Tuesday, November 29, 2011

TYLSS Video Montage 2011

I was elated when in my previous entry, after months of failed attempts, I was able to post a movie. I now seem to have repeated that success with the end-of-year music video I made for my students! I had to lower the resolution a lot to do so but I hope it's still watchable.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Perfect Picnic and a Polka-dot Pig

I absolutely love being a teacher but there might be one thing I love more: not being the teacher. I love that because the school year has finished for my Class V's I can kick back and relax with them, free of the fear that excess chumminess will undermine my classroom management. I am done being an authority figure. Now I just get to be me:

Today a dozen of my ducklings and I went for a picnic.

They chose the most lovely spot near town that I'd never been: Army Camp.

It is kinda like the PMQ's at CFB Greenwood except with communal outdoor toilets, horses, and an archery range:

One of my students who lives at Army Camp introduced me to her mother, who was weaving a kira:

The girls played with their Barbies (whose hair and clothes they'd sewn themselves) and they taught me how to play "burs." It is a simple game; you toss burs at your friend's clothes and laugh when they adhere.

Meanwhile, the boys took photos of eachother doing various tricks and played on a rusty bicycle with no breaks or tires.

And, like at all Bhutanese picnics, everyone consumed an insane volume of food and then worked it off with football.

On the 2 km walk back to town, we stopped by the local pig pens.

Did you know that a sow can stand on her hind legs to look over a fence? She can!

We then ran into a schoolmate carrying a fuzzy tail pelt which we tried on in various ways:

I know some of my readers are anti-fur but have you ever worn a critter boa? It feels wonderful.

We then took a detour down to the river to skip stones:

You also have to pick up a stone to offer at an indented rock where, according to local legend, Lord Buddha meditated after defeating a demon.

It was an amazing day in an amazing place!

And now... my first successfully uploaded video! Look for the tail.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

My Friend Marten

Strolling on the back road this evening my path was crossed by a fast-scurrying creature that hid in the bushes before I could get a good look. Before my inner naturalist could cry, though, I noticed another of the species staring down at me from the cliff face. This second one popped up on its hind legs and engaged me in a wordless conversation before racing off to join his companion.

This encounter occured the one time I decided to take my walk without my camera. As soon as I reached home I made a sketch in MS Paint:

I then began making my way through Wikipedia's List of Mammals of Bhutan. The black giant squirrel and the yellow-bellied weasel both had the right colouration but were too small and just not quite right. Species identification is like any good puzzle: when you've found the right answer, you know you've found it. I now know that I met a hunting pair of Martes flavigula, yellow-throated martens:

Image source: Wikipedia

I also now know that my memory of things briefly observed is very unreliable. My entire science degree was spent in laboratories sketching dead things and on fossil beaches sketching really, really dead things. It is so much harder to see life when it's living and moving and staring into your soul!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Examining the Exam, part 2: thank Que mambam

I have corrected the rest of my Class V maths exam and tabulated the results. I expect that when many of you in Canada see the bar graph below, you will be horrified because 29 students did not attain the 40% pass rate and no student scored in the 90's. You may assume that I am an awful teacher (I'm not), that I have lazy students (I don't), or that my test was unreasonably difficult (it wasn't). As I will explain, these results actually represent remarkable improvement and plenty to be proud of:

First, let's talk about core computational skills. I was ecstatic when I corrected the exam's division component. It included questions to be answered with remainders and others demanding full decimal expansions:

Twenty-one students earned a nine or ten (/10) in this section, demonstrating genuine mastery. At the beginning of the year, none of them could divide, very few could perform multi-digit multiplication reliably, and several still struggled with addition and subtraction.

Many of those who earned 10 out of 10's paid several Sundays for them, attending extra help sessions on their only day off (recall that Bhutan has a 6-day school week.) I am intensely proud of how much time and effort they put in. Even better, they are proud of themselves...

Samdrup: When you go back to Canada and have Canadian students, will you tell them about us?
Me: Of course.
Samdrup: Will you tell them how there was one girl named Samdrup who didn't know any division at first but then she got perfect at it?

