Tuesday, October 8, 2013

It's an Uphill Battle

I'm learning, slowly, that (being a complete control freak) teaching is not routine. Teaching does not lend well to the perfectionist. And that teaching can be messy without being an actual mess. And as I type this out, my brain is imploding because its favorite thing is order.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

First Day, Year Four

Getting ready for the first day of school is always nerve-wracking, despite it being my fourth first day! I don't remember feeling overwhelmed on the first day when I was a student, but as a teacher, I feel overwhelmed just thinking about all of the handouts I provide my kids on day one.

One of the things I started doing last semester was writing a introductory letter to my students and having them write a letter back to me. I attached this assignment below! One of the new things I'm trying this semester is providing my students with a classmate contact sheet. I really want to push my students to be more proactive in their education. Too often I allow them to rely on me for things I feel are their responsibility. Students will have to find one other student in class to become their classmate contact. Next week, when I put them into lab groups, they will record three to four more classmates' contact information. The idea is that when they have questions, in or out of class, they turn to their peers before me. Additionally, I hope that this will build community and camaraderie in our classroom. This is also attached below.

The other new thing I'm trying is not having my students sit in an arranged seating chart from day one. I'm definitely a huge control freak, so this is out of my comfort zone. At the end of last year, I had this idea where I would have students choose their seats based on their needs. For example, if a student is really strong in science and doesn't get distracted easily, I would recommend them to sit in the back of the class. For students who are distracted easily or have a tendency to distract others, I would recommend them to sit in the front of the class. After I saw this on Pinterest, I printed my "recommendations" on post-it's and put them where I felt they were appropriate throughout my class. My students will pick their seats on day one, with my help if they're being honest about themselves, and write their names on the seating chart. We'll see how this goes. It may only last one week before I move them to where I like! Best of luck and skill and sanity for your first day back!

Update: This seating thing didn't work. The kids just sat with their friends, even if it was in a place that was not conducive to their learning. Lessons learned: 1. Don't be afraid to try new things. 2. If I want to do something like this again, I would have to survey students on seat preferences in a way that their friends' answers wouldn't be able to distract them.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Back at It

Hello, all! I start school in less than two weeks!

A couple of posts ago, I lamented about how few resources are available for teachers at the secondary (science) level. As a person who is constantly trolling (not sure if I used that term right, but the imagery of me as a troll is entertaining, so I'm going to leave it) Pinterest and the blogosphere for teaching inspiration, I've often come up empty. Even the very basics would have been helpful for me when I started teaching three short years ago. I had taken a couple education classes in my college years (and those "classes" that teaching fellows provided), but most of us Fellows showed up day one clueless. (Reminder to self to write a post on being new as a teacher/to a school and feeling so completely lost and scared, because there are expectations but you haven't a clue what they are or how to fulfill them and at the same time you are expected to know how everything works. Schools need a new teacher ambassador.)

I remember when preparing for class, the first thing I sat down to do was write my syllabus. So I sat down and stared at a blank screen. But I didn't know where to start, so it stayed blank for some time. Thank goodness for the internet (so weird how it didn't exist in my early school days); I started to google sample syllabi. Some were great templates, others were probably the first syllabus the teacher ever wrote and never went back to make it better. Because there are good syllabi and there are bad syllabi.

In my opinion, a good syllabus is short, but covers all the necessary day one bases. Some important things can be left off and covered in detail along the way. I also think of a syllabus as the "first impression" document for your class. It's probably the first hand out your kids will get and if you're required to post it online, like I am, it's the first document your parents will see. People may not comment, but they notice the little things - like spelling or layout. (Both of which I pride myself on.) I want to be taken seriously, so my syllabus should support that. At the same time, I don't (and can't) pretend that I don't have a weird sense of humor, so I inject that into the syllabus as well.

