Making a Difference
What has just happened here?
Marie has just evaluated a project submitted by Sarah. She knows that Sarah is a good student and she is genuinely interested in what Sarah did. She took care to look at all of the elements of the project that she considers important. She was impressed by what she saw and she thought that Sarah had taken quite a step, writing so much after having been in French Immersion for only three months. That was a surprise. She took the time to correct every error in spelling and grammar because she thinks it's important. Marie believes that from these corrections Sarah will learn. It will help her do a better job next time. She even referred Sarah to the corrections in her comments. But, Marie didn't tell Sarah any of the positive things. She considers comments necessary only when they point out problems. No problems, no comments.
And what has Sarah learned? What messages did she get? She saw the red marks, but she didn't really look at the words, the correct spellings or constructions. She didn't learn the right way to do it. She knows that she made mistakes and that those mistakes cost; they cost her about seven percent of the final mark. She learned that she shouldn't write so much when she is unsure of the proper construction, because she'll lose points if she makes mistakes. She has learned to be cautious about taking risks. She doesn't know that Marie thinks she has taken "quite a step" because Marie didn't tell her. Sarah received a totally different message from the red marks and the lack of "real" comments. She is beginning to learn that it's the mark that counts.
Marie is a teacher who cares. She cares about the students with whom she works. She works hard; she puts in a lot of time. But, and it's a big but, what she thinks she's teaching is not what the kids in her class are learning. While she's busy teaching one thing the kids are busy learning something else.
Marie doesn't know that there is a problem. She thinks that the way to learn language is to have all of the mistakes corrected. She has just taught Sarah not to take risks and she doesn't realize it. She's not thinking about change because she sees no need for change. She is teaching as she has always taught. In fact, she is teaching as she was taught.
Can I expect things to change in my daughter's school so that she is encouraged to take risks as a learner? Can I expect things to change so that she is encouraged to use the new language she is trying to learn? Can I expect Marie to change? Can I do anything to help?
As a teacher, what about me? What about what goes on in my own classroom?
I remember when I decided that I needed to go back to university. It was shortly after the board "mandated" whole language. I remember the frustration I felt after the inservices. I would try the things suggested: writing centres, mapping, webbing and so on. I guess my classroom took on a different look, but I was not comfortable with what I was doing.
I had accepted the gimmicks but not the philosophy. In fact, I didn't know there was a philosophy. I was more concerned with the what. The why didn't enter my mind. I remember working with my class to web a factual article about volcanoes. Webbing was one of the things we had discussed during a recent inservice. It seemed to me to be a good way to review the material, to pull the facts together. I didn't understand that this was a powerful way to use writing as a learning tool. I didn't know that the students weren't just working with what they had learned from the article; they were doing the learning as they wrote. In fact, some of the connections were being made because of the writing. Because I didn't really understand what I was doing, this tool and others like it were less effective than they should have been. I learned first hand that the gimmicks themselves don't lead to effective change (Lester and Onore, 1990). I just knew that there was new "stuff" out there that I had to learn about. So, I went back to university and I've been there ever since.
I guess it was when I first read "Demonstration, Engagement, and Sensitivity" (Smith, 1981) that I began to question what the kids in my class were learning. Until that point I thought that my students were learning what I was explicitly teaching. Smith helped me see that my students were engaging with and learning from clusters of demonstrations, many of them unconscious, that I offered them. If my science lesson about magnets was boring and lack-lustre, they were just as likely to learn that science is boring as they were to learn anything about the properties of magnets. I remember what a shock that realization was! It was then that I began to ask myself, "What are my kids learning right now?" Later, I learned to involve the kids in discussions about the same question. I'll bet that not a single day goes by that I don't ask that question now.
And still things slip by....
I have been trying to make it possible for my kids to take control of a lot of the things that go on in the classroom. My kids and I talk a lot about the constraints of curriculum, of time, of space. We talk about expectations: what the board expects of me, what the parents expect of both them and me, what they expect of school and of me and of themselves, and what I expect of them, collectively and individually. We make decisions based on these discussions. More important still, my students, knowing the constraints that exist, make independent decisions about their own learning.
Part of the grade six science curriculum is a unit called "Communication." There are suggestions made about content and activities, but I feel that I have a fair bit of freedom to operate within the topic. The formal curriculum and the perceived curriculum both at work here (Clarke, 1987). I decided to make this a research unit, so my kids and I brainstormed a board full of ideas about communication. We included everything from communication in bee hives to satellites, from Morse code to magazines. Then we brainstormed another board full of formats that could be used for a final product: magazines, books, posters, models, reports, videos, oral presentations, and so on. Finally we talked about criteria for the evaluation of written and non-written formats. Individually or with partners they chose topics and formats and the work began.
