Fragments of meaning

It’s the first day of teaching literature to my year 1 secondary school class. I choose several poems, chop them up into individual sentences, and divide the fragments among the students. Each student gets eight to ten sentences, and their task is to create their own poem out of them. I encourage them to be creative. They can transform words, add or take away words, use different tenses, but they must keep the same basic structure and meaning.

I then ask each student in turn to take the floor and read their poem in the most dramatic way they can. They are all excited, but also anxious. One says, ‘I wrote a poem and I’ll read it but it makes no sense’. I say not to worry. I didn’t say the poem had to make sense immediately.

She reads her poem, and as she finishes there is a show of hands in the class. The students are eager to offer their interpretation of her poem. They are very inventive and constructive. The reader was so happy. I ask her which was her favourite interpretation. ‘All of them!’, she says.

The bell rings. For homework I ask the students to rework their poems and to prepare to perform them tomorrow. I say they can act them out dramatically if they like.

Tomorrow, after they have acted their poems out, I’ll have a debriefing session with them and get them to reflect on the word choices they made and to think about why they chose to perform their poems in the way they did.

Then — and this will be the big reveal! — I’ll read them the original poems and get them to talk about them too. Hopefully, the work they have done will stimulate them to engage about poems in way they couldn’t have done before, and to think about the power of words. Let’s see how it goes!

Brush up your peopleship!

It’s Friday morning and half of my class study German in another classroom and half French in our room. Today the French teacher is administering secondary school tests, so this is free time for the French group, and since it’s been a heavy week for them, I decide to let the students choose what they want to do. All of them chose to spend time with their hamsters (they each have their own to look after). However, Jane starts to play with Mandy’s hamster (Many takes German, so she is not here.) Mandy and Jane and have a love–hate relationship. They love each other, but they compete for attention and provoke each other. They are both very smart, talented, and positive children, who are capable of finding ways to get what they want.

In the class, we all know we’re not supposed to touch another person’s special possessions without permission, and especially not their hamsters, and super especially when they are not around. So I ask Jane not to play with Mandy’s hamster, please. She chooses to ignore me and decides to re-arrange the cage.

On her return to the class Mandy immediately notices that the cage is not as she left it. She raises her voice but in a controlled way, and says, “Jane, how many times do I need to tell you that I don’t want you to do that?” She then sits down and gets ready to do some work. Jane does not say anything, either because she does not know what Mandy is talking about or (more likely) because she knows and is shocked. This is not what she is used to. Usually Mandy would have made much more fuss, verging on a tantrum and disrupting class. But this was a much more mature and controlled response and therefore much more powerful and impressive. Mandy leaves us all speechless in the most positive way.

I turn to Mandy and say, “Well, what a powerful reaction, Mandy! Well done! You are one hundred percent right to feel they way you do, and the way you behaved confirms how right you are. You have lost none of your rights.” (I have explained to the class before that if a person responds aggressively, then they can lose some of their right to a grievance.) I ask Mandy, “How does it feel to be fully in control of your body, your behaviour, and your emotions – to be in complete charge of the situation and a hundred percent right?” She smiles and says it feels great.

I continue by asking the class to share their thoughts about what Jane did. They say she was wrong because it was not her pet for her to take, because she knew that Mandy doesn’t like her to mess with her things, especially her pet, because I warned her and she chose to ignore me, and, most importantly, because she did it to provoke Mandy.

With all these criticisms flying from her friends’ mouths, poor Jane feels bombarded and starts crying. I go and sit next to her. I wipe her tears and ask her to share how she feels. She says she is confused. “People change personalities every five minutes,” she says, “I don’t know who to trust any more.” Clearly she feels bad about what she did — which is great because now she can begin to reflect and amend her behaviour. But I leave that aside for her to work on. Instead, I say “I realise how unsettling it is for you that people change how they behave. But is it always bad to change your behaviour? Can we think of reasons why it might be good to adjust how we respond?”

Another student, Alex, puts up his hand, “It is good because it shows that we are getting better at friendship.” I say that that’s very interesting and ask Alex to more please. He says “I mean it gives us practice in … not friendship, but, well … peopleship.” Wow you guys, peopleship! How apt! Others call it “people skills” but “peopleship” captures what we mean so much better. We must come back to this later.

My eight-year-olds are growing up so fast and they are so mature that even some adults do not match them. They make me proud every day, even when they misbehave. The bell rings and they go to break and I am left full of happiness, pride, amazement. This is what makes class teaching so rewarding.

Science teaching in Salzburg

Last week I travelled to Salzburg to attend a week’s training on teaching science in primary schools, run by Pri-Sci-Net. It was a wonderful experience. I enjoyed seeing the city, met some lovely people, and learned a lot about science teaching.

An example of the many interesting sessions was one on Teaching the Nature of Science by Christian Bertsch from the University of Education in Vienna. The session was on method rather than content, and Christian focused in particular on the distinction between observation and inference and on the nature of scientific theorizing. He illustrated these with some practical examples. I’ll mention two of these.

First, Christian gave us sheet like the one below and asked us what we saw.

