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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Lesson Observation, Asking for Directions in London

So I realized that I am going to be away on my spring break for the next two weeks so I figured I would post another time in the group. For this reflection I think I will talk about a lesson that I observed last week in my other classroom. I was supposed to have been working in my regular classroom, but there was a class field trip that my teacher forgot to inform me about. This was not a big deal at all, and so I merely just went down a couple of rooms and met my other teacher. I asked him if it was okay for me to sit and observe his classroom that day, considering I walked in very last minute. In this sense, it worked out pretty well for me because it allowed me to absorb what was going on in the classroom and give my full attention to observation rather than trying to multi-task and focus on my own instruction as well.

This classroom has an older age range than my first classroom, the students ranging from about 12-13 years old. Although this is only one or two years older, there is quite a significant difference in the age of maturity (or lack therefore of…) and skill set of the students. This can be quite a difficult age, one of awkwardness and when you feel like you constantly have to prove yourself. I can imagine all three of you cringe at the thought of your 12 or 13 year old self, or perhaps that is just me. In either case, I think it was a good experience for me working with this age group because it presents a different sort of challenge, as I usually either work with high school or elementary aged students. To work with kids in the thick of middle school is very different.

This particular class is pretty rowdy in nature, and feels the need to constantly exert all the energy they have during the lesson. This is an English class as well, and while they are a couple of years older than my other class, many of the students’ English skills I would say are inferior to that of their younger counterparts. The focus of this lesson was concerned with asking for directions, and what one would expect to hear and what one should say in a situation. For this lesson, it comes directly out of their textbook, which is accompanied by Internet activities and videos. What I find interesting is that when the class watches these videos and speaks English, it is all done in relation to British English and not American English. The students are more interested in American culture than British culture, but they are forced to learn phrases and words that are not part of the American lexicon. For example, the students completed an entire exercise using “must” and “mustn’t” as well as reading about a student and her “maths” assignment. Subtle differences, but things I have noticed throughout my time here. 

The video showed a young boy about the same age of the class asking a woman how to get to a bookshop in the heart of London. We watched the video in its entirety at first, which was about 2-3 minutes in length. Then, the video went into a question and answer section where the students were asked questions about the video, such as “Where did Marcus ask the woman where to go?” or “What is the bookshop located opposite from?” To be honest, I was very impressed with the students, because even as a native speaker (and yes, this is a tad embarrassing) I was having trouble following this video. Nevertheless, the students seemed to grasp the majority of the conservation. On a regular basis, my CT will use what the book has for content and build upon that to assess whether the students understand the material. In this case, he asked the students to draw the directions on a sheet of paper, with the traffic lights, landmarks, and roads. This was a good informal assessment because he could simply walk around the class and very clearly see whether or not students had understood the video.

Overall, I would say that this was a pretty successful lesson. Every class my CT goes around to different students and directly assesses their oral and reading skills. He does this on a fairly random basis, and once a student completes the assignment, he takes each student’s small grade book and assigns him or her a grade on a scale of 1-10, 6 being a passing grade. Students carry these small little books with them throughout the school day, and teachers from each classroom each have their own section. For example, he asked students to complete an exercise in the workbook concerning the use of compounds, and when a student correctly answered several questions with decent accuracy, he gave them a grade in their book of an 8. One of these questions was finding the right word for this sentence: “We’re not going anywhere this weekend.” He is a pretty fair grader, and when a student has shown a good amount of effort, despite not a perfect performance, he will give them the benefit and raise the grade by one mark.


I hope all is well with your teaching placements and I’m looking forward to reading more about your experiences!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

My First Teaching Blog Post

Hello everyone! Sorry that I’m joining the blog game a little late here, but I’m glad to be starting now. I did not actually start my teaching placement until the second week of March or so, so I have only been at this for a month! I also had some difficulties figuring out how to post to this forum, but alas, here we are and now I am ready to blog!

To give you a little background on who I am, my name is Kevin Holbrook and a Secondary Education and History major in the Lynch School. I am from Medfield, Massachusetts and I have lived there my whole life, graduating from Medfield High School in 2011. Currently, I am studying abroad in Parma, Italy, which has been one of the best experiences of my life! I had not intended originally doing an international practicum, but I still wanted to volunteer in a school setting. Upon learning more about this “blog soup,” I was intrigued to join and to hear all of your thoughts about your experiences abroad. I am looking forward to reading, commenting and having some good conversations.

My placement this semester is at the San Benedetto School, which is an elementary and middle private parochial school located in the heart of Parma’s historical district. I have been placed with two different teachers with students ages 11-12 and ages 12-13. My main goal is to serve as an English teacher and social studies teacher, although both of my teachers have granted me quite a generous amount of autonomy in the classroom.

While my first day was about a month ago, I will try and recount it here for all of you. As I entered the school, I parked my bike alongside a row of teacher’s bike racks. (Parma is one of the top places in the entire world for commuting by bike—go figure). As I entered the school, the school secretary greeted me in a lobby area. I introduced myself and explained my role and he asked me to wait for my CT to come and meet me. This all took place in Italian, and as a beginner (very beginner…) speaker, I was quite pleased with myself that I was able to conquer that first barrier…getting through the door.

