Dealing with Divas

Yesterday a new learner joined my class.  As soon as she walked through the door with a sullen look on her face I knew she was going to be a challenge.  I hate it when that happens because it colours my interactions with that student from then on, I feel like I’m on the back foot automatically.  Last year I had a great experience with a (male) student like that who turned out to be the most dedicated (bot unfortunately not the most able) in the group.  So I’m hopeful that this new student will be another case like that – if I can only get to her and convince her of the need to care we’ll be fine.

So here’s the description:

She walked in and sat down conveniently hidden behind another student.  I paid no mind to that, but it was telling.  I always think that a student’s choice of where to sit tells you a lot about them as a student, as a person even.  She chose to hide, she didn’t want to be noticed.  It soon became clear that she didn’t want to be noticed because she was hell-bent on not doing any work.  She giggled while I was talking, I told her “yeah I’m pretty comical” and smiled, she replied with a sullen “I wasn’t laughing at you” so I told her “that’s nice but try and keep your funny conversations outside”, which may, or may not have been a mistake.  I’d much rather they laugh with me than around me, if you see what I mean.

I started with an overview of text-types, and a little matching game to show the language devices associated with persuasive and instructional texts.  My idea of a game and my students’ idea of a game is apparently totally different.  I’m thinking of doing something a little more open to fun next week – a game involving them being given a random product to try and sell to each other, without using the name of the product itself, and other students to guess what it is based on the sales pitch.

I always try to ensure that I include a writing task in every lesson (obviously this can include a comprehension or a listening task with written answers) because I believe in having written evidence of the extent of a student’s learning at the end of every session.  This week was only the second week of the year so I decided to task them with using instructional language to produce a simple recipe, as simple as beans on toast if necessary.  Happily, most students got on with this task as directed, eventually, after asking me at least 14 times each what they were supposed to do, but this one student, we’ll call her Diva Danni (not her real name of course) decided that she would rather go and talk to a friend at the other side of the room.  So I stood behind her and breathed over her shoulder for a bit.  She said “I hate it when people look over my shoulder” I replied “I hate it when my students don’t so what I asked them to”.  She got the hint.  I even got some work out of her.

So the issues.

Clearly Diva Danni is going to be a challenging student.  She is not motivated, either because she finds education dull, not challenging enough or too challenging.  I think she likes to be the puppetmaster so my task is definitely to not let her run the roost but also to find ways of motivating her and aiming the challenge of learning at the right level.  I hope I’ve made a good enough impression on the rest of the class so far for them to partically convince her to work with me rather than against me, the ongoing issue here is to make sure I keep my classes relevant, interesting and informative.  I think group work may suit her, so I’ll endeavour to use activities that can be done cooperatively and try to put her in a three with one of her friends and another learner but to continually swap them around so that no one learner can feel like a constant outsider.  I need to strike a balance here between getting her to make new friends and allowing her a comfort zone.  I’ll also try to avoid singling her out because, although I’ll revise my opinion on new evidence, I get the feeling that she wouldn’t be comfortable being in the limelight.  I should also make some effort to chat with her about her work and so on, so that I can get to know how she ticks a little better.

Next week I’ll try to evaluate these interventions and see what tweaks or different approaches need to be made.

There also seems to be ongoing chatting about non-work matters which really needs to be nipped in the bud.  As with most groups of the 16-18 age band, there are hardcore of chatters who like to sit at the back.  This week I dealt with it by spending a lot of time standing over them but as there are other learners who need my help and two sort-of corridors of seating it will be difficult.  Unfortunately it’s an IT room so rearranging seating is not an option and I would really rather avoid moving them around.  I think I’ll try to deal with this by instructing all learners to come to the front of the room in a semi-circle while I speak and actually teach, then send them back to the computer desks to do writing tasks.  This means a much stricter order of teaching than I particularly like but does mean quicker uptake on task directions and a greater opportunity for me to directly speak with the learners as a group.  It might also help shuffle them around a bit and avoid cliqueyness appearing.  Again, evaluation next week.

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Kids, blogs and literacy

Carrington, V. (2005) ‘I’m Dylan and I’m not going to say my last name’: some thoughts on childhood, text and new technologies

This article is about children’s response to new technologies, specifically the media response to children and technology and the children’s own views.  What can children’s blogs tell us about the way we percieve childhood in a “post-traditional” world?

