Geography Exams and Wanderlust

So, it turns out that I was freaked out rather unnecessarily.  The morale of the story I guess, is NEVER BELIEVE WHAT YOUR STUDENTS TELL YOU!  I was totally freaking out because the students informed me that they had decided to take their exams in January or May next year instead of the planned two years of lessons, whilst I was also being told by others that the lessons were too hard for the students.

So, with a bit of guidance and reassurance, I was calmed down and assured that this was in no way the plan of the school and that it was the kids thinking they could take exams, but they hadn’t in fact registered for exams, and actually I would need to give permission for this to happen anyway.  This means that the earliest they can take their GCSE exams is in fact January 2013.  A lot better than having 7 months in which to learn everything.

That will teach me for believing the students! Lesson learned, and I’m sure that my being a typical Scorpio probably also didn’t help.  So, I’m back to being happier again now, and knowing that we are back on track in terms of the teaching, and in future I suppose I will be checking such rumours with the school first!  Luckily for me, I have a fantastic School Director and work with a very understanding team of staff.

That is not to say that my lessons are in anyway perfect, I have to remember that I am still in Georgia after all, and it is a big ask to get them used to the British style of education and exam taking, but its realistic now, and I know that school are right behind me and don’t have an issue with the lessons being challenging for them.  In fact, they are supposed to be.  That is definitely a cultural thing, and I still struggle with lots of mixed messages.  Things which mean one thing to me as a Brit, mean something totally different to a Georgian. Its not just an issue for me, but also for the two other ‘foreign’ teachers at school, and the language barrier also means that we often miss out on essential information.  But I certainly feel happier knowing that we have now spoken about things and changes are being made.

My biggest struggle is still my third grade, and I know I really have to work hard over the break to come up with something new for them.  They are the most unusual combination of super intelligent kids I have ever met, but emotionally they are not at that same level, and there is a mixture of abilities when it comes to English language, and there is really one child who is a bit of a ticking bomb and always ends up monopolising the class, which drives me nuts, because the other 99% of class really want to learn and are not able to because of the other child’s constant attention seeking.  I still don’t have a solution, but one needs to be found somehow, and I need to really re-think that particular lesson, as the kids are getting more and more frustrated with the one student.

I actually may have a solution, but its totally out there, and may or may not be practical.  But I will go into more detail about this later.

So, I was trying to think how I could get the kids to start to understand what questions were asking of them, as preparation for their exams, both at early key stage sats type exams, but also in preparation for GCSEs and A’Levels longer term.  Its not due to English or Geography ability, but more that traditionally they just have to memorise whole passages of text and regurgitate them word for word.  I was initially horrified at this when I worked in my first public school, as a child was judged as good or not based on how many pages of a text book they were able to memorise and then stand up in front of class and recite.  Those children from poor families who had no book, obviously had no chance in hell of reciting anything because they had no access to the text.  So they were written off as stupid by their old fashioned Soviet style teachers.  And teachers were quick to tell me that boy or that girl is stupid.  But it was obvious to me that they were not stupid, it was just that they didn’t have a book because they couldn’t afford one.  Aside from which, memorising is a totally different skill to actually ‘knowing’ the material or being able to answer specific questions, or make links and connections.

sadly I have really lost touch with that aspect of Georgia, especially since I have been teaching in this amazing school.  And part of my problem is that I forget sometimes, with our smartboards, electricity, heating, and lovely classrooms, that Georgian children are not British and have not grown up with this kind of test or material.  Its a world away from my public schools, but they are still connected to those roots, and I really need to try and remember that in my lessons.  The problem is, that I am aiming really high, to the British standard they need to be at, and I’m pushing them hard, and I need to take into account that this way of learning and taking tests is still pretty new to them.  This is the first time that the GCSEs have been introduced, and the first time that geography has been taught.  And its going to be great to see how my current key stage 2 children cope with the key stage 3 and 4 material later on, having had this great start and advantage over the kids who have come straight into key stage 3 or 4.  But I don’t know how to remind myself of this, nor do I want to make allowances, because I need to toughen them up too.  Tough love.  But I hate it sometimes, and maybe I am driving them too hard, especially compared to a typical Georgian style of lesson, but I know that they are making progress, and as soon as we get there, we will have the best lessons ever and they will find exams really easy.

Right now, they get nervous about exams, and they burst into tears, and they get upset when they get a 9 instead of a 10 for class, because to them it is a failure.  But to me a 10 means they are perfect.  It is a cultural thing too.  One of the older boys in my classes, told me that his dad wouldn’t let him go on the school trip to Austria in January because he had been getting only grade 8s on his geography lessons and should be getting 10s.  I couldn’t help but feel bad, but equally I applauded his dad, as he is a really capable young man and should be getting grade 10s very easily.

Anyway, I mentioned in an earlier blog, that I asked all my classes to write the questions that they wanted in their end of year exam, and almost everyone contributed and really enjoyed the task.  They really do well in working as a group or in twos.  And ironically my naughtiest students in each class, paired themselves up with children that I never would have imagined them working with, and together they were really great and came up with some fantastic questions, far better and some actually harder questions than I would have given them.

