Tag Archives: teaching

How Not to Teach Climate Change

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Last week I substitute-taught a Year 5 class that was learning about climate change. One of our pre-planned activities was to continue making posters about “good gases and bad gases”. I immediately noted that every student had slapped carbon dioxide (CO2) in the “bad gas” column.

I quizzed the class, and discovered that they had been taught the following line of thinking.

  1. Carbon dioxide is a harmful and poisonous gas.
  2. Nearly all daily human activity – turning on lights, jumping in a car, using an electrical device etc. – creates carbon dioxide.

They had no idea of the following:

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a natural constituent of the atmosphere… 
Carbon dioxide is by far the most important (organic compound) for the sustainability of the biosphere (the whole of life on Earth).
 
Without CO2 the life of photosynthetic organisms and animals would be impossible, given that CO2 provides the basis for the synthesis of organic compounds that provide nutrients for plants and animals.

Just think about that for a second.

Imagine you’re a naive child, and your teacher tells you that your every daily action creates poisonous gases that destroy the planet.

I was shocked, and quickly set the record straight by informing them that CO2 is actually essential for life on earth; it feeds plants, and it is a crucial ingredient in their, and in every other living creature’s, bodies. I added that scientists think it may be warming up our planet, but they’re still not 100% sure.* These facts came much to their surprise and relief. Clearly, some of these kids were among the increasing amount who suffer from eco-anxiety – a debilitating and potentially life-destroying form of neurosis.

I’ve since been investigating this issue further, and recently discovered a sickening truth. Some of those trumpeting the dangers of climate change, from the UN down, have been intentionally terrifying children in order to consolidate their message. This is abusive and irresponsible on a monumental scale. Furthermore, many other well-meaning educators (including the teacher of the above-mentioned class, who’s a lovely person) and parents have unintentionally compounded the children’s mental distress, not realising the effect that fear-mongering can have on an immature mind.

Eco-anxiety (aka climate anxiety) is a major concern because it is not something that simply disappears when a child is “old enough to know better”. As is well-understood, childhood anxiety often persists throughout life, affecting achievement in the academic and social domains. Do we really want to “educate” our children into nervous wrecks?

It seems important that climate change is taught in schools, but surely it must be taught in context. To teach it to primary school children, who are still incapable of grasping the underlying science, is pedagogically ignorant and therefore negligent. At the very least, climate change should be taught as a secondary science unit, after students have learnt basic biology, chemistry and physics. Only then do they have a chance of accurately assessing the issue, and only then can they receive a safe, healthy psychological upbringing.

*Clarification: The full extent of my short introduction to climate temperature was to mention that CO2 keeps the earth warm and always has, that scientists think our extra CO2 is ever-so-slightly warming the earth, and that it is not understood what impact this could have on the planet or on mankind.

Gamify Your Classroom #1: calmCounter

I’m constantly looking for ways to turn learning and classroom behaviour into a game for students. This enhances their sense of autonomy by distracting them from the fact that they are doing what I want them to do. Plus they get a real kick out of it. Here’s part one of my series on classroom gamification.

Teacher Ears: An Endangered Species
For some reason, most classrooms in London have the acoustics of a reverberation chamber. On top of that, today’s younglings rarely acknowledge the need to pause between raising their hand and voicing their opinion. Many have done away with the hand raise altogether. Trapped between reverberant rooms and exuberant hoons, teacher ears everywhere are battling extinction. But I am not willing to forfeit mine just yet. Yesterday, after an exhaustive search for free online volume monitor programs that actually work, I hit the jackpot with calmCounter.

Setup
Setting up calmCounter is simple if you know your way around a computer. Before using it, you need to:

  • make sure your microphone is active and turned up to its maximum
  • turn off your webcam
  • turn off your speakers

These things are all easily done via Control Panel (PC) or System Preferences (Mac). If you get stuck at this stage hit me up in the comments and I’ll go into further detail.

Once up and running, the volume input can be adjusted via the “microphone sensitivity” bar. Since my students were doing an art lesson, I tweaked it to a level where a low level of general chat was tolerated, but a full-classroom chatfest launched the indicator into the red zone.

