A Reflection on Teaching – Some keys to success.

I want to share a success story I’ve been having with a Year 5/6 class. This year, I’ve been teaching them art, but the reasons for success may well have implications for other curriculum areas as well. I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

This term, I decided to focus on different techniques that artists use to create the illusion of depth, or perspective in their work.

My first lesson was on one point linear perspective. I showed the students a number of pictures, photographs and illustrations that clearly demonstrated the technique. The students were very responsive. They started to look more analytically and enjoyed finding the vanishing points and horizon lines in the various pictures. However, when asked to draw their own, many were resistant and uncooperative, declaring it too hard before they’d even attempted it. I insisted and we worked step by step. They each produced successful, simple one point perspectives with a high way disappearing into a vanishing point on the horizon line in the centre of the page.

For our second lesson, we watched this video:

We then worked step by step creating our own one point perspective rooms. I modelled the drawing on the board, while students followed each step at their desks. They found the ruler work quite challenging,  and again were quite resistant;  however, all came up with good results. But, in spite of their great results, the students were very self-critical, saying how bad their drawings were, that they were ‘dumb’ and ‘no good’ at art.

For our third lesson, I decided to introduce the idea of colour value. As things recede into the distance, the colours become fainter. Objects closer to the foreground have stronger and more vibrant colours.

I projected some of the images from this great website to demonstrate colour value to my students, and we observed the  value in  a number of photographs and paintings. Again the students were  fascinated by observing this. They weren’t used to deconstructing images and considering how the illusion of depth was created. As they started to observe the change in colour value they became quite excited.

I showed them this picture  from the fabulous Landscape and Figurative Art blog by artist Jim Shanahan,  and told them we were going to attempt to recreate it in paint.

aerial perspective3

The students were  very reluctant when I told them the task, and wanted to do something that they felt was easier and more achievable. This particular group are very reluctant to take risks with art.  I remained firm, and reassured them that we would do it together, step by step, and it wouldn’t be as hard as they initially thought.  They didn’t believe me but grudgingly cooperated, since they weren’t provided with a choice.

After modelling how to sketch in some basic working lines to show the placement of the mountain range in the background, the hills in the middle ground and the road, running from the fore to the midground, we started painting.

I showed them how to mix acrylic paint on the paper and to use sort of scumbling technique to create a cloudy sky, using the tips of the bristles, not the side of the brush. Within moments, the students found that not only could they use the technique successfully, it was enjoyable. A beautiful, sort of meditative silence fell across the room as the students became absorbed in their painting.

I then showed them how to mix some colours for the mountain range, and together we worked through recreating the image from the top of the page to the bottom of the page. Each student image was slightly different and that was okay. I was clear that our intention was to use colour and line to create a landscape image, not to create an identical image. The end results were magnificent, and some of these very self critical students were actually proud of their work. I would post photographs, but I haven’t sought permission to publish their work on this blog.

Lesson 5 focused on using size to create a sense of depth. I was on sick leave, but I left this Falling Back in Space activity for the casual teacher who replaced me. The final results were great and the students were able to tell me how they used size and foreshortening to create the illusion of depth.

For lesson 6, we watched this video.

Following the video, we recreated each of the 6  images using pencil and paper, then stapled them into a booklet which has become our perspective manual. What we loved about this video was the fact it was so simple. Each image was based on nothing more than a circle, but using simple techniques such as placement, overlapping or size, we could easily create a sense of depth.

Interestingly, for this lesson, there was a noticable change of tone in the classroom. Each week I’d found that class quite challenging. Many of the students lack confidence in art and for some, clowning is a good way of covering up their anxiety. Instead of making a genuine attempt at art and feeling embarrassed by the end result, some preferred to undermine things, joke around and deliberately sabotage their own work, as a way of saving face. It’s okay to fail if you’re not really trying.

