Contacting Home

One of the most powerful sequences in a teaching movie that I have ever seen was in ‘Dangerous Minds‘. The teacher tries to ring home and can’t because the family’s phone was disconnected. So, she goes over to the house. The parents are crushed, a teacher coming to their house to complain about their son… and she tells them how good he is and how proud of him she is.

The scene gets me every time, not that the film as a whole doesn’t have a lot of problems, but that scene… It changed everything for me.

I was in my second year of teaching and struggling. All my line manager would say was “have you tried ringing the parents?” if I asked for help. And in a couple of cases, I was sure that my telephone call led to child abuse which put me in a terrible bind. After seeing that film, I changed what I was doing completely.

Contacting home to share good news became part of my teaching repertoire and there were major knockon effects for how things went in my classroom.

I have blogged before about how I use Classdojo to reinforce the positive behaviours I see in my class. In fact, it’s working so well that I am going to change the behaviours that are rewarded, to freshen things up.

Now they have a new feature where I can use the existing database of parental accounts so that I can contact home without having to find out email addresses (or give mine out). This works for me. Just making it easier for me to get in touch will mean I am far more likely to actually do it.

Looking forward to trying it out with my class.

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Science Fair: Are they learning anything?

I just want to say that I love Science Fair (spoilers!). I am a tiny bit scared about doing it every year and every year, I find out something new about how students learn.

The name of this blog is Science Teaching Resources and once this unit has run its course, I will be able to share my resources with my readers. I promise! I just want to think about what is working well before I let my resources loose on the world.

I have two classes. One has learners that are much more independent and engaged. Another has learners that are dependent on me as the teacher or not as interested in my subject. The nice thing is that Science Fair is bringing out the best in both groups.

The more independent group have fascinating conversations about science that make me want to do a little dance of joy when I hear them. For example: “No wait! Wait! That’s not our independent variable!” or “Woah, why do you think the measurements are like that?” or “How can we make a conclusion out of these results…. I think our hypothesis was wrong! Huh!”

I only dance internally. My favourite moment so far is when one of my students who struggles a bit with literacy walked over with his work to the keyword dictionary display and said “Hey guys! ‘increase’ is on there, it means ‘to get bigger’ just like I said!”

Which made the hour or so of writing those definitions seem more than worth it. Also, it makes me want to write more of them for the topics. I don’t want to have lots of make-work for myself that doesn’t benefit them. It’s more than gratifying to see them actually using what I’ve provided.

I am also glad that I taught them about variables and other scientific minutiae at the start of the year. They are really able to apply this stuff and fly away with it. HIGH FIVE TO PAST ME.

With the other class, I’m providing a lot more support. Many of the children with the greatest need of me arrived part way through the year. It seems I need to develop my planning so that I am teaching The Basics all the way through and not just in August. Mostly, my students were underway with the experimental phase. But some of them were waiting on a piece of equipment or a test subject, so I gave them the task of writing the first part of the lab report.

Again, work I did at the beginning of the year really paid off. I made some writing frames and these were really useful. I can sort of remember what it was like not having any clue where to start. With some students, you hand them the mark scheme and they can piece it together. Others need writing frames. Sure, their writing is going to be more basic and less detailed. But. My hope (belief?) is that after a few sessions of using my sentence starters, the process will become much more automatic and they will not need the training wheels anymore.  As much as they need to work independently, they also need to learn how to do that. Asking them before they are ready can paralyse them completely.

So. What are my students learning?

I think after this unit, they will be much more able to plan experiments and analyse results. They will have increased facility with scientific literacy, including writing lab reports and using correct terminology. They will understand that scientists don’t (just) stroke their beards or mix explosive chemicals together, that there is a recipe for discoveries. I think they are also learning how to communicate ideas in order to inspire and excite.

I had a discussion with my supervisor about getting them to reflect on their learning during the process. I love the idea, I do. I love the idea of video diaries or written journals, outlining what they have learned. I am just nervous about introducing a new skill that might be too hard for them on top of everything else.  I find that evaluations are usually the weakest part of any lab report. Also, when they reflect after a unit, I get a lot of “I had fun. I worked well with my friends.” and not the expected “I can make tests fair. I know how neutralisation works. I found writing my conclusions difficult” Of course it’s about training them to be able to do this and the more they do it, the easier it becomes. I think the time to do it is after they hand in their lab reports this Thursday. That is a good time because they will have cleared the most challenging task out of the way and will have the mental energy left to think about thinking before Science Fair is old news.

I am so excited about Science Fair in April!

Pet hate: Be Vigilant

Time to put on my Outspoken Hat.

I hate the phrase “be vigilant” and here is why:-

The first time I heard the phrase “be vigilant” it was just after 9/11. The authorities assured us that only by constant vigilance could we end terror. Instead of paying attention to loved ones or concentrating on buying train tickets or looking at the clouds, we should be on constant alert for terrorism. Only by concentrating our attention onto looking for suspicious behaviour could we stop bin Laden in his tracks.

