The Olympics of Teaching

TheOlympicsOfTeaching

Keeping ‘em moving while they are sitting still

imageFair warning: some DIY may be involved

I am willing to bet that the students in your class find sitting still as challenging as mine do. Interesting fact: during adolescence some of the cartilage in our bodies is still hardening into bone. This includes our tailbones. Small wonder then, that sitting still is so uncomfortable for our students.

In addition to this, our teenage students just have more energy than we do.
The fact is that sitting still makes it more difficult for students to learn. Movement has a plethora of advantages while learning. It regulates attention levels, actively builds brain cells, builds stronger memory pathways and assists students to become more engaged in learning.

http://www.killester.vic.edu.au/_uploads/_ckpg/files/The%20Teenage%20Brain.ppt
We may believe that students are paying attention while sitting still but the opposite is true. Eye-contact does not equate to engagement. Instructing students to “sit still and listen” is likely one of the most counterproductive things a teacher can do.

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(Image from http://www.healthykidstoday.org/2014/09/25/active-kids-perform-better-in-school/)

As much as I would love it, not all my instruction can be “moving around” lessons. So how do we keep students moving while they are in their chairs? There are a few products available but the costs are prohibitive for me, especially since I am teaching in Johannesburg and would have to pay shipping costs, too.

Here is my workaround.

I bought 60 metres of “Fitband”. This is the highly elastic band that is used in gyms for strength training. These were tied around the legs of the desks in my room. As a first step it was acceptable but it lacked a certain look and feel. It also caught on students’ shoes and, while they enjoyed hanging their feet on the band, it was too narrow and eventually started cutting into their legs. I was also worried that the bands would slip down and would, ultimately, become too much of a bother for me to manage.

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My solution was a simple one: Pool Noodles.

The noodles were cut to size (they have a handy hole through the middle already!) and some labour was employed (grade 8 boys who were overjoyed with an unhealthy fizzy drink and chocolate as reward).

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Each band was pulled through the noodle. This is rather difficult. Not being a gym-bunny (my version of exercise is reading a taxing novel), it was more than I could do by myself. Suffice to say, the average 14 year-old boy is much stronger than I am.
The shorter noodles were then twisted onto the desk legs. At least I could assist the students in this. I am apparently about, but not quite, as strong as the average 14 year-old girl.

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The finished product looks better and is far more comfortable for students. The effects are astonishing to observe. Some students would just rest their legs on the support. A few would bounce their legs gently. Others would actively push against the band for an entire lesson. Students stay on task for longer and we experience fewer disruptions.

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There have been some unintentional consequences. The first is that the noodles speak to the students’ love of novelty. My efforts were rewarded with applause from my grade 10s. My room was declared “the coolest room in the school” by the grade 9s.
Most importantly, I believe that it signals to my students that I care about their comfort and about the learning process. Hopefully it shows them that I willing to work with them, rather than merely being a provider of content.

Not bad, for some elastic band and a few pool noodles.

In the interest of fairness, the original product that started me on this journey is called “bouncy desks”. It is a gorgeous product and can be found at http://bouncybands.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=1

I bought my Fitband online from justsports.co.za.

In total, the project cost about R1 500 (just less than $100) for 26 desks.

If you could only hear my side of the conversation

[I wait for my boys outside my door. This is what it is like before we even set foot inside the classroom.]

Hi guys!

Morning Nimrod. Good to see you. How was yesterday’s match? Oh, I’m sorry. Better luck next time.

Phinehas, you are dripping sweat. Please go wash at least your face. Come back quickly.

Hi guys! Come in, come in.

Morning Peter. Do you have the work that is still outstanding? Wait, you are blocking everybody else’s way, just stand aside while you rummage through your bag.

Boys! You can chat to the girls later. Best you come inside now.

Morning David. Great performance at assembly today. I am so proud of you! No? Did she really? Well, you recovered quite well, I did not even notice the glitch.

Boaz, you are almost late. Good to see you.

Yes, you are late. Move it you two!

[Eventually, I have more or less everybody inside the classroom.]

Morning guys!

[A few loud responses. A few mumbles. Some grunts.]

Is everybody connected?

Absalom, how can you say that you are connected if you don’t even have your iPad out? Yes, you are in class, you will need your iPad.

Yes, yes, Liam, I know Aaron sat on one of the gym balls yesterday, but he was here before you. You cannot try and kick the ball from under him. You know this.

Nebuchadnezzar, I did receive your email yesterday, thank you. Did you notice that I responded to your email? Okay. I do need you to take a seat now, please.

Abbener, you are extremely late. Do you have a note?

Balthazar, the cushions are for sitting on, not for lying under. Thank you.

Asa, is there a reason you are leaning out the window? Please join the rest of us.