I told them that they had to think like a spy or a psychologist and really try to get into the mind of an examiner, and that is exactly what they did, and what was great was to see them actually interacting with and talking about the material we have covered, and they really do know it well, including those who I thought had been paying no attention all term.  And what was really great was to see that even though I felt we had not covered enough material, we actually have learnt an awful lot this term.  I hope too, that as tie goes by, we will start to cover topics quicker as they become more accomplished and better able to come to class, bringing their materials, and sit down and just get straight into lessons.  Behaviour is getting better, and they are definitely becoming more focused, and although I cannot relax on that front yet, it is starting to feel like we have come a very long way together since September, and I’m hopeful now for progressing through lessons with them and coming up with more challenging, more interactive, and more fun lessons.  There feels like there is a respect there.

To extend this lesson, mostly in my lower classes, I decided to set them another challenge, as they really love tests and games and they love to show off how smart they are, so I tried to tap into that skill a bit more.  So I asked them to design a board game which included questions from any of the material we had covered.  Third grade were the best class at this, and it was nice to see the weaker students really excel at this.  One of the boys is amazing at origami, and two of the girls wanted a dice for their board game, so I watched in complete amazement as he sculpted a dice for them from a piece of scrap paper.  Then he made a butterfly, a tree, and all sorts of geography related items on request from me.  Just like that!  So, I’m wondering if I can use that as the foundation for a future lesson, because I definitely need to make these lessons more creative in the future.

I’ve been a bit reluctant to start a new topic with my classes since it is almost the end of the term, and I want to try and work on some of the behavioural type issues, so that when we come back in January, we will be more ready and focused on our lessons.  They are definitely more hyper again and I can see that they are becoming more tired and restless as we approach the end of the term, and I know this from working in the public school too.  Teachers told me that they never plan any activities for the first or last few weeks of term, because you just end up in an exhausting battle with the kids.  So instead, I am trying to experiment with new teaching methods that incorporate what we have already covered, then in January we can start on the new topic properly.

When I was in England, I picked up a few different magazines, and had a few issues of Wanderlust waiting for me, so I decided to bring them to the lessons for the children to see.  It was a massive shock, and has totally thrown my thinking, but in a good way.  And I realised that I have been teaching them all this nitty gritty detailed stuff, when they still have absolutely no vision of the bigger picture.  They were so excited and they were totally in awe to see photos of people from different cultures, pictures of other countries, and most importantly a map of the world.

It totally blew their mind.  This is the picture I showed them:

and can you find Georgia?

They have studied geography with their Georgian teachers before me, but most of them had no idea where Georgia was, not just my younger classes either! And it was astounding to see their faces as I asked them where the other two foreign teachers come from….where is Australia…..where is the UK…..where is America.  And I realised at that moment, that I have been focusing on the smaller details, and yet they have no concept at all of geography.  We have been sat inside the classroom and not even looking out of the window.  This was awful, but also refreshing, and I know now that I totally have to rethink the teaching of geography at school, and perhaps not just me, but other schools too.  Have we really become so focused on the curriculum that we forget to look away from the textbook to the world?  These kids can’t relate to stuff, let alone stuff that they have never seen.  How many of you have seen or met a person from China…from India….from Africa…..none!  Shit was the word that totally knocked my brain out of my skull at that moment.  I’ve lost the human element of my geography lessons, yet here we are in school teaching geography and history to kids who cannot even comprehend that others have a different view point to them, let alone that they eat different food, wear different clothes, or do different things.  These children think that the whole world is like Georgia, just bigger!  They saw a picture of a panda, and they asked me if its real.  They saw a photo of a monkey with a funny nose and they thought it was not real but was just photoshopped to make it look funny.  EEEEKKKKKKK!!!!!!!

And now I know that somehow I have to bring the mountain to Mohammed, otherwise, how can I share with them my experiences of the world, get them to understand that we live on these things called plates, or that they need to know this stuff about the planet in which they live.  Frightening, but true. But also an amazing experience.  One of my naughtiest boys, was sat reading an article in English about a boy of his age, with a picture of him in his school, and he was talking about a charity that he had set up to help the oceans, for which he had already raised £100,000! There he was, this little boy in a school in England, connecting with the same aged boy in my school after four months of my not being able to get through to him, let alone get him to even look at me whilst teaching.  They were totally mesmerised by my magazines, and they learnt more in that 5 minutes than we learnt all term!

Suddenly, they were asking me questions, interacting, excited, curious, and suddenly all the things that we had been learning in class were being applied.  They were using the terminology that I have given them in our lessons, in a real and interactive context. Terms like settler, settlement, village, hamlet, compass, oh yes, that is north on the map, and on the west coast there is where our English teacher is from, and wow look how far away Australia is, wow thats a long way to come to teach in a school.

I guess you call that a breakthrough moment!  It was the same in my oldest classes too, and yet they are planning to go to university in America and England and have relatives who have travelled a bit.  These are the elite and most privileged children in Georgia!

So, that is my challenge now… come up with a totally new way of teaching them next term, in a way that brings back the geography to the geography lesson.


About Sarah Rows Solo

British YouTuber and Founder of Environmental and STEM education charity Oceans Project, preparing for a solo row around the coast of Great Britain.
This entry was posted in Britishness, Georgian Life, Oceans Project, Teaching and Geography and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Geography Exams and Wanderlust

  1. Wow, you’re really on a roll with your students. Isn’t if funny, in England even in nursery it’s usual to have a map up on the world and the children talk about where they’ve been, where their parents, grandparents come from and where their cousins live. That’s one of the huge benefits of a multi-cultural society. My daughter has moved from London to Georgia and thinks it perfectly nornal that the kids in the international school are from all over the world and know different languages as that’s what she was used to in nursery. However, I was raised in Ireland and didn’t really travel until my 20’s but I do think we looked at maps in school. Anyway, love reading your blog.

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