Book of the Month March 2020 - Connect for Classroom Success



Halfway through reading this book I thought to myself, damn I wish I'd had a teacher like this in school. Of course, it took me about a millisecond to remember I did, and she is the reason I started writing. She used to write and direct my middle school plays (which involved both teachers and pupils) and the first thing I ever wrote independently at home was a play, which she read, and no matter how rubbish it may have been (which I assume it was - I was 9!) not a negative word was said. I think it highlights a key point. That the people who have a subtle and formative effect on us, may not necessarily be as clear to us until much later on, when their actions at one short point in our lives is dwarfed by the effect they've have on the rest of it.


Connect for Classroom Success provides exactly what it says on the tin. A connection to students of all ages, temperaments and personalities, no matter how difficult the path might feel. Not only that, it gives guidance for non-teaching staff, plus (if the reviews are anything to go by) parents, who may seem overwhelmed about how to address their own child's behaviour for praise or correction. I was never a teacher, but I did work in a teaching environment (international students), and did have a little experience of teaching, both as a student of teaching and as a personal tutor (one term was enough!). I also had experience of how great (and how bad) the administrative process could be, and so some of what was in this book rung very true even for me.


The author isn't shy about sharing personal tales from her life either, and how it had an effect on how she viewed school, teaching, and students across her life and career. She shows how not coming from a conventional background or having had bad experiences is no excuse for holding yourself back. Plus, she shows how early understanding of how to deal with situations where students may 'feel' othered by their peers because of their background (whether true or not), and how (or at least try) to effectively dissolve them before they burst.

"Statistically, a new teacher will spend five or less years in the classroom before giving it up."

Not very positive stats... But! This text is packed full of first-hand experience of myriad situations that offers an extensive handbook for teachers who may feel lost, overwhelmed or alone in the their pursuits. For me, the below points are the points (in no particular order) which resonated the most.


Parental involvement:

The interaction between teacher and parent is advised to be essential, even if you only contact them once to praise their child. It may be the difference between a parent taking interest in their child's education or ignoring everything that goes on in school time. Lack of contact could lead to student behaviour becoming a powder keg. The advice given by the author is basically to nip that in the bud. Start off on the right foot, and you may save yourself a great deal of time and trouble later on. But it's not all about corrective behaviour, it's also about sharing good news with the parents, and showing them you are actually a good role model and mentor who is concerned and supportive about the young people in your charge.


Excursions:

Yes, the author is right. School should bring joy, and some of that should be away from school. But if I had had any experiences in school like I did with my 5th year teacher, I might have enjoyed school more. If I told you once my secondary school class was taken to London (some seventy miles away) to see the new excellent Shakespeare's Globe not long after it was built, but we didn't see a play, would you think that was worthwhile? Like many British schoolchildren forced to learn Shakespeare's work in English and not Drama, I grew up disliking it thoroughly. Anyone else get forced to watch that horrid animated version of The Tempest over and over again? I couldn't stand it. And then, when I was 23, I saw that same play at the RSC in Stratford, with Patrick Stewart no less. Later on, at Shakespeare's Globe itself (my favourite version) in the pit as a groundling. It happens to be one of my favourite plays now. I wonder what it might have been like if I'd seen that play there...


The author reveals a fabulous story of getting her unruly class of older students to come into their own by arranging a trip on a sailing ship. Suffice to say, the rude young man who was escorted from the classroom that first day, later returned to her the next year to apologise for his behaviour.


A trip on a sailing ship the author wangled would probably give current (obtrusive and restrictive) UK health and safety regulations a proper heart attack, but where there is a will, there's a way. It doesn't just go for school. Children should be outdoors, especially as being cooped up all day is showing in some research to be bad for children's (and anyone's) eyesight, and may very well be the cause of myopia. A good thing to note if you don't want to be spending what could be thousands of pounds (or dollars) for specs in the future. Take it from someone whose eyes were ruined. I think it goes equally for younger and older children. The same with mental education: excursions should become more sophisticated as the child grows, and essential.


Reading well:

I cannot fathom how difficult modern life must be if you cannot read, or read well. I think the advent of audiobooks was a turning point for those who had trouble reading, for the blind/sight impaired and for any other disability affecting reading. But immediately taking in information is something I think most of us take for granted. I found picking up words easy, and have loved books my whole life, and therefore there was nothing in the way of me getting a lifelong interest in learning, and learning anything. My problem is attention span - finishing things I've started, because I like to start a lot of things at once, and some are more interesting than others. The author offers help for those teachers (or parents) who are finding their children are having difficulty reading, in a scheme called Read Right. Reading (and writing for that matter) has been taught the same for a very long time, leaving many students who have difficulty in natural comprehension under these styles behind. I think working in international education made this resonate acutely. Seeing the unbelievable pressure facing students learning pre-university/university courses with English as a second language (while taking a course to improve their English alongside the course in English...) was difficult enough, but not being able to read well at all... The progression rates are sky-high for this it seems, and changes in students' abilities and confidence can be seen in a matter of weeks. Weeks! Incredible stuff.


My final thoughts are regarding integrity. As with the author, my favourite word. If you're in education and you're expecting your students to learn respect, for you and each other, then you'd better have bags of it. Intellectual integrity and behavioural - making sure you don't go back on your word, or your expectations, standing your ground, sticking by your beliefs, and accepting change where it's needed. Disagreement is key to evolution of thought, and it might differ, but students might actually know something better than you.


There is so much in this book you'll find yourself nodding along to, cheering on, and being just plain in awe of (whose teacher ever wrote them a rap to perform at school, or spent the whole night helping them re-create a destroyed presentation to silently teach some other students a firm lesson?). It's trans-continental in my opinion. I truly believe there's something for anyone who crosses paths with or is responsible for children and young people - their own or someone' else's. The author highlights her wish when she was newer to teaching, how she'd wished she had a guidebook or manual for teaching to help her along the way. Maybe you'll be writing the next one, and the author will be in your acknowledgements.


Buy Connect for Classroom Success, and find R. Janet Walraven on Goodreads!


- JOT

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