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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Promoting Equity and Social Justice in Ecuador

My Placement School, Colegio Menor, was like a utopia. It contained abundant and effective resources, well-trained and caring staff, the most gorgeous campus I have ever seen, and a philosophy built for success. It is modeled after school systems in the United States, which made me wonder why many our school systems are failing and this school system is flourishing. I know much of this answer comes down to money. These students are among the richest students in Ecuador, so their money is funding this wonderful education they are receiving as well as the additional educational and developmental resources they receive outside of the school. The parent involvement at this school is also incredible.

Colegio Menor

What I find interesting is that many people point their fingers at English Language Learners as one of the reasons our school systems are struggling. People say there are too many of them to service correctly and that they are bringing down our test scores. After watching the English Language Learners in this school flourish, I think that our excuse is completely invalid. I have seen these students flourish and yes they have abundant resources, but what I have seen be the most effective tool in this success is simply the teacher. She plans carefully, she adjusts to her students needs, she individualizes instruction, and above all, she cares. As I watched her teacher effective lessons that I loved, I realized that I could easily adapt these lessons to a school lacking resources for English Language Learners. Our problem does not lie in ELLs, it lies in our failure to be creative and knowledgable while serving them. Here in Ecuador, bilingualism is looked at as such a tool and is so valued. In the United States, we have lost sight of this and instead view it as a detriment in our school systems. Back in the United States, I want to work with English Language Learners, implementing these types of lessons and being creative. I don't want to blame lack of success on these students, because I know that they can learn when they are serviced correctly.

The Public School
 35 students fit into this one classroom

While being in Ecuador, I also completed a volunteer placement at a public school. This school was a whole different world than the private school, lacking resources, teacher support, and an effective curriculum. What I learned in this school is what I have been discussing above. With these students, I was creative and worked through the obstacles that we faced. I did my best to treat them as if they were students at the private school in Colegio Menor. No I was not able to give them an education equal to that of the education received at Colegio Menor, but with creativity, hard work, and patience, I was able to make improvements in the quality of this classroom and give the classroom a more positive environment. Through my experience here in Ecuador, I have restored my faith in the fact that a teacher can make a difference. Whether this difference is big or small, it still exists. We may be placed in failing schools, lacking resources and support, but being creative, being reflective, being relentless, and using the skills we have learned along the way, teachers can make all the difference in the quality of education a student receives and in their outlook on education that they will carry with them throughout their educational journey.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Perceptions of American University Experiences

Yesterday, while working at Presentation Brothers College, I started talking to some of my students about college in the US.  The conversation began when one of my students - to impress me when talking about one of his peers remarked, "Yeah, AND he's taken that S-A-T."  I smiled and asked how many students from their school would do so, and they told me that only one student every few years would apply to American universities.  Upon further thought I feel this makes sense, as not many American students would apply to European universities, but at the time I was surprised by this news.
I think my surprise may stem from how strong the boys' notions of college in the United States are.  From the media, they have gained an accepted opinion that students in the US are either nerds who study too hard or wild animals who party too hard.  When you look at their sources (and their age) it's not difficult to trace these assumptions back to roots like "Animal House," "Legally Blonde," "House Bunny," and even "The Social Network."  We had a great discussion about what they think it's really like, and how it might be different from an Irish university.  Here at UCC, most students go home every weekend to spend it with their families, so the boys here were floored to learn I live four and a half hours away from BC.  Through our discussion we were able to gain a better understanding of both cultures and the pros and cons of each system.  It was a very valuable experience and great to hear their opinions evolve.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Grouping Students by Ability