Implementation
At the commencement of the lesson, I displayed calmCounter on the interactive whiteboard for all to see. The kids were immediately drawn in by the playful-looking interface, and predictably set about the task of maxing out the meter using poorly-disguised coughs and yelps. I had anticipated this, and allowed them a couple of minutes to play around with it before calling an end to the tomfoolery and defining the purpose of the experiment: to keep our classroom noise down.

calmcounter

I’d soon discover that using calmCounter in this way is an effective gamification because it provides the students with a common goal. Their fusion was palpable. Initially my TA and I had to keep reminding the class when noise was rising, and reproaching the class when the volume entered the dreaded red zone. Gradually they became more aware of the device, and the fact that the best way to avoid the red zone was to focus on their work. A few hands were even raised! After about twenty minutes, I (cruelly) added a new rule to the game. Every time the volume hit red, I would deduct one minute from the next day’s break time.

You’ve got to love the risk-taking attitude of a few boys who then decided to try and get the sound meter as close to red as possible without crossing over into the red zone. Unfortunately for them, the calmCounter algorithm seems to operate on “vocal inertia”. Sharp, sporadic bursts of noise barely register, but consistent sound, even at a fairly low volume, will eventually cause the meter to steadily creep up and keep going until a few seconds after the sound has stopped. This dynamic works beautifully in the classroom, and my risk-takers soon found out that it’s not easy to rig.

In future I will reward them for each five-minute blocks where they don’t go above red, as it’s important to have positive incentives as well as negative consequences.

Verdict
Overall, the students enjoyed the experiment and both my ears and those of the TA relished the unusually quiet hour. CalmCounter is available at http://www.ictgames.com/calmCounter.html. Get in while it’s free!

Why Size Matters (and What You Can Do About It)

There once was a man with incredibly large genitals. His sex life was spectacular – but for one problem.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who was known across the land as “Slippery Sybil”. The reasons for her nickname were many, but all of them related in some way or another to her enormous…

This is a story about the most impressive erection in the history of mankind: the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

How did you respond to these story openings?

My guess is:

  • shock after reading the first line;
  • confusion in the second paragraph because it doesn’t flow naturally from the first;
  • frustration, annoyance or apathy in the third because none of this crass garbage fits together.

So what’s my point?

I have been thinking lately that full-time teaching is like writing a novel. Both undertakings can be incredibly daunting. Each requires resilience and countless hours of unacknowledged effort. For the teacher, every year-long class is filled with highs and lows, and similarly, authors experience some days when words gush in a torrent onto the page, and other days when they daren’t go within 45m of their computer for fear of keyboard poisoning. Despite the challenges, successful teachers and novelists give their hearts and souls until the final bell, and those with talent are rewarded with a wonderful story.

If we take this analogy a step further, then the frustrating series of false starts that you experienced at the beginning of this article is analogous to the lot of the humble supply teacher.

For the supply teacher, every day is another new beginning. Names and faces come and go, and real progress, in the form of sustained student development, is never observed. It’s a fate similar to that of Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors in Groundhog Day, except that in Connors’s surreal nightmare each day was identical to the last, enabling him to easily anticipate events. In the life of a supply teacher, a day of intellectual wrestling with pre-pubescent Year 7s can be sandwiched between a day minding three-year-olds in Nursery and a day teaching religion to Year 4s in an Islamic school for boys. Sometimes it feels like stepping into a series of Oz-like parallel universes, where the unfamiliar and unexpected are commonplace.

That’s certainly how I’ve felt at times in the past few weeks, and I know from personal conversations that many other supply teachers also see their job as a demoralising series of non-sequiturs. But need it be this way?

To return to the literary analogy, not all stories are novels. There are plenty of smaller-sized stories to be found and enjoyed. Novellas and short stories are the obvious examples, but even shorter genres exist. The fifty-word story has risen as a genre in recent years, but that seems like a giant in comparison to the true midget of the story family; the six-word story.

