Saturday, October 27, 2012

They shared! Now what?

Research, plan, photocopy. Rehearse.  Explain, model, ask.  Write, write, write. Share, share, share . . . ?

This is the question that Ms. Carroll* and I are grappling with.  We did all this prep work to make student voices the center of our classroom. We believe that’s the way classrooms should sound.  We opened our first day with Mr. Ryan’s Creative Writing class by taking them on an Emotional Journey.  We outlined the next four days of Dizzy Drama, did a “Prop Swap” (distributed props and settings Yankee swap-style), and provided students with space to start brainstorming ideas – all designed to build community.  We opened on Friday with a choice of writer’s notebook prompts and invited students to share. A usually shy student, who blew us away the previous day with his dramatic rendition of the line, “How dare you disobey your mother,” raised his hand and read what he had written. Then . . .

Following typical English teacher etiquette, we thanked him for sharing his response, and moved to the next student. During the “meat” of the lesson, where we lead students through the literal, interpretive, and analytical levels of reading (adapted slightly for our Big Bang Theory clip, shown to emphasize the development of character) we did the same thing.  We gave students time to write responses and share with the class.  When they generously offered their ideas, we acknowledged them with a thank you and allowed the next student to share. 

At the time, we were thinking that we didn’t want to cut students off.  We didn’t want to say something that might steal a point that a student wanted to make.  In general, we’re also afraid of tangents. If we get too far off track, how do we reel everyone in?  We planned for all 55 of the minutes. How will we get to everything if we talk spontaneously about metaphors, their purpose, and some examples for 5 of those pre-planned minutes?  And biggest of all, we value students.  We want them to be able to share their thoughts. We want them to come to their own understanding of the concept. Won’t we stifle them if we keep talking?

During our post-lesson frenzy in the hallway, Ms. Carroll and I realized that our intentions might be leading to some unintended consequences.  By not responding more fully to the students’ contributions, we didn’t push the students to think deeper. We didn’t guide them to make further connections between what they know, what they produced, and what they will be learning.  This is part of the reason we flew through our observed lesson.  Though we remembered WWKGD (What Would Kelly Gallagher Do) when modeling the writing process, we failed to model our thinking process during these discussions. 

One challenge is that what we are doing doesn’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer. It’s not like in math, where we could point out a multiplication error or a missing step when students explain their process. Writer’s notebook prompts are designed to initiate engagement and to activate thinking.  Students’ responses to texts are often based on their own experience – and human experience is not “right” or “wrong.”

I think I speak for both of us when I say that being a Writing Center tutor has influenced our identity as teacher candidates. We are most comfortable working one-on-one or in small groups alongside our students.  Giving feedback comes easier, seems safer.  I feel like a different person when I am sitting next to a student sharing techniques I use to overcome my own writing struggles than when I am up at the board trying to synthesize students’ responses to the reading.  Dr. Cook and Mr. Ryan even said they noticed this shift in each of us. 

So I guess another challenge is just dealing with the power that comes from being the one in the front of the room.  The expert.  The one in charge.  Mr. Ryan reminded us that it’s okay to share what we know.  We studied this stuff for 4+ years.  It’s a disservice if we don’t clarify misunderstandings or fill in information gaps.  We aren’t taking anything away from the students’ learning by engaging in human conversation.  Students need role models of integrity. 

Since we still have two days of teaching left, we have time to make a plan and strengthen this weakness.  As Dr. Cook has mentioned, maybe we will jot down a few words that stick out each time a student speaks.  We can acknowledge what works about whatever they shared and invite other students to reply back to that individual.  This can also help allay the sensory overload that comes with trying to simultaneously remember what a student said, develop a coherent response, reflect on what you just discussed, keep an eye on the clock, and be aware of what’s happening next in the lesson.     

This week has been wonderfully “dizzy” and I am grateful for this chance to continue to learn, in a safe and supportive environment, what it means to be a teacher.  
Thanks Ms. Carroll for being awesome.  

