In your hands

My life as a teacher of English and other curiosities

March 11, 2014
by annavarna
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Ever wondered how people learn?

learning

Picturebook by L.C. Perry

This blog has been inactive for a long time for various reasons that have to do with work, work and work. But I have been writing a few things lately (for work) and I thought I could share one of them. There are about 30,000 employees in the European Commission (my current workplace), most of them what we call knowledge workers and as you can imagine the issue of how they learn and how best they can share their knowledge is crucial. This is a short piece I wrote for the internal publication, “Commission en Direct”,  summarizing what I have learned the last years about learning itself. I am not in a position to give a comprehensive bibliography and I was restricted to use online resources and books I could find in our internal library. Still I think the indicative titles can give you a starting point.

Here it is. my take about how people learn. I hope you won’t be alienated by the serious writing style :)

People have been trying to understand learning for well over 2,000 years. However, today’s developments in neuroscience, cognitive psychology and the use of technology are shedding new light on how our brains work and what this means for our personal and professional learning.

The importance of learning in the professional – or on-the-job – context is undisputable and it may be what makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful businesses. As the researchers Jake Reynolds, Lynne Caley and Robert Mason (2002) have noted, “an organisation’s human capital – the knowledge, skills, competencies, relationships and creativities invested in its people – has emerged as a key competitive factor”.

In this introductory article about how people learn, we look at some of the key ideas about learning nowadays and their implications for our professional lives.

Learning and our brain

We now know that our brain has a quality referred to as ‘plasticity’, which means that it keeps changing even at a very old age. Contrary to what was believed in the past, brain development is lifelong, and not predetermined at birth or within the first three years. There are periods of our life that are critical for some kinds of learning, but in general, as [Paul Jones (2009) states: “throughout life, the brain is plastic and its connectivity, functionality and even structure are influenced by experience, including educational experience”. Learning changes the physical structure of the brain through the process of continuous interactions between the learner and the external environment.

Contextual learning

The influential Lev Vygotsky was one of the first scientists to develop the idea that all learning occurs in a cultural context and involves social interactions. Now, we know that learning is a process of drawing connections between what is already known or understood and new information. Thus, prior knowledge is important to the learning process. People make connections and draw conclusions based on a sense of what they already know and have experienced. This means that in order to learn anything new we have to anchor it to something we already know. Teachers, trainers or our peers can help us to make sense of information by providing conceptual maps.

Mistakes’ added value

Mistakes are essential when it comes to learning. They mean that we act, experiment and evolve. As the American organisational behaviour specialist David Kolb says, essentially all learning is relearning. Of course, it all depends on how this culture of experimentation is supported at work. “Organisations that allow failure also provide the conditions necessary to support natural learning and innovation”. (Reynolds, Caley and Mason 2002).

Social and informal learning

Much learning occurs in groups and among individuals engaged in tasks together. People learn from each other as well as from experts. Learning opportunities in social contexts enable people to learn together and retain more of what they learnt. One noteworthy find of various studies is that “70% of what people know about their jobs, they learn informally from the people they work with” (Cross, 2007). Marcia Conner also mentions that “most learning doesn’t occur in formal training programs. It happens through processes not structured or sponsored by an employer or a school. Informal learning accounts for over 75 percent of the learning taking place in organizations today”

Learning with your heart 

Both thoughts and emotions shape the learning process. Metacognitive skills —being able to think about and monitor one’s own thinking — enable learners to manage their own learning process, to learn difficult new concepts, and to problem-solve effectively. Emotions also play a role – when we are anxious, depressed, or distracted, we cannot focus to process information. Therefore creating emotionally safe learning environments can enhance our learning experiences and improve our retention.

To sum up, contemporary learning theories – influenced by new developments in neuroscience and cognitive psychology as well as the use of new technologies – recognise the role of experience and reflection in the development of ideas and skills. Different objectives require different kinds of learning. As a result, the role of teachers is changing and, to be successful, individual learners need to take greater ownership of their own learning. And this is also in organisations’ interests.

