Why do teachers grumble

 

 

workshop tally
A clear contract

I run workshops for pre-service teachers as part of the Understanding Teachers Work unit here at Murdoch University.

During one of many great conversations in our workshop yesterday, a student remarked:

“Teachers are always complaining about something. They talk about how wonderful teaching can be but then they spend hours going on about how terrible things really are.”

So, we are a profession of compulsory whingers, right? This was too good an opportunity not to scratch the surface of the statement.

Just this week, we were looking at the (lack of) systemic changes in education over the years. How things were, how they are and … how they are likely to be. As a stimulus to the conversation about the future, we used a useful and well publicised OECD study on six possible scenarios of Schooling for Tomorrow. Although a little dated (2004), the study offers some excellent food for thought.

In short (if you can’t be bothered going to the link), the report identifies six main scenarios that may (continue to) play out with regards to mainstream schooling.

1. Schools in ‘back to the future’

This scenario shows schools in powerful, bureaucratic, systems that are resistant to change. Schools continue mostly with ‘business as usual’, defined by isolated units – schools, classes, teachers – in top-down administrations. The system reacts little to the wider environment, and operates to its own conventions and regulations.

2. Schools as focused learning organisations

In this scenario, schools function as focal learning organisations, revitalised around a knowledge agenda in cultures of experimentation, diversity, and innovation. The system enjoys substantial investment, especially to benefit disadvantaged communities and maintain high teacher working conditions.

3. Schools as core social centres

In this scenario, the walls around schools come down but they remain strong, sharing responsibilities with other community bodies. Non-formal learning, collective tasks and intergenerational activities are strongly emphasised. High public support ensures quality environments, and teachers enjoy high esteem.

4. The extended market model

This scenario depicts a wide extension of market approaches in who provides education, how it is delivered, how choices are made, and resources distributed. Governments withdraw from running schools, pushed by dissatisfaction of “consumers.” This future might bring innovation and dynamism, and it might foster exclusion and inequality.

5. Learning networks replacing schools

This scenario imagines the disappearance of schools per se, replaced by learning networks operating within a highly developed “network society.” Networks based on diverse cultural, religious and community interests lead to a multitude of diverse formal, non-formal, and informal learning settings, with intensive use of ICTs.

6. Teacher exodus and crisis

This scenario depicts a meltdown of the school system. It results mainly from a major shortage of teachers triggered by retirement, unsatisfactory working conditions, more attractive job opportunities elsewhere.

Students then got to choose the one or max two scenarios which they think our broad schooling system in this country is at now and one or two scenarios they wish were in place in the future, especially as they head out in a couple of years as qualified teachers.

The picture above shows the voting results from the two groups (Monday & Tuesday):

The difference is striking. They mostly identified (and rightly so) we are at  scenarios 1 (‘Back to the future’), 4 (Extended market model) and 6 (Exodus and crisis). What they wish for are largely 2 (Focused learning organisations), 3 (Core social centres) and some 5 (Learning networks replacing schools).

“And you want to become a teacher? Look at it! Oh you dummies … why?” I said, in jest.

I continued: “There lies the heart of some of the deepest teacher grumbles. They may be expressed in references to day-to-day and seemingly petty things but the disconnect between what most educators came into the game for and what happens so often is telling. What is more, brochures, websites, press releases, mission statements, policies and similar texts are full of rhetoric couched in terms of scenarios 2, 3 and even 5. Teachers recognise, connect with the aspirational voice in them but realise they mostly pay lip service to the ‘real world’ of scenarios 1, 4 and 6.”

Why am I telling this to future teachers? Am I not just about condemning our profession and discouraging them to continue their study, do something else other teaching?

Perhaps – yes. But I know I am also helping to send out resilient practitioners who are not going to crumble under the first demand that pierces their bubble of ideal education nor will they fall for the shiny promises of the ‘new’, much of it mostly recycled (<- love this post, more goodness there from The Pedagogista). They may better ‘read’, understand the staffroom whinge, grasp the beers celebrating the end of term or the ‘hump’ week, and resist the temptation to become a superhero but instead be ‘good enough’ for the kids and colleagues they work with.

Because let’s face it – no matter what the future of schooling will look like, it is those good enough educators that will make it work. But there remains something about the examined life worth living…

Governed by freedom

I can pinpoint the moment that made it clear to me what I want to do as the topic of my PhD.

