Archive for the ‘Teaching Social Studies’ Category

Why Reading Levels Continue to Decline–PART I (of 2)

April 30, 2015

Students who still can't read

The problem of students who are unable to adequately read their grade-level textbooks is not new; the problem starts in early elementary school and only gets worse as students move up in grade levels.  Unfortunately, the rise of the internet in the past twenty years has only exacerbated the problem.

Let’s look briefly at the pre-internet reading situation in middle-class schools and above (poor schools have additional problems which will not be treated in this particular article).  Looking back, the most important function of the school library was to be filled with books to be used for school research projects which were at the correct reading levels for students.

Primary School Libraries

Not only were grade-level books provided, but there were plenty of below-grade-level books on every topic available to readers who were still below grade-level.  For example, a middle-school student with a lower reading level could still find good primary-level books on any research topic assigned. There used to be hundreds of books available through publishers, on every conceivable topic, for school libraries and public libraries to choose from.  Bookstores made them available to the general public.

Today, funding priorities are focused less on providing new books for the school library–partly because of the explosion of new topics and knowledge in our modern world, and also because of the explosion of information on the internet.  Now funding must be divided between  books, and new library computers.

The market for children’s non-fiction has plummeted since 2005.  Sales to both libraries and bookstores have dropped substantially. Therefore,  fewer nonfiction books for children are being written and published.  Publishers and booksellers decided to drop most nonfiction, and focus primarily on children’s fiction–for which there does continue to be a market.

Desirable Non-Fiction Book Topics

 The lack of nonfiction is particularly damaging for boys.  They tend to prefer autobiographies, nonfiction, newspapers, and realistic topics. Ever since 2005, as the internet has become more powerful, children’s nonfiction has declined.  This decline is preventing many boys from developing as readers. National standards in Britain and America drive the decline even further, “…as the strictures of the national curriculum have driven many publishers to stop producing anything very original, and how many books on Vikings and rainforests do we really need?”

Starting in middle school–most commonly Grade 6 and above–teachers now direct students to the internet for research, instead of to school libraries. One reason is that science classes are now often researching topics which are not even available in books in the school libraries–things such as genetics, and various types of cells–and this is happening in Grades 6, 7, and 8.

Students are now being asked to research obscure people for reasons of diversity in the classroom, rather than famous people.  This means that the information can only be found on the internet.  Students are now expected to use the internet for all research.  This is now true even in elementary school.  Students may be assigned reports on animals, for example.  Perhaps there are perfectly good books in the school library at the right reading level; however, it has now become “too much trouble” to even check , when one can “just look it up online.”

Using online sources creates a much worse problem–aside from the problem of whether a source is reliable, biased, or incomplete–that is, the problem of reading level!

Below is reading sample from a Grade 5 science text which more than half of students (even in good schools) might find too difficult to read without the teacher’s help.  Why?  Because students are now used to reading only fiction in reading class.  They are not used to the vocabulary in non-fiction; nor are they used to reading expository sentences..

Levers text

 

Not only have student reading levels declined in real terms, but the sources students are now attempting to use are usually written at far too high of a level for their age.  Students in middle school and high school usually go first to Wikipedia (and are often specifically told to do so by their teachers, particularly in international schools that have much less access to English-language printed material).  Unlike school library books or school text books of old, vocabulary is not controlled for difficulty.  Sometimes the articles are poorly written, and written by scholars who are just trying to impress other scholars with their difficult vocabulary.

Below is a section of what one of my 7th-graders attempted to read for a report on glial cells last year, using Wikipedia.  Most students now need adult help to translate and explain what they are trying to read.  To a poor reader, this may as well be in Chinese:

Glial cells text from Wikipedia

Those students who can afford it hire private tutors.  My students show up and say, “I have a project or report due next week on glial cells (or guard cells, or an obscure historical figure).  Can you help me?”  Students arrive knowing nothing about the topic, and are expected to research on line, and write a report listing their sources.  So, together we look on line and usually find very scholarly articles, which I, as an excellent reader in my 60s with a graduate degree and decades of experience teaching, sometimes have trouble understanding!  So we pull out little snippets of information from various articles, which I explain in plain English and then mark our source.  Even many Wikipedia articles are written by scholars, seemingly just in order to impress other scholars!