Below, I've scribd in my syllabus for this school year and also, a "syllabus fishing" assignment. The latter is so that my students actually read the syllabus and get to know it on their own time. In previous years, I've stood at the front of the class reading the thing. No mas. I put myself back into their shoes and remembered how the first day is just reading syllabi and filling out info cards. This year, I'm putting this responsibility on my students. The sooner they know my policies, the less headache I'll have later - "IT'S IN THE SYLLABUS!" :)

I've also linked some other great syllabi that I found while perusing the world wide web. Some of those linked are very graphical and unique! It makes me second guess my format, but I think I'll stick to the "traditional" layout for this year. I hope that this post is useful for those beginning to get back to work!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Actions Speak Louder than Words

I'm taking this teacher development class called Studying Skillful Teaching 1. We are using the text The Skillful Teacher: Building your Teaching Skills by Jon Saphier, et. al. One of the introductory portions of the text says teachers are important, because what we do is important.

Well, this is coming from a former teacher turned education researcher/advocate. So of course he believes that what teachers do is important. However, similar sentiments have come from all around, because who can be against teachers? Who can be against the people who spend several hours a day teaching children and trying to produce a better tomorrow ripple effect? This ripple effect is certainly why I became a teacher.

One of my fellow teachers turned to our table and said, "It's hard to believe that anyone really believes this. One example that comes to mind is class sizes." She is a middle school art teacher with more than thirty students in her class. Her statement caused be to start thinking about all the messages we get as teachers that tell us that what we do is not all that important and that we are not set up for success and that the powers that be do not really care about whether we succeed or not.

Class sizes is one thing. Thirty teenagers. One teacher. Honors biology. Forty-five minutes. If we subtract just five minutes at the beginning and end of class for announcements and reminders, it's really thirty-five minutes. Each student will get to interact with me, one on one, for less than two minutes a day. And I'm supposed to be teaching them how photosynthesis works. For the first time. Within two class periods. What am I, a magician? If they wanted us to be able to do this, they'd cap classes at 25. Back in the 90s I had an elementary class of 28 which I thought was huge. A 20-student cap would be better, but I don't want to ask for too too much.

What other job is a person expected to interact with that many individuals in that span of time? And not just hi and bye, but REALLY interact and make sure they were understanding something?

Income. Everyone always talks about this, so I won't.

The breadth of the curriculum. The curriculum is jam-packed from August to June. It is already tight even if you teach all 200 IQ students who are present everyday. But many students are absent once, or more, a school year. We have random school interruptions (e.g. fire drills, assemblies, lockdown drills, standardized testing, PSAT's, etc.). Asking us to cover so much information for every student, regardless of current capability or pace, is asking us to graduate these students to the next class without having them really have a solid foundation in the previous. And we wonder how students fall further and further behind each year.

Our say. Teachers are practically ignored when it comes to decisions that affect the classroom. We say that we don't like heterogenous classes (http://www.edutopia.org/node/6527/results), but we have to teach them anyway - and the idea of eliminating the on-level class (which means, eliminating the honors class) has been floating around. At my school, the on-level and honors class is mixed. It's like asking two different bands to play over each other at the same time. It's a headache. And should we not be regarded as the experts? Instead, the Department of Education relies on research done by people, most of the time, who are no longer teaching. When we would ever see the medical community changing the way they work based off of the sayings of an individual who hasn't practiced for years? So he says, this is the way we should start doing heart transplants, despite not having done one in a decade. And Mayo or Hopkins says to their surgeons, start doing this now though the man has very little current knowledge!

The idea that our job is so easy, we can reach perfection. No child left behind told us that it is possible to have EVERY student in the country meet proficiency in reading, math, and science by 2014. And if we could not meet this goal, we were failing the children. This has been said before, but I think it's so brilliant, I'll reiterate: this is like telling police departments across the country that all crime has to be eliminated by 2014. And let's not even say all crime. Let's pick three to represent reading, math, and science - homicides, robberies, and rape. And if police departments could not meet this goal, they were failing the country. Despite what you may think about the PD's of the U.S., no one, and I mean NO ONE, expects crimes to ever stop ... ever. Because humans are imperfect. We make mistakes, we have individual struggles. Some are just disinterested in living within the confines of the law. Whatever the reason is, we're never going to eliminate these three crimes and no one blames policemen.

