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.

Against the stream

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Every teacher has a few classes that will forever be special to them. My very first Grade 10 Art class was one of these. My first class of boys was another. These are classes where things just click. The students get you, and you get them. These are the classes where you soon share little insider jokes with your students, where conflict is almost non-existent and teaching is easy.

I had a class like that this year. I love and adore them on every possible level and, yesterday, when I had to say goodbye to them, I cried. They were funny and charming and insightful. I know it will be a good few years before I have a class this special again. I will have other classes, and there will be successes and failures. It will be good. But they will not be my 10Cs.

Here, however, is the rub.

My Grade 10C class this year was a “clever” class. My school does not stream the Grade 10s, it was just a strange confluence of events that lead to this class consisting of the top academic achievers in the grade. We breezed through Shakespeare. We even had time for a few games. They would dive into poetry, grapple with symbolism and metaphor, and relate the concepts from a poem to their lives, their milieu and their beliefs. Truly, I hardly had to teach.

So what’s wrong with this beautiful picture?

Streaming is wrong. Even for my wonderful class, I cannot help but believe that we should have tried harder to mix up our kids a bit more. The pressure on these kids is immense. The “clever” label is a heavy one to bear. Also, the effect on the other students is even greater. By definition, they are now “not clever”. What a label to have to carry at age 16.

There is plenty of research showing that streaming does not work. From primary schools, (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/sep/25/school-streaming-pupils-english-primaries) to high schools (http://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/SSG01/SSG01.pdf) the only possible benefit is that it may improve test scores for the top academic students. Even these effects are tenuous and seems to be more the result of the students’ realization that their teachers believe in them, than it is the result of enrichment material and different teaching methodologies.

This is why I hate streaming:

1. Streaming ignores the fact that teenage brains are still developing. It falls into the trap of believing that you are born with a certain IQ score, and that is you for life. It implies that whatever a teacher does, a student’s performance academically is predetermined.

2. It ignores the psychological effects on those students who are in the “lower” classes. They will never believe that they can do better, or that hard work determines outcome, if we have so clearly shoved them into the “mediocre” box.

3. Streaming further reinforces the idea that test scores are a way of determining your future success. “Look,” we are saying, “these are the kids we believe will make it in the world. We are preparing them to be the leaders and successes of tomorrow. They will get all the enrichment material and extra care.” It ignores those students who are less successful academically, but very talented in another area.

Why do schools still do it?

Some teachers still insist on a “top” class that can be groomed to rake in those A symbols in the final examinations. It makes the teacher look good. It also leads to the inevitable scuffle, yearly, on who will get this class.

Also, sadly, many school heads are just not aware of the literature showing how ineffective streaming is.

As much as I loved my sweethearts this year, streaming is not our answer. Pushing every one of our students, whatever their results to date, to do their very best at all times, is a better answer. Doing our best for every student, every day, is also a better answer. Realizing that brains are malleable until well into our twenties, and even after, makes it simply inexcusable to label any teenager, whatever that label may be.

Say You’re Sorry

How You Handle Being Wrong Really Matters

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I was startled out of my wits this week when my Grade 9 boys applauded me in class. I should be ecstatic, but I am a little bit sad.

I am also a little bit angry with the world. (Or at least with many other teachers, I am not angry with the whole world, I do still like Terry Pratchett, Brian Cox and the BBE – Best Boyfriend Ever.) And I am a little bit angry with myself. I am angry with myself because (in the events leading up to the applause) I went into old-school teacher mode. You know the one I mean. It is where we crack the whip like it is the 1950s, “Keep quiet and listen to me” and “This is my classroom and these are the RULES.”

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It’s the old scenario: Student did not do work. Teacher got angry. Teacher told student that no late submissions would be allowed. Student looked shocked. Teacher decided to carry on, enough time had been wasted trying to get work out of the student.

Yep. That was me.

It was only several hours later that I realised the boy in question was on a school cricket tour, and that he did speak to me before he left to make sure that I was well aware of the fact that he will not complete the work by the deadline. He told me in person. I assured him this would not be a problem.

Organising my entire life on my iPad, as I do, it should have been as simple as jotting down a note. But, I didn’t. I was clearly, and inexcusably, wrong.