Legend has it that this genre was born the day Ernest Hemingway accepted a challenge to write a story in six words. Fascinatingly, Hemingway is said to have regarded the resulting story as his finest work. It went, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Since that fateful day, the six-word story has developed into a genre of its own. Creative writing lecturers often encourage students to practice writing six-word stories on the basis that this practice hones a student’s sense of storytelling by forcing conciseness. Every word must count.

In the hands of talented writers, six-word stories can be romantic (Ships fire; princess weeps, between stars. – Charles Stross), grotesque (Kirby had never eaten toes before. – Kevin Smith), philosophical (It cost too much, staying human. – Bruce Sterling),political (Bush told the truth. Hell froze. – William Gibson), haunting (I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ? – Neil Gaiman) or humorous (Longed for him. Got him. Shit. – Margaret Atwood).

The key to writing a good six-word story is to manage expectations. If you are expecting to write a novel in six words, you are setting yourself up for frustration. But writing six-word stories can be incredibly fulfilling, as Hemingway’s experience shows, if you focus purely on getting the most out of those six words.

Similarly, if a supply teacher arrives at work every day expecting to develop a deep educational narrative with their students, they are setting themselves up for disappointment. But if they arrive ready to accept the challenge of showcasing their teaching talents in one day, they may go home satisfied.

In my case, when I made this adjustment I found that each new beginning suddenly transformed into a fresh opportunity to change my teaching approach completely, a practice that would have seemed too inconsistent in a full-time role. For someone like me, who is intent on developing his teaching skills through continued reflective practice, it could be argued that this is the ideal situation. Why slog away at the same story and be constantly held back by your early mistakes when you can pump out five stories a week, generating new, better ideas each time?

There are plenty of other benefits to the “bite-sized teaching” mindset. The challenge of learning a new set of names every day is excellent brain exercise. Those first moments with a new class are fantastic opportunities to rehearse the art of “hooking”, a crucial skill as the old proverb “first impressions last” reminds us. And on a broader scale, the range of different classrooms and schools provides a rich pedagogical sampling ground.

I don’t know much about genitals, or erections, or whatever Slippery Sybil had that was so captivatingly massive. But I do know that when it comes to supply teachers’s expectations, size matters. The supply teachers who learn this lesson are far more likely to sympathise with the Wizard of Oz’s protagonist in Steven Meretzky’s twisted six-word story, below.

Dorothy: “Fuck it, I’ll stay here.”

References:

Wired Magazine, 2006, Issue 14.11, Very Short Stories viewed 25 June 2013, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/sixwords.html

Frenzy Prevails Again, but Schoolman Gallant in Defeat

Almost all student names in this article are fictional.

June 14, Hackney

Colourful name-tags gave the Schoolman an early lead and enabled him to wrestle back the momentum several times over the day.

Colourful name-tags gave the Schoolman an early lead and enabled him to wrestle back the momentum several times over the day.

The Learning London Schoolman was today defeated by arch-rivals the Fourth Grade Frenzy for the second time this week.

However, in a much-improved display, the Schoolman enjoyed several periods of dominance to offer his fans at least a glimmer of hope.

The Schoolman leapt out of the blocks, greeting several members of the Frenzy in the playground and reeling off their names from memory. In the ensuing procession into the classroom, the Schoolman’s decision to set up online behaviour management tool Classdojo on the interactive whiteboard led to another goal. After conducting the register, the Schoolman added a third goal by producing a bunch of sticky labels, bringing up some graffiti-style fonts on the whiteboard and instructing the students to spend the next fifteen minutes create their own personalised name-tags.

The Schoolman was clearly relishing his lead, and spent the next few minutes cheerfully dishing out positive reinforcement via Classdojo. Before long, the students were called to the mat to have their next lesson explained. Frenzy superstars Scorsese and Mohammed eventually sat down, but not before they had wasted valuable minutes. The Frenzy was on the board at last, and began to play in a more relaxed fashion. Scorsese and Bwpfrqx added two quick goals by showcasing an impressive array of combative quips that left the Schoolman with no choice but to have them sent from the field.

A short time later the new activity was under way, and despite some strong over-the-shoulder marking, the Schoolman was visibly rattled.