*In every lesson, I have made the awkward mistake of referring to Katie by her first name. I am trying to make up for it here ;)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

From Competition to Collaboration

Over the last few weeks, Mr. Ryan’s 10th grade students have been busy drafting six word memoirs, composing letters to their younger selves, and annotating timelines about important events in their lives. Though Mr. Ryan has explained that all of this reflection will prepare them for their upcoming “This I Believe” essay, this week, the process became REAL.  First, he showed the students videos created by his previous students – essentially picture slideshows with their reading of their essay in the background – which are posted on YouTube.  Next, he organized an “Agree/Disagree” activity where each student received a list of statements, brainstormed reasons why they agreed or disagreed with them, and, when called on, stood up to explain their stance on one given statement.  On the first day, Mr. Ryan required students to speak for 15 seconds, and on the second day, for 30 seconds. 

I felt like an audience member at a Miss America pageant.  The students waited silently for their names to be called and nodded dutifully while pushing themselves up from their chairs, convincing themselves that they could handle whatever was to come.  Most started their 30 seconds with a rephrasing of the question: I agree/disagree that . . . because . . . and looped their way around to finish: And that is why I agree/disagree that . . .  Some used poignant examples and some became tongue-tied, but each student’s voice was heard.

The students impressed me with their poise, yet I was surprised by their responses to certain statements.  For example, when Mr. Ryan read, “People learn from their mistakes,” I thought for sure that the students would agree; making mistakes seems to be touted as an ideal way to learn from the time we are young. However, several students stood up and admitted that despite being aware that what they were doing was wrong, they continued on anyway.  Then, one of the more outgoing girls in the class agreed with the statement, “You can’t depend on anyone else; you can only depend on yourself.”  To support her belief, she mentioned a brief example of not being able to depend on her family for a ride home from school.

Looking back, I shouldn’t have been so surprised by the students’ answers.  I would have shared their beliefs if Mr. Ryan were to ask me these questions when I was in 10th grade . . . or even if someone were to ask me these questions a year or two ago.  This relatively theoretical world of practicum that I currently reside in has changed me.

This is not to say that I am not disappointed when I make mistakes.  And this is not to say that I don’t sometimes think to myself, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”  Certainly my perfectionism prefers to get things right the first time and wonders whether others will come through on their promises.  However, my experience as an education major has shifted my thinking.  I’ve read articles about and written my own “shitty first drafts.”  I am learning how to share responsibility when planning lessons and teaching with a partner.  Because the emphasis is on receiving feedback, seeking mastery, and not on earning a certain grade, practicum is a safe place to make mistakes.  Because my fellow TCs have similar ideals, struggles, and goals, we can depend on each other.  Together, these experiences are pushing me from intense competition to productive collaboration.       

I can’t help but wonder if students’ willful refusal to learn from mistakes is their way to preserve their identity by saying, “Your harsh criticism of my mistakes doesn’t matter because I didn’t try to follow the rules anyway” (this is an idea I’ve borrowed from Herb Kohl’s “I Won’t Learn from You”).  And, unfortunately, my visions of a safe, supportive, collaborative classroom cannot change parents’ busy schedules so that all students can have a ride home without worry.  Nevertheless, this week of observations reminded me of important questions I want to keep in mind as I assume the role of teacher: How can I foster an environment where students are comfortable and willing to learn from their mistakes?  How can I be sure to scaffold community building so that students feel that, at least in the context of my class, they can depend on each other? 

This I believe: the future depends more on collaboration than on competition.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Arm Wrestling and Lost Lunchboxes

Rewind to last Friday:
The twenty-five uncomfortable, metal desk-chairs are arranged in their usual “runway” formation and filled with the bodies of Period 2’s lanky, lively teenagers.  Atop the students’ desks rest notebooks, books, pens, pencils, and elbows just waiting to be put to use.  Most of the eyes face forward to the projector, which displays the students’ soon-to-be-published paragraphs.  The eyes also follow Mr. Ryan, dressed in a grey zip-up sweatshirt with the letters “NPHS” in blue and gold across the front – acceptable, spirited Friday attire.  He just finished introducing the day’s activities and is busy hustling from his desk to the marker bin and back to the desk again to gather the supplies the students will need.  As the students settle into their work, I hear Tyler, the class’s military video game expert, challenge Mr. Ryan to an arm wrestling match.

