Wednesday, November 7, 2012

As PGCE comes to an end... Nauseating reflective post.

A take-home exam question for today's paper was to reflect on what we've learned during PGCE, and TP in particular.

This is what I wrote (a bit unpolished and quite long, but bear with me):

Before I started PGCE, a friend of mine who had completed the course before told me that a PGCE is not only about learning theories and methods to be used to teach, but also a journey of self-development. Having survived a rather tumultuous year, and looking backwards on the teaching practice in particular, I am in complete agreement. I chose to work at a non-English school in order to prepare myself for my future years teaching ESL overseas, and so it was no surprise when I encountered severe language barriers at my school. As a result of this decision, however, my Home Language English class were not technically mother-tongue English speakers but rather a collection of incredibly bright, advanced English First Additional Language students. As such, it became more and more evident that I needed to keep this in mind when preparing lessons and giving instructions. Furthermore, they were grade 11s, and our closeness in age put me at risk of being too friendly with them and losing an element of authority in the classroom.

The first thing I learned, on the first day, is that no matter how much planning you have done, your plans will always require on-the-job tweaking, or it may be necessary to toss the plan out the window and go with perceived strengths in the lesson, or address suddenly apparent weaknesses. In my case, I had prepared my first three Animal Farm lessons, introducing key terms such as Communism, Socialism and Animalism, as well as a brief overview of the parallels with the USSR in the text book. In the very first lesson, my mentor teacher dictated definitions of all these terms – the entirety of the 'meat' of my first three lessons – to the class, and they diligently copied them down without understanding a thing. While initially I was terrified that my content 'had already been covered', as the term went on, these definitions or concepts needed to be revisited again and again, as the learners grappled with complicated ideas as well as vocabulary that was foreign to them. While my initial reaction was focused on the content that needed to be learned, as the term went on, this paradigm shifted to an understanding of the process by which learners begin to understand concepts. We had discussed this at length in Education Studies and Method lectures, but the truth of it only became evident in practice.

Understanding that the purpose of the lesson is to facilitate learning, and not pump information into spongy young minds, was the most important lesson I learned. Factored into that was learning how to let learning happen – the actual practical side of the theory. In my first crit lesson I had developed a good relationship with the learners through the use of dingbats, which were fun, challenging and sparked their creative minds, as well as by getting to know the individual personalities of a very diverse, if small, class. However, I was also still trying to get them to get the answers right, rather than to let them explore the questions I was asking, and I tended not to give learners enough time to experiment. While the content and structure of my lessons was great from the start in terms of resource preparation and planning, my actual teaching needed a lot of work. With particular regard to a class of additional language speakers, I learned the incredibly important value of giving the learners time to respond to the best of their abilities, rather than rushing them to churn out an answer that I had expected or predicted.

That is not to say, however, that I learned to underestimate my learners. While these learners were not completely fluent in English, their difficulties with work stemmed not from a lack of ability but from a lack of vocabulary necessary to put the ideas they had into English words. Many times, learners would know the Afrikaans term for the correct answer, and they assisted each other in finding the correct English form of the word. I think that a similar process would happen in a mother-tongue classroom in which learners, for example, say, 'What's the word for that thing that does xyz... Oh, it's on the tip of my tongue!' It was therefore important for me to provide vocabulary and clear explanations of new terms. Something that took me a while to learn was to provide learners with opportunities to practice the new vocabulary.

Another method that I learned to use and applied in my lessons was scaffolding. In order to elevate a learner to a particular level of understanding it is vital that you provide support. It also requires you to understand where they are now, before trying to take them to where you want them to be. Through continuous assessment and by gradually increasing the complexity of tasks or questions, I tried to scaffold learners towards the objectives of the lessons. Sometimes this was successful, but in other cases it failed miserably, as I may have misjudged the abilities of individuals by assuming that as a group all the learners were of the same or similar level.

Where I misjudged the abilities of individuals, this was often a case of being pulled by the stronger personalities while quieter learners kept their heads down, making it more difficult to judge their understanding or ability. In my crits, I was warned not to let myself be pulled to one side of the class to the expense of other learners, and this was something I worked on throughout the term. One strategy I used to combat this was to walk around the classroom in a more-or-less set pattern, approaching each cluster of learners in turn. However, when introducing concepts or explaining something, I continued to be pulled toward the stronger personalities as they asked questions or made comments on the explanation. Sometimes these comments were inappropriate, which brings me to the next lesson I learned – discipline.

The grade 11s at my TP school had been labelled almost universally by their teachers as a very poorly disciplined, rowdy, disrespectful and lazy class. I found that my small group of over-achievers were significantly better behaved than others in the year. My learners had chosen to take English as a Home Language even though it was more difficult and they needed to pay extra. Discipline in my class tended to fail instead when learners were distracted from their tasks, either by myself or because they were tired or focusing too much on the dingbats.

