Monday, April 4, 2011

Why Kids Whine

I started teaching several sections of freshman humanities; my classes are mixed honors, which means I have students from a wide range of abilities and backgrounds. At this point in their academic careers (and lives, for that matter), these students have had very few opportunities to interact with adults as adults. Most of their interactions with adults have probably been with their parents.

In class this past week, I had an interesting moment with a student who had missed an assignment deadline. He asked if he could complete the assignment late, and I told him no; his voice immediately jumped an octave, and he said "But whyyyyy...". It was the most transparent, stereotypical whining voice I had heard in a long time, and I can imagine it working with parents.

I asked him if he was aware that his voice had changed, and he didn't seem to be; though I was initially taken aback by his tactic, I quickly realized that this is how he has learned to interact with adults. This is what works for him.

I stood my ground, and we chatted for a bit about how to ask for an extension in an adult way and how talking to teachers isn't the same as talking to parents. It was an interesting glimpse into the mind of my student and the importance of teaching life and communication skills as well as specific academic content.

- O+B

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Some Important Lessons on Worksheet Design

As novice teachers, many of us will be creating much of our curriculum from scratch. The big picture of unit design can be tough enough, but I am learning that even small things like worksheets for class activities present important problems.
I designed a worksheet to guide in-class reading of Romeo and Juliet (act 3, scene 1, the fight scene between Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo). The worksheet focused the students on certain motifs, character motivations, and assigning/determining blame for the events of the scene. I felt the content of the worksheet was solid, and my instructions were clear to me. My class (ninth grade mixed-honors) did okay with the worksheet, but could've done much better. Here are the suggestions my mentoring teacher made:

1. Keep directions accessible to all students. Expanding their vocabulary is important, but if you do it in the directions of an assignment, you are stacking cognitive tasks on top of one another, and risking that the students become overwhelmed.

2. Use engaging language when writing directions. In addition to using a manageable vocabulary, avoid dry, academic language; try to write in an engaging way, just as you would speak in an engaging way.

3. Most importantly, provide examples of what you expect their work to look like. In the first worksheet, I asked for lines as examples of the motif discussed; the responses ranged from line numbers, to a few words from a line, to an entire line word for word. Which was right? I don't know; this was another benefit of writing example answers - it forced me to think more clearly about what I wanted students to be doing.

- O+B

Friday, March 25, 2011


"Real" SMART Boards cost thousands of dollars. However, my cooperating teacher showed me how their school made an interactive whiteboard for as low as $60 per room. The link leads to a brief instructional video by the guy at MIT who came up with this system, and you could pursue the idea from there.

Basically, if you already have a projector that can do output from a computer, then all you need is the infrared remote from a Nintendo Wii, some cheap infrared pointers/clickers that are available, and that the computer be capable of receiving the Wiimote's bluetooth signals either built-in or with a bluetooth card for it. The video shows how to make your own infrared pens, but there are also pre-made wireless ones available that my school uses and which seem easier.

In my classroom, the Wiimote was installed attached to a dowel hanging from the ceiling next to the overhead projector. It could, as usual for the Wiimote, be powered by batteries, but my school has soldered in an actual power cord instead, running up to the same power-source as the projector so that they don't need to change batteries all the time. The only apparently tricky part is making sure that the Wiimote is positioned far back enough and angled correctly to cover the field you want it to cover.

Then, with the software produced by the guy at MIT, you can calibrate the projected image from your computer to the Wiimote's infrared for the use of the infrared pen/clicker. Additional software is available to allow for "SMART Board" type functions like drawing directly on the screen, etc.

It didn't necessarily run quite as smooth as a commercial product, and you had to make sure your own shadow wasn't blocking where you wanted to click, etc. The makeshift version is certainly not as seamless as the "real thing." But this jerry-rigged system does enable SMART Board type functionality for all intents and purposes, just orders of magnitude cheaper.

Given that I'm also learning how many teachers, taking the path of least resistance, don't very often use the technology their districts have invested thousands of dollars in...I'd think this might be more efficient for many districts (or just for your individual classroom! The great thing is, an individual teacher could do this on his or her own!) than investing in the "real thing." The marginal return of actually buying a commercial product compared to setting up your own improvised interactive whiteboard does not seem worth it to me anymore after having been impressed with the resourcefulness of this.