          Seating and grouping students is a problem for every school and every teacher, and thus is not particular of Newbridge Primary or Miss Amies.  Decisions regarding the grouping of students are also not made once and forgotten about for a few days.  Because students are constantly in each other’s company in the classroom, whether they work in groups or independently, placement of them around the room requires considerable thought and knowledge of the students themselves.  Concentration and learning abilities, friendships, behaviors, and motivation all play unique roles in these decisions as they all significantly affect how a student will respond to certain seats within the room’s layout and near other classmates.  Questions of groups for different subjects, like mathematics and reading, also arise, but those may be settled in a more objective manner.  If the classroom is organized by tables, teachers then have the additional issue of whether they should be by ability or more random.  Miss Amies always had the lowest ability students sit together at the front so she could more easily help them, with the rest of the class mixed throughout the remaining seats.  I am not sure that this is the best approach, though.  Although these ideas are strong in every classroom, they caught my attention in Miss Amies’s room more than they have before.
          As an educator, I am a general advocate for mixed ability groupings.  I believe that the lower ability children benefit and learn from the higher ability ones who have the opportunity to teach their peers.  There is no better way to ensure that one knows something than to try to teach it to someone else, and by explaining it in different ways and reviewing the information, one learns it more thoroughly.  Most importantly, the “lower ability” students will probably be better at some things than the higher ability children will and should have the same opportunity to be the teachers to the rest of the group.  Mixed ability seating also teaches children teamwork as they learn to build on each other’s ideas. 
The only instance where I would prefer to have separated ability groups would be for guided reading.  While lower leveled children may benefit from listening to more fluent readers read, there is no reverse value.  It would be unfair to keep more proficient readers down by reading books at a more appropriate level for the less capable reader.  Of course, it is equally important to give all students appropriate resources for their level in all subjects, but other areas are more flexible and universal with the content than reading is.  Miss Amies clearly does not follow this same belief pattern as she divides students by ability for more than just reading groups.
            I am not sure if the rest of the school does this as well, but the two Year 4 classes rearrange themselves for mathematics based on ability.  Miss Amies teaches the lower half of the year and the other teacher takes the upper half.  This still leaves each teacher with a wide range of students to accommodate, but makes for less of a hassle in planning as the spread of abilities is cut in half.  I am not as bothered by this division of abilities as I am by seating in the class or for group projects because all of the benefits I just discussed still occur and thrive in a class of the bottom half of a year, as they are such a wide range in and of themselves.  Some students still find the material tricky while others pick it up much faster and can then help their peers.  Miss Amies is better able to direct her attention to the needs of this group with more simple questions and repetition, while the other class works on more abstract problems that push their thinking further.  Separated ability groups works in this setting, but I think Miss Amies uses it too much throughout the rest of her classroom routine.

National Curriculum in England

As Newbridge Primary School is a publically funded school, it must follow the prescriptive demands of the National Curriculum for all subjects: mathematics, English, science, history, geography, citizenship, religious education, music, physical education, modern foreign language, ICT, design and technology, and art and design.  The list of the subjects themselves is quite long, and the standards under each of them give teachers all across the country a long checklist for their classrooms.  Some schools see this as incredibly daunting and restrictive, as they work within the confines of the government’s ideas of what is best, but Newbridge is not one of these schools.  John Crocker, the headteacher (principal equivalent), does not see the National Curriculum as weight on his school, but rather as a rough guide as to what teacher’s should interweave into their classroom communities.  The whole school works together to decide the best curricular path for its students and then sees how the National Curriculum will fit.  Unfortunately, I only really saw Miss Amies teach, although I visited two other classrooms briefly on spate occasions.  In addition, I did not observe Miss Amies teach nearly half of these subjects as each Wednesday followed the same routine.  These together limit my experience, and thus understanding, of Newbridge’s delivery of the National Curriculum.  I witnessed a literacy lesson on writing every day I spent with Miss Amies and even had the opportunity to teach one myself.  I can confidently say that although Miss Amies, and the rest of the educators, do not make the National Curriculum a priority, lessons all tie back to some aspect of it in the end.