I then did what I thought any adult would do. The next morning, I apologised to our intrepid cricket player in front of the class. I thought that since I refused to listen to him in front of all his friends it was only right that I apologised to him in front of the same audience. That is when they applauded. As it turns out, nobody ever apologises to them. But I do, I said. I apologise all the time. Sorry I forgot this, sorry I mispronounced that, sorry I spilled my coffee all over your work, and yes, those are my cat’s paw prints all over your project.

No, they said, teachers apologise for things that don’t really matter, but they don’t apologise if they made a big mistake or were unfair.

What are we doing? Are our egos that big?

I want my students to feel that they can try new things, take steps into the great big unknown, knowing that mistakes are the only way we really learn. This cannot happen if what we model shows so clearly that mistakes are not tolerated. We cannot stand in front of a class and tell them to take chances if we pretend that we are never wrong.

In fact, if we want our students to learn from their mistakes we should model that absolutely. By which I mean not only that we should own up to mistakes, but should learn from them. We should show them that making a mistake is only one of the many steps in learning. You try something. It doesn’t work. You try something new.

It seems to me that for as long as we as teachers are stuck in letting our egos determine our behaviour we are not only doing our students a massive disfavour, but ourselves as well.

Cells and brains and paper planes

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The human body, as we well know, comprises of billions of cells, each requiring immense amounts of food to keep on living. Think of these individual cells as the individual brains of students in a school, and the body made as the school. Just as a body is made of many different cells, our schools are a collection of many different brains.

Now let’s consider what happens in a cell. In a rather complex process (involving terminology such as ATP, nucleobases and electrical potential difference) food is turned into energy. Similarly, brains will use input to create knowledge. This time the terminology is that of neuroscience: transduction, sensory stimuli and neural firing rates. And these are just the tip of the iceberg of the complex problem of how knowledge is created in the brain.

Looked at from this perspective, brains and cells are rather similar. Both need constant input (food and sensory data) to create something (energy and knowledge). We are happy to acknowledge that cells need food. We are quicker to overlook that brains, equally, need constant input.

In a recent Ofsted report (reported on in The Telegraph here http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/11119373/Ofsted-an-hour-of-teaching-each-day-lost-to-bad-behaviour.html) much was made of how disruption in schools costs teachers an hour of teaching time a day.

Included in the report is the following gem:

“Inspectors told how chatter, calling out without permission, swinging on chairs, play fighting, throwing paper planes, using mobile phones and quietly humming was “very common” in schools.”

In other words, students are bored in class.

And they’re bored because teachers do not consider how their brains (apologies for being reductionist) need constant input. If what we are giving them is not considered “food”, the brain, which wants to be fed constantly, will look for its “food” elsewhere. Brains that are not fully involved in lessons will turn to other tasks for their sustenance, such as honing their social skills, music (I am thinking here of how common “quietly humming” occurred in British classrooms) or aerodynamics (yep, those paper planes flying through the air).

The Ofsted report goes on to draw conclusions about a lack of respect (students calling teachers by their first names) and discipline (students not sticking to uniform rules), and about how tightening up on these aspects will solve the problems of paper planes and constant humming in classrooms.

I have a better idea. Perhaps we can teach in such a way that students’ brains are involved in our lessons. Feed those brains. In short, be interesting.

Mind how you do that

It is such a rich term, being “mindful”. I am full of “mind” when I do this thing that I am doing. My full consciousness and thought is engaged in this single activity in this one moment in time.

Lovely, when it happens, but things can go awry when we are less mindful and more reactive. And in teaching, when things go awry, they can go seriously awry. We can, in fact lose our peace of mind when we do not mind how we do what we do.

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You know the moment I am talking about. You say exactly the wrong thing to the wrong kid. You lose your temper and shout at a class. You teach the wrong thing, or you teach the right thing the wrong way. You misinterpret a kid’s words.

But we are not sailors, tailors or candlestick makers. Apart from the fact that I would not know how to make a candlestick without some serious Google intervention, and what I know about sewing stops just this side of replacing a button, there is one more thing that separates teaching from most other professions.

In teaching every new day is truly a new day. Kids are remarkably forgiving if we are honest about our mistakes. With a fresh mind yesterday’s slate can be wiped clean.

