Swapping the Alps for the Yangtze: Prelude

In December last year, my partner and I succeeded in securing new teaching posts….in China. 

A lot of people, both in Switzerland and at home, thought we had gone a little mad. And perhaps we had.

Why leave Switzerland? Why leave the perfect country for raising young children? Why leave beautiful idyllic scenery and swap it for a throbbing smoggy Chinese metropolis that hardly anyone has heard of (Chongqing)?

Unfortunately, economic circumstances have turned against us in Switzerland.

The economic situation in Canton Vaud has been such that my partner has not been able to find her first teaching position here. When we moved to CH she gave up a career as a nature conservation ranger and land manager and, while looking for work with a variety of NGOs, has worked in several different roles in the two schools we have worked in and gained her teaching qualification.

Because CH is such an attractive teaching destination, most international schools seem to require a minimum of two years teaching experience as a way of filtering the volume of applications they get. As an NQT with limited teaching experience, it was hard for her to get a foot in the door for teaching.

We decided that to stay in Switzerland we needed to both be in full-time employment by August 2018 so we gave ourselves several “family” deadlines and options. We didn’t want to live off savings nor not be able to pay into our pensions – particularly after watching my parents survive old age without one. November 2017 came and went, and this initiated us spreading our net further afield in potential posts- India, China, Uganda to name just a few places where we looked for joint international teaching jobs.

After narrowing (and being narrowed)! China became our hottest option. Since then lots of people have asked us: Why China? This question presupposes choice as if we were simply able to throw a dart at a map and move where ever it lands. The reality in international teaching isn’t like that. You move where the job is. You don’t move and then find a job.

We didn’t set out thinking “Let’s move to China“.

We started by talking about what we needed as a family in any new context we found ourselves in.

One of the reasons we didn’t want to leave CH was the opportunity to place our two daughters in a good public school system where they would have the opportunity to become fully French/English bilingual. Hardly anyone in my family in the UK speaks a second language. For me its really important that my daughters grow up appreciating other cultures through the languages they learn. And from the little I know about language acquisition, it is best that children are immersed in a second language before the age of 7 or 8. We don’t speak anything but English at home and therefore by leaving CH, we were potentially giving up on that dream unless we could find another context where the girls would be immersed in another language.

We also needed somewhere that was going to be a springboard for my partner’s new career as a teacher. Having kids and raising a family overseas is not easy. Obviously, there is less support, as your parents and extended family can’t be called upon to help with childcare and emotional support. But, CH also has a limited support system for young families, particularly for those where both parents want to return to work. There is a limited supply of affordable nurseries and creches. The cost of one child at a private full-time creche is over 3000CHF per month. Therefore with the high cost of childcare in CH for my partner to return to work, she would need to earn more than usual for an NQT.

When our first daughter was born I desperately wanted to have the opportunity to stay at home and look after her. With a lack of paternity leave (there is no statutory right to it in CH – thankfully my employer gave me a week), and with a partner without work, and a lower earning potential, for the sake of the family liquidity, this just wasn’t an option.

We were, therefore, trapped in this unfavourable economic circumstance. My partner couldn’t find a teaching post, and even if she did, it just wouldn’t make sense as the cost of childcare. And without a partner who had a career to keep the family solvent, I was unable to stop work to be with my children.

It was time to find a way for my partner to kick-start a career.

Therefore our two criteria for our new school in order of importance were:

  1. It must be a bilingual environment so that our daughters have the opportunity to learn a second language from a young age.
  2. The school would employ my partner in her first teaching position.

The school we accepted hit these criteria and they offered me a promoted post. We think we got quite lucky!

So, either stay in CH, with all its perfect idylls and become bankrupt or go to busy China and set all the family up with the right conditions for growth. What would you do?

All we need to do now is find child care for daughter number 2…

Routines

I was planning on publishing this post in August, but term got away with me!

Next year, I want to really focus on developing solid classroom routines. I am amazed at how I have got to year 10 of my teaching career and it has only been in the last twelve months that I have begun to see the importance of these for running even older classrooms.

Perhaps it is the peculiarity of my current school, with a high turnover of students and my experiences of having dramatic changes in the makeup of each cohort year on year, alongside changes to curriculum time and with a wide range of student backgrounds, and language proficiencies.

