domingo, marzo 15, 2009

Teaching Math from a Constructivist viewpoint

That is one of the classes I'm taking this semester, and it's a doozy. It's required because my certification will allow me to teach as a regular Primary teacher as well as an English teacher. Anyway, the class is 7 credits (the normal amount for a semester-long course is 4.5) and it is a huge amount of work. For one thing, outside of the class syllabus, we also have to master (be able to do and explain) everything in the Primary math curriculum, and while obviously it's not as complicated as higher level math, it has also been a loooong time since I've had to do any of this. Long division is a distant memory (and here they do it differently than I was taught...) and a whole bunch of other stuff will require a lot of brushing up on.

And of course, math from a Constructivist standpoint is a lot more complicated, because not only do you have to be able to do the stuff, you have to have a much deeper level of understanding as to how and why things are done the way they are done. Still, it is interesting. I was working with Pedro this morning on operations with "decenas y unidades" (basically, tens place and ones place) and we were using Legos to do it, which was fun.

Anyway, I will finish student teaching very soon, so hopefully then I will be able to dedicate more time to the numerous assignments of my classes this semester, and to Dani as he is becoming more and more mobile!

jueves, febrero 26, 2009

More on textbooks

I thought I'd update with another post about textbooks and teaching. I have been looking over the program for 1st grade Art where I am teaching (here teachers have to develop the "programación" for the whole year in advance-- not step-by-step lesson plans, but an overview of each unit and what the objectives, methodology, and evaluation criteria are.) According to the program, there is a whole lot more to it in theory that is not actually being put into practice. They start from the textbook, which actually has a framework for a whole lot of engaging, significant learning experiences. The cutting out and assembling paper models, coloring, etc, are mostly supposed to be complementary activities, or "extra." So if the program were actually put into effect, even though it is textbook-based, I think it would be a whole other ball game, so to speak. I don't really want to go into why the program is not being implemented as envisioned-- there are some good reasons, but it's still unfortunate that it has to be like this. But I did think I should rectify on here a bit-- I don't think the textbook itself is really the problem.

I haven't seen the Music plan in detail, but I suspect that it is a similar situation.

And, after talking to the classroom teacher some more, I have a better understanding of why that class is run the way it is (meaning, the science/math/reading parts.) I still am not convinced by the way the reading is set up (everyone reading the same material and doing the same activities, despite some significant differences in ability), but I don't really know what the solution to that is, either.

And I am not writing much on this blog about the student teaching, for reasons of discretion/confidentiality, but I did want to say something positive about my observations so far. I am really impressed with the way the classroom teacher handles conflicts/ relational or emotional issues that come up in the classroom. She is very willing to spend class time on working through things, and I think the students feel heard and respected. She clearly belives-- and I agree-- that for first graders especially, learning how to get along with others and manage their own feelings is just as important as the more academic stuff.

jueves, febrero 19, 2009

Textbook mania

There are a lot of things I want to write about regarding my student teaching experience-- reflections, thoughts, stuff I'm learning, etc. Not necessarily on here, but somewhere I need to get it down. There's a list of things to be recorded, but right now I'd like to discuss textbooks, and I think this blog is the right place to do it.

When I was in elementary school (public school in a well-funded district, way back in the late seventies, early eighties) we had textbooks, but they were owned by the school and only lent to the students each year. I don't remember when we started with textbooks in earnest-- there were always reading books and math books, but I'm fuzzy on the other subjects. I do remember that in fifth grade we had a big unit on the weather, and for that we copied notes from the board-- maybe the same for the digestive system unit in fourth grade?

We had Art once a week, and for that we went to the Art Room and did all sorts of art projects using paint, paper-maiche, oak tag, etc. For music we went to the Music room and learned songs from the history and folklore of the US, as well as some basic musical notation, used different kinds of instruments, and other more popular and recent songs. Periodically we had Assemblies in the Auditorium with performances of different types to watch (one I remember was "Germs", a play about hygiene).

At the school I'm in now, and probably in many others, the kids stay in their classrooms for Art and Music, and the teachers come to them. So certainly the types of activities that are feasible are more limited (no paper maiche, for one thing.) But there is another limiting factor in classes of all subjects. The textbook.

Although Spain supposedly uses a Constructivist approach to education (as evidenced in their laws and statutes), and we have been learning about these methods and precepts in the university where I am getting my teaching degree, in practice it seems that textbook learning is the norm. (This is not to say that use of textbooks incompatible with Constructivism-- of course that's not true-- but at the elementary level, such dependence on textbooks is not necessarily to the students' advantage.)

