Which Lens Can See Progress?

person holding magnifying glass
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There is a man who comes to classes in the evening.  He is not one of the students who is celebrated on our certificate nights. He comes straight from his job as a carpenter to class so doesn’t have a chance to go to the canteen. He is focused on his work. He comes equipped with the spellings and writing he did during the week. A fat refill pad with stories, newspaper articles, a borrowed novel or historical biography from the library; an eared and well-worn dictionary, covered in coloured post-its.

He has always worked as a carpenter, talented and skilled with his hands. He was offered promotions, foreman jobs yet always turned them down. He saw other men less skilled than him, yet men who could read and write, get those jobs.

From the outside and from the lens of employment, educational status and anything formally recorded on paper, he has always been a carpenter with no formal qualifications. He left school with no qualifications.  No certificates in adult education.

Mezirow’s Tranformative Learning Theory is a useful model in explaining how learning changes the way adults make meaning of their world – changes in understanding of the self (psychologically), changes and reflection on their belief systems (convictional)  and changes in their lifestyle or the way they live (behavioural).  For that man, the biggest change was within himself – the psychological part. Let’s hope these changes are noticed and acknowledged by perceptible eyes. The telescope that sees progress and notices change. All too often the telescope is being adjusted and managed by external powers, like work, accreditation – other measures of value or worthiness. Who is controlling the lens?

The man who comes to the centre has had a seismic shift in identity. He can read aloud, he doesn’t care if he makes mistakes, he loves looking up the origin of words, he would have loved if a place like this existed when he was younger.

“I never thought I was someone who would use a word like that.”

“I never thought I was someone who would read The Irish Times.”

“If I can read words like this, I can read anything.”

“I know what they are talking about now.”

“I look at the lads I work with and I realise, if there was a place like this when I was younger, I could have been an engineer.”

“I know what I am reading is hard but I am not afraid of it anymore.”

All said, not with a hint of regret, but with an air of confidence, a passion, a feeling that a veil has been lifted on a once untapped learning world. It was there all along, yet he wasn’t given the guidance to see it.

Apparently meteorites fall every year in Ireland; mostly they go unnoticed, as according to Astronomy Ireland they mostly fall into the sea.  A black rock the colour of coal,  falling  from space, breaking the earth’s atmosphere as a fireball before landing. It may fall in a forest, in a lake or the ocean but it is there. And only perceptible to the right kind of lens. Or if you are looking for it.

For that man who comes to the centre, the change within himself was earth shattering.  Yet from the outside nothing changed.

With the right lens adjusted, we can see it.

Fionnaigh Connaughton, a tutor in DALC 

person on a bridge near a lake
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Reminding Myself Why We Plan For Accreditation

business woman with ringbinders

 

Last week, I hit off my phone by accident and Siri asked me if there was anything she could do for me.  “Finish my QQI validation application” said I.  “I don’t understand” said she.  “Neither do I,” I thought.  She had the same reaction to the CRA and the CRO returns, so no point in asking her to fill out the Lobbying return or reviewing our GDPR.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this is the sort of thing a computer would relish.  As it turns out, even computers find it too dull to contemplate. 

The poet Dante imagined there were nine circles of hell for different types of sinners.  He got it wrong; there are ten. The tenth is for those whose sin is to work in the Community and Voluntary sector and/or with disadvantaged communities in Ireland and who foolishly imagine they can just affect change. For us, we don’t actually die first, but experience the tenth circle of hell on Earth. The cycle begins with the sinner asking cringingly embarrassing/intrusive questions of a person seeking help, followed by endless reporting of the same facts to a myriad of agencies on said person, ensuring there is neither time nor resources to render assistance to them.

The sinner is doomed to an eternity of not providing the assistance they want to and were trained to do.  As soon as the cycle is finished, a new one begins with an updated version of the form/code/validation/reporting just completed.

Mid-cycle on the tenth circle, a student rocked up to my door; a welcome sight and a reminder of who we are here to serve. I spent a stimulating hour studying the spelling-meaning connection with Jane (not her real name – GDPR don’t ya know).  Then I spent fourteen hours on paper work.  Am I prepared to do this for her if that is what it takes?  Absolutely. Is it a rational way to run a service?  I think not.  

