Sunday, January 16, 2011

Rebounding from a Failure

"In the story 'Dancing Girls' why does the neighbor vacuum and then dump the dust in the corners? It doesn't make any sense."

"And why are the girls dancing? Why did they leave?"

"Uhh, I don't remember.  To be perfectly honest, I remember Ann who is set apart from the neighbors she talks about, but I didn't get that far in my reading."

Guess who failed here? Guess who spoke the last sentence in response to the two students' questions?  I did.  Me.  The teacher.  The one who creates the syllabus. The one who makes the reading assignments.  The one who is supposed to lead students to new experiences.  Here it is, day six of the semester, and I had no answer for the clarification students were seeking because I had miscalculated the time it would take me to get all seven short stories read. Monday and Tuesday had been snowdays, Wednesday I handed out the syllabus that was created before the snowdays, Thursday class time was dedicated to reading, and here it is Friday, and I had not read two of the stories:  "The Dancing Girls" by Margaret Atwood and "The Chaste Clarissa" by John Cheever.

Oh, I had read them before, many times, but the details escaped me.  That is why I take my own advice and keep track of plots, settings, characters, ironic twists, figurative language, in my notebook.  Every time I assign these stories, I read them like I have never read them before because I can remember big picture ideas, but the details leave my memory as soon as we move from short stories to poetry.

But I've since read the stories and answers to the students questions come back to me.  The boarder was quirky, odd, unstructured.  He left piles of dust in the corners.  He and his friends had girls over and they danced the plaster off the ceiling, so the landlady kicked them out.  Ann, the boarder who shared a bathroom with the rarely seen, odd neighbor, merely sat by the door, smoked cigarettes and waited for the party to leave because she was afraid to peek out of her room.  She missed out on the ruckus by living her careful life.

I have answers for the students now. But it is too late.  The class period is over. But another one begins tomorrow: a fresh start, a clean slate, a new beginning; I am striving to be the prepared teacher, the cliche in the classroom who leads students to new experiences.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Being the Teacher Students Need Me to Be

I have spent much of my English teaching career experimenting,  gathering information, and reflecting on what it means to be a teacher the students need me to be. So here is a brief (to me long to you) list of my ideas.

1.  I go into new semesters being grateful for whichever students I am lucky enough to have in my classroom. These students are entrusted to me, and I take the responsibility of  nurturing students to the next level of their education very seriously.

2.   I know all students want to learn, so my lesson plans must be true to that belief. My challenge as a teacher is to design lessons that reach all personality types and all types of learners. Students need repetition without getting bored, practice with genuine examples, new information to avoid stagnancy, inspiration that reaffirms their goals, and a reason to accomplish what is asked of them.

 3.  I try to make sure all students feel at home in the classroom by learning names as soon as possible.  After all, the class is for them. To help with this, I assign a seating chart from day one so students never feel like they do not have a place to go in the classroom.  Also, I keep a box filled with each student's name on slips of paper.  I can quickly and randomly draw names to select a person to answer a question or to help me choose small groups quickly or to draw a door prize for a surprise.  The added bonus of this little step is that students quickly learn they are expected to participate, which makes it more likely they will do their homework and pay attention in class.

4.  I aim to use class time for students to practice and for me to assess. Reading aloud, practicing grammar exercises, completing freewrites, presenting information, thinking aloud, and identifying what is being studied in reading materials are all ways students can practice and I can assess.  Later I can redesign lessons to help students practice their weak areas or move on to the next challenge.

5.  My goal is to create win-win situations, not power struggles.  Sometimes that means I must laugh at myself. Sometimes that means I must reassess an assignment. Other times it means I must say with a soft voice to a complaining student, "It is time you do what is asked of you."

6. I allow myself at least three mistakes per class period which takes away the pressure for the students and for me to never err.  Instead, we can make mistakes together; we can learn together.

 7. It is my responsibility to make sure students are on task.  If I take the attitude of, "It's their loss if they miss this information," I am not doing my job. Granted, I cannot MAKE a student do anything.  Here is an example that creeps up every now and again.  If students are working on a freewrite and I see a student who is ten minutes into the task and has no words on the paper, it is my job to check things out.  Some students are thinkers and use mental time to organize thoughts--I respect that.  But other students will not ask for help, so I ask, "Hey, are you stuck?"  The student responds, usually yes or no.  If the answer is yes, I ask, "What is puzzling you?"  Most of the time in two or three seconds, I can clarify what is expected and the student can move forward.  If I would have never asked the question, the student would stay stuck the entire class period (I know this through trial and error).  I am the teacher.  I must act like one.

