Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Web of Learning

This week I had my first formal evaluation by my principal. Of course, I was evaluated six times during student teaching, but this is just a bit different. The stakes are higher. I’m not just trying to show my cooperating teacher and supervisor (whose opinions I valued A LOT) that I am ready to be a real teacher, but convince my principal - who took a risk hiring a fresh newbie over some seasoned veterans  - that I’m good enough to keep around a while longer.

In order to show some of the range of my teaching (and, to be honest, hit as many points on the rubric as I could), I borrowed and adjusted a Salem Tea Party lesson from some of the other 7th grade teachers. The lesson was student-centered and exploratory, giving kids the opportunity to become a character from the Salem Witch Trials through individual, pair, and whole class interactions. I didn’t get in as much whole-class accountable talk as I would have liked (which, seriously, the kids use all of the time without much prompting from me), but hopefully my evaluator heard the good conversations going on in the pairs as he walked around the room.

After the students had the opportunity to mingle around and gather notes about all of the characters, my Day 2 objective was for students to be able to analyze the relationships between characters by creating a concept map. One of my classes is ahead of the others, so I tried this with them first.

It flopped.

Before they began, I told them that the lesson was going to be an experiment. They played with the idea of a character map for a while and some kids were able to make sense of it, but my spotty instruction made it hard for them to understand what they were supposed to create. As I saw the lesson devolve into confusion and frustration, I invited the pairs who felt successful to come up to share their creation and their thinking. I think the sharing helped clarify some of the relationships for the class, but I knew that not all of the students were at that point yet. So I thanked everyone for trying their best and promised I would think of a new way to accomplish our objective.

As I stewed in my thoughts, I realized we could use a ball of string, passed from character-to-character, to represent the complexity of relationships between the characters involved in the trials. And the students could then write about what we created.

The making of the web in class yesterday was really powerful and some students had loud “a-ha” moments once they realized what was happening. This pumped me up for reading their writing about the activity.

As I continue to sift through their responses, however, I am noticing their inability to explain, in writing, how the web represents the connections between the characters. They say that it does, but struggle to break down the metaphor...

So I guess all of this is to say, first, that I am thankful to have multiple opportunities to experiment and try a lesson until I get it right. I am not stuck in a scripted curriculum and I am able to plan whatever I think will be best for the students. On top of that, even though concept mapping didn’t work out so well with the first class, I was able to revise and try again. This is comforting for a first year teacher still trying to know what I don’t know.

Second, metaphors (and kinesthetic, visual activities) are powerful learning tools, but the students had difficulty elaborating on this learning. Now I know that I have to more explicitly teach the processes and possibilities of metaphor. In 7th grade, thinking about thinking is hard work, but I’m excited to help my kids get better at it.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Student Misconceptions

As I’ve mentioned in some of my recent posts, we are currently working on an informational text unit with the Salem Witch Trials. Though my main focus is teaching the process of understanding informational texts, the students are definitely more interested in the content of what happened in 1692. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Their curiosity keeps them engaged in the text. However, with a topic like the witch trials - a subject already fraught with myths and theories - the students’ imaginations run wild. Showing the movie Hocus Pocus as a post-NECAP team reward last Friday didn’t really help the situation. Though I hadn’t watched the movie myself, one team teacher suggested it and the rest thought it would be fine, so I figured it would be fine too . . .

Let’s just say I wasn’t the biggest fan of Sarah Jessica Parker’s “out-there” performance and the premise that the black candle had to be lit by a virgin. Really? I shuddered each time she appeared or a character spoke that word.

As I was watching it, I knew that the movie might unravel the knowledge of the trials that was building in my class. I wanted to get ahead of the impending questions about flying on vacuums, eternal life potions, and talking cats. I decided to use the ridiculousness of the movie as a teachable moment. On Monday, my warm-up was for the students to make a list of at least five myths about witches that were used in the movie and explain their purpose.

It worked like a charm. The conversation in each class varied, but we talked about stereotypes and how often the truth is skewed or exploited for entertainment. It’s definitely an idea we will revisit.

So although some students are beginning to become more aware of the subversive aspects of the world, some others still lack this perspective.

“But Ms. Richer, I don’t get it. Why didn’t they just use DNA tests to see if they were witches?”

Yup. Welcome to 7th grade in the year 2013. I can’t talk too much since these shows are my guilty pleasure, but in a world where brutal crimes are solved neatly in an hour tv program, how much does this question reflect today’s society?

I can’t be sure, but again, I took it as a teachable moment. I turned the question back to the class and had the student call on other classmates to clarify her misconception.

At the end of class, I thanked the student for sharing her question. As ridiculous as the question might seem, 1. she probably isn’t the only student wondering it and 2. I wouldn’t have ever imagined that to be something the students would be confused about.

As I plan my lessons, I do my best to anticipate the things that might go wrong and the things they might struggle with. However, unlike experienced teachers with historical data about different groups of students, I have very little understanding of 7th graders developmentally, academically, socially, etc. This can often be a disadvantage because I am faced with so many new situations to make decisions about every day. But I think there is another side to it as well.

I am a learner alongside my students. I know how difficult it is to ask a question that seems silly. I know how it feels to try something even though you don’t feel totally comfortable with it. I know how it feels to want someone else to just tell you what to do rather than to figure it out yourself. Being at a loss for answers totally stinks.

