Engaging Kids: A Little Classroom Humour

 

 

There has been a recent rash of puns spreading around one of the schools I sub at. It has infected kids at all grade levels from 5 to 12. Of course, being called in to teach occasionally, I happened to walk into this contagious disease with no warning and no defence last Thursday and Friday.

My kids tried to infect me twice with puns on Thursday. Unfortunately, I was rather vaporous on that day, so I did not catch on to either attack and thwarted the jokes.

The Mistaken Challenge

The first attack came from my Science 9 students. I can not remember the pun and ruined the joke anyway. The students grudgingly revealed what they were trying to get me to say (without getting in trouble). I remember being glad I didn’t. My guess now is that the pun must have been inappropriate to school anyway.

(At this point, I should confess that I am a stickler when it comes to swearing or inappropriate topics from my kids. This deters my kids for about 15 seconds after I warn them not to engage in such behaviour. Then the fun begins: trying to find ways to tease Mr. Urban. This particular pun was their latest effort.)

Still, my kids were unaware that I hadn’t caught on. I am sure they have taken my sidestepping of the pun as a challenge, so I expect more cunning attempts to get me to break one of my own rules.

These kids just crack me up. They are so eager and clever. And for the most part, when I ask them to, they willingly engage in the learning activity at hand.

There is always room to play and enjoy class. My kids like joking with me; I am easy enough to let them bait me, yet usually wise enough to get out of their traps.

 

 

The Unintended Lesson

The second attack came from my Grade 12 math students. My Grade 12s were a little more cautious with their pun, choosing one that was barely offensive.

But, again, I did not catch on. And how spectacular the result.

I have watched these kids grow up from Grade 7 and am absolutely fascinated at how mature and confident they have become. I can’t tell you how awed and full of pride of them I am. So, yes, I was targeted again.

The pun was simple. My kids asked me “what is that under there?” and I was supposed to reply “under where?”

I did not.

Being obtuse

 

Really, it never occurred to me to even ask that. Over there were cabinets and shelves sitting without gap on the floor and a well raised table clearly with nothing under it.

I was supervising a probability quiz and wrote it myself along with them. (Probability, permutation and combination just confuse me. I can not make heads nor tails out of them. The quiz had a few sporting coin questions in it by the way.)

So I was thinking mathematically, systematically and about test question quality. I ended up pitching against the ambiguity of vague questions with my kids, particularly the one they were asking me, and they in turn kept trying rather desperately to get me to ask that magical pun-question. Dialogues of the obtuse are so amusing.

It all ended up in laughter and teacher-student bonding that would never have happened had I clued into the pun at any time.

One boy grinned that the joke turned out better than my kids had planned. A girl told me that I really got her thinking about clarity and definitions. Everyone, including me, ended the day with renewed energy and a smile.

Yeah, I was thick on Thursday. I normally take questions and comments at face value. I rarely look for ways to make this or that perverse by some lateral interpretation. I am eager to help.

And I love the way I am, and my kids. They can fool me any time they want, so long of course that doing so does not interfere with their learning activity.

I feel much closer today to these two classes of students, particularly the Grade 12s, as a result of this jocularity.

A little humour in the classroom is engaging and builds strong bonds. I am ecstatic that I subbed these kids on Thursday. A lot was won.

 

 

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When Education Becomes Punishment

 

 

Shawn, the Dictator

Last week, I had to do the worse thing I think a teacher could do. I was subbing for one teacher, and marking during one of her Prep periods, when the school principal asked me to babysit, and I use the word literally, a Junior High class that had been misbehaving the previous period. (And no, I don’t know what they were doing.) So, I had to babysit them, and they had to read, something none of them wanted to do, particularly since they were being kept from gym.

Neither the students nor I were happy about the arrangement. They were distressed because they were missing gym and I was distressed because reading was their punishment. Most of them refused to read, which just made my job harder and more distasteful. Because of their reluctance and regular teacher and principal checks, I had to actively enforce the reading punishment order. (And the definition of dictator is … Mr. Urban?)

