Teachers know best

Let us go then, you and I,

When the Junior Cycle is spread out against the sky

like a teacher etherized upon a table…

(with apologies to Eliot)

One would be forgiven for being bored by the length of time we have spent discussing Junior Cycle, I sometimes think it would be best if I just changed the name of this blog altogether to something like HERE’S ANOTHER POST ABOUT THE DEBACLE OF JUNIOR CYCLE REFORM. So here’s another post about the debacle of Junior Cycle Reform.

An article appeared in the Irish Independent today, written by two academics who throw some mud at teachers on their way to suggesting that if only they shut up and accepted that their masters have their best interests in mind. Sit back and relax teachers, it’s just that you have no confidence in yourselves, if you allow the yellow fog of reform curl around you and help you to sleep, safe in the knowledge that you were wrong and they were right.

The article accuses teachers and their unions of all kinds of badness: censoring members’ access to professional development, having limited confidence in their own assessment skills, or failing to consult their members and anti-intellectualism, imagine!

To take these charges one by one, as a teacher likes to do: I’m not sure of the use of the word censor (censors I suppose assess don’t they?), direct might have been better, and if either of the authors had been following the story of this train crash from the beginning, they would know that there was CPD for English in the Spring of last year and it was a disaster. Those charged with the invidious task of informing teachers of what lay ahead were unable to answer questions on the way the English specification was to be implemented or indeed taught when it was introduced last September. The ASTI/TUI decision to ban attendance was taken after ballots of members, no CPD was offered for English or any other subject until last month, and when it was held no union members attended. Teacher unions would of course support CPD if they had confidence in the reform, in the absence of agreement on assessment and of standards, equity and fairness, issues introduced to the debate by teachers, by the way, that confidence is obviously undermined.

Saying teachers have limited confidence in their own assessment skills’ is bordering on, well ignorance, because it is because teachers have absolute confidence in the job they do assessing their student as whole people, not just exam candidates. As for assessing for state exams, we know the argument, and our teachers view has taken hold, passing assessment out of the state system into schools will not work in Ireland, even the Travers report seems to concede that point.

I won’t waste too much time on the charge of non-consultation, I wonder sometimes who consults these experts for their opinions, we know where we stand with our members, with 30,000 teachers on strike for two days and just this week they went out again on their lunchtime to show their support for our position.

It is their charge of anti-intellectualism that made me most angry when I read it earlier today. It is condescending for a start, but for a finish it suggests that teachers have their heads stuck in the sand on reform. Teachers are engaged, responsible, informed professionals, we know the ground we have marked out has not shifted, and that the Minister for Education has conceded that ground at every negotiation (no wonder she doesn’t want to engage again).It is pitiful and beneath contempt to suggest teachers fear change when we change all the time. Do we constantly need to justify ourselves? The ban on CPD isn’t about fear of the process, it is about wanting the reform to be thought through to a conclusion before we start to accept training for it. There will be time yet for a hundred visions and revisions, when they are done, will be ready for CPD.

This brings me to the suggestion made in the article that the DES would have been better served introducing the whole range of subjects at once, instead of piecemeal as proposed. There is something to be said for that. It would mean that all the preparatory work for all subjects would be ‘front-loaded’ and training on an agreed programme could be completed before it was introduced. that would require some forward planning of course, not the strong suit of Irish government, I’m afraid.

The final proposal in the article for ‘an intense, accredited course in the principles and practice of assessment in the service of teaching and learning for, say, three people from every school’ is so wide of the mark it undermines any credibility the authors have. Trickle-down CPD, where teachers are required to train their colleagues in what has been handed from on high is a recipe for division in schools, work overload for these intermediaries, who are teachers after all, not intellectuals (!?), but seriously, it shows their lack of understanding of how pressed schools are without the resources or supports required to give students the education they deserve and desire in 2015.

I understand that articles like this come and go, and that teachers will still be teaching in their classrooms. We all know that this debacle will end, as all disputes do. But teachers are in this for the long haul, it would do us all a service if experts without respect for or understanding of teachers’ concerns backed off and gave everyone room to listen to reason. Teachers know best.

Pic credit

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15 or 16 things that I do in my English class

This started as some self-reflection and planning for my Leaving Certificate English teaching. It’s an interesting exercise, to try to write down everything, or almost everything we do, and it takes ages! There may be something you can use here for your own class, or you may think I’m way off the mark, but here it is.

Timetabling
First we* take a look at the weekly timetable and break up the week. We make one day for Poetry and one day for Language. They also help as a constant: if it’s Monday it must be poetry! The other three are Reading days.

