Category Archives: accommodations

Two Animal Fables About Education: The Dangers of Metaphors!


There is a fable often told at teachers’ workshops and conferences, especially if the topic is exceptional children.  Exceptional is teacher speak for children who are either two deviations above or below the norm on an IQ test, students with learning disabilities or students with emotional or physical disabilities.

The Fable of the Animal School is told below.  It is a ridiculous fable for reasons I will explain afterwards.  Then I will tell an alternative fable.  Enjoy.

The Animal School: A Fable

by George Reavis

Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a “new world” so they organized a school. They had adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent in swimming. In fact, better than his instructor. But he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school so nobody worried about that, except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. He also developed a “charlie horse” from overexertion and then got a C in climbing and D in running.

The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using his own way to get there.

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.

Does this fable have a moral?

 

The intention of George Reavis was undoubtedly to suggest that teachers should recognise student’s strengths and not push them in their areas of weaknesses beyond what they are capable of doing.

Unfortunately, by comparing animal to animal who have things they can do and things they cannot do at all, Reeves does a disservice to all but the most handicapped of students.  It suggests to many people that students should not be pushed at all in their areas of weakness.  I disagree with that.

Let me propose an alternate fable.

A Tale of Two Bunny Schools

Flossie and Saucy went to the same Bunny School.  Flossie was an amazing runner.  She won all the races at her school and sometimes the races against all the district schools.  She was weak at finding herbs and grasses and other good things to eat, especially when they were scarce but needed.

Her brother, Saucy, wasn’t much of a runner for a bunny, but he excelled at finding things to eat.  In fact, if it was good for a bunny to eat, Saucy would be sure to find it first.  Not only that, but Saucy could sniff a poisonous plant out before anyone got close enough to want to eat it.

Their teacher had read Reeves’ fable and applied the moral she thought she had learned.  Flossie was coached to greater heights, jumping and running.  Although she did take gathering lessons, she was not pushed to do better.  Sometimes her mark was bumped up … just a little.

Saucy, on the other hand, not only excelled at gathering, but was gaining his own little following on Twitter.  His followers were looking for tips on his success but Saucy really didn’t have any; he was just good.  Of course, running was the worst part of his day.  He would see Flossie bounding away and get discouraged.  To improve his self esteem, he was praised for any slight improvement and got marks that were almost as good as Flossie’s.

They graduated with good marks and went out into the world.  One day Saucy was out nibbling on herbs when a fox spotted him and gave chase.  Saucy bolted for his burrow but the fox easily caught up with him and Saucy was dinner.

Flossie missed him and his knowledge about where to eat.  Over a period of time, Flossie became malnourished because she couldn’t find the right foods for her athletic body.  One day as she was grazing, the same fox spotted her.  Saucy had been so delicious that the fox was thrilled to see another yummy bunny.  Flossie bolted for the burrow but her body was no longer strong enough to sustain the speed she needed.  The fox, on the other hand, had been well nourished by eating Saucy and soon caught her.  Too bad she was mainly skin and bones.

The Cousins’ Bunny School

 Meanwhile a few fields over, Peter and Juanita, the cousins of Flossie and Saucy, went to another school.  Peter, like Flossie, was a good runner and not good at gathering.  Juanita shared Saucy’s skill set: a great finder of food, but slow moving for a bunny.

Their teacher had a different philosophy.  Perhaps she had never read the fable.  She recognized that people have different talents and weaknesses but she believed that every adult needed certain knowledge and skills.  Before she planned her teaching, she asked herself the purpose of the curriculum.  The answer was that running was to escape predators and  gathering was to keep the body nourished to stay healthy and eventually reproduce.

She encouraged Juanita’s talents in gathering and tried to find ways of enriching and challenging her.  At the same time, she insisted that Juanita practice running and jumping daily.  She taught her effective ruses such as dodging, quick turns, finding thick thickets to hide in, staying very still and assessing the situation.  While Juanita would never run as fast as her brother, she became competent and knew ways to compensate for less speed.

Peter received similar instruction in running to Juanita, but because he had a talent for it, he improved faster.  His teacher insisted that he learn what foods he needed to keep his body healthy and where he could find them.  Sometimes he got extra help from Juanita until he knew where to find food in their area.  He was never as good as Juanita, but he could feed himself.

They graduated.  Juanita had become competent enough as an athlete to enjoy games with her brother, especially if she could use tactics as well as running.  Peter enjoyed going on food hunts with her.  He was pleased on the rare occasion when he found an herb that she had missed.  Occasionally predators spotted them but they always escaped.  The predators gave up in the end and went over a few fields were they had heard the bunnies were easier to catch.

