MEd, DipSpEd, AMBDA
Life as a freelance trainer and consultant is nothing if not varied. In March 2009 I was training Modern Foreign Language teachers in Hong Kong, working with teachers, students and parents in Kirkwall on the Orkney islands and doing a range of consultancy, conferences and training in England and Wales.
Hong Kong is a fascinating place to work. The tourist delights are obvious and the Chinese people are lovely to be with. The education system is adapting to reflect a whole raft of changes and local teachers are passionately committed to doing right by their students with specific learning needs.
With class sizes of between 40 and 50 (maybe 20 students in a special needs group) some of the pressures are quite different from the UK. For example, each piece of work is "deep marked" in great detail and this burden can seriously cut into time available for lesson preparation, especially differentiation.
Another cultural difference I found hard to manage when I did some teaching was the use of microphones. When I walked in to the class I was handed a microphone which was plugged in under the blackboard effectively limiting my movement and confining me to "chalk and talk".
Having said this, dedication to the cause and receptiveness to new ideas is a characteristic of the hundreds of local teachers I've worked and lunched with over the past 6 or 7 years - no sandwich on the hoof in Hong Kong! Oh no - time is made for a proper lunch!
A challenge for the effective teaching of English in Hong Kong is to move away from the traditional teaching through letter names (basically the alphabet) and to start using letter sounds. This requires a cultural shift because letter names and whole word approaches are very much the "Chinese way" and the teachers and their elite pupils have all been very successful with this method.
When it doesn't work, teachers are faced with embracing a whole range of new techniques and, a particular challenge, to be able to produce "pure sounds" when modelling to their students. What I have come to love and respect about these teachers is their willingness to suspend their disbelief to consider and finally embrace different approaches and new ways of teaching
Working on Orkney is just slightly different, not least of which is the tendency of the local climate to deliver 4 seasons in 20 minutes! This said it is a beautiful place and the people exemplify island hospitality. One of my fondest memories is being introduced to 9 year old pupils in a local school. I told them that this was my first visit and a young boy looked me in the eye and said "Welcome to the islands."
Orkney runs a magnificent Learning Festival each year and I always look forward to the chance to speak. This year my workshops were over subscribed so I was invited back in March to repeat the workshops and also run some other activities. In consequence I was able to engage with parents and their children through two specially commissioned sessions. My task was to teach parents how to support their children doing homework tasks, with a particular focus on spelling, reading for meaning and getting ideas down on paper. Also I worked in two local primary schools, teaching "Writing Skills for Reluctant Writers" while being observed by teachers and Teaching and Learning Assistants. I model a kinaesthetic way of organising ideas and planning writing which works well for learners who are not natural "beginning, middle, end" thinkers - most dyslexic people? - and it always has a significant impact on the quality of writing.
"Dyslexia Aware" training in a primary school in Swindon was another interesting experience. The school is taking first steps towards a Quality Mark and it was rewarding to help teachers appreciate how much good practice was already in place. The staff were also very receptive to new ideas and participants seemed to enjoy being placed in the position of learners in order to gain insights into what it might be like to have specific learning needs.
When appropriate I often work the teachers and TAs as a class and this mind map was the result of one of the activities - demonstrating a seriously talented response to the task.
A "seasonal activity" is supporting Year 11 and Sixth Form groups to develop effective study and revision skills. Sadly these courses are most effective after mocks - it seems that nothing sharpens the mind like failure! Here students are taught how to personalise their learning and to develop a core strategy which can be applied in most situations. There is a strong emphasis on converting text into meaningful and personalised forms which usually lead to "subliminal learning" - the processing of text etc. into other forms effectively hard wires the brain for long term recall.