Teaching English in Santo Domingo

When I arrived in the Dominican Republic everyone I met was so positive about the country, they all said I’d fall in love with the place and never want to leave.

After being there for a short time the cynic in me believes that people only stay in the country because they are paid so poorly in an expensive country and they simply can’t afford the flight out. Moving to Santo Domingo to teach English at Academia Europea was possibly one of the most uninformed, unexplained, and therefore became one of the worst, decisions of my life.

The Positives…

Teaching Methodology

The teaching methodology used by Academia Europea was effective. The key components to the teaching methodology were that lessons were full immersion (in reality I didn’t use full immersion, but close since I speak only very limited Spanish, I still feel that a combination is occasionally necessary), made use of repetition, were fun and interactive.

They use a system referred to as IALS: InterActive Learning System.

All lessons use the following structure:

  1. Introduction to the topic or grammar point through conversation
  2. Repetition – words or phrases are repeated as a class as well as individually
  3. Roleplay – in the basic levels verbs and verb use are acted out
  4. Attack – the teacher selects students at random to answer a question
  5. Complete Interaction – students are other students questions
  6. Text book lesson – in the high levels it is at this point you can refer to the grammar text and proceed with the ‘text book’ learning and exercises
  7. Close with an activity. It is essential that every class has a fun activity

Teaching the lower levels of English to adults was such a blast to role play and mime a scenario with myself around a verb like Eat in the future tense:
“Cat, Eat a sandwich”
“WAIT!! What are you going to eat?”
“I am going to eat a sandwich!”

Once you act it out, it can be repeated as a group. Together you make a list of things you can eat and then you as the teacher ‘attack’ students with commands and questions of a variety of things they can eat. Then you proceed to complete interaction where students command and ask other students about a variety of things they might eat. It’s hilarious!

The Students

img_1430As an independent language academy the learning environment was not a part of the required schooling system. As I was typically assigned to higher level classes I was working with students who really wanted to be there.

All my students saw the benefit of learning English for either work related or personal reasons. They loved having a native speaker as a teacher and asked me so many questions about where I came from, the lifestyle, why I came to the Dominican, what I thought of the Dominican and so on.

When I said I was leaving they were all rather upset, and made sure to give me hugs, share contact details and in some cases I received Dominican souvenir gifts to remember the country. One class of students also took me out to the local bar so I could learn how to dance Bachata, Salsa and Merengue. They found it hilarious that my body just wouldn’t move quite as fluidly as their to the caribbean beats.

The negatives…

Work conditions and false promises

I got my job in the Dominican Republic through an online advertisement for a language academy, Academia Europea  in Santo Domingo. The company presents as professional, and I was quite excited by the prospect of teaching English internationally.

Prior to accepting and arriving I asked some questions regarding work visas, pay rates, amount of hours of employment, how that balances against cost of living, how to find accommodation and so on.

Work Visa

So I was told that no work visa was required, but once I was on contract it could be negotiated. I should enter on a tourist card and renew it every two months (I found out later it only has a 30 day validity, not 60).

I then discovered the company had no intention of providing a work visa, it was something I could do and pay for if I wanted to, rather I was told to simply overstay my tourist card and pay the ‘cheap’ fine on exit. The cheap fine is no longer cheap, it is 2500 pesos, which is a week’s wages for me. I was told that everyone works in this way on an overstayed tourist card, and while that may be the case it is not actually legal, and is something I am uncomfortable with.

Pay Rates

textbookThe hourly rate of training is 180 pesos, when you pass the proficiency exam the rate goes up to 200 and some time later if you are recognised as a good teacher (I don’t know how this is assessed) it goes up to the highest pay rate of 250 pesos per hour. 200 pesos compares to €3.87 or $4.30US or $5.62AUD on today’s exchange rates, which was my pay rate for the duration of my stay and teaching.

Once I began the two week training program I double checked on the pay rates, only to be told the three hours per day, five days per week of training is unpaid. The training wage is for the classes you teach after you have completed training but before completing the proficiency exam. As an experienced teacher I was upgraded to the proficient payment level immediately when I began classroom teaching.

Oh, and there’s certainly no paid preparation or marking time, you are only paid for in class teaching time.

Hours of Employment

The academy is open seven days a week, thirteen hours a day. I was told I could make as much money as I wanted based on how many hours I wanted to work.

attireAs I wanted to gain as much experience as possible, and with a need for an income I set my availability to be any time, any day over the full opening hours of the academy. I was open to teach any level any time.

The hours I was given were 8-9am Monday to Friday, 6-8pm Monday to Thursday and 1:30 – 4:30pm on Saturdays. When on one occasion indicated I could not make it to my Saturday class, the class was promptly and permanently reassigned to another teacher.

I averaged 2.6 hours per day, six days per week (originally 16 hours per week, which dropped to 13 hours).
A week of teaching my own classes would earn 3200 pesos (or 2600 after my Saturday class was reassigned).
A good week of teaching my own classes and relief teaching for others could earn as much as 4200 pesos.

