Mississippi Teacher Corps

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

required blog: evaluating my performance

Overall, I feel positive about how much my one student is learning in summer school. The other teachers in my room have taught great lessons, and I think that I have also been able to teach our student a lot. After the first day of summer school, she said that she’d already learned more than she’d learned all year, and has told us the same thing on several other occasions.

I think that the learning goal in which my student was the most successful is understanding the relationship between DNA, RNA, and proteins. If I gave her a sequence of DNA, she very quickly learned how to convert it to an RNA sequence and then a protein sequence. I covered a lot of material in this lesson, and when the death of a laptop forced me to use another laptop to show her the PowerPoint presentation I’d carefully thought out and prepared for projection onto the whiteboard, she still managed to stay with me. One reason that she was able to learn this material quickly was that I made analogies to real life during the lesson that excited her and helped her understand the reasons for the DNA to RNA to proteins processes. I compared transcription and translation to passing a note to a friend that is written in code so that other people can’t read the message. Your friend has a key and can crack the code, but because you were very careful in making sure no one could crack the code, you need two keys to decipher it. This seemed to click. Another reason that this lesson worked well is that I had a lot of short activities in a fast-paced lesson, and I included short independent practice activities throughout the lesson (given more notes in between) rather than just leaving it all until the end of my lecture.

Today, I taught about elements and the Periodic Table. The main focus of my lesson was on how to read and use the Periodic Table, but I also wanted to teach the definition of elements. My student had the Periodic Table part down pat, but at the end of class, she was unable to tell me what an element was. One reason for this is that I skimmed over that part of the lesson and did not give her any formal practice in determining whether or not something was an element. Another reason is that I introduced the concept of elements at the same time I introduced several other new words (homogeneous mixture, heterogeneous mixture, compound, etc.) I had her copy a simple flow-chart showing the relationship between these terms, and talked her through the chart, but never had her use this information in any way during the rest of the lesson, and never referred to any of these words again except for “element” over the course of the lesson. I liked the lesson I taught today, but when I rehash it to teach the same material next year, I would split it into two lessons. In the first one, I would spend much more time explaining the differences between elements, compounds, etc., and would give practice problems. I would also bring in examples of each (e.g. Raisin Bran for a heterogeneous mixture) instead of just talking about examples because I think this would help students remember the concepts better. I would not go into detail about the Periodic Table until the second lesson.

Something that has been a constant challenge for me as a teacher is my tendency to spend too much time lecturing, giving notes, and using other forms of direct instruction rather than having more independent practice activities. I have been consciously working on this in summer school, and I feel that I have made progress. I still give notes every day after the Do-Now, but I have reduced the amount of note-taking and included a wider variety of activities in my procedures. On days when I have a lot of content to convey and have to give longer notes, I’ve worked on breaking up the note-taking with short activities. I am still trying to work on reducing the amount of class time that I spend at the front of the room.

Another goal I’ve been working towards in summer school is having a wider variety of activities for any given topic to address different learning styles. This goes hand-in-hand with my goal to have more activities and less lecture time. I’ve been doing a much better job of teaching each topic in several ways to help different learners. For the visual learners, I’ve been using concept maps in a number of my lessons. I have also been integrating inductive strategies by showing unfamiliar pictures to students and asking them to explain what is going on. For example, during the mitosis lesson, before explaining what the cell does at each stage, I placed a transparency showing the stages of the cell cycle on the overhead, told the student that the squiggly lines were DNA, and asking the student to describe what the cell was doing at each stage. For the tactile learners, I’ve been integrating a lot more hands-on modeling; during the mitosis lesson, I gave the student six colored pieces of yarn and had her watch what I was doing with my yarn and do the same thing with hers to model what the chromosomes were doing at each stage of mitosis. For the auditory learners, I’ve been having the student generate her own pneumonic devices (for example, she made a pneumonic device to remember the stages of mitosis). Today, I played a song that a friend of mine wrote and recorded for a high school chemistry project about platinum, rapped to the tune and music of “The Real Slim Shady.” I asked her to write down as many facts as she could learn from the song about platinum, and she surprised me by reading off her list, “It has a weight of 195.08!” I didn’t do a very good job of varying my activities for different learners during this past school year, and intend to work harder on this in the future.