I'll also point out that it's these sorts of little tips and tricks of the trade you come across that can only be learned from actual experience in the classroom and interacting with actual teachers, and which get passed around mainly by sharing with colleagues like this, which is very exciting.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Importance of Pre-Reading

My honors American lit juniors have a wide range of abilities. I'm only a week or so in, and I already see the struggles I will have with differentiation. Though most of the students hold their own in discussion, when it comes to reading and writing a lot of them tend to shut down; what aggravates this is that in class discussions, I can scaffold and redirect conversations to help students along, but when the students are doing individual reading and writing I can't get inside their heads to provide support.

One of my mentor teachers has offered two pieces of excellent advice. First, she told me to give the students worksheets or pre-reading primers to help guide their reading and writing; without the concrete support of directions/questions/prompts, the students tend to feel overwhelmed by even seemingly simple tasks. Second, she suggested that I use paired feedback to build student confidence in their work. It's less threatening for students to talk and share with one of their peers than with an entire class (or their teacher, for that matter).

I have immediately found that class discussions following think/pair activities are much more fruitful, and that the quality of student responses increases dramatically when they are given more structure and support by way of a worksheet. We know the value and importance of scaffolding, but I, at any rate, didn't really understand that scaffolding isn't just a verbal exercise; we have to scaffold students' reading, writing, and discussion.

Also, teaching is so much fun! Just thought I'd share my thoughts on that...

- O+B

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Power struggles to come...

This week I have begun student teaching, and am slowly getting to know my students better. In my World History classes the students have been watching a movie for the past few days. The movie directly relates to what the class is learning and has even won several would think it would hold the attention of the students. Yesterday, in one of my classes, the students were very vocal during the movie; discussing it and coming up with dialogue when there wasn't any. Half of the class was participating this way, and the other half was getting upset that the students were being loud and disrupting their viewing experience. Now one student in particular was getting very frustrated, we'll call her J. Yesterday, J kept looking down at her lap during the movie. Now...I'm certain that most, if not all of us would consider this a sign that maybe she was texting during class. I decided to let it go yesterday and figured I would sit in front of her today to curb the behavior. Couldn't be more wrong!

Before class started, my co-teacher made an announcement about movie etiquette and how it is important to keep quiet so as to understand the more profound aspects of the movie. This made those who were complaining about noise, very happy, including J. Once the movie started, I noticed that she kept looking at her lap again. I walked up to the wall and stood behind her desk for a bit, and on my way back to the front, told her to put her phone away. She did so quietly without any problems. Not five minutes later, while I was sitting in front of her, she was back to looking down at her desk again. I asked her if she had her phone out, to which she responded no. Come on J, I wasn't born yesterday! A minute later, she put the phone that she "was not" using back into her purse for the second time, and then began to work on other homework. At this point, I decided not to engage her and disrupt the rest of the class. I decided I'd rather have her put her phone away and work on homework, than be looking down every 2 minutes during the movie.

I spoke with my co-teacher, and apparently he has experienced the same problems with her, and chooses his battles with her. This is a nice little conflict that I will have to figure out how to deal with as semester continues. J is going to have to learn that I am not going to put up with attitude, and that she is not as tricky as she thinks she is...


Friday, March 11, 2011

English Language Learners and the Importance of Visual Teaching

I was teaching a class yesterday and as always I start up with a little warm up. I like to be able to walk around the classroom and ask the students’ questions while looking at what they have recorded in their journals. After class, I had a student come up to me and request that I write the answers on the chalk board. She is from Japan and moved to the US about two years ago. She has a pretty good grasp on the English language (I would not have known that she wasn’t born here) but because it is a science class she needs to see the words written out. That way she can look them up after class in her language and have a better understanding of the lesson. I realized that this should be the practice for all my classes because some of the students are visual learners and need to see the answers written down, especially if it has some form of math in it. I know it is important to move around the classroom, but in this case I should check their journals (answers to warm ups) at a different time.

Another day of teaching and another nugget of knowledge!


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

When You Treat Them Like Children, Don't Be Surprised When They Act Like Children

I spent this weekend on an extracurricular trip with a large number of students from a variety of backgrounds. The circumstances of the trip required the students to make a lot of choices that they aren't often asked to make in their normal lives and take responsibility for their actions as if they were adults. Some students responded to this challenge well, some not so well; that wasn't really surprising. What was surprising was that the students who were the most mature and competent were the ones that give their teachers the most trouble in the classroom setting, and the students who are very easy to deal with in class were the most likely to struggle with the additional responsibilities of the trip.

