The Spanish Armada and the Daydreaming Child

A few weeks ago, while working in a school as a supply teacher, I taught a lesson about Spain, and I was finding out from the children what they already knew.

One of them said he had heard of the Spanish Armada, but he wasn’t really sure what it was. I asked if anyone else in the class knew anything about it, and immediately little Alfie* put his hand up. Now I would have sworn this kid hadn’t been listening – he’d been fiddling with his pencil and staring into space – so it was with trepidation that I asked what he knew. I was expecting a random observation about the weather outside, or a family member’s up-coming birthday. Instead I got this:

King Philip II of Spain was married to Queen Mary so he sort of ruled England as well. When Queen Mary died he wanted to stay in charge of England, so he asked Queen Elizabeth I to marry him. She didn’t like him so she said no. King Philip was so cross that she wouldn’t marry him that he raised a fleet of ships – called an Armada – to attack England. It didn’t do any good though because he lost.

Wow! Never, ever under-estimate the child you think isn’t listening!

* not his real name

Back to the Classroom

This year I enrolled in a British Sign Language evening class. I’ve already passed levels 1 and 2, so now I’m beginning Level 3.

It’s always strange to be back in the class part of the classroom rather than in the teacher role, and every time I do it I rediscover how it feels to be a child in class.

The teacher puts hand-outs in front of us, and of course I pick it up and start reading it. Oops – now I’ve missed the teacher’s signing so I don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing. Perhaps I’d better ask the person next to me. Uh-oh – caught talking!

Later we have to give presentations to the rest of the class. As soon as we are told to prepare, all my ideas fly straight out of my head and I can’t think of anything to say. By the time I have enough ideas to begin, it’s time to stop writing and begin presenting one by one. I try to write and watch at the same time, but that’s impossible. Reluctantly I put my pen down, but as soon as the first presentation is over, I start writing again, as quickly as I can before the second person is up.

When it’s my turn I’m not really happy with what I’ve done. I know I can do better, but it’s too late – the teacher has made her judgement about my ability.

At the end of the lesson the teacher starts to explain our homework. She’s signing really fast and I miss a bit. Oh no! I’ve missed a bit! What did that sign mean? I think I recognise it but I just can’t remember. Oh no! I’ve been worrying so much about the bit I missed that I miss a bit more. I try to concentrate, but I’ve missed so much that I’m really lost now.

I look around the room and the rest of the class are smiling and nodding. Have they understood it all? Am I the only one that didn’t? Does that mean I’m stupid? I can’t admit now that I didn’t understand or the whole class will know that I’m the stupid one. I start smiling and nodding along with the rest of the class.

The teacher finishes signing and asks if there are any questions. I hope someone else asks her to explain it again, but nobody does so I shake my head like the others. She asks if we all understood and I nod. I’m sure she’s going to ask someone to repeat it (that’s what I’d do) and I panic in case it’s me she picks. She doesn’t though – she just dismisses the class.

As we pack away the person next to me whispers, “I didn’t get that homework. Did you?”

I still won’t be doing my homework as I still have no idea what it is, but at least I know I won’t be the only one. I’ll certainly be more understanding of my class in future, although I still don’t have a solution to stop them daydreaming. If anybody has any suggestions please do leave them in the comments below. I’ll try them on myself first to see if I can concentrate more!

Manic Monday

Manic Monday. Think The Bangles had it right there – Mondays are definitely my most manic day of the week at the moment.

They start too early when the alarm goes off on one side, and my husband shakes me on the other to make sure I don’t ignore the alarm! Then it’s up, showered, dressed, breakfast if I have time and out the door.  I get to school, which is in south Birmingham, just in time to check my emails and then over to my House (the House is like a before school social event for the children) to accompany the pupils to chapel.

After chapel, lessons start, but I can’t get into my classroom straight away because it is someone else’s form room so I have to wait until the children have been registered and dismissed. By this time I can enter my first class is already lining up outside so I have to welcome them into the classroom, grab the books from the cupboard to be given out and log on to the computer at the same time.

I have three lessons back to back with three different year groups and two different languages. At last it’s break time, but that’s not a chance to catch my breath – that’s time to pick up pen and paper and head over to the main building for a staff meeting.

Lunchtimes on a Monday are a rush too – shorter for me on Mondays than on the other days of the week because I teach infants straight after their lunch on a Monday, but theirs begins earlier than ours so their lessons start half an hour earlier in the afternoon.

Thankfully I have a free period at the end of the day so I can begin marking, but straight after work I head back to north Birmingham to begin my other job as a private tutor – I don’t even have time to go home first.  Two hours of tutoring later and I’m off to my adult education class. By the time I get there the class is well under way so I offer my apologies and take my seat.

Thirteen and a half hours after leaving my home, I walk back through my front door. Just time to think about an evening meal, washing up and feeding my pets before collapsing into bed.

Thank goodness Mondays only happen once a week!

To find out more about my work, visit my website www.sjbteaching.com.

