An expanded perspective: Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching part two

Issue: Volume 94, Number 6

Posted: 20 April 2015
Reference #: 1H9cqq

In the second of two stories profiling the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Programme, we speak to Fiona Jeffries, who also journeyed to Indiana, USA, to get stuck into her ‘capstone’ investigation, and share educational and cultural experiences. And going in the opposite direction, Education Gazette catches up with Seth Hoffman, an American Fulbright scholar conducting his inquiry here in New Zealand.

Supported by the Ministry of Education, and aimed at highly accomplished New Zealand teachers with a passion for continuing their own educational progress, the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching programme gives two teachers per year the chance to participate in an intensive professional development programme, hosted by American universities. The programme attracts teachers from throughout the world, and works both ways; participating countries form a network that means teachers can pursue their topic of inquiry in any of several locations throughout the world.

Winners of the scholarship are hosted by the College of Education belonging to the host university, which provides a range of classes and courses that the participants can get involved with, as well as plenty of support, both academic and pastoral. Participants enrol in advanced undergraduate or graduate level courses; they design and complete an inquiry project as well as observing, team teaching and conducting seminars or workshops in local schools for host country teachers and students. Academic advisers are always available to support the participants’ progress.

Scholars also participate in a web-based collaborative project with other teachers on the programme, in an effort to share best practices and discuss the varying approach to education around the world.

A kiwi in Indiana

2014 saw Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, host 12 teachers from around the world, including two from New Zealand: Su Mukund (profiled in Education Gazette Issue 94.4) and Fiona Jeffries.

After hearing about the Distinguished Awards in Teaching Programme, Fiona Jeffries wasn’t sure that she had the requisite background to be considered, based on the stated criteria, or so she thought. One of the things the programme particularly calls for, for example, is teachers who have had academic papers published.

Fiona was, however, able to demonstrate that her passion for her own continued learning had not faded.

“I think that part of the reason that I was accepted into the programme is that I was able to demonstrate that I’d continued to educate myself. “I think that it’s really important for teachers to keep learning and progressing. It’s something that we encourage in students, so it’s really good for us to continue to be learners as well.”

While at Indiana University, Fiona took two courses. One was around content area literacy for pre-service teachers; and the other was an examination of critical thinking, cooperation and 21st century learning skills.

Fiona designed her ‘capstone’ inquiry project (a culminating project similar to a thesis) around an investigation into how digital tools are used in the development of literacy, in particular where male secondary school learners are concerned. She chose this theme because Paraparaumu College has recently introduced a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) programme, and she wanted to investigate how this and other digital measures can assist the learning of students who find literacy a struggle.

Over the four months of her stay in Indiana, many preconceptions that Fiona arrived in the US with were dispelled. She says that she arrived assuming that one of the wealthiest countries in the world would make pervasive use of student-owned devices, but–at least in the schools she visited –Fiona found this to be much less the case than she’d expected.

The class that Fiona observed–which was a young adult literacy class–used their iPads to search for reviews for the book they wanted to read, but did the actual reading in good old–fashioned paper format. But as she looked closer, she became aware that another more fundamental mechanism was achieving results for these learners.

“I went looking for all this technology, but what I found was that the mechanism that was getting the older boys particularly into reading was that they got to choose the text themselves, rather than simply being assigned something to read.

“This is something that I’ve been able to bring back and implement in my classes immediately. Choice is so effective in terms of engagement. Being able to choose is actually part of the learning.”

Strange yet familiar

In terms of education culture more generally, Fiona says that there’s much about Indiana that Kiwi teachers would recognise, and much that would appear very strange. For a start, school starts at 7.35am.

Block scheduling would also be unfamiliar, says Fiona. Bloomington North High School schedules four classes per day, each lasting 80 minutes, significantly longer that they do in New Zealand. Fiona says that teachers over there need to be extremely innovative and resourceful to keep kids focused for that length of time.

Of course, the terminology is different: ‘elementary’ is to the US what ‘primary school’ is to us; high school starts at what they call year 9, but is actually equivalent to our year 10; a ‘freshman’ is in their first year of high school, a ‘sophomore’ in their second, a ‘junior’ –somewhat confusingly–is in their second to last year; ‘middle school’ is intermediate to you and me.

One thing that particularly struck Fiona, and really brought home the different challenges US teachers face that their New Zealand colleagues don’t need to think about so much, is that American schools–in the wake of so many tragic school shootings–must keep one eye on security at all times. We’ve all marvelled at the idea that many US schools employ security guards and metal detecting scanners as a matter of course, but there’s a consequence of this heightened tension that Kiwi teachers, given the value we place on the outdoors, might find hard to get used to, says Fiona.

“Another interesting thing was that I didn’t have any windows looking outside the school [at Bloomington North]. I’m standing here admiring a beautiful day back in New Zealand, through the windows of a classroom, and it was a bit disorienting for me over there not having that. All the classrooms, due to the design of the school, have no windows on the world, so to speak, due to security concerns.”

Fiona’s overall impression of the education milieu in Indiana is the frantic pace and pressure she experienced.

“It seems like there’s this real drive to teach, teach, teach. This isn’t coming from the teachers, it’s coming from outside schools. There doesn’t seem to be any time for instance for students to go and kick a ball around at lunchtime, they just seem to go to the cafeteria, eat their lunch, and they’re straight back into class. They don’t have recess, as we used to see on TV. Of course I don’t know if this applies to all schools.”