Really? Reading as punishment? My hands are gyrating in the air even as I type this. Punishment? What?

Some Disturbing Facts

 

 

Here, I should present some background information.

First, in Alberta, it is estimated that 40% of the adult population (16yr+) is functionally illiterate. This of course doesn’t mean that these adults cannot read and write. But it does mean that they have difficulty functionally comprehending and using what they are reading and its implications. That statistic is very sobering. And I know the problem is not due to the lack of quality teaching.

Second, I am relatively new at teaching, and have been out of a K-12 classroom for … well, let me use the word decades. I don’t remember whether students my age, when they were in K-12, hated reading. I suspect some did, but most, like me, enjoyed it. By their own admission most of the students I teach today do not like reading, ever, at all. And using reading as a punishment does not build eager readers.

Third, contrary to my students, I love reading, a lot. I have been reading for enjoyment for as long as I can remember. I started “seriously” reading when my grade six teacher read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings to my class. Of course, I read since I was a toddler and some of my favorite writing themes I can trace back to these early times. My careers, ecology and teaching, rely heavily on reading. So, reading is not just enjoyable, it is practical. (Interesting, how I am reduced to defending reading here.)

Consequences

 

 

So, I am left with contradictions. To me, reading is a life-growing activity. One can not lose by learning to read and to enjoy reading. Yet, my students dislike it. Worse yet, reading is used as a punishment for them. (Actually, it is probably just used as a filler while they are being punished, but it is still being forced on them and they associate it with their punishment.) Finally, I, someone who celebrates reading and desires to pass that celebration to my students, am required to ensure the punished students are reading while I babysit them.

I don’t think anyone wins in this situation. And I worry the loss could be life-long. I personally hate being the enforcer of this punishment, for it accomplishes exactly the opposite of what I hoped to give to my students. I worry that I stole something very precious from my students, something that they will never get back.

I wonder. Has anyone had to deal with a similar situation? If you have, what did you do? If you haven’t, what would you do?

What happens when whiteboards are removed?

Adding technology to the classroom

When applied and implemented thoughtfully; in the best interest of learning; and with student growth in knowledge, comprehension, skill and curiosity in mind, technology can liven just about any learning experience.

Technology provides boundlessness or openness in learning by removing the walls of classroom-restricted resources, such as textbooks and teachers. It removes the box … the confines of the text, the pen of the classroom, the limits of the options of approach and the hem of the single-referent teacher.

It should be used judiciously to maximize impact, exploration and retention, and to minimize dilution, dramatization and flaunting. Simply put, it should be used to learn from and with. Learning about it should be secondary.

I attended a webinar offered by John Scammell about the new high school Mathematics curriculum being implemented in Western Canada, particularly Alberta. His emphasis that over the years we learned FOR problem solving, then ABOUT problem solving and now THROUGH problem solving parallels this notion that technology is a tool to learn with rather than the reason or goal to learn about or to show off.

Technology provides one facet of great learning. It has the best potential, in my opinion, to make learning and doing boundless for those whose willingness and imagination drives them, both broadly and deeply, to explore more to learn more.

Removing technology to make room

Yet, technology has drawbacks. As a substitute teacher, I experience a few that on the surface are not obvious. For instance, this year, I noticed more Smartboards in the classroom. This is great. What I could teach if I had a class and a Smartboard.

However, Smartboards take space. They can also be used as small whiteboards at a pinch. So Smartboards naturally replace whiteboards. This not only doesn’t remove functionality from the classroom (it increases it infinitely), it encourages teachers to use and practice using the Smartboards daily.

Then the problem: the substitute teacher. In my school district, the substitute, not being part of the staff or student body, has no access (userid and password) to computers in the school, so locking him or her out of those Smartboards.

The following result has happened to me on more than one occasion.

This comic has been cross-posted in Educational Comics.

Drop censorship of Internet access

There are many reasons that school boards should adopt open Internet access. Overarching these though is the fact that teaching and learning are hampered and put back into the nineteenth and twentieth Century box by this censorship. As a substitute teacher, I find myself even more censored than my contract colleagues. When my students have more access to technology than I do, there is something wrong. We should at least be equal!