Drawing of what look like bird footprints

Most of us said we saw two sets of differently-sized bird footprints, moving from left to right, converging, and meeting, and then one set (the bigger) moving off again. Christian then asked us to interpret what we saw: What had happened? Most of us said that the footprints were of a bigger bird and a smaller bird. The bigger bird attacked the smaller and ate it, and that was why there was only one set of footprints walking off. Christian suggested we could use such examples in class to illustrate the distinction between observation and inference: we observe certain marks, and then we make an inference or interpretation to explain them.

I liked this example and will use it in class. But I would want to take it a bit further. With younger children I would probably do two things. First I would ask them to try to think of other interpretations of the scene. Maybe the smaller bird flew off; maybe it was tired and the bigger bird gave it a ride; maybe the marks weren’t made by birds at all, and so on. Second, I would introduce the importance of context and background knowledge. For example, an Austrian child looking at the white paper might assume she is looking at snow, but a child from a desert country might think of sand. Again, I would try to get students to think of more examples.

For older children I would focus on the observation/inference distinction. Can there really be observation that is completely devoid of interpretation and independent of background knowledge? After all, the observation statements we offered in the session were not completely neutral. People said they observed bird footprints, not geometrical shapes, and in doing so they were drawing on background knowledge of avian anatomy. Could there be a completely neutral description of the scene? Would a description in geometrical terms do? What about real-life cases? I might ask students to describe other scenes (say, photos from a magazine) in as neutral terms as possible.

The second of Christian’s examples involved a model — an opaque box with two ribbons passing through it parallel to each another. Christian encouraged us to play with the box, without looking inside. The interesting thing, of course, was that the ribbons did not always work as expected. For example, sometimes pulling the top ribbon to the right would cause all the other ribbons to retract; sometimes it would only make the top one retract. Christian asked us to formulate theories about how the box worked, make predictions, and then test them by pulling the ribbons in different orders.

Again, I thought this was a great way of introducing children to the idea of scientific investigation and the cycle of observation—theory-formation—experiment—new observation. Christian also suggested that the model could be used to illustrate the difference between scientific theories and scientific laws — the former, unlike the latter, being provisional.

As I understood it, the moral of the example for us as teachers was that we shouldn’t simply state scientific theories as established facts to be taken on trust, but rather present them as the product of a process of theory formation, just like that we go through in theorizing about how the box works.

Philosophers in the making

Another amazing day with my third graders, full of lovely surprises. We discussed rights.

We started with a comprehension lesson. We read a story set in Tudor times. It was about a little boy with a lame leg whose dream was to work on a famous ship with a wealthy captain, so that he could help his widowed mother and his many siblings. At last, he gets a chance to go on board and leaves with the ship without having had a chance to let his mother know.

To begin with, the kids were thrown by some of the words in the story and said they understood nothing. There were only about a dozen unknown words, but the kids were put off. After some dictionary work we went through the story together, discussing it a paragraph at a time. Suddenly, they couldn’t stop talking about the story: what they thought of the characters, disabled people’s rights and the way able-bodied people treat the disabled, how the boy’s mother would feel when one of her children didn’t return home, how their own mothers would feel if they didn’t…

During Ethics we talked more about rights. I begin by asking whether jellyfish have the right to stand up, a pig the right to vote, a man the right to give birth. The majority say ‘Yes’, but Jamie says ‘No’. She explains that a jellyfish can’t stand up, a pig can’t think or talk or hold a pen to vote, and men don’t have the right stomach to have a baby in. ‘So,’ I ask, ‘if someone cannot do something does that mean they don’t have the right to do it?’ ‘Yes’ she replies.

‘OK,’ I say, ‘now some group work. You know, in some societies couples are allowed to have only one child. Because of this some couples want to stop pregnancies when the mother carries a female baby in her belly because they want a boy.’ (I try using ‘foetus’ instead of talking tendentiously of ‘the unborn baby’, but the kids don’t take to it and revert to talking ‘the ‘baby in its mummy’s tummy’. I don’t push it, for now.)

There is sharp intake of breath from the class, but it’s more surprise than shock. I ask what they think about this. The parents obviously feel they have the right to choose the sex of their baby. But doesn’t the unborn baby have the right to be born? Whose right is stronger? I break the class up into groups and let them discuss the topic. I leave the class for a few minutes and wait outside the door. All I hear is the sound of eager voices.

I re-enter the room and ask them to tell me what they think. They all say that the unborn baby’s right is the important one. One of my students shares their personal story. She says that her dad wanted a boy but he ended up with three girls. ‘But he never thought of stopping us from coming to life!’ she says. We spend some time discussing this.

They are doing well – so well that I decide to challenge a little more. ‘But,’ I say, ‘the unborn child cannot think, cannot decide whether it wants to come to life, cannot express its right to life, so why should it have such a right? Earlier, Jamie said that if someone is not able to claim a right then they don’t have it. You all agreed with that. So what’s different now? Perhaps the unborn child doesn’t have a right to life and so the parents should be free to choose whether or not to stop the pregnancy.’ (I consider returning to the point about whether it’s right to call a foetus a ‘baby’, but they don’t seem ready for this and I don’t want to interrupt the flow of the discussion. I decide to leave it for a separate discussion with some facts about development.)