Poetry Day
On the dedicated Poetry day, we read one poem a week, six poems, with biography at the beginning and an overall exercise to finish. This might not sound like a lot of time on each poem but it works. It means I need to know everything I can about the poems, in case of questions, and I need to draw in the poem from the previous week to build an picture of the poets work. (This is a type of Comparative exercise too, comparing poems as texts). At the end of each class I set an exercise and they build up a collection of these which we discuss before they write a piece of their own.

No Notes
I don’t give notes though. They’ve got to listen, write and contribute to make the poems come alive, not everybody likes it, but everyone has to think or sink. I like to read four poets’ work in 5th Year.

Language Day
On the dedicated Language day (or Paper One day as it’s called), we begin with some basics around how a paragraph works. We look at the marking scheme very early on and very briefly to see how their papers will be marked and we always do a marking exercise with an exemplar (usually from the Examiner’s Report, or something I’ve copied from a previous year) for homework. This is always fun. I keep a file of things I’ve read that we can use and I’m turning more to Instapaper to keep some track on these. For example I have two reviews of the same restaurant which are wildly different (an unavailable online, sorry), I use them to teach language and register as well as how to include, or exclude, readers in your audience.

Blogging
The latest and greatest innovation on Language day is our blog. Each week someone is given the job of writing something either from an exercise or topic that we’ve been talking about or something that’s been on their minds. I read the post to the class on the day and they’re a great source of pride for the writer and inspiration for the students who have still to write. These posts are not marked. I insist on this because the Leaving Cert student is over-marked today, marked into oblivion. It’s good to have a place where they can escape this constant judgement and still know they’re doing something that helps their writing. It keeps the writing steady and helps us ‘build from the back’, writing more as the months go on. And everything they write counts.

Going Online
The students have access to the blog from home so they can log on themselves. We have a class gmail account and that’s useful for Google Docs too, more on that later.

Reading Days
On the Reading days in Fifth Year we read all the texts with the fewest pauses necessary. We do this because we can read them straight through for pleasure, not study.
When we’re finished reading them we spend a class or two talking about them and do an exercise called ‘What’s it all about?’ which is really about drawing out some general ideas on themes we can see or motifs we liked. It goes on the whiteboard and we photograph it.

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Comparative Work
Comparative choice should be up to students to a point, I chose the single text always, but the girls chose at least one comparative text. Often it’s the movie.
We always do a movie. It fast, it’s something with which most teenagers have a language fluency and you can see three easily if you’re being very strict about your planning.

Comparing
By the time we’ve read and settled on the three Comparative texts (a play, a novel,a movie) , we can start to find similarities between them. Here’s an example where we were still deciding which texts we’d include and the rough comparative exercise helped us chose. This is an Ordinary Level group where we were still deciding which movie to settle on and we’d chosen Juno and the Paycock and My Sister’s Keeper so fitting a movie with them was the exercise.

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I exert only minor influence on this whole process and it pays off when you can get a long conversation about ‘mothers vs fathers’ in the texts before they’ve even begun to think about Comparative Language. If we’re lucky we might have performed or seen the play in Transition Year if I’ve got my act together!

Comparative Sentence
What we’re driving at here is composing a Comparative sentence to draw the three texts together. It might look like this:

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But the picture doesn’t capture the discussion about what goes in an what we need to, sometimes reluctantly, drop.
It’s my job to keep the Comparative Modes in mind, or to fit the sentence with the modes later.

Marking
I always mark to the standard scheme, it’s a laborious task, and I’m very slow but I’m trying to improve! I sometimes hold on to work so I can return it when it serves a purpose, I might hold on to an initial response to a poets work and return it when we’re revising so the student can see the progress they’ve made or not made. The reason it takes ages it because good feedback is so important and I need to think about that and tailor it to the student. Without feedback, there’s no improvement, that’s all.

Single Text
The Reading classes are used to read the Single Text in 5th Year too. The first reading again is for enjoyment, there’ll be less enjoyment later, but I think we should try to enjoy one Shakespeare text before we pass out of Secondary School!
in 6th Year we use a double class (we’re lucky with the timetable in that we get an extra period in 6th Year) to read it for depth. It’s always a Shakespeare play, that’s a decision we made a long time ago and makes ordering books easier (we have a book rental scheme in our school). After reading it and probably seeing it on film in 5th Year we return to it for a close reading. I introduce character study and maybe a key theme at that stage. I like to have it read a second time by November. The third reading isn’t strictly chronological because we’ll cover characters, themes and motifs in more detail. All of this depends on which play we’re doing: Macbeth we can motor through, with Hamlet we have to take more care. It’s always better to get to see the play performed, but if it’s not possible, we try to see at least two if not three versions on film. YouTube clips can be great for character study and I put some of them up on the blog too.

