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.