Getting to Know a New Class

Getting to know a new class is always hard with all those names to learn, but usually a class teacher has time on their side. Time to carry out various “getting-to-know-you” activities with a class they will be seeing every day. When your main role is as a PPA teacher you have only a couple of hours to learn the names of 30 children that you won’t see again for another week, so you need one activity that will fix those names firmly in your mind.

My way is to tell a story in French. This immediately holds the attention of the children: in many primary schools languages are not taught and so for children this is a real novelty; in some schools languages are taught, but even so children are likely to have learned only words and phrases, and so the idea of a whole story in a foreign language is still a novelty.
Before I begin I promise the children that they will understand the story, and with the help of props and plenty of actions, I tell the story of a hat that was so small it got stuck on my head. The format of the story is the same as The Enormous Turnip, and I call the children out one by one to help me pull the hat off. Those who have been called out love swaying backwards and forwards as they try to pull the hat off. Those who are still waiting enjoy joining in with “We pulled…and we pulled….and we pulled….but the hat still wouldn’t come off.”

Each time I call another child up, I list the names of the ones already in line. By the time I get to the end of the story I have repeated the names so many times I know I won’t forget them.

The children always enjoy the activity so much that for the rest of the year whenever they see me they ask “Are we going to do French today?” and “Will you tell us that story again?” If you want to give it a try, you’ll find the transcript for the story on my website, www.sjbteaching.com – just click on the link at look at the free resources page.

For language teaching in the north Birmingham, Sandwell and Walsall areas, visit www.sjbteaching.com. For links to other interesting education related articles, come and Like my Facebook page.

Languages at 5 – what’s all the fuss about?

The government suggest that children should start learning languages at the age of five, and suddenly in true British fashion we are throwing up our hands in horror. We are criticising the government for suggesting such a ridiculous idea. We are throwing up every obstacle we can think of, dismissing as irrelevant the fact that other countries teach their children English from a young age, and focusing firmly on the negative.

One of the poorest excuses for not learning a language I have heard in the last 24 hours is: “It’s different for us. We’re an island so we are more cut off from the rest of Europe.” Maybe you forgot, but we are connected to mainland Europe by train lines now. It’s quicker for someone in London to get to a non-English speaking city, than for someone in Frankfurt to get to a non-German speaking city.

“What’s the point in teaching our children a foreign language when they haven’t got a wide English vocabulary yet, and they are still struggling with the complexities of our own grammar?” The point is that at this age language skills come more easily to them. When they are still mispronouncing some words in their own language they are not afraid to have a go at pronouncing foreign words.

In the last couple of years I have taught a variety of languages to Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 children. They have sung French songs in a presentation for new parents, German ones in school assemblies, and Latin carols in Christmas plays. In fact last Christmas one 5 year old girl I had been teaching was so confident that she sang a solo in Latin!

I’ve told them stories in a number of different languages, and they have taken great delight in joining in with repeated phrases. They have learnt not to get hung up about understanding every single word as long as they understand the important parts.

These children have been praised for their abilities and they now see having knowledge of a foreign language as something to be proud of, not something to be scared of.

Nobody is suggesting that we suddenly expose a five year old to the difficulties of German cases, so let’s do something really radical. Let’s put all our language prejudices aside and examine the positive side of teaching languages to children at a younger age.

One of the main frustrations in learning a new language is not being able to express yourself in that language as easily as you can in your own, and this is what causes a lot of learners to lose heart and give up. The older you are when you begin to learn a second language, the greater the chasm between your ability in your own language and in the one you are learning. By beginning to give children the tools they need to learn a second language, we are closing that gap. At this young age children are happy to be learning just words and short phrases, so there is no need for teachers to worry that they don’t have enough knowledge.

Starting teaching languages at 5 lays foundations for more in-depth language learning in KS2. The children already have 2 years of vocabulary behind them so by the time they start to learn some grammar they have enough words at their disposal to build useful sentences with.

What about the fact that they struggle with grammar in their own language? People are assuming that teaching grammar in MFL lessons, and grammar in literacy lessons have to be mutually exclusive, but this does not have to be the case. Grammar is grammar in any language. Nouns are still nouns, verbs are still verbs, and (in European languages) sentences still have to begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop. A sentence in any language needs a verb to make it make sense, and adding a connective will make it more interesting. Instead of being scared of teaching languages to primary school children we should embrace it as a means to reinforce their learning in English. It can even be used as an aid to expanding their English vocabulary. For example: “French only has one word for small – how many can you think of in English? Let’s use a thesaurus to find some more.”

Why then stop at reinforcing English? I have taught children to tell the time in French the week after they did it in their maths lesson, thus consolidating what they have learnt. The children were happy to do it again because it was in a different language, and those children who had struggled to tell the time when it was taught in English had a second chance to pick it up.

We already have several generations who are terrified by the thought of speaking another language. Don’t we owe it to our children to let them be the ones to whom it is second nature?