Is Effective ‘Traditional’ Teaching Possible in Low-Decile NZ Schools?

A major theme in my thinking about my teaching this term has been confronting the realities of the context in which I am teaching, and deciding which compromises I should and should not be willing to make in the face of those realities. I’ve read and thought about a wide range of teaching approaches, from the rigid approach to direct instruction advocated in Teach Like a Champion (Lemov, 2015) to the flexible and student-led approach of, as an extreme example, Never Mind the Inspectors, Here’s Punk Learning (Coles, 2014), I have developed strong ideas about which pedagogies I think are best: I favour teacher-led, highly structured approaches that emphasise knowledge acquisition over the development of general soft skills such as collaboration and creative or critical thinking.

I’m particularly skeptical of advice that takes as a starting point that students from low-income or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds should learn different things in different ways to their higher-SES peers. This includes approaches that emphasise using ‘relevant’ content or high levels of student choice, as I believe that these are likely to trap students in their current experience, rather than introducing them to new ideas and new ways of thinking (Young, 2010). Progressive and supposedly ‘contemporary’ pedagogies are closely tied, from my perspective, to low expectations for learners in disadvantaged contexts. Such approaches, because they do not emphasise helping students learn new knowledge beyond their experience, entrench inequality by denying students’ access to the tools for creating social change. Limiting students’ access to academic knowledge because of their economic situation or cultural background is as dangerous a form of deficit thinking as the more blatant examples I have heard expressed at my school this year. 

I believe, then, that students in low-decile schools would benefit the most if they learned the same content, and through the same methods, as are generally used in the schools that serve our most privileged young people. However, my experiences this year have challenged that point of view. I have struggled to get my senior students, particularly my year eleven students, to complete schoolwork and pass assessments, and I have been unable to get my year nine class to consistently behave in a way that makes this kind of direct instruction possible. The usual social realist argument is that motivating students should be a matter of pedagogy, or how we teach, and that student motivation should not be considered when choosing curriculum content. In reality, though, I have found motivating students to be such a challenge that I need to use all methods available to me, including trying to choose content that I think students are more likely to be interested in. Some (McPhail, 2017) have suggested that powerful knowledge may be able to be taught using progressive pedagogies, but there isn’t much research thus far that provides a model for how this might be done. In addition, often finding activities that are motivating for disengaged students means providing tasks with minimal reading and writing, which directly contradicts the need for intensive practice in these skills. When I’ve expressed my frustration about my students’ lack of engagement to other teachers at my school, the response was often along the lines of this:

Yeah, I used to teach like that when I was at a decile ten school. But it just doesn’t work for the kind of kids we get in a school like ours.

Frustrated as I am about the limitations these statements place on these “kinds of kids”, I feel uncomfortable pushing back on suggestions that I try other strategies, given that the teachers I hear these comments from are much more successful with their students than I am. I felt obligated to give other approaches a fair trial.

One way that I did this was to introduce a choice-based approach in one lesson each week with my year nine class. Thursday period three had always been a disaster; the class came in over-excited after lunch, and it was a constant battle to get them to listen to me explain what we were learning that day. Frequently, no work at all would be done during that period, and it was a miserable experience for me and for many of my students. Because these lessons were so consistently ineffective, I didn’t feel like I was taking too much of a risk trying something else out; any learning that happened on a Thursday was a bonus. I resolved to avoid all whole-class teaching on Thursdays. Instead, students have a choice between three or four activities. The activities are a mixture of reading and writing, and include options that are related to what we do for the rest of the week, and others that have more scope for students to follow their own interests.

This change in approach completely transformed Thursdays with my year nines. Because I wasn’t battling with them to get them to listen to me, there was considerably less tension between me and the class. I was free to sit down with small groups of students and work with them for longer periods of time, which is something Rochelle had recommended I do to build relationships. Students who were interested in what we were doing in the rest of the class could dig deeper into this, and those who weren’t still had a chance every week to do something they enjoyed in English. They started asking me on Mondays and Wednesdays whether they could keep doing their Thursday work instead. Although students were still working slowly and were often off-task, they were learning more than they had been previously. The results of this change could easily be interpreted as an endorsement of a more flexible, student-led approach to learning.