Poetry Day Part 2
We also have a Poetry day in 6th year. If things go according to plan we should finish six poems from each of six poets by January of 6th Year. The we go back to each, the girls can decide the order for revision, and I give them some revision pointers and a seventh poem to tie some themes together. This is a shot of one Yeats revision class:

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Key Moments
When we reread the a Comparative texts in 6th Year we have that comparative sentence in mind, but now we’re search for key moments so it’s a closer reading. Each student has a list of key moments of her own, we can write better from our own work, I don’t provide a set list, it’s not my study, it’s personal to them. This almost always works, if the students are listening and contributing, but that’s teaching all over isn’t it?

Collaborative Writing
I’ve started to use Google Docs to collaboratively write sample answers. I used to spend hours writing them myself but now each student writes an opening paragraph on a topic we’ve chosen for practice. Then we switch everyone around, so someone different does the second paragraph. This can be done at home or in the Computer Room and I annotate it to sharpen the writing. Here’s a link to a sketchy, unfinished one:
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1-xLDYvJPmSICkB8sSjw7XF1iTHqzun8XPwKgJBwX49o/edit?usp=docslist_api

So.
This is what I do, and it works for me and (most of) my students but what I haven’t been able to put in here is how building a bond between teacher and student is crucial. I miss my classes when they’re finished, no doubt they don’t miss me but all of the above falls flat if you don’t include the students, give them a voice and make sure they’re comfortable expressing an opinion. I got very little chance to do that in school, my students will get every chance.

* It’s almost always we, hardly ever they or I, we’re in this together.

Feedback? It’s always good:

Twitter: @levdavidovic

Email: Natnif2@yahoo.ie

or comment below.

I’m mad as hell!

 

 

I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated and by the look of things I’m not alone. Educational change, needed, necessary, purposeful educational change in Ireland is being rolled out in an inadequate and disingenuous way.

At this stage I think we can all agree that the Junior Cert needs reform, no-one is proposing for a minute that the system we have now is ideal. Replacing it is a reasonable thing to do after 25 years, and you’d think after that length of time a well thought out and positive reform would be forthcoming but here we are six months before a new English course is to be introduced and there’s no news on assessment, there’s one day of CPD in advance and the ‘toolkit’ for designing and producing the new content isn’t online.
I’m frustrated. Over the last few years I’ve attended ASTI meetings on Junior Cycle Reform, we even added an extra day to our Convention last Easter on the issue. I’ve attended NCCA meetings on course content, and even a grand day out in Dublin Castle. At all those meetings the issues have been discussed: consultation, assessment, resources and equality for students have all been discussed. There’s still no detail on how we will assess our students and it’s not coming until after we start teaching the new course. There are still no details on investment in schools, in CPD or in ICT.
It is not enough to outline an assessment model and tell those expected to introduce it that the fine detail will ironed out after they’ve started teaching the new syllabus (notwithstanding the huge concerns many have with the proposed model). Neither is it enough to tell parents, students and teachers that the moderation is fail safe when the intention is assess and moderate all subjects in-school once the standardised tests (don’t get me started) in English, Irish and Maths are ‘bedded in’.
The frustration comes too from the dismissal of teacher concerns about external pressures from management, parental involvement, the comparisons that can be made between schools that have come to plague teacher in the US and England with a blithe shrug of the Minister’s shoulders. All these pressures are possible under these proposals but impossible under present system.
And this week I attended my one and only day of CPD before the new dispensation begins. One day! I have no problem with the people delivering the CPD, we can only feel sympathy for them when they are asked to field so many legitimate questions about what we being expected to deliver without the answers at their disposal. There was no aggression, there was just incredulity and a refusal to descend into resignation when the fine detail can’t be shared.
Time is running out given reform begins next September.
There has been so little preparation or consultation that it is laughable.
The new English course is a big improvement, but I’m tired of being told that it’s reason for being is it replaces the rote learning I’m drilling into my students every day. That’s an insult to any English teacher who stands in front of students having a conversation with students every day: a conversation about poetry, prose or fiction, a conversation about what it means to be a good writer, or how do communicate with each other. Did I say I was mad as hell already?
It has regrettably come to the stage where only a deferral of the current timeframe to consult teachers in schools properly will do to make sure the necessary professional development is taking place, to outline the resources that are going to be put in place to implement the framework and to illuminate the fine detail.
It’s clear this reform doesn’t have the confidence of teachers even those of us with an appetite for the changes but still do not know what is required of them. We have to take whatever action is required to have these issues addressed. Both the ASTI and TUI will ballot members in the coming weeks on what they want to do about it.