November 30, 2006

Difficult questions

JH's comment gives me food for thought. Herndon's books have inspired me to take another look at what I'm aiming for in my autonomy class and why. On the other hand, it's also a can of worms - opening up some issues I'd rather not think about because they complicate the picture.

Herndon did not believe in maintaining order in the classroom for the sake of maintaining order. He apparently wasn't like most people who simply feel more or less uneasy when faced with a number of younger people who either don't follow orders or don't behave as expected. Herndon wrote about his ability to wait, to give young people (and himself) room to grow and develop on their own, not a reaction to what an adult is doing to them, nor something they are coerced into.

However, JH's comment raises more questions: what if imposing order isn't just for its own sake but vital for the safety of the students themselves or the teacher him/herself? What if, by not imposing order and allowing the students to "walk all over you", you thereby demean yourself in your own and in students' estimation? Possibly jeopardizing your job, or at the very least making your own job much more difficult? Why did JH feel forced into a type of teaching he did not believe in? Is this inevitable? Is it OK for a teacher to teach in a way he or she believes is right even though it may not be to the students' advantage? What does JH mean by "best for the circumstances"? Am I prepared to teach in a way I do not believe in if the circumstances demand it (e.g. if the administration or students themselves were to insist on it)? What if a particular way of teaching, say a Socratic approach, irritates the majority of students (at least initially)? If the teacher is aiming at the students' growth in the long term, is he/she justified in pursuing this approach in the face of student resistance? And to present the other side of that coin, is an approach justified if the students are perfectly satisfied with it, even though they may not be learning very much? (I remember a study was done on these lines once, which demonstrated that a language school run on certain principles was very popular amongst students, even though a variety of test scores showed very few students learnt anything meaningful or made any significant linguistic progress there.)

World Aids Day today, December 1st

Upperdate: I'm building up a list of resources on HIV/AIDS for TEFL teachers, particularly those in Japan/Asia (I'm obviously open to ESL AIDS resources, too). If you know any good sites, or want to join the wiki (or know of a good wiki that's already been started on this), please leave it in a comment below, or email me directly.

Update: Mercy Corp has a good website on HIV/AIDS initiatives around the world.
And Barbara points me to the UK Oxfam website, which includes a video of Annie Lennox lending her support to the initiative.
Here's series of pages created by and for middle school students in the US. (The English is roughly intermediate/upper-intermediate level.)

UNICEF UK has a good page of resources for teachers, including this page on teaching controversial issues.

According to this table, the infection rate in the US is 0.6% of the population (2003 estimate) (rank #69), that in the UK is 0.2 % (2001 estimate) (rank #93), in China 0.1% (2003 estimate) same as Japan (rank #126), and in Japan 0.1% (2003 estimate) (rank #148).

World Aids Day - December 1st. Find out more on Wikipedia, the World Aids Campaign, or
Check out this 8-minute video: Stop Aids - what will you do?

November 29, 2006

Herndon's definition of institutions, or why you shouldn't save your money in the bank

In Herndon's How to Survive in Your Native Land, which Borderland reminded me to read, he defines institutions as places to do things "Where Those Things Shall Not Be Done", and gives an example of a savings bank: "you want to save money? Stash your bread under the mattress! Bury it in the back yard! **** you!"

I roared. How absurd. Of course you can save money in a savings bank.

Then I get a letter from my bank today: "From 1 January 2007, we will require all our customers to maintain a relationship with us of at least 25,000 or currency equivalent.... If your minimum 'relationship balance' is not maintained then, in order to cover the costs of servicing and administering your account, a 20 pound (or currency equivalent) monthly service charge will be deducted from your account."

Just 6 months previously, they had introduced this new service charge, levied on any account with less than 3,000 pounds in it. Then 6 months later, the bar is raised to 25,000...

My first thought was, I'd be better off withdrawing my funds, closing my account, and stashing my measly hoard under the mattress. Then I remembered Herndon's words...

November 21, 2006

Freedom versus autonomy

I just finished reading Herndon's The Way It Spozed To Be, and it has given me pause for thought.

About half-way thru the book, I summed up Herndon's approach to myself like this: "teaching as therapy". Therapy for the students, therapy for the teacher, a way to "work things out of one's system". Herndon's approach is exceedingly hands-off because he feels that students need to work things out themselves.
I looked up and watched 9D organizing itself. It's really almost impossible for adults, and no doubt especially for adult teachers, to see anything "constructive" going on in a bunch of kids shouting at each other. All the adults can see is just that: kids, all bunced together, yelling at each other. You can't believe they are doing it for anything you'd call a purpose; they are simply creating a problem... The adults also can't imagine that this problem is going to cease to exist unless they, the adults, make it cease. They feel that unless they issue orders and directions and threats, the kids will never stop making noise, never stop yelling, never get organized.

