Monthly Archives: June 2013

Free Time!

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These words strike fear into my heart!

In fact when a colleague told me recently that they had booked the computer room and left instructions in an extra for “free time” I actually screwed my face up and said, “OOhhhhh, you didn’t?” in a pained voice.

I first came across this concept when I was supply teaching in the UK at a school I now affectionately refer to as the ‘school from hell’. It was a tough, inner city school already on special measures. I walked in to my first class, Year 10 English, and was greeted with, “We always get free time on Fridays, Miss”. Sceptical but open to new ideas I enquired what that meant. Apparently it was ethically, educationally and socially acceptable to sit around for an hour and do nothing! (I thought we called that lunchtime?!?) Even more incredulous to me was that the students apparently just got “free time” without having to do anything to earn it. I let them get away with it … once!

The second week, I introduced the concept of earning privileges. On Monday I posted the goals for the week (tasks to complete, including attendance) and any student who had completed them by Thursday would get to participate in “Games Day Friday”. Games day was actually a trivia quiz competition and was surprisingly successful.

More recently, I had a difficult Year 7 English/Humanities class … to be fair, they had had an incredibly disrupted start to High School with a large number of staff changes in their first six months. So we needed a reward system as part our behaviour management plan and “Games Day Friday” appeared again. This time I brought in games (Scrabble, Pictionary, Charades, Boggle, etc.) and students had a choice.

I have no issue with students having choices in activities. I am quite happy to have a classroom where students do different things in the lesson. In fact, I welcome it. One of my professional passions is to help students develop their independence. But even when taking “Free Play” with preps, it was not a free-for-all.

The trouble with “free time” in the class room is it serves no purpose. It doesn’t help students to make choices. It doesn’t help them to improve any skills they aren’t already good at. It doesn’t help the teacher because bored students (especially teenagers) tend to make bad behaviour choices. It isn’t fair to anyone!

“Free time” is a cop-out. It is a frustrated teacher looking for a quick lesson plan. It is students taking an easy, lazy option … and more often, taking advantage of a situation.

To be fair to my colleague the specific situation I spoke of at the start of this post arose because the class was decimated due to a sports day and the teacher didn’t want to ‘punish’ the remaining students by giving them extra work. However, even this situation can be planned for. My suitcase of selected, appropriate games (determined by me, for the classes I teach) usually lives next to my desk. I also have weblinks to selected, appropriate activity sites on my virtual classroom page. Students still have choices and are not doing ‘extra work’. The teacher doesn’t need any particular knowledge or expertise to take the class. But … the session is not just an extension of lunchtime conservations.

I don’t call it “Free Time” but I am happy to call it “Free Choice”. There are still clear educational outcomes associated with any session resulting in “Free Choice”.

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What is your “free time” plan?

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Tell me a story …

We started a new semester this week. For me it was also a new subject … we have decided to run a Year 10 Literature unit! I joked with my students last term that I was on a mission to take over the world. I would know I had achieved my goal when we had more classes of Lit at Year 12 than English! I love teaching Literature because essentially it is teaching thinking. I was lucky enough to have a Year 12 Lit teacher who continually challenged us to think for ourselves and justify our thoughts. We didn’t have to agree with her or with each other but we had to use the evidence in the texts. This is the approach I take with my students … I ask questions and highlight alternative theories of interpretation.

I faced a couple of big dilemmas in planning this unit. This is my first opportunity to convince the students to join my crusade. If they don’t enjoy Year 10 Lit then they won’t choose it again in the following years. So two things are really important: text choice and introductory hook.

For text choice I’ve gone with “The Hobbit” by JRR Tolkien. After some discussion with the other Lit teacher at school I decided to build the course around one text which we will look at closely. We can link with poetry (world war I and classic epic tales) and the movie adaptation. So lots of Literature skills being ticked off there.

But the hook, the hook!

In Year 11 the first activity I do is to read a poem and work through how our understanding changes as we learn new information. The hook here is I perform “Dear Mr President” by Pink as a poem. It takes the students a little while to work out why this ‘poem’ sounds familiar, and prompts a lot of discussion about the nature of poems vs songs.

In Year 12, as mentioned before, I start by reading “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak. This text covers so many elements of critical theory and I love performing the “roll their terrible eyes, gnash their terrible teeth” parts.

Year 10 caught me a bit by surprise. I had planned, and prepared, an activity using an art work created with dots. The metaphor would be that looking at the details shows us different things to looking at the big picture. The activity was designed to position the students as participants not audience (I am keen to avoid lecturing) … however ... I thought I had another week and left all the resources at home!

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So, I raced to the library and yet again my love for picture story books got me out of a hole.

“DragonQuest” by Allan Baillie is my second favourite PSB. It resonated really well with the metaphor I had planned to start with, it linked very well with the iconology of The Hobbit in terms of medieval imagery, reading it demonstrated the importance of oral story telling  … and it surprised the Year 10s! We read it, or should I say I performed it, twice in the first lesson. It reminded me, again, that PSB have soooooo much to offer in a secondary classroom … and of course not all PSB are actually aimed at young children anyway!

This wasn’t the hook I had planned, but it will be next time this unit runs! It worked really well for something with very minimal planning … following the lesson, I had a conversation with the other Lit teacher and reflected on the ups & downs. Since then I have annotated my lesson notes so I can improve the delivery next time round.

In our last session before the holidays I read them “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” and we had a discussion about why grammar, punctuation and spelling are important. The lesson with the art work will be the first session after the holidays and will refresh our thinking ready for term three.

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What has been your best “hook” for a lesson / unit?