Now playing: Matty Kane- Pt

Thursday, June 14, 2007

required blog: goals/objectives and inductive learning

In the two days of summer school I've taught so far, I did the normal first-day introductory business (pre-tests and going over rules and so forth) and then taught a series of lessons on the cell. Now, I've never been a teacher who's found written objectives to affect the content and delivery of my lesson at all, but since I've been forced to write and state objectives every time I teach, I noticed that I'm now teaching objectives that are at higher Webb's DOK (or Bloom's Verbs, if you prefer) levels than I was when I taught this material during the school year. This is encouraging to me; the one student in my class (yes, I only have one student) has very little background knowledge in science, most likely because of poor teaching, but has done a stellar job of performing to meet my expectations and objectives.
I started with a basic introduction to parts of the cell, and had a slightly higher level objective even for this first lesson; I required my student to, after learning the definitions of the different organelles, explain their functions in her own words and make analogies. She was able to do it! Since I modelled this process for her (we talked about how the Golgi apparatus is like the post office, and how if she wanted to send a Christmas gift to her best friend in Indianapolis, she couldn't just throw it on the highway and expect that it would make it to her friend, but would first have to send it to the post office so that it could be properly addressed and packaged, just as cell proteins must be packaged by the Golgi before being sent to the ER), she was engaged in the analogies, and I think it really helped her learn the material. Today, when I asked her about the organelles, she knew them cold, and even used the analogies to help her remember ("the nucleus is like the boss, so it directs all the other cell parts.").
In the lessons that followed, I taught her cell theory and had her apply it to answer true/false statements (e.g. "A scientist can make cells in the lab just by mixing chemicals"), and had her compare and contrast plant vs. animal cells, as well as prokaryotic vs. eukaryotic cells. I think that having all of these lessons set at a higher level than knowledge improved my instruction; rather than falling into that unfortunate tendency I have to lecture for much of the period and give a lot of notes that contain the content that students are responsible for knowing, I had her doing a lot of quality independent practice activities, like concept mapping. This worked well because although I haven't spent enough time with my student to determine her learning style, odds are that she is a visual learner, and having a lot of diagrams and charts probably helped her remember the concepts. She commented to me that she likes the way I teach because I break things down so that she can understand them. Having her do a variety of practice activities seemed to help her retain the material very well; throughout my lessons, I frequently asked her questions that referred back to previous lessons, and without consulting her notes, she was usually able to answer me correctly. I feel very positive about this, given that she does not seem to have retained anything that she learned in her science classes over the past few years, but is quickly picking up the material and is able to recall as well as apply the different concepts I've taught her.
I used the concept forming inductive strategy several times today. It went much better than when I tried to use inductive strategies during the past school year; my students often did not seem to make the discoveries toward which I was trying to guide them, perhaps because the concepts I was using were too abstract for them to grasp. Today, after having my student think about things that humans can do that bacteria can't, I showed her unlabelled diagrams of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. She had to interpret the diagrams, label the organelles, and then make a concept map showing which organelles were in eukaryotes, prokaryotes, and both. She did beautifully with the assignment, and I think learning it this way made the information have more of an impact that having me just lecture on the information; she remarked with fascination how simple bacteria are compared to eukaryotes. Since prokaryotes lack a nucleus, we compared them to a school with no principal to keep everything in order, meaning that the school would have to be much smaller and would not be able to do as many things as a school with a principal (the eukaryotic cell). I taught the difference between plant and animal cells in a very similar manner, giving her diagrams and having her complete a concept map that we then discussed. She was fascinated by the fact that animal cells do not have any organelles that are not found in plant cells, and yet plant cells contain three organelles not found in animal cells. I think that teaching through this inductive strategy made the material more exciting and memorable to her, as she felt that she had discovered something rather than having me hand her the information. I definitely plan to use strategies like this in the future.

