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Monday, October 24, 2016

Recognizing and Appreciating Diversity in South Africa

           During the past few weeks, the students in my class have been learning about South Africa, its culture, its many languages, its geography, its history, and more. This unit has been interwoven into many subjects, helping students gain a better understanding of and appreciation towards the country they live in. I have loved being in the class during these lessons for many reasons. One reason is that it has been interesting comparing South African history lessons in a South African school to American history lessons in an American school. In my own experience, U.S. history can often be presented in a very egocentric way in some schools back home. I think that it is important to address the struggles that our country still faces as well as to acknowledge and appreciate the diversity in cultures and lifestyles across the U.S. and the world. Living in a fairly homogeneous town, I grew up with a very limited understanding of diversity and my education classes, among other experiences, at BC as well as my experiences at St. Joseph’s have helped me realize how important it is to help students understand and embrace diversity early on. In my class at St. Joseph’s, my CT has done a great job with this. For example, she often reminds students that although St. Joseph’s is a Catholic school, it embraces all forms of religion and she encourages students to share their diverse beliefs with the class. During her history lessons, she discusses how moments of South African history have influenced different people of different cultures in different ways. I really appreciated the way she taught these lessons because it helps students understand the past and current struggles that their country faces in a way that acknowledges the variety of effects the history has had on such a diverse population.

           Another reason I have enjoyed being a part of the class during these lessons is because it has helped me learn more about each student and his/her culture, beliefs, and experiences. After observing and helping out with a few history and geography lessons, I decided to teach a lesson on what diversity is in a more relevant sense. Although students had been learning much about their country as a whole, I thought it would be important to help them understand how diversity applies to every single person, including each and every student in the class. We started by going over what we have learned about South Africa so far – its nine provinces, its major cities, and its eleven official languages. We then started narrowing in on Cape Town, its different towns, different neighborhoods, and different schools. Together, we came up with a list of what can make people different. The students started with physical differences: skin color, eye color, hair color, age, height, weight, etc. I then encouraged them to think about differences that you might not be able to see on the outside: family structure, religious beliefs, jobs people may have, types of homes people live in, languages, hobbies, etc. While creating this list, the students began discussing ways that make each one of them unique. For example, one student mentioned how her parents speak very little English and that she speaks Xhosa (one of the eleven official languages in South Africa) at home. Another student mentioned that he lives with just his dad and that his mom lives in a different home. Many other students shared similar, yet unique experiences of their own, realizing that while two students may be connected in some ways, they also have many differences between them. The students then discussed reasons why they think diversity is a good thing and why they like being unique. We concluded the conversation with an activity which gave students an opportunity to draw their home, their family and friends, and/or the things that they like to do and then share these drawings with the class. Many talked about the people that they consider family and what they enjoy doing with these people.

           This was definitely my favorite lesson and class conversation so far at St. Joseph’s. Not only was it interesting for me to learn about each student, but it also gave the students the opportunity to think about how they are all unique and why they can celebrate this diversity rather than be ashamed of it. In a country where there are still significant political and social issues surrounding race, class, and gender, I think it is important for youth to begin having these discussions so that as they grow up, they will hopefully be able to recognize the social injustices that exist and feel empowered to help mitigate these issues. For this reason, I would definitely like to teach this lesson on diversity again in the future. I also think it would be interesting to compare the conversation on diversity I had with the second graders at St. Joseph’s with the same conversation I may have at different schools in the U.S. I feel very grateful to have had this particular experience here in South Africa and would love to observe the similarities and differences in perspectives on diversity from students of different parts of the world.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Culture of Spanish Schools

The Spanish culture definitely has an influence in the classroom designs and the structure of schools.

Time in Spain works very differently than time in the US. Breakfast is light, lunch is a big meal around 2:00/2:30, and dinner is multiple courses around 9:00pm. The day is extended by these late times, and it affects every part of your day. When I first got to Madrid, the sun did not set until fairly late at night, so your whole day feels longer because the sun is out, and you are out doing things until much later, only settling down for the night and eating dinner at 9:00. Because of these drastic differences from the US, it should not be too surprising that the Spanish school day is very different as well.

For students at La Salle in Madrid, school starts at 8:30. On Wednesdays and Fridays school ends at 2:30. However every other day of the week, the students get out at 1:30 with an hour and a half to go home and eat lunch (because this meal is so important), then the students return to school for classes from 3:00-5:00. This difference in schedule is possible because of the different structure of the typical Spanish day. Morning classes are normally 55 minutes, and afternoon classes are 1 and a half hours. This day lasts longer, and students are physically in school for longer than many schools in the US. For the months of September and June, students get out of school at 2:30 every day, but throughout the rest of the year they are in school until fairly late in the afternoon and early evening.

Also the Spanish in general are very open, direct, and expressive people. All of the teachers are called by their first name, which creates a slightly more personal relationship, but it can also make it slightly more difficult to be authoritative. When the students are working, they may begin to speak in Spanish because it is simply easier, and the teachers will remind them to get to work. Some of the students may make a comment back to the teacher, not necessarily a bad one. In general, the students are allowed to speak up and talk to teachers openly in a non-strict environment, with the teachers reminding students when it is time to get back to work (like many other situations I have observed in the US). This constant expressiveness and conversation that is typical of the Spanish is also highlighted in school where students are encouraged to work in cooperative groups together as much as they possibly can.

