> Mrs. O'Neill's Blog: 2007

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

And snow it begins...


At last the snow has started and we are starting to find out why there are 'snow plow' signs on all of the streets. I haven't actually had to drive in the snow yet, but I am going to have to sooner or later. Many of our students who became drivers this year, are talking about their first attempts to drive in the snow and admitting that they find it a bit challenging.
Advice abounds. Drive normally. Drive much more carefully. Pump your brakes. Don't pump your brakes. Take you foot off the gas if you skid. Put your foot gently on the gas so that you can drive out of the skid.

The most difficult thing to deal with so far? Where to park the car when a snow emergency is called and snow plows (yes that's the spelling) must have access. The rules are simple. The first night, from 9 p.m. until about 6 a.m: No Parking on Night Plow Routes until the street is plowed to the 'curb'. You can however park on the non night plow route of residential streets (one side of the street that is helpfully not marked at all). The following day, from 8 a.m. until about 5 p.m: No Parking on Day Plow Routes until the street is plowed to the curb. Except you can park on the side marked Night Plow on residential streets which run north-south. You can't park during the day on streets which run east to west. Clear?

As someone wearily remarked... 'You have to be born in Minnesota to understand it.' I wasn't remotely surprised to learn via the local news channel that on Day One of the Snow Emergency the city towed over 700 cars. So it's not just me scratching my head over the rules.
Still... the snow really does make if feel as if Christmas is coming.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What is Thanksgiving?


I’ve been looking forward to my first US Thanksgiving for quite some time - admittedly because I get two-and-a-half days off school… However this week my speech class have been regaling me with their definitions of this truly American holiday. In amongst the clich├ęs you can discern a genuine fondness for the rituals and routines…and a touchingly gruff and bashful belief that it is a time to ‘be grateful for what you’ve got’. How does it compare with Christmas? ‘Much better’ was the general consensus.

Inspired by my foreigner-type enquiries, another non American student asked permission to put some questions which had obviously been bothering him. What were cranberries? Were sweet potatoes regular potatoes with sugar? Did everyone sit at the same table? Could you eat anything other than turkey? The rush to educate him was very gratifying.

The mood turned a little sour when he asked, ‘What is stuffing?’ because it became very clear that the Americans have exceptionally strong views on the actual sourcing, ingredients, weight and cooking methods of the aforementioned substance. I had to physically separate two normally somnabulent football players who were personally aggrieved at the disparate approaches favoured by their families.

In an attempt to change the subject I asked about the vegetarian experience of Thanksgiving. Big mistake. I had to reassure them that I was simply asking, and not actually a vegetarian myself, just a foreigner.

We pondered the issue in silence for a moment. A vegetarian Thanksgiving hadn’t been considered. A few timid girls admitted knowing some vegetarians but they weren’t sure what they did at Thanksgiving. ‘What did they get for dessert?’ asked my fellow foreigner. Then it was ‘pumpkin pie’ versus ‘pecan pie’ until the welcome relief of the bell.
‘We will continue this tomorrow,’ I said to disperse the rabid pumpkinites, privately planning to have tomorrow sewn up in a very different direction.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Really High School





This morning’s speech class was supposed to focus on the speeches of Franklin D Roosevelt. We did manage to cover one of the speeches. Personally I found it really interesting to see the longevity of political rhetoric. I’m pretty sure my enthusiasm for the subject was a mystery to my class. Possibly this was because they were the most excited and distracted they have ever been. Rather strange at eight o’clock in the morning. Six of the class (just over 25 percent) were sitting in their American football gear –as is normal here, on a game day. The rest of the class (including me on school directive!) were dressed in the school colours of red and white… Husband kept calling me ‘Sweeney Todd’.

Tonight’s game is a bit of a milestone – if we win it, the school moves forward to the state championships. This will be the first time we have progressed this far in ten years –a long time in the life of a school.

What with Halloween just over, and the school still swilling in candy and pumpkins, today’s pre-game excitement seethed and boiled like a saucepan of raspberry jam…

I lurched through my classes (‘How Homer creates tension in the Odyssey’, ‘Understanding the characterization of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman’ and ‘Appreciating the language techniques in The Great Gatsby’) to a good-natured but frankly uninterested student body. During final hour - the school day finished with another assembly or ‘pep rally’ to give the football team a big send off.

Emotionally exhausted I returned to the blessed silence of my classroom to finish ‘doing my grades’ for the quarter. Next week we have parents’ conferences. Why does that sound more ominous than parents’ night? Never mind –we have a full day off, following the conferences. Before you start getting jealous –this will be my second day off school since it started back in August.

The late news –just posted on a local tv station website is that our football team have been well and truly trounced. Oh well, the dream is over (until next year).

Friday, October 19, 2007

Me and the natives



I’ve been teaching the Iliad and the Odyssey to classes this last while and – enjoying it too, somewhat to my surprise… Last week I had set students the task of writing a soliloquy for Achilles. They delivered their speeches this week, and to be honest I was flabbergasted by how confident they were. Considering that it is a mixed ability class, and that the Iliad isn’t an easy text, it was an eye opener for me. Only one pupil asked me if he could give his speech before a smaller audience, and even then he was willing to come in after class three days running to practice it before a small audience until it was ‘good enough’ to be graded. The point is, they took ‘the talk bit’ seriously.

I couldn’t help feeling that I have underestimated the role of talk up until now. These students have been giving speeches and talking before their classmates for years, and frankly, it shows. Added to that, many of them admitted not really understanding the Iliad until they had to imagine what Achilles was thinking, and then perform it.

Buoyed up with my success, I gave a somewhat disaffected student the words of the song ‘She moved through the fair’ and asked him if he would read it, not as a school text, but as if he had just found it on the ground. He read it in the stressed rhythm of a subdued rap poem. The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck by the time he was finished, and the class loved it.

