Friday, October 16, 2015

School in Australia

School. It's really different.

COLLEGE--what they call the schools here, all grades, K-12
UNI ("you-knee")--University, what some kids may choose to prepare to attend after their schooling.
MATHS--Mathematics, keeping the "s" in place
BYOD--Bring Your Own Device. Common expectation or compulsory requirement for upper grades to provide their own iPad or laptop computer.
OPINIONS--my own. Based on my perception of what I'm used to in the U.S. and what I see as contrasting here (see "HERE" above). I'm not trying to say one is better than the other, but I am pointing out the unique traits that my fellow Americans may see as interesting differences.

School is called "college" and starts at 9:00 and gets out at 3:00. For all grades. Grades K-9 (called "Prep-9") go to the same school. I think this is not Australia-wide, but it is at least where we are. So this means that up through grade 9, they still have snack time, and two recesses per day. Then grades 10-12 go to the Senior College.

At grade 10 students must pick a "pathway" which is pretty much a career path. Students can choose from Arts and Technology, Maths/Science, Science/Science (yeah...?), Business and Commerce, Humanities (which is basically History), Information Technology, Health Sciences, Performing Arts, and Physical Education. Coursework is prescribed for each pathway and you can't really pick and choose from other classes that aren't in your pathway. As someone who believes that education is about training the brain to learn and not just about getting a job, I find it crazy that kids who just barely left primary school are now faced with deciding their career path.

All of my kids are doing math work well below where they were when they were in Utah. I'm okay with going back and mastering the material. It will help to solidify the concepts in their mind to review them. But I do hope that they can progress in writing and be prepared for the classes they'll be taking when they return.

There are no foreign language classes. Which is really ironic considering the amazing diversity of cultures here. I mean---AMAZING. At Karly and Millie's school a staff member told me they have 76 different languages spoken by their students.

The curriculum seems very simple and non-demanding. There is a conscience effort from the teachers to not overload the students with lots of homework. I think they can only give one assignment per subject per week. It helps evenly distribute the workload the student has to face each week. I like that they recognize there are other aspects to a child's life than school—which in America consists of getting ready for school, spending all day at school, homework for school, fundraising for school, and sleeping enough to do well in school (Oh, wait, I don't think they really think about the kids having enough time for sleep.). Teachers do not assign lots of nightly assignments that all get graded right away and posted online. In fact, there are no grades to check online at all. Classes work together on the learning and then at the end of the year they test and hopefully you do well enough to advance to the next grade.

I see a lot of benefit to not focusing on the frequent homework assignments to some degree. I have long been annoyed with the system at home with loads of assignments that I or my child need to track online. If a student falls behind the teacher doesn't do much to follow up with the struggling student because it's online for the parents to nag about. If you care enough to check then you'll notice problems yourself and talk with the teacher. But if you don't happen to care, or are going through a rough spell as a growing child, you may just suffer long-term consequences of the oversight. So I like that the focus here in Australia is on the learning process and less on the paperwork.

The grading here is different. In the junior high in the U.S., Karly had 8 different classes and 8 different teachers. Each class had regular assignments and homework and all of it was tracked online so that she and I could always see what her current grades were. Here, she has one teacher (class size of only 23), and they generally work on projects and activities together, but each task isn't really graded separately. A lot of the time, the homework isn't graded at all. All their work is just meant to prepare them for the next grade and the assessments at the end of the year. So hopefully they learn enough to progress to the next grade. If you progress, yay. Working ahead or being an exceptional achiever is not a goal or even laudable. Karly was even told she needed to tone it down on a pamphlet she was working on because she was making it look too good. The goal doesn't seem to be "challenge yourself and progress at your own rate", it's more "make sure to stay at the same rate as the rest of the class."

Because the school year here starts in February, they are half-way through their year. We came in midway, which means Millie is back in 5th grade, which bugs her to pieces. It is a little bit of a concern since she needs to be prepared for 7th grade when we return. I honestly don't know what to do about it because what we've seen so far is that the curriculum is noticeably behind the pace in the U.S. The material in math is stuff she did 2-3 years ago. When we signed her up the administration and teachers assured me they would assess her and put her in groups at her level, but I haven't seen anything like that happening. There was one assignment that Millie was unclear on for a few days so I went in to speak with the teacher to clarify. The teacher said, "Oh, I don't expect Millie to do much of anything since she's new." Great. Will she be learning anything?

