Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas 2007

Thy nativity, O Christ our God
Has shone a light of knowledge upon the world
For by it, those who worshiped the stars
Were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness
And to know Thee, the Orient from on high
O Lord Glory to Thee.

-- A hymn sung in Orthodox Churches at Christmas.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Teaching is about telling stories

Yesterday, we held a function at the school for retiring teachers. What impressed me the most was that these teachers did not dwell on their achievements and the leadership roles that they occupied. Instead, they spoke at length about the human connections they had made with students and peers. One of these teachers, a fan of the classics, said: "teaching is about story telling. I believe even Maths teachers should be story tellers."

Yesterday was also the last day of school for our students. My year 7s started quoting back to me stories and jokes I had told them about Mathematics. It was both interesting and surprising to see what had stuck in their minds.

I remember my dad telling me stories on the way to school every morning. Many of these were Gospel parables or lives of saints. Others were simply drawn from daily life.

In a class on Theology during my teaching diploma at the Australian Catholic University, a student started discussing the merits of teaching parables to children. She insisted on the use of a simple translation, making sure everything was clear and maybe even skipping the Gospel stories altogether. Children these days will not relate to the contexts used by Jesus when he told the parables. Why not paraphrase the stories and present modern parables instead of the originals?

I took issue with the idea of replacing the original parables. I suggested that the stories themselves had formative value regardless of how much the child understood of them. I advocated reading the stories in a translation that uses beautiful English. The meaning and the words would grow on the students over the years. Everything does not need to be immediately relevant or even accessible.

Needless to say, I was ridiculed by my peer who accused me of expecting students to be interested in the Good Samaritan while "all they can think about is drugs and sex."

I still remember many of the stories that my dad told me. I hope that my children will one day remember the stories I tell them. I also hope that I can be a good story teller to my students, whether teaching Maths or IT.

Merry Christmas to all.


Monday, May 21, 2007

Getting to know my students again

Last week, I was on year 7 camp. That was such a delight, despite missing my family a lot. I was interacting with my students without regard for their academic abilities or lack thereof. It was quite a refreshing change.

One of my roles was to dress up as a bear - a friendly one such as the bears seen on children programs. The students were to go on a long night walk where they would try to spot wild life - Koalas, Kangaroos, etc... Instead, they saw a bear which scared and then entertained them. It was interesting:

  • One group attacked me to find out who was inside the bear suit. They then told the next group and spoiled the surprise.
  • The next group, who were looking out for me, attacked me to confirm it was Mr E! I teach that group and when I asked them not to tell the next groups, they took it on board. Their supervising teacher later told me that they kept reminding each other not to tell. It was nice to hear. Sure enough, the next group was taken by surprise.
  • One group required me to "ham it up" for half a minute before they realised there must be a person underneath the suit. They walked off sure that it was Mr. C, another teacher on camp!

I got word of one of my other students getting out of her shell on camp. She is normally extremely shy and withdrawn. Her mum told me that she never went to primary school camps as she was not comfortable to do so. This time around, she went all the way on the giant swing.

Happy days! The most important thing is that when I told one of my year 7 classes today that we needed to move on with the curriculum, they listened and worked well. The way they could shift gears was truly impressive.

May all your students be as beautiful in every way as my year 7s.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Today, the eve of Good Friday 2007.

Today is hung upon the Tree, He who suspended the Earth upon the waters.
A crown of thorns crowns Him, who is the King of Angels.
He is wrapped about with the purple of mockery, Who wrapped the heavens in clouds.
He was struck, Who freed Adam in the Jordan.
He was transfixed with nails, Who is the Bridegroom of the Church.
He was pierced with a spear, Who is the son of thPublishe virgin.
We worship Thy Passion, O Christ.
Show also Thy glorious Resurrection.

From the service held on Holy Thursday night in Orthodox Churches.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Maths education: Are we on the cusp of a counter reformation?

It seems that direct instruction is gaining in popularity these days. Many people are getting disenchanted with reform Maths. The following links have caught my attention this week:
The first is an article reporting on the work of Dr Ken Rowe of the Australian Council for Educational Research. Dr Rowe worked with primary school teachers, encouraging them to use direct instruction. He reports positive results that surprised him and the teachers alike. The second is a video presentation by Dr Cliff Mass of the University of Washington. He argues that a noticeable drop in the mathematical ability of freshmen coincided with the introduction of "reform math".