Not having questions is worse.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Power of Positive Relationships

*It's been a few weeks, so this is a long one...*

“The problem lies in thinking that friendship is a luxury, when instead  it is essential for optimal health and happiness in all areas of life.” -Kristen Armstrong

For my birthday a few years ago, a favorite person of mine gifted me Kristen Armstrong’s book Mile Markers: The 26.2 Most Important Reasons Why Women Run. It’s a collection of entries from her blog of the same name. Reading the book is like reading a diary or a journal because what she presents is so relatable, especially as I am a young woman who shares her passion for running, writing, and personal fulfillment.

As the title suggests, each chapter is devoted to reasons why women run. The quote above comes from Chapter 3, titled “Friendship.” In one entry, she discusses a study that shows women’s responses to stress as different from men, concluding that women with strong friendships have fewer health risks than those who do not. I certainly agree.

I am reminded of this quote as I reflect on the last few weeks of teaching. As I think about what’s working and what’s not, I keep coming back to those students that I find most challenging. Not challenging academically - I feel relatively confident that with enough time and the right resources, I can help kids become better readers and writers - but behaviorally. While I have logged lots of hours tutoring struggling students at the Writing Center, I have a lot less experience working with kids who push (my) buttons.

At first, I thought maybe it was a purely academic issue. I wasn’t providing enough support, so their way of dealing with that was to disrupt the class. Then, I received their STAR Reading Test data. One of my three most challenging students, who I'll call Chris, turns out to have scored the 5th highest on the whole team. The other two scored just about as I had expected. But still, I had a new perspective. Maybe I wasn’t challenging Chris enough. I tried to hold him more accountable in class by cold calling on him more often. His body language was interesting to watch because his eyes would indicate that he knew the answer, but as soon as the attention was on him, he would goofily make a noise and wiggle around in his seat and say, “I don’t know.” My thinking right now is that he has a case of “I’m-smart-but-I-don’t-want-anyone-to-know-it.”

The second student, Drew, who scored in the average range, spent many of the first weeks of school shouting out and singing lines to songs that weren’t school-friendly, all with the intention of making others laugh. When confronted, he would be very defensive about his right to say what he wants to, admitting that all he wants is to be the class clown.

Then, Joel, who scored on the lower end, bombards me with questions before I even get into the classroom. Everyday, the students know they are supposed to come in, sit down, take out their notebook, and do their warm up . So his recurrent, impatient waiting in the doorway with shouts of “Ms. Richer. Ms. Richer! What are we supposed to do? I need help.  I don’t get it. Can’t you help me? What are we doing today?” drive me a bit nuts. I remind him of the procedure and encourage him to ask a friend for help, but he says that he can’t and doesn’t want to.  

I know, I know...these kids are screaming examples of the importance of differentiated instruction. I'm working on it. However, I think Kristen Armstrong’s quote provides some insight as well.

What do Chris, Drew, and Joel all have in common?

All three lack positive peer relationships. I haven’t really seen any of them with friends. Though the social interactions of women running together is obviously very different from the culture of teenage boys, I think Armstrong’s idea that friendships provide health and happiness can still apply.  

Some mornings I overhear lingering angst about Chris kicking the back of Drew’s seat on the bus, Drew giving Chris a dirty look, and Chris touching Drew’s stuff while he wasn’t looking. In my mind, this is not a healthy way to start a day. This example illuminates some of their biggest challenges:  they have a hard time letting things go, they don’t seem to appreciate others’ quirks, they struggle to say things in a calm tone. These interactions outside of class are certainly related to what I see as disruptive behavior in class.

Determining where to go from here has been challenging for me because I strongly believe in a “working with” rather than “doing to” philosophy (thanks Alfie Kohn). However, this is easier said than done, so I’ve sought examples and guidance. Before I’ve even shared my concerns, though, several teachers have made it very clear that I just need to show these kids who is boss and all of my problems will disappear - a.k.a. threaten and punish them into compliance and submission.

But I’m not okay with that. I don’t want that type of relationship with my students. I don’t want that type of relationship with people.

Thanks to the example and wisdom of the adults in my life who have taught me what it means to be a good person, I am resolved to having conversations. Asking questions. Finding out what makes those students feel happy, or successful, or safe. Using their strengths. Coming up with a plan together. I feel that if the student and I can get on the same page first, then we will be better able to work on those peer relationships.

Recently, Drew and I have made some progress. Building on his desire to be the class clown, we agreed that if he can control his shoutouts in class, the last two minutes of the period are his. He can crack a joke, share a video, tell a story. By providing him a space to be in the spotlight, he sees that I am respecting what is important to him - and he is more respectful of the norms in the class.

A few days after implementing our plan, he made a rude comment about a school staff member. I told him that there would be a consequence, but I wasn’t sure what it would be yet. He was upset and walked away with a chip on his shoulder, but came up to me a few minutes later with an idea of his own: his “two minutes” were revoked for a whole week. I was impressed with the way he took responsibility for his actions, so I thanked him and we shook on it.

I’d be lying if I said it’s been smooth sailing since then, but things have been much improved with Drew. As for Chris and Joel, I am still working on having those productive conversations. Maybe they aren’t ready to trust me. Maybe they aren’t ready to trust themselves. Maybe they aren’t ready to trust the class. And I can’t blame them for that. I have to remember that they are doing what makes sense to them, even if it doesn’t always make sense to me.

It's a hilly and sweaty journey, but I'm miles and miles away from giving up.