Hiring a private tutor

I learned a great trick years ago when I was in a professional writers’ group.  If you need good, concise information on an area or a subject, one of the best ways to find it is to go directly to children’s books, where you can find the information thoroughly distilled and written in clear, easy English.  I use this same strategy now and show students how they can search on the internet using the search terms “my topic + explained for children.”  It doesn’t always work, but it often does.  Sometimes we arrive at a website where something has been clearly explained at a reading level appropriate for middle-school students.

The thing which most excited me about the internet when it first began, especially as an overseas teacher with little access to English-language reading materials, was its potential as a world library at our fingertips.  Sadly, much of this potential is being lost for two reasons.  First, children are not developing adequate non-fiction reading abilities to function in society.  Second, most of what is available on the internet is written at far too high of a level for students to be able to benefit from it.

In most American schools, for the past several decades, the textbook has been seen by teachers as only one resource of many for classroom use.  In fact, years ago, over-reliance on the textbook was almost seen as the mark of a lazy teacher, within the teaching profession.  Unfortunately, the current result of this attitude has now led to teacher over-reliance on the internet, with students who are unable to understand either their textbooks OR the internet!  I personally have come around 180° to the view that students would be better served if they learned and discussed in class everything which is in the textbook.  Now, however, there is a new problem!  Many schools are now moving entirely away from textbooks as a way to save money, and teachers are mostly downloading random worksheets from the internet. Unfortunately, it is students who are again losing out on their education.

Part II of this series will discuss what parents, schools, and teachers can do to address these problems.

–Lynne Diligent

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Why the Flipped Classroom Has Gone Too Far

April 20, 2015

 

Flipped Classroom

The flipped classroom is just not appropriate for all subjects, all of the time.  This educational fad has gone way too far, and is being used for the wrong reasons.  Most importantly, it runs into problems when teachers attempt to use it as a time-saving device in order to cover more material, because only a small percentage of students’ reading levels are actually up to grade level.

While the flipped classroom sounds like a new idea, it is actually an old idea.  Several decades ago, it was called preparation–a good name–in Britain, although I am not aware of any specific name for it in America.  It often consisted of reading a selection in a text book before arriving in class, for example, so that one could better benefit from a lecture.

The flipped model works extremely well for math classes.  As an elementary teacher, I would look each day at the following day’s homework section.  I would give about fifteen minutes of instruction and guided practice specifically on what my third graders needed to complete that day’s homework. We did not waste time in class doing homework.

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I expected all children arrive in class with their homework complete, in order to be ready for the most important part of the lesson, learning from mistakes.  Right or wrong, they all got nice, big A‘s on the homework for completing it in pencil (including showing all work and carry numbers or cross-outs).  If they did not show their work, or if the work was either undone, or incomplete, they got a large, red F.  Within a short time EVERY child arrived daily with homework done.  We then put pencils away, and got out ink pens which we called “marking pens.”  Each child corrected their own paper.  There was no incentive to erase wrong answers, because the child already had an A, just for completing the homework.  We spent the following 30 minutes going over the problems missed by the largest numbers of students, working them on the board.  Students learned so much when they could see where they went wrong.  In most cases, we found errors such as subtracting the ones place, while adding the ten’s place, in the same problem–or, in forgetting to add in carry numbers, things like that.  In math class, the flipped classroom works fantastically.

Using the flipped classroom as a time-saving device runs into trouble in subjects which require a lot of reading for two reasons.  One reason is that in many good schools, students are feeling overwhelmed with the amount of homework, leading them to take ineffective shortcuts.  Using Spark Notes, and similar services, just do not engage student interest, and students miss the benefit of the literature.

