Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Move over Howard Gardner - here come Curtis' perspectives

It is with great sadness that I share the news with you that Jerry, as in Tom and Jerry, has passed away.

That whole sentence has something that is familiar (Jerry) and something that is unfamiliar (cartoon character’s death) in it. This is the idea that I want to explore today in my second blogsync contribution. Find more here for other blog posts on this month's focus: A Teaching and Learning strategy intended to elicit the highest levels of student motivation in my subject. Anyway, like most teachers, I spend endless months, weeks, days, hours, seconds and many moments searching for the ‘relevance’ of what I am teaching. I love poetry, but to a scientific brain, it has very little clout in a lesson. How can I make this poem relevant to the students before me? Write poetry about respiration? Usually, at the eleventh hour a gem of an idea appears out of nowhere and you are able to make a concept relevant to the students before you. You can then help them see the connections to the world around them. You help them see the benefits of this aspect for a future career or even life. All this done by you rapping to song and dancing to 'Gangnam Style', while a PowerPoint of related images flashes behind you. Lots of audible utterances of, “Oh, I get it now.”

Sam prefers Science. He's never liked English, even at primary school he didn’t like it.

I am a teacher of English, but I am also a teacher of Maths, a teacher of Science, a teacher of History, a teacher of RE, a teacher of Geography and a teacher of any other subjects that is not taught in our narrow curriculum. It is hard to be described as just an English teacher, as when I pick a book, I might teach a historical element, a thing about the geography of a place, or the scientific principle underlying the key ideas of the novel. One of the common arguments about the new focus on ‘Literacy Across the Curriculum’ is that other some (not most) subject teachers think this should be the sole responsibility of the English teachers. If that was the case, then every time a student asks me about the setting of a book I’d simply direct them to the relevant teacher. I’d have a mental gagging order.  I would then focus only on my subject.  Sir, where shall I put the title? Sorry, I cannot help you as that question relies heavily on your geography skills. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen. I teach whatever I have to develop and help students understand. I teach full stop.

In English, we often get a student with a clearly logical perspective on things. Give them a poem and they struggle to see what you mean as they have an inbuilt ‘literal’ nodule built in their brain. 

“It is just a poem about war. It just describes war and a man dies in it.”

“Yes, but could it be telling us something about war?” I say encouragingly.

“Yeah, it means a man dies.”

“Don’t you think it symbolises something else about war?” I encourage further.

“That a man dies.”

“Remember the poem we read yesterday. We said it was a metaphor for the consequences of war.”

“But, that was just another man dying.”

“Yes, but we said that the death suggested to us the loss.”

“Still thought it was just a man dying. Are all poems about a man dying in a war?” 

It is rare, but you do get this conversation occasionally in English lessons. In my armoury, are a number of different tactics and approaches, but still after that hard work, I get one student that just struggles to get it. Their scientific or logical mind wants a clear ‘yes or no’ approach to the learning. They don’t want a shifting sea of grey answers. For them, the phrase ‘it could be about… or it could also be about…’ is like anthrax. It slowly kills them, metaphorically of course. Heaven forbid, they should read this.

The overall issue is perspective. We spend a lot of time working on the relevance of lessons, but sometimes our search for relevance is limited to one or two perspectives. Now, I am not advocating that we make English lessons scientific, but I think I need to place a greater level of thought in my perspective on things. Like a prism, depending on the angle the way light enters depends the way light refracts. But what is my perspective? How do I see the world? Having a daughter with a disability, gives me a different perspective on the whole world. I see things you don’t and I notice the things that you accept for granted.

My perspectives:
English / Drama teacher
TV mad
Dry sense of humour
Father of a disabled child
Lover of books

My list could go on and on. Now, the great thing is that some of these perspectives will be shared by some of my students. Hopefully, the perspective of being a father isn’t one of them.  These other perspectives help me put my spin on things. However, it doesn’t mean that I automatically look at a science-fiction connection in everything I do. Look, students, ‘Of Mice and Men’ is like Blake 7 – all the characters are doomed and the system is against them. Blake is like George and Gan is like Lennie.  But, what it does mean is that I haven't got all my bases covered.  A female perspective. A sports person’s perspective. Therefore, I might not have much success with sporty girls. There is only so much a ‘good sense of humour’ can cover in teaching.  

The simple answer to not having a perspective in place is to put a bit of it in a lesson. We have all been told to VAK our lessons. Make sure we have everything covered. If only that was simply the case. Just by having something sporty in a lesson doesn’t necessarily fix things. We have to understand more about this type of person. What motivates them?  What demotivates them? But, how have I applied this to the classroom? I have done this with messing about with perspectives. I rarely come to a new aspect in teaching head on. I look for the many shades of colour. Nice link back to my prism metaphor. I try to find the angle that gets the most from the students. That isn’t usually my preferred angle, as that will mainly appeal to the science-fiction, geek who loves TV and reading.

Taking a new angle on something usual
If you are familiar with my blog, you will know that I like having some different ideas about some regular things. For this blog I am going to share something with you that I think represents this idea of perspective, or challenging it.

In my training for being a teacher, I was told about Vygotsky and his ‘zone of proximal difference’ so in most lessons I start with a point of connection with the learning of the lesson. Something that they can do or already know. That can be simple connection to a popular culture element, such as ‘How does Scooby Doo relate to ‘The Woman in Black?’.  It is all about the relationships.  I build relationships with the students and the learning. I am the bridge.