Every new term is the opportunity for a fresh start, and every new year can bring a complete reinvention of who you are as a teacher. All it requires is that we look, with an open mind, at our mistakes. And be mindful not to repeat them.

They are crafty, over at Classcraft

Let’s be honest, getting a group of thirty fourteen-year old boys to focus on the same thing at the same time is a bit like doing handstands on a pool filled with jelly. You can do it, but only for a millisecond, and in all probability everything will turn out messy. Boys have a way of making things messy. And a bit stinky. But mostly messy.

I love my boys’ classes as much as a thunderstorm after a hot summer’s day. The challenges are innumerable, but the rewards are massive. And teaching them can be tiring.

Then one of the best and most innovative teachers I know suggested Classcraft. Since I have first heard about gamification I’ve been interested in gamifying my classroom, but like most teachers I just didn’t know where to start or how to do it. It’s a bit daunting. But Classcraft does it for you.

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Here is a very quick overview.

The class is divided into groups. In each group you have mages, healers and warriors. Each one of these characters has different strengths and weaknesses. For everything that happens in your class the individual student or group loses or gains points. The students can use these points to save a student who is in trouble, to gain certain powers, and to reach the next level which will give them more sought after powers.

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From Psych 101 we know that both punishment and reward is only effective if it is immediate. Now it is. And to make both punishment and reward more effective it can affect the individual or the group. And which way that goes is up to you.

Classcraft has some very useful presets, but you can adjust these as would be best suited for your class.

It gets even better. The punishment and rewards are very real. Rewards can be as simple as giving a student the power to open and close windows, and as powerful as asking the gamemaster (that’s you) if an answer in a test is correct or incorrect. They can gain or lose time to complete projects or be allowed to eat in class. And do they work for these powers!

There is more. The gamemaster can import marks from assignments and tasks, and based on these results the students will gain or lose points in the game. Doing well in a task has never been this important, it can gain you the power to teleport! (or leave the classroom for two minutes in normal speak).

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It is also ridiculously simple to use, even for somebody like me who knows nothing about games beyond Scrabble. I teach what and how I always have, but do so with Classcraft open on my iPad. As things happen, good or bad, I just tap on the student or group, and add or deduct points.

They lose points for coming late to class, not having the correct books, not having done homework or shouting out answers. They gain points for helping a mate, correctly answering a question or researching an aspect of our classwork.

My boys are more industrious, helpful, polite and prepared than I ever thought possible. Because they want to wear the cloak of invisibility for two minutes in my classroom.

If you feel ready to do something completely different on your classroom, I would suggest that Classcraft is it.

Imagine a world with no more exams

Take a moment, imagine it.

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Six weeks a year we spend writing exams. A week before each of the two the examination periods is given over to exam preparation. And before those dreaded weeks I am constantly aware of how much I have to leave behind, unexplored, because of the dreaded syllabus that needs to be completed before my kids have to sit down and prove, again, what they have already shown me in class.

Even I (and I am no Maths boff) can work out that eight weeks will give me an extra forty days of teaching time.

What would I do with an extra eight weeks of teaching time? I probably would not even add anything new to my syllabus. But I can teach in greater depth, have time for discussions and side-ways exploration. We might even go off-topic and come full circle back on-topic.

Okay, truthfully, I will probably add a few poems to the syllabus. And maybe one or two writing pieces. We will have time for an extra novel! We can play more, invent more, discover more. Oh, the things we can learn.

Don’t you dare

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Don’t you dare stifle students’ creativity by giving them lists to memorise rather than having them find personalised ways of expression. They will need imagination and ingenuity to find solutions for the disorder and havoc we have created and perpetuated.

Don’t you dare kill students’ self-esteem by allowing them to believe they are not good enough because they did badly in a test. Let’s rather show them how to discover and build on their strengths. They will need confidence to step into the chaos we leave in our wake.

Don’t you dare quieten students when they want to collaborate and share. Let’s rather encourage them to cooperate. They will need to work together to overcome the obstacles are are leaving strewn in their paths.

Don’t you dare create a generation of automatons by telling students what and how to think. Let’s rather teach them the skills to think independently. They need to be able to look at the world critically to see how the same lies are perpetuating the cycle of inequality and dissatisfaction.