Resources:

Marcia Conner, http://marciaconner.com/resources/informal-learning/

Jay Cross, ‘Informal Learning’ (2007)

Linda Daling Hammond, Kim Austin, Suzanne Orcutt and Jim Rosso, ‘How People Learn: Introduction to Learning Theories’ (2001) http://www.stanford.edu/class/ed269/hplintrochapter.pdf

Eleanor Dommett, Ian Devonshire & Richard Churches, ‘Learning and the Brain’ (2011)

Paul Howard Jones, Neuroscience, learning and technology (14-19), Becta, (2009) (http://www.bris.ac.uk/education/people/academicStaff/edpahj/publications/becta.pdf)

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Jake Reynolds, Lynne Caley and Robin Mason, ‘How do people Learn?’ (2002)

Lev Vygotsky


 

October 6, 2013
by annavarna
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Cold feet, RSCON4 and other things

Today was the day that I worked most on my presentation at the RSCON4. The 2013 Reform Symposium for education is an online conference that will take place next weekend (11-13 of October). Some of the most important educators are taking part in it. They come from all fields and not only from English Language Teaching. And it is completely free, you can attend it without spending anything, wearing your pajamas or your high heels, eating pop corn or drinking coffee!

A few years ago I had tried to participate again but because of professional overload I backed out. Then the next two years I was in a turmoil involving big changes in professional and personal life and somehow lost it. This year, Shelly Terrell, one of the most active educators I personally know, motivated me to apply again and here I am, getting ready to do it.

I have a confession to make: this morning at about 10, I had worked a bit on it (I had started preparing a Prezi a few days ago) I was reading the checklist the organizers sent us and I got cold feet. “it’s too much”, “Why are you doing this? Isn’t your life full enough already?” and the scariest one “Nobody’s gonna be interested in what you have to say” the voices inside me were telling me. And I knew that I could find a credible excuse (too much work, which is true but didn’t keep me from applying) and that there are so many presenters, no one would miss me especially.

But then I dealt with my fear, I spoke to it and I told him (Fear is male in Greek): Hey, you’re trying to keep me out of this, because I haven’t done it before and it needs work. But what’s the worst that can happen? That I give this presentation and only my friend Olga is there. So what? I have survived much worse than this!

A few minutes later the above mentioned Olga called, and told me about a beautiful speech by the mayor of Thessaloniki talking about his own fears and how he fought with them and I felt I was now obliged to go on. Once I finish this project I will volunteer to translate the video in English because it is really worth watching it no matter what you do and where you are from. Mr Boutaris is an iconic mayor of Greece and one of the few political personalities we still believe in…

Back to RSCON4: My biggest fear comes from the fact that for the last year and a half I have been so much out of my comfort zone, doing things so different from I was doing until then that sometimes I feel totally out of my league. This time I don’t have a specific classroom project to tell you about. I’m not even in the classroom anymore. But I thought that telling you a bit about what it is like to work in a team that coordinates language teaching for about 12,000 people every year, who learn 29 different languages, using three different modes of learning (classic face2face, blended and eLearning) might be of interest to you.

On top of it I wanted to tell you about how going back to the classroom to learn (or rather relearn) a language changes my perspective towards teachers and learners every day. Back at school I had learned French and even have the necessary certificates to prove it. But only when you go into a professional meeting with French speaking IT specialists designing a new LMS do you realise how much you have forgotten and how imbecile you sound and how much embarrassed you feel, and how much you identify with all your students back home… And you embrace yourself and start studying “La Subjonctif” again…

restecalme

These are more or less the things I’m going to talk about on Saturday. I’ll throw in a few things about where language learning is going, the added value of Cultural Institutes and how finding new identities for ourselves can help us face our fears. If you want to learn more about all these, connect to your laptop or tablet or PC, on Saturday 12th of October at 18.00 CET. But even more important, try to catch as many of the presentations of the other educators who will be talking to you for three days. Because we still believe in education and we think that we can make a difference!

