Tuesday, November 07, 2006

No ivory in those towers

People often speak of academics as living in an "ivory tower". I am writing this as a reaction to this claim. Of course, I cannot speak about every academic, just the many who have taught me.

Today, I am due to meet with my thesis supervisor. As it is a public holiday, except at universities, he has agreed to meet with me in my local area, where he also lives. He sent me an email today, which I am including with slight modifications:
I am still happy to meet this afternoon. I am presently taking part in a telelink conference with Europe from 2 am until 1 pm - so I will need a couple of hours sleep after that. What about if we make it 4:30 pm? Would that suit you? Maybe confirm by email and then phone [number omitted] at 4:15 pm, just to make sure that I am awake. Hope to see you then.
Like us school teachers, university staff work weekends, nights and are constantly bullied by law makers. Unlike us, however, they do not get frequent holidays to recover. During their students' breaks, Australian academics are expected to travel and speak at conferences. This usually leaves them out of pocket, as the university covers a small part of their expenses.

What about the fat salaries they are on? A beginning academic, an associate lecturer, earns around $50,000 a year. That's equivalent to a 3rd or 4th year school teacher in Victoria. Why would a practitioner of many years go through acquiring a PHD to take a pay cut at the end of it, I do not know. What is even more baffling is that they would do it knowing how society will disrespect them.

Note to overseas readers: First year students call their professors by first name. This is called egalitarianism, mate!


Monday, November 06, 2006

Do they need to walk before they fly?

Two weeks ago, a colleague of mine said something to me which has been playing on my mind ever since. We mentioned the students' difficulties with spelling and grammar. As an English teacher, he said that there were two schools of thought: one which insisted on correctness and one which preferred to engage the students in high-level thinking. He was of the second school, and said "you cannot do both".

I tend to agree that you have to favour (blogger does not like my non-US spelling of this word!) one approach over the other, due to lack of time. As we are asked to engage the students in higher-order thinking and as we are encouraged to deliver the curriculum using multiple media, should we let go of the rigours of the past?

One model I would like to present for your consideration is the French education system. Everything I say here may have changed of late, so feel free to correct me. French grammar, with its difficulty, is taught to the nth degree until grade 9 (troisième). In the last three grades, everyone is assumed to know the rules of the language and studies literature and themes.

What do you think? Should we build a solid foundation and then let them fly, or would we be holding them back for the sake of an ideal that is no longer important?


Saturday, October 14, 2006

Why go to university?

Once every term, I meet with two friends from teachers' college. We have coffee and update each other on what we have been up to since our last meeting. Today, we had such a meeting and spent quite some time discussing the purpose of going to university.

I began by contrasting the American and Australian university systems. I am a big fan of the American model of generic bachelor degrees followed by a professional Master's degree. The university of Melbourne is moving towards such a system, and people are now referring to it as "the Melbourne model".

Lara asked Bill and me what we thought the purpose of a university was: to train people for jobs, further people's knowledge in a given field or raise the educational level of the general population. More and more universities in Melbourne are declaring their hand and defining themselves as training centres - even though they do not use that exact phrase.

Bill said that he would return to uni to do something different, while Lara said she would further her training by completing a primary teaching diploma. I, on the other hand, am falling in love with research. If I had the time ("If I were a rich man...") I would follow my current research master's with a phd. Then, I could join my sister-in-law in having "permanent head damage".

Why would you go (back) to university?


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Helping girls learn Mathematics

Lately, I came across a few commentaries on this important topic in the popular media. I have also received a summary of a research project through my thesis supervisor. Naturally, as a teacher at a girls' school, I am very interested.

Just slug it out like the boys: The first serious attempt at tackling the issue brings us to an excellent Simpsons episode - girls just want to have sums! I always take the Simpsons seriously, and they seem to really care about education. If you know the episode, you can skip the next two paragraphs.

In this episode, Principal Skinner lets fly that he thinks girls are more likely to struggle with maths and science. He gets booed and, eventually, fired. The new principal, a feminist, divides the campus into two, so the boys do not drown out the girls with their loud voices.

In the girls' half of the campus, a different sort of maths is taught. One which is unlike that of men - something to be worked out and attacked. Instead, maths becomes something that engages the senses. Lisa gets fed up and disguises herself as a boy so she can learn "real math" . When she wins the school award for maths, she reveals herself to prove that girls are just as good as boys, but Bart declares: "The only reason Lisa won is because she learned to think like a boy! I turned her into a burping, farting, bullying math machine!"

