Why South African Private Schools should embrace the 3 term approach

Growing up, I attended public schools in South Africa and blithely accepted that a school year had 4 terms. I could never imagine any other way because I had not seen any other way!

It was only when I started teaching overseas that I realised that most Northern Hemisphere schools have 3 terms, with short mid term breaks and slightly longer, end of term holidays. After teaching within this system for 2 years, and seeing the many benefits that it brings with it, I found myself at a loss as to why more South African private schools have not embraced this approach.

An Overview of the the 3 and 4 Term School Years

A 4 term system involves the school year being broken down into 4 ‘terms’ with holidays of varying lengths in between. Terms are usually about 10 weeks long but can be as short as 9 or as long as 12.

A 3 term system breaks up the year into 3, approximately 12 week long terms (The first term being longer, at 16 weeks). However, midway through the term, there is a one week break (‘Half Term’) and at the end of the term, there is a two week break. This roughly equates to 6 weeks of holiday spread throughout the year and then, of course, the ‘long holiday’ (around 1 month-6 weeks) at the end.

Random Mathematics Meme! Because I am a teacher and I like Maths puns

Pros of the 3 Term System

  • Curriculum can be broken down into 6 week ‘chunks’

An 11 week term is too long to do just one unit of work so we usually pack in at least two or three. However, there is almost always a ‘muddle in the middle’ and at least one of the units doesn’t gets started or finished properly

In the 3 term system, the curriculum can easily be broken down into 6 week units that can be properly started, developed and assessed before the half term break. 6 weeks on one overarching topic follows a much more natural rhythm and, as a teacher, is so much easier to plan around. One can always see the end in sight

  • The Half Term Break: Perfect for planning and getting admin up to date

In the 3 term system, the 1 week holiday is not a ‘holiday’ per se. It’s an opportunity for teachers to get admin up to date, review the unit that has just been completed and flesh out planning for the 6 weeks ahead.

As a teacher, you obviously do your yearly plans at the beginning of the year, same as in the 4 term year.  However, short term planning never seems too overwhelming with the 3 term approach as one can constantly look at the progress of the children and plan meaningfully for the 6 weeks ahead.

  • No ‘end of term fatigue syndrome

I recently spoke to a friend who analysed their school data and saw they had an average absenteeism rate of 27% in the final week of school. This does not surprise me at all. At the end of an 11 week term, teachers are too tired to plan anything interesting and students are too tired to show up. It just doesn’t work!

When ‘term’ is run as two 6 week units with a one week break in between, none of this exhaustion pops up. I was truly amazed to see how little last week absenteeism there was when I worked overseas. We kept working right up until the final days, which took the pressure off trying to plan fun, ‘non curriculum specific’ activities for the few kids who do show up in the last bit if term as well.

The Final Word

Holidays work out roughly the same, planning is easier, attendance goes up and teacher/student exhaustion is reduced. All this is why I strongly feel that more South African schools should embrace the 3 term system. Do you disagree? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Why good teachers leave

I recently resigned from my first international teaching job. All teachers who had been there for more than a year chose not to renew their contracts and it was a devastating situation. I adored and admired my students and in the classroom, I  loved my job. However, I chose to leave and because of one all encompassing reason: My managers

I am a teacher. It is hard work. It is physically and emotionally draining- and I love it. Teachers are people who do not fit neatly into a category. We come from all walks of life, perhaps have had many careers. We are scientists, writers, actors and historians… But we have all been drawn to teaching because of the uniquely wonderful  opportunity to shape a life: To guide a person through the process of discovering who they are and what they want to be.

I am not, therefore, a foot soldier. It is likely I will sometimes spot errors in logic or poor decision making  and I will draw your attention to it. I will (respectfully) question: Because if I don’t model what critical thinking looks like, how  can I expect my students to think critically themselves?

Why I left

First and foremost, management was top down and autocratic. I was expected to blindly obey orders, even if the logic behind these orders could not be explained or justified. Any form of questioning seemed to be taken as an ‘attack’ on management, including simple and sincere requests for more information. The attitude of management towards education also did not match what they heavily promoted on their school website. Worse, we were expected to maintain this hypocrisy – prompting an ethical dilemma for all of us along with a professional one.

