May 25, 2008

A Working Classroom Teacher?

I subtitle my blog, “A Working Classroom Teacher” because that is what I am, working. Teaching is hard work and those of us who teach work very hard indeed. Sometimes the work is in the planning, sometimes in the instruction, sometimes in the guidance of students, and sometimes the work is in figuring out what works best for us as teachers working with our students in our classrooms. The beauty of this last type of work is that the answers are not universal, and what works for me may or may not work for you. As you read through my essays remember that what I write is for ME. If you can take something positive away from my working process, great. If not, maybe even better. I believe that each individual teacher needs to figure out what works best for them, and then do it.

I know what kind of a teacher I am and where my strengths and weaknesses lie. I reflect on my teaching. I don’t need to be critiqued, reviewed, or judged by anyone else. In fact it’s embarrassing when administrators walk into my classroom, stay for five minutes to observe as I am working with students, and then leave me a “report” concerning how well I am doing. Please. My point is that teacher reflection is up to the teacher and you are your own best critic. If you feel that you are not being effective in the classroom then it’s time for YOU to start working harder to achieve your goal. If you are failing large numbers of students each semester then YOU need to figure out how to reach them better. If students are sleeping in your classroom during a lesson then its time for YOU to jazz it up a bit. A good place to start improving is research on the web reading about what works for other teachers, reading books about teaching written by teachers, and experimenting with different strategies in your own classrooms.

I find it interesting that the articles I have written that include “easy steps” or begin with “How to…” in their titles get more traffic and comments while other articles focused on the deeper meanings and motivations of teaching get less. Nothing can replace working out your own classroom issues on your own. No book, website, conference, or class can give you experience; and experience is the superior teacher. It’s equally true that some are born teachers, some made to teach, and others have no place in the classroom influencing children. I have no idea what category you as a teacher may fall into here, but you do. I have discovered that I’m no mechanic so I no longer tinker with my automobile. I won’t even change my own oil anymore. I take my truck (of course I drive a truck) to a professional and long-time friend. I know enough to know that I don’t have the talent or the aptitude to work on engines and such. The idea of me working in an automobile repair shop is as absurd as my dear mechanic friend stepping into the classroom to teach. Unfortunately, many people who are not teachers believe that they do possess the skill sets required by the classroom.

The process of discovery is important for teachers. We ask our kids to discover or learn something new everyday. When was the last time you made the same progress within your subject or area of specialty? I was told by a veteran art teacher once that teachers who teach any type of art need to create art alongside their students. Not only that, but that there is real value in teaching something for the first time as the teacher is forced to learn right alongside their students. Excellent advice. Unfortunately, once I discover something that works, I tend to stick with it. It’s a logical choice. But teachers who go too long without changing, adapting, and improving lose their relevance and their grip on the imaginations of their students. I believe this is one of the reasons why some state’s salary schedules are tied to the number of units the teachers take through the passage of years. The more new stuff teachers learn the more they can teach to students.

If you are new to teaching and still discovering the profession then I want to encourage you to keep working at discovering and learning everything you can about the teaching process and experience. Hard to do if you are not yet into a full-time teaching assignment, but not impossible. If you are not on contract then I suggest substitute teaching. I discovered more while substitute teaching then I could have ever learned in any teacher education class or from any book or website. The work of becoming a teacher and earning the certification is complex and time consuming. Young teachers are being asked to do more and more before they are eligible to solo teach. I believe that this vetting process is a good one as it achieves two goals: first it weeds out the pretenders, and second it gives young teachers more time to evolve and grow into master teachers.

If you are a veteran teacher and you consider yourself a master then I want to encourage you to keep working on your craft and to keep discovering new and better ways to have a positive impact on your students. In a way the new teachers have an advantage over us veterans. The new teachers enter the classroom prepared with the most relevant research, methodology and pedagogy proven to work for kids. True, most of the research was completed by the older guard, but its always good to get a fresh perspective from the youngsters. Writing opportunities like this are one way veterans can both share their experience and work out their issues with a transparency that all teachers can benefit from. That is why I write and will continue to discover as a working classroom teacher.

May 09, 2008

Settle Down?