The episode seems to ridicule the view that maths is defined in a way that has suited males over the ages. Maths is what it is, and everyone needs to learn it in the same way. I am very interested in your reading of this episode, as mine is not particularly thought out!

Encourage the parents to enrol them in British single-sex schools! An article in Melbourne's Herald Sun reports that girls who graduate from British single-sex schools earn 10% more than those who graduate from mixed schools. This was put down to the fact that they were more likely to take subjects such as Physics. I am really skeptical about such research as it compares means and masks a lot of important data such as whether the comparison was made between equally endowed schools.

Teachers should vary their instruction and assessment methods: The Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers put out a "national statement on girls and mathematics" in 1990. In it, they suggest that teachers value certain modes of learning which appeal more to girls. Teachers should "make more extensive use of discussion methods, small group collaborative work and open-ended investigations". Assessment should "include projects, presentations, essays" etc...

I use these things (apart from essays) in my practice, however I have observed that boys tended to dominate group work and presentations when on a teaching round at a mixed school. There is no denying that I have seen my students' eyes light up whenever we have done something creative, involving the use of colours and patterns.

Teachers should use cues which make students concentrate on their strengths rather than gender: My thesis supervisor sent an email to his research group with a blurb from an American dude called "Richard Morin [Pew Research Center]". In it, he points out that research has shown that "women score much lower on math tests if they are first asked unrelated questions about gender issues. The phenomenon is known as 'stereotype threat'". This has led two other dudes, Matthew S. McGlone of Texas Uni and Joshua Aronson of New York University to conduct an interesting experiment.

They surveyed 90 college students, half of each gender. A third of them were asked why they chose to study at a private liberal arts college. "The goal was [to] nudge these young women and men into thinking how smart and accomplished they were." This group exhibited the least variance on a visual-spatial ability test which they took immediately after the survey.

You make up your mind. I will appreciate any input from readers on this topic.


Technorati tags: Teaching Mathematics

Thursday, September 21, 2006

This rectangle is a square

Earlier this year, my nephew visited from overseas with his Maths holiday homework. He was on summer holidays between years 8 and 9. This is one of the questions I can translate:

Show that a rectangle ABCD, such that AB=√125 and BC=3√45 - 2√20 is a square.

You could post your answer in the comments field or try it with your students and post their answers instead.


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Solution to the make up four puzzle

A virtual star to Mr. B. on solving the puzzle. Remember, the idea is to move only one stick to make the equation correct:

Starting postions: | + || + ||| = 4
Solution: | + | + | + | = 4
(move one of || to make a "+" with the middle stick in |||)

I have made a little Flash animation to demonstrate it, but I can't figure out how to upload this to Blogger. If you know, please advise.


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Make up four: a puzzle

A colleague gave me this puzzle yesterday. It is very cool.

Rearrange the sticks on the left hand side of the equal sign, so the sum does equal 4.

| + || + ||| = 4

Note: The plus signs are also made up of sticks.

Post your answers in the comments field.

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Merit-based pay and formative assessment

Several reports have been released of late telling the government to lift the financial status of teachers if the shortage -both current and looming- of Maths, Science, and LOTE teachers is to be solved. The past two federal ministers of education, Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop, have responded to such reports by asking their state counterparts to implement a merit-based pay scale for teachers.

Teacher unions are usually opposed to such ideas. They argue that good measures for teacher effectiveness are lacking and that such moves would be divisive as they would promote competition in the staff room.

The Education Wonks have an editorial (or wonkitorial as they call it) commenting on a scheme in Iowa which links teachers' pay to the grades achieved by their students in standardised tests. They point out that some research studies have shown that students do not take these tests seriously enough, and teachers would end up being penalised for their students' carelessness. In another wonkitorial they point out that the No Child Left Behind program would turn teaching into the only profession where 100% effectiveness is not only expected, but required.

What is of interest to me is how results on standardised tests are used to improve student learning. To my knowledge, the student learns his/her grade, the parents see their child's rank in the state, and the teacher feels baffled or justified depending on whether the grade confirms or disproves school-based assessment.

Responding to the push for such high-stakes assessment, Professors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, of King's College in London, wrote a fabulous paper entitled Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. This and other such papers brought the idea of formative assessment (aka assessment for learning) to the fore.

One thing that Black and Wiliam argue is that teachers are well trained in grading assessment tasks, but are usually unsure about how to use their findings to support student learning. This might seem to be a criticism of teachers, but these scholars then proceded to working with teachers in the UK to look at ways in which formative assessment could be implemented. In their work, they did not condescend to teachers. Instead, they presented general ideas and allowed the teachers to lead the way in discovering effective ways to implement formative assessment. I highly recommend the book: Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice, by P. Black, C. Harrison, C. Lee, B. Marshall and D. Wilima.