Last July, while visiting  the NetSpot offices in Adelaide, Mark Drechsler, a dear friend, colleague, a maths whiz, tertiary-educated, edu and tech-savvy, prudent and very ‘with it’ (please, this is a ramble, not a piece of sharp academic writing…) parent of an 8 year old told me a story. He wanted to check how his son would go against the NAPLAN literacy tests. The nub of Mark’s story, told in the clip below is this – after about 30 minutes of checking out laid out samples, graphs, bars, averages and bands provided by ACARA, he was frustrated with no clearer to his goal of finding out how his son would go, particularly when compared to his peers.

Here is Mark. A great, raw, un-edited, straight story from a parent-of-a-NAPLAN-kid! (and the insight of his son is … priceless!)

 

Right there and then I thought – what do parents make of NAPLAN? What about MySchool? For the next three years, this will remain my throw-away, BBQ line when someone asks me “what are you doing for your PhD?”…

Of course, these broad questions branch out and just invite more questions. One such tangent: If a parent like Mark can’t make sense of the info to parents provided in the name of transparency, what hopes do the parents of most of the kids I have worked with as a teacher have in interpreting it, using it, and for what purpose(s)? If used, how do they make sense of the samples, the bars, the charts, the bubbles, graphs, lines with a smattering of edu-lingo?

Soon after coming back to Perth, I did a quick readability test (text) of documents provided by ACARA to parents. If the stats provided by the Australian Bureaus of Statistics and a few online readability engines are to be believed, about half of the population would not actually understand the text on offer! Not to mention the graphs, charts and bands representing some pretty advanced algorithms.

What does that mean? Well, selfishly, there’s probably a conference paper on it. Something along the lines of a working title “MySchool – transparent but complex; implications for parents making ‘the right choice’ as governed self”

There is a body of literature on readability of documents with implications for people with poor(er) literacy, numeracy and graphicacy skills. Much of it comes from the medical contexts, where not understanding the information could carry serious health effects.

I will try to test the text presented with a few standard readability engines and measures. I am still looking for some sort of measurement tool for the degree of difficulty of understanding mathematical concepts in charts and graphs (if you know one, please do let me know! Thousand thanks!).

I could leave it there but the budding educational theorist in me needs to connect this to the field. As the second part of the working title suggests, I’m keen to see this through the lens on Foucault’s notion of governmentality as used and developed by Nikolas Rose in his classic ‘Governing The Soul’. The main idea of it is that we are governed not by oppression and top-down coercion but through our freedoms and choices that we make. Or rather – we are not governed, we govern ourselves instead. We are regulated ‘from inside’, knowing what ‘right’ choices we need to make in the ‘market’ as the dominant, pervasive way to imagine human relations in the late capitalist/advanced liberal democracies. We not only choose, we are expected to construe the course of our lives as the outcome of such choices, and to account for our lives in terms of the reasons for those choices. What I mention here is but a sketch, I do invite you to read more on it.

NAPLAN, MySchool materials are there for parents to make choices. Nowhere does it say what those choices may be but the weight, or rather the web, of societal, economic, political, educational expectations make the ‘right’ choices for us neoliberal subjects implicit – and very powerfully so.

And if we can’t choose, particularly where we are ‘meant to’? If we don’t understand the information upon which our choices depend on? These and more questions, asked by Mark and parents like Mark alike will keep yours truly dig, write, think and elaborate further. Just so I can publish a conference paper and be more marketable post-PhD …

Oh, the irony.

I write the tutes that make girls cry

You’ll have to blame Tony Loughland and Barry Manilow for that awfully punsy, a touch sexist and inappropriate title. But there is a little bit in it. The crying part.

As a PhD student scraping for every dollar I am one of the tutors in a unit called Understanding Teachers’ Work here at my alma mater Murdoch University. I run workshops for the first year pre-service teachers. Intro-to-teaching 101. The range of topic is great, understandably, and the idea of the unit is for students to recognise the complexity of this great profession of ours. Today, the topic was, roughly, understanding the diversity, dealing with parents/communities and issues of equity and social justice. Much to pack into two hours huh? To top it all off – I was running late on my prep so I demonstrated the time-honoured skill of winging it a bit.