Anyway, I wanted to prepare students for some speaking and listening assessment. They had to give a talk that lasted two to three minutes on a particular topic. At this point, I stopped and thought about doing something I wouldn’t normally do. There were lots of safe options for me to pick from. There was one idea I really liked. Then, I thought that it all fits into my perspective of things. Finally, I came up with the idea of ‘killing off a few cartoon characters’. Now, I know that is a big leap of the imagination, but it was taking a different perspective. From there, the students created some moving speeches describing the passing of a cartoon character. Some brought music in. Some used song lyrics or poems to convey feelings. Some students wore black out of respect. Some used props. We even ‘stole’ the school’s lectern to make the 'funeral' look real.   

I don’t think the content was really the catalyst for the enjoyment and engagement. I truly believe that it was the perspective that had girls and boys alike enthused about the task. Speaking and listening assessments can be full of tumbled weeds and hesitant students, but this time it wasn’t. This was fun for me and for the students. They loved it and so did I. But, it was the perspective that made it. Taking an idea and doing it from a different angle. I have included an example of the type of thing we did to give you a feel for thimngs. I wish I wrote down some of the puns and witty nods which students included in their funeral speeches. Thomas the Tank Engine steamed through my life and my heart. Cinderella transformed my world.

Jerry the Mouse – February 2013.
It is with much sadness that we are here today. Last week, we lost a person who brought so much life, fun and mischief to the world. Every day I wake to a world that is changed. Something magical and small is missing from the world today.

I talk about Jerry. Someone who was cherished by all. Someone who sneaked into the mouse hole of our hearts. Someone who stole our fun when he died. Jerry was a character who brought so much to life. He wasn’t just a mouse; he was our mouse and he will forever be remembered for his antics.

We all know that Jerry was popular with the ladies when he was younger. He finally found the mouse of his dreams last year. She obviously feels this loss more than us today, as do his children – all ten of them. Every piece of cheese he stole was for his children and they loved him for it. Let’s think of them today in our prayers too, as they have lost a father. He will never be there to help them avoid Tom the Cat. He will never be there to stop the owner of the house putting mouse traps down. I say to you, today, congregation: we will act as your father. We will try to embody him in our actions and our thoughts.

There is one particular moment I remember Jerry for well. It just sums up what he was like. I was visiting him for a while and Tom was up to his old tricks. He was chasing Jerry around the house. Jerry was so fast. He impressed me with his speed. Tom had chased him under a carpet and he was hitting Jerry under the carpet with a pan. He finally got Jerry out and was about to eat him, when Jerry just pulled Tom’s whiskers out.

Jerry just knew how to win a situation. Sadly, he was unable to win his last situation: a mouse trap. Even in his death he thought of others. Another mouse has lived to see another day now that the mouse trap is out of use.

What we will miss out of everything was his sense of fun. He always laughed. I sometimes think he laughed himself to sleep. We will no longer hear that laughter in the room. He was our ray of sunshine in a depressing and tough world.

I’d just like to read a small extract from an REM song:

‘When the day is long and the night, the night is yours alone,
When you're sure you've had enough of this life, well hang on
Don't let yourself go, 'cause everybody cries and everybody hurts sometimes’.

But when we think of Jerry, our pain will be taken away. Jerry the Mouse. Rest in peace.

What about other subjects
One of good things about being a literacy coordinator is that I get to talk to other teachers. One particular fruitful conversation took place with a science teacher. We talked about the types of writing in Science. I noticed that there was an abundance of one particular style: writing to explain. I suggested that to make a good writer of science you need to get students writing lots of different types of writing. The more they write, the better their writing will be. If we rely too much on writing exam style questions all the time, we are narrowing their explanations and ability to articulate ideas. I suggested a more creative approach to explaining scientific concepts. This isn’t new, but it was a different perspective for this teacher. I left the teacher to think about it.

Several weeks later, the aforementioned teacher found me in the corridor and handed me a collection of sheets. I was asked to read them, but I couldn’t distinguish his pleasure or displeasure. He finally beamed and said that they were absolutely amazing.  The students had been asked to write a story about the use of ‘carbon capping’. The results, he said, showed more understanding than any questions in an exercise book had ever produced. He was impressed with how engaged the students were with the task. Sadly, one or two found it a struggle, but most relished the opportunity and really thrived.  

Again, I think it is the challenging the ‘perspective’ that really worked here. It isn’t about a new-fangled concept or something that only a few teachers whisper in secret. It was simply trying something from a different angle. It is not new. It is different. I know that not everything in my subject is going to appeal, but maybe if I challenge the boundaries and explore the 30 different types of perspectives in the classroom I might just get most, rather than some, students engaged. 
We have always heard about Howard Gardner's 'Multiple Intelligences' concept, but how about a 'Many Perspectives' concept. We plan lessons with the idea of experimenting with the perspective we will take in teaching an aspect. Rather than go for the staple that has always works for most student, let's experiment until we find the one that works for all.

I dedicate this blog  and my concept of 'Many Perspective' to Jerry. Thank you for reading,


P.S. I tried a different perspective with teaching Year 8s the history of the English language. Instead of getting students to work out the history through texts through the ages, I got students to make their own ‘Horrible Histories’ video, teaching the class about a specific part in the history of the English language. I had the Vikings having a book group. Also William Caxton  won ‘The Apprentice’ for his  new idea, the press. Both approaches to teaching were very active and focused on students learning. One my usual perspective. The other a new one. It worked for this group. However, it may not for another group. Each class is a different kettle of fish.

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