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Friday, December 20, 2013

Comparing England Schools to the US

Many of the things I have seen in my classroom here have been similar to the States. The classroom has stations of activities, much like US classrooms have areas for different activities. The stations in both countries are used for free time or busy time. Some stations are constant, such as the book corner, but others change to supplement learning. For example, there was an Autumn Exploration table when the children were learning about the seasons. I have seen teachers do the same thing at home.
Another similarity comes from the role of the teacher in the English school system. Like in the states, primary school teachers are mostly female. They have trouble recruiting teachers because teaching is not always seen as a highly professional job. I would say that teachers are better respected in England than in the States overall, but it is not a huge different. Teacher in English primary schools also teacher all subjects, and Mrs. Hick’s style was similar to styles I have seen a home. There was a bit more focus on sitting still than I have seen at home, however, part of this might be because of the age of the children, and the number of the children in the class. I have seen my teacher use many of the same techniques for classroom management as at home, and she talks to the students in a similar way as I have seen in the states as well.
I do find it different that letters are first taught as sounds instead of by the letter names. For example, A is taught as ah, and T is taught as tah. I understand the benefit in this when a child is learning to read, because it is much easier to look at a letter and say the sound instead of the name when it’s learned this was. I do not know what is actually more effective, but I have seen the UK method to work very well for most of the students. I really like the way it is taught, and it is something I will store in the back of my mind for future students who might be struggling. I think it makes it easier for children to work on blending letters together, which works well when letters act normally. I am a bit curious about how it will work when they start to learn the “tricky” rules, such as the silent e.
Another major difference is the headteacher compared to a US principal. The headteacher is much more involved around the school in my opinion. My headteacher would teach small lessons to classes, or pull out groups of children to work with. She also led the assemblies most days, and she was constantly in and out of classrooms. Additionally, she did lunch duty. I do not think I have ever seen a US principal cleaning the lunchroom. I think having a person of authority so present is wonderful. It sets the tone for the school, and it helps everyone stay on the same page. It also helps when it comes to school policy making, because the headteacher is still in the classroom and can still see that side of any issue. In the US, I think we lack some of this important leadership as often the principals are more removed. My headteacher made a point to talk to me everytime I was in the school, but I never even saw the princpals of the schools I taught in at home.

Lessons at Widcombe Infants

In Reception, I have found the lessons to be kept short and brisk in order to maintain the children’s focus. For example, today we learned about Diwali as a class. When Mrs. Hicks was gathering the students for the story, she rang a bell to get their attention. This is their cue to quiet down and be prepared to listen. This lesson, like most that include a story, was done on the carpet the children sitting in their carpet workspaces. After we talked about Diwali, they did the normal phonics, to break up the lessons, and I worked with a group of children who were struggling.
After phonics, we talked more about Diwali, reviewing the story. Then the children watched a movie on Diwali, which talked about rangoli. The children colored their own for the holiday, and they worked on coloring neatly and making the design symmetrical. The movie was made for small children, so it was short and entertaining, which engaged the students. To finish the morning’s lessons on Diwali, Mrs. Hicks asked questions which the children answered verbally.
In the afternoon, we continued with some Diwali learning, and I worked with children to decorate the swan that was used to fly away. I had a little buddy, who attached himself to me today, who wanted to continue to decorate the swan. Activities like these are used to reinforce what is being taught in a fun way that keeps the children’s attention.
Most of the assessments have been verbal assessments in Reception. This means that there is not too much homework for the children that is mandatory yet, mostly because the children are only just beginning to learn to read and write, which are key concepts for homework. We have just begun to send home sheets of numbers for the children to practice writing, however while this is suggested, it does not appear that all the children actually do them, or at least they are not all returned.
I think the most trouble with timing comes in with transitions. Things like going in and outside takes a lot of time because of winter clothing. Many children still need help to zip or unzip coats, and the time to help them cuts into lesson time. Additionally, cleaning up from busy time takes longer than expected some days. Since Mrs. Hicks has been working with small children so long, I think she plans this time into the day very often, but even still, it takes extra time sometimes. It is pretty similar to what I have seen in US classrooms with children this little.