By Columba O’Connor, Assistant Director of DALC.

batch books document education
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The Beauty of Mistakes

shallow focus photography of assorted pencils near apple keyboard and mouse
Photo by Dzenina Lukac on Pexels.com

 

I only became aware recently of a rather quirky fact. A member of the 1960s band, the Monkees was called Mike Nesmith. Mike Nesmith’s mother invented Tippex.  I am sure that this piece of knowledge enriched your life, yet it got me thinking about the nature of mistakes.

The other day, a student of mine declared ‘I never made a mistake until I could use Tippex.’  Tippex gave him the freedom to make mistakes in the first place. Tippex for him was a kind of mistake licence, and goddammit, he was going to use it!

Why did he need Tippex in the first place?, I thought. Had I not created a mistake friendly environment?  Or did I make him think he had to get it right the first time?

Tippex, the little correction fluid wizard, helps us erase and regroup.  We can hide the process, pretend it didn’t happen, nothing to see here, move on. Yet I believe that we should be allowed, in fact, encouraged, to make at least one mistake everyday. Or perhaps have a mistake ration everyday. (Although I may have used mine up already with my terrible parallel parking). But wouldn’t that be wonderful? For educators and teachers? For us all?

It has to be said that Tippex produces a complete whitewash of anything that went before. Is this healthy? Is it not better to learn and analyse the mistake? A mistake for me is juicier when we can look at and talk about the mistake. What did you mean to say? What did you want to write? In what way is this different to what you had intended? What can we do to make it better? What changes do we have to make?

Mistakes can be our friend. Honestly. They can help us:

  • make a plan to do things better
  • help to highlight what areas need improvement
  • help to put feedback into practice
  • help us to see that taking risks is an integral part of learning. We would never leave the house of we worried about getting everything right.

Learn to love your mistakes. Let them in. Let them sit and take a seat at the table of learning. They are most welcome.

The philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey apparently said that we don’t learn from experiences, but that we learn from reflecting on experience. Perhaps the same can be said for mistakes.

And to paraphrase the Monkees, Then I saw mistakes? Yes, I’m a believer.

 

By a teacher and tutor 

 

 

A few interesting links below on common mistakes teachers may make in their practice:

https://www.edutopia.org/discussion/6-biggest-mistakes-teachers-make

https://www.thinkinclusive.us/eight-inclusion-mistakes-even-good-educators-make/

Remembering Joe

books for joe

We’ve just got a staff WhatsApp message. One of our students has died.  He died a few weeks ago and the funeral is over.  This is one of the hardest parts of being a tutor in an adult learning centre – at times our students die.  The two things aren’t connected.  We don’t have some kind of terrible medical effect on people. Our premises are beautiful, our tea and scones top class, and we strive to keep our atmosphere joyful and free from stress.

Many of our students are older adults, who have the opportunity to come back to education now that they have retired or have left the workforce due to injury or illness, or simply have more time outside their working hours because their families are reared.

Joe was one of the latter, coming in to class between split shifts as a Dublin Bus driver.  He loved learning, all of it, from improving spelling and writing, to dealing with challenging ideas.  We went on many trips as part of different groups, and he took every opportunity to follow up, joining libraries, doing his own research.  He revelled in group discussions and would laugh uproariously, dissipating tension when things got too heated.  After a robust exchange of views with trusted colleagues he would head off out the door delighted, saying ‘That was great, wasn’t it?!’

This time last year, we sat with tears streaming down our faces while he read a deeply personal story, honest and beautiful with a lovely turn of phrase.  I am always in awe of students for their bravery and honoured by the trust they put in us by coming in and saying ‘I want to learn, please help me’.  We do our best to fill the gaps and provide stimulating opportunities but when someone takes off, finds their voice and sings, it is always their own commitment to learning and changing that shines through, not any particular learning strategy or theory.

It is a privilege to be part of a learning community with students like Joe.

Often the apparatus of the State doesn’t value adult basic education, if it doesn’t lead to ‘progression’, employment or meet some kind of economic value. And yes, we go to a lot of funerals. It is something I find increasingly difficult, maybe due to the cumulative effect over the years.  But I would have gone to Joe’s gladly. RIP.

By Lisa Kilbride, a tutor in DALC. 

heaven

A Change of Habit

group of students

I heard on a radio show the most abominable reason that a husband left his wife.  It wasn’t an affair, it wasn’t a lack of emotional satisfaction in the relationship.

