Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Successful and Non-Successful Teaching Strategies.

Traditionally, my most successful lessons of the year were those in which I was totally prepared and had anticipated any issues that might arise during the course of the lesson. I would say that my most successful lesson this year was the one I taught preparing students to read Their Eyes Were Watching God. The two main reasons the lesson (and, subsequently, the unit) went so well were 1) I was able to get the students excited through my own excitement and content knowledge, and the students payed careful attention as a result; and 2) the content was truly interesting.

My least successful lessons came when I ignored the tips I had learned from my best lessons. They came when I was unprepared, tired, or simply lazy. It takes a vast amount of energy to keep up with these kids while delivering content for seven hours every day, and I commonly became exhausted at the end of the day. Largely, this was my fault; I had expended an unwise amount of energy during the early part of the day and now my last two periods were suffering as a consequence. As a result, I cannot really pick one specific lesson that was my worst of the year, but I am sure it was one that was 1) full of boring content (read: grammar) and 2) was taught near the end of the day.

I did an awful job this year of differentiating instruction. When designing lesson plans, I only designed one main lesson for the students, which largely consisted of lectures and discussion sessions. As an English teacher, I had a difficult time believing that drawing or creating a house of cards could lead to an increased understanding of the English language. I guess I am a traditionalist, and though I thought my teaching style was relatively effective, we won't truly know how to measure it until the state test scores are released towards the middle of next month. All this said, as a history teacher next year I know I will have numerous opportunities to differentiate instruction for my students.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I write in direct response to Miss Marshwater’s blog entry of June 25, about which numerous first-years have expressed frustration.

I suppose that what first must be understood is that, although we are all part of the same program, we all can have very different experiences, even during the summer portion of the program when we are all together. Though Miss Marchwater herself expressed some wariness of sweeping generalizations, I will make one here and now: almost none of the second years agree with Miss Marshwater’s characterization of the relationship between the first years and the second years.

I have taken the time to get to know a good handful of first years, even though “we don’t ride the bus together” and the first years seem to have “material advantages.” I don’t think this has been really hard; I’ve just shown up at planned and unplanned social events (basketball, frisbee, parties) and done my best to have conversations with the new members of Teacher Corps. And the vast majority of those new arrivals are kind, interesting, and relaxed people. The bus riding issue, and the general proximity of first years and second years to one another has been a minor issue in developing friendships and working relationships.

Even less of an issue is what Miss Marshwater terms the first years’ “material advantages,” a reference to the first years’ slightly nicer housing arrangements and the technology package they received upon entering Teacher Corps (MacBook laptop, printer, USB mass-storage device). Such “advantages” came through neither fault nor achievement of the first years, they just were in the right spot at an opportune time. It is stupid, jealous, and childish to judge any of the first years for receiving any of those “advantages.” On the contrary, the only person to blame is Ben Guest, who made promises he could not fulfill and then made the (in my opinion) poor decision to provide the technology package to the first years as opposed to members of the class of 2006 who have demonstrated their dedication to the program by already finishing a year of teaching in Mississippi.

I have seen nothing but kindness and respect from the vast majority of the first years. For a second year to let anything but personal interactions with the first years color their opinion of them is a loss to that second year and a loss to the greater health of the Teacher Corps program. Petty differences should not enter into the equation and define what has for me proven to be a series of enjoyable, new friendships.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

It is much more difficult to write this “success story” than it was to write my more recent “failure story.” I don’t think I’ve really had the chance to be a success yet; all of my possible successes are works in progress. As I was telling a curious first-year earlier this week, what makes teaching so difficult (along with other social service-oriented occupations) is that immediate gratification is almost nowhere to be found. Particularly as a first year teacher, my possible successes will not come to fruition for a number of years, perhaps even decades.

The only success I can claim from this past school year is the success of opening myself to other successes, that is, not quitting teaching or the Teacher Corps program. I was very close to quitting two separate times during the year, once in the time right before November break and another time during January and into early February. I voiced numerous complaints to parents and friends, began looking at other jobs, and even had an interview. For awhile there, I wanted out of Mississippi and out of teaching as soon as possible.

But I felt I owed it to myself, my students, and the Teacher Corps program to take at least one more shot at enjoying teaching. I redoubled my efforts in the classroom. I began to listen more to my students and not take their affronts so personally. I spent less time in front of the television and the internet and more time with books in my hands. I focused more on what I could do to improve my students’ lives through their education and began to ignore the requirements of my school and the Teacher Corps program. I focused on what was important to me and fulfilled obligations that I knew were pointless with the least amount of effort necessary to earn a ‘passing grade.’

To get to this point, I had numerous discussions with my family and friends, trying to work out exactly where my problems lay. However, the only way I could truly alter my existence down here was by communing with myself. I had to reach deep inside and consider what I valued and how far I was willing to go to fulfill my original goals. And I am actually quite proud of myself for being able to do that level of soul-searching.

My classroom didn’t really turn around, if anything it may have gotten worse as far as management is concerned. The change was in my attitude and how I approached my daily duties. I also started to see my students outside of the classroom more often and spend more time with the people in Mississippi that I love. And, slowly but surely, I began to enjoy myself once again. I will not be a high school teacher for the rest of my life, but at least I now know that I can look a difficult issue in the face, stare it down, and come out on top.

