I have started a new series of podcasts – you can listen to them and download them on Soundcloud. These podcasts will feature teachers talking about learning, inquiry and pedagogy and are designed to provoke thinking and stimulate ideas.
Use them however you wish.
Here is the first episode – featuring Grade 4 teachers, Claire Simms. Its a great one to start with as Claire is basically going through the inquiries her students were involved in at the time. To walk into a classroom and ask a teacher to explain their students’ inquiries is a real test of a school’s inquiry culture.
Whether we like it or not, teachers need to be interesting. If we are not interesting then there is little or no chance that our students will find us or the material we teach of any interest at all.
But, how do you “become interesting”. Paul Arden, in his brilliant little book called “Whatever you think think the opposite” makes the case that it simply requires you to be interested.
Many of us in this profession trudge the well-trodden path from school to home and home to school. For many, life revolves around school and an unhealthy obsession with how much work there is to do. Sometimes there is even a twisted pride and rivalry around how late people stay at work, who gets in to school earliest and who comes in at the weekend or doesn’t. There is a dangerous assumption that the hardest working teachers are the best teachers.
I have bad news for these people. All those countless hours spent at work may mean they get more done, but may make it much less likely that their students want to learn from or with them. It may make them very dull people who are unlikely to interest, inspire or motivate young people in the slightest.
So, instead of staying behind at work… ask yourself if that task really needs doing or if it will really transform learning. If not, get out of there… go and explore your city, go and take some photos, go and read a good book, go and see a movie, go and meet a friend (who doesn’t work at school!) and talk about life, go to a museum, go and people-watch somewhere, go down that alleyway you’ve always wondered about, enroll in an evening class, eat somewhere you’ve never tried before, go to a market, develop that talent that lies dormant… be interested in the world outside of school.
What you bring back to your classroom – knowledge, curiosity, connections, awareness, compassion, perspectives – will inevitably make you a better teacher.
Life is short.
Childhood is even shorter.
Children deserve to come to school and be excited, challenged and motivated. We have our students, in our space, for one year. During this time, we are creating narratives – stories – with them. What are those stories? What stories do our students tell about their days at school?
On Sunday night, my daughter said “I can’t wait to get back to school to work on my project, Daddy. I love what I am doing.”
Wouldn’t it be great if each student said those words to their parents on the night before school? Wouldn’t it be great if every student was totally engrossed in their inquiries. “It feels like playing” she said later.
The first half of the year, in many schools, can be very business-like. Some things that have always been on the agenda may now be expected to be done with consistency and quality. Some familiar things may be done in unfamiliar and better ways. Some new things may be added to the equation in order to take teaching and learning to the next level. This all takes time and effort. It is hard work.
In the second half of the year, however, there may be no surprises. So, focus on those narratives I mentioned above. Focus on working with students so that each day, each week and each month of their lives at school unfold as interesting, exciting, surprising stories of personal growth and learning. If some old habits need to be discarded to make that happen… discard them. If a few risks need to be taken to make that happen… lets take them. If a few people need to be challenged to make that happen… challenge them.
Teachers put a lot of work into figuring out what our students should or could be doing. But, we also need to take a good long look at why. How do we get our students to want to read, question, write, draw, build, listen, design, argue, solve, play, win, collaborate, research, experiment, notice, think…?
Each day, ask yourself these crucial questions:
Would I want to be a student in my class?
Would I be interested in what we are doing?
Would I be inspired by me?
Would this unit excite and motivate me?
Would this experience stimulate my curiosity?
Would I be at my best here?
You want the answers to those questions to be “ÿes”. You are teachers. It is your purpose in life for each of your students to feel that way. It is your source of pride and satisfaction when they do feel that way. It is what gives you a thrill and makes you feel as though all of your effort has real meaning.
Life may be short. But it is shorter when waiting for each day to end, when waiting for the weekend, when waiting for a meeting to be over, when waiting for the next holiday to come. This time is your time, and it is the most important time for your students.
It is their childhood. Help make it an amazing one.
Image by Patrick Breitenbrach
I am just editing a posting by a new author on this blog, Tiffany Eaton (@votefortiff), and her words really reminded me of this very short piece Chad and I wrote a few years ago:
Believe in students
It is disturbing to hear teachers say things like “oh… my students won’t be able to do that” or “my students won’t understand that”. It is just not OK to think that way. Instead, believe that your students are capable of almost anything if you give them the chance and set them up for success. Adapt the way you teach in order to help them be successful. Break things down for them because you believe they will get there. Change your perception of what it is you want them to achieve, but don’t write off their chances of achieving it. If you do believe in your students, and make sure they know you believe in them, they will repay you a thousand times.