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Final Comparison

After being placed in both English and American schools, I have seen quite a lot of differences between the two. One of the most noticeable differences even after just walking around the school is the relationship between students and teachers. In American schools, teachers blur the line between authority figure and friend much more quickly and easily. In English schools, there is almost more of a wall between those two roles, and I have only rarely seen that distance breached. For example, with my own teachers at home, I had their phone numbers and would not have hesitated to text them. I also regularly ate lunch with them during school just to chat and hang out. Our teachers knew all about our private lives; my principal once came outside to scold my boyfriend for not scraping the ice off my car during a snowstorm! At home, close relationships with teachers are not only normal, but also encouraged. Students that are failing in other subjects shine in classes when they have a friendly and familiar relationship with the teacher.
            In English schools, I have seen much more of student-teacher divide. For example, during break times, students are not allowed inside the English block, or any of the other buildings I assume. Students are also required to knock and wait outside of the staff room if looking for a teacher. At home, teachers remain in their classrooms after class time so they are always quite accessible. Here in England, it is interesting to me that the teachers retreat to the staff room together. On the one hand, I think this is better because it gives the teachers a chance to wind down and catch up with other adults – whether to check in about a classroom practice or just to keep sane during a stressful day. On the other hand, I think it does create a gap between teacher and student when the teacher is more difficult to contact and removed from the student body.
            The second biggest difference I saw between English and American schools is the emphasis on testing. I thought testing was very prevalent in the US, but I see it even more so in English schools. The pressure on students to achieve high grades on upwards of five exams during one year is incredibly stressful to me. In the US, high stakes testing in high school does happen but it happens outside of the actual school day setting, and the tests can also be retaken as many times as a student wants. In England, the testing takes place during the day and influences not only the student’s options for future education but also the school’s rating in the league tables, which can impact enrollment for the upcoming school years.
            Testing also dominated most of the staff room conversations that I was a part of. Teachers were frequently discussing lessons and coursework with the inevitable testing date looming ahead. Sixth form teachers were almost always grading and revising coursework and meeting with students to help them perfect this large portion of their exam grade. Teachers also struggled with “target grades.” The temptation to give the students low targets knowing that they would surpass them was evident. If a teacher says a student is expected to get a C, and that student gets an A, the teacher looks really great. With issues like merit-based pay on the horizon, teachers could use all the brownie points they can get. I also had many conversations with teachers about American testing, and they all seemed shocked that US students are allowed to retake their SATs and ACTs and simply submit their best score. Shows us that we shouldn’t be taking those exams for granted!
            While discussing testing, teacher morale is noticeably lower. Stress and frustration can be heard in everyone’s voice, and it’s clearly warranted. The teachers feel cramped for time and forced into lesson plans in order to teach what these students need to know in order to pass the test, not what they should know for higher learning or even just for life in general. Once testing has been pushed aside, however, teacher morale in the staffroom is usually pretty high. Sharing stories over a cup of tea brings a nice sense of camaraderie to the room and usually sets a relaxed environment. As a student teacher, I always felt comfortable walking into the staffroom knowing someone would be in there to chat.
            I could see problems with recruitment and retention in English schools due to the new pushes of the National Curriculum and the testing that it forces on students. It has to be incredibly hard to try and entice future teachers to join the profession when all they are seeing and hearing in the news is how teachers are losing, not gaining, autonomy. If England truly wants to be recruiting the best and the brightest, the profession needs to be given the sense of professionalism and independence that it deserves. While the teachers at Beechen Cliff are in good spirits because they happen to be working in a great school, they also suffer from bouts of stress and irritation at the thought of things like excessive testing and merit based pay – I could only imagine these sentiments in schools not as prestigious as Beechen Cliff where teachers are struggling daily to meet their students’ needs. In order to recruit better teachers, we need to start treating the teachers we already have better than we are. 

