Mississippi Teacher Corps

Monday, April 30, 2007

teaching motivated students: my two days of bliss

For the past three weeks, my school has been on a block schedule to prepare students for the MCT's. This translates to students attending only language arts, reading, and math classes, each for two hours a day. Each classroom contains twice the normal number of students, and the teachers who don't teach one of those subjects are assigned various other duties, usually managing the class for the subject area teachers. My school had never done a block schedule like this before, and many of the details were not worked out ahead of time, meaning that there was a very high degree of unpredictability. I often didn't know from day to day what I would be doing when I came into school, or rather, I thought I knew, but would sometimes be assigned to do something else at the last minute. For two weeks, I ran in-school detention on my hall, plus seventh period math remediation. I spent a few days managing the class of the language arts teacher on my hall, which mostly meant waking up sleeping students and occasionally telling them to stop talking or to focus (read: boring!)
One day, I came into school and was informed that instead of helping the language arts teacher, I'd spend the next two days assisting the reading teacher on the other seventh grade hall (meaning the seventh grade students that I don't teach). This teacher was dividing students into three groups based on their scores on practice tests. Each group went to a different classroom with a different teacher. I was assigned to teach the advanced students, or, as my principal phrased it, facilitate the advanced group. This sounded pretty exciting to me. Smart, motivated students most likely meant no discipline issues. Furthermore, I was told that I would probably have only about 10 students at a time. This sounded like the kind of class I can only dream of teaching.
When the reading teacher picked out the advanced students from her first period class, she told them that they had the highest scores on the practice test and that they were in great shape, and should just use the class time to see what areas they might want a little more practice with, and to teach each other and make up games, etc. She told them that I was there to help. The students were left with nothing more concrete than those instructions. So, I found myself with no plan whatsoever in hand, some state-test prep books lying around the room, and a group of students with their practice test results. It ended up being the most enjoyable two days of teaching I've had.
The students started analyzing and discussing their test scores without any prompting from me, and identified their weakest subject area. With each of the three groups I had, I did some combination of popcorn reading/discussion from the books and word games (mostly to practice prefixes and suffixes). The students came up with some ideas on their own, and I suggested some games to them. This learning environment is pretty much the way I picture my ideal classroom: student-centered activities with the teacher as the moderator, lots of cooperation, a healthy level of noise that doesn't excede my "too-loud" threshold, and the knowledge that at any given moment, I could ask the students to freeze and listen and know that they would cooperate with me promptly.
Toward the end of the first such class I taught, the students expressed their disappointment that they only had five more minutes before passing to the next period, and said that they wished the could stay all day. They were very excited to hear that I would be back to teach them the next day. One student commented that for the first time, he was excited to be in class. I received similar positive feedback from the other groups I taught. A number of students begged me to convince the administration to switch them from their science class into my science class, and one girl asked if she could come to my math remediation during seventh period (this would mean voluntarily giving up free time outside). The students were learning a lot during this time, so I am sure that their expressions of excitement were not an indication that they thought that it was a fun joke class or anything like that. I think that this is the first time all year that I've actually come home and told someone, "School was awesome today."

Since having these two days in teacher's paradise, I've been thinking about whether it would be feasible to use a similar type of group learning in my classroom. My rough idea is that I would split the class into three groups. The advanced group would have a lot of flexibility in deciding how and what to learn, just as my advanced group did. The other two groups would have much more directed activities and would probably be provided with review questions, practice problems, etc. I would circulate between the three groups, spending the most time with the low group. Now, here are the problems I see with this idea. This whole conception hinges on the idea that the advanced students are focused and self-policing, so I would probably need to exclude the high-achieving students with poor behavior from this group. I would need to have a good feel for the personalities of the students in a given class before implementing something like this. I think that the success of the reading groups was largely due to the fact that each group had a teacher present to facilitate. As I am the only teacher in my classroom, I would need to somehow circulate among the three groups often enough to manage them, but would also want to devote enough time to each one to help them with their learning activities. Realistically, I don't know if this is possible. I've been toying with the idea of trying to somehow coordinate with the other seventh grade science teacher so that we'd combine our classes and then group them (this way, we would have twice as many students, but two teachers instead of one), but I'm not sure quite how this would work. It would require that we are teaching the same material at the same time (a rarity). Our teaching styles are different enough that things could get confusing. Furthermore, we'd be up to two teachers, but that key third teacher would still be missing. I'll have to keep thinking about this one.

Now playing: Faith Hill- Mississippi Girl