Thursday, 10 November 2011

Confidence is music to my ears

Two years ago my musical instrument collection consisted of a solitary kazoo

I've never considered myself particularly talented outside of academia. I was always of the assumption that people were either creative or academic, that people thought in a spectrum of abstract to logical. As a result of this, I largely ignored musical instruments for a long time. Don't get me wrong, I love listening to music, but as someone that considers their talents to lie in traditionally less creative subjects I felt that being able to play would be beyond me.

I tried - I had a guitar that sat in the corner of my room, unused and unloved for two years because I didn't have the motivation to overcome the initial hurdle of practice without much in the way of feeling like I'd made any headway. The classic case of lack of success denting motivation to continue I suppose.

Fast forward a few years and I'm in my second year of my course. I'm not ashamed to say that I wasn't at my best personally at this point, so I saw a lot of my friends to keep my spirits up. One of the most unique things about them was the fact that they'd recently developed a love for the Ukulele as a result of one of them being given a Spongebob Squarepants Flying-V as a present. Going to visit was often followed by a rendition of the latest song they'd learned to play and soon I was attempting to pick up the basics, eventually leading to me picking up a small, cheap ukulele for Christmas that year.

My original soprano (left) and my electro-acoustic tenor (right)

The joy of the ukulele is how low the barrier to entry is compared to an instrument like a guitar. You have 4 nylon/gut strings spaced fairly far apart compared to 6 steel strings and the chords are as simple in some cases of one finger on one string at a time, which means you can play basic songs within minutes of picking a ukulele up for the first time. Not only that but the size makes it extremely accessible, allowing you to take it anywhere with you. 

The thing that really got me hooked was how easy it was to feel successful. Once I had the basics down, I started to play songs you wouldn't usually associate with a ukulele. I guess this is where the joy of Guitar Hero/Rock Band comes from - being able to play songs you never thought you could in real life. This feeling of success drove me to play more, which made me feel more successful, which lead me to play more, etc, etc. 

The thing that really drove me was more than the success, it was that other people were celebrating my success with me. I'd play together with friends, we'd teach each other songs and generally, and I think most importantly, have fun. This lead to a massive boost in self-esteem. I was good at something, something I never thought I'd be good at. I'd overcome the mental barrier of telling myself I can't do it and I did it. This was an incredible moment for me. What else could I do that I'd told myself, or for that matter been told, that I couldn't do?

Then I remembered the guitar (I mentioned it for a reason!) I had left lying around unattended for years. It had long since gone, so I picked up another. I practiced. The ukulele had given me a solid basis to transition - I recognised chord shapes, my fingers were more used to what was going on, my sense of rhythm had improved dramatically and again I had this sense of 'Wow, I'm doing it. I'm actually playing a guitar and it's not sounding bad'. It became an addiction. I loved playing, I loved this feeling of satisfaction it gave me and I loved this feeling of confidence it gave me. As of now, I own two ukuleles, a guitar, a tenor banjo and a mandolin. I've even become confident enough to open myself to a barrage of abuse on YouTube by sharing my songs with other people! The value of generating a sense of confidence cannot be overstated.

I started taking my ukulele into school, and that's where I really made the link to education. The kids loved singing songs, or hearing stories that went with a tune. They loved being a part of something that I loved doing. I even started using my ukulele as a classroom management tool to get the attention of the class and give non-verbal instructions, through the beginning of the Deliverance duelling banjos no less. Nothing quite says 'Tidy away' like a little riff that means the children really listen carefully! It was also something that the children wanted to be a part of - they wanted to join in and play the ukulele too because they could see I clearly enjoyed it and the beauty of such a small instrument is that it is incredibly accessible to the smaller generation.

This is where my musical journey comes full circle. Maybe I never thought I'd be any good at musical instruments because I never had a teacher that was keen enough or confident enough to instill this relation between playing music and enjoying it. I barely remember music lessons at school aside from the shrill screech of a class of badly played recorders. If I didn't remember it, I probably didn't enjoy it. I think that the most important thing I've learned from my musical journey is the amount of confidence it can instill. Music is seen as something that is relatively difficult to access, and being able to be successful from the off drove me to learn more and more, so there's no way I would let such an opportunity to give my children such a boost.

I think that this attitude to music is a particular positive for me because it increases the versatility of my teaching, especially as a Maths specialist (one of those people limited to logical thinking after all) to show that I have that more creative side that I can bring into other subjects.

I'll finish not with a tweet this time, but with a video showing where I am now from my humble beginnings of barely stringing two chords together. This is my favourite example of how much my confidence has developed - my first ever YouTube video. Rock on, fellow teachers. Get musical! Get confident!

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Shh... I'm learning!

Shh... I'm learning! Credit: inubleachanimefan
As I mentioned in a previous post, I spent the summer teaching English to foreign children aged between 13 and 18. One of the key methods employed in the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is speaking and listening. What better way to learn a language than to be chucked in the deep end and forced to converse with others, listening to what they're saying and replying back?

Initially, while I didn't particularly struggle, I did have to adapt my teaching style to include much more speaking and listening than I was used to. I didn't think too much about it at the time, but looking back I'm really glad that I changed the way I teach because it soon became apparent that Talk for Learning (TFL) is an incredibly useful, and apparently oft-overlooked, learning tool not just in TEFL but in native-language schools too.

At the very basic level, talking is where all learning begins. As Vygotsky mentions, 

'Real concepts are impossible without words, and thinking in concepts does not exist beyond verbal thinking'

but I wanted to talk about the use of TFL at later developmental stages. Namely, the use of discussions over more traditional methods of learning like reading and writing.