One day, Juanita and Peter were saddened to hear that their cousins had been eaten.  They were distracted from their sorrow, however, by bunnies who had heard of their skills and were visiting to assess them (favorably) as potential mates.

Interrupting School Work and Sleep


From 2011 Cisco Connected World Technology Report as quoted in Backbone November/December 2011

In a given hour of school work, 90 percent of [Canadian university] students (84 per cent globally) reported being interrupted at least once by instant messaging, social media updates and phone calls.  Twenty-three (19 per cent globally) reported interruptions six times or more.

Most university work that is not tested with multiple guess exams requires a period of uninterrupted thought to understand what is being learned.  In math, it is the understanding of the problem, then the working out of the answer.  The more difficult the math, the longer that period can be.  In the humanities such as English or history, it can be reflecting on patterns until you see a bigger or smaller pattern e.g. a metaphor that emerges over the length of a novel or correlations of epidemics and war.

Interruptions of those periods of thought waste a student’s time and may lose her the concept she was just beginning to explore.

The Chronicle of Higher Education as reported in the Globe and Mail, Tuesday, November 22, 2011 tells of a study of 200 university students and their use of cellphones. The students were losing an average of 45 minutes of sleep each week due to the cells.  One student, woken by a text message, reported that she felt her friend might be upset if she didn’t answer.

I won’t go into what lack of sleep does to the ability to think, perhaps in another post, another day.  I am astonished by the power given to social media by intelligent people to disrupt the most important parst of their lives.

Perhaps I am making two assumptions: that their studies are more important to students than their social lives.  I am also assuming that these students are both intelligent and of an age to make mature decisions.  In fact neuroscientists seem generally in agreement that brain development goes on until age 25.  At least one has speculated that the frontal lobe which among other things, is responsible for making judgment calls, may continue developing for another five years.

This does make sense of the British tradition of giving children the key to the door on their twenty-first birthday and the medieval apprenticeship tradition that had children working and learning with a craftsman until the age of 21 .  That there are similar traditions in other countries and that versions of the apprenticeships are being revived in many countries is probably no surprise.

So what does this mean for parents of teenagers?  Remember who has the fully developed brain and whose brain is almost there but still in training.  Help your children create a habit of nothing interfering with study or sleep time.  You will have to model it yourself by letting people know that you won’t answer calls after a certain hour.  Letting the phone ring when you are working can be irritating at first, but the mantra “it can wait an hour (or whatever the time is until you take a break)” will help. After all, that’s what the answering machine and caller identity were created for: your convenience.  In my household we also have specific rings for certain people so we know who we must interrupt for and whose call can wait for an hour.

The computer is easier as most instant messaging can be turned off and ignored as can your email and messages from Facebook.  Recording TV programs for recreational time will make it easier to turn the television off when the members of the household are working.  I hope you take regular breaks and can use that time to return messages and calls.  How long a period you allow yourself to work without a proper break is a personal thing.  For most people it varies between 15 minutes and an hour and a half.  Fifteen minutes is for things you really don’t want to do (for more on this see Fly Lady) and most people can focus much longer on other things.  Things that really get my attention will keep me going for an hour and a half so I set a timer for a couple of mini stretch breaks in between (check out Time Out).

When you are doing what you expect your children to do, they can’t cry “no fair” and they will see this is what adults do.  Self discipline and using social media instead of letting it use them is the lesson you want to send with them to any post-secondary education.

Technology and Education


Technology and the Author

While I have to confess to losing my temper and being rude to the first microwave that took up residence in my kitchen, in general I am a technophile, especially when it comes to things that make my life easier.  Typewriters were a gift to this dysgraphic child; electric typewriters were even better but the advent of word processors and personal computers made my life much easier.  Suddenly I could write nearly as fast as I could think, have a machine catch most of my typographical errors and revise my work often and quickly.  Paragraphs flew from one end of a composition to the other, split, spliced with other paragraphs, were deleted, then reintroduced almost unrecognisable in new vocabulary, style and brevity.  Gone were the days of double spaced writing on yellow legal pads, cutting up pages, numbering paragraphs and setting up a new scheme.

I was among the first teachers to pounce on computers as an aide to drilling arithmetic.  I taught my older students to type, save to disc and do their essays on the computer as part of a history/English course.  Before the word summative began to haunt the dreams of high school students and teachers, my grade seven students researched certain topics and wrote essays under controlled conditions (the library and the computer lab) to demonstrate they had learned the skills taught in English and history.