This feeling is wrong. The adults are wrong... because almost no one can stand to wait around long enough without doing anything, so that they can see what all the shouting is about, or what might happen when it eventually is over. They can't stand to, and so they never find out. Never finding out, they assume that there was nothing there... There they were, about fifteen or so kids all in a cluster, standing, shouting at each other... a hundred demands, questions, orders, all at once... But the fact is this outcry was orderly in intent and in effect, for in about four or five minutes it was all over, readers were sitting down, they had books, the audience was getting ready to listen. I doubt very much if 9D could have been organized to read a play in five minutes, even by an experienced teacher with a machine gun.
Self-regulation, that's what Herndon is aiming at, tho he never uses the word once in the book.

The thing is, Herndon is not afraid to stick to his guns and to see it out, where many teachers (like me) might dabble but then get cold feet when things start to get serious. This points to a difference in attitude and fundamental belief about the nature and purpose of human nature and human existence between Herndon and the school's administrators.

Here's Herndon listening to the vice-principal's lecture for the teachers on the first day:
In order that learning may take place, Miss Bentley was saying, there must first be order... She didn't do much smiling. She had a job to do... and if she seemed to look us over speculatively it was probably to wonder which of us was going to understand. Which would be able to help - who might hinder? It never occurred to her, I think, that someone might not choose to act the way she thought correct; if some of us didn't do so, it was because we couldn't understand. At least, that's the way I came to think later on in the year. At the time, I wasn't very interested... My lack of interest wasn't simply naive, at least not in the way which springs immediately to mind, that of the imaginary progressive eduator who imagines, or has been popularly supposed to imagine, that given a nice, friendly teacher and lots of freedom of action and very little planning, the students will always be good-natured, orderly, interested, motivated, well-behaved and studious, in short, nice themselves. I didn't doubt that there might be noise, disorder, anarchy, chaos and all that in my own classroom; I just didn't see that this constituted a "problem" any more than a quiet, studious class was a "problem".... But what administrations mean when they say "problem" is something which is not supposed to happen, something which happens all the time of course, or it wouldn't be a "problem", but which isn't supposed to happen. A problem. You were supposed to believe in, and work toward, its nonexistence. Noise, quiet. I simply wasn't making any plans to promote one and forestall the other.
Herndon sums up his approach:
you do what you want to do or can in a classroom, and then you see the result, or something of the result, and then you deal with that as you want to or can. One result isn't really much better than another, as far as you can tell.
Herndon faces his first class:
After the roll call, I wasn't quite sure what to do. I had nothing in particular planned, but had counted on the class to give me a hint.
Whoah! Unthinkable! What kind of loon is this? You're the teacher, you're supposed to be the man with the plan.

I can't find the exact quote now, but somewhere in the book he writes about students working stuff out of their systems, implying that what he's trying to do is give them room and time to do this, hoping that they will eventually discover a self-discipline, an order from within themselves, not one imposed from outside. Herndon gets lots of predictable advice from his colleagues:
My problem was not what to use but how to get the kids to respond in such a way that they learned something... the other kind of advice, which was also the most common and which was useless to me... was a conglomeration of dodges, tricks, gimmicks to get the kids to do what they were spozed to do, that is, whatever the teacher had in mind for them to do.
This last distinction is an important one for Herndon, I feel. Think about it. Is there a difference, or is Herndon just splitting liberal hairs?
It really involved a kind of gerrymandering of the group - promises, favors, warnings, threats, letting you pass out or not pass out paper, sit in a certain place or not, A's, plusses, stars... The purpose of all these methods was to get and keep an aspect of order, which was reasonable enough, I suppose. But the purpose of this order was supposed to be "so that learning could take place." So everyone said - not wanting to be guilty of the authoritarian predilection for order for its own sake - while at the same time admitting that most of the kids weren't learning anything this way.
Herndon spends much of his time (and the book) focussed on his own classes and students, and pretty much ignoring what everyone else is doing. However, at one stage he starts to get hints that he is being observed and judged, and that those judgements are not favourable. Inevitably, Herndon gets fired.

(to be continued)

Sleeping with the enemy, or the pit and the pendulum

After years of reading books such as How Children Fail, Summerhill, Dumbing Us Down, etc., it was a bit of a shock to read JD Hirsch. Hirsch describes the many "student-centred", "project-based", "hands-on/experiential" etc, etc, approaches to education: "Great! I'm all for it!.." then throws a bucket of freezing water over you: "If only they worked!"

If I remember right, Hirsch bases his judgement on exam and test scores as well as anecdotes from parents and teachers. I don't know enough to argue about the test scores, but I remember recalling the students in my class who were just sitting around, or goofing off, and the comments after a 14-week term: "I didn't understand what I was supposed to do".