I much prefer the phrase “See something: say something”. As in, go about your daily business but if you notice something a bit ‘off’, then that’s when you take action. “Be vigilant” implies that you must actively seek to observe terror in all its forms.

When I started teaching, I noticed my colleagues were saying it about being in the classroom.

Be vigilant.

About uniform, bullying, racism, low level disruption, inattention, lack of understanding, upset children, withdrawn children, isolated children, teaching material, how we share opinions, of our belongings, our own dress, student safety, monitoring prematurely born children, underachieving students… it’s endless.

Obviously, as a teacher, I need to have some awareness of all of these things. And many other factors besides. But telling me to ‘be vigilant’ sort of misses the point of how attention works. I cannot ‘be vigilant’ about all of these things at the same time. I cannot even ‘be vigilant’ about one of those things for the whole lesson and still be able to teach.

As a teacher, I need to focus my attention for short bursts onto several arena over the course of the lesson. As I get more experienced, this plate spinning becomes more manageable. I can ‘chunk’ my attention and I can prioritise things to notice. But things will slip by me. Less now than before. But still.

My problem with the phrase ‘be vigilant’ is usually the person who says it. “Be vigilant! PROBLEM SOLVED”  If there are any further issues, it’s obviously the teacher who didn’t listen to the world-class advice.

Of course, I want to pay attention to the things that matter. That’s a given. But there are a lot of things that require my attention.

The best teaching advice I ever heard was on The Wire, after a new teacher has a terrible first day

“You need soft eyes.”

You simply cannot ‘be vigilant’, and expect that to be enough. Teachers need awareness but also an appreciation that their awareness is not 100% and they need to switch their attention between a variety of inputs all lesson. They cannot stare at the tree and hope to see the forest. They need soft eyes.

Science Fair: Crunch Time

A student ran up to me in the playground

“We just realised: the lab report is due next week. We need to get our observations done tomorrow!”

This is the advantage and the curse of sharing deadlines way ahead of time.

The advantage is that students learn to self-regulate, in a way that the usual schedule of having homework due every week never really teaches them.

The curse is that the deadlines look so small from far away, the useful activities are necessarily crunched at the end of the process.

I’ve got to say, though, I was impressed at their experimental skill and design. It looks like one doozy of a project. I can’t take any of the credit, they have flown with the idea.

Meanwhile, in the same class, I have students who find self-regulation incredibly hard, along with everything else I am asking them to do. They have good ideas for experiments and they have an idea of what they want to find out. But actually planning an experiment that would give results that could lead to a conclusion… they find that incredibly challenging.

In the end, I extended a life line and gave them some concrete ideas to work with. As much as I want my students to figure out an experiment for themselves, I think the cognitive load was too high for them. As in: they find all of it hard. Hypotheses, thinking of step-by-step plans, deciding on results to measure, working out if there are patterns, describing the patterns, explaining the patterns… even predicting results is a challenge. It was all new and all very difficult and confusing.

When things are too hard, the ego steps in to protect itself and a lot of time wasting activities will take place. Then it wasn’t because they were stupid*, it was because they wasted time or didn’t give it their full effort. (*not that finding these processes difficult as a beginner makes you stupid. But students often feel threatened by not being able to do something even though that is a normal part of learning something new)

As a teacher, it is hard to decide when to ‘give the answers’. I don’t want them to be dependent on me by any means…. But I think in this case it was the right judgement call.

What I did was: set up a usable method for their experimental aim. I did this mostly in discussion with them, so they were very much in charge of how it took shape. But I have designed a lot of experiments and it comes automatically to me. When they have designed a lot of experiments themselves, I can take a step back. We just don’t seem to be there yet.

Anyway, once the method was decided and trialled, they were able to think deep thoughts about their hypothesis and prediction. This sort of thinking is a challenge but once you have a concrete idea in your head about what the experiment will look like, it should be something that is manageable.

In my other class, with the younger students, I was hardly needed at all. They are much more independent as a group. I observed my class at work, noting their conversations and questions. The lion’s share of questions were directed at me because they were about how I would assess the work.

“Do we need an abstract in our lab report? Should we write directly on the card? How big does the poster need to be? Do I need to put the entire lab report on the poster?”

A few questions were to clarify some points

“Is THIS my independent variable? Does this go in my conclusion or my evaluation?”

But there were some really good questions and comments for the other students.

“Do you think this title is good? How would you describe the variables? Would you prefer to write the evaluation or the method in the lab report? Can you double check this measurement?”

“If they got all these questions right, this test is too easy. We listed the variables but we didn’t describe them. This is 7cm?! You are kidding me! It’s going to burn if you hold it like that. So my hypothesis WAS right! Oranges don’t work!”

Humans are social learners, so it’s great they are getting the same messages (about variables and conclusions, this lesson) from their peers.

I’ve got to say, this lesson was quite gratifying. I was useful but not centre stage. I could actually hear them learning new things and working stuff out. I gave them the mark scheme and told them how to use it: check off the parts they knew they had done and see if they could move up to the next grade band by improving on their work.

