What’s your name?

Teachers need to know the names of their students. Teachers also need to speak to students using their names. Sounds obvious, but some educators underestimate the immense power of addressing someone by name. There were times, when I taught at a large comprehensive school in London, when, after teaching a class for the best part of a year (two periods a week), I didn’t know all of their names. Children and adults notice when you don’t know them AND they notice when they do. I make it may business as a principal to get to know my students, how else can you build up a relationship? Walk down the corridors, smile, greet people by name, make comments like ‘good job with the basketball game at the weekend’ (sorry Alfie Kohn, I’m working on the praise thing!) and you’ll notice a huge difference. A parent probably knows their child the best. They can detect mood changes; they notice things which seem ‘out of the ordinary’. This can and is often put down to ‘hormones’, ‘teenagers’, etc, but if we as educators get to know students better, we can spot changes and we can respond to them. We can work in partnership with home to help the students. This can only be achieved when the teacher to student ratio is small. At our small international school we proudly state that our teacher to student ratio is low. This is usually interpreted as having small class sizes. This of course is educational more sound than large class sizes for obvious reasons, but I consider teacher to student ratio being ‘the number of students a teacher actually teaches’. It’s all very well having a maximum class size of 18. but if you teach 15 classes in a week, which some teachers do in a week that’s 270 students and if you only see them for 80 minutes a week, what chances have you of really knowing them? Going back to knowing their names, is it any wonder some teachers struggle with remembering names?

As a parent, when you go to look at a school or when you go to your next parent/teacher consultation day ask the teachers of your child; “How many kids do you teach a week?” and “How well do you know my son/daughter?”. Of course if they don’t know your son or daughter well it may not be their fault. Ask those questions to the people running the school!

Social Networking for Teens

During this weeks Middle School assembly, I talked about social networking and particularly facebook.

We saw some video clips from the organization NetSmartz which explained the dangers of posting information on the web amd some other funny youtube clips. The most important message I would like us to get across is that students need to be aware of the dangers of posting information about themselves on line and the dangers of posting information about other people. The advice ‘do as you would be done by’ which was given to me when I was of middle school age still stands true. Now we can say ‘before you write a comment or post a picture or video; think whether you would like that written or posted about you’

I definitely do not take the approach that social networking is not a good thing. In fact social networking has been around for hundreds of years, it’s just that now the opportunities for bullying, harassing and harming each other are greater, easier and more anonymous.

Before this technology, if a student wanted to say something unpleasant about a fellow student the options included; speak to them personally, write a note and give it to them or start saying things about them to others which gradually spread. These methods of bullying of course still exist today, but tend to need some form of premeditation before carrying them out. Now students can communicate instantly from their phones and computers. They can type comments about people or post a picture or video of fellow students from the safety of their bedroom press ‘return’ and the job is done. The message may then be seen by potentially hundreds of fellow students instantly. It’s much, much easier than before.

Students, particularly in middle school need a great deal of personal and social guidance, They are struggling to come to terms with puberty and all the issues this brings. The dangers of the solitary technological ‘bubble’ some students surround themselves with at home can be great.

Parental control tools such as ‘Magic desktop’, ‘Cyber patrol’, and ‘Safe Eyes’ can be applied at home and school but these are what they say- ‘parental controls’. If kids want to find other computers to access ‘forbidden’ sites, they will. Some of the applications used by teenagers today are; chatrooms, social networking sites such as facebook, instant messaging, email peer to peer (P2P), news groups and games. If a concerned parent or school blocks all of these their children will find some where else to roam.

These applications are not necessarily unsafe either. Instant messaging is a great way to keep in touch and chat with friends. Don’t forget we had instant messaging 20 and 30 years ago- it was called the telephone! The concerns though, are often to do with how long kids are talking, who they are talking to, and what they are saying. Some of the language they use on when messgaing can be a worry too.

One of the most important things adults can do is first UNDERSTAND what their children are doing. They need to educate themselves to the technologies out there toghether with understanding the benefits and dangers they bring. There is help out there. Some sites such as www.kidshealth.org and www.Netsmartz.org offer advice and information for parents. When it comes to discussing issues with teenagers UNDERSTANDINNG can lead to improved COMMUNICATION and IGNORANNCE can lead to CONFRONTATION

To help parents UNDERSTAND we as schools need to set up an opportunities for parents to come in and discuss issues pertinent to their kids’ age group.

Understanding the Kids (Understanding can lead to improved communication)

A great way to teach parents about what their kids are doing on the internet is to get the kids to teach them themselves by sitting down with parents. Students are willing to help! They don’t necessarily see these presentations as ‘giving away information to the enemy’ as long as it is explained to them that parents understanding can lead to better communication. If ignorant parents just ban sites and computer time ‘willy-nilly’ based on no knowledge, then this will lead to confrontation. Including kids in the discussion is vital- it is something they know a lot about. Schools can encourage some kids to give a presentation of what they are doing. Help parents to set up facebook accounts, get them instant messaging each other, show them some games, take them to a chat room.

Communicating with Kids

Assuming that the parents now have some knowledge behind them, now is the time to start communicating with their kids about their feelings and concerns and setting up some ‘family rules’ as far as internet safety and use is concerned. Parents have always been worried about their children’s safety. When they were young their parents would worry about predators. The predators then, were likely to be described as someone who might harm their children, and parents and schools reinforced messages such as ‘Don’t accept sweets from strangers’ and ‘don’t accept a ride from a stranger’. These predators are still there, but now they have an amazing tool to lure kids called the internet. Predators can make friends with the kids, pretending to be someone of their age, can easily identify where the kids live and also encourage a meeting-all online. Chat rooms are the most common form of use.