However right from the outset of this lesson, the class were enthusiastic. Only one student attempted to disrupt things and the rest told him to be quiet, as they wanted to learn. It was gratifying to see this change of attitude, and that I didn’t have to use more controlling management techniques to achieve a better tone in the room. Instead it came as a result of their increasing confidence in the subject matter. All their work from the previous lessons was displayed around the classroom and it looked fantastic. What had initially seemed like unreasonable and unachievable tasks, now seemed possible. The students had also discovered that they enjoyed art and were fascinated by the use of very learnable techniques to create illusions. And so they had become intrinsically motivated and were moderating their own behaviour and that of their peers as a result.

The students’ next step will be to choose one or more technique to create their own picture with the illusion of depth. I showed them the stunning student created artworks on this website for inspiration. Instead of the resistance I encountered in earlier lessons,  I’m now being confronted by wild enthusiasm.

So what have been the keys to success here?

  • That while encouraging student voice and choice is important, there are times when we need to assert ourselves as experts, and that’s okay. If I had listened to my students objections to our earlier lessons, they would never have discovered that the tasks I was setting for them were achievable. Instead, by ignoring their protestations and taking them out of their comfort zone, I was able to show the students that  they were capable of learning. This is what has led to their enthusiasm and confidence in the latter part of the term.
  • That intrinsic motivation trumps methods of control every time. I don’t like using reward/punish systems of management with students, but for a while there, I was tempted to start using more controlling techniques. I’m glad I didn’t. Instead, by persevering with the program, and providing the right scaffolding and support for students to ensure their success, the group have discovered the intrinsic joy of creating art. The class have become self-managing because they’ve discovered for themselves the intrinsic rewards of learning new things.
  • That the internet is a marvellous,  wondrous thing. I won’t tell you how many years its been since I taught a stage 3 class, but let’s just say the internet was not as present in classrooms and there were no data projectors or IWBs in my classroom. The amount of resources so generously shared by artists and educators has made preparing my lessons so easy,  and the availability of YouTube tutorials has added an extra dimension as well, by allowing us to observe professional artists at work. So,  a huge thank you to all the generous teachers out there.

What really motivates our students?

After School Learning

After School Learning (Photo credit: Ken Whytock)

As I argued in my earlier post, merit pay is a massive disincentive for many teachers. Dangling a bonus in front of me is not going to make me more productive or a better teacher. And reward schemes for students don’t foster intrinsic motivation. In fact, Alfie Kohn argues in his book ‘Punished by Rewards‘ that they have the exact opposite effect. Interest and engagement declines after rewards, or even certain types of praise, are given for student performance.

How can we motivate people to engage in tasks or learning that they do not find intrinsically rewarding? 

Reflecting on my own habits I can tell you it’s not money.

If I think about how I motivate myself to do what I don’t like to do, it comes down to having my vision fixed on the bigger picture. I want my students to learn to read, so I put the hard yards in planning, programming, diagnosing, assessing, researching ways of supporting students having difficulty, finding new resources etc. The reward comes in when I see the fruits of my labour – my struggling readers becoming confident and learning to enjoy reading.

I don’t like to clean my house, but I love to be in a clean and peaceful environment, so I focus on that, not the irksome tasks it takes to get there. I hate ironing clothes, but I today I’ll  do some because I have a new dress I’m excited about wearing out tonight.

Perhaps a similar approach will help motivate students. If the end they are working towards is something they are excited about, then they’ll be more willing to complete the mundane tasks that get them there. This does not mean an external award – like a class party if they all complete an assignment. The work itself has to have a direct and meaningful link to the outcome.

Project Based and Passion Based Learning

Project and Passion Based Learning may be the answer. Last year as an interest project, one of my students, who was not a good writer, decided he wanted to learn how to make a website. I gave him a Weebly account and he went to work. In his enthusiasm for building a website about science, he created pages for the different science ideas he was interested in – and then he had to write for them. Not only did he have to write, he had to proofread, checking his work for spelling, punctuation and grammar. Oh, and while he was at it, he had to think about navigation. Would his website be linear or non-linear? Would links open up in the same page or in a new page? Should he include a home button on each page? Then there was attribution. He had to learn about acknowledging his sources and creative commons. Throughout the whole process he was learning how to be a better writer.

