Tuesday, 26 November 2013

It's not always about talking - we need to listen too!

In a recent post I expressed my frustration with the increasing trend towards communicating with each other via an array of technology tools - and used the mobile phone as an example of how many parents miss perfect opportunities to communicate with their kids because they are too busy texting or tweeting someone else!

I claimed that if our reliance on these tools continues, we risk losing (or at least debasing) the most basic method of communicating - talking to each other. Messages on a screen are one thing - but facial expressions, tone of voice, hand gestures, body language are all additional ways of communicating how we feel and what we want to say. Pretty hard to accurately interpret a clear message from words on a screen.

But talking is only one part of true communication - listening is a skill as well, and one many parents (and teachers) need to practice a little better. When it seems we can't get our message through, particularly when dealing with teens, my experience in working with parents tells me that discussion quickly turns into nagging....and no-one wins.

Dr Thomas Gordon (http://www.gordontraining.com), a pioneer in teaching effective communication models for teachers, parents, young people and business leaders, claims that  active listening is a skill critical to effective communication - and effective parenting, teaching and leading.

Sometimes it's hard for parents to stop talking, but if we want to consolidate what has hopefully been strong communication ties within the family, we need to utilise this skill throughout the difficult teen years. 

In simple terms, active listening is allowing the other person to express themselves without interruption. As parents, we need to simply let our kids talk and hold the floor - even if it means we need to take mental notes of points we want to clarify or questions we want to ask. We don't interrupt!

By allowing your teen to unload, or even challenge a decision you might have made, you are giving yourself the golden opportunity to listen to it all, assess the whole picture and then possibly explore the problem (or find a solution) together. Often parents join the dots before they really hear the whole message. Half-listening is a dangerous practice, and can often lead to that conversation I'm sure we have all had which concludes with "I told you that...but you never listen!"

So, next time you are in the middle of a conversation with your son or daughter (or partner for that matter!) put your emotions or your conclusions to one side and hear them out...completely. When they have finished, clarify with a comment like, "From what you've said, am I right in thinking....?"or "It seems like you are angry/upset/disappointed about.... Am I right?"

You might like to conclude the discussion with a comment like "Well, where do we go from here?" or "Have you thought about how you are going to handle....?" 

How's your active listening skill? Practice makes perfect...and everybody wins!

 photo credit: Victor1558 via photopin cc

Monday, 18 November 2013

Education: Conservative vs Creative

An article in The Age recently opened up, yet again, the discussion around education and the pros and cons of a conservative approach to teaching and learning or a more innovative, creative approach. It made for thought-provoking reading. Check it out  http://t.co/VN69SXBsoC

I make no apology for being a huge fan of Sir Ken Robinson and his ideals of a creativity-centred philosophy of education. I am also aware, however, that after 25 years in a classroom we need some of the basics of what might appear to be an outdated system of teaching and learning if we are to adequately prepare our children for their future - a future we know little about.

Our current education system is based on preparing students for a current raft of careers and jobs. But for how long is current current? How can we prepare students for careers that do not yet even exist? How can we prepare students for a work-lifespan which will probably see them change jobs more than 25 times and career paths more than 5 times - based on current statistics?

My argument is simple - why can't we have a little of both? Our new Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, claims that we need a return to the basics, and that we need to provide parents with 'what they expect' for their children. I've worked with thousands of parents and, regardless of educational experience, status or achievements, there remains one constant. Parents want their children to achieve whatever their potential might be and to be happy, secure, responsible and employed adults! Yes, there are those high-achiever parents who want (for a variety of reasons) to see their child succeed above all others and above all else. In the main, however, this is not the case - so Christoper Pyne should not assume that our education system needs to be based on a principle of giving parents 'what they expect'. That is such a narrow view of education.

We need to teach the basics - absolutely true. Regardless of what career paths may or may not exist right now, and the educational requirements of these career paths, I think it's safe to say that we need to be both literate and numerate. How we achieve these goals is still up for discussion. I wince at some of our methods of inspiring children to read and write creatively - there's nothing creative about it! In my opinion, we kill off the capacity for creative literacy in primary school ...and it continues its deterioration throughout high school. Unfortunately, our obsession with testing for testing-sake tends to create a 'one size fits all' approach to teaching - there are so many boxes teachers need to tick, so we drive ourselves through the curriculum the best way we can - leaving little room or time for a more relaxed, dare I say, creative approach to teaching.