Cost of living based on local wages

When you earn a local wage, the cost of living in Santo Domingo becomes unaffordable. If you are comfortable to rent an apartment in an unsafe ‘barrio’ then you could possibly make ends meet, but living in a safe suburb I could not.
Despite promises of assistance to find housing, none was provided. In the case of a non-Spanish speaker this poses a huge challenge!

Things that cost approximately the same as my hourly wage:

  • a box of cereal
  • a bottle of shampoo
  • a 6″ ‘sub of the day’ sandwich at Subway
  • a coffee in a cafe
  • a small beer at a bar

Monthly Living Expenses
Rent 10,000 pesos
Utilities (Internet, power and water) 1050 pesos
Cell Phone 400 pesos
Drinking Water 140 pesos (tap water in the DR is toxic, all water for drinking and cooking must be purchased)
TOTAL: 11,590 pesos

Monthly Work Expenses
Grammar Textbook 1920 pesos (I chose not to buy the book but the price indicates what is required in the job. This will not be used in any further calculations)
Whiteboard Markers, Whiteboard Eraser, Pens, Pencils and Paper 700 pesos (markers dry out within a week in the DR due to the heat and humidity)
Transport 100 pesos – 210 pesos daily dependent on how many locations I worked at in any given day. For the calculations I will average at 150 pesos per day. Total of general required expenses is 3600 pesos
TOTAL: 4300 pesos

Not including food or any other basic living expenses, my monthly expenses equated to 15,890 pesos.
After being taxed on my income, I earned 10,440 pesos
My monthly loss, before eating/general basic necessities was 5,450 pesos!

The Academy’s Profits

A daily class is one hour per day, five days per week for four weeks. I was paid 200 pesos per hour, which equates to 4000 pesos per 4 weeks for that class.
A student enrolled in my daily class pays 3,990 pesos per 4 weeks.
A class needs a minimum of 5 students to run, 19,950 pesos per 4 weeks. My typical classes had at least 8 students per class, 31,920 pesos. A daily class of 8 students results in a school profit of 27,920 pesos (less academy running expenses). The director is aiming to increase class sizes to at least 10, where in my classroom we could barely fit eight into the tiny room, when the staff are so poorly paid it makes me wonder where this money goes? And whether the primary focus is education or profit?

Objectification of Women

The objectification of women is major issue in the Dominican Republic, and while I won’t go into detail it is something you need to be mentally prepared for in the event you are considering visiting the Dominican.

You can expect to be hissed at, whistled at and called out to. I’m not sure if it was a blessing or curse that I didn’t understand much of what they called out at me. I never felt particularly threatened by any of it, though it made me feel uncomfortable and annoyed.

Culturally, women are expected to have a partner and it is completely unfathomable that you would chose not to. You can expect to be asked if you are married or have a boyfriend, before someone says hello or how are you.

Safety

safetyHaving come from Australia, a safe country, my perception of danger is certainly on a different level to those who experience it regularly in their lives.

The travel advice from the Australian Government lists travel to the Dominican Republic as a yellow alert: Exercise a high degree of Caution. I have been to yellow alert countries in the past, and being street smart have never had any issues or felt particularly at risk.

On the ground in Santo Domingo, everyone was telling me how common muggings are, almost everyone has been mugged, typically at gunpoint at least once, but often a few times. So fear kicks in with any normal person at this point, myself no exception. In discussion with people, I found their opinions conflicting. While it’s dangerous and terrifying, it’s going to happen, but it’s fine, it’s normal and nothing to worry about.

 

Numerous colleagues have been mugged exiting the bank just after cashing their pay cheque. When you work hard all month, for the pittance you receive and require in order to eat, the worst thing is to lose it all.

So honestly, being constantly afraid of being mugged is not a nice way to live your life!

Rolling with the positives..

As with any decision, good or bad, your attitude affects your experience. I certainly tried my hardest to make the most out of this bad experience.

img_1791I appreciated the opportunity to experience teaching English at a variety of levels using an effective and fun teaching methodology. While I am aware that my English grammar and ability to explain it aren’t as good as they could be, the natural benefits I brought to a classroom by being a native speaker were highly beneficial to the students.

When time and money allowed I went on excursions to see as much of the island’s natural beauty as I could. I knew that hiding beyond the city limits were amazing things to see, and I made visits to beautiful beach areas of Punta Cana, Bahia de Las Aguilas, Puerto Plata, Isla Saona and Las Terrenas.

In addition to seeing the country itself, I met some absolutely amazing people. Some of my colleagues, students and random people I met along the way are genuinely beautiful, honest and trustworthy people who I hope to remain in contact with for years to come.

The moral of the story: do tons of research before accepting an international position; if your gut gives an indication of concern don’t do it; go to the Dominican Republic for a holiday not to work; and always try to make the most of any experience.

islasaona

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Volunteer teaching in rural Ecuador

Sumak Kawsay Yachay (Good Life Learning) is the motto of Escuela Katitawa.

For two and a half weeks in July 2016, I worked as a volunteer teacher during Summer School at a community school in rural Ecuador. Escuela Katitawa can be found in the small town of Salasaka, approximately three hours by bus from Quito.

After a 12 month sabbatical from the classroom I was quite excited about this volunteer teaching opportunity. Overall I felt I was able to help the students a little bit, but generally I found the experience more frustrating and disappointing than anything else.