Don’t you dare suffocate students’ exuberance with pointless rules and petty regulations. Let’s rather show them how to use their energy for action. They will need enthusiasm to start the revolution in thinking our world needs.

Don’t you dare belittle a student in class. They need to see the value in every single human being alive to have the will to fight inequality.

Look around. Syria and Gaza and Iraq. The Ukraine and North Korea. Our oceans are slicked with oil and our forests are bare stumps.

This is our legacy.

This is the world we are leaving behind.

Billy Joel might be right,

“We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it”

But we have not been that effective in fighting the fire. We can only look to the young faces in our classrooms and ask them to take on this responsibility.

It is our responsibility, as their teachers, to ready them for this.

Thank you, Sir!

I remember only a few of my teachers. I remember those who put me down, and those who made me feel inconsequential and miserable. I remember many petty rules and much of the punishment. I remember my English teacher hitting me on the palm of my hand with a wooden ruler for not completing my homework. I remember doing homework because I was afraid not to, not because I wanted to learn.

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But Mr Venter I remember for what he taught me.

Mr Venter was my grade 6 and 7 Science teacher. I remember nothing about the person he was. I must have known at the time, but I do not remember if he was married or not. I do not know if he had children. I do not remember a single conversation we had. But Mr Venter taught me Science. And I remember many of his lessons to this day.

Mr Venter turned that stale “grow a bean” lesson into a study under controlled conditions. We had to grow three beans, and they were placed in different parts of our homes with different conditions. As 10-year olds we had to carefully log the different beans’ progress and the whole class’s data was then collated. Oh, the poor little bean that had to live in my cupboard was such a sad little specimen. Lo and behold, everybody’s was!

Mr Venter took us outside and had us dig in the school’s garden to classify all the critters we found. Hard or soft bodies, above or under ground? Segmented bodies, wings, eyes and number of legs were just as carefully documented and discussed. He introduced us to the scientific method, and I only realised it many years on.

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In Apartheid era South Africa, when so much of our world was burning, Mr Venter introduced us to the idea of ecology and environmentalism. He taught us how fragile life could be. He introduced us to the idea of the damage of carelessly poisoning crops, and he showed us the effects of mining in our little mining town. He made us look at the night sky in awe. From Mr. Venter I learnt that all the stars were suns, with many, many planets orbiting around them, and that the universe was a marvellous, wondrous and incredible place.

Mr Venter taught us to question, to wonder, to ask and to think.

I believe now his heart would have broken if he saw how the passion for learning he engendered in me was crushed, like one of the bugs he introduced me to, in high school Science lessons. I think he would have sobbed.

Now, as an almost 40-year old I have a deep respect for that man who taught me so much. It took me many years to rediscover my love for science, to find again that place where finding things out is a deep pleasure. But it was Mr Venter who set me on that path.

So, no, I do not remember this man for who he was. I do not recall a moment of personal interaction. But I remember what he taught me. And I remember that he was passionate about what he had to teach us. I remember the sense of discovery. I remember the joy of learning.

And it was great.

Dear Friend on the Other Side of the Digital Divide

It seems that there is a divide in my school, and I am standing on the one side of the gulf, and you on the other. I remember when we used to be friends, you and I, but now whenever you see me you can only talk about how wrong I am, and why, and how badly I will fail.

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I have tried to answer you, but now, I must admit reluctantly, I am not talking to you that much anymore. I have become weary of answering the same questions. I am exhausted from hearing the same criticisms. And so we are only growing further apart.

You believe that I am dismissive, perhaps even rude, in the way I am not responding to your protests of dissatisfaction.

What can I say? I have tried teaching with iPads, and I know that it works? You don’t believe me, and only throw more criticisms and nuggets of hearsay my way.

“I heard that kids love playing on their iPads, but they really struggle to learn for exams when they are using an ebook.”, you tell me, as I pour myself a cup of coffee. “Students still have to write exams with pen and paper”, you say, “what are you going to do about that?”. You tell me that you have 15 or 20 or more years experience and that you have seen many fads come and go in education. You are not willing to change how you teach for one more bandwagon rattling its way through our corridors. And as I try to take a bite of my lunch you ask me how I expect of the kids to use their iPads to learn in class, when we all know they will only play games. You tell me that technology will only cause more problems. The wifi will be down, the electricity will go out. iPads will get lost and broken and stolen. What then, you want to know, what then? You seem intent on seeing me fail.

