Learning – An Unexpected Journey
Five and a half years ago, I fell on black ice in England and smashed my shoulder to pieces, which left me in a state of trauma. The loss of my home in rural England, my isolation from loved ones, my lack of income and, most decidedly, the need to return home for some serious treatment and rehabilitation catalysed my return to Australia and the end of my European chapter.
The healing process for this injury involved three bouts of surgery, over a year of rehabilitation and many hours on my own to think about my future as a teacher and to re-evaluate my ideas about learning. It was during this time that I began to conquer many of my own personal disappointments as I fought to overcome the loss of my dream to teach and travel throughout Europe. I was thrust into a state of isolation emotionally, physically and financially, and could have drawn up the bed covers and wallowed in my own pity party with good reason.
However, after almost two years, I slowly found the confidence to begin a little work again. While convalescing, I decided to move out from my comfort zone into a new learning journey and investigate how I could utilise internet technology to build a small business – how to build a website, how to market a product and to learn what all the social media fuss was about. As thus, with many birth pains, Nepean Tutoring was born. What started in a little rented unit in Penrith in January 2012 and has thrived far beyond my initial expectations.
Previously, I had been a classroom teacher for twelve years in Australia and for a year in the UK. I loved the creativity that this career provided me; to be able think outside the square and help children learn in ways that best suited them was exciting and rewarding. I always believed that a productive classroom was a busy place where all children were engaged in learning which they enjoyed (whether that be in small groups or independently). I liked the idea of child-centred learning, but also believed that left to their own devices entirely, many children would acquire gaps in their learning that would interfere with their ability to remain confident and actively engaged in the formal school arena.
With a passion to teach others that learning is about many facets of a child’s development, I had a strong desire to change the way tutoring was perceived in the community. I learned the importance of listening closely to the concerns of parents and students, and to begin to offer what I believe to be a unique model of home tutoring across all grades and subjects.
I had always known that the first objective should be for students to desire to learn, to feel confident they could overcome any difficulties with support, and that they be treated with respect and dignity. I also knew that the development of creative thinking, the ability to express ideas outside a prescribed paradigm, and fostering a child’s joy of discovery were keys to success. Learning through all our senses and adding to the formal learning model, rather than regurgitating it outside the classroom, has become central to my learning journey as a tutor.
Today, teachers and parents are faced with many challenges and demands, and I feel that Nepean Tutoring offers a model in which we can work together as a support team to provide successful learning outcomes. Moving forward, I intend to further explore the needs of our community in the home tutoring niche, and continue to listen to the ideas of the tutors who work with me, along with the parents who trust their children to our expertise. My own learning journey, during the past three years, has been full of invaluable experiences – but they are only of value if they are utilised to assist others.
The decision to seek a tutor for your child can be somewhat daunting and confusing. There are a variety of reasons you might head off on the journey to find a tutor for your son or daughter:
- You may have noticed they don’t seem to be reading or writing as well as their peers.
- They are expressing frustration with Mathematics and inform you they do not understand certain concepts.
- Perhaps a teacher has told you that your child is struggling with a particular area of their learning.
- You receive a less than favourable report that shows a drop in or little improvement in their grades.
- Your daughter or son is preparing for the HSC and is drowning in the demands placed on them to complete assessment tasks and maintain a study program.
- Your child has missed a block of schooling due to illness and requires some catch up tutoring to bring them up to speed.
- Your own intuition just tells you they need some help.
These are some of the common reasons we receive emails and phone calls from parents seeking a tutor for their child. What I have come to learn, in the dialogue between myself and parents, is that they simply want to provide their son or daughter with the ability to work to their potential, to be given the confidence to do so and to have a mentor who will regularly encourage them on a one to one basis.
