Saturday, January 26, 2013

New Semester, New Students, New Believers

As I journey further into the profession of teaching, I am hesitant to criticize my peers. Since I haven't been in their classrooms, I refuse to make any sort of judgement on their teaching styles, much less ways they evaluate their students. However, I do pay close attention to the progress of my students as well as the efforts they put forth in my classroom. Approximately 60% of my freshmen students were handed over to my counterparts this past week, and in turn I was blessed with an equal number of new faces. I found one of my classes 'stocked' with a 25% share of students who had received an "F" in US History the prior semester, a monumental challenge if I was to base my assumptions off of grades. But rather than looking at them as dumb and unteachable, I felt it best to stick to the regimentation which worked so well the first semester when all but one of my 90 students earned passing grades, and that one individual had truly earned their F.

On the first day I told all my students that if they truly wanted an "F" all they had to do was NOTHING.....but the good news was I wouldn't let them settle for nothing. Those students who experienced "Mr. D" the first semester were the first ones I went to during that first class and their testimonials were loud and clear. "Mr. D will hound you everyday for homework until you get it done!" I was NOT about to let them fail in any way, shape or form. Nonetheless, I had some doubters in the audience until they missed their first assignment....and then they discovered that I meant business.

It's not about punishment, but rather stressing the point that homework (and school) is one step away from working in the real world. In business the typical boss gives an employee one opportunity when they fail to follow procedure, and I've stressed that although I can't fire my students, I can put corrective procedures in place which will remedy bad habits. Needless to say, this comment caught their attention and the next day all late assignments were in-hand without further delay.

I am becoming a huge believer that the reasons as to why students fail one class and pass another in the same subject area is directly related to the approach which teachers take early on in establishing routines and expectations. The spring term will clearly provide me with an opportunity to prove or dispel this theory, but for the meantime I'm intent on having all students on board with completed assignments. No doubt this will require the ongoing assistance of parents, but last fall I learned the importance of getting them on my side early in the game with constant communication at various stages of the semester. This is done with personalized letters, an invitation to Parent-Teacher Conferences, e-mails, and links to my wiki-website. My students may think they are only one week into the new term, but they're actually knee-deep into the process of learning a huge lesson for later in life.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Learning the Importance of Modeling

As much experience as I thought I possessed, as a first-year teacher I'm still guilty of making assumptions about students in my classroom, and when the Constitution Announcement Project came to an end last week it was clearly evident in the group work which was submitted for final grading. For a first-time project, I was pleased with the results as a good segment of students demonstrated both interest and creativity in their final exhibit; however, it still fell short of my expectations. Amongst the eighteen groups, I was expecting to find one or two which excelled far beyond others, but there was little difference in the overall quality from one end of the spectrum to the other.

As I reviewed each of the posters, I recall pointing out specific information regarding historical facts dealing with ideas, people, and places associated with the signing of our Constitution in 1787...but no one took advantage of these, focusing instead on information which was readily available via aquick-n-easy Internet search via Google. In other words, they took the easy way out rather than seeking new information and content. I thought back to the first day when I assigned the project and how I supplied each individual with both rubric and resource report forms. From what I was able to survey no one worked from these sheets, and by all implications they made the assumption that I wasn't going to hold them accountable, despite my warnings.

It was then that I questioned myself about whether I had truly modeled it properly to the class as a whole in addition to each of the self-assigned groups. Even though I brought current day newspapers into the discussion, I didn't get them to lay their project side-by-side with one of those papers. I hadn't created my own project with which I could use to display the classifications of extraordinaire, above-average, average, below-average and not-acceptable. In return I was forced to accept work which was below their true capabilities, lowering my standards to ensure passing grades. (despite my adjustment, no one received a grade higher than C) Although I turned my head this time, I scolded myself for not modeling this properly for my students, making a promise that it would never happen again.

