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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Notable Differences: Education in America and England

When I first decided to student teach in England, I did not think British education would differ very much from American education. Because the languages are the same and the culture is not too unfamiliar, I expected many similarities between the two countries in terms of schools. Along with partaking in the Education Tutorial at my program in Bath, I am taking a class called “Education in England.” This class, in combination with the prepracticum at Beechen Cliff, has allowed me to discern many differences between Education in England and Education in America.
For starters, the entirety of England follows a “National Curriculum.” Unlike the United States, which delivers the Common Core through the states, this curriculum must be followed by all teachers across the country to prepare students for the national tests in Year 10 and Year 11: the GCSEs. The GCSEs remind me of the MCAS tests I took as a high school student in Massachusetts. I think teachers have a tendency to “teach to the test” in regard to both of these exams, but I have noticed that teachers do more so at Beechen Cliff than in my high school. Once students are in the higher years, the class become more and more aligned with what they need to know for the test. In the Year 10 class that I observe, my SP often teaches poems she specifically says will be featured on the GCSE. We look at examples of strong answers to GCSE prompts in many classes. Teachers teach like this in the United States, of course, but not to the same extent. Many educators who I have spoken to at Beechen Cliff wish they had a little more flexibility in their curriculum and lesson planning that what the National Curriculum allows.
Another difference is the way religion is handled in schools. In the United States, there has always been a drive to separate church and state, which has naturally influenced schools to only discuss religion in historical contexts. But in England, the first schools were sponsored by Churches, and many still are. These “Faith” schools are not privatized the same way they are in America. As I mentioned in my last blog posts, classes often discuss religion, and in the English classes I have observed, we often look at poems with Christian themes. I think there is a critique to be made in regard to both American school and English schools in how they handle religious education. While schools in America rarely celebrate the variety and importance of religion, some schools in England can promote certain religions over others.

I have enjoyed exploring how education in America and England vary from one another. Small differences like uniforms (which are staples in public schools as well as private) and bigger ones like religion have been so interesting to notice. I am excited to find even more, along with the many similarities between schools in the two countries.

Introduction to Beechen Cliff Secondary School

Beechen Cliff is an all boys secondary school that sits on a hill overlooking the center of the city in Bath, England. The students begin attending Beechen Cliff in Year 7, and many continue on to the co ed “Sixth Form,” which is the final two years of high school, specifically meant to prepare students for university. At Beech Cliff, there is a strong presence of athletics, as the school encourages students to achieve both in class and in sport. I often see many students carrying field hockey sticks or playing basketball outside between classes, representing the active nature of the student body.
One difference that I have noticed between Beechen Cliff and the schools I have student taught at is that the schedule is much more stretched out. Students do not begin class until 8:45, and classes last for an hour. After each period, students have a ten minute break. This break is more than just passing time for students to get from class to class--interestingly enough, Beechen Cliff’s prospectus states that the reason for such long breaks between classes is to “encourage students to be active,” both promoting a sense of athleticism again and insinuating something about the way the teachers feel about the nature of male students who have sat at desks for too long. Likewise, the prospectus highlights Beechen Cliff’s unique ability to serve the needs of male students often, noting the library, which is “crammed with fiction specifically targeted at boys’ interests” along with the expansive breaks. While I think these notions have a tendency to oversimplify gender perceptions and values, the students overall seem to be pretty satisfied with the school’s structure.
There is a noticeable sense of community and cohesion among the students. In general, they are very respectful to their teachers and friendly with each other. They are gathered into Houses (yes, it’s just like Harry Potter), mixing with their classmates from other years, to attend tutor groups and assemblies twice a week. During these sessions, the students discuss current events, citizenship, religion, and general school news. In the Year 7 classes I have been observing, students have been preparing scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in small groups. Each class has been assigned a scene and each teacher has been assigned the task of choosing which of their small groups acts out the scene best. Once teachers have decided, the whole Year 7 will gather in the assembly hall to watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream in its entirety, performed by the selected groups. While the Houses bring students from across the school together, I think this Shakespeare unit is an excellent example of how the students experience a sense of unity within their grade.
I am excited to spend more time at Beechen Cliff, both observing English lessons and teaching a few at the end of the semester.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Final Thoughts from Cape Town

After four months at St. Joseph’s Marist College, my understanding of social justice and equity has expanded through observations in and out of the classroom, interactions with students, and conversations with my CT and other faculty. Recognizing differences in each student’s background, learning style, interests, and strengths and weaknesses played a direct role in how I interacted with each student in order to meet their diverse needs. For example, at the beginning of my semester there was one student who seemed to ask for help significantly more often than most students. I would end up spending a lot of time with the student one-on-one, helping him understand what my CT was teaching and guiding him in solving the problems correctly. Due to his consistent requests for help and the confusion that he communicated to me, I was too quick to assume that this student was in need of one-on-one assistance more than many other students. However, after working to get to know each student in the class, I realized that I was devoting more time and attention to this particular student because of his vocal and expressive need for help but that there were many other students who were just as much in need to one-on-one attention but were quieter and less likely to vocalize their confusion. Specifically, one student in my class rarely participated in class and when working individually, tended to guess on answers rather than ask for help. I realized that just because one student vocalizes her struggle less than another student does not mean that she needs less attention. In fact, I soon found in this particular case that the quieter student needed more one-on-one attention while the more vocalized student simply needed just enough attention to encourage him to try the work on his own. Although this will not necessarily be the case for every student of similar behavior, it did remind me how important it is not to make assumptions about each student’s strengths and weaknesses simply because of how they choose to communicate these to me.

