August 13, 2008

Seating Charts?

The seating chart: some teachers love them and use them, others do not. I find them essential. Many teachers seat their students alphabetically (either A-Z or Z-A) in rows. Others use groups of desks, or tables and assign seats after allowing the students to find a chair of their personal preference. Seating charts are VERY USEFUL for the mundane everyday tasks of taking role or handing back work. The biggest benefit is that it helps to learn all of the students’ names quickly. Plus they add a method of organization to the classroom management plan that is tested and proven to work. Here is an innovative and highly effective strategy for creating a seating chart with the kids on the first day of school.

I teach heterogeneous (9-12 grade) high school classes. My classroom contains 36 seats grouped around computer tables (or pods) of 6 workstations each. When teaching groups like this that contain experienced high-schoolers right alongside newbies I believe that it’s important to take advantage of the schism. Therefore I do not allow all the upperclassmen to coalesce, nor do I allow all of the underclassmen to mill around not making eye contact with anyone else. I believe in the strengths discovered in a diverse group so I work hard to take advantage of the diversity in my classes. If you teach strictly homogenous age or subject-alike groups then this seating method might be challenging to implement (but at least it might be fun to give it a try.)

The first item on the first day of school is the taking of role. Second is the seating chart, yes before the reading of the curriculum paper. I like to do the seating chart next because it can disrupt class for a time and I want them settled and paying at least some attention to me when I read through the class rules. Actually the “reading of the rules” takes a couple of days in a computer classroom. Using computers to teach can be very rewarding for both the students and the teacher, especially when plugged into the Internet. However, this also means that there are far more ways to get into trouble, and therefore far more rules then in a standard course.

The first step for setting the seating chart of six students at six pods is to take some class data to the whiteboard. I start by counting up the number of boys and write that number on the board. I then count the number of girls and write that number of the board. I then count the number of students at each grade level and write those numbers on the board. Then we do some math. We divide the number of boys by six to figure out how many boys should sit at each pod. We then do the same with the number of girls and with the four class levels. Eventually we come up with a description of a balanced and diverse group of 5-6 students for each pod. Simple, right? I love math for its logic and clarity. However, applying mathematic results is an entirely different task.

The next step falls solely on the shoulders of the students. They must now arrange themselves in the groups we described. This exercise requires the kids to do something they are very comfortable with in most every other situation, but not on the first day of school with a group of unknown peers: they must TALK to each other (cue the scary music). I actually love watching this part because I get to stand back and enjoy. Most of the time, a senior or two will take control and begin to organize. Sometimes this sorting-out can take a few minutes, sometimes longer. Eventually they settle in and I go around to check accuracy. Only very rarely does a class get it perfect. Most of the time there are one or two tables that I need to balance myself.

Setting the seating chart this way has multiple benefits. First, no one student can argue about their seat, they picked it. Next, it’s a great icebreaker. I encourage peer tutoring throughout the projects we complete in the course. Finally, it also establishes the authority of the seniors in the classroom. I believe that it is important for the senior students to take ownership of their leadership role during their senior year. Senior students can and should be wonderful mentors to the younger students in the classroom and on campus.

August 01, 2008

Thoreau's Lessons?

These are my two favorite passages from Henry David Thoreau's Walden: Or Life in the Woods published in 1854.
"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

"Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify."
"I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."