Then come resources and the limited budget we're asked to work with. You put your eggs in the most important basket. When you shaft us on the resources we're allotted, you are telling us that we are not important.

Teachers and the education system are NOT important. Not until people start saying acting like they/we are.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Want My Honors Classes Back

I follow Edutopia on facebook. I think it's an awesome site and I peruse it sometimes when I'm in need of some very specific inspiration. What I mean by that is when I need that "Freedom Writers," We can achieve anything!, and We can significantly change lives within a couple of months! inspiration. After reading articles from successful schools on the site, I always feel like anything is possible in the classroom.

Today, they posted the above image with the lines, "Is "the homogenous honors class" a problem at your school? Read how one school took bold measures to tackle that problem: http://bit.ly/17oayv6." 

Full disclosure: I didn't click that link to read how one school took bold measures yet. I don't know if this post has anything to do with what I'm about to talk about. But it reminds me of the topic I'm about to talk about, so there's my inspiration for this.

And by homogenous, I believe Edutopia means Caucasian or Asian students. I'm for encouraging Latino and African-American students to pursue challenging courses that they may not, because they are unaware of the possibilities or because their peer groups are not taking these courses. If they are at the point in their education where they are able to handle honors classes, any student should pursue more challenge. But with this push, I'm not seeing a surge of capable Latino and African-American students pursue honors and AP classes. I'm just seeing a surge of students, of all races, that are not yet capable into these difficult classes. And until Latino and African-American students' test scores start to rise, I wouldn't expect a surge into these classes, either. There needs to be something else done instead of pushing birds out of a nest before they're able to fly. Honors classes won't solve the effects that poverty, which many minority students face, has had on their education and they aren't able to fill the gaps created after several years of struggling in a classroom.

When I was growing up, I took all honors or gifted/talented classes. (I find myself to be of average intelligence and even that is questionable some days...) When in elementary school, I was always in the "advanced" reading and math group and then when I moved to middle school, I was placed on the honors track, according to my test scores. Once you're in a track, you typically ride on that track until high school graduation. However, I did have a friend who really wanted to be in honors English, so she worked outside of class to bridge the gap (English was her second language) and then was promoted by our English teacher.

In school, I took classes with the same set of kids - honors kids - with the exception of the electives I signed up for every year. In my opinion then, all of these honors kids were high-flying, intelligent kids and I enjoyed taking classes where the class culture was to work very hard. Comments made in class generally felt additive to our education and I really enjoyed all of my classes from middle to high school.

The trend in schools today is to break down the track system. Students are allowed to take whatever classes they wish to, as long as they took (and in most situations, passed with a D) a pre-requisite course. We think that this is sending the message to kids that they are free to pursue anything they want. That's a great message.

But our execution of this message is poor and has produced some serious consequences.

At the highly-rated high school that I teach at, the school culture is to take honors and AP classes. Even if you're not ready or interested in doing the work required to keep up with them. That's all good and fine. You'll start to sink and then you'll make one of two choices: keep sinking or get swimming. And that is where we build self-character. But at what cost? Honors classes are beginning to fill with unmotivated, uninterested students who visibly have an effect on the rest of the class. As any chemist can tell you, reactions occur at the rate of the limiting reagent - you can only have the reaction move forward to the point where the least available reactant is used up. This leaves behind a lot of the other reactant, unused, unreacted. Classes have to move at a certain pace. If everyone is brilliant in that they pick up new information and solve problems quickly, the class will move quickly and keep these students engaged. If everyone is brilliant in that they pick up new information and solve problems slowly, the class will move slowly and keep these students engaged. When you mix combinations and variations of the two, you end up taking the average pace, or worse, taking the slowest pace because you don't want to leave behind any stragglers.

The fast kids get bored. These are generally the traditionally honors kids. They feel shafted. They aren't being as challenged as they would like to be. Some might say that differentiation is the key. But you are one teacher and when we push our kids - any of our kids - they value and require some support.