It's not to the parents' advantage, either, because here even in the public schools, kids have to buy all of their textbooks and only in some circumstances is it possible to use books from another year, say a brother or sister's old ones. Yes, there are subsidies for families who meet the income requirements, but many--or most?-- families aren't elegible. I have ranted about the textbook industry before, but it is a firmly-entrenched institution, (i.e. big business) with millions of schoolchildren needing to buy new books every single year.

What are these textbooks like? First of all, each subject usually has at least two different books-- one of them is a workbook, and the other one has other types of activitites. The workbooks are often, well, worksheets. So far I have seen two music classes with my first grade class, and they have done color-cut-and-paste activities about sounds that are high and low (in this case, animal sounds) and a "color the pictures and number them 1, 2, or 3 to show the order they come in during the song." The song in question had played in the background on both days while they colored, and they also sang along (words are of course in their "class book") and seemed to enjoy that, but still. Personally, color-cut-and-paste isn't my idea of a particularly interesting or useful way to teach music. True, I have only seen two classes and flipped through the books, but I look fondly back on the music classes of my youth when we did things quite differently.

Art class also has two books, and I have seen four art classes so far. They have only used one of the books, which features paper models to assemble and stuff to color (like a mask for Carnival, and a pirate hat.) Frankly, each hour of wandering around watching kids coloring and assembling premade paper models has been boring me to tears. The other art book had some interesting projects in it-- instead of coloring they pasted in lentils to fill in the middle of a sunflower, or pencil shavings and toothpicks for a forest scene-- I can't remember what else. But it seems to me shame that the kids just buy the books at the beginning of the year and dutifully work their way through them, leaving little room for other types of projects that don't fit in a book.

I guess my beef is that first graders don't really need to have books for everything, do they? Where's the spontaneity, the adapting to the students' interests or teacher's talents or to other factors outside of a textbook? Art and music, especially. I realize it's easier for the teachers, who have several different grade levels to teach, and don't have their own rooms full of materials and space. Still, it seems (to me) a shame.

And of course once the parents have spent the money on the books, they want to see them get used. So, there is a pressure to "get through the book."

As for other subjects, I can see the benefits of using a textbook. For Science and Social Studies, I don't think it's necessary in the early grades, and it does limit what gets presented and how. However, a textbook also provides a certain guarantee, since it is carefully planned and researched as far as content, presentation, layout, exercises. And it is a way to reinforce reading and writing skills in a methodical way, as well as higher-level skills such as getting information from a written text. It also ensures that all the classes who use the book are getting very similar input.

My school is using a globalized method, which means that they have one Class Book (actually they get a new one each trimester) with language arts, math, and science content grouped into multidisciplinary units. I like this approach quite a bit. They also have separate math and language arts workbooks for more practice, and a reading book.

But still, I'm not entirely on the textbook bandwagon here. What are your thoughts? Anyone?

(I will say that I recognize the apparent irony in the fact that not long ago I was lamenting--sort of-- the lack of textbook use at the university level, but actually I think that is an entirely different situation.)

sábado, febrero 14, 2009


Just a few bits and pieces here.

First, student teaching is going well, and at some point I will post about it on here, but right now I'm just getting used to not having any free time until after 9pm, by which point coherent thought is in scarce supply. But I will get over it, I hope, or this doesn't bode well for my future...

Second, the lovely people at Lycos Tripod have announced that they have been saved at the last minute and will continue their free web hosting service, so my web page on building an intercultural classroom will continue to be available. Which presents a bit of a problem, actually-- since it will be up indefinitely, I need to change a few parts of it and I can't remember how to do that, and probably won't have a lot of time to figure it out. But anyway.

Here is a site that will allow you to create text for kids to practice cursive writing. You put in the text, the font, and the size, and it will arrange it on a pauta (the guide lines for writing) on one line, then leave the next one blank for copying. Since here kids learn to read and write using cursive first, it is a good way for them to practice using a story that they make up or whatever text you want. OS needs to work on his writing, and it's more fun this way than buying a typical libro de caligrafía.