School Ethos

I feel like there is a great sense of community in this school and I get the feeling that they try to integrate the neighborhood with the school as much as possible.  The first page of the prospectus encourages families to come in and visit the school to see the programs for themselves.  They have multiple weekly assemblies either as a whole school, the upper or lower school, or by year.  According to the prospectus, older students often interact with and assist the younger students in certain activities.  Newbridge is very much focused on structuring education around each individual student to better everyone individually.  Their values include cherishing each child as an individual, making sure everyone has the responsibility to contribute and achieve to their highest potential, and remaining an open and responsive school for the students, faculty, parents, and community.  Every sentence regarding the values of the school begins with “we,” showing the togetherness of the school environment.  Artwork and other student creations cover the hallway walls, showing how proud everyone is of the learning and success that occurs in all of the classrooms.  After-school and lunchtime consist of numerous clubs and organizations for the students to participate in and interact with other students in the school.  These range from breakfast club to hockey, to orchestra.  The students are very proud of their school and could not wait to introduce me to it.

US vs. Ireland

              I am pracing in Cork, Ireland at an all girls Catholic school in a 2nd and 3rd grade classroom.  A drastic difference I have noticed when comparing the education system in the states with the Irish system is the view of teachers.  In Ireland, the general public has a much higher view of teachers.  Currently, Ireland’s economy is struggling and one place that cuts were made was in teachers’ salaries.  This decision was partially decided because when comparing an Irish teacher’s salary to other countries it was drastically larger.  In Ireland, it is also more difficult to become a teacher.  When my CT was applying for the degree, she had to be able to sing, play an instrument, speak good English, and speak good Gaelic.  Becoming a teacher in Ireland is considered prestigious and the teaching profession is more respected in Ireland. The general Irish public’s view on the teaching profession is much more positive than in the US.
            The funding for schools in Ireland is also very different than in the states.  In Ireland, schools in lower socioeconomic areas receive more funding than schools in wealthier areas.  The school I work at is one in a lower socioeconomic area and with their funding they are able to afford for every student to have music, dance, and swimming lessons as well as other enrichment activities. The reasoning behind the current funding system is that students from wealthy backgrounds will be able to afford these enriching activities from their own means whereas students from less fortunate backgrounds would have a much more difficult time finding the means to participate.
            The general feeling in the classroom, the way my CT interacts with her students, how the students respect my CT, and the community environment that my CT has created in the classroom are all ways that teaching in Ireland is the same as in the states.  While my students here talk with a funny accent and use some different words, they all remind me of home.  All my students in Ireland act and say things similar to kids in the states.  All the Irish students love Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez and watch Disney channel just like Americans. Even across the world, a child is a child no matter where you are.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Final Reflection

Teaching in England has been such a great experience and now looking back, I can really see the differences between British and American teaching and education customs. Most students in England wear uniforms because they feel that this contributes to the success and professionalism of the school. Also, there is a strong emphasis on religion in most schools. They have assemblies almost every morning - it has become routine - and once a week there is a religious assembly. In America, that is hard to come by. It is rare to have religious presentations and discussions in a school.  Again, I think this adds to the culture and community of the school. The schools in England are, in general, much smaller than the schools in America. I think this allows the schools in England to create much more of a community among the school. American schools develop community more among grades than the entire school. British schools also have to compete for enrollment numbers. They focus on test scores in order to show parents that the school is high achieving so they will send their kids their. Though schools in America do focus on teaching to the test, public schools do not have to compete for enrollment numbers. These are all obvious differences that affect the culture of schools in Britain and America.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Teaching English in a Spanish Classroom