However, I still have significant misgivings about this approach. Because I only have my classes three times a week, accepting that very little learning will happen on Thursdays means that I am effectively reducing my teaching time by a third. By nature, a choice-based approach encourages students to spend time on what they are already good at, rather than pushing them to do challenging work that will help them improve. Given that almost everyone in that class entered secondary school with significant gaps in their learning, this is a huge problem. While they are spending a third of their time doing tasks that do not challenge them, their counterparts at higher-decile schools are being stretched, and the gap between them widens even further.

While it could be said that I adapted my approach to suit my students’ needs, then, I am concerned that the choice I actually made might have been to lower my expectations of my students, rather than persisting with the expectation that they will do challenging work in every lesson. The problem I was trying to solve by offering choices was essentially a behavioural one. If I were able to create a classroom environment where students could be taught from the front and do challenging reading and writing tasks every day, I think that this would result in far more learning than my current approach on Thursdays. However, because my classroom management skills have not been sufficient to make this happen, what I see as the ideal approach has been less effective than approaches that I would generally consider to be suboptimal. Much of the classroom management advice I have received, however, has involved choosing more ‘relevant’ curriculum content or using constructivist teaching methods. This advice, which has come from a range of sources including mentor teachers, Mind Lab staff, and my own reading (see, for example, Blum, 2006), is often accompanied by claims that the kind of students that attend low decile schools are simply not capable of learning and behaving in the way that I am trying to teach them.

The culture of the school plays a large role here. I have frequently noted that there are aspects of my school’s culture that staff tend to blame on students (“they only care about credits”; “students here don’t read”) but are actually perpetuated by staff. The attitude expressed by some teachers at my school seems to be that students learning nothing is the default, and so any work that students can be persuaded to do at all is good. The focus is on finding anything that students will engage with, rather than choosing curriculum content and teaching methods that will have the greatest benefit in the long run. Because this is the approach taken by so many teachers in the school, it is what students expect when they enter my classroom. This means that I am setting myself up for a very difficult battle if I try to implement a very different approach. I commented on this in a reflection about halfway through this term:

“Maybe, in an environment where the expectations are mostly so different from the expectations I want to set up in my room, I’m trying to do the impossible. Maybe my students need a more progressive approach to teaching, not because it produces the most learning, not because they’re poor or Māori or Pasifika, but because the school does not provide the structures necessary for more traditional methods to be effective. Maybe the leap I’m asking my students to make when they come into my room is simply too large.” (portfolio reflection, June 3 2019)

This is not to say that I haven’t had any success in raising expectations for my students through a more ‘direct instruction’ approach this term. By systematically working through a structured programme, many of my year nines have been able to write their first essay – something I was told they would not be able to do. With some adaptations to the structure of the workbook I created for this unit I think I will see even greater success with this unit next year. My year twelves have read and enjoyed a classic novel, Lord of the Flies, and my success with this unit has led to another teacher in my department using the same text with his year ten class. These examples show the benefits of persisting with my preferred approach, but they must be balanced with the knowledge of other situations, particularly with my year eleven classes, where I have not been able to meet me students’ needs with this approach.

