Friday, November 30, 2012

Teach Week Round 2? Check!

Teach Week Round 2 is already over. I have 3 classes left in Senior Seminar. Next up, a semester of student teaching. Woah.

Now for some thoughts from this whirlwind week, in no particular order…

Kids are blown away when you know their name even if you haven’t necessarily interacted with them before.

When the times get tough, your relationships with your students will help get you through.

Students need a voice in the classroom. However, some students genuinely like to hear themselves talk. It’s difficult to balance these things and make sure that a few voices don’t dominate or intimidate others. Also, when thinking about the students who merely repeat what their classmates said before them, how do we make sure that students are actively listening to one another?

Though I think non-fiction is important in every content area, I don’t want to let David Coleman and his Common Core State Standards suck the creativity out of me or my students:
·         “As they stared into my eyes, I could feel my heart thump and thump, it felt as though my heart was sticking out of my skin.”
·         “With the small strip of moonlight coming through the blinds, I can make out one meaty hand clutching a stake knife.”
·         “Suddenly, the dragon looked up from where it landed, and slowly, slowly raised it’s head to stare at me.”
I literally gasped aloud while listening to the students read their work. Though when I sat down to read them, I noticed some common spelling and grammar mistakes, I could tell who understood the concepts of suspense, suspicion, and unreliable narrator that we had been learning all week.

I’ll feel flattered if students choose to eat lunch with me in the classroom rather than take part in cafeteria shenanigans.

Finding the just right movie clip, poem, theme song, etc. to supplement a lesson is not easy. It’s a challenge I’ve had during the two Teach Weeks and the TCMWS. Often I can imagine what I want to use, but can’t find it. Or, certain movie clips aren’t exactly how I remember them or a TV show would be appropriate for high school but not middle school, and I need to start my search over again.  Frustrating.

Although I had been feeling disappointed and skeptical about middle school during our observations, being Ms. Richer this week felt good. This is not to say that everything during student teaching will be hunky dory. Things will be even more complicated and messy and political. But I think I’m ready. January 23, I’m coming for you!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Storyboards, Goals, and Inspiration

Part 1: Storyboards
This week was a short week of observations for Courtney and me. We saw the continuation of the media literacy lesson where students practiced drafting their teaser trailers by drawing a 3 frame storyboard of their morning routine. Though some rolled their eyes and sketched stick figures as quickly as they could, other students’ eyes lit up and went to work crafting their mini-masterpieces. Since the students had been doing so much informational writing with their compare/contrast essay and quote sandwiches, I think this project breathed some life into the classroom. This gives me hope that the students will respond well to our idea for a creative application of the literary techniques we will be studying in “The Tell Tale Heart.”


Part 2: Goals
Since compare/contrast essays and quote sandwiches aren’t necessarily the most inspiring pieces of writing, one of me and Courtney’s collaborative goals is to provide space for more creative expression. At the end of this mini-unit on suspense, suspicion, and unreliable narrators via “The Tell Tale Heart,” we plan to have students show their understanding by creating mini skits of a suspenseful moment. We think we will provide them with a setting, a conflict, or some other pieces to work with, and they will have to put them together and share with the class.
Our second collaborative goal is to balance our voices with the voices of the students. This becomes an individual goal, however, because Courtney and I had opposite struggles with voice in our high school experiences. While she has mentioned that she needs to give more wait time, I know that I need to do a better job responding to students’ answers. I need to practice validating, challenging, and adding onto student contributions.   

Coincidentally, I do feel a bit of suspense heading into this week of teaching. The anticipation has been building over these last weeks, and without a chance to go back to the school before we teach (and get observed!) on Monday, I’m left just reeling in my own imaginings of what might happen. I am confident though, that our fate will be better than Chrissie and her last swim - the famous clip from Jaws that we will be showing as part of our first lesson…


Part 3: Inspiration
Kids say the darndest things, right? Well, in case that Thanksgiving tryptophan still has you a little drowsy or planning a week’s worth of lessons has you bogged down, here’s some love from YouTube’s biggest little stars:

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Shifted Pedestal

I’ve been anticipating this middle school practicum since we received our placements for high school. I had so much fun and learned so much at NPHS working with Katie and Mr. Ryan, but I had visions of 8th graders dancing in my head. Last week, Courtney and I observed twice, on Monday and Wednesday. As I mentioned in my previous blog, Monday was a lot of talk about a graphic organizer for a compare/contrast essay and Wednesday was quiz day. This week, we saw in class writing of the compare/contrast essay, the roll out of the new root word vocabulary program, and the introduction to a lesson about the persuasive techniques used by movie companies.