No professional development was provided (despite being promised and promoted as part of the job offer). New tools were introduced and we were told to “Youtube” how to to use them. There was also no clear system for maintenance. Teaching tools such as laptops and projectors were taken away in the middle of the day, with no warning and no consideration as to how this may impact teaching plans.When I first began at the school, there was an outstanding head teacher. She really held the ship together, using her more than 15 years of teaching experience to deftly manage a multi-national, multi-lingual staff in such a way as to make everyone feel included and valued. Sadly, this teacher was given unreasonable amounts of work, carrying out all head teacher duties on top of a full teaching schedule (approx. 30 hours a week) which pressed her to the point of resignation. This resignation was then poorly handled. The head teacher offered to see out the year but was then suddenly told to leave on a Friday afternoon as ‘a replacement had been found who was starting Monday.’ It gets worse…. this replacement did not show up Monday morning, leaving us us with no head teacher for the remainder of the year.

The atmosphere plummeted  from this point on and it was only the professionalism of the teachers that kept the school running relatively smoothly.  We took on extra teaching hours and continued to work in the evenings and on weekends to try and keep up with the demands of teaching multiple grades in one classroom and differentiating for students with massively varying English abilities.  Despite this, the professional judgement of teachers was not respected or, even sought, most of the time. Teachers were deliberately kept at a distance from parents and ignored or told it was not their place to recommend if a student should be given SEN assistance.  Frequently, teachers were not given clear instructions but then belittled or berated if the vision of management for a particular event was not correctly executed.

Image result for bad management funny

Source: Teamwork and Leadership (Michael G Rodgers)

I could go on but by now, you’re probably getting the  picture. Teachers were also frequently made to feel physically or emotionally unsafe and sometimes, I feel like this job has given me a master class in how not to make staff happy and motivated. Almost all of us were, at one stage, willing to stay for a long time. But bad management is a daily event to suffer through and after a while. the misery derived from that wins out over any satisfaction one is getting from the classroom.

As a teacher, I know that one is expected to put in time after hours and I will give 200% without having to be asked. I will sit until late at night preparing resources and tasks. I will deliberate and debate over the best way to help a student in need. But I cannot, and will not, be unquestioning. To all head teachers and leaders out there: If you want to keep me (and others like me), engage with me, involve me. I may not be in a leadership position. But every teacher is a leader – we lead our students every day: Whether this supporting from the back or guiding from the front. The best way to keep a good teacher is to make them feel valued.

 

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Giving Useful Feedback to Students

Giving continuous, useful feedback is such an integral part of good teaching. I’m at a loss as to why it does not form a bigger part of the PGCE!

Many new teachers (myself included) struggle with how to give good feedback. Finding the time to do it, finding the motivation to give it and, of course, doing it effectively.

There are many different methods to give feedback and the best way to find YOUR best way is to experiment. Below are a two methods I frequently use, both of which can be pretty easily integrated into the teaching day.  Please comment any ideas or methods you use which work well!

1. WWW and EBI

Whenever my students complete an assignment, I try to assess in the form of  a “What Went Well’ (WWW) and ‘Even Better If’ (EBI).

Image result for WWW and EBI

When I first started giving this detailed feedback in books, I was amazed at the response! I think something about it really affects the students as they know I have truly taken the time to read what they have produced: I have noticed if they have listened and tried, however successfully, to put into practise what I have taught.

Depending on how much time you have, the WWW and EBI back can be one line or a whole paragraph. What’s important is that is precise and goal oriented.

A few more tips

  • You can colour this feedback these, so students know that certain colours mean certain things. For example, purple is praise and green is for goals/ways to improve
  • For a bigger project or for term target feedback, always try to give a detailed paragraph of feedback that is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely)
  • Do it verbally! A really great way of giving feedback after an oral presentation is to immediately ask the class for some WWW’s and EBI’s. This has the added bonus of encouraging the class to listen more critically as they know they will need to give feedback afterwards. Any gaps can be filled in by the teacher at the end.

The WWW and EBI method is powerful because its  its positive. Sometimes, all I give is a WWW! Just an acknowledgement is often constructive: Students are more likely to do something again if they are  been validated and reassured that they did it right the first time.

Yes, doing this does  take time…. a lot of time. But it also provides ample evidence for report writing. And more importantly, it is a useful way to spend time – unlike many silly admin tasks that unfortunately make up too much of our time as teachers.

 

2. Setting an Assignment/Subject Term Outcomes up for self assessment

This may not seem like giving feedback but it very useful in training students to self assess and take responsibility for their own learning.