 

Day-to-Day Volunteering at Escuela Katitawa

The Volunteers

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Volunteers hiking Chimborazo

The school and library are primarily staffed by overseas volunteers, of which I was one. During my time at Escuela Katitawa my fellow volunteers included some men from the U.S.A, Italy, France, two women from Great Britain, a couple from Italy and a couple from Belgium. For the last twelve years an older gentleman from the U.S.A. has run the school.

The volunteers live together in a volunteer house and do everything together, eat, work, play games in free time. During the weekends there is nothing to do in Salasaka so the volunteers often go on a group adventure to nearby areas for hiking and other fun adventures. On one occasion nine of us hiked an inactive volcano, Chimborazo, to 5100 metres; before heading to the adventure capital of Ecuador, Baños to jump off the bridge in a bridge swing (puenting) and soak in the thermal pools.

The camaraderie amongst volunteers is what makes the experience worthwhile.

The School

28563676096_37c0a137a5_zThe school is a 25 minute walk, or a five minute ride on the back of a truck, up the hill from the Volunteer House and Library. The walk can be a little daunting as the dogs from local properties tend to get defensive and bark at you as you walk by; some dogs also chase you. Typically they are all bluff.

The School has four main classrooms; one office for the Principal; two composting toilets; a yard to play in; an organic garden; and a kitchen and dining hall.

Each of the classrooms have some tables and chairs and a small whiteboard. Unfortunately though the school has no electricity and no heating, so both teachers and students are always rugged up in many layers of warm clothing.

Most, but not all doors lock, which means that overnight many items (including toilet paper) need to be relocated to prevent theft.

The Library

28489396712_5273828e38_zThe Volunteer House and Library are two joined buildings that can be found by the roadside a few kilometers from central Salasaka.

Community members may purchase library membership for just a few dollars per year to have access to the books, or they may pay a few dollars per month for internet access.

In addition to functioning as a library, the library building is also used for private tuition lessons. It has two classrooms and one open space where the books and main desk are found.

The Volunteer House

The Volunteer House is both the level above the Library and the building beside it. Several years after construction began, it is still under construction.

28596231905_7ef0091913_zThere is a communal kitchen, dining room, living room, wifi zone and bathroom. There are several dorm style bunkrooms. Most rooms have a small ensuite, though some lack doors, functioning sinks or toilets. None of the ensuites have a functioning shower. All volunteers share the bathroom above the library for access to the shower. The shower is the only place in the building where hot water can be found.

Several of the windows in the building lack glass, the living room window is a sheet of clear plastic and the kitchen has two holes where windows belong. There is no form of insulation or heating in the building, which once again means that all volunteers are permanently rugged up against the cold.

Laundry can be done either in a cold tub of water by hand, or it can be taken to the neighbouring town of Pelileo where rates are very reasonable.

In my second week we had no water for three days out of four, which creates major issues for cooking, bathing and going to the toilet.

If it weren’t for the amazing people I have worked with, I would not have stayed very long living in these rustic conditions.

It costs $7.50 per day to volunteer with Escuela Katitawa, or $20 per week. The money goes towards the running of the volunteer house (such as food for the volunteers, gas and electricity), school resources and construction materials.

The Daily Schedule

27980365573_7f0d4d832e_z7:00    Porridge breakfast is prepared for the volunteers
7:30    The truck departs for the school, if you miss it, you walk
8:00    The first lesson of the day begins
9:30    Students have a short break, during which time they can buy crisps from the kitchen and play in the yard
10:00  The second lesson of the day begins
11:00  Students have a short five minute break to run around, some students change classes at this point in time eg. The five year olds switch from Mathematics to English
12:00  Lessons finish for the day
12:30  Lunch is provided for the volunteers in the school dining hall. It is typically vegetable soup or rice with vegetables
1:00    Volunteers typically walk back to the volunteer house to hang out, or perhaps travel into Salasaka or Pelilieo to do groceries or laundry
4:00    From 4pm until 8pm, volunteers are assigned hour long private tuition sessions with students. Students range in age from 5 years old through to adults. They may study subjects such as English, French or Mathematics. I suspect tutoring would be provided in any subject requested
8:00    Around 8pm the student are provided with a delicious vegetarian meal prepared by Margarita

My Observations and Concerns regarding the Education

Attendance

Consistent attendance is simply non-existent. I am unsure whether attendance issues were related to the program being a summer school program, or whether it was a cultural attitude towards education, but I was horrified with the student attendance. Some days you would have as few as one student in a class, other days up to eight. You would also frequently encounter new students turning up at random, making it difficult to continue with lesson content as the range of knowledge varies so greatly.

Staff-Student Ratio

28489419352_07e6327662_zWith such poor attendance, the staff-student ratio was phenomenal. We regularly had four teachers in each classroom. On one occasion we had four teachers for one student, more often though it was closer to three students per teacher.

In theory this staff-student ratio should be highly beneficial to the students. Unfortunately though, the greatest difficulty was that not enough of the staff spoke adequate Spanish to run a class. This made staff-student interactions particularly challenging. While many staff would normally have a great deal of knowledge and experience to share with the students, the language was a huge barrier.