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I now apologise for not putting away my lunch and answering you more earnestly at the time. I am sorry.

I would like for us, for you and me, to take a few steps back. Let’s start by looking at what our students want. Our students want somebody to care for them. They want somebody to listen to them and love them. Each one of them wants to matters as an individual in a sea of other individuals. They want to be pushed, they want to perform. They want assurance that there is a place in the world for them and that they can be successful. They want to explore. They want to learn. They want to enjoy school.

What we want for our students is not that different. We want them to succeed. We want them to accept challenges. We want them to work hard and we want them to realise their dreams.

While I believe it matters for us to use technology in every way we can, because the world our students will walk into will require of them to be comfortable working on computers and iPads, these are secondary considerations for me.

My primary considerations relates to the more fundamental part of teaching. I can love more, care more and know more.

My classroom management app lets me know every time it is a student’s birthday. Never will I forget a birthday again. Even in holidays. Is that failure?

When I mark I have all my students’ previous work in Notability. I can track everything they have done for me in the year, and immediately see where and how they have improved or not. Is that failure?

I am always available to my students. I can help with their work the night before the work is due, the day before the big test. I am there when their hearts are broken. Is that failure?

I can teach even when I am in another city. I can make silly videos that they can access at any time. Even, again, the night before a big test. Is that failure?

I can create work that is interesting and fun. We can create videos and photo collages. We can act out scenes from our work and we can collaborate. Is that failure?

My students can be better writers. They can edit and shuffle paragraphs around, they can look at their work critically and make changes as necessary, and add ideas when it comes to them. Is that failure?

My students can be better speakers. We can create podcasts and voice recordings. They can add sound effects and they can edit their work to make improvements. Is that failure?

My students learn to listen to one another and collaborate. Is that failure?

My feedback is immediate, personal and confidential. As soon as I’ve marked a piece I can email it back, and nobody except for the student and me will know what comments I have made. No longer are pieces of work shoved into the bottom of a bag never to be looked at again. Is that failure?

I realise that this is not the way you are used to teaching. I know that this is a big change. And I know that you are reluctant to change. And I know that you afraid of all of the work it will will take to make this change.

Doing these things will not, I promise you, make you a failure.

Next time you see me alongside the coffee pot, let’s chat about how we can make this work. I will listen. I promise.

I hope you will too.

 

 

 

Forsooth! Shakespeare Plays on iPad!

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Full of vexation came I, looking for a masterly app to teach Shakespeare. Many good apps there were, but none that offered what I needed. We could have done Shakespeare the old-fashioned way, but with iPad in hand: I could have read the text from my iPad and my apprentices could have annotated on their iPads. And I could predict who would have yawned first. It would have been young master Lysander, and he would not even have hidden it.

They could have read the modern translation of the text (great for introducing the plot) but then my students wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to grapple with the text. We could have watched one of the many interpretations of the play. There are cartoon versions, true-to-the-original-text versions and modern interpretations, but there is a fundamental problem with all of these that made me reluctant to use them.

I wanted my kids to play with the language first, get a feel for the sentence structure and the diction. I didn’t only want them to feel this sea of troubled waters by dipping their toes into the text, I wanted them to dive in and immerse themselves completely. I wanted them to splash around and enjoy themselves without worrying about drowning. Mostly, I wanted them to realise that they could understand Shakespeare without somebody else translating it line by line. I wanted them to feel confident when facing any Shakespearian text, and even enjoy it. Mostly, I didn’t want Lysander to yawn.

I wanted to take my kids to that magical world where fun and learning and Shakespeare meet.

In Shakespeare’s words:

“Pleasure and action makes the hours seem short.”

When I read that last quote, I almost think the venerable bard must be talking about an iPad. I knew I could use the iPads to get my kids immersed in Shakespeare.

We started by translating one scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream into modern English. I gave them a Pages document with the Shakespearian text in one column, and they worked in groups to do the translation. Much raucous discussion ensued. I did make things a bit easier by also giving them a cheat sheet, with the most difficult words and a few tips. Apart from that, I stepped aside.

So far so good. Lysander did not yawn. In fact, he got involved in a long and rather serious discussion about the translation of “Some of your French crowns have no hair at all”. I celebrated this minor success by giving myself an enthusiastic (but secret) high five.