She cut her hair. Yes. You read that right.

She is not the woman I married, he declared. I fell in love with her long tresses, the wonderful cascade of hair running down her back. This is who I married all those years ago. I don’t want to be married to a woman with short hair. It went on and on as the radio presenters seemed both horrified and advisory in equal measure.

Yet can a small change really have such a measurable impact? Can it seriously change the foundations of a relationship? Even the teaching and learning relationship?

A study from 2017 by Rands and Gansemer-Topf looked at how changing the physical space of a classroom can create a more active learning environment. The study revealed that by redesigning a classroom in Iowa State University, it led to a more active learning environment, where students were more engaged and questioning.  The study recorded feedback on case studies and focus groups to examine how the redesign of the classroom (from a traditional/teacher centered rows) to one more fitting to group work (tables in a circle, big portable white boards for group learning, etc). In other words – the students had to do things and think about things rather than sitting back and letting the teacher perform while they whiled away the duration of the class imagining the perfect tweet to compose to guy or girl who had caught their eye.

It seems to be a common methodology nowadays for the teacher – primary school and at all levels – to change around the groups they work with each day.  In our centre in Mountjoy Square, we try to mix it up as best we can – change tutor, change methodology, change seating arrangements. This practice came out of the more general shift in educational practice from  ‘how teachers teach’ to ‘how students learn’. The more archaic classroom – the rows and linear seating was of course about control but also assumed everyone learns in the same way. What I refer to as the ‘Miss Trunchbull classroom’ – completely non democratic, completely controlling.

I believe there is a lot to be said for changing the classroom space around:

  • It moves students out of their comfort zone
  • It encourages better participation
  • It harnesses better independence
  • It helps to create a variety of learning methodologies (group work, discussion, paired work)
  • It gets students engaged in talking about what they are learning

 

It is a good idea to think about the set up of our classroom – does it make students move around?  Does it make them get more involved? Does it make them have to chat to the student beside them and think about what they are learning and do things?

They say change is the only certainty in life. The same must go for teaching approaches, this I am sure off. Yet there still remains silly husbands who don’t like their wives getting their hair cut and we can’t do much about that.

For more reading on the study by Rands and Gansemer-Topf: 

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/608b/e99b6a144d7eeb1a31657710492768bb4872.pdf

 

old classroom

The Importance of Reading to Children

adult baby book boy

We can never underestimate the importance of books in our lives and in our children’s lives.  We can appreciate our ability to read in the first place, a gift denied to so many, through circumstance or no fault of their own. However, before you can shout ‘Mother Goose’ – it can be a minefield of issues. As an educator and an advocate for helping our parents and the people who attempt to instill that the idea of reading to children is a good thing in the first place, here are four things to think about:

  1. Once Upon a Time?

This can be one of the challenges of reading to children – giving it the time.  I grew up in a family of seven and I remember my mother ‘reading the pictures’ in our picture books – at times she bypassed the words altogether. Research tells you that this is still very much reading to children as they are hearing words. Even five minutes a day can make all the difference.  It is a lovely time to connect with your child and also – it helps to develop oral language skills – key to literacy skills.

  1. I do not like green eggs and ham!

Now, this can be a massive pain in the pumpkin carriage – that situation when your child absolutely ADORES a book that you hate reading! Personally, I am not crazy about Dr. Seuss, but my daughter loved those books. My boys went through a phase of a book entitled Cows in The Kitchen – it’s basically plotless and rhyming (the children’s book equivalent of Twin Peaks or something!! Just kind of weird!). I had months of torture reading it!

At times it’s good to remind ourselves that it is for their benefit and entertainment – not ours. Let them choose. Soon they will be in the land of nod and you can go back to Downton Abbey boxsets or whatever floats your boat.

  1. What if Cinderella was black?   

Something that was brought to my attention recently – what if Cinderella was black? Or if Harry Potter was a little boy from say, New Delhi? Would it make a difference to the story? There is a serious lack of ethnic minorities/people from difference races and colour reflected in stories – according to recent literacy research in the UK. Hoping this will change so our kids get to read about other worlds and other experiences.

Hey – we have a Taoiseach who is half Indian – and a more diverse society – isn’t it time for it?