And finally, I still have a few more classes to write about in my series on the Spanish Magisterio Lengua Extranjera degree (I'm sure you are waiting with bated breath for that...), and I do intend to get to that soon. So, watch this space-- eventually I will post again.

miércoles, febrero 04, 2009

Construyendo un aula intercultural

Just a note to say that the web page I created for a class I took the first year of my studies is going to be deleted soon. It was done on a free hosting site that will no longer be offering this service, and as of Februray 15th the page will be gone. I don't have time to figure out how to save all the files and look for a new hosting site and upload everything again, so it will be gone. I'm no computer wizard, and the page is pretty simple. It's also in Spanish, but again, probably not too difficult.

I mention it because I think (I hope) that it might be of interest to some of you (maybe not, because I think most of the people who land here are not teachers but are expats looking for information on schools in Spain- imagine that!). It's in Spanish, and it is called Construyendo un aula intercultural, or "Creating an intercultural classroom." I'd love to hear your reactions or thoughts. And I thought I'd give it one last hurrah before its demise.

(Note: I loaded the page correctly a few minutes ago, but now when I went back again I got a page load error message (problema al cargar la página). If you get this message, please try again later, because it should still work until the 15th.)

lunes, febrero 02, 2009

...still more on that degree program...

I forgot to mention that starting next fall (I think), students entering Spanish universities will be under a new plan, so what I'm describing here will be somewhat different. Currently the teaching degrees are 3-year degrees, whereas things like Literature or Psychology or Architecture or what have you are 5-year degrees. Next year, everything will be four years, to bring the Spanish degrees more in line with a common European Union standard to ease mobility and recognition of credentials between countries. I suspect that there will be more student teaching and obviously, more of a lot of other stuff, too, to fill out the extra year. This won't affect me because I will be finished after I do my last student teaching in the fall, but I thought I should mention it anyway. I wish I knew where to find the information about what will be included in the new plans, but that may very well not even be dteremined yet.

And I forgot one of the English-specific courses, so I'll add that in here:

8) Investigation in the Foreign Language Classroom. Semester-long course, taught in English. As always with this instructor, the notes were clear and well-presented. The course discusses different types of research that can be done, and focuses on Action Research. It's still a pretty basic overview (for example, it doesn't go into any detail about interpretation of statisics, which is too bad because throughout the degree program I have come across articles reporting findings and I am always at a loss as to the statistical parts-- I could have used a crash course or basic introduction. Also it would have been nice to see a discussion of how to design a questionnaire, etc.) Really, the course is meant to encourage future teachers to think of AR as something they can and should be doing in their classrooms, even without a lot of technical knowledge, which is probably a good thing beacuse otherwise most people wouldn't bother. So it serves its purpose well. No exam-- instead you have to carry out an AR project and write it up, or if you don't have access to a classroom (and are too ethical to use made-up data) you can do a research proposal and a critical review of two published research articles. This was a good class, but still, didn't delve deeply into the subject matter.

In fact, that is a common characteristic of all of the classes I've taken for the degree, with a few exceptions. I'm sure that college-level classes at most US universities (and actually, from what I hear, for other degrees in Spanish universities) require much more work. Magisterio is seen as an easy degree, and my impression is that it is likely quite a bit easier than an Education degree in the States. I am still quite curious about what courses are required or offered for US Ed degrees.

Now, on to the non-English classes required for the foreign language degree (because the degree will also allow me to teach as a regular classroom teacher in bilingual schools, so we still need to get the basics of general ed.)

8) Physical Education.
Semester-long course, taught in Spanish. Since this is online, we don't do any actual physical activity for this-- there were a couple of sessions I think at the jornadas, but I was pregnant and couldn't go to them. The class was not as boring as I thought it would be, though parts of it were very technical and/or dry. It also gave way too much emphasis, IMHO, to the history and evolution of Physical Education, as opposed to more practical and useful stuff. In any case, Physical Education in schools is taught by specialists (though this university doesn't offer that particular specialization) so it's unlikely that a regular classroom teacher would actually be in the position of teaching Phys. Ed. But we study it anyway.

9) Knowledge of the Natural, Physical, and Social Environment.
Semester-long course, taught in Spanish. This subject shares the same name as a subject area taught in Primary school that is basically Science and Social Studies. Our class focused only on the science part, and was intended not to teach you how to teach science, but instead to make sure that future elementary teachers have a basic background in science. This subject is one that is often taught in English at bilingual schools (as is the case at my kids' school.) The class was interesting enough, but I've already forgotten much of what I learned in it, and will need to refresh my memory with a textbook if I ever have to teach it. Given that, I would rather have had a class more focused on teaching science-- I think that would have been much more useful. Oh well.