8.  I apologize when I make mistakes.  Ironically, even though I teach English, I have a hard time communicating what I am thinking.  Students often get confused.  I cannot hold my flaw against them. Instead I have found a way to counter that weakness:  modeling.  We constantly compare other essays, readings, other people's works, etc. . . that repetition allows students to see again and again what works or does not work and they learn what is required in that unit.

10.  Students must do the work or the class is for naught.  Here is an example.  If I truly want students to remember vocabulary words, I ask them to point out examples of that word in action.  For example, when we study appeals in persuasive writing, I will ask students to highlight where they identify logos, pathos and ethos. And they will repeat this in a variety of genres until the students are comfortable with those words in any setting. They need to know the words, so they need to be able to find them, to label them, and to discuss them.  Eventually as they practice, they gain knowledge and confidence in their skills.

11.  Ask students to do tasks that encourage them to go beyond the obvious.  Ask them to make connections they might not have thought to do otherwise.  Ask students to do their best so it becomes habit. Trust students to do what is asked of them, and if they do not, hold them accountable by making them redo it.

13.Finally, students must evaluate me, and I expect honest answers.  I use this information to better future classes.

There are so many ideas I want to interject; however,  I will stop writing for now, but I will never stop striving to be the teacher my students need me to be.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Professional Development--in More Ways Than One

After a day of professional development where the patient technology department taught us teachers about Twitter, Google docs, Google websites, Wikispaces, and I'm sure I'm leaving something out, I spent most of my non-PD time toying with those very devices and spending an ungodly number of minutes trying to upload a picture of my face on Twitter before finally defaulting to the same photo I currently have on Facebook, which, ironically, was on my cell phone, not the computer, so I feel like a twin or a fraud or something other than myself.  That must mean I'm learning.

The whole experience reminds me of that feeling of not quite being myself that at first is quite uncomfortable but eventually fits like a second skin.  It takes me a LONG time to get used to new places.  For the first three years I was at Storm Lake High School, I often took the scenic route from the teacher's lounge to my classroom because I took the wrong turn almost daily.  The extra walking did not hurt me any, yet I felt like there should be an easier way.  The more I concentrated on taking the straightest path to my destination, the more I ended up taking the long, winding route, which made me feel lost even though I wasn't.  I was learning.

I remember studying about brain research, and one image has stuck with me for over a decade: when we(meaning any  human) learn something new it enters our consciousness, gets completely jumbled up like a tangled blob of fifty necklaces as we try to connect the new information to our knowledge, and eventually, once we have learned, it comes out smooth and unkinked, not knotted at all.  If we never learn the new information, the jumbled knot of necklaces remains, and we shy away from it because we don't think we can untangle the mess.

So here I sit today, with my blob of tangledness on my website, and I'm tempted to never return to it, but then I'd be leaving a mess, and like my brother says, "make a mess; clean it up," so I know I need to go back to it.  Eventually, the maze of my website will become a navigatable path, so I can find one more way of reaching my students.

Today as I learned, fretted, wondered, and experimented, I was transported to what it is like to be a student who is introduced to a new idea, lesson, task or whatever for the first time from a teacher who has been through this step so often that it's almost automatic, and I am reminded it takes TIME and REPETITION and FALLING DOWN and GETTING BACK UP and RISKING the fall again and again that makes students so vulnerable. They trust teachers to have their backs so to speak, to expect them to keep pushing forward, to care enough about them to be the railing that holds them responsible to get to the next step on their learning staircase.

So thanks to today's professional development, I had to ask questions when I didn't have the answers, I  remembered what it is like to be a student, and I am more prepared mentally for a semster that starts in two short days.  I hope that I will continue the challenge of finding ways to reach out to students in this technologically changing world that does not alter the basic spirit of human beings--they want to learn, they want to move forward, and they want to move past discomfort of not knowing to the comfort of being sure they know.  They want to learn.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Grading Rationale

Here is a generic grading rubric for me to use when grading an essay and for students to use as a checklist to ensure they have met an assignment's requirements:

Effectively opens and focuses the paper                                   yes+      yes     no

Clear main points                                                                    yes+      yes     no
Effective use of proof to support main points                            yes+      yes     no
Avoids using general statements                                               yes+      yes     no

Effectively closes the paper                                                      yes+      yes     no

Smooth organization, effective transitions                                   yes+      yes     no
Effective use of word control (avoids needless repetition,
          avoids defaulting to second person,
          effective word choice, avoids filler)                                 yes+      yes     no
Effective use of sentence variety                                               yes+      yes     no
Effectively caters to the audience's needs and wants                  yes+      yes     no
        (encourages readers to want to read the essay)
Correctly uses MLA format                                                                  yes     no                   
Correct grammar, usage, mechanics(no more than
           three mistakes per typed page)                                                   yes     no

7-9 yes+                    = A 
1-6 yes+                    = B
all yeses                    = C
one no                       = D
two or more noes      = Redo/F