In my second crit I discovered that a major problem in my classroom was that I was a distraction for the learners. I would set a task, but I would not let them get into it or work through it, instead apparently I was afraid that learning wouldn't happen if I was not talking, and by the time they got tired of listening to me, and I got tired of talking, they had lost any interest in the work as well or, more often, we had run out of time. Learning to be quiet and let the learners get to work was the biggest challenge for me.

Discovering that I needed to shift roles from performing monkey to textbook to parent to friend and to quiet supervisor was an eye-opening experience. As a job, teaching requires you to constantly think on your feet and adapt to the various situations, but it also requires you to take on many roles as you both instruct learners in your subject and you provide an element of guidance in their social development. It is also important to make learning fun and to keep them engaged, in which case you become a performer, putting on silly accents, emphasising sound effects, manipulating volume and physical space to keep the space of the classroom dynamic rather than static. You also need to know the ins and outs of your subject backwards, as learners may view you as a sort of encyclopedia (particularly if they are not allowed to use their cellphones to google things).

One way in which to combat the expectation of the teacher to be an infinitely wise encyclopedia is to deliberately withhold information, pretending you don't know, and suggesting that you work towards and answer together. Another option is to bring in a specialist who can discuss the subject. I discovered the flexibility of the classroom and resources when I brought in my friend, a lawyer, to explain how the South African Court processes worked in preparation for a debate exercise which was supposed to run as a trial. Having a fresh face in the classroom immediately grabbed learners' attention, as well as the fact that he provided them with access to difficult language in a realistic context.

By setting the learners in a context-embedded lesson, they see the value of the work that they are being asked to do. I also believe it is incredibly motivating to use difficult language in a real environment and have that environment respond appropriately to your input. In this sense, to write a business letter or letter to the editor and actually post it and have a response to it makes learners view English less as an extra subject and more as a useful, even vital, life skill. It may be enough to choose texts that are real, or that are relevant to their context, but I think it is even more effective to take the learners out of their own context and confront them with a context in which they have the skills to deal with the difference. The important thing is to ensure that they are capable of coping with the new context, as inability might severely damage their confidence, which is a terrible de-motivator. An example in which I threw learners into an alien context was my last lesson with them.

With all the marks in, even the ones that had gone missing (I learned a lot about organisation as well), learners still had to come to school and so I decided to have a fun, not-for-marks filler lesson. I also decided to apply some of the techniques I had learned through doing my research project into gamification, which explores how key elements of games can be used as a motivating tool in the classroom. I created the environment by writing an 'emergency news report' on the board, in which the municipality warned that tap water in Grahamstown is contaminated and is causing terrible symptoms among residents, namely people were stiff-limbed, unable to communicate, incredibly hungry and while physically responsive to stimuli, their brain activity showed severe brain damage. In a word: zombies.
Some learners actually believed that this report was real. I explained that as the school was at the top of a steep hill, the contagion had not yet reached us, and some of our water was safe for now. However, they needed to consider themselves to be the last survivors, and to make a plan to leave. At this point learners had cottoned on to the fact that I was trying to get them to work, albeit on something fun, and they started to whinge. As it was the last lesson and there was not much time, I decided to write a list of possible things they could do on the board and they voted on the activity that appealed the most to them. By giving them this autonomy, they were somewhat more motivated, and they chose to split into two groups of news teams, covering the story. 
Learners greatly enjoyed the activity, and their creativity made the level of the work very high. Additionally, by putting them in an unfamiliar context, they got to use unfamiliar language, practising their vocabulary. The environment responded to them, and made demands of them. And almost all of the talking in the lesson was from learners; once I had explained the activity, I sat back and watched it evolve, prompting them with regards to time constraints and to use English to discuss their ideasm but otherwise moving around and eavesdropping on their brilliant ideas. Another great motivator was peer feedback; with two groups competing for the best report, each group worked hard, and quietly (so as not to give their ideas away). 
My last lesson, while a bit more relaxed and not for marks, shows the development of my teaching when contrasted with my first. The lesson was largely unplanned, and the plan changed to suit the interests of the learners, while still maintaining high standards and requiring them to participate. Our relationship was strong enough that they were willing to participate, and all the learners took part, so the lesson was not just focused on those with strong personalities. Most importantly, I kept my mouth shut and let learning happen.

I have learned that the teacher plays many roles in the classroom: planner, facilitator, performer, policeman, and parent are just a few of them. Most of all I learned that it is important to know your learners, to cater to their interests and to challenge them to push themselves to new levels, while providing them with the skills and support to make it possible for them to do so. It is also important to know when to be in the foreground, explaining, or when to withdraw into the background so that learners can focus on a task. Keeping the many forces of the classroom in mind, from the strong personalities, to potential barriers, to the power relationship between teacher and learner, is key to classroom management, as you are responsible for keeping those forces balanced, in order to create the best teaching environment.

 And now I can't get this bloody song out of my head:

Lookin' back on the things I've done
I was tryin' to be someone
I played my part
And kept you in the dark
Now let me show you the shape of my heart

Here endeth the nausea.

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