Sunday, 9 February 2014

Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.

Most great learning happens in groups. Collaboration is the stuff of growth.
-Sir Ken Robinson Ph.D. 

Yesterday I sat in a staff reflection at the end of the first week and a teacher reflected, “I am in love with team teaching. Every teacher in New Zealand should find ways to do it and give the kids of New Zealand this incredible opportunity for accessing learning at a completely different level than we can do by ourselves in single classrooms.”

And I agreed and then I just kept the meeting going. But I shouldn't have. I should have stopped then and there and done something momentous. 

Because I nearly cried when I heard that. It’s all been worth it. The sweat, the tears, the joys, the debates, the cajoling and the facilitating. After three years of planning and working towards it, we are in our new school buildings and teachers are finally able to truly work together in learning communities with large groups of students of mixed ages. 

I became convinced of the merits and advantages of team teaching many years ago- way before the advent of MLE (Modern Learning Environments). When I started team teaching in 2002 we literally cut a hole between two classrooms with a chainsaw one night so that we had a shared space. There were no beanbags and very little technology. We created individual timetables on papers and fought a lot of big and little suspicions about why we were doing it, from people who were terrified that the change might be forced upon them.

What you gain as a teacher working in a larger space with other teachers and larger numbers of students is comprehensive. It is the best professional learning I’ve ever done, and continue to do. And it makes you a much better teacher. You have to think about, and discuss everything you do. It is tiring, it is exhausting and sometimes you just want to shut yourself in your own room and do your own thing. But the benefits for those kids you have the privilege of learning with and responsibility for are extreme. I’ve always said my teaching became exponentially better the first year I started team teaching, and I truly believe that. It has continued to become exponentially better every opportunity I’ve had to team teach in the last 12 years.

To see that vision for team teaching come alive across a whole school- not just a primary school but a school encompassing Year 1-13, and to see groups of mixed ages learning together successfully is truly exciting. To see their learning truly focussed on an integrated inquiry focused curriculum instead of focused on separate learning areas right through to Year 13 is true life long learning.

It’s exciting and mostly unchartered territory and its no longer just the territory of new schools in major cities which tend to be in higher socio economic areas.

We've done it while working with these kids for the last three years. We didn’t have the privilege of a years planning and thinking time without our students on board. We started with our kids three years ago in run down temporary buildings. We had a full roll from Day 1- none of the opportunities building a year group at a time gives some new schools to really refine their practice a year at a time. 

Our kids aren’t necessarily the most well prepared for school. Some come having rarely seen a book. Most don't have internet at home, and many battle a lot of social demons on their path to adulthood.

But they deserve this stuff as much as any young person in a privileged big new city school in Auckland or Tauranga or Wellington.

In fact this is imperative for them. We are here to help them make a real difference to what the rest of their lives can be. And by working together in teams of teachers with groups of students I passionately believe we’ve got a much better chance of doing that.

Why would we continue to imitate- and poorly because of our size- a secondary system that has dismally failed some of our most vulnerable learners for years? 
Why would we, when our kids live such whanau based lives, continue to segregate kids by year groups?

Our young people have adapted over three years to a very different schooling system. The benefits of time and the energy of a small bunch of committed and caring educators who have worked tirelessly against some back breaking physical conditions at times have helped, but our kids are the ones who have adapted the most despite their initial suspicions and misgivings at something that was so different from their understanding of what school should “look like.”

Now we are in our very own purpose built MLE they are thriving, but only because that vision for learning started three years ago, way before we moved into the flash buildings or new “modern” furniture.

Change is scary for everyone. I think its probably much scarier for adults than for young people. But I say to the teachers out there, still convincing themselves that THEY need their own classroom and THEIR own control, who is it all about? Who is the future for? And if you are still doing the same thing you were doing in a classroom even 10 years ago- even if it was excellent practice then- is it really serving the young people trusting in you the best?

Ive heard it said before- the way our classrooms have operated for years doesn't just need tweaking, it needs to be completely overhauled. Don’t use the excuses that you don’t have the property, or the flash stuff, or the leadership team is against it. Three or four teacher heads in a classroom with 60-75 kids is going to move each kid so much further than one head focused on 25 kids. And teachers need to let go of a fair bit of the ego that is present in many single cell classrooms to achieve that. 

And it is our most vulnerable learners that need this the most.

Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.