Electronic devices make a difference to students with learning differences:  blind students can hear text using text-to-speech software, the partially sighted can do homework using machines that magnify textbooks, the dyslexic can use spelling dictionaries and word processors, the deaf have access to FM broadcasters, the physically handicapped have access to a number of tools to help them learn.  The electronic devices do not level the playing field, but they allow these students on to it.

I love my MacBook, my Kindle and my iPod Touch because they allow me to write, read, store information and photos and organise myself within a minimum of space.  The Kindle has its limitations, but it still reduces the number of books I need to carry on vacation.

Technology Good …

You hear the BUT coming.  Yes, here it is: technology can do a great deal for students and educators but sometimes we are dazzled by its magic.  Technology does not teach reading, writing or arithmetic.  For that we need only very simple tools such as paper, pencil, literature and counters of some sort such as stones, buttons or beans.  I have put paper bags over students’ heads to demonstrate unknown variables when teaching algebra and created a dance to demonstrate the relationship between high pressure, low pressure and rain.  Everything else is extra and not necessarily helpful.

Before we invest in tools for schools, especially expensive technology, we should ask why we are buying the tools.  What, exactly, will it help us teach and how will it help us teach it?  Will it be used frequently?  How flexible is it?  How will the kids respond to it?  Finally, is it truly good value as a teaching or learning tool for the money and time that will be spent on it?

When I was learning to teach ESL we were given the rule of thumb, teach new grammar using old vocabulary and new vocabulary using old grammar.  When we use technology are we using it to enhance what we are teaching or are we using skills the students already have to teach them how to use the technology.  Both are valid.

What are the School’s Computer Labs for?

For example, we have computer labs.  Why?  We have to teach children how to use the Internet.  What do they need to learn about the Internet?  How to find information is probably the first thing you think of.  The biggest problem with information on the Internet is the variability of the quality.

When children start visiting the computer lab in kindergarten what can they learn about assessing the quality of information?  You laugh; you know that kindergarten kids just play games on the computers.  The games are chosen to improve the children’s knowledge of letters and numbers, to acquaint them with the keyboard, to improve their manual dexterity and for a number of solid educational reasons.  The games would not be in the lab if they were not educational.  We hope.

By grades four and five they are doing research but the research is usually on sites handpicked (by their teacher) where the job is to find the information required and make notes or answer questions Taking notes and answering questions are important skills.  Doing them in a lab does create a stimulating change of pace from writing notes in the classroom.

However, the students do not have to determine how good the site is as their teacher has already done that.  They can not be allowed the freedom to roam the Internet and assess what they find as some of it would be entirely inappropriate.  When my sister was concerned that my niece might have scarlet fever, I typed those two words into the search engine and the first site I found had nothing to do with medicine.  The difficulty is that by the time students are free to roam the Internet at will, they still have not learned to assess the sites they find.

One Way to Integrate Technology and a Number of Forms of Media:

Starting in the Library Using Indexes, Chapter Headings, Catalogues and Key Words

So how could you teach children of that age to search for and assess the quality of the information they find?  You could take them to the library and teach them what they might find in an encyclopaedia, a dictionary, a book on the topic or a thesaurus.  Many students don’t realise that if they want to know something about cows, a book on farms might have something.  They don’t know that if they have five books in front of them, perhaps only two have a lot of information and the other three should be searched using the index or the chapter titles for a few salient facts.  What kind of words should they use to look up information in the index?  If they were studying cows, how about bull, calf, cattle, beef, milk, leather, ranches and so on.  This is often a new idea to them, but when they start using the Internet knowing how to come up with good keywords will be essential in their searches.

I like to give students an adult crossword to solve after pointing out the encyclopaedias of pop culture, space, writers, sports figures and other specialty references.  It becomes a bit of a competition to see who can figure out the answers, using only books. The crosswords are at their most effective if they are difficult.

Assessing the Quality of Information

Once students know how to find information you can teach them to think about what things should make them sceptical about the quality of the knowledge.  Which might be more out of date: a book on cows or a book on rockets ships written in the 1950’s?  Would a book about farming written by an astronaut be as informative as one written by a farmer?  Would a farmer who had studied physics and math at university be able to write a good book on rockets?  What kind of books is most likely to provide information?  What would you find in a book labelled fiction? Biography? Non-fiction? A search on the online library catalogue has turned up:

It’s ONLY Rocket Science: An Introduction in Plain English Lucy Rogers

Rocket Boys, Homer Hickam

Rocket Science: 50 Flying, Floating, Flipping, Spinning Gadgets Kids Create Themselves Jim Wiese &Tina Cash-Walsh

 Sesame Subjects: My First Book about Airplanes and Rockets (Sesame Street) by Kama Einhorn and Christopher Maroney

The Rocket Mike Leonetti & Greg Banning

Now ask the students which books are not likely to help them learn about rockets.  What helpful information is missing that they should expect to find in a library catalogue? What other information will they find only by looking at the book? Of the books they think might help them learn, which do they think might have the most information?  Which one would they prefer to start with (not always the same one).

