Saturday, December 06, 2014

Teaching Freedom Writers to Year 9s

Dear Diary
I’ve been teaching the film, Freedom Writers, to my Year 9 English students for a couple of years now. It’s one of those films about a charismatic young English teacher who, against all odds, works miracles with a class full of apparent misfits and delinquents, transforming them into model students. (See also To Sir With Love, Stand And Deliver, Dangerous Minds. The list goes on.)

Freedom Writers, with its action, rap music and sympathetic ‘gangsta’ kids, invariably engages every student. The students in the film are fourteen year olds; Freshmen; the equivalent of our Year 9. (Challenging to find a kid in Room 203 at Wilson High School who actually looks fourteen, but that’s Hollywood.)

And of course, Freedom Writers is a film. Easy. Students see this as a soft option. Oh how they curse me when I pause the film and ask questions about the mise-en-scene.

Freedom Writers is based on The Freedom Writers Diary, by ErinGruwell, the Ms G of the film. (Most of my kids might not be so thrilled if they had to read the actual book although some of them would enjoy it.) In the film, Ms Erin Gruwell, a first year teacher, is assigned to teach the ‘integration’ students: disadvantaged students who’re all together in their English class. No one wants to be lumbered with the class. The kids are seen as hopeless by the school admin. Then along comes Ms Gruwell.

It’s a really inspiring film. I tear up every time this particular boy reads his diary entry to the class. In it he describes his horrific life and how Ms G’s classroom is home. She certainly made a difference to those students.

However, teaching this text can be problematic. Beware if you’re past your prime. Your students are going to compare and you might not measure up.

Erin Gruwell is rendered delightfully by toothy, pretty Hilary Swank. Youthful, coltish vivacious, irrepressible Erin – Hilary Swank - Gruwell. She’s cool and she can really teach. Consider yourself warned.

Another problem I have with this film is its stereotyping. Head of Department, Margaret Campbell, looks to be in her fifties. She’s depicted as a frustrated crone who’s been unable to roll with the changes in her school. She guards class sets of books, not wanting to sacrifice them to Ms Gruwell’s students who she is sure will destroy them. Bitter, vicious and condescending, Campbell tries irrationally to thwart all Gruwell’s efforts.

Ms Campbell makes me sad though. In one scene she berates Erin. “I know what it’s like to be loved by a class of students!” She probably does, given she’s been teaching for thirty years. Whether she’s a composite of a few jaded old teachers or based on a real person, I do feel for her. In the closing credits of the film we find that Erin Gruwell only taught high school for three years before following some of her students to college. Ms Campbell, on the other hand, has endured. She may be afraid to teach ‘integration’ students, with their gang affiliations, but she’s probably been a decent teacher with the right sorts of students. That would be a different film though. In Freedom Writers, Ms Campbell is the archetypal harridan who shouldn’t be inflicted on any students.

There’s another thing I'm sceptical about in the film: the way those supposedly educationally delayed students take to reading and writing. I, too, have bought books for my students, sometimes out of my own money. I devote hours to matching kids to books to try to get them reading. I'm ecstatic when a student finally reads an entire book. It does happen occasionally. More often, I struggle to get most students to read anything beyond the classroom. So when I see Ms Gruwell’s students reading on buses, in locker bays, in squats, I'm cynical. Perhaps it’s different in the US.

I'm currently reading The Freedom Writers Diary and it’s incredibly articulate. Must have been some heavy-handed editorial assistance happening.

Perhaps it’s the Hollywood effect that allowed Ms Gruwell to have total success with all her students. I've witnessed some of our kids behaving badly on a visit to Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum. Have also had bored year 11 students moaning through Schindler’s List, complaining because there wasn't enough action in it.

Ah, enough of being Ms Campbell. I love teaching this film and I love the way all students respond to it, even those kids who don’t do a lick of learning. Freedom Writers may be Hollywood Over The Top but it’s so worthy. You'll find heaps of ready made teaching resources on line and your kids will love it.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Report writing again.