Carrington shows that childhood is a process of creating a self-narrative via reflexivity; that is, individualisation in recent years has led to people creating their own narratives independent of traditional roles.  She values Literacy skills but argues that the approach to literacy in schools must change because students now have access to information unmediated by adults either through schooling or books, and that their online literate interactions span all physical settings they find themselves in.

The research was undertaken using google to find articles on children and the internet, and also blogs by children.  Two articles were chosen based upon their place at the top of the google search, two blogs were also chosen on the same basis.  Carrington uses text analysis to look at all of the material and makes judgements which show the different attitude to technology held by newspapers and by children themselves.

Carrington is writing about an area which has had relatively little previous research but manages to reference many of her assumptions to sociological and educational research.  A few assumptions are unreferenced and she seems to rely upon British and American research.

The evidence produced was a qualitative analysis and evaluation of the different approaches to technology and children.  In particular, she found that newspapers are likely to be hysterical and vastly overplay the dangers associated with children’s online lives while the children themselves are less concerned and take basic privacy precautions such as withholding their names or pictures.

Carrington drew the conclusion that children’s online activities are part of their ongoing “self-narrative” that should be taken strongly into account when policy is decided.

My Thoughts

Of course I agree.  Personal experience indicates that when literacy is treated as the study of artefact text – that which is set-in-stone, the answers are correct or incorrect with no real grey area, writing is a process of only reacting to other people’s work, information is controlled or withheld – this often disengages children.  They begin to see the process of acquiring literacy skills as an endless dreary slog through moralistic, flowery text that is promoted, like vegetables, as good for you but very boring.  This is so wrong I don’t know where to begin!

Most institutions are now using software like Blackboard and Moodle to bring learning to their students.  In the future, literacy will and should be geared more towards the use of this and future technology to help students treat text as an opportunity to express their own opinions, gaining feedback in a much more efficient way than the days when you’d wait several weeks for feedback on written work – technology allows us as teachers to feed back on work as soon as we have marked it rather than waiting for the next lesson (and then probably forgetting to pile it all into the cart because we have that much else to cart around!)

So using technology has the potential to engage students, improve feedback, let us give them more and more effective homework, and let us carry much less paper around.

Win/win really.

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22nd Sept – Neutrinos, eyyy?

So, it was announced yesterday that CERN have found evidence of particles travelling faster than light*, and everybody is going mental about it. On the one hand there is huge skepticism for the findings including speculation about the sensitivity of the instruments and the accuracy of their placing. These could easily be the cause of the discrepancy. On the other hand are those who proclaim doom (usually from the treetops or from behind a big wooden board) that the findings will destroy the standard model of physics and we’ll be *wail* plunged into the dark ages. Right, of course.

Firstly, even if the findings are corroborated they still conflict with plenty of other observations, particularly observations of neutrinos leaving supernova and arriving at the same time as photons**.

So, two explanations fit well with Einstein’s theory of relativity*** as well as current quantum theories as far as I can ascertain. I must admit I am not an expert here, would love some physicists to come along and give their views. The first is that the neutrinos went through a wormhole. This would be very worrying and of course, almost certainly not true. Still, did the LHC make microscopic black holes after all? (of course not!)

The other explanation is roughly as outlandish. If gravity is a force that exists mostly in a different dimension than we do, which would explain why it is so weak compared to the weak force and electromagnetism, then neutrinos are fair game to mostly exist in another. They are very light and interact with almost nothing. They are known as “ghost” particles. Might it not be the case that they spent part of their travelling time in a dimension in which velocity is the same but gravity and/or time operate slightly differently?

This leads me to my next outlandish suggestion. What if… Dimensions are a spectrum like light. We can only pick up the dimensions we are aware of because our material exists mostly in the dimensions we perceive but a little in the dimension gravity is stronger in and it may be possible for us to build something that perceives that dimension that corresponds with infra-red light.

That would be pretty cool. As always, comments and criticism always welcome.




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22nd Sept – I Promised

Gao, F. and Shum, M. (2010) Investigating the role of bilingual teaching assistants in Hong Kong: an
exploratory study

My thoughts… Well, first of all this study is a qualitative account of the roles of two bilingual teaching assistants in a school in Hong Kong. The justification of this study was interesting to read, particularly as I work as a teaching assistant in a couple of different kinds of ESOL framework courses. I am not bilingual, but I do have a solid understanding of English and speak Japanese to a high intermediate level (admittedly a bit rusty at the moment) so I’m familiar with the kinds of challenges language learners face in a total immersion environment. Thus I have a slightly different take on the needs of the language learner.

