Friday 21 January 2011

You can teach what you like in a bare room with a blackboard!

I know this is no great revelation but it's worth sharing. I teach a whole range of subjects, mostly related to computing, business or project management. Some I can just wander into a classroom and genuinely feel I'm making a difference, getting through to everyone in the room, even tearing people's eyes away from the latest text message or facebook comment and the guys do learn and do something. Even those that don't actually do that something in the hour and a half they're supposed to, do so when they get round to it later. Others, though, I struggle with. I can be well-prepared, with all kind of materials and lesson plans and similar stuff to my other subjects on a VLE. They either just don't seem to get it, tasks get done reluctantly if at all, no-one seems to want to do much research or come up with anything by way of original content. Ctr + C and Ctr + V rule. Time drags and I go off for a cigarette and wonder what on earth I can do better.

Then it dawned on me. It's all about how much I like the topic, how passionate I feel about it. Nothing to do with them, the room, the ruddy VLE and definitely nothing to do with anything I might have picked up from staff development or teacher training. Where the topic's something I do, something I know loads about, or think I do and enjoy researching, writing about, playing with - that's when it all works. I have gone on about ILT and e-learning, about web tools and goodness knows what for years but the really good teaching - those times when students say thank you as they go and have smiles on their faces because they've learned something they wanted to learn or, even occasionally, look a bit sad because I've struck an emotional chord that was appropriate for a downbeat topic or time, those times have had absolutely nothing to do with all that. It's been about me, my running around the room, arguing, prodding, pushing ideas, passionately claiming how brilliant some design is or cringing physically at some ghastly output or text.

That, dear reader, that's where it's at. If you are interested, intrigued, fascinated and expert in your field that's what you can teach. Inspectors may not approve of your methods. Forget whether you're being inclusive, showing equality of opportunity or whatever it's now called. Sod health and safety. Be brave, be bold, be inspiring, be diffrent, be you.

If you find yourself trudging along to the classroom next week with a pile of lesson plans and standard issue assignment sheets or whingeing when you get there because the internet's not working or there's no projector, moaning about the furniture or all the other things that I know I've done at times, if you do then the chances are that's not a topic you should be teaching. You can teach what you like in a bare room with a blackboard!

We need a Tbay - where we can get colleagues to bid for those units we hate that someone else might really care about. Hey, I might even bid for accounting, probably get that quite cheaply. I'm posting up web architecture which I haven't much of a clue about. No reserve!

It's a pity that we all need to keep our jobs so much these days that none of us will admit to what we don't really like. We'll get by. But if DfE could come up with a passion gauge for a teaching qualification instead of turning us all into robots that would be nice.

As I said, I know this is no new astounding theory. I just felt we needed to be reminded that some of us should stop and make way for a colleague's real talent in some lessons. Not all. Well, not unless you're really crap.

Old chairs, a new Principal and chocolate cake

My son has secured a massive number of followers to his 'School Life' blog with his hilarious accounts of daily activities, or should I say, mischief, in class. So I thought I'd better keep up and, although I can't see me managing a daily post, I will see what I can do each week at least.

The highlight of the week in Further Education was the new Principal wandering in to a 9 o'clock class. Luckily he left it until 9:30am but there were still only 7 people in the room. I hid the register which showed a list of 12 names under my scarf. By sheer chance I was wearing a smart suit and looking respectable compared to one colleague who had not only had a long night out on the tiles but appeared to be wearing the same clothes still! Not that you should judge by appearances, of course.

The new chap's first impression would have been of a highly animated lecturer performing around the the room in great style. What he didn't realise was that my animation had been brought on by my amazement at the blank expressions and 'Please don't ask me' faces I'd got when I woke them up to ask what they thought might be a problem with a file that called itself kamasutra.pps.exe - disregarding the obvious. "OK," I tried, "what's the .pps bit?" Blanks. Finally I got one person to mumble PowerPoint when I suggested it might be something like .ppt. As for .exe, well, the nearest I got was "Excel, Sir?"

Hey, these were not just Computing students but 2nd year, Level 3 Computing students!! Well, one wasn't. She was doing 'A' levels and tends to come into my classes for some reason best known to herself, probably entertainment. They really should have been taught and learned what those extensions were all about by now. They had only just the previous week completed their UCAS applications and one had already had an offer or two. Hope it was for a Cookery course or something. Anything but Computing.

The original question had been about the news that day about a new trojan doing the rounds which I thought I'd talk about while the latecomers got out of bed and eventually arrived. The arrival of the Principal saved me using words that they'd have needed a medical dictionary to interpret accurately and saved them further embarrassment. He seems a nice enough chap but I was rather disappointed by his first words which were the dreaded Health & Safety. Some bottles had been left from the night before on desks and he was concerned about drinks and computer equipment. I thanked the Lord that he hadn't appeared at the 1pm session when you can seldom see the desks for ASDA bags, cups and plastic trays of foul-smelling lunch.

I also adjusted my scarf to cover my coffee cup.

