Challenges and Biggest Surprises in Newborough

All I can begin to say is WOW. It’s hard to believe that we are about to start our third week student teaching abroad. I have been amazed since day one to see the differences between Australian schools and schools in the United States. Some of the things that I have seen have challenged my ways of teaching and others have come as a great surprise to me.

One of the first challenges that I encountered when coming here was that their classrooms are fully inclusive. They do not believe in taking children out of the classroom as they do in the United States. The classroom that I am in has a total of 24 students. Of those 24 students there are four with Asperger’s, three with ADHD, and one with an intellectual disability.  This creates a very different dynamic than I am used to seeing. We have one aid in the classroom, but she is only part time so we have her 3 days a week only in the mornings. The rest of the time my cooperating teacher is left on her own with her 24 students. There are two students that need constant one-on-one during independent work times. If we do not give them this one-on-one their work usually goes unfinished. The student that is the most challenging of the group is one that is significantly below grade level. He struggles to read and many times refuses to do work. As the last two weeks have gone on here, I have been able to form a good relationship with this student which has allowed me to work closely with him to help him get work done. Having a classroom such as this, I have noticed it is incredibly difficult to reach out to the other students in the classroom. Our students that are achieving at a high level do not get the attention that they deserve because the focus is constantly on the same students. One thing that I noticed my teacher does to help the students that are struggling is she has students who finish their work early help those who are still working. This is a great tool to use because it keeps both the early finisher and the student that is still working engaged. Throughout my placement this will continue to be a challenge. I think it will be a great test for my classroom management skills. It will also help me to better appreciate the help in my classroom in the future.

The next challenge that I have come across is their classrooms are composite classrooms meaning that they combine two grades into one classroom. My classroom is a grade 3/4 classroom that has students ranging from 8 years old to 11 years old. It is already hard enough having one grade that has a range of abilities, much less having two grades with a wider range of abilities. I find myself wondering if the students in grade 3 are being challenged too much or if the students in grade 4 are not being challenged enough. My teacher does her best to push the students along that are achieving at a higher level than the instruction. I specifically see this being done in the math groups (they call it maths here). We combine classrooms with the other 3/4 classroom when it comes to math. One of the teachers takes the students that are in the “higher math group” as they call it and the other teacher takes the people that “aren’t as good at math” as they would say. Even though they are splitting into two different groups each teacher is still working with groups that have 20-25 students. They call this time their math intervention groups, but I find it difficult to do intervention with groups of this size. The students do not get the individual attention that they need. Now that I am here we have created a third group, so the sizes of the group have gone down, but the numbers are still rather large. It is nice to be able to differentiate for three different groups of students based on their math abilities. Since they are teaching two grades at once, it seems like they have to cover two years of learning all in one year. I am still trying to wrap my head around how they decide what content to teach when they are working with two curriculums. I do like the idea that it hopefully challenges the grade 3’s because they are learning part of the grade 4 curriculum but it also worries me that the grade 4’s do not get to learn what they are capable of learning. The biggest key in my future teaching will be differentiation in all of my lessons. I must really focus on the varying levels of the students to best adapt my teaching to them. It will be a challenge, but I am ready for it!

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There have been many surprises since I have been here. The language barrier has not been a huge problem, although we find ourselves laughing on a daily basis about differences in the American and Australian languages. I have been able to communicate easily with the students so far. I think much of this has to do with the amount of American shows and literature that students are surrounded with. I have been very surprised by the structure of the school days here. My school has a very heavy focus on spelling and they do activities with their spelling words on a daily basis. There is not a heavy focus on reading within the classroom. We have independent reading about twice a week for 15-20 minutes. During this time the teacher will sometimes listen to students read. They do not do anything with guided reading groups or any small work when it comes to reading. An interesting reading program that they do is the students grab books based on their levels. Each student knows exactly what level they are on. I believe are number 1-25 then colors orange, red, and purple. Once they have completed the final stage they are considered independent readers. This means that they are allowed to read any book that they want. They expect reading to be done outside of the classroom. That is their only homework every night. The students are expected to read about 15-20 minutes and their parents are supposed to sign their diaries (student notebooks that go home) to say that the students read. Some of my students complete this, but I find that many of the students that need the reading are not doing at all or only doing it when they feel like it. Since literacy is such a big focus in the Oshkosh Area School District this was a big change for me. In Oshkosh we spend 75 minutes every single day working on reading and writing. During this time there is constant small group and individual work. In Australia we do rotations for literacy about 3 times a week. The students are broken into small groups and these groups all work on an independent activity such as writing, a worksheet, and reading comprehension. I really like the ideas of these rotations, but wish that more time would be spend focusing on them.