Children and teens are well aware when they are not reaching their personal goals or are struggling to keep up with school expectations. Over time they can develop a sense of “learned helplessness” if problems are not arrested early. You might see a change in their enthusiasm in going to school, hear them complain about school in general and notice a reticence to engage in their homework tasks. In a busy classroom with twenty five plus students it is so easy for a student to slip through the cracks and this is when we find they have lost confidence in their ability to catch up. Tutors come to the rescue and solve these problems by
- building a good relationship with the student
- bringing activities and tasks that allow a student to succeed in the first instance
- And, finally, working with the student to fill in the gaps which enables the student to be better prepared in the areas which they have found challenging.
The tutor/student relationship is crucial to success. When a student is comfortable with their tutor, they are morereceptive to learning, are more likely to overcome their fear of failure, to ask questions and are therefore more willing to tackle previous learning issues without frustrations. Matching the correct tutor with a student is the most important first step. From my dialogue with parents it is about knowing that your child needs a good “role model”. If a mentor type relationship can be established, a student is more receptive to allow the tutor to capitalise on their strengths which in turn will give them confidence to work with the tutor to overcome their weaknesses.
There is no set time to look for a tutor, but it is best to offer your son or daughter help sooner rather than later.
As an educator I have been challenged to take a close look at nutrition and academic performance. It is not that I have been unaware of the correlation between the two, but, my own poor dietary habits over the past months and a somewhat negative shift in my mental stamina has caused me to undertake a dietary overhaul with remarkable results. My IQ has not risen to genius level ,but, I have noticed an increased resilience to remain focused for longer periods of time and have not experienced the brain drains that are inherent, in the not so healthy choices, we comfort seeking humans can habitually fall into. Two weeks ago, with determination at hand, I cleared my cupboards and refrigerator of all the foods I believed were in the ‘not so beneficial’ category, reminded myself about what had worked for me in the past and was introduced, by chance, to a couple of new findings that I will share in this article. While these have benefited me, there is ample research to support that dietary needs are crucial in the development of academic performance of students.
The responses from students to what they consumed for breakfast, was, the convenience of breakfast bars or in the case of many teenagers, no breakfast at all, was an all too common response. Pediatricians and pediatric dietitians have long emphasized that providing children with a healthy breakfast plays a vital role for their nutritional wellbeing. Without a boost to their metabolism at the start of their day, young brains cannot function well. For optimum performance, the brain needs a sufficient supply of healthy fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water. See more at: www.timigustafson.com.
Healthy fats often sound a little worrying. To many of us, fats are just that – fat. However, there are a group of healthy fats that are essential for brain function. Since the brain consists largely of fatty membranes, 60% of the solid matter in the brain is fat. Therefore, for good brain function, the best fats to consume are polyunsaturated fats, such as omega-3 oils from fish, nuts, seeds and dark leafy greens. These fats help to maintain cell function and provide energy for the brain and should therefore be an essential part of the diet of all students. Whilst researching healthy fats, I also came across the multiple benefits of coconut oil, but, particularly as a brain food. See more at: http://realhealthykids.com/newsletter/coconut-oil-part-childs-diet/. So, how to entice your child to consume this miracle food in their daily diet? Try adding it to fruit smoothies, as a substitute for less healthy oils or be creative by using it to make a nutritious raw food treat, such as, coconut fudge. See more at http://www.smoothfm.com.au/living/smooth-food/baking-dessert-recipes/healthy-coconut-chocolate-fudge. Personally, coconut oil has changed the way I cook my food and the overall benefits it has brought to many areas of my health in a very short time, is quite remarkable. Hence, I cannot emphasise enough the benefits of coconut oil.
Proteins are another great source of brain food. However, don’t be fooled into believing that battered fish or chicken are healthy food choices. Alternatively, fish and chicken that are broiled or baked in healthy fats such as cold pressed virgin coconut oil or virgin olive oil provide healthier protein choices. Other lean meats, raw nuts and plain yoghurt without sugary flavouring offer the most beneficial proteins for consumption, without the concern of added unhealthy fats. Proteins play a necessary role in quelling the sugar fix we crave for in the middle of the afternoon and if we succumb to this craving, it is followed by that horrid early evening slump that robs students of the energy they need to complete homework and assignment tasks.