And so, in the boundaries of this program, it was a success to remain in Mississippi as a teacher. I am still unsure if it was the right decision. To me, it stands as a success because it is an example of perseverance. I could have very easily bagged this program, teaching, and Mississippi and gone back to what I see as a much more logical existence in New England, but I stuck to my commitment. That idea of committing to something and then following through on it has become very important to me. As a close friend remarked to me once, my generation seems to have a major problem with consistency, commitment, and professionalism, and I wholeheartedly agree. Perhaps this is because we are part of the “clicker” generation. We have always been told we can do anything whenever we want, whether that be watch a different television show right this moment or pursue any career we choose, regardless of how absurd it may be (I fear that the next generation, those that have never not known the internet and have everything “on demand,” will be even worse that my generation is currently).

Friday, June 22, 2007

When considering how and where I have failed over the past year of teaching, one story does not stick out. Cynically, I think that this feeling results from believing that I failed in so many respects that it is difficult to focus on just one instance of failure. I realize this sounds derisive towards my own abilities, but it has long been within my makeup to deflect praise and instead emphasize where improvements can be made. And as I have written/blogged about before, there need to be numerous improvements in my teaching future.

If one general failure does stick out in my mind, it was my inability to motivate the students I will define as my “3” kids. I feel like I have four basic types of students. My “1” students are those that are the most academically talented and always get their work in on time. Most of these students were in my Accelerated English II class, and I rarely worried about their academic progress. My “2” students were my favorite students, those that displayed an immense amount of academic and personal potential but were hindered by either their home life, the company they kept, or another factor. It is with those “2” students I feel I can make the most progress and have the greatest effect as a teacher and a mentor; they are the students I came to Mississippi to teach. Alternatively, my “4” students are mostly helpless. They could earn this title in a number of ways, either as a result of extremely poor behavior, a lack of desire to learn, or both (they commonly travel together). Additionally, I saw little potential in these students.

The real issue for me was with the “3” students. These were the students that seemed to have a slight amount of potential but I dismissed because of their poor behavior, their lack of interest in the class, or simply because I didn’t like them personally. This did not mean that I gave them short shrift in their education, but I was a little more wary about going the extra mile for these kids because I knew they would be unappreciative of my efforts and/or take advantage of my kindness. A couple of instances; case studies if you will…

- MJ was the school’s star basketball player, whose approach to the game mirrored his approach to academics and life in general. He knew he was the most talented player on the court, but he used his skills to show-off his individual talents; he had no idea of how to run a team and improve the game of those around him. In class he showed potential but did just enough to get by and pass my class. He could have easily gotten a 85 or 90; instead he ended up with a 71, a point north of the grade needed to pass the course. This attitude caused him to be a major discipline problem in class as well as a general headache for me.

- MC was MJ’s best friend and compatriot in my third period. Each day, the two worked in tandem to bug the ever-loving Christ out of me. Like his partner in crime, MC has a solid amount of potential but more interest in refining his image to hew himself into the smoothest kid in 10th grade rather than actually improving himself through education and personal trial. Though he turned out to be more respectful and not as much of a discipline issue as his compatriot, MC caused me numerous moments of frustration in his own right.

- SD, a student that could best be described as a redneck with solid background knowledge who commonly skipped my 7th period class. All things considered, he was probably the laziest student I had this past year, a sloth of a child that prided himself on being vaguely ignorant.

And my failure is that I let them all slide by. Each of those three students (who are representative of the attitudes of numerous others) passed my class because they did just enough to get by (all were in the 70-75 range). I am not saying that I should have failed them; on the contrary, I should have pushed them to achieve the high grades they were capable of earning. Instead, I let them slide by because I did not want to spend the extra energy needed to push them. In short, I was lazy.

This, quite obviously, was a huge mistake. When deciding to join Teacher Corps, I promised myself – in my infinite idealism – that I would never give up on a student. However, giving up is exactly what I did with these three gentlemen and a handful of others. This was a direct result of my lack of preparation, my own laziness, and a general feeling of being overwhelmed as a first year teacher. Next year, this cannot be an excuse. The best thing about moving up a grade (to teach U.S. History) for the next school year is that I get another chance with MJ, MC, SD, and all the others, and I can now resolve to correct the mistakes I made as a first year teacher.

Monday, June 04, 2007

EDCI 602: Blog on Learning Goals & Instructional Decisions in Lesson Planning

When preparing lessons, my primary goal is always to get students excited about what I will be teaching. I realize that this is an obvious goal that should be adhered to by every teacher, but when I am really preparing my best lessons I like to think I am paying closer attention to that aspect than the majority of my peers in this profession. I suppose this ultimate goal is based on my (arrogant?) belief that if I can get a student excited about the topic at hand, I can teach him anything.

The more specific goals - i.e. the lesson's objectives - tend to be very specific at the beginning of the year when we are hitting on basic skills that will be necessary to facilitate learning for the rest of the year. As that school year progresses my objectives become increasingly vague ("The student will read and discuss major literary elements of Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants") because I think the best learning occurs during classroom discussions. I, admittedly and regrettably, did not have enough of those this past year. It is my hope that the history classes I teach next year will become essentially discussion course for all involved, myself included.

I would like to think that nearly all of my higher-level instruction is at least somewhat inductive in that I ask the students to figure things out for themselves. This always happens when we read a piece of literature in class. I first ask for immediate reactions, then I ask students to describe the basic plot for me. After that, I open the floor to an interpretative discussion. While I may nudge this discussion when I deem it necessary, the majority of thoughts are the students' own. I feel that when students are discovering things for themselves is when they are learning the most, which is why I always emphasize to my students the importance of questioning everything they come across in life; in short, they should take nothing for granted, even what comes out of my mouth.