mr D. continued, “That experience made me think a lot - about what's important in my life... I did a lot of growing up at that time ... I learnt a lot from that experience - about myself, about what's important ...”
He passed the duster to the next student. The class began to share their own encounters. The duster began to move around the room and each member of the class made their contribution. One by one, the students spoke with simple honesty about their lives; some struggled to find the words.
One boy said: “I think most of you know that my Dad died when I was one, and I've taken a long time to learn how to keep on going and be happy ...”
There was no sniggering; instead, there was a deep respect ; and one by one they made their statements about their personal experiences.
The next 30 minutes were deeply moving. Many student spoke – often with simple honesty. Now and then there was polite, spontaneous applause. As Mr D wrote later: The class were celebrating each other’s honesty; they were showering each other with compassion and with love.
One of the girls wrote:
The talk turned into a way for us to tell the class about how about the way we have personally matured. I saw that what some people had said was very hard for them, like (one boy) telling the class about how his dad died when he was only one, and (someone else) saying that her mum got very sick sometimes.
I had the opportunity to speak towards the end. I later recorded what had happened in my Journal. I began:
“In the film you've been studying, Stand and Deliver ...' and they are laughing at me, good naturedly I think, laughing at their old and forgetful teacher who has blundered ...
But I am determined to say what my heart is crying out at me to say:
'In Stand by Me, you've watched a group of kids get passed all the stuff that kids go on with - mucking around and stirring each other - all the crap stuff - and by the end of the film they are 'coming of age', they have learned a lot about themselves, and they understand what's important about their friendship with each other ...'
I pause, because I desperately want them to realise that something has happened, something of the greatest importance, in this drab Wednesday-period-6 classroom:
' And what you've done today - the way you have talked about your lives and what's important, and the way you have listened to each other with such respect - is exactly like the kids in the film...'
The next day I asked the students to write about the session in their Journals. In a way, I wanted to check that my perception – that this had been a moment of extraordinary importance – was shared by the students.
In the first piece I read, the student had written:
“Yesterday in English Mr D conducted a little Deep and Meaningful session about Stand by Me. It started off (we were) talking about the movie but then we began to talk about coming of age. I've never really seen the class so serious about something.”
One of the boys – A –has done a lot of growing up since the February fires of 2009, when his home burned to the ground, family friends died, and close family members - especially his grandparents - were lucky to get out alive. He wrote of the session with MrD:
“When we first started the conversation I thought it was going to be really boring, but as we kept talking it started to mean something to me. I started to think about how I came of age.... after my house burned down I started to learn the value of things and how to be strong for the family. After the fires I started to think that part of me became a man, and that I knew I had to be responsible from now on. ... Overall it was a great lesson.”
Another wrote: “Some people really opened up and told us how they matured. At the end of the lesson - I have never done this with a teacher - but I went up to Mr D and thanked him for the lesson.”
Now, in case you are beginning to think ‘This bloke sees the world through rose-coloured glasses’, let be admit that these responses were not universal. At least two of the twenty five students in the room had quite different ideas. One wrote:
It was very, very, very, very, boring. All I did was laugh at people and get bored ... Some bits were funny though, like when M hit J with the rubber thing (he means the duster) and when (one kid) said he tried to burn his parent’s room when he was five.
PS It was very, very, very, very, very boring.
As someone observed: You can’t please all of the people all of the time. But to me what happened in that classroom was great teaching. I felt privileged to be part of it, and proud of Mr.D, and of our Year 9 class that we shared for those 10 weeks.
That classroom had become, for a brief time, ‘a place where important conversations can take place.’ Great teaching is about having important conversations. It’s about creating contexts in which there is an increased likelihood that ‘important conversations’ can take place.
The challenge is to make such moments more common place in our classrooms, and to allow their effects to ripple out across a whole school. And to achieve this will require passion and patience – and as every teacher knows, at the end of a long term (like this one) these are in short supply.