An arm wrestling match? I wonder to myself.  What will Mr. Ryan do?

Fast-forward to this Thursday:
The same 25 uncomfortable metal desk-chairs are arranged in their usual “runway” formation, but are filled with the bodies of one of Mr. Ryan’s 10th grade English classes.  Similar notebooks, pens, pencils, and elbows rest atop the desks, just waiting to be used.  The eyes face forward to the chalkboard where Mr. Ryan is drawing a narrative graph of memorable moments from his life, modeling the activity that the students will soon be completing.  He thinks aloud, plotting points for when he got his goldfish (about a 3 on the “good” scale), lost his favorite lunchbox (about a 4 on the “ugh” scale), and made the varsity hockey team in high school (about a 7 on the “good” scale).  From the front corner of the room, I hear a little voice ask, “Mr. Ryan, did you go to this school?”

“Did you go to this school?” it seems to be an innocent-enough question.  But will it lead to distraction, lead to a tangent?  Is that okay to share? I think to myself.  What will Mr. Ryan do?

And here we are now:
Although this might not be the most plaguing issue of teaching, I couldn’t help but notice and connect these two situations.  I think they represent a bigger idea that, despite the hours of planning and careful preparation, kids are people with genuine curiosities and desires for interaction.  As a teacher, how do I decide in the moment which requests to respond to, which to ignore?  I want to build a community where the fun and sharing is productive, not distracting.  Most of us have been in those classes where a question about the teacher’s favorite author will lead to 20 aimless minutes of rumination.  But we have also been in those classes where one apparently off-topic inquiry reveals a gap in basic understanding of the topic at hand, leaving everyone feeling much more confident and satisfied. 

I’m sure some might answer my uncertainty with that dusty phrase, “Don’t smile until December,” but for me, it just doesn’t seem that simple.   

Saturday, October 6, 2012

People First

“No one is going to tell you to write for a grade.”

In Mr. Ryan’s Creative Writing class, grades don’t matter.  As far as I have seen, grades do not even exist... 

This week, the students were finishing their work on a book of paragraphs.  Modeled after a published book of paragraphs, each student wrote their own paragraph on any topic of their choice.  Mr. Ryan collected the paragraphs into a single GoogleDoc so that students could work on them together in class and also at home by themselves.  On Tuesday, the authors took turns reading their paragraphs aloud while the rest of the class provided warm and cool feedback about the author’s piece.  For homework, the students each added (at least) one line to the foreword of the book.  Over the weekend, one student is supposed to scan another student’s artwork and email the file to Mr. Ryan so that he can format the work for the cover.  Once all of this is completed, the book will be printed and distributed at the school. 

“I’m going to treat you like writers.”

Being published is something to brag about.  Being published is something that writers of all kinds dream of.  Way back in third grade, my classmates and I all wrote poems and submitted them to a book for publication. I almost quit school when my poem was the only one in the class that wasn’t selected.  Publication for an audience besides the teacher is important.  Published writers become part of a community.  Writers don’t get grades.  Scathing reviews in the New York Times maybe, but not grades.

“I used to think that I was a pretty good writer.  Now that I am in a classroom of writers, I feel like I am not so good anymore.”

Before class ended on Tuesday, Mr. Ryan noticed that one of the lively students in class didn’t seem so alive.  He invited her into the hall and asked what was wrong, expecting to listen to teen angst about love.  He was rather surprised when the student admitted that she was feeling down about herself as a writer.  Though it is difficult to watch a student experience these feelings of inadequacy, I was impressed by her (and her classmates’ commitment) to being writers.  I was impressed with Mr. Ryan’s resistance to grades.  Even in his 10th grade English classes, he has established communities where writing more than that thing you do to get an A.  Specifically, they talked how writing memoir is a way to connect with other and a way to understand oneself.  Katie and I are lucky to have been welcomed into these communities of writing where there people come first.