As I met my CT, she was incredibly enthusiastic about having an American student working in her classroom. She had once before had a student from England for a semester, but she had never had a student from the States. Very quickly I was impressed with her demeanor, and she reminded me of many of the teachers I had during elementary school. When we entered the class, all of the students immediately stood up and greeted me with a loud and eager “Hello!” This is perhaps the best word they can say, and I am somewhat convinced it is the only word some students now, but nevertheless, I felt welcome as I entered. The standing up was something that reminded me of classrooms I have seen from various Asian countries, where I know teachers are highly respected. While I do not think merely standing up constitutes respect, I think it was a very visible gesture that is something I at least never saw as a student in America.

One of the strongest similarities between the American education and this particular school is the use of technology. I was quite impressed to see SmartBoards in every single classroom in the school. Granted, I do recognize this is just one school (a private one at that) in one city (one of the wealthiest in Italy) and that it cannot be seen as an example for all Italian schools. Nevertheless, I do find it interesting and encouraging that students abroad have access to these sorts of technologies in their schools and are utilizing them on a regular basis. I am a huge proponent of using technology in the classroom, and to be able to use the SmartBoard in my instruction over here is a huge plus.

While I do plan to talk about curriculum more in depth in further posts, I would like to briefly touch upon it in this introductory post. As far as my instruction goes, I have almost complete autonomy as to what I teach. I have taught lessons on my family to introduce vocabulary, the city of Boston, St. Patrick’s Day (which I did come prepared in a full green outfit), as well as popular culture in the United States. Because I have taught in several different classrooms to several different ages, it is amazing to me the difference in response I have received to my lesson.

In one of the classes where I gave a presentation about my family, I showed a map of Massachusetts in relation to the entire United States. The class responded with questions about what the other states were in a respectful and inquisitive nature. In another one of the classes, they screamed and yelled and asked about the Boston Celtics, after learning I am from Boston. And in my third class, they asked me (through my Italian teacher translating some of the advanced English dialogue) whether Massachusetts had the death penalty. What a difference! Considering I had taken a class last year solely about the death penalty and wrote a 35 page paper on it, I obviously had a lot to say on that subject—but only for that class! To me it was amazing how different the conversation ran from class to class. Obviously that is not the goal in my own classroom to have such variety, but I think in these cases of introductions, it was good to have the students engage with me in a manner that made them comfortable.


So, I think that’s enough for one post! If you have any questions, feel free to comment or send me an email—I’d be glad to respond.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An Introduction to Scoil Mhuire


There were some unforeseen challenges in securing a student teaching placement in Cork, Ireland; so it wasn’t until my ninth week abroad that I finally had my first day of student teaching. However, it was well worth the wait. It feels amazing to be back among the students after such a long absence from the school setting, and being back in a classroom has provided positive affirmation that I am pursuing the right vocation as an elementary, or in this case, primary school teacher!


I am placed at a small, private, all-girls school called Scoil Mhuire (pronounced Skol Vera) in a third class (third grade equivalent) classroom. The first surprise was how tiny the class size is – there are only 10 girls in my classroom. As a teacher, I wonder what size classroom is most ideal. While too small of a class may limit diversity and the ability to have different thinkers bounce ideas off each other, there definitely are benefits to having such a small class size, such as individualized attention, the development of strong and tight bonds among the students and between the students and teacher, and the ability to have more creative, hands-on lessons that might not be as feasible with a larger class size. I definitely see many of these advantages at work in this classroom. My CT is able to provide the individualized attention some of her struggling math students need while not preventing the rest of the class from moving forward. What is most apparent, however, is how strongly bonded the students are with their teacher. In talking with my CT, I have discovered that she not only has these students for third class, but she had them as first and second infants as well (I think that is the American equivalent to Pre-K and Kindergarten). They all know each other really well. She’s had the students to her house for a field trip and her husband, who is an artist, comes in every Monday to assist with their art projects. This close bond makes my CT’s classroom feel not just as a community, but as a family. I know this isn’t the typical experience within Ireland. My CT has actually commented that I am not in a traditional Irish school at all, but one that is strongly influenced by English teaching styles (my CT actually is from outside London, originally). It would be interesting to see how this private, English-infused classroom would compare to a more traditional Irish setting.

The school day starts at 8:40 am and concludes at 2:30 pm – a rather short school day by American standards. In the morning, the entire school stands together and sings a song and says morning prayer. The students then go to their respective classrooms. In third class, they start the day off with mental math exercises, then have an in depth math lesson (they currently are learning their times tables). Math is followed by English, then recess. After recess they have a 45 minute Irish language lesson. In Ireland, according to my CT, you cannot get a teaching job if you cannot speak Irish. However, because this is a private school, the classroom teachers do not have to know Irish and they hire a separate Irish teacher. The students are learning a lot of the material through song. After Irish, the students had science (they’re learning about circuits), then lunch. What’s interesting about scheduling at Scoil Mhuire is that on Thursdays my CT only works a half-day. After lunch at 12:50 she leaves for the day. After lunch, third class has choir, which is taught by an external music teacher who comes to the school every Thursday and teaches the entire school singing all at once. After choir, the students have Italian, taught by a woman from Italy, and conclude the day learning the recorder from the school’s headmistress. 

