An educational luxury…..a little extra time

Twice in two weeks I’ve had the chance to work with groups in a workshop situation. There’s nothing so unusual about that, but in both cases the workshops have been for unusually long sessions.  Last week I worked with a group of twenty 12 year olds for a seven hour long art, language and creativity workshop (yes, with a couple of breaks!). Today I have had four hours with colleagues to try and use an afternoon to create new lesson material that combines lesson content and language learning challenges in imaginative ways.

The length of both workshop sessions are relatively unusual in educational contexts,  where so much is cut up into small pieces to fit a timetable or simply to make sure all subjects get their allotted amount of time.  Both children and staff are constantly switching, readjusting and having to start again. It is a system that generates a lot of wasted time and a great deal of disruption.  Breaks are of course important to refresh and clear the mind a little, but the normal school day (or the average conference day for that matter) it does at times feel like overkill. These are the reasons why these more extended workshop sessions feel so different and offer other possibilities.

For the children last week we were able to extensively play a series of language games, combine them with practical art activities and written assignments. The pupils got completely involved and spent the day consistently speaking English (their second language) after only having had a couple of weeks of bilingual education. The workshop had something of a pressure cooker effect, intensive input, active involvement and language rich output. Yes, we were all exhausted at the end of the day, but there is nothing wrong with that once in a while!

Today’s workshop with colleagues was rather different. Four hours together essentially with the aim of producing teaching material that can be put into use in the forthcoming weeks and months. This too, like last week, required energy and focus. But the unusual difference today is that we have been able to have time to work together. The more usual format being a workshop that presents a collection of ideas, the workshop ends, everyone goes home and you may (or may not) get a chance to return to workshop content a few weeks later when you get a moment, and that moment is very unlikely to be with your colleagues. Again, as so often in education the the breaks and disruption get in the way and potentially constructive work is lost as a result.

school-bellInterestingly, the school where I teach, are currently looking at the merits of personalized learning. It is a bit too early to say whether this will ultimately help in this area.  But it certainly will be interesting to see if it might be possible, in a readjusted school day, to see a timetable that might help in this area.  Could it result in more scope for pupils to work on particular subjects in more extended ways when it is possible to do so and perhaps be a little the slaves to the school bell?

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Learning through not understanding? – CLIL (content and language integrated learning) art project

Yesterday I worked together with twenty three twelve year old pupils and two of their teachers (thanks Roderick and Wap!) on an long (8 hours!) and intensive art and language workshop day.  For the children this was just the start of their second week at secondary school and perhaps more significantly the start of the second week where these Dutch school children are getting most of their lessons taught to them in English.

This was the reason that I was brought in to lead the workshop. As a native speaker of English I can provide a kind of immersion day where all the pupils hear is English.  It’s a big language challenge for the children, and for me something of a challenge too as I try to hold back from allowing a single word of Dutch to slip out!

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We hear a lot about short spans of attention in the children of today and such a day as yesterday kind of puts that theory to the test a little. The children are more used to switching from one activity, subject, teacher or classroom at regular intervals, how will they cope with being in one room, with one project and one project leader (supported by a couple of others)?

Well on the experience of yesterday I would say just fine.  Yes the overall project was broken down into a number of smaller parts.  This is important for boosting and re-boosting the energy and focus of the class. Also important is that they could see what they (as a group) were achieving, this is undoubtedly a luxury of an art project, but a quality that surely can be simulated in other subject areas.  But above all, the opportunity not to be continuously interrupted by the school bell announcing that the class must clear up and move on to their next lesson offers new chances for ambitious work and prevents so much time being wasted in the day.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we should do away with the fragmented timetable of ten or twelve different subject areas, but I would certainly be a fore stander for more occasional project days, as long as the lesson material, plans and teaching are strong enough to maintain a greatly extended lesson.