An example I read in a recent paper is that of a preservice teacher who pretested primary (elementary) school children on their knowledge of the moon. He concluded that they knew "very little" and proceeded to teach his unit assuming nothing. This was because, while they knew that the moon was not a source of light like the sun, only two could explain their thinking . The author of this paper suggested that the next lesson should have been based on the question: if the moon is not a source of light, how do you think it glows? This would have been an example of using one's assessment of what students knew to guide further learning.

So, what does all this have with teachers' pay? There is a two part answer:
1- Raising the stakes even higher will make standardised tests an even greater source of anxiety and even less useful for learning; and
2- This could lead to schools in "rough" suburbs finding it even harder to recruit good teachers, as these would leave to work with kids who are more likely to get higher grades.

Black and Wiliam suggest a value-added assessment of teachers' performance, where a teacher is rewarded for the improvement his/her students have made between standardised tests.


Technorati tags: Teaching Formative Assessment

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Have an inspirational (or hopeful) story? Submit them here

Over at rickety contrivances of doing good, Susan is planning on starting a carnival of hope. Why not contribute a post to such a great idea. Unfortunately, time is running out for the first issue. Come on bloggers, we are interesting people to whom many good things happen. Let's share them with the world!

Also, at spunky homeschool, they are running a contest for inspirational educational stories. You could win yourself a digital camera.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Answer to PQR puzzle

Yeo Hui gets the -virtual- cake for solving the problem first. Mr. Person has again provided the most publishable solution:

It was easy enough to test the cases here. There are only 4 possibilities--444, 555, 777, and 888--that could possibly give three-digit quotients with all digits being different. Looks like it's 444: 148 x 3 = 444.

The answer is therefore C. 13

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Students' response to the death of Steve Irwin

After school on Tuesday, I went to the room where I normally teach my Year 9s to leave a message on the whiteboard. I saw a cross with the words: R. I. P. Steve Irwin. I imagined that it was a joke or something left from a drama presentation. I then learned that it was true when I turned on the radio in my car.

The reaction to Steve's death has been phenomenal in Australia. It is being compared with the reaction to the death of Lady Di. This is surprising to me as Australians are normally very harsh on their celebrities. Steve himself had remarked how he was not as appreciated in his own country as in the US. He referred to the "cultural cringe" that we often talk about.

What really surprised me was the amount of grief of my year 7 students. In the morning, during the 10 minute "homeroom" assembly, we say a prayer and the students get to pray for special intentions. The last two days have been dominated by prayers for Steve and his family. The girls seem to identify a lot with his daughter despite the difference in age.

The crocodile hunter was undone by one of the least vicious of the animals he had worked with. When men are interviewed they uniformly refer to his apparent invincibility. I guess most men of his age feel themselves invincible and are reacting to his death with a sense of shock.

I read today that the reaction in the US has also been great. People there loved him. Reportedly, they could not get enough of his landmark "Crikey!"

In the words of my students, "I pray for Steve Irwin, his family, and especially his daughter who was very close to him. Lord, hear us".


The latest in education carnivals

For those who want to keep their finger on the pulse (Ok, I am running out of intro lines!):

Monday, September 04, 2006

Puzzle: here's the product, what is the sum

The following is a question from the 2005 Australian Mathematics Competition - Junior Division (years 7 & 8):

In the multiplication

x 3

each of P, Q and R represents a different digit. The sum of P, Q and R is
(A) 16 (B) 14 (C) 13 (D) 12 (E) 10

If you know the answer, send it with an explanation to eliasblog@yahoo.com.au

Technorati tags: Puzzle

Saturday, September 02, 2006

It's a tough world out there!

Lately, I came across a chain letter purporting to report a speech given by Bill Gates at a high school. It lists the things that school does NOT teach (we are apparently meant to shout the "NOT") and how "politically correct teachings created a generation of kids with no concept of reality". At the same time, a blogger on The Age website also posted on the things we didn't learn at school.

Schools must tell kids to expect a harsh boss. "Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss." "... very few employers are interested in helping you FIND YOURSELF. Do that on your own time." I must say that all my employers, both in industry and in teaching, have been very accommodating. I would have been badly prepared by my school if they had planted suspicion of employers in my mind.