Also, the sheer volume of discussion about what they were doing and what to do next showed me that they took it seriously and wanted to be there. 

I’m not sure exactly why the quality of discussion amongst some of the older students was not as high. I can’t rule out that it was just tiredness as the lesson is right at the end of a long day. There could be other factors at play as well. Maybe they need more modelling from me, more worked examples or feedback about how to improve. I feel like I am  doing these things…. but maybe I’m not doing it enough or in a way that is helpful for them.

Next week, they will be finishing their lab reports and planning what they will do during the actual fair.

Science Fair: Deep thought or dead time

When I was training, my tutor had a thing about ‘dead time’, that is when a student has nothing to do and just sits there quietly not learning anything. My priority in the early years of my career was to avoid that as much as possible.

You get ‘dead time’ throughout the lesson.

At the start: when they are waiting to hear what to do. (Maybe you already told them (or think you did), or maybe you are having to sort out something before you can begin your activities.)

If a student finishes quickly and you need the rest of the class to finish before you can move on.

If a student finishes all the activities you had planned.

I was taught to have plenty of activities available. Even things you did not plan to do with the rest of the class. Just for early finishers. It is important it is not more of the same, though it does not necessarily need to be ‘harder’. This is not always possible or sometimes they whiz through that too, so Plan B is getting them to read a book or do homework from another lesson.

Anything to avoid ‘dead time’. Anything to avoid another adult coming into the classroom and seeing idle students.

This seemed eminently fair to me in the first years of teaching. Obviously, students come to school to learn. They come to school to be active and get the most out of their time.

That was until I read a book about creativity: ‘Imagine’ by Jonah Lehrer. We say we want to teach creative thinking and yet we do not allow the conditions for creativity.

If I am stuck on a lesson idea, I take a shower. There is nothing to read or distract. I just stare into space while I do an automatic task. Ideas take form and are usually the best lesson plans. Or if I am trying to solve a problem, I need to discuss it with another person. Even if the conversation veers off into unplanned territory, I am still ticking over the problem and find the answer. Or when I am on the train or the bus, I have a lot of good ideas and make great connections.

My tutor would have called this ‘dead time’, this wool gathering. This day dreaming.

Now, don’t get me wrong, a lot of my lessons are not ‘about’ creativity. There are circumstances that would mean daydreaming was not productive and would be a waste of my student’s time. But. I am finding these circumstances are fewer and fewer.

For example, in Science Fair, I have told my students to design their own experiment. My hands are off. There are no worksheets to run through. There is no textbook to guide them. The most guidance they get from me is what they will be assessed on.

This is intensely creative. Not only to find an experiment. But to think of a hypothesis for it. And a conclusion. And to think of follow up experiments. And to think of how it fits in with ‘known’ science.

My students are going to stare into space. They need to. It would be wildly inappropriate for me to tell them to ‘look busy’ or fill their time with activity. They need space to think and it looks like they are doing nothing. Sometimes they distract themselves while they think about the problem. (This looks exactly like they are distracting themselves so they don’t have to think about the problem, so how am I supposed to know the difference?)

My students are going to chat. Their conversations are going to go on tangents. They need to. Of course, I need to train them to keep each other honest. But if you are discussing how to see how people behave when you test their honesty, you are going to go off topic because you have been tangentially reminded of something. If you are testing how fast someone can speak, you might talk about popular music and artists you like.

The problem with being this sort of teacher is the problem of perception amongst colleagues. Some teachers do not need to work with creativity very much. Some teachers have a much more rigid approach to the creative process. This is fine, we are all different. But I feel the heavy look of judgement sometimes, when colleagues walk through my classroom. It’s not like I can run after them and say “but Suzie had a fantastic idea about velcro just now!” because the process is hidden to me until the assignment is submitted.

It’s an exciting time in education but it’s a difficult transition. Before, when we were preparing them for the factory or the farm, ‘turn to page 40 and do the odd exercises’ would do. You could show your colleagues how much ‘work’ your students did. Even when we got ‘Assessment for Learning’, and we didn’t rely on textbooks and worksheets, we could still show that students were meeting the learning objectives at the end of the lesson.

But what if you literally do not know what your students’ learning objective will be? You know you want them to design their own experiment but you don’t know that they are going to learn that ultraviolet light causes chemical reactions with lemon juice which is why candle light turns it brown but a hot radiator won’t. Or you don’t know that they will find out that hypotheses work best when they are ‘wrong’.

Or even harder on the teacher: what if you know your learning objective will take more than one lesson to achieve and there is no half way point where you can point and say ‘look, they weren’t being LAZY on my watch, see they got half of this learning objective’.

My inner traditional teacher is quite cynical about this, I have to tell you. She is shaking her head and suggesting that this is all a bit arty farty. If a student is making progress, you should be able to see that. She’s right of course. But she needs to understand that the creative process cannot be tamed to work within 40 minute bursts and it does not always look like as much ‘work’ as answering comprehension questions. But it is almost certainly more powerful and definitely more valuable to the student.