But I’m not sure I’m ready to let go of awards and merits entirely – which seems to be what Kohn is suggesting (though I haven’t finished his book yet). And there is NO WAY I would suggest that to a Kindergarten teacher about to start the year with a group of 20 wild, unschooled 4 and 5 year olds. In fact, I’d be encouraging them to use every incentive plan they can think of!

For information about Project Based and Passion Based Learning, check out the links below.


The Problem with Merit Systems

For a while now, I’ve been questioning the use of positive reward and merit systems in my class and in my school. I’ve used them for years, developing  and promoting their use in school for behaviour modification, classroom management and as a whole school strategy to encourage desirable behaviours and values. But lately I’ve been feeling increasingly uneasy.

There have always been some concerns:

  • We want our students to be intrinsically motivated, rather than working for reward.
  • If we start to reward desirable behaviours such as picking up rubbish, does that mean students will only do it if they are rewarded?
  • There seems to be a lack of fairness – often less compliant students seem to earn more rewards – the moment we catch them doing the right thing, we provide a reinforcement to try to encourage that positive behaviour, whereas more compliant students exhibit the same behaviours with no reward.
  • The scarcity issue – we can’t reward all positive behaviours all the time or it devalues the rewards. Therefore, we build in scarcity and ration the number of awards we give,  which means some students miss out when they have exhibited the same behaviours as those who were awarded.

At my school it is further complicated by the fact we have a whole school token reward program. Teachers give out tokens for positive behaviours. When the student accrues ten of these, they earn a merit award. Ten merits lead to a higher award and as they continue earning, they achieve further awards of increasing value.

This leads to issues such as:

  • lack of consistency between teachers. Students in one class may receive many more than students in another. 
  • parental anxiety  and teacher stress. If a parent perceives that their child has not received enough tokens there will often be a call to the principal, or a meeting with the teacher. There is usually the suggestion that the teacher is not encouraging the students enough.

But on the flip side we’ve seen many positive benefits:

  • successful* behaviour modification programs 
  • successful* classroom management programs
  • the opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate students’ effort, values and citizenship. All our students are able to earn awards, not just those who are particularly talented in academic, artistic or sporting endeavours.

*While these programs certainly appear successful, Alfie Kohn’s research in his book ‘Punished by Rewards’ would suggest that the positive effects are short term.

In 2012 I had a dream Year 2 class. Almost every one of my students were  intrinsically motivated. They LOVED coming to school and engaging in learning. They enjoyed exploring, experimenting with and discussing ideas. They willingly reflected on their learning, and set themselves goals which they liked working towards. They didn’t need token rewards to encourage good work or effort.

They were also a very compliant class, willing to cooperate with me and each other. They worked well as a team and didn’t need tokens to encourage cooperation or sharing.

This made it rather difficult to decide what I should be giving the tokens for. I had to give them out because they fed into our whole school system, but I struggled with it. The tokens were tied to the school merit system, they had to be rationed to around 5 per day.

How could I choose 5 students  for an award and leave the others?

I tried all sorts of things such as:

  • catching the first 5 students who were ‘ready’, helping or doing something positive.
  • keeping a secret list and crossing off the names of students who were behaving inappropriately – I only crossed off one name though.
  • asking students to set their own targets, and earn a token when they had achieved it.
  • catching 5 students a day who showed improvement in their work
  • randomly giving out 5 each day and just ensuring that different students received them each day

I wasn’t  happy with these approaches. Choosing 5 students each day who were doing something positive seemed unfair to the other well-behaved students. Giving them out to students who kept their name on a list seemed a punishment to those who missed out. Goal setting and showing improvement was better, but it was hard to manage, and the students ended up getting fewer awards than before. The random distribution of tokens just seemed pointless.

But my biggest concern of all was that my students didn’t need these tokens. They were highly motivated by the intrinsic rewards of what they were doing.  My students were motivated by their love of learning, the excitement of new discoveries and ideas, by the pleasure of being part of a happy, harmonious class community. Giving them a little token seemed to cheapen that. It took their attention away from what was truly important, and onto measuring their value by the amount of tokens they collected.

