Monday, September 24, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #5

I knew student teaching was not going to be easy, and I spent a good deal of time mentally preparing for the numerous personal sacrifices I would have to make to be successful, but I was not prepared for the professional sacrifices I have found myself making this week at TSHS. The principal’s message during an unscheduled and mandatory faculty meeting on Friday made it clear that the very act of educating students should be sacrificed in favor of disciplining students. Although I wanted to speak up several times during the meeting, I held my tongue, sat on my hands, and kept my eyes focused on a spot on the wall to keep them from rolling uncontrollably. Needless to say, it was a terribly frustrating meeting to sit through.
                  The majority of the meeting concentrated on student dress code and the students’ lack of punctuality. While I believe school is an excellent place to learn life skills, and adherence to rules is crucial, the repercussions for students who may forget to put on a belt or get to class 20 seconds after the bell, is excessive and damaging. Students who fail to comply, even in the slightest degree, are sent to In-School Suspension (ISS) where they are to sit, and do… nothing, I think.
                  The administration’s rationale for this policy isn’t entirely without merit. They believe that a student who is sent to ISS will learn his lesson and never make the mistake again. In the five weeks that I have been at TSHS, I have yet to see this prediction come true. In fact, the policy seems to be further disengaging students, particularly the repeat offenders. ISS is not viewed as a punishment by these students. At best, it is viewed as a minor annoyance, but mostly it is being used as a way to avoid going to classes where they must work and learn.
                  On Friday, the 1st period freshmen English class consisted of 5 students when there are normally 20. 3rd period only had 7 of 14 students. The sophomores from 4th period were the only students I taught on Friday, because the 7th period class was non-existent. To make the matter of student attendance even more frustrating, I had no idea which students were in ISS, ditching, or attending a lecture by a guest speaker, meaning I had no idea which students should be given make-up assignments or not, because, as ISS policy dictates, any student who is sent to ISS receives a zero for that day’s classwork/homework.
                  90% of the 1st period freshmen are failing due to outstanding zeros. This is absurd for two reasons: first, they don’t need to fail, if they are allowed to complete the assignments with a late penalty; and second, they don’t need to miss the valuable in-class instructional time that would support academic achievement on classwork and homework. The ISS policy may have seemed like a good idea in theory, but it is not working in practice. It’s just not sustainable.
                  My other concerns regarding this policy stem from issues of teacher accountability. Although parents and guardians have been informed of students’ truancy, delinquency, and failure to comply with school rules, they will eventually look at their student’s grades and point to teacher error. I suspect the shift will occur as soon as standardized test scores are released. I am a little frightened to face a parent who asks, “Why doesn’t my child know what they need to know? What have you been teaching him?” because I will have to make a decision to either support the administration’s policies, or be honest. I don’t see a way to answer that inevitable, hypothetical question without shouldering complete responsibility or throwing the administration under the metaphorical school bus.
                  The week was not entirely frustrating, though. I did enjoy a full day of teaching all four sections alone, despite the liability issue. I am also growing more adept at recognizing individual student’s needs and strengths, which has contributed to more efficient daily lesson and weekly overview planning. I have also noticed an improvement in my rapport with students. Several of them have sought me out this week, either to discuss homework, ask for tutoring, or just chat (usually about football). I am earning their trust a little more everyday, and I would like to think it’s because I make an effort to tell each student that I believe they are smart and capable, and that it takes more effort to avoid the work than to simply do it when they’re given the opportunity. I have told them that I am on their side; I’m not there to tell them they’re stupid; I’m not trying to make them fail. I tell them those things because I truly believe them.
                  I hate that the ISS policy might well make a liar out of me. I wish I could say something to the principal, but I can see what she is trying to do, and I want to support her as well. Knowing that she and I are both new to our respective roles has helped me feel more compassionate towards her than many, many faculty members. The only thing I think she could do differently, would be to listen to the staff that has been there longer, and try to be more flexible and open-minded to ideas that aren’t hers. If she could relinquish an iota of control, she might gain more support from her staff. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #4

It was Spirit Week at TSHS, and I came to realize that meant two things: my presence and participation in daily “spirit” activities such as an obstacle race and dodgeball game was necessary, AND I would have very little instructional time. While I can appreciate the administrator’s efforts to rally the student body and combat the ever-growing feelings of animosity and apathy toward education, I have to say, the idea was nice, but it ultimately backfired.