Couldn't move my fingers much this morning when I woke up. Tendonitis had flared after two days' solid typing of student reports. Old age sucks. (And why am I typing again today??)

Proud of those reports though; proud of myself for refusing to use 'comment bank'.

For the past few years, as directed, I've used the school 'comment bank' when reporting. Using the 'comment bank' supposedly cuts down on errors, providing there are no mistakes in the rubric, in which case errors are multiplied. The comments in the bank correspond with the descriptors in AusVELS, the Victorian version of the Australian curriculum. They've been simplified to some extent, but they're bland and generic. Furthermore, students can end up with the same comments from year to year, depending on their progress along the AusVELS continuum. Oddly, there don't seem to be any complaints from parents or students.

Reporting on students is agonising. Lots of data entry. (Love Mr Fill Down, BTW.) Lots of writing. I'd estimate it's taken me 20 hours to create reports for 75 students. Would have been much quicker using the comment bank.

Then there's the proofreading meeting after school. About 80 of us print off our report comments and we swap and check. Last year, some of my comments were checked by a colleague who pointed out some really poor expression. 'It's not me. It's the comment bank,' was my lame response. It wasn't the first time I'd been ashamed of what the comment bank, with my assistance, had produced.

The comment bank may produce uncohesive, bland, generic descriptors of 'what the student has achieved' but it won't allow making even slightly negative remarks about a student. Negative remarks are verboten in these days when a few aggressive parents rule the school and we quake in fear of their wrath.

Reporting what some students have achieved is challenging. What to say about a student who has done nothing all semester except disrupt the learning of others? Who has resisted all my canny efforts and encouragement? "X enjoys contributing to class discussions, often in a racist mock-Indian accent. He has successfully resisted attempting any reading, writing or formal speaking and listening tasks." Suppose that's an achievement.

About 35 years ago, when I began teaching, it was perfectly acceptable to write this in a report: "X is an excellent student in every respect." Done. Too easy.

My first student reports were hand-written in a rectangular box - about 6 x 18 centimetres - on a piece of plain foolscap with the texture of blotting paper. Under that was a sheet of royal blue carbon paper and another sheet of foolscap for the second copy. A metal paperclip held it all together. After you'd written your little comment you passed the pages back to the coordinator who'd pass it to the next teacher of that student. Depending on how early you'd done your reports, you'd be able to see comments written by students' other teachers. 'Good' kids' reports glowed with superlatives. 'Bad' kids were described as disruptive, distracting, talkative, hopeless.

Unacceptable, of course. Even at 22 I knew it was inappropriate to take one's frustration and vitriol out on a student, even if they had caused it.

We moved to 'goal based descriptive assessment' at our school in the early 1980s. No grades, if memory serves. (No exams for 'junior' students either.) We also received our own 'no carbon required' report pads, designed to fit about four hand-written reports on each A4 page. Had to remember to put a sheet of cardboard between the reports so you didn't accidentally write extra copies

Didn't mind those descriptive reports. If necessary, you could still be honest about a kid's tendency to subvert learning in the classroom. Parents tended to support us back then. (Think that's a fair generalisation too, based on my experience teaching in three state secondary schools.)

Those reports were probably issued three times a year to correspond with three school terms. Don't remember anyone ever criticising my hand-written reports.

We thought we were working hard back then getting those reports out. Now we have computers and the internet you'd think it would be simpler.

At our school, as well as semester reports and two parent-teacher meetings we issue six interim reports.We're also expected to phone and email parents regularly so they 'don't get any surprises' on reports.

In the words of Redfoo , let's get ridiculous.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Lazy teaching?

I'm mixing it up in the classroom. Again. 

I'm trying to make my Year 9 English classroom less teacher-centred as students develop and 'deepen' their understanding of the plot, characters and themes in their class novel, Phillip Gwynne's Deadly Unna?. I'm also supposedly being a 'lazy teacher', re-inspired as I am by The Lazy Teacher's Handbook, which I recommend, by the way. 