Schools must teach kids everything they will ever need in the world of work. "... how to survive a poorly run meeting ... how to prepare a powerpoint presentation ... how to write a 5 line email." I thought schools have been administring death by powerpoint for quite a while. I surely prepare my students for all those poorly run meetings they will have to endure: I get them in groups of 12 and give one of student a boring script to read. Yes, sir, I teach for the real world.

In all of these posts there are two themes in common: that school is not the real world and that school should be a reproduction of that world. Together with these themes, come two assumptions I used to make in my pre-education life: if people have not learnt something, it is because they were not taught it, and we know what people will need in the world of work, we just need the schools to get on with teaching it.

If the world is a place where everyone has to compete for the few places on the winning podium and if employers are harsh and uninterested in your wellbeing, then it is even more important for schools to be different. Employers will surely be grateful for people who have "found themselves" before they begin work. This way, they don't need to engage in such useless activities on the boss' time. I am sure no one at my school knew I would end up in an English-speaking country when they decided to teach me this otherwise irrelevant skill.

I'll get off my soap box and go play with my daughter. She'll teach me what is real and what is academic.

Technorati tags: Teaching School

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Another puzzle

Those who enjoyed solving 100 pirates will want to take a look at the 2 Numbers puzzle, on Naught Much. Other people's solutions are in the comments, so be sure not to cheat!


Solution to the priates puzzle

Thank you to those who participated in the puzzle.

The solution in words:
If a number of pirates need only one shoe and of the others half need no shoes and the other half need two shoes, then on average each pirate needs one shoe. So, the answer is 100 shoes.

Algebraic solution, thanks to Mr. Person:
Let x = the number of one legged pirates, and let y = the number of pirates with two legs. If all y pirates wore shoes, we would need 2 y shoes for this group.
But only half wear shoes, so we only need y shoes for this group. And since we only need x shoes for the one-legged (one shoe per pirate), the total number of shoes
required turns out to be equal to x + y, which is simply the number of pirates.

Also, thanks to S. Elsnick who pointed out that some assumptions needed to be made in solving this problem: all of the one-legged pirates always wear one shoe; there are no pirates without at least one leg; no pirates have three legs; the remaining half of the two-legged pirates always wear two shoes.


Monday, August 28, 2006

100 Pirates: a puzzle

Here's a puzzle posed by a student to a colleague of mine. If you can solve it, then please email me:
A certain number of pirates are one-legged. Of the remainder, half never wear shoes. If there are 100 pirates in total, how many shoes will they need?I look forward to your submissions.

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Saturday, August 26, 2006

The most useful course I took at university

One frustration I had with my graduate diploma of education was the fact that we were expected to read a lot of research papers, without being provided with any relevant training. We did not know enough about research methodologies to be able to read the papers critically.

When I went back to uni to do an MEd, I took a course specifically dedicated to reading Maths Ed. research. I was lucky that the course ran with only one enrollment - mine! The university felt guilty for not promoting the course well enough and let the lecturer go ahead and run it. Later on, a DEd student joined in and a Phd student was attending at the lecturer's request.

This was by far the most practical course I have taken in education. Each week we looked at a different methodology - quantitative, case study, ethnography etc...- and each of us gave a report on a relevant paper. What made the course immediately applicable to my teaching practice was the fact that the lecturer allowed us to follow our own interest for the major assignments:
  1. A literature review on the topic of our choice.
  2. A paper aimed at teachers on the same topic.
In my case, I chose introductory algebra. Out of the reading I did, I got a paper published in a teacher's journal and introduced a unit of work for the year 7 classes at my school.

Much academic research happens in the classroom and with the help of teachers. Researchers often interview children to find out the way they think about certain things. All this knowledge is very useful to a teacher. It is not a case of academics telling teachers how to do their job, it is a case of them providing teachers with information which they are best equipped to make use of in their own classrooms.

Unfortunately, the lecturer recently informed me that the faculty has pulled the plug on the course. I still think that teacher education should always include a course on reading research.


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Help! My nerdy humour is not working

I wanted to liven up a very serious revision lesson with my year 10 IT class. So I used some nerdy humour. I jumbled up some sentences on how computers catch a virus and how these can be removed. When rearranged, the paragraph reads:
Comic book guy opened a file from an unknown source. A virus installed itself on his computer. The virus infected his files. Comic book guy panicked. He ran anti-virus software. The files were disinfected. Comic book guy breathed a sigh of relief, and celebrated with a Vegemite sandwich.
Next to this was a cartoon of the comic book guy (from the Simpsons) saying: "No emoticon could describe how I feel".