“Relax and quietly sit in your seat.” There is nothing more challenging for a teacher than starting class off on the right track. It often feels like trying to change the course of a steam ship with a wooden paddle. But it’s not impossible to start off right and stay on-task for the entire class period or school day even with the most difficult populations of students.

You’re the Boss!
One of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced and ineffective teachers make is to plead with their students to respond. It’s a horrible practice. You are the teacher and you are in charge of your classroom of students. Period! A teacher should never beg his or her students to be quiet, to settle down, or to get to work. A weak instructor who will not show leadership in their classroom is bad for students and bad for education. Understanding that there are as many different teaching styles as there are teachers out there and that some teachers have a more authoritarian style while others use a more passive approach, I believe that ALL teachers must LEAD their students through the learning process. And teachers should never ask their students whether or not they want to reply.

Easier said then done, right? The key to engaging students in learning from the moment the bell rings is excellent and comprehensive preparation for the class by the teacher. Over-plan the day and leave no time for distraction. I can tell you that the classes that I teach that are the most difficult to motivate and corral are the classes that I have prepared for the least, or are the ones that I have put the least amount of effort into teaching (yes, I just admitted that I try harder to teach some classes than others, don’t you?) This is why young teachers often struggle early on with difficult groups of kids: the young teachers are just not as prepared to teach as the veteran teachers. A great way to start an outstanding learning experience is by using a collection or “sponge activity.”

Absorb The Students!
Madeline Hunter gets the credit for the idea and it’s a great one. We were supposed to be taught how to apply sponge activities in teacher training, but the examples are often generic and may or may not be effective in our own classrooms. A useful sponge activity is one that engages student interest and is connected to the subject matter. Students walking into the classroom should find the sponge activity written on a whiteboard or clearly and consistently visible somewhere obvious in the classroom. The activity should be self-directed by an individual or small group. It should also be timed somewhere around 10 minutes or less. While the students are working the teacher can check attendance and complete any of that oh-so-important preparation for class.

An example of a sponge activity that I have used for years is called “6-facts.” I teach in a computer classroom, but this activity could be modified to use a textbook instead of the Internet. I use this with my entry-level students to get them involved and active in the class work. I write a subject on the whiteboard. It’s usually a person, place, or thing. The students walk in to class, find the topic, and get to work searching the Web. My classroom is arranged with six “pods” of six students. Each pod must find six different facts from six unique web addresses. The group shares a single piece of notebook paper where they write down their findings. One student from each group then goes to the white board and writes a fact and a website from their group. The group paper is submitted for scoring. Once a fact and a website are posted, they may not be repeated. After time has elapsed (or six facts appear on the white board) I go to the board and review what the class has learned about the topic today. From there I transition into the day’s lesson. It’s a beautiful thing.

If you want some ideas of other teacher’s sponge activities, just do a web search for “sponge activities” (use the quotation marks) and you’ll get a long list. You can borrow another teacher’s ideas, or use their ideas as a starting point for your own.

Smooth Transitions!
Transition time is difficult for all students. Some cope a little better then others, but holding on to the attention of a class full of kids when moving from one topic or activity to another is painfully difficult. Many students are easily distracted by change of any kind (think substitute teacher days). One way to combat this distraction is by using a regular daily class routine or schedule. This routine can be the same everyday or each day in the week (i.e. Monday schedule, Tuesday schedule and so on.) Time must be set-aside early in the year to teach the schedule and give students the opportunity to learn and adjust. Sure, it may seem boring and predictable, but boring and predictable is often the best type of learning environment for kids because it’s known, safe and reliable.

Once the schedule is established transitions can be smoothed out for students by avoiding sharp turns in favor of more gradual, sloping, bridges between events. The teacher must give ample warning and instruction before allowing the student to move on mentally or physically to the next planned activity. The teacher must treat his or her students like children, guiding them by the hand, using age-appropriate language because they are children, even the high school seniors.

Students will respond to and follow a teacher who demonstrates educational leadership in his or her classroom. This type of leadership starts with excellence in curriculum preparation and comprehensive scheduling. Packing the day or hour with lessons and activities that both engage and stimulate the student will guarantee that the students will stay involved and focused on the tasks at hand.