For the first couple of days at work, the new teachers spent their time adjusting to the vocabulary and re-organization of their school environment.
Secondary students in Lewis are grouped alphabetically into ‘houses’ (much like Harry Potter for those in Canada), except those students in Gáidhlig medium education (or immersion) who are all in the same house, Addison. Their entire house, all years/grades, report for ‘registration’ each morning. This puzzled the new teachers; for them, students report to ‘homeroom’ each morning for ‘attendance’.
The teachers were also surprised at how relaxed the work day and assignments were. “Okay, hand it in when you feel you’re finished,” they would hear, “we’ll sort that later.”
“Everyone is so nice,” the teachers said, “and the teachers seem to have genuine mutual respect for their students,” or pupils. With national exams approaching in two weeks, many teachers were preparing for those standard questions or types of writing on the examinations. Lewis teachers were negotiating their lesson needs, assessment for learning, with the students.
“What would you like to work on over the next couple of weeks to prepare?” they asked their classes.
Students would reply: “Poetry!” “Essay!” “Words!” or “Folio!” And the Lewis teachers would begin crafting lessons to address these areas the students themselves had requested and felt deficit in. The visiting teachers were very impressed by this because although it seemed a bit disorganized, it was also immediately responsive to the students’ relevant needs.
All of the visiting teachers were English teachers, and spent the first couple of days trying to visualize the curriculum and selection of courses available to secondary students in Lewis. In Scotland, the students were streamed into subject areas they loved or had a gift in early on in Secondary 1 and 2 (S1 and S2, or grade 7 and 8), so many of the students in the secondary (S3 and above) English classes had already chosen English, and had some ability in that subject area. For this reason, or perhaps because of the accent, the visiting teachers commented, “their vocabulary is so much more superior than students at home!”
“Students in S1 and S2 (grades 7 and 8) are doing close readings of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet!” another teacher said, “I would never see that in Canada!”
There was not as much discussion about a text or a topic, and very little group work. For the most part, students focused on building their expository writing skills and providing textual evidence for the answer they were giving. This is a criteria for the national exams, and so a great deal of the “success criteria” in the classes on Lewis was built around sharp writing.
Chinese students learning abroad will often comment on how much later Western students learn math concepts, five years difference in some cases! Here, the visiting teachers felt that Canadian students were also two or three years behind their Scottish peers in learning English.