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Sunday, December 18, 2016

Remembering to Breathe

My teaching practice is changing. It started when my workplace was able recently to add several more literacy classrooms and teachers. I am no longer responsible for meeting the needs of foundations and CLB 1L learners in the same class. That's a good thing.

In September the little alcove-like room next door to my class was transformed from a childminding space to a room that (I still cannot believe) accommodates eleven or twelve students and a desk for teacher. It is the only classroom with a little foyer in front of it where shoes can be removed, which adds to its mysterious grotto-like feeling. My new colleague Maria did not even wait for her first day of work to begin transforming the space with inviting details such as a WELCOME wall decal in the entry, and a tiny soft carpet in a recessed niche that once held the toy box. She has filled the closet with her teaching supplies, but also with alphabet stickers, stacks of coloured paper, paints, markers, and oil pastels.

Because Maria has a degree in psychology and professional experience both with PTSD and with adolescents who have behavioural challenges, I find myself stopping at her door to share both triumphs and failures as I attempt to deal with the higher maintenance clients.

Maria is a good listener. She is generous with her advice and expertise, and I usually leave with something concrete that I can try to put into practice the next time I am at a loss for how to deal with clients experiencing the aftereffects of war, culture shock, the stress of being a refugee in a strange new land, or when I don't know how to support a client with (suspected) attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.

Maria has been using colouring and art in her class and has noticed that it has a positive effect on learning--both by lowering the affective filter and increasing students' ability to focus, understand language, retain language, and follow directions immediately after a short period of an activity such as colouring.

On hearing of Maria's success with this, I have decided to experiment with colouring and other creative activities in my own class. I am starting mostly with drawing and colouring, introducing them in both a structured and also in a non-structured way.

First of all, I have created a station at the back of the room where students are free to sit whenever the mood strikes them. There are iPads with educational apps they enjoy, such as sight word recognition games. There is a box of markers and coloured pencils, a stack of pictures that can be coloured, as well as a pad of plain paper.

Additionally, I have begun including in my regular lessons an opportunity once or twice a week for us all to spend about 15 minutes colouring. Before this idea struck, my usual habit was to use teacher-made worksheets to accompany existing readers and Learning Experience Approach (LEA) books based on photos we take in class or on field trips. For this experiment, I have begun to include one or two images that are simple line drawings to be coloured or blank boxes to be filled with an image drawn by the student. This week we were in our holiday theme, so the cutting of snowflakes served a similar purpose.
I have not done this enough times to be able to report any results or trends, but I can tell you that *I* very much look forward to the sudden hush that falls over the room as soon as the scissors or markers and pretty pencils are passed around. This is a very good thing, especially in light of the fact that my agency's PBLA ramp-up has me quite often forgetting to breathe. I have felt torn between the duties of Portfolio Based Language Assessment and my duty to the learners to create and maintain a safe space. (That means a calm space; it means a space in which the teacher is not frequently rattled, anxious, or ready to snap.) When we are all colouring, our breathing slows. My voice comes back down from anxious to steady.
Coincidentally, I decided to clean out a bookcase today and came across an old favourite of mine called Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice by Mary Rose O'Reilley. As I started to skim the first chapter, I got a subtle but uncomfortable sense that I have of late drifted away from my grounded self, from the me who remembers to breathe.

This thought prompted me to dig out the ebook Maria sent me several weeks ago by the name of Creativity in English Language Teaching, edited by Daniel Xerri. Very soon I am planning to print out this ebook so that I can sit in my favourite coffee shop and read it with a highlighter in hand.

A good book hooks you with the first sentence. This one had me at the foreword:
It matters now more than ever that these stories from creative teachers are shared. Partly it matters because examination boards, publishers, language policy makers, government advisors and Ministries of Education tell us that it does not matter, that our priorities must lie elsewhere. Teacher narratives such as Appel (1995) in Germany, Aoki, Sunami, Li and Kinoshita (2004) in Japan, Doecke, Homer and Nixon (2003) in Australia, show teachers generating their own theories of good practice, often in contradiction to those externally imposed. Whilst our own burning debates as professionals cover a wide spectrum including, for example, learner needs, the changing language, multiple literacies, reflective practice, the language-culture interface, the dominant public rhetoric describes education as a deliverable commodity rather like crates of cargo.... The more that external agencies are anointed to audit, measure, and quality assure, the less are we trusted to self-regulate, reflect and develop for ourselves: and it is this internal development that gives us a lifetime of growth as educators. ... This book offers resistance to mediocrity and compliance.
I would love to have your comments.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Kelly,

    I am glad these suggestions helped you find your "quiet place". Here is a very brief article about colouring and the brain. The article also mentions "mindfulness art therapy", which is another reason I always try to incorporate creativity into my skill building tasks. LINK:https://health.clevelandclinic.org/2015/11/3-reasons-adult-coloring-can-actually-relax-brain/
    Although not all of our students suffer from PTSD, (and those who do are not known to us), there is a lot of support for using art/creativity to enhance learning. Whether it's music, colouring, play dough or some other form of sensory stimulation, by using it we can calm the brain to allow it to function at its maximum potential. Some of our clients are so overwhelmed with life, that language learning becomes quite daunting. This makes them ever so frustrated, as language is their biggest barrier to success as newcomers. They may associate these negative feelings with learning English or their inability to do something, which may lower self-esteem and encourage them to avoid coming to school.

    A little goes a long way with colouring, so I find it useful to give a short colouring activity just before an assessment or when I observe my students having a tense day, (one of those 'off' days). In this way the students' abilities can be measured more accurately, without the added barriers of performance that stress or anxiety can cause. Because the feeling is associated with a positive experience, It also motivates them to learn and keeps them coming to class because they feel a sense of calm. If they perform better they also have evidence of their successes and observe their own progress. This ties their memories of learning into mental pictures of accomplishments that are associated with positive sensory feelings. This is the safe place we want our students (and ourselves) to be during class. It's a win-win.

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  2. Thank you for commenting, and for teaching me so much! :) K

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