Ready for the Internet, More Skills and Boolean Logic *

All of this thinking applies to searching the Internet.  Once students have learned how to search for information and having found information, examine the source with a critical eye, they are in a better position to make good use of electronic sources. They will now need to learn how to search effectively using Boolean logic* and how to navigate web sites.  Just because they can navigate their favourite web sites doesn’t mean they know how to navigate those which will provide useful information

Students researching cows and rocket ships are just one example of how some of the skills needed on the Internet can be taught and honed elsewhere. Skills like these are transferable and not just from the library to the Internet.

From the Internet to Media Studies

From the Internet the skills transfer neatly to media studies.  Here the added value is learning how language, graphics and sound are used to influence consumers. You can show this on Internet sites as well as magazine and television advertising. In fact, it is important to teach detecting bias on Internet sites.  In teaching your students you will bring them through the skills of searching for facts and analysing sources to looking for bias and observing how bias can subtly affect people.

Your students will be better equipped to look beyond the razzle-dazzle to the message. This is use of technology in education but not technology for its own sake.  This is examining how to use technology and how other peoples’ use of it affects us.  With luck you could leave your students with the most valuable lesson of all, the inclination not to take information at face value no matter where it comes from.

*Don’t know what Boolean Logic is?  I won’t tell.  See this site for a good explanation in how to use it in Internet searches:

Boolean Searching on the Internet: A Primer in Boolean Logic by Laura B. Cohen.  Part of Internet Tutorials: your basic guide to the Internet http://www.internettutorials.net/boolean.asp If you teach math, set theory and Venn diagrams, you will be able to do a two for one lesson or reinforce one concept in the other class.  Show your students how even the weirdest math has real life applications!  How cool is that?


Welcome to the Teaching Profession


Classroom

Classroom (Photo credit: James F Clay)

This is what I tell all my student teachers:  teaching is the most rewarding profession there is, if you truly love it.  Don’t do it for the money or July and August or because you don’t know what else to do; if you don’t enjoy teaching there is very little which will adequately compensate your efforts.

A typical classroom in a Japanese elementary s...

A typical classroom in a Japanese elementary school. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Remember that this is a job you can do 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year and still not get every task done, reach every child in the class or please every parent or administrator.  If you allow yourself to be swallowed by the classroom you will shorten your career as a teacher.  Illnesses will plague you and your students will eventually irritate rather than delight you.

Your first duty is to yourself.  Put aside time for fun, exercise, family and friends but most especially yourself.  Make that time sacred.  Cultivate a hobby that will

Horse Riding

Horse Riding (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Magyar: Siklóernyő

Magyar: Siklóernyő (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

absorb and distract you when you are not teaching.  These are the things that will renew you and make you a better teacher in the long run.

Plan to arrive and leave at the same time every day.  Creating habits for things that can be routine is a way of freeing yourself to spend your time and creativity on the more demanding work.

Plan to eat lunch in the staffroom; eating lunch at your desk is counter-productive.  You need to know your colleagues and become part of the team.  You don’t do that eating lunch in your room.  By the way, in most schools, it is poor etiquette to bring a parent into a staffroom.   The staffroom is the one private place teachers can relax and be themselves.  If they need to let off steam, let slip a couple of colourful expletives or  lie down on the floor to soothe a sore back, this is their room.

English: The Teachers Lawn outside the Staffroom

English: The Teachers Lawn outside the Staffroom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Visit other classrooms.  Chat with your colleagues, but be careful not to take up too much of their time.   Keep abreast of school news.  Teachers can’t afford to go into their classrooms and shut the door.

There are lots of excellent books out there on how to organise your classroom and your time.  What is important is to use a plan that works for you, no matter who recommends what, and create habits that allow you the freedom to put your mind to real problems.

You should be aware that a great deal of paper crosses a teacher’s desk and your sanity depends on you being able to triage.  Ideally get your desk cleared daily into appropriate files.