Carbohydrates consumed in the form of healthy grains in products, minus sugary ingredients are also important nutritional foods for brain function. Look for carbohydrate foods with a Low GI factor which are slow release nutrients that do not trick the body into thinking it requires more food in the same way High GI foods do. Some research on this topic may assist to understand the benefits of Low versus High GI foods for student learning as well as many other health benefit. See more at: www.essentialkids.com.au.
Finally, adequate water consumption is critical to the healthy functioning of a child’s brain. Our brains depend on proper hydration to perform at optimum levels. Brain cells require a delicate balance between water and various elements to operate and if you don’t drink sufficient water, this function can be greatly impaired. Years of research has concluded that when we are thirsty, we have more difficulty keeping our attention focused. Dehydration can impair short-term memory function and the recall of long-term memory. Ensuring students are reminded to stay hydrated throughout the day is as important to cognitive function as consuming the correct nutrition via the food we eat.
The role of nutrition and student performance is not complex, although, there is a wealth of research to support the importance of a healthy diet for overall concentration and feelings of well being. This article begins to touch on the topic in order to remind all parents, caregivers and educators about the importance of understanding what students eat and drink could be a major factor in ensuring maximum learning performance.
Occasionally you might hear the title of “Wordsmith” to describe someone’s gift as an accomplished user of words. They are those whose writing is eloquent due to the variety of vocabulary they are able to draw on when writing and speaking. Being labelled as a wordsmith is a compliment. However, those who are acclaimed as wordsmiths have acquired this skill through a life that has been immersed in the printed word, who choose to contribute to discussions in different settings and are interested to research the meaning of words and their usage. So what are the advantages of being able to use and understand a variety of words with confidence and to be considered a wordsmith?
Wordsmiths are widely read individuals who usually have higher order of comprehension skills. Imagine reading a text and missing the important nuances of meaning due to a limited understanding of the vocabulary in the given text. As a child, my greatest joy was to read books. I conquered the skill of reading at a very early age because I enjoyed the way words created pictures in my mind. Words, and the way they came together to tell a story and describe a setting, drew me into different worlds, allowed me to enter into the life of fascinating characters and to be inspired to write my own stories as I grew older. My parents encouraged me to read and saw value in buying me books as gifts on special occasions.
Although my own penchant for reading rested with literary texts, for others, information texts consume hours of constructive reading as a means to acquire knowledge on topics of interest. Information texts are rich with specific vocabulary that is relevant to the topic. They allow the reader to enjoy different interests and hobbies and also communicate effectively on a range of ideas connected to the topic of interest. We might consider an interest in the subject of aeronautics, for instance, where the vocabulary is specific. There is no doubt that an understanding for the correct terminology or jargon is key to becoming an authority on a particular area of interest.
Another favourite gift I remember as a child was to be given lovely books to use as journals and a plethora of writing implements which enabled me to record my experiences and ideas creatively. Wordsmiths are noted for the pleasure writing brings to their lives. This means it can become a personal pursuit to play with words and make writing an art form. I like to think of writing as a blank canvas with words as a pallet of colour waiting to be chosen to create images in the minds of the reader. Words are used to impart ideas that awaken our spirit or build on previously learned concepts. As I assist students to write, I am always asking questions such as “what could be a better word to use there”?, “what adjectives can we use to more fully describe your ideas”? and “what can you see in your mind as you read your own writing.”?
It has been argued that not all people are “good” writers and that may be true. However I believe that anyone can become a “better” writer if they engage in vocabulary development. Being a wordsmith is a choice and one which can give an individual the edge with their formal learning but also an ability to engage more fully in what they read for pleasure.
