Blog Archives

Canary in the classroom

Miners used to take a canary down the coal mines with them; canaries are far more susceptible to toxic gases than a man and therefore a miner’s canary that stopped singing and died was a warning to the miners to get back up to ground level post haste.

You might think that this was something that went on in the old days; in fact it stopped in 1987, so if you’re my age not so much of the old days after all.

We had miners in the family on my mother’s side and stevedores too (but they had hooks not canaries and that would be another post), and there is an imagined similarity when teaching a new evening class in a certain darkened downstairs room at work that puts me in mind of colliery. Miners and teachers are both, after all, looking for rich seams.

When one of my new learners glazed over for a brief moment this week I was fully attuned. For a start, try as I might, the first induction session can seem a lot to take in and secondly, when I am in the classroom as a student, I am the first to fly out of the door. I sit near the exit on purpose so as not to disrupt the whole class when I take flight.

I thanked the learner/canary afterwards for giving me the valuable visual clue to her wellbeing: all feedback is genuinely welcomed. Take care of them if you teach one. That’s all I’m saying.

He does a stint as a pit pony in the story - heartwrenching

Link to a blog reviewing The Little Wooden Horse and Gobbolino: my top two favorite children’s stories when I was young here.

Being Wrong

This is a good topic for this week. For various reasons. I said recently to students something along the lines of:

How do we learn? By being right? I think not.

I want to be in a classroom where people have equal value no matter what they do or do not know. Where you can ask a question without feeling uncomfortable, where you can express yourself without fear of judgement. Yet this goes against human nature. We like to be right, being wrong can cause us great discomfort. It can cause us to examine our values, our identity, our beliefs. No wonder we all want to be right – it’s so much safer.

I remember Thatcher said “The lady’s not for turning.” A statement for a resolute leader? Yes. A statement for an evolving human being? Maybe not.

So when Kathryn Schulz popped up on Woman’s Hour yesterday with her book “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” to discuss the opportunities shrouded in the hot shame of wrongness, I was quite pleased.

I was recently wrong. Well that’s leaving aside Workforce et al. I recently misunderstood Vygotsky’s Theory of Zonal Proximal Development and committed it to paper. I subsequently did not like being wrong. It initially gave me an unpleasant and visceral internal reaction. But when I got over that and looked at it properly I realised I would never be wrong about that again.

I will not hold Vygotsky’s ZPD close to my heart henceforth either, busily being grateful for the theory and my knowledge of it. I will only move on to the next thing that I get wrong and who knows where it will all end, but (and this, I think, is the point) it will definitely be interesting.

In the link to the book, there is a video. I played it to the class. It is interesting how when asked “How often are you wrong?” the respondents batted the question away like a fly. Ha ha, he he he, no problem. But when asked what they had been “Most wrong about?” there were pauses, the language broke down, people started visibly struggling. Wrong as a concept is do-able. Being personally wrong is far, far harder to embrace.

No Views Today

Yet.  That, you may notice is not a fully formed sentence.  I confess that although I can nit-pick with the most illiberal of grammarians I sometimes allow myself a brief slipside into the abyss of literacy permissiveness.  After all the sky is not going to fall in on account of a badly placed comma,

I sometimes wonder about teaching grammar.  I notice that foreign students get the technical names for things like prepositions, future perfect tense, suffixes, prefixes and so on.  What I find is that when trying to teach adults with holes in their literacy education using these terms gives them at least twice as much new information to take on board, which can actually hinder their learning.

Ok I am not talking about academic students here, I am talking mainly about people who lack some elements of basic functional literacy but I do “enjoy” an ongoing internal dialogue about whether I should keep them in the dark about the nature of these beasts or fight the jargon tooth and nail.  Keeping things real in the classroom.  After all, if you are busy mum with P.E. kits to remember and a job and bills to pay what do you need to know.  Obviously everyone is different but I think people need to know the applications of to, too and two as opposed to 2, but do they need to know they are called homophones?  Well I think you can introduce that idea and explain that the term is to do with “homo” – same and “phone” sound but then that’s quite a lot more to remember…

Is it a battle between form and function?  I favour function over form in the beginning, otherwise everyone can get jolly confused.  Can’t they?

Very interesting but not entirely necessary

Very interesting but not entirely necessary