April 1, 2013
by annavarna
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Είσαι νέος το ξέρω…

Μια ανάρτηση στα Ελληνικά. Αφιερωμένη εξαιρετικά στους μαθητές που με άκουσαν σήμερα :) 

Είναι ένας χρόνος σχεδόν που έφυγα από την Ελλάδα για τις Βρυξέλλες. Στη νέα μου δουλειά ασχολούμαι και πάλι με την εκμάθηση των γλωσσών αλλά όχι από τη θέση της δασκάλας πια αλλά από τη θέση της συμβούλου, της συντονίστριας, της παιδαγωγού. Αν και η λέξη παιδαγωγός δεν ταιριάζει και πολύ γιατί ασχολούμαι με ενήλικες. Όμως στα Γαλλικά, pedagogue, είναι κάτι σαν υπεύθυνος σπουδών, υπεύθυνος για το περιεχόμενο των μαθημάτων και την ποιότητα τους. Αυτό κάνω εκεί.

Έχω μάθει πολλά πράγματα αυτό το χρόνο που είμαι εκεί. Έχω μάθει πως λειτουργεί μια τεράστια δημόσια υπηρεσία στην υπηρεσία του πολίτη: κυρίως με πολλή διαφάνεια. Έχω μάθει τί είναι σημαντικό όταν κοιτάζουμε τα βιογραφικά των ανθρώπων που θα προσλάβουμε: κυρίως αν αυτά που γράφουν είναι σχετικά με τη θέση.  Έχω μάθει τί προσέχουν όταν προσλαμβάνουν νέα παιδιά για τα τρίμηνα ή εξάμηνα stage: οι γλώσσες και η συμμετοχή σε σχετικές με τη θέση δραστηριότητες. Έχω μάθει τί έχει σημασία όταν βγαίνεις να δουλέψεις σε άλλη χώρα και μάλιστα σε ένα διεθνή οργανισμό: η προσαρμοστικότητα περισσότερο από τα πολλά πτυχία.

Και όλα αυτά που έμαθα ήθελα να τα μοιραστώ με αυτούς που νομίζω ότι ενδιαφέρουν περισσότερο. Με αυτούς που σε λίγα χρόνια θα είναι υποψήφιοι για stage στην Ευρωπαϊκή Επιτροπή, για μεταπτυχιακά ή για Εράσμους. Με τα παιδιά που είναι σήμερα στο Γυμνάσιο και το Λύκειο.

Ευτυχώς εδώ στην πόλη μου, οι περισσότεροι φίλοι είναι εκπαιδευτικοί. Η φίλη μου η Μαρία, από το Γυμνάσιο Πλατυκάμπου είχε πρώτη την ιδέα να μιλήσω στους μαθητές του Γυμνασίου στα πλαίσια του Σ.Ε.Π και η φίλη και διευθύντρια του 3ου Λυκείου Λάρισας, Μαρίνα Κολλάτου ενθουσιάστηκε επίσης με την ιδέα. Οπότε σήμερα μίλησα ζωντανά σε ένα κοινό απαιτητικό, 60 περίπου 16χρονοι, γεμάτοι ζωή και απορίες. Είπα τα τρία πράγματα που ήθελα να πω, εκείνοι με άκουσαν και με ρωτούσαν ενδιαφέροντα πράγματα. Οι πιο εσωστρεφείς ήρθαν και με ρώτησαν κατ’ιδίαν στο τέλος. Οι υπόλοιποι ελπίζω να διαβάσουν αυτή την ανάρτηση.

Εσείς μπορείτε να δείτε την παρουσίαση!

 

December 19, 2012
by annavarna
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Farming Style and how to bring it in the classroom