I was brought back down from my American dream in the teacher’s lounge when I enthused about the speeches, and commented on the difference between American and Scottish kids in this respect. ‘The thing is,’ one colleague explained brightly, ‘You will notice a difference, because now you are teaching native English speakers…’

Thursday, October 11, 2007


I am slightly overcome with the American experience, and just getting through each day by nodding wisely when I am particularly confused. As a result the student impersonation of me includes an unintelligible accent (or brogue as they insist on calling it) and lots of head nodding...
It's a great experience seeing another education system from the inside. It's the small things you notice first. I regularly forget that 'foolscap' is called 'looseleaf' and that you don't 'take the register' you 'take attendance'.

I'm still looking out for ways I can use new technologies and actually add something by doing that. Our school does have a site for teachers to post lesson plans and homework to, which is great, but I am not aware yet of how much teachers here use the internet for, apart from that.

The students are doing that thing they do, of pretending that the Internet doesn’t exist for them in the context that I describe. They look vaguely embarrassed if I mention facebook or myspace in the sort of way we did when teachers asked us if we liked ‘The Stranglers or whatever they are called’.

Meanwhile back in Stranraer one of my previous pupils is writing away, blogging about all of these issues and wondering if teachers are planning to use them.

So inspired by Jemma I am looking out for a good project for a wiki.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Homecoming Week


This has been a great week at school with lots of excitement about the homecoming game. Today we had a big homecoming assembly at 11.30, and then the entire school was given a half day. The homecoming assembly was a surreal experience for me.

It’s difficult to describe. We assembled in the gym which was decorated last night by a large number of pupils wielding acres of paper, dozens of cans of silver spray paint and carte blanche to design thrones for the princesses. Each year group, 9th Grade (freshmen) 10th grade (sophomores) 11th grade (juniors) and 12th grade (seniors) had their own throne to design and build. After singing ‘The Star-spangled banner’, and various other songs accompanied with dancing cheerleaders, several girls were crowned as ‘princesses’ and escorted to their thrones by their ‘princes’. Finally our ‘queen’ was crowned, the crown going to the princess whose homeroom (sort of like their registration class) had sold the most candy bars for our big fundraising effort.
After that we were introduced to our football team (there seemed to be about 100 of them). Finally the school broke up. I had to pinch myself several times to make sure I wasn’t just imagining it all. So frustrating having no-one else to nudge!

Tonight is the football game. We are playing at a local stadium against another high school. As far as I can tell most of our pupils will go along, and they will be joined by past pupils (alumni) and parents.

The thing that struck me the most about all of this: the pupils loved every minute of it. Think I might have underestimated their love of seasonal rituals.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Asking for feedback



I bit the bullet this week and asked my students to let me know how they were finding my teaching. I explained that I didn’t mean personal remarks just whether they felt I was helping them to learn, and what I might do better. I asked them to respond in particular to my 'comment only' marking on their last assignment. They duly took out a sheet of loose leaf -after we had discovered that ‘foolscap’ is not a term used in this part of the US.

I was worried they might be either too hard on me, or less helpfully, too nice. There were a few responses of the worryingly ambiguous type - 'I can't think of anything you could do to be a better teacher'. But they were also quite direct too –which was refreshing. The following is fairly typical of the responses I got.

‘Thank you for saying that you liked my introduction. I didn't think this one was any good. Why did you?'

'I agree that I need to work on my paragraphing. To be honest I don’t understand how paragraphs work. I never did them at my last school either.’

‘I rushed this homework because I wanted to go out to a movie with friends. That won’t happen again.’

‘I liked what you did with not giving us our grades right away. I would like if you wrote more comments.’

‘What is juxtaposition?’ (Er… my favourite word?)

‘You didn’t explain that we needed to have more than one example’ (I hadn’t either!)

and my personal favourite:

‘I like your accent. I wish I had one.’

I’ve found out what ‘Homecoming’ is. It’s the first home game of our school football team –and it takes place next week. We have been fundraising, voting for princesses and decorating our classroom doors all week. More about this soon.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Access at last!


Finally we negotiate the peculiarities of internet access for foreigners in the USA. I must admit I was surprised to find that getting properly connected was so complicated.

Life is still a bit messy. We are living out of suitcases and borrowings at the moment.

But school has been going for a couple of weeks and I am just starting to take a deep breath. Making sense of homerooms and grading systems, semesters and sophomores has been pretty challenging. I’m in the early stages of translation (things go through the Scottish filter: sophomores -that’s fourth years, attendance that’s registration.)

Grades are very important. Pupils, sorry students, constantly ask for their grade.

I’m determined not to lose some of the AifL skills I’ve learnt over the last while. I have actually managed to get a couple of classes to read my ‘comment only’ marking. They have been told they will get their grades later in the week when I am happy they know what to do to improve. They can hardly wait…

In the staffroom (sorry teacher's lounge)I try to refrain from asking too many silly questions. What is homecoming for example? I will be finding out tomorrow. Apparently I will be selling candy bars until then. Is this a metaphor for something else?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Where am I?




I'm not sure how to explain this -and since I've only got around five minutes access I will have to be brief. But here's the thing. I've changed my job.

I'm still teaching, but I've made quite a big move. This summer when we came to St Paul for a holiday I applied for a job which I saw on the Internet. I'm teaching in a K-12 school in inner city St Paul.

The last few weeks have been... homeric.

I'm not sure quite what to do with the blog. Keep on blogging as a teacher in the USA
or start a new blog?

Anyway my time is up...