All of the students at the school that I am placed at are learning English in their classrooms. My CT is the only teacher in the 2nd grade who knows English, therefore she teachers about 40 minutes of English to each of the three classes in the third grade twice a week. While she is teaching English in one of the other classrooms, another teacher comes into her classroom and teaches. My CT explained to me at the beginning that she is having a hard time with the curriculum being set by the school. She told me that she worked hard over the past two years to create the curriculum that she did, and now the school is suddenly switching to a program that is much more regimented, and she doesn't think it will be beneficial next year but there is nothing that she can do. She believes that the best way to learn English is through complete immersion, therefore once the time period for English starts she only speaks English, even if the students don't quite understand. I definitely think that this is a positive thing, however I think that the students do not have enough of the basic understanding of common vocabulary and questions in order to really benefit from English-only teaching. Sometimes they seem very confused or lost, and often just try to repeat what the teacher has been saying if they don't know what to do. My CT also often has me read or speak to them, because she recognizes that she doesn't have a good accent for the students to listen too. However, the students have found me very hard to understand since I don't pronouce a lot of the letter sounds like Spaniards do!
The way they teach English at my school is through science (the science lessons are completed in English) which is meant to teach the students two things at once. The students learn mostly vocabulary and practice a lot using songs. I think that there is too much of a focus on vocabulary, because it merely involves students memorizing certain words with certain pictures. I think that the songs are helpful because they help students remember certain vocabulary and concepts, but some of the students struggle to convert the song lyrics into written or verbally spoken responses to questions. Over the course of my time in the classroom, I have seen a unit on the sun and moon. They compare day and night, learn characteristics of the sun, and about animals that are nocturnal. It is difficult because although I see the importance of learning new words, the students seem to be constantly just repeating or copying. It's a tricky situation, but I don't think that the students should be learning ¨nocturnal¨ and ¨headgehog¨ before they know how to understand and answer, how are you or what did you do today.  Overall, I have found that teaching English is extremely hard but I think it would be more beneficial to focus less on vocabulary and more on conversational English. In this case, it may be better to separate teaching English and science. I am glad however, that they the students at this school start learning English in the earliest grades. Over the course of the semester, I have learned a lot about how important learning different languages are and how useful they can be. It is so important to start learning a new language at a young age. In the US, students often begin learning Spanish or French in middle school or high school. I met some Spanish students in high school here and their English was a lot better than my Spanish was in high school. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Private School Tuition in Dakar

            Due to the current state of the public education system in Senegal, many parents have chosen to send their children to private school. Attending a private school ensures parents that their children are receiving the best education they can. However, this also means that the students and their families are required to pay tuition. At École Sainte Bernadette, students in all grades pay a minimum of 17,000 CFA (approx. 34$) a month to cover their general education. This money helps employ the teachers, cooks, custodians, and bus drivers at the school. However, students who wish to take extra classes, participate in extra curricular activities, ride the bus to school, and eat lunch at the canteen may pay up to 40, 000 CFA (approx. 80$) a month. Within the school, there are students with families that are able to pay that amount, and there are students with families that cannot. Sainte Bernadette understands that many families may struggle to make enough money to keep their children in school, however there is not much the school can do to help because of their low budget. Many scholarships are given to orphans who may not be able to generate that amount of money on their own, but that seems to be the only exception.
The third Monday of the month was one of the more difficult days at École Sainte Bernadette for me. Class was interrupted by the school secretary, who came in with printed receipts for all the students who had not paid their tuition this month. The students’ names were read alphabetically and the students were directed to collect their belongings and follow the secretary out of the class. When I asked my CT what was going on, she explained that the students who had outstanding balances were taken to a separate room and not allowed to return to class until it had been paid. For some children this means they won’t be able to return to school for months. For others, they quit school al together and start working with their parents to raise money for their siblings receive an education. At first, this seemed almost cruel, but after reflecting back on the experience I realized that there are many families that struggle to make enough money to keep their children in school in Senegal. The school does not have the resources to allow certain families not to pay. While it is not ideal, it is a reality for children and their families in Dakar. 
I am very grateful for the time I have spent at École Sainte Bernadette. It was challenging at times, but through those challenges I have come to appreciate the education I received growing up and the opportunities I was given. I have been exposed to the hardships of teaching and living in a third world country, and I hope that the new perspective I have gained will transfer into my teaching career in the future.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Final Reflection of Irish Primary School