No, the document you emailed me was not corrupted, Uriah. You just didn’t do your work. Do you think I have not seen that one before? I will need that work in my inbox by the end of today.

Okay, is everybody connected? Absalom, I’m glad to see that you have your iPad out.

Yes, Bartholomew? We will be reading today, but not just quite yet. I am also enjoying the book, I am very glad that you think it is exciting.

Yes, Caleb? Ask Bartholomew, he just asked me exactly the same question.

I know you live for rugby, Goliath, but please put down the ball.

No, I have not yet seen the latest episode of The Walking Dead. Thank you, Ezra, for giving away that key plot moment. By the way, can anybody tell me if I was being ironic or sarcastic in that last sentence?

Absolutely! Great answer, Jabez!

Is everybody settled and comfortable?
Good.

I want us to chat about – No, Elijah, you can put down your hand, I’m not going to chat about any TV shows now – I want us to chat about …

[Believe it or not, from here on, teaching and learning happens. And it happens every day. Sometimes it is raining, and they come in like a pack of wet puppies. Sometimes it is hot out and they were running around all break time. Sometimes, they come back from Maths and they have received a test that everybody, except for Ezekiel, has failed. Even so, somehow, we make it work, day after day.
I love my job.]

I’m not teaching the syllabus

What I know, above all else, is that we live in a magnificent, spectacular and enchanting universe. A place that is so enormous and old that our brains cannot even begin to comprehend the numbers involved. The universe, by current estimates, is about 13.8 billion years old. (If you want to know how we know, Wikipedia explains it so neatly that I almost understand it: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_the_universe.) The Earth alone is probably about 4.5 billions of years old (give or take a few million years). And the Earth is but a puppy in this universe of ours, which might even be only one of many universes. Now imagine that: multiverses.

The horse-head nebula, but a tiny part of the universe. Image from www.nasa.gov.
The horse-head nebula, but a tiny part of the universe. Image from http://www.nasa.gov.

In this magnificent universe, on this splendid planet, we have kids in our classes to whom we teach the basics of Chemistry and Physics, Maths and Geography, poetry and Shakespeare. Sometimes we even do this rather well.

I have decided that teaching these basics is not enough. It is all good, really. But it is not enough.

So, once a week, I take half an hour and we look at something interesting that has nothing to do with the syllabus. Of course, I am an English teacher, and I have the ready excuse that Everything is part of my syllabus. Everything. We transfer knowledge, after all, using language. It’s a flimsy excuse and it will not stand up in a court of law, or with the school’s board of directors. Right now it’s the only excuse I have.

In this half an hour we look at things just because they are amazing. We’ve looked at Dawn’s mission to Ceres (Dawn is in orbit around Ceres right now) and at how clever crows are (crows can recognise your face – be nice whenever you see them – giving them food might earn you some gifts).

Crows - cleverer than you might think.
Crows – cleverer than you might think.

In the weeks to come I plan on looking at the human brain, life in the ocean, cat tongues and the effect of your birth date on the sports team for which you will be chosen.

It is true, we did not practise our paragraph writing in that half an hour. But we have looked with amazement at the world we live in. I am on my way of teaching my kids one of the most important lessons of them all: knowing things is cool.

The Heart of a Teacher: Shortcuts, Challenges and Heartbreak

Let me be honest:

  1. Things go wrong in my classroom all the time. Sometimes things go wrong in a spectacular fashion; if the gods of teaching are smiling on me I can transform the catastrophe into something resembling a success. Other times I can’t. In just the last week I have taught the wrong lesson to the wrong class. Not just the wrong class – I managed to teach the wrong grade. I have mixed up terminology, forgot about work I was supposed to collect and, this is true, I fell over. One minute I was standing up, the next I was on my bum.
  2. I love shortcuts. Have to read a Animal Farm with the Grade 10s? Ralph Cosham, the gentleman reading the Audible version, does it better than I ever could and I have half an hour to do some critical marking. Or to breathe quietly and deeply. As the case may be. I mark electronically because it is quicker and easier. I design lessons that are student centered – not only because it really allows kids to delve deeply into a topic but also because it is less work for me.
  3. In teaching, my iPad has become my partner. If you took away my iPad it would take me weeks to recover. My kids’ essays, articles, blog posts, podcasts and grammar exercises are on my iPad. My register and teaching schedules are on my iPad. My marks and comments, notes and quick thoughts about my kids, communication with parents and other teachers are on my iPad. But, honestly, so is Twitter, Zite and 9Gag. I am awaiting the day Apple announces the iPad will now make my coffee.
  4. I never really leave my classroom. When I am at the movies I wonder about how I can incorporate the main character’s signature line into a lesson. That is how it happened that I walked into my classroom shouting, “I am Groot!”. On holiday I collect examples of humourously bad grammar we can discuss in class. I am always a teacher.
  5. I am a child in my classroom. I get to play like a kid (if you are brave, try taking a water pistol to class, and using it). I tell infantile jokes and dance like I don’t care. I do care a bit, but not much. I frequently make a fool of myself. I also get bored like a kid, which is why I have to keep things moving in my classroom. If I’m getting bored something is wrong and needs changing up.
  6. I try to challenge myself as often as I challenge my kids. I ask my kids to face the unknown daily. I try to do the same. I try things, having no idea what I’m doing, or where it is going to end up. I believe that oftentimes I create the impression that I know what I’m on about. In all probability I’m just trying something I think might work. If not, well, then we’ve learnt something, anyway.
  7. I detest school rules. A girl’s nails, a boy’s haircut and a shirt that is not tucked in are not things that exist in my world. Apparently keeping a close eye on these things is necessary for discipline. Oh well, I haven’t noticed. I do care about the insights a kid has shown in their latest essay, or a sincere attempt at communicating an idea that is new to them. But I cannot bring myself to care about the eye-shadow with which they are experimenting or the length of their nails.
Water pistols: almost as important as your red pen.
Water pistols: almost as important as your red pen.

