Teacher in Training: Learning How to Juggle the Variables

Micro-Teach was a valuable and difficult experience that I will long remember.  Clear instructions for the assignment and the positive culture in our classroom were extremely helpful stage setters that I will take away and try to apply in practice.  The class was so kind and receptive!  I believe Professor Sample established a tone and expectation of professionalism, creativity, tolerance and constructive participation.  High morale is an intangible that makes a big difference.  

Yet, the exercise remained difficult, and I can only begin to imagine how such a challenge is compounded when a classroom consists of less responsive and unevenly prepared students with varying attitudes.  The comments that many of you have provided on such realities provide clear warning.  I have more work to do to continue to understand what works in the classroom.

Micro-Teach was a humbling experience.  The assignment taught me as nothing else quite could that one must think very concretely about timing, audience levels, entry points for stimulating interest, a framework of enduring objectives, and all those other steps and techniques that the teacher needs to thoughtfully devise in order to engage students and help them reach higher learning levels without risking over-reach and confusion.  In the process, the teacher needs to be prepared to accommodate detours, keep her eye on the overall design (without seeming to do so too consciously), and to shift the game plan around on a slippery dime according to class dynamics.  In a way, I bet that’s what Billie Holiday did, and Mal Waldron, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and maybe even Frank O’Hara.  ENGH 610 has showed me – and made me practice – many ways to approach teaching as its own art.     

I look forward to hearing from anyone adventuresome enough to do my homework or to otherwise comment on the challenge of “Lady.”  Thank you all sincerely for making this experience so worthwhile and lasting in my mind.  It is exactly why I decided to go back to school.  Yours, Mimi

Questions about Questions

The aspect about my microteach that I most questioned going in was the fold-and-pass method for answering the questions about “Stories,” so I was pleasantly surprised that this aspect of the lesson was as big of a hit as it was.

Going in, my goal for the fold-and-pass was essentially just to “spice up” the usual small-group discussion format.  I needed to ask the questions one at a time in order for the folding part to work—I didn’t want students to work ahead and answer too many questions before I called for everyone to pass—but what I hadn’t considered is how pedagogically valuable it can be to ask questions one at a time.  Also, how impactful the ordering of the questions asked can be. Thoughtful ordering, I see now, can invite the questions to interact with each other—to invite students to really get at the distinctions as well as overlaps between “important” and “interesting,” for example, or feeling versus meaning.

So one take-away for me is that I need to start asking well-ordered questions one at a time more often.  In the ENGH101 course I teach, I keep getting frustrated with my students—bright, smart writers all, but shy to speak, even in small groups—and have tried many different things to try to get them to talk more in class, especially in group settings.  I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the semester pre-planning group assignments, with the aim of mixing up the groups so students were interacting with different people, but grew frustrated with this because student absences made my pre-planning feel like a waste of time.  I tried having students write things down in order to share what they wrote with a neighbor, but they would literally just exchange papers for each other to read!  I tried generating a dozen discussion questions and projecting them on the board, encouraging the groups to skip around in the questions to find the ones their group found most interesting to discuss, but they worked through the list robotically, like they were filling in some kind of worksheet (“So…what should we put for the third question?”).

Then I landed on the pass and fold idea.  Rather, was reminded of it; in a pedagogy course last year, a colleague came up with the pass and fold method as a way of workshopping thesis statements.  How it works in that context is that for homework, students are asked to come to class prepared with a thesis statement for the argumentative essay they are currently working on.  Then I passed out blank pre-folded papers, much as I did in the microteach.  Then the students, in groups of four, write their thesis statement at the top of their papers.  As the students pass and fold, the original thesis statement remains visible at all times.  The second writer re-writes the original thesis statement in his own words, then folds to conceal his work.  The third writer then re-writes the original thesis statement in her own words, folds, etc.  (So the folds are slightly different for this activity in order to keep the original thesis claim visible.)  By the end, the papers are returned to the original writer, who now can examine and consider three new, different ways of expressing his thesis statement.  Many of my students observed improvements to their original statements—re-writers either made the claim helpfully more concise or more thorough; more specific or more simply stated; etc.  Other students realized their original claim wasn’t well expressed, since the revisions missed what they thought the point of their claim was.  So this activity achieved a lot of goals:  Claim-making and idea clarification, but also drafting and revision.  AND THEY ACTUALLY TALKED TO EACH OTHER, so I felt pretty victorious that day.