One of the environments I work in is a standard ESOL class made up of students from all over the world, if I had to put an average class makeup on this I would guess 60% Afghani, 20% Pakistani and 20% everyone else. Sometimes my role is to explain British cultural norms in a culturally, religiously, linguistically simple, sensitive way. I do not feel that I need to speak the learners’ own language to do this. By the time we hit subjects of sufficient complexity to need to explain cultural positions, the learners have a strong enough vocabulary to understand this in English. Idioms can be explained in a linguistically simplistic manner and taught as set phrases, without necessarily going into the grammatical structures or historical derivation of the phrase in question.

I’m also skeptical of the claim that bilingual teaching assistants are required to control learners’ use of their first languages in the classroom. Even if we can assume that the learners all speak the same first language, which is unlikely given the composition of the school investigated, one of the first words they will have learned in an immersion environment of the target language is the equivalent of “shhh”. Another of the ESOL environments I work in is a community class of Pre-Entry ESOL learners, all of whom’s first language is Punjabi. I do not speak a word of Punjabi, and yet I manage rather well to keep the chatter under control.

One aspect of that classroom I cannot manage, and neither can the teacher who also speaks no Punjabi, is complex messages that need to be passed on and understood fully by the learners on occasion. This situation is mitigated by two factors. The first is the mixed level of listening and speaking ability within the group, there are a couple who are very able in this respect and can act as interpreters. The second is the school’s … I forget her job title… she arranges classes for parents and keeps them up to date with their children’s progress. Anyway, she is a Punjabi speaker so, when available, can give necessary messages.

Another issue is that it is not mentioned whether the teaching assistant had the same first language as the students. The study mentioned the demographics of Hong Kong as a whole and of the school but did not talk about the demographics of the individual classrooms.

It strikes me that the study didn’t talk to learners at all, surely the most important perceptions to note are the students’ own perceptions? They are, after all, the ones the bilingual teaching assistants are supposed to be helping.

Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2010) Learning in the home and at school: how working class children ‘succeed against the odds British Educational Research Journal; Jun2010, Vol. 36 Issue 3, p463-482

I read this study a few days ago while randomly looking through the journal for interesting studies. Just for the sake of practice, I’m going to use the questions in the study guide to look at this paper.

So, the article looks at the differences between children who succeed despite their odds of success being low in light of traditional measures, such as ethnicity, household income and social class. You may have noticed that the educational enquiry reader makes a big fuss about these factors as having been the basis of most research over the past couple of decades.

The point of this study was to find why some children seem to succeed in education despite apparently having the whole world against them, we know they do, of course, but it is unknown how a good HLE helps the child. The author is clearly in favour of educational equality. He values students as individuals and also their parents as potential informal tutors.

The study used an existing database (EPPE) to choose participants who had a low socio-economic status, a high or moderate HLE and high achievement. Some of those identified were selected for interview, as well as a control group of low SES/low HLE. This is a small scale qualitative study focussing on the qualities successful parents and children believe are important to academic achievement.

This study uses previous research heavily, indeed it is built upon the results of a large scale, quantitative longitudinal survey so can be taken as an attempt to clarify this survey’s results. Another positive is that the researchers used worldwide rather than local data in some instances.

The research produced evidence which elaborated on the quantitative results of the EPPE. It used the successful children and their families to explain why some children do well despite socio-economic factors and to evaluate perceptions of attitudes and interventions and their effectiveness both objectively and subjectively.

I think the study did effectively answer the “how” question and, at least in terms of perceptions, the “why”. The effect this will have on my own theories and practice is that I will pay more attention to the aspects of my work which aim to raise parental involvement in their children’s educations and will frame my advice in terms of effort rather than ability a little bit more emphatically.

The scope of the research was limited due to the low number of participants and their location in Britain only. It was, however, a well conducted study with useful application in that it shows the strengths of educational policy at the time of writing as well as informing practice.

Tomorrow, I will be mostly trying to work out who this Stenhouse fellow is.

Comments and criticisms always welcome.

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22nd Sept – Module Begins

The Module Begins

Well, not properly yet of course but if you want to be good at something you have to work at it right?