‘Yes,’ another student says, ‘but the jellyfish could never stand up, and the pig would never be able to vote or the man be able to give birth. But the unborn child will one day be able to choose for itself if it is not stopped from developing in a normal way. And no one has the right to stop it. That’s the difference.’

‘OK,’ I say, ‘but now imagine the pregnant mother receives some very bad news. She is told that she has a very serious disease and that being pregnant is making her even more seriously ill. She needs to stop the pregnancy and take some very strong medicine if she is to survive.’ The kids gasp again, and spontaneously break up into groups to discuss this scenario. Again, I leave them to talk for a few minutes.

Now they have all decided that the mother should not be allowed to terminate the pregnancy, since if she is so ill she will die anyway. The child would be able to live with its father and have a full and happy life. As one of the class is the child of a single parent father I don’t push it, but I admire their consistency and readiness to bite the bullet.

‘OK,’ I go on, ‘now imagine that this is a mother of four other very young children. This mother has no relatives and no partner. What about that?’ Again, there is a gasp. They still think that this baby has the right to be born, and they suggest that, if the mother doesn’t make it, the newborn baby and its siblings could all go to the same orphanage. I’m tempted to push them further and start talking about the mother’s rights, but I decide to leave this for another session. They are getting tired now.

One thing that struck me about the session was that the children seemed clear in the minds that parents (and, I guess, other adults that attend to them, including teachers) are only there for the kids’ sake. Do they just see us as means to their ends? Do kids naturally think like that, or are they brought up to believe it? Did I think of my parents like that when I was seven? (I can’t really remember, but I don’t think I did.) It’s an interesting question.

During Discovery of the World we talk more about the Tudors and watch some Horrible Histories videos. We discuss how people were different back then, how the times seemed more cruel, and how people dressed, looked, and behaved differently. A student said that if they Tudor people saw us today they would think we were ugly, poor, and not educated. ‘Perhaps rights were different back then,’ someone says. ‘Did Tudor people ask whether unborn babies had the right to birth?’

These were some of the thoughts of my third graders. I was proud of them. What impressed me was how well they engaged with this difficult topic, and how maturely and seriously they discussed it. A great start, I think, for children so young.

Charlie’s Mirror

I walk into the class with my third-grade students and ask them to sit down. Jamie and I had come into an agreement at the end of the previous day. She would sit in the front row so as to have as much of my attention as possible.

The kids sit down and Jamie picks an argument with her friend who has asked to share the desk. I turn to Jamie to remind her of our agreement and say that sharing a desk with a friend can be fun. Jamie makes a face at me. I reproduce the facial expression to the class and ask them what they think it means and how they would feel if they were on the receiving end. They say it is a hurtful face, an indifferent but angry face, an ‘I’ll pay you back’ face…

Soon they begin to list complaints they have against Jamie. She kicks us, they say, and pushes past us; she stabs us with pencils and is rude to us; she always wants her own way.

Jamie listens surprised. I’m not sure whether she is surprised because so many of them are complaining, or because of the long list of negative things, or because of what she is being accused of.

I turn to Jamie and say: ‘You do not really want to be this way, do you?’ ‘No’, she says. Then I turn to the class: ‘Jamie says she wants to be friends, but perhaps she is not very clear about the way she can do this. Can you imagine any situations where someone might behave like Jamie and not mean it?’

Yes, they say, if the person is shy, or worried about how they look, or afraid that people don’t like them, or if they are unhappy or lonely. I ask them what they could do to help her understand the situation. Be nice to her, they say. Remind her that she is not behaving like a friend when she is like this, that she is not being herself. Tell her that she upset our feelings.

Then a hand at the back goes up. It is Charlie, a child who hasn’t spoken before. ‘Yes, Charlie’, I say, ‘what do you think?’ Charlie says, ‘We should tell her that life is like a mirror.’

Wow! This is intriguing. I turn to the rest of the class and ask them what they think Charlie means. They are eager to reply, explaining that if you want to see how you look and are not sure, you look in the mirror. Then you’ll know. ‘So should Jamie carry a mirror with her?’, I ask. ‘No!’, the kids reply in excitement. ‘Her mirror is us! We show her what she looks like.’

‘But,’ I ask, ‘can a mirror show you how you would like to be? Because Jamie would like to be different from the way she looks to you.’ ‘No,’ they say, ‘you need to work at it. You look into the mirror to see what you want to change, then you make some changes, and then you look again to check that you now look the way you want. So it needs work from the inside.’

‘A mirror doesn’t lie,’ somebody adds, ‘it shows things how they are. If Jamie is nice, as she wants to be, we her mirror will be nice back to her. If we are not nice, then she may be doing something wrong.‘

I suggest that the children draw something with Charlie’s theme that life is like a mirror, and they take to it with enthusiasm. Then another student says: ‘I’ll draw myself just how I am, because I’m happy with who I am!’ Ah, bless!

And Jamie drew a really pretty picture of herself, looking very happy…

What a lesson, what bunch, what a day! I’m so lucky to have them all!


Here are some of the children’s drawings. (Click on the thumbnails to enlarge.)