Literacy – don’t do too much, too soon

It has been my experience that any of my pupils’ parents with whom I have interacted have always had the best intentions for their children’s education. The importance of supporting a child’s education and development outside of, and in addition to formal schooling can’t be overstated. There are many ways that parents and guardians can support their child’s learning. A quick chat with your child’s teacher should shed some light on this.

However, there is one particular issue that I think needs attention. Some children are being exposed to letter formation activities and phonics activities before they begin their primary schooling. This could be at home, or in a preschool setting. The idea behind this may be that a parent would like to give their child a head-start for when they begin school, and in some cases this may be what happens. In many cases it is not what happens due to a number of reasons.

  1. Keeping in mind that all children develop at slightly different paces and will reach their milestones at different intervals, it is often (but not always) the case that the child is not developmentally ready for these sort of activities. At the preschool age, a child should be engaging in play-based and socio-dramatic activities, they should be exposed to stories and they should develop their social skills (this is not an exhaustive list, rather it is a list of three areas which have come to mind as I type). There are always going to be children who will be ready at an earlier stage/age for expanding further with literacy development activities. What’s important is that these activities are carefully planned and delivered by someone with the skill-set to do it properly.
  2. Some children are being shown how to write with capital letters before they begin primary school. As well-meaning as this may be, it can prove to be unhelpful for a child’s writing as these letters may often present themselves in the middle of words and take away from the overall presentation. Capital letters are taught in the infant classes at a particular stage, a time when it makes sense to introduce them and with the appropriate teaching in place to remind the children when or when not to use them. Using capital letters instead of using lower-case letters during writing will slow down the process.
  3. It is the case that in some (not all) preschool settings, children are being “taught their sounds” (phonics). This is not a good idea and further, this should be left to a qualified primary school teacher. The preschool experience for a child should not include lessons on phonics (or writing letters), there is time enough for that in the infant classes. What’s important in a preschool setting is that children have the opportunity to explore through play and to develop by building on these experiences and interactions.

It may sound like a cliché, but the best advice I can give to parents is to make reading a regular activity outside of school, whether they haven’t started in school yet, whether they’re in school or whether they’re coming to the end of their formal education. During the early years, model reading for the child by reading a variety of stories out loud to them. Stop at appropriate intervals and ask a range of higher-order and lower-order questions. Ask the child about the words they hear you read – are there other words that mean something similar? Do they know a word that rhymes with the one you’re talking about? Ask the child to summarise what you have read. Ask if the child can predict what might happen next.

As the child gets older, these reading activities will develop. Gradually, as the child undergoes early years schooling, the child will work towards becoming an independent reader.

Reading should feel like a normal activity and should not feel like hard work if it is encouraged in the appropriate way. Children will work hard enough in school (believe me, learning is hard work and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise!) so it is best to let them enjoy reading and literacy activities without it becoming a task.

Parents are constitutionally the primary educators of their children. I think this is a great thing. The next big question linked to this – how can teachers support parents?

Teachers as Researchers

The thought occurred to me recently that, in some manner, every teacher is a researcher. When one thinks of researchers, one may conjure up an image of an academic working for a third-level institution. Teachers, as we traditionally know them, do not fit this description. The research that we do, however informally we do it, is based in practice and has real-world and immediate applications.

Whether we critically reflect on how a lesson went, or whether we take a more formal research approach to our practice, both are equally as valuable. The only difference is that one may go unnoticed and unrecognised while the other reaps rewards through the form of accredited certification.

Researching through the more formal and traditional means generally allows the researcher a medium through which findings can be presented and discussed. The same cannot presently be said about the informal types of research that take place daily in classrooms. Other than something along the lines of a discussion with a colleague or a brief mention at a staff meeting, this sort of informal research most likely ends up being lost to everyone but the initial individual, with its practical benefits remaining unseen and unrealised by a wider audience.

Let me make it clear that I do not see School Self-Evaluation as the answer. That approach is too narrowly focused (standardised testing results) and restrictive, as its structures are designed by people not involved in the process on the ground. The process is also forced, however at the time of writing, a union directive instructs teachers at primary level not to engage with it.

There is a solution. It involves a change of culture, where teachers at primary and at secondary level are encouraged to share their professional and informal research experiences with a wider audience, through a medium that is always accessible. Blogging is one such medium but it is often up to an individual to set up their own blog and to maintain it, in order to reach a significant number of readers. What’s needed is a well-maintained medium where registered teachers are free to make submissions about their formal and informal research and their research in practice, and where other registered teachers can access it and discuss it with a view to further professional learning.