Needless to say, they thought it was a very lame joke :-(

Hip people out there, can you help me? Or am I beyond help?


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The 81st carnival of education

Thanks to the very efficient education wonks, this week's canival of education is now up and ready for your reading pleasure.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

You do the curly whirly and you turn around ...

Most Maths teachers would be familiar with the following algorithm for converting mixed numbers into improper fractions. Improper fractions are those where the numerator (top number) is greater than the denominator (bottom number). Thanks to Mr. Person for the illustration.

Basically, you get the numerator of the improper fraction by multiplying the whole number by the denominator and adding the result to the numerator. Fabulous and very sensible! I am being sarcastic, in case you cannot tell :-)

Every year I revise this topic with my year 8s and they all know some part of this algorithm by heart and usually forget another. They fumble through "you times by the bottom and plus by the top". The poor souls get to repeat this, until they use proper verbs (add to, not plus by)!
Not one of them can explain why this works, or is interested in knowing why this works.

This year, I have the fortune of having a year 7 class instead of my usual year 8s. They were happy thinking: one and a quarter is the same as 4 quarters plus another quarter. This can be written as 5 quarters. After they all understood this, I thought I would show them the obligatory shortcut illustrated above. They had seen it in primary school but could not fully remember it.

For the first time, I was the first teacher they had who called it the "curly whirly", and they were not interested. They wanted to think about it logically, turning the whole number into a fraction. So, this leaves us with one good use for the algorithm:
Oh, the curly whirly
Oh, the curly whirly

May your Maths classes be filled with song!

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It's hanging on the fridge!

I began this semester with a new year 9 class. Two weeks into the semester, one of the students invited me to a talk she was giving in her English class entitled "why I despise Maths"! The student certainly displayed a negative attitude in class, though she did achieve a high mark on the test.

At parent-teacher interviews, I learned that she enjoyed creative subjects. I suggested that, since we were learning "linear graphs", she could try out the virtual beadloom software. Today she announced to me that she had made a beadloom and enjoyed it. I asked her to show it to me, but she said "It's at home, hanging on the fridge!" She then turned to her neighbour and began to describe the activity.

As you can imagine, I was so delighted. A piece of Maths work is on display at a year 9 student's house!


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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The 80th Carnival of Education

If you're after news, opinions and all things education, then check out this week's Carnival of Education at the Education Wonks.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

What is wrong with rote learning?

The Victorian curriculum seems to be built on one of two assumptions: either people do not have memories, or else their memories need to be left unused. To my knowledge, the students are never asked to memorise poems or mathematical definitions.

A year level coordinator once told me about an English teacher who made the students repeat a poem until they could recite it by heart. That took place during an excursion. When they were back at school, many students commented that they had never realised one could remember something if one repeated it over and over! These were 15 year olds who had not developed strategies for memorisation. I once read about Western hostages in Beirut, and how they kept themselves sane by reciting their favourite poems.

The other day I was describing a project on the Pythagorean Theorem to my nephew, a French educated 17-year old from the middle east. I first asked him if he knew the theorem. He thought for a couple of seconds and said: "Dans un triangle carré, Le carré de l'hypoténuse est égal à la somme des carrés des deux autres côtés" (In a right angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides).

Did the fact that he knew it by heart mean that he understood little of it? Not at all. It gave him the necessary vocabulary to describe his understanding. As we walked on, I described the geometric proofs that my students had to describe as part of their project. He had never seen those proofs before, but we could discuss them abstractly, without having the pictures in front of us. I could use words like "somme" (sum), "surface" (area) and "longueur" (length), with which he was entirely comfortable.

I then mentioned the concept of a proof by induction, something taught in the first year of a science degree at a typical Australian university. He said, "yes, I know what that is. Induction is the opposite of deduction in that you begin with a particular case and generalise. In deduction, you apply a general rule to a particular case."

Let me temper all this by stating that I am not a "back to basics" teacher. I teach algorithms and shortcuts only when absolutely necessary. I do believe that mathematics needs a context, and that understanding is paramount. My complaint is that we seem to have thrown the baby out with the bath water. We often speak as though learning by rote is a poor alternative to learning with understanding. I think that we can use some rote learning to support understanding. Let me know what you think.



Sunday, July 30, 2006

Remarkable Jackie

In my first two years of teaching, I taught a remarkable girl, whom I will refer to as Jackie. She was the type of student who had to know why everything was the way it was. She always asked me to show her the veracity of theorems and the reason that any particular algorithm actually worked.

