Tag Archives: School

Language in Schools

I find myself with time to write, which either means I haven’t been doing enough physical activity or I have settled into some sort of routine. I suspect a bit of both, and likely the role of additional confounding variables. Time to write is also time to think, and I’ve been thinking a lot about language.

As I try to learn German, which first became a project back in January, I have found that my other languages are disappearing. I can understand most of what I read in French (my phone is in French and it’s still easier for me to read food labels and assembly instructions in French rather than German when the option presents itself) but I can’t think in French at all. I can’t find words, construct ideas, form sentences. I can read or listen and understand, but I can’t communicate.

The situation with Hebrew is worse. I started learning Hebrew in kindergarten and kept it up through high school, but never had an intuitive grasp on the language. Unfortunately, we were taught Hebrew in English. (I’ve been learning German in German and that has made a huge difference.) Very recently, for example, I met an Israeli man on a tour of Munich. He tried speaking to me in Hebrew and again, I couldn’t respond. I knew what I wanted to say in German, but that was the best I could do. Instead, we spoke English.

It is equal parts fascinating and frustrating.

This has me thinking about how we use language in international schools, and I have made different observations here than in both Malaysia and Singapore.

In Malaysia, English was the lingua franca for my students, all of whom spoke some degree of English and learned Mandarin and Malay in school. With few exceptions, they spoke Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil at home, and/or previously attended schools that functioned in any of the four languages. English is the default for mixed groups in Malaysia, certainly by educated people, and so it was at school. No questions asked.

It surprises a lot of people to learn that Singapore functions first and foremost in English. English is the language of schools, business, and government. There are special programs that operate in Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay, but otherwise these are language and literature classes within English schools. Many Singaporeans, however, do not speak English at home. There is a generational difference in Singapore between Mandarin speakers and speakers of other Chinese languages, notably Hokkien, and everybody else. The majority of the population is of Chinese descent and one can get by in that community without using English. It also helps that anything provided by the government, including the public transportation system, is available in all four languages.

Since my students in Singapore came from around 75 countries, English was their common language, as well. Danau Tanu’s wonderful book on international schools addresses the ways in which students group themselves by facility with language, and this could not have been more obvious in the environment of my school. Without getting into the social politics here, there was a clear divide between those comfortable in English and those who were not. That Singapore itself lives in English meant that obviously school would, too, with obvious exceptions among specific groups.

It is different in a small town in Germany where life outside of school is only in German. With merely a handful of exceptions, my students are German and that is the language they speak among themselves. I’ve been told of only one teacher who insists upon the use of English during her literature classes. My students are kind enough to switch to English when they want me to understand their discussions, at which point I can provide feedback. It’s also a great way for me to get to know them. Otherwise, my eavesdropping is limited to the little German I can understand.

I have thought a lot about this: Do I require students to share, collaborate, and discuss amongst themselves in English so I can be part of this element of the learning process? Or do I provide an opportunity for them to clarify, explain, and understand in the language that is clearly more comfortable for many of them? (I should say here, all of them have excellent academic fluency in English, whether they believe it or not.)

By contrast, in Singapore there were always a group or two of students who did not speak English while working in small groups. And I never asked them to switch to English because I recognized how difficult, tiring, and intimidating it was to be in their position. One difference is that in Singapore, I was working with much larger classes and I couldn’t possibly be part of every small-group task. Here, the class sizes are such that I could be. So who would benefit from a shift in the social norms of the classroom?

It’s a confronting question because it means I need to think about my role as an educator. Who am I in a classroom, and what does it mean to support the young people that I work with? They know something significant that I cannot currently access, and that is not a place I have been in before. Making decisions in this environment requires different considerations, and I find myself taking both sides of the argument.

At the moment, my goal is to learn German. At this point, while I understand some of what my students say, I better understand body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, and typical teenage behaviour. Importantly, though, learning German will give me entry to the culture that I am living in. I am lucky to have found a group of German friends through climbing and while all of them speak better English than I speak German, they are happy and patient when I try, and quick to point out simple errors. And so I do try, though I’m a lot quieter than I might otherwise be, and I get lost in loud places where people talk extremely quickly with grammatical constructions that don’t appear in textbooks. I’ve learned to ask for help, but someone usually translates into my ear before I need to. Body language. Facial expressions. Sometimes it’s just important to be there.

As for my students, I enjoy working with them regardless of language. I have a different appreciation for what it means to really live in another language than I did before moving here, and greater admiration for young people whose experiences put them at crossroads. After a lifetime of learning a language in school, it’s a joy to finally use it not because I want to, but because I need to.