This is for all my former colleagues in Karditsa and Larissa

In 2005 I first arrived to work in a school in rural Karditsa. I am not at all a city girl, I grew up in various little places with many different accents, from mainland Lamia and whereabouts to Rhodes with its characteristic singing intonation and Italianati diction that so confused me when I was a kid. But nothing had prepared me for the first day of assembly and common prayers in Karpohori, that small village of 1000 inhabitants: The first time I heard a kid saying the prayer, I thought someone was kidding me. I was looking at the other teachers waiting for them to stop the kid telling her to start again this time with all the vowels included. But no. This was it. Welcome to Karditsa!
TO learn to pronounce the name of that village, the name its inhabitants had been using since 1700 before the Independent Greek State gave it something sounding a little more Greek and less Turkish, was a challenge too. Try saying Gerbesi without the vowels and you will have an approximation!
But anyway, that year I was so happy to be working as a permanent teacher only 80klm from my home (the previous year I had been working somewhere near the borders with Turkey, 650 klm away) that nothing could curb my enthusiasm. The next year I went to a different village, this time with a pretty easy-to-pronounce name, Itea, which actually means Willow tree and I was even happier. The friends I made in that school, will be forever, no matter where we are…
And since 2006 until May 2012 I was working there. Oh boy, the things I learnt about agriculture and tractors and tools and animals. My posh friends in big cities, laughed at all the cute pictures of ducks and turkeys and cows and sheep I post on Facebook, but secretly I think they envied that every day I had the chance to get out of my ugly city and go to the countryside and enjoy glorious landscapes and endless skies!
One of the highlights of my time there was when we opened our first student e-mail accounts and I encouraged them to write to me. That was pre-FB times when people sent e-mails to each other! So the first e-mail my student Kostas sent to me was this: “Hello teacher. How are you? My favourite tractors are John Deree tractors. What are yours?” As you can see my education on tractor makes had already started!
Back to the present. It’s the year 2012 and Gangnam style has gone viral and is being danced by teenagers and serious eurocrats alike. And my friend Monika sends me this link with a parody of the song.

The Peterson brothers made their version of the song that has gone viral and they hit a nerve! What I like is that they take pride in their work, they talk about it as the most important job on earth and they aren’t wrong. As I remind my daughter every day the person who is putting the food on the table is the chief.
Into our classrooms now. This is a song I would bring in my classroom. I would talk about agriculture with the experts, that is my students, and would discuss what the brothers are doing. I’m sure they would have lots to teach me! Plenty of vocabulary opportunities there. I would also discuss how fresh food is hardly featured in the video. At some point when they are singing about providing food they show a table full of cereal boxes and no fruit or vegetable whatsoever. Plenty of opportunity for critical thinking there and discussion about cultural differences and similarities. With some older classes I could even discuss GM food and the differences between European and American legislation.
And of course there would be lots to discuss about different makes of tractors people!! But even if not much of a conversation in English could take place I am sure we would enjoy the movements.
Now it’s Wednesday morning and I’m getting ready to cycle to work. No teaching for me this year, only observing teachers, designing eLearning courses, checking the quality of courses and so on. But if any teachers out there are inspired by this and they go on to try it I’d love to hear from you people and feature your work here!
Happy Holidays!

November 24, 2012
by annavarna
2 Comments

Critical Thinking and How to Dance it (the making of… )

Last April I started following an online course on Critical Thinking with the University of Oregon and professor Sherie Henderson as our basic moderator. The course opened up a whole new world for me, the world of Critical Thinking and involved a lot of thinking as you can imagine. At times I really struggled to follow it, mostly because it coincided with my relocation to Brussels, with the first month of changing everything: job, city, country. But I survived and learned a lot.

At about that time I was also trying to come up with an idea for a proposal for the 31st TESOL France Colloquium which takes place every year in Paris in mid-November. I had been accepted as a speaker there the previous year as well but hadn’t been able to go due to personal reasons. This year, with Paris being just an hour and a half away I was determined to make it.

So, before long, I put the two together and proposed a talk about how to promote Critical Thinking in the classroom. Little did I know that it would take me months of thinking, tens of books and hundreds of articles and many many hours of tinkering with Prezi to prepare for this presentation. It was the third one in an international Conference and I must say it was the one that tired me most, mostly because it was a vast topic and I was feeling inadequate to handle it. But I dived into it, anyway, like I usually do :) Here is the result:

What I wanted to say was that: We, educators, have the duty to train our students to think more critically, to become good thinkers, to seek reasons and become reflective. It is OUR mission to do so, whether we teach English, Maths or Physical Education. It is not easy but it CAN be done. I hope that with my talk and prezi I have helped a bit to show you where to look for ideas and inspiration.

