Mississippi Teacher Corps

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Required blog: learning styles

I gave a learning styles inventory to all of my classes within the first few days of school, partly because I needed something for them to do after they finished the diagnostic test I gave them and partly because my mentor teacher was giving the inventory to her classes, and it seemed mildly interesting. At any rate, I let the questionnaires sit and collect dust until this week, when I realized that I needed to look at them for my blog. It was just one of those things that went on the backburner because it wasn't pressing, but I do wish that I'd thought about the questionnaires earlier in the year.
The overwhelming majority of my students are visual learners, a trend that is consistent across all of my classes. At the beginning of the year, I was doing very little teaching that involved visual learning and relied primarily on auditory devices (i.e. lecture and note-taking). In retrospect, I did this because my first two attempts at using visual devices to learn (having students draw lab safety posters and having students diagram a plant cell) failed miserably. The problem was not with the visual nature itself (which I had implicitly assumed), but with the fact that my students need VERY clear guidelines for any independent practice that they do, or else will sit and stare at their paper for the rest of the period. I've just recently started to have students represent information that I've already taught using visual devices, and I'm very happy with the results. I came up with some ideas after my school district pulled me out of school for a day to send me to a "Thinking Maps" workshop. I remember making lots of cynical comments to myself during the workshop about the fact that we were taking 7 hours to learn that stuff, and that the district thought it was worth all of my students missing a day of teaching, but when all is said and done, it gave me some useful ideas. I had students use a "double bubble" map (sort of a modern Venn diagram) to compare and contrast plant/animal cells, and a multiflow map to see the reactants and products in photosynthesis and cell respiration. This worked very well; I saw some students who never seemed to focus much during class become really engaged for the first time, and the visual aids seemed to really help students process what I'd been lecturing about every day. This was also the first time I'd been able to use student-centered classroom activities in a way that really seemed to work. Seeing the results of my learning styles inventory reaffirmed how important it will be for me to continue to use these visual devices in teaching.
Very few of my students were kinesthetic or auditory learners. I've been using auditory devices heavily, probably too heavily, but have used very few kinesthetic methods. On a side note, I found that fact ironic, given that when I took the learning styles inventory, I found out that I myself am a kinesthetic learner. I'll be doing a pretty sweet predator/prey activity next week that involves lots of kinesthetics, and as I figure out how to integrate lab-esque activities into my lessons (which hasn't happened very well so far for a combination of reasons: lack of classroom space, difficulty of obtaining supplies at short notice, and concerns about classroom management), I hope that I can use kinesthetic methods more frequently just to mix it up a little more.
As a final point, I'd like to comment on the biggest lesson I learned from giving the surveys, which had nothing to do with learning styles at all. As I mentioned, this was one of the first assignments I gave my students, and it made me realize just how hard it is for a middle school student to follow a complicated set of directions. Some students were confused about how to even fill out the questionnaire, and virtually everyone asked me questions about how to do the scoring at the end. This was an accurate preview of how much difficulty my students have following directions that are obvious to me. I've become increasingly more careful about making directions explicit, clear, and simply worded. I still end up explaining written directions to individual students more often than I should (a perfect example was the Sudoku bonus puzzle I gave to students who finished my nine weeks exam early... wow, I got tired of explaining that one after the hundredth time!), but I'm learning.
Now playing: The Eagles- Take it Easy

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Just my imagination running away with me