To make this part of the exercise more exciting I gave the students a strict time limit. This forced them to get everybody involved as they quickly realised that it wouldn’t get done in time otherwise. The only way to make the task work was to split the text into different sections and then have everybody translate a section, with the group getting involved whenever an individual encountered a problem.

But that’s not where it ended. The best was yet to come…

My next instruction was a simple one. I said only this: “Use Comic Maker to present the scene. I want the final product in my Inbox by the end of the next lesson. Go forth!” (There was a small amount of confusion with Lysander who thought he needed to be the fourth one to leave.)

I did not tell them how to use Comic Maker. I did not tell them how many panels or pages to create, or how to email it. It’s not my job to control every move they make, I am not Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare again:

“Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”

Let them attempt, figure out and succeed.

Next, they had to divide the scene into different panels, make sure the conversation flowed from one panel to the next, decide who would play which character, how many panels they would need, and how they would enable me to differentiate between the different characters (I sneakily made sure there were fewer students in the group than characters in the scene). I am sneaky like that. Also, they had no props. Sneaky.

I quietly disappeared. As my buddy Shakespeare said:

“Hush, and be mute,
Or else our spell is marr’d.”

At first the actors decided on the panels and actions (for some unfathomable reason Shakespeare lends himself to many hands being dramatically thrown into the air).

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And then the translated text was added.

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Would they have understood the text better if I translated it, line by line, in class? I don’t think so. There were many little moments of magic in their comics, where the characterisation and plot met seamlessly. They get Shakespeare. They like Shakespeare.

All the other things that make iPads so marvellous in the classroom also count here. Mistakes can be rectified immediately, and as a teacher who keeps up with the latest research, you already know that this is how the most effective learning happens. Kids get to move their bodies around when learning, and we know that this keeps brains active. Most importantly, kids are involved and interested. In other words, nobody yawned. Not even Lysander.

As for using iPads to teach Shakespeare specifically (allow me one last quote):

“There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

iPads are not good or bad. It’s how you use them.

Dazzling Disney and Messy Seuss


(
Why giving our students perfect learning experiences isn’t the best thing we can do for them.)

It is nearly impossible to imagine an environment more abrasive on the senses than Disneyland. It is equally impossible to deny how taken in I was by it all for the first hour or two of my one and only visit earlier this year. I adored the little princesses skipping along in their glittery gowns and sneakers, and I loved every little pirate with a sword in his hand. I marvelled at the perfect little details, like how the cobblestones changed from one area to the next, and with the glee of a five-year old I held on to my very own plush toy Goofy.

It was only in imagining how ridiculous I must have looked that the reverie finally broke. The presentation of the Disneyland is absolutely flawless on every single level. It is the very slickness of the place that also makes it so stupendously boring after the first two ‘worlds’. You start to realise that all of the different worlds are actually the same thing. They’re all just so pristine. You start wishing that the over-zealous gardening team could have missed just one weed. Disneyland is not boring, it is worse. While desperately searching for something to remind us of the real world, my husband-like-boyfriend and I eventually walked around trying to spot the security cameras. You know there must be hundreds, but they are almost impossible to see. This kept us occupied for about seventeen minutes.

So no, Disneyland is not for me. It’s too perfect.

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Teachers do this. We insist on presenting lessons to our students in a way that is simply not relevant to them, in the same way that the flawless world that is Disneyland was just not relevant to me. Disneyland is dazzling in its immaculacy, and ultimately, empty of anything but short-lived entertainment. Teachers can, in a similar way, present to students an endless stream of facts, perfectly organised and neatly packaged. Students who are faced with such perfect presentations in the classroom become disengaged because there is nothing for them to become engaged with. All the details are taken care of. Everything is laid on and there is no need to do anything but be entertained.

Students react the same way to all this slickness as I did to Disneyland. After the initial enjoyment of the slickness, they start looking for the metaphorical weeds. These are the kids who become belligerent and disruptive. But how can you blame them? All they want is some real world messiness, some relevance – some weeds.

But I know of a bit of magic that is stickier than Disney magic.