      Yesterday was my last day at Scoil Bhride in Galway, Ireland. As it was also my last day in Ireland before returning home to the US, I was very sad to say goodbye. I always feel like right as I am really starting to get to know the students and master the classroom routine the semester comes to an end. One thing I regret was not teaching more lessons during my time at Scoil Bhride. My CT was incredibly accommodating and told me I could let him know whenever there was something I wanted to teach. However, this was challenging because there was a lack of direction and incentive. With endless options, I found it difficult to plan lessons. However, I really did enjoy all the responsibilities my CT continuously assigned me throughout my time in his class. Every week I led a small reading group. I incorporated many techniques I had previously used during Read Alouds and adapted them to a group setting. I also got to try out popcorn reading, which is a technique I always learned about but had never got the chance to tryout before. The students really enjoyed it and it was a great way to keep them focused on the reading because they never knew when it was going to be their turn. I also go to work one-on-one with several students. One student that had transfered into the class mid-year was behind in his reading capabilities. My CT asked me to go over a list of high-frequency words with him to determine which ones he did and did not know. This was extremely beneficial for me because I was able to identify where he was struggling. The following week I got the chance to continue working with this student. We worked on rhyming sounds, using an interactive online computer game. It was helpful because I could point out to him the combinations of letters that make the same sounds through the use of rhymes. I was also given the task of checking students mental math worksheets that they complete every morning when they come into school. I enjoyed this because I was able to help struggling students or correct students' mistakes. More often than not, with a little bit of scaffolding the students were able to come up with the correct answers.
     In addition to the tasks I was able to complete I learned a significant amount about the differences between the American and Irish school systems. The rigid nature of the curriculum and state standards and testing is reflected in the teaching methods and overall classroom atmosphere. My CTs in Boston both had a strict schedule that they followed and it was made very clear to the students which subject was coming next, typically by being posted in the wall of the classroom. In Ireland they hop around from subject to subject and the students are told when they are switching as opposed to referring to a schedule posted on the wall. While I can understand the benefit to making the schedule apparent to the students, the lack of awareness does not seem to bother the Irish students. They can easily transition from one subject to the next by simply being told to put away one assignment and get ready for the next.
   The Irish classroom did not do half as much group work as I have observed in American classrooms. The only time I saw group work being done was during reading groups. However, the reading groups were a combination of both 2nd grade classes, making the average size about eight. This limits the individualized attention many students require to succeed. The lack of group work may be due to the lack of support my CT receives in the classroom. Throughout my ten visits there was only one occasion when another teacher came in to do math with the students.
     Finally, the biggest difference between the school systems was the disciplinary philosophies. The most problematic students in the class in Ireland were yelled at in front of the entire class. At first I thought I was opposed to this treatment, however, I realized that it got all the other students to be conscience of their own behavior. Also the students in Ireland seem to be held to higher standards of responsibility than I have observed in American classrooms. The most displeased I witnessed my CT was when a student reported not completing her homework for the third time that week. He told the student that she had no one to blame but herself because it is her homework and she is the only person responsible for making sure it is completed. He also handled some playground mishaps in front of the entire class. From what I have observed in American classrooms, these issues are often dealt with by pulling a student out of the class to be scolded for misbehavior.
   Overall, I truly learned a lot and I am certainly pleased with my decision to complete an international pre-prac.

Learning English at 1 hour a week...

Here in Florence, working with a teacher that floats around to different classes and schools throughout the week, teaching English, I feel I have seen a very different side of teaching. It is a tough position to be in, because my CT cares very much about the children learning and speaking English, yet she only sees the students for a very small time, in the younger classes an hour a week, the upper elementary grades it increases to 2 or 3. 

There are a couple things I have come to notice. At the beginning, I thought that the students were a bit more rowdy because it was as if they had a substitute in the room. There were differences from their established classroom teacher and therefore could "get away with" more. While I still believe this is partly true, I also think there could be some different methods my CT could use to combat this. A large part of this I think is in the structure of the English language course. My teacher and the students follow this English learning workbook from the first graders to the fifth grade. These books are complete with words, songs (on corresponding CD's), activities, etc. I think often in the routine of this book, a lot of children's interest is lost. While I know my CT has very good intentions, I have begun to think maybe she does not know other ways to engage the students than to follow the book...but the book is not a teacher. It also may be a cultural difference that makes it hard for me to understand the teaching style. For instance, in my past pre-pracs and in courses at BC, I feel there is emphasis on using what the curriculum books give you and then supplement/make it your own in order to maximize student's engagement and which hopefully maximizes their learning. Where as here, at least with my CT, there seems to be a lack of that. 