In terms of the classes they take, I feel like many of my Spanish students who may be middle-school aged are taking classes I would have been taking in high school, such as economics and physics. I suppose this also depends on where you went to school in the US, but in general, the Spanish classes seem more advanced than what we would be teaching children in the US. This is evident also by the fact that almost all students in Spain are exposed to English as early as when they are infants in school, so that by the time they are in 6th grade, students are learning many of the basic English verb tenses and already have a breath of vocabulary that they can understand the teacher when they only speak in English (this is compared to me only beginning to learn Spanish in 7th grade, starting with numbers, letters, and basic greetings).

Overall it has been very interesting to see how the culture I observe day-to-day is reflected in my classrooms, and I look forward to observing this relationship more closely.

How to Teach in Madrid

In Madrid I work with the head of the English department at La Salle, San Rafael. It is a school with students from infants to high school. The students start learning English in elementary school, but once they are in 6th grade they begin to take separate English classes with the two English teachers at the school. I spend most of my classes with the head of the English department, Paul, and I also have other classes with the other teacher, Marta. Since the students are older when they begin taking English, the students I work with range from 12 to 17 years old. This is a little older than the elementary age groups I have normally worked with but it has been very interesting to get a new perspective on a different group of students.

From the lessons I have observed, it has been interesting to see how closely the teacher adhere to the workbooks the students have. Unlike having a separate curriculum to follow, the teachers just have a company’s workbook for the students which they use for activities and exercises. The book often has smaller and more involved exercises which the students often complete in their cooperative groups. Paul was explaining to me that the students are supposed to be working in the cooperative groups as much as they possibly can. They will often work to complete some activity using the vocabulary and grammar they are learning. For example, the younger students once had to create a lost pet poster, using descriptive adjectives to describe in detail the pet they had lost. Some of the older students also had to create their ideal class schedule, deciding what classes to take, when to begin school, how long each class was supposed to be, etc.

In observing these lessons, I have seen how the teachers use the books as a source of material and exercises for the students, while they often gauge themselves if the students need more or less support, and accordingly they will decide how much of the information needs to be gone over in the whole group and how much can be practiced practically with their peers. The students like working in their cooperative groups, but at times it does make it difficult to have everyone stay on task. Once in the groups, it is easier for students to get distracted, or simply start speaking Spanish. The teachers will walk around and try to monitor the groups. Most of the comprehension check is done when students have to share their answers and what they have talked about.

This is a fairly similar teaching style from what I have seen in the US, however I think in the US teachers oftentimes do not rely so heavily on one book to help guide their lessons. Lessons in the US are more often taken from multiple different sources, or are more created by the teacher. I think part of it may be that I am working with older students, who have a little more regulations on the material they are taught due to the testing that occurs when they are in high school in order to get into university.

Even still, it has been very enlightening to be able to work with nearly every age group from 12-17 at La Salle, and I have been able to see how the progression of the teaching functions until the students get into their junior year of high school, where English class becomes optional. I am looking forward to being able to take on more responsibilities in my classrooms, teaching a few lessons, and continuing to see how the students grow and develop. It has been very interesting to compare to the US education system, and with time I am only getting more insight.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Life at St. Joseph's