Last year I focused on thinking routines and I think the adoption of some of these exercises has been very beneficial for my students, the trick is sticking to them! But reflecting on this process, talking to colleagues and reading Battle Hymn has really highlighted the necessity of routines for all aspects of classroom management.

My one concern is that reliance on routines will make the classroom boring but I also think that routines have the potential to create safe spaces, where all students understand easily what is required of them. Used well they can remove distractions from students and increase the efficiency of learning.

The idea is essentially utilitarian; serve the greater good. Create space for the majority to learn.

The trouble is, our school has been open for four years now and every year, management has changed how we do things, in terms of the number of lessons available per week per subject, or the length of lessons. Don’t get me wrong, change can be good and it is important to try and improve things. However, change that isn’t tested and thought through can have negative consequences, as can too much change.

Routines need to be simple and rewards and sanctions just as simple. An overcomplicated system just creates more work for everybody.

Thinking: This year I will continue to embed the visible thinking routines as defined by project zero into classroom activities. I use connect-extend-challenge all the time and may need to revisit how I implement it. In discussions with colleagues recently about best prepparing students to write personal statements, I have also been introduced to the point-evidence-explain for structuring writing. As a science teacher, who hasn’t had much training in writing, or as a science teacher who hardly ever has student’s writing essays, it is interesting observing internally how that type of routine can easily be adopted to embed thinking about an argument.

Behaviour management: This year, our school has implemented a “behaviour policy”. Although we don’t suffer from extremely poor behaviour, I have been frustrated by students regularly not turning up to class on time, not having the materials they need with them and generally not taking responsibility for their own development.

EAL: My simple model for lesson planning: 1) 10 mins of low-stakes quizzing in some form; 2) 30 mins of teaching/learning activities; 3) 10 mins of written plenary. I haven’t been brilliant at sticking to this plan throughout this half of last term but the idea of the last part was to give my EAL kids a chance to do some formal writing in English. Other rountines that I am trying to develop for my EAL kids is to write new terms on the side of the board. I collate these into quizlet and ask kids to keep their own glossary ot terms. I also am trying to narrate much more of what I do in the classroom so that my thinking is clearly visible to these students.

What is the best place to start teaching IB DP Biology?

Every year I like to think about how I approach the delivery of the DP Biology course. I think about what are the best examples to use to illustrate concepts like the pentadactyl limb, or what is the best way to structure the teaching sequence into a coherent sequence.

This summer I have been thinking about how best to approach the start of the course. I think this is important in my context because I cannot be certain of the biological background of all of my students and I don’t want to make any assumptions about what they know.

I polled teachers on facebook and twitter about this and most teachers tend to start the course with 1.1 – introduction to cells, although other areas like to 2.1 – molecules to metabolism and 5.3 – classification of biodiversity are also popular if not nearly so as 1.1.

My issues with starting at 1.1 is that I think that while there are some essential ideas that are natural to start a Biology course; the functions of life and cell theory, there are others which are not so helpful like stem cells, gene control of differentiation, and evolution of multicellularity. Some of these concepts are tricky to get your head around and do not count as foundational knowledge, in my opinion.

What I want in the start of my DP course is to introduce students to the simplest biological concepts that will go on to serve as a foundation for future learning. I believe the functions of life and the classification of life (“what is life?” and “ok, we know how to crudely define living things, but what types of living things are there?”) are understandings that students should address before going on to look at how living things work.

What I am struggling with is this: the IB’s TSM states that topics don’t need to be taught in order, or that even subtopics don’t necessarily need to be taught in order. We should, as teachers, construct a course that draws different elements into coherent units. Personally, last year, I made a move away from going through topic by topic and tried to link subtopics into themed units. I love thinking about what topics flow well together.

But what if you want to split sub topics? Is this allowable? Obviously you could do this but, with the way the IB has structured the sub-topics each with their own “essential idea”, should you? The issues with the essential idea is that it aims to force all the understandings in that subtopic under a single umbrella. Because the essential idea is examinable, surely all the understandings, applications and skills should be kept together as they serve to illuminate the essential idea.