The other surprise for me was that they spend a great amount of the school day doing specials. Our students take: Art, Indonesian, Physical Education, Library, and Kitchen Garden. It may not sound like much, but 8 hours each week is devoted to these specials. My favorite program that they are a part of is the Kitchen Garden program. The students get the chance to spend time cooking food in the kitchen. They do all the prep work, all the cooking, and the clean-up.

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The teachers are there to facilitate and teach them how to use utensils properly. After they are done eating the students all sit down together and eat the meal they have prepared. It is a great program that opens students’ eyes to a variety of foods and helps to stress healthy eating. The other half of the students work out in the garden, where they are harvesting plants, getting garden beds ready, hulling mulch, and finding out the work it takes to care for a garden.

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The garden is the supply for all of the food that they cook in Kitchen Garden. The students seem to really enjoy the time they spend in Kitchen Garden and are very talented at the things they can do! Last week the class made Vietnamese Rice Paper Rolls and homemade bread sticks. The rice paper rolls took a great amount of prep work because they had to cut up many different vegetables.

The experiences here so far have been fantastic. Every day tends to be a challenge whether it is big or small and we continue to surprise ourselves with the things that we see, learn, and do. The land down under is a wonderful place and I am looking forward to what these next 8 weeks will bring!


3 thoughts on “Challenges and Biggest Surprises in Newborough

  1. Lindsay,

    I too would see total inclusion as a challenge for my classroom management skills! Though I am not there completely experiencing what you are, I give you a lot of credit. At Havelock North High School, all students are mostly included in mainstream classes, but often they are put in at a lower level with other students who are behind, etc. What are some of the techniques you have used to cope with so many students with so many varying needs? Do the teachers there ever talk about getting burned out?

    As for the combined classroom concept, I attended a school when I was in primary that also had combined classrooms; my third grade teacher also taught first graders. The way it worked at our school from what I can remember is that she would teach the third graders something and then while we were working, she would teach the first graders something different and/or get them started on a project. I think it is really interesting how they seem to be combining the content of the two curriculum years into one year of learning for these students. I agree that it would in that situation be difficult to figure out what to teach. Is there a really set and standard curriculum that is used, like the Common Core? Or are there just varying concepts that need to be taught at some point throughout the year? Do you think you will get a chance to sit in on one of your teacher’s planning meetings?

    In New Zealand, it is required/recommended that Year 9 and 10 classes begin with 10 minutes of reading, but as far as literacy is concerned, that is about it (with a focus on reading). What I’ve found unique here is that there is an emphasis on studying and creating film and other visual texts, not just poetry or longer texts like novels.

    I think the specials the students are doing at your school are fantastic! Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could have classes like that in the United States? Not only are the special classes helping to make your students more well-rounded, they are helping them to learn the skills they will need to be independent one day. These classes are required for all students, correct? Or do they get to choose which specials to participate in?

    • It’s funny that you brought up teachers getting burned out. One of the first meetings I attended my principal shared an article with us that talked about 1 in 4 teachers were getting burned out in their first couple years of teaching. I can see why. There is so much pressure on them with having full inclusion in the classroom. I have found both of the teachers that I am working with to be extremely stressed right now because we have such a difficult class. Our part time aide is shared between the rooms, when in reality each of our rooms needs a full time aide. Some of the ways that we have been dealing with this is giving specific challenges to the students who are struggling. Much of the time we are forced to work one on one with the students otherwise they do not get any work done. This gets hard because it takes so much time away from all of the other students. Other than that we have been doing our best to have them sit next to people that will be a good influence on them. Some days are easier than others and I have had my fair share of struggles.

      I think the primary school that you were at had an interesting concept. I wonder if it would be easier to have the grades split up and teach to one than the other. I just learned about the curriculum that is called AusVells. I have not gotten a direct look at it, but from what I understand it is a national curriculum that reminded me quite a bit of the Common Core. I do sit through many meetings with the teachers but there has not been a time so far that they have talked about curriculum. I think that this has to do with the focus on end of the year reports and so on.

      It sounds very interesting that your school focus on film and other visual texts. I am sure that it keeps it more engaging for the students. Do they seem to enjoy it?

      I would absolutely love to bring back the Kitchen Garden program to the United States. Unfortunately I don’t think that schools have the space to do it many times, the funding, and the weather is another factor as well. They are a required class for all students and it seems to be well liked. Right now it is just our grade 3/4’s that are doing the Kitchen Garden program because this is our first year. All students go to the same specials.

      It was great hearing from you. Can’t wait to hear more about your teaching abroad!

  2. Lindsay,
    The struggles you note with full inclusion are certainly real. Teachers want to have ALL students achieve and grow; frustrating when time and energy do not allow this.

    As a former environmental educator I am totally thrilled with the Kitchen Garden course! What an excellent idea in SO many ways. We do have a few school garden programs in the Fox Valley but I believe more focus is put on prairie or habitat development rather than food production. Doesn’t mean it cannot be done!

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