I do have a few tips that worked for me.  I had two bumf files.  By bumf, I meant

English: Paperwork

English: Paperwork (Photo credit: Wikipedia)  A messy desk is counter productive – I learned that from bitter experience!  Create a system and stick to it.  Daily.

the kinds of information and social announcements that are difficult to classify.  One file was labelled Board Bumf and the other was labelled School Bumf. I put the papers in them in chronological order.  This was easy as it just meant putting the latest one at the front of the file.  Before I filed these papers, I noted anything I needed to know such as dates of events in my calendar; I learned to note all dates that had anything to do with the school even if they concerned another section.  However, if I forgot to note important information, it was all easily accessible.  I often forgot that we were supposed to bring certain papers to staff meetings; having a Bumf file meant that they were easy to locate.  At the end of June, I emptied the files into the recycle bin without needing to sort them.

Secondly, a copy of the class-seating plan with squares large enough to note

The desk

The desk (Photo credit: Wikipedia) some teachers desks are almost always this tidy.  It takes careful planning, organisation and at least two mini-tidies a day.  It also requires training students not to dump anything on your desk.

behaviour, learning progress or questions concerning each student is invaluable.  I always had several copies.   I dated one when I started using it and dated it again when I filed it because it was full and I had to get another one out.  These were extremely useful when I was writing report cards or assessing how a student was progressing.  I also used them to leave notes for occasional teachers.

If organisation is a major problem for you I suggest you take a look at the Fly Lady site.  It includes a system for helping teachers get organised and stay organised as well as a system for organising the home.  I have used some of her tips with students.  One of the best is the fifteen minutes work period.  For specific systems for classrooms, browse the shelves in education libraries; remember that you don’t have to implement everything at once.

One thing that you want to try to implement is smooth transitions in your classroom.  If your students go from one activity to the next quickly and with a minimum of fuss, time is saved for learning.  That time adds up.  It also means a calmer and happier classroom.  It takes time, careful preparation and self-discipline to create these smooth transitions but it is worth the effort.

Communication is very important.  Talk to each student: the good, the bad and

Communication

Communication (Photo credit: P Shanks)

the ugly. Too often poor behaviour is rewarded by our attention and we ignore good behaviour.  Casual chat with students before class starts often sets a mood or gives them the confidence to talk to you later when they have difficulties. Talk to the parents, too.  Face to face is best but any form of communication is better than none.  Keep your administrator up to date with life in your classroom.  Principals especially appreciate storm warnings.

Finally, when you find yourself unhappy or grumpy at school or at home, it is a sign that you are in need of a mental health day or two.  Take them and do something you love.  If they happen often, get help in identifying what is troubling you beyond fatigue or temporary stress.  Remember, you can’t take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first.

Interesting or Useful Web Sites for Educators or Parents


These are a few of my favourites and I expect to add to them from time to time.  Please let me know if you have come across particularly useful books or web sites in your travels.  I would be happy to check them out and add them to these lists.

http://www.beingsmart.ca/

Go to the Links section for notes from the authors’ presentations and links to excellent sites on gifted children and adults.

http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/

Information on policies, publications and laws.  Some publications are free to the public or parents. Some are free to teachers if ordered through the schools.  Teachers can download  publications and instructional videos .  Other instructional DVDs will be sent free.  Great if you missed the latest initiative.

http://www.nfb.ca/

Our beloved National Film Board offers the opportunity to watch its films free, on-line.  This is a good way to preview films that might be suitable for your class.  While the films are free for individuals, schools must take a subscription.

http://www.statcan.gc.ca/start-debut-eng.html

Statistics Canada.  Stats can be very difficult and dry to learn how to use, but fascinating to read.  For example, did you know that Montreal and Ottawa are both 60:40 bilingual?  The difference is that in Montreal, the 60% represents the francophone population, whereas in Ottawa it represents the Anglophone population.

Stats Can is happy to share the joy with teachers.   Explore the web site and look out for publications specifically aimed at schools.  Math and geography classes can be a whole lot more interesting when there is real world information to discuss.  There are even lesson plans.

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/

Put the CIA to work for you.  You can find the basic vital statistics for all the countries of the world here in their World Factbook.  Select a country and find information on the economic, political, social and physical geography.  It is important to remember the source.  For example, Palestine is not recognised as a country.

http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/2qi9SD/www.sciencegeek.net/lingo.html

For teachers whose principals are only impressed by a liberal sprinkling of jargon, here is a generator to raise a smile for those weary moments in a staff meeting or in co-creating a report.

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm

Lots of great information about Canadian history, geography, literature, sports ….

http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca

This is the web site for the McCord Museum in Montreal.  Naturally, it has its own perspective and so is an excellent complement to the Canadian Encyclopedia.  The museum itself is worth a visit, too.

http://www.flylady.net/

A website for people who problems with organisation and want to get some control over their lives.  If you need to bring some order into your chaos, check it out.  She addresses the issues of teachers, students and office workers, too, but her main focus is running a household in a minimum of time with a maximum effect.