I basically said, "OK, enough of that. Back to some good ol' from-the-front-of-the-room, positivistic, no-arguments teaching (coz
that's obviously what everybody wants, other faculty staff, students, and administrators)." It was a matter of regaining my self-respect. I also felt I was in danger of losing the respect of students, indeed, may have lost it already.

I didn't swing around completely to Hirsch's point of view, but his book (and Melanie Phillips') combined with uneasy memories of my classes to prompt me to do some serious soul-searching.

It certainly burst my "romantic" bubble, and that is a Good Thing.

Lisa Delpit's book added to my critical awareness: she describes the discourse styles of white teachers versus black teachers, and how the white teachers' style doesn't fit well with what black children are used to or expect. The black teachers are more likely to lay down the law and be "tough", and the black children seem to prefer this, according to Delpit and the people she quotes.

Maybe it was just time for the pendulum to swing back the other way, but I was pleasantly surprised to read this exchange between a white teacher (of black children) and a black teacher of the same children in James Herndon's The Way It Spozed To Be.

Herndon had to take an unscheduled month off from work, and a substitute teacher (Mrs. A.) replaced him. Here, Herndon returns to his class after a month's absence:
9D... greeted me with an indignant and sincere-sounding outcry. Mrs. A was a better teacher than I, she was a real teacher, I wasn't no real teacher, she really made them work, not just have them old discussions every day; no, man, they were learning spelling and sentences and all they was spozed to. Moreover she was strict and didn't allow fooling around - all in all they felt they'd been really getting somewhere. I looked in my grade book, up to now pretty empty of marks, and saw, sure enough, a whole string of grades after each name - mostly, however, F's and zeroes. Many of them had nothing but zeroes, which I took to mean they had been busy not-doing this important work. I pointed this out to the class, but it didn't matter. They had been back on familiar ground; strict teacher, no fooling around, no smart-off, no discussions about how bad school was, and plenty of work. That was, after all, what school was and they were in favor of it.

7H was in a similar temper. They too had tales of plenty of real work, strict discipline, no talking, no gum, reading aloud every day, everybody - and then they came out with a long list of all of them who had been sent to the office for talking or chewing gum or refusing to read or laughing or getting mad at the teacher. Mrs. A gave them work on the board every day, they screamed, and she made them keep a notebook with all this work in and they were spozed to bring it every day to work in and get graded on it. That was what real teachers did, they told me. I asked to see some of the notebooks; naturally no one had one. What about that? I asked. No use. She made us keep them notebooks, they all shouted. The fact that no one had kept or was keeping them notebooks didn't enter into it....

In my free period that first day back I conferred with Mrs. A, who was sticking around to let me know what she'd been doing... She told me, although not in so many words, that my classes had been a mess when she took over, that she considered them well on their way to straightening up after a month with her, and that it was now up to me to keep them that way. She got this across to me very nicely in the kind but firm manner some people have with training animals...

It was important, she said, to get them into the proper mood for schoolwork as soon as they entered the room. In particular, avoid beginning the period by talking to them, explaining, or lecturing, which they would not listen to and which only encouraged them to start talking themselves....

The best method for getting them in order was to have a paragraph written out on the board when they entered, and get them in the habit of copying this paragraph in their notebooks immediately they sat down, giving them a time limit for its completion, erasing the paragraph when the time was up, and grading the notebooks frequently. Copying was something they could all do without further explanation from me; it got them in the mood for schoolwork, quiet, their materials ready, all set for the day's lesson, whatever it was.
Then Herndon dumps that bucket of anti-Hersch freezing water:
I didn't have a lot to say to this advice. In the face of the nonexistent notebooks and the unused or all-wrong spellers, the list of those trooping down to the office for misbehavior, I couldn't see that the regimen had been a great success. In any case, the advice wasn't new... Perhaps after a year or so of this it might work; I didn't think so, but it didn't matter either. I knew damn well that they'd been getting this treatment for the past six years, that during that this time they'd learned practically nothing about the "skills" this type of order was spozed to produce - no adverbs, not how to spell, no punctuation, not adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing; many hadn't even learned how to read. I couldn't see my way had been a great success either - in fact, I didn't know what my way was - but the other was a failure and was going to be a failure.
Herndon's book is a fun read, but it's also disturbing in a, well, disturbing kinda way: Herndon seems to be suggesting that his experience of teaching is that "teaching" is "spozed" to be mainly about control of kids, even if they don't learn anything. The disturbing thing is that Mrs A's arguments and suggestions sound so familiar, so reasonable, and so seductive. Who would argue against such a pedagogy? In fact, according to Herndon's account anyway, he was fired basically because he refused to take on the same values as the school (that keeping order is paramount).