Now playing: Johnny Cash- Jackson

Saturday, June 02, 2007

stayed in Mississippi a day too long

I came back up North a few days after school ended, and I'll fly back to Mississippi tomorrow morning for a month of summer school, etc. Am I dreading leaving? No. Am I excited about going back to Mississippi? Emphatic no. Right now, I'd like nothing more than to spend two months at home with my family, reading and watching the Red Sox and visiting friends. Well, revise that to say I'd like nothing more than to do the above, and not return to my teaching post in the fall.
For a good part of the past school year, I had my struggles and successes like anyone else in the program, and I thought it was quite likely that I would continue to teach after I finished my two years with MTC, perhaps even staying at my placement school. That optimism has faded. Now, I am just trying to figure out how to get myself through another year before leaving Mississippi and leaving teaching. Yes, I know how disheartening that sounds.
Some time this spring, I started to feel that things were really out of control at my school and, worse yet, in my classroom. I knew that it was normal for teachers in my position to struggle with things like culture shock and classroom management. But, talking to others, I suddenly realized that even for a teacher in my situation, it was not normal to have students throwing objects at you, or vandalizing your room on a regular basis, or calling you nasty curse words so many times that you lost count. Granted, part of the problem comes from the fact that I decided to teach middle school instead of high school, but even so, I found myself driving to school every morning bracing myself for whatever disrespect would be thrown at me that day. I've felt very bad about my inability to better manage my classroom, and at a loss for what to do differently. I found myself getting homesick from time to time. I was fortunate enough to have a significant other living just down the road from me, and I think that having this support may have been the only thing that kept me from going completely crazy these past few months. The fact that my significant other has just left Mississippi for good makes me especially dread the start of a new school year.
The last week of school was very stressful for me, not because anything that happened in class was particularly bad, but because I'd been given my contract for next year and had to decide what to do with it. During the spring, I'd quite seriously considered trying to switch to a different school district, but ultimately decided that I'd be better off facing known demons. Once I had my contract in hand, I started questioning the wisdom of that decision. I was also extremely tempted not to sign the contract and to just leave Mississippi. I realized that the reason that this was such a stressful decision was that at various points during the year, I'd thought about quitting, but never got very far in my thinking because I knew that I'd never be able to shake the guilt of abandoning my students mid-year, as ungrateful as some of them could be toward me (of course, I'm not talking about all my students here; there were the ones that let me know that they appreciated me, and they kept me going). When I had my contract, it was the first time I'd had to make a conscious decision to return, and I questioned the sanity of, as it seemed, signing myself up for another year of abuse at the hands of students and administrators. I did it anyway, probably because I have a stubborn will to finish a commitment that I told myself I would see through to the end. Maybe I'll feel better about coming back next year after I've had some more time away from my school and no longer feel completely worn down and emotionally drained.
Recently, I've been focusing my energy on making plans for a year from now, when I finish teacher corps. I decided very recently that I think I want to go to medical school. It was something I'd been considering on and off since high school, and ultimately decided I didn't want to go largely because I was scared of the intensity of medical school and the profession, as well as the bureaucracy associated with the profession. After a year teaching in the Delta, though, none of this seems as intimidating. I've had to work crazy hours where I've had eight hour stretches with barely time to breathe (literally- I have asthma and sometimes couldn't even take my inhaler when I needed it because it would mean leaving students unsupervised), and I've had to deal with incompetent bureaucracy. And guess what? I survived it all. Having to study like crazy in medical school doesn't scare me much, either; after being at my school for a year, just having to spend lots and lots of time studying doesn't seem horribly stressful. As I realized a few months ago, now that I've been out of school for a year in my life, I'm excited about learning and being a student again. It will be the first time in my life that being a student will be a conscious decision for me; I grew up in a community where it was more or less assumed that 18 year olds would graduate from high school and go to college. I actually find it enjoyable to pick up old textbooks and read them now (laugh at that one all you want, but it's the truth). If nothing else, teaching for another year will strengthen my conviction that I can keep myself going through tough times, no matter how badly I want to give up.