Much of my reflection this term, then, has been around deciding when to make compromises to work within my current context, and when to push back against the culture found in that context. Although I can see clear ways that I would like to change that culture, I can only do that from a position of being successful within my own classroom, as my experience with Lord of the Flies shows. In addition, in some cases, taking the ‘any learning is better than no learning’ approach may be in the best interests of my students. At the same time, when I make these concessions, I am reducing my own opportunities to get better at the kind of teaching that I think will be most effective once I get good at it. Balancing the short-term needs of the students in front of me with the long-term benefits of mastering a teaching approach that is more likely to give students access to powerful knowledge is extremely difficult. I’m also constantly having to re-convince myself that my ultimate goal is possible, when I’m constantly being told – by experienced and well-meaning teachers – that it’s not. Thankfully, I have examples from my own experience of a few effective teachers when I attended a low-decile school, as well as promising contemporary examples in overseas contexts. My next steps are to work out what compromises are necessary so that I can start to meet the needs of my most disengaged year eleven students, and to decide where to keep working towards effective direct instruction methods.

References

Blum, P. (2006). Surviving and Succeeding in Difficult Classrooms. New York: Routledge. (US Link)

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0: 62 Techniques that put students on the path to college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. (NZ Link | US Link)

Coles, T. (2014). Never Mind the Inspectors, Here’s Punk Learning. Carmarthen, UK: Independent Thinking Press. (US Link)

McPhail, G. (2017). Rethinking what it means to be a progressive teacher: Key ideas from social realism. Pacific-Asian Education, 29(1), 75-90.

Young, M. F. D. (2010). Why educators must differentiate knowledge from experience. Pacific-Asian Education, 22(1), 9-20.

Reflections on my first novel studies

This post contains affiliate links, meaning that I may make a small commission if you purchase something through those links. This doesn’t cost you any extra, and I only link to products that I’m truly enthusiastic about. In this case, the links are all to texts that I’ve taught!

My year elevens finished reading The House on Mango Street (NZ Link | US Link) last week, and my year twelves are close to the end of Lord of the Flies (NZ Link | US Link). I might add to this post as the rest of the term goes on, as we’ll be doing work related to the text for assessment this term. I’m hoping I’ll remember this post is here when I (hopefully) teach these texts again next year.

Text choice

Several teachers that I talked to during my masters research said that they used to teach Lord of the Flies, but that students didn’t find it engaging any more. I found this strange – it’s an adventure story about a bunch of kids stranded on an island with no adult supervision, what’s not to love? I’d say my response has now been supported by the reactions of my year twelves. They’ve been really engaged in the story and the characters, and keen to find out what happens next. While they have struggled to make sense of the long, descriptive passages at time, one student (who often struggles with the class) commented that the author was “really good at describing stuff.” They’ve now had some practice reading more complex language than they would usually encounter. The novel has plenty of interesting ideas that we will continue to dig into, and the meanings in the text are many-layered. It provides ample opportunities to talk about key disciplinary concepts like symbolism and character, which also means it ties in well to the assessments we’ll be doing. It’s also a classic which is frequently referenced in contemporary culture, providing useful background knowledge for future texts. All in all, Lord of the Flies rates highly on the four criteria I used in my masters’ thesis: student interest, suitability for assessment (although we’ll have to wait and see how their actual work turns out), linguistic complexity, and literary quality.

House on Mango Street is a little shakier, although I’m sure a lot of that is due to my teaching of it, discussed more below. I think my students are still unsure what the point of reading the book was, although I cleared up that up for myself a bit when I finally wrote a unit plan. The vignette structure was a major barrier, but could have been a major asset – learning to tie the different parts of the story together would prepare students for other non-linear text types in the future. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognise how jarring this structure would be for them, and didn’t put enough time into it. It’s important to recognise that this is an issue with teaching, rather than text selection – teaching complex texts is good, but students need to be taught how to deal with that complexity. HoMS met my criteria for complexity, but I didn’t provide enough scaffolding to make use of this. Student interest was lower than I thought it would be – I helped them think about links to their own experience, but perhaps I didn’t make these clear enough, or perhaps they just thought that Esperanza’s everyday life is as boring as she is. I think it would have helped to lean on the gender themes a bit more, as they definitely were a bit upset by the sexism displayed by some of the characters, and that might have boosted interest as well as given us a way into deeper exploration of the themes in the text, which we never really got far with. Basically, I think that this text still has a lot of potential, and ought to be accessible to this age group (it’s often taught much younger), but I need to put a lot of thought into how I’ll improve my teaching of it next year.

