One history exam, and what may be learned from it

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One of my favorite things as a teacher is to experiment. With no committees or beauracracy, no forms or permits, every year I have at my disposal every year 120 guinnea piggs

One of my favorite things as a teacher is to experiment. With no committees or bureaucracy, no forms or permits, every year I have at my disposal every year 120 Guinea pigs, who can’t really object to the experiments I run on them. Well, they could object, but that is one experiment that to this day has always failed. They never do. As scientific experiments what I do is of no real value, of course, but sometimes they can provide various thoughts and insights, that might serve me well as a teacher down the road. So yes, there will be numbers, and charts, and averages here. But there will be no regression analysis, and the results have no validity. If you find it easier, you can call the following an observation.
By the way, if you are less interested in general learning issues, and more interested in matters of gender, feel free to jump straight to the heading on gender.

But first, let us try to think back on those good old days, when we ourselves were students. How did you go about studying for an exam? Personally, I almost never studied for them. Sadly, it wasn’t because I was too smart to need to, but rather due to a combination of a school that didn’t put too much emphasis on scholarly achievements, a lack of desire on my behalf to put in the effort, and the fact that even if I wanted to, I didn’t really know what to do to study effectively for the exam. For larger exams I would, I assume, read the textbook (for taking notes in class never really happened), and when the matriculation exam in history loomed closer, I made a list of events and dates that took up three pages, and I read and reread it several times over the three days prior to the exam. Not much of an example for my students, I know. There were, of course, other examples. Mostly girls, who would take notes in class, which they would read coming up to the exams, and reread them, and highlight important parts, and various other activities I never really understood. But they also, I think, did it because they didn’t know any other way. Actually, I don’t remember anyone ever trying to teach me the skill of studying for an exam.

(True, one could argue that studying for exams is not an important skill, since exams are an artificial school situation, that has almost nothing to do with real life. Unlike, for instance, writing papers, which does exist in the world, and was a skill the school did try, a bit at least, to teach us. However, making a plexiglass pencil holder is also not a skill that has come much in handy in my life, and yet we were taught how to do it. This is to day that there is value to being familiar with a wide range of tools, that can be adapted and matched to the task at hand. In this sense, the larger and fuller your toolbox is, so your ability to deal with various tasks, especially new and strange ones, is greater, and hence there is definitely value in knowing which strategies are efficient for studying for an exam, and which are not.

My interest in the question of suitable tools for learning has grown over the last couple of years, when I realized that my students were also never taught how to best prepare for exams. Now, you could say that they should learn through trial and error. Which would be great, if this wasn’t the exact thing that the school system works on rooting out of children’s consciousness and habits, making things they used to do naturally and instinctively at a young age big no-no’s as students regimented into the school system. The result is that what they don’t know how to do, they don’t even try. So how do they study for exams? Mostly, by doing what their teacher told them in class to do – read their notes, highlight important parts, and so on.
and how do they know if it’s working? That is simple – the exam is graded. If they received a good grade, they go on doing the same things. And if the grade wasn’t goo? Well, then they just go on doing the same things. Because they don’t know any other ways. They also don’t have meaningful tools to check themselves for what worked and what didn’t – was it a subject they didn’t understand well? Did they not study long enough? Were they not concentrated enough when studying? Were they using the wrong techniques and tools to prepare for the exam? These are questions that no one ever asked them, and there is no reason they should know how to ask themselves.

So, what should we do with this?

Over the past couple of years, I found that there was an entire field of educational research, which is sadly lacking in Israel. One of the posts I ran into dealt exactly with this question – 12 tips to crush your final exams. And so, for the last exam held this year, I asked my students to answer three short questions:
1. How many hours did they spend studying for the exam?
2. Over a period of how many days did they study?
3. What did they believe would be their grade on the exam?

And now, for the numbers

It should be noted that the data is from a scientific class, which is regarded the strongest class in school, academically. However, there are quite a few students, mostly girls, who are more inclined to the humanities than to science.

The average grade of the entire class in this exam was 82.9 (the Israeli system uses a 100-point scale). The exam was quite extensive, and included a large part of what the students will need to know for their matriculation exam in history next year. Uncharacteristic of me, the exam included, apart from matriculation-style questions and a high-order thinking skills question, multiple-choice questions as well.

The average study period for the entire class was 5.5 hours, with one exception of 25 hours of study, which skews the average up to a little over 6 hours.

As can be seen, the average score rises almost in a linear line up to 10 hours of study for the exam, with a drop in grades for those students who studied for more than 10 hours. However, this data is skewed, since the fourth group has only three grades in it, with a very large standard deviation. Minus one exceptionally low grade in this group, the linear tendency is continued. This would suggest that indeed, studying longer for an exam does improve your grade.

When examining the spacing effect that is widely discussed in educational research, we can see that there is only one distinct difference – bunching all hours of studying for an exam into one day is less efficient than spreading it over a number of days. However, it is hard to draw a clear-cut conclusion, as for almost all students, studying for more days also means more hours. A different option for reading the data is that the students don’t know how to best utilize a period of several days in order to achieve better results.

Another angle I looked at is the connection between the number of hours of studying for the exam and the grade the students believed they would receive.

In this chart we can see a picture similar to that of the connection between the number of study hours and the actual grade, with a distinct spike in the group that studied between 7 and 10 hours, and a similar drop in the group that studied a larger number of hours. Two preliminary conclusions may be drawn from this:
1. More hours of studying for an exam improves your self-confidence when taking the exam, confidence that could very likely improve your actual grade.
2. Studying too much for an exam might actually indicate a lack of studying throughout the year, and/or a very large deficit in confidence in one’s knowledge and ability.