I would like to take this opportunity, to thank the fantastic team of TESOL France, Bethany Cagnol most of all, but also all the other educators who were there and with their ideas and enthusiasm keep the fire of education alive. Thank you James Taylor, Mieke Kenis, Ellen de Peter, Jurgen, Tyson Seburn, Vicky Loras, Sue Lyon Jones, Elizabeth Ann, Heike Philp, Eva Buyuksimkeysan, Julie Raikou, Vladka Chalyova, Chuck Sandy, Tom Farrell, Chia Suan Chong, Brad Patterson, Fiona Mauchline, Divya Brochier, Jeffrey D0onan, Dimitris Primalis, Nick Michelioudakis, Elinda Gjondendaj and all the others!

P.S. Don’t forget tomorrow morning to attend the brand NEW BELTA’s inauguration webinar! Click here for info http://www.beltabelgium.com/p/events.html

 

 

November 10, 2012
by annavarna
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Critical Thinking and How to dance it in Paris

It’s Saturday morning here in Brussels, it’s rainy as always and a woman is sitting on her couch with a cup of coffee (the second one) and various books and magazines open around her and tens of windows open in her task bar.

This is how I feel right now

Wouldn’t it be better if she stood up grabbed her raincoat and walked to Place Flagey to taste organic breads and confitures and then enjoy a glass of champagne and a plate of moules?

No, no, this woman is determined not to lose focus this Saturday, it’s her last Saturday before she has to take the train to Paris. Oh, la la, Paris…..

I’m diverting again. So, next Saturday, I will be in Paris to participate in the 31st Annual Colloquium of TESOL France. I have to finish my presentation tomorrow at the latest but this is much harder than I expected. Mostly because there are so many good ideas and I have to trim and trim.

But in any case, right now I was reading a beautiful hymn to grammar, yes, grammar that part of Language Instruction that seems to be the scapegoat for all problems in classrooms since the beginning of time. I’ll just quote an extract from this defense because to me it’s like poetry: ” The inner theme of grammar is simplicity, even unity. This is the subtext of the rules: Let all in the sentence be one, let it be clear and agree that the center of the sentence be seen. The works of the sentence must move in harmony, like the wheels of a clock. The subject and the verb must be in agreement, the pronoun and its antecedent must be in agreement, the tenses of the verb in the sentence must be in agreement with each other. Everything being in order, the sentence can depict a truth” (Michael Clay Thompson, The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Vol XIII, No2, Winter 2002, pp 60-66).

Doesn’t it remind you of John Lennon?

Next Sunday at 10.00 in room B316 at Telecom Paris Tech, we will ponder on ruminations like this and  we will discuss and maybe debate how to best teach grammar and vocabulary to our students and at the same time promote Critical Thinking.

I can’t wait to meet all of you new friends and see again some ones from the past!

Now, I’m feeling better

 

 

June 8, 2012
by annavarna
0 comments

ROMA or not, React!

A few months ago, when I was still living in Greece and working as a teacher, there was a big upheaval caused when ROMA segregated schools were closed overnight and their population was asked to “integrate” in “normal” schools. I was appalled, furious and totally disillusioned by how our educational authorities handled the issue, but even more so by how my fellow teachers refused to go to work, or send their kids to the schools where ROMA students would go from the next day. Back then I chose not to write anything about it because I was so angry and so disappointed I was bound to be unfair.

My friend Nikos, a really  Brave Teacher, was not at all hesitant in speaking out and even writing a heated article about it, but I’m not sure whether it was published after all. Local societies have the means to preserve their own and they wouldn’t concede even to listen to different views. Fortunately there were calm voices too and their scientific and sound arguments were expressed.

And then I left, and amid all the personal struggles to relocate to a new country, a new job, a new culture, far away from family and friends, I lost track of the case. But loose ends follow you wherever you go and as the poet has said no matter where you travel you will always get off at the same stop, at the same city..

So yesterday I was invited to an event about ROMA integration. There were some serious presentations about the work of the Commission on the issue and some very passionate people spoke. There were also some very talented young people of ROMA origin, from various countries, who shared their experiences. Some stories were cheerful, some humorous, some haunting…There was an energetic young woman, a stagier in Brussels, and one of the creative minds behind this site.