The most important reason the flipped classroom runs into trouble is that students’ reading levels are just not up to grade-level standard in terms of being able to read either text books, or literature, on their own.

This problem is not new.  It was widespread in the 1970s and 1980s.  Secondary teachers in Colorado at that time were required to take Reading in the Content Area.  It was a course designed to help secondary teachers help students who were unable to read their textbooks adequately.  Because of the decline in book reading and adequate reading instruction, together with the rise in technology, in 2013,  more than two-thirds of students in the United States were now below reading level for their grade.

4th Graders Who Scored Below Profient Reading 2013

Unfortunately, today, most students, even some of the best students are not even attempting to read literature (or their history, or science, text books).  Most are attempting to find the film online.  Poor readers who attempt to read Spark Notes have trouble understanding even that, and certainly no one finds Spark Notes inspiring.

Many secondary English teachers (including elementary reading teachers, and secondary science and history teachers) are now assigning reading for homework, in order to cover more material and just have discussion in class.  The problem with this is that two-thirds of students are either not able to read effectively, and do not even attempt to read because of feeling overwhelmed.

So what do teachers need to do in order to combat these problems effectively?

First, they need to read the book (or text book section) themselves, in the mindset of a student, thinking about vocabulary which many students may not know, and noting it down.  They need to think about the major ideas and how those ideas relate to life today.

Next, they need to introduce the book or reading selection with a short, inspirational talk, that will make students feel like they can’t wait to read more!  They need to talk about and explain vocabulary (whether it is old-fashioned language or science terms) before students start to read.  History teachers need to think about the problems they are teaching about in a historical context and how those problems relate to life in the world somewhere today. Introduce the similar problems and questions of today and how they are being dealt with in the modern world, then look at the same questions in how they are being dealt with in the novel, or in history, or in the science text book.  Discuss what could happen in the future with the same issues.

Rather than starting a unit with reading the text book or novel, start the unit with a discussion of the students’ life questions about the issues which will arise in the reading selection  Here are three examples:

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History:  While studying various political decisions of Roman Emperors, first discuss similar problems in the modern world.  Open with a question, “What do you think about when you hear of an apartment building collapse that kills people because of shoddy building practices?  What should be done?”  Or, “What’s it like to be stuck in rush-hour traffic?  What would it be like if the highway were also clogged with pedestrians, donkey carts, and horse-drawn carriages all at the same time, and it happened four times a day instead of two times a day?”  Then, “Now let’s see how they dealt with these same problems in ancient Rome.”

Rhett loves Scarlet, while Scarlet loves Ashley and uses Rhett!

Rhett loves Scarlet, while Scarlet loves Ashley and uses Rhett, in Gone with the Wind

Literature:  “How many of you have ever had the experience of being in love with someone, only to have that person be in love with a different, third person?”  Then, “The problem of love triangles is universal throughout human history, and that’s what this novel is about.”

Science (Astronomy):  “Does alien life exist on other planets, or in other galaxies?  What do various current scientists think about this, and why?  Which planets and stars are most likely for this?  What kinds of planetary conditions are thought to be necessary?  Could we actually travel to other stars or planets, and how long might it take?”  Then, “Now let’s turn to the text book and begin reading together about the planets.”

Lastly, MUCH more time needs to be devoted to in-class reading (even in high school).  If teachers are concerned about embarrassing some students reading aloud, or if there are poor oral readers, students benefit greatly (even in high school) from the teacher reading aloud well (and adding in inflections and pauses), while they follow along.  It also gives everyone a chance to stop and discuss various points, such as how they feel about actions characters take, or what situations they find themselves in.

Teachers need to inspire and motivate students, and help students to see connections that they would not see on their own.  If the teacher is excited about the material, he cannot help but communicate that love and excitement to the students.