Hopefully will get connected soon.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Bridge Disaster on the Mississippi River


We were sitting eating takeaway pizza tonight and talking about the noisy sirens out in the street. Must be some sort of fire we speculated. Not a surprise given how dry and hot it was. I tried unsuccessfully to contact my brother in law Tony about our plans to take a boat trip on the Mississippi. The cell phone service was unavailable.

We decided, despite the heat, to go out for a walk along nearby Summit Avenue - a beautiful tree lined street that was home to F Scott Fitzgerald for a little while. The street seemed unusually quiet. Normally there are loads of people walking dogs, roller skating or just walking in the warm evening air.

A car drew up alongside us and a man leaned out. ‘Hey!’ he shouted, ‘Have you heard the news? Bridge on 35 has just fallen into the river. The whole thing! Right into the river!’

He drove on leaving us looking at one another. What was that about? We walked home and turned on the TV. And there it was –news that a bridge had come down during rush hour on one of the bridges that links Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Several people thought dead, many injured.

The 'phone rang and it was Tony. 'We're fine! You okay too?'

It was sobering and we felt sad for other families, who were probably coming in for evening meals and wondering why someone was late.

Life is fragile.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The O'Neills are in Minnesota



My blog has been rather quiet over the last couple of weeks and for good reason... School didn't stop until the 6th July and on that date I moved house. Or at least I moved out of my old house, put everything in storage and then went on holiday.

We arrived in Saint Paul on Tuesday. We're here for five whole weeks.

I am hopefully going to blog about my holiday on my seawall blog which you can find on Summer Blogs. I am blogging there with a couple of fifth year pupils from my school - so far their blogs are a lot more interesting than mine, so please have a look.

I hope to continue blogging here about education issues. The picture above was taken enroute to Saint Paul when we stopped off in Iceland. It's me and my two boys at The Blue Lagoon. Icelandair provide a free tour to the lagoon whilst you are between flights. Nice but a bit surreal.

Thursday, June 28, 2007



Arguably, when you are my height (just over 5ft) a 'weemee' picture is slightly redundant. But I couldn't resist visiting the weemee website when I saw it over at Tecnoteach.

I feel a lot more comfortable with this sort of self representation than the kind of thing that seems to come naturally to the younger generation.
(Sorry. Starting to sound like I've had a difficult day with my zimmer and hearing aid.)

I don't really like getting my photograph taken. I put my picture on my blog because I found that I liked seeing what other bloggers looked like, and thought it was only fair to put my mug shot up as well. Also I don't like the idea of anonymity on the internet. Be real. Virtually.

Perhaps the whole thing is getting the balance - giving an account of ourselves that's honest without being overly self-revelatory.

The other site which Tecnoteacher references is Voki. I did try to make up a picture on that which looked vaguely like me, but failed miserably. I think they need something in between the beautiful people and the edgy ones.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Leadership in school - for pupils too.


Don Ledingham started an interesting thread on the value of Sixth Year, and it’s got me pondering. I’ve been thinking about our school year (see my previous post)and also about our senior pupils. When I started S5 at school I remember feeling more responsible. Staff talked to us in a different way. There were opportunities to show leadership, especially as prefects. We were expected to help supervise younger pupils, either by patrolling the playground, or if it was raining actually being left in charge of classes.

Along with the responsibility we got privileges. We wore a different uniform. We had a common room. We were the first year group to be considered for events which involved representing the school. And something that had never happened before: we were consulted. Then – and here’s a novel idea as far as present day ‘consultations’ seem to go- the thing we requested actually happened.

I’ve heard teachers complain that nowadays senior pupils aren’t interested in taking up a more responsible role within the school. They cite instances in schools where pupils have refused to become prefects, or ridiculed those willing to get involved.

Just noticed Gairloch High School’s blog. At Gairloch they have been interviewing for prefects’ posts. They appear to give clear responsibilities to their S5 and S6. Perhaps that's why pupils feel comfortable applying.

Do you have prefects in your school? Or something else that works better?

Perhaps the real way forward is to give ‘prefecture'(?) a makeover. What could we call it, and what would it entail?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Learn how to have fun in English


Do you remember the Hartley’s jam advert where you got to see the strawberries or raspberries being sealed into the jar and boiled up? Perhaps you remember the funny suction noise of the lid being slammed down? I was reminded of this advert on Friday last period when my second years arrived at my oven - sorry classroom.

We have a school policy of making pupils remove jackets and sweatshirts when they arrive in class. On Friday I didn’t need to enforce it. The kids were sweltered. In a different school, in a different time, I could have taken them outside and let them roll around the grass, make daisy chains and draw pictures of Marc Bolan (Okay, so now you’re getting my secondary school memories…)

Thank goodness I had planned to give them some word games. I’d put together a sheet of rebuses and ‘origins of words and phrases’. I believe that puzzling over words gives pupils the opportunity to learn about a whole range of things from problem solving to grammar.

My second years loved them, so we moved onto a few lateral-thinking puzzles. I had also made up some anagrams of their names which was really hilarious. If you want an anagram maker that’s fairly safe look at Blackdog's Anagram Creator.

My strategy is to present them with the anagrams and if no lights go on, talk quietly to one of the pupils whose name I have anagrammed and ask him/her if a particular anagram looks at all familiar. The thing is that they really do get a feeling about those letters. They can’t quite think where they have seen them before but something is nagging away at them about it. They almost always get it within about 2 minutes. They then become the 'expert' on deciphering.

All very satisfying. I must admit I was pleased when most of them wanted to take the worksheets home.


Answers to the puzzle above: - Too (two) funny for (four) words.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Do you think the Scottish school year works?