I think the Teaching Council has a role to play here. It is, after all, charged with the promotion of the profession. I would challenge them to enable teachers to share their formal and informal research experiences through a medium that lasts.

The Critical Incident Questionnaire in the Infant Classroom

I had an hour to spare the other day so I decided I’d search YouTube for any videos of my favourite writer in education – Stephen D. Brookfield. I found this video, in which he makes a presentation on critical and creative thinking. The one-hour video does not do justice to the contents of his book “Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher” (1995) but rather it provides a solid basis for wanting to read it, and in my case, re-read it.

This is a wonderful video in which Brookfield recounts his experiences with his own failures in education and how he managed to overcome these. He also uses the highly personal example of his own clinical depression to illustrate his point about assumptions. It’s well worth watching if you can spare an hour.

Stephen Brookfield’s teaching experience is rooted in Adult Education. As a primary school teacher, I find myself wondering whether his approaches to promoting critically reflective teaching are transferrable to the primary school context, particularly at infant level. I particularly note what he terms the Critical Incident Questionnaire. The three questions in the CIQ are as follows:

  1. At what moment in class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  2. At what moment in class this week were you most distanced from what was happening?
  3. What action that anyone (teacher or student) took this week did you find most affirming or helpful?

I like the idea of it but I know that it would not be viable in its current form in a Junior or Senior Infant classroom. The CIQ is voluntary and is supposed to be anonymous, so oral feedback in place of the standard, written CIQ would defeat the purpose of anonymous feedback. The language in its current form would have to be altered if the pupils were to engage with it properly. It would most likely have to be read aloud and explained by me in order to eliminate confusion. I would have to be mindful of pupils whose first language is not English. In order to collect feedback, I would have to rely to some extent on the children’s ability to write for the purposes of transmitting real meaning. This raises the ethical issue surrounding the guarantee of anonymity – many teachers can identify a pupil by their handwriting.

The other alternative is to send the CIQ home with them at the weekend and to get them to dictate their responses to their parents, who will in turn fill in these dictated responses, possibly by typing them up to preserve anonymity (a teacher can become accustomed to a parent’s handwriting as well!) and for return the following day. This isn’t a perfect solution either, as it relies on participation that one cannot and should not force. It also allows for the child’s answer to be influenced by the parent, which would render the feedback useless.

In less than a fortnight as I begin my ninth year in teaching, I will be embarking on my first experience teaching a Senior Infants class. I would like to use the CIQ in some form to improve their educational experiences, therefore I would welcome any suggestions or feedback from readers of this blog as to how I can best do this.

The Value Teachers Place in Things

If you could avail of a service and pay for the privilege of it; or avail of a similar service and be offered it for free, what would you choose? If I was going to benefit in some way from the free service, I would choose that one, after having given it some proper thought. If I was considering availing of the paid service, I’d do my research to see what was on offer and I’d check the reputation of the person offering it, as I would be parting with hard-earned money.

If you were pondering what product to buy from a range of choices, do you believe what the reviewer says if he/she receives free samples of merchandise from time to time from the supplier? I can’t place much faith in a review if it’s too positive – nothing is perfect. I’d rather give it some real thought and make my own mind up.

This blog post came about as a result of what I’ve seen on various teacher Facebook pages over the last number of weeks. “Like, tag and share to enter a draw for a free planner!” and the likes. It has also come about as a result of what I’ve seen over the last few years – relatively new teachers hosting paid seminars or writing books where they tell NQTs and student teachers how they think they should do things. There is a lot wrong with this.

It is unethical. The whole “Like, tag and share” gimmick is a shameless way of accruing an increasing amount of likes for a Facebook page. The page with thousands of likes therefore has to be questioned as to its value. Can we really believe that ten thousand or more people really have an interest in what a particular teacher is saying/selling on Facebook if those likes were gained through a questionable marketing trick? Is it really a genuine following? Do ten thousand likes place a value in the product being sold or the reputation of the person selling it?

Teachers should question everything and should encourage their learners to do so too. There is an unfortunate trend occurring where some teachers are looking for the quick fix, or the “how-to” manual. This does a disservice to the profession and bypasses what all teachers should be doing – thinking critically. It shows a negligible amount of questioning  or judgment – skills that are important to us as teachers and important to impart to our learners.