Despite my failings, I know my students came away with a better understanding of the events surrounding the creation of our Constitution since their final exam scores reflected a retention of knowledge. However, deep in my heart I now realize that it could have been better....and it will be next time I assign a project of similar magnitude. Over the next six weeks, my students will be knee-deep in research for our school's first National History Day project. As a result the lesson which I learned will surely benefit the way they not only gather information, but also in the ways which students present their ideas to the itself raising the standards of quality for all.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

One of My Keys to Success

With but one week remaining in my first semester of teaching, one of the keys of my success has been associating myself with the extra-curricular activities of my students. It's more than just showing up at the popular sporting events like basketball, but catching a hockey game, wrestling meet, school musical and more. It's identifying students outside of my classroom environment by cheering them on in the arenas of sports and other out-of-class activities. Students enjoy the concept of having 'fans' in the stands and the concept creates empathy and goodwill on a scale of massive proportions. They see me as someone who takes a vested-interest in both their team and school, in addition to generating conversation in the classroom as well as between periods. I am amazed at how much time students invest in these activities- both in training, competition, and performance. As much as I want to say "I wish you'd put the same amount of time into the homework I assign," I know that this isn't the venue nor approach I need to take. High school students are keen at assessing who is doing all they can to help them succeed both in and out of the classroom, and this is just one of the many proven ways of building that bridge.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Now It's Their Turn

My freshmen students teach me important lessons about teaching, most of the time without their knowing of it. When I returned from the holiday break, I sensed it was time to turn to another one of the examples put forth in my education at UW-SP. Although my students had been away from the classroom for almost two weeks, I wanted to turn them loose on a project in hopes that they'd discover new information in a context which mirrored my lessons in the past few months. My high school has a computer lab like so many other schools, but in my conversation with students I came to the realization that their teachers were somewhat reluctant to use this 'teaching tool' as they could. And so, my New Year's lesson would take the form of something like a webquest with groups of 4-5 students. Using the concept of creating a front page to a newspaper, I asked my students to image themselves back in the year 1787 when news of an innovative concept called "The Constitution" was revealed to the country. They were employed by a newspaper within one of the thirteen states and it was their job to communicate this "news" to the public.

I laid out the entire process with a packet which contained resource forms and story-board outlines, along with suggestions on dividing up the various responsibilities as reporter, graphics, layout, and general editor. Three class hours would be dedicated to the computer lab, but it was of utmost importance for groups to recognizing who was doing what and by when as deadline dates provided accountability and demonstrated the importance for the task at hand. An attached rubric noted how each segment of the project would be graded and with 50% of their Final Exam grade at stake, most students realized how serious I was with the project. Knowing that young teens need to get their information in various formats, I downloaded an assortment of helpful links on my class wiki and showed the class how they could easily reference these from home. The school librarian had also set aside a list of books which I had provided to her, and in addition, I supplied her with a copy of the lesson plan so she was aware of what the students might be looking for in the way of resource assistance.

Then the moment of truth for identifying who was going to be in each group. I was torn between whether I should assign working groups of four members or let them make their own choices. Rather than sticking to my guns, I elected to oblige by those of the class...which was to chose their own partners. I gave them two minutes to break and reform within their groups, and then reminded them about the importance of the task at hand. I went around to each group and asked one individual to serve as Team Captain in order to allow me easy-access to monitoring their progress. And since this was going to play a huge role in their final grade, I noted where each individual was with regards to their class grade as of that moment. I made this information 'public' to the group as I needed to stress how much this could help each individual. Some of my students got off to a horrible start with their grades last September, but this was a 'golden opportunity' for them to change all of that. For those students with current grades of 'A' -it was their moment to shine by pulling it all together for this project.

At the end of that first class I felt good about the prospects of this working, but after I unveiled it to the other three classes I was extremely pumped up as I drew from their excitement of doing "hands on work" in the computer lab. The first session in the computer lab was a real eye-opener as I watched each group begin to tackle the task. While there was the occasional comment of "I don't understand how to do this," I witnessed some good learning taking place as students undertook the challenge. In fact, I would describe it as 'high energy times 10' and then some. I made my rounds with each group, demonstrating the task with a large blank piece of paper along with a sample of today's front page from the local newspaper, pointing out features and characteristics of layout and design.

Although we still have two computer labs forthcoming in the next two weeks, I sense some good things taking place within the minds of my students. Some of who were rarely engaged have suddenly come to life again, and those who excelled with the subject of History remain focused with the task. Best of all, I feel invigorated by their learning and I look forward to seeing this come to fruition in the final two weeks of this first semester. Stay tuned.....