As I used more and more activities to enable my students to talk to each other, I became aware of how little I used the process in schools. Every teacher uses small examples like talk partners, but it's not often I see or use open discussions with children with little to no recording, which is a shame. I think the best lessons I've had have had children talking through what's going on and not having to worry about formal recording, but until I stopped to think about it I didn't realise that was the case. My favourite example is a maths lesson I taught on measurement - the children talked through the learning process of using the scales to measure correct quantities with each other in groups, converting from 'parts' to 'ml' mentally and undertaking a practical task that actively encouraged communication. In the end they hadn't recorded anything but the recipe for their new concoction, though they had recorded an awful mess on the tables.

The children really engaged with the lesson because they didn't have to worry about filling in results tables, writing methods or explanations or doing the 'boring work' of having to work out the sums - they picked up what they needed to learn and applied their knowledge of addition and ratio in a way that made them feel like they weren't even doing maths.

The one problem I came across when I was thinking about this was the assessment of TFL, mainly the fact that with written work there is hard evidence of the children's ability to write, whereas assessing talk is somewhat less formal. I would argue however, that with classroom technologies that enable children to record sound or even video to save and edit negates the 'no record' argument entirely. In fact, technology opens a whole new world of TFL - It's easier to talk to someone on the other side of the world and learn about their culture and traditions via Skype than via email or letter, so why not encourage its use more?

I decided to ask some of my former students what their thoughts were on how much I'd made them talk and if they preferred reading or writing instead. Selma, from Germany, made a balanced argument, saying

"Both is important, because if I just listen or just talk I can't improve my writing skills..and the other way around's the same! But reading/writing is sometimes really boring so I think I also prefer talking!

I quite liked this answer, diplomatic as it may be, because it not only highlights the fact that not all students prefer talking but also makes the connection between all three facets of language - they are all mutually dependent. Jasmin, another one of my German students, has this to say-

"If you cannot spontaneously think and speak about a problem in class, you may not be able to do it when you have an exam text either and need to think about it"

This continues the theme of what Selma was saying - the processes of reading, writing and speaking and listening are inherently linked. Jasmin makes a connection to Vygotsky's point about not being able to think without language, so the development of speech is incredibly imporant. Jone, one of my Spanish students, had a slightly briefer though quite fascinating point -

"Talking. Talking is more natural than writing."

This links really well to what Vygotsky said - Vocalising thoughts comes a lot more naturally than writing or reading and I think that children should be encouraged to use the method that makes them feel most comfortable. That isn't to say that I will forgo reading or writing by a long shot, but I think that Talk for Learning needs a much more prominent role in the classroom if we are to develop more confident children. I feel I am not going to have a quiet classroom and I'm proud to say it.

VYGOTSKIĬ, L. S., & COLE, M. (1978). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

And thanks to Jone, Jasmin and Selma for answering my questions!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Forgotten Teacher

If there was one thing that Sunday night taught me, it's that Twitter can be an amazing tool for generating discussions about a topic. Often, as it would seem, way into the wee hours of the morning. If there were two things that Sunday night taught me, the second would be that I have something I want to ask myself: Why do I want to be remembered as a teacher?

The question was first asked to me by Oliver Quinlan, a lecturer at the university, after I made a throwaway comment about my role with the Student Teacher Resource.

My initial rationale was simple - I remember the teachers that made an impression on me (for good or for bad), but those I don't remember... well, I have nothing to remember them for. The good teachers I will remember for inspiring me, pushing me to do well or generally make the lessons interesting. Steve Wheeler sees things pretty much the same by the looks of things:

I remember my chemistry GCSE and A-Level teachers really well, for example, because they had the ability to engage my practical side through experiments. I mean, who would forget that potassium burns with a violet flame when you get to burn paper that's been soaked in potassium chlorideA cheap trick, maybe. But at the end of the day, I still remember what colour flames are produced when alkali metal solids are present. Of course, this leads into teaching facts vs process, which I don't want to touch on this time. What I got out of the showmanship however, was a much greater interest in the subject, that it caught my attention (What teenage boy doesn't like playing with fire?) and then spurred me to engage with the learning and even go on to find out more about the subject. My point is, that if you're forgotten it's not likely you've made an impact on that child.

Oliver, being Oliver, asked the question again. Why do I want to be remembered?  Well I look back on my time spent with these teachers and I see how, many years later, what I learned from them is still with me, whether it be fact or process. They have made a lasting positive impact on me, so why would I not want to do the same for the children I teach? 'Yes!' I think. 'I actually answered it this time'. Apparently not. I'd answered the 'what' I want to do and not the 'why'.

Is trying to inspire children not an admirable trait of a teacher? Is there a reason why teachers aren't allowed to feel good about doing a good job? Of course, I'm not saying that teachers are merely in the role to satisfy their egos, but doesn't everyone derive satisfaction from being successful in something they love doing? If you don't feel good about yourself for being a good teacher, then one can argue that it's probably not the right job to be in. 

Oliver finally asked 'How does feeling good about yourself help the process though?'. I think that this is a simple one to answer. Motivation. It's motivation to keep teaching, it's what drives teachers to succeed, to keep going through rough patches because at the end of the day they know that those moments of success make it all worth it. Surely people become teachers because they want to have this positive influence on their students? I know I did. I'm not afraid to say that I want to be remembered as a teacher, not because I want to feed my ego (anyone that knows me knows how modest I am) but because I want to have made a significant positive impact on those I teach. As I usually try to do, I'll end this with a tweet. Who says pride is a sin?