Getting the reading done

Both classes relied a lot on the text being read to them. There was no silent/independent reading, and little oral reading by students. This allowed me to model what good, expressive reading sounds like, but probably reduced the amount of actual reading that students did and limited their chances to really build their reading skills. This article suggests that my ‘just reading model’ is beneficial, especially for struggling readers. It also suggests strategies that can make it more effective.

For The House on Mango Street, I read the majority of the text aloud, and had a few students participate in readers’ theatre for some of the vignettes with lots of dialogue. Some students asked if they could just read it on their own, and in retrospect with this group I probably could have done that, provided I had some tasks afterwards that made them accountable for doing the reading. I still would have needed to give them the time to do this reading in class, as I doubt they would have done any homework reading. Most students did not like doing the readers’ theatre reading, although one student got into it and this helped get the rest engaged in listening more closely than usual. I think this process would have helped more with comprehension if I had had the participating students standing together at the front of the room and acting as if they were actually having a conversation with one another, not just reading deadpan from random places in the room. However, I think I would have encountered a lot more resistance if I had tried to make this happen. For the most part, students were quiet while I read and most of them seemed to be following along in their own books, although a few persistently refused to do this. Jasmine Lane mentions having students write down answers to ‘stop-and-jot TDQs’ as a way of keeping students engaged while listening to someone else read, although I’m not sure my students would find the need to answer a question all that compelling. The vignette structure was difficult to navigate in terms of getting through the text, because you can’t stop and have a discussion about every chapter like you could with a text with fewer sections. Many vignettes were simply read without comment, which certainly didn’t help students make links between them.

I started off by reading Lord of the Flies aloud, and once had each student read a bit aloud (some were good at this, but some struggled a lot and could not read aloud and comprehend at the same time), but we quickly transitioned to listening to the audiobook. This worked well as the narrator used distinctive voices for each character and modeled excellent fluent reading of the text – better than I could have pulled off myself. Plus, since I was also reading HoMS, it saved my voice. One student, who is still learning English, found the audiobook too fast, and sometimes slowed down to read at her own pace. She definitely missed out on some of the text because of this, and the complexity of the language may have been outside of her ZPD. Another student often lost his place in the text, but this was manageable. Still, particularly at year twelve, I think it would have been a good idea to have them do some reading independently. Next time, I think I’ll go through the text and work out what passages should be read aloud, but give much more time for students to read the text themselves, with regular checkpoints. To make this happen, I would need to spend more time helping students learn strategies for dealing with the complex language in the text.

Teaching Lord of the Flies

My main strategy with Lord of the Flies was to assign each student one character and one symbol to track throughout the novel. I would pause the audiobook frequently and guide each student through working out what needed to be written down for their character/symbol from what we had just read. I felt like I was providing more direction here than I would have liked to – year twelve students should be able to work out for themselves what to write down, to a significant extent – but given that this kind of work is new to them, I knew that such direction would be necessary. I do think some students became too focused on their own character and symbol and zoned out when we were talking about others, and I didn’t push back against that tendency enough. I think some additional tasks that require a broader view would be good, although we have struggled a lot to get through the text fast enough. We did a couple of scattered paragraph exercises, but it would be good to work more of these into the unit. We focused on the characters more than the symbols, and some work on symbolism up front would probably have helped with this. We will be doing more symbolism work for the static image assessment, in any case.

Next year, I think I will narrow the range of focus characters to just Jack, Ralph, Piggy, and Simon, as Roger and Samneric don’t get much attention until later. In a larger class, students could be put into groups for this work, and that could open up the path to some other tasks. Reducing the assessment in the novel-study term would open up space for more discussion exercises and written tasks, as we could slow down a bit.

