Sunday 19 March 2017

Teaching human rights through language

During my years teaching I have learnt that teaching adults is by no means a one way process. It certainly isn’t about me bringing knowledge to the classroom for my students to gratefully absorb and walk away with. Teaching is about what we all bring, and share and learn. I’ve learnt about the history and geography of the countries my students grew up in. I’ve learnt about different political systems, religions, customs, clothes and family life. My favourite lessons are the ones where we all bring a dish and learn about food from other countries. I’ve also learnt about determination, motivation and resilience and I am inspired every day by my students’ attitude and aspirations.
I have been given the opportunity recently to take my teaching and learning in a new direction and to get involved in a project looking at teaching human rights in language. This is a topic that is both new to me, and at the same time is something that has always underpinned how I live and teach and work.

It is easy to take our human rights for granted, or to think that human rights are not something we need to concern ourselves with. My daughters' right to education is not threatened; I have never felt the need to consider my right to be free from torture as I have never experienced or been afraid of being tortured; I was free to choose who I wanted to marry, or not marry; I always exercise my right to vote and feel safe to do so. These, and many more are set out in the universal declaration of human rights. Not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to take these rights for granted, and that's where the thinking behind the teaching of human rights through language came from. Recently arrived migrants, including asylum seekers and refugees, will be offered the chance to participate in courses to learn the language of human rights and the laws of the countries they are now living in.

“Human rights in language” is funded by a European funding programme which seeks to prevent violence and protect the rights of women, young people and children. I spent a few days in Berlin last week meeting with language teachers from other European countries where we shared our experiences of teaching migrants and took part in workshops looking at how we can teach human rights in language classes. We all came away inspired and motivated and with firm plans in place to start teaching these classes in our settings in 5 European countries, including three locations in the UK.

Teach is maybe the wrong word though, because I know, as all teachers do, that teaching any topic in a language lesson is about sharing, enabling, giving and receiving. It’s humbling to realise that your students’ experiences are far greater that yours and their contributions teach the rest of the group far more than the person with the certificate and the teacher’s hat on standing by the whiteboard. I hope that I can help my students to learn the language they need to talk about human rights, and to gain the skills and confidence to take that language out of the classroom. For by doing this, we are together doing our bit to make the world a better, fairer place for all of us to live in. And at the end of the day, that’s what my job is all about.

If you would like to know more about how you, or someone you know, can get involved in human rights in language classes in Newcastle feel free to get in touch by leaving a comment below.

Monday 22 October 2012

Leave the teacherspeak in the staffroom

Teachers generally have my full support. I think the teachers at my daughters' school are brilliant and they are doing a fantastic job of educating my children. I trust that they always use appropriate language and explain everything in terms that the children can understand, defining new terms when necessary. So why can't they do the same when it comes to parents? We don't want to be patronised, but really, there's no need to use abbreviations or language that we have no idea about and that will just alienate us, and make us feel as if we have no place in our child's education, is there?

I've written about maths language before, and how difficult it is to help our children when we don't understand the terms used. So today when my daughter came out of school with a weekly plan, outlining the topics that their class will be covering this week I was disappointed to find references to "RWI sounds" and "positional language"! After some thought, I realised that the first refers to a new reading and writing scheme the school are introducing, and the letters stand for Read, Write, Inc. And after some more thought, that positional language is very simply using the words, under, above, on, inside etc, to talk about something. How difficult would it have been to use a few extra words to explain these two things to parents, and include us in the learning? If we know what positional language is at the moment we get the piece of paper in our hand as our children rush out of school, we can take the opportunity to have a conversation on the walk home about the person inside the blue car, the chimney on top of the house, and whether the post office is next to the shop, or opposite it. Instead, as the piece of paper is glanced at, not understood, and shoved in a pocket, the opportunity for learning, and engaging in our children's learning, is lost. What a shame.

So teachers, feel free, please, to use all the "teacherspeak" you want to in the staff room, but leave it there. As parents, we're not impressed.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Cuddling letters

I know I've blogged about handwriting before, but I'm currently having trouble again with my 5 year old, who is getting her letters increasingly muddled as she learns how to spell longer and more complex words. It seems that when she only had to think about a simple 3 letter word, she could remember, most of the time, how to write the letters 'd', 'o' and 'g', but when the words get longer, she is focussing so intently on getting the letters in the right place in the word, she forgets which way round to write them!

I watched her write the word angel the other day, and anticipated that she would have problems with 'g', which has become a regular culprit. It would confuse her, I thought, to try and point out that the tail on the 'g' points to the left, so instead I told her that the 'g' likes to cuddle the 'n' in the word angel. It worked! Maybe the tail was a little too long, as it curled around the 'n', but at least it was the right way round.

So what about other letters? 'Y' and 'j', like 'g',  always cuddle the letter before. The 'c' in chat is friends with the 'h' and likes to have a chat so it's got it's mouth open, facing the 'h'. The 'k' of course, is kicking the 'i' in kite, and the 'p' has its back to the 'o' in hop. Of course, the danger is that kids will then remember this and try to write the 'p' with its back to the 'o' in pond, which won't work. But hopefully, once they've practised, and started to write their letters correctly again, they'll remember this and it will automatically translate to their other words.

You can come up with your own silly ideas, depending on which letters your child struggles with, and which word they are trying to write. If we make it fun, it should take the stress out of writing, which will encourage them to write and practice even more, ultimately helping our children to develop beautiful handwriting!

