Another school year has got under way, laden with high hopes and good intentions. But as September gives way to October and we settle in for the long haul, it is all too easy to let those good intentions slide and fall back on the routines we feel comfortable with. So this school year I have decided to go public – in this post I will set out four things I hope to make an integral part of my teaching this year, and over the coming months I will revisit these themes to let you know how I am getting on.
1. Make homework more interesting
Homework is always a thorny issue for any teacher. What should you set? How much? How should it be checked or evaluated? And what do you do with those students who refuse to do it? Most of the time the students perceive homework as dull, and often even a waste of time, however carefully you programme it into your learning objectives. So this year I hope to follow Adam Simpson’s sound advice in his post ‘6 great techniques for getting students to write down their homework‘.
In particular, Adam’s suggestion to ‘Tech it up’ appeals to me. Our students are so-called ‘digital natives’, so a clear way of making homework more appealing to them is to incorporate digital elements where possible. This opens up the possibility of including listening comprehension tasks or watching videos and doing comprehension tasks as homework. Or perhaps an editing or peer response activity using Google Drive? Or even a class blog? Watch this space!
2. Give them space to learn
This promise really brings together a couple of different ideas which I have been meaning to work on more diligently for some time now. I have the impression that my students see the teacher (in any subject) as being there predominantly to solve their problems, so that they do not have to make any effort. When they are writing, for example, they will ask for help with relatively simple vocabulary rather than stop and think for a moment to see if they can remember it for themselves, and sometimes they will ask for the same item of vocabulary again a few moments later. For some years I have solved this by taking a set of dictionaries into writing classes. This year, my intention is to take this further, taking a step back as teacher and requiring them to put in a little more effort themselves.
One way in which I can do this is to set up collaborative learning groups within the classroom. In this way, students have a team which supports them in the learning process, and peers they can consult before turning to the teacher. I already make frequent use of peer response when working on writing activities. This year I hope to extend this to other areas of the curriculum, encouraging the students to coach each other before we share the answers and correct in class. I have seen a sign on the teacher’s table in one classroom which says ‘C3B4ME’ – ‘See three (team mates) before you see me (come to ask the teacher)’. This approach should foster peer support within the classroom, and so help the students to become more responsible for their own and each others’ learning.
The second idea which I want to include in this promise is the intention to create a space where students can learn for themselves, providing them with activities through which they can discover for themselves what they need to progress. The rationale behind this is the old saying ‘Give me a fish and I eat for a day – teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime’. It is all too easy to step in and spoon-feed our students rather than providing them with challenges which stimulate their curiosity and then scaffolding so that they can face those challenges successfully.
In the packed curriculum we are faced with in the school, both of these ideas represent serious challenges, but I feel strongly that they are also important to help our students really learn what we are trying to teach them.
3. Give them the thinking time they need
As teachers, one of the things we do most often is ask questions. and while it can be satisfying to see a sea of hands raised in an instant, as in the photograph, this is rarely the case. Even if we do have a number of students who raise their hands immediately, they are usually the same students over and over, and some quieter students get shifted to the margins of the class quite quickly. Faced with hands straining in the air, it is very difficult to avoid selecting a student to answer immediately, especially as we also suffer from the pressure of a packed curriculum – surely it is more effective to get the answer over with as quickly as possible.
However, it is important to slow down a little in these situations. Many students who do not raise their hands immediately may know the answer, but simply need time to gather their thoughts and formulate their answer. So it pays to wait before selecting who should answer, and make a conscious effort to select different students each time, so that everyone gets the chance to participate. One way to achieve this is to incorporate ‘think time’ into the classroom questioning process, so that everyone has time to think before answers are requested. This can be extended to become a ‘think-pair-share’ structure, further scaffolding the weaker students.
Obviously some students take advantage of the pressure on the teacher to take a quick answer, and even if they are selected they fail to respond, in the hope that the teacher will move on to take a more willing response after a brief pause. An extended pause may feel uncomfortable in such situations, but sends the message that an answer is required before we move on.
4. Continue to learn myself
Students may learn from what we tell them in class, but they learn a lot more from who we are. One of the most important aspects of our work as teachers is to provide a positive role model for our students, and this extends to modelling an interest in further learning. Students should see a teacher who can admit that s/he doesn’t know the answer to some of their questions, but will find out the answer for tomorrow’s class, or a teacher who can try out new ways of doing things in the class. This doesn’t mean that we should sign on to every new fad that comes along, but it does mean that this year’s classes should include new elements which were not present in last year’s. In this way we avoid the predictability which can so easily kill off interest in the classroom.
Over to you
So these are my plans for the new school year. But what about you? How do you want to modify your teaching practice this year? Or do you have any suggestions how I can better achieve my aims? I look forward to reading your comments.