Remember Dr Seuss? Of course you do. Because “You have brains in your head.” You know that “You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” Every line combines cuddly nostalgia with a feeling of profound insight. It is so easy to agree with Seussisms. Yes, I do have brains in my head. Yes, I can steer myself in any direction I choose. There is a sprinkle of magic in these words.

On a superficial level there is little difference between these lines and what Disneyland offers the millions of visitors who walk on those pristine cobblestones. The difference is this, the face Disney offers shows only the perfect, happy outcome, Dr Seuss offers us the struggle. You do have brains in your head, but, “You can get so confused that you’ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at break-necking pace and grind on for miles across wierdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.”

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It is just here that the magic tinkles in on little toes. The magic comes from the struggle that will lead you to the happy ending. Where giving our students the information in a pretty package gives them Disney, giving them the struggle and the weeds gives them Dr Seuss.

There are many ways in which we can give our students problems to engage with, difficulties to overcome and challenges tailored for them. It is here that learning that is worthwhile takes place. This is learning beyond streams of facts creatively arranged in a PowerPoint presentation. Teachers shy away from this messy, dangerous way of teaching because giving students a challenge implies that there is a chance of their failing. Truthfully, they will sometimes fail, but in this too there can be a bit of magic. It is only when they fail, safely, that our students learn how to turn failure into success.

There is hope for our students, more and more teachers are willing to choose Dr Seuss over Disney. For our students more and more lessons will challenge them, and for those students Dr Seuss says “Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where boom bands are playing.”

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May the Boom Bands play in your classroom.

Give us a break

On breaks between lessons, breaks in routine and anxiety reduction

Steven (not his real name) was using a gym ball as battering ram to shove Paul (not his real name) through the chaotic maze that is my classroom. Danny (not his real name) was throwing balls across the classroom, trying to hit the bin that Peter (you get the idea) was holding. Tumi was desperately trying to convince Phumi that she should consider releasing the bonds of the friend zone where she had incarcerated him for all eternity. Sandy and Carla were lying on the cushions in the back of my classroom, sharing an iPod. I could not even fathom what the rest of them were doing. Chaos, as the saying goes, reigned. It enveloped us.

Keep in mind, these are high school students, and a strong academic bunch to boot.

Before all of this, there was no movement in my classroom. You could not hear a pin drop, because I was droning on about the examinations, the format of the papers, their expected responses to different types of questions, time management and the order in which to answer the questions. In their world: blah blah blah.

At the beginning of this strange lesson, they filed in, particularly quietly for this bunch of exuberant young souls. As I started the ‘exam preparedness’ lesson, one pudding, a particularly bright spark, complained that she just could not do it anymore. Her cell phone appeared in her hand, she went to her voice recording app, she tapped ‘Record’ and put her head down on her arms. Instinctively I wanted to tell her to put away the device, to sit up, and to pay attention. The instinctive reaction of years of prescriptive teaching can be hard to overcome. But I decided to let it be. She will have all the information she needs when she is preparing for the examinations. Right then, she needed a break.

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That is how I finished the instruction part of that lesson. Talking to twenty-five cell-phones. And for the rest of it, Stephen, Paul, Danny and the rest of them enjoyed themselves in their various ways.

In schools in Finland students get a break between all lessons. A proper, unstructured break. You can read more about the science supporting breaks between learning sessions here, http://www.astd.org/Publications/Magazines/TD/TD-Archive/2013/04/Inside-the-Learning-Brain In short, the brain learns best in short spurts of about twenty minutes, and then needs some ‘down time’ in order to process the information.

My kids just could not learn anymore that day. It was the end of the day, and their last English lesson at the end of a very long term. Their reaction at the end of the lesson should not come as a surprise. It was not their bodies that were tired, if anything their bodies did not get enough exercise that day. Their brains, however, were unable to process another morsel. Tasty as I might have thought that morsel was.

Playing around like little children was a form of anxiety release for this group of sixteen-year olds. There is still some debate about the effects of anxiety on learning and performance. For higher intelligence groups it seems that the effects may be less pronounced, see http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0022096576900102, but it does seem to affect how the synapses in the brain collect and store information, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080311182434.htm. For those who struggle, stress always affects results negatively. It also seems pretty clear that the still-developing teenage brain finds it more difficult to deal with stress than the adult brain, http://psychcentral.com/news/2011/05/03/teen-brains-more-susceptible-to-pervasive-anxiety/25827.html. And this is so easy to to disregard when we place our students in stressful situations. We look at it from our perspectives, and believe that they should be able to cope, because if we were in the same situation today, we would have been able to cope.

