Monday, January 28, 2013

Observe...and be Observed!

One of the most difficult situations for me as an individual is handling criticism.  I am a person that instinctively moves into defensive mode the moment that someone even hints at a suggestion for the way I do things.  Teachers are certainly in a position where this happens on a consistent basis.  With the “feedback” from parents, students, and people within the community; we are frequently met with both positive and negative criticism.  I personally believe that a large reason teachers react negatively is due to the fact that we tend to be planners.  “I already thought through that.”  “My way has worked before and it will continue to work.”  “Thank you for the suggestion but I’m going to do things my way.”  These attitudes can kill a classroom and a teacher in no time.  Our plans may be good but they are most likely not the best.  What can we do to break these attitudes and more importantly improve our classroom?  My suggestion today is: observe and be observed.

When is the last time you used your planning period to observe another teacher in your building?  When is the last time you asked a respected colleague to observe your class and give some suggestions?  I know that if I had someone observing my class that I would work to prepare a meaningful lesson that utilizes my strengths as a teacher.  Should that be any different any other day of the week?  What about observing another teacher?  Think about the infusion of ideas that could take place following an observation of a dynamic teacher.  Observing and being observed can only improve your skills as a teacher.

If you don’t think you’ll be inspired by observing another teacher, check out this video.  This is a friend of mine who teaches students with significant disabilities at a school in New Orleans.  Take note of the patience but also the high expectations this teacher has of her students.  In a simple minute and a half of observation, I was motivated to strive for higher expectations in my classroom.

Today, I am making it my goal to observe a teacher and be observed at least once in the next two weeks.  Will you do the same?  Give it a try and see what you can learn!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Make Relationship a Routine

The fact that I have a task-oriented personality means that I have to be intentional about building relationships.   During class, it is easy for me to get so focused on skills and content that I forget the most important piece.  Simply chanting “relationship, relationship, relationship” to myself at the start of the day doesn’t make it happen (and it sounds really strange to the people I run into).   As one who naturally thinks more often about schedule than relationship, I find it necessary to build “relationship time” into the daily class routine.

Here are three concrete ways that I schedule opportunities for relationship:

1. Bonus Trivia
Every day in my Algebra II class begins with review and a short quiz.  After the quiz, I ask my students three or four questions from 7th Grade Brain Quest (trivia) and offer a bonus point to those who can answer first.  This does not take long (five minutes at most), but it is a daily reminder for me to set aside quadratic equations and matrices for a moment and interact in a different way.  Students get the opportunity to show off their knowledge of other subjects, which is especially great for those who struggle with math.  My favorite moments come when I get to say to a student: “Great job- I would not have known the answer if this question was asked of me.”

2. Sharing a Picture
At the beginning of each class I have a student share a picture and talk about something meaningful to him or her.  Each semester has a different theme.  Currently my students are sharing something that changed them last semester.  This takes three or four minutes and gives each student the opportunity to give classmates a fuller view of who they are.  I have gained insight and had some great follow-up conversations because of these pictures.  Of course, I start the semester off by sharing a picture myself.

3. Seating Chart
Although students often complain when given a seating chart, I believe that they want to be told where to sit.  A seating chart eliminates tough decisions for insecure teens and gives students a better opportunity to focus.  It also gives me closer proximity to those students who are trying to avoid me.  I have observed that students who don’t complete their homework assume I am angry at them.  If they are successful in avoiding a conversation about the missing work, they go away thinking I don’t like them and are less motivated to work.  Increasing my proximity to students who have trouble getting their work done is one way that I improve my ability to address missing work or other situations.  A brief conversation shows the student that I am paying attention to them and that I care about them even when they are out of line.  Keeping certain students close allows me to converse with them more freely and more often.

If you are more relationship-oriented than I am, the idea of scheduling “relationship time” probably doesn’t sound like relationship at all.  And you are right; turning relationship into objective tasks is no guarantee that I will build relationship with my students.  I certainly do not want to downplay the importance of taking advantage of the unplanned opportunities for relationship that occur every day. Building “relationship time” into my daily routine is merely a catalyst.  It must be followed by a desire to know and care about my students.   

Ask yourself this question: “How am I intentionally getting to know my students during class?”  Your answer might be that you are just wired that way.  If you are more task-oriented, like me, then find ways to plug “relationship time” into your class routine.  Give it a try, and see what you can learn about your students.    

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Informal Debate: A Way to the Why

Nothing kills a discussion-driven lesson like a roomful of students with one-sentence answers. Recently in studying Oedipus Rex, the following conversation took place in my class:
Me: What most significantly influences Oedipus’s outcome in this play, fate or free-will?
Student: Fate.
Me: Why?
Student: I don’t know; it’s like he’s got no choice.
Scholars have written volumes answering this question, yet I can’t get more than ten words from a teenager.  When discussion lags like this, I like to pull out a method of informal debate.

