Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Two years of silence and scrambling

I've started my third year at a Norwegian middle school (that is, my students are in grades 7 - 10, so some are in the "high school" age range - things are divided up differently here). This year I'm teaching 10th grade math and science, a course on nutrition and cooking for a 9th grade class, a small elective on electronics, and special ed math group for some 7th and 8th grade kids.

What we teach changes every year here. Last year I had a lot of 9th grade science and math, and the topics were mostly different from what they are this year. To some extent we follow classes we teach from year to year, which is nice in that we get to know the students better. Lots of random factors also affect what courses we're assigned to teach too, though. My first year I had several sections of remedial English. The cooking/nutrition and electronics courses are new to me this year.

A sweet thing about this system is the variety of interesting new things a teacher gets to learn every year. Last year I learned new things about the brain, the neural system and the endocrinological system, because those topics happened to be in the 9th grade curriculum. We dissected fish heads to find the brain and sensory organs, and I did a few practice runs before the actual class, having never taken biology before myself, not even in high school. The other major topics that year, electricity and chemistry, were more familiar. This year I'm learning about genetics and cytology, human reproduction, possibly something about the petroleum industry, while also teaching more familiar stuff on kinematics, gravity, organic chemistry, and optics. Science up to and including the 11th grade here is always integrated science, and not in the sense of every year having an integrative theme, but in that a wide range of disparate topics are covered.

A major drawback of this approach will be evident to any teacher familiar with the American system, where a teacher is responsible for a relatively small number of courses that is usually taught every year. Here, all my lessons have a kind of first draft quality to them. I do find all these various science topics to be intensely interesting, and might have become bored with the US approach of doing Algebra over and over and over again, but I do often feel bad about how little topic-specific pedagogy I know. In math, of course, typical pitfalls are easy to predict now that I have taught the same material a number of times, and I know a lot about what to do about them. But I really have no idea what will go wrong when we start working on DNA replication - I'll just have to try it out and see. We muddle along, learning as we go.

Teaching this way rarely results in any kind of polished approach that seems worth writing up for publication on a blog for other teachers. Nor does it leave much time for writing. This entry has been penned in the middle of our Fall Break, a Norwegian arrangement that originally was put in place to accommodate farmer kids who needed this time for harvesting potatoes. Now, I find it a good time for regrouping and for replanning new courses, after six weeks of getting a sense of what they are about. And perhaps for writing a little.

By the end of this school year I'll have completed a three-year science cycle, having had one group of kids from 8th through 10th grade in math and science. Then (depending on what teaching assignment I get) I just might teach a science course for the second time around.

I'd do 8th grade science very differently, though. The unit on evolution, for example, really didn't work at all.

1 These courses aren't scheduled every day, though. In fact, two of them meet only once a week, and several meet only twice weekly. That's what makes planning it all remotely possible.


  1. Sarah is super excited you're blogging againOctober 5, 2011 at 8:09 PM

    Welcome back to the blog! I don't know how you manage that many years of feeling like first draft quality. But I'm hopeful that you'll write more again.

  2. Welcome back. Yeah, I'm with Sarah. Glad to hear from you but I understand the lack of posts. It sounds like you're an elementary teacher with all the different preps but don't have the tradeoff of only having 30 kids. So...sounds intense.

  3. Well, thanks a lot! That was some welcome after so much time away from the 'net. Greatly appreciated.

    Jason: That's about right, and it's also the historical explanation for this arrangement. Until very recently, students up through grade 10 typically did have the same teacher in a majority of their courses, pretty much like they do in elementary school. However, with Norway scoring poorly on PISA and other international assessments, there's been a realization that a four year degree in general education does not prepare teachers well to teach BOTH math to 16 year olds AND reading to 6 year olds. So more recently there have been attempts to have teachers with more subject matter competency teach some of the courses for older kids. But this new arrangement is put in place a little uneasily on top of the older structure, in some sense. Also, my school is very small, which necessarily increases the number of different courses we need to teach.

    Sarah: I don't like the first draft feeling at all. But I guess writing more would involve writing in spite of this, sharing lesson ideas with loose ends and notes on activities gone wrong. Which might be just as well.