While I want to address some of the similarities and differences I’ve noticed in the academic curriculum in a later post, some of my initial observations include how heavily the curriculum is influenced by music and language. They have two foreign language blocks, Irish and Italian, during the day, and on Thursdays they have choir, singing during Irish, and the recorder. I was surprised by how heavily focused on the arts this school system is. I found it really refreshing coming from BPS schools where the arts are being cut from the budget, but I wonder if all of the time devoted to music and language at Scoil Mhuire influences their academic performance. (I’m not suggesting that it does; I’m just pondering). A second observation was how much time the school collectively spends together. First class through sixth class attend both recesses together, and Thursday’s choir is held with the whole school. Watching the students engage in the hallway and at recess, it is apparent that all the students across grade level know and are friendly with each other. The older students have taken on mentorship roles to the younger students and I really liked how bonded they are across grade level. I think having these relationships across ages is beneficial to the students as it widens their understanding of social relationships to include interactions with others in different peer groups. I think it's important for them both to have role models and to learn how to be an appropriate role model, which is a skill that this school environment fosters.

For the rest of this post I want to quickly talk about my second day of student teaching when I was a substitute teacher. I was surprised by how eager and willing my CT and the headmistress were to have me substitute third class on only my second day of student teaching! I was extremely nervous. I’ve never been alone in a classroom before, and reflecting on my own experiences as a student, I know how students like to challenge and test substitutes. Classroom management is one area in which I definitely need further development, and as a substitute, I knew I was going to need to create a warm and friendly, yet authoritative presence.  Needless to say, I went into the day speculating on how terribly it could end up. However, substitute teaching a third class classroom in Ireland has entered the record books as my favorite experience while being abroad! The kids were absolute angels and were very attentive to my directions (and I called them out on it when they weren’t!) I tried to make completing the series of "busy work" worksheets as fun as possible – during math I invited them to draw out the symmetry problems on the whiteboard, during English we worked through the first few problems as a class, and during geography I shared lots of information about America and Boston which the students loved. It feels good to have come out of the day, not only having survived, but absolutely enthralled with the experience. I can feel myself growing in my confidence as a teacher throughout my experiences teaching abroad, and I am looking forward to my remaining days at Scoil Mhuire.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

First Impressions of the International School of London

When I thought of doing a practicum in London, I thought I would have the opportunity to see a school that was uniquely English.  I studied up on English schools, learning about everything from the uniforms that most students wear to the exams (A Levels) that most students would eventually be taking.  I felt as prepared as I could be.
However, my placement school is not the typical English school - it's the International School of London.  The students are from everywhere around the world, they speak different languages (and occasionally need to be taught to speak English), and have experienced different cultures.  Despite its immense diversity, the school itself is incredibly small: the website lists that there are 350 students enrolled between age 3 and 18.  So far, I've encountered the year 11 (which translates to grade 10) classroom, which consists of 7 students.  On my first day, two were absent leaving 5 students, 4 girls and 1 boy, from countries like China, Italy, India, and Libya.  I am told that the other class I will be joining (year 10, grade 9) will be slightly bigger with 11 students.
It's amazing the way that these students interact and relate to one another.  In my first few minutes in the school, I was in my CT's homeroom and students began discussing, as I suspect they do all over the world, when school would be out for summer.  Students started comparing when school gets out in their home countries, both for summer and during the day.  Some talked about a school day from 10 to 6, while others talked about a break in the middle of the school day to go home to eat with your family.  If my short time at this school has taught me anything, it's that these students do not take customs for granted.  Because everyone in the school is an "other" of sorts, they expect none of their experiences to be completely universal or unique.
One of the ways that this hodge-podge sense of community is reflected is in the languages offered at the school.  As students enter the school, they are taught at least two languages.  If English is not their first language, the second language is English; if English is their first language, then they are taught another modern language.  Then, as they reach middle school years, they pick up a third language, assuming adequate fluency in English has been reached.  This third language can be either Chinese, Spanish, or French, if these languages are not the student's first language.  Offering so many options to so few students mean that the smallest class someone could be in is would have a one-to-one ratio (there is a student who has experienced that in her advanced French class).  
This small ratio is included in English as well.  Of the 7 students in year 11, only 3 have chosen to take the class as a "higher level," opting for more classes in that subject rather than in others.  Thus, on Wednesday, English class consists of only 3 students.
This school is not specifically English, and therefore its students aren't specifically English either: they don't wear uniforms and they follow the IB system, rather than A Levels.  The students, like the school, are international, and uniquely so.  This school treats students like individuals who each have different life experiences to bring to their classes, something that is especially relevant in an international school.  But, rather than just accepting students' nuances, the school lets students use those strengths to make choices influence their own educational experiences, an autonomy that I find both new and refreshing in such young students.