            The instructional week is already chopped up by the mandatory “Club Day” every Wednesday, on which there is no instructional time whatsoever, and the students know it. Over the past few weeks I have heard many students complain that Wednesdays are a waste of time, and they would “rather have the day off” instead of being shuttled between classrooms for mandatory clubs that have no bearing on their grades, aside from attendance. This week, Club Day was suspended and students were scheduled for various tests. The only problem with this scheduling switch was that the club I am co-advising is for the newspaper, and we have spent a few weeks constructing deadlines for articles, editing, and publishing. These deadlines are no longer valid, and my frustration is mounting.
            With Spirit Week, class periods were shortened to allow for the final 90 minutes of the school day to be dedicated to “Spirit” activities, assemblies, and on Friday, a pep rally. With class periods being whittled down to 30 minutes, and the loss of Wednesday’s time, I believe that each class only received approximately 2 hours of subject-specific instructional time this week, when they normally receive 3 hours per week. Take into account the loss of Wednesday’s instructional time, and the students at HFHS lost nearly twice the instructional time that a CPS student receives. It’s shameful.
            Unfortunately, I also caught a bad cold this week, and did not work on Wednesday or Thursday. I’m ashamed to admit that I was not terribly concerned about missing Wednesday, which should indicate the level of apathy the students feel about the mandated attendance. I don’t blame them. The inconsistencies regarding scheduling reveal a distinct lack of respect for the students’ time, and the only reasonable response to that is disdain.
            Teaching on Friday proved to be an exhausting, but satisfying adventure. I was aware that the students had not received any consistent instruction, but the Parents’ Night helped to reset some of the students’ attitudes and dispositions towards the work. My initial lesson plan was revised in the morning with the help of my cooperating teacher, and I felt confident about achieving my objectives. It was only when the students entered the classroom did I realize I was going to need to do more than teach. I needed to perform. The young men were energized by the upcoming football game and Homecoming dance, and obviously needed a more physical activity than I had originally planned.
            I utilized aspects of my lesson plan, but mostly improvised activities that I felt would accomplish the lesson’s objectives. The students responded enthusiastically to the loosely structured debate I facilitated, and managed to construct an argumentative paper verbally, helping to reinforce the outlining strategy I had hoped to teach. The period ended too quickly, and I was happy to hear a few students express surprise. This week, I hope to build on that enthusiasm, and now, knowing how well this particular class responds to structured discussions, debates, and physical activity, I believe my lesson plans will actually hold their attention. 

Guide to Student Teaching #3

I am in my third week at TSHS, and I have just realized today how very difficult this job is. I am grateful that I have compiled two solid weeks of bliss and amusing anecdotal experiences, but today, Thursday, I felt the true weight of this profession. I ended up crying in the bathroom during 8th period today. It was terrible.
            My 7th period Honors-leveled sophomores broke me, just a little bit. After one week of observing them, I wasn’t convinced that they were “Honors” material, but I accepted the school’s label. In my second week, I taught them, and I assigned them a “postcard” project, which required them to write a postcard from the perspective of a character from the short story “The Most Dangerous Game” or the novel Lord of the Flies. I felt my lesson was engaging and relatively challenging, but the work submitted showed a clear disdain for the assignment. Honestly, the postcards and accompanying illustrations were pitiful, especially for students who had been labeled as high-achieving.
            Two postcards in particular caused me alarm. One had an approximate total of 10 words, one of which was a curse word. The illustration was minimal, and the student had not bothered to put his name on it. The other postcard showed a clear understanding of narrative style, consistency of voice, and understanding of the story, but the student had chosen a character without a textually-supported voice. He wrote a postcard from the perspective of a hunting dog, and he wrote it in the style of slave dialect (Massa, please…etc.). Reviewing these postcards was incredibly uncomfortable until I grew suspicious of the intentions behind them.