Somehow she reminded me of  little V a student of mine, back in Greece, in Itea. V and her brother and sister , of Roma origin, came to our school last year. Not everything was ideal from the beginning and even recently you could occasionally hear prejudiced remarks. But the truth is these kids were so cheerful, so happy to be going to school, that I think they won us from day one. I remember very well the first day they came to school and how disappointed I was (again) by some of my fellow teachers. But we talked about it. We argued, we even fought with some. And gradually, I think we won. Not only did the kids stay at school but they were fully accepted too. Earlier this year I remember we were doing an exercise about different languages and V mentioned that she could speak her own language a little. For a moment I held my breath because I was not at all sure how the other 9-year-olds would react. But they reacted as all children in their age: with honest curiosity!

All three siblings were exceptional however. A, the younger sister is an adorable child with the highest degrees of social and emotional intelligence, clever, sparkling eyes, cuddly and confident at the same time. N, their brother should be given a prize for the student who loves school most, cause he is the first boy I have met who cries when he can’t come to school. His special abilities and speech impairment do not prevent him from becoming part of our small school community and he has such a sense of humour, he kept impressing his teacher, Ms Helen almost every day. Special mention for this Special Education teacher here, who is such an assertive person, a teacher who stood for her students  every day against all odds, against all the prejudices of a small rural society!!! Three cheers for Helen. All the teachers who were involved with the kids were fantastic in their approach, Christos, Kostas, Andreas, all of them played their role in helping the kids to become part of the group as smoothly as possible.

So last night, I was listening to these beautiful young men and women speaking about their history and their origins and I couldn’t stop thinking of V. I am pretty sure that if she is given a chance, first by her family and then by our schools, one day she will be talking at an auditorium in Brussels too!

Big thanks to my new friends here who invited me to this even and gave me the chance first to meet all these interesting people and secondly to reminisce about my students and appreciate once more what a unique educational group I was part of, before I left. But of course you have to take your distance to understand that…

May 1, 2012
by annavarna
7 Comments

Norwegian Schools: A trip to the future

Since October 2011 I’ve been participating in a European Comenius multilateral project called CORE (Clil Objectives Resourcekit for Educators). As its name suggests it’s a project about CLIL implementation and our main objective is to see how CLIL theory is applied in various educational systems, as well as create a resourcekit for any educators that might be interested to give it a try. There are seven partners from five countries in the project and there is a lot of diversity regarding our experience in CLIL. Our Spanish partners for example are already practicing CLIL in their settings, and Victor Pavon our Cordovan partner is an academic whose main focus is CLIL and bilingualism. On the other hand our Norwegian partners are very new to exploring the possibilities of CLIL and so are we, the Greek partners. Nevertheless this diversity is one of our strong points as a team.

