Mrs. Toller Teaches English

I’m used to being seen as a somewhat progressive teacher, leading the charge for change in schools. I’m used to being told my ideas are crazy and unrealistic and I’m not truly understanding the nuances and challenges involved with working in certain types of schools. Call me naive. Call me an idealist. Call me a radical.

In my American placement I was lauded for increasing students’ sense of responsibility and  ownership of their learning by never giving them any answers and expecting them to seek out their missed work and come for help. I also was fairly good at creating cooperative learning activities and making significant efforts towards differentiation.

To put my actual progress in terms of Mario Kart, it’s as if I’m closer to the the finish line than New Zealand–except I’m only on Lap 2, and they’re on Lap 3.

I am nothing compared to New Zealand teachers.
Ok, maybe that’s a bit harsh. I’m something, but still. I’m a long ways away from the forefront I thought I was at.

All of this lead up to say: here is what English instruction looks like in a New Zealand school, and before people say that my school is socio-economically advanced and that my students are honors students, I want to say the following. Yes, the culture is different. We have a morning tea, and school goes thirteen years (not including Kindergarten). But, this type of education philosophy is nationwide. It’s not just the philosophy used to teach upper class, high-level students. Mrs. Toller taught her lower-level students the same way last year, and they did have great successes. So, before you completely give into the temptation to say, “This would never work with my students, in my school, etc,” give it at try. You may be surprised.


Whole Class Instruction
According to Mrs. Toller, in New Zealand whole class instruction is seen as really old school and frowned upon by all of the higher ups. It’s as if we made students use primers and do recitations. (Ok, maybe not quite, at that level, but you get the picture.)

While Mrs. Toller sees there’s still a purpose to whole class instruction (to put it in her words, “I see no reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”) she, along with most of her colleagues, have gone through a radical shift in their pedagogical thinking from the time they began to teach. Yeah, apparently this change is fairly recent.

Guided Reading
While many teachers have shifted to almost completely personalized learning, there are some teachers who still have a bit of a hold on the reigns. One of the way this manifests itself in the English classroom is through “Guided Reading.” Guided Reading is very similar to a typical college English class, although a little bit stricter. Students are told to read a certain amount by a pre-determined date, but they are not  allowed to read on. (For example, read to Chapter Three, but do not go beyond.) On that date, the teacher then stops the whole class and they discuss the book for the first time and the activities that the students have been individually completing and making sure everyone is on the same page.

Mrs. Toller is a fan of using this strategy to introduce a book at the beginning of the year, but not much afterwards because she feels it frustrates students who are able to move at a faster place and want to keep reading. I can personally see how such a strategy would be somewhat disruptive and give students a false sense of self-pacing, as they must self-pace, but still work to my timeline. That said, I think in my first few years of trying to personalize education, I may find myself doing this as I get more comfortable and skilled at the practice. Ideally, I would only use such a strategy for one book, but I have a feeling I will end up using “Guided Reading” for at least a year.


Instructional Activities

“I believe a quick way to kill enjoyment in reading is for students to know that every book or chapter they will have to do an activity. As a teacher, we want them to have a love for reading, so having an activity every time doesn’t help.”  — Mrs. Toller

I completely, whole-heartedly agree with her. Yet, I struggle with how feasible it is to incorporate this philosophy within school–especially schools that require you to meet certain standards and pass certain tests. It’s hard to enjoy a book when you must completely tear it apart and analyze it, and yet the analysis is necessary for a lot of skills. Then again, I am a particularly good reader all through school mostly because I read a lot, not really through my English lessons.

As I work to determine what this philosophy looks like within an American English classroom, I’ve come up with a few different ways that this can play out.

1.) Limit reading activities to the most essential ones so students are not overburdened with work.

2.) Create meaningful activities that give students opportunities to apply what they are learning to their life or at least to a different context or  activity . i.e. Students learning how to cite sources competed in a school-wide debate competition.

And 3.) ——->


Allow Students Choice
This is one area of education where I feel like I have actually been on track with Kiwi teachers. While I have not quite reached the level of choice that they have, I am certainly on the way, as creating choice within my classroom is something that I found absolutely essential and beneficial to the students’ education.

A couple of ideas Mrs. Toller uses for incorporating choice in the classroom is through her incorporation of a Task Board in addition to her homework policy. A Task Board has a host of different activities that students can choose from in order to augment their learning. For her homework policy, every student must earn 100 points. Students get to choose how they earn their 100 points by choosing different activities, each of which is assigned a different amount of points. If the teacher really wants students to do certain activities, they can either make them compulsory (of course, this should be used sparingly under the personalization option) or they can give them a larger point value (which might be manipulation, but it still becomes the student’s choice.)