I started my new timetable at the beginning of this week. I was especially keen to meet my new seniors. Two of my classes are mixed S5 and S6 pupils. Since study leave was over for the new S5, they arrived at the start of the week. Our new S6 had study leave until Thursday so half of my class didn’t come back until then. A number of them also informed me that they would be missing a couple of days between now and the end of next week, since exams aren’t actually over…

Our department has strategies in place to deal with this. We work on the units that involve the most independent work, personal writing pieces and so on. That way students will not be impacted too badly by the changing class population. We are also trying to cover the same ground as a department, over the six weeks.

Staff have mixed feelings about this. It doesn’t feel right to be starting a new class in this staggered way. You try to set the regulars off on their work and then re-do your presentation to the newbies. You make up worksheets that read like the intro to 24. Jack has been busy...

The pupils themselves usually respond with good nature. Of course they’re tired after exams and they’ve never been in a class with people from outside their year group. They sit in year group clusters. However I’m confident we will begin to gel in a week or two. And four weeks on we’ll be that strange animal - a class.

Then we will go off for six weeks. We will come back with our exam results and the class shuffling will start again.

Old timers sigh and say this is just how it is. They point to the benefits of having classes (generally) worked out before end of term. It makes the start of the new session easier. You can also set summer reading projects. You get creative.

I don’t think it works. I think the aforementioned benefits could be gained by having classes on new timetable for the last week of school.

And I think we could change to that quite easily by doing one thing: have the exams closer to the end of our school year.

Why wouldn’t this work?

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Favourite books



Neil has tagged me with this book meme.

So here are my responses to the three questions:

1. How many books do you own?

Too many. I have regular book purges because I get nervous that the house will start sinking like Glasgow University Library. Apparently this is an urban myth. See here.

2. What was the last book you read?
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

3.Five Books that mean a lot to me:

In no specific order…

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

This book taught me a painful lesson: don’t get too interested in a book. If you have read it you will know why. Let’s just say I spent a long time searching for part 2.

Emma by Jane Austen

I have been arguing for roughly twenty five years with my brother in law, Tony, about this book. Jane Austen apparently said before writing it that she was ‘going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.’ Tony reckons that she was proved right. I don’t.

Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux

I’m ashamed to say I started to read this in order to ridicule it… Now it’s become one of my favourite books. Therese lived a completely ‘unremarkable’ and sheltered life dying at the age of 24. Her ideas about love and suffering infuriated and then captivated me. I don’t recommend it –if you are meant to read it, you will.

The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde (a short story)

I’m not sure why but I always get quite choked when I read this story. I first came across a version of it in ‘The Golden Story Book’ which I got when I was ten. Years later I discovered that it had been written by Wilde. It's a lovely story and very soothing to the nerves of a child who had been traumatised by 'The Singing Ringing Tree'. This was a 1960's TV programme of a fairytale that the BBC bought from 'Eastern Europe'. It was dubbed and presented to children. The story touched on some primal nerve...

Sick Heart River by John Buchan

I love this novel and most of Buchan’s 'shockers'. Sick Heart River is a little different. It's about a dying man, written when Buchan himself was dying. Buchan seems to me to represent the best and the worst of us Scots; filled with a love for humanity yet peculiarly xenophobic in our relationship with certain nations. Buchan's work reminds us of our history, good and bad. I'd love to see a quiz called 'Which Buchan character are you?' If you know of one do tell.

I'm not going to tag anyone -but if you are reading this and fancy writing your answer consider yourself tagged!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Out of the comfort zone, into the learning zone?


I’m just back from the second part of my Feuerstein training and I'm starting to reflect a bit on my experience. This time round we were introduced to three other ‘instruments’ for teaching thinking skills to pupils.

My overall experience of the course was very positive. I enjoyed learning about something new, and thinking about how I was actually doing that. I also realised just how faulty some of my own thought processes were. I wouldn’t have called myself a woolly thinker, but I rely heavily on what I would have called ‘common sense’. I call it ‘common sense’ –but don’t push me to define it because I probably would get into one of those ‘you know what I mean… it’s sort of like…’ conversations which Miki Gorodischer (our Israeli Feuerstein trainer) said was our attempt at making the other person do the thinking work.

If I was to sum up my experience on the course in one word I would say that it was challenging. And this challenge was presented on several different levels. The first was in the sheer effort of encountering and interpreting a lot of new terminology regarding the cognitive processes. The next challenge was sustaining attention in a classroom for what seemed like lengthy periods of time. I like to think I’ve got more stamina than my TV watching pupils – but my brain started complaining long before the end of most of the sessions.
The final challenge was in the teaching style of our trainer. Miki is wonderful and brought a cultural diversity to the course which added an extra layer of interest and drama to the sessions. For me, however, some of the aspects of her teaching style were just a little too challenging! I found myself spending more and more time thinking about how she was presenting the material and not the material itself. But hang on, isn’t this one of the main goals of the Feuerstein training? The course aims to be ‘content free’ and transferable. In other words, the methodology, not the subject is intended to be the main focus of the training.

Miki’s style of mediating seemed at times confrontational but it did make us think, and question and try to step up to the mark. I certainly mean to use some of her techniques in my classroom to provoke some deeper debate.

Please comment – especially if you have been on the course!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Pioneering Spirit and the online classroom


Several times in my teaching day I wish my pupils could work online.

Here are a few of the things I wish I could do:

Individual consolidation or revision work. We’re reading a poem and a pupil looks bewildered when you mention ‘metaphors’. It’s a piece of cake to everyone else. I direct the pupil to an interactive resource on metaphors. Better than a worksheet. They can wait until the whole class time is over or go directly to the resource returning when they are ready –they won't miss anything since the lesson is available online.

Modelling. I could highlight best practice in pupil work as and when it appeared. At the moment if I spot a good response in a pupil's work I can read it out to the class. Great for the auditory learners. Unless it's very brief and I have time for pupil to type it onto my laptop for the whiteboard -or write it on the board, I need to copy it out later.