I have been trying to think critically about this and in lessons add in exercises or activities that will capture students' attention and get them all to speak or write in English. I hope I can take what I have been learning about teaching a second language, and learn more for the future as I am realizing what an incredibly difficult task this is! 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Lesson Observation in Ecuador

            My teacher is excellent with her lessons. She really proves that less is more. When working with kindergarten children, long, multi-step lessons can be a bit overwhelming. Because of this, my CT has chosen to use mini-lessons with her students. These lessons last about twenty minutes and often involve a mixture of instruction and a whole group game. Her lessons seem so relaxed and the children all seem so engaged. She has them sit in the circle time area while delivering them. One challenge that she faces is having to teach the English language while teaching academic content simultaneously. She plans carefully to fit in both language and content in a way that seems natural rather than forced upon the students.
            During one of my days in the classroom, I observed two of her lessons. The first lesson was about rhyming words. This is a difficult concept for many English Language Learners because they are still gaining phonemic awareness in their second language. My CT made up a story about a monkey’s birthday party. She made flash cards with pictures on them. The pictures were of food and animals/ insects. First, she went over the vocabulary with the students, card by card. Then she began the story. She would say, “The next person to come to the birthday party was the bee. What did the bee bring?” and the children would have to sort through the food cards until they found a rhyming card, such as “tea”. The kids loved this game and really got practice with rhyming as they would say the animal name and then name other foods to try to find a rhyme. This taught the content of rhyming and the vocabulary of the animals and food simultaneously. Most importantly, the children had fun and were so engaged!
            The next lesson I observed was a math lesson. The class was working on math vocabulary such as more than, less than, equal to, etc. The teacher went over some vocabulary words and then the students played a game. Two at a time, two students would come into the center of the circle. Both were given a straw and with the straw, they needed to suck up as many paper stethoscopes as possible and put them into a box without dropping them. (They used stethoscopes because it is one of their vocabulary words, as they are doing a career unit). They had thirty seconds to complete the task. After the thirty seconds was up, the class counted the stethoscopes in each box together, practicing the numbers in English. Then they would discuss who had more, who had less, or if the amounts were equal. Once again, the children were so engaged and had so much fun, all while learning important vocabulary and content. I really would like to start using mini-lessons with fun activities incorporated within them in my P3!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Typical School Day in Dakar

The school day begins with all the students lining up in alphabetical order by grade in the courtyard. When the teacher gives the okay, the students file into their perspective classrooms and wait. When the teacher arrives, the entire classroom stands, recites a prayer, and then formally greets both the teacher and I, only sitting down after the teacher has dismissed them. The teacher then begins reviewing the material learned the day before, calling on students who are expected to stand and recite the correct answer. Giving the wrong answer in unacceptable, and a student who answers incorrectly must stand for the rest of the review.
The review is generally followed by French. While most children speak Wolof at home, the official language of Senegal is French. This means that all instruction is delivered in French. Many students can speak French fluently, but most still need to learn grammar and punctuation. Children take turns copying their work up on the board until the teacher decides to move on. This continues throughout most of the subjects during the day. Students are given a half hour recreation period every day to release their energy and run around, and an hour for lunch at 1:00. Most students eat at home (cheaper than buying food at the canteen) so children are given an hour to travel back and forth.
It’s interesting to observe the change in behavior between when the students are in class, and when they are at recreation. In class, under their teacher’s supervision, they sit up straight and raise a hand to answer every question. At recreation, there is no supervision. Teachers stay in their classrooms, correcting papers and planning, and the students are given free range to do whatever they want. Children sprint in every direction, every which way, usually colliding hard every once in a while. Many boys wrestle in the sand, and the girls play a dancing game, which ends with the loser getting smacked in the middle of a circle by all the other players. Students are screaming and yelling, and then the bell rings. The teachers come out of their rooms, the students line up in their lines in alphabetical order, and they all file back into their class. There seems to be no connection between the motivation driving them to behave in class, and the motivation driving them to behave when out of the teacher’s sight.