When the time came to do the microteach, I was still thinking a lot about that pass-and-fold idea, but I wasn’t sure how to translate it from a composition classroom to a literature classroom.  What would I have the students write?  Did I want to do a sort of textual intervention kind of thing?  Should the first thing written remain visible the whole time, or not?   How can I get four different people to write things on passing papers about “Stories”?  That’s how I got to the idea of focusing on questions.  If I have four different questions, I thought, I could have everyone answering the same questions, but in different places.  That way, comparing answers would be even more intimate.  Rather than just exchanging papers, “hey, here’s what I put for the four questions,” they would have to look to the left and to the right and engage with those around them to track the progress of their answers around the circle, and compare how those answers differed from or were similar to their peers.

So, that leaves me with a second benefit (among many others), one that is especially reassuring to me, which is the realization that as I prepare to teach literature for the first time next fall, I’m not starting from scratch.  Rather, I’m already sitting on an arsenal of lesson plans and classroom activities from teaching composition that I can borrow from and modify to be appropriate for literature coursework.  Of course, I’m sure not everything will translate, but I bet a lot of it will.  And for me at least, knowing that I’ve got a starting point makes me more excited, and less daunted, by the task of dreaming up new things to try as well.  So while my summer’s still going to be pretty busy with all this lesson planning I’ve yet to do, the task seems less overwhelming (and even leaves some time for margaritas along the way).

Processing the Microteach

I was unreasonably nervous for the microteach–and it was one of those anxious days when I couldn’t talk myself down. I, still, don’t know why I was nervous. I had a plan, I knew what I was doing, I knew it would be fine. But for some reason, the idea of doing what I do almost every day in front of a group of peers, rather than students, made me nuts. Anyway, once I got up there, I felt at home in my teaching “personality” (that’s what I call it, but what I mean is that it feels like when I’m teaching I’m a slightly different version of myself–an actress in a lot of ways) and got through the lesson as planned. It always strikes me how comfortable I feel in front of students–it makes me feel like I’m pursuing the right career.

Things I thought went well: I felt like students, despite the fact that the text was difficult, were still interested in figuring it out. That was helpful to know. I was concerned that the text was difficult and interesting only to me–and that the interest in the piece wouldn’t transfer to students. I was pleased that people seemed invested in trying to figure out what was going on in the story, in trying to solve the puzzle. I also think teaching the lesson in real-time was helpful for me to gauge how much time I could spend on that chart activity (I could probably spend a few more minutes on it).

Things I wish had gone better/ things I second-guessed afterwards: I wondered if I should have students acknowledge their confusion about the piece in a more concrete way (by rating it, or by doing a short free-write about it, etc). Honestly, part of the reason I didn’t do that in my microteach was because I felt like it was something all of us probably considered using, and I didn’t want to bore people with the same activities other teachers might introduce. I do think it would help students figure out where they stand with the piece at the beginning of the lesson though, and I think it might be a good way for us to start the “this thing is really hard” conversation. Also, in listening to myself teach, I used the words “kind of” like 50 times. Clearly I need to be more mindful of that.

Overall, the experience was helpful, for sure. Also, now I have a full lesson on “San Francisco” planned and tested for next semester!

Presentation Response

Yesterday was a moment of validation. Going into my classroom, with rambunctious 9th grade students, some eager to learn and others desiring to be entertained, can be stressful and tiresome, but yesterday provided an opportunity to observe the diverse levels of intellect and maturity that my lesson can reach. Having already completed the lesson with my 9th grade students, with pleasant success, I knew it was an effective approach to a tedious reading process; my students were attentive, considerate, and productive. Most importantly, what would have taken four days of class time was accomplished in three by using the flipped classroom design.
The flipped classroom concept translated well into the GMU presentation as everyone already had a firm understanding of Blau’s close reading methodology, which allowed me to avoid lecturing. After everyone completed their quick scan of the text for questions, I was able to move through the room and observe group discussions. This moment was particularly validating as each group found questions worthy of discussion, similar to my 9th grade students. Most groups had questions on what Mr. Maloney said, but the more interesting questions were those apart from that central, obvious omission. Why did she not have a stronger emotional reaction? Why was she drinking while pregnant? These are the questions that only come up when students go beyond the surface reading, and typically that only happens when looking at a piece for the second or third time. Having collected my 9th grade student’s annotations after their first and third readings, I was able to see that many only had the surface questions about Mr. Maloney from their first reading, but the other questions were added during the second and third read through. Not only does this validate the lesson, it supports the argument that single readings are not enough to comprehend a seemingly simple work of literature.
The class discussion, following Blau’s design, also played out to my expectations. I was happy to receive supportive comments from my peers and glad to see how the flipped classroom, which was not my focus, became a focal point for some of the conversation.
If anyone is interested in looking at the introductory video please follow the link: http://youtu.be/QP6DhJl5Txs


Blink and You’ll Miss It

Looking back at the Microteaching presentation, it went by in a flash—partly because I was nervous, partly because fifteen minutes is no time at all.  The most uncomfortable part about this whole experience for me was constantly having to look at the stopwatch I had running on my phone.  While some it—the amount of time I was having everyone write—would have been timed in a normal class, nothing else would’ve run by a strict time schedule if it were my real classroom.  I would so much prefer to judge how much time we need based on actual student needs that it felt very uncomfortable and unnatural to do it a different way.