Millie reports that the kids are friendly, but they spend a lot of time swearing and talking about "inappropriate things." It probably happens in lots of schools, but Millie just came from Utah, so it's a bigger shock.

Millie is actually pretty negative about school and complains a lot. So what I'm writing here reflects that. I've tried to point out the good and redirect her attitude. It's a work in progress.

As I mentioned, grades P-9 are all in one school, so Karly is back in elementary school. She and Millie walk to school together and it's about 1/4 mile from our house. She thinks it hilarious that she's in 8th grade (again) and gets two recesses a day and they actually have "snack time."

Karly loves to wear makeup and is actually really good at it, but it is not permitted in the uniform policy. She is even required to wear her hair in a ponytail so getting ready in the morning is a snap. She wears a polo shirt and track pants and it's not really attractive but she has a good attitude about it. Now that the weather is warmer she is opting for the school dress which closely resembles the uniform that the maids wear in "The Help."

Karly doesn't complain as much. She also finds the curriculum super easy. There is very little homework. She has a good group of friends, but she finds the 8th grade in general to be quite silly and less-mature.

Swearing here is not viewed quite as offensive as the U.S. People seem to know what swear words are, but using them isn't "bad." People drop all kinds of swear words at church. Even the teachers swear on occasion and Karly finds it interesting and odd, but she recognizes it's just viewed differently here.

Karly's teacher has remarked on multiple occasions what a strong writer she is and how impressed she is that Karly can use punctuation properly. Huh. Okay, she is in 8th grade. I mean 9th grade. But here it's 8th grade.

I'm honestly considering pulling them out of school after this term. But the online schools in Utah won't let them participate because they are supposed to actually reside in Utah at the moment. Karly and Leo actually need credits to stay on track for graduation so I can't just homeschool them. It's a mess. I need to go in and talk with Millie's teacher but I don't know what to ask. They won't put her in a higher grade. They don't have the same concept of education that I do, so I don't see them going out of their way to cater to Millie's current needs. But they are super nice people who show genuine concern for her well-being and happiness at school.

Leo is probably in the best situation as far as keeping him in a state of progression. He is in the "senior college" for 10-12 grade. When I first tried to enroll him they said I'd have to wait for a call to get an appointment. After three days I called again and expressed a desire to not wait any longer. I got an appointment for a WEEK later. I thought that was crazy long since class was going on at the moment and he was missing it, but someone else here told me their son had to wait SIX WEEKS. Okay. So education is just not the same priority to them.

When we did enroll, we found out that they have just five classes per day, compared to 8 in Utah. I was really concerned about him being behind in his credit earnings to keep him on track to graduate. We emailed his counselor at Orem High and worked things out. They will basically give him credit for one year of schooling while he's here, but all of his grades will be marked just pass/fail and won't be figured into his total GPA.

The way classes are structured is still very much according to grade level. So since he's a 10th grader (again) they put him in 10th grade classes. Because there is a "10" in the title of his English class, that is a problem for transferring credit back to Utah so I petitioned to let him be in an 11th grade English class. That really took some coercion because they just don't do it like that. 10th graders take 10th grade classes. In Utah, classes are not limited to what grade you are in. You can just take the next level when you are ready, of just if it interests you. And there are MANY more choices for classes.

The class schedule is really interesting. They have 5 subjects, but only three classes per day. Everyday of the week he starts with a different subject. Then the other two classes are mixed up so that somehow it works out that all classes get equal time.

After his first class, which is longer, he has a 30 minutes recess. Then he has another class. Then he has a 30 minutes class called "advisory" which is a class where they just kind of talk about what's going on at the school and stuff they need to be doing. I can't imagine there is something to discuss for 30 minutes every single day, but...whatever.

Then he has almost an hour for lunch.