It works by simply providing a checklist of things for students to tick off as they complete/after they complete a task. This obviously needs to be precise and linked to the specific outcomes of the task. A simple example, for writing a story:

Image result for story checklist

You can also use this principle to help students track their progress through the  learning outcomes for a particular subject. I find this easiest and most useful in the form of an ‘I can’ booklet or document where students can rate their knowledge of outcome as Red, Amber or green (RAG).

I have created a booklet of ‘I cans’ for Year 7,8 and 9 Science that have been coupled with Revision tasks. You can purchase these from my TES shop here 

Remember, feedback does not always have to be given by the teacher! More often than not, your students are capable of giving reasonable, good advice to their peers if they are given the chance. Get the students to swap books and assess each other’s work- Just make sure you assist the weaker students so everyone gets decent feedback.

Some final thoughts

I ran a little thought experiment this year as I was trying to figure out for myself the difference between ‘feedback’ and ‘marking’. Every time I assessed, I mentally examined the difference in my own feelings when examining an assignment for ‘marks’ and examining general classwork tasks.

I found I was instinctively a lot more objective and critical when it was just classwork. There is such a sense of pressure that builds up around tests and projects ‘for marks’ – stemming from parents, teachers and the students themselves. I care about the students and their sense of self worth and I want them to feel proud of themselves so I look for ‘marks’ wherever I can find them. In the process, I sacrifice an opportunity to show a student how they could improve at something.

This is what has motivated me to make a conscious effort to constantly think about ‘giving feedback’ rather than ‘marking’work. It has also motivated me to minimize formal assessment as far as possible in my teaching practise. Yes, a certain amount of standardised testing is needed for students to get qualifications. But, in the journey to get ready for this, there is no need to repeatedly put students under similar pressure. It will not make them any more ready and more importantly ,it will necessarily help give them skills that will make them more employable or entrepreneurial in the future

This is also why I advocate for school wide systemic change – there is something very wrong with a system which, in 2017, still tries to convince students that test scores are more important than being able to do something . As Sal Khan speaks on so beautifully below….

 

Posted in Becoming a Better Teacher, Blog | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Learning to Learn

John and Hank Green are two of my innovation heroes. They have transformed the online landscape in so many ways and Crash Course and Scishow (though both have their faults) are pioneering educational video channels. They are also just all round incredible people who continuously make the world more awesome. Here is one of my favourite John Green presentations where he explains why learning- real learning- is such a special thing

#Teachergoals

You can check out Vlogbrothers, Crash Course and Scishow below: They’re all well worth a subscribe!

Crash Course

SciShow

Vlogbrothers

 

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Amazing Hoop Gliders

Continuing the STEM theme, I present to you…. The Amazing Hoop Glider!

There’s not a child in the world who doesn’t love making paper airplanes. Recently, we decided to do another combined  science class where students had to just that… with a twist.

Objectives

  • To follow instructions to build a paper glider using specific materials
  • To think scientifically about an initial design and make improvements so as to make the glider fly faster/further

The Amazing Hoop Glider is a specialised paper plane design which involves attaching two hoops to a straw and… that’s more or less it! Science Bob provides detailed and easy to follow directions here

We gave a basic introduction, put the instructions up on the board then let the students play.

They did a great job so we headed outside for a test flight

After the initial planes had been made,we got students to turn the demonstration into an investigation by thinking about the following questions:

  1. How well did my Hoop Glider fly?
  2. What could I change about the Hoop Glider to make it fly faster/further?

We then set the challenge of students building a second hoop glider… making only ONE modification from their original design.

Some decided to change the card material to paper, some added extra straws and some added extra hoops.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Afterwards, we went outside again for students to compare which of their hoop gliders flew better… and to think about why.

Obviously, there are plenty of other factors that can affect how well this test works but overall, it was a fun activity to do and a great opportunity for students to think scientifically about something they do all the time.

 

Posted in Lesson of the Week, Science | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Defining Democracy for Secondary Students

If you’ve read a few of my posts, you’ve probably picked up I think students knowing their civic roles and responsibilities is vital. We live in an era where there is too much tension and hatred – of other races, religions, ‘cultures’…. and mostly because people are not educated about things that matter!

It is so important that students understand how a democratic system works and what their place in it is. It is important students know that we are part of a global community and our actions, no matter where we are in the world, can affect others very far away.And of course, its important for students to have fun while learning it.