Even more uncomfortable was not being able to discuss what I could hear happening around the edges.  I so badly wanted to be able to talk with everyone and hear everyone discuss this story for an hour, especially once I heard several different perspectives on it happening in the different groups.  I think maybe I miss my classroom just a little bit.

Those were the hard parts for me—the great parts were seeing people engage with the text and each other.  I really appreciated the feedback I got, and one of the things that had me most nervous was about the way I give instructions.  It’s odd for me how I can feel the slight difference between high school teacher Ms. Short and elementary school IA Ms. Short (where I am now), and I was worried that I might have somehow become demeaning or belittling in the way I address people in the classroom.  So, it was a bit of a relief to find that the consensus was that instructions were clear rather than annoyingly simple.   It was also great to hear that things I had hoped would work well, did work well, and that the point of the lesson translated to people in the class, even if not all of my ninth graders would be able to peek behind the curtain to see it too. 

I love teaching, I love working with students, and I’ve missed that part of my life for the past two years. With graduation on the horizon, I’m looking forward to entering that world again.  It was a great, albeit fast, fifteen minutes to be able to feel like a real teacher again!

enjoying the warm, sunny light past the tunnel

You know at the end of the Breakfast Club, when Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) gives himself a friendly punch on the arm after writing their ‘breaking stereotype’ transcendent essay?  Yea, well, last night was kind of like that.

At the outset I was a bit nervous; still, once we settled in and we started interacting as a class, I was much more at ease.  Candidly, the best feedback I received was actually privately afterwards from fellow friends who were in ENGH615, Teaching Composition, with me.  They noted a positive difference and improvement from my last lesson.  I’ve been on a cloud ever since.  Really, that feedback meant the world to me. Whew, I did it.  I have a ‘teacher Christine’ who, apparently, is pretty ok!

As for the content itself, randomly earlier this semester Dr. Sample noted, sometimes your favorite texts aren’t ‘teachable texts’ (or something to that effect).  Frankly, last night was a relatively, risk-free test of that.  I was genuinely unsure if ‘Winter in the Air,’ which I find completely charming, could be taught.   I was pleasantly surprised the short story not only could be, but it could unravel much easier than I imagined.  Folks had the same initial, ‘huh, interesting’ and dense reaction I had.  (Which mad props to Alicia for acknowledging the difficulty in her lesson; I wish I had done that).  But if scaffolded properly and as a complement to ‘A Winter’s Tale,’ Warner’s piece could really work not only as an interesting story, but as vehicle to many interpretative strategies.

My regrets: slow down; I should have reiterated the directions again and asked if there were any questions like Meghan did—hat tip to her for being clear, receptive, and on top of those friendly classroom practices.

Sidebar: I’m always very self-conscious of my lesson plans; I’m afraid if anybody ever looked at them, they wouldn’t see what they’re supposed to.  I construct basic outlines for class, with the brunt of the material being questions.  While, I can’t anticipate how the conversation will go or how students respond, in the end, thankfully, the questions always lead to engaging discussion.  And with each success, last night included, I become more confident in my hap-hazard, rundown, lets-fill-in-the-blanks-together method.

My pat on the back: steering and weaving students’ comments into an effective discussion.  I feel confident, if given the time, we would have arrived somewhere – a means to an enlightening end.

Thanks to everybody for a solid, thought provoking last semester.

Learning from Micro-teaching

I have to admit to more than a mild degree of nervousness going into my micro-teaching lesson this evening. I am not a teacher by profession, and was worried that I wouldn’t know how to present the material, or that people wouldn’t engage the way I expected…
But this went really well. I feel like we got pretty deep into what Shakespeare was addressing in Sonnet 110, and I’m happy that the writing exercise was as useful as it was for everybody, and served my intended purpose of getting students to really think about the text on a more personal, interactive level.
We had a great discussion, and covered a lot of different ideas in a short amount of time. Ideally, I’d have loved to spend more time on all of them, but with only 15 minutes, I think (and hope you all agree) that we all improved our understanding of this poem in particular, and maybe made analyzing Shakespeare a little less daunting for those of you who worried about it.
The feedback that you gave me after the lesson was very useful; knowing that I was balancing my own comments with allowing the class to discuss and make discoveries for itself was good to hear. I’m never quite sure at what point my intervention is needed in these cases, so hearing that my gut instinct for it is more or less accurate was very reassuring for me as a novice teacher.