Personally, I think I may go ahead and chop up 1.1 so that I introduce these:

  • A2: Investigation of functions of life in Paramecium and one named photosynthetic unicellular organism.
  • U2: Organisms consisting of only one cell carry out all functions of life in that cell.

With this from 5.3:

  • U4: All organisms are classified into three domains.

Which will then act as a segway into topic 1.2 the ultrastructure of cells, before going on to consider cell theory and the then the rest of topic 5.3.

Its a little bit pick and mix, but do I run the risk of not covering the essential ideas. To solve that, what I may do is leave the essential ideas  (of these sections) for revision in grade 12. In-fact now I think about it, all the essential ideas would make great revision points.

I could get the students to memorise Allott and Mindorff’s paragraph’s that describe each essential idea and force them to regurgitate them at random points through G12…..

Intensive EAL support and differentiation in Biology

As an international teacher, I am familiar with EAL or Lang B students in my classes, and familiar with how to support them in my Biology classes which, more than even some of the other science subjects, has a lot of context-specific terminology that cannot be simplified. These terms can be almost impossible to simplify form non-native speakers but repeated INSET training has told me that I must. Some examples would include:

  • Heterozygosity
  • Anyone of the Animal or Plant Phyla students are required to know
  • Proteome
  • Clade
  • Oxidative Phosphorylation
  • Photolysis
  • Inhibitor
  • Eukaryote
  • Archaea
  • Transpiration
  • Cohesion

There are many more…

This past academic year I had a particularly difficult situation to deal with in my grade 10 biology class.

Grade 10 is the final year of the MYP and is equivalent to Year 11 in the U.K. My current school is very small, tiny in fact, by the nature that it has only been open four years.

As a new school in a competitive area we have a battle to recruit students. As an international school in an area where lots of families come with the parents work on short term contracts we have a high turn over of students.

Due to these factors, every year of teaching I have had to completely change my scheme of work for this grade and grade nine because of changes in the cohorts of students as well as yearly changes to science teaching hours across the week.

One year I only had brand new students taking grade 10 Biology all of whom had come from Francophone schools and so the MYP 5 course I had planned had to be changed to accommodate these students.

As an international school it can be normal to have turnover in students with many students leaving and new students entering at any grade. Things are also complicated because students may come from different national systems, and may have studied in different languages prior to joining us. It's very hard to comparatively assess the biological knowledge of different students coming from different languages of study and these different systems.

Whereas, last year, all the students in my grade 10 class were new to the school and I had to create a novel one year curriculum for them to ensure that none of the fundamentals from grade 9 were missing, this year I could revert to the original two year program I had planned previously.

This year I had some students who had progressed to grade 10 biology from grade 9 (these grades are planned as a two year consecutive course) internally and were on track to take the MYP eAssessment.

However I also had students placed in the class who came from different schools and were new to studying in English, let alone biology in English. Amongst these students there was variation. One student had absolutely no prior experience using or studying in the English language and others had never studied in the language, academically, but had spent some time of heir lives speaking and communicating with English.

At the start of the year, I was informed that all of these students would be taking the MYP eAssessment (the IB equivalent of GCSE)!

Despite my protestations that these students would not be ready for the eAssessment with only six months of going to an anglophone school, let alone studying biology in English and that they were better off being placed in an intensive EAL program, I was ignored.

The message to me was that I simply had to differentiate for these students! Differentiation is fine but when does differentiation steadily become "plan a whole new program?" What are the practical limitations for a teacher that determine when differentiation should stop and alternative arrangements need to be made.

A similar situation happened to a colleague of mine who teaches French. One year he was told that he would have French A (Literature – native speakers) students mixed in with French B (Aquisition – non-native speakers) and that the teacher would have to differentiate between these two groups.

I am all for differentiation and trying to meet individual students where they are at but I don't like it when it becomes a lazy shield for management to hide behind. Instead of the SLT taking charge and actually putting a proper intervention in place for these students, it is easier to pass the buck to the teacher and simply say "differentiate!" The problem with this is the anxiety, stress and associated mental health issues it will invariably create for staff.

What seemed to be lacking from members of the schools management is the difference between Jim Cummin's BICS and CALPS. Being able to speak in a second language with your friends is one thing, but being able to think about and explain complex, abstract concepts in a second language is quite another. Biology has a huge amount of subject or context-specific terminology that even native speakers can find daunting.

