November 25, 2005

Spoon-feeding students?

The first and best teaching advice I received came from my master teacher, Randy Thatcher. When it came to instruction, Randy told me to “spoon feed” my students as if they were infants only able to swallow a small amount or spoonful at a time. I was getting ready to teach Julius Caesar for the first time. I was so excited about the play, and there was so much that I wanted to share, that my first day teaching the unit was something, well, special. Special to me. I was up there, doing my thing, having a great time, selling it to the audience. But the audience was not buying it. A simple case of too much too fast. Way too fast. Later I would learn to write “Slow Down” on the chalkboard opposite from where I lectured just to remind me that not everybody loves what I am teaching as much as I do. Nor do all the students begin from the same place. It’s more like a staggered track start. Even with kids you’ve had in class all year. Whether you are teaching Shakespeare or shapes, the students always run the gamut in their preparation, understanding, abilities, and level of interest. How does the teacher reach the diverse group and lead them to a common goal? Spoon-feeding.

Spoon-feeding? You mean, like a baby? Isn’t that condescending to the students’ ability levels? Plus, if we break everything down into small parts for the students, what’s left for them to do? Don’t they have a responsibility in their own learning careers? Good questions.

Yes, spoon-feeding. As teachers, it is our job to make the material digestible to students. At least it’s our job at the primary and secondary levels. Plus its just good lesson planning. Once we have reduced the content of our lessons to the smallest possible portions, then we can mange those portions appropriately for our students. Every student is different and every class is different. So being prepared with lessons comprised of components that can be rearranged based on student need means that we can effectively reach and teach the students we have. Of course, that means more work on the teacher’s part, but hey, isn’t that part of the gig? If you design your curriculum right the first time, and break it down so that you can pull out components like cards from a deck, then that job is done. Now you can focus on attending to the needs of the kids, and not be distracted by trying to “stay one day ahead” of the class. Difficult, perhaps impossible for first and second year teachers, especially with BITSA and all the other hoops they are required to jump through. That’s where the vets step in. If you are a veteran teacher and you have never offered to help out a newbie, then shame on you. Randy was one of three master teachers who gave me everything they could, and what a difference it made in my first few years.

Now I teach technology, computer multimedia. I teach kids how to manipulate images digitally, to create their own web sites, to animate using the computer, and digital video production. It’s a blast. I was guided into opportunities that have now placed me an ideal situation for me. I love my subject matter and it’s a joy to teach it to the students. However, when I started, I had no curriculum. There was nothing to spoon-feed. So where to begin? I was assigned a few video courses. I wanted to teach them like film production courses, so I went to the NYU web site. There I found lots of useful information that I adopted, and have since changed significantly to fit the needs of the newer multimedia courses.

Once I had a handle on what I wanted to teach, the next goal was to determine how best to teach it. I looked to and included the California Standards in everything I wrote. I took each unit and broke it down into parts. Then I broke the parts down into steps. I wrote each step in a lab manual that I use everyday in class. That way if a student falls behind, or wants to work ahead, it’s all in the book. In the classroom I begin with a lecture. I ask the kids to take notes, but I do not collect them. Once I’ve covered theory, background, and vocabulary, I demonstrate while the students watch. Once they’ve seen the entire demonstration, and have an accurate idea of what to do, its there turn. I cruise the room answering questions and offering tips while the students learn by doing.

Here is a link to a page where you can download the multimedia manual, multimedia lecture notes, multimedia PowerPoint presentations and another manual I wrote for leadership: Curriculum Downloads.

The rest of the time in class is spent sharing life stories, theirs’ and mine, but more of mine. Kids love to hear about the lives of adults. We all love stories. There is something about hearing someone else’s experience that makes us feel less lonely, less absurd, and for high school kids, less different. Even the high school seniors are still just babies who need to be treated appropriately.

It’s very important that we teachers understand what that means, to treat our students appropriately. One of my mentors and colleagues with 3 times as much experience as me has been known to say, “they (the students) can’t do it (the curriculum).” Harsh, but true. Students can’t absorb massive amounts of information and be expected to learn anything unless it is presented in a format that is appropriate to them. Spoon-feeding.

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