In a more creative learning environment, there is room for student-centred learning - students steering the learning, but aided by an enthusiastic professional skilled in their subject; and there should also be times when the professional is steering the ship. I can't see why we can't have both.

Educational change will not happen overnight. What it takes is an innovative and collaborative approach - there should be no such thing as a 'one size fits all' education. Every child is different, and I believe every child has an intrinsic capacity to learn and achieve - if the spark is lit!

What we don't need is a constant battle of wills - we need people with knowledge, people with passion and people prepared to listen to each other and take the best ideas on board to create a system that targets all children to be the best they can be.Who's up for that challenge!

photo credit: Tulane Public Relations via photopin cc

Friday, 15 November 2013

Put the iPhone down and talk to your Kids!

I know I'm not Gen X, Y or Z - happy to admit I am a Baby Boomer - but if the trend of poor communication between parents and their kids continues, it won't matter what generation you are...you will be losing the art of communication in its most basic form - talking! The impact of this can reflect long term on the relationship you have, or are building, with your kids.

This blog is not about research, it's not about theory, it's not about the positives and negatives of the new age of technology. This is about the simple art of effective communicating...and effective parenting. Now, put down your iPhones for a minute and consider this scenario - maybe it looks familiar. 

A few months ago I was sitting in a local Hungry Jacks in Victoria, sipping on coffee before heading off to one of my afternoon workshops. There, across the way, was a young mum (probably about 30) with her pre-school aged daughter. Typical of girls, the youngster was talking non-stop; asking questions; pointing at passing traffic; asking if they could go to the park before heading home.

The restaurant (for want of a better word) was decorated in '50's style, with pictures of James Dean, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley adorning the walls. Mum and daughter were sitting directly underneath a photo of Elvis Presley. Now, mum had not made eye contact with her daughter the entire time, responding to her daughter's chatter with nothing but a "mmmm" and preferring to continually text whoever was on the other end of her iPhone.  Daughter looked up at the photo and asked "Who's that, mummy?" Mum might genuinely not have known who it was - although I find it impossible to believe that a 30 year old would not recognise Elvis Presley. A fleeting glance was followed by a "Dunno" and mum continued to text. I could have walked over and throttled her! I said to my husband on our way out, "When that little girl is a teenager and doesn't tell her mum anything, she is simply paying forward the favour her mum has paid her!"

I could trot out all kinds of research to support my claim that relationships with our children are forged from a very early age - infancy - not when we think they are verbal enough for us to have a conversation, or when we think they can understand what we are saying! There are so many ways to communicate our interest in our kids - not everything needs to be put into words. It can be an expression, a touch, a smile, eye contact - but texting is NOT one of these ways. Texting while our kids are talking to us is even worse. What kind of a message are we sending?

There are many more examples I could detail, but I won't. Sadly, the habit of texting as our prime method of communicating is not confined to the young. We 'oldies' do it too. Many of us do know the alternative methods of actually speaking person to person, but in our hectic world we often choose the easy way to keep in touch.

My fear is that if we don't put our phones away and make more genuine attempts to keep lines of communication with our kids open while they are young, it may be too late once they hit puberty and adolescence - a time when it is typical for teens to display 'attitude' and non-verbals! Don't wait until it is too late - make the effort to talk to your kids; make eye contact; show genuine interest in what they are doing. If we wait until we're ready, it may be too late.

 photo credit: camknows via photopin cc

Monday, 14 October 2013

How much work is too much in Year 12?

Following on from last week's blog about part-time work, the question arises "How much work is too much for students in Year 12?" 

There is no exact science in determining the optimum number of hours or shifts, but there are a few key questions students need to ask themselves when considering when they should say 'no' to shifts on offer and when they feel comfortable that they are in control of school, work and social commitments - and not burning the candle at every conceivable end!

When first taking on that part-time job, students need to ask themselves:
  • How many shifts per week would I like to be offered?
  • How will this job affect my other commitments? (sport, social, study etc)
  • If it all gets too much, what will I be prepared to give up?
By asking themselves these questions, and perhaps discussing them with parents, students are facing the reality of making choices...and reasonably significant ones! The skills they will learn in their part-time job are certainly invaluable - but they should not jeopardise their future long-term career, professional or study options by investing too much time in the short-term goal of simply earning pocket money. Generally, one or two shifts a week are the 'recommended dose'.....perhaps reduced to one or none during critical exam periods.

