Monday, June 27, 2005

Summer School: Not Just a Great Mark Harmon Movie

Entering the last week of summer school (though many of my MTC colleagues are already finished), I am surprised by how much I care about the students I am working with. I'm not surprised that I care about my students, but I did not realize I would become this invested in summer school students who I only worked with for a month.

We had our big project due today, and of the six students in my small group, four handed them in on time. I felt like the shepherd in the Bible parable who had lost his sheep. Rather than rejoicing that four students had turned in great projects, I worried about my two stragglers who will lose ten points each day the project is late. I question my teaching, and wonder if I should have been harder on them during this process to ensure they finished on time. The other part of me understands these students must learn responsibility, and that is a skill that largely must be learned from personal experience. In the fall, I will not take for granted that my students will get work done on their own schedule. Instead, I will make many due dates for a large project, to ensure no student falls behind. This was the single most important lesson I learned in summer school.

Another important lesson I learned was the need for consistency in a classroom. I am looking forward to having my own classroom, with my own procedures, rules, and routines set up. I enjoyed working with my MTC colleagues, but their presence was distracting at times to the students. During one lesson, I was interupted several times by one of my colleagues who wanted to make a correction on what I felt was a minor point. Also, planning for a class is complicated when you must worry about what your fellow teachers will be teaching. Consistency is lost in this process, and consistency is necessary to a successful classroom.

I learned by watching the strengths and weaknesses of my fellow MTC teachers. Mr. Molina's humor, Ms. Savage's no-nonsense approach, and Mr. Heston's caring attitude are all characteristics I would do well to copy. I hope I was helpful to them by modelling confidence and control, and I do believe we all learned together and worked to hone our craft.

The upcoming fall is going to be a million times more challenging than summer school. Delta schools have much greater problems than Lafayette High, and I understand that this year will be a trying time. I am confident, however, that I will be able to make a huge difference in the lives of my students. I care very much about my summer school students, and I believe my investment in my students at Simmons High will be even greater. I have high expectations of my students, but I am able to do this only because I place such high expectations on my self. Summer school gave me some experience working with high schoolers, and I experienced both successes and failures. I know that I will learn a lot from both, and will be a stronger teacher because of my time at Lafayette this summer.

Self-voyeurism in the classroom

The other day I had the opportunity to watch myself on videotape as I taught. This was a novel experience for me, and one that I looked forward to with some trepidation. I do not feel as though I am a novice teacher, since I have spent countless hours teaching as a summer program leader, substitute teacher, and outdoor educator. But how can you really know if you are good at something until you watch yourself perform? So after my formal observation, I grabbed the videocassette and watched myself teach.

The tale of the tape revealed no major surprises, fortunately. The person I saw was obviously confident and in control of himself and the classroom. I am standing straight and tall with my chest out, and give the impression that I know what I am doing. This is reinforced by the fact that I do know what I am doing. Even when relying on students to be the centers of attention, as I did in this lesson when I told students to dramatize vocabulary words, I keep control by urging effort and reigning in potential disruptions.

There were of course areas I can improve upon. At times my voice would trail off as I completed a sentence, making it difficult to hear and leaving onlookers wondering if what I said was important. I also frequently put my hands in my pockets, making me look less assertive and more non-chalant. Perhaps I could have something in my hand at all times to make myself look more confident, ala Bob Dole's pen during the 1996 presidential campaign. I will try to refrain from referring to myself in the third person, as Dole often did.

Overall, watching myself teach was a positive experience. I saw myself as a confident professional, which is exactly the image I want to project in my classroom. I also saw some areas I could tweak to improve my craft. By making some adjustments, I can make myself a better teacher, which is my goal every year I spend in the profession.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Cold Calling is Hot Stuff

Pick a card, any card. On Monday of this week, I employed a teaching strategy known as Cold Calling. Essentially, you write the name of each of your students on an