Immersion vs bilingual teaching

28506716102_e0405ca1e8_zIn regard to the language barrier, I started to wonder whether running the English classes in a bilingual manner was slowing the student learning, as opposed to if we were to run the English classes in an immersion style.

Upon reading some articles, there is an indication that immersion may allow swift improvements in the short term, but language learning in a bilingual fashion has better long term results*.

Further reading has classified bi-lingual learning into a variety of different categories, and while mixing the two languages can assist the students cognitive loading*, the most detrimental means of bilingual teaching is referred to as concurrent translation* in which the native language is immediately taught after the new language. This is detrimental to learning as students may tune out the new knowledge, as they expectantly await the translation.

In the context of Escuela Katitawa I feel that the lessons should be more effectively designed and taught to support learning of the English terminology, free from the Spanish translation. As we are working with young children, I have found that in some cases the terminology can be taught using pictures with no need for the Spanish translation. This covers topics such as colours, weather, animals, body parts and other similar such topics. Other topics do require translation but can be reinforced with immersion style repetition, such as questioning students names, well being, favourite items and so forth.

Lack of Curriculum and Resources

28613562315_2c913ddee2_zThe school has no set curriculum for the volunteers to follow. This means that class content is made up on the spot on a day-by-day basis. Whatever content is decided upon, is worked through on the small whiteboard when a working whiteboard marker can be found.

There are no textbooks to use to assist in the construction of a meaningful curriculum, or to assist the staff in creating problems for the students to work on.

In teaching basic mathematics, I resorted to creating flashcards with pages ripped from my notebook for learning the numbers 1 -20. I used timber blocks for teaching addition and subtraction.

In teaching English we use the one set of colour pencils in the classroom for teaching colours; the alphabet, numbers, words, phrases are all drawn on the whiteboard. 

It is important to introduce a curriculum so that all teaching can have meaning, be constructed in a cohesive manner and all content be linked in a way that a particular end goal can be achieved*.

Staff turnover

A further negative impact on the student learning, in my opinion, is the high staff turnover. A high staff turnover typically has a negative impact on student performance*. In a month, the students may meet up to 40 different volunteers. The staff are given no formal introduction or welcome and are thrown into the fray so to speak. Many volunteers stay one or two weeks, but are welcome to stay as long as they wish. During my period in Salasaca roughly a third of the volunteers had been at the house for over a month.

As there is no curriculum to follow and the staff turnover is consistently high, often the new volunteers will have no idea what the previous volunteers have been teaching. They may end up repeating content the students have already covered, and make very little progress to new content. This will obviously lead to boredom and frustration on the part of the student.

Cultural Differences

Whether it is a cultural issue or relates to the age of the students, the attitude towards teachers is very disrespectful and rude. At times it makes it challenging to teach the class as a whole.

I know in some cultures, such as the Australian aboriginals, the traditional style of teaching within the community differs greatly from what we consider our standard classroom model. Many Aboriginal students have great difficulty learning in this foreign learning environment, and being taught in this setting has a negative impact on their education. I wonder if the indigenous Ecuadorians have similar issues with the classroom-learning environment we provide; and also what their cultural attitudes towards formal education are. If we can’t model a learning environment that works for them, will our attempts at education futile?

Ethics

On one particular day I came across two scenarios that, as a teacher, really pushed my buttons.

Firstly, the attendance rate was excessively low as a result of a teacher advising the students the day prior that it would be helpful to him if they didn’t turn up at school the following day. So many students accepted this and took the day off.

Secondly, a parent turned up at the volunteer house at 7am demanding from the man running the school that we complete her child’s English homework assignment, because he/she would not graduate if the work was not turned in within the coming few hours. In turn the homework was passed on to a volunteer to complete. When this request was questioned, the volunteer was basically told to just do the work and not ask questions. I was 100% livid! What educator supports staff completing homework on behalf of a student? There is no educational benefit to the student whatsoever and the mother should be ashamed of herself for even asking. It is unethical and goes against the grain of what it is to be an educator. Despite how appalling this request was it was a directive from a superior and was carried out by the volunteer.

The question I am left pondering…

I think the volunteers are doing a fantastic job with what they have to work with. But with all these obstacles and challenges, I really find myself wondering whether the school should continue to operate. Are the students gaining anything from their rustic and irregular schooling?

My realization is that the situation is far from ideal, but if the alternative is no education whatsoever, then yes the school is benefitting the students. However, for improvements to happen, the volunteering program and school need to be more organized in their processes and planning; and provide a curriculum outline so that students may progress rather than repeating the same content time and time again.

While I am unlikely to quickly jump into another volunteer placement similar to this, I do value my experience at Escuela Katitawa.

Photos of Escuela Katitawa: School, Library, Volunteer House and the neighbourhood.

Design & Development of EdTech

Technology in its many forms has had always had a huge impact on the way we teach and learn. In their time things like radio, television, pen and paper have all forced us to reevaluate the way we teach and our students learn. As technology is constantly advancing, it means we have to constantly rethink how to make effective use of what is available, in order to achieve the most positive outcome for our students.

A key factor is going back to the basics, revising learning theory in order to understand how students learn and what methods we can use to improve their engagement with learning activities, for a more successful outcome.