Debate can be used as a means of eliciting deeper responses in the classroom, a way to get to the “why” of a question.  This method works beautifully for several reasons: it is a student-driven conversation, it naturally prunes lame responses, and it is highly adaptable, filling ten minutes or ninety.  

Informal Debate Method:
1.  Pose a debatable question to the class.
2.  Give the class time to consider it individually.
3.  Arrange students in two groups—for and against.
4.  Give students time to meet to define their arguments.
5.  The groups choose their first representative.
6.  The representatives begin to argue their stance.
7.  When the rep tires, the group substitutes a new student to continue the argument.
8.  Afterwards, evaluate the conversation with the class.

In the course of one debate, the class begins to identify what types of arguments work.  They recognize ethical, logical, and emotional appeals.  They think independently, without the teacher serving up answers.  They are forced to consider the “why.”

This type of discussion can be used for almost any subject: the US’s Vietnam involvement in History class, the validity of Scripture in Theology, the theories of origin in Biology, the relevance of math in everyday life—I’d like to hear an argument for the quadratic formula. 

Some ideas for adaptations:
- Create a rubric to score students’ responses
- Introduce logical fallacies and tips for avoiding them
- Turn the debate topic into a writing prompt

So whether your class is considering fate vs. free will or the efficacy of a bi-cameral congress, if the discussion is lagging, try a debate and see what you can learn. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

It's OK to be Relevant!

     In a time that is constantly being changed by technology, the media, music, and movies, we as teachers should make it a priority to provide relevant instruction for our students.  Although some movies and music may not be our "cup of tea", they matter to students.  Ask students what they are interested in, and provide them outlets to express their individuality and ideas.
     For example, students in my literature classes are required to keep a journal.  The journal cannot be used for notes (from my class or any other) and cannot be used to hold any items other than their personal writing.  Each day, I post a writing prompt on the board, and they can write to the prompt or simply write about whatever is on their minds for the day.  I purposefully take a "Dear Diary" approach in which students can share who they are without feeling judged or criticized for who they are.  Some students write to the prompt, and fulfill their page requirements, while others truly grasp the freedom of writing their innermost thoughts on paper.  I of course warn them, "Do not lose this prized possession!"  I have gotten to know some of my students on deeper levels from this activity, and oftentimes students will return after they have graduated to say they have kept their journal from freshman year and cannot believe the person they were, and who they have become.  How amazing!  They are giving an avenue to be themselves, and document their life journeys.
    Another example, and an easy avenue, is through music and film.  Music and poetry go hand in hand.  Choose songs and lyrics that not only maintain poetic devices, but also represent our students' generation.  Even better: make a connection to a former artist or poet who shares similar thoughts.  Students will discover that they are not so different from people from generations past.  A wonderful resource is a book called Hip Hop Poetry and the Classics.  My students enjoy a day long study of Eminem's amazing ability to make rhymes out of words that don't seem to rhyme, to create beats without music--by simply using the natural stresses in language to guide his lyrics.
     It is all to easy to "find a groove" as a teacher and not grow to include content that is relevant to students who are constantly changing and growing.  Challenge yourself to do some "cultural research" on the students of today, make a more culturally relevant lesson, and see what you can learn!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Evernote for course content . . .

In the junior level theology class that I teach, I have converted all of my class lecture notes, handouts, outlines, and links to "notes" in Evernote.  I then shared the folder of notes with the students in the class.

If you haven't used Evernote, the basic account is free, web-based, and links between phone, iPad, laptop, etc. I have my whole life in Evernote.  Love it.

In our BYOD environment, students are viewing the notes during my class from their device.  I do generally make a few hard-copies for the students that still prefer to write on, mark up, or highlight as I teach.

Doing this has solved two main problems:
  1. Course content is always available on their devices for those times when they miss class or misplace something.
  2. They theoretically have access to the course content for the rest of their lives.  For instance, if after they graduate from high school they end up in a conversation about the historical reliability of the Bible, they may think to themselves, "I'm pretty sure I learned that...," a quick login and search could bring those notes roaring back into their lives.
The hurdle in doing this is that I have preserved the integrity of the original notes by allowing them to only view and not edit.  Therefore, students who are not writing, filling in, or adding to the notes may not have the same rate of retention if they have been geared to "if I write it, I remember it."  I am continuing to tweak and adjust assessment to reflect more than just the memorization of facts that may benefit from "writing everything down themselves."  Maybe more on that later . . . til then, see what you can learn.