Tuesday, November 11, 2008

After Fall Break . . . and the beat goes on

After Fall Break things might get easier? Was I nuts???? Yesterday, I was working with a middle school faculty participating in a project that emphasizes interdisciplinary teaching. Faculty members are mostly high school teachers who are very content focused - merely held captive in the purgatory of middle school. Just ask any high school teacher what s/he teaches and the answer is almost always framed in terms of the courses taught -- 19th century British Literature, or Anatomy and Physiology, or US History to 1850. The inservice workshop was scheduled at the worst time - 3:30-5:30, after a full day of school and bus duty. I had driven 2.5 hours to deliver a 2 hour workshop - and I'm thinking as I watch them set up the library, "I came here for this??" Chairs were set up close together, like an auditorium - no tables, no place to write; the library had a large supporting column that obstructed the view of about 3-4 of the teachers [those fast enough to get to the venue early and sit where they could not be seen]. As they came in, teachers kept alluding to the "presentation" or the "lecture" -- and were quite surprised when I began by telling them they would be working and needed several sheets of paper and something to write with. But as we worked through the lesson in which I had embedded some useful strategies, then discussed adaptations for core content areas, I could feel them begin to loosen up a bit and at least ask questions about using some of the strategies: Paired Structured Brainstorming; Structured Notes / Response Heuristic; Forced Choice; Cinquain. I hope they will try at least one of the strategies, and that the grade level teachers will at least talk with each other about what they are doing - but I'm not holding my breath. I so hate to do a one-shot deal sort of workshop, but perhaps there will be sufficient follow-up that the teachers will have enough support to take the risk of doing something different in their classrooms. And it is a risk - for "old" teachers and for "new" teachers - because most of us were never taught as we are asking teachers to teach, and therein lies the rub. I look at international comparison data and fear that nothing we do will get us out of the quagmire we have put ourselves in - and coupled with the economic down turn I see a long slog against odds that have rarely been greater. We have more dropouts, apathy is rampant, and still we persist in "telling and spelling" our way through a curriculum that is a  mile wide and an inch deep when it should really be the other way round. 

Man, this is depressing - I've got to get my attitude corrected before I go to class -- YIKES! I'm late for setting up for class - stay tuned.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Walking on broken glass . . .

It's that time of semester when everything feels like too much: classes, grading, committees, advising. I'm sure students feel the same way.  I'm sitting here, listening to Annie Lennox and wondering if what I do makes any difference at all. 

I was reading the wiki postings of students from one of the sections of content area reading that I teach. For the entire semester I have pushed the idea of a Learning Cycle - a three-part way to plan lessons that is congruent with workshop-style classes, inquiry and discovery lessons, and direct instruction. Every lesson I have taught has been organized according to this three-part pattern. A requirement of my course is that my students review and comment on lesson plans created by students from another university and posted on a shared Wiki. One of my students posted a comment about another students' lesson, one that was crafted according to this three part learning cycle [although it was described using the terminology from Laura Robb's book, before-during-after, terminology I have used as well]. My student was impressed by the lesson because she claimed never to have seen this three-part way to plan a lesson. How can this be? I felt like screaming. 

What scares me is that if pre-service teachers cannot make connections between what they have experienced, been taught, and read about and the same concept couched in other terms, how are they going to make connections between student responses to what they are doing instructionally and their own teaching decisions made on the fly when data from 20-30 students is coming at them at the speed of light?

Well, I've whined enough - maybe after fall break things will look up. So many of these students show such potential - I know that they will go out and truly change their students' lives. Their analyses of student responses to their strategic content area literacy assessment were thoughtful - and many were at a level I would have expected only from practicing teachers with several years of experience. Their assessments were so well done, I should probably think about those students who are already showing insight beyond their own experience and realize that what I've told my own students is true: you won't ever stop trying to reach all your students, but you can't beat yourself up if you don't reach all of them.

Friday, October 03, 2008

The deer in the headlights is me!