To make effective use of technology, we first need to analyse what the problem is we are trying to solve. Then determine which technology or technologies can help us solve the problem. Technology for the sake of it, will not on its own affect a student outcome. A highly targeted choice of technology to support learning can have a huge impact.

edxEducational Technology is something I have always been very interested in, and a couple of years ago I found an online course offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through the edX online course platform, called Design & Development of Educational Technology.

If you want to engage in any professional learning this year, particularly if you have an interest in Educational Technology, then this course would be my number one recommendation. The course was brilliantly designed, it was engaging and offered a variety of learning activities. The MOOC platform within which the course was presented was easy to use and is the best MOOC platform I have used.

You can complete it the course for free or pay $USD99 to get a verified certificate at the end of it. It starts January 27th 2016, runs for 9 weeks and you should put in 4-6hours of work each week in order to complete the course.

A follow on course that sounds good is Implementation and and Evaluation of Educational Technology. The course appears to be archived, but I suspect it might be ‘activated’ after the Design & Development of EdTech course is completed.

Book Recommendation: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

Book Cover Image: The Geeks Shall Inherit the EarthThe Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins is a book I read some time ago and really appreciated what it had to say.

The book investigates the students who are kind of considered ‘social outcasts’ at school. It looks at their behaviours, the way others treat them, the way they respond and ultimately how it affects their learning and world views.

Throughout the book Robbins works to “explain the fascinating psychology and science behind popularity and outcasthood”, written from the viewpoint of the student. She explains that it is often these ‘social outcasts’ who end up doing better in future as they learn to develop independence and resilience in their schooling years.

While I would consider it a fascinating and insightful read for anyone and everyone, I particularly recommend it to parents and teachers.

Check it out: The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School

Computer Science in education: some of the issues that need addressing

On TV in Australia recently Scott Farquhar from the software firm, Atlassian spoke to ABC’s lateline about the I.C.T. industry and Computer Science in education.

I felt that Scott made some really good points in his discussion and there were a few issues I was keen to discuss.

Change the school curriculum

This is something that is certainly being addressed already, though I’m not claiming it to be perfect (it’s a start). A new national curriculum has been created to cover the majority of year levels in schools, foundation to year ten. This national curriculum includes a Digital Technologies curriculum spanning all those year levels and the implementation of this curriculum has already begun.

I am not generally the biggest fan of set core curriculum because it can create issues of inflexibility around the adaptation of curriculum to suit the various learners in the classroom, it can also lead to standardised testing which I think has a detrimental effect on the learning process. Despite these issues, I wholeheartedly embrace the fact that our national curriculum recognises the importance of digital technology. For the area of technology, which is the only area I wish to currently focus on, it can’t come soon enough!!

Training educators vs. out-of-house lessons

In regards to where students can receive this Computer Science education, the options mentioned were to either train the educators or allow out-of-house lessons.

In terms of having the students’ best interest at heart, and providing them with the best education possible, then I feel we have a quandary. I believe students should be taught by educators because we are taught how to teach; and particularly how to teach a variety of levels and types of learners. However for the content, they should be taught by people who are appropriately trained in the area of Computer Science. Unfortunately in my experience, there don’t seem to be very many teachers qualified in the area of Computer Science. Similarly, it is disturbing to know how few teachers are interested in learning these additional skills. So my current opinion is that out-of-house lessons would currently be the best way to provide these skills.

To shed some light on why I have this opinion, I would like to provide some background, experiences and concerns. I have been a teacher of Computer Science, and other IT subjects, for eight years at senior secondary level (16-18 year olds).

In the state where I live, the majority of my colleague Computer Science teachers are nearing retirement age. Recently there have been a few retirements and people going on leave (such as myself) and, in order to fill these positions I have experienced two scenarios. The first scenario is that other retirees have been pulled in from retirement to do contract work. The second scenario is that other teachers of similar or related subjects have had to re-train to a degree in order to teach an unfamiliar subject. Horrifyingly, I have never known a position to be filled by a new graduate, because there don’t seem to be any.

In my time as a teacher, I have only had three pre-service teachers work with me as part of their teacher training. Of those three, two successfully completed their practicum and the other did not complete the practicum. Of the two who completed the practicum, one completed her teaching degree and promptly decided to pursue a different career path, I lost track of the other student and am unsure if he pursued teaching or not. The lack of graduates is worrying to say the least!

None of the people who are graduating with a teacher qualification in Tasmania, are able to obtain a secondary specialisation in Information Communication Technology or any form of computing because it simply isn’t being offered. The only I.C.T. course included in the Master of Teaching secondary qualification at the University of Tasmania is a single semester unit in digital technologies in the second semester of second year (it almost feels like an after-thought). With the introduction of digital technologies in the national curriculum from foundation to year 10, one wonders how on earth teachers can possibly be expected to teach the students effectively when they aren’t being provided the support themselves? The justification for the removal of I.C.T. as a specialisation, if there is any truth to the rumour, is the assumption that everyone knows how to use I.C.T. I would argue that yes, to a degree everyone going through a university degree has some level of I.C.T. competency, but to teach I.C.T., coding and computational thinking is a whole different ball game, and assuming that teachers can just get in the classroom and teach this stuff is absurd! I suspect the more likely reason for it’s removal from the specialisation options is the appallingly low number of enrolments.