From this it might be possible to derive a rule of thumb as to the optimal time of studying for an exam: study for as long is it improves your confidence in your knowledge and understanding, and stop the moment you feel that further study only makes you doubt yourself.

So far in general terms. And now, a bit of gender issues

16 girls and 16 boys took the exam. To remind you, this is a strong academic class, and the students had to pass a test and an interview to get into it. This means that from the get go, the class is populated by those students, who are relatively confident of their scholastic abilities. This fact makes the following charts especially interesting.

When looking at the study time of boys and girls separately, we can see that both groups divided their study time over and average of 2.25-2.5 days. However, the study time in hours is much higher for the girls than for the boys. Based on the partial conclusions we drew earlier, we would expect to see two things:
1. The average grade for the girls will be higher than for the boys;
2. The grade assessment, which indicates the students’ self-confidence, will also be higher for the girls than for the boys.

Care to make a guess as to the actual results?

Indeed, the girls’ average grade is significantly higher than that of the boys. But their grade assessment is slightly lower than that of the boys, who in turn were almost spot on in assessing their grade in the exam.

As mentioned, this is not representative of anything. But in my opinion, it speaks rather loudly. Without entering into the eternal and useless debate on nature vs. nurture, this chart presents a large part of the additional difficulty that girls and women face in our society. The gap between the girls’ achievements and their self-evaluation is a strong explanation, in my view, to the differences we still see between men and women in grownup society. If you believe you will be successful, there is a greater chance that you would indeed succeed, if only due to the fact that people tend to believe what you send out into the world.

So what can we do with it?

First and foremost, talk about it. With our students and amongst ourselves as teachers and parents. Bring out the factors that are hidden: talk about self-confidence and self-esteem, what builds them up and what is liable to destroy them; talk about an environment that cultivates self-confidence, an environment that makes it all right to err, to offer suggestions and ideas even when you’re not sure of them, to think together.

And the same should be done with studying for exams – examine the data collected and repeat the exercise. Try and repeat it in several other subjects, test different techniques and tools for studying for exams, find out which is the best way for each and every student to prepare for their exams. True, the current school system is not built to encourage this, and does almost everything possible to discourage such attempts. But if we don’t try and err, how can we teach our students to learn from their mistakes? If we don’t speak and think aloud, with them, in the classroom, about what works and what doesn’t, how can we expect them to do so on their own?

PS

A quote widely used in the educational sphere nowadays states that “All a child needs is for one adult to believe in them”. Boy, what a pile of rubbish. Believing in children is undoubtedly a necessary precondition and an important starting point for education, but woe to the educator who suffices themselves in this. We have so much more work to do with them beyond just believing in them.

לקריאת הפוסט בעברית

In Conclusion

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Finally, after nearly a month, they were caught. Two of my pupils, who for several weeks have been entering classes they don’t belong to, and whistling mid-class. One teacher succeeded in catching them red-handed, and brought them to my manager for a hearing. It was a harsh talk, and it included a real threat not to let them finish the year. And they’re seniors and all. But as difficult as it was for me to thing they would not graduate together with the rest of the class, I was relieved that this story finally came to an ending.

But the sense of relief was short-lived, for immediately after the talk with the pupils my manager asked me to stay in the room with him, and reprimanded me for not being as involved in the story as I should have been, letting it go on for nearly a month. He said that if I had only set aside some time the issue could have been dealt with long ago, and then we wouldn’t be forced to threaten the kids they won’t graduate.

I went home severely agitated, and decided that I wasn’t going to put up with this any longer. You give everything you have, never stop thinking, trying, planning how to do things better, and in the end, get shouted at. That’s it, tomorrow morning I’m letting my manager know that I’ve had enough. I’ll finish this school year with my pupils, of course, but that’s it. I’ll try to get back into academia, maybe go in a completely different direction, but of this I’ve had enough.

And then I realized that tomorrow was Monday, and my manager won’t be at school. And how can I threaten to resign if he isn’t even there?

Hold on. Tomorrow isn’t Monday, but Friday. And it’s Hanukah vacation anyways. And clearly, my pupils can’t go in to classes they don’t belong to, since all the teachers know their pupils by name and by face…

That’s the dream that woke me up a couple of days ago.

You don’t need Freud to reveal the guilt that I feel as an educator for not doing enough to allow my pupils to grow, learn, mature, to be happy.

And no, this says nothing special about me as an educator. These are sentiments that I know many of my colleagues share. Since this, perhaps, is one of the aspects in which the teaching profession is one of the toughest – you can never tell yourself that you’ve really succeeded, that you’ve completed your role.

But wait. Before you explain to me that I’m wrong, that other professions are much harder, that in return for my difficulties I’m getting excellent working conditions, that no one forced me to do this job…

I have no need for your pity. Nor am I trying to compare myself to anyone else. My choice of this profession was done freely and out of a number of options, and most days I am thankful for having the privilege of being a teacher and an educator. Despite all that you’re going to read here, the bottom line is that I truly believe there is no profession more exciting, more satisfying or as meaningful as education.

But our education system is in trouble. And it’s not because of the teachers working in it, but because its structure and functions are inadequate to the needs of 21st century society. And what I seek to do in this post is to shed light on one aspect of this inadequacy, and to offer a different, perhaps more radical point of view, as to what needs to be done in order to provide our children with high-quality education.

So how many hours does a teacher truly work?

