Friday, 12 June 2015

Class of 2015

Today is the last day of exams for my 6th year students. I've taught most of them for three years, from their Junior Cert days right up until this. It's the first time that I've taught students right up to the very end. I work in a centre much smaller than a mainstream school, so there are just seven young people altogether in 6th Year. Having worked closely with these young people for three years, I'm sitting here now feeling equal parts sad that I'm saying goodbye to them, and proud and happy that they are about to leave. By half four this evening, they will all have completed their Leaving Certificate.

They're seven very different people, each with their own strengths and talents, each with their own ideas, and each with their own future. Like countless students across the country, they have come through their own difficulties and setbacks to get to where they are now. In the book that our centre published last month, "What the Life Centre Means to Me", a few stories mentioned teachers who told young people that they would never achieve their Junior Cert, let alone their Leaving. There is absolutely no excuse for ever saying this to a child. Ever.

I'm writing this now more for myself as an outlet, but if I'm going to use this blog to keep a record of my thoughts on school and teaching, there would be a huge gap in it if I didn't record how absolutely, immensely proud I am of my students, how much I have enjoyed having the privilege of teaching them, and above all how much I have learned from them.

(Behold!) Thank you.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Some thoughts on the 2015 History (and CSPE) papers

1. Ordinary Level students can't depend on Social Change to come up
"An old person describing social change in 20th century Ireland" has been a staple of Ordinary Level People in History questions, coming up every year in the past six, except in 2011... and 2015. Anyone who thought 2011 might be a fluke (myself included, I must admit) will have to keep in mind not to rely too heavily on that one when helping students revise in the future.

2. History marches on
Screencap from the SEC website
The Junior Cert Higher Level Document question caused a bit of a stir by asking students what post Mary Robinson held after stepping down from the presidency in 1997. The Junior Cert course officially finishes up in 1985, though Robinson becoming the first female President in 1990 is included in every textbook in the Social Change chapter under the "Changing Role of Women" heading. Textbooks also tend to mention Mary McAleese and the Celtic Tiger in this chapter, so it's not unheard of for the course to unofficially extend beyond 1985. If anything, this question and the fuss it raised showed that it might be time to update the course a little bit to take in some of the 1990s. Given that 1985 was 15 years ago when I was in First Year and doing the same curriculum, going as far as 9/11 wouldn't be out of bounds now, in my opinion.

3. Technology marches on
A lot of supervisors noted seeing a lot of students leave the Robinson question blank, raising concerns about the effectiveness of CSPE as a subject. Leaving those concerns aside for a second, one question in the CSPE paper that caught my attention was in the Gorta option in Section 3.
Screencap from the SEC website
I'll admit I wasn't sure what to make of it at first. On the one hand it seems like an odd question, causing students to take more time than they usually would because they'll need to count the letters they're writing. The more I thought about it though, I came to see it as a good literacy exercise, having students evaluate what they're writing in order to be as concise as possible. And while I'm wary of going overboard in appealing to popular culture and social media in exam questions (the 2013 Business paper's infamous Lady Gaga question being the prime example of that), I think it can be very effective when done right.

4. CSPE: Serious subject or "doss"?
Screencap from the SEC website
Anyone who teaches CSPE will know what I'm talking about. It has a reputation for being an easy, effortless subject which doesn't really matter. The questions are commonsense, there's no heavy learning, and there's a picture round - which this year focused not on politicians' faces but on buildings. Áras an Uachtaráin, Leinster House and the Four Courts should be known to all Junior Cert students, but I'll admit I wouldn't have expected them to know what the Central Bank looks like. Of course, by the process of elimination they should have been able to answer it anyway, but questions like that show the potential CSPE has to be more than just formulaic basic information on how the state works.

5. People in History, People Outside the Box
Screencap from the SEC website
That's what was asked in the Ordinary Level Junior Cert paper in place of the aforementioned "old person describing social change". That particular question hasn't been asked before - a similar one was asked in 2009, but it specified someone involved in either peace and war in Europe from 1920-45, or one of the Third Year options. The above question could justifiably be answered with anyone from Hitler to Kennedy to Thatcher to deGaulle. It's easy to stick to a small number of comfortable favourites for People in History questions (Lemass is the go-to for an Irish political leader, for example), but it's interesting when a question comes along that shakes that complacency and encourages thinking about people who have never featured as People in History before.

Another question which caught people out - some think it may have been a misprint - was this Junior Cert Higher Level People in History question: "A named leader in the struggle for Irish independence, 1900-1912". The course features several Irish independence leaders from 1916-1921, most notably Michael Collins, but the same can't be said for the period 1900-1912, which is really only glossed over. John Redmond, Arthur Griffith and James Connolly would be viable candidates, but they wouldn't have been studied as People in History. Unless it really was a mistake, it means revising with a wider scope in the future.