–Lynne Diligent

 

 

Students Mourn Never Learning Cursive

April 3, 2013
Cursive - the new undecipherable secret code script!

Cursive – the new undecipherable secret code script!

Cursive was taught in my school until four years ago.  When I left, the school discontinued it as a regular subject.  Now those students are in upper elementary and early middle school, and can neither read nor write in cursive writing.

Among my tutoring students, several of them have expressed to me their sadness that their older brothers and sisters can read and write in cursive, and they cannot.  Still being in the first few classes not to learn cursive, they feel babyish and incompetent.  Perhaps in subsequent years, this embarrassment will disappear when none of the new students  have older brothers and sisters who know cursive, when they don’t.  In another six or seven years, no one will know it, and it will seem normal to upcoming students.  It’s only those in these transition years who will feel the loss.  But they will feel it for the rest of their lives.

How many adults remember the childhood feeling of waiting to learn “grown-up” writing, or scribbling to other young friends (at the age of five or six) on a paper and bragging, “I know how to write in cursive?”  Of course, at that age, no one knew, so your friends believed you, because they couldn’t read it, either!

When I tutor these students, I have to slow down and print (much more time-consuming).  Of course these students also will never be able to read historical documents or even old family letters. Furthermore, most European and Latin American countries don’t teach printing at all–they teach only cursive script starting at the age of five.  I feel this bodes poorly for a future globalized world.

I’d be happy to teach cursive to these students (being an expert cursive teacher), but that is not what I’m being paid to tutor in–we generally spend the time on math, science, reading, and writing. Furthermore, teaching cursive at an older age can be done, but it is not generally enjoyable as it is for children.  It makes children feel grown-up, and they enjoy learning it.

–Lynne Diligent

Middle Eastern Student Shares REAL Reasons Behind Anti-American Protests

September 21, 2012

Anti-U.S. Protests in Pakistan

The Arab World does not hate America because of their materialistic culture, their television programs, or their freedoms.  It’s not about that.  The real reasons behind the anti-American protests come down to an imbalance of power between the United States and the Arab World.

This week, one of my students commented on the recent violence occurring in reaction to the anti-Islamic video and the French caricatures.  She expressed a viewpoint which has merit, but which I have not seen reported elsewhere.  Quoting my student:

“The Muslims feel in competition with the West.  They feel that they have to be better, on top, the winners.  Every time the West does something, even on television, Arabs feel they have to compete.  For example, when America created the show America’s Got Talent, the Arab World created Arabs Who Have Talent.  When the West created The Voice (with Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton) the Arab World created The Voice in the Arab World.  To copy American Idol, they created Arab Idol.  They copy every single thing!  They always feel in competition with America, because they feel America hates them, and does not like Arabs.  They always feel they have to be the best, but particularly better than America, most of all.”

Egyptian Winner of Arab Idol

My student also explained that the reason Muslim populations always take the side against the United States in international disputes is that they feel the REASON America doesn’t help Palestine is because they are Muslim, and that they help Israel because they are Jewish.  (Of course, not every person believes this, but generally speaking, it is quite commonly believed, even among the well-educated.)   “Here,” my student said, “they always take the side against America because they believe America doesn’t help Palestine because they are Muslim; they help Israel because they are Jewish.”

Today I watched to see what the reaction in third-world countries would be to the second print-run of the French caricatures.  Surprisingly, I found only very minor protests against France, and continued protests against the U.S., such as mobs burning the U.S. flag and pictures of President Obama in Pakistan.

Why were the protests against France so feeble, while weeks after the YouTube video, the protests against America continue so strongly?

A BBC interview with Pakistanis, on the streets of Lahore following the protest, also supports this same point-of-view my student had.  The BBC asked, “Where is all the anger coming from?  Is it all over a low-budget movie, or is it something else?”  Half of the respondents said it was because of hurt feelings over religious insults, while the other half said something different:

“They’re not just angry because of the movie.  They have their personal political issues, their personal problems.  They are angry about the wars (U.S. power in the region).”