So now that I have explained the basics of our project I’d like to describe my experience in Norway where the second meeting was held, and in particular my impressions from visiting two schools in the area of Karmoy.
The first visit was at Holmen school. This is an alternative school in the area of Karmoy. There are very few students and they are pupils that had serious trouble to follow the “regular” school program or children who dropped out of school so this is their final effort to graduate. They do the usual school subjects but they also do a lot of practical work, like bike repairing, painting, cooking and such. When the first school opened some 13 or 14 years ago one of the educators had the brilliant idea that if they wanted to keep the students in this school they had to give them a dream. And the dream they decided upon in this beautiful fishing town of Karmoy was to build a ship! We are talking about a real 15m long ship that will be able to sail and not a sorry model.
12 years ago they started building it, along with their teachers, little by little every year, working hours and hours, and studying all kinds of theory in order to learn how to do it. Combining science, mathematics, shipbuilding skills, and whatever else necessary now it is almost ready. In about a month she will go into water.
When our group went into the school , the head Johanes, briefed us into the story of the ship. But no briefing could have prepared me for the beauty of the vessel, its size, the kind of work that went into it and the pride of the students working on it. We met three of the students working there and they were all smiling, clever, polite boys who seemed to work with earnest love for the boat.
Talking with the teachers was enlightening as well: “There have been many students who have worked on the ship over the years. We show them that if you are patient you can achieve something big. But you have to wait. So this might help them when they go back to regular school and they will have to be patient in order to see the results of their efforts”. How true! How many times have we had students who don’t see the meaning of trying hard and working diligently? I’m sure if you have worked with adolescents you will have encountered situations like this pretty often.
Another thing that amazed me with the whole project was how few students were there. The three alternative options of Karmoy school system are the Holmen, Tarnet and Botoppen schools. All in all they must deal with no more than 40 students. But people there do not see it as an awful lot of money for so few students. They see it as an investment for the future: if they manage to keep these students at school they are convinced their investment will pay off and in the long run it will come cheaper than if these adolescents were lost in the forests of juvenile delinquency.
The second school we visited must be one of the flagships of Norwegian education. Mykje Skole on the outskirts of Haugesund is a school taken out of the Fairy Tale Schools book. We arrived there on Friday morning and we experienced the Friday assembly. In a beautiful hall (Scandinavian Design at its best) candle lit, and with music played the 300 students gathered in a most ordered manner, quiet, wearing their clogs or their socks, they sat down next to their teachers and they waited until everybody had sat. Our mouths had already dropped because everything was being done so quietly and peacefully. The music teacher announced the program which included a song sang by the school choir (I think this was done for our sake, but maybe not), some presentation about traffic safety, awarding the most careful students of the week wishing happy birthday to the people whose birthday was that week!
When the choir sang “California Dreaming” I think I started crying. Whoever has tried to teach children a simple (monophonic) song will know what kind of work it takes to achieve such a result. I am sure you will agree they are simply fantastic!

But our visit had just started. As soon as assembly finished we were assigned two student guides (who spoke excellent English, as well as all the other Norwegian people I met) who would take us around the school and explain everything. What can I say? That the facilities are of the highest standards? That classrooms had no doors but that there were specially designed rooms for group work? That there were computers and interactive boards everywhere? I think the point isn’t to describe facilities. What I saw was a school where children are free to work on their own, where there is a lot of peer learning and teaching (like in the music room where there was no teacher but the students taught each other how to play the cello), where teachers cooperate to teach a class. I saw a school where students and teachers are respected and they are given opportunities to take initiatives and create and be innovative. I saw a school where I would like to teach, and in which I would love my child to attend.
The following night we were invited to Holmen School again. This time a teacher of the school, who is also an accredited chef, would cook for us and two of the students would help in the kitchen and with the waiting. Again we experienced this look on the eyes of the students that talked about the pride they took in their work. And I couldn’t help wondering how often we give opportunities like that to our students.
A huge thank you to our Norwegian hosts who organized this visit and gave us the gift of getting to know from up close such marvelous education system. Thank you Britt-Mona, Per, John, Helga, Jane, Johanes! See you in Greece in autumn.

Here you can find the set of images related to these two Norwegian schools: http://www.flickr.com/photos/annabooklover/sets/72157629940899809/

March 11, 2012
by annavarna
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Too young for this? Not really…

One question that always bothers me is how to approach difficult topics in the primary classroom. Should I try to protect my students and keep them sealed from the outside world? Or would I act more pedagogically if I prepared them for what is out there? There are sound arguments for both stances:  “they are too young, why should you be the one to introduce painful notions like poverty, racism, injustice at this tender age? They will have all the time to suffer in the future, just try to make your classroom as happy and as innocent as possible”.

“But you are a teacher”, says the other voice. “it’s your duty to prepare them, life is not a bubble to keep them inside forever”.

Whenever I have dilemmas like this, I have a solution – I ask myself: what would you want for your child, what do you do with your child? And the answer is I wouldn’t want my child to not be aware of the darker side of life. OK, I won’t make her life miserable by showing all the injustice and violence of the world but I can introduce her somehow to the notion that not everything is pink and sugary out there. Otherwise I would be doing a disservice to her  and to all my students consequently.

So it was with great interest that I attended yesterday’s workshop with Judy Boyle, organized by the Karditsa English Teachers’ Association. The topic was Human Trafficking and Judy presented some hard-boiled facts as well as the work of the NO-Project organization.