The mantra in this unit has been: Ask questions! Of yourself, peers and beyond. And boy oh boy – we had a cracker!

I don’t want to bore you with the finer mechanics of activities but a few key links and rough outline will help.

First, we came up with a massive cloud of diversity and challenges students, teachers, parents and entire communities operate with daily. We listened to a story of the newly opened Jarjum College for Indigenous kids in Redfern (I heard it on the way to uni, half an hour before workshop kickoff … teachable moment 🙂 )

 

Story of the Jarjum College in Redfern
Story of the Jarjum College in Redfern

One student asked: But how is that fair to have a school JUST for Aboriginal kids? I’m sure they want to be integrated not separated from the society?

There goes 10 minutes of heated and quite thoughtful discussion, suggesting a bunch of work in unpacking the context and histories of the area and the Australian Indigenous cultures.

We sailed into ‘safe, white waters’ and I thought I’d flash this oft shown picture and quote.

We all chuckle in approval but ...
We all chuckle in approval but …

“OK, we all chuckle and nod in approval but … why? And just what are the alternatives? What would a different exam for everyone look like? Feasible? Practical? Desirable? Are we just used to our idea of ‘an exam’? …” and so on. Gold!

It was time to pull appart equality and equity. The two are often stuck together with such massive implications. So we did ‘the shoes‘, as described here by Lara David so well.

It's a beauty!

Short and sweet. Pennies dropped. I sensed many.

“And we want all to participate, right. Is that enough? What do you make of this?”

Participation

“OK, folks. You and me go into this thing called education to make a difference. I overheard it your discussions and we talked a bit about what that means and the differences in understanding among people last week. That’s great! We are here to make a difference. But do we? At what level? Consider this…” (flashed a few key quotes from Trevor Gale’s speech)

trevor gale

“So does the school system reproduce or re-construct society?” Another curvy one there. Much to talk about, think about, reflect on in students (graded, yes) journals for the unit.

Conversations, debates, voices, gestures as I walk around the room and eavesdrop and poke here and there.

“OK, so we want justice and equity. How do we do that? How do we get them? How do we get people to understand say … prejudice in the first place? Really understand it?”

Here is one possible way. Please do not do exactly this at home…

Brown Eyes/ Blue Eyes – Intro by P. Zimbardo

5 minutes left … “There’s another video that shows Jane Elliot more in depth with the kids. Goes for about 15 minutes. Show it?” Nods, nods, nods

And the tears? There were a few during and at the end of the workshop. I was honoured to see them, without pointing them out.

Yeah sure, we packed an ENORMOUS amount of stuff in here and covered a huge amount of ground very lightly. It borders irresponsible. But I do look forward to reading the students’ reflection journals. Today, the conversations, the questions (and the tears…) made me happy that we are about to send out another group of keen, thoughtful educators out there where stuff that matters hugely – happens.

What is it I do?

 

intersection
What happens there?

A number of people have asked me ‘what are you doing your PhD in?’  Sometimes, ‘education’ is enough but many who know me better or are a little more interested in what I do deserve a more thorough answer but without giving out  my 12,000 word proposal to read – that may be unkind. You can skip straight to the slideshow but the outline below will give a lot better idea.

National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is the annual high-stakes standardised testing of children aged between 8 and 14 in every Australian school in literacy, numeracy and grammar conventions. NAPLAN is a major part of the Federal Government’s education reform (no wait, ‘revolution’). Publishing of NAPLAN results and detailed school data on the MySchool website aims to encourage parents to hold schools accountable for student performance. MySchool is there to empower parents with data (NAPLAN, school profile, finances, staffing, socieoconomic indicators to name a few) about the school their children attend. Our current PM has publicly and repeatedly hoped that NAPLAN and MySchool website ‘encourage robust discussions between the parents and the schools’. Her predecessor (equally) famously claimed that ‘if parents vote with their feet [if schools aren’t performing] that is exactly what the system is designed to do’. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Makes sense? I mean, schools have to be accountable, everyone is these days… And while the policy unproblematically attempts to empower parents, there is a serious lack of research on how they respond to the challenges and opportunities created by NAPLAN and MySchool.