I'm employing  "a series of strategies that put the responsibility of learning directly and consistently onto the students... they learn to engage with their own learning, and not just in what they have learned but in how they learned it." That's from the introduction to The Lazy Teacher's Handbook. Hey, baby! Yeah! High five! Students taking ownership of their learning. That will look impressive on my Professional Learning Plan. I can write up my Understanding By Design unit plan and cite the relevant Australian Curriculum learning outcomes.  (All that onerous (unnecessary) extra paperwork is about accountability, after all.)

I've 'scaffolded' my students' learning; given clear instructions, a rubric, even. I've set clear expectations for the learning and behaviour. They've done their 'think, pair, square' and now they have to 'share'. The Lazy Teacher's Handbook, again. After they've completed their group work, students will present their findings to the group using ICT and presentation software. Don’t I sound competent? 

This, however, is what 'learning' sounded  like at about 2.45 yesterday arvo. Bedlam. Screaming. Shouting. Bursts of maniacal laughter, occasionally my own,  

'Learning', group work, looked like chaos. Scrunched up paper flew across my peripheral vision. It seemed to be snowing litter. Suddenly a pen skimmed across the asphalt outside my classroom door, closely followed by one of my students who'd darted out to retrieve it. Sorry, miss, she said upon re-entry.  

I circumnavigated the room again, swooping on groups. Interfering but trying not to because it seemed I was dominating again. At my approach, some students vaguely pretended to be on task, frowning at their computers, tapping a few keys, twisting their screens towards me so I could see a bit of allegedly legit 'work'. So what are we supposed to be doing again? asked a bright student. And this is their second session working in their groups.

I worry that no one is learning. I worry that students will see this as bludging. I worry that the principal will walk in and judge me.  I worry that the acrid smell in the room is me. I sneak a surreptitious sniff of my armpit. It's not. Hurrah. God knows I've worked up a sweat pacing around the room trying to look and feel in control.  

Five minutes before the bell I gathered the troops and assumed the position, barring the door.  I blew my whistle - now there's a useful teaching tool and not just in phys ed classes. "No one is leaving until the desks are straightened, the rubbish is off the floor and chairs are on tables." i bellowed. They complied and the natural order of my teaching world was somewhat restored, or so I told myself.

The positives? The students seem happy. They're not fighting me. They're not complaining of boredom, which many do if one reads sections of text aloud to the entire class. I'd like to think that they are working at their own level. Their presentations will demonstrate that, I expect. I've been able to 'differentiate' the learning and monitor individual students much more effectively that I can in a teacher-centred classroom. 

Lazy teacher? Not so much. And I'm still reaching for the wine bottle as soon as I get home.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Just another day of 'teaching'.

Should have known it was going to be another challenging day when I got an extra for period 1: my only free period. No matter. An extra per fortnight is part of my job. It was the year 11 VCAL class. Gave me a chance to see government funds at work; the brilliant "1:1" program in effect. You see, all these students were issued their own Netbook computers, at no charge, a couple of years ago. Our students are going to lead the rest of the world because they've been provided with this state of the art information and communication technology. 

Or not. 

Besides giving the words 'fucken' and 'cunt' a bit of a workout, two students decided it would be edifying to pop all the keys from their keypads and stick them back on in random order. That was clearly lots of fun until they realised that they didn't know how to return the keys to their rightful places and that some of the keys were now irrevocably damaged.

What was I doing during all this? Trying to encourage students I don't regularly teach to do the set work; trying to discourage the gratuitous 'try-hard' swearing without getting palpitations myself. You've got to feel for the CRTs - casual replacement teachers - who do replacement classes all day. 