Last summer I was approached by the economic section of the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation to respond to the issue of the vacations teachers have. The clip,  which to my great surprise received quite a large number of viewings, came out – like any three-minute clip attempting to tackle a serious and complex issue – somewhat superficial and more aggressive than i thought it would, but it touched on a real question, which kept my busy on a daily basis throughout the passing year – how many hours does a teacher work, but for real?

The issue of school vacations is obviously not new, and arises anew every summer. It is related, of course, to the question of teachers’ salaries, but also to much broader issues of the organization of the system as a whole, as I shall attempt to show here.

As an educator, dealing with the number of hours I work is rather annoying – after all, education is a matter for the heart, not the clock. It is all about relationships, about quality and not quantity. But the two cannot really be disconnected, both from my point of view as an employee, and from the point of view of the pupils and the education they receive. So even though it isn’t the most important thing, and although I would rather deal with the how and why, I decided – early in the previous school year – to keep track of the number of hours I work every day, divided into types of activities.

So, what did I find there?

During the year in which I carried out the count, between october 26 2016 (which was the first school day after a vacation, which allowed me to prepare the Excel file for monitoring my work hours) and october 25 2017, I worked 2,090 hours.

365

If we divide this number by the number of days there are in a year, we’ll get 5 hours and 42 minutes of work each and every day. But you’re right – such a count isn’t relevant to anything.

So, if we divide this number by the number of days in which I was supposed to work according to the school year, we get 11 hours and 48 minutes of work in each of the 177 days of the school year. However, last year I stayed at home with a sick child 4 days, and took two more sick days for myself. Assuming that no one thinks I was supposed to work during these days, we get 171 days during which I was supposed to be working. This results in 12 hours and 12 minutes of work every day. By the way, if you just add to the 177 days of the school year 104 days of weekend vacation, you’ll end up with 84 days of vacation I get as a teacher. By all accounts outrageous.

monthly

But let’s take a deeper look at things. According to the Israeli National Insurance website, in the examined period the were 252 work days. If we subtract from this 12 days of vacation, which are the minimum required by law (before taking into account seniority and other factors), we get 240 days during which I was supposed to work last year, if the government were to equalize teachers’ vacations with those customary in the rest of the economy.

ספירת-ימי-עבודה

So, if we divide my 2,090 work hours over the past year by the number of days a “normal” employee works, we get only 8 hours and 42 minutes every work day. Whoopee! I’m just like everyone else!!!

Just a couple more figures, before we take a look at the contents of this work.

Over the past year I worked, on average, 3/4 of an hour every Friday, and in general I worked on every third Friday.

Saturdays? Over the past year I worked in 28 of the 52 sabbaths, and on average I worked one hour and 40 minutes every Saturday.

And again – don’t respond with ‘there are plenty of employees who work on weekends. No one should be forced to work on weekends, and it is our responsibility as a society to make sure that is made possible.

Now – why is all of this important at all?

by-assignment

According to the collective agreement between the teachers’ union and the Ministries of Finance and Education, a teacher’s FTE is composed as follows:

teacher-position

Looking back once more at the actual results, we see the following:

365

Several conclusions stand out:

  1. The share of actual teaching hours is half of what the collective agreement defines (and even more, since in counting teaching hours I included individual hours as teaching hours).
  2. The share of hours dedicated to preparing materials and to checking exams and papers is twice as allocated by the agreement.
  3. The share of hours dedicated to meetings and teacher learning is almost 4% more than planned for.
  4. There are assignments the collective agreement doesn’t take into account at all.

Oh, one last important piece of data – I performed all (or nearly all) of the teaching hours i was allocated. Honest.

What, in my opinion, can we learn from all of this?

  • It is not possible (and in my opinion not desired, either, but that’s a story for another post) to increase the number of teaching hours, since every frontal teaching hour requires more than two hours of overhead. The only way to do this, if we still want children to learn more hours yearly, is to increase the number of teachers in the system.
  • Teachers work much more than the general public believes. And that is fine. As the calculations show, teachers don’t necessarily work more hours than employees in other professions. The biggest problem is the manner in which teachers’ work is organized along the year, with no flexibility at all – for the teacher herself and for the system alike.
  • Another thing, that doesn’t arise from the data but I find hard to dispute – there is great variance between teachers in the composition and nature of their work. There is a difference between teaching disciplines, between teacher roles, stages of education, etc. But all teachers work hard, and a lot. If only the school, in collaboration with local PTAs, had flexibility in determining the composition of teachers’ assignments to adjust between those who need more frontal hours and less overhead, and those who need the opposite; between those who excel in individual teaching and those who are wonderful lecturers, the aggregate working hours of all teachers in the school could be utilized much more effectively.

So, is it really a matter of quality, not quantity?

When I am forced, in order to fulfill the requirements of my position, to work many hours at home well beyond formal work hours;

when the overwhelming feeling is of an endless chase after assignments;

when it is unclear what are a teacher’s precise areas of responsibility, leaving everything to the responsibility of the teacher;

and when the bureaucratic demands – reports, meetings, teacher’s learning… continually grow in time requirements, continuously sending a message of distrust in the teacher’s ability to carry out her job,

then it becomes clear from where comes the guilt. It is clear why teachers feel unable to reach all of their pupils. It is clear why parents feel, that the education their children receive is inadequate. Because it’s not just a feeling – we, the teachers, find it more and more difficult to successfully carry out our job, and it is all our children who suffer from this.