It is always a good idea to talk about the universality of stories rather than the children in them.

  1. So many distractions!

These days, there are so many things to compete with books – iPad games, busy lives – you name it. But to quote the great Roald Dahl:

‘Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage.’

 

 A few books to recommend! 

My Top 4 up to Age Four!

  • Mr. Topsy Turvy – the best of the Mr. Men books for me. Great for pre-writing skills as he mixes up sentences in the funny way. But any Mr. Men book will do.
  • The Day the Crayons Quit by Oliver Jeffers – excellent for teaching colours and the the importance of colours and their meaning in our culture
  • Tyrannosaurus Drip – Not a huge Gruffalo fan, but love this Julia Donaldson one – it is basically a new version of the Ugly Duckling. Teaches the importance of kindness and difference
  • The Incredible Book Eating Boy by Oliver Jeffers (again!)

 

My Top 5 up to Age Ten!

  • The Dogman Books by Dav Pilkey – graphic novels/comic books from Captain Underpants author. Addictive to the six or seven-year-old boy
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid – excellent for the kid who finds it hard to engage with books.
  • Wonder by R. Palacio – brilliant for making kids more empathetic to other kids
  • Horrible Histories Series – wonderfully dip-in-and-outty!
  • A Place called Perfect by Helena Duggan
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events Series – dark, hilarious and addictive if your kids like them!

 

reading

 

 

September was the cruelest month?

abstract adult color dark

The poet TS Eliot once said April is the cruelest month. Can I meekly put my hand up and register September as taking that honour, or if not winning a close second?

Does anyone love September? You put up with it, we might go for coffee with it, but you don’t actively seek out a date with September.

Ok, admittedly, the weather is beautiful, the ochres of autumn and all that, but it also signifies the new term.

If September was a person, it would be the younger, better looking sister of January. Auburn haired perhaps, mostly affable, sometimes moody. Less harsh than January.  If you ever went on holiday with September, it would be the kind of person- we all know the ones – who are the first up, making plans, planning the route for the next day trip to Camino de Torres in the Camino, while you sit luxuriating and slumbering on the bottom bunk of some hostel bed.

September for many is about beginnings. The beginning of a new routine, one which we are all sent hurtling into whether we like it our not into. Tumbling like the autumn leaves in the park, despite ourselves and with little control, we are carried along into a new path.

It is comforting to know that there are common fears everyone experiences when embarking on those new beginnings. For many starting a new group, the thoughts are the same– will I fit in? Will I be able for it? Will I be asked to do something I can’t do?  Will I be in the oldest/youngest in the group? Will people think I’m crazy if I express an opinion? (And that’s just the teachers/tutors in the staff room!)

One of Seamus Heaney’s most well-known quotes – So walk on air against your better judgement – is something I am trying for September.  It is about giving things a go and not thinking too much.  Who wants to come into the deep end with me? What’s the worst that can happen? Ok, you may not emerge dignified but I say,  we embrace our inner deep sea diver. You know it is there. It may need a little coaxing to the diving board, but it is there.

Most new groups form in September – the new adult learning group, the evening palates group, the children starting in Junior Infants for the first time or even starting a new year. We’ve heard of the stages of the group, the memorable rhyming Tuckman’s theory, the storming, norming, forming thingamajig. A new group is like the birth of a new living thing. In some ways a blank slate, in others a life and personality of it’s own –  or it is subject to its environment? The people in the group? The teacher? Dumb luck?

It is true that every new group takes a while to get going.  We are in the group, we are there – that is the most important thing for now. The work will get done in time.  I call it group survival mode. Choose your battles wisely.  You’re in the forest, camped out, but you’re not at the Bear Grylls stages yet of actually being so at home that to feel comfortable enough to kill a deer and cook it on the fire.  In September, if I’d successfully worked out how to open and pitch my tent, my job is done!

We might look at the map, we might think about our next move (our next move could be planning the next class, addressing that issue that arose in week two but you noted it, or something else you intelligently put on the long finger as at the time you thought to yourself – too soon). As an educator, teacher and quite frankly, as a human being – we must lower the bar in September.  We are here. That is all.

Let’s see where October takes us, shall we?

Interesting links on group dynamics in the classroom:

https://www.edutopia.org/blog/establishing-classroom-norms-todd-finley