-Helen Keller

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Pity the Plight of Young Fellows...Jono Broom

Pity The Plight

Pity the fate of young fellows
Too long a bed with no sleep
With their complex romantic attachments
All look on their sorrows and weep
They dont get a moments reflection
Theres always a crowd in their eye
Pity the plight of young fellows
Regard all their worries and cry
Their crusty young mothers were lazy perhaps
Leaving it up to the school
Where the moral perspective is hazy perhaps
And the climate; oppressively cool
Give me some acre of cellos
Pitched at some distant regret
Pity the plight of young fellows
And their anxious attempts to forget

These are the tears of a thug like murky water
Crying tears as clear as mud for his fathers daughter
His half-sister; he felt obliged to support her
Since her mum was poor and his dad died even poorer
Separated until she was 8 years old
He knew as soon as he saw her
That he adored her, so hes baying for blood with a borer
And an automatic weapon; Smith & Weston
Thatd split a fucking hole in your chest then hes been looking to corner
The perpetrators responsible for a killing
Now hes finally got em where he wants em
Blood will start spilling
The atmosphere in the air tonight is chilling
The blanket of stars above their heads in the sky feels like a ceiling
Slowly crushing down on em as the terror starts progressing
That leaves the youngest of the two open to his suggestion
Only 13 years old; pubescent adolescent
About to learn a very harsh and depressing lesson

These are the tears of a wanna-be thug
Crying tears as thick as blood cause his elder set him up
To take the fall and now hes stuck with no way of getting out
Cause even if there was a way hed still want to vent this anger out
Without a doubt these streets are rife with corruption
Young minds get corrupt even so easily fucked that only leads to destruction in the end
False assumptions that people have your back makes you believe they're your friends
All though some represent; no one can be trusted
One double O per-cent cause some thugs will go to lengths
To get revenge
Even if it means manipulating youths to carry skens and do the dirty work for them
The kind of work for men
That route the dark is past
Not impressionable young children that never had a chance
Growing up in his manors most are doomed from the start
Cause the minds of their peers are as ill as their hearts

Published by
Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

This poem is from a movie called Ill Manors. The movie is a story of survival, and a story of reputation.

"From church goers, to sports fans, to gang members, the drive to join some version of a tribe and the benefits derived from membership are undeniable. It appears that we do best when we keep at least one foot firmly planted in our tribal past."

"...teachers who are able to tap into the primitive social instincts of their students through attachment relationships and build tribal classrooms succeed in seemingly impossible educational situations. Over and over again 'tribal' teachers find ways to teach students thought to be 'unteachable'."

The Social Neuroscience of Education, Optimising Attachment and Learning in the Classroom, L. Cozolino.

Cozolino states in his book that people are drawn to tribes, whether it be gangs, church groups, sports teams, schools, classrooms, families, or any number of others. He also states that being in a tribe can help to reach students who were previously thought unreachable. But how do we create a tribe? What is the prerequisite of a tribe?

It has to be somewhere that people feel comfortable, and it has to be somewhere that they want to be.

Think about your classroom for a minute. Do people want to be there? Does everyone in your room feel comfortable, feel like it's their space, feel part of a tribe?

The alternative is worrying.

In the first verse of the lyrics from Pity the Plight it says:

"Their crusty young mothers were lazy perhaps
Leaving it up to the school
Where the moral perspective is hazy perhaps
And the climate; oppressively cool"

This tells me that the people this author is writing about don't feel a tribe in their family, and their parents or parent left their well being up to the school. The school however has an authoritarian or dictatorship style of governence and the youths can't feel a connection with the teacher or the classroom. They don't feel like they belong, they don't feel part of the tribe. The poet goes on to talk about the gang these children join, in order to feel worthy, to get some respect, and to fit into a tribe somewhere.

By using restorative practices in a classroom and a school, we can help children, and adults, to show respect to each other. To feel like a valued member of a tribe. To take them away from a world of drugs, and violence, and ultimately death.

Fundamentally it is the parents responsibility to raise their children, but it is the teachers responsibility to know their learners, and to ensure everyone feels comfortable in their own space. When I say know your learners I don't mean just know their name. I mean know them. Look at them in the morning and from that one glance tell if something's wrong. Tell if they had breakfast that morning. Tell if they've been forced to come to school sick. Tell if they feel like they haven't been treated as an individual at home, and do you best to make sure every single individual feels respected at school.

One thing that changed my mind forever about teaching was something my team leader and tutor teacher said to me when I was provisionally registered. We'd had a particularly hard day with the students, and I was complaining about it to her, however she didn't join in, she simply looked at me and said "They're only kids Jono." Those four words completely stopped me mid sentence and made me rethink everything I'd been saying and thinking.

They are the kids. You are the adult. We're all humans.

You require respect, but so do they. Don't treat them like they're the scum of the earth, because they're not. Respect them for who they are, respect them for what they could be, respect them as individuals, and they will do the same to you.

I leave you now with the final verse of John Cooper Clark's poem Pity the Plight.

Pity the plight of young fellows
Consider their troubles and moan
Embrace them when they seem downhearted
Otherwise leave it alone
Everyone owes them a favour
Nobody comes to collect
Pity the plight of young fellows
And their passionate need for respect.