From peer learning to bonding

Neeraja Raghavan

THINKING TEACHER (www.thinkingteacher.in) brings to you a series called IN THE STAFFROOM through TEACHER PLUS.

Ideally, teachers should be able to discuss (over a cup of tea, maybe?) several academic as well as classroom management issues in the staff room. However, we know that this is seldom possible due to the rush-rush-rush of a teacher’s day. Therefore, we felt that the sort of discussion which should ideally take place in the staff room (but perhaps doesn’t, as often as it should,) could easily happen in the leisurely pages of Teacher Plus.

As in any discussion, everything depends upon the richness of participation. While we have sparked off the first discussion in this issue with a question that THINKING TEACHER actually solicited, the discussion will roll on only if you, dear reader, pitch in with your own questions and responses. You must have many issues that call for discussion – it could be help with an issue that you are facing, e.g. a particular concept that you wish to master, or an innovative pedagogy that you are searching for – in order to teach that concept, or a Classroom management issue, etc.

In the next issue, we continue with this interesting discussion. In the meanwhile, send in a question that you would like to discuss in the staffroom, by e-mailing us at thinkingteacher22@gmail.com.

Welcome to the Staff Room!
Our discussion this month was triggered by Sitalakshmi Natarajan of Rishi Valley School. She posed a question that many other teachers resonated with strongly:
In my 15 years of teaching across different levels, the following question has been my constant companion – Good students seem to do well despite the teachers. How do we, during our teaching hours, reach out to and help academically weak students? How do we differentiate instruction in classroom more effectively according to the needs of each student?

The discussion around the question alongside continued – with the focus on strategies. Tapasya Saha (with almost 30 years of teaching experience) described her strategies thus –

  • A systematic follow up of a student’s understanding of the subject, through a (lesson) plan for students at different levels (1st, 2nd and 3rd levels) that I have identified in my class.
  • I would work with the whole class for 20/25 minutes on the topic. I would make half the class write most of the things that I was talking about on the board, with the help of the entire class.
  • For the rest of the period I would work with the students of 2nd and 3rd levels. In between, I would address the whole class with some interesting questions which I might (not) have discussed with the weak students. Most of the time, the weaker ones would speak faster than the rest. This strategy would give this group a sense of being included and they would wait for me and pay attention to the discussion and participate more.
  • I used peer learning a lot, with a seating arrangement that enabled peer learning.
  • Sometimes I would collect books on a particular topic, and distribute them to the groups; and through reading and discussion, they would learn the concepts of the chapter on their own. Later, they would present their learnings to the class. I would help them as and when required.
  • I have understood a few things about myself and children. Common to both of us is that we love some kind of dramatics in our everyday classroom life – something happening in the class which both of us look forward to. It can be an anecdote, a collection of pictures and sometimes a movie, a challenging worksheet or a class outdoors. But every time I would keep an eye on these children and make sure that they are picking up a few things, if not all.
  • I always tried to establish a bond with the children. We would discuss about things of interest to the child other than the subject. This has made children who are less receptive in the class to come to me with their specific problems in the subject. I have always grabbed this opportunity to help the student’s understanding in the subject.

Nalini Ravel (also a teacher for three decades) echoes some of these thoughts, as she shared thus –
Academically weak students have to be meticulously observed to find out whether they are slow learners or reluctant learners. A slow learner wants to learn, but has a problem – while a reluctant learner is not motivated at all. We then need to make them follow a well devised regimen of learning processes that help them to overcome their problem. It requires a lot of patience and a heart full of love, care and patience. We have to treat them all equally and impartially. In my several years of teaching I never insulted, ill-treated or abused any child. I always respected them and their parents.

staffroom

What we can do to help them –

  • Talk to and listen to them.
  • Add variety to the academic routine and use concrete educational games and other techniques (including technology) such as singing/acting as much as possible.
  • Bring humor in the class to create interest.
  • Relate the topic to their real life situation; ask them to share their experiences.
    • Give them tasks that are small and in which they are sure to succeed so as to boost their confidence.
  • Appreciate a lot… acknowledge a lot… love them a lot…
  • Repeat things, give them extra time, encourage peer help.
  • Involve them in group activities; assign specific tasks with clear instruction and appreciate on completing the task.
  • Set small assignments on a daily basis, based on basic concepts of that particular subject (something that can be done in 5 to 8 minutes). Parents or a classmate can help if required. Check it on a daily or weekly basis and give positive feedback.
  • Ask them to teach a small topic.
  • Encourage them to ask a lot of questions.
  • Give a statement and ask them to frame a question.
  • Give them opportunities to predict, guess, imagine, dream…

Indrani Barua had several of her own strategies to share –
Slowly I began to treat each student as a person and measured her progress with what she had done before. Later, I learnt about vertical learning from a friend, Lopamudra and observed her class. That day was a revelation for me.

What I had learnt that day, I have applied ever since. As an English teacher I would make

  • a. Several Worksheets and put them under different folders colour-coded for Easy – Medium – Hard (difficulty level). I also have children work from each of the Levels.
  • A report – grid for every student that is filled up by the student himself. Comments about whether the Task was difficult/easy or which portion gave them some trouble etc were to be filled in honestly by the kids. This was the beginning of critical thinking. If initially, there was some dishonesty, it soon disappeared when the learners realized they were cheating themselves, not me.
  • A review of these sheets twice a week and have a general discussion/teaching session for different problem types. Those students who had similar problems would attend these sessions. Others with different problems/ no problems would go to the library and work on their own Tasks. Thereby I tried to address specific problems and give help as required/ diagnosed and also decrease direct interference of the teacher in the learning process.
  • Test papers that the learners did by themselves and I checked these with them. If a learner did very badly, we went over the Test together. The student could practice other Test papers and then do the Test again. If the student did well, s/he could go on to the next Task and Tests.

With this system, every learner was facing a challenge at their own level. This kept them motivated and learning. Moreover, they felt equal to others and worked without stigma or labeling.

Indrani pre-empted our asking her an oft-asked question, by continuing as follows: The above methods will work where numbers are small or where there is a certain liberty in syllabus. But the question is whether these will work for traditional classrooms with a fixed syllabus and testing processes.

My guess is they will. Even if the syllabus restricts the choice of text, the process of dealing with it can be the same. The teacher can also divide the class into smaller groups of four/five and select fairly advanced students to act as coordinators. The coordinators can work on their own Tasks/Worksheets but also help solve minor problems for others in the group. For more difficult problems, the teacher’s help may be sought.

The author is the Founder-Director of Thinking Teacher, an organization that is working towards creating a network of reflective teachers who seek each other’s views on a range of issues pertaining to teaching and learning.