Well, I'm probably officially about to go 'round the bend. On Thursday, I set off the the office with hopes of putting the final touches on the power point for class and making sure I had the power point for the Ordeal lesson for our CEALL workshop read [the workshop is this weekend]. Enter chaos. I needed to take one all purpose power point and produce two very different ones, eliminating all references to any content area other than math for the math section, and making sure the links worked for the science/social studies section [which they did not] and eliminate some of the content because students are finding it difficult to keep up in the class. Between questions from staff that needed to be handled, urgent family queries about Thanksgiving plans that necessitated several phone calls, no time for lunch, not enough caffeine, and time that moves at the speed of light when you most need it to move at the speed of molasses, I arrived at my 2 PM class just a bit unfocused. And that's all it took . . . because when I looked at my watch and saw a quarter till the hour, I panicked in my confusion and fast-forwarded my mind to my 3:30 class [wishful thinking?], which does end at quarter till the hour. The 2PM class ends at quarter past the hour, however, and I would have dismissed the first section 30 minutes early were it not for one brave [and probably hated, now] soul who corrected me.

Student body language was loud and clear -- it would have been better for my student evaluations had I just let them go. But no, I had to regroup and forge ahead -- and with most of them now fully tuned out. Good thing that this group of students does not have the power to commit me to an institution, because I'd be packing right now!

Well, Tuesday's class has to be better - as they create their own vocabulary activities I hope that students will see how relevant the vocabulary strategies really are. If it isn't, maybe I should just look for a job at Wal Mart.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Like deer in the headlights . . .

Well, today's first class went OK - but I know that students feel as though they have been drinking from a fire hose today. A few students viewed the class as "scattered" - and I guess in the beginning it seems that way but I want students to see how everything comes together - oh well, all in good time, I guess.

In retrospect, maybe I should deep-six the learning styles thing. I really like doing it, but students were bleary-eyed today as they left class. They don't expect a college class to take so much time outside of class, but if that is a problem for them then they are really in the wrong profession. If they think this semester is bad, just wait until student teaching when they have to arrive at school a the crack of dawn, work all day with few to no breaks and drag home with a stack of paper to grade that defies gravity.

Well, I need to think about this - and probably ask students in a few weeks about it; once they have their feet wet I can get more honest and realistic responses.

I was pleased with the class today, though. Students seemed eager for the semester to begin [if not the homework] and I can tell we will have a good time together.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Decisions, decisions

Once again, its time to gear up for fall semester and undergraduate classes -- I'm trying to get the READ 498 syllabus ready before I take off for a few days, but haven't been able to spend the time I need to in thinking through the assignments. Every time I go into the office, I get way laid by some task or another. I'm trying to decide just what assignments we will have in the class. Although I like the Blog idea,  it's just too much to keep up with all those Blogs - and students who are not tech savy set up a new blog for every posting, or forget their passwords, or otherwise get caught up in the technology of the thing, and that's not what I'm after, really. I need to change the reflective thinking assignment to something students are more familiar with, and accommodate my wish to have the students in contact with other science and math pre-service teachers so they can think together about teaching science and math. The professor at Arizona State and I spoke today, and we talked about setting up a wiki so they can communicate outside of Blackboard - much easier that way. And I have a YouTube video that can help students understand what a wiki is and how it works -- more like a Discussion Board. 

So, the Blog will become a limited number of posts and responses -- probably 4 -- on the discussion board of a Wiki. The other two assignments will be the same: assess a class and teach a class. But I'm going to specify the assessment to be used. I now have really good examples of the Strategic Content Literacy Assessment in all content areas, and that will help. Otherwise, things are pretty much the same in terms of assignments.

I will need to post the piece I wrote for the revisions in chapter 1 of our new edition so students can have background reading for disciplinary literacy, and maybe the one for the vocabulary chapter. But perhaps students will be better off reading the articles [at least some of them] and coming up with their own summary of differences in disciplinary literacy among the content areas.

Well, I think I've made at least the decision about the reflective piece on the Internship - so maybe I can get this syllabus finished in the morning!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Can you hear me now?

Wow! The little snit I pitched in my last posting certainly got some attention. I probably shouldn't have done it, but I was so frustrated - still am, but at least now I recognize [admit?] that I'm frustrated with myself. If I had been more rigid about the file names and due dates earlier in the semester, I wouldn't be in this mess right now. But I knew the students were under such pressure in student teaching -- and I can't imagine anyone taking another course in addition to READ 867 and student teaching - insane! So I let the file names go without deducting points immediately. That will teach me. I won't make that mistake again. But I stand by the fluid due dates for the lesson plans - that, I think, although confusing and tempting to those who [like me] are procrastinators, was needed for this class.