I don’t think we can improve our practice by being passive. We can improve our practice by being active participants in our own improvement. This means thinking for yourself, questioning new initiatives before implementing them, talking to your colleagues and sharing problems, solutions and ideas. It’s also important to question the value of what you read (this blog is not immune from criticism, rather it is welcomed) or what is for sale on the internet . We really can’t follow a check-list and expect to be the best we can be. It’s not all in a book and no one individual can give you answers to all of your questions or solutions to all of your problems. Collaboration, where everyone is respected as an equal and where everyone has something to contribute, is a good start.

Don’t Pay Your Way to Success

I recently saw a post on Facebook from a private company that was selling interview advice and preparation as well as reviews of Standard Application Forms. Any company is entitled to do this but that is not the issue. Their post (since removed) read as follows:

“In recent days we have received messages from frustrated teachers noting that they have spent the summer applying for jobs but have yet to be called for interview. This is not normal. There is most definitely a problem. It is your application form. Feedback has indicated that teachers are getting called for 20% of the positions for which they apply. Details on how to have your application form analysed is available at [URL hidden]”.

I take issue with an ad such as this as it relies heavily on scaremongering. It also fails to acknowledge the realities faced by jobseeking teachers where one vacancy could draw in over a hundred applications. It ignores the reality for many teachers unknown to principals – you are more likely to be offered an interview for a position if you have previously subbed in the school or made a good impression during TP, so in cases such as this, it will be very difficult for an unknown teacher to secure an interview. The ad makes every effort to convince teachers that the only way for you to increase your chances for success is to engage with their services and part with your hard-earned money.

Continue reading “Don’t Pay Your Way to Success”

Hard Sums, Flying Pigs and other Tails – A Reflective Practice Odyssey!

This is the follow-up course to last year’s “Smuggling Donkeys – A Reflective Practice Journey”, both of which were offered by Marino Institute of Education and facilitated by Gerry O’Connell and Michael Hayes. On the surface of it, one would wonder what it will be about and by the last day, one is still wondering about it but in a more meaningful way!

Here’s what I got from this year’s course. The key point throughout is that the questions are more important than the answers.

Day 1: What do we really teach children? Can we teach others to teach? Can we call ourselves teachers? Does teaching something devoid it of meaning? Is a child’s learning best placed when it’s through his own experiences and on his own terms? Why is there such a focus on the end-product as opposed to the experience or the process? We discussed Carl Rogers, read an extract from James Rebanks’s book “The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District” and were provided with an extract of Ken Robinson’s “Finding Your Element”. In this Robinson doesn’t discuss education directly but when he does, he needs to be approached with caution, further views on this here and here.

Day 2: We started off the day with a discussion on learning objectives and learning outcomes. Are teachers expected to be able to see into the future? When we are dealing with a group of people, even with one person, their responses cannot be accurately predicted. Therefore so-called learning outcomes should not be unmovable targets. The learning outcome is in flux, and will depend on the interactions and relationships between the learners and the teacher. Often times, a lesson will end up in a completely different place than was expected, but this should be accepted and is ok. Learning is experiential! We then did a twenty-minute meditation exercise, where some of us took to the giant bean bags to participate in this activity. What followed was a mindful walk from the Marino campus to The Yacht pub in Dollymount. We stopped just before we arrived at our destination for an activity, something called ‘The Complexity Game’ which involved picking two people from the group, assigning them the letters A and B and positioning yourself so that A is always between you and B. Then the rule changes, you have to position yourself between A and B. I won’t say what happens because it is best to experience this for oneself. The thought that emerged from this is that “complex, unscripted behaviour can emerge from simple rules” (course slides). We then had tea and sandwiches before mindfully walking back to Marino. We took home some more handouts – another from Carl Rogers concerning core conditions and education and one from Pamela Bradshaw entitled “What about Sharing?”.

Day 3: After an introduction which reflected on yesterday’s activities, we meditated for 10 minutes. We engaged in various discussions regarding homework and its values (or lack of), the perceptions others have about teachers, the value of what we do and whether or not what is of value in teaching can be measured – equally is what’s currently measured of any value? We looked briefly at Aidan Seery’s views on the competing voices in Irish education. We were provided with an extract from Seán Delaney’s book which focussed on homework. During the afternoon, we discussed data and how it can be manipulated to suit a certain agenda or outlook. This led on to a discussion on standardised testing and the way in which it’s viewed by teachers, principals, parents and policy-makers. A reading of a W. James Popham offering informed this discussion.