Last year I blogged about a student of mine who in one week was selected as a class spokesperson for the school open day, was given a public blog – the first child in our school to be given that opportunity, and had spent special mentoring sessions with me to develop her writing. The same week her mother complained to the principal that she had not received many tokens and was worried her daughter was not being encouraged enough.

So what really is the lesson that our  students and their parents are learning from our positive award systems?

To explore this idea further, this holidays I’m reading ‘Punished by Rewards’ by Alfie Kohn. I expect I’ll be blogging some more about it soon.


Are we hindering our students’ ability to write well?

I wonder if I’m doing the right thing by my students in my efforts to help them learn to write.

A few weeks ago, I asked my Year Two class to write a recount of the excursion they went on the day before. We’d done all our brainstorming and modelling. All the scaffolding was in place. I had images and key words written on the IWB, and some models of recounts on large posters that could be easily referred to by students. The class were up to writing independently and there were about 20 minutes left until the bell.

As they wrote, I circulated amongst them, providing encouragement where I could, and help when it was needed. Every now and then, I would read someone’s paragraph aloud, hoping that it might help others to come up with ideas. I’d look over their shoulders as they worked,  and occasionally I would notice a few students who weren’t writing. Some of them would stop mid sentence, others at the end of a paragraph, and just sit there.

Conscious that the time was running out, I would coax them to keep going. I’d ask them if they knew what they wanted to write next and help them with ideas.  They would pick up their pencils and continue.

It was a nice lesson. Not spectacular, but it achieved the outcomes.  They all completed their recounts and in so doing demonstrated a growing understanding of language and text structure, as well as at the subject matter. I was happy with the quality of their work and chose a couple to post on our class website.

However, it occurred to me that real writing isn’t like that at all, and perhaps, even though they are common practices, my attempts to support my students are counter productive for some.

When I write, I HATE people looking at what I’m doing until I’m finished. I posted about that here. If  some does look at my work before I’m ready  I freeze up and find it  difficult to continue. I lose the flow. Is this how I affect my students when I check on their progress?

While writing this post, I have stopped several times. I need to in order to collect my thoughts – to work out what it is exactly that I want to say. I need to stop and read back through my work to see if it makes sense. In classrooms, ruled by bells and crowded schedules there is little time for students to stop, think and reflect. Stopping is discouraged because you’ll run out of time. Stopping is discouraged because the student may be “off task” or “disengaged”.

I’ve also deleted large sections of this post while writing. I’ve deleted, rewritten and deleted again. That’s a little more difficult when you are a Year Two student writing in an exercise book.

If I was a student in my class that day, I don’t think I would have written well. I might have produced some technically correct writing, but the conditions I need to produce quality writing weren’t there. I need time to think. I need privacy. And I need to be able to make and correct mistakes.

If our objective is to help students to truly express themselves in writing, to put their thoughts into words, share what is important, clarify ideas and create new ones, to create worlds. If our students are to learn to harness the  power of the written word, then perhaps a different approach is required.

A reading corner

With just a few days to go before the school year starts, I’ve been in at work preparing my room for my new Year Two class.

This year I wanted to create an inviting area for my students where they can relax and enjoy reading for pleasure.

My classroom is a little tricky to organise. The back wall which I share with the classroom next door  opens up to form a double room. This is great for team teaching, but you can’t put any furniture along it.  I only have one wall which I can use for storage units, and the space left for a reading corner is rather small.

When I started working on it, it was fairly uninspiring, so I added a small rug and a hyacinth chest; both of which I picked up very cheaply at K-Mart. I put the books into clear baskets from the $2 shop, allowing them to be stored with their covers on display. This created a more enticing display. I added some bright cushions, also cheap at K-Mart, and some soft toys from my childhood which  I couldn’t bear to throw out. Finally, I attached a wall decoration purchased about ten years ago.

I think it will make a nice little reading space for my class.

The cushions and toys finish off the space nicely.