My experiences at St. Joseph’s also emphasized the need to learn about each student’s background and develop positive relationships with their parents/guardians. One student was told at the end of the school year that she would be staying back a year and repeating second grade. This news, which is likely confusing and distressing for a seven-year-old, is something that needs to be addressed and explained in a very supportive manner. However, after talking with my CT about the situation, I learned that her parents had skipped multiple meetings with the teacher and administration to discuss the student’s plan for the following year and to make plan for improvement. When my CT asked the student in class if either of her parents had talked with her about repeating second grade, the student said that they had not said anything except that she has to stay back a year. My CT was able to give her positive emotional support, explaining why doing second grade again will be helpful and how it is nothing to be ashamed of. Although receiving this support from both her teacher and her family would have been beneficial, the situation helped me understand the various roles that a teacher plays in each child’s development. Had my CT not made an effort to involve the parents in this process or had she not discussed the situation with the student, this child would likely enter the second grade the following year with less confidence and motivation. Getting to know each student’s background, consistently making an effort to involve the parents/guardians, and constantly striving to meet the needs of each student, both academically and emotionally, are all important roles that I as a teacher will strive to achieve.

Overall, I have had such a positive experience at St. Joseph’s. I came to understand from a new perspective the importance of meeting the needs of each individual student as well as the role of the teacher in promoting equity and social justice in and out of the classroom. I look forward to taking the skills and lessons that I developed abroad and applying them to my future experiences as well as challenging myself to look at these skills and lessons from new perspectives and continue exploring new strategies. I am very lucky to have had this experience and am so grateful for being a part of the St. Joseph’s community!

Friday, December 16, 2016

An analysis of Spanish and US education systems

Throughout the semester I have come to see many comparable aspects of the way schools are set up in Spain and the way they are in the US. There are some things that are very similar, such as the setup of classrooms and the different forms of assessment used. However, some things, such as the grading system and the expectations of students, varies slightly in ways that I was not really expecting.
In terms of classroom setup, the classroom feels very similar to ones in the US. All the students have their own individual desks which are often either organized in rows or groups depending on the age of the students and what types of activities we are completing. In my school, the students stay in the same classroom all day, and the different teachers will filter in and out bringing their materials with them. The desks have small compartments attached that hold all the students' books rather than having lockers. The classrooms all have chalk boards and overhead projectors that the teachers use to display information. There is always a desk at the front of the classroom that the teacher has which is where the teachers do the majority of their instruction. I have only really noticed the teachers walking around the classroom when there is a group activity and they are trying to help individual groups, not as often during a lesson. There are not too many decorations on the walls of the classroom, which I think is much more typical of American middle and high schools. In the back of the classroom there is always a bulletin board which has the schedule of the class and also has any notices of upcoming events for the school and anything else the students need to know. The school is shaped as a huge rectangle where the middle is a huge play area for physical education and for when the students go outside for break. The classrooms all have windows that face this play court, and the majority of light coming into the classroom is natural light and at times you can hear the students playing outside. All these things I have found very similar to American schools and though they may not individually seem like much, together they form the atmosphere of the classroom.
I have also found in Spain that there are many different types of assessments, similarly to the US. Within the English class specifically, there were many different types of assessments used to test the many different aspects that come with trying to learn, speak, and understand a foreign language. For example, we had various different types of listening, grammar, and vocabulary activities in many different formats. I mostly worked with the students on their speaking skills, by having conversations and seeing if they could use the correct vocabulary and tenses when describing different situations in the past and future. This was to practice their comprehension of questions, along with their ability to think of the topic on the spot and express themselves correctly. Another way that the students practiced their speaking was by giving planned presentations on topics that the students were able to pick themselves. These different types of assessments helped to test many different skills while learning English.
            One of the biggest differences that I have seen while here is the grading system that the school uses and the expectations the teachers have for students under this grading system. All of Spain, universities included, uses a number grading system on a scale of 1 to 10. Students need to get above a 5 to pass a class, and this system is used for every type of assessment. Grades can after be waited differently depending on what kind of assessment is being given. This was not something that I was aware of before coming to Spain, and the system did not seem to be that different and confusing. What was extremely surprising to me was how common it was for a student, regardless of age, to fail a course. I was shocked to learn that in a class of 22 (what would be juniors), 5 were failing the course and 3 were on the cusp of failing, meaning they had a 4.5 or above that then would be rounded to a 5. At first I was worried that it could have something to do with the actual teaching and the class, however, my cooperating teacher informed me that out of the class of 22 students, only 2 students were passing every single one of their classes. This was a notion completely foreign to me that I was not expecting. Students are allowed to fail 2 courses per year and still pass the year, though they may have to retake the class the following year, trying to pass that in order to graduate. At a wealthy Catholic school, this was not something I expected. In the US, I could not see this being the case. Although there are some big discrepancies between some schools in the US, if so many kids in one school were failing their courses, it is likely that the school board or greater government body would become involved to try to assist the school, whereas here, that is completely normal and acceptable. I was even more surprised on multiple occasions when I was in the classroom the cooperating teachers would read the students’ scores on an exam out loud to the whole class. I do not think that this happens often in the US, and even more when there are students in the class who have failed and may be upset to have their grades read out loud. When I witnessed this for the first time I was truly shocked and also very intrigued as to how this system could function. These were all normal practices that truly astonished me and made me analyze our own education system and what we expect and deem is acceptable from students.