Many students in their final senior years have been known to fall by the wayside and fail to achieve their educational goals because they have been unwilling to compromise. Their insistence on maintaining too many shifts, attending every party or continuing to take part in all their extra curricular activities has led to reduced choices for post-school pathways.

So, whilst part-time employment for students still at school offers not only monetary rewards, but also newly acquired life skills, it is vital that they are reminded of the importance of life balance. School, work, play, social - they can have it all - but in moderation.

photo credit: stuartpilbrow via photopin cc

Monday, 7 October 2013

School skills + work skills = life skills

In our somewhat materialistic world of today, our kids seem driven to 'have'. The prime motivation to work is based on earning, rather than learning.......but I wonder if our young people actually realise how many benefits (and life skills) are attached to these first part-time jobs?

Without wanting to rely too heavily on parent handouts, our kids are often anxious to earn for themselves - to gain that first scent of the power of independent spending! That first job is like unlocking a door which leads to a sense of choice, as well as a sense of future options.

Apart from the obvious capacity to earn money for themselves, part-time jobs teach our kids some invaluable skills; skills which they are learning first-hand, away from the classroom. For most, that first job will be entry level stuff - basic, often repetitive, and possibly not very stimulating.

In 2009, Professor Wendy Patton (Exec Dean of the Faculty of Education at QUT) conducted a study on the skills young people learn from part-time work. The data was collected over three years, with students from Yrs 10-12, and concluded that part-time work gave students an insight into workplace structures. As these students were also employed in lower-level positions, it also gave them the opportunity to reconsider the value of their education as a pathway to increased career and employment choices later on.

So, what other life skills can part-time work offer our young people? Here are just a few: 
  • Communication skills - the ability to engage with peers as well as employers
  • Team work - co-operation and joint decision-making
  • Problem solving - completing a task to expected standards and, sometimes, overcoming difficulties to 'get the job done'
  • Time management - prioritising and planning tasks towards completion
  • Organisational skills - being able to listen to instructions, process what needs to be done and apply a system for completion
  • Initiative - the ability to make decisions and complete a task without always waiting for instructions
  • Independence - managing their income and making choices
These skills provide a foundation for future choices, and we should encourage our kids to take up the opportunity to find part-time work while still at school. Having said that, as parents we need to ensure that employment does not tip the scales too far in the direction of 'earning' rather than 'learning'. That first part-time job should be just a window into future possibilities.....not an end in itself.

photo credit: smedero via photopin cc

Monday, 30 September 2013

Boys and Girls - different gender, different brains, different learners?

The age-old hot topic of single sex education vs mixed gender schools is one which is often hotly debated amongst parents and professionals alike. Is there a winner? Depends on how much you understand about the two genders and how much you are prepared to modify your teaching methods if you are standing in front of a class, trying to keep everyone engaged and learning!

Keeping in mind that whilst there are obviously differences between the genders, there are also differences within the genders......not everyone is the same! However, some of the broad differences between the genders are identified quite early. The National Centre for Infants, Toddlers and Families (Washington, DC) summarised some of these early developmental indicators:
  • Girls are slightly more advanced in vision, hearing, memory, smell and touch
  • Girl babies tend to respond more to human voices or faces, and they generally lead boys in the emergence of fine motor and language skills
  • By age three, boys tend to outperform girls in visual spatial tasks - jigsaw puzzles, navigation/direction, and certain types of hand-eye co-ordination
  • By adolescence, the corpus callosum (the bundle of nerve fibres that divides the cerebrum into right and left hemispheres) is 25% larger in the female brain. This allows for more signals to be sent across both hemispheres....hence the ability of girls to be better at multi-tasking.
So, how do these general characteristics affect how boys and girls learn? Research suggests that teachers keep some of these key points in mind to increase student engagement....for both boys and girls:

  • Differentiate the learning activities - more fact and action, less description and sensory details
  • Learning needs to be relevant - give it a real context
  • Break the learning down into 'chunks'- segmented learning with a specific purpose or outcome makes better sense to boys
  • Sequence the activities and integrate short-term goals for success - keep them interested!
  • Explicit teaching - reduce the talk!
  • Use problem-based learning - start the work with a question; brainstorm decisions/choices; give 'direction' to the learning
  • Time limits on task completion - if they have a specific goal, they are more likely to remain 'switched on'
  • Provide challenge in learning - take safe risks
  • Increase group work opportunities
  • Introduce more concrete materials and opportunities to improve spatial awareness
  • Include tasks which enhance gross motor skills
  • Connect Science and Maths to 'real world' concepts
  • Praise their work, rather than just expecting them to achieve...because they are 'working quietly'!
For both boys and girls, WALT, WILF and TIB are great strategies to increase student engagement.