This push for accountability and business-like application of neoliberal market principles in education (‘GERM’; Sahlberg) runs hand in hand with another powerful manufacturer of ‘common sense’ – performativity. While performativity is nothing new, it has intensified over the past two decades in its influence on both educational policy development and parental responses to it. This intensification has been fuelled by the ascendancy of the mentioned neoliberal market-based ideology and proliferation of technological tools of measurement and surveillance.

Central to the functioning of performativity is “translation of complex social processes and events into simple figures and categories of judgement ” (Ball,  2003, p. 217). This transforms the view of education and its complexities into a set of indicators we can use to name, differentiate and, importantly, compare individuals, organisations, even entire educational systems in a seemingly hyper-rational, objective, unproblematic way. Constructed metrics encapsulate and represent the worth, quality or value of an individual or a school. Their reified and strategic use normalises and regulates what is valued and desirable as ‘quality’ and directs human effort towards what seems, in economic sense, a perfectly desirable, logical goal – a series of calculated performances to achieve the targeted outputs efficiently and with minimum of inputs. Schools, students, teachers have been getting in on the act and/or avoiding it in a myriad of ways. Much has been written about it. But we don’t know much about how this plays out with the parents, the increasingly important ‘educational consumers’.

Which brings me to the third ‘force’ in play here – parenting. Just how does NAPLAN feature, play out in parents’ lives? What do they (not) do about it? Anything differently? How well do the lofty goals of parent power envisaged and spruiked by our leaders really play out on the ground? And just how does NAPLAN and associated MySchool play out with parents coming from different socioeconomic, cultural backgrounds and experiences, rewards of schooling? How much or do the parents fear NAPLAN or do they see it as an opportunity? You see, the questions are … endless.

So, for the next three years I will be deeply interested in what happens at the intersection of policy, performativity and parenting in the context of NAPLAN by the parents of kids in three public primary schools.

In the early 2013, I will be visiting parents of kids in three very different primary schools – one comfortable middle/upper class pushing for and publishing NAPLAN results prominently, one middle-of-the-road with great focus on arts (area that, with sport, usually suffers first in the rush to prepare for NAPLAN), and one … what label shall we use: working class? lower class? struggling? disadvantaged? The kinda school I had worked in most of my career (if you’ve read any of my posts tagged ‘teaching’ you’ll get the idea). I will go there to talk to parents and learn, collect and interpret stories.

No, I am not trying to work out “what Australian parents think of NAPLAN”.  The aim of my study is to optimise understanding of the case rather than generalise beyond it. My study (a case study of parents in three very different primary schools) will not seek to represent all responses to NAPLAN by Australian parents. It will seek to capture, interpret and compare the cases of parents at each of the three proposed research sites and gain valuable local, regional, contextual knowledge Foucault speaks of.

At the same time, this may help us advance understanding the broader issue of NAPLAN, high stakes testing, performativity, and parenting and serve as a stimulus for other work in the area. A case study like this can be usefully seen as a small step toward grand generalisations or perhaps signal limitations to the existing grand generalisations.

I am fascinated by parents (well, I am one) and pressures, expectations, stresses they are put under as well as their ingenuity, commitment, understanding and sometimes plain rudeness and cold ruthlessness. While I have necessarily narrowed and deepened my PhD project, I think it is important to keep an eye on the broader trends, events and incidents that affect parents of school kids here in Australia and beyond. If you see any useful posts, tweets, sites, projects etc that have something to do with parents and education please do ping me on Twitter, here or otherwise. Many thanks.

Here are the slides … (link if the slides don’t show for some reason)


Enough to keep me busy for three years at least 😉 !

Ball, S. (2003b). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228.

Letting go – again

The Man Behind the Hand

This post has no expletives, unlike the much liked and first ‘Letting go‘. Maybe this is just a poor sequel, like in the movies. But just like the orginal, I write this with some emotion.

I write after a message from a friend in the USA. She is grieving over a tragic loss of two teens at her school. Violent loss of horrible kind, by the hand of someone they should never fear (sadly, only a few days ago, I too found out that a dear friend from former Yugoslavia died a gruesome, self-inflicted death a few months ago).

I write remembering my first ever lesson as a teacher 12 years ago. As part of ‘get to know’ you, I asked kids to write significant good and bad events in their lives. ‘My mum died and dad went to jail’ one 13 year old wrote and asked me not to read it aloud. Later, I found out that the father went to jail for murdering his wife in front of the kids.