When kids want to go out for the evening what are the four most likely questions a parent might ask?

1. Why do you want to go out?

2. Where are you going?

3. Who will you be with?

4. How long will you be?

This gives parents enough information to feel relatively safe when their kids go out. These same questions can be asked to children when they go online.

1. Why do you want to go online (homework, chat with friends, play games etc)

2. Where are you going? (which sites will they use?)

3. Who will you be with? (who are you going to be speaking to?)

4. How long will you be?

Kids of the 21st century need computers and they need the internet. Banning their use at home can lead to confrontation and frustration. It is more important to try to make sure they are safe by understanding the dangers. Parents need to try to create a climate of open communication at home, a great place to do this is by trying to have dinner together as often as possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends eating meals together to strengthen families and support good child development. They suggest that teenagers who eat with their families on a regular basis are less likely to experience depression or emotional stress than teens who do not eat regularly with their families. These same teens that share meals with their families are more likely to be motivated in school and have better peer relationships than those that do not share meals with their families.

Here are some other sites suggested by facebook themselves offereing advice:

‘We’ The feeling of School Community

The ‘we’ factor is very important in schools. Students, staff and parents need to work together to create the best learning environment possible. Students need to be treated with respect and be given a say in the running of the school. Rules shouldn’t be called rules. This sounds too rigid. Why not call them Common Sense Actions (CSA’s?!) or Safety and Common Sense Actions (SACSA). I try to move away from the ‘DON’T’ to the SACSA. For example you could post a sign up and down a corridor saying ‘DON’T RUN’-that is a rule. Students see this and think; “I’m not allowed to run”, quite often without thinking about or knowing why. They only find out why when they are in the principals office! Why not put up signs saying ‘RUNNING in the corridor is dangerous!’ This isn’t a ‘don’t rule’ it’s a statement. Or why not put up a sign saying If you WALK in the corridor, you’ll make the school a safer place. Try to think of some rules at your school and try to turn them from a DON’T to a SACSA.

Students should understand why rules are in place. They pretty much always boil down to actions which may harm or upset others, and safety. When a student is brought to my office for ‘breaking a rule’ I always says to them “tell me one rule that exists in the middle school which isn’t there for either the protection of other’s feelings or safety and I’ll get rid of it.” Students need to have a say in the running of their school. It’s good to have some form of democratic structure in place, whether it be student council, house system etc. At our school, students are elected as house leaders and they meet with me every week to talk about issues and to plan events and competitions. They actually run meetings with their house on their own (there is a teacher advisor in the room, but they step back and let the students run the show), canvassing for student feedback and opinions and bringing them back to me to discuss. They also act as mentors and role models. Younger students should be able to go to them with a problem or concerns. As soon as we have a shared feeling of responsibility, the atmosphere or ethos will be better.

Dennis Littky Talk

This is a link to a video of Dennis Littky talking about the MET schools.

Littky is the co-founder and director of the Big Picture Company and the MET school.

I am very impressed with the philospohy of the Big Picture Company and their committment to Small Schools and personalised, relevant and student centered learning. I’d recommend you to take some time to look at this video his ideas are enlightening! I visited a MET school in New York last year and had an amazing experience.

Littky Talk

Homework

Homework is a hot topic in the middle school at the moment. I have introduced the idea that we need to think about why we set homework and if students do take learning home, what should it look like. After reading much research, articles and books such as Alfie Kohn’s “The Homework Myth”, Sara Bennet and Nancy Kalish’s “The Case against Homework” and Harris Cooper’s “The Battle over homework”, it is clear to me that we need to re-examine and discuss our current practice. I don’t think there is a huge problem at our school, in fact the excellent teachers we have are very open to ideas and change. They are also doing a great job and really have the student’s well being at heart, but I think that we all just assume that homework should be set and all have very different ways of setting it.

I am not saying that there should be no learning done at home, I am simply saying that the learning should be relevant, interesting and personalized. If a student is really excited about their learning and they want to continue their learning at home, they will!

One point of discussion is to look at the curriculum content of each subject. If a teacher feels that she or he needs to set homework in order to “get through the curriculum content” then I would say we need to look at the curriculum and see if things can be re arranged to enable it to be taught primarily at school.

Another area is the awful practice of saying “Here’s the work for today and if you can’t finish it, you have to do it for homework”. Who does this benefit. The kids who find the work easy don’t have any homework and are not stretched and the kids who are struggling or just simply take longer, end up with homework.

The students at our school, through the student leadership body are also looking at homework through surveys and interviews. It upset me yesterday when I saw a video interview with a 6th grader who said “Home is for fun and school is for work”. When I hear comments like this I feel we have failed this student and need to try to get through to him that learning should and can be fun. This student needs to be excited about learning at school at home.

I visited the Bronx Guild School in New York last year, which is a big picture school. I asked a student there whether he had homework. He said “I don’t get given homework, but I do a lot of my work at home”. If people get excited about something they are doing, they’ll just want to keep doing it.

I read an interesting response to the opinion of some educators that kids can’t always have fun and they need repetitive practice homework in order to teach them discipline and organizational skills. They also sometimes compare this opinion with Musicians and Athletes who have to do a lot of preparation and repetitive exercises to get better. The response simply said “The difference is that the musicians and athletes WANT to do it”.
I’d happily give a student 2 hours of Math practice questions to do at home if they were interested in doing them!

More to follow….!

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