True, this tracking of work hours in anecdotal, and I am far from claiming to represent such a large public. No individual teacher can, and that is why a widespread, national survey of teachers’ work hours is required. Sadly, it seems that none of those responsible for the direction of the education system – neither the ministries of education and finance, nor the teachers’ union – have an interest in conducting such a field study, and they prefer the status quo, the bickering over this addition or another to teachers’ salaries, which – important as it is – has no real chance of changing the grave situation our education system is currently in.

So, I’m done counting work hours. Just like before I started counting, my main occupation is with relationships, interpersonal connections, the welfare and wellbeing of my pupils. Just like before I started counting, it is clear to me that if only I had more time, I could have done so much more. The guilt remains. But so does the immense satisfaction from this job, the happiness I find in working with teenagers, and the belief that despite it all, I am able to do something, small as it may be, to make this world a better place.

Class Seating Arrangement – not what you thought

Lately I came upon a couple of discussions on Twitter about classroom structure and its arrangement. Parts of these discussions coincided with steps I had just taken in my class regarding the seating arrangement, and as I saw the issue was becoming more and more complex, I decided to try and paint a somewhat more complete picture of the issue of seating arrangements in the classroom.

It starts off somewhat dryly, but gets better as we go along. So, hang in there.

According to the prescriptions of the Israeli Ministry of Education, classrooms constructed after 2008 must be atleast 53 sq. meters large, in order to contain a class of up to 40 students.

This is the equivalent of 1.32 sq. meter perstudent in the classroom. This includes, or course, the student’s desk,which is about 0.3 sq. meter in size. This leaves just one square meter for every student in the classroom.

What does this look like in my classroom?

The class is about 56 sq. meters in size, and in this home class (10th grade) I have only 32 students (as opposed to 38 in the previous class). This means that each student has 1.75 square meters (1.44 if you subtract the table). That is, without the teacher taking up any space…

Even in these luxurious conditions, the feeling in the class is crowded. This is especially prominent during breaks and whenever I attempt to go between the desks, talk to the students and check their work. I can only assume, that for the girls (especially) this is one of the factors creating a non-secure atmosphere in regards to contact with other students, even when no one has any intention whatsoever of harassing.

However, crowdedness is not the topic of this post. As the picture shows, and as anyone who has ever sat in a classroom knows, in order to seat thirty something students in a classroom, some of them will have to sit in the back. This means that some of the students are located seven meters from me when I am teaching (and more importantly, from the whiteboard). This can have one of two effects – either the students in the back are disengaged from the lesson and happy with it, as there is almost no chance that the teacher will ever get to them; or they would actually want to be part of the lesson (as is happily the case in my class), in which case they are highly unsatisfied with the seating arrangement, which becomes an issue that refuses to die, inflicting on both the atmosphere and the studying itself.

For all of these reasons, and also because I am personally a fan of changes and of experimentation in my teaching, I have played around quite a lot with seating arrangements in the classroom. In my former class (which, as mentioned, had 38 students in it) I tried a couple of different things:

None of these arrangements actually worked. I personally like the U-shape arrangement, because it allows for direct communication between the students, and turns everyone’s focus to the center. But in reality, mostly due to a lack of the right habits, it mostly created negative interactions between the students, and the necessity of seating the class in two U-s took away most of the advantages.

The arrangement in sequential rows without gaps between the desks was good in theory, at least for me as a teacher – almost complete control of what was going on in the class, relatively easy mobility from both sides of the rows and between them. But for the students this meant too wide a detour in order to reach their place, or the garbage can, or their friends, and quickly enough the tables moved away from one another.

This year I decided to work more moderately, and to try and take advantage of the fact that I had fewer students in my class:

Breaking the lines

It didn’t help. It was still too far away for the students in the back,and they had a really hard time with the diagonal arrangement. I wasn’t therewith them for the first period, and they were convinced that the classroom wasjust in a mess, and straightened the tables back.

So, what can I do? As usual when I don’t have an answer (and sometimes even when I do), I decided to drop the problem on my students’ heads. This way ,at least, they couldn’t complain, and I would have the privilege of draping the whole move with pretty words of democratic education, and teaching responsibility, while the whole time I am just looking for a way to close this issue up for good (no, not really).

So, I showed them a map of the class with the current arrangement [image 1], and gave every three students an empty map of the class [image 2] and a page with tables to cut out [image 3] (all to scale, of course).

I asked them to try and be unconventional and think about solutions that I, as a teacher, would be unable to think of.

The following are their suggestions:

Several things stand out at first glance: A – it is quite difficult to be creative in our class’s arrangement; B – the most important consideration for the students is being able to see the whiteboard properly, which is evident in the lack of an option for sitting in groups; C – the second most important consideration is the location of the desks in relation to the air conditioner located on the rear wall of the class (I’ll get back to this later on); D – students are many times much more conservative than their teacher (I already knew that, but somehow it succeeds in surprising me anew every time). An interesting exception to this, for those of you who looked hard at the pictures, is the bottom right proposal, which includes a platform to raise the rows furthest from the whiteboard.

The ballot form

The next step was, of course, to vote:

The students’ response was that voting could never work, since they would each vote for the proposal made by their own group. This means that the students’ basic assumption was that personal ego and competitiveness will prevent them from making matter-of-fact judgments about the different proposals.

If anyone wondered about the state of education towards democratic beliefs and values in Israeli high schools…

Results of the vote

The results, as you can see, showed a somewhat different picture.

And this is what it actually looks like:

The resulting arrangement

At this point I was in for a surprise.