My recommended solution would be to have a more detailed digital technologies course integrated into all teacher education and to reintroduce I.C.T. in teacher education as a specialisation. By the time these graduates flow through the system and fill teaching positions, we will have fallen way behind from where we should be. In the meantime I would love to see teacher education being provided for free to all those teachers wanting to learn some computer science skills in order to be able to support the national curriculum, as well as providing students access to out-of-house lessons until the knowledge gap of teachers has been appropriately bridged.

Stereotypes & Age

There are two aspects to the stereotype discussion, firstly the technology field used to be seen as being for white males who are dorky and can’t talk to people. I feel that the stereotype has been well addressed in the media and in a general societal shift. Through my own experiences and discussions with teens, I feel that the view has changed to it being pretty cool to be a geek. I’m loud and proud with my students about what I call ‘geek-pride’ – geeky and proud of it!

The second aspect to the discussion is indeed the issue of the gender imbalance. As a young, female Computer Science teacher, I like to think (well I hope) that I am good role model for my students and to future students in providing an indication that it’s not and doesn’t have to be an all-male field, despite the current male dominance in the industry. Thankfully I know of a few more female IT professionals in the Hobart area who are seeking to address the issue and finding more ways to encourage female engagement in Computing and Computer Science; but unfortunately a few lone wolves with the same idea aren’t going to make a huge impact.

The change in attitude towards the subject area needs to happen early in a child’s schooling life. I feel strongly that we need teachers to be more mindful of what they say to students of all ages in regards to subject choices. If a student, no matter their age or gender, expresses interest in a subject then they should be encouraged to pursue that interest. A student will always have more success at something they are interested in, than something they were told to do, particularly if it’s something they were told to do based on their gender.

Unfortunately by the time students get to the year level at which I teach, they have made their decisions about what subjects they are interested, or willing, to pursue. In my eight years of teaching Computer Science I have only taught six girls. Of those two went on to enrol in a Computer Science degree at university and one has recently graduated with honours from an Electrical Engineering degree. (I’m super proud of all my girls, but it saddens me that there are so few of them).

Female engagement in STEM subject is an issue I have blogged about previously. If you want to read some of my research, thoughts and opinions on the matter, then please check out this blog post.

So to start the ball rolling in addressing gender stereotypes, before you say something please think about what impact it will have on the people listening. I believe girls (and boys) can and should attempt whatever they are interested in, please encourage them!!

Reflections on the Hardie Fellowship

A photo of me holding my awardThroughout the Hardie Fellowship I visited numerous tech industries and schools as well as attending and participating in numerous conferences, workshops, meetings and professional learning programs. I have learned a great deal from this experience, though there are a few key ‘take away’ points that I found to be reiterated throughout numerous experiences. Some references included are through Hardie contacts and others are through ongoing personal research into issues of transparency in education and female engagement in STEM (I have addressed female engagement in STEM in a prior post).

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In implementing STEM the key aspect is the need to design and develop solutions to a real world problem. For STEM to be successful students must see a link to an issue relevant to them in order to provide a sense of purpose and give context to the learning situation. An example of this would be from altSchool in San Francisco where students have been designing, prototyping and evaluating solutions to help minimize the effects of the drought in California. The other aspect of this is to foster communication and collaboration with the community, so that students may develop broader perspective of relevant issues and gather context from which to then generate ideas for problem solving. One of the emphases of the MIT course in Mastering Innovation and Design-Thinking, was the notion that the more context that is included in a design, the more relevant and useful the design will be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn addition to working on solving real world problems, providing students with a choice is crucial in their engagement. The idea is to have two or more options to choose from to learn the same skill (this is reiterated in Harvey Mudd’s course design as discussed in a prior post). We saw this in Tracy Rudzitis’ class at The Computer School. Students were being asked to use the block based programming language StarLogo Nova to create behaviour change models to demonstrate either an epidemic model or a prey & predator model. Students had to choose which model they wanted to work on, then they created the model so that a graphical representation was visible over time, then had to provide a real time graph of the model and finish with an explanation of what they had done and how it worked. It was impressive to hear Year 8 student discussion regarding how and what affected the infection rate of an epidemic, and not in the form of a text book answer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also need to be mindful and creative in the design of tasks that are open-ended enough so that students may come up with solutions previously inconceivable. They need to have some freedom to take responsibility of their learning, and we need to encourage them to make innovative use of the tools, technology and otherwise, available to them. Eric Rosenbaum, inventor of the Makey Makey and member of the MIT Scratch team, believes that a tool should be designed in such an open-ended manner that the user of the tool can come up with uses for the tool that the designer never thought of. To support this, we ourselves need to be innovative and creative in our use of technology. There are many tools available for use; for each tool we must consider carefully, how it can be used and whether it can be used to improve and expand the learning opportunities of the student. Technology for the sake of technology is not beneficial to student learning. In addition to determining genuine purpose for the use of a tool we must also consider its availability and integration within standard classroom practice. For example, we don’t want to ask students to sign up to too many different websites/tools because that becomes an annoyance to the student rather than a clear benefit; we must also consider age restrictions, as an example student must be over the age of 13 to use Instagram; and we must factor in school policy to determine if the site/tool we wish to use is considered appropriate by our educational institution.