The Fulbright programme works both ways of course. Through conversation, presentations, and seminars, Fiona and her colleagues from around the world were able to share parts of their own worlds with American teachers. Funding was an area where Fiona found that the contrast between New Zealand and the US seemed most stark.

“Something like our decile system was really interesting for teachers over there, I found. When I told them that in New Zealand, we have this inverse funding arrangement where schools in lower socio-economic circumstances get proportionally more funding than those in wealthier areas, they were quite taken aback. In Indiana, funding for schools comes from property taxes levied within their local county, so if your school happens to be in a poorer area, obviously your school gets less money. I think lots of teachers thought our way seemed very logical in meeting the needs of as many students as possible.”

And then there were the little things. In the schools Fiona visited, the humble staff room isn’t necessarily seen as a basic right of all teachers. Teachers at Bloomington North had to find their own fridge, microwave, kettle, and even supply their own tea and coffee!

Collaborative opportunities

The purpose behind the Fulbright programme as Fiona sees it can be expressed in one word: collaboration. It’s a wonderful opportunity, she says, to get teachers from such different environments sharing aspects of their practice back home, innovations they might have introduced, and just generally share education cultures, so that all can go home inspired. These conversations were made easier, says Fiona, by the fact that the University of Indiana looked after the scholars so well.

“Indiana University was wonderful like that. There were 11 teachers from around the world on the programme, and the university put us up in student accommodation. Not like halls of residence or anything, but little apartments, sharing with other people on the Fulbright programme. I shared with two teachers: one a science teacher from India, and a teacher of English as a second language from Morocco. We were all of different ages, but there were lots of opportunities like meal times where we could share our backgrounds and discuss our capstone projects, which was really great.

“It’s a wonderful part of the programme, for four months I got to live and share with two teachers from completely different environments than the one I’m used to, which was a great learning experience. I still keep in touch with them through social media, and I’m certainly grateful to them for helping to give me a more global outlook on education particularly.”

An American in Aotearoa: Seth Hoffman

Seth Hoffman is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, and yes he does find himself these days answering the inevitable questions on Breaking Bad, the hit series set in his hometown.

New Zealanders can relate: Lord of the Rings defines New Zealand to this day in the minds of some non-Kiwis.
In his professional life, Seth has been able to combine two of his passions: education and music. A keen guitar player, he hasn’t wasted any time since arriving here two months ago. He’s already won his street performer’s licence and done some busking, and he’s organised and played several gigs around the Wellington region.

Winning a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching has been particularly serendipitous for Seth: he’s always wanted to come to New Zealand, having heard great things about this country over many years, and getting the chance to broaden his experience of education provides the perfect opportunity.

Bringing passion to education is what motivates Seth, and is the theme of his Fulbright capstone investigation here in New Zealand. Seth is not a music teacher, but his classes back home are peppered with the use of music as a group activity: he does a lot of song writing in class; he conducts open microphone sessions weekly; and every year Seth and his class write and record a class album. Seth knows that bringing music into the classroom creates an environment of success; he’s in New Zealand to investigate why.

“Firstly, I’m looking at the benefits of using music as part of learning. Because in my experience the use of music in class engages a lot of students who may not be ‘into it’ a lot of the time. The parents of children who’d had really negative experiences at school told me that their child was really excited about what we were doing, and that they’re able to feel like a part of the class.

“I wanted also to look at how similar things were being done with the use of music over here, but my investigation is wider than just music; I’m looking at any area in which a teacher is incorporating their own personal passion into the classroom. Music is my specialty, and so I’m using music as a framework, but really it could be anything. The last thing I want to do is suggest that teachers who aren’t comfortable using music must do so.”

Seth’s experiences in the United States have led him to conclude that one of the key reasons it’s important for teachers is that students are sponges.

“Teachers teach through modelling more than anything else, I think, and so it’s natural that students will pick up on how teachers are feeling, and respond accordingly.

“We all remember the teachers who seemed enthusiastic, like they wanted to be there. I think when you’re excited to be there, you’re going to do a better job, no matter what you’re doing. You’re more likely to go above and beyond.”

Seth doesn’t know of any research that might back up his claim that teachers who are happy, settled, and bring their passions to the classroom engender better results for students–perhaps nobody has bothered to evaluate what could be seen as a self-evident truth–but there is research indicating that children who are involved with music and the arts perform better academically.

Getting out there

Seth is hosted in New Zealand by Victoria University, who have provided lots of support–both academic and pastoral. Seth is now getting himself out there and into schools to see how things work in this country, and networking is something else that music is unquestionably good for.

“That’s another thing music’s really good for: meeting people. Since I’ve been here I’ve gotten my street performer’s licence and done some busking, and you get talking to people, and I’ll tell them what I’m up to over here, and they might say, ‘oh, you know what, I know this person at this school, you should give them a call.’

“The other day I was at an event at Clyde Quay School, and there were representatives from about 12 different religious groups. I’m Jewish myself, and I’ve done a little performing at Temple Sinai [Wellington], and someone who saw me perform there asked me to perform at this event. Through that opportunity I met the principal of Clyde Quay School, and I’ll now be working with that school.”

Seth says there is one big difference he’s noticed between schools at home and in New Zealand.

“I don’t know if the correct word is ‘relaxed’ [to describe New Zealand education]; everybody seems to be working really hard. I think it’s just that over here, there seems to be this really positive atmosphere, at least in the schools I’ve visited. There seems to be lots of support for teachers and students, and students seem happy at school.”

BY Jaylan Boyle
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 4:44 pm, 20 April 2015

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