At teachers' college, most of my lecturers were wedded to the ideals of reform mathematics. They often told us that traditional maths did not make sense. It taught algorithms and methods in a disconnected way. Students could not see the connection between concepts and did not find maths engaging and meaningful. As a high school maths teacher, I find it hard to conclude that students are finding maths any more connected or meaningful as a result of their grounding in reform maths.

When I learned my mathematics in a very traditional school, I certainly found that it made sense. We were trained in the art of geometric proofs. This was something that engaged both our memories and higher thinking skills. We had to answer worded problems in arithmetic from an early age. Just because we did not work with manipulatives did not mean that we memorised algorithms and worked purely by rote.

My fear now is that we go back to the basics with the same zeal that we went into reform maths. Some of the leaders of the new movement ridicule the notion of maths teachers valuing problem-solving. I don't want us to throw the baby out with the bath water. The "reform" period has produced excellent research and teachers' practice cannot have stood still all this time.

What we need is to encourage teachers to use direct instruction and to really put back some meat into the maths curricula of the middle years. What we do not need is a witch hunt against teachers who employ some of the excellent activities that reform maths has brought to the fore. Teachers must be free to choose the pedagogical approach that most suits each situation, taking into consideration the syllabus and their students' capabilities.

As the first of the articles ends: "Dr Rowe said results from the study did not mean that constructivist teaching methods were wrong. The approach had merit, but problems with student learning arose when constructivist activities preceded explicit teaching or replaced it."

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Three podcasts on, what I have learned

This is what I have done:
  • Created mp3 files on topics related to the IT curriculum;
  • Included musical interludes - radio program style;
  • Increased the length of the casts from 11 to 20 minutes;
  • Varied the bit rate from 128 Kpbs mono down to 56 Kpbs mono;
  • Prepared ideas in the form of bullet points and kept my speech unscripted.
This is what I have learned:
  • Keep the file size small - a 56 Kbps mono-channel is sufficient;
  • Use podcasts to introduce a topic, not for revision;
  • Keep it short - no longer than 10 minutes;
  • No need for so many musical breaks. If the cast is short, then just use music to tell the students that I am moving to another section;
  • Ask the students to answer questions or write an entry on an online forum.
  • Continue to speak in a conversational tone but stick to the planned examples.
If you have examples of your own, then please share them in the comments.

The national curriculum is a certainty

In a previous post, I reviewed the debate about the proposal for a national curriculum. Now it looks like it is a certainty. Kevin Rudd, the leader of the Labor opposition, would introduce a Prep - Year 12 national curriculum in Maths, English, the Sciences and Australian history. John Howard, the leader of the ruling Coalition (Liberal + National parties), wants a national curriculum in these subjects, but only at high school level.

As I noted earlier, I do not mind the idea at all. Any difference in the needs of students is unlikely to be a function of the state in which they live. However, the debate seems more political than educational and we may end up with a politically compromised system. How this will compare to what we currently have can only be determined once we see the new syllabi.

It is interesting that Victoria has rejected the Liberals' proposal for a national curriculum, saying that "one size will not fit all". When federal Labor surprised everyone by proposing essentially the same thing, Victoria welcomed it!

We will have a few years to bed down the Victorian Essential Learning Standards. Let's not get too comfortable. Watch for the early retirements in 2010!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

2007 election - the clever need not apply!

Last weekend, the Saturday Age carried an interesting op-ed under the title "Get smart, get beaten". The opinion piece articulated what many people have been saying: "the opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, will never be Prime Minister, he speaks too well!" My entry is not an endorsement of either John Howard or Kevin Rudd. It is a critique of this kind of thinking.

According to Jason Koutsoukis, the author of the article, Kevin Rudd is on the examination table. The government is trying to find the best way to attack him. He further suggests that the Prime Minister has begun playing the "he's too smug" card. "The trick for Rudd then, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat with a pointy-headed reputation, will be to disguise how smart he is and to prove he has the common touch.

This is not surprising at all to me. Colleagues of mine who are life-long Labor voters have been telling me that Kevin Rudd could not be Prime Minister. I said that it was good to have people like him come to the fore, regardless of the function he will hold in Parliament, because he was quite an exception in Canberra - he spoke polished English. They told me that I had unwittingly stumbled on his biggest hurdle.