Perhaps the area where this unit needs the most work is supporting students to make sense of complex language. I mostly just explained what students didn’t understand, which isn’t the worst thing I could have done, but it didn’t prepare them for reading independently. Regular vocabulary work would have been helpful here, I think. Next year, I’ll put together a list of words and do a pre-test before we start to work out what we need to focus on. Then we can spend time learning the words chapter-by-chapter, and reviewing previous words.

The other thing that could help students learn to cope with the language would be doing some think-alouds/close readings of some of the descriptive passages. I think it would be helpful for students to see how I pick apart each sentence to work out what’s going on – for instance, the scene where the first fire gets out of control. Modelling that might help students slow down when they get to these tricky passages. Paying close attention to the type of language used in these passages will also demonstrate that the language is used for effect, not just to be confusing.

Takeaways for next year:

  • More independent reading
  • Reduce the number of focus characters
  • More discussion activities
  • More written work (e.g. TDQs, paragraphs) requiring students to focus on more than their focus character and symbol
  • Include explicit vocabulary teaching, beginning with a pre-test
  • Regular think-alouds/close readings of difficult passages

Teaching The House on Mango Street

As I’ve said, this unit wasn’t as successful as Lord of the Flies. I didn’t anticipate how challenging students would find a text that doesn’t have a linear structure and a clear narrative. I left too much to chance, reading the text aloud and then jumping straight into paragraph exercises that my students weren’t ready for. I still believe this could be a good text for year eleven, but I need to make big changes to how I taught it so I can be more successful with it next year. Here’s what I’m thinking.

  • More embedded non-fiction. I opened with an article about what it’s like being a young Latinx person now, but that was the last bit of non-fiction we looked at, even though I had tracked down a newspaper article and a video that would both have helped my students understand the setting. I’ll put more focus on getting students to understand Esperanza’s world early on in the unit next year.
  • I had students write summaries of each vignette, but many of these summaries missed the main point, or went unfinished. We never used the summaries for anything, which probably made them a bit pointless. I think it would be better to start off by modelling how to write these summaries for the first several vignettes, then shift to having discussions that culminate in the written summary on the board, then just have the discussion and have them write their own summary, and perhaps eventually not do the discussion for every vignette. Of course, the issue here is time. Stopping after every vignette would have made the book take much longer and would also have probably felt more arduous, although perhaps that would be offset by greater engagement born of greater understanding. Writing these summaries, done right, could have been the core of the unit. Alternatively, I could have given students one or two questions to answer about each vignette, pointing them towards what’s important in each one.
  • We needed to latch onto theme and symbol much earlier, and keep tracking these as we went. I think I’ll go for a much more direct approach next year. The first time a theme comes up in the text, I’ll explicitly tell students that it’s an important theme. Maybe we should have a tracking sheet for each theme where students can write down important quotes and their understanding of them.
  • Making links between the vignettes is crucial, as this was the biggest barrier for students this year. The theme work mentioned above will help, as will writing better vignette summaries. I think that reminding students of who characters are when they reappear – “Remember, Tito was the kid who sold them the bike back in “Our Good Day” – will also help, as there are a lot to keep track of.

I think it’s clear from this that I’m still not really sure how to teach this book. I can try to pull more from a couple of online unit plans, but I think I leaned on those too much this term without digging deep enough into the specifics. I think I need to reread the book well before I start teaching it again next year, and annotate the hell out of it, and maybe do some outside reading to figure out the details of what I want students to know in terms of character, theme, etc.

Timing

I’ve mentioned this throughout, but timing was definitely a big concern with these units. Next year, I’ll try to arrange my year plan to include just one assessment in the novel-study term. Ideally we would make this work by replacing an internal with the exam, but I’d say we’re a long way off making that leap. There is an issue with dragging the story out over too much time and students getting bored, of course. LotF sort of takes care of itself in the sense that the story gets more exciting in the second half, but it’s an issue for Mango.