“Whenever the powerful countries try to take over the resources of the weaker countries (how America is perceived in the entire Middle East), obviously the people living in those countries will try to protect their rights, and try to protect their resources.  Every country should have equal rights with every other country (angry about lack of power).”

“They are angry over poverty and unemployment.  There are many rich people and very poor people, and the difference is very great.  They are angry because they don’t have enough food, and mostly because they don’t have enough power.  So they are not just angry because of a simple movie.

Basically it comes down to a question of power.  Those who are choosing to protest actually have underlying anger issues at the United States that go far beyond the YouTube film.  What they are angry about is the imbalance of power–that the United States seems so overwhelmingly more powerful than the Muslim countries, and the Arab World.  There were comparatively few protests against France  because France does not have the same overwhelming power and influence when compared to Muslim countries.

At the end of my discussion with my student, I asked, “So, what you are saying is that the only way to get the Arab World to stop protesting against America  is to stop helping Israel, and to become weak (at least weak enough to be no threat to the Arab World)?”

“Exactly!” my student replied.

–Lynne Diligent

Each Tutor’s Most Crucial Dilemma

March 3, 2012

“Thinking back to literature tutoring days, there’s a fine line between helping students, and doing the work for them.  Students and parents are happiest only if the tutor crosses it.  How do you handle such situations?”  a fellow tutor asked me.

This is the tutor’s most crucial dilemma, in a nutshell.

Most successful long-term tutors have also been teachers.  As teachers, we want students to benefit from doing their own work.  However, as tutors, we have to remember who we are working for, if we wish to stay employed.

Most students who choose to use a tutor are not reading the required books in school anyway.  Few students are.  These days, tutors or not, I’m finding that upwards of 90 percent of students are just watching the movie, and a few students are going to Spark Notes and reading those notes, or taking those quizzes.  (Few actually read the Spark Notes well, and even fewer bother to take their quizzes.)

As a tutor, what I’m really being paid for is to make sure my students get good grades.  Parents are willing to shell out money for this, but not so much for someone who tells students that they must read on their own and who does not coach non-reading students for their tests.  So, what is a tutor to do?

Formerly as a teacher, I prided myself on getting all of my students to LOVE reading for pleasure, and to become truly interested in whatever subject we were studying.  Presently as a tutor, I pride myself on getting my non-reading students to read SOME, and to APPRECIATE what we are reading or studying.

I use all sorts of techniques to achieve these aims.  I sometimes rewrite books that use difficult language, to tell the story in simpler language.  I read these simpler rewrites with my students, and once they understand, they are sometimes motivated to read the original.  Sometimes they are unable to read the original, but at least they read SOMETHING, and learned about the story, and are able to pass a test asking them about the story.  We discuss the story and how we feel about it as we read it (even if it is in its easier version), and the students gain an appreciation for the piece of literature.

Is this acceptable?

As a tutor, I cannot take the same attitude I would take as a teacher.  As a tutor, I am coming from the perspective that students are not reading, and are not going to read.   If I can get them to read ANYTHING (even if I have to “spoon-feed” it to them), they are reading more than they would if they were not coming to me.  If I can get them to APPRECIATE the story, they are appreciating it far more that if they were not coming to me.  If they are PASSING THE TEST, they are learning far more than if they were not coming to me.

spoon-feeding students

Should we spoon-feed pupils?

So yes, I DO cross that “line” as a tutor, but I try to do it stealthily, where I sneakily make the student work and understand more than he planned to do before he came to me!

This same dilemma exists in helping with writing assignments, with math homework, and with everything else that a tutor does  As a tutor, I try to help lighten the students’ burden, while at the same time actually teaching the student on a one-to-one basis, in a way which would be impossible in a full classroom.  For example, I often do math homework problems on individual white board along with the student.  Then we compare answers.  If they are the same, we move ahead.  If they are different, we go back through the problems step-by-step to see where we diverged.  I feel students learn more this way.

