Shifting sands of culture

I recently attended the Adelaide Making IT Mobile workshops facilitated by the staff from SCIL. One of the key moments for me was Steve Collis’s presentation about space and the impact it has on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of our work. His words helped me see past some of my own frustrations about the process of trying to reinvent the thinking and learning at our school and also got me thinking about why it’s important that we don’t just give up. If you’re not familiar with Steve’s work, check out his blog and his definitions of space. While transforming the physical and virtual space of schools is relatively straight forward, (albeit requiring a cash injection), changing the cultural space (the mindsets or headspace, expectations, habits and ways of responding) of the individuals and groups (staff, students and parents) that make up a school is likely to be more complex and take longer. It is unlikely that the various groups involved will all move at the same pace, afterall. To really transform education requires changes in all 3 ‘spaces’.

It would be simpler to continue doing what we’ve always done, what the parents expect as ‘normal’ given their own experiences of schooling. So if it’s not going to be easy, why bother? Why continue seeking to transform what we do and how we do it? As I’ve thought about it since, culture as space and the culture filter so familiar to me as a languages teacher provided a reason and anchor.

The culture of the outside world, in which our students experience all other facets of life, is constantly changing and evolving. We see it reflected in their language (if I hear “hashtag yolo” again this week…!), in their social interactions, in their pastimes. We know many jobs they will go into do not yet exist – many which do exist now didn’t exist in my parents’ youth! Cultural literacy as we usually think of it enables one to function within and engage with daily life and society in another country rather than just looking in from the outside always feeling bewildered and out of place or causing offence to the locals. If the culture in our schools does not move in time with the culture of the outside world how can students function in them? Because the two cultures are incongruent, with one changing rapidly and the other changing little in over a century, our students are rather culturally illiterate in our schools and our schools risk becoming culturally irrelevant. How many times does a 2013 student sitting in a classroom little changed since the 1900s appear disengaged or cause offence to the locals, aka teachers? Bringing the two cultures closer together removes the overwhelming sense of school being ‘foreign’ and empowers students to be engaged, participate and succeed in their learning. And that’s why we bother!

All the world’s a stage

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cc licensed (BY) flickr photo shared by Daniel Oines

Mr Shakespeare certainly knew a thing or two about life. As I thought about writing this particular entry, this famous line from “As You Like It” came to mind and seems a fitting title.

Since starting to experiment with iPads in my language classroom about a year ago, firstly with just a few for group work and now in a 1:1 set up, I’ve been excited by the ability for my students to create tangible products with language and to share their products with an increasingly diverse audience which can give them feedback. I’m especially looking forward to my class connecting with the classes of some of my Twitter PLN later in the year. For this term, however, my students will be performing to a much more traditional audience, and their resulting efforts and focus are a very definite reminder of the importance of giving our students a real reason and audience for their learning.

Like many schools in rural areas of Australia, my son’s primary school has struggled to find a Japanese teacher to fill a maternity leave vacancy. For a while it looked like there would be no alternative but to call a halt to their language lessons for the remainder of the year. Already teaching full time at my own school, I couldn’t even volunteer as a parent to help out, until I saw an unexpected potential in the gap. I contacted the principal, excited by the idea that some of my classes could be teachers for the primary school. The logistics took some working out, but at the start of next week, two of my year 8 classes will spend their double lessons at a school 10 minutes away, in order to teach others what they have only recently been learning for themselves. And they will do it again at least another 3 times between now and the end of the year.

My students were up to that part in many a beginner course where they learn to talk about their likes and dislikes. Japanese sentence structure is wonderfully regular and at a basic level works somewhat like algebra, so learning the pattern ‘noun ga suki desu’, and its associated question and positve and negative answers, took Year 8 students very little time. Together we brainstormed various categories of nouns which my students thought would be ideal for the year levels they will be faced with next week. In small groups, they were then asked to come up with no more than 10 words in any one of those categories. At this point I stepped back and let them work freely. They used dictionaries, both paper and online, their textbooks, apps they found and their prior knowledge. They then set about developing activities and materials to teach the primary students the new words and the sentence pattern.