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Who are the miniature wives?

Due to a slight and hopefully temporary hearing loss that my older daughter has been suffering from, the correct pronunciation of new vocabulary in our house can be a bit hit and miss. Even without this issue, my younger daughter also comes out with some corkers - as I suspect all children do from time to time. We wear "curvy grips" (kirby grips - I think they're bobby pins for my American friends), and recently enjoyed watching the "Power-Olympians" - I particularly liked that mis-hear. When we say our prayers, I think we are sometimes asking God to give us our dresses (instead of forgiving us our trespasses). But my favourite by far was back last winter when we were listening to the beautiful Christmas number one on the radio, sung by the miniature wives choir! 

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Wow words

The wow word in our house this morning was "frequency". And "frequent" and "frequently". We had a spelling list of "high frequency words", which prompted my children to discuss what this meant, and how else we could use this wow word.

According to Ros Wilson, creator of Oxford School Improvement's Big Writing, used in many primary schools,  wow words are words that you would not expect your child, at their age, to know and use, and you are impressed when they do. Children are encouraged in literacy lessons in school to expand their vocabulary and explore new words, and new ways of using them when speaking and writing. If your child comes out with a new word, and it makes you go "Wow, that's a great word to use - well done!" then that's a wow word. Wow words are different depending on the age of the child. While "frequency" was a wow word for my 5 and 7 year old this morning, I would not necessarily expect it to be a wow word to an 11 year old.

Help your children by using wow words when talking to them. Using a new word and then discussing what it means and coming up with other examples of when it can be used, will expand their vocabulary and have benefits for their writing and speaking in all areas of the curriculum, at school, and at home. Having a large vocabulary can be seen to be irritatingly rather than endearingly precocious, but by teaching them to discover these new words we are increasing their confidence in using English and increasing their chances of doing well in literacy especially but in all subjects in school. So I'll put up with a little bit of irritating precociousness while I teach them what precocious means.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Is text speak a bad thing?

I've always felt proud of the fact that I'm not very good at text speak. I was in my twenties before I got my first mobile phone, and as well as being a stickler for always using good grammar and correct spelling, I'm not always the coolest kid (or adult) on the block. I've discussed text speak with other parents, and the general feeling has been that the constant use of text speak in email, text messages, and instant online chat can only be a bad thing when it comes to learning and reinforcing good grammar habits. However, an article published in the Telegraph last week made me rethink this point of view.

Researchers from Coventry University assessed primary and secondary school age children, and although their sample was relatively small, their findings seem to show that there is no evidence linking the use of text speak, with its associated poor grammar and spelling, and the understanding of grammar and aptitude for spelling amongst children when writing standard English.

Perhaps rather than indicating a lack of ability to use good grammar, it actually shows that children and teenagers have the ability to learn a new language. As well as being competently literate in standard English, kids of today are also literate in text speak, able to switch from one to the other depending on the situation. So maybe, instead of worrying that constant texting will impede the ability of our kids to write and spell correctly in other areas of life, we should celebrate their bilingualism.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Back to homework

So after the first few hectic days of trying to get the kids up early again and remembering to label everything and coping with the back-to-school nerves and hunting out PE bags that have been lost in the bottom of the wardrobe, we can breathe again. It's amazing how quickly we settle back into the routine of the school run, the sigh of relief when they're safely dropped off and they become someone else's responsibility for 6 hours, and the joy we feel as they run out of school with a smile on their face, having had a good day.

And then there's the homework. I suspect that we will get our first homework on Friday this week, but some of your children may already have been given homework assignments or books to read. Now I have mixed feelings about homework. Part of me feels that my children have worked hard enough during those 6 hours at school, so why, when they're shattered, should they have to do yet more work. And then another part of me wants to be involved in their learning, and knows how important it is to involve parents in their child's education, and so I enjoy sitting down with them and finding out what they're learning in school, and thinking up ways that I can enhance their learning of a particular topic, and help to make learning at home fun too.

Even the dullest homework activities can be adapted and made into something more exciting, with a little bit of enthusiasm from us as parents. A school reading book can be read together in the garden, in bed, or in the bath. You can tell your child to shout the words on one page, and whisper the next page. You can ask them to tell you what happens next, after the book is finished. If they want to read alone, get them to retell the story to you in their own words, or suggest they make a comic strip telling all or part of the story. Make up a wordsearch, or play hangman or other word games to help them learn their spellings. Go the the library together to find "real" books to research projects, and then sit down at the computer together too. Make a sticker chart with a reward for when they have completed their homework for the week, or a certain number of pieces of homework. Rewrite maths problems on individual cards to do one by one if a whole sheet of problems seems overwhelming, and decorate this with stickers too when they get the answers right.

Teacher friends reading this, please correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think any teacher would mind if the homework is not returned on the same piece of paper and in the same format that it was given out on. The aim of a sheet of spellings is to learn to spell those words correctly, and returning a different sheet of paper to the 'Look, Cover, Write, Check, then write ten super sentences' one given out will not matter as long as the spellings have been learned and the sentences written. If the maths homework comes back to school on flashcards and decorated with stickers it may be a pain to fit into the child's file, but teachers can work around that I'm sure. And it's a better option than having a child who either hates homework, or refuses to do it at all.

So let's not be scared of homework this term, but embrace it with a new enthusiasm which will hopefully rub off on the kids!