One of my mottos is "celebrate success, analyse errors." While I dance a jubilant jig for Samdrup and all my masters of division, see if you can figure out why the following question stumped all but a few students:

The first thing you should have noticed is that it is a word problem. In English. As this sweet little note shows, my students are very much ESL learners:

The greater challenge, though, was that the question contained a distractor, namely the picture of the soccer ball. I included the image hoping it might help some students decode the words "World Cup football field" but it was a gamble. Blame frugality in the cyclostyling room or a more general cultural aversion to whimsy, Bhutanese students aren't accustomed to encountering non-essential images in maths class. Seeing the soccer ball, they felt they had to do something with it. Many students counted the number of panels shown touching its perimeter and wrote "9 units." It isn't a bad answer but is it good enough to predict success in Class VI?

"Social promotion", moving all students to the next grade level irrespective of their achievement or lack of it, is the current fashion in Canada. Teaching in Bhutan has allowed me to see the alternative. At TYLSS, students must earn at least 40% in Maths, English, and Dzongkha and 35% in Science and Social Studies to be promoted to the next grade level. The other Class V teachers and I predict that only about half of our students will be in Class VI next year.

Midway into correcting the exams, I heard the distinctive lekzo heave ho of collective manual labour. I left the staff room to investigate. It turns out it was just my students hoisting a giant prayer flag.

Hard work, planning, and cooperation can accomplish just about anything. Whatever class my students are in next year, they will need those three things to continue their progress. My teaching has been successful if it has instilled those values and an abiding desire to think more clearly. That's what mathematics all comes down to. It is not about a bar graph of marks or even the ability to multiply or divide. Math is about structuring your thoughts in ways that eliminate confusion in order to illuminate what's really going on.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Examining the Exam

It is time to find out if a year's worth of inspirational speeches, multiplication games, and extra help classes have been worth it. It is time to discover if lasting learning has taken place. Today my seventy Class V students wrote their final exam:

This is the (first) stack of papers I get to correct. So far I have marked only the multiple choice component:

Confession: I love statistics. I think that testing benefits teachers only when they take the time to thoroughly analyse the results. If we teach students to make double bar graphs we can certainly make them ourselves:

More useful than comparing the total scores of groups of students, though, is computing each question's individual success rate. I know I have effectively communicated the difference between "perimeter" and "area" because this was the question answered correctly by the most students:

I know I did not spend enough time on the relationship between fractions and decimals, though, because this result shows not only a lack of understanding (33% of random guess generators would have gotten it correct) but misunderstanding:

The results of these identity questions unsurprisingly indicates that students are clearer about the idea of multiplication than the idea of division:

Comparing the successes of my two class sections yielded the most alarming result of my analysis. The differences were negliable for all topics that I did not review in the days immediately preceeding the exam. On the two topics for which we very recently did in-class practice questions, though, there was a strong disparity between the sections, with each class faring better when the exam question was more similar to the example we did on the board. I interpret this as evidence of shallow understanding of these topics and overreliance on cramming:

I was very pleased that over half of my students correctly answered the next question. It is proof that our art project, which is the only work we did on tesselations, was educational as well as enjoyable. I like having statistics to back up my teaching style when questioned by sceptics.

Digging into the data as extensively as I have strikes most people as "crazy" and outrageously time-consuming. I contest, however, that I now know what to tell the Class VI teacher to focus on next year and which topics to teach differently in my future classes. What do you think? Do I have a promising future in educational research?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cyclostyling in Style!

Compared to Canada, exams in Bhutan are high-stakes, high-security, and highly time-consuming. Teaching of new material is suspended in favour of review a full month before exams begin. At that time, teachers must print their exam papers on a stencil cutter then submit each page to be run through our school's hand-cranked copier called a cyclostyle:

750 students times an average of six taught subjects per grade times an average of ten pages per test means that poor Tshering Phuntsho will have cranked that wheel forty-five thousand times before the printing is complete.

It then takes a Fordian assembly line of teachers to arrange all the sheets of each test paper in the correct order, staple it, then stamp it with the school seal.

Even in my full Canadian winter gear my fingers were often too cold to pick up only one sheet of paper at a time.

I'm more worried about the students, though. During midterms, the exam halls were ovens. Now they are perfect refrigerators. Teaching, learning, and living in Bhutan truly is all about the extremes.