To become a wordsmith in this digital age is not difficult. If I intuitively feel a student has lost meaning in a sentence I will look at key words they may not understand. For instance, I was reading with an eight year old boy recently when we came across the word stalk in the context of a bird. By using my i pad as a learning tool, we were able to use it to show him view images of a stalk and open up a brief discussion about the characteristics of this type of bird. Using images as an adjunct to a dictionary is the most effective way to ensure the development and ongoing usage of new vocabulary.
The use of a dictionary is indeed an important tool. Look for dictionaries that have larger print, easy to navigate and explain the meaning of words in user friendly language. Good book stores will have a variety of excellent dictionaries and I encourage all students to have one at hand when reading or writing. If you want to be an avid wordsmith you just might find that a dictionary can become a whole exciting literary experience in itself.
Do you want to become a wordsmith? I do believe wordsmiths can be made and not necessarily born. The correct tools, inspiration and purpose, the desire to understand more fully what we read and how to develop written texts through the use of a broader range of language, are the key ingredients to being a competent wordsmith.
As the New Year begins, I am excited and challenged about the direction Nepean Tutoring will take in 2015. While I am writing this post, I am sitting in a plane in Cambodia, Siem Reap, ready for takeoff to the beaches on the Southern Coast of this beautiful country. I visit here often to assist in education projects for both impoverished children on the fringe of the city and young adults who are attempting to carve out a career in a country whose progress from the horrific civil war and genocide some thirty years ago has gone largely unnoticed by first world governments. For this reason there is a weak formal National Curriculum which leaves its population in a low pedagogical cycle. The politics surrounding this situation are not important to this article, but the observations I have noticed in terms of informal learning, despite the weak formal system here, continue to challenge me as a teacher/tutor.
The notion of play has been a repeated theme in Nepean Tutoring posts this past year. It is a culture of thinking that has been adopted by different philosophies, observations from children at play in various indigenous cultures and an intuitive recognition that we are not always “getting it right” in our current formal system. Play should conjure images of children sitting together working out how to play a game or running around outdoors and negotiating natural and man-made environments in order to enjoy themselves.
More often we forget the rich learning that takes place in all these situations. Learning can and must be fun, or at the least purposeful, to hold meaning and develop thinking processes. It is through play that we connect with babies and our youngest children and acknowledge their individual intentions to interact more meaningfully with their world. Play is the pursuit of every pre-schooler’s day where they acquire the ability to make choices, develop problem solving skills and play is the medium that develops all five senses which becomes integral to the success of further learning as a child enters the formal system. There has been a lot of work in recent times that focuses on the notion of multi-sensory learning and play is the source by which these experiences are developed in children they are immersed in activities involving their five senses.
When they begin school, it has been traditional practice to expect children to take a monumental leap from their world of play and creativity to that of a formal learning environment. This is such a sudden shift from the creativity and individual autonomy that their world of play provides. For many children, this shift is overwhelming and confusing and can develop a sense of learned helplessness where they are unable to absorb or engage in the formal setting. Their ability to achieve success in the classroom can be compromised unless the notion that all children require learning that uses all their senses using teaching and learning tasks that involve play and creativity. They required structured and unstructured play experiences to transition them more smoothly into formal learning situations when they are ready to take that leap in their own learning journey.
My observations in Cambodia reinforces this thinking. There is nothing more refreshing than watching young children in this third world environment discover, communicate and create meaning through the action of play. There is no technology for most of these children and few commercially acquired toys, but their ability to create games and play cooperatively and meaningfully does indeed challenge my understanding of the way children learn. The simplicity of their play, the confidence they develop in their creative pursuits with little to inspire them but their environment, the use of simple tools and materials to make things and their inherent ability to problem solve in the context of play brings a readiness to their formal learning that all educators need to consider in their understanding of the way children learn best. It not only fosters creativity, but also curiosity, perseverance and resilience that are necessary prerequisites for successful learners.