WALT - 'We Are Learning To...' gives direction to the learning
WILF - 'What I'm Looking For...' establishes teacher expectations for the learning
TIB - 'This Is Because...' gives context to the learning

This is such a fascinating topic and I have only just scratched the surface. A chapter is devoted to more of the differences between girls and boys in my book, The Transition Tightrope. If you want a real, in-depth coverage of this topic, Dr Leonard Sax is something of a guru in this area. His book, Why Gender Matters, is a great read.

photo credit: woodleywonderworks via photopin cc

Monday, 23 September 2013

Secondary School - the best fit?

I have just spent much of the past five weeks in Victoria, working with parents, students and teachers in the area of transition to secondary school.

A question commonly asked by parents was, "How do I know which is the best secondary school for my child?" The question may be common, but the answer certainly is not! Every school is different, every child is different - we need to match student and family needs with a 'best fit'.

Parents often trawl through the My School website in an effort to find which school has the best academic results - NAPLAN, HSC, VCE etc. Certainly, as parents we want the best educational opportunities for our kids - but are academic results alone enough to convince us that because School 'A' has superior results, then this is the best choice? What is it about School 'B' or 'C' that might sway us towards these schools?

When speaking with parents about the dilemma of choosing the 'best fit' for their son or daughter, I ask them to consider these points:

  • The child's strengths/talents - does the school offer opportunities in these areas?
  • Programs on offer - support, extension, extracurricular.
  • School 'climate' and values - do they match yours as parents?
  • Discipline structures - compatible with yours as parents?
  • Facilities - enrolment and physical size. Moving from a primary school of 100 students to a year group of 180 can be an issue for some kids.
  • Location - access to transport. Do you really want your child to be travelling 2-3 hours each day for the next six years? How will this impact homework, sport/leisure activities etc?
  • Friends - they will make new friends, but being happy at school and comfortable with friendship groups impacts not only their learning and achievement, but also their sense of belonging and developing resilience.
  • Communication - how well does the school 'connect' with the parent community? Do they encourage real engagement, or do parents feel isolated from what's happening at the school?
These are all issues to consider when choosing the right school for your child. Find out as much as you can about the schools on your list.....if you have missed the Open Day or Information Evening, make an appointment to take a tour of the school and speak to staff. The 'best fit' for your child often comes down to one or two critical issues - and every family's needs are different. Try to involve your son or daughter in the discussion and ultimate decision-making; after all, this will be THEIR school for the next six years!

Research suggests that a relaxed and happy student is the student who is more likely to learn well and achieve his or her potential long-term. Academic results and high-flying achievements are all well and good, but if we want to our kids to be as successful as they can be, they need to be happy with the choice of secondary school. Pretty simple, really......

photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 via photopin cc

Monday, 19 August 2013

Ken Robinson: How schools kill creativity

Rather than a written article this week, perhaps you will appreciate this video of Sir Ken Robinson at the Ted Conference.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Research - "Where do I start?"

For those of us who remember going to the library, checking out the old Dewey card system to help find the book we needed for that assignment...only to go to the shelf and find it gone....we might be excused for thinking that today's students have it easy.

With so much information out there - and so accessible online - how easy can it be to find what you need in the comfort of your own home...on your laptop, right in front of you? Well, it seems many students are finding it increasingly difficult to isolate exactly what they need. There is simply too much information and many students are spending way too much time scrolling through hundreds of sites to find what they need - with many giving up before they have even put pen to paper!

There is definitely an art to effective and time-managed researching. It's all about developing the right techniques. Most assignments are anything but attractive to a student, and they will delay the inevitable start for as long as possible.

Research suggests that adolescents seek both challenge and relevance in learning. No question that much of the learning is challenging - but do kids see it as relevant? Unless the subject is an elective and, as such, a subject the student obviously has some interest in pursuing then, generally, the relevance appears to be minimal. "When am I ever going to need to know this?" or "What's the point in doing this stupid assignment?" are fairly typical student laments.