Then he has another class. Total time is 9:00-3:00. Super short school day and not a lot of time in class. He says there is a lot of down time.

One thing he said is that the kids are really obnoxious toward the teachers. They just say, "no" and refuse to comply sometimes just for the sake of being difficult. He says they are quite immature. But, they have just come from the P-9 school where they had snack time and recess so it's not surprising they have a weird adjustment. But these same kids that just left the primary college are also now being asked to choose their pathway for vocations. It's really odd.

Leo's entire grade is taking a trip to Queensland. It's quite expensive but almost everyone goes. And they do it for 11th grade and 12th grade too. It's mostly a fun trip. Not intended to be educational. Just "bonding." I hope it goes well.

They have just one formal dance per year. It's also divided by grade. For many of the boys, it's the first suit they've owned. The dance was held on a yacht in the docks of Melbourne. It was a really nice setting. Leo reported the spread and variety of luxury foods was amazing. They had everything. And a lot of it.

Leo has some things to say about school life:
"The breaks are pretty excessive, everyone thinks having an hour of free time, like in the US, is way too little. Everyone is so surprised when I tell them that school [in the U.S.] starts at 7:45. Most of them don't even get up before then. Though the schedule of the school day and credits are more relaxed, there are many opportunities to learn. Since there are only 5 classes instead of 8, there is more room to focus on important aspects of the subject, or in other words, more homework. Nobody seems to do the homework until they get to 12th grade, when suddenly everyone gets really serious about school. It doesn't seem to be that big of a deal to anyone if they fail. It's kind of irritating to be one of the only kids really trying to pass. 

"Many of the other students don't even pretend like they want to be there. They talk back to the teacher, constantly. The tests here are called SACs. Lots of the students just start drawing on it and sit around for the rest of the class. They leave all the answers completely blank and hand it back to the teacher. Every time. It's just what's normal. Going to University is an ambitious, somewhat uncommon thing to do. No one thinks they're smart enough to do any of it, so they just throw it out and hope something happens later in life. I do my best at my work, and when I get a good grade back, everyone is surprised, and then surmise that it's because 'your dad is a scientist. Of course you're smart.' Not that I just happened to study and do the work. 

"Now that I've voiced my complaints, I guess I should talk about some things I do like. The students here are very kind and friendly. They're very inclusive. It's easy to make friends with people here. Anyone is willing to talk to you, and will likely keep talking to you if you have a strong international accent. 

"I will say, the saddest thing I've discovered about school here, is that absolutely no one cares about the school sports teams. They have no bleachers, no benches, anything at all in the basketball gym or on the rugby oval. No one cares. They don't have any school spirit. There's not even a mascot. Everyone asks me about school sports. What the jocks are like, if we have bleachers, 'do cheerleaders really exist?' I tell them it's exactly like high school musical, minus the singing and a reduction in cheesyness. 

"I really enjoy the school here, and I'm glad I got the opportunity to come to this school. A lot of my friends are kids who transferred from other schools, because their school was on the ghetto side and our high school didn't have as many gangs or related things. One of my better friends, a kid from Scotland, transferred from one school because he got stabbed twice, and he's a fairly intimidating guy. So basically, we got lucky.

"And that's all I have to say about that."

Yes, when people hear that their dad is a professor working at the University of Melbourne they are quite impressed. That is a high achievement. And they do tend to assume that the good academic performance of my kids is because they are kids of a professor.

He IS a good father and absolutely does contribute to their academic ethics, but I grit my teeth thinking that it was their MOTHER that read to them and taught them young to master learning and to think big. It was their MOTHER that took them to and from school, packed lunches, attended parent/teacher conferences, helped them with science fair, and fulfilled the volunteer hour requirements. It was their MOTHER, who hadn't even graduated from college yet, that helped them with math, coached their knowledge bowl team, edited their grammar, and helped them handle the bullies on the playground. It was their MOTHER who homeschooled that teen boy above for one year because it was what he needed at the moment. And it was their MOTHER who balanced the fine line of consequence for neglected homework with dashing to the school at a moment's notice to deliver forgotten books or lunches.

But that's not the subject of this post. And it's already too long.

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