This semester, I have been completing my international practicum at St. Joseph’s Marist College in Cape Town, South Africa. This private Catholic school, which consists of the pre-primary school (ages 3-6), junior school (grades 1-7), and senior school (grades -12), is located in one of the southern suburbs of the city, so it is very different from many of the government (public) schools in Cape Town. I have been spending time in one of the second grade classes with 24 students and am very lucky to have a CT who not only is a great teacher to observe, but also goes out of her way to support me and contribute to my learning experience at St. Joseph’s.
Student teaching at St. Joseph’s has been unique both because of the fact that it is outside of the U.S. and because it is a private Catholic school – two entirely new experiences for me. The school only became private three years ago and according to my CT, this change is fairly noticeable in the students’ attitudes. She said that many of the students who have only been at St. Joseph’s since it became private have very nice manners and seem more thoughtful and caring to others compared to most of the older students who had been at St. Joseph many years before it became private. She believes that these students have not fully adopted the values that the school now consistently observes. The school day begins with all of the students greeting the teachers in unison followed by a morning prayer. Students then transition to their classrooms and in my class they begin morning meeting, which includes a reading from the teacher’s “What Would Jesus Do?” book that triggers a discussion on that day’s religious lesson. These lessons include topics on sharing, being grateful, trusting God, respecting elders, among others. I have found this part of morning meeting particularly helpful for the students, as they tend to focus on that day’s lesson throughout the school day. Morning meeting is followed by a series of activities accompanied by an interactive video. This online program called GoNoodle contains instructional dance, yoga, and “thinking” videos (thinking about being confident, peaceful, gracious, etc.). My CT usually plays one dance video, one yoga video, and ends with one “thinking” video. This activity is a really great opportunity for the students to let out some energy and calm their minds and bodies down before jumping into the first lesson of the day with focus and thoughtfulness.
Because the school is private, it does not receive any government funding and thus it solely relies on student fees, school fundraisers, and donations. At first, I was very surprised by the abundance in resources in my CT’s classroom, which contains a full bookshelf, many posters, a cabinet full of learning manipulatives and school supplies, and many other additional school supplies around the classroom. However, my CT explained that each teacher at St. Joseph’s is responsible for purchasing and bringing in their own supplies for their respective classrooms. From the start, I also was curious about the diversity of the students in my class. The fees for attending St. Joseph’s are significant, which led me to assume that most students came from families of higher SES. After discussing this with my CT, I realized that while many students come from wealthier families (relative to the overall population in Cape Town), this is not the case for all students. St. Joseph’s offers some scholarships for families to help them afford their child’s education. Another interesting point that my CT raised was that even though most families are financially stable, she has noticed a pattern of uneducated financial decisions across some of the families. For example, she said that she has seen families pull into the parking lot to drop their children off for school in fancy, expensive cars but then she will see their children get out of the car with the same torn shoes they have had for many years. She said that many parents are willing to pay for an education that they believe to be greater than that which their child would receive at a government school, but that they are often not willing to pay for other things such as extracurricular fees, new school uniforms, healthy school lunches, and more. She also has observed that often, these are the same parents who choose not to attend their parent-teacher meetings at the beginning of the school year. I found this pattern very interesting and problematic as there is more than just what a student learns in the classroom that contributes to the child’s growth and development. In many of my Lynch classes, we have talked about the importance of connecting with the child’s parents or guardians and how this parent-teacher relationship can support and increase student learning, so it is interesting being at a school where the parent-teacher relationships are very inconsistent across families and seeing how this affects specific students.
Overall, I am really enjoying my time at St. Joseph’s and have learned so much from the students and my CT. I have been working on getting to know each student, their background, and their strengths and weaknesses in order to understand the class better and to strive to meet the needs of each student while teaching. I am looking forward to discovering more parallels and differences between St. Joseph’s and my previous experiences in elementary schools and I am excited to continue considering how I can take what I learn here in Cape Town and bring it back to BC and the Boston area.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

CIS vs. Massachusetts Public Schools- Classroom and Curriculum

 I have now spent 5 Wednesdays at Copenhagen International School and look forward to it every week! While the international aspect of CIS certainly makes it different from the public schools I have spent time at in the US, I have found the general classroom atmospheres to be very similar. This may be because both use the responsive classroom approach- something that I am very familiar with as a previous student in the Massachusetts public school system. CIS has just adopted responsive classroom teaching and I have been able to attend some of the meetings regarding how to implement this technique. As both employ this method, the day-to-day classroom routines in CIS and schools I’ve been at in the US follow a similar pattern. They both begin with a morning meeting always consisting of four key components (greeting, sharing, activity, message) in the same order each day. The class has helped to determine the rules that they will follow and if they do not follow these rules they are asked without any drama to “take a break”, which they can return from when the feel ready to participate again. All class discipline occurs in this way- with instructions for the child to think about their choices rather than making a scene if a student is not behaving. This approach seems to work well in both the US and in CIS. These consistencies have also been helpful to me in adjusting to a classroom in a new country.
As the classroom where I previously completed a prac was second grade also, it has been very easy for me to compare the material children are taught. In both the US and at CIS, students completed “Small Moments”-short stories about their lives to work on narrative. They also have both been learning how to complete word problems, and the rhetoric used by the teachers is very similar. I’ve also noticed that both focused on learning doubles facts in math, creating equations, and expressing opinions about books. For these reasons it seems like the general curriculum followed by schools in Massachusetts and at CIS are very similar. However, curriculum is also where I have found the biggest difference between the two.
In Massachusetts I have noticed that teachers are usually able to describe what standard or category of standards from the core curriculum each lesson hits on, at times even posting the standard as an objective. The standards are accessible on a website and make it very clear what the teacher needs to ensure that students learn. This seems to be less stressed at CIS. While the teachers do follow math programs that indicate what progress they should be making and specifiy objectives in a curriculum (as well as collaborate often with other teachers so that they follow similar teaching schedules) there does not seem to be as much pressure to adhere to a certain list of standards in all subjects. There is not any specific list of standards I have been able to find. This leads me to wonder what kind of testing CIS uses as well as what standardized tests the rest of Denmark take- I definitely will investigate in the future
The curriculum I have been able to learn the most about has been the goals of the IB program, since CIS is an International Baccalaureate school. This curriculum focuses on the goal of developing “knowledgable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect”. This is met through Units of Inquiry teachers incorporate into their classrooms. They address several core themes in different ways throughout primary school. This gives teachers the added challenge of including a main theme, for example: recycling, in their lessons throughout the day and coordinating with other teachers across subjects and class levels to provide cohesive instruction towards a theme.