The next time your son or daughter starts to whinge about the 'stupidity' of an assignment, alert them to the fact that it's not just the content of the assignment (or the required research), but also the skill of completing the assignment that is of value. Remind them at some point in the future (might seem like a long way off) they will have a boss, who will ask them to complete a task within an allotted time. It may be a job at Maccas; it may be working in an office; it may be driving a delivery van - whatever the job, there will be a time frame. If they don't make a start on planning, breaking down the task into smaller tasks, committing time frames and getting the job done on time, someone else might be doing their job on Monday!

If our kids develop the skills of breaking an assignment down into manageable 'chunks', and then use clever and targeted research skills, they are more likely to complete a better assignment...and learn some valuable life skills along the way.

Think about the following tips to help refine your search when you are looking for the right information online:
  • Brainstorm what you know about the subject, or use specific words from the assignment to narrow your search
  • Mind map these words into sub-headings or 'cluster themes' to narrow the topic
  • Include an author's name if you are looking for a particular text
  • Be specific in your search
  • Use research reading skills such as skimming, scanning and SQ3R (Survey Question Read Recite Review)
  • Keep a running record of your sources for your bibliography
  • Don't do an assignment (or the research) all in one go! Attempting to complete an assignment in one sitting will more than likely lead to a poor result - your brain can't handle focusing on one activity for hours on end
The Assignment and Research Skills Handbook*  offers more details and tips on the reading research skills mentioned here; a structured approach gives students a better chance of completing an assignment that justifies their efforts  - and overcomes the issue of "Where do I start?"

*  see Media and Publications for availability

Photo Credit: Nic's events via Compfight cc

Monday, 5 August 2013

Learning and Studying - with 'Style'!

As we approach exam time, particularly for HSC students, I wonder how many students (not just in Year 12) are studying smarter...rather than harder?

When our kids enter the world of secondary school, it becomes a necessity for them to learn how to study. Seems rather obvious, but think about it.....primary school students don't need to study or 'cram' for an exam. They are not asked to remember large amounts of content to regurgitate for an English, History, Economics or Geography exam. Yes, they do have topic tests and quizzes in Maths and Spelling; but there's no real pressure to commit lots of information to memory. So, what happens when these students hit high school? Mum and dad.....look out!

When I touch on this topic with parents I ask them, "What advice do you give your child when he or she asks HOW to study...what do you say?" I am not surprised to see blank stares and the occasional shoulder shrug. When we delve a little deeper, it becomes more obvious that the advice we pass on to our kids is what worked for us, when we were studying. Unfortunately, these methods may have been successful for us, but not necessarily so for our kids.

I am not an expert in study skill techniques and methods, but I do understand the basics of identifying what perhaps might be better study options. A lot of it comes down to 'learning styles'. How we connect to learning; how we process information; how we memorise material - all are impacted by a preferred 'style'.

Some of us are good listeners, others are visual, others like to be 'hands-on' with their learning. We all have our own style - might be a dominant style, or maybe a combination of styles. Some research suggests that we don't lock into our preferred style until mid-teens, whilst other experts provide anecdotal evidence to suggest that the earlier we recognise our 'style', the better we develop techniques to enhance our learning. Marcia L. Conner, a U.S expert in the field of learning styles, claims that many of us never really discover our true learning potential  - her book, "Learn More Now", is well worth the read!

To briefly summarise a few tips for those of you who are studying hard...but not getting the results you feel you deserve..... it may be as simple as adjusting some of your techniques. What is your 'fit'?

Auditory learners:
  • Prefer to hear the information rather than read it
  • Enjoy oral discussions (study groups work for you!)
  • Like to repeat information (even if it's simply aloud to themselves!) to help lock it in to long-term memory
  • Have trouble memorising large slabs of written material
  • Ask lots of questions - like debates
Visual learners:
  • Like to read information, directions
  • Take notes while listening
  • Relate better to illustrations, charts, graphics (visual spatial learners)
  • Like to colour-code notes
  • Memorise material in MindMap format (visual spatial learners)
Kinaesthetic (hands-on) learners:
  • Like to be on the move while learning
  • Learn by doing, rather than hearing instructions or reading them
  • 'Talk' with their hands (gestures)
  • Study 'actively' (use flip charts, colour-code notes, highlight notes, move around while memorising, type notes on laptop, iPad, etc, write notes by brainstorming what they know)
This is a very brief overview. By all means check out more information and tips online - there's a lot of really useful information out there. This is all about working smarter, not harder - makes sense doesn't it?