            Today, Thursday, I addressed the postcard project, and set some firm rules about what was acceptable and what was not. In respect to the curse word, I explained that there were not any characters from the novel that expressed an expletive once for every ten words they spoke. For the slave dialect, I articulated how it might be misconstrued as offensive, or even as self-hate. The students I addressed glared at me and challenged my statements. Perhaps I had embarrassed them? Regardless of my initial feelings, the class seemingly listened to my reprimands and warnings.
            As I moved on with the lesson on imagery and symbolism I realized that the class was not paying attention, and that they were exhibiting behaviors to indicate that I was not being respected as an authority on the subject. I attempted some classroom management techniques I had observed from my CT, but I very quickly broke down, put my lesson plan away, and bluntly asked the class, “What am I doing wrong? Please tell me what can make this class more interesting for you.”
            I used verbal, written, and visual strategies (“tell me”; “write a suggestion”; “can I see a show of thumbs-up or thumbs-down?”) to acquire feedback, but I received a series of neutral responses. The only nods I observed were in response to me stating, “This is YOUR education. Take ownership of it. Let me know how you want to be taught.” My CT offered a few comments, but remained outside of my attempt to gain insight and build a line of communication with the students. Later, she gently reminded me not to take anything personally. That is a hard lesson to learn, particularly when students understand how to use subtle manipulation to disrespect an authority figure. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until after the period was over.
            I spent the first 10 minutes of 8th period in the bathroom, crying. I felt as if I had failed to motivate, engage, and challenge the class. I felt as if I had failed them. Although my CT reassured me that this scenario was typical and to be expected, and that I needed to push forward with my plan regardless of students’ misbehavior, I made a deliberate decision to change my initial plans and begin looking for ways to truly offer challenges for these students to meet.
            My new plans include more rigorous vocabulary assignments, more complex in-class activities, and more rigid writing tasks. My rationale is: if the students are not engaged, they must need work that is requires more thought. I am sincerely nervous about tomorrow’s lesson, but I am confident that the modifications I have made will challenge these students, and engage them in a true literary and academic discussion, hopefully.
            I am optimistic about the lesson, but this week also revealed new administrative challenges, mainly gathered from observing the faculty meeting this week. I was informed that I needed to have an electronic gradebook, and that the form the required gradebook took was inconsequential to the administration. I am currently attempting to fulfill this requirement using a spreadsheet application (Google spreadsheets), but I am struggling with how to incorporate specific features (running totals, class averages, assignment types, etc.). I have procured a physical gradebook, and I am keeping detailed daily records, but I am not assured that I am keeping the records the administration wants.
            I am wary of tomorrow, Friday. I desperately want to find a way to teach the novel Lord of the Flies, in a way that is fresh and exciting for the students, but I also understand that, since many of them were required to read the novel in an earlier class, they will not put forth the effort and enthusiasm my current lesson plans necessitate. Teaching students who have varying degrees of knowledge is hard.
            I have altered the plan for the next literature unit, but I am highly aware that these plans may need to change based on how students respond to the next few lessons. The administration has requested more “differentiated instruction” and several new policies be implemented, all of which seem to fall under the category of “classroom management”. I have ideas and solutions germinating, but I will need to wait and see how students respond to classroom policies first.
            I am scared of tomorrow, but I am also very excited. All I want, for the moment, is to NOT be another version of one of the teachers I hated in high school. For tomorrow’s lesson I will be introducing the students to Socratic Seminar. My CT and I believe that these students will respond positively to an activity that allows them to self-regulate a literary discussion. We have observed some small victories and progress from the implementation of Literary Circles, so a Socratic Seminar might help to scaffold skills in forming questions and thoughtful responses based on textual evidence. I hope that this method will simultaneously draw out responses from the quieter students and help the more outspoken students choose when and what they would like to say.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #2

My second week at TSHS has been almost as good as my first. I mostly learned about the type of disciplinarian I can be, which is terribly different from the type of disciplinarian I currently am. Basically, I don’t know how to act when a student, or several, get(s) out of control. The incident occurred when I attempted to wake up a student who had blatantly tilted his head backwards onto his notebook and closed his eyes while my cooperating teacher gave the class explicit instructions to pay attention to the board where she was projecting an excerpt for a read-aloud. I leaned over and tapped the student’s notebook and said, “You need to sit up, and you need to WAKE up.” In a split second, the student had jumped up out of his seat and started hollering at me. He said things like, “You ain’t supposed to touch me! You can’t do that! You invaded my space!” I was mortified.
