Danish visitors

From time to time I am asked to give presentations to and yesterday I did in The Hague so to a group of Danish teachers and head teachers who were interested to hear more about the form of bilingual education that we offer in our schools in The Netherlands.

I’d like to thank them for their active participation in my part of the day. I enjoyed the chance to share ideas and discuss future possibilities.

I promised to make my presentation material available as a reminder of some of the teaching activities I touched on.  The PowerPoint itself is quite brief, so also feel free to take a look elsewhere on this blog and in particular at the CLIL link higher up the page.

Click on the link below for the presentation:

danish-visitors-2017

Classes with split personalities

It is no secret in education that a class at the start of the day is often a different proposition to a class at the end of the day. My timetable this year has thrown up, for me at least, one of the clearest examples of this that I’ve had in fifteen years of teaching. I thought about changing the name of the class to give them some anonymity, but let’s not, its V3S. They know who they are, they also know already that I see them as something of a schizophrenic bunch (in the nicest possible way of course!).

splitclasses

I should perhaps start by saying that it is a class I like teaching a lot, twenty-seven fourteen and fifteen year olds. They are sociable, they are interested in more than just themselves, they are as a class really quite creative and able, and have a good feeling for humour. In fact, there haven’t been many classes that I’ve laughed so much with. All really enjoyable character traits for a class, especially for one that is actually built up of several quite distinctive ‘groups’, groups where the interaction between them is fairly modest.

But having said all that, the difference in the mind-set of the class for my last lesson of the day on a Thursday afternoon and then when I see them again for the first lesson on Friday is regularly quite huge. Friday morning can feel like being in a public library, Thursday afternoon like teaching in a market place on a Saturday afternoon.

It almost feels like I have two different classes, conscientious hard workers and a disorganised rabble. Part of my task as a teacher is obviously to try and ensure that in both modes V3S continue to be productive. Generally, I can achieve this, although if I was to stop to analyse it a carefully I’m sure I’d discover that more was being produced in that second lesson, but that has to be weighed against the verbal language production in the first one.

I mention the verbal production point because as well as the art content of my lessons, verbal language production is also important. I am after all an art teacher teaching my lessons in English to help these Dutch pupils to develop and improve their English. With this in mind I am reluctant to impose silence in the classroom, especially when it is a class where we have carefully cultivated the use of English as being the absolute norm and the class has responded so well in playing their part in this.

But oh, the chatter on a Thursday afternoon can at times be quite baffling. I recently complimented one of the boys for managing to talk continuously in English throughout the lesson, not straying into Dutch on a single occasion. He was, if I can be a little critical for a moment, talking absolute nonsense, and doing it nonstop for sixty minutes, but he was doing it in English!

The factors that come together to produce this sort of apparently split personality class are varied, the timetable has thrown up art followed by physical education on a Thursday afternoon, this generates a sort of ‘release’ after a morning of more ‘academic’ lessons in the morning. They are perhaps a little tired, and when I see them again at 8.20 on a Friday morning dare I say that they are still a little dozy?

All in all, it’s not too much of a big deal for me, however it does perhaps highlight the educational issue of good timetabling. Someone of course has to teach the difficult classes last thing on a Friday afternoon, just as long as they are not teaching the same group at the end of Wednesday and Thursday too!

Opinionated pupils….unlocking and articulating a standpoint?!

Teenagers have an opinion about everything it would sometimes seem. A teacher who is unjustly tough on them, why the training session at the football club is more important than their homework, how their timetable could be better organised and well, how Susan is wearing something that she just shouldn’t wear.

Snoopy

However trying to squeeze an opinion out of a pupil about matters of lesson content is sometimes a lot harder than you might think.  It is quite a central part in much of the teaching that I do. Cultural education involves a great deal of subjective evaluation, you are allowed to have an opinion, and I positively encourage it.

And yet, within a large part of secondary education we neglect this important ability of giving our opinion and being rewarded for how well we articulate it.  Instead we focus on testing that proves we know something or understand how to use it. I understand of course why and how this situation arises as we aim to test and measure academic abilities and understanding, this in an educationland that is constantly driven to record and classify pupil performance. But in this rush towards producing hard documentation the value of encouraging young people to give their own view and interpretation often gets completely snowed under.

In my own work as a teacher I often find asking pupils to step outside of this system is sometimes surprisingly difficult. There is often a nervousness to open up and simply to say what they think, even when we are on quite familiar ground to them, like giving an opinion about a film that we have watched in class. There is the constant “what does the teacher want me to say?” question lurking in the background. In a sense what is most often important to me is that they stop waiting for me to ask them questions and start asking themselves questions and discovering how to develop and manoeuvre a line of thought into interesting areas where they can present their own ideas and articulate them.

To help reach this point I’m noticing that my lesson material is increasingly built upon collections of short, open questions that help them to discover for themselves what sort of questions are useful to ask and which ones take them into areas that help them to formulate and justify their own opinions. The questions are often quite generic, but that’s perhaps the point, they have to discover for themselves which ones are more relevant and fruitful when trying to explain a standpoint. Ultimately I hope that the pupils will have the ability and confidence to ask their own questions, an ability that will serve them well as they move from being teenagers to young adults.

Incidentally, if there actually a Susan in one of my classes with interesting fashion sense, it might well be interesting one day to try and write a similar list of generic questions to analyse her choice in clothes.  That way we might discover more about the basis for such strong and judgmental opinions in this area!

So why do teachers want smaller classes?

Many of the classes I teach are groups of thirty pupils. Much is written in the media about the significance of large classes and the negative effect it has on the quality of education offered to pupils. My own personal opinion is that thirty is for most teachers in most situations simply too many.

As a teacher of a practical subject that involves an assortment of materials, setting up at the start of a lesson and clearing up at the end this is definitely the case. Add to this that fact that teachers are encouraged to offer lesson material that reflects varied abilities in a class, allowing individuals to play to their own strengths, resulting in even more one on one teaching being necessary and, well, I’m sure you get the picture.

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With this being the prevalent situation there is one particular type of assignment that often falls victim to this pressure of numbers. That assignment being the three dimensional assignment.  Whether you are working with clay, wood, papier-mâché or some other material, the sheer logistics of it is hard enough in a one hour lesson, let alone when you are trying to shepherd and guide thirty thirteen year olds…..and this is of course before we even get onto the potential safety issues that arise from such a group working with band saws, sanding disks, knives or other tools.

With all this in mind it can be incredibly refreshing when through a quirk in the timetable you unexpectedly end up with a radically small class, as is the case this year with my group of 14 year olds in 2hvq. It is a class of just sixteen children and has opened the door on a chance to try out a few things that in a larger class I might not have embarked on.

With a larger class the temptation is to often rely on assignments that the whole class can work through step by step together. This is all well and good but such an approach often places limitations on the creativity that pupils themselves bring to the project. My smaller 2hvq class has allowed me to put such limitations aside and we have worked on an insect building project that grown and developed through ideas that the group themselves have brought to the table. A large range of materials have been used, conventional and found materials. The resulting work has been surprising to watch develop and interesting to see just how engaged the class has been.

So why would I generally like smaller classes? It really is pretty simple, my pupils would be better served by it. In most lines of work you deal with one customer at a time, in teaching it is often thirty, it would be fine if they all wanted the same thing at the same time, but believe me this is not the case, and in the art room I wouldn’t want it to be either.