While it is not ideal to have dedicated technology/STEM integration support staff due to resourcing limitations and the potential risks of limiting expert knowledge of one staff member, I do feel that it is an important intermediary step to effectively implementing STEM. A technology/STEM integration support staff member would work with teachers on a one-to-one basis when they want to make use of a new tool or piece of technology but don’t feel comfortable tackling it by themselves. The support staff would work with them to a level appropriate with the teacher. It might be a five minute discussion or it might be a side-by-side project developed together and presented together. By having access to someone who is knowledgeable and experienced, who has time dedicated to the task I feel that some more teachers would be willing to try things they may previously have been unwilling to try. It also saves them the time and effort to find out about the tool/technology themselves, which is often a determinant factor for implementing new strategies.

SSTI-photo1Many of the professional learning sessions I have attended in my role as a teacher in Tasmania haven’t been as useful as I would hope. While I feel there were good intentions, I feel that they have been too broad to be truly effective. Most professional development sessions have addressed the whole staff, which doesn’t enable targeting of required skills, interests or educational vision. The keynote presentation at Stanford highlight the key aspects of effective professional development to be: driven by a vision for classroom; helps teachers develop knowledge and skills; mirrors methods to be used by students; builds a large learning community; develop teacher leadership; link to the system and be continuously assessed. In order for the professional development to be transformative it needs to: create cognitive dissonance; provide opportunities to resolve dissonance; connect these first two to the teacher’s students; develop a repertoire of practice to support new understanding; and provide support for cycling back through all prior steps. This needs to be an iterative and ongoing process in order to contribute to growth.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA structure for professional learning which I have seen implemented in schools and workshops in the U.S. is an unconference model. The unconference model is one that was used to support participants in the Constructing Modern Knowledge workshop and is one used widely among makerspaces and EdTech professionals. My version of the model is slightly adapted from the unconferences that I have participated in and heard about. The way this would function in a school is that you have a noticeboard of some description where people can write down, as a heading, what they want to learn or what they can teach. Anyone who wants to learn the same thing or knows how to teach something someone wants to learn, will put their name down on the sheet. Then informal sessions are scheduled for the interested parties only. This provides very targeted professional learning sessions that are always run by people who have genuine and relevant knowledge in a specific area.

I feel that the tech/STEM integration support staff and unconference models would work well together to make STEM integration more manageable in our schools, not to mention that it would provide more meaningful and applicable professional development opportunities for teachers.

From all my experiences there were two additional aspects of teaching and learning that struck a chord with me. They were the issues of transparency and supporting technology.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATransparency is something I have always felt strongly about and I found it reassuring to hear this reinforced through numerous schools that we visited. By transparency I mean student, teacher, parent and administrator access to assessment records and progress indicators. If students have ready access to their results, they are more likely to take responsibility for their learning and achievement as they strive to meet their own targets. Students studying at pre-tertiary level are aiming to get to university, and that means they need to achieve a certain result in their subjects. If they are able to keep track of their records through an easily accessed on-line record, I believe it would reduce their stress levels, as they aren’t worrying about not knowing how they are doing and when they fall behind they know exactly where more effort is required. Mathern[1] has found that “keeping the doors of communication wide open between the home and school has improved student achievement”.  If teachers increase the level of transparency, they are being open and honest about how they work and assess. This level of honesty and openness assists students in their willingness to ask questions about their results and their learning activities. I feel that increased level of transparency of assessment is crucial for the student taking responsibility for their own learning and also in understanding and accepting the teachers’ processes. A study by Ahern[2] found evidence linking student achievement and assessment transparency, as well as the additional benefit of increased communication and collaboration between teachers. I feel that this increased level of transparency has the potential to have a profound effect on parent involvement in their child’s education. Studies presented at Stanford also highlight the need for transparency in teaching practice in order to improve teaching practice.

The technology used by teachers particularly in and around routine tasks such as administration, attendance, assessment, reporting and other such tasks should be a natural extension of the teachers workflow. Any tools or software used should be designed by teachers for teachers. Inefficient and non-user-intuitive software and hardware design makes many tasks more time consuming for a teacher, which affects their willingness to engage with it and this may in turn affect feedback to students, parents and administrators. In my own experience, looking up student information in order to be informed about their progress habits, and other relevant information to then call home for a discussion with parents requires the use of three different web applications and the information I can find is limited and takes many mouse clicks. Something that should take 5 minutes takes 15 to 20 minutes and unless there is a major issue I am not likely to go through this time consuming and frustrating process. Schools like altSchool in San Francisco have recognized this issue and have their own hardware and software engineers to buddy up and work directly with teachers to understand their workflow so that dedicated resources can be developed an iterated upon to improve teacher effectiveness and workflow. Tools and tech should be an extension of natural workflow rather than an interruption to it.