            My cooperating teacher immediately bellowed over the student and the buzz from the other students. She spent 15 minutes lecturing the class on issues of respect, and respect for adults in this school, including me, the student teacher. I meekly raised my hand to contribute to the scolding. I reiterated the sentiments, and added, “I look forward to working with several groups of students who seem to value being respected. That respect works both ways. In honor of that sentiment, I would like to apologize to [the student] if he feels that I overextended myself and made him uncomfortable…” As I finished my apology, the student yelled, “Apology NOT accepted!” It took a lot of willpower not to roll my eyes at him. I added, “But I will not apologize for waking you up during class, or for any other actions I take that you may choose to bring on yourself. This is a school, not a playground. I will treat you according to how mature you act.”
            By the time I was done, I was shaking and felt very, very warm. I was thankful for my dark coloring, because I’m sure I would have turned beet-red and lost all credibility. It was a strange thing, to discipline a classroom, and have a public altercation with a student. My CT thought I did a fine job of remaining composed while making it clear that I was not to be “messed with.” I hope so, because I was terribly nervous for the rest of the day, and more than a little concerned about my car and personal belongings.
            A few days later, I took it upon myself to approach the student, but in an official and professional capacity. I looked over his work from earlier that day, and during the silent Study Hall, I asked him, “Would you please come see me after the bell? I need to discuss something you wrote, and I would rather not discuss it when everyone can hear us.” I expected him to run out of class right after the bell rang, but he sauntered over to my desk, and guardedly asked what he had done.
            “I just wanted to compliment you on your thesis statement from this morning. You were the only one to see both sides and give solid supporting examples. That’s what lawyers do. It’s difficult, and you did it in five minutes. Nice job.” He looked shocked and told me he thought I had something bad to say about him. I very firmly explained, “You expect that for a reason, and I think you know why. The truth is, teachers like to tell you when you’ve done something right. It’s much more enjoyable for everyone.” The student looked me in the eye for the first time in two days, thanked me, and used my name. It was a victory, as far as I was concerned.
            In addition to building trust between myself and individual students, I also took on a few large tasks, that might keep me from sleeping more than 4 hours a night. Wednesdays at TSHS are currently being used as “Club Days” where students move from classroom to classroom for six periods, and each period is a mandatory, extracurricular club that they may or may not have signed up for. I am now a co-advisor for the newspaper and yearbook club, but without any real direction. I created a handbook, but I think I need to work on a weekly schedule or a series of student-created deadlines for each issue. It’s exciting, but difficult.
            I also took it upon myself to build a classroom website for my cooperating teacher. Her students frequently claimed that they “didn’t know” about assignments or due dates, and currently, the gradebook for each section contains more zeros than actual grades. I hope the website will quash the excuses.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Guide to Student Teaching #1

*The School High School (TSHS) is not what I thought it would be. I had learned from some light research that it is an all-boys, private, Catholic school that caters to African-American youth on the South Side of Chicago. I considered nearly all of those defining qualities to reside slightly outside of my comfort zone, based on some preconceived notions gathered from various media, news articles, and anecdotes. For example, I have only cursory knowledge of the Catholic faith. Also, I am still uncertain of my classroom management skills with teenagers. I have been successful with motivating teenage girls, but not boys. I am terribly unfamiliar with the communities of Bronzeville and Hyde Park, which the school borders on and pulls students from. Quite honestly, I felt I was walking into the school with nearly no prior or useful knowledge. The only thing I felt confident about was my academic knowledge of teaching that I have gained through NEIU’s program.
            The tiny seed of confidence rapidly grew through a series of pleasantly surprising experiences beginning with my commute and continuing through my interactions with the staff and students. Getting to the school was easy, and much faster than I had originally anticipated. The neighborhood and surrounding area revealed a diverse community of Muslims, Catholics, and Christians of varying denominations. The school’s grounds and building were well maintained and thoughtfully conceived. I found no trouble parking or entering the school, and upon entry, I immediately noticed evidence of a staff and student body that took pride in the school. The school’s mission statement, core values, and expectations for the students were posted on walls and near high-traffic areas, such as water fountains, vending machines, and around the main office. Although the school’s official motto is “Unto perfect manhood,” the unofficial motto seen on posters and tee shirts was “We don’t do that here,” a phrase that was accompanied by images of bullying, cheating, inappropriate dress, and swearing.