So I'm back face-to-face with a familiar question: am I teaching or merely trying to keep order, believing that keeping order equals teaching (and therefore learning)? Were my uneasiness and guilt a few months ago merely the withdrawal symptoms of not trying to impose order? And if I am merely trying to keep order, instead of teaching, will I be able to recognize it? How can I tell?

November 14, 2006

Creative use of vlogging

Aaron, the Teacher in Development, points me to think:lab, in particular to a post about creative uses of vlogging for students. Check out the videos.

The Japanese High School

Upperdate: the London Times even has taken up the story. Hat tip to Trans-Pacifica Radio for the link. Japan Probe also has more.
This quote is particularly disturbing:
...said Yukiko Nishihara, who runs a suicide prevention centre in Tokyo."We have fewer phone calls from children. They think there is no point of consulting the adults about their troubles."
The London Times article puts a slightly different slant on the problem: the article focuses on the anonymous letters sent to the Education Ministry, and asks
Are the letters genuine cries for help or mischievous hoaxes? Is the publicity saving lives, or encouraging copycat suicides? And when is the daily tally of deaths going to stop? In schools across the country the atmosphere is close to hysteria.

My 17-year-old son's initial response to the spate of suicides was that the media are making too much of it. Perhaps he feels the media frenzy might encourage suicides or copycat letters and hoaxes.

The Times article quotes some of the anonymous letters, and the quotes make it clear that suicide is a strong and clear message of blame. In Japan, which has a tradition of suicide as an honourable act, and where direct confrontation is pretty much taboo, a suicide can be a final attempt to bring the guilty party to realize the true and awful extent and effect of their aggression or thoughtless behaviour, and leave them with the heavy (so hope the victims) responsibility of the suicide's death for the rest of their lives. Talk about guilt-tripping!

In a slightly different context (quitting jobs), some older Japanese have expressed to me their surprise and a degree of contempt for younger Japanese who quit jobs at the first spot of trouble (a disagreement with a colleague or some harsh words from a superior). One of my students has stopped coming to school pretty much altogether, A call to his mother revealed that he has been upset about something that one teacher said to me, but it isn't clear which teacher, or what was said, or indeed if that is the (main) reason for the young man to pretty much quit school this semester. What he said to me was that he had some psychological difficulty, which I took to mean a problem relating to someone or some people ("problems with human relations" must rank as the #1 headache for the majority of people in Japan).

Update: In case anyone thinks bullying and silence are unique to Japan, read this BBC article on the subject. And Anti-Bullying Week starts next week (November 20th) in the UK, sponsored in part by the Anti-Bullying Alliance.

I just finished reading the 2001 book The Japanese High School by Japanese sociologist Shoko Yoneyama, who was a Featured Speaker at JALT's National Convention (I was unfortunately unable to attend her talk).

It's particularly topical in the sad light of the tragic spate of suicides among high school (junior and senior) students in Japan.

It's one of the best books in English on the subject to date. It has a tendency towards uncritical sympathy towards the victims (which is understandable; some of the stories are just horrific), and although the book uses data comparing Japanese with Australian high schools, the focus is very much on Japan. The book mentions the dominant discourses on "school refusers" (toukou-kyohi登校拒否), but does not give voice to the large number who pass through Japanese high school not only unscathed but with positive experiences.

That said, I think her analysis as to why nothing significant ever gets done about bullying in schools is pretty close the mark: because school culture itself is deeply implicated in this kind of behaviour. Yoneyama quotes a high school student who wrote in an essay on how to stop "ijime" (which Yoneyama distinguishes from bullying in that Japanese ijime is almost always group bullying): "As long as not everyone is all the same, ijime will never be stamped out." She states that school bullying is over-conformism, and thus teachers and schools generally are implicated.

The book deals with bullying, school refusers, and the "culture" of resistance and silence in Japanese high schools. Yoneyama includes a wealth of anecdotal material translated from the Japanese press, academic articles, and books and articles written by high school students themselves. Indeed her main motivation for writing the book was to give students a voice.

Despite being 5 years old, the book is still very topical. She predicts that the trend of increased numbers of bullying cases and decreased visibility (i.e. bullying will continue, intensified, underground) seems chillingly borne out by recent events.

Simple English Wikipedia

The scary-sounding Infinite Thinking Machine told me about the Wikipedia written in easy English. Of potential interest to EFL/ESL teachers and students.

November 08, 2006

Online courses from Harvard Graduate School of Education

Graduate school of Education at Harvard offers online courses on a number of interesting topics each year for 6 weeks starting in February. Two years ago I took a course in Multiple Intelligence Theory and its application in the classroom. The course was well done.