The year hasn't been a great success. Unfortunately some non-negotiables have to be negotiable as there is a limit to what a person can achieve in a day. What this meant for these students is that I simply wasn't able to plan for them as well as I would have liked, with all my additional responsibilities, particularly the running of the university guidance.

I focussed what time I could devote to this class on the students who would be taking the exam and focussed on developing the thinking routines within the class; connect-extend-challenge has become very popular!

However I have been able to learn something from this experience and found that the following techniques could be put in place very easily to support EAL students without too much interruption to the flow of the lesson:

  • Glossaries for every unit that focus on key words. I have started adding them to my DP workbooks as simply a space at the back for students to add their key words and definitions, but for the younger grades I will provide the words and the definitions.
  • Whole-class reading in every lesson. Making solid use of available texts and reading these out gives students a change to practice saying new words and gives me a chance to feedback to them and explain any new terminology.
  • When asking students to explain a concept to check for their understanding, allowing them to write out their ideas in the their mother tongue to support a speaking in the second language.
  • Asking students to write, in English, a short paragraph (3-4 lines) explaining what they learned either at the start of end of a lesson. As the teacher, I can rotate and check grammar, spelling and sentence construction. This is best done by hand as 1) the IB exams are currently written and 2) due to the Lindy effect, writing is likely to be around a lot longer than google docs.
  • Taking care to fully explain the roots of words e.g. "photo" & "synthesis" and giving students time to find the words in their mother-tongue if they have studies this concept before.
  • Allowing students to speak in their mother tongue to each other to aid explanations and comprehension.
  • During explanations given by me, slowing down and, where possible, using simpler language (not always possible in Biology – what is a simpler word for heterozygosity?).
  • Always check for understanding with open questions. "Please can you explain/write/draw this for me?" to show understanding.
  • Use of colours and images to describe tasks so that students become aware that when a symbol of a quill is used it means that they have to write.

Any more advice or ideas welcome in the comments!

The future-you festival

In my first year at my current school I was one of the grade 10 homeroom teachers. At the time, the grade 10’s were the eldest grade, the school having only opened the previous year with all grades up to grade nine.

That year our Head of School organised for some parents to come in on an afternoon to speak to our grade nine and ten students about their various professions.

The session lasted a couple of hours while different parents rotated in front of our small cohort of 18 students to tell them they needed a passion.

The next morning the feedback in homeroom was less than excellent. The major theme that came across was that the kids would have liked some choice about what they saw and who they listened to.

Later that year I was given the chance to set up the university counselling program and part of that required me to organise careers day.

In the first year I was responsible for it (my second year at the school) my main aim was to introduce choice for students.

That year we held it in May and the event ran from after lunch until 7pm. From 2pm until 4pm we had a series of career focussed workshops. These were bookended by a keynote and plenary session. The latter were compulsory for all students, but, during the time in-between, students rotated through workshops that they had previously signed up for.

After the plenary from 4pm to 5pm we held a short university fair, hosting universities from Switzerland plus a few others.

Following this we hosted an author who spoke about her book and work that supports international students making transitions to study at international universities.

In my second year, the academic year just finished, we moved the date back to March. Unfortunately, with the extra classroom hours I was working, I simply didn’t have the time to organise a university fair – the amount of time that goes into simply emailing contacts is extraordinary. However, we did run an evening event again this year. This was organised by my colleague in the schools marketing department and took the form of two guest speakers, with dinner and wine for attendees. Next year we have decided to call this part of the evening “future-you conversations”.

This year I am hoping to expand what we do slightly with morning skills based workshops on top of the afternoon career focussed workshops. These will be run in conjunction with inspiring futures who offer two days of their advisor time to members. We bought membership for next academic year.

Grade 12 will have a session on interview skills to support students who will have interviews as part of their university applications but also as many of them will be interviewing for jobs in the next 12 months.

Grade 11 will have a session on persuasive writing for their personal statement. This will hopefully provide them with some raw material with which to begin their personal statement drafts later in the year.

Grade 10 will have a session on cv writing as they will be looking for work experience this year as they have a work experience week in June.

Grade 9 will use the inspiring futures career investigator.