I write remembering crashing the school toilet cubicle where a 15 year old girl lay drunk and unconscious in a pool of blood running from her slit wrists (she was saved).

I write remembering restraining a 13 year old schoolkid from suddenly jumping off the first floor balcony after being teased and bullied.

I write remembering the day when a young, 14 year old Indigenous student ran out of my class, only for me to physically try to stop him hanging himself a few minutes later. As we calmed down and walked towards the sick bay, his classmate hugged him and said: “It sucks when it doesn’t come off doesn’t it?”

I write after asking a class of a dozen teens to put their hand up if they know someone close and young who got killed or killed themselves – and a dozen hands went up.

I write knowing I could keep writing, sadly so.

I am not making this stuff up or embellishing it to extract some kind of sympathy or pity. None of these people wanted that either. All they probably wanted was empathy, someone to listen to them, understand them and maybe help them if needed.

We swim in anxieties and fears, seduced and accelerated by various ‘races to the top’. We are made increasingly anxious in accelerated societies obsessed with control, measurement, achievement, performance and ‘continuous improvement’. We blame the youth as ‘narcissistic’ and ‘immoral’ (what’s new…) but fail to acknowledge the surrounding rise in our collective seeing of relationships as calculations of their utility: what good is or could this person be to me?

In such environments, occasionally letting go of the fathomless striving, norms and expectations, just slowing down a little, listening and considering is a hard thing to do (and no, it can’t be measured). Before you think I’m romanticising, ‘letting go’ has its discomforts and pressures. From not being ‘part of the team’, potential material and symbolic losses to the extremes of ‘letting go’ in destructive ways mentioned above. These were people who had been ignored, pushed, brought to the edge by themselves or others. But safely letting go and seeing what is really, really important is vital. Literally.

Please, listen to the kids in your care. Laugh with them, challenge them, pull them by the bootstraps when needed, cut them some slack other times. Find the vents in them and yourself to ‘let go’ in a safe, but neither in a fakely sterile nor utterly destructive way.

Please – do not ignore them, no matter how rich or poor or dark or fat or young or blind or white or deaf or smart or troubled they are.

PS This one is for you Pam, the school community and the families of the kids lost. Thoughts with you all.

If you or any people you care about experience crisis, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 (Australia). Other countries have a similar service too, please find out and share the number to call.

The beast of performativity

dashboard
You?

There is a very good chance that over the past decade or so you have experienced one or series of reviews,  performance management meetings, appraisals, inspections, key performance indicators, benchmarks, bonus rewards and a myriad of similar management technologies that measured your ‘outputs’ and outputs of those in your care (eg. students). These would been compared, often quite regularly, and subsequently published for internal or external comparison, even ranking. Through these ‘events’, you had to, implicitly or explicitly, display ‘quality’ of your work, promote an active, enterprising, ever improving self according to some neat, objective (sounding) criteria which reduced complex social relations to a number, scale, list, standard, box or range.

Yes? Nothing new?

Now please, checking that people are performing, doing their job, is probably as old as labour itself. Didn’t catch that fish your people counted on – you all went hungry. Didn’t row fast enough in a slave galley – got whipped. Dug up enough dirt – got extra potato. Won a gold medal – got a bonus. Botched too many operations – got sued. Endless, really.

But there has been a shift in the educational landscape and beyond over the last fifteen or so years and the shift is intensifying. What counts as educative, valuable, effective, satisfactory performance and what measures of teacher and student achievement are considered valid has increasingly been determined remotely, outside the relational space of eg. teacher’s class of kids, school, community according to a set of distant, hyper-rational, objective-looking system that employs a stream of seductively neat, business-like judgements, criteria, standards, categories and benchmarks.

There’s an increasingly dynamic, ever-changing and incessant flow of changing demands, expectations, indications making teachers and students continually accountable and recorded, measured. Educators’ primary tasks (curriculum, care for students, engagement, research) have increased in volume but so have the second-order tasks of monitoring, reporting, documenting, and, put crudely, ‘putting the best foot forward’. In many cases, the secondary tasks of ‘performing’ has assumed the primacy. To make things worse, it’s not always clear what is expected.

And the most corrosive aspect? What is expected is inconsistent with teachers’ own best ethical and professional judgement. Teachers are increasingly made to value things that ‘count’ but know they don’t matter over things they think matter but don’t ‘count’.