What restrictions do you face where you teach? Are your students or you “falling behind” because of these restrictions, or does it matter? What would (do) your students gain if (because) they had (have) free rein on how they can learn and what they can learn from or with?

Anthems & Apathy

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Comic: Do students care? Two panels. Two perspectives.
This cartoon is cross-posted to Educational Comics.

With Understanding, Pride

What thoughts play through your head when you listen to your nation’s anthem? Do you listen to your anthem? Do your students?

As a substitute teacher, I see students who don’t listen to my nation’s anthem, who don’t stand at attention, or who even talk or fool around while my anthem is sung. Sure they have heard it every school morning for x number of years, but they seem to forget that my nation has soldiers deployed out of country defending that anthem and what it stands for. They forget that very few of these valiant soldiers return home unscathed in some way. I know; my father was in the service, thankfully during times of peace, but domestic terrorists were around while he served.

Lately, as I more deeply invest myself in my students’ welfares and futures, I have grown concerned about this apparent apathy, this disinterest, this boredom my students present over my anthem. I think more than just apathy directs their behaviors. I actually think they hold a “it can not happen to me and my country” taking-it-for-granted attitude. Under this premise, my nation’s anthem is just a song with no more meaning than a teacher’s preaching. No wonder they do not respect it as I do. I am not sure most of them even understand it. That saddens me.

I was taught my anthem when I was a kid. Because of this, I hold it with great pride. With understanding comes pride. So I would like to bring meaning to two lines of my anthem, the way I was taught them. I imagine that a class can be best taught this through query and discussion.

Into and Out Of the Canadian Anthem

The Canadian Anthem and its history are described on the Government of Canada’s website (http://www.pch.gc.ca/pgm/ceem-cced/symbl/anthem-eng.cfm). The lines I wish to explore are:

God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

When I was a kid, these lines read:

O Canada, glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.

(There was a recent suggestion to return to this version, or to at least drop the mention of God.)

I will explore the version I learned, because I think it holds deeper and more identifiable and call-to-action meaning.

“O” is an address, such as the address Shelley makes to the West Wind in his Ode to the West Wind. It implies an addressee capable of understanding it is being addressed.

Canada is obviously the addressee, but “Canada” is a concept. Here students need guidance, for once they comprehend “Canada”, the rest of the Canadian anthem takes on nuances of meaning. What is Canada? It is of course territory, but it is also tradition, culture, values, history and perhaps most importantly the network or Nation of Canadians. This is what I think students today do not comprehend.

The national anthem addresses not only the territory but the people and values of Canada. It addresses the students! It is a song sung not only by the students to Canada but by Canada to the students. Furthermore, it is sung simultaneously about Canada and the students.

Every school morning in every school across the nation from sea to sea to sea Canada sings to the students. What a concept.

So what is it singing? “Glorious” means full of glory. “Free” is another tough one; a whole course can be spent on it with little more than a cursory introduction to all its implications. But can you see, when applied to the territory, the values and the students, how strong, how empowering these words really are?

The next line, particularly “we stand on guard for thee”, is significant since “we” and “thee” apply again to the territory, the values and the students. And “guard” carries more weight. How many different ways can each of the three “we” stand guard over each of the three “thee”?

The Strength of Meaning

In just two lines, the Canadian anthem captures its strength as an anthem worthy of Canadians. When understood the anthem is meaningful rather than meaningless. It ceases to be boring, ceases to be drill. The students own it. And through owning it, they own their land (the house) and their Country (the home).

Regardless of where we are or what anthem we sing, should we not all care about where we live and the values we hold dear? What thoughts play through your head when you hear your nation’s anthem? Do you listen to it? Do your students?

One day maybe, if I finally had enough of kids talking and slouching and fooling around during our national anthem, I might throw my teacher’s lesson plan away and open instead a discussion about meaning behind the national anthem. I wonder if they would even hear?