Judy mainly works with teenagers and young people and I agree with her that it is unacceptable to graduate from Secondary Education and never to have heard about Human Trafficking. Our school books claim that slavery has been abolished but this isn’t true. Every year thousands if not millions of children are sold and trafficked mainly for use in the sex trade.

Just reading what I have written above makes me sick. I cannot grasp the notion that a human being is sold and objectified like that, I simply cannot. But it happens and just by closing our eyes it won’t disappear.

So for the moment I am trying to come up with a lesson plan for my sixth graders that will revolve around the two videos below and I hope there will be good response to them.

The first one is an awarded animation film by Effie Papa and it won a prize in 2011 in Animfest, the International Animation Festival that took place in Athens, Greece. Effie Papa was a student at TEI (Technical Education Institute) in Athens at the time. It is a beautifully made video with a powerful message.

 

 

The second one is a song and video clip by Radiohead. The lyrics are really a work of art too and could spark a lot of conversation in class. I could show the lyrics first and have my students guess the content and the story behind them and then show them the video clip which shows this world of injustice as clear as possible.

Thank you Judy for this, and thank you at all the people in Karditsa for organizing it. Tonight at 18.00 there is another event at the same place (ΤΕΔΚ, Μεγάλου Αλεξάνδρου 10) about projects in first grades of Primary School and about the Barefoot School and different and innovative approaches to education.

More Links that can help you with the Human Trafficking topic:

Jamie Keddie’s lesson plan about human trafficking

The No Project Organisation (You will find plenty of material, videos and info to use in your class)

 

 

February 10, 2012
by annavarna
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Lemons and lemonade

I’ve been trying to write this post for a few months now. I tried to write it in September when we went to school and there were no books to give to our students. I tried to write it again when teacher underwent another cut in their already meager salary. I tried to write it again when the teachers’ unions resisted the integration of Roma students in our schools. But today I read this article by photographer David Du Chemin and all the pieces fell to place. I have been following David for a while now and I love the way he writes because his posts are not exclusively about photogrpahy, they transcend in all fields of life and they are meaningful to everyone.

So in this post (which I hope some of you will read carefully) he talks about photographers but we could very well replace this in some paragraphs with teachers or lawyers or whatever profession you may like. David writes:

 …Things are changing. Is it easy? No. Is it fair? Does it matter? EVERYTHING is changing. It always has. It always will. If you are in business for yourself as a photographer, your job, as the CEO of You Inc., is to meet those changes head on, to navigate the rough waters and do it in a way you love, while not sinking the ship. No one promised you safe passage. No one owes you a waveless voyage. …f you are floundering, it’s not because you don’t have a better camera or the same 85/1.2L lens that that other, more successful, photographer on the other side of town, or the other side of the internet. It’s because you aren’t being as creative as you thought you were or you aren’t hustling…”

 Do you get it? If things aren’t going well in your teaching situation, if your kids aren’t interested, aren’t learning, are bored, are raucous and so on and so forth, it’s not the fault of books, or the lack of equipment. It’s because we aren’t creative enough. OK, the situation is dire, and it’s not our fault, and it’s unfair. So now what? Are we going to spend the rest of our working time whining and bithcing about the indifferent ministry and the good-for-nothing people who make the decisions? Are we going to waste the time of another school year by doing nothing?

 David has expressed it better than me I think: “…Yes, things are changing. They always have. But you can either make the change or react to it. Either way you need to be creative. You can do two things with your time on this earth – play the cards you’re dealt with all the energy and conviction you can, or whine and moan about how lousy your cards are. But whining and moaning never once changed the cards in anyone’s hand. Yes, Detroit was decimated by the economy, and it was left in literal ruins. But it’s making a come back. Not because it sat there feeling sorry for itself (ok, some did, but they aren’t the ones making the comeback), but because they got creative. They stood up, dusted off the seat of their jeans and looked the situation square in the eye and said, “OK. Now what?” It’s hard work. It’ll take time. And if you don’t love that work, give up now.”

 So, to get back to our situation in my poor little country: the (new) third grade book is colourless, badly drawn, the listening material you have to download yourself etc etc. So why don’t you organize a competition for the best coloured book at the end of the year? We have already started but you may want to join us!