I'm one of the lucky few with a week long break in the middle of October. Flew back to New England yesterday, am staying with the folks and hopefully visiting my college later in the week. On the flight home, I sat next to a man who teaches middle school in one of the ritzy, techinally-public-but-who-are-we-kidding-it-may-as-well-be-private schools on the north shore of Chicago, who couldn't understand why I would actually want to teach in the kind of school I'm teaching in rather than a school like his, and kept on mentioning that his school would be a really great place for me to work (for the record: I'm not tempted in the least to move to Chicago and teach a bunch of rich kids). Over the past few months, I've had my moments of homesickness, but did a pretty good job of putting on the blinders and focusing on school, my reasons for being in Mississippi, and the wonderful people I've met down there. Coming home, though, all the feelings of homesickness I've managed to somewhat hold back come pouring out. I love New England. I was born and raised here, I went to college here, and it's in my blood. I look around the beautiful landscape and ask myself what I'm doing in Mississippi when I could have so easily stayed here.
I'm having strong emotional reactions to a lot of the little things I'm seeing when I come back home. Today, I went apple picking with my parents. It's the perfect activity to do on a fall day in New England, and it brought back lots of childhood memories. In my opinion, a New England fall is about the most beautiful thing in the world, and I found myself staring out the car window mesmorized by the red maples with their flaming leaves. Even the poison ivy looks beautiful in its fall colors. I went to the grocery store today, and thought about how nice it was to find all the foods I wanted so easily; no scrambling to find the vegetables I want or some hummus or some Stonyfield yogurt. At one point, I looked around at the crowd of people I was standing in and thought that it was nice not to be the only person in the crowd who was some kind of ambiguous, not black but not white, race. Little things.
I went through lots of my pictures from college today, and found an envelope full of nice personal notes that my teammates wrote me last year as part of my senior gift. Many of my college friends are still in this area, and I'll be seeing some of them this week. Having the kind of reactions I am being at home, I can only imagine how hard it will be to go back up to my college and see all the buildings, the trees, the spaces where so many of my formative experiences happened, and see all of my underclassmen friends whom I dearly miss, still living the life that is so distant from my recent experiences.
I ended up daydreaming a lot today about what I'll do when I'm done Teacher Corps. I think about it from time to time in Mississippi, and don't have a clear plan because I'm really living week-to-week right now and don't need to figure out anything that far in the future. Depending on the day, I might imagine myself staying in Mississippi for a while longer to teach, or going to all sorts of other places to teach, or leaving teaching and going to grad school, probably for public health. At any rate, I had lots of daydreams about living in New England today. I keep thinking of the Fountains of Wayne song "Peace and Love," "Sometimes I think I might just move to Vermont/Open up a bookstore or a vegan restaurant." I found myself talking to my parents about how maybe I'd like to teach in a poor, rural part of New England (found myself thinking of the Cider House Rules, somehow), or maybe the Boston Public Schools, or maybe (by my own admission, this one is much more of a pipe dream) become an organic farmer up here and grow all the vegetables and fruits that seem so hard to come by in Mississippi, where the chemicals that the crop dusters spray over the cotton fields make me wake up in the middle of the night wheezing. Maybe have some alpacas, too. Heck, during my nap today, I even dreamed about harvesting potatoes on the same organic farm where I worked when I was in middle school (huh, this must be why my students think I'm a hippie). My overly active imagination is running wild. I still haven't fully processed my thoughts about being here, and about what it will be like to go back to Mississippi in a week. In a way, I'm trying not to think too hard about it because I know it will be painful. In the meantime, I'm interested to see what else my imagination manages to cook up.
Now playing- Fountains of Wayne- Peace and Love