One extra:

  • I have had my heart broken in my classroom when kids have shared their heartache with me. As adults we know how cruel the world can be but it hurts a bit more when it is a young one who is now realising this. I suspect my heart will break many times more. I have also had many moments of magic (I promise the alliteration was not intentional). Moments of insight, of success and of just revelling in this wonderful life. I’ve had moments of singing and dancing together and of laughing at stupid jokes. For as long as the magic remains, you know where to find me.

No kidding, Kidblog is marvelous

Exciting news everyone: I have so much work to check that I cannot keep up.
Why am I this excited and not whimpering quietly behind my couch? Because my kids are writing. My kids are writing so much that I am drowning in a deluge of paragraphs.

Why else am I this excited? I don’t need to touch a red pen. In fact, where is my red pen? If anybody finds my red pen, please find it a good home. Maybe with a teacher who has not found Kidblog yet. It will feel loved there.

I have been looking for ways to make my kids write more for many fruitless years. I know and understand the blank stares that met my next “cool” idea so well. No topic or strategy could induce them to write consistently.

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My latest idea is the blandest of all: “Write about anything you want.” I know, awful, right?

The difference is a tiny, but important, one. No paper, and your audience is your class, not me. And they took to it like sheep to a field of alfalfa. (I don’t actually know if sheep like alfalfa, I’m just guessing here.)

They are writing and reading and commenting, and writing. And writing.

I am drowning, and it feels good.

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On Breaking Bad, The Power of Stupid, & Finding That Magical Place

On day fifteen I finally cracked.

I did not crack in a polite and lady-like manner. Oh no.

I wailed. I used language that would make the producers of Breaking Bad cringe.

The backstory: My school is going fully digital this year: a move that I agitated for most passionately. Because many of our teachers prefer their own notes over textbooks, which are frankly often so poor that they deserve a blog post of their own, I took upon myself the task of converting our teachers’ Word documents into pretty ePUBs. No worries!

I call the first part of my journey “The Power of Stupid”.

Not knowing how much I didn’t know allowed me to take on a task I never would have attempted if I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. In retrospect, this is a good thing. In retrospect.

The next part I call “The Teacher Gets Schooled”.

This is the bit I could only look at objectively a good few days after my tantrum had subsided. Here is the thing: I desperately needed help, but I could not ask for help because I did not have the vocabulary or background to know what to ask for. Frankly, I still don’t quite know how I did everything I did in the end. I could Google an error message (how I love Google), but how do you interpret the support on forums if it is all gobbledegook to you?

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But after four weeks of holiday time, working almost full time, I finally got it all done.

Now I have to ask myself: Do I do this to my students? Do I give support where needed, but because of the way in which I give it, is it still incomprehensible to them? Do I challenge them too much? Or too little?

The last part I call “Finding a Good Teacher”.

In the end we all need a good teacher. My good teacher was the BBE (best boyfriend ever). The BBE allowed me to get over my intense feelings of failure and inadequacy before he stepped in. He listened through the bad language and tears to find out exactly where it was that I lost the plot. And then he helped me solve that problem and only that problem. When I went back and solved the issue, everything worked. What a feeling!

And this is where this teacher has to turn introspective again. If I give the kids who struggle too much information I rob them of a feeling of accomplishment. If I give them too little help, they won’t be able to master the skill they are struggling with and may become despondent.

This traumatic experience taught me to do more things for which I am completely unprepared. To struggle. To fight my way through it. To remember, as I get more and more frustrated, that I ask my kids to do this every day. Telling the young people in front of me to “keep on trying” is not good enough. Nor is helping them too soon or too much. Rather, I need to try and find that magical place where just a bit of help will set them on the right path.