I would like to hear about how others deal with this dilemma.  If you are a tutor, where do you draw the line?  If you are a teacher, what are your thoughts?  If you are a parent, what are your feelings?

-Lynne Diligent

Attend Filmmaker Luke Holzmann’s Free Film School Course on Line

January 16, 2012

As a teacher (or even homeschooler), have you ever considered how adding filmmaking capabilites could enhance your teaching abilities with students?

The only materials you need to do so are a computer with high-speed internet connection, and a simple point-and-shoot digital camera with video capabilities (although higher levels of video cameras or those with more manual controls are always a plus).

Filmmaker Luke Holzmann now offers a free, online, 36-week course to all who are interested.  A brief description of the course and simple materials needed (which most of us already have) can be found HERE.

Filmmaker Luke Holzmann

Many teachers, students, and adults are interested in filmmaking, but most don’t have a clue where to start if they are not actually in school especially for this purpose.  Check out this exciting course, either to enhance your career skills, or as an enjoyable hobby.

I’m going to try it, and I’m signing up today.

–Lynne Diligent

Cyberbaiting of Teachers, A New and Dangerous Trend

January 5, 2012

Well-behaved middle school students

A well-behaved middle-school student I tutor expressed her frustration to me with some of her formerly well-behaved classmates who now talk back to teachers and act up in the classroom.

When my student asked these friends why they now behave this way, they say it’s all about fitting in and being accepted by the “cool” group.

Anyone not accepted by this group is a target for their bullying.  My student has a mature attitude and refuses to behave this way; as a consequence, she has to stand up to various forms of insults and bullying constantly.

At one point, our school debated putting in cameras to film student behavior in every corridor and classroom, and then decided not to.

It may have been both about cost, and about invasion of privacy, as well as our school being a high-level college prep school in a Middle Eastern country.

However, lack of cameras is no longer a protection for privacy for anyone, as every student is now capable of filming anything and everything and posting it anonymously and publicly on-line.  As this article explains, many students are now purposely provoking a teacher to the breaking point with the advance intention of filming it and posting it on-line.  This form of bullying is both demeaning to teachers, and can cost many teachers their jobs.

All teachers need to remember that now, the eyes of the world are watching every second.  This applies not just to teachers, but to everyone.  Teachers, however, are more vulnerable because students with evil intentions are purposely setting out to put them in a compromised situation.

–Lynne Diligent

Why Teachers Should NOT Treat All Students the Same Way

November 25, 2011

When I first began my teaching career, I made a great effort to be fair with all students by treating them the same way under the same circumstances.  We all want to be fair with students if we are decent human beings as teachers.

However, over many years of teaching (and parenting) I discovered that treating all the same way was not producing the best results.  Over time, my focus changed from concentrating on being “fair” to doing whatever was necessary to bring each student to his highest and best performance in my class.  Furthermore, each student’s best performance was not at the same level as any other student.  This is where teaching becomes an “art” rather than a procedure, or a delivery.

Let’s look at some specific examples.  If students don’t do their homework (math, for example), they arrive in class unprepared to learn from their mistakes in that day’s lesson.  It is not important if they got the right answer in their homework; what is important is whether they attempted the problems and knew at which points they encountered difficulty.  Then they were ready for that day’s work and explanations.

So, how can teachers get students to do their homework (each student’s highest and best effort)?  In my early teaching days, in attempting to be “fair,” I would have given an identical penalty to every student who did not do their homework.  After two decades in the classroom, my approach had changed.  In Grade Three, I put A’s on every paper where the homework was completed (correct or not, although grades were not counted–unknown to the students, but known by their parents) and F’s on any homework undone or uncompleted (again, not counted, as above).  Other than that, I used different incentives for each student.