The Frenzy's winning margin would have been far greater if not for the engaging behaviour management system, ClassDojo.

The Frenzy’s winning margin would have been far greater if not for the engaging behaviour management system, ClassDojo.

His morning break could not come quick enough. As Frenzy pairs began to finish their work, the Schoolman made a costly error by delivering ambiguous instructions to the early finishers to “read until break”. Within moments of being granted this freedom, the Frenzy had spiralled into an orgy of mass hysteria and Frenzy goals flowed like the Thames. Scorsese and Bwpfrqx had returned to the field and were once again in the thick of things, burrowing under desks, hurling pencils, sweeping books from the shelves onto the floor and palming off teacher interventions in performances reminiscent of the great Jonah Lomu. By the time the break had arrived the room was in disarray, so the Schoolman attempted to wrest back control by docking five minutes from the Frenzy’s break. However, in a cruelly ironic twist, the only students who noticed were the poor, obedient souls who actually were listening.

Realising this, the Schoolman released the whole class except for the five most disruptive offenders; Scorsese, Mohammed, Penbe, Luol and Bwpfrqx. In a telling passage of play, Mohammed told the Schoolman that he “needed to be more strict” to which the perplexed Schoolman replied “B..b..but… what do you think I’m trying to do right now?”

While this exchange was going on, Scorsese slipped out the door. The Schoolman called after him that it was a funny stunt but he’d better come back, but Scorsese chose not to heed this warning so the Schoolman referred to the third umpire, Headteacher Susan. The third umpire immediately confirmed that Scorsese would sit the next class in the “behaviour room”, affording the Schoolman some much-needed breathing space.

But by now the Frenzy had all the momentum, and the second session commenced the way the previous one had ended. For the first five minutes after the bell, half of the Frenzy team galloped around the playground, blissfully oblivious to the wavering bleats of the Schoolman and his assistants. Fifteen minutes later the class was sitting upon the mat before an unusually dark and veiny Schoolman, receiving instructions on how to write a persuasive advertisement. The shorter session worked to the Schoolman’s favour, and the Frenzy made pleasing progress on its task. By the time the Schoolman had pegged a few goals back by quashing the off-task behaviour of a few Frenzy players with some adroit Classdojo use, it was time for lunch.

The Schoolman utilised the break to buy a sandwich filled with a disgusting pink meat paste, whilst the Frenzy regrouped for an afternoon onslaught.

The Frenzy's afternoon scoring spree produced the first grey hairs on the Schoolman's head.

The Frenzy’s afternoon scoring spree produced the first grey hairs on the Schoolman’s head.

As lunch time came to a close, the Frenzy resorted to its earlier dirty tactics by completely ignoring the bell. However this time the entire team ran rampant, side-stepping countless Schoolman pleas and rebukes. After ten minutes a still-only-half-lined-up Frenzy could smell victory. A deflated Schoolman lead the slovenly formation up to the classroom, where the Frenzy continued its assault on the scoreboard with five more minutes of rowdiness. Had an ally of the Schoolman not intervened with some biased refereeing, it could easily have been ten or twenty minutes. The Frenzy was led back down to the playground to “practice lining up”, and after another five minutes was finally sitting down receiving instructions for the afternoon Science lesson.

Under the watchful eye of his ally, the Schoolman was able to finish the day with a scoring streak as the majority of students turned in impressive work and demonstrated respectful classroom behaviour. But it was too little too late, and Headteacher Susan removed any doubt as to the result with a last-minute visit to the field to inform the Frenzy that they had all but lost the right to attend the upcoming sports carnival.

Scorsese was again best on ground with a blistering display of disrespectful and impulsive behaviour, while Pepe, Joshua and the female Frenzy members had shockingly well-behaved days.

Honey, I Shrieked at the Kids

Today I taught the most challenging class I have met in seven years of teaching.

When I arrived at the school I was told that the teacher of this Year 4 class had left no plan. Fortunately, I was able to procure the assistance of another Year 4 teacher, who gave me a rushed briefing that ensured that both of us started the day feeling more stressed than was really necessary.