This week, we decided to hold a mock election. It was a wonderful success with students having fun and collaborating beautifully but also coming up with some fantastic ideas. This is a perfect end of term filler for when tests are done and one can afford to stretch out a topic for as long as it needs- activities like this tend to take on a life of their own

Lesson 1: Democracy vs Dictatorship

I used this great power point here to cover the basic differences between living in a democratic nation vs living in a dictatorship. Students, of course, have heard a lot about North Korea in the news lately so this led to a great discussion about dictatorial nations and whether other, democratic countries have the responsibility so help them. And if so, which country should be the most responsible?

Lessons 2: Forming a Political Party

Students were split into groups (political parties) and I explained that they would be running for student leadership at our school. We don’t have a student council at our school yet so we just did this as an exercise in democracy. However, this is a great opportunity to chat to your HOD or Principal and use this is proper democratic election where elected students get to represent the student body and try to make their campaign promises happen.

I then used a power-point to go through what a political party is, how political parties appeal to voters and what the purpose of a manifesto is- using the English Labour and Conservative Parties as examples. Students were then given their official task which is embedded in the power point. You can view the resource (“Let’s get the political party started”) and download for free at my TES shop here

Lessons 3 and 4: Developing a Manifesto and Campaign Poster

This is when the fun really begins! Students had to come up with a manifesto and campaign poster that includes their name, slogan, symbol and campaign promises.

They then had to present their posters to the class, focusing on effective group presentation and incorporating all their party members. After this lesson, we hung up the campaign posters for the class to read and consider for a day or two.

Lesson 5: The Vote!

Last of all, of course, is the vote!

 

 

 

 

 

 

We created a full election situation where students voted secretly using ballot papers. Afterwards, of course, we had a post election party where the winners were congratulated and everyone respectfully applauded each other’s efforts.

This lesson plan was created on a bit of a whim but it worked fantastically and I will definitely do it again!

Posted in English, Humanities, Lesson of the Week | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thinking STEM: The Cup Stacking Challenge

Progress Tests are done, Reports need to be written. Children still need to learn but at this point in the year, are thoroughly over being taught. What to do?

When browsing some teaching blogs recently,I came across a school running an ‘integrated science class’: A mix of Grade 3-Grade 8 learners who are split into teams and given a STEM challenge each week to solve. You can check out the website here

Myself and a colleague decided to give it a go for a Science class this week. We combined our Y3,4,5 and 6 classes and split them into teams of 4 that each had a range of older and younger learners. Then we presented The Challenge

Stack the cups… without touching them!

Objectives

  • To work cooperatively in a group situation in order to achieve a bigger goal
  • To investigate how to solve an engineering challenge using limited materials

The Materials

  • Cups (6 per group – add more later if they’r finding 6 too easy)
  • Elastic bands (several per group)
  • String

What to do

Quite Simpy, we gave the students the materials, told them to stack the cups into a pyramid without touching them (no use of mouths!) and said GO!

After a slightly baffled silence, students immediately raced off into trying different methods to get the job done – there are many options. The awesome thing about challenges like is that students are forced to think creatively , be confident and not give up. It was also wonderful having older and younger students working together as there is so much they have to teach each other.

We gave the students a while to practise and find a good technique and then had a timed race to see how could get their pyramid up first. It was a great lesson that everyone enjoyed and we will definitely do something similar in the future!

Posted in Lesson of the Week, Science | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Google Sites to the Rescue!

Recently, I realised just before a lesson that my printing cap had been reached. I thus found myself in a dilemma: The lesson I had planned required students to have access to extracts from Anne Frank’s diary. I could have projected the extracts onto the board but I wanted students to read them at their leisure; to examine and to highlight. One projection onto the board simply wouldn’t work.

In a lucky flash of memory, I remembered Google Sites. Although we run on an Office 365 platform at my school, I have been sneaking Google Tools into the classroom as often as possible as Office doesn’t always get the job done.

Literally in the space of 15 minutes (I only had one break time to solve my problem), I created a basic Google Site to upload all the necessary resources on to. I also embedded the video starter into the site so I wouldn’t have to flick between tabs

I want to stress here that the site I made is very basic and has numerous  errors that even a non tech- savvy eye could pick up. But it fulfilled my need perfectly and even better, I added a few more resources to the site that I could never have printed. For example, I found an online copy of Anne Frank’s Diary that is free to use for educational purposes. Bam, now interested students can read her diary in their own time, if they want to.