As I watched, all sorts of things quickly became clear. Having a near immediate reason to need the language, students were focused and positive, eager to ‘get it right’. Because they had to design learning experiences for others, they were discussing and reflecting on their own learning, both more recent and in years gone by. They were creative, critical and solving problems. As they finished preparing materials, (think everything from laminated Bingo cards to fishing rods made with spare dowel from the Tech Studies faculty), they automatically practised their activities, tested their games and asked me to listen to their pronunciation.  Today they were very much like a drama class about to put on their major production! A hive of activity in the midst of which I was largely obsolete – what a strangely wonderful thing to be in a class of 13 and 14 year olds!

What wonders occur when we give our students a stage! I can’t wait to see how their performances are received!

Game Day

Have you ever seen those lists that go something like “You know you’re a teacher when…”?
My personal version is “You know you’re a languages teacher when you can think of a way to turn any kids’ game into a vocab or grammar game.” Scrabble is a no-brainer and Simon Says and What’s the time Mr Wolf? are part of the core repertoire. But this habit, which makes my kids and husband roll their eyes, goes further. A year or so ago my then 4 year old borrowed the “Cat in the Hat” board game from our local library. Two turns in I had the epiphany that I could adapt it for use with beginning students of Japanese. Instead of the English alphabet, the Hiragana script became the key learning. And yes, I got really excited by the idea… That’s probably the real reason for the eye rolling!

This evening it happened again… I was watching from the sidelines of his Aus Kick session, a beginning into the skills and rules of Australian Rules Football. Towards the end of the session the motley crew of 5-8 year olds was divided into 4 teams. Each team went to their corner of the allocated playing space. In the middle was a huge tub of footballs. They were to “rob the nest”… One person at a time from each time had to run to the middle and take a single ball back to their team as quickly as possible. When they got back, the next person ran and so on. When there were no balls remaining in the middle, they had to run to another group’s pile and “rob the nest”. When the coach called out to stop, whichever team had the most balls was declared the winner.

Needless to say, my language teaching brain started to tick over, “How can I use this? I reckon it could work…” The first question was vocabulary, script or grammar. So tomorrow I’m going to start with vocabulary for a Year 9 class. Four vocabulary categories, 6 words in each, a word per card. The cards are in a pot in the centre of the room. The aim of the game is to be the first team to get a full category set, firstly running to the middle, then robbing from other groups. They love anything competitive, they’ll need to be fast and thinking on their feet. I won’t tell them category headings, they’ll need to think through their words… Will it work?

Stay tuned…
To be continued…

A sticky situation… Of the yellow paper variety

Where would we be without the post-it note? Since reading a number of blog posts by other teachers about how they use these simple little gems in their lessons, I too have been using them much more often. Student feedback at the end of lessons stuck on green or red ‘boards’ on their way out the door; jotting down a word they find hard to remember then moving around the room at the start of the next lesson finding someone with a good strategy for remembering it; the Particles of Japanese sentence structure easily moved around in structures.

This week in a moment of panic that I didn’t have the questions ready for a game, what should come to the rescue? Post-it notes! My Year 9 classes are your typical bunch of chatty, energetic, competitive 14 and 15 year olds. They enjoy team games and request them, even without the presence of a prize, except of course team pride or being first out at lunch time. With the convenience of being ready to use, the pre made PowerPoint game templates like Align the Stars or The Big Wheel are saved to the network and ready to go in an instant. But when you look at your lesson notes part way through class and realise you didn’t get around to writing up the list of questions… Panic stations… Deep breath, come up with plan B…

2 post-it notes per student, the instruction that students were to each write 2 questions about anything we’ve covered so far this term led to a perfect opportunity for revision that didn’t seem like hard work. Heads were quickly down, teams whispering excitedly as they realised that writing a harder question could give them an edge in the game if they could answer it and other teams couldn’t. Lots of looking back through notes, asking could they use things we learned last term, some writing things they were having trouble remembering, seeing it again in their notes while doing so, processing it as they thought about how to word their question, hearing it again as someone else answered it. Creating all the questions for the game proved to be a learning experience in and of itself. When I had all the post-it notes back I quickly numbered them ready for the game and flicked through as numbers were called in the game itself.

Come the second Year 9 group, I was once more minus questions, but this time by very deliberate choice. I didn’t reuse the first group’s questions either! So here’s a Friday ‘cheers’ to the post-it note!