Within my own classroom, I think I may utilize the homework policy especially since I struggle with assigning students too much work. It may seem like a lot to keep track of, but as an avid Excel user, it honestly shouldn’t be too much to see what the students have done and how they earned their points. I know of a few American teachers who are incorporating this policy–or at least have thought about it–so it also seems like one of the actually ready to go feasible strategies I can incorporate. One thing I like about it is you can either do complete choice, 90% choice, 10% compulsory, have them do a choice from different categories like a menu (i.e. you must choose one pre-reading activity [appetizer], one reading activity [main course], and one post-reading activity [dessert]) or something else.

In addition to tracking students’ progress through Excel, I can monitor things to check up with students as much as I need to, and if I need to, I can even tell some students, “This item must be one of your choices in order to meet your goals” while other students don’t have to do it, and the students doing different or additional work, wouldn’t draw as much attention as it might in a normal classroom.



Speaking of goals, that is another interesting part of Kiwi education that I am still sort of hazy on. In personalized education, students have individual goals they must meet for their education. Now, individual goals isn’t simply “Become a better writer,” but is much more specific and is the type of goals found in the state’s standards. As a result, students don’t have to come up with their goals entirely out of their own brain. Instead the goals can be only partially be set by students. For example, a goal can be to “Determine an author’s particular point of view,” but students choose by when they want to complete that goal. This goal setting I can see tying in really nicely with the idea of choice as they choose activities that help them reach their goals for that semester.

I think one thing I may do is have students select goals from the state standards. For the first unit, students will be given a list they may choose from, but after that, students will be given all of the standards and told to assign dates and numbers of goals to complete or specific goals to complete by a certain date. Obviously, I still need to work this out more, but I like the idea of students seeing how they are meeting state standards and being more aware of what they are learning.

To determine whether or not they have met that goal, students will have check ups with me before ultimately submitting their proof that they have met it.

You may be reading all of this, and think, “Well what about differentiation? Is it really that out-modded?” The answer is that differentiation is still at play, only at the primary (or elementary) school level. There, teachers test every six weeks to see if students move groups as well.

Still, I wonder if doing away with differentiation within the middle or high school is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Differentiation is a good method for personalizing group work, I believe, and while it may slow the process down and be less efficient than personalization ultimately is, it teaches the important skills of working with a group of people.

Additionally, I have been looking for ways to incorporate constructivism into a personalized classroom, as they seem different in many areas, yet not entirely mutually exclusive.

As a side now, group work and constructivism are definitely at play within Mrs. Toller’s classroom. My question is how she balances this with personalization or if it can maybe be considered a part of personalization.

Does it Work?
This is the bottom line isn’t it?

It works in the Kiwi classroom, I can tell you that. According to Mrs. Toller, students’ learning is  so much faster because they own it and can go as far and as fast as they like.

Even when she had a challenging class last year (she’s told me that this class set fires within the classroom when she was absent and caused significant damage to a bus,) this teaching style still worked. 2/3 of the students took off with the program. A student who never had any interest in school and instead left to go to the sick bay or principal’s office, was in class, actively participating every day to the point where his mother–who mostly stayed out of things–came in to conference with Mrs. Toller about how great his progress was. That said, 1/3 of the students did require more handholding and direction and only did what they were told, not that that entirely negates the benefits to the kids who may have otherwise suffered because the kids who had no desire to work slowed the whole class down.

Ending Thoughts

When I asked Mrs. Toller about how much work it took to design these types of lessons and programs, she said that she found it was actually a whole lot less than she thought. It simply came down to planning the whole unit and giving it to the student all at once and then helping them navigate through it. Having an end in sight (backwards design, anyone?) was incredibly helpful.

She also learned how to incorporate more technology and in better ways. Device use is optional in this school as students bring their own, so in order for them to lug their laptop or tablet to school, the activities they are doing online must be worthwhile and better than simply replacing a book. Having self-driven, personalized, learning has really brought new technologies into play in new ways within the classroom.

While she has found personalization to make a huge positive change in the education of her students, getting to a place where she was comfortable using this style of teaching took a definite shift in her thinking. She had to give up control and the idea that she was the one with the answers. It came down to the fact that she was here as a facilitator. Not an answer, and that students can learn despite whatever she does.

Featured Image by Daniel Go.


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