            The core values of the school seem to focus on building good character and sound morals through a strong emphasis on academics and community service. I found the core values to match my own, giving me the confidence to simply be myself. As I got to know the principal and her Teaching Team Leader, I caught myself behaving as more of a learning professional than a meek student. It surprised me. I asked several pertinent and focused questions about the school, the students, and my cooperating teacher, Ms. *English By the end of the initial introductions, I felt comfortable and eager to meet the classes I would be teaching.
            Ms. English is a singularly methodical teacher. The classroom environment was highly organized. As a teacher-in-training, I immediately appreciated the ease with which I could see exactly what she emphasized in her curriculum (writing). From observing her teaching style, I also recognized that she and I share similar perspectives on how to interact with students, how to present material, and how to split classroom instructional time. It was very exciting to see a teacher successfully implement instructional and classroom management techniques that I suspected would work well, but have not had the chance to try for myself. One aspect of Ms. English's methods that I hope to integrate into my own teaching is her strict policy on homework for students.
            Several times during the week, students were not submitting homework on time. Ms. English reminded them of her policies, including an agreement to not assign homework on Fridays, as the students requested. She ended up assigning homework to her students on Friday, but reminded them that she could not honor the request if the students could not honor her policies. Several of the boys apologized to each other for not submitting their homework and causing the repercussions. It was so refreshing to see such an effective use of reward and punishment. I hope I can hold to my own policies as rigidly, because I see that consistency is crucial.
            Ms. English also showed me the value of setting strict rules and expectations at the beginning of the year. She explained to me that she would most likely relax on some policies as the year progressed, but for now, she needed to show her students that she will be watching them closely. For example, she checked to make sure students had the required books each day. Students who had not obtained the necessary readings or had not submitted homework had to write down their name and parents’ phone number on a sheet of paper. During her lunch hour, Ms. English called each guardian and informed him or her of the missing assignment or book. She spent a lot of time on the phone this week, but she reassured me that it would set the proper precedent for the rest of the year. I tend to agree, although it never would have occurred to me on my own.
            Something I began cultivating during my first week at TSHS, with some amount of success, was what I’m referring to as my “teacher personality.” Originally, I envisioned that I would be the high-energy, funny, goofy teacher that made students laugh while learning. After two full days, I saw how unrealistic that was. Instead, I began referring to the boys as “gentlemen” and adding more formal, but friendly, phrases to my conversations. It is a level of respect that I don’t think they have experienced yet, and many of the boys responded by increasing or matching my level of formality. It was so satisfying to hear a young man tell me that he “was gonna do the reading” and then self-correct himself to say “was going to do the reading.” I noted the effort he put in, and thanked him for using proper speech with me. His smile from receiving my approval was amazing.
            I am working very hard to match lesson and unit plans to Ms. English's curriculum, but I am also looking forward to investing in the community and school culture. On Friday, during study hall, I noticed several of the boys without any work to do. They were chattering loudly about the next day’s football game. Now, I know nothing about football, but I knew that these students struggled with writing clearly and concisely, as evidenced from some initial assessment essays. I kindly asked one of them if he would mind writing out the “rules for football” for me. I explained that I did not understand who or what the players were or what they did. I told him it would be a “favor” to me, and only if he didn’t have other work to do. The student quickly formed a group with three other boys and began writing out ideas for how to write instructions for me.
            I went back to my work, and they practiced writing. It felt like a trick, probably because it was, but if they can write what I have asked, then they will have practiced writing clearly, and I get to understand football. I looked over what they had put together before the period was over, and based on what they wrote, I was looking forward to talking to them about it more. I ended up going to their football game, and I can’t wait to ask them to add more details and specifics. I suppose this is one of the many perks of teaching – learning. 
*Names and locations have been changed to protect privacy