Research. Why do we need to be the ones finding the material? Pupils could find material on the internet themselves. Talk about ownership. We would have to teach them how to evaluate that material. How useful would that be? Very useful for your entire life I imagine…

Wikis. I have discovered that wikis can’t be edited at the same time by several pupils. At first that struck me as a weakness. Now I’m not so sure. Pupils are being forced to wait on one another before they can ‘do their bit’. There’s a healthy bit of peer pressure and a sense of how we work as a team mixing here.

Absentees. Having a class website or wiki would allow pupils who are absent through illness or family holidays to keep up with the work of the class. Never again could a pupil announce that they couldn’t do the homework because they were off when I gave it out. Of course their excuses would sound vaguely familiar. Here are some real live examples from a recent attempt to use a class website.

‘My internet broke’ (sic)

‘ My brother was playing online poker and wouldn’t let me go on’

‘It’s not working on my computer’

Reality check. Thanks to Jonesieboy for posting about this article in the NY Times: Seeing no progress some schools drop laptops. David Warlick has also blogged here on what this article tells us. Any schools going out on a limb to use technology will have to deal well with the areas highlighted by this school’s experience. They will need a pioneering instinct. But it will be worth it. After all, in the world we prepare pupils for, they aren’t thinking of going back to pen and ink are they?

Saturday, May 05, 2007

House for sale in the south west of Scotland



We've finally decided to sell our house and look for something a bit more suited to our small family. This roughly coincided with finishing all the tasks we had set ourselves in the house. In the last few weeks we've done all those things that we've been 'meaning to do' since we arrived. Typical innit?

Yesterday the estate agents arrived with a board to stick in the window, and by tea-time we were sitting in the kitchen feeling self-consciously on show. There are several other houses up for sale in the village, and this means there's a 'real buzz about the place' as they say.

If you know anyone who wants to escape from the city to Scotland's southernmost village then you might want to tell them about our house. If you are in the process of selling your house please comment. A little bit of encouragement would be appreciated!

The company selling our house is Galloway and Ayrshire Properties (GAP) and you can see our house here (including a virtual tour) if you are interested!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Thinking about ...Feuerstein Training


Don’t you love it when you learn something that you genuinely believe will be significant to your teaching and your pupils’ learning?

This week I attended the first block of a Feuerstein training course in Glasgow. I’ve been trying to find out more about metacognition (thinking about thinking) for quite some time. I hoped Feuerstein’s programme of teaching thinking skills might be of use to me as a classroom teacher. Like most teachers I would love to know more exactly what blocks and aids learning. I am especially interested in that moment ‘when the penny drops’ or a learner actually understands something that was hidden before.

I admit I’m a bit sceptical about some of the 'thinking skills' projects. I’ve never really taken to stuff like Brain Gym. Unlike a lot of people, I found Edward de Bono’s presentation at SETT 2006, a bit disappointing. So I went along to the Feuerstein training with an open, but not uncritical mind. Some people might find the language initially off-putting. What was 'Instrumental Enrichment’(IE)? Was there actually a place called ‘The Instrumental Centre for the Enhancement of Learning Potential’?

It soon became clear to me that the terminology is used deliberately and with care. The course itself recommends that we use the correct terms with children when teaching them about the thinking processes. Why? I think it’s because language itself provides much of the route to improved thinking. When we know how to express what we are doing in an accurate and precise way we are much more able to translate that action into another setting.

So far, so good. I am now pretty excited about the next block of the course which takes place in two weeks time. Our trainer on this block of the course was Billy O’Neill. Billy is an excellent teacher and the Director of Scotland’s only Feuerstein Authorised Training Centre. Billy taught in Scottish schools for over twenty years, so his enthusiastic endorsement of Feuerstein's methods is backed up with teaching experience and nous. Interestingly his training centre's website contains a diagram showing the links between Instrumental Enrichment (IE) and AiFL, A Curriculum for Excellence and PLPs (Personal Learning Plans)

Feuerstein’s courses are based on his sustained research and work over the last 50 years in Israel. I wonder how many of the ‘thinking skills’ programmes we are investigating in Scotland owe their theories to this research and practice?

I understand that teachers in Scottish Borders have taken up IE training recently. The Future Learning and Teaching Programme (FLaT) produced a very positive Evaluation on this initiative. I’d love to hear from any Borders teachers who have used IE, and indeed any other teachers with experience of the programme.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Phase Two of GLOW


Phase Two of GLOW

I’m delighted to say that, thanks to Tess Watson I got the chance to have a look at GLOW from inside the trial, yesterday and tonight. Of course my webcam refused to work. Probably thought the sight of me, at that time of night, first day back was not advisable.

It’s easy to see how this sort of thing would work with pupils. They already are more comfortable in front of a screen. It struck me that it would also solve the problems that come from standing at the front of the class trying to keep their attention by the sheer power of personality. Actually that’s one part of my teaching that I don’t enjoy very much –what they call being the ‘sage on the stage’. In my case it’s more the midget with the widget (I’m five foot high and use my whiteboard control liberally). How much more civilised to be interacting online.

An important thing which struck me about the video conference was how relaxed people were when things didn’t quite work out. It seems to me that GLOW will move forward roughly at the same rate as the teachers who get involved with it. A lot of them will have to overcome the feeling of apprehension that new technology can create. And the best place to do that will be in a laid-back environment where mistakes are allowed.

I think most teachers would be pleasantly surprised at the atmosphere that I experienced in GLOW. It was nice sitting at the back of the class, just listening too.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Technology isn't always an improvement


I’m not a technophobe. But I do find myself from time to time in sympathy with the ‘Technology is not progress’ brigade. Some of it probably stems from the frustration that comes from the glitches or bugs that seem to plague computers.

