Observations of a Classroom
Sep 15, 2008 English Language Teaching (ELT) 2939 Views
JOURNAL ENTRY 2
"A giant leap into the past - observational reflections in the classroom"
I was hit with a familiar sense of dejavu when walking through the gates of Glendowie College. I had been here before but in a different time. Passing the school corridors I passed a photo of myself taken by my first boyfriend for bursary photography in 1994. Is it really already 2004? I felt an eerie sense of stopped time, me with the same school bag, the same length hair and (unfortunately) same height. Nothing had changed at all, nothing except the reason for being here.
As an ex-student of Glendowie College this area of school had been out of bounds. It was reserved only for 'appointments' with the Deputy Head or Principal. It felt like an absolute privilege to be here which made me feel all the more nervous. My hands were sweaty when I knocked on the Deputy Head's door but all anxiety disappeared as I received a very warm welcome. I was briefed on the school's policies and then on the classes I would be observing. I had been given 4 classes, a Year 13 accelerate English class, a Year 9 English class, a Year 10 Drama class and a Year 12 Media class. Before I headed towards the staffroom to meet my associates, I mentally prepared myself for what was going to be a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It had been exactly 10 years since I had stepped foot in these classes - only this time I would be introduced as their student teacher.
School had always been a positive experience for me. As a family we moved around a lot. I calculated I have attended 3 primary schools and 4 secondary schools during my 13 years of education. Schools offered structure and stability in an otherwise unstable environment. It was an arena where I could muck around with peers and explore my own skills and personality. I found school self-defining and the people I met and things I learnt impacted a great deal on who I am today.
My memories of particular teaching styles during school are a bit hazy. I probably never recognized them in terms of 'styles'. Instead we judged the teachers in terms of whether they were knowledgeable, approachable and showed an understanding of what 'struggles' we were all going through! (God, we had it easy then! If only we knew!).
Upon reflection I can certainly pinpoint those lessons that made lasting impressions. They were ones that had interest, choice, challenge and recognition. I remember my Year 9 science class at Takapuna Grammar held great interest for me because it was enjoyable and fun. The teacher was enthusiastic beyond belief. We used to work outside and hug trees in order to understand photosynthesis! His approach was very hands-on and involved loads of group-work. We were once given a choice of a topic which we had to research and present in pairs. I will never forget how much time my friend and I put into this project. We were thoroughly engaged, to the point where our presentation had the whole class lying on the floor for a whole period in an effort to try and hypnotise them. Style was therefore important to my learning. They nearly always had that certain bit of quirkiness or eccentricity that captured my interest.
Reflecting on my own experiences, the most effective teaching techniques that worked for me involved group projects; such as individual assignments where we were given a choice and ownership of what to study; character studies in Othello or being sent outside to write poetry. I wrote about an ant that I watched that morning and still have it to this day. If I were to focus on Gardner's seven intelligences I would say I learnt more where the teaching style was visual, interpersonal and intrapersonal. An example of this would be in 6th form history. I did not have an affinity to dates and politics however one lesson we were taken to see the Magnum Photography Exhibition. These photos changed my whole perspective on history. I did a study of Don McCullin's work and learned about history through his lenses. So in summary I think I tended to learn more through doing having to research, collate and compile information in a way that was understandable to me.
My classes from memory were of mixed ability. Although I was more aware of what my peers had done the night before than whether they were excelling or bombing out in the subject. There also tended to be a healthy bit of competition between some of us girls. We used to joke around about our marks and downplay it if we got a high mark, although secretly we were quite chuffed with ourselves. It is interesting to note I saw similar behaviour in both of my English classes. The intelligent students, seem to be the ones that tend not to take part in the discussions, they sit at the back and pretend not to care. Every now and then they will ask the teacher privately for some input, but hardly ever in front of their peers.
My time at Glendowie to observe particular teaching styles within 4 different classes was invaluable. Although I learnt much from shadowing one student and also from observing the media and drama classes, I am already over my 250 word limit (sorry), so will focus on what I observed within the two English classes.
To start with I can strongly say that all of my associates treated their classes with respect as a whole and then again as individuals. They made it their prerogative to know their students names and showed interest in their own lives outside of the classroom. For example the Year 9 English associate was involved in the school debating team, of which 4 were from her class and she included their accomplishments in discussion at the beginning of the lesson. This engaged their interest as they all want to hear about what their buddies have been up to, especially if the teacher had noticed!
