Friday, 10 July 2009

From drama to real school change

During this summer holiday I have kept watching reruns of the BBC school drama 'Waterloo Road' every afternoon. Once a teacher, always a teacher I guess, but on top of that the series is simply too addictive to skip.

This week it was one episode from series 3 that made me start thinking once again about one of my favourite complaints, changing schools. A new head teacher was unexpectedly appointed to Waterloo Road, with the agenda of radically reorganizing the whole establishment. To implement any changes, she also started scrutinizing the practices of the staff, because according to her "there is no place for lazy and incompetent teachers in my school".

It dawned on me that in schools like mine, with a long-standing permanent staff, most of the teachers have secured quite wide comfort zones for themselves over the years. Although I wouldn't go as far as calling them lazy, they certainly feel they have the right to protect these zones at any cost. In our system, once teachers are given tenure, they can keep that post till they retire without having to develop or change anything in their teaching. No school inspections. Qualified teachers' competence is trusted and and they are highly autonomous, which, in most cases, gives them free hands to innovate and improvise. The other side of the coin is, of course, that the system also condones the attitude of the likes of Mr Budgen in Waterloo Road, whose "cynically disenchanted" work ethos is "I will only do what I'm being paid for", ie. I alone can decide how much or little effort I make for as long as I put in the required hours and paperwork.

Unless the head teacher, or school leadership team, or local authority strongly starts to require changes, there is the threat of a school becoming totally stagnant and isolated from the fast-paced surrounding society, with teachers stuck in a rut of perpetuating the style of their own teachers in the last century. Not many school heads are brave enough to start insisting on changes in teaching styles. Many of them are concerned about alienating their staff with the excuse that teachers would interpret their proposals as if the head was claiming that they had been doing it wrong all along, and consequently feel their professionalism undermined. Plus there is the further requirement for aging nations to try and entend people's working careers as long as possible. If it's an individual teacher who displays enthusiasm to inspire others to adopt new approaches, this is typically crushed by, if not outright resistance, at least the total indifference of the complacent majority.

A determined and dynamic head, like Ms Mason in Waterloo Road, would definitely be terribly unpopular among most of my colleagues. What I would like to question, though, is whether teachers can be competent if they don't feel the need to learn anything new about their profession after graduating from university. In the private sector, they would soon find themselves out of work! Maybe there should be more Ms Masons around to shake schools!

Which reminds me of a conversation I had with a Spanish student in June, when I visited our partner school there. This student had visited our school for a student exchange, but was currently in his first year of ICT studies at college. I had kept in touch with him as he had come across as a very astute young man, and had also helped me with another school project. Over a cup of coffee we started talking about school and education, and very soon he quite sharply pointed out that, in his opinion, there should be a strict age limit to how long one could work as a teacher. I queried his reasoning for this apparent 'agism' of his, and he maintained that younger teachers would reach students much better, as they lived 'in the same world' as them. I was quite taken aback, and took his criticism very personally. How could he say that to me, since I considered myself as still rather an 'in-with-the-times' teacher and young at heart? I tried to elaborate how school grading puts teachers in a position of power that easily leads to the 'us and them' mentality, and students failing to see teachers' good intentions of genuinely caring and trying to help them. On the other hand, I did agree that age is a problem for teachers if it turns them into condescending besserwissers unable to listen to, appreciate and learn from young people's points of view. Part of his argument was that too many teachers work rather more like civil servants than educators with a true calling. I couldn't but agree that, unfortunately, many counterparts of 'Mr Budgen' can be found in real life. Then again, should teachers be expected to be self-sacrificing entrepreneurs at the present salary levels in many schools? Why are so many clever mathematicians deserting teaching for more lucrative jobs in tech companies, for example? Where to find justification to the maintenance of the costly, and apparently outdated, state school system in the present economic situation? And so the dialogue went on.

In the end, we started laughing that actually the whole premise of the age argument had been disproved by our very meeting and fruitful sharing of ideas. As we parted, we agreed to become Facebook friends, and I started praising the user-friendliness of many new social media tools for us 'oldies'. His final comment: "You know, it takes young people like me to develop these tools so that old people like you can use them!" Touché!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

A unit of French and presentation skills

Presentation skills are a largely neglected area in Finnish education. Even people in quite high positions sometimes give appallingly poor presentations. This is why, I am trying to incorporate presentation units in my language classes. The chance to present at some international conferences has urged me to keep learning better and better practices myself, which I then model and share with the students. I also regularly organize student exchanges abroad, during which students are always asked to present something in the host school. What better way for further, authentic practice outside the classroom!