I must say that I always welcome this kind of inquisitiveness, and get frustrated by the fact that many of my students have been irreparably convinced that Mathematics was a subject where thinking had little to do with success! I often allowed myself to be manipulated into teaching the traditional way: the teacher gives lots of notes and then sets work from the textbook.

Jackie was different in this respect. Her questions were a breath of fresh air, especially when she was in year 8. That particular group was a difficult one to work with. They were very nice girls, but not the type for whom thinking or a high level of self discipline came naturally.

My biggest frustration was when I could not answer all her questions. This was sometimes due to lack of time, the fact that concepts required a higher level of Maths to demonstrate, and even my lack of experience in teaching.

One remarkable occurrence was when she asked me, after returning from the mid-year break, to teach her a practical way to work out percentages. She had no trouble applying the formula we had learned in class, but she found it difficult to use it when shopping! So, we spent recess working on a good mental strategy for shopping.

In my third year of teaching, Jackie was on my year 9 class list. I would have loved to teach her again. Instead, I suggested to her that it would be best if she had a different teacher for a change. I asked for her to be placed in another class, and a place was vacant with a teacher who is very different from me. Mrs Jones is a very traditional, and very experienced, teacher. I think it is good for students to experience teachers with different styles throughout their years of schooling.

To the teachers reading this, may you be blessed with a few Jackies in every class.



Saturday, July 29, 2006

Grateful for every day?

Yesterday, a colleague asked me whether growing up in a time of war had changed me. Did I savour each day of my life?

Given his apparent expectations, My answer must have been disappointing. The fact is that, like most people I know, I live a life disproportionately dominated by mundane concerns. I plan for and worry about the future as though I were sure to live a long life.

One thing that I have learned from the war was the importance of a good education. When you hope to make a future for yourself outside your country of birth, education is your only passport. It is a sacred thing.

I remember many people using the war as a pretext for the way they lived. Those who stole or fought with militias said that the circumstances of life necessitated their behaviour. Those who turned to God, pointed to the absurdity of the things of this world. Everything was truly ephemeral and almost everything was pointless.

I was surrounded mainly by people in the latter category. I think their love for God can be matched by some whom I have met in the West, but not their complete dependence on the Divine. Those people live truly holy lives. They endangered their lives to help others and gave of their necessity to care for those worse off. They lived in the world but were not part of it.

When my students ask me "why will I ever need to know this?", I sometimes answer "I had no need to learn English when I was at school". How can I not be grateful for the level of language instruction in my birth country, when my passport to a future came with an Australian visa pasted in?

Here am I, with a healthy family and a job of my choosing. How lucky I am! Yes, I am grateful for every day.



Sunday, July 23, 2006

C'est la politique qui prime

I remember a time in my youth when a the leader of a militia was doing the rounds of universities. In one of his speeches, he emphasised the French proverb, "c'est la politique qui prime". Loosely translated, this means "Politics before all else". He argued that the students' education could not take precedence, sincec an unstable country would not provide them with a future. All considerations had to make way for politics.

I believe that people who love freedom and who have strong convictions always defy reality. A committed Christian forgoes some income to keep Sunday mornings free. A practising Jew limits his social engagements to keep the Sabbath. A determined student studies despite the bombs that take away both the peace and lights of his study area.

Obviously, my upbringing in a war torn country provided me with many opportunities to defy reality. I was blessed with parents who did not wrap me in cotton wool, and instead allowed me to grow and explore myself in what were very difficult circustances.

Yesterday, I had an experience where politics did come before all else. La politique a gagné. I had a loud disagreement with a person about whom I care regarding the current situation in the Middle East. I will not detail the argument here, except to say that I suspended my good relationship with that person and all that meant to me to take up a political point. All this, in the comfort of a lounge room in Melbourne.

What does that have to do with education? I remember a lecturer at teacher's college telling us that education was highly political. A tug of war has been taking place of late between the federal and state governments over who controls schools and universities. The funding of educational institutions is often a hotly debated topic, especially close to elections.

External testing seems to be the current catch cry. Politicians use it to peer inside the four walls of classrooms. They label children, and satisfy the community's need for accountability. As a teacher, I am too well aware of the drawbacks. The body of research on teaching and learning is being burnt at the altar of political control. The child is in danger of becomming a dot on a continuum. The joy of learning is at times replaced by the stress of performing.

Teachers cannot always go against the system. But we must refuse to entertain the system to the extent that it asks us to teach badly. All children are not the same. Let us defy reality as much as we can, and replace politics with joy on top of our considerations.

C'est la joie qui prime!


Thursday, July 06, 2006

How I became a teacher?