Day 4: We met in Howth and had a mindful walk around the cliffs. When we reached the end of our route, the majority of the group doubled back to see things from a different perspective, while four of us took a shortcut back past the summit and along a different walking route, cutting through the middle of Howth. Our day concluded in O’Connell’s Pub for lunch. Relaxed conversations filled the day.

Day 5: We began with meditation. We moved on to a general discussion about the course and the ideas behind this year’s course. We were visited by Gene Mehigan who gave a guest presentation on the topic of spelling – we shouldn’t be teaching how to strictly spell correctly, we should be teaching how to spell. Children will go through transitional phases in their journey to be good at spelling, it is up to us to meet their needs at the various junctures. We don’t tell children not to speak until they’re four years old just because they’re not able to do it perfectly, the same should be applied to spelling. As it happened, during a dictation exercise with our group, none of us spelled all ten target words correctly. This provided me with an opportunity to empathise with the struggling or transitional speller. We finished the course with a mindful dance together, with actions. We then parted ways.

Reflective practice was the main theme of the course and was present to various extents during each discussion. That said, what was the outcome of the course? It depended on the individual. There was no compulsion for one strict type of engagement throughout the week. Each individual interaction or reaction provided the course participants with something unpredictable. There were starting points each day but it was up to the group what direction it took. For this type of course, I would say that the process is more important than the product. It is a course where you are treated as a professional and you are acknowledged as an expert at what you do. It’s not a course where you are given a list of ideas for use in the classroom, rather it is a course that reminds you to think about what you do (and what you have done) and to do it meaningfully and mindfully.

Helping Children With Homework

As we approach the end of another school year, homework will probably start to ease off. With most of the curriculum covered, and with school tours and sports days providing some much-needed relief for pupils and teachers alike, the focus of June will be about wrapping things up for the year and having a bit more fun.

Homework throughout the rest of the year has the potential to cause a headache for some pupils and for some parents. If you see a child struggling with something, your natural reaction is to want to help them. This is where the problem lies – there is a wrong way to help a child with homework (as well as a correct way, that will be discussed as well).

With all the best intention in the world from parents, homework may end up as a meaningless activity. Let’s look at a maths activity. A number of unhelpful approaches are as follows, and in no particular order:

  • Telling the child how to do the problem
  • Showing the child what number goes where
  • Confusing the child with an alternative method not yet learned , a prime example being the two popular subtraction methods: renaming (regrouping); and borrow and pay back.

Telling the child how to do a problem deprives them of their ability to think about the problem. It doesn’t matter if the child goes to school the next day with wrong answers. This is valuable information for the child’s teacher. The teacher can then have a conversation with the child (time allowing, of course) about where they went wrong and can offer them an opportunity to think again about the problem, to verbalise it in their own words and to maybe use concrete examples to assist. Even better, the parent can do this at home.

If that fails, should you just tell them the answer? Please don’t. Again, the child learns nothing, practises nothing and is deprived of the opportunity for their teacher to assess their work meaningfully for the purposes of future learning.

My last bulletpoint dealt with alternative methods for figuring out calculations. These are fine, but it’s worth letting a child master one method with a real understanding of what’s happening with it before showing your child how you used to do it in school. If a child is having trouble with one method, introducing another method will not help them to understand the original method better. Instead, talk to the child; ask what they were learning about; maybe have a look at the maths book; or simply ask the child’s teacher what method is being used.

The bottom line with this is that it’s ok for a child to experience difficulty, or even failure. Let them make their mistakes, let them think about their mistakes and let them learn from their mistakes. They will get there eventually – every child progresses at a different rate.

There are arguments for the total abolition of homework in primary school. Finnish schools don’t give homework and, amongst other reasons, are doing pretty well educationally. The question is: why subject children to even more work after spending five or six hours per day engaged in formal learning activities? Shouldn’t their free time be used for other activities so that they can experience a balance throughout the day?

There are also arguments to retain the practice of assigning homework. It is a way for parents to get some idea of what their children are learning in school. It reinforces what was done that day or that week. These are valid points but there are answers to these. Parents can ask their child or their teacher what has been happening in school lately. Communication can definitely be improved between schools and parents and there are, no doubt, many innovative ways for this to be done effectively and meaningfully. As for reinforcing learning? With home-school communication taken care of, parents can use their time with their children to reinforce their learning out in the real world, making memories and away from the abstract nature of the textbook.