The first time I went to Yolande’s 5th grade classroom at the Catholic school, something strange happened. The sister introduced me and said I was there to observe her lesson, and she commented, “But I’m supposed to be done at noon.” Time has been a constant point of confusion for me. The way I originally understood it, school starts at 8 and goes until 1. But, it’s actually 8:30, and no real teaching happens until 9, at least in some classrooms. Then, at 10:30, they have recess and lunch, which is supposed to take 30 minutes but often takes 45 (they leave earlier than 10:30 and come back later than 11). And they leave at 12 or 12:30, instead of 1. The schedule might be shifting because of exams, of course. But even if they’re doing the full 8 until 1 with only a 30 minute break, that’s still only four and a half hours in a classroom. Here in the U.S., we manage 6 or more. Of course, more time sitting in a seat doesn’t guarantee more skills when you walk out, and in other countries they spend less time in school but still get good results.
Anyway, I told Yolande that I would just come by another time once I realized she hadn’t planned a lesson for the last hour of a typical school day. The second time I came, she had me sit down in the back of the room, in front of a table. The table had a chair behind it, but she got me a chair so I could sit in front of the people.
The class had 30 students, and only six of them were boys. They were doing a “Creole Communication” lesson. The teacher started out by writing the objective on the board.
Then, she had the kids open to a page in their reader. She asked them to tell her what they saw in the picture. Kids started shouting out answers, and she told them to raise their hand.
A man was sitting in a bed in the picture. The teacher asked “Is he sleeping?” The man wasn’t. The class concluded that meant he was sick.
After that introduction, the class was supposed to read the text silently, in their head. She told them to pay attention, because she was going to ask questions afterward.
Here’s the story. Just before he dies, a father tells his sons not to sell the land. Apparently, there’s a treasure buried underneath, and the more they plant the better chance they’ll have of finding it (I don’t see why they have to plant instead of just digging, but okay). The sons never find the treasure, but they make a lot of money because their garden is really profitable.
After a few minutes, the teacher asked, “Who can explain to me what they just read?” One girl stood up and started, but her explanation was too long. The teacher told her “You should summarize. You should understand and explain.” One boy stood up and answered, and his answer was more acceptable. The teacher asked, “Did anyone remember something else?” to prompt the students to add something, but no one had anything to add.
The teacher moved on and told the students that the moral of the story had to do with the importance of knowing how to work the land. “Working the land leads to treasure.” Once again, I found myself wondering what the motivation was for teaching kids this in school. Isn’t the whole point of getting an education so that you can have a better life than your parents? I get that the principle of working hard doesn’t apply only to farming, but that’s not how the teacher presented it in class, and I’m not sure how it was intended to come across anyway.
She chose a student who started to read the passage to them, and then another wrapped it up. Finally, everyone read together, chanting in rhythm.
Then, they got out notebooks and answered questions. The kids had the questions in their textbooks, but the teacher copied out each question on the board anyway. The questions related to basic comprehension of the story.
A few of the kids started writing responses immediately, but most didn’t. Some were looking at the text to find the answer. Others didn’t even seem to be trying. The teacher told them to start searching. She also told the class not to write the objective that she’d put on the board above the actual lesson itself. She told them that she’d written a longer objective this time just for my benefit, and they didn’t need it.
The teacher let the kids continue writing and stepped out of the classroom to talk to some other teachers. Then she came back in. “Are we all done?” The majority of the kids said yes, but some said no loudly. She moved on anyway. “Who wants to answer the questions?”
A girl went up front to write on the board. She wrote something wrong, so the teacher said, “Someone who didn’t write that, come up and let’s correct it together.” The class recited the correct answer, while the boy wrote on the board.
The teacher started walking around to look at individual notebooks. Not all the kids had the answers written down, and she told them to start copying what was on the board so they’d be able to look at them at home.
The teacher decided to have the kids read the story one last time, and they did the same rhythmic recitation that I’ve grown accustomed to hearing. I swear, it sounds exactly like the robotic voice that the computers have installed for reading text.
After that, the teacher said she had a homework assignment for the kids. She asked them, “Do we know a person who has died?” Some of the kids said no at first, but she added on that it could be anyone – a relative, a friend, or just someone who lives in their neighborhood. The teacher told them to write about that person. The kids asked, “In Creole?”
I think the writing prompt may have come from yesterday’s workshop. We read a story about a girl giving a mango to her grandfather once he got old and sick, because he always gave them to her when she was young and now he needed someone to take care of him just like he took care of her. I told the teachers that a good writing prompt based on the story is “Write about someone in your life who was important to you.” It looks like the teacher took that and put her own spin on it. I would never think to ask kids to talk about someone who had died, but apparently in her mind it didn’t seem to be too much of an issue.
The teacher wrote the directions on the board. The directions read “Write a story about someone who know at hour house.” I don’t know whether she left out the dead part intentionally or not. She misspelled the word “tèks”, writing “tèsk” instead. At the end of the lesson, she asked everyone whether they were satisfied, and they said yes.
Next, I went to Bernadette’s school and sat in on Jonas’s third grade class. There were a total of 60 students: 33 girls and 27 boys. He had written numbers in different colors on the board:
3 x 10 =
3 x 100 =
3 x 1000 =
Each zero was written in yellow instead of white. Jonas asked a student to read the equations for him. Some of the students were distracted, so he had them clap.
Then, he started asking questions. The kids in the back raised their hands more. The gist of the lesson was, “What happens when you multiply a number by 10?” Some of the students started to realize that it means you add on a zero. Jonas walked them through the other examples, patiently asking, “Who can tell me what result this will give?”
After a few more tries and examples, the students started getting the hang of it, correctly identifying 600 as the result of 6 and 100. Then Jonas started calling on individual students. Whenever he gave one a problem, they would have to talk fast before the others managed to shout out the answer. Some of the kids started standing up in order to better compete for first to respond.
One girl raised her hand. “Teacher, I don’t understand.” The teacher asked, “Why can’t you understand?” and some of the kids started injecting comments. I wanted to hold up my two hands in front of the girl and tell her, “A long time ago, some people decided that once you get to ten you’re supposed to start over again, maybe because we have ten fingers.”
The teacher started walking through more examples. He had kids come up, urging them to jot down the answer quickly so the others could take their turn – everybody kept moving. He paid special attention to the girl who didn’t understand, calling on her several times. When she came up to consider something on the board, he put his hand on her shoulder.
Then, they did one last run-through with the whole class at once. The kids slipped up for a moment on 10 x 1000, saying 1000 at first. None of the other examples had more than three zeroes. Then, someone correctly realized that it was 10,000.
After erasing the objective from the board, indicating the start of a new lesson, the teacher still kept calling on random kids to give him answers. The kids asked whether they should take out notebooks to do some practice problems, and at first he said they didn’t need the notebooks. Then he asked whether they wanted to use them, and they said yes, so he had them get them out. Some of the kids came up front to grab them out of a backpack on the table instead of their bags at their seats.
Jonas wrote out some more practice problems, and then decided. “Let’s do this on the board so we can do it faster.” One of the kids who came up wrote down something wrong. The class responded “Woy” (Uh-oh) and someone said “That’s not it, teacher.”
After that last lightning round, the class was more subdued, and Jonas was ready to switch to the next topic. He apologized to me for saying some things in French, but I told him I’d been able to understand it, and it seemed like the kids were able to understand too.