When I was completing my minor for secondary education, I was told (and I agree) that we learn best when we are out of our comfort zone - but not too far out of it. There's a "sweet spot" where new endeavors are difficult - but not too difficult. When the task is too easy, we get bored and disinterested. When the task is too hard, we get frustrated and disinterested. When the task is just right, we experience little wins and are able to keep working towards that goal. When we present our students with these attainable challenges, we need to be at the ready to support and scaffold.

Teachers are pretty magical folk, but to ask one person to support and scaffold three different groups (if that few!) in the same forty-five minute period is a bit crazy. I so value the times where I can really spend time with a group and have discussions and really push their thinking. I don't want to have my time and attention be divided. I want to send the message that I care and I want to help them get there.

Students are polite though. They know that there's only one of us. They know we don't have the time that we want to have with them. And that's a shame.

What I guess I'm trying to say is that this problem - teacher shortage - just gets multiplied by not just the number of students in a class, but the number of variations of needs. It's unfair to us as teachers and it's unfair for the kids. They deserve to learn at their pace and honestly, as a student and a teacher, I know that that best happens in a homogenous class.

I don't want you to think I don't value students of "different walks" or needs collaborating with one another. Electives help with this. But there does need to be time for students to work with like-minded students to push their limits. And all because there are two fast-working students in a class working together, that does not mean that they are the exact same. Despite their similar approaches to learning, each can still teach the other about different ways of thinking.

We currently have this country-wide school culture where we push all kids into one class, calling it "heterogenous" and "high expectations." We aren't leaving this pit stop any time soon. But if you think that this is truly the best way to help our children - all of our children - learn. I'm sorry to say, I'm pretty sure this is wrong.

What we're doing is like saying, "Anyone can be president!" (True statement.) And then literally letting anyone be president, regardless of how able they are at the present time. Maybe some are ready to lead at a young age. Maybe others aren't ready until much later. But making it law that people can run for the presidency at 35 is a great example of that flaw. We've had numerous candidates who meet that requirement and clearly have no capacity to lead the country. All because we have a bunch of high school freshmen, we can't make a blanket statement to say they're all ready to take honors biology. And if we really valued education, we would get real. YES, all students can achieve GREAT things. But a great thing may take one student a couple of days to achieve and others years. It is backwards thinking to put all of these students in the same class and expect good results. I wrote earlier on how the fast-paced students suffered from this arrangement, but so do the slower learners. If it takes me a year to master, say calculus integrals (this is probably true), but the curriculum guide allots one week to practice and master and then moves onto the next skill which also takes you a year of practice to master, when will I ever feel successful? I'm just going to keep "learning" new things, but never being good at a single thing, while I watch my peers speed on by.

In part, I have to admit, I'm writing this post, because I've seen my brightest students suffer, because I work the class to the middle. And I've seen my slower to catch on students suffer, because we have a lot to cover and I don't have to time to slow down and really work with them. But I'm also writing this as a teacher. Our schools aren't doing well. Shouldn't we try to make this job as easy and fool-proof as possible so we can better ensure success? Make my life easier. There's a ton of information for me to teach my kids for honors biology. With even fast-paced students, I can barely fit all I want to do with them into a school year. How can I realistically spend the time I need to with all different groups? When I taught special ed math I felt the same way. How can my kids be expected to learn the same exact things as their peers in the same amount of time with their inability to multiply, divide, or work with numbers that weren't whole? I truly believe that they would have been able to grasp the 7th or 8th grade math content ONE day, but not at that same pace. It is unreasonable. I don't see how others who aren't teaching can't see this.

Bring back the tracks. Make it easier for motivated, interested students to move up. Make it easier for the struggling students to move down and then up, with improvement. Heterogenous classes are saying that because one set of students is struggling, we should mix them with the high-flyers and hope something rubs off on them. Like grit is contagious. It's not. And if not, we'll have the struggling kids rub off on our high-flyers. And unfortunately, students acting out because of disinterest or difficulty CAN be contagious.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Summertime Pinterest Development

Some teachers are able to revert back to their human lives when they return that classroom key and leave school for the summer. They enjoy the whole eight weeks of being student-free. They come back sun-tanned!