Change Challenge and why I’m grateful for the AITSL Standards

Ever had one of those days, weeks months… Or years… when you know things need evaluating, changing and shaking up? But you feel powerless to do anything about it? And then one day you are in a position to make some small steps, then bigger ones, only to worry about how any of it will be received by others? So you get scared and slow down, perhaps backing right off? That’s been me over the last year or so. But I think I’m starting to feel braver… I’m hoping it lasts, for the benefit of my students.

Until this year, I could only change what happened in my own classroom up to a point where programmed outcomes and required assessment tasks were a block. Now as a Head of Department I can rework programs and assessments and start a ball of change rolling beyond my own classes. But with that has come fear and doubt.

Earlier this week I read a Tweet from a HOD elsewhere in the world in a similar situation. New to the role, seeing change is needed but facing opposition. Responses from more experienced HODs helped. I agree other staff are less likely to oppose change if they feel trusted and valued and that they have a voice in the change process. I also know that talking about change cannot go on forever, it has to become action and movement forward. I’ve thought again (this one has been something I’ve had to bear in mind for about 9 months now) how important it is to remember we’re working with people and that people intrinsically need something familiar to work with, even in the midst of broader change.

Today as I was contemplating alterations to one of our programs I started to ask myself whether I was expecting too much change and whether staff who had written the program initially would react negatively. Then it hit me – the AITSL Standards – reviewing Standard 3 has reminded me that evaluating and improving goals, programs and teaching strategies is in fact part of my job as a teacher. As a Head of Department it goes a step further – I need to lead and support others to do this. I am feeling empowered and the Standards are supporting me not just in my professional learning, but in my daily practice and reflection.

Change will still not be easy for everyone. Not everyone will agree that it is necessary. But if other areas of the curriculum have moved forward and students are coming to us with improved skills in something, we do our students a disservice if we don’t review our programs, learning goals and expected outcomes. So I think it’s time to take a deep breath and start turning change from a noun into a verb!

Time to go down a different stream?

Have you ever noticed how the water in a stream doesn’t all take the same path around rocks and trees in its way, but it is all still heading in roughly the same direction, towards a bigger body of water further down the stream? Or how rain drops on a window wind their way down, some picking up others and becoming bigger drops along the way but all ultimately ending up at the bottom of the window?

CC licensed (BY SA) flickr photo shared by Velo Steve

CC licensed (BY SA) flickr photo shared by Velo Steve

I think the students in my language classes are much the same. It really got going when I was pondering over how we can improve the transition from primary school language learning to secondary school language learning in my school.

We have a large number of feeder schools, most of which have a program and specialist teacher for one of the languages we offer. There is a smattering of students who come to us having done neither Japanese nor German. Year 8 students select which language they will study for the year and may choose to study both. The time allocation and focus of the primary school language programs vary according to local needs and circumstances, so the students walk into our language rooms every year with a wide variety of past experiences, prior knowledge, expectations and hopes for their secondary language studies.

Common practice in the past has been to start everyone at square one.  Beginning from the beginning again. Certainly this was a reflection on the language predominantly taught in primary schools until around 10 years ago, but we are seeing this change. We used to have more students who had some knowledge of German for some of their primary schooling and only a small group who had previously done any Japanese. So starting again didn’t seem a problem. But that has been in a state of change recently.

As more of our primary schools are valuing language learning right from the junior primary years and as the numbers of our feeder schools offering Japanese has increased, more students now come to us with significant experience in learning the language. In addition, some choose not to study the language from their primary schooling, looking forward to a new experience and challenge.

While as recently as a month ago I heard a colleague from another school say that ‘by the end of the first semester they’re all at the same point anyway’, I have begun challenging the idea that all students need to go back to the very beginning. Certainly keeping everyone moving together at the same pace makes planning, teaching and assessing relatively straightforward and easy. But what about learning? Notice it’s not mentioned in that statement…

If we start everyone back at the beginning, it seems there are increasing numbers of our students who are treading water, going nowhere for a semester… and where is the learning in that? Of course revision and consolidation are valuable, but 6 months feeling unchallenged and stifled is surely going to lessen their enjoyment of the language which they have perhaps chosen because their primary schooling experience of it lit a fire and excitement in them. As language teachers we yearn for that enthusiasm from our students! On the other hand, those who are new to the language also seem to feel pressured to ‘hurry up’ so that the class can move on. And that is also less than conducive to their feelings of enjoyment and success in language learning. We did not all learn our first language at the same rate…

With the Australian Curriculum’s focus on differentiated teaching and learning, the time is ripe for us to come up with some alternatives. I know other schools stream their students into classes for those who have done the language before and those who are new to it. While this means students can start from 2 different points, it doesn’t ultimately overturn the idea that the whole class moves together. Nor is it possible in all schools, for multiple reasons ranging from student numbers to timetabling issues.