Learn a language and you’ll avoid a war. – Arabic proverb

Before the First Day of School

I don’t know how other jobs work. When you start a new job, do you have time to ease in? Are there people around who can set aside their own tasks to walk you through things you don’t know? Are you joining a team with a defined role, or are you a new member of a group defining your own role?

I don’t know how other jobs work.

I just know that every time a new teaching job begins, it’s like starting from the first day all over again. “How are you doing?” people keep asking me. This will be my eleventh year teaching and the best I can say is, “I’m doing.” The sympathetic nods and kind smiles I receive in response indicate that my state of managed overwhelm is not unexpected.

Perhaps teaching is unique in the sense that you have a finite amount of time to prepare for everything, after which everything you do will have an impact on the life of a young person. I don’t mean to make myself sound more important than I am; after all, many, many things impact all of us every day and I possess no powers of divination with which to determine what is or is not ultimately relevant. Rather, it seems that the need to be good at your job has different stakes.

But again, I don’t know how other jobs work.

I do know that it always feels like this upon joining a new school. And to some degree, at the start of a new school year. In which other jobs does the entire staff use a week to prepare before beginning? It’s a bit like the performing arts, actually. Everything needs to be ready before day one and then, despite even years of rehearsal, so much seems to come down to improv – what do these particular young people need on this particular day? Making that series of decisions at the very moment they arise is both an art form and a science, one that is honed over time, and one that fades into the background when we prepare in the abstract.

Our students start on Wednesday and it feels a bit like I’m missing the forest for the trees. Much of what I’m preparing right now might be irrelevant once I meet them, yet I can’t meet them without having done this preparation. My agonizing about the loss of a piece of technology that has been at the centre of half my teaching career, while requiring me to rethink, reframe, and readjust, might very well have no impact on these students at all. I am spending my time trying to figure out new unit planners, new locations for resources, new policies, and new classroom arrangements, all of which are invisible when the students arrive but which lay the groundwork for the system to run.

And when the students arrive, I remember how it feels to educate, to learn, to inquire, to build community with young people. I remember that I’m not only competent at my job but good at it, and that every day with students brings me more joy than any school day without them.

I don’t know how other jobs work.

I don’t know if other people wake up in the middle of the night with visions of how to redo something they’ve already considered done. I don’t know the questions people in other jobs ask themselves.

In my 100 hours with these students this year, what kind of person do I want to help them become?

We need the prep work and time because we need a solid foundation. These are people we are shaping. Of course, we educators are just a small part of raising these young people; there are a plethora of other factors over which we have no control. But we have a wonderful opportunity to do some good and all young people deserve that.

Possibilities for a School Day

A number of years ago, a colleague and I wrote a blog post about what the ideal school day might look like. This piece was informed by our experiences in schools, our reading of education and well-being, and by the context in which we were in. At the time, I had a clear picture in my head of the type and amount of work it would take to strive for my ideals, and I was excited to share this grand vision with others.

However, I made a number of mistakes in the writing. While key details were clear in my mind, I did not explicitly articulate these, leading to a piece which I have since found to be imaginative rather than aspirational. Most importantly, I failed to mention the basic premise – that the ideas I developed stemmed from a highly specific time and place. In doing so, I assumed that readers shared my understandings about the environment and context within which I wrote, about the roles of schools, and about the roles of educators. 

I now recognise this omission and also acknowledge that this “basic premise” is far from constant. Time and context matter. Consequently, I can only now say that there is no such thing as an ideal school day. This post explores a few factors concerning why.

First, context matters. Schools around the globe are embedded in different contexts, different cultures, different environments. Their communities, furthermore, also vary greatly, from the highly homogenous to the highly disparate. As a result, there is no one size or one model that fits all. Consequently, at its core, the concept of an “ideal school day” begs the question: For whom? And it also raises a very different question: Who’s asking? 

We tend to take it for granted that schools serve a solitary function and that is to help students learn. Of course, they do this through state-mandated or other recognised curriculum, be it academic or social-emotional. But schools also carry certain stated values that are central to their work to the culture of the organisation, values that inform what is important and how we should act towards each other.

Schools also serve other functions, as a look at the history of schooling will tell us. They are a place for children to be safe, they provide time for adults to work while their children are looked after, they provide teachers with employment and income, and that income is then further used within the local community, providing for some security for others.

Consequently, the ideal school day for students, caregivers, governments, social organisations, and teachers might look very different. For example, it is not possible to concede that the ideal school day in a single-sex school in a developing country will be the same as that of a boarding school in a developed country. If we assume that the ideal school day can be a blueprint for all schools, then we find ourselves trapped in a model that merely perpetuates our experience of what a school is, or our culturally informed model of what a school should be.