Off to year 9 for more larks. The students have been presenting their oral book reports this week and some of them have been damn good. The entire purpose is to encourage reading. Every week since the beginning of the year students have had half an hour of sustained silent reading during class and they're supposed to supplement this with regular reading at home. I really push this because it is so important that students become fluent readers. 

So, Anna is at the front of the room. She's plugged her Netbook computer into the data projector. She's nervously shaking her page a little as she waits to start. 

But what's this? Two girls stand up at the back of the room. 'Someone stole my pencil case, Miss,' says Zoe. She folds her arms, slumps aggressively. 

'Could whoever's got Zoe's pencil case just return it please? I'm not saying you took it, but please give it back.' 

No response. 

So two girls are up the back glowering around, pouting. One is out in sympathy with the other. It's how they function. What am I supposed to do? 

Apparently it's in the rubbish bin. I fish it out. 'Eeuuw!' Yeah, whatever. 

This is the way the 'lesson' proceeds. I can't see who's spiriting other kids' belongings away. I endeavour to keep calm.

And then there are 'the lads' who've been in my face since week one. They swagger around the room at will, perhaps to share a confidence with someone on the other side of the class. Bugger the seating plan. That only works if they choose to sit in their places. 

An older generation mobile phone slides, hockey puck style, from one side of the floor to the other and back again.

Meanwhile, Anna waits patiently. Eventually she is able to present and she's read John Steinbeck's The Pearl. Wow.

So while some kids are 'disrupting the learning of others', as it says on our discipline reports, and being enabled by parents who believe that their children are angels - parents who complain if anyone tries to discipline their precious offspring - other students are quietly learning.

Me? I'm checking my super cos I'm a little bit over it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Slam poetry. And the other stuff.

Nearly finished week three of term one now. It's challenging, the start of the school year, isn't it?

If you're lucky you score a group of amenable students who know you and already approve. You just roll happily with it. This is me this year with my year 10s given all those teething battles were played out back in 2010. Our first session was an emotional reuion. Even teared up a bit seeing how they'd grown. They were all smiles and sheepish laughter as they automatically sat in their year 8 'seating plan'. 

In a big school like mine - nearly 1200 students - you can easily go for a year without seeing any of your former students. It was great to see my year 10s and I look forward to watching them develop as the year progresses.

And then there's that other class; amongst the 25 students there are five fourteen year old boys giving me what for, yelling over me in a  constant barrage of testosterone-fuelled insolence. These lads are IN MY FACE and DID YOU SEE THAT? SHE'S PICKEN ON ME! WHY ARE YOU PICKEN ON ME?? They're chesting up to me, anything to disrupt, to draw my attention, to grab an opportunity to assert themselves over me. My adrenal gland's been getting a bit of a workout. Have to remember to breathe; act angry before I'm really angry. Be patient, tolerant, understanding. This isn't about me, I'm just generic 'old female teacher' now.

Leap on those opportunities to praise, to build self-esteem like a seagull on a cliched chip. Oh so many complex personalities to fathom before it subsides. Well, usually.

My other year 9 class has been a gift; 25 bright, eager students who are open to possibility so why not try out some slam poetry? I attended a VATE conference session last year on slam poetry. (Thanks, Anthony Young @ProffPoet) I showed the students some examples of other students performing slam poetry - a YouTube search was helpful here. The students were a tad skeptical but they gave it a go. I gave them a list of possible topics - places such as the city, the beach, holidays and so on, and emotions that they could write about. As per Anthony's instructions I got them to work in groups as a strategy to help them to overcome their performance anxiety.

I used Anthony's formula for constructing their poem. Poems had to contain a metaphor, an anecdote, a repeated line, a really long line and a really short line. They brainstormed their ideas individually then collaborated with other group members. I darted around the class offering suggestions and encouragement, as you do when you're the alleged teacher.

The students, bless them, ran with it. Today they presented. It was wonderful and they knew it as they savoured the power of their own and each other's words. 

If you haven't given slam poetry a try, it's worth doing. The kids loved it and so did I.