Tuesday, 25 May 2010


Three days a week these days I teach in a brand new building where classrooms are opulently provided with all manner of modern contrivance, as computer, smart-board, DVD player, visualiser, comfortable chairs and tables, yea, without limit to any good thing. Except one. The whiteboard in there has the area of a small coffee table, whereas in the lower-tech classrooms in the non custom-built buildings, the whiteboards are vast, and apt for columns, diagrams, drawings and time-lines, all the stuff I have practised and got good at over the years. The new ones are hardly big enough to write your shopping-list on. I soon ran out of space and had to switch on the computer.

God, it’s a damn nuisance to teach from a computer key board. All day I have been feeling the sort of frustration my mother feels when she decides to have a go on her recently acquired laptop, and the damn thing seems wilful and out to get her. Since the classroom is big enough for a ballroom dancing championship, I had to sprint from terminal to smart-board and back, over and over, unable to erase, amend, or expand on what was written without several seconds delay and without turning my back to the group. I discovered that if you have the computer screen projected onto the smart-board, your finger acts like the mouse; you indicate a word and a box pops up, or the font changes, or some other damn thing happens that you had not intended. It became clear that I am going to have to plan everything in advance and save it on a memory stick, or rely entirely on the tiny whiteboard. Spontaneity and last minute changes of plan or even changes of tack are not going to be possible, or at the very least are going to be severely curbed.

The students were doing reading and note taking today, and half the class were note-taking virgins. In their own countries, they are expected to write down everything their teacher writes on the board. This is their sole source of information, so they never decide for themselves what to note down and what to leave. In fact, writing on the board is the only activity required of teachers in some countries. A brief digression here.

An ex-trainee of mine visited Bahrain, I think it was, where she was invited to a school. The teacher arrived early, and wrote the lesson on a sequence of whiteboards of the kind where you have one behind the other, and they slide up and down like car windows. In due course students showed up, decked out with designer togs, Rolex watches, solid gold iPhones, jeans studded with every august and costly stone, and what-not. They copied down the lesson from the boards after they had borrowed pens from the teacher, as you can't be carrying pens to school with all those precious metal accessories to worry about. When they had finished copying they took the lesson home, presumably fulfilling their part of the bargain by devoting some effort to memorising it - unless of course they had found some way of having it memorised on their behalf, which wouldn't surprise me.

Anyway, the most difficult thing to convey to certain (not all) of my lot today was that I was not going to write their notes for them, and that the notes were for them, not for me, and they would have to select the most salient points from a text by themselves. I showed them my own notes as an example, pointed out all the abbreviations and symbols and omission of superfluous grammatical nuts and bolts, and tried to get them to see that so long as they understood their own notes, I x gv toss if used same abbr. &ct. as me.

‘It’s correct?’ Abdullah asked, showing me this:

1. Painkiler
2. Five century
3. Arthritis - his father
4. 1899
5. heroin 2 painkilers
6. despite having a number of side effects

‘Might this not appear a trifle enigmatic when returned to, most especially after a prolonged absence?’

‘Is no correct?’

No, is no correct, but after a morning of fart-arsing amateurishly about with new technology that most of the class can handle with total confidence, I can hardly blame the kid for making a pig’s ear of his first attempt at gutting a text. He probably lost the plot about the same time I did.


Fionnchú said...

I've groused long already about my employer's shift to on-line hybrid courses and the new "blended" pre-fab lesson plans. I got my first student evals reacting to such and many castigated the system: too rapid, too dull, too much work. No time to innovate.

There's a lot of bean-counters pushing us in academia at least at its lower tiers into this mass production, since after all we teach proles and ourselves are treated as such, so the "school as factory" Marxian critique rings louder than ever, capitalism triumphant. The bosses laud the $7k smartboards nobody can figure out, the lessons that students can log in to do 24/7, and-- the rapid turnaround in grading from we who are expected to be on-line practically every day as we are monitored, clocked and scolded.

I'm getting tendonitis as it is from so much added time on the keyboard and its creep into my classroom "on-site" only adds "tension." The Luddite illustration's apropos. I find myself nostalgic for chalk and me and a sheaf of notes & handouts. It was no less work, but the work was mine, and I controlled it, rather than this mandated system. I hope you still have more leeway.

vilges suola said...

That sounds appalling - I really ought to be a bit more grateful for what I have got! Yes, we have total control over what we do in class and how we approach it, provided the sts get work on all four skills and whatever subskills are being focussed on during each 5 week block. I don't think any of us would stay if the system you have to labour under were imported. The place where I work is a bit chaotic, and communication is erratic, but after 15 years in Greece I can cope with chaos. (It drives some of my colleagues nuts.) As for the shiny toys, I don't find them useful or motivating, and yes, absolutely spot on, a blackboard, some coloured chalks and a pile of handouts would do me just fine.

Sarah said...

That sounds so familiar. Where I teach, we are assessed partly on our use of the technology - without any sense of what it might be used *for*, and largely without proper training in how to use it. Increasing classroom wallspace is taken up with smartboards, document projectors which block your view of your students, and similar gadgets, and the increasing burden of student tracking means you spend a lot of your lesson ignoring the students to enter data on the computer - our computerised register, for example, now has 3 categories of absence, and you are supposed to do this in class time. I've worked two contracts here, separated by 4 years away. In the interim, we have gone over to issuing all students with laptops. All very flash but, for anything involving communication and face to face learning (such as languages)the laptop is a barrier as much as an aid. So here I sit, tapping away into the computer while my students sit chatting in their own language on MSM...

vilges suola said...

It's getting absurd, isn't it? What the hell is the point of assessing teachers on their use of gadgetry they'd be unable to use in a power cut, and which generations of inspired and inspiring teachers did without?

Michael said...

You seem to have the most difficult time! As a student with a mom who's a teacher, I've never really heard of any teaching problems like the ones you describe in your blog. They're foreign, and it's English, and...

Also, most of the students I've encountered are also younger, so it could be that added factor of methodology already engrained in your adult student brains.

I feel for you with every post. You can feel a bit better knowing that, I hope. Gosh...

vilges suola said...

Thanks for the support, Michael, but remember I do only write about the difficulties and the gripes and the culture clashes and not the every day stuff, cos that'd just be boring: 'did a lesson, it went OK like 99.9% of lessons do...Did another this afternoon, it was really good... Nobody said anything funny / daft / outrageous...'Also it isn't actually English I'm teaching, primarily. It's academic English and study skills to people whose language and learning experience are quite different from what is expected of them here. I got three essays yesterday, all cut and pasted from websites which I found with just a few seconds googlement. I had to say, sorry, lads, can't mark this - and they were flabbergasted. They had no intention to deceive me, they just wanted to present me with something good. It takes a while for them to see how completely pointless it is to copy and paste stuff from the internet. I only write about the absurdities!

vilges suola said...

PS yes, the adult sts are more set in their ways.

Michael said...

Ah, well, you should sprinkle a little bit of the good stuff from time to time, I think, but only of course if you feel it doesn't interfere with the integrity and style of your blog. Surely, there must be some occasions when your students do something absurdly well.

Reading your posts are always an entertaining recreation anyway.

vilges suola said...

Yes, there ought to be a bit more upbeat stuff, you're right. Trouble is, successes are never as funny as fuck-ups. Glad it entertains you, anyway!


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