My first impression of sitting in on a Year 9 English class was of 'ants in their pants'. These students had oodles of energy, excitement, cheekiness and an air of constant inquisitiveness. It was like diving into a pool of otters. They had just completed reading their novel 'The Whole of the Moon' and were about to embark on static images designing a poster and then onto speeches. As I was witness to one lesson on static images and the other 4 were watching speeches, I did not have a full opportunity to observe an exact teaching style, however the overall impression I was given was that the teaching style when handling these little otters was definitely 'direct instruction'. In comparison to Year 12 or 13 classes, where much of the learning seemed to be self directed and discussion based, these lessons tended to be teacher driven and inquiry based. I felt that the teaching style of laying down rules to begin with every day e.g. "bags off desk, books out, pens out and eyes this way thanks" meant there was a sense of routine for the class and a basic knowledge of what was expected of them. The teacher gave specific instructions and probed them with many teacher directed questions e.g. "What makes an effective static image?" The teacher drew up a poster according to the class input which resulted in a lopsided attempt of a static image. This bought about a sense of hilarity to the class, but also proved the aim of the lesson - what to do and what not to do when planning their static images. This 'teacher is boss' type style also bought about a sense of respect for the teacher. I found that the tiniest of things would trigger the whole class off. One boy who was spotted to have his eyes closed during a speech had the class in an upheaval. The teacher let them have their laugh, dealt with the situation briefly and then used body language that they obviously recognized to mean 'it's time to focus'. If the teacher had not adopted this authoritarian style from the beginning of the year, the upheaval could easily have escalated. This type of style gave the class a focus, a spokesperson and a leader. A written task was usually expected of them at the end of the lesson which would be entered in their journals.
My year 13 was a contrast to this bundle of inquisitiveness. I felt like I had walked into a den of lionesses. Proud, sultry and indifferent. Heavily female dominated, there were only five boys who in comparison appeared easily distracted and in need of more instruction than their feline counterparts. As soon as I walked into the classroom I was instantly reminded of how I felt at that age. Pre-occupied with 'larger life issues' such as who was seeing who, setting full driver's license, part time jobs, what did I want to do after this year, what did I want to do with my life, feeling misunderstood by my parents and on top of all of these issues I had exams and assessments coming out of my ears. Life was very serious indeed! The class had been described as an accelerate class, with several wanting to sit scholarship. However there were two boys who should not have been placed in this class who were under-achieving which the teacher had to take into account in her lessons. The teaching style was a mixture of direct instruction, class discussions and self directed learning. Within the two weeks I was there they were preparing for achievement standard 3.2, focusing on short stories. The texts that they were studying were similar to ones I had studied in my bursary year which covered themes of loss, grief and relationships. At The River, Dolls House, A Great Day Out, Hooks and Feelers, Sticks and Stones and The Birthday Party. All the teaching I observed within this class was inquiry based. They would read the stories; close read them together and then were asked to answer questions which were written on the board. In contrast to the Year 9 otters where answers were plentiful, if not, uncontrollable, I observed that it took much probing from the teacher to encourage answers from the Year 13 students. The answers required more critical thought but possibly also less inhibition. This class tended to work by discussing their answers quietly in pairs. One technique the teacher used was relating the stories to her own personal experiences. The class became really engaged in her story-telling and they tended to joke together on a mature level.
Overall my impressions of being an English teacher was 'Eek'. To be effective one truly needs to be a superhero. Multi-skilled, flexible, witty, highly organized and above all confident, in control and worthy of their respect. It is a lot to ask. Students in Year 9 can take the teacher on all sorts of tangents, whereas in Year 13 I feel one needs to encourage the students to take the teacher on tangents. Knowledgeable was one word that struck me as well. If anything, I feel that the passion for the subject needs to show. It needs to instill a spark in the students and motivate them to want to learn.
I guess one of my biggest shocks in the observation was something I had expected, but not quite so extreme. The issue of "Academic Learning Time' - or lack of it! Of the 40 or so lessons I observed about 10 of them were 'replaced' by guest speaker lectures in the hall, dean activities, camps or relievers. Almost all of them had some extra-curricular activity interruption at some point whether it be having to move to a different classroom, a sports announcement, a school play rehearsal announcement or merely students arriving late and disrupting the flow of the lesson. 60 minutes can very easily become 40 so it really emphasized the importance of flexibility, good planning and the alignment of goals to take these time constraints into account. An interesting tip I learnt was 'reading the class for indicators'. I learnt with the Year 9 class was that the teacher uses the girls at the back as an indicator of the entire class engagement. Apparently they are the brightest of the class and when she sees them off-task or talking, she knows that the whole class will erupt a few minutes later so she needs to intercept and re-engage them before they do.
As a whole I feel that I would fit in as a teacher in a smaller school such as Glendowie. The staff were incredibly friendly and interesting. We had some fantastic debates between the English and Science departments! The staffroom seemed to be an adult reflection of the cultures and personalities one would find in a classroom! Personally I find that supportive environment very important in any work I do. I feel that in a school like Glendowie one is also are given an opportunity to know the students on an individual basis. You can see them as personalities rather than just a mass of faces. As a student I have experienced larger schools (Takapuna Grammar) verses smaller schools (Glendowie) and my experiences of each were hugely different in terms of where I felt accepted and recognized. I do wonder if this may also be the same in the shoes of a teacher and the second placement is possibly an opportunity to explore this further. My main aims for this year in doing this post graduate are to focus on building on my subject knowledge, my confidence to teach, the skills to plan, and the experience with hands-on teaching in order to identify what style I would like to adopt. I have a few larger schools in mind in order to focus on working in a larger subject department and my choices will probably be further filtered by the subject areas that are available in those schools.