 First of all, suddenly there was a feeling that the class was much larger (and to all interior decorators out there – yes, I know that the arrangement of a room has an impact on its feeling, but the effect here was very strong and immediate). Secondly – the corridor that allowed me to move easily around the room also created a very strong echo when I talked. And last but not least – it turned out that still, many students were feeling uncomfortable with their seating.

At this stage Efrat Furst (she writes very interestingly about research informed education – follow her! To her website) introduced me to Tom Sherrington‘s blogpost praising seating in rows. Tom’s blog has since become an important thought-provoking source for me, but reading this post left me with contradicting reactions, which may be related to two different identities that often clash within me – that of the professional teacher and that of the educator.

As a professional teacher, I can often identify with the claims raised in the post – when the students are sitting in rows, it is possible for me (at least in theory) to see everyone’s faces and make eye contact with them. More importantly, the students can (again, in theory) see me. Tom’s main argument there is that it’s human, meaning – sitting one in front of the other. As proof he brings pictures from 19th and 21st century schools, and of students at a lecture. So yes, standing in front of rows of students has its advantages, and in this context – it is clear that the center of gravity of the lesson lies in what the teacher has to say, or in the exchange between him (or more likely – her) and the students. So obviously, if students wish to understand the lesson and to learn, they are required to look straight at the teacher and listen to them. This way I can also see what the students are doing while I am talking, or when they are given an assignment to work on. I can walk between them, see individual work and correct it (assuming, of course, there was room left for passages between the students’ desks). But – and for me this is a very important but – this seating arrangement has several very problematic implications. If the center of gravity of the lesson lies in the discourse between the teacher and the students, then many of the students are liable to draw two conclusions:

  1. When the teacher is talking with one student, it is of no importance to all other students. The noisiest moments in my lessons are those when I am answering individual questions.
  2. When the center of gravity of the lesson is found in the gap between the whiteboard and the teacher’s desk, anything other students have to say regarding the lesson is of no importance either.

Well yes, I assume that there are didactic options for dealing with these two points. But in my view, any additional coping mechanism I need to add to my lesson consumes time and energy, which I am already short on. More importantly, even if I am able to cope with this problem in regards to lesson management, the underlying message of this situation is well-received: the teacher – the adult –the leader – is important; the rest of you are not. This is an authoritarian and anti-democratic message, which for me, as a civics teacher, creates quite a difficulty when trying to educate my students to hold democratic values and beliefs such as the equality of all, the importance of active citizenship, the need to curb the power of the government and others.

Another argument that is raised in the post is that sitting in groups (as an example. I experienced it, as mentioned, in a U-shaped seating) has negative implications on the lesson, which derive from the interactions between the students. Indeed, it is quite complicated when the students actually turn to one another and relate to each other. It definitely makes it harder for the teacher to be at the center of attention, and there is no doubt that for students sitting with their backs to the teacher, it is often very hard to be part of the lesson. However, the ability to work effectively in groups is not a natural given. Especially so in the super-competitive and individualist world we all live in. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that none of my students suggested groups as a seating option. This is while the ability to communicate and to work with one another is one of the most important skills that we, as teachers, need to impart on our students (sadly, working as solo adults in classes of 30 to 40 children, we are often not very skilled at this ourselves). Therefore, the mere fact that a certain seating arrangement creates negative interactions is not a reason for giving up sitting and working in groups, but rather a reason to develop teaching and learning methods that are more suitable to collaborative group work. And I know that there are those who are working at developing such methods.

Bottom line is, I don’t have an ultimate solution. At the moment, in order to cope with the inconvenience many students feel with their seat in class, I resort to changing seats every several weeks. But this also comes at a price. I knowcfirst hand that a permanent seat in class has much value for many students, especially for those who have a hard time feeling secure and safe in their classroom.

Despite all this, I do have three conclusions to draw from this saga:

The question, as happens in oh-so-many discussions on education, goes back to the roots – what is the job of the teacher facing the class? Is it to transmit the material? To teach skills? To educate? This dilemma is evident in the simple fact that we are teachers working in the education system. And obviously, the answer is that my job is both this and that and the other. But what are the priorities? Which goal does society want me to place in front of the other goals, when I face my students? The larger the gap between the requirements of modern society and the frozen structure of schools grows, so this question will become more acute and will increasingly demand an unequivocal answer.

Apparently, there can be no one ideal seating arrangement. Just like there is no ideal lesson plan or any one ideal set of traits for a teacher. In this sense, the (partial) solution for classes is furniture that is modular – an abilityto change the arrangement of the class easily and quickly, so that the class may be adapted to various and changing needs – didactical, pedagogical and educational.

This might be a good time to return to an earlier remark I made regarding the airconditioner in class. The unit is located in the back of the class, somewhat left of center. One of the reasons many students voted for the seating arrangement that was chosen was they thought this way, no student will have to sit directly under it. This was also one of the reasons many students are disappointed with the chosen arrangement, as the airconditioner isn’t actually where the gap  between the tables is. I believe this is a good example of the need to work harder at satisfying students basic physical needs, if we want them to become better learners. i believe Maslow has proven his point enough for us to listen. In any case, in order to try and alleviate the problem with the airconditioner, my students and I tried to make good use of the Hanukka vacation, and met in class today to draw on the walls and disperse the cool air from the airconditioner a little better around class.

Lastly – sanctifying the existing order because it has worked for two-hundred years is not a solution. Ironically, Sherrington’s post is named ‘TheTimeless Wisdom of Sitting in Rows’. A bit funny, taking into account the fact that schools as we know them have only been in existence for a couple of hundred years.