Though Ms. Ballard has strong relationships with her students, her lessons and assessments align to objectives and Common Core standards, the students write and are willing to revise, and they genuinely make me laugh while I’m there, I have spent this last week trying to understand the twang of disappointment I feel when I leave the school.

A trusty professor helped me put it into perspective: the pedestal has shifted.

We’ve discussed it time and time again in education classes. I’ve read about it in articles and blogs. I’ve heard about it from current teachers. And now, I’m witnessing it myself.

Teaching to a test – or, at least with a test hanging heavy in your thoughts - STINKS.

To this point, I have had overwhelmingly positive experiences in the schools. The teachers I worked with weren’t subjected to a scripted curriculum, didn’t seem to be overly concerned about preparing for NECAP, and seemed to be able to balance their personal teaching philosophy with the mandates of the school or Department of Education. My ideas of overcoming the challenges facing the education system have been resting high on a pedestal. This time around, though, I feel like something is different. My visions and the pedestal aren't matching up as neatly. Maybe it’s because October’s NECAP is still a fresh memory. Or maybe it’s the added pressure of the new evaluation system and the writing (and re-writing) of SLOs. Or, the exhaustive hype of the transition to the Common Core.

Ms. Ballard keeps mentioning that her classroom wasn’t like this 10 years ago. She collaborated more with her team to create interdisciplinary units, and even taught side-by-side with the social studies teacher. She explains that she ran her class like a writing workshop, but sighs as she says that that style just wouldn’t fly anymore.

I sigh as she says it too.

This blog entry has been difficult to write because I want to frame my disappointment in a productive way, rather than just complain. I don’t want to make assumptions and I don’t want to be a victim.

I want to take this feeling and be a better teacher because of it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Quote Sandwiches, Tone, Focus Statements, Oh My!

A few semesters ago when I was placed at Feinstein Middle School for an MLED course, I wrote a Learning Log about all the new teacher words I was hearing. RTI, motivators, ALC, PLATO, handicapping conditions, credit recovery, homework block, and Talon Tickets. There were so many all at once! Like a nerd, I wrote them all down so that I could ask my cooperating teacher, Ms. Bettez, for more information or look them up on my own.

As I sat in Ms. Ballard’s 8th grade class this week, I was reminded again of all the terminology that floats around the school. This time, I paid closer attention to the ELA content words like graphic organizer, quote sandwich, compare, contrast, informational text, tone, and focus statement that popped up in nearly every sentence Ms. Ballard spoke. Unlike the teacher words from a few semesters ago, I felt confident with Ms. Ballard’s words.

But what about the students?

I’ve been reading and writing this stuff for 22 years. Ms. Ballard’s students are only 12.

When I was confused during my observations for MLED, it was important for me to know what the heck the teachers were talking about. I knew that I learn best when I write things down and seek answers, so I did just that. Most middle schoolers, however, don’t necessarily have that same self-discipline or self-awareness. They are in the process of developing it. Also, I felt comfortable asking Ms. Bettez for help because she exuded energy and warmth. Her quick smiles and reassuring words made me feel safe.

The students in Ms. Ballard’s class didn’t seem too confused with the writing they were doing because the concepts were not new. Nevertheless, hearing all these buzz words reminded me of the importance of teaching metacognitive skills and creating a safe environment. Knowing how you learn doesn’t necessarily happen miraculously. Reflection can help this. And classrooms aren’t safe just because they have four walls and a roof. A teacher must build a trusting relationship with her students.

I’m excited to watch how Ms. Ballard does this and then try it out myself…

Saturday, November 3, 2012

"When School Is Not Enough"

At the Promising Practices keynote address today, youth development expert Dana Fusco shared some insights from her research about “when school is not enough.” She studied several afterschool programs and found that the successful ones had three things in common: an emphasis on the development of relationships, hands-on activities, and culminating celebratory events attended by members of the school, family, and local community. Hearing this affirmed what I knew about why my experience as a teacher at Breakthrough Providence this summer felt right. There was a student-to-teacher ratio of about 3-to-1 which helped students and teachers make genuine connections, hands-on activities like Arts and Science Exploration Day, and Celebration – where family and friends came together to see the accomplishments of the summer. Breakthrough Providence prides itself on these (and other) developmental supports.