10) Art and Music Education. Semester-long course that consisted of two different parts. It really should have counted as two separate classes, based on the amount of work required for each part. The music part requires you to read music, keeping the beat and using correct rhythm while saying the correct name of the notes as you read them. The actual pieces of music they used on the (individual) exam were given to us at the beginning of the semester so we could practice them, and the music wasn't that difficult, but for some reason it took me way more time to get it down than I had anticipated-- I really struggled with this. Also, they use the "Do-Re-Mi" system of note names. The second part of the music exam was playing the recorder-- we had to learn how to play it and had a selection of 8 songs to practice for the exams (reading from the score, not memorized.) I got through this pretty well, after a lot of work, and I suppose it is good background for a well-rounded education professional to have. Not to mention the fact that both reading music and learning to play the recorder are required activities in many Spanish elementary schools, so in that sense it is relevant, though the regular classroom teacher would not be the one teaching Music.

The Art half of the class (and again, it was easily enough work to qualify for its own 4.5 credits, dammit) was great. I'm not a particularly crafty or artistic person, and in fact not only am I not good at it, I don't even enjoy it. But the class was very interesting. I even liked the part on history and trends in art education. Also good was the topic on evolution and interpretation of children's drawings-- especially interesting to me since I could use my own kids' artwork for comparison purposes. In addition to some annoying--to me-- art-making assignments, we had to do a Power Point on an environmental artist (loosely interpreted-- could be someone who makes art out of recycled materials, whose art has an ecological message, or even just shows a very strong sense of place etc.) and then create our own artwork inspired by that artist. I choose Andy Goldsworthy, who I had never even heard of before this class so getting to know his work and watching this amazing film was enough to make the whole class worthwhile for me. In any case, the notes were very well put together and complete, and assignments were relevant and engaging. The class is very relevant to the FL degree because in bilingual schools, Art is another class that is typically taught in English. Unfortunately, after learning about all these neat approaches to teaching art, it may come as quite a let down when you receive the English-language textbook (yes, a textbook-- maybe workbook is a better term-- for art class) that you must use to teach the class and see how unimaginative it is (at least that is what I thought of the book my son is using for Art this year.)

Hmm, this post is getting long. I think I'll end here for today and continue on again tomorrow...

Getting a teaching job in Spain

I thought I'd interrupt the course descriptions for a moment to talk a bit about the hiring process for Primary school teachers here in Spain, since a couple of people have asked about it.

First of all, there are three types of schools here: public, private, and concertado (semi-private.) The concertado schools are mostly, but not all, Catholic schools, and are not run by the State. However, they do receive State funds, and because of that they must follow certain rules. One of the rules is that all elementary teachers must hold the Spanish Elementary Education degree, or an officialy-recognized elem. education degree from another country. (Getting a foreign degree recognized is a huge PITA.) Another rule is that they must use the same admissions criteria as the public schools for students, and also I think that they may not require students to take religion classes (meaning that an alternative is offered for the time that religion is being taught for those who don't wish to take it.)

The private schools can hire anyone they want to, I believe.

And the public schools do not have any say at all in who they hire as teachers. If you want to opt for a public school teaching position, not only must you have the Magisterio degree, but you must also pass a difficult civil service exam. Those who pass are ranked according to their score, and then they get to choose from the available job openings based on their position in the ranking. Usually the positions that are open to those who have just passed are the least desireable ones, but once you have been in the system longer and have built up points for seniority etc. you can request a transfer, again based on your relative ranking and the available openings.

If you pass the exam but do not score high enough to qualify for a post (i.e. there are more people who passed than available jobs) you are put on a list to be an interino, which means you will be offered jobs as they become available due to a maternity leave, extended medical leave, etc. This is only a temporary posting for you, but it earns you points toward the next exam.

Those who get a full post basically have a job for life with lots of benefits, so it behooves degree-holders to take the exam and try to get a post. However, it is also difficult-- it is common for people to spend an entire year studying full-time for the exam-- so some people prefer to work in one of the other types of schools. Also, when you first get a post, it may well be in another city, so until you build enough points to transfer, it is not necessarily very convenient.

Still, I will probably take the exam. Unfortunately, the next time it is being offered when I will be elegible is in June of 2011 (if things go as planned and it is actually offered then). This presents a bit of a problem, because I will complete my degree in Feb. 2010, but if I plan to take the exam, it might behoove me to spend the 2010-2011 school year studying instead of teaching, which would delay my entry into the workforce for quite a few more years. So, I'm not exactly sure what I will do. Right now, I just want to finish my degree!