I wonder sometimes if any of this makes a bit of difference. If these students actually use the ideas we've discussed in class. I wonder if I have thrown too much at them - but every semester, I trim it down. This semester I really cut back, and many still seem overwhelmed. I guess it's like this for all students, now matter what level. Students just don't remember everything teachers say -- DUH! I hope that my students will think a bit about how much I've thrown at them, how much stuck, and how much just couldn't be retained at the time and realize that truly less is more. I look back on all these years in a classroom and wonder sometimes what it all adds up to. I think about my own learning and realize that I learn best that which I most need to know - what I am interested in and motivated to learn [and, unfortunately what I have to learn about like NCATE]. Learning is just not a passive verb.

Well, this probably won't make much sense, so late at night. And I've got to be up at dawn and at it again tomorrow.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Griping about students, griping about grading

I have spent three afternoon and evenings grading lesson plans/reflections for Middle School reading -- and getting more and more frustrated because students don't follow directions to append the scoring guide or upload three to seven separate files, which I then take the time to put into one file so that I can return it to them in blackboard . . . when will I ever learn?

Well this semester, I've about had it. I'm going to go back through and deduct points from diligence and responsibility for those who have not followed directions - wish I had noted this on their scoring guides, but I didn't and I didn't make notes about it [I just got more and more frustrated], so I'll maybe get my GA to go through the files to see who actually followed directions [easier to do this way because fewer than 1/3 did so].

Maybe this is just the end of a semester and I'm really really tired, but most of all I'm frustrated that students don't seem to take the time to learn the technology they need to survive in a class that has blended delivery - some delivered online. The good news was that we met fewer times over the bulk of the semester; they were supposed to be using that time as class preparation, completing their work, turning it in appropriately. Aren't teachers supposed to be life-long learners? Why do so many of them seem not to care about their work? I've resisted going through their reflections and correcting grammar, too, and these are pre-service teachers who are the first to say the kids can't write or spell or use proper grammar. AUGGGH! But I didn't put that on the scoring guide -- well, enough griping for one very early morning. I'm really worried that these students will try to turn all this work that is left to be done at the last minute, and I'll be in a frenzy of grading at the same time I'm getting ready for IRA. Well, if that happens, those who turn it all in at the last minute will lose points in D & R -


Friday, April 04, 2008

I have been reading postings on the Discussion Board for my class. Students are required to read articles and then discuss them asynchronously. Embedded in several of the postings are hints about what goes on in the classroom where the students are student teaching. I came across a heart stopping [for me] comment that referred to "pop corn reading" [a new name for round robin reading] and one that alluded to the practice of having students read text "cold" - without any preparation - with the goal to prepare students for a lecture to come. Things like this make me want to go running screaming into the night. Was I not clear about NOT having students read aloud? I've tried to be clear about the issue: if you have students read aloud, there should be a purpose for doing so -- for example, having students read text aloud to support an inference [or refute an inference made by someone else]. Likewise with the "cold reading" issue. This one comes up in both the graduate class and my undergraduate class - students just don't get that readers have to be prepared to read a text - particularly students who are learning to read history or math or science or more difficult literature. I don't know - maybe if I give them a taste of their own medicine. Hmmmmm - I'm planning class for next week and perhaps that's what I'll do. Have them read some esoteric text before a "lecture" and then debrief the students. I've got a lovely text to use!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What a difference!

Every now and again class just clicks - and tonight, I was really pleased with class. I'm not sure it makes up for the last disaster with this group of teachers, but for whatever reason, everything just worked. What was different this go round? In other words, why did things go so well tonight and so horribly the last time?