Going back to John Koutsoukis, "Australians tend to be drawn to leaders who seem to be one of them. People like Bob Hawke or John Howard". This is another point of intersection between the op-ed and what my colleagues have told me. One of them, who is close to Labor party personalities, added that Bob Hawke took elocution lessons so as to sound more like a working man prior to contesting the union leadership and, subsequently, the prime ministership. "He spoke differently when he was at Oxford".

So, it seems that, as a society, we conspire against the eloquent. Sport elitism is essential to our national pride, academic elitism is anathema.
If you are reading this in the US and think that things are not very different in your country, let me point this out to you: your sports stars may well be idolised beyond your academics, but your sports stars speak really well. Our sports stars sound like your rap singers.

I think I am due for a positive post. There are lots of wonderful things about Australia, its people and education system (or, more correctly, systems). I just had a few negative news stories coming my way of late.

Till next time,

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Education carnival 107th edition

Take a look at the education carnival, edition 107. It is hosted by Elementaryhistoryteacher. As you might expect, there's something in it for everyone interested in education on the blogosphere.


Saturday, February 17, 2007

My first educational podcast - what the students did not say

Last Thursday I fiddled with Audacity on my PC and made my first audio cast for my Year 11 IT class. The next day I was full of anticipation. They listened to it, and here are the things they did not say:
  • Wow, Mr Elias, I didn't know you were so talented.
  • I will listen to this on the treadmill tonight.
  • I have never understood so many concepts in so little time.
  • Mr Elias, you have a great recording voice. You should be on radio.
All the same, I felt that it worked really well. The students had been praying with a friend who lost her father, just before my class. They arrived at different times and were feeling understandably upset. The fact that they could start listening whenever they arrived really helped. They also laughed at my joke, which is always a good thing! Here are some of the things they did say:
  • It was easier to understand than the textbook.
  • Use music to break up the sections.
  • Don't make it so long, it gets boring.
So, the next time I podcast, I plan to keep it simple, use more music, and try to be less boring. If they say the things in the first list, I will be sure to let you know.

Elias, a 21st century educator :-)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A national curriculum for Australia?

A debate is currently raging around whether or not Australia should have a national curriculum. At the moment, each state and territory has its own curriculum, starting age for students, assessment and reporting procedures.

Is the debate about politics or pedagogy? This was the question asked by Australia Talks, a Radio National program. As guests, they had Kevin Donnelly, the voice of the "back to basics" movement, an articulate professor, and Andrew Blair, the president of the Australian Secondary Principals Association. It is just as well that I cannot remember the name of the professor, as he was so un-Australian as to dare argue about semantics. It should have been enough for this voice of the intellectual elite (two words which combine to form an insult in our society) to appear on a program which uses a pompous word like pedagogy in its title. Is there an emoticon that shows I am speaking with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek?

What is clear is that the debate is mainly political. The federal government blames the states for the fact that so many of our graduates have poor literacy skills. The federal minister for education decries the Maoist ideologies of the teacher unions and, by extension, the teachers themselves. The state governments blame Canberra for its poor financial support of schools and universities. The absent voices in the debate are those of the teachers.

On the level of pedagogy (it's my blog and I will use the word if I want to), the program guests were polarised. Andrew Blair wanted us to compete with the graduates of Chinese and Indian Colleges and so, he argued, the "basics" were not enough. Kevin Donnelly wanted us to look at Singapore for inspiration. He often reminds people that Singapore topped the TIMMS results and plays down Australia's performance in PISA, where "problem solving" was valued over computation. His articles always have double quotes around expressions like "problem solving" and "lifelong learning". The articulate professor referred to Finland, France and Sweden as countries we should study and emulate when it comes to pre-school education.

I must confess that in the past few months I have been having some "back to basics" tendencies. I have considered lying on the couch of a therapist and confessing this. Can you see the teacher in a psychiatric clinic saying: "Doctor, I am being haunted by back-to-basics tendencies, can you make them go away"? Kevin Donnelly's statements irritate me in the extreme. The last two federal ministers for education strike me as dishonest and unjust. So, what is pushing me in this direction?