Related Material:
photo credit: LindaH via photopin cc

Monday, 29 July 2013

GOALS - Cliche or Tools for a Purpose?

I'm not in the habit of being self-indulgent, but to make my point here I'm going to be!

If you have ever been to a professional development workshop on goals, or goal-setting, you would be familiar with the drill of brainstorms, group discussions, strategies etc....and the odd cliches. Sometimes we get lost in the hype and the obvious - and, unfortunately, it's the obvious that doesn't seem to be common practice amongst many of our young people.

Whether we are talking to our own kids or students in a classroom, invariably the common question of "...but what do you want to get out of this?" crops up. Correct me if I'm wrong, but often we are faced with a blank stare, a shoulder-shrug or a "Dunno" - why is that? Based on personal experience and reading loads of evidence confirming the long-term value of goals, I believe we often approach the whole notion of goal-setting the wrong way.

As a youngster I suffered with chronic asthma and eczema. Frequent trips to the hospital led to a doctor recommending I take up some kind of sport to build my lung capacity. Choices were pretty basic back then - athletics and swimming were the obvious picks. I had never been a 'star' sports person at school, but I was always active so I chose athletics. My short-term goal was not to win races and become a 'star' athlete, but simply to breathe without wheezing!

I tried (and failed) to be a sprinter, so I turned to race walking. Despite the club coach suggesting to my parents that it probably was not the event for me, I continued to train twice a week.....for no other reason other than I loved it. I got better and better, and six months after starting I won my first of four junior and open national titles.

After two short years of race walking, I switched to middle distance running. My goal was to change my style from running like a duck to running like a REAL runner. Just as I did with walking, I started with small (and seemingly insignificant) progressive steps. I simply wanted to see where it would take me - with my asthma now under control.

One small, progressive step followed another - and within six years of starting with a duck-like style, I was the sole female Australian qualifier for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games over 1500m. Injury prevented my participation, but by the time I retired from running I had several Australian championships and records under my belt, two City-to-Surf wins, and had represented my country on the world stage on several occasions.

Goals have been part and parcel of my personal and professional life, and it disturbs me when I work with young people who are unable to identify something, anything, that is important enough to them to want to work towards achieving. We all know goals give us focus; give us direction; keep us motivated....and feel good about ourselves when we reach them. But what holds some young people back?

Are we sending the wrong messages to our kids? Do we imply that only lofty goals are worth the effort - that it's all about winning and being 'the best'? Do we fail to acknowledge that the small steps along the way are, in themselves, goals achieved - even if the final result might not match initial expectations? Are we, as parents or teachers, guilty of pushing our kids towards something WE might recognise as something of value...but which they do not?

It's a little scary to be working with a room full of incoming Year 12 students and their parents and to ask the question "Anyone have a goal for next year?", only to receive a list of goals.......but no ideas on how to break that big 'blob' of an idea into smaller, achievable and progressive steps. No wonder so many of us back away from committing to goals - it's all too hard. If I had thought on Day 1 of running that my goal was to qualify for an Olympic team, I doubt I would have made it - too far away, too lofty and probably too hard!

I think we need to re-evaluate the way we have been 'inspiring' our kids to achieve. We need to motivate them to think about what makes them tick; what turns them on; what inspires them. Goals don't have to be lofty; they don't have to be academic or sporting....but they DO have to mean something to the person setting them. Goals need to be SMART - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-framed - and they need to be their goals, not our goals for them!

Think about it. Sometimes all it takes to transform an "I wish..." into an "I can..."or an "I will..." is the desire and a plan. Might not always pan out the way we hoped, but to plan and try is better than doing nothing at all.

photo credit: Carissa GoodNCrazy via photopin cc

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Dealing with the Disappointment of Missing Selection for your chosen High School

My final two years of full-time teaching were spent working with an Opportunity Class (OC), with thirty  Year 5 and 6 students, all eager (and often parent-driven) to gain placement in a selective secondary school. Most of them were offered places - not always for their first-choice school - but those who missed first round offers and were placed on a reserve list were shattered, as were their parents.

Let me say that several of these OC students were not necessarily naturally 'gifted' nor naturally 'talented'. Many were what I would describe as 'hot-housed' - driven by well-meaning, but achievement-oriented, parents to excessive hours of tutoring and sitting for endless hours poring over past test papers to improve their test-sitting ability.