Lyotard called it a system of ‘performative terror’. You are stuck, not sure what you do, question yourself, wonder which is ‘the right thing’ … and more.

Some of the main effects, observed and reported widely in USA, UK and Australia? Increased stress, and pressure, increased pace and intensity of work, change in social relationships and (eroded) collegiality among teachers, rising superficiality of measures, initiatives and changes, more paperwork  and maintenance, more surveillance, rising gap in perspectives, values and purposes between budget-allocating, managerial senior staff or higher and those below, on the ground dealing with students, and more …

By way of a couple of vignettes via Stephen Ball:

What happened to my creativity? What happened to my professional integrity? What happened to the fun in teaching and learning? What happened?

I was a primary school teacher for 22 years but left because I was not prepared to sacrifice the children for the glory of politicians and their business plans for education.

It’s as though children are mere nuts and bolts on some distant production line, and it angers me to see them treated so clinically in their most sensitive and formative years.

I have a sprinkling right through this site too, this story perhaps the most notable one.

This is just a glance at the phenomenon, the technology described producing these effects. It’s called performativity.

Know it? Got stories? Let me know. It is one of the central concepts I am looking at in my PhD project. Thanks.

References (if interested… not even a scratch here, rich field of research exists, check Stephen Ball in particular):

Ball, S. J. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of  Education Policy, 2003, vol. 18, no. 2, p. 215-228.

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: a report on knowledge, vol. 10. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

PhD – Planning Heroic Dreams

Sunday, 1 July 2012. It’s the eve of starting a life-changing journey. I am starting it voluntarily and happily. After over a decade of high-school classroom teaching I am starting my PhD at Murdoch University. Tomorrow.

After telling a few people about my decision to do a PhD, some have already jokingly called me Dr Lasic. Yeah, please, about 3 or 4 years later if all goes perfectly to plan. Sure, it’s a goal to reach but not really an ambition to be defined primarily as one (Doctor). It reminds me of migrating to Australia 20 years ago. I wanted to make it to Australia and change my life living here. It was never my primary ambition to become or be called Australian but I am happy to have become one. In the words of Deleuze, one of the key authors in my work, it’s a matter of constant becoming, always folding, refolding and unfolding. More on Deleuze some other time …

Why PhD? Over the past few years, I have been percolating ideas and done some writing and research, always interested in “why things happen (in education) the way they do?” The process grew after my Masters research and intensified while working with some of the most disadvantaged, but not helpless or pitiful, young people in our society. I want to dig deeper and see where the rabbit hole goes, knowing full well there is no end. You can’t stop learning.

I have seen the caveats, the warning signs, the stories of horror but also the stories of bliss, of the almost magic affordance to read, think and write, connect, grow, invent, mature  and change in the process. Parallels with running a marathon (and I have run five of those in the last two years) abound.

As part of my PhD, I will be joining a project Effects of NAPLAN. The project, funded by the Australian Research Council, is headed by Dr Greg Thompson (@effectsofnaplan), DECRA Fellow and long-time collaborator. As its title suggests, the project looks at the effects of NAPLAN, a federally funded high-stakes literacy and numeracy test run in grades 3,5, 7 and 9 across Australia.

Informed by some initial findings, my research will look at how a heightened sense of fear and anxiety about NAPLAN among Year 3 students, their parents and their teachers promotes fearful ways of seeing themselves and ways of acting upon it. I am interested in seeing how fear, an isolating, divisive and pervasive force and one of the key features of Deleuzian ‘societies of control’ has, and continues to, affect and alter many long present and expected sets of human interactions in the Australian educational landscape

I leave the classroom content and knowing reasonably well what many teachers’ daily realities are, what pressures they and the kids they teach can be put under and how difficult, but not impossible, is to change things. I know I run the risk of losing credibility with some people who, over time, might say: “What would he know, he last taught X years ago…” but I sincerely hope that being in touch with so many colleagues in person and online with allay some the effects of that physical, daily (dis)connect.

So! Tomorrow, I am going in necessarily naive. More accurately, naive enough not to be scared by the enormity of the project but not over confident in thinking this is going to be easy.

Or in the words, long thought about by of one my dearest students and written on my farewell card asking the question: “What does PhD stand for?”

