Saturday, January 31, 2009

Teach to YOUR Students

As a student teacher a couple of years back, I was a dynamo at producing lesson plans. Unfortunately, my university prepared me so well to make lesson plans with exactly the right components, that I didn't know how not to follow them to the letter. If I didn't hit every single aspect, I wasn't doing it right so the lesson was going to be deficient, right?

Well, let me tell you: My cooperating teacher always used to say, "A teacher's middle name has to be flexibility." If you are not, odds are, you will end up failing your students, because you are too busy being perfect to pay attention.

I recognized the contrast yesterday morning. I had been out of math the day before and the students had taken their test with the sub. I came into school and got out all of the information for the next lesson and even made up a little sheet that would help them organize their work in the multi-step fraction problems we were embarking on. In short, I was prepared!

When my students walked in, however, they looked bedraggled. The test had been too hard for them and they weren't ready. In a full hour the day before some of them hadn't even finished. In that moment I simply scrapped the entire thing. Something that has taken me a long time to learn is simply this; There is always Monday. That lesson isn't going anywhere, but for now, my students needed some support. We spent the first half of class retracing our steps, doing example problems together and getting them back into the routine. When I could tell they were getting confident I gave ALL of the students their tests back (even those who had finished) and they spent the rest of the time finishing or reworking problems so that they could be confident in that final product.

When you look around, and see a classroom full of blank or (worse) frustrated faces, it is not time to move on and get them in over their heads. Assess the climate of your classroom, and teach YOUR students. It doesn't matter if the rest of the classes are already starting geometry, it doesn't matter if you had a schedule to follow, if they are not getting it there is no point. Your job is to teach them, not to be the best ever schedule follower.

Here is my advice:
1) Look around the room and ask questions often. If your face is lost in the pages of a lesson plan, you are not seeing what is actually going on.
2) If you are experienced enough, scrap the lesson plan altogether. You might need a little outline to help you remember, and I understand that, but there are some occasions where it is perfectly ok to start teaching and paying attention and finding out where the students want to take you. If they are engaged, their questions and ideas will start to form the lesson for you.
3) Be flexible. Don't rush to get in information as if you are on a deadline. How will it help your students to have a partial understanding on a lot of different things. Let them really grasp a concept and feel good about it, so that they're excited about the next thing they learn, not discouraged.
4) Have a great attitude. When I come into my class and tease my students about how we are going to learn something REALLY hard but I know they are all super awesome brilliant students who are going to prove to me that it is actually really easy, they take it as a challenge. Their eyes are bright and they are ready to learn. There is nothing wrong with being silly or making it fun.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Writing Time

Sometimes a teacher just needs practical solutions to solve a problem. Answers that are direct and easy to implement are always a bonus.

As I talked to a friend and colleague today, I learned that some of the things that I have implemented this year (and changed from how I did them last year) fall into that category. My friend was looking for help turning her students into successful independent writers. Some of the things that I shared with her seemed simple enough, but they were definitely learned and not inherent processes.

1) Independent writing means just that...independent. Students will never get better if you hold their hands every second. Give them time to write alone every day and don't worry about reading everything they produce. Practice is practice.
2) Develop mini-lessons. During a 45 minute writing lesson, the teacher should speak no longer than 15 minutes. That is enough time to introduce one skill and model it/read an example of it. After that time, students will stop listening. So stop talking and let them start writing!
3) Give students daily writing feedback. Find a way to conference with students and edit together with them so you can model what that self checking process looks like. During this time I suggest that you choose a stationary location and let students come to you. You will actually have time to see more students that way.
4) Pick a core group of students to to sit near you. You have already identified the students who have the ability to work independently without causing trouble and needing one-on-one assistance. Those students can stay at their desks during writing time. The teacher station should consist of a table that fits at least 5 students comfortably. The students who need to be monitored should sit there for easy access to both discipline and guidance. The seat next to the teacher should be left open and the independent workers can rotate in for their individual conferences. This way, you are able to check the progress and comprehension of each student almost every day.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Professional Development

If you are dedicated to your art, you will learn to push yourself.

On the advice of a friend, I joined a Spanish Language Meet-up ( and went to one of their events for the first time last night. Now first, I will say that I had an excellent time at my first meet-up and could see how they could become addicting. However, if you try this and have a terrible experience, I strongly suggest you put yourself out there again with a different group. It could make all of the difference.

Second, I think that the success of your meet-up is largely based on attitude. I came into the meet-up with no expectations at all. My goal was to meet new people while practicing the language I love. I found a group where, you may go and speak as little or as much Spanish as you'd like. That's where dedication comes in. If I wasn't going to be committed, what was the point? Throughout the night I met some pretty interesting people (and definitely not people that I would choose to associate with if I was picking out of a line-up) and was complimented several times for my Spanish skills. Whether or not my Spanish was legitimately amazing, I was so proud of myself for sticking with it and getting the most out of the experience.

By the end of the night, and probably due to my teaching nature, I was actually translating for others! In fact, our native Spanish speaking waiter and I became quick friends and I learned much of his life story as well. I was excited to learn that he was so impressed to see a group of people who were working hard to better themselves in some apparent way.

Truthfully, I have a lot of respect for that as well. So, as a call to action, I suggest that the teachers out there who have gotten "comfortable" where they're at, break out of the mold. You might find that you enjoy it...and you will definitely learn from it.