What if my student ‘stream’ was allowed to flow more like a stream in nature? I am far more excited by the idea that if students understand something, they should be allowed to move on to the next thing. For others who need more time they should be allowed to take it, to have more practice and to keep refining their skills and knowledge. I have begun working this way with my Year 9 students. The digital tools we have available to us mean that students can learn about different language structures at their own rate. Today I assessed them with a quick test, they marked the answers for each other and then those who clearly understood how the grammar and vocabulary worked sat together and worked through the next thing using a YouTube clip I’d made and helping each other piece the steps together. Those who needed more time to review, question, relearn, and think differently through the material in the test sat together and did just that. Tools frequently used for the flipped classroom are coming in very handy and students can access them at their own pace. At different points I think we’ll all come back together and students will not always be in the groups the were in today. They will change direction and pace as they hit the ‘rocks’ along the way, but ultimately we’re all heading down the same watercourse.

It’s not streaming in the traditional sense, but perhaps this way of thinking about catering to multiple pathways in language subjects is more realistic and learning centred. If we follow this thinking through, can we better cater to the very mixed experiences in our Year 8 classes? Can we use podcasts, screencasts and other online tools to allow the students to begin at a number of points and thus value their prior learning and help them move forward rather than tread water for a semester? It will likely be far from straightforward or easy, but isn’t the learning the key here?

I would love to hear how others manage the transition from primary to secondary school language programs and the ‘mixed ability class’ in general!

Timely reminders

With the start of the new Australian school year well and truly off and running, I’ve been reminded of a couple of things that I enjoy most about my work. I’ve also realised I need to make a time to blog every week or two, or it is the first thing that will be put on hold!

1. The less I do and tell, the more the students do and learn

I have two great Year 9 classes. Many of the students I taught last year and we had a great time exploring and learning together and it looks set to continue. These students responded with energy and enthusiasm when I told them I wasn’t going to tell them about Japan’s food culture and they weren’t going to read about it in their textbooks. Instead we came up with a list of things they thought they knew and things they wanted to know. I then set them to work finding things that would help them answer their questions. Having the students themselves find snack food advertisements on YouTube taught them far more than me telling them what Japanese kids snack on or me finding the ads for them! They were in the driving seat of their own exploring and learning.

Today we set ourselves up for the new term then onto reviewing what we could remember from last year. To finish the lesson students split into 2 teams ready for a game. I absolutely love that there was an uneven number of students – it meant they could take turns calling out the Hiragana characters the rest had to try to find amongst the cards on the floor in a ‘fruit salad’ style game. I sat back and occassionally reminded them that I did not want to fill in incident report forms and that knocking out their opponents with a hip and shoulder was not ok. But the language and revision was all from the students!

And games brings me to my second reminder…

2. Students are never too old for games!

With the pressure of getting through the curriculum and preparing for the exam, it is all too easy to get bogged down in ‘serious’ work with senior students. I met my Year 12 class today. They are excited and eager, having just returned from the school trip to Japan over New Year. After the usual “this is how the assessment is broken up” spiel I told them we are not having weekly Vocabulary and Kanji tests this year. The assessment board does not want to know about them and the marks are purely formative. They were delighted, then they heard my ‘but’. Every Friday is a competition and there is only 1 prize. The vocabulary list or kanji set will be the focus. They were ecstatic! Learning to do better than their classmates even when the stakes are only as high as a lolly pop is far more motivating to this group than learning for a test that doesn’t count. We then went on to play a game using soft balls, throwing them at the kanji around the room. They left happy and with brains reconnecting old character knowledge. I could have made them write them all out over and over, but how much more motivating for me and them to learn through play!