I think that what was going on was that the classroom environment is not often conducive to adult behavior; the rules and expectations of a classroom aren't designed for adults, they're designed for children. Students that struggle with these rules and expectations may be struggling because they view themselves as autonomous and competent, and are resistant to instruction, direction, or regulation. Put them into a situation where they can exercise that autonomy, and suddenly they're all-stars.

The other students, who may be comfortable in a restrictive or even coddling environment, had difficulty making decisions for themselves; they lacked the self-efficacy to thrive without regulation.

I think this suggests several things. First, behavioral problems may have different sources than you might assume; second, it is equally important to provide autonomy as it is to provide guidance and support; and third, try to see your kids outside the classroom. I learned a ton about these students just by seeing them in a different environment than I usually see them in, and I think that's an experience that all teachers should have.

- O + B

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Making Accommodations For Safe Communication

Early this week, I observed a self-contained classroom for students with low incidence disabilities. At least two students had Down Syndrome, several had some form of autism, and others had multiple disabilities. The range of accommodations and degree of differentiated instruction was really remarkable, but there were two accommodations that I thought were especially noteworthy, and both of them centered around creating and maintaining a safe environment for communication.

One student, R, had a lot of difficulties relating to others: she was uncomfortable with eye contact, her speech was echolaic, and she didn't seem to process the questions asked of her. R became pretty agitated by a series of questions asked by Ms. A, and began to rock back and forth; she then left her seat and began to pace back and forth in the back of the room. Ms. A called her back to her seat, offered her her hand, and said "Squeeze to safety." R took Ms. A's hand and squeezed repeatedly until her rocking subsided and she had calmed down. I thought this was a really touching moment, and an excellent accommodation for this student.

Another student, E, had some form of mental retardation. She was completing a math worksheet, and the teacher's aide, Ms. R, was offering to help E with it. Ms. R asked if E wanted help on the worksheet several times, but E was silent; eventually, Ms. R held out her hand and told E to "touch my hand if you want help". This both allowed the student to accept help without having to ask for it, and also allowed her to do so without having to vocalize, which may be difficult for her and may have drawn the attention of her classmates.

While neither of these specific accommodations are appropriate for most general education students, it seems to me that the idea behind them could be easily applied to most classrooms: give students ways to feel safe and to safely ask for help. If you have a struggling student who is embarrassed about asking for extra help in class you could arrange a shared signal that they could give you that indicates they need extra instruction. I imagine it's also important to devise non-stigmatizing ways to sort students into groups, especially if one of the groups is low-performing; you want to differentiate your instruction in this environment, but you also want to allow students to save face and be comfortable accepting differentiated instruction or extra help.

- O + B

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Giving a Student His Space

I observed a small, IEP-only biology class (9 students) taught by a special education teacher, Ms. H. There was also a teaching assistant in the classroom to provide extra attention to students who needed it. One student, J, sat in a chair at the front of the room, next to Ms. H's desk; J kept his head on the desk for much of the period, occasionally banged on the desk, and generally did his best to register his disinterest in the lesson.

What I found really instructive was Ms. H's approach to J. Whenever he engaged in a distracting behavior, she did several things. First, she made a physical approach; second, she made calm physical contact with J (a hand on an arm, a quick "are you okay" rub on the back, etc); third, she would politely ask J to either stop or tone down the behavior; then, and this seemed like the key, she would walk away and continue the lesson without waiting for J's response.

Though J did not seem to ever fully engage in the lesson, Ms. H was successful in redirecting his behaviors. I asked her about J after the class, and she said that J would work with her, but only on his own terms. The perception of power and control was very important to him, and if she forced a confrontation over a behavior, then J would resist the intervention.

She went on to say that J listened more closely than he let on, and often came to her with questions after class or the next day.

I think this was a great example of giving a student space and the value of defusing, rather than escalating, potential conflicts.

- O+B

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What have you found here?

This post is our way of introducing ourselves. We are a group of students who will be teachers. We are just students now, but soon we will be student-teachers, and then we will be just teachers, but not really: all teachers, or at least the good ones, are also students, and are always learning. This blog will be a way for us to keep learning, and maybe a way for us to do some teaching, too.

We will post here about our experiences as students/teachers. We don't know how often we will post, or even if all of us will post at all. We're sort of playing this by ear.

We all live in the same area (a city and its surrounding towns), but we will assuredly not always live here. And even within and around our city there is a wide variety of schools that we may work in. We are pretty sure that we will make everything anonymous, to protect us and our teachers and our students. And also to let us speak frankly.

We are glad you came to read our blog.