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Another interesting point of reflection after a day like yesterday is the question of what exactly is going on in the heads of the pupils on such a language ‘immersion’ day.  I think that the results that the group made yesterday show that the group as a whole understood the project pretty well.  But I am realistic enough to acknowledge that these twelve year olds in their first week of lessons that are being taught in their second language are likely to struggle at times. Yesterday I translated nothing into Dutch to make it clearer or easier to understand. This approach forces a couple of things to occur:

  1. They have to listen hard, probably harder than they have listened to a teacher before
  2. They have to learn to cope with missing or failing to understand some parts of the instructions that I give
  3. They inevitably and importantly starting to ‘train’ their ear in the listening skills that are going to be crucially important in the coming months

Points one and three are obviously very desirable elements of this sort of teaching strategy.  The second one sounds rather less positive.  Although as an adult who has learnt to speak a second language since leaving school this kind of ‘joining up the dots’ in speech is a skill I remember being so important to me. It is about having the confidence to make little conceptual leaps to link up elements of content when sections of language interpretation are missed for whatever reason.  Put me in a noisy environment, where everyone is speaking Dutch and I still find myself having to consciously try to do this.

Teenage stage fright

I’m not a natural performer, I’m not particularly extrovert, in fact I would describe myself as an introvert in most situations. Teaching, as many teachers would say is something of an eight hour a day forced performance where you play the role that is needed at that particular moment.  That might be angry one moment and calm and considerate the next.  After years of teaching I’m comfortable with this role and can carry it off pretty well. Put me in an unfamiliar situation and the more introvert side of my character soon surfaces. With this in mind I do have a little sympathy with the nervously shy behaviour my fourth year (15-16 year old) pupils displayed this afternoon.

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A colleague had been able to organize the visit to school from a group of dancers and rappers from Rotterdam. The afternoon was divided into two halves, first a workshop in relatively small groups followed by a show given by our guests. Due to my lesson timetable I was unable to take a look at the workshop part, but I do know that the pupils were divided into small groups and were able to get some professional instruction in an area that they had chosen such as flamenco, hip hop, rap, theatre or sung performance. However I was able to watch the performance the visiting dancers themselves gave.

My own preparation for both workshops and show in my lessons had been limited, mostly due to the fact that I didn’t know too much about what to expect.  I had had the chance to show some fragments from the excellent Wim Wenders film Piña about the German choreographer Pina Bausch. I can’t pretend to be particularly knowledgeable in the area of contemporary dance, but do enjoy watching shows when I can, and on this occasion the choice of Piña as a warm up was certainly not inappropriate.

The show that was performed mixed music, voice and an assortment of dance styles. It was performed in extremely close proximity to the pupils, with the dancers on a number of occasions almost landing on the laps of the pupils sitting in the front row.

As a teacher in such circumstances I always find myself split in my attention, I what to watch the show, but I always find myself drawn to watching my pupils to observe their reactions to what they are seeing. This dance show was no different, how engaged are the teenage public? What are they going to take away from this experience?

Dance for a teenage audience is an interesting confrontation. Often it doesn’t have a particularly easy narrative line to follow and in its way it is quite abstract. But to balance that it does have physicality and great control, both factors that most young people are able to engage with and value. The performance my pupils saw today fitted these criteria well and I found myself watching across the lines of faces to see their response.

On the whole the response was good. Two flamenco dancers were an important part of the show and many sat transfixed by the control of the flicking wrist movements and sweeps of the skirts following the dancer. For many in the audience a completely new experience I suspect, sitting watching a dance being performed for them for perhaps the very first time. For some in the audience though, they seemed to find it a little difficult, they seemed a little unsettled by it, particularly one group of boys. I shall ask them when I see them next what their thoughts were. I do have my own ideas…for teenage boys, the ones who like generally to try an assert their place in the class with their ‘street wise’ masculinity, maybe watching young women dance in close proximity was all just a little too much. It was subsequently very interesting to watch the swing in their attention when two of the young male dancers took to the stage. Male role models making the difference perhaps? Maybe, a more familiar hip hop style of dance? There are perhaps a number of factors, certainly worth a classroom discussion.

At the end of the performance the pupils were invited a group at a time to join their workshop leader on the stage to show the rest of their peer group what they and been doing during the first hour. It was at this point that the often quiet mouthy fifteen year olds that I teach seemed to become shy little rabbits diving for cover. Why the timidity, when normally in the classroom there is so little timidity?  Another reason certainly for more classroom discussion, but also something to work on in the future. We all like our comfort zones, I can relate to that. I too would certainly be nervous about making such a public step in an area of unfamiliarity. But the thrill of pushing yourself over that line is also worth experiencing and something I’ll be looking for strategies to do just that in the coming months.