Getting Students to Empathize

This weeks reading kept reminding me of my current 9th grade students, a group with so much diversity that I could not name all the countries/nationalities they embody, and the variety of responses and perspectives I get from them on our daily readings. From Ch. 4 in Understanding By Design, it states “we talk about seeing things form an interesting perspective, implying that complex ideas generate invariably and legitimately diverse points of view.” I found this to be reminiscent, not only of my students, but of Blau’s students in his book. When he sets his students into groups of three, with a secondary objective to make diverse groups, he was able to get a variety of perspectives which enabled each student to garner a varied understanding of the work. I did a similar task with my students and required the same sort of diverse groups as Blau. As the groups worked on their reading analysis I was able to overhear a variety of unique thoughts, but there was one group that just did not get it. Perhaps it was this concept of not having “sufficient respect and empathy” for the work that disabled their capacity to comprehend the reading. The most frequent response from this troubling group was their distaste for the subject; “who cares” and jokes about other student opinions seems to exemplify the lack of empathy, which prevents students from even beginning to develop an understanding of most literature.
The challenge with the group made me think about “backward design” and what my goal for the students really is. It is not the story I am trying to teach, it is the skill of reading comprehension and the transferability of that skill to future readings. So what value is there to selecting a single piece of literature for the entire class, especially if several students are clearly not interested in the same materials as their female peers? Even after considering the possible difficulties I may face, I decided it would be best for the students if they had some freedom in picking the literature for which they would be applying my objectives. I set up a bookshelf with seven different titles and my students will individually pick the title that best fits a subject with which they can empathize. My instruction will be generic regarding the methods, I will model with a piece unique from the collected titles, and students will be able to demonstrate the transfer of knowledge by applying those skills to a work which I have not discussed in class.
There is quite a bit more to this, but it seems to be a good start in a direction which will allow for diverse discussions, flexibility for the students, and differentiation of instruction.

Applying Fink’s Guide to the HS Level

Backward design based curriculum isn’t a new practice for me, but the readings for this week made me realize that I was not exactly designing my class backward and that could have had an effect on my students’ understanding of the material. Of course, I was also teaching high school where you have to meet grade level requirements, department requirements, administrative requirements (those damn several survey forms!), state requirements (love those SOLs) and day-to-day responsibilities (attendance, homework checks, general classroom behavior management). With all that’s demanded of you and the seemingly constant interruptions (fire drills, student rights and responsibilities mandates, elections, club fairs, pep rallies) it felt impossible to fit everything in!

Since I plan on going back to work in a few years, I was curious to see if Dr. Fink’s essay, “A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning,” could be adapted to use in high school. His essay makes it clear that his approach is geared toward a college-level course, but backwards design is used in high school too, so I was most interested in whether or not his techniques were applicable to 9-12 courses. I decided yes and no.

Yes, you could take major topics in the course and spread them out throughout the year, but I feel like most teachers do that; we call them units. It got me thinking though, that my units were based on core literature readings. I’d have a To Kill a Mockingbird unit and an Of Mice and Men unit and center activities around the literature. What I think Fink was getting at was that perhaps the “Learning Goals” should drive the coverage rather than the literature driving the course coverage.

One of the main problems with applying his step by step process is that it is so in-depth that it would be really difficult to plan out an entire school year. A college semester is about 15 weeks whereas a k-12 school year is about 40. You could plan quarter by quarter or semester by semester, but there’d still be a level of planning for the next quarter/semester involved; it’s hard to do one without the other.

There are other issues with applying his course design plan (FIDeLity assessments for 150 students?) to a high school class that I won’t get into, but I appreciate his approach. It’s clear (well, clear-ish. what’s he mean by an authentic project on page 19?), it has charts to help plan, and it makes sense.

Interesting Article

I’m not sure if anyone saw/read the article in The Washington Post this week about violent video games and the different view points on those games, but I thought some people in our class might be interested!

Here’s the link to it http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/game-creators-are-in-the-eye-of-the-video-game-storm/2013/04/08/16e2c976-8cd3-11e2-9838-d62f083ba93f_story.html

Happy Wednesday!