I teach both English and French. All of our high school students study compulsory English, but French is an optional language, whose popularity has been steadily decreasing in the last decade. It's a real pity, since, in my opinion, knowing more than one foreign language significantly widens anyone's horizons. On the other hand, I must admit, the decreasing popularity of French works in my favour at times, too. If there are enough students for the administration to give the green light to starting the group, I usually get a nice, small and highly motivated group to teach for three years. Last year I started to teach a group of only 8 girls! With such a small group, I get to know each student's strengths and weaknesses much better, and consequently am able to give them more individual attention, scaffolding and help. What's more, the atmosphere is such a class is very informal and relaxed.

In one course we were studying the French-speaking world and after introducing the concept of 'la francophonie', I wanted the students to work in pairs, choose one country and prepare a presentation on it to practice their language and presentation skills and also to share what they had learned with their classmates. I had done this before, but been rather disappointed at the outcome each time - despite a lot of guidance and coaching. Students typically consulted Wikipedia or relied on the first hit in Google, copying lots of boring and rather uninteresting statistical information, such as land area, population, capital city, its population and so on. Lots and lots of numbers and figures, which, you may know, can be rather a nightmare to pronounce fluently in French, if you are not a native speaker - and even harder for the non-native audience to comprehend! This time, I wanted to try something different that would make the project more useful and enjoyable for everybody.

I came up with the idea that, instead of a factual lecture about a country, each pair should imagine that they had made a trip to the country in question and, on return, they should show their friends their photos and tell about their experiences. We spent one whole double lesson putting a rubric, guidelines and evaluation matrix together. It was very rewarding, and the students thought long and hard what things should be evaluated and how. We decided that each student would evaluate the other pairs' presentations, but I as the teacher would have the right to decide on the final grades. I emphasized two things: the content should be aimed at the audience of their classmates, in other words should appeal to young people (ie. no lists of boring numbers!). This meant that after researching their country info, they should then apply it cleverly to tell an interesting account of their journey, while at the same time teaching the others about the country and culture. Secondly, whatever resources they used they should rewrite their script using the level of French that they knew - and their friends would understand (ie. no copy-paste of incomprehensible, long words that they wouldn't even be able to pronounce properly!).

For the presentation, each pair prepared PowerPoint slides to clarify their spoken speech and bring it more to life. We looked at Presentation Zen, for example, and I showed them some of my conference presentations as a model of avoiding text and bullet points, and concentrating on engaging pictures instead to support their story and facilitate their classmates' comprehension. Naturally, we also studied copyright and Creative Commons to help them find photos that they could safely use - even though we didn't even publish their work online. In the end, most of them ended up using the advanced CC search on Flickr, which was something quite new to most of them, to my surprise. For citation reference I used my own blog, where I often use CC photos from Flickr. I was even more amazed that some students (at 16) had never used PowerPoint before! But with peer support, they got the hang of it in no time at all. This to me, is an indication that there does exist a huge generational gap here, where most youngsters are much more open, fearless and prepared to adopt new technology and jump in to make use of it.

The students started preparing their work while I was away at a conference, and as usual, there was no money to pay for a substitute, so students had to work independently on their own without a teacher. Luckily I managed to book our small computer room for them for these lessons, so they could use the time efficiently, and contact me through email or text message in case of unsurmountable problems. I have a wiki for my French group where I post course plans, homework, sometimes extra assignments, and useful links. This time, I gave each pair some online links to get them started with their country researches. (Sorry about the Finnish on the wiki, but my French students are not yet advanced enough for me to use only French.)

Although nothing new as such, I was very pleased with this unit, and students, too, gave positive feedback. Each pair managed to prepare an engaging presentation with colourful slides. They talked about the journey there and back (how they travelled and how they felt about it), they mentioned some interesting sights, or some imaginary people they had met, talked about food, played some music from the country, described what souvenirs they brought back, what they liked and disliked, unexpected incidents and surprising cultural phenomena. All of this, could be nicely presented with the vocabulary and language level that they had reached. Apart from language, lots of different skills were practised, students were very self-directed in their work, and as the icing on the cake, it was fun, too!

In the evaluation matrix we had the following categories:
1) French language - eg. comprehensibility, pronunciation, fluency 30 %
2) Presentation skills - eg. contact with the audience, not just reading! 30 %
3) Contents - eg. telling an interesting, original and well-structured story 20 %
4) Technical realization - eg. effective use of PowerPoint 20 %

Thanks to this, and the fact that I compiled the matrix together with the students, they really knew what was expected of them, and they took ownership of the whole process - from laying the groundwork to planning, preparing and finally presenting with confidence and pride.