IMG_5041Overall one of the biggest ‘take-aways’ for me was the need to celebrate failure. You can’t really learn unless you are willing to try and willing to learn from your mistakes so that you may further develop your skills and ideas. I like that the makerspaces in the U.S. all promote the idea that failure is a good thing on the way to a better thing. I know I am often scared to try things for fear of failure and this stunts my development personally and professionally, this is one thing I most definitely aim to focus on for the benefit of my students, my colleagues and myself.

I am grateful for the learning opportunities that the Hardie Fellowship has afforded my colleagues and I, and I look forward to implementing things that I learned while learning more in the process.

[1] Mathern, M. S. (2009). The relationship of electronic grade book access to student achievement, student attendance, and parent-teacher communication. Seton Hall University). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, http://ezproxy.utas.edu.au/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/814799066?accountid=14245

[2] Ahern, S. E. (2009). Transparency in assessment through web-based communication: A study of changes in communication about assessment and teachers perceptions of assessment and student motivation for learning. Boston College). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, http://ezproxy.utas.edu.au/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/304843476?accountid=14245

Stanford: Transforming Teaching and Learning with Technology

SSTI-photoFor four days in early August I attended a course at Stanford University called Transforming Teaching and Learning with Technology.

The two instructors Shawn and Kim were very approachable, likeable and had genuine classroom experience, which I felt gave them authority on the topics they were addressing with us. Too often I feel that people teach teachers about ‘fantastic’ tools, but aren’t teachers who actually know how to use the tools in a classroom context.

We discussed and investigated a few main topics such as digital citizenship, the flipped classroom, social media for teaching, learning and professional development, student response systems, google drive for managing student work and mindful use of technology.

We didn’t just discuss these ideas and learn about tech tools, we actually applied our learning to small projects. One of the activities was to use the iOS app RoadMovies (or Android app SnapMovie) to create a 24 second silent movie introducing our team to the. It required a lot of thought and planning, because we had a 30 minute time frame in which to complete the task and it could only be shot as 24×1 sec frames, 12×2 sec frames of 8×3 sec frames. It was a really interesting task, it was challenging but engaging. It would be a great way for students to summarise their learning and present their understanding of a concept to a class. It’s certainly an exercise I would love to trial with my class.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 4.41.58 pmTwo tools I learned about that enable you to create complete and interactive lessons, which I am keen to try out, are Nearpod and Blendspace. These tools can be used to create and deliver lessons, they can be used to support a flipped classroom structure, and can be used to differentiate learning. The lessons can contain slides, videos, web links, polls, questions and so on. With nearpod specifically you can push a lesson out to the students slide by slide, so that you control the pace, or you can set it to ‘homework mode’ where they can control their own pace. These interactive lessons can also be shared with other educators, which I think is a fantastic idea for peer collaboration and encouraging interesting and diverse lesson design. These tools are completely platform independent, which I consider to be a necessity in this day and age, especially at a time where BYOD is becoming more prevalent in schools.

A great way to gauge student understanding of concepts is through quick polls. An easy to use classroom polling tool is Poll Everywhere. It could be used at the start of a lesson to take a quick poll of students understanding and recall of the previous lessons concepts. You can use the data to determine how much, if any, of the previous lessons content you need to re-cover. Or you could poll to determine students prior knowledge before starting a new topic. It’s quick, free, easy, platform independent and anonymous.

IMG_5070Another activity we did was a sort of Instagram walking tour. The task concept was based on an inquiry based activity developed by Dan Meyer. He says his most perplexing classroom moments have had two elements in common:

  1. A visual: a picture or a short video.
  2. A concise question: A question that feels natural and is one that people can approach first on a gut level, using their intuition.

So the task was to explore the campus and Instagram some pictures using the hashtag #ssti101qs, then post some questions on other peoples photos. To me, I felt like the task was fun, but didn’t have a clear goal. Though, I do feel that when applied to a specific subject area it has fantastic potential for learning – like the way we tweeted pictures for our MIT scavenger hunt evaluating and commenting on good and bad design in our environment.

samr_coffeeOur final project was to create a blended technology lesson plan. I worked with three others (we called ourselves the Stanford Spice Girls) to create a lesson using nearpod that presented on the topic of ethical responsibility when using social media. It was an interesting exercise and it gave us the opportunity to integrate our new knowledge and tools into an engaging and interactive learning experience. It was a great way to interact with the tools for a purpose and see how we could use them in our own classrooms.

I found nearpod frustrating, but now know some workarounds to solve the problems I was having. Without having the classroom practice with this, I would never have had time to experiment or have learned the workarounds – so this is an example of where professional development on a dedicated topic with like-minded colleagues can be very beneficial to a teachers development and understanding of how to make effective use of tech tools in the classroom.

IMG_5041There were many other tools and ideas we discussed, but these are some of the activities that stood out for me. It was fantastic to have a professional development course that focussed more on when and why to use these tools rather than to use them for the sake of it. Every discussion and tool had a sense of purpose. This was something I felt that was missing from many other courses I completed over the summer.

At this point in time my period of study has concluded, and all that is left to do is depart Palo Alto and write up my final report. Whilst my study tour is over, you can still expect to read posts from time to time as I reflect back on my study tour, but also as I continue to learn and develop my ideas.

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