  • This is an updated and slightly revised version of the post I wrote in my Hebrew blog about a month ago. The original post can be found here

The Code of Silence

Somewhat ironically, what brought me back to the blog after a break of more than a year and a half is a television show, of which one of the messages is the damages caused by our addiction to the net in general and to the social networks in particular.

I wasn’t prepared for the storm stirred in me by the Netflix show ‘13 Reasons‘, which aired only a month and a half ago, and is based on the novel of the same name by Jay Asher. And it’s not because it deals with the suicide of a high school student. It’s also not because the show surprised me or made me understand how little I know about the lives of my students (not to say my private children). It also wasn’t the extraordinary TV making of the show. I mean, I think it’s wonderfully made, but in these matters I really do understand very little.

I think that the main reason the show took such hold of me is that I was able to identify in it so much of my students, and also – to be frank – of myself. While probably exaggerated and sometimes quite melodramatic, 13 Reasons provides an important – and in my opinion reliable – glimpse at the lives of teenagers, an experience we all went through in this manner or another; but of the lives of teenagers in the 2000’s, a thing that none of us adults – teachers and parents alike – ever was. And no, it’s not about looking for this character or another in class, or trying to identify which students is in danger of taking their own lives. Moreover, in my opinion Hanna’s suicide is not the focal point of the show, but the backdrop of the real, day-to-day story experienced by the other students at the school.

The show, if there is still someone around who hasn’t heard of it, tracks the ‘gift’ left by Hanna Baker to her classmates, in which she describes to them, over six and a half tapes, the part they each played in her decision to end her own life. Throughout the episodes of the show we are exposed to the deeds, the misdeeds, the omissions, the innocence and the blindness of Hanna’s classmates, but no less than that – of the adults surrounding her, both at school and at home.

But it isn’t the show about which I wish to speak, but of the educational-psychological discussion that had arisen around it, and of what I decided to do with it as an educator. Almost immediately after being aired, the show spurred fervent discussions and debates about the show being an encouragement to youth who are in risk of attempting suicide by presenting it as a legitimate, almost romantic solution to the ills of adolescence. Psychiatrists called upon Netflix to pull the show off the air, parent associations cried out against it… it seems as though half the world had just found out the puberty is no picnic, that teenagers are complex, that they hurt others and themselves, and in extreme cases even commit suicide.

I think I know why people are so disturbed. It’s scary. It’s scary to think that our children, who at this age are beyond our ability to solve their problems for them, might be exposed to all that is bad in the world. It is even more scary to think, that they don’t have the tools required to deal with those evils. That is quite clear. What I find less clear is the thought (which ironically is typical of puberty) that if we don’t talk about it, it won’t exist. That if we just pad the walls for them, trim all the thorny branches along the path and pave over the potholes, the road will suddenly become easy, and the evils of the world will remain behind the wall. But this, if anything, is one of the main accusations raised by Hanna against her friends, her teachers, her parents – if only you hadn’t overlooked, if only you had said a kind word, if only you were less preoccupied with yourselves…

We don’t have a right to overlook the contents that occupy the minds of our children and students. With all the pressure, and the workload, and matriculation exams, we don’t have the privilege of saying ‘I don’t have time for that’. The teenagers are there. When I asked in class who had seen the show, at least five girls raised their hand (and not coincidentally, some of them are among the students that worry me the most, emotionally). So, if I don’t relate to the show they’ll understand on their own that suicide is wrong, and will never attempt it? Alternatively, if I do speak of it in class, does anyone seriously believe that their conclusion will be ‘wow, I guess my teacher thinks it’s a legitimate solution’?! Any attempt to hide, to look away, to overlook, will only intensify the dangerous contents, will only increase the chances that they interpret the show in ways that could endanger them or others (and this is not to speak of all other content they are exposed to on the net).

And frankly? I really don’t have the time. I have one “education” lesson per week. That is, a gross 45 minutes, which is about 30 minutes net. As of today, I held 32 education lessons this school year. Six were cancelled for various reasons. A large part of the time is dedicated to system-dictated contents such as the annual class trip, memorial ceremonies, preparation for military service… that leaves us with 14 half-hour session. Which means that to date, I have dedicated no more than 7 full hours to “deep” educational contents. And let’s not forget that this is all done with 35 students at the same time – not exactly the best group for intimate discussion…

And still I decided I was unwilling to give up, and told the students that the show will become the subject of the education lessons still left this year. Every week I’ll send them links to one or two episodes (which I have downloaded and uploaded to my drive in order to prevent unsuitable advertising – but that’s a story for a different post). They are asked to watch the episodes, and then we’ll hold an open discussion in class. When I decided on this course of action it seemed to me the most natural and obvious thing to do. But so many people around me, hearing about my intentions, said ‘How can you?’ and ‘What training do you have for this?’ and of course ‘Aren’t you afraid it will encourage them to attempt suicide?’…

True. I don’t have “training”. I haven’t studied psychology, and no one taught me in my teacher’s training how to engage in these contents. And yet, I engaged in them already as a counselor in the Scouts, in tenth grade, and I know teenagers – I’ve been working with them quite closely for nearly twenty years. In the real world, I don’t think there are a lot of people who have better “training” than educators to deal with these subjects. And yet, when I opened, this week, the first class discussion, I felt the chills. And what if it blows in my face? And what if things arise there, that I truly won’t know how to deal with?