Some of it is… something else. Example -You want to print up a little note to go on the door of your classroom, informing pupils that you have moved class. You misjudge the font size and print it off, only to find that ‘Mrs O’Neill’ has been split between two lines and become ‘Mrs One Ill’. You change the font and print it off again, feeling guilty about the amount of ink you have now used. Second time around the destination of your new class is now inexplicably $$£. Third time lucky? No. The printer, exhausted by those large letters, blinks stupidly at you that it is out of toner.

You ask yourself why you didn’t just lift up a felt –tip pen and write the message on a piece of scrap paper. The felt tip pen might have run out, but could have been replaced in a matter of seconds. You are unlikely to misspell your name- the tablets are working today – and you are fairly competent at block capitals.

Tell me that your heart doesn’t sink when someone says ‘ We’ve just been computerised’ or ‘I’m sure I saved it’ or ‘ It will just take a moment on the computer’.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Slow, quick, quick, slow: wikis


Wikiwiki’ is Hawaiian for ‘quick’. ‘Quick’ is not a word I associate with computers.

Nevertheless, recently I started a wiki with my S2 class. They are supposed to be doing a unit on functional writing. A standard sort of task might be to write an information leaflet on a local attraction. Instead we are using the wiki to write about Internet Safety. So far, we are moving quite slowly. I have had moments when I have wondered whether this might not be a mistake. Poor sentence construction and bad spelling look even worse online.

Yesterday I had my Eureka moment. I was thinking, rather dolefully, about the amount of editing we do, for what seems like a little return. The pupils whilst enthusiastic in class, go off task quite quickly.

The wiki lets me know when someone is editing a page, and what they changed. Better still, the pupils themselves can see the editing that is going on.

A new editor- I'm adding them one at a time - had put up her page and I showed it to the class on the whiteboard. I then showed them the history of her editing. The page displays the old words highlighted in red, the new in green. The class looked at it carefully and ploughed their way through her edits. Finally I put up her edited page, which looked great.

A wave of spontaneous applause swept across the class.

Hard work doesn't always get rewarded like that.

Wiki whoo!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Am I boring you?


Vicki Davis blogged recently about a story that she had seen on another teacher's blog, concerning a Canadian pupil getting into trouble for writing an essay about being bored. According to a local newspaper the pupil was not allowed to deliver his essay in front of the class, because the school deemed it to be disrespectful to a teacher. Here's the original story as reported in a local paper.

I was interested in the story for a variety of reasons, not least, because like most teachers I think a lot about how to teach in an engaging way and get disheartened if I think I'm being boring.

Also, right now, in school, I have my S3 (14 year olds) writing a persuasive essay on the future of education and have asked them to look at what they think helps pupils get involved at school. A lot of them are looking at the link between boredom and bad behaviour :) Interesting reading.

I should also confess that I wrote an essay when I was in S3 complaining about boredom which ended up with me in the deputy headteacher’s office. And, no she wasn't delighted with my wit and perspicacity.

I like the comments that this blogging teacher made - ‘Teaching students how to deal with boredom is teaching them a life skill. They think they are bored now-just wait until they hit life outside of school.’ At the same time, as a teacher I am hoping not to provide too many pointers in this area...

In the Canadian story above however, the real issue for me as a teacher, is not about providing pupils with ways to combat boredom, it's about teaching pupils how to critique their world effectively and responsibly. This story after all was not about someone expressing an opinion alone, but about giving the speech in front of a class.

So, the school exercised its judgement and deemed the speech disrespectful to the teacher. They saw the speech, and made a judgement on it. Good for them. Who taught the pupil to write and frame a speech, and gave him the confidence to express his opinion in the first place? Presumably the school. Would they really be doing him a favour failing to teach him about when it is appropriate to use those skills?

Being bored is a complex issue. 'Boring' is code for a lot of things. I know that Pupil X says ‘This is boring!’ because she is finding something difficult to understand. Pupil Y says it because he is trying to get a reaction from me, or as a way of avoiding work. Pupil Z really does find my subject (and me) boring and -sometimes -I will be able to do something about it.

The touchstone I use is ‘Do I find this boring?’ because if I do I will certainly find it difficult to create enthusiasm. If I have to teach something uninspiring, I try to find ways to make it more interesting to myself first.

Why did I write my ‘this is boring’ essay in third year. I was bored. But not for long…




Sunday, March 04, 2007

Jock Bauer


Last night when we were eating dinner our power failed. The computer in the kitchen shut down, the CD player went quiet and the fridge shuddered, then stopped making that low, bubbling sound. Power cuts aren’t that unusual in this neck of the woods, so we lit some candles and finished the rest of our meal.

The weekend had started rather inauspiciously with a car crash. On the way home from school, a landrover sailed out of a side road, hit my car on the passenger side and sent me swerving off into a railed fence. I was fine. Not injured, but shaken. My car was not so good.

Then the ‘stuff’ started. If you’ve been through it recently you’ll know what I mean. ‘Phone calls, breakdown trucks, insurance details, complicated re-scheduling and so on…

So last night’s power cut was a pause in a frantic 24 hours. Not quite Jack Bauer, but a Wigtownshire version of it.

It was funny, but it seemed like the first real moment of silence in a long time. And even when we had some electricity restored, we still kept the candles lit and tiptoed about. Later we watched the lunar eclipse and managed one photograph, before our digital camera announced it was out of power.

But that was okay, because so were we.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Handwriting and Keyboarding



Every week I download the latest podcast from Women of Web 2 (WOW2). They have a weekly chat, Tuesdays at 9pm EST. That's the middle of the night our time so I haven’t heard one live yet. I missed the first one, called ‘Keyboarding’. It didn't sound very appealing. I couldn’t imagine how they could chat about that for a whole hour.