Check out the site I created (again, in less than 15 minutes) here

 

Pros of Using Google Sites

  • It’s User Friendly: Google Sites has a format that is very self explanatory. Naturally, being Google, there are also a number of offers of help that pop up when you are new to using the app.
  • It saves paper! Although I strongly feel there are times when a physical piece of paper and a highlighter are needed, there are many tasks and resources that no longer need to be printed. The parts of this lesson than that I wanted students to have written in their books, I asked them to write down in summary form – thereby giving them a chance to practise some writing skills!
  • You give students access to information they can peruse in their own time. The internet is every where…
  • You can link to video or audio resources to supplement or help EAL or SEN students understand the text.

How to Create a Google Site

  1. Go to https://www.sites.google.com/new
  2. Click on the large red ‘+’ sign in the bottom right hand corner – ‘Create’
  3. This will take you to a ‘blank slate’ page with some basic formatting in place. Give your page a name and title.
  4. Use the ‘Insert’ and ‘Theme’ tabs on the right hand side to add images, text, videos and adjust the look of your Home Page.
  5. Use the ‘Pages’ tab on the right hand side to add additional pages

Voila!

Posted in Digital Teaching Tools, Google | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Model Paris Peace Conference of 1919

With all the political craziness going on in 2017, barely a Humanities class has gone by without the words Trump, Theresa May or Brexit being uttered! This has been the perfect opportunity to discuss democracy and its many favours and faults.

As we came to the end of our unit on WW1 recently, I decided to have students hold a model ‘Paris Peace Conference’. The idea behind this was  mimic the meeting in Paris in 1919 where the Treaty of Versaille was developed, the goal being  to eventually compare their treaty with the official Treaty of Versaillles.

Before the Lesson

We spent the previous lesson looking at the losses each country had suffered during WW1. This really helped the students ‘get into character’ so to speak and understand the motivations driving what each country wanted. One student in particular got so into character, she was called George for the rest of the term and demanded revenge with zero compassion in every hypothetical discussion .

Objectives

  • To take part in a democratic, decision making process
  • To imagine the factors that leaders had to consider when formulating the Paris Peace Agreement of 1919

What you need

  • Lesson Power Point: You can download this for free from my TES shop here
  • A room full of tables set up in a conference style format. We used a horseshoe shape
  • Flags or some kind of paraphernalia from each country. Not essential but it helps students get into character.

At the beginning of the lesson, I split the class randomly into groups that represented the USA, Great Britain and France. These  groups then had to work together to write a peace treaty: starting with nominating a chairperson who ran the meeting from then on. The teacher played the role of Germany as she was not allowed to speak or add her ideas to the conference’s proceedings.

The students ran with this idea beautifully, discussing, deliberating and compromising to come up with a list of workable demands. They also really had fun! Although the subject matter was serious, the role play added an element of silliness and some students enjoyed decorating their faces with nation specific mustaches! In all seriousness though, I was so impressed with what they were capable of.  In just two lessons, students successfully negotiated a peace treaty that they felt was fair and took into account everything that each ‘country’ wanted. They laughed and had fun but also took their roles seriously and the chairwoman they nominated was perfect in her role.

After the lesson, we compared the treaty they had come up with with the real Versailles treaty and then discussed whether they felt Germany had been treated fairly. This operated as a perfect lead in to WW2: The topic we were studying next

Why this lesson worked

Students got the chance to take charge of the classroom. It was a silly bit of fun ‘gagging’ the teacher and a running joke over the first few minutes. However, as the lesson went on, I saw the students discuss serious issues in a more mature way. They realised what they were capable of and it boosted their confidence (and my confidence in them)

It also brought home the reality that big decisions can only be made through cooperation and compromise. It was a nice opportunity for students to consider if they are comfortable ‘playing politics’ – it’s never too early for people to consider their role in a democratic society

 

Posted in Humanities, Lesson of the Week | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

McGraw-Hill Virtual Labs

I recently posted about doing dissections in Biology class. While dissections are an excellent way of seeing animal anatomy firsthand, there are a number of digital alternatives.

One of my favourite sites is the Mcgraw-Hill Virtual Lab: http://www.mhhe.com/biosci/genbio/virtual_labs_2K8/

You can complete a number of different simulations on here (Nutrition, Blood Pressure and many more) and even complete a virtual earthwarm or frog dissection.

 

 

Posted in Digital Teaching Tools, practical/lab tasks | Leave a comment