Here's opening one's soul:

I remember one day discussing with my dad the fact that I wanted to study Education at university. He encouraged me to read about education and keep it as a hobby, but counselled me to do something which would earn me a more decent wage. I suppose this is not unusual, especially where I was born, where pursuit of a living wage often meant emigrating to the West or taking a post in the Gulf states.

The idea kept simmering in my mind, even though I completed an engineering degree and worked for a major telecommunications company. In the year 2000, I requested permission to apply for a training position in Europe. It turned out to be an inopportune time for my department to let go of any of its members. A few months later, we were closed down by the parent company and I found work as a trainer, contracting to a large US company.

The IT slump hit hard towards the end of 2001 and, despite signing with another leading software training provider, the contracts were few and far between. I decided to turn the crisis into an opportunity and took some time to read "finding your mission in life", a section in Dick Bolles' classic "What Color is Your Parachute?". Everything I read and all the profiling tools in the book pointed me to teaching. I decided to apply to local universities for the 2003 intake, but was dissuaded from this by some members of my family.

In November 2002, I was offered two jobs which I rejected, having realised that I needed to go ahead with my decision to undertake teacher training. It was too late to go through the regular chanels but the Australian Catholic University had a process for late applications. It was a great surprise when they called me with an offer. I later learned that my chosen methods, Maths and IT, helped me as both were -and remain- in great shortage.

Since then, many things happened that confirmed my decision. I was called by a technical college to teach evenings while I completed my teaching diploma in the day. A school that had hosted me for a teaching round offered me a full-time position beginning January of 2004. Everytime a decision had to be made, something would open up and appear to be the natural option. Most importantly, I had my wife's full support throughout the journey.

I was raised to believe that when the circumstances of life all point in one direction and things turn out for the better, Divine Providence is at work.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Good memories of a Year 8 class

In my first year of teaching, I had a great experience with a Year 8 class, which I will refer to as Year 8B. This class had a good reputation with the humanities teachers. They spoke well, discussed things, but did not put their heads down for skills practice in Maths. I found them ok but not as responsive as my homeroom, 8A across the corridor. I attended a seminar run by a classroom management guru, Dr Ramon Lewis, and decided to try his methods with them.

We agreed on some rewards which they would get for displaying the expected behaviours. A couple arranged a special deal with me: 10 ticks for good behaviour would result in a letter of commendation to their parents. From the beginning, I told the class that I was not comfortable with the use of rewards and that I would eventually retract them. I simply wanted to give some of them an incentive to work well and find out that they can achieve in Maths.

Well, the system worked really well for many of them and only one student made an inquiry when I stopped giving out rewards. Here are some of the things I observed, for which I will always be grateful:
  • One of the weaker and more talkative students began to telling her friends: "Shsh, I am learning". Paying attention in class and doing what was required of her had helped her achieve good results, even in the much dreaded Algebra.
  • I walked into the last lesson declaring that we would do some useful learning. Some objected that they had finished all assessments and were entitled to a slack lesson. In the end, the students astonished me with how quickly they could use graphics calculators to produce linear graphs which formed prallelograms, triangles and -in the case of one of them- a five pointed star.
  • Jess, a keen girl who had broken her writing arm, insisted on taking the end of year exam. This was a training exercise only and the grade would not appear on the students' reports. She arranged to meet me at a lunch time with a friend who would act as a scribe. They assured me that they would work right in front of me so I could see that they were not helping each other.
Mind you, this class also included a girl that still thinks of me as an incarnation of the devil. This is for reasons which escape me. Maybe I look like the devil! I could not win them all, but that class remains the highlight of my career so far.


Monday, June 12, 2006

Report writing

I did not post anything the last two weeks, much to the disappointment of this blog's 2 readers! I was writing reports for my students! The reports came in two formats: the usual school format for the IT classes, and the new "plain English" format for the Maths classes.

For two weeks, I turned in at midnight and got up at dawn. My poor wife was being woken up by my alarm clock. I started making silly mistakes towards the end of that period. For instance, I photocopied only one side of double sided Maths sheets. I fell for a tricky joke which my year sevens played on me! They rubbed their elbows and said, "can you rub your shoulder like this?" Needless to say what my mistake was.

All this is now history, until reports collation night next Wednesday. The last weekend was wonderful. My wife, daughter and I went away on Friday night and returned to Melbourne on Sunday morning. That was wonderful!

Now it's Monday night, and the long weekend is over. I have to spend a few hours writing two Maths tests and preparing a lesson. But that's ok, as I am planning to stay up late and watch Australia take on Japan in the World Cup. I can hardly wait!