Planning Heroic Dreams

And I will never forget these guys! You know, ‘low ability’, ‘no good’, ‘low this’n’that’. Yeah right, see it for yourself!

Fascinating places

I didn’t think I’d feel the need to write and reflect after the first day of term but now I feel like having a stiff drink to go with it. Last time I wrote in this state was my (in)famous goosebump story years ago in a different school.

This morning, I got punched in the face by a student, a teen. This one. Not the first time I got hit in my work but never before in the face. An expletive or two and a fake swipe that actually connected with my chin was enough to cross the line. A big line.

Reactions of kids were a study into themselves. They ranged from “No man, you don’t hit Tomaz!” to “What are you complaining about, he didn’t even hit you hard, you were leaning a bit anwyay. You are not going to report him for that are you?”. The former is a result of some desirable moral compass mixed with trust we built over the year, the latter a result of the world of violence, abuse, eye-for-an-eye and bullying of all kinds that many of these kids live in daily. Not ideal, not desirable but it just is. I filed an incident report, police were called in since this does constitute an assault on a public officer and the kid is going to be expelled on School Directors request. Where to for the kid? I fear to ask.

Kids and colleagues came up to me to check, had to calm everyone down and state that I am OK and I am happy to stay for the day, business as usual. Not a good start to the term I thought …

Watching the teens (mostly) increasingly restless with out new school drive towards vocational courses and going down the traditional school pathway they escaped from in mainstream school (more on that another time), I wondered what are we going to do after lunch. The often dreaded 90 minutes before leaving for home.

What we need is a challenge!

Colleague and I went loosely by the idea of the ‘Scrapheap Challenge‘ TV show (two teams using whatever they find to complete the task). The first challenge to the two teams of about six teens was to “get the ball as far as you can from the starting line without your body directly throwing or kicking it.” My group mulled between a hit with a steel pipe, a rigid, lever catapult and a slingshot only for the pipe and hit to win. Neat, simple solution that looked like a teeball. The other group went for a slingshot with a chair on rollers.

simple
Simple
Good idea too
Good idea too

The next challenge was “launch a piece of paper (and nothing else) from the balcony as far away as you can.” Paper aeroplanes (great way to search the internet *winks*), weird looking tubes, slingshots with all kinds of paper projectiles, paper balls. Winner? Our opponents this time, who cleverly scrunched the paper, wet it and made it into an almost solid, rock like object that was easy to throw very far.

You should have seen the kids go for it! ‘Learning outcomes’ anyone? We had science, social skills, maths, communication skills, problem solving, humour, persistence, engagement … the list of desirables goes on. It was simply awesome and done by kids who’d otherwise be hanging off the rafters or rolling their eyes in boredom, largely baulking at the stuff ‘curriculum’ throws at them.

We’ll do it again!

Now, this is not (all) about successful classroom strategies or science or discovery, even ‘learning’. It is about how schools, these strangely fascinating places, inscribe and code people to become in different ways. Teachers as controlling, ‘knowledge-holders’ and students as complying, ‘knowledge seekers’. How we become through what we learn. Not just how we store ‘being punched’ and ‘working it out with mates’ but what do those things do to us. And just how do we disrupt, re-code, re-purpose, subvert and negotiate.

It’s a fascination that will hopefully last and sustain me on my PhD journey over the next three years from July onwards (barring a major obstacle). Yes, I am leaving the classroom at the end of this term after just over a decade of teaching. It’s not (just) that I don’t want to be punched in the face anymore – I want to dig deeper.

And yes, I will have that beer now thanks.

Technologies of delight

Yesterday, I took our two boys (aged 6 and 3) to a place where they could be their best. Not the only such place but a great one nevertheless. The place is called Naturescape, free and right in the heart of Perth’s Kings Park. It is an impressive place with a particularly impressive (if not obvious) feature – its design was based on extensive survey of kids. What did the kids want? Dirt, water, sticks, rocks, stuff to climb, stuff to build, to craft and move.

Our boys dreamt up games, challenges and scenarios. They hung on and drew their breath while crossing creeks on tricky logs, climbing tall ladders, hanging off ropes or waiting if the structure they built with sticks is going to hold out. They built a dam, a bark boat, a ‘rock harbour’, read the map to find the way around, pretended to be Lorax standing on a chopped trunk (spot them on the pics below :-), spotted different rocks, plants and bushes, ran around a maze, fell off ropes, got wet, sandy, dirty, tired … a great few hours spent. It has also triggered a stack of stories and (no doubt) upcoming pictures, annotated cartoons, Lego creations on the theme and more.