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It is easy to overlook the collective effect we have as teachers on our students. In my classroom I only care about my subject. I care about the examinations they are about to write for me. And so they go from class to class, day after day, and because all their teachers are concentrating on the upcoming examinations the anxiety builds. Add to this the way in which a school day is structured and our students have no time to process all this information or to find a release for their increasing stress.

I cannot think of a better way to overcome exam anxiety than using a gym ball as a battering ram. Or by sharing music with a friend. What happened in my classroom was the release of days of unrelenting and intense anxiety inducing lessons.

I say, let’s give them a break.

Yesterday a student cheated, and I broke the rules

Marking critical essays tends to take me about a day per class, and yesterday was that day. Even just setting up for this marking marathon is epic. I make sure I have a blanket (it’s cold right now in my part of the world), a cat (for the cold and for some love), plenty of coffee, and background TV. The Travel and Food Channels are favourites to get me through my intensive day of marking.

Yesterday was going pretty well. My students’ ideas are still too simplistic and the expression is a bit clumsy, but overall I was pretty impressed with my Grade 10s, and with myself. See how well they are doing? What a good teacher I must be!

Then the crash. This is the introductory paragraph from one of my students:

‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell is an allegory based on the Russian Revolution of 1917. Orwell uses farmyard animals and their actions to describe Russia in the 1940s. Animals are based directly on Communist leaders, particularly Napoleon as Josef Stalin. Orwell effectively presents with a character for whom readers feel intense dislike, because of his actions.
Beautiful isn’t it?

Except that we did not discuss the Russian Revolution in class. We talked about South African politics. We talked about Zimbabwe. There were mentions of American politics and North Korea. Our focus has been very much on how Orwell’s marvelous novel is still applicable today.

It did not take me long to find the source (thanks Google!). And there it was. One of my students plagiarised. My school, like all schools, has very strict rules against plagiarism, and for very good reasons. It should mean an immediate disciplinary meeting with the student’s parents and the grade head or headmaster.

But, oh, I could not do that.

I emailed my student, told her that I noticed that this was not her own work, and that we needed to chat. I kept my email as light and friendly as I could.

While I understand the reasons for the rules, and agree wholeheartedly with the rules, I believe there is a bigger issue at stake here.

Hear me out.

I want my students to be willing to take risks. I want them to be self-confident enough to jump when they cannot see where they will land. And she wasn’t. She did not plagiarise because she was lazy or incompetent, or just a mean little person with no morals. She plagiarised because she was so afraid of failure, and so unsure of her own abilities that rather than just trying, she did the only thing she could think of. She cheated.

I cannot take responsibility for her actions. She should not have done this. But I cannot help feeling that I played a role here. I believed that all my students understood exactly what I expected of them. I also believed that all my students had the confidence to at least attempt this very difficult task I gave them. She didn’t.

I have to admit to another mistake on my part. The topic I gave them was easy to research and easy to find on the net. Usually I am more careful than this. But this time, I did not check, and their topic was clearly one that has been given by so many teachers over so many years that a sample essay was freely available. Of course, my slant on the novel was so local and current that even an essay from the internet would have to be heavily adapted, but still, the outline was there, ready for easy copying.

I received another email from this little pumpkin late last night with a new essay – clearly her own work, and the line “I redid the essay and a new mind map I am sorry so sorry so sorry – by the way did I mention that you are the best English teacher I have ever had.”

She should not have plagiarised, of course not. But will I tell my school and organise that meeting? No. I would rather do those things we should be doing for our students, I would find ways to build her self-confidence by giving her tasks that help her to realise that she is smart enough to write a critical essay. A disciplinary meeting will not benefit this particular student in any way, and I will gain even less. She made a mistake, but this is not a battle, it is a collaboration. And I admire her for not only admitting the mistake, but fixing it immediately.

If she did not correct her error immediately she would have received a zero for the task and we would have had to walk a very difficult path. But she fixed it as best she could.

I don’t think I am the best teacher she has ever had. But I am trying. Really, I am trying.