6. The same goes for the Leaving Cert
Any Ordinary Level Leaving Cert students who assumed that if Anglo-American popular culture came up in Dictatorship and Democracy, Charlie Chaplin would be a part of it (because he has been each and every time so far), were disappointed when the paper instead asked them to write about Bing Crosby. Not Crosby and/or Chaplin, just Crosby. In fact quite a few of the questions that came up throughout the Ordinary Level paper were a departure from what came before. Stalin's show trials were completely ignored in favour of his actions during World War II. The traditionally heavy emphasis of the Ordinary Level paper on the Montgomery Bus Boycott and its impact on the civil rights movement finally gave way to focus specifically Martin Luther King. It's the first time there's been an Ordinary Level long question about him at all since this course was introduced in 2006. 

7. Paying attention to past questions pays off...
That's not to say that the papers were completely new. All four History papers contained many questions which came up before. My sister, who did her Leaving Cert in 2013, looked through the Higher Level paper afterwards and identified several questions she had done during her time in school. It proves that practicing the questions which came up before is good revision, and students who put in the work over the two years will have been rewarded by some questions they would definitely have used for practice in the past.

8. ...but don't predict anything!
We all like to try to predict what will come up. I do it too (completely called the Martin Luther King question!), and with the recurring nature of many of the questions, sometimes we'll be right. But just as often, we can be very wrong - Social Change being the prime example. The State Examinations Commission has been looking into the predictability of its exam papers, and with talks and rumours of examination reforms constantly going on, anything could yet change. It's easy and convenient to fall into a routine of having students revise a certain number of "likely" topics, but it's a habit we should try to avoid if we can. Take the constant debate over whether we're teaching subjects or teaching to a test. We have to work within the system in place, which for the time being remains very exam heavy, but we shouldn't allow our subjects to become formulaic and predictable because of this. If this year's variations from the norm and "new" questions should tell us anything, it's that we should anticipate questions that haven't been asked yet. We should look at the topics and wonder "what can be asked?" rather than "what has been asked?". If we do that, then even as we're teaching for an exam we're still teaching our subjects, especially when, as History teachers, we should be encouraging students to analyse, to interpret, to examine and to explore - not simply to learn something off.

9. Time to relax.
I don't know about you, but I felt a weight off my shoulders at 5:20pm today. Now it's time to take it easy, and look ahead to the next year and what we can do to make it a good one. A good year needs a good break beforehand though, so my final thought is this - enjoy the summer!

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Reflecting while waiting for English Paper 2 to finish...

In 1992 I started my school life, in a colourful room full of posters, games, crayons and books. I loved it, and all this time later I still have vivid memories of that first year. I can remember drawing a picture for my teacher, Mrs. Hourihane. She kept it on the front of her desk for the entire year.

I have Mrs. Hourihane to thank, in a way, for where I am now, sitting in a room waiting for my students to finish their latest exam. Everyone can name a few teachers they had who had a positive impact on them. From an early age, I always wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, and her kind manner and encouraging presence was a major reason why. As I got older and developed a love for History, my teaching ambitions had a focus. And so my reasons for wanting to become a teacher centred around two main things: a desire to help people and a desire to share my love of history.

I did my PDE (H.Dip) in 2011, knowing full well that the job market for teachers was not at its best. Nonetheless it was what I wanted to do. I wasn't thinking about money, I wasn't thinking about job security, I wasn't thinking about promotion prospects, I was just thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and why I wanted to do it.

A series of events led to me working outside of the mainstream system. The experience has changed me, both as a teacher and as a person. Working one-to-one with young people who had been let down by the mainstream system, I was teaching both to help and to share my love of my subject: it was teaching exactly as I had always envisioned it. Indeed as I sit here I'm thinking of next year: my current Leaving Cert students will have moved on to pursue their own ambitions, and for the year that it is we here will be planning centenary commemorations for a major national historical event. History, and Help.

The future is a frightening place as well. I don't have a secure job, and the longer I stay out of the mainstream system, the harder it may be to get back into it. But moving on from where I am now doesn't feel right. Not simply to me as a person but to me as a teacher as well. I have invested in the students I teach, in the success of the place in which I work, and in the concept of teaching as an act of helping others, not simply as a job.

Am I wrong? Am I naive? Some people would probably say so. It's 23 years since I started school, and roughly the same amount of time since I knew I wanted to become a teacher. I've never been ignorant of how fortunate I am to be able to work in an area I enjoy and love. I'm still young, and still developing as a teacher. In 23 years from now, I won't be as young, but I'll still be developing as a teacher. The experience I've had working where I work has had a profound impact on that development. My experience interacting with people through History Help has influenced me as well. When I look at the future of my career, the thing I want most is to continue having these kinds of experiences. I became a teacher to help. No matter where I end up working and who I end up teaching, that is what I want to do.