Now playing: Bob Dylan- Mississippi

things I want to do differently next year

In the final weeks of the school year, I thought a lot about systems I'd set in place at the beginning of the year that ended up not working out for me, and how I'd like to do them differently.
First and foremost: the notebooks. I required each student to keep a 3-ring binder for my class only with 5 dividers: classwork, homework, tests/quizzes, general class information, and bell-ringers. Every time I gave an assignment, I told them exactly where to put it in their notebook. I collected notebooks periodically to check that they'd kept up with their assignments, and kept everything orderly. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Well, when I say that it sometimes made me hate my job, I'm not exaggerating. Many kids never even bothered to get a notebook, even after I sold them in class and sent personal letters home through the mail to the parents of students who didn't have a notebook two weeks after the specified date to have all supplies. After two giant notebook checks, which entailed me coming home after school every day for a week and spending hours looking through dozens of binders with papers crumbled and shoved into random spaces, I pretty much gave up on doing notebook checks. I would check specific assignments in class, but that was it. I often wanted to scream when I saw notebooks carelessly thrown on tables with half of their contents spilling onto the floor as students left the room (I had a designated cabinet where each period was to place their notebooks). By the end of the year, more and more students abandoned their notebooks and kept papers in their backpacks, or didn't keep them at all. I didn't think that keeping a 5-sectioned 3-ring binder, with ample class time devoted to helping students set up and organize their binders, was unreasonable to ask of a 7th grader, but I won't do this again. It is not worth the headaches, or the energy, or the poor grades.
A good friend of mine had his students keep notebooks, but used spiral-bound notebooks instead of binders. I hadn't wanted to do this, since I wanted students to have a place to put handouts, but I'll make that sacrifice if it means more organization. Since spiral-bound notebooks are cheap (25 cents each if you hit the right deals), he bought enough for all of his students, thereby avoiding the problem of students who don't care enough to buy their own notebook. He gave each assignment a number (the first assignment was number one, and so forth), making it very easy to refer back to previous work, and also making it very easy for a student who was absent one day to check with another student and copy down the missing notes. This also makes it very easy to check notebooks by doing notebook quizzes (asking students to copy down information from a particular assignment in their notebook) rather than collecting and looking through all of them. I'm stealing this system next year.
As most teachers in the Delta probably do, I struggled with motivating students. When I tell students they need to take notes down and a number of them blatantly make no efforts, and I tell them that I will check notes at the end of class for a grade, and I tell them that they need the notes to study for a test, and they still don't take a word of the notes down, what am I supposed to do? Here's another idea I stole from the same friend: give lots of quizzes. For the last few weeks of school, he reviewed old material with students, and at the end of class, he gave a practice quiz. The next day, students came in, took a real quiz, and then proceded to have another review lesson and take another practice quiz. The day after state testing, I was disgusted with how many students came into class, didn't take a single sentence in their notes, and acted like school was out for the year. I came in the next day, pep talked them about the fact that they were still in school, and still had a final exam in my class for which they needed to learn new material, etc., and told them that we would have two to three quizzes per week until the end of the year, plus practice quizzes. It wasn't a miracle fix to the motivation problem, but it definitely helped, and it kept things moving at a pace I liked. The practice quizzes helped my students realize that nothing we were learning was as scary or as difficult as they initially perceived.
This year, I gave tests very infrequently, in part because I used this stupid program called SPMS that my school made us use to write tests (incoming first-years: if your school district toutes SPMS as a revolutionary learning tool or some other bull like that, be very skeptical) that had a very limited question bank, and required the use of scantrons that took 20 minutes to set up and would usually not be scanned by the librarian until two weeks after students took the test. I also felt that I needed to spend a lot of time reviewing before giving students a test. As I realized later in the year, most teachers at my school satisfied the SPMS requirement by just including a few questions from SPMS on their tests, not generating an entire test using SPMS as I had been doing (avoid doing this at all costs!). Next year, I'm not going to sweat tests as much, and rather than giving frequent graded classwork assignments where students rushed to one another to get the correct answers rather than making sure they really learned the material, I'll give frequent quizzes. I'll make them short so that students will take them at the beginning of class before doing something else, and I will be able to grade them and hand them back quickly. That way, if you work with someone else in class, you are still responsible for knowing the material yourself, and the consequences of playing around instead of paying attention are immediately obvious. I think this will keep things moving at a pace I like, and will give students frequent enough feedback that they will know exactly where they stand. I also plan to give each student a code name and post grades on the door to my room; I tried posting missing assignments this way once, with little success, but if I start at the beginning of the year by explaining to students that I will do this, I think it will work a lot better (and yes, I stole this idea from the same friend. What can I say, he has good ideas).

Now playing: The Beatles- Revolution