Earlier in October I attended a conference about self-directed learning and unschooling, hosted by an unschooling community organisation called ‘Growing Minds’. I didn’t know that such a community existed in South Africa until about 6 months ago, when I first saw the conference announcement on Facebook. I had read somewhere that Elon Musk was unschooling his children and hadn’t given the idea much further thought except to label it ‘probably elitist’. And so I was surprised and intrigued to find it working as a grassroots, community-oriented movement here in South Africa.
I was also hooked by the theme of the conference, which was ‘unschooling as decolonisation’. I decided to attend, with a mind to listen, mostly, and maybe ask some questions. I was ready to feel inspired, but also possibly alienated.
Making this decision was one of the main factors that spurred me into re-working Encounteract and start writing more about my teaching and learning experiences. I knew I’d probably meet a lot of people who disagree fundamentally with the idea of school and its premise of providing education. I knew that some would have views of varying intensity and myopia and that talk about reform in mainstream schools might not be up for discussion. I wasn’t sure where the decolonial conversation would really go – or what kind of room it would really be given. I wasn’t sure where or how I would fit in, or even exactly what my stance was. I have often told people that I am a school teacher who ‘doesn’t trust schools’ but I am also hesitant to condemn schooling completely, because really it is a term that encompasses many possible interpretations both good and evil. Writing was my go-to option for starting to process these ideas and feelings, to start articulating my identity as a teacher (a learning teacher) and defining what felt important.
I always planned to write some reflections on the conference, but I am still not sure how they are going to emerge. Without a doubt, I am glad that I went, but I am also aware that the experience left me troubled about things that I didn’t know I needed to feel troubled about. I went in with a lot of questions, and I just left with more.
And so I haven’t exactly been churning out essays. Instead, I got back to my classroom, spent two exhausted days yelling at kids and tearing my hair out and feeling like a bad teacher. Good Going, Miss Muller.
What I have realised is that I want to at least test the waters of emergent curriculum and child-led learning, especially while I still have a classroom for 6 weeks. Soon the year will be over and I will be saying goodbye to my students for good. Already they have accomplished more than I really expected them to (because hey! this is all still pretty new to me and I didn’t know what to expect or what was possible when the year started). Now I’m wondering, what would happen if I cracked open the core structure of our school day and started introducing more freedom and choices to the students? Already they have unanimously decided that the school day should start with everyone grabbing a book from the book box and reading on the carpet. Goodbye registration period, we don’t miss it! What else will they show me?
To make things more interesting/ complicated, the in-coming Grade 1 teacher is shadowing me for the rest of the term, and I am responsible for guiding her as much as possible to take over my class. Yikes, truly! I don’t feel like an expert, or even proficient. In fact, I feel a bit like an eccentric inventor who is guessing half the time. But I am still excited to retrace my steps with her, to remember some of the highlights of the year,but also the mistakes, all the things I had to do over again or that really, shoulda-could’ve worked, but didn’t - or that shouldn’t have worked, but did!
With all these muddles of puddles to reflect on (in?) Encounteract is set up either to be neglected or besieged by my attentions. Read more about my teaching (and coping!) strategies or check out my most recent posts.
One of the classroom management mysteries that I'm still grappling with like a ghost behind a tangled sheet is *what to do about general chatter* in class. My thought process on this topic always runs on a kind of loop:
1. I don't want to be a dictator teacher who insists on pin-drop silence and believes that children should be seen and not heard.
2. besides often when children are working productively they mutter benignly to themselves, counting out loud or sounding out words because they haven't learnt to do that in their head yet. It's just part of their learning! And who doesn't like to think out loud sometimes?
3. At first the room is relatively quiet and I feel like my strategy is viable. Mutterings and murmurings throughout, it's impossible to tell if there are occasional non-work related conversations going on and who cares anyway because remember point 1.
4. Oh but wait. What happened? Everyone is yelling. Everything is loud. Children are calling out my name as though I can't hear or see them. I see you, I hear you, I promise, but aaaaaargh!
5. Yell yell yell. Insist on immediate and continued silence. Insist again because cause they definitely ignored me the first time. I need quiet in this room! So do they! They need to learn how to work without chatting, don't they?
6. Don't they?
7. Return to 1. But now my head hurts and is this a hamster wheel?
Read more Snapshots here or at my instagram @katiencounteract
"All right boys and girls I need someone to come up and help us solve this problem. I'm going to choose someone who's sitting very nicely..."