Pupil Pursuit

Since a true Pupil Pursuit was difficult to coordinate in the secondary school setting, I am instead focusing this entry on Sonny, a student I see three times throughout the day in different class settings. In the morning, I see Sonny during Registration, which is the equivalent of the American homeroom. Registration, unlike American homerooms, contains boys from Years 7-11, so the risk for bullying is high.
            As a Year 7, it is understood that Sonny will be one of the quieter ones during Registration. Usually, he is early along with a couple of other Year 7s, and they entertain themselves by tossing things around the room or chatting about something else going on outside of school. Once the older boys Charlie, Joe, and Liam come into the room, the environment changes. The younger boys stop tossing things around for fear of them being stolen and then used against them, and their conversations get noticeably softer. These are all expected when dealing with eleven-year-olds and sixteen-year-olds. The set up does make me wonder how healthy and beneficial this morning and afternoon grouping is for the younger boys though. I think a little mixing of the ages could be great; it gives the younger boys some mentor figures to look up to, but I think the age gap in these classes are too large right now for that to really be happening.
            After Registration, I see Sonny in Drama. This lesson includes no writing or reading and is solely based on speaking and listening, sometimes watching when mime is involved. This class emphasizes listening more than speaking in both the teacher-student relationship and the group dynamic. The boys spend the beginning of class listening to the teacher’s instructions for the day and then are expected to work cooperatively in groups of up to five. Listening is a crucial skill if everyone wants his point to get heard. On this day in particular, I was teaching Sonny’s Drama class. Sonny had plenty of opportunity to talk in this class because the boys had to do all of their planning before their presentation – there could be no talking while they were performing. In Drama, Sonny is much more animated and outspoken than he is during Registration. I also imagine he is this way in his other classes because he was chosen by Mrs. Baker to take the new student, Oliver, under his wing and help him get settled in the Beechen Cliff routine. The Drama lesson allowed for a lot of social interaction, and it was clear to me that this is more Sonny’s “scene.”
            After Drama, I follow Sonny to an academic English lesson where they are learning the Greek myths. In this class, Sonny sits up front, with Oliver, and is much quieter than he is in Drama. While this lesson also does not lend itself to the level of noise that Drama does, Sonny gets noticeably calmer than the other boys do. In this lesson, speaking, reading, writing, and listening are blended almost completely equally. After listening to the teacher’s instructions, the boys pair up to read and discuss the assigned Greek myth together. After reading, the boys must write down a summary of the myth along with its moral or lesson. The mix of these four skills going on continuously makes for a great class – the boys seem to really retain what is being said. I do notice that Sonny does not read very loudly; I wonder if this is because of his own insecurities about reading aloud or reading ability.
            To guide the writing task, the teacher, Mrs. Kearns, did ask the class for examples of morals and to give a definition of the word “summary.” Sonny did not need any additional help, and he seemed to work well with Oliver. The two are both relatively shy outside of the Drama class setting so I think this helps them get along really well.
            Overall, Sonny had a good day. He did well in the Drama lesson and quietly got to work during English. In his English lessons at least, there was a good mixture of different skills being practiced. Listening is definitely one of the top activities taking place during the average day but Drama allows the boys to get that speaking aspect in as well. At the end of the day, during afternoon Registration, Sonny was in good spirits after Mrs. Baker handled an incident that resulted in him getting shoved so hard that a bottle of Coke exploded in his backpack. He was surprisingly calm about the entire thing – handled it much better than I would have!  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Promoting Equity

This experience has been an incredible journey for me, both personally and professionally. I feel like I was able to learn a lot about how much of our education system is built on our culture and the differences it makes in how we teach. Being able to observe a different culture’s method of education has definitely broadened my perspective. I have been particularly fortunate for this experience, as I worked with students of all different ages, needs, and academic levels.
After seeing how responsive the students are to my CT, Mr. T, I’ve spent a lot of time observing how he works with individual students. Mr. T has a very firm but caring approach to his students and does not treat any of them differently, regardless of age, gender, or ability. This is particularly notable seeing as how he simultaneously works with students that have completely different needs. Observing how he manages to hold high expectations for all of his students regardless of their current behavior or needs was admirable and has inspired me to work harder to do the same.

Being at this school has really put me into the shoes of an ELL students and made me face firsthand the difficulties and struggles these students must feel. This experience is invaluable to me because it will help me understand my future ELL students and motivate me to work harder to make sure that they are provided enough resources to thrive. Working with students with special needs was also a blessing because it helped me recognize firsthand the significance of the role a teacher plays in providing for not just their academic growth, but their social growth as well. Watching Mr. T has taught me how to better navigate unruly moments and deal with them firmly and patiently. Students with special needs deserve just as much of an opportunity to succeed in the classroom and having a chance to look through their perspective has only motivated me to work harder to promote equity in my future classrooms.