As stated in the opening sentence – they were at their creative, acting, learning best.

When our 6 year old goes back to school this week, he will be expected to sit in a chair pretty still and ‘behave’ from 8.45am to 3pm. His teacher will be expected to ‘show progress’ with our kiddo on some pretty narrow parameters that dominate newspapers and societal DNA on ‘what schools should do’.

Likely results? Mr 6 will not be bouncy, creative self as much for sure and his teacher might feel guilty for not bringing the best out of him. Do I feel sorry for both of them? I do. Because a chair, a classroom and five-periods-a-day are not necessarily the things, the spaces, no wait … the technologies (!) that bring out the best in people. Every day I watch ‘at risk’ teenagers who turn into zombies when they walk through the school gate but they are brilliant mechanics, traders (just don’t ask what they trade…), bike riders, carers, navigators, budding chefs and lawyers (judging by their ability to argue finer points :-)) out there.

A chair, a classroom and five-periods-a-day (with a teacher who ‘knows’ and students who ‘don’t’) are simply historical accidents that we have found comforting to fund and support.

Now please, I would not just ‘get rid of schools’ but I would like us all in a society to think deeply and carefully about the lessons we can learn from watching the kids in places like Naturescape. And don’t for one minute think adults are hugely different and don’t want to play and learn.

Change by delight, not by fright. An old line we could heed a bit more.

And as I got home I came across this post by an old friend…

The no good Noongar kid

Meet ‘Ricky’. He is Aboriginal, Noongar his people. He’d be a poster boy for many of the statistics and labels entrenched in public psyche about this group of people, particularly when young – low literacy, poor school attendance, lazy, the only good thing he can do is kick a footy, use hands, drawing and art … want more? You want to hear his life story and reasons why he is currently in DCP care and protection? You don’t.

Ricky has just finished his first ever Big Picture exhibition (a presentation of student’s work over a term). He is pretty shy and I didn’t want to put him on the spot to ‘talk to an audience’ for half an hour. So we dropped ‘the standard model’ and did it together. I listed, introduced things he had accomplished this term, he explained them, answered questions, expanded, showed. Nobody stood up, we just sat around the table with another staff member who was our audience. It was a conversation with, around and about Ricky.

He explained in detail about his bricklaying ‘Try A Trade’ course (he did brilliantly there!) and his use of tools, principles of physics, maths, spatial awareness, precision, motivation, all in conversational manner.

We moved to his first website he started creating with me. It’s about dirtbikes – first picking the images (stage at now), then descriptions, followed by comparisons and reasons (all coming up next term). Through the conversation about bikes it emerged that he regularly gets spare parts off other bikes and puts them on his bike to fix it. Just like that, ‘no big deal’.

Then came a guided demo of of a couple of online games he plays – problem solving, maths, economics in action, right there on screen but without the fancy terminology and lingo to describe it exactly. But skill and knowledge of principles? Easy!

It also turned out that he has probably achieved the highest sporting achievement at the school this term by playing (well!) for Peel Thunder in the 2012 Nicky Winmar Cup (football tournament for Aboriginal youth with top metro, country, even interstate teams).

We talked about his care about getting the right spelling when writing his two journal entries and a couple of weekly reflections this term. Nobody in class writes slower out of care for getting things right.

We talked about his trampolining prowess, his ability to get along with students and staff, his calm and cheeky ways, the respect he gives and takes and which is miles from when he started coming to our school last year. He does not have any enemies here, truly.

At the end, he wrote down his strengths and weaknesses (pictured above). And we talked about them. He was really honest, he didn’t shirk back from saying he is lazy sometimes and wants to go and get more things done.

We laughed, shook hands to congratulate on a job well done. His exhibition took 55 minutes, more than any other in my room!

Not bad for a ‘no good’ kid who, on paper, has ‘low IQ’, ‘low aspiration’ and a bagful of other ‘low’ descriptors much like many of his brothers, sisters and cousins.

I have goosebumps as I write this, the colleague who sat in with us welled up with tears afterwards.

Low? Bullshit.

Go Ricky, you got my back any time mate!