Sunday, May 28, 2006

Teaching is a privilege

Often teachers, including me, talk about how overworked, underpaid and misunderstood we are. To be fair, though, most of the teachers I work with also have a sense that teaching is both a vocation and a privilege. To be part of the lives of young people can be an awesome experience.

Lately, I have had a sense of this privilege. The creative arts festival, to which I refer in the earlier post "every student has a gift", really showed me what a brilliant bunch of kids I work with. I also enjoyed their encouragement for my participation in the staff item. A colleague of mine wrote an entry in his blog in which he declared: "I pity the teacher who only gets to see his/her students from the other side of the desk".

On the same day as the festival, I received a letter from the principal confirming her approval for me to work on a part-time basis next semester. I had asked for this arrangement as I am trying to carry out a research project for my Master of Education degree. Our school has a high number of part-time teachers, and it was not easy for the administration to accommodate me in this way.

On Friday afternoon, the teacher who sits next to me in the staff room offered me the use of her holiday house over the Queen's birthday holiday. I did not even ask, she just said "you've been working hard, you deserve a break!" I have had other jobs prior to teaching, but the human interaction I have found in this vocation is unparalleled.

For my students, school leaders, and colleagues, thanks be to God.


Friday, May 26, 2006

Every student has a gift

Lately, I heard about a former student of mine getting high honours for her achievements in drama. I remember looking at a colleague who, like me, had taught her Maths, and saying: "she was a scatter brain in Maths!" Of course, I meant it in a nice way. We had both spoken about that student and thought that she was very intelligent but lacked motivation to do well in Mathematics.

Earlier in the week, our college held its annual festival of creative arts. The talent on show was amazing. Over 400 students (out of ~ 1150) took part. Many students who have difficulties in academic subjects displayed great ability in music, drama or dance. Of course, there were also the all-rounders who excelled at everything.

As I sat and listened to the awesome orchestra playing Holst's Jupiter, I remembered my schooling years. I also attended a single sex Catholic school, though in my case it was a boys' school. Music and, to a large extent, sport were seen as extra-curricular. There is no way known that we would have put on such festivals that interrupted our "learning". Ironically, I remember being asked to write an essay in my year 10 (seconde) French class based on a citation which read something like: "an education system where a child has no time to learn the piano or classical Greek is a dead system."

To be fair, my schooling took place during the time of a civil war. It was a miracle that we got taught enough Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Arabic, French and English to pursue our choice of courses at university. In my case, I was able to emigrate to Australia and study Maths and Computer Science without taking time out to learn the language. For this, I am eternally grateful.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

The new "plain English" report cards and formative assessment

The former federal minister for education, Brendan Nelson, wanted schools across the nation to give students A to E grades on their performance in all subjects. The Victorian government's adaptation of the new system has taken this to the extreme - extreme folly, that is. Students will receive A-E grades on the following "dimensions" of Mathematics:
  • Number;
  • Measurement and Chance and Data;
  • Space;
  • Working Mathematically; and
  • Structure
While the government is advertising the new "plain English" report cards, I wonder how many parents know what "structure" and "working mathematically" refer to. So, my school will be doing the right thing by the parents and adding our usual very high to low ratings on each topic.

Getting an A in the new system is reserved for those who are working "well above" their year level. The majority of students will be getting a C, which means that they are working at their year level.

The need to assess for so many different grades can easily come at the expense of formative assessment. I am very interested in comments from any teachers in other countries that have gone before us into an assessment-heavy curriculum. I want to know how you make room for formative assessment.

Take care,

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Little time with family

Last week, I was on year 7 camp. This was a great experience. I got to challenge myself and my fear of crazy rides. I was quite sick going into the camp, which is why I packed cold and flu tablets. I ended up doing the ropes course, 18 metre high giant swing etc...

Back from camp, there was little time to rest. Saturday, I had a conference to attend. My head of faculty and I gave a workshop on digital portfolios. The audience seemed to have a lot of questions, which I guess is a good sign. Normally, we would have stayed for the next two sessions and then the finger food and social interaction. Instead, we just headed home to our families. After my daughter slept, I updated an article I had submitted to a peer reviewed publication and sent it off to the editor.

I felt good about the two additions to my resume, though I wish I had more time to spend with the family. I had made both committments last year, before I got so busy. A cartoon in our conference presentation showed a man pointing to a computer screen and telling his wife, "you said we had to spend more time with the kids, so I turned their photos into icons!"