However, I’ve come to trust those podcasts to set me thinking about things, so I duly downloaded and listened to ‘Keyboarding’.

I am the sort of teacher who writes ‘Your target is handwriting! Present your work with more care.’ For years I’ve heard people say that typing will supersede handwriting. I’ve not been convinced. I’ve got loads of stories of disasters that all hinged on a piece of bad handwriting: doctor’s prescriptions, military coups, and NASA operations…

The chat on the podcast was discussing how important it was for schools to teach children correct keyboarding skills. They discussed the amount of sustained time children need to become proficient. They assumed that this would be necessary for all children. They weren’t advocating doing away with teaching handwriting, just seeing typing (or keyboarding) as the NEXT natural step.

I had a sort of brain freeze over the idea. Concentrate more on typing? Learn how to use the QWERTY keyboard properly? Yes, fine for people who will need that in the future. And that would be? Oops. Everyone.

What about handwriting? How often in the adult world of work do we actually rely on our handwriting? I can think of several occasions when it is nicer and perceived as ‘more caring’ to handwrite: birthday cards, a personal note at the end of a typed letter, a comment. But for anything of length, especially if we require to edit it, I think typing wins hands down.

If pupils typed efficiently, they could do all their work online. And think of the paper we would save.

Good grief. Next I will be (gulp) reading books online.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Can education really be fun?

I’ve been reading, and pondering Ewan’s post about bringing games and fun into secondary education. Can we really bring play into the main part of our teaching? Play, by definition, seems to be what we do when work is done.

It’s true that if we can add an element of fun to our teaching, things go more smoothly. On the very simplest level, announcing that we will play a game when this activity is over, frequently galvanises even the most lethargic pupil into action.

But games aren’t just about competition. What exactly are they? What is play?

Play is pretending. It’s about trying something out, free from the anxiety that what you do will have a permanent effect. Children play naturally. They play at schools, at work, at being grown ups.

Play and failure really are closely related. Play gives you the permission to fail without there being disastrous consequences.

This is why, when we want to give ‘authentic’ experiences to children, we need to take care that this constitutes a risk which adds excitement, and is carefully structured to maximise success. We choose tasks which we know they can achieve, but won’t necessarily achieve immediately.

There is a tension between school and the real world. And there is a tension between play and real. But tension provides a wonderfully elastic basis for some really brilliant bungee jumps!

How can we use this in education?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Persuasion


'Knowing the price of everything, the value of nothing'

That’s my grandmother talking about young people. And it’s one of the reasons I am a teacher. I want to teach the value or importance of things not just the ‘prices’ or facts about them.

Wanting to be a better teacher led me to blogging. I see young people using new technologies with enthusiasm and I want to use them in my teaching. Of course I’ve realised that this stuff might come naturally to them, but not to me. Apparently they are, according to Marc Prensky digital natives. And I am a digital immigrant.

I’ve got an immigrant’s technological ‘accent’.

There are hundreds of examples of the digital immigrant accent. They include printing out your email… needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it and bringing people physically into your office to see an interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL).'

Well, I’m a tiny bit more fluent than that, thanks to my recent forays into technology.

I’m learning too. The way we teach will have to change. Some of the skills we were taught just don’t fit any more. Remember all that stuff we were taught about how to study –‘find a quiet place’ etc? Well the natives don’t need that. Nor do they like waiting to receive information. They expect to be able to get the information immediately.

But they need us to help them develop critical thinking skills, so that they can process the stream of information that pours through their lives. And they do need our affirmation and encouragement as they face the bewildering world of today.

I am scheduled to teach Jane Austen’s novels Persuasion and Emma, to a group of seventeen year old boys. My colleagues are slightly amused by my predicament. When the class was planned, it was mixed, larger and well, distant.
The lads are bright. But how on earth do you convey the world of Emma, whose sister ‘though comparatively but little removed by matrimony, being settled in London, only sixteen miles off, was much beyond her daily reach’?

I’ve had an idea: I’ve given each pupil in the class the task of presenting, via any media they like, one background aspect to the novels of Austen. I have promised to film and publish online their efforts. Watch this space.

Friday, February 02, 2007

How to motivate learners


Sometimes when I am getting obsessive about something, like the missing apostrophe or whether or not I should just accept the US spelling of colour, I think about Stevie.

Stevie is a freelance safety instructor. And he can’t afford to be irrelevant to his classes. Right now, he is in Iceland giving training to workers on a large construction site. He has been contracted to train operators on the safe use of their MEWPs. MEWPs are Mobile Elevated Work Platforms, not, as you were imagining, Pokemon characters.

Safety training has its challenges. A large number of the trainees don’t speak English -or Glaswegian- which is Stevie’s chosen tongue.

It’s crucial however that they meet the learning objective.

Stevie uses a combination of Powerpoint, video and pictures via a laptop to teach. He builds on prior knowledge, and is not averse to photographing any potential problems on site to help get his message across.

The learners need the qualification to be licensed to work, but first they must pass a theory test and a practical exam. Instructors can license them within one day, so that trainees can have proof immediately that they have been trained. Hence the primary motivation for learning.

Safety instructors have to be accountable in a way that focuses the teaching mind wonderfully. Their instructions might mean the difference between life and death. The practical class involves kinaesthetic learning. How will I know if you have understood the learning objective? You will show me. The big picture is 'You will be safe at work'. Activating this level of motivation should be easy, but isn't always.

Conditions can be unkind. As Stevie says, when we last talked ‘The temperature today was minus 28 degrees. And the last thing you want to do is go outside to 20 metres and work on a platform.’ I decide not to share my story of the leaky radiator.