For one thing, I was prepared well ahead of time - got ready for Tuesday's class on Monday instead of Tuesday morning - I have a tendency to "over plan," especially when I'm working "last minute" and maybe when I have planned for class so recently I focus more on the plans themselves [i.e., "covering the material"] rather than the students. Also, I simplified the model lesson - I resisted the urge to throw too many strategies at them at one time. I was trying to pull a new lesson together late on Monday and needed to get home, so I didn't try to plan an elaborate lesson at all - in fact, I paid more attention to the match between the standards, the text, and the strategies while at the same time keeping in mind that I needed to introduce the Jigsaw cooperative strategy to social studies and English because I had use it with science and math students two weeks ago. I think the lesson - pared down to essentials - plus a focus on the students' needs may well have added up to a successful class.

Another thing, too, is that students have more experience in student teaching at this point [and therefore have more context and personal knowledge on which to hang the ideas we consider], have done more reading for our class, and I think are finally beginning to put the pieces together. I know how frustrating it must be for them - and how confusing - in the beginning weeks of class. It takes a few weeks for the "big ideas" to make sense to the students. It is a stretch to think of text as more than just print, to consider the literacy needs of middle shool students as your responsibility when you hold a misconception about students learning to read by 3rd grade and then being able to read anything [the old "if elementary teachers had done their jobs, then the students would be able to read their texts" attitude]. Hey - I think I just had an epiphany of sorts. Students come to me with misconceptions about literacy in general as well as about disciplinary literacy specifically. It usually takes until mid-term for students to adjust their own thinking, and to begin to put the pieces together. I wonder if there is a way to speed up their realization about content literacy -- maybe if I thought about their misconceptions as a science teacher does scientific misconceptions, I might come up with a way to disabuse them of their misconceptions. Maybe an activity to offend the intuition - what we now call a discrepant event - hmmmm - I need to think about this for a while. Meanwhile, I'll just enjoy the feeling of having accomplished my instructional goals tonight!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Through a glass darkly

After a hundred years teaching, you’d think I would learn. But nooooo – I had to provide the most inept model of teaching for my own students, who are supposed to be learning to teach from me. Last night, as I impatiently listened to my students complain about how impossible their students are, how they can’t teach because the students don’t care, how their cooperating teachers won’t let them try new ideas, how standards dictate that they have to cover only certain information and nothing else, and how principals decree what they can and cannot do in the classroom, I had a momentary flash-back to the days when students in my own classes stalled instruction through their very similar resistance moves. I failed to use the fact that I was experiencing just what my students felt they were experiencing in their own classrooms to help them be better teachers. Instead of helping them deal with their frustrations, I got frustrated. In truth, my response was closer to depression. If these young pre-service teachers are already this jaded about their own students, then we are done for – plain and simple. I recognized the irony of the situation, but I didn’t do anything productive about it – after the technology problems, I just abandoned class and quit. They probably went home grinding their teeth – and I wonder if they realize that their own students feel just as they felt last night.

My optimism for the semster is fading [see January 12th post], and I wonder if that isn't true for the students as well. I had worked so hard on the model lesson. Hours spent finding web sites on topics I know the students are teaching [early civilizations, middle ages] enhancing a power point presentation that in the end didn’t work. There were great web sites, and the video clips and activities were terrific --- but the computer kept crashing, which ate up time, and when I switched to my laptop the sound couldn’t be heard, so some of the web sites lost their effectiveness. It would have been funny if I had not been so tired. Finally, I realized that since no one was learning anything, I surely wasn’t teaching.

OK, so the class was a disaster. Here’s what I wish I had done: first, the students were obviously frustrated, so I wish I had just stopped and had them do a 10 minute write about all their frustrations and thoughts – then either share them with a trusted friend or tear them up – we might have then gone on having vented our frustrations. Second, I’d like to have had them write three instructional and/or literacy-related questions they wanted answers to, then I could have given a break and read through the questions, choosing those I could address at the time. At least that would have given students more ownership of the class, and perhaps they would have been more willing to open their minds to new teaching ideas.