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Resolutions for next term

We have one more week left in the term before a week of break, and wow, am I looking forward to that break. Strangely enough, in some ways I am also looking forward to the beginning of next term. After coming into school at the beginning of the year with only the foggiest notion of what was actually going on, grappling with minor issues like figuring out how to keep papers from 6 classes straight and how to arrange the seats in my classroom (OK, maybe that one's still an issue, as I really haven't figured out what to do with the half classroom/half lab setup that somehow fails to make a decent classroom or a lab by trying to be both at once), there were just so many things about my teaching and organization that had to be put on the backburner while I struggled with classroom management and the logistics of little things. Now that I'm a little better settled and organized, I've been thinking a lot about things that I want to do differently, and even starting to do some of them. It may still be a while before I'm a good teacher, but I'll be a better teacher next term. Here are some of my goals.
1. First and foremost: stop talking so darned much!
I've ended up lecturing much more than I intended to because things always take me longer to explain than I anticipate, and I'll often have something planned as independent practice that I realize my students do not understand well enough to do on their own. I'm getting a little better about that. I've also been avoiding group work because the majority of the times I've tried it (and I've only tried it a handful of times), it flopped badly. Part of the problem is the physical layout of my room, and part of it is that I just cannot keep straight in my head which of my 130+ students shouldn't be put together because they are in rival gangs, because they will flirt with each other, because they just straight up don't like each other, etc. For all the reasons, I'm still going to mostly avoid groupwork. In part, I need to shut up (or, as my kids would say, "shut up talking to the class") for my own sanity; I hate it when my throat itches at the end of the day from talking so much. More importantly, though, the kids need to get more practice doing their own work rather than taking notes in class. I assign homework, which I basically count as bonus points for students who actually do it, but not everyone does the homework, and it seems like studying for a test outside of school is a foreign concept to some of my students. Plus, having kids do work during class gives them (and me) a better idea of how well they are understanding things before test time rolls around. I really resisted the idea of having kids just sit in class and do worksheets- after all, I want to teach, not babysit- but I think having them do more practice in class will afford me more opportunities to help them one-on-one, since no one comes for the extra help I always offer after school (heck, no one even comes to make up tests that they miss...) This brings me to my next point:
2. Keep kids posted on what they've missed.
Almost every day at the beginning of class, I repeat myself like a broken record, "Makeup Mondays. If you miss any work because you are absent, come Monday after school to make it up." I might as well be talking to a wall; I've had about 2 kids show up so far. Next term, I plan to collect classwork on a much more regular basis (see point 3), so I'll be more on top of what they've actually missed, and I'll post lists in the room to remind them of who missed what when they were absent. The whole make-up work issue has been really frustrating to me; a lot of the problem is that kids are unwilling to stay after school. They will occasionally interject in my Makeup Monday announcement, "How are we supposed to get home?" I'm tempted to tell them that if they can figure out a way to get home when they have detention, they can get home the same way for makeup days. Seriously. When I was in middle and high school, we had study halls (which turned into free blocks by high school) during the day, which was a great way that we could get extra help from teachers and make up work that we'd missed. I think the Delta schools would really benefit from requiring students to spend less time in class and having more opportunities like this (I could write a whole blog entry on my issues with the "more time in school is better education" philosophy that seems to be prevailant here), but who's listening to what some crazy young teacher from up North thinks, anyway. As far as the extra help goes, that's why my point #1 will be important, but as far as makeup work goes, they'll just have to bite the bullet and stay after school. I'm hoping that posting the lists will make them more motivated to do so, at least.
3. Grade less thoroughly and more frequently
I had this pretty dumb idea at the beginning of the year. I require my kids to keep binders (which stay in the classroom except for the few papers they choose to bring home to work on homework at the end of the day), and I thought, sweet, instead of dealing with the hassle of having kids hand in homework and classwork, I'll just check that stuff when I do binder checks! Stupid. A few reasons why: a. binder checks take so long that I do them very infrequently, so kids go for long stretches of time without getting any work back, b. many of my kids didn't even get binders, despite my constant reminders and my offers to sell them to the kids, and even the ones with binders haven't done a great job of organizing them according to the system I have in place, so homework and classwork inevitably get lost before I can correct them. This point is also tied to point 1, in that part of why I graded so little classwork was that I would have lots of days where kids weren't doing much beyond taking down notes that I gave them and discussing them. Just this past week, I started doing something new: I had kids do a little practice during class (in this case, I had them do concept maps of topics I'd already lectured on, advising them to use their textbooks and class notes to help them) and hand it in at the end. I spent about an hour total grading these assignments; I basically just glanced at them and gave slightly improvised grades along the lines of, "this kid got all the information down and was working hard in class- 100%," or, "this kid wasn't focusing very well in class and got down some of the stuff but not all- 70%" and then handed them back the next day. This is also great because it allows kids to have high classwork grades even if they do poorly on the tests (another problem I've been having relates to high failure rates). Confession: to make this work, I've had to do something kind of bad. I always felt that I should hand back graded assignments myself so that kids couldn't see other kids' grades, but this lost me a ton of class time because of the weird set-up of my room that makes it very hard to move around and that I really have no way of fixing. So, I've been handing back way too little work; I've just had papers sit in my "out" folder for weeks that never quite made it back (yes, I know how bad that is). Well, it got to the point where I decided that I'd sacrifice privacy for being able to give efficient feedback. So, I plan to keep this system up. It actually makes grading more manageable for me, too. I'm also planning to do daily mini-notebook checks next term, where I'll just walk around and ask kids to show me their bell-ringer and notes from the previous day and just check off to see that they have it. Having more independent practice time will make this much more feasible for me; when I talk for most of class, there's no way I'd have the time to do even spot checks.
4. Devote more class time to test preparation
This relates to point 2. I had an experience where I gave a review, then gave a test the next day, and almost everyone failed. I went over the old test and gave a retest. The day before the retest, I gave the kids all the same questions that would be on the test, and even told them that the review had all the same questions as the test. And yet, an embarrassing number of kids still failed miserably. I think the problem is simply that these kids didn't go home and study the answers that I'd basically handed to them. One time, I gave a homework assignment to make flashcards (and took a few minutes at the end of class to explain how to make and study flashcards), and some kids did it. Last week, I had several of my classes actually make flashcards in class as I walked them through it. The next day, I saw two girls in homeroom actually studying their cards! They didn't even have a test coming up very soon, but just pulled the cards out because they happened to have them in their pockets. Dude. When we were making cards in class, I had one boy comment, "This is really neat!" So here's my assessment of the situation: given a homework assignment to make flashcards, a lot of kids won't take the time to actually sit down and start writing out their cards. But given a stack of cards that they made in class (and by the way, even learning something in the process of making cards because it forced them to rewrite definitions), kids might have a few minutes of downtime and just pull out the cards and start looking at them. I plan to use this strategy frequently, and am looking for other ways I can have them do something in class that will help them study a little outside of class (suggestions, please?)
After writing all this, I feel a little weird because when I was in school, no teacher would ever have done things like have us study during class. Given the long school days with no built-in study time, and the very limited extent to which many of my students actually do work outside of school, though, I need to adjust my teaching somehow, and this is what I've got so far.

Now playing: Queen- Fat Bottomed Girls