I am not one of those teachers. (Don't worry, I don't feel bad about it, so neither should you.) Many teachers enjoy their summer and teen/tween-free days, but still think about their classroom and curricula every now and then. Especially teachers like me, who are relatively new and just want to finally be better and a real teacher. We think of all the things we did not so well in the last school year and brainstorm how to improve. My pinterest page is filled with fellow teachers pinning ideas for the upcoming school year. We haven't been out of school for more than a couple weeks! This isn't a bad thing though. I'm very excited to return to work and continue to try to be awesome. One of the most disappointing things, though, that I've found is that pinterest and the internet in general is quite lacking in the high school teacher development area. There are tons of sites geared toward elementary school teachers; perhaps elementary school teachers like to share more or perhaps they have the time to share more. For a newish teacher like myself, I am constantly searching for great ideas and a different outlook, but often come up short.

This is probably what the first person who wanted to warm up leftovers felt like: but why isn't there a machine invented that can nuke this plate of Thanksgiving leftovers faster? And then there's me: but why aren't there more creative ideas and approaches to teaching high school biology? I mean, people have been teaching it for decades!! And this isn't just a lack of content on the web. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are quite lacking in the 9-12 department as well.

So I came to a conclusion. I'm going to have to pull a Percy Spencer (the man who invented the microwave, according to my two-second google search). I'm going to have to invent the ideas and approaches and be the one who makes something, hopefully useful, available for us biology teachers. While I highly enjoy typing endlessly my opinions on the downfalls of the American education system and the challenges I encounter regularly (this is not sarcasm, I love to vent), I think this approach may be a more productive use of my time. We'll see. I may end up like the many others before me, posting a couple times in September and October and then falling asleep with ungraded papers strewn about (this has happened to me at least twenty times this past school year) and never returning back to post.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Teachers, Appreciated

I've never had a "bad" teacher in my life.

I feel like that statement says two things about me: 1. That I've been fortunate enough to have had people who honestly cared about their responsibility and their students over the course of my public school education and 2. I have always been self-aware enough to know that when I was doing poorly in school, it was my fault for not taking actions to close that gap (because I was, to be perfectly honest, never one to try at the things I wasn't good at), and not my teachers'. Maybe it says 3. I just came out of PG, and the idea of a bad teacher has lengthened the continuum.

Now that I've come to what I think is "full circle," I can finally write this post. However, I know in the near future, I'll probably go around this loop once more only to realize how different my perspective was then/now. Such is life.

In elementary school I had several pleasant teachers in my life. Ms. Gibbs was like the my school grandmother who taught me about the letters and how to hatch eggs. She also taught me about leprechauns and I still think I saw one on the light fixture that day. Ms. Gordon was strict and probably my least favorite teacher, but in her class I read the word "amphibian" aloud to the class (my sister taught it to me that week) and I felt so proud of myself that it almost makes up for the fact that she wouldn't let me go to the restroom so I peed myself in the computer lab. Ms. Budman had a lot of sass, looking back I didn't understand sass as a kid. She was a good teacher, very organized, and what you'd imagine teachers in books to be like (holiday theme sweaters and all. Ms. Weinstein was also strict. She had high standards for us and pushed us. I learned a lot in third grade and it was a good year. With Ms. Ryder I probably had the most fun, having macarena contests and pretending to be an indentured servant on a boat, but probably learned the least. Although in retrospect, maybe she taught in a non-traditional, hands-in manner. She did teach me how circuits worked and that year we built dioramas that had lighting fixtures that turned off and on. That's pretty impressive for being nine.

But Ms. Fliegel was my favorite. And that's probably because I was one of hers (teacher's pet alert!). She was like my school mom. She was extremely open (answered our very first sex questions), easy to understand (she spoke in examples we could understand), sweet (when I passed out in said sex class she cradled me until the nurse came), and she was the right balance of fun and strict. She really cared about her students, even the annoying ones. Two years later I had heard she died and I was pretty sad. She was meant to be a teacher and it's a tragedy she wasn't longer.