And so, we sat in a large circle. I showed them the excellent video on Empathy vs. Sympathy, and presented the mandatory rules for having such discussions:

  1. We only speak when given permission
  2. We don’t interfere when others are speaking
  3. We avoid criticizing or judging others – we can disagree
  4. When someone is finished, we can ask clarification questions
  5. Whatever is said in the circle remains in the circle

Then I asked them to divide into pairs and share with one another a complex or unpleasant experience, to practice sharing.

After a couple of minutes I stopped the discussions and asked the students to summarize the events of the first two episodes, so that we all remember the plot. I also asked all those who have already seen the entire show to make sure not to spoil it for others, and to try and judge the episodes we’ve all seen without using what they know about the rest of the show (for those of you who have already seen the show – I told the students that in fact, the situation created in the class, where some have already seen the whole show and others haven’t, is similar to what happens in the show itself to the group passing the tapes from one to the other). And then I asked for responses.

Silence

‘Now what?’

‘What do you want us to do?’

‘Respond’

and then –

‘So, they distributed a picture of her…’ ‘so they said that she was easy…’

and on the other hand –

‘There’s a lot of objectification there’

‘And how this objectification ends, to you remember?’

‘Oh, right, with sexual harassment’

‘Yes, OK, but these things happen all the time…’

‘Girls who go to a club, for instance, do it for a reason…’

‘If she dances first with one guy and then with another, then of course she’s looking for someone to hook up with’

They’re good kids, my students. Honestly, they’re charming. But no one ever talked to them about these things, because their parents want to be their friends, and their teachers didn’t feel qualified, and the system tells you there’s no time for it, and it’s not our job, and like the counselor said to me: ‘I want to set a time with you for the nurse to come in for sexual education lessons’…

13 Reasons isn’t about suicide. It’s about teenagers and about the code of silence that exists among us adults about what they go through during these complicated years. When our response to the show is to try and overlook it, we are perpetuating and enhancing this code of silence. And the kids are left alone to cope with a thousand and one things that they have never experienced before. A bit like Hanna herself…

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P.S.

For me, the show is for parents no less than for teenagers, perhaps even more so. I even recommended to the parents of some of my students to watch the show together with their kids.

To read in Hebrew – לקריאה בעברית

Preparing for the Next Memorial Day

With each year that goes by, the Memorial Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars becomes harder and harder for me.

And my sons are still young, I still have a few good years ahead before having to lose sleep over them again.

And yet, each year the morning of the Memorial Day fills my eyes and throat with tears, hotter and more searing than those of the previous year.

Only this year I realized, through conversations with students and during the siren, what it is that tears me up so from within. It’s that I’m not thinking of fallen friends (I’ve been almost unbelievably lucky, in Israeli reality, and have yet lost any close relatives or friends to war), but of my students standing in front of me. Of these overgrown kids, who on the next Memorial Day might already be part of our never-ending list of failures. Part of an accusing, shaming list – you were unable to stop it, unable to protect us.

I stand in front of them and feel ashamed. Ashamed for the harsh world we are sending them out to, for the fact that we raise them to protect us, after we failed to protect them. Ashamed for not having done everything that is humanly possible to protect my children, our children.

I stand in front of them and ask myself what more can I do to better prepare them for what lies ahead? How could I teach them at one and the same time to take responsibility, to contribute, to risk themselves for others, and maybe even get hurt, or hurt others, and on the other hand to remain human beings, to maintain their critical thinking, their aspiration for peace and for change? How might I educate them to carry out, on the one hand, the most decisive and most absolute of orders, and on the other hand to keep seeing the complexity, the whole, to see reality with all its shades of grey?

We teach children of the “other”, of the ability to see and understand them as a whole, separate, human being, and then send them out to fight all who are “others”. I so desperately want to continue and believe our ability – and theirs – to contain this contradiction, but the reality of these past few weeks – including the harsh, zealous, and confrontational discourse that developed among my teacher colleagues – places big question marks on this belief.

I sit and write, knowing that at any moment I might receive word that another name was added to my list of shame and guilt. At this moment it is only a question of when and who. But the only question that really bothers me these days is, will we know how to prevent the next names? Will we know how to prevent the alienation and hatred among ourselves; will we learn how to see the other first of all as a human being, and only then as the “other”?

I dare not pray for peace at this moment in time. All I dare ask is that the next Memorial Day will not be harder for me than the one that had passed.

To read this post in Hebrew

On the obvious – to grandma

Every once and a while I get to tell someone something about my grandmother. Almost always, the immediate response is: ‘Your grandmother?! How great for you!’

For a very long time I couldn’t understand what the big deal was. My grandmother. Why, isn’t it obvious? Doesn’t everyone have such a grandmother, to debate politics with, to consult with on education, and to here from the entire history of the State of Israel, and some good years before, and to go on field trips with? Such a grandmother, whom your kids run up to hug, and a moment later run around with in the yard?

It’s obvious, isn’t it?

Oh, what a horrible word. What horrible reputation it gained as the eternal cliché for couples breaking up.

But, grandma, only when I realized that I see you as obvious, was I able to understand how significant you are to me.

Only when I realized just how much of an inseparable part of my life you were – of my childhood, through my adolescence and young adulthood, and up to being a professional and an aspiring father myself, you were always there. Whether it was a hot meal for lunch or an audiotape with stories sent from overseas, a frustrating political conversation (since you wouldn’t agree with me) or playing with my own children, you are always there.

סבתות

My dearest grandma. I am finding out, more and more, that when I think of the world in which I wish to live, of the society in which I wish to raise my children, that image is painted with the colors of your stories, experiences I had with you, values you instilled in me without my even knowing.