Stevie’s a member of IPAF. Their website is, well, quite serious as you might expect. But it has a interesting page called ‘The Rogues Gallery’ showing some of the mistakes that no doubt contribute to the truly awful safety record of the construction industry.

I’m sorry to say some of the acrobatics will look horribly familiar to anyone whose school recently had its windows cleaned.

If you know anyone with MEWPs, Stevie's your man. I am his big sister.

sjmtraining@ntlworld.com

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

School - Passing this way one time only


Every now and again I am struck by the enormity of what we are doing as teachers.

Recently I read a story in class, where a man goes to prison for stealing. His son is unwittingly responsible for drawing his father to the attention of the police. This leads to a conviction and imprisonment. My class had a lively debate on the subject of how much the boy was to blame.

In the course of our discussion, I had to quickly discourage pupils from talking about actual situations. At a certain point I became aware that I had, in my class; children whose parents were involved in the judicial system at several levels: policing, legal or social work; children who had relatives who had been in prison; children who had seen neighbours cope with family members being in prison; children who had never thought about the impact of prison on a family. The views of these different groups were on show, and being articulated in a lively, and surprisingly compassionate debate.

At what other time would people of these varied viewpoints be put together in such a setting? When again in their lives will these pupils be in quite the same situation? When else will they spend regular time getting the opportunity to discuss these issues within the safety of this unique environment? When will they ever have so much in common again?

It’s an enormous responsibility. It’s true that we are not the only source of direction for these pupils. It’s true, that the families they come from will impact them on a deeper level. But it is a responsibility nevertheless.

We’ve got the world in our classrooms. Are we up to it?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Headteacher Wanted



Our school needs a new headteacher. The post was advertised in December, but staff were informed today that the post was being re-advertised due to a lack of applications. Our local newspaper obligingly informed the community that there had been ‘only one’ application.

According to several different sources, it is getting more difficult to recruit headteachers. Browsing around the internet, I found several articles -dating back over the last few years -talking about the crisis in recruitment.

This year-old article from the Scotsman, informs us that half the existing heads are set to retire over the next five years. Our director of education, Fraser Sanderson, is quoted as saying "People are looking at the job and saying, 'I can live happily without that'. It's the workload, pressure, accountability."

I can well imagine being a head teacher is stressful. Do other fields have the same sort of problem enticing people into leadership? If it’s peculiar to education, is it global? And why?

This article from the Guardian looks at some of the questions we might raise.
Should headteachers necessarily be older teachers? Might they be younger? Do they
even have to be teachers?

I’d love to know, what sort of lateral thinking is going on about this situation. Is the model that is being used wrong? What qualities do you look for in a headteacher?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

You may have to give up the day job


Excuses pupils give for not doing homework are fairly predictable. It helps being a parent as well as a teacher, because you get to witness at first hand some of the peculiar manoeuvres students will embark on to avoid doing things.

‘Of course you can wash my car, but haven’t you got homework?’

Recently I have become aware of another kind of excuse coming from senior pupils.
‘Sorry miss, but I was working all weekend.’

My instincts tell me that this sort of excuse, when genuine, should be handled with a little more care than my normal ‘not good enough’ face.

It’s difficult not to be impressed with pupils who are willing to work at anything. This is especially the case when you’ve just had a ‘demented ringmaster’ lesson with 3B. You know, that lesson where you seem to be running round strategically placing fireworks. (I was struck by psychologist Alan McLean's thoughts at an INSET day on schools ‘being places where young people come to watch old people work.’ You can read an overview of his take on motivation here.)

I started getting a bit concerned about the jobs issue, round about the middle of last term. My thoughts crystallised when a number of pupils came back to school exhausted after the holidays. All night parties? Probably. But for many of them the reason they are exhausted is much simpler; they’ve been working. On farms, in hotels and supermarkets, in local restaurants and shops, they’ve been taking on hours that would tax most adults.

Holiday jobs are fine. Term-time a few hours a week can work. But when your senior school candidates are looking decidedly lack-lustre and missing classes so that they ‘can sleep’, things are not good.

I hope this settles down as we head towards our prelims.

This is the sort of area which might be worth discussing in the light of the present movement towards curricular reform - A Curriculum for Excellence. How do we balance the positive value of these experiences which help our young people become ‘confident individuals’ with the continued enthusiasm and wisdom they will need to become successful (lifelong) learners?

It has to be more than just frowning on their jobs as ‘interfering ‘ with school. That interaction with the wider world can change priorities and sow the seeds of ambition and hope in young people. It might involve discussions on work-life balance and thinking long-term about decisions. As teachers and parents we need to examine their motivation to work and ask ourselves why school might have failed, so far, to activate it.

Is this happening where you are?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What is blogging?


A few posts ago when I was complaining about not understanding technical people’s explanations, I fantasised about ‘dictating our blog’. I saw myself released from the horrid technology by some computer which did exactly as it was told.

Recently a pupil drew my attention to an article describing a new(er) voice recognition tool from Nuance Communication called Dragon Naturally Speaking. The software according to the makers will ‘make blogging easier and faster’. Bloggers are being invited to try out the voice versus typing test.

Being contrary, I read it and realised that I didn’t want to ‘dictate’ my blog after all. Yes, I would like to not worry about the html and so on, but I actually like writing my blog.

I think the blogging writing process is something special.

I thought writing a blog would be like keeping a diary. It isn’t, because this diary talks back. Which is wonderful. I also thought that it might be like writing little articles, but it isn’t because so often the thing you are writing about is still percolating away in your mind and not set in stone.

It’s true I am having to work very hard at understanding the technology. But it is starting to look a little bit less hazy. The gulf between me and the techies is getting smaller. I can actually hear them talking to each other. I am beginning to pick out words which mean things…

Gosh. All because of a blog.

What do you think blogging actually is?