Fusco also showed some colorful graphs that highlighted the shift in students’ perceptions of developmental support. She noticed that, starting in middle school, students in afterschool programs felt more supported by those programs than they did in their own schools. As an aspiring middle/high school teacher, this data screams at me as a call for action. If students are thriving in these kinds of environments, I need to make sure that these developmental supports are a part of my classroom. I need to make sure that the spirit of Breakthrough Providence is not merely an exception to the rule, but that it lives on during the school day.

I think that middle school, with the interdisciplinary team structure, can be such a powerful place to build relationships, plan hands-on activities, and celebrate success. In this practicum experience, I am curious to see the way in which these supports might already exist at Feinstein and if/how/why they are different from what I saw and did at Breakthrough Providence.

I am looking forward to keeping this framework in mind as Courtney and I observe and plan lessons.

I am looking forward to the opportunity to learn from another experienced educator who I have heard so many good things about.

I am looking forward to responding when students share their writing. Telling students to take out their notebooks, not asking “kind of, could you maybe, take out your notebooks for just a little bit of writing, please?” Incorporating reflection. Using my teacher voice. Being blown away by middle school brilliance.

Teach Week will be here before we know it!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Reflecting on Reflection

Though most of what I describe in my previous post, “They Shared! Now What?” emerges from both our observed lesson and the rest of our experience with Creative Writing, there’s more from Observation Day (yes, capital “O” and capital “D”) that I’d like to share . . .

As Katie and I sat in the library, planning our Observation Day lesson, we thought that we had too much going on and would barely have time for the students to write, never mind share. After all, we were hooking them with two songs, reading several paragraphs aloud, ranking the readings with partners, having them match the readings with specific strategies, modeling the writing process, and then finally devoting the “few” remaining minutes to writing and sharing. We thought we had packed the class period like an over-stuffed suitcase.

When the students began writing with 30 minutes to go, I worried a little. This wasn’t supposed to be happening for another ten or fifteen minutes!

I pushed my anxieties aside while working one-on-one with the students and even temporarily forgot about the time, as I usually do when I tutor at the Writing Center. I was in the zone. Then, when Katie and I made eye-contact, we realized that we had to decide how much time to devote to sharing the drafts that the student’s had just written. With the confusion of my watch being too fast and the classroom clock being too slow, unfortunately we didn’t end as smoothly as planned.

Though we did try to take up some of that extra time post-sharing by asking formative reflection questions like, “How did it feel to use these strategies?” aloud to the whole class, these reflection questions shouldn’t have been an afterthought.

Our main assessment was taking their drafts home to read and give feedback, but it would be helpful to have written evidence of what else they took away from the lesson. What do they think they learned today? Have they used these strategies before? Where else do they think they could apply these strategies?

It seems that if we want students to be reflective learners, able to make connections between what they know and don’t know, and willing to do something to build upon their strengths and weaknesses, then we need to teach them how to do it. We need to start by giving them structures, questions, and space to do so – frequently and immediately.

When I think back to the mad rush of reflections I wrote for my high school graduation portfolio, they were empty. I had completed the artifacts years ago, I couldn’t make improvements if I wanted to, and I didn’t see the point.

This is not to say that all long-term reflection is meaningless.
Rather, practice with frequent and immediate reflection makes long-term reflection more meaningful.

I used exit slips for the first time in MLED 330 and by the time SED 407 rolled around, I found myself asking “What? So what? Now what?” even outside the context of my own academics.  I think the frequency and immediacy of reflection in those classes led me to engage more genuinely in reflection and take ownership of the process. If I didn’t understand something from class, I had a safe space to admit it. My questions and concerns could be addressed right away. Or if I felt strongly about something in class, I could capture that energy in my writing.  

I think these reflective habits empower learners, whether in 6th grade, 12th grade, or a semester away from student teaching. If we don’t make time to ask/answer these important questions, how do we know what we know? How do we know what we need to improve?