Friday, 26 October 2018

USA Exchange - Day 8 - Half day in school

Another morning at school as Ste Gen is having their annual Parent-teacher conference and closes early for this. This happens once a year with the whole school going to see their teachers at the end of the first quarter. At first reading, this seems a bit crazy, but then this needs really putting into context. In the UK there is no way I'd be able to see all of the students that I see at one sitting. Teaching nearly 300 students if they all came that would take somewhere near 15 hours! However, here the teacher teaches about 120 students, so this is an easier process although there isn't the opportunity for everyone to get through this does make the process a simpler one.

As this is our last morning in school we took the opportunity to get all of the students together and take a group photo with our respected flags, UK, USA and the flag of the town of Ste Genevieve. This made me think does Billingshurst have a flag? On initial research, it would seem that is doesn't!

In the morning I got a chance to visit a couple of high school Maths, yes I am sticking with the English spelling, classes. The first group were doing Algebra II and this single year course covers a whole mixture of topics and the kids were working on indices and dividing polynomials, don't worry if you are not a maths teacher, and was interesting to see the notation difference.
In both the USA and Europe they use the dot product for multiplication rather than the x that we use. When I said to the class they immediately replied with how does that work with algebra so I had to show the curly x and the x are different. The other interesting thing was that my students in year 10 were covering a similar topic but a year or two earlier than these high school students were. Interestingly, I asked the students what they used their Chromebooks for in Maths and I was surprised to hear that they were just hosting the digital copy of the textbook. Having only got a set in maths a year ago and a second set this year I would argue that we are using them a whole lot more than our USA counterparts. 

The students had to hand in homework at the start of the lesson and I caught a student finishing it off with the help of another student and I had to ask her if that was a regular occurrence. I wasn't trying to catch her out and didn't embarrass her in front of her teacher but I often see our students sitting in our canteen finishing homework either with someone else's work or help being given every morning back in the UK. She said it wasn't a regular thing but gave me a rye smile which made me conclude otherwise. I really do question the validity of homework and in Ste Gen, it counts approx 40% towards their final grade whereas in the UK it doesn't count for any part of their formal grade! I know along with most things in education depending on what bit of research you read you get polar opposites of the validity of homework, and I guess in an ideal world it would be an ideal opportunity to give students an additional time to consolidate or learn something new but there are so many barriers to this being a completed by all students. If students are not in a routine to complete at home then it becomes an issue that can take a lot of time and energy to resolve by which time the objective of the learning has been lost and the topic has moved on.

I also discovered on this trip that some of the UK students use picture maths to get through their homework. What a complete waste of everyone's time and energy and certainly any feedback delivered to them is wasted as it doesn't address any of the issues that the students have. We assume learning has taken place and actually there is nothing to show this.

Anyway back to the lesson, and while the students were completing their test I helped one of my own students with their homework and whilst explaining surds, don't worry if you have no idea what these are, to her the USA teacher came over and saw my explanation and said that he does it a similar way too. It is kinda funny that this is a method that people use on different sides of the planet despite me never seeing it printed in a textbook anywhere! Whilst the students were doing their test they were allowed to ask for assistance to help them get through the questions. I jumped in and did my usual trick of not giving answers but asking more questions that lead them to the right place. This is my whole mantra in my room that the answer is not the important part but actually the solution and method is far more important.

The teacher teaches 6 periods a day with a prep hour every day. He has two different courses that he teaches so his prep time is used to prepare and assess his students each and every day. Would I switch places with this timetable? In a heartbeat, having the opportunity to really focus on a section of the curriculum and produce an outstanding lesson each and every time, would only make every outcome better!  

Midway through the second hour, there was an assembly for the high school. This is part of their red ribbon week which is a statewide initiative to educate students about the dangers of drugs and trying to make them think about some of the dangers of drugs. Today's assembly was a complete smack in the face assembly from a guy who lost his son to a drugs overdose when he was 20 years old. This really hard-hitting talk that made a lot of the students shed a tear at times!  The speaker did say at the start that he would not be sugar coating anything during his talk and he really didn't. He had lots of scary statistics that were impossible to ignore and I hope that he has made an impression on any of the vulnerable students in the packed out performing arts centre that morning. Interestingly I had recently given a talk to my own tutor group about stress and anxiety and last year spent some time working with my year 11 class, the ones that sit their first set of national exams, kids that were struggling with the anxiety of school. I had a chat with a member of the leadership team in Ste Gen about this, this morning, and he said that he feels that sometimes they push the sports agenda too much on their kids.
The promotion of success can cause some anxiety with the players etc, but when I asked if there were students not coming into school because of these anxieties he said no. Unlike the situation in the UK!

Whilst having this conversation we also chatted about the location of our trophy cabinet in the UK. We asked our students where was our trophy cabinet and none of them guessed it correctly! What does this say about how we celebrate our achievements and I am not talking about just our sporting ones as there are various awards in our cabinet in the UK?

A trip to Park Hills high school was in order for the next part of the day as we had met up with another teacher that I have collaborated with in the past and met at the weekend and we are exploring a possibility of running an exchange in 2 years time with them as an interim of the Ste Gen exchange. The school also shares in the passion for promoting success in its sporting triumphs and has an amazing indoor arena for sports and an almost as impressive football field too. We had a tour of the school and again found facilities far better than our own again. Education in the USA has better ways of getting access to funds. They run events far more successfully than we do including charging spectators for coming to games, running concession stands that generate income. Our school is adverse to actively find ways to generate income despite having some opportunity. I understand that there are implications for renting our school buildings in ensuring that it doesn't come as a detriment to the academic side, but as a school in a really poorly funded county surely it is our moral obligation to find ways to improve our facilities by doing more than just applying for money as and when grants come along? How can we join the protests and not actually try and do something about the problem ourselves? We teach our kids to be solution focused, or in the words of Albert Einstein, 'We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them', and I know we didn't create the problem but we have a problem and we need to actively find our own way out of it.

After leaving Park Hills we went off for lunch and whilst sitting in an Italian restaurant and ordering drinks, you could have heard a pin drop. The restaurant wasn't busy, but the rest of the diners heard my accent and stopped talking for a brief moment and then the quiet whispers as they sat there discussing this Brit sitting in their restaurant. This has been a recurring theme everywhere we have been whether it be in a classroom or out and about. This was also true when our American students came over to visit the UK and school was completely mesmerised by it.

The evening was a chance for everyone to come together and enjoy our twins birthday party. It was great to see all of the kids together just being kids and there not being any sense of division between them. It was also really great to speak to some of the parents that were there and talk to them about the experience of having a Brit staying with them. Our students have all been fantastic on the trip and I
know that the airport drop off will be really difficult on Saturday and there will be tears all around. This is what this trip is all about. The comments and messages from parents of both sides have been amazing and neither group of students want this to come to an end. This isn't really the end, Rhett and I have put this together so that it is a start and hopefully a life-changing experience for all of the students involved. Families have been merged, students have become friends with people that they would have never met before. What I am really excited to see is what will actually happen next, but I don't mean next week, I will be really interested to see how this develops over the next year or so.

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