            Through teaching and interacting with the students, I have seen many similarities between the Spanish and US education system, but I have also witnessed some stark differences I had not expected. On the last day, one of my students asked me which system I liked better, which I thought did a better job. I honestly can say that I think that both systems have some things they do really well, and some things that need to be improved upon. I think each can learn from the other, and I am excited to bring back to my teaching in the US the skills I have learned in Spain.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Classroom Management and Practicing Routines

In my second grade classroom at St. Joseph’s Marist College, students are encouraged to follow strict routines in regards to their daily schedule, behavior, and manners. For example, each time a teacher enters the classroom, all students must stop what they are doing, stand up, and once the teacher says “Good morning, students” they must respond in unison with “Good morning, (teacher’s name).” Additionally, students have different jobs each week which have become a natural routine throughout the day. One student must report the weather during morning meeting. Another student is in charge of turning on and off the lights each time they enter and leave the classroom. Three students are in charge of passing out the particular notebooks at the start of math, phonics, handwriting, or an exam. These jobs, among others, both help the student develop responsibility and help the school day run more smoothly. At the start of math class, the three “book helpers” know to begin passing out math notebooks establishing the transition from one lesson to the next. Although I was not at St. Joseph’s when these expectations were communicated to the students at the beginning of the school year (January), it is obvious that the students naturally follow these routines to the point where they only need a gentle reminder from time to time.

The students are also expected to follow certain routines within each lesson, depending on the subject. As I mentioned before, during math class the book helpers pass out the math notebooks. The teacher then explains that day’s lesson, puts an example on the board for the students to copy in their notebooks, and then puts up the remaining problems for the students to complete in their notebooks after the example. The students are expected to follow the same steps taken in the example to complete the remaining problems and record their work and answers in the exact same way. Expecting the students to complete the work like this helps them understand the proper way to solve the specific type of math problems. However, I have found this strategy to be slightly problematic, as students often are more focused on how they record their work than they are on how to solve the problem. They are often penalized for poor handwriting, not skipping the correct number of lines, or completing problems from left to right instead of from top to bottom of their pages. While carelessness in the presentation of their work makes students more prone to math mistakes, I found that the students became so distracted by the need to present their work perfectly that they would not end up showing a clear understanding of why they followed the steps they did in order to solve the problem. This was often the case when I worked with students one-on-one or in small groups after they tried completing the work on their own. I would ask them questions like “How did you know to not put these three dots in a circle?” when solving 23 ÷ 4. These three dots that did not get put in one of the four circles were the remainder, but students struggled to explain why they should not put these three dots in three of the circles and leave one of the circles with fewer dots than the other three. They were correct not to do so, but many students only knew they should not “because that’s what we did in the example.” I think that a balance between emphasizing attention to the presentation of students’ work and working with students in a way to help them fully understand why they can solve math problems the way they do is the best way to both minimize error and increase student learning.

One classroom management strategy used in my classroom that is also commonly used in many U.S. classrooms is the name chart, where students can move their names up or down based on their behavior and efforts throughout the day. All students start the day with their names on “Ready to learn!” and then can move up to “Doing well!” and “Outstanding!” or down to “Make better choices!” and “Think about it!” What I like about how my CT uses this chart is that she often tells students to move their names up after doing well on a worksheet or in-class assignment. This does not necessarily mean that the student got all the answers correct, but it meant that the student showed significant effort, was focused on their work, and tried their best even if they made mistakes. This helped remind students that positive behavior is not limited to good manners and being kind to one another, but also being responsible and being the best student they can be. I also appreciate when students ask to move their names up after completing work because it shows me that they are aware of how hard they worked during that particular lesson. When students either ask or are told they can move their names up, this encourages the rest of the students to check their own behavior and “reset” if they need to. On the other hand, if a student is told to move his or her name down, this also gives the rest of the students “reset” if their behavior is unexpected or out of line.

While classroom management strategies like the name chart and weekly student jobs are fairly familiar to me from experiences in schools in the U.S., I have found many of the routines during each particular lesson to be new and unique, such as the routines during math class. Navigating these differences originally made it difficult for me to maintain effective classroom management during lessons that I taught at the beginning of my semester because of my unfamiliarity with what the students expect of me and what I should expect of the students. However, throughout my time at St. Joseph’s I have become more comfortable with the routines and expectations in my class, helping me use effective and consistent classroom management strategies during my lessons and throughout each school day.