It is hard for me to see how a "curriculum for the 21st century" could be of any benefit if our graduates have no command over the English language. As long as "you plus it" replaces "you add a to b" and "ask the teachers, that's what there there for" appears for a whole year in the Year 10 corridor of an excellent school, what is the use of "critical skills"? If we want them to be independent thinkers, then surely we should want them to be able to express themselves accurately and read serious material.

I was training a choir of young people in my parish and asked them the meaning of the words "condescend" and "incarnate". None of them, including two university students, could explain either term. Prior to becoming a teacher, I would have been scandalised. Now I know that they are, unfortunately, typical.

Is the answer a return to the basics? To some extent, I believe, the answer is yes. I would not want to throw the baby out with the bath water. Here's schooling according to Elias (please excuse my arrogance):

Primary school children must be taught grammar, spelling and multiplication tables. They must also have time to play, explore and think freely. I do not think that a syllabus with these combined aims is impossible. It needn't even be crowded.

English should not be taught to senior secondary students. By year 11, surely people should be able to read serious books and discuss their meaning and structure. It is, after all, their first (and usually only) language.

Bring back differentiation at the end of Year 9 or 10. Please dump this idea that education should equalise everybody. No-one I know has a problem with the sporting elite having their own -elite- institutions. Yet, we are so afraid of educational advantage that we have high school certificates that are free for all. Everyone has the right to a Victorian Certificate of Education after 13 years of schooling. They simply have to turn up.

I Thank you for reading and wish you a good weekend.

Elias, proud father, grumpy pedagogue :-)

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The first week back

Two weeks, one with students, have passed in a short term of eight weeks. My homeroom seems great. Despite having many students who were leaders in their Primary school, there is little evidence of groups forming around these leaders or any objectionable behaviour. My other classes are also going well, which is not surprising at this time of the year. It usually takes our girls a couple of weeks before they feel comfortable enough to test the teacher. Even when they do, it is usually a case of chatting. We don't have many really mischievous students.

I have a greater number of integration students than ever before. I wonder how well I will do with them. I have a very competent aide in two of the classes.

Most interesting to me is the fact that one of my classes, a year 11 elective, has 13 students in it, 12 of whom I have taught before. This must be a function of the time I have been teaching at the school. This is my fourth year, fifth if you count a teaching round I did at the school. The year 11s have been at the school for five years themselves. It is really good to have a working relationship with a class before we get started.

Anyway, that's all the time I have to blog. Theodore and Christina are taking up most of my time.

Enjoy your school year everyone.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Why I believe that Christ is God!

"Woa, I thought that was an educational blog!"
The last few weeks, I have been on my summer holidays (it's summer now in the southern hemisphere) and have not been thinking as much about school. What with my new baby boy and my daughter occupying me. Today, I caught up with a colleague over coffee and we began talking about God. I thought that this is something I should blog as it certainly comes under the criteria of "ramblings of [this] Australian teacher".

To cut a long story short, it seems that, these days, people are prepared to call Jesus Christ everything except for God. He is Lord, friend, brother, companion ... They side-step calling him God. Yet this is an essential part of classical Christianity. He is the "Word" who was from the beginning. Now, why does that matter beyond making an obscure theological argument? Read on and I'll tell you why I think it matters.

If Christ is God, then the Divine and earthly have been united in his person. It means that we too can be united with God. It means that matter can be a conduit of the Grace of God and that this world is redeemed. We too can pass from suffering and death into life. The alternative is not nearly as optimistic or beautiful.

In Christ, God shows the depth of his compassion for humanity and bridges the gap which we have created between us and God. If Christ were a mere prophet, then he could achieve little more than Isaiah or Hosea. He would be -almost- redundant. We can live in a "nice" world without an Incarnate God, but we cannot live forever without one.

Classical Christianity is meant to be gloomy, telling people that they are sinners and undeserving of God's Grace which is granted them despite their ingratitude. Yet, the alternative tells of a God who stays on his throne. The most that such a God would do for sake of self-revelation is give us a subjective "religious experience". I think I will stick to my Orthodoxy.


Monday, January 08, 2007

The greatest gift of all

Dear readers,

I have not blogged for a while, so here is my latest:
In the last two days I became the dad of a second child: a boy. We have named him Theodoros, a gift from God. Well, that's not his real name, only his alias on this blog! I also have a daughter, Christina. So my wife Mary and I can hopefully experience the joy of raising children of both sexes. Mary and Theo are doing well.

May all your news be as good.

Beamingly yours,