What kind of system does this to a 12 year old? The notion that a child has 'failed' if they miss a spot for a selective high school is ridiculous - as is the notion that if a child does not attend their secondary school of choice they are suddenly less likely to 'achieve their academic potential' by Year 12!

This month, students across NSW will receive notification of their 'success', or otherwise, in gaining placement at their first-choice secondary school. I believe that there are always those children who breathe a quiet sigh of relief, as they are more a product of parental desire than innate ability, and many of these kids are frightened to fail.... and anxious about their capacity to keep up with the so-called 'best and brightest' at selective high schools.

So, for those (including parents!) who are disappointed at missing first round offers - or indeed an offer at all - here are some tips to help overcome this initial disappointment:

  • Don't dwell on why they missed selection - comments such as "The system is unfair" or "How did they get in and you didn't?" just adds to the disappointment and establishes a sense of failure at a time when it is critical to be building positive attitudes towards starting high school.
  • Focus on what the new school has to offer - avoid comparisons between the school they missed and the school they will attend. ALL secondary schools cover the curriculum, and kids won't miss out on their special interests by attending a mainstream high school.
  • High school is what you make it - encourage your kids to have some goals. They don't always need to be academic, but they do need to be SMART - Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-framed. Goals are motivating; they give kids direction and keep them on track, but make sure your kids decide on their own goals....not YOUR goals FOR them! Encourage them to consider the stepping stones needed to achieve these goals - each stepping stone is an achievement in itself.
  • New friends - one of the keys to developing resilience (and don't we all want our kids to develop the capacity to bounce back after adversity?) is to develop a mixture of friendship groups. For kids, high school is all about 'fitting in' - so encourage them to be part of activities which hold their interest. Diverse and multiple friendship groups is critical for this age group - regardless of what school they attend!

Sunday, 14 July 2013

The New Rules of Engagement - Teachers and Parents

One of the big buzz terms in education today is parent engagement, but it seems that it could well be one of the least understood as well. So, what is parent engagement and how does it affect our children's learning and wellbeing?

Pushor and Ruitenberg (2005) suggested that engagement implies a close and working relationship between teacher and parent; a sharing of parent and teacher knowledge of each child to promote long-term academic and personal success....and this is often where the confusion lies.

Just prior to running a professional development session recently on this exact topic, one teacher commented, "I nearly didn't come because we have enough parent engagement .... we can't get rid of them! They're always there!" She had a whole different perspective ninety minutes later.

For many teachers, particularly those in the 'baby boomer' category, parent engagement is synonymous with parent interference. Many believe that their professional judgement will be taken to task; that parents will tell them how to teach and what to teach; that parents will be constantly challenging school decisions on everything from what is being taught in the classroom and how it is being taught, to what is sold in the canteen and why.

Research indicates that we need to move away from the 'ivory tower' perception of schools and the 'locked gate' mentality to embracing family engagement as policy, as education reform. Weiss, Lopez and Rosenberg (2010) assert that 'family engagement must be a systemic, integrated and sustained approach, not an add-on or a random act.'

So, how do schools engage families in their children's learning, and why is it so important to children's education, the long-term love of learning and developing life skills?

A good place to start is to open up the conversation with your parent community. There is no 'one size fits all' but, in most cases, these basic strategies work:
  • Form a parent task-force - they help to forge a connection between school and home
  • Conduct surveys (but make sure you follow through on the results!)
  • Establish a parent 'hub' within the school grounds where parents can meet, have coffee, access resources to community services, build relationships
  • Invite parents to be part of an advisory board to assist with strategic planning, not just fund-raising
  • Encourage parents to share their skills and knowledge with students....even at high school. Parents helping to 'chef' for a class, or demonstrate how to use a lathe etc goes over really well with the kids.
This is not about bailing teachers up and asking lots of questions after school; and it's not about parents telling teachers what to teach and how. This is about parents working alongside teachers in the education of their children - not a curriculum-driven relationship, but a human relationship which has an enormous and powerful impact on kids.

"When parents are involved in their children’s education at home, they do better in school. And when parents are involved in school, children go farther in school and the schools they go to are better" (Henderson & Berla, 1994)

Parent engagement is not about teachers relinquishing their role as educator; it is about sharing the responsibility of educating, nurturing and guiding young people towards a positive future. There are certainly vast numbers of 'invisible parents' who, no matter how hard the school tries, cannot get them through the front gate. There is no simple solution to how to engage ALL families, but the offer must be there at least!

photo credit: Enokson via photopin cc