I was feeling quite good about how things were proceeding when some students came to me to ask for permission to work on their chosen topic or to use a particular format. True, some, like David, came and simply said "I'm going to make a video about improving baseball skills." They told me what they were going to do. Others came seeking permission. Even after all of the things I had said and done to show them that they have power, they still came to me seeking permission. Obviously, they still see the power resting with me. Have I taught them this through other unconscious demonstrations? Probably. Although, I'm sure that at least part of the problem comes from the age old view of what schools and teachers are all about.
As I thought about what I could have done to cause this problem I realized that there was another smaller problem in our classroom that might be related. At the beginning of the academic year we, my students and I, had established a procedure to make it possible for anyone to leave the room as the need arose, without permission. Then five months into the year, I found that most of the kids were checking with me before leaving. Here was another example of their not taking the power that was available to them I thought. So I called a class meeting and asked what was going on. And they told me. They told me that although frequently they left the classroom without permission, they had noticed that if I was about to talk to the class as a whole, make an announcement or discuss homework for example, I would ask a person about to leave to wait a minute or two until I had had my say. They decided that it was best to check with me, just in case.
Here, like Marie, I had taught something that I hadn't intended to teach. I had taught, through demonstration, that I still held the power in the classroom. Because I questioned what was happening and because I talked with my students, I discovered what I had been teaching.
What about Sarah and what is happening in school? What can I do?
As a parent it is certainly my responsibility to support Sarah as she learns to deal with teaching that has a different emphasis than that which she experienced in elementary school. I will try to help her understand what is going on without undermining her teacher. I will try to help her see red marks and grades and comments in relationships that will support her learning. She will learn an important lesson; she will learn to deal with differences that directly affect her. That's part of life. Sarah will be fine.
The more I think about this the more convinced I become that I am not in a position to help Marie. As both Cuban (1984) and Mayher (1989) point out, and as I discovered firsthand, a teacher can't make significant change unless there are changes in the basic beliefs from which her teaching grows. For Marie's beliefs to change she must first question what is happening in her room. She needs to feel a discomfort, to sense an ambiguity. I believe that this feeling grows slowly and is usually triggered by something or someone close to us. I don't believe that a question or comment from a relative outsider, a parent of one of her students, would be helpful.
If I am not in a position to help Marie, do I, as a teacher, have other responsibilities here?
I work for a school board that has a strong commitment to the philosophy of child-centred learning. My beliefs have changed and grown during the past few years and what goes on in my classroom reflects those changes. I will continue to study and learn and change as I travel this road. I am now relatively comfortable with what goes on within the walls of my room. Do my responsibilities end at my classroom door? Or do I have broader responsibilities?
I think I have a responsibility to the Maries in my school to perhaps provide them with the demonstration that will lead them to question. I can't make them change or even see a need for change, but I am not powerless in this situation.
Since September I have been teaching grade six in a small elementary school with a total student population of one hundred fifty. The staff is friendly and accepting, and on a personal level, they are a joy to work with. But there are several "Maries" in the group. As a new member of staff I have been teaching with the classroom door open and welcoming all visitors. In the staffroom I share some of the good things that happen in my room like some of the wonderful poetry my kids are writing. I also share some of the things that aren't so wonderful like my problems with a particular student and my frustrations when I find myself trying to do one thing and achieving the opposite. The sharing is natural and deliberately focused on me and my class and I try not to make judgments about what goes on in other classrooms.
I am going to pilot a Language Arts Programme Assessment for our board. It's a ten session programme that generates a portfolio of writing from each student. Several pieces of writing are then evaluated with a view to seeing how the language arts programme is serving the needs of the students. With the package that was given to me as one of the piloting teachers, I received four professional articles about holistic assessment. I mentioned to Anne, who teaches with me, how impressed I am with the assessment package and I invited her to look at it to see what she thought. She readily agreed and within a couple of hours was back at my desk expressing her enthusiasm and asking permission to photocopy one of the articles which she thought would be helpful to her.
Since then Anne has initiated several discussions about what she is doing in her classroom and she has asked about what's going on in mine. She has asked for other articles about specific topics and she has come back to discuss them with me. Together we are talking about the what and the why of education.
That's the kind of influence I can have. Quietly and gently as I go about the business of teaching and learning in my classroom and while being an active staff member, I can help. The steps may be small, but they are not insignificant. I can make a difference in my own school.
Clarke, Gerry. 1987. "Introducing the Methodology of the Textbook." In: G. Peabody, C. MacGregor and R. Thorp, eds., Teacher's Guide: The Maritimes: Tradition, Challenge and Change. Halifax, NS: Maritext Limited. p. 8-10.
Cuban, Larry. 1984. How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1980. New York: Longman.
Lester, Nancy B., & Onore, Cynthia S. 1990. Learning Change: One School District Meets Language Across the Curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
Mayher, John S. 1989. Uncommon Sense: Theoretical Practice in Language Education. Portsmouth NH: Boynton/Cook.
Smith, Frank. 1981. "Demonstration, Engagement, and Sensitivity." Language Arts 58: 103-112.
Linda Swinwood teaches for the Halifax Regional School Board, Nova Scotia.
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