In the cold reality of morning, I have to readjust my plans for this class – immediately. I need to consider what could engage these students, and what I can do to help them connect with the big ideas I’m hoping to teach them. So it’s back to the drawing board.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Thank you: a little phrase with a big pay off

I have been out in the schools recently observing fabulous teaching in several schools. I've seen a math teacher read a book about Descartes's invention of the coordinate plane, watched an engaging lesson on mood and tone in poetry, witnessed an English teacher write with her students and share her thoughts with them, experienced the excitement as science students collected and recorded weather data, listened in awe as students discussed the characters in Sense and Sensibility, and watched students explore Islamic religious beliefs as they dramatized commercials about them. I've seen students engaged in small group work as they created posters to describe their perfect teacher and seen students work together to remember terminology related to scientific equipment. In all of these classroom visits, I've seen inspirational teaching - but here's the thing. When I send a message to the teachers pointing out how great the lessons were, how much I enjoyed being privy to such wonderful teaching, the teachers were like parched plants receiving water after a 2-year drought. They actually thank me for noticing. How is it that these teachers don't hear praise every week? Every day?

It points to another factor in the attrition rate in teaching - when people don't feel appreciated, it makes all the petty things in life loom larger than they are. Teachers are some of the most criticized folks I know - this country has piled increasing expectations on classroom teachers and never once said thank you -- thank you for teaching children who have a difficult time learning because they are so busy surviving; thank you for working in buildings in a state of disrepair no self respecting business man would ever tolerate; thank you for taking care of children and adolescents before, during , and after school hours, for feeding them breakfast and lunch, for staying after school and helping them with homework, for coaching their sports teams, for caring about children when no one else seems to notice.

When teachers who are exceptional thank you for noticing their work, it makes you stop and think of what might happen if principals and colleagues took the time to notice, too.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The forest and the trees

I'm in Greenville, at the University Center, getting warm before I head out to John T. Simpson Alternative School for an afternoon meeting. I was thinking as I observed one of the CEALL teachers today how often we take for granted the vast number of vocabulary terms we throw at students, and I am including myself in this.

Students were reviewing terms about weather in one class, learning about the coordinate plane in another, and discussing grammar and the punctuation that is called for with complex and compound sentences and characterization in the novel Sense and Sensibility. In just three class periods, I was really overwhelmed. Weather is not one of my areas of expertise, nor is the coordinate plane or grammar - in fact, I noted some new stuff I learned today in my notes - I never really knew what a comma splice was until today. I mean, I knew you shouldn't do it. I knew I had made bad grades because I had made the error, but no one had ever really explained what it was [and now I'm wondering if I've just made a comma splice myself]. Anyway, I started thinking about the course I'm teaching right now and all the vocabulary I use, thinking that the students know what I'm talking about but now I really wonder -- have I literally thrown lots of terms at them and they are just too overwhelmed or too polite to stop me and say, "Hey, I don't have a clue" -- makes one wonder.

Sometimes, I think we as teachers get bogged down in a consideration of the trees with little or no consideration of the forest - and I for one need to step back and reconsider just how much I try to cram down my students' throats. I've often said less is more, and I've tried to simplify -- but maybe I need to do more of that. I don't want my students to get lost in the trees and never really glimpse the forest - so it's back to the drawing board for the READ 867 class plans - we meet next week and it should be interesting. The topic is vocabulary. How ironic is that?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

New Year, New Semester

We are half way through the "Bookend" series of classes for this MAT cohort - and I've got the feeling that I really have thrown too much at them thus far. They were practically catatonic at the end of class on Friday.

Nonetheless, I feel really lucky so far this semester. A number of things have clicked into place through little or no effort on my part. One example is the Biopoem. I assigned the Biopoem last week and had it due on Friday. As I was planning Friday's class on assessment I realized it would be good to use it in class. [planned the class AFTER I had given the assignment -- not exactly the way things should be done, but after teaching 100 years I can sometimes get away with it] I originally had the Biopoem exercise as the opening activity -- then as I worked my way through the assessment information putting the power point together, I realized it would be perfect to hold off on that exercise and do it when I was giving ideas for getting to know students. Amazing -- an assignment I had given earlier just happened to fall due at exactly the right day. I hope this isn't the end of the serendipitous happenings -- I can use all the help I can get this semester, even if it comes from dumb luck.

I'm thinking now that I'll take a whole class to finish up assessment - and still haven't focused on planning, which absolutely must come before they go into student teaching. Long and short of it is that I may need to wait on vocabulary until after they go out into the field. We'll see just far I get on Monday; that will determine whether I change plans or not. They will be ready to kill me if I do change plans and they've already read the article I assigned . . . Oh well, if they can't be flexible they surely don't need to be in education.