But I’ve had poorly planned days before, and most of them seemed like a dance in the dandelions compared to this day. So what was it that made the class so challenging?

On the surface, the problem was really quite simple: they just wouldn’t shut up.

From the moment I led them up to their room, the students chatted amongst themselves incessantly. At first, I chose to draw on my considerable reserve of patience by standing at the front of the class and waiting. Three or four students noticed and raised their fingers to their lips in courageous, peer-defying displays of obedience, but several minutes ticked by, their patience waned and the rest of the class remained oblivious. As the only person in the room not talking, I began to feel left out.

“Oooookay,” I said, my voice a teacherly blend of politeness, authority and a dash of urgency. I stepped forward as far as I could without treading on an eight-year-old shin and held out my hands, palms down, to suggest a lowering of volume.

No response.

Sensing the need to pierce the rising wall of chatter with something a little more punchy, I resorted to the time-tested technique of clap-and-response. With just the right amount of palm-cup and finger-snap, I clapped the generic pattern of ta-ta-titi-ta. Several students (probably the same exasperated kids who had responded to my earlier display of patience) mimicked my pattern. I clapped again, and several more joined in. However, half of these continued to chat over their own claps. They had clearly failed to grasp the unspoken law of clap-and-response that states that clapping and talking are mutually exclusive. Gradually the clappers who had grasped this law realised that this was going nowhere and returned their voices to the crescendo of babble.

My reserve of patience, which had seemed voluminous in other classrooms, was now so low that I could hear the last litre slurping its way down the plughole. In a panic, I opted for option D: shouting. Whilst I knew this can be interpreted as a sign of weakness, I was out of ideas. This lion had been backed into a corner and was ready to lash out. Unfortunately, the obvious logical fault in my belief that I could silence their noise with my own, louder noise only occurred to me when my desperate roar of “OK SETTLE DOWN RIGHT NOW!” sent the sound pressure level into the decibel range of the pneumatic drill.

It was at precisely that point that I felt the dread of knowing that I had lost the class. And it was only 9:15.

The remainder of the day consisted of shouting competitions, hurriedly explained lessons, misunderstandings, crying children, temporarily successful interventions by other teachers, countless cortisol spurts and many, many self-supplied temple massages.

On speaking to other teachers I discovered that my experience with this particular class was not unique. I was told that very experienced teachers had described that year group as the “rudest they have ever seen” and refused to return.

But it is all too easy to blame the students, and I know there are things I could have done that might have led to a few less heart palpitations. Upon reflection, I have identified a few simple tools that might have made my day a lot easier, and I would love to hear any suggestions that fellow teachers have to offer.

1. Name tags
Few things make one feel more helpless than being completely ignored after shouting an ambiguous order like “Hey! You with the corn-rows! Stop holding that ruler next to your groin and slapping it against the desk!”

A child’s name is their collar, and there is no way to give their leash a sharp tug without it. No matter how good your memory is, you will never memorise the names of twenty-five kids whose parents took complete creative license over the laws of language when first penning their child’s name on the birth certificate. Well, not without props anyway. As such, I have bought five packs of sticky name tags at £1 a bag and intend to distribute them to classes at the beginning of each day.

2. School rule sheet
This step seems obvious but is easy to overlook in the hustle and bustle of a new school morning. Kids need consistency, and consistency is established through language. All schools with half an ear to the current research should have agreed upon a common language of behaviour management that encompasses expectations, rewards and consequences. I believe that any serious school should provide all visiting teachers with laminated information sheets that clearly outline the school’s behaviour management language. However, since schools are usually too busy to do this, I have developed a template that supply teachers can use to collect this information. It will be uploaded shortly.

3. Daily plan display
Students like to know exactly what will be happening over the day. Any ambiguity in this regard seems to appeal to their sense of freedom, which means worse behavior. As such, a daily plan should be made visible to the class from the moment they step through the door, and adhered to rigidly. Even if this means arriving at school an hour early, the hair you save will more than make up for the hour of sleep that you lose.

Please share your own ideas in the comments section below.