As I discuss in my book ‘Pedagogy and Education for Life’, if we are to influence the life of our classrooms, we need to be engaged with our students and consciously monitor the day-to-day classroom life. But as well as classroom life, we need to be aware of each student’s life outside the classroom, for invariably this has an impact on life within school. My 12th Principle from my Christian Pedagogical Framework is framed by the question “how aware am I of the life activities and behavior of my students outside the classroom?” This starts with the playground, but also extends to the home and community life of our students across their many external communities of practice. This might seem a ‘bridge too far’, but if our students are demonstrating inappropriate, ‘interesting’ or unusual behavior in other contexts, how might this inform our understanding of them within school.
Essentially, teachers need to be sensitive to any signs that their life at home, or in varied wider contexts outside school, might create additional challenges or opportunities. The latter is just as important, life and learning might just be much more exciting and rewarding in the wider world than in the school or classroom. The example of Chanda in Chapter 2 of my book illustrates this perfectly. A student who wouldn’t write at school was a prolific writer of music at home.
Understanding the student world outside school
How can we as teachers have any idea what occurs outside the school for our students? This can be positive and negative. At times in our schools there are children who at home or in the wider world, might face abuse, poverty, fear and disadvantage. How can we tell such things? Understanding and discerning the needs of our children involves observation and attention to the whole of life of our students as much as we are able. Might some students come to school hungry? If a child arrives at school in an untidy state, what might this tell us? Or if they seem to lack basic resources for school should we be concerned? Is their homework done, and so on? What is our relationship like with their parents? Do we know them at all? Do we have any idea how supportive or otherwise their families might be?
In a more positive frame, what passions and interests do our students have outside school? Are there areas of life outside school that demonstrate unusual gifts, special abilities, perhaps just different and more positive behavior? How can we build on what we know about our children to encourage them and form them? Do we listen to and observe them as they arrive and leave, play and chat with friends in informal moments? What insights might we gain in the diverse and multiple communities of practice they inhabit?
Using 'Open' Questions
One basic and practical way to learn more about our students is to ask open questions that invite response and offer a window into their ‘hearts’ and minds. This will generally be done one-to-one or in small groups. This type of close observation has been referred to by some as ‘kidwatching’ which I refer to in chapter 9 of my book. An American colleague of mine coined the phrase over 30 years ago. She discusses the practice in full in her book ‘Kidwatching: Documenting Children’s Literacy Development’. As the name suggests, the technique was designed to provide “…a framework for engaging in systematic, yet very personalized, data collection”. While she coined the phrase for a narrower application to literacy, I have developed a much broader application in relation to each child’s participation in school and community life. How might we use such a technique in our schools? And what can we learn from using it?
For example, do we demonstrate a desire to come to a greater understanding of why our students do or don’t engage in activities within the classroom and school? My basic contention is that only by listening, observing and asking the right questions, will we understand our students more fully, and be able to assess their well-being and journeys towards faith. I’m constantly surprised by how little teachers know about their students. Or, in some cases, how they often offer inappropriate activities for their children, or fail to identify when children are unwell, unhappy, under stress, withdrawn, and so on. I saw this as a parent when observing other parents, but also constantly as a teacher. At times teachers fail to see telling signs that students are withdrawn and distant, stressed, frustrated or sad. This might be due to issues beyond the classroom, or perhaps an inability to cope within the school.
Two real life examples
Let me share two real examples from my teaching. I have changed the names and some details to ensure that there is no chance of identifying individuals. The first was a 3rd grade boy (I’ll call him Ralph) who I taught in a city school. He came to school tired, late, untidy and smelling of cigarette smoke every day. He was withdrawn, always late in finishing work at school, he rarely completed homework, and he struggled to make friends. After some weeks and endless frustrations, I was to find out from varied professional sources that the child lived in a two-room shed, that his father was an alcoholic, chain smoker and occasional drug user. Life was chaotic at home, sleep was difficult and study or homework at the dining room table (the only space to work), impossible due to communal use, as well as the scattering of empty bottles and full ashtrays.
The second student was an attractive and precocious girl in Grade 5, who had no end of friends at school. But she struggled to complete schoolwork due to her tendency to be easily distracted from any work activity. This behavior continued for all of one term. She was referred to our school counsellor. After a number of sessions, she discovered that the student’s mother had left their family home during the school holidays and had not been seen or heard of for 3 months. With her father working five days per week and shift work at times overnight, and her older brother at university, she was frequently left alone.
Understanding the lives of both children was essential for understanding my challenges with both in the classroom. Kidwatching involves paying close attention to the behavior of our students, and being prepared to look more deeply for telltale signs of disrupted lives outside the classroom. And perhaps ask that one more question that could elicit a personal response.
Attentiveness to student life - 'Kidwatching'
In chapter 6 of my book I suggest that we need an attentiveness to the student life of the
classroom to create opportunities to observe their actions, emotions, hopes, fears,
frustrations and joys. At its most basic level, “kidwatching” requires teachers to use their eyes to observe student lives, and their ears to listen to what students do and don’t say. Not in order to pry, judge, or to indoctrinate, but to understand them. We need to demonstrate a desire to come to a greater understanding of why our students do or do not engage in activities within the classroom and school. In the case of Chanda, who I discuss in chapter 2 of my book, what I did was not startling. First, I acted on her noncompliance with the writing curriculum when I observed it. Second, I asked some questions. Finally, I took the time to observe her more closely, and I made an effort to know her better. This deliberate activity enabled me to learn about her avid writing at home and to build upon and use this knowledge to make a difference to her as a student.
The view of pedagogy outlined in my book defines learning as socially constituted within communities of practice, not simply classrooms and schools. Learning takes place within the life of many communities in which students and teachers participate. As teachers, we are doing much more than imparting knowledge and skills, we are also forming young lives as we engage with them in a rich life of apprenticeship, mentoring and discipleship. To quote Chapter 6 (p.86) of my book:
Christian pedagogy, will lead to an education that points towards Kingdom goals in the moment-to-moment life of the classroom. It is not simply the delivery of doctrine and teaching in chapel, Scripture classes and Bible studies, nor is it simply the reinforcement of a specific worldview. Pedagogy will always reflect the attitudes of the teacher, the purposes that drive classroom activities, discipline and praise, rewards and punishment, as well as the words spoken and the knowledge shared. This is an education that is implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, centered on God’s purposes for his creatures, not simply the pursuit of the goals of the world.
To embrace such a view of pedagogy and to implement it in our classrooms, requires deep knowledge of our students. This is where ‘Kidwatching’ comes in.