All of these things, and much much more, I should have told you long ago, had I only known how. Lucky for us there are birthdays. An excellent opportunity to thank you for all that you are for me, for us, for our children. Thank you for being an obvious part of my life.

All I can ask for, now, is that we have many more beautiful moments together, and to hope that we shall know how to repay you and to provide you with satisfaction and content.

Happy 87!!!

What did you learn at school today, my dear little child?

– Oh dad, you’ve got to hear this: today my teacher taught me how to lie!

– That’s great, son! How did she manage to do this?

– Well, it took me a while toget it, because it’s no simple stuff, but she just gave us lots of examples, she actually dictated a list we had to memorize, and she said that every day she will test us, to see if we studied properly. Here, take a look at the list:

  1. Don’t trust us adults. We’re unpredictable. We might get up one day, decide we’ve had it with your behavior, and make a scapegoat out or you.
  2. Always try to lie. Teachers don’t punish you for lying, and that’s even if you do get caught.
  3. Your best strategy is to make your teacher think that your weak students. This way you’ll also get the most help, and they’ll also bump up your grade in the end, so you don’t “get screwed”.
  4. Got caught doing something wrong? deny it all. They don’t believe you? deny again. If you deny just enough, and persistently enough, the teacher won’t be able to do anythink to you.
  5. Do you smoke? too bad. Just make sure you do so in places, where teacher make sure not to find themselves, because we know you smoke there. If we catch you, we’ll have to expel you. And that’s something we really don’t want to do. You still managed to get yourselves caught? go back to 4.

– That’s very impressive, son. Do you think you’ll be able to memorize so much material?

– Sure, dad, cause you didn’t wait for 6: always carry your cheat-sheets with you…

My Mom. A Teacher

My mom is a teacher. My grandmother is a teacher. Lately I’m discovering that I also, heaven forbid, am a teacher.

For many  years I couldn’t understand why anyone would do this to themselves, willingly place themselves in this trap and not do all that is in their power to free themselves. Even today, there are still many days when I don’t understand why I’m doing this to myself. I see my mother, and wonder how after 30 years of teaching she can still find the strength, not to  mention the joy, of entering her classes once and again, and coping with this challenge – an impossible one by definition – of education.

My mother  is “only” a teacher. But I meet former students of hers, I work with other people who worked, or have worked, with her, and I know – there is nothing else she could have been doing, that would be “more”.

Even Heschel said it (and even this I know only since my mother brought me his words as a gift for my birthday):

“At the epicenter of Judaism stands the teacher. Even the Lord almighty sits down to engage the Torah. Hence the great responsibility placed on the teacher.
One cannot imagine a Jewish life without the dedication, hard work and wisdom of our teachers…
The quality that sets us aside is no the love of knowledge, but the love of study…
It all depends, of course, on the person who stands before the students. The teacher is not to be seen as an automatic source of water, from which one may draw spiritual drinks at any time and hour…
He cannot guide his pupil to the land of choice, if he had not been there himself.
When he asks himself: do I uphold that which I teach? do I believe in that which I utter? It is necessary for him to be able to answer with a Yes.
What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text people. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text they will never forget.
The teacher of our time, though he no longer wears a snow-white beard, is a link in the chain of tradition. It is he that mediates the past and even the future. However, he is also the one who creates the future of our people. He must teach the pupils to value the past, in order to make their future clear to them.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel, from the article “The Spirit of Jewish Education”

Target Language – Teenagerish

I’m a teacher. And I’m a translator. Well, for starters it’s a great second income, and as is well known – every teacher needs one.

But this morning it suddenly struck me: there is a deep connection between my two professional fields. Of course, both of them surround words. But that’s nothing to write home about. In a much deeper sense, my work as a teacher involves many of the skills I require as a translator. In fact, my objective as a teacher is to translate the knowledge for my students into a language they know. Because the idea, both in translation work and in the classroom, is that the words you choose are importance, the order in which you choose to place them is significant, punctuation marks matter. Alternatively, in class, it is the rhythm and tone of speech. In both fields you have to be attentive to the needs of the customer (oh, how much I hate the use of this word in connection with students!), to try and understand in advance how best to deliver the message from the source language to the target language. In my case, the target language is Teenagerish: it has its own grammar, its own internal logic, and its own irregular verbs that change at a very very rapid pace. These changes make Teenagerish the hardest language to learn, but for me – as a translator, they also make it the most challenging and enjoyable language to learn.

And yet, there is one important difference (well there are several, but one that is relevant here) between translation work and teaching: as a tranlsator, I have no need for the customer to eventually understand the source language. As a teacher, my ultimate goal is not merely to understand Teenagerish, but to enable my students to reach a stage, where they are fluent in Adultish.

Educating is Believing

Educating is believing.

It’s about believing, that even if youd can’t see the results, something of you touches something of them.

It’s about believing, that in each child and in each teenager that you meet there is a spark, dormant and hidden as may be, a spark that if only gets blown by the right wind, could ignite in a great flame.

It’s about believing in the ability to improve, to change, to grow.

In many ways, education is a kind of religion: there’s something out there, not always comprehensible, almost undetectable and resisting definition, that you just know – with blind faith – that is beyond all reason.

To educate is to know, that no matter how much of a role model you may be, none of your students will be like you. And this is not a byproduct – it’s the desired result.

Because what matters the most is not what you gave, but what they choose to take.

Educating is believing, that change is possible; it’s believing in the children, that they are capable of change.

If you lack the power to believe – you have no business educating.