(This is a time-honoured teacher ruse, met with bolt upright backs and gleaming hopeful eyes.)
Ah, shoot. They all took the bait. Now I have to choose one. I have to choose quickly. I've learnt that if I let my eyes wonder round the room too long, the souls of wide-eyed 7 year olds bore into me like innocuously piercing dentist tools. I call out a name and the announcement is met, instantaneously, with a roar of indignant discord. “Hauw, Miss! “
Some objections are quite articulate...
"Hauw Miss why so-and-so"
"Hauw Miss, you never choose me" (Not true!)
Others more guttural. They roar, they howl. They slam their hands dramatically into the carpet.
Tears erupt silently, heads sink helplessly onto scabby knees. Stumped, I hand out tissues, pat heads and repeatedly utter the now dog-eared "You can't always be chosen but I'm sure you'll get your turn soon" script in a desperate attempt to calm the stormy class and prevent total mutiny.
This kind of meltdown happens pretty much every day with my current class and has been happening since the beginning of the year. They’ve gotten a little less protracted and dramatic over the months. The chorused howl doesn’t last as long, there are fewer actual tears. But I still need to prep the children daily. “You know we need to share our turns to talk” “Try to feel happy for whoever gets a turn”. They nod agreeably. I feel hopeful. But the next time someone is chosen to talk or demonstrate knowledge in front of the class the same roar of objection greets me. Humph.
What really gets me about this situation is that it does feel unfair. My students all love having a turn to stand up in front of the class. They love sharing their knowledge, love being picked. Is there something really flawed in my approach of singling out students in this way? Clearly the injustice to the rest of the class is deeply felt, but is their feeling justified or is this just ‘how life works, kids.’ In my heart I suspect the former, but the status quo would have you believing otherwise. Children Have to learn that Life is Unfair (says the Status Quo) Children have to learn that they can’t always be chosen, that they can’t always be heard. What sinister function do these assumptions play in societal power games?
This also bothers me because I spend so much time asking the children to listen to me. Asking for their attention, rattling on and on about how good listening shows respect and don’t you know that listening is a part of how you learn, boys and girls. BOYS AND GIRlS! Are you listening?! I feel like ‘turns to talk’ are like candies and I am the hoarder, the keeper. Greedily, I keep many of the candies to myself, TTT. I use my candies for a lot of good reasons, but I also feel like I waste them on a lot of nagging, berating and lecturing that could surely be better used some way else.
Writing these Snapshots on talk has helped me to articulate some deeply rooted anxieties and doubts I have about my teaching practice, particularly how we share talk time in our class room. As I reflect on these troubling issues, I have found myself being more alert to my own talk-behaviour, checking myself at times when I have wanted to launch into another lecture or interrupt the children’s work to announce something. But it is difficult to self-correct, to have that acute awareness, hold myself accountable, come up with an alternative and act on it.
Ultimately I need new strategies. Cultivating this awareness, alternative-seeking and problem-solving is a big part of what Encounteract is all about. Read more Snapshots here. Read about new, progressive thinking in education that has the potential to challenge the grim status quo here. Read more reflections on societal and political factors impacting education here.
Earlier this week my wonderful teaching assistant left school by 9:30 to take her sick baby to the clinic. In spite of being the actual teacher, my heart sank at the idea of managing the kids by myself.
The day went from bad to worse. I stood in front of the buzzing room of little bodies gaping like a fish, trying to work out how to address the children without simply screaming my head off. Every utterance was swallowed by the din. More than once I seriously wished that I could walk out the room and hide somewhere.
Not only was I struggling to get the children settled, I'd also realised that the activity I had set for them was actually too difficult and this was making them even more restless and disengaged. Eventually I called-in all their books (in the manner of a paper-cellecting whirlwind) and handed out loose paper. We started a new activity where children worked in pairs to build and write sentences, instead of working on their own. It was still noisy, but it was way more productive and by the end of the day the children were actually unusually calm. I eyed them suspiciously, disbelieving. How did this happen?
I am glad that I talked myself through the gaping-fish moments, that I changed my tactics and that I didn't give up. An earlier version of teacher-me probably wouldn't have worked all that out. Getting your ducks in a row takes time and having your ducks in a row is something you can't take for granted.
Read more snapshots here.
A daunted but determined teacher irons out the creases of her brain.