One student might need a threat–threat of a phone call to a parent, threat of staying in from recess, threat of extra homework.  Another student might need a reward–verbal praise, positive note home from the teacher, getting to be first in line all day long, reading a book while others continue to work.  Still another student might need extra help in class, extra time with the teacher, help from a classmate arranged with the teacher’s blessing, help speaking to a parent.

This is where teaching becomes an art.  In order to know when to use the carrot and when to use the stick, and how much carrot or stick, or which carrot or stick to use, a teacher must know all of his or her students individually, and know them well.  In a normal class of 25-30 students, it takes about two months to know the students this well.

Some teachers don’t want to know their students, and put up a wall.  It’s also harder for younger teachers who are closer in age to the students they teach.  The older one is, the easier it is to get to know students individually without compromising privacy or classroom discipline.  Sometimes older students assume that younger teachers want to be their “friend,” whereas younger students with an older teacher don’t make this assumption even if they do become actual friends at some point.  So the older the teacher is, the easier this is.  Sometimes younger teachers need to erect more of a barrier.

So, how to get to know one’s students?  The first way is through grading their papers, reading their opinions, and by commenting on their papers regarding what they have said.  The second way is through classroom discussions, and by being open and honest with students in classroom discussions, which encourages them to be open and honest with teachers in return.  You both learn about each other.  It’s always easier to do this in primary school than in secondary school.

Regardless, any effort expended in knowing students individually will pay dividends both in personal rewards as well as for knowing what to use to motivate that particular student.  Students who know and respect a teacher will work hard for that teacher as a person.

The reason students must not be treated the same is that some are motivated by carrots, some by sticks, and most by alternate use of various carrots and sticks at different times, and under different circumstances.

–Lynne Diligent

Teaching Conditions Faced by Teachers in the Rural Middle East and North Africa

November 22, 2011

Imagine 46 students per class (with the teacher having 550 different students per week), no chalk, no electrictiy, and no heat in freezing winter conditions.

The current generation of young teachers are often placed in government public schools which are now built in agricultural and mountain regions.  I spoke with one of these teachers, an incredibly dedicated first-year English teacher, who is teaching in one of these schools, and listened to him describe to me the teaching conditions he has to endure.

He teaches in a school without electricity or any sort of heat (and it is winter now with freezing temperatures), and without enough chalk for him to use.  The school finally was able to obtain one box of chalk to use.  When I asked him how long this was supposed to last, he told me the whole year.  I asked him if it might be possible for him to buy additional chalk from  his own pocket (even though he shouldn’t have to).

A rural, public secondary school.

He said that the problem was that as a new teacher, he hadn’t received his salary yet.  When I asked why not, he told me that all the teachers placed in public schools did not receive their salary for the first one-to-two years on the job (although I am assuming that they do eventually get the salary to which they are entitled)!  He said that teachers at private schools do get their monthly salaries upon starting, and that this is just a problem in the public-school sector.  When I asked about salaries, it appears that new teachers in the public sector generally make about $400 a month; whereas veteran teachers of many years usually make about $700 a month.  The top end of the salary scale is around $1,000 a month for the most veteran teachers in the most difficult subjects (possibly math, chemistry, physics).

My next question was, therefore, how was he managing to live, if he wasn’t getting any salary?  I asked if students ever invited him to their homes for meals.  He said no.  He said that he was very fortunate, compared to some teachers, because his parents had actually moved to his new location with him (he’s 25) so that he could live with him and they could support him during his first few years in this job.  (In this country, most new teachers are placed first in rural areas, and after several years of teaching in such conditions, they can apply to come to the city.  But it usually takes many years to actually be able to get to a school in a city.)

