Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Habits and Lessons for Student Success

How can I be a better teacher during the 2011-2012 school year?  What can I provide my students so they get the most out of my classroom?  How can lesson design, feedback, and evaluations encourage each student to practice and improve their reading, writing, speaking, listening and thinking skills in a way that makes sense and truly forces students to work hard?  These questions are guiding me as I look back on the 2010-2011 year in order to plan for the upcoming school year.

First, my students need to read more.  I don't care if they read novels, magazines, online newspapers, their sister's diary, or car manuals. Each bit of information they read offers them another idea, insight, fact, and way to assess credibility all while building vocabulary, offering, of course, more words with which students think, thus expanding their world.  Reading is one habit students will never regret forming.   Even though they may not directly attribute accomplishments to their reading skills, I know that once this foundation is laid it provides a firm structure for future success.

Second, my students need to be smart researchers.  They need to know where and how to find the answers they are seeking; then they need to know how to prove those answers are credible.  Weighing what is researched against their belief systems by probing why resources contradict each other is another skill that should become habit. Students need to develop their own system of efficiently researching, storing, and organizing information so it fits their lifestyles. My job is to allow that practice through lessons and assignments.

Third, my students need to write more.  Writing helps students sort out their deepest held beliefs, solidify knowledge into long-term memory, communicate with others, and create something out of nothing. Trusting their inner gauge telling them their writing is not finished or is veering in many directions or is not really saying what it is supposed to say and then editing accordingly is another student habit that can be formed if I guide students by asking questions like, "Can you see how this idea contradicts that one?  Which one do you want to say?" or "What is a one sentence summary of your paper?  Is the entire paper about that subject?  If not, what needs to be omitted?  What needs to be developed?"  If I simply insert a correction, I am teaching students to distrust themselves and trust only the teacher.  Students can't learn to be independent writers (and writing is thinking on paper) if they aren't allowed to do their own hard work( aka do their own thinking).

Fourth, my students need to discuss more, which reinforces the habit of having confidence in their own thinking. Those listening can disagree or agree, can question the speaker, can probe more deeply into their own opinions, and may learn something new.  What is more powerful than students knowing they can share their opinion in class?  Fast forward to their future--they will know how to communicate with their spouses, children, bosses, and neighbors, take the risk of starting their own business, follow their interests, share their opinions on school board or city council.  Those who share their voices share their talents; those who share their talents lead fulfilling lives.

If I can intertwine the feedback and evaluations students need to develop the habits of success through lesson designs in each and every class period, and I see student growth in the above four areas, I just may be satisfied with how the 2011-2012 school year runs.  A year from now I will be doing this same reflective planning exercise, so my goal is to be proud of how all classes are run--this underlying challenge will fuel me all year long.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

My Top Ten Teaching Joys in the Language Arts Classroom

1.  The freedom to create lessons. Lesson planning is similar to meal planning--how can I nourish the students with academic courses, yet make sure they like what they are digesting--or at least gaining some nutritional value, so to speak, in each class period?  That challenge creates an endless menu of options, keeping teaching fresh.  When I stagnate, I go to my giant recipe box, aka years of experience, notes, and ideas, and start anew.

2.  Seeing student growth.  Who doesn't like watching students improve, gain confidence in themselves, and move to the next level?  There is no feeling like the joy of watching students complete what they thought was too high of a hurdle.  Student weaknesses are bolstered by using their strengths. This creativity in problem solving is a skill they use their entire lives.

3.  Learning from student insights.  One of my favorite experiences is seeing a topic in a new light thanks to students sharing their perspective. 

4.  Laughing with the students (when the time is right).  I remember when it was boiling hot, and I had two fans in my room.  One shorted out, and when I brought in the back-up, it too went kaput.  Then I loved the witty comments about Hades and my classroom. Those types of moments stand up to memory's erosion. 

5.  Practicing my problem solving skills.  How can I make each lesson pertinent to students' needs?  How can I use what I have in the classroom, in current events, on the internet, in the books on my shelves, in the students' experiences, to drive home a point?  Those kinds of questions stay with me day and night, and the answers come in the world around me.  There's always an answer, but the questions have to be asked first.

6.  I love that students constantly practice the skills of language arts:  reading, writing, speaking, and listening (and thinking naturally meshes with this list). Students get to see other perspectives, broaden their worldviews, practice communicating, build relationships with themselves and others, gain confidence in their own thinking, solidify their goals--the whole process is amazing and exactly what they need to be practicing in order to become productive citizens who will make the world a better place.

7.  Feeling great joy when reading a student's cleverly written sentence or a fitting, skillful use of motif or a metaphor that expresses exactly what the student is trying to describe, or a vivid, specific paragraph  that allows readers to vicariously live the author's description. I am the luckiest person in the world to be able to experience the best of what students have to offer over and over again.  

8.  Being a sounding board when students need to problem solve.  I encourage students who are stuck to come to me (and I also look for the telltale signs of stuckness and go to the students) mostly because it saves them so much time.  I am the one trained at pulling ideas, confusion, thoughts, etc. . . out of people's minds and onto the paper. In a few seconds I can ask, "What do you want to say?"  or "Give me a one sentence summary or preview of what you want to say in your paper" and voila, a thesis statement is born, a vision is created, a doubt is extinguished and an assignment can be started and finished.  

9.  Always looking to find a better, simpler, more efficient, more productive, more useful ways to meet objectives in the courses I teach.  Right now I am heavily researching ways to use the internet to push students  hard, yet to efficiently use their time and resources.  Time will tell if this focus will benefit the students, but in this information era, students need to be assigned tasks that encourage them to organize, evaluate, expand, create, and problem solve with the vast amounts of information that bombards the world in this day and age.  It's an exciting time in education for those very reasons.  What will our students of today create for our world tomorrow?

10.  The unique chemistry that emerges in each class period.  I love never knowing how personalities will mix to create the learning environment that supports students through a semester of any class.  It can't be bottled, but it must be enjoyed and appreciated.  Each class, each class period is a gift to all who are in that particular time and place, especially for me who gets to experience a dream come true by being in the classroom.