He then said something about someone's bag perhaps not being best left on the desktop either before asking them how they were all getting on. "What would you like to improve?" he asked. "Good." I thought. "A chance for them to tell him how lousy the furniture and decor is." Someone said something about wanting extra sessions. I even picked up a chair and held it up behind him, pointing at it frantically to try and get them to say what I wanted them to but without success. I can't imagine how stupid I must have looked but there you go. I did try. Every single chair in the room had a broken back. Not just the plastic cover bit that dangles at right angles to the back and catched you just where you'd prefer it hadn't when a student whizzes round as you pass, but the whole damn things seem to have been built out of cardboard and cloth that dissolves in ASDA salt and vinegar crisp fumes.

The week ended with me staying with a colleague in our office until the caretakers threw us out. She has been struggling with an assignment for her PGCE for weeks. It looked so tediously boring and she didn't seem to have much of a clue where to start with pretty abysmal notes from her tutor (from another institution). She hadn't attended many lectures (or if she had attended she hadn't been particularly attentive, I suspect. You know, female, early 20s, phone, friends . . .they all tend to be more interesting than some lecture.) But there was nothing of much value in any of the notes she'd been given and no on-line stuff either. We had to start at square one. I think I managed about 3000 words in 3 hours which wasn't bad going. The poor girl had to try and find references for all the statements I'd made but did a reasonable job until she got hungry and chocolate cake interrupted the search. On the way we encountered some definitions of a whole range of curricula. the language used by the author was diabolically obstruse, almost as if she wanted it to be impenetrable and so appear so academically Level 7. Now I like to think of myself as pretty good with words but these definitions had me stumped for quite a while. Once we'd managed to dissect what the woman was actually trying to say, one or two were quite interesting. there was a null curriculum which appealed to me. It was what we don't teach. What we leave out of a course of study. Loved that one. I didn't think much of concomitant curriculum, though, and began to wonder why we have this need to use obscure words as some form of short term or expression when it would be simpler by far, and much more likely to be understood by students such as my friend, to say something like what is taught or gained from experiences in the home.

Anyway, the point is that such dreadful work turned out to be really quite refreshing after all as I was forced to have to explain ridiculously weird expressions by making up examples almost on the spot (she was an impatient girl) and many of them did feature chocolate cake. I do like a challenge from time to time.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Two things I've only just realised I don't do any more

It has just occurred to me that there are two things I used to do a lot but which I haven't done at all this year! In fact, it may have been for a lot longer and I probably don't think I'll be doing either very much at all in the future. How quickly things change.

No, nothing to do with New Year's resolutions. I didn't even try. No, these are both ways of doing something that had become quite sort of normal - in one case it had been pretty essential for years and years, the other a comparatively recent thing to do most days. I surprised myself when it dawned on me but that probably says more about my observation or awareness skills than anything else.

I'm talking about photocopying and Facebook publishing. Sorry if you thought I was about to reveal some deeply entrenched habit or fascinating personal facts but this is a vaguely e-learning and education-related blog. I used to photocopy every morning. Sometimes there was quite a social scene in the Library where the best photocopier was sited as we all queued and hoped we'd be able to carry our piles of handouts or copied draft strategies or whatever back to the classroom or office in time for whatever it was we proposed to do with them. On cold days, that paper was wonderfully warm too.

Whilst I definitely did notice that my photocopying had dramatically diminished some years ago, mainly due to publishing all my materials and notes on my web site or the VLE, I hadn't realised that it had completely stopped. I hadn't even sneaked in a copy of my driving licence or some bill I was sending off which I'm sure everyone does from time to time.

I did need a copy of a few bits and pieces that weren't available on-line recently but I just photographed them and used the picture. I suppose that took a bit longer but the funny thing is that I never thought twice about it. I needed to send someone something and just whipped the camera out and did so. It was in colour, too, not shades of grey.

The Facebook thing is possibly the biggest surprise, though. I quite like Facebook and regularly browse through what various people are doing but it was only when I looked at my own profile page that I saw that my entries were all from one or other of a range of applications that feed Facebook rather than my actually typing in the boxes there. Apart from an occasional profile picture change, comments on someone's comments or picture and maybe a few photos of my own that is it. Quite different to even as recently as last year when I was often updating my status or something.

The big change is largely due to finding a nice feed application in RSSGraffiti which picks up what I publish in various places and throws it into Facebook and using Rockmelt, a great new browser based on the super-fast Chrome. Rockmelt provides a dead simple panel to display what's going on in Facebook without actually having to visit the full page. That's basically all I want. Rockmelt also provides similar panels for my e-mail and Twitter and it is Twitter that nowadays gets most of my attention. If I want to share something I share it there and that goes to all sorts of interesting people as well as Facebook.

Facebook is largely now a 'friends' place for me and I can't recall when I last had any interaction there of any significant 'work' relevance. Twitter is still almost entirely 'work' in terms of who follows me and sees what I say but I am increasingly using it for other things I like to share, be they thoughts on potholes, design, X Factor views or what my son's doing at school that he shouldn't. The people I follow cover all those things and more and, increasingly, I'm getting a lot of local news that way as well as great links to new web tools and the like.

I wonder I'll give up for 2012?

Monday 3 January 2011

Two useful things to do at your next staff development session.. 1 - show this and 2 - get out of their way

This animation is from Michael Feldstein at a Sakai Conference in July 2010. I think the conference was about innovation in teaching. I have to admit to not having heard of it before but the ideas presented and the cool animation are fascinating. It lasts 10 minutes or so but it might help my employers understand how I work, and probably you too if you're the type that's interested enough to watch it through! If nothing appears below, try this direct link.