In middle school, I experienced another batch of good, or at least well-meaning, educators. Ms. Beane and Ms. Christopher were made an effort to connect to their students; Ms. Worthington kept it cool even when the class didn't; Ms. Dalkiewicz was challenging and sassy; Mr. Thorne wanted us to learn and grow so badly; Ms. Dusterhoff was a great, but strict math teacher (imagine a German mathematics drill sergeant); Ms. Hilliard was easy to approach; Mr. Sheldon was awkward, but passionate about history; Mr. Craemer taught me my basis of biology; Mr. Boone supported me despite how terribly I played the flute; and Ms. Fandey was funny, a great teacher, and compassionate (when I earned a C on a quiz, she pulled me aside to ask if I was having personal problems). I look back on middle school and smile fondly. Not because middle school was a good time, I was awkward and trying to find my place in things, but because my school was amazingly cohesive and everyone worked together to give us an ideal foundation into teenagerhood.

And then in high school, Ms. Demos was the Ms. Frizzle of mathematics - she loved math and that made us want to love math; Ms. Smith was the sweetest English teacher I had ever had; Ms. Nataro was strict and brilliant and taught me steady persistence; Mr. Schmidt helped me to get my rhythm on (and it is only because of him that I have any rhythm); Ms. Kenefick taught me how to stay calm in the heat of a moment; Mr. Wattecamps taught me that it's okay to be a little bit crazy - all smart people are; Mr. Woodruff taught me the depth that a good discussion can have; Mr. Su and Ms. Hannegrefs taught me a ton about psychology and how to engage students through conversation; Ms. Mannino taught all of us how to handle large amounts of work and come out on top; Ms. Boyle taught me what it's like to be a teacher and encouraged me to pursue the profession.

I was also lucky to have had an excellent science department that honed my interests and abilities. Every science teacher I had during high school was inspiring and smart. They all knew what they were doing and how to do it well. That can't often be said about an entire department. Mr. Kuehner was this brilliant physicist who paced, probably because his mind moved faster than we did; Ms. Zanni was an intelligent chemist who taught me the basics of chemistry; Ms. Gallo was a hugely animated teacher who I hope to be more like as I grow in my biology teaching career - she didn't lecture us much, but I remember so much from class even today; Ms. Lee and Ms. Considine were laid back, but completed the job moderately well and I could tell that she cared about her students; Ms. Schlossnagle made learning anatomy fun, despite how detailed it was (and she always recognized us as "doctors" when we did well on a test). Ms. Gregory is who reminds me of myself as a teacher - intelligent, but a little scatter-brained and fun to have class with; Ms. Valli was a bit loopy, but I could tell that she knew a lot about physics and had a kindness to her.

However, the teacher who had the single-most influence on my teaching today would be Mr. Heifetz. What a phenomenal educator. He was incredibly challenging for a middle school teacher. I would never be that challenged again in any of my classes. He pushed us to think, to analyze, and to do work those much older than us struggled to do. He made us, at least me, want to be better. And most remarkably, he did this all without making us want to quit or rebel. He showed me how good surmounting challenges could feel and more importantly, that we could. He didn't accept that we were middle schoolers. We did intelligent, real work and we appreciated him all the while for it. The push didn't feel mean. It felt like he knew that we had so much potential, but only a limited amount of time to discover it. He taught us how to build character, stop complaining, and to "get some hair on our chests." It also helped that he was sarcastic and had a charm to him. Middle school girls thought he was cute because he was so brilliant in our eyes! But looking back, I still think he was brilliant and I know every student he has today thinks the same.

I don't think of myself as a teacher - not yet - it's too soon to tell if I've influenced any lives. It's still an amazing job that I'm constantly fascinated by. If you have had a great teacher in your life, like the 30+ I've had, please take the time to thank them for taking their time in developing you.

Monday, February 11, 2013

I'm Alive

As the title suggests, I have not been killed by over-work. I would love to post more about my experiences in teaching in one of the best public schools in the country, but there is SO much to do. ALWAYS. Can't wait to share though!