With this in mind, we need to be aware that the factors in play across educational contexts are disparate, and that such disparity varies across a number of areas. In the case of a teacher’s experience, such factors may be who the students are and where they come from, the function that the school plays within the local and broader society and how teachers interact with such domains, and the physical environment in which the students are learning. Schools are not carbon copies of one another and neither are the communities to which they belong. Therefore, what works in one school cannot simply be dropped into another without careful reflection of the role of the school, without critical thought of opportunities that exist to improve or rebuild the school, and without purposeful action.

However, if we shift the focus from the school to education, we can find commonality. Educators speak of best practice and there are indeed best practices that are informed by what we know about the conditions under which learning can flourish. Such best practices include the strategies and teaching methods that overwhelmingly work – for most students, most of the time. They also include the ways in which we respond to students’ cultural backgrounds, a sensitivity to the differences that students bring with them once they enter the school gate. By all means, educators should cultivate, learn, and develop best practices that work and then adapt them so they are more effectively able to impact the learning of the young people under their care

But even best practice in the classroom, or in the relationships we build with students elsewhere, cannot eliminate problems that schools are not built to solve.

Education is fundamentally about people, and with this comes the awareness and acceptance that we are not all the same. There exists, for example, a myth that students in selective and self-selective schools will turn out just fine no matter what. However, this myth emphasises the environment – classroom, schedule, curriculum, operations – but neglects the individual students and their life experiences and the impact that these doubtless have on their learning. Even the most homogeneous student bodies, just like society, have vast diversity that is often unrecognized. So while it’s convenient and easy to classify people based on what we see, to stereotype, there is a significant danger in doing so because it limits us from looking for what we cannot see.

As such, this is a call for those of us who care for our students and each other to work together to make the learning environment the best it can possibly be as often as we can, to recognise that we are different and that this has implications that we must attend to.  At the same time, we must also acknowledge that schools are complex and that there are certain things that simply must be tolerated in order for the rest of the system to function. We cannot have starting times that differ for each student, we cannot fund individualized learning in the models that exist, we have to run buses and integrate with other sectors of society. Schools, after all, are part of social systems. They do not exist in a vacuum, though they are often upheld as the places where miracles should occur. This is the expectation of schools even though other formal and informal institutions within social systems change, crumble, grow, or disappear. As they are parts of such social, economic, and political networks, schools are impacted by that which surrounds them. They have to exist in specific times and places for society to function and this is one of many constraints placed on education.

That there cannot be a universal school idea does not obviate us from trying to do the right thing by young people. On the contrary, understanding that there are things that we can do, despite the time and place that schools find themselves in, compels us to act.

And so, I am going to extend a value judgement here (such is the freedom of blogging) and state that all educational environments should aim to do the following:

  1. Build a sense of community that emphasises relationships and interaction and do so in ways that do not incur any significant additional resources. For example, having shared mealtimes, intentional cross groupings of students for certain valued activities, or morning gatherings.
  2. Help students understand that the world is complex. All too often in schools we present scenarios that students explore but do so without the intent to help them understand the intricacy of such ideas. This requires careful planning and action to guide students through a gradual (perhaps years long) development of thought and understanding. It requires exposing students to ideas that they may otherwise not be aware of, or working with them to correct misunderstandings that they may have.
  3. Raise good people, people who value each other and what exists, through an emphasis on mutual respect and genuine care for one another and the world around us.

I can tell you how I try to do this but I am well aware that this is within my current context and the others I have encountered. This is my experience. I have been a different person, a different educator, for different groups of students with different needs; in fact, this is not simply a case of the school I might be working in, but also with the people I am working with in different courses and different sections of each course. Even such seemingly simple context matters and as a result, educating requires deep attention to purpose and to the ebb and flow of learning and growing.

This is a tall order, no doubt. But we cannot ignore that it is important if we are to help young people learn. We cannot ignore that the differences of time and place we find ourselves in must be taken into account, but also that there exist key principles which transcend such differences. And so, we need to work within what is important to the society in which we chose to live, while at the same time striving to live the principles I noted above. We cannot succeed if we try, working in isolation, to turn a learning environment into something that it is not. And perhaps we shouldn’t, for that would suggest that our thoughts are superior to those of the people around us.

Education is a craft that is continuously developed and honed in order to do the best we can in the circumstances that we have, which means that an “ideal school day” cannot be prescribed. However, this question, treated sensitively, can be a starting point for asking difficult questions. Nevertheless, there is a constant in education and this is that we work with people. And for that reason, first and foremost, we need to attend to our people.