So I’ve looked over the guides, read the first part of the Educational Enquiry book and all looks pretty straightforward. Good thing I know a lot of academics for picking brains about research. Thing is, there’s so much I need to know right now that it’s hard to find a place to start. I read the 1.2 study earlier today so I’m going to sleep on it, let the content and structure sink in a bit and revisit it in the morning for a fresh, detailed read. Thoughts on that and something interesting I found on Google Scholar on the morrow.

Teaching Language

Just such an interesting process. I can understand why people are fascinated by Child Language Acquisition but in my opinion Additional Language Acquisition is an equal field. A subject I’d love to do some research on when I get some time and resources is to look at the differences between the outcomes of explicit grammar instruction and implicit instruction. The first, like an average additional language lesson, is structured according to the specific syntactic structures of the target language, the second is Rosetta Stone and other approaches which lead the student to reason out the grammar using their own linguistic intuition. In my own studies I do like “book-learning” and I’m extremely self-powered when hunting out learning opportunities so I freely admit to being a bad judge of what really works for others – everything is interesting to me. I feel that, as with everything, a middle road is required. A bit of everything. Anyway I’ll have to put methods of teaching on my “find some literature” list – see if someone’s already done it.

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16th Sept – Linguistics is a science

Today I’m a bit sick of the assumption “proper” scientists make that linguistics is not a “proper” science.

From wikipedia:

Science (from Latin: scientia meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

Let’s start with systematic. The various branches of linguistics form a systematic investigation of language. Syntax investigates how sentences are structured, phonetics and phonology the shape of the mouth when producing sounds, morphology the investigation of how words are structured and new words are created. Semantics and pragmatics seem to be a bit more fuzzy, admittedly.

The key here is “testable explanations and predictions”. Two examples from a post of mine elsewhere:

Morphology – the study of how words are built up. Predictive in that the rules of word building have been laid down by study enough to predict how a newly coined word will give rise to new derivational forms. Eg. Laser (acronym) was predictably backformed into the verd “to lase” because we know that verb forms with the derivational suffix -er denote the agent of the verb. Same as we got “to peddle” for pedler, “to beg” from beggar we get “to lase” from laser.

Phonetics – We know that speech is continuous, not discrete like the alphabet would have us believe. Try saying “inpressive” rather than “impressive”. It’s difficult because at the end of a sound our lips and tongue are already ready for the next sound. With the “p” being a bilabial plosive and “n” being alveolar nasal, the lips are in the wrong position to produce it, therefore we automatically substitute the bilabial nasal “m”. This means that we can predict that, no matter the language and therefore alphabet, “n” in front of “p” has to sound like “m”. I can illustrate this using Japanese. The only non open syllable sound in Japanese is ん which sounds like the n on the end of the word on. If it is front of a “p” syllable, for example in the word さんぽ (sanpo) meaning “a walk” it comes out sounding like sampo, regardless of the fact that ん represents n.

So at least two branches of lingusitics are systematic, and make falsifiable predictions. Therefore linguistics is science.

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MEd book arrived, initial thoughts

Today my copy of Educational Research and Evidence-Based Practice arrived.  Obviously I’m excited about starting this unit so I’ve made a start on reading the book and making notes.  My first thoughts are that this is a useful guide to current research and the basis of thought underpinning the educational process.  I intend to read the book, then make notes and finally read and make notes on the papers the various articles cite.  Looks like heavy going but I appear to have a lot of time to get to grips with the material.

I have already noticed a few pieces of information that will help with my practice in teaching.  One, as shown in Elliott’s discussion of Stenhouse’s research is that the objectives and criteria of a course should be informed by ethical considerations of education.  Specifically, I should not frame myself as teacher as an authority on a subject as no ‘knowledge’ is set in stone and therefore I should make room for learner discussion and consensus on a given subject in order to promote ‘understanding’ – defined as an appreciation of the limits, background, basis and room for improvement in a given subject.  For example, when teaching spelling (my specialty) this year I want to include morphology and history of English as the underpinnings of spelling rules, but I should allow learners space to come to the most useful conclusion for them as to how to learn particular spellings.  That is, to what extent is an understanding of the origins of words in English useful in learning how to spell them?

Students of last year’s course, in my opinion, relied too heavily on the practice of splitting words into their constituent parts to help them spell.  This is useful in complex words but less so in words that cannot be split but have difficult, unintuitive spellings.

I didn’t particularly like Hargreaves’ essays, in my opinion he relies too heavily on the idea that education should be training.  Then again, I’m not keen at all on letting business interests dictate the purpose of education anyway.