Like many of you, I am an international school teacher. The longest I have lived anywhere in recent times is four years, in Bangkok. When I first got to Thailand I was constantly doing “double-takes” as I exclaimed about the fact that I lived in Thailand. Just the smallest acts, like getting on a motorbike to go and buy limes, were exciting, novel and fascinating. Slowly, however, I stopped doing the double-takes and, by the end of my stay, I was taking things for granted. I am quite ashamed of that, and do wonder if it affected my teaching.
When you live your life in a way that is full of surprises, curiosity and double-takes you are, certainly, a better teacher. By “better” I mean a teacher who instills those very emotions (and more) in their students. It is this kind of teacher that inspires, that motivates and that draws kids in to inquiry. Of course, if this is true, then the opposite must also be true.
Many of us in this nomadic lifestyle are both blessed and cursed as a result. We do have the chance to keep going to new places and re-experiencing the double-takes again. But we also develop a “grass is greener” mentality as we continue our search for the ideal place to live. We may also be more at risk of becoming jaded as our ideal place never comes to fruition. Everyone knows how poorly a jaded person teaches!
Perhaps moving is not the answer. Perhaps we simply need the determination to become and remain a person who is fascinated and surprised by life, curious about why things are the way they are and willing to take a wrong turning just to see what is around the corner. We can live that way without moving anywhere.
Maybe then we can become and continue to be inspired teachers?
By Paul Dunbar, IB Literature and Theory of Knowledge Teacher
Time and space are the dimensions we live in.
As a literature teacher, my field is narrative, and I point out to my students that all stories must take place in time and space, just as our lives do. A story is not a photograph, but a movie. Narrative is a linear form: it takes time to tell a story, and time within the story must also elapse, though not at the same rate that it passes outside of the story. Likewise, a story must occur in space – it is very difficult to imagine a story that does not have a setting of some kind, that does not take place somewhere. Place is the performance space the characters will occupy.
All of that is rather obvious, of course, but it points us to the most fundamental questions the storyteller has to engage with. How will I handle time in telling this story? And how will I create space?
In formulating these two questions, I’m not sure I have the verbs right. The idea of ‘handling’ time for instance – is it possible to touch time with your hands? Isn’t that a bit like putting your hands in water and saying that you’re ‘handling’ the water? To handle implies being able to encompass and direct something with your hands – money, for instance, or food. Is it a bit arrogant to speak of ‘handling’ time? And ‘creating’ space?
But the storyteller – the novelist, the film-maker, the poet, the graphic novelist – must do exactly that: create worlds, populate them, fold and unfold sequences of events within them. If your narrative fails to create an imagined space – a storyworld – which the reader can enter, it will be just words on a page.
And if that space is not filled with the invisible, dynamic flows of time, your audience will not be engaged.
So is teaching a kind of storytelling?
Yes! And I mean that not metaphorically but quite literally. Teaching isn’t like storytelling – it is storytelling.
If your students look forward to your class, they do so for the same reasons that they look forward to the next installment of a story. (Something might happen in the class which will carry the plot forward. Or not!)
The idea of a course as a narrative and the teacher as a narrator is not just a fancy metaphor. The parallel can have a profound, empowering and literal truth for a teacher, and I’d like to take the idea forward in future posts. If as a teacher you accept that you are a storyteller, not a social engineer, a programmer or a bureaucrat, suddenly there is a great deal you can learn from the art of narrative.
I suppose the first thing to learn is that what you are doing is as full of creative possibilities and challenges as telling a story, whether in the form of a novel, a film, a comic-book, or any of the myriad other forms of narrative. And the first of these possibilities and challenges are:
How will I handle time?
How will I create space?
Specialist Teachers possess a massive amount of knowledge, expertise and talent that homeroom teachers do not. They can offer students going through an important educational experience like the PYP Exhibition a massive amount of guidance and support. But, how we involve them in the Exhibition seems to cause many of us logistical and philosophical problems in IB schools.
One solution is to “collapse” the regular schedule at some point in the lead up to the Exhibition “staging” – about two or three weeks beforehand seems reasonable. Then, invite Specialist Teachers to come over to the homeroom during their regular, timetabled slot and ask them to focus on students working within their specialist area and, also, to offer support to other students as a regular mentor.
Here is a video showing this model in action. You can see the profound effect this particular teacher has on the direction students are taking.