School hours are from 8:00 am – 12:00 Noon, and again from 1:00 pm – 5:00 pm.  This particular teacher is an English teacher in a middle school.  He has 550 students a week.  His classes average 46, and in each class, the age of students ranges from 13-20!  Each of the 550 students spends about two hours a week in his class, once a week.  So each day he has three classes.  One goes from 8:00 am to 10:00 am.  Then he has a ten-minute break.  The next class goes until noon, followed by an hour for lunch.  The third class is from 1:00 pm – 3:00 pm, and another class from 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm.  He has tried assigning homework, but has so far found that only five or six students out of 550 actually did the homework.  He says that most students take notes, but never open their notebook once they have left class.  The school has no library at all, and twenty classrooms which are equally as crowded as his.  The school has no extra resources even to buy an extra box of chalk for the teachers.

I asked about the sex ratio in his classes.  He said that being a secondary school in a rural area, it’s about 70% boys and 30% girls, but that the girls are far more serious, and study better.  Some of the reasons behind the lower attendance of girls have to do with girls’ labor being needed in the home, as well as it being dangerous and far for the girls to walk to school.  They cannot walk alone (for safety reasons).  The school is 2-3 kilometers from most of their homes.  The older girls get, it is more difficult for families to keep them in school, than it is for boys.

This teacher told me that he started his class year by having only two rules, which he explained to his students.  These are to have RESPECT, and to DREAM BIG.    He talked to the students about respecting themselves, about respecting others, about respecting their teachers, and about what it means to have respect in each of these areas.  Next he talked to them about their dreams.  He tried to encourage them in whatever their dreams were, to take steps toward pursuing them, whether it be becoming a soccer or basketball player, or becoming an artist.  The saddest thing, he said, was that most of them don’t have ANY dreams at ALL.  He said they have been raised in such a way that such thinking and ideas are not encouraged.

A typical public secondary school in a small city.

I told him (speaking as a teacher of many years) that no teacher can hope to be that “special” teacher for everyone, but that every teacher CAN hope and expect to be that “special” teacher for at least some students.  Teachers can change the lives of students by opening up possibilities and giving emotional support.  We discussed it, and he said that while middle-class students are now having dreams, that lower-class students (the majority) are not yet to that level.

As a first-year teacher, he told me that he desires to be a “modern” teacher, using games, songs, and playing.  However, he quickly found this did not work.  “If you have fun with them,” he says, “then they think you are a cool teacher who ‘lets them do whatever they want’ and they don’t respect you.”  He has problems with students getting up out of their chairs out of their chairs without permission, and many students talking in class, disturbing the others.  When he tries to get them to CALM DOWN they don’t want to listen.  These are the same problems I had for many years in my classrooms in this country, although I found getting older (as a teacher) helps!

Interestingly, English teachers in this French-speaking country tend to follow Western models of teaching, and the education departments follow modern methods from America.  They are not being taught in ed school just to have students “memorize” and the like; however, they have the same trouble as foreign teachers do with finding that often more fun and interesting methods don’t seem to work with students who have been raised with different sorts of ideas by their parents, and by the local culture.

This teacher and I live in different parts of our country, and I spoke with him over Skype.  His English was unbelievably good, even compared to other English teachers I have met.  We are a French and Arabic-speaking country (upper classes speaking French, and lower classes speaking the local dialects of Arabic).  It was as good as if he had been raised in England or America, and only had a very slight accent.  He spoke with perfect grammar and pronunciation, and in our two-hour conversation I heard only one slight mistake, which he self-corrected.  I think it’s amazing that someone of this quality is teaching in such a far-off rural school.

I mention this teacher’s good English as a comparison  to my daughter’s experience less than ten years ago in respected private school in a big city in our country.  I went to a presentation for parents in a large auditorium.  The English teacher got up and spoke to parents for five minutes from the stage, explaining what the students were going to do.  Yet, I could barely understand a word!  When my daughter (a native speaker) was in her class, she used to tell my daughter that she wasn’t speaking English correctly (not true).  Since that time, I have found that the English standards of the public-school teachers generally seem quite superior to those of many private-school teachers (although I’m not yet sure why that is).

This teacher’s dedication really impressed me and made me feel as if I wanted to be a student in his class!

–Lynne Diligent