There aren’t many Ascham students, past or present, who haven’t crossed paths with ‘Frau Sydenham’. As an Ascham German teacher of 38 years, who also attended Ascham as a student, graduating in 1972, Jane Sydenham-Kwiet has taught several thousand students during her time. Her kindness, her sparkling eyes and her exacting standards are loved and respected by all. As one of the most experienced teachers at Ascham, whose retirement was extremely short lived as she returned at the beginning of last year to cover a staff shortage in German, she is extremely well placed to share her personal insights on teaching via the Dalton Plan.
‘The joy of teaching Dalton is the Study,’ says Frau Sydenham, who pauses and then adds with a smile, ‘It can also be the most challenging aspect!’ By this Frau Sydenham means Dalton teachers always need to be prepared. ‘In the true spirit of Dalton, students have flexibility to pick which Studies they will attend and when,’ she said. ‘This means that the when the bell rings, the teacher often doesn’t know who will walk in the door next!’ If you are a Dalton teacher, you must always be ready, across all the content for each Year group, their Assignment tasks and topic areas. In a Study, teachers need to be able to shift gears quickly depending on the questions asked and the personalities present in the room.
Looking beyond these challenges, however, Frau Sydenham quickly returns to the joy, for in her experience the Study is particularly conducive to teaching a language. ‘What I love [in Languages] is that we often use the Study as an opportunity to speak in the target language,’ she said. In addition to setting weekly oral and listening tasks to be completed in the Study, there is a subliminal benefit that occurs by just being present. Frau Sydenham said, ‘When you have a range of Year groups in the Study, you can have a Year 8 or 9 student who stops to listen to a Year 11 or Year 12 student engaged in conversation with the teacher and you can see them thinking: Wow, maybe I’ll get to that level of proficiency in speaking German. This exposure to the future possibilities of language learning is incredibly beneficial.’
Ensuring the classroom is set up to enhance the Study makes a real difference. The teacher’s desk, at the side of the room, has a chair beside it, not across from it, so that a student is less intimidated when communicating with the teacher. Frau Sydenham said, ‘When having a conversation with a student about corrections, for example, you try to a develop a common language, a language that is more or less sophisticated, depending on the student and her stage of learning’. She continued, ‘I think for Language teachers, communication skills are paramount—students must learn how to converse with me as a teacher, as well as with their peers, how to use language that’s appropriate, both in English and in German. That’s the beauty of Dalton; that dialogue of question and answer. If you don’t understand, please ask me, but also talk to me.’
Frau Sydenham emphasises this point with a story of her great friend and colleague of many years, Ludo Onstein. Mr Onstein, who was often responsible for showing prospective new families around Ascham, once told Frau Sydenham how new families would often remark to him that they were struck by how many conversations were happening between students and teachers. These conversations, in the playground as well as the classroom, were respectful but also informal. Mr Onstein would always explain that this was happening because the teachers and students had developed a rapport in the Study, saying of the students: ‘They aren’t just interacting with the teacher in Lessons, they are actually engaged in conversations with the teacher in the Study.’
Frau Sydenham’s insights on teaching German via Dalton are both insightful and definitive. She believes that students who learn a language at Ascham benefit greatly from the Dalton Plan, particularly its opportunities to collaborate and communicate via the Study. How lucky these students are and how lucky Ascham is to have someone with the breadth of experience such as Frau Sydenham’s!
Skye Barry | Community Relations Manager