February 17, 2008

Teacher Reflection?

I feel that reflection is something that an effective educator does instinctively for themselves. Take this blog for example and the fact the you are reading this blog post. We are going through the reflective process together without having to be taught in a credential course or in-service day. I see reflection as one of those things hard-wired into a teacher. If you are not the type of individual who automatically spends time considering the how and why success or failure of your time with students in your classroom then perhaps teaching is not for you. Reflection is also a highly individual process as unique as the teacher. Some teachers take notes, some record themselves teaching, others pass out surveys to their students (I’ve done all of these). Others simply pause from time to time, even while teaching, to ask themselves, “Is this working?” If you as a teacher don’t take time to post-mortem your day, your week, your quarter, or your year in the classroom, then you simply will not improve as a teacher.

The Notebook:
I write my own lab manual. (You can read more about it here.) A student copy sits at every workstation in my classroom. I also keep a copy in a 3-ring binder open on my desk at all times. As the need arises I make notes to myself in the margin or on the blank backs of pages. Notes include highlights of lectures and assignments that worked well, errors that need to be adjusted, and stuff that simply bombed and needs to be reworked or cutout completely. Every summer I update the lab manual from these notes taken throughout the year. 36 copies each year cost about $100 total and I reuse the binders. So each fall the students get a freshly updated curriculum and the improvements build upon themselves year after year. I got the original idea from one of my instructors in grad school. His suggestion was to take notes in the margin of your lecture materials and to review your notes just prior to giving the lesson again.

Video Journal:
Setting up a video camera in the corner of your classroom to occasionally record yourself teaching can be an awesome tool. Many teacher ed programs now require some recorded teaching time as part of the student teacher or internship process. Just as athletes use video of themselves to help improve their athletic performance, teachers can use this type of footage to see themselves through the eyes of their students. Sure, it can be uncomfortable to watch yourself on tv, but it can also be a quick and accurate way for you to identify your weaknesses and begin the process of improvement. An even better idea is to invite a veteran teacher to sit down and watch the video of your teaching with you. The more experienced teacher can use the pause button to stop at critical moments and offer you tips and pointers in a way that could never be done while the students are sitting at their desks in your classroom staring expectantly at you. And just think, if it goes really bad, maybe you could win $10k on the funniest video show.

Survey the Students:
Another very effective tool to use is a survey of specific questions that you write and give to your students for their response. Kids will tell you point blank how you’re doing. Obviously you need to consider your audience very carefully when you write the questions for you students. Ask your high school students questions like: “What was the most interesting part of this weeks lesson to you?” or “Please rate the difficulty of the assignment this week on a scale of 1-10.” or “What can I do as your teacher to improve your interest and participation in this course.” For younger aged children you would need to make appropriate adjustments. I’m always caught by how honest students will be if you ask them, and how useful their comments become if you take them to heart. Sure there will be some responses that you’ll simply have to dismiss, and you’ll always get a few who simply state, “I don’t know.” But this type of direct inquiry can be the most effective tool for personal professional reflection. After all, the students are your focus group and finding out exactly what they think of you might hurt sometimes, but it’s the best place to start making improvements.

Data teams, yuck! Our core teachers are spending a lot of time these days analyzing data in the form of test scores from common assessments and standardized tests. This type of box-score analysis is very useful in identifying the standards addressed in test items that may not be covered well in classrooms. But is there anything more uncomfortable or that makes a teacher more defensive among his or her colleagues then sharing the entire departments’ scores on an overhead so that results can be compared? Of course it’s important to teach accurately and specifically, but when this information is shared in a group setting I’m just not sure that it’s the most effective form of reflection.

Quarter and semester grades are another good indicator. If 50% or more of your students are failing your class then perhaps the problem is not the students. Think about it. The teacher is there to teach the students. If the students are attending class regularly, completing the assignments, and still not passing its probably not the students’ fault.

Peer observation is another great way to learn how well you are doing. Try inviting a colleague to come in on a conference hour to observe you in action in your classroom. Then set aside some time to discuss your performance with them over lunch or some other casual meeting. This type of informal reflection can yield the greatest benefits of all as together you flush out what works and what needs to be improved upon in your efforts to educate your students.

February 04, 2008

Nuts and Bolts?

I don’t write much about the nuts and bolts of teaching. Mostly thats because I feel like its already been covered… extensively. But I do think that there are four major areas that ALL teachers should focus on if they desire to be effective in the classroom. Those four areas include: relationship, management, instruction, and assessment.

Relationship: How a teacher changes the lives of their students.
Why start with relationship? Why jump right in with the warm and fuzzies? Well, my experience is that students simply respond better and work harder and achieve more when they know that their teachers are genuinely concerned about the success of their students and the quality of the students’ lives. This can be expressed through a variety of styles and approaches; everything from the drill sergeant to the namby-pamby. It’s not how the teachers expresses their interest and concern for the students, its simply that the teacher communicates clearly with their pupils that they matter, that their success not only in class, but also in life is important, and that each and every child can and will make a significant contribution to the world. Not all teachers are loved, but then, that’s not the point. They don’t have to like us, and we don’t always have to like them. I write a lot about the importance of relationship because I am convinced that it is at the core of my success with students, and why I keep getting so many coming back to visit me. Those alumni recognize me as an individual in their lives who not only saw their potential, but also gave them an avenue to achieve what they only dreamed was possible.

Management: How a teacher prepares the environment, the curriculum, and the experience that they provide to the students in their classrooms.
Students cannot learn in unorganized chaos. This should be obvious. Every teacher credential program teaches about rules, consequences and consistency. That is a good thing. Every classroom should have clearly stated, posted, and enforced rules that govern the behavior or EVERYONE (yes, even the teacher) between bells. But effective classroom management transcends the rules and regulations. How the rules are established, and by what means they are enforced is less important than how the teacher engages the student in learning. Students who are actively engaged in the learning process have no time to throw paper, go to the bathroom, and annoyingly touch each other. Sure, there are always a few in every class that never seem to get it. And yes, it is vitally important that those who do not wish to play along are publically addressed and that the rules are enforced. As teachers we have to hope that someday these knuckleheads will understand that its way more fun to operate successfully within the rules then it is to rebel and be left standing cold and wet out of the pool. Your classroom management style should reflect your own learning style and be comfortable for you, the teacher. If you are relaxed in your classroom excited to be there and ready to work, your students will be too.

Instruction: How a teacher delivers the content through effective and engaging teaching methods that challenge the students to reach beyond their personal expectations.
I believe that the best defense is a good offence and that offence is established through instruction. I also believe that less is more. The nature of project-based courses is that there is less talking and more doing. That doesn’t work for every subject. But in every subject there is always a way to strike a balance that avoids the monotone hum-drum direct delivery of difficult content, and that can be both exciting and invigorating for the students. The first step is the teacher’s passion for the subject. I’m not passionate about Physics so I’d be a lousy physics teacher. However I have a colleague who is drop-dead crazy about physics, and his passion is so intoxicating that his students leave his classroom everyday craving more. Born from his passion for the subject the physics teachers has discovered a method of instruction that turns one of the most difficult subjects taught on campus into one of the most popular courses on campus. We have similar teachers for Latin, AP European History, and Statistics. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to instruction so don’t be afraid to experiment a little. There’s nothing worse then the teacher who is stuck in the book lecturing for 53 minutes every period while their pupils doze off into the abyss of boredom. C’mon, change it up a little.

Assessment: How a teacher determines the effectiveness of their instructions and makes appropriate adjustments to better develop their students abilities.
The onus is on the teacher to do everything in his or her power to provide the students with real opportunities to experience success, or failure. Assessment comes in many colors and flavors, all good. And like instruction, there is no one best practice to always use. I see assessment as an opportunity for kids to experience real-world success. Sure, it’s easier to grade a multiple choice test, or assign an essay, but those are only two potential methods. I like assessments that force students to not only show what they have learned, but also apply that new information. I also like to asks students to work together to problem solve. Strict deadlines and sharing their work publically such as on the web, or even posting it in the classroom (the work, not the scores) is always effective. An assessment that does not offer students an opportunity to fail is useless. Teachers who are afraid to fail students do the failing students a real disservice. When a child receives a D- they are often not required to go back and analyze what they did wrong. Whe whole experience is dismissed and little or nothing is learned. Any activity that better prepares kids for what they will actually face as adults is good assessment to me.