This post comes in four tenuously linked parts. You could think of it like a terribly thought out collection of short stories, or a badly-directed film made up of a series of vignettes. Read one part, or all four, but take from it a search for connections more than anything else.
My housemate (also a Teach For Australia Associate) recently shared with me that as she was walking home with a friend, a few metres in front of me while I was on the phone, she found herself tuning into my conversation.
She wasn’t eavesdropping on my pseudo-scientific opinions about the chest pains of my best friend, living three hours away, but was tuning into shifts in my tone of voice, creaks in my throat, gauging the nature of the conversation. She realised that she had taken this from her classroom experiences, where the teacher spends every moment acutely aware of the student or conversation in front of her, and also of the 24 other students and 12 other conversations happening simultaneously.
Because our teacher minds now function like this, working frantically to draw connections between individual points and to approach these points from all different angles, this reminded me of a conversation I recently had with a student of mine.
This student and I were beginning to clash. Despite my greatest efforts to support his learning, the time between entering the classroom and his disengagement was reducing each lesson. The last time someone had come to observe me, they had calculated that 10 out of 71 minutes of the period were spent individually attending to this student’s specific needs.
“Unsustainable” was the call we made. So, one lunchtime when I asked this student to stay back for the third lesson in a row to finish his work, I also asked him why he thought I’d asked him to stay back.
And this, against all theory of how these restorative conversations are meant to be run: asking “why” is a clear “don’t” as it’s provocative and assumes the student’s blame. With all these background thoughts in my head (connections, again), I ran with it:
“Why do you think I’ve asked you to stay back?”
“Because you’ve got it in for me.”
“No, really, why do you think I’ve asked you to stay back?”
“I dunno, because you think I didn’t finish my work but I did.”
(The work to which he was referring was completed by tracing over the letters that someone else had written on his worksheet.)
“What do I normally do during lunch time?”
“I normally eat my lunch then come into the classroom early to check that the tables are set up for us, connect my computer, let you guys in etc. Why do you think I’ve decided to do this instead?”
“Because I care about you. I know you don’t think that this stuff matters, that what we’re learning is important, but I know you want to go to TAFE next year, and I’m worried that you won’t be able to because you’re not learning the stuff that I’m trying to teach you.
It’s not so much about the content but about things like following instructions, finishing work that you start, organising yourself. If you go to TAFE like this next year, they won’t have you, does that make sense?”
As I write this down, I think about how traumatic and awful some of these comments were, or could have been, but I was calm, and trusting in my relationship and knowledge of this student.
A follow-up Student Support Group meeting with his mum brought up similar ideas, and the following few weeks at school were like working with another human being all together. It felt as if no one had sat down with this student before to link the now with the next.
Conversely, one of my best students thrives on the connections she sees between her learning, her reading and her existing knowledge. It’s like watching a creativity machine; what is creativity but the forming of novel connections? (Why don’t we put a table and a coffee machine in an old warehouse? Ta da! Hipster café!)
For example, this student’s assignments have included an analysis of the relationship between health and the creative arts (her thesis: Why does society assume that physical and mental health are precursors for other success?) and the script for a film about the role of music in indigenous history written in Shakespearean language (her justification: the manipulation of language, for example forbidding the speaking of Indigenous languages, was one way in which white settlers asserted power over Indigenous people throughout Australian history).
Needless to say, she consistently marks highly on our rubrics.
These rubrics are based on students’ abilities to make connections.
John Loughran, a Monash University academic and author of the practical toolkit What Expert Teachers Do, devotes a chapter to this linking as an integral part of the learning process. We are beginning to consider this in our rubrics, now based on the SOLO (Structure Of the Learning Outcome) taxonomy, which endeavours to spread the learning process over a continuum from no ideas, through single and multiple distinct ideas, to ideas linked to one another and to the whole.
Overlayed onto skills such as the synthesis of content or effective use of punctuation and grammar, the spectrum allows for a fairly effective linear depiction of the learning process, something inherently complex and almost never direct.
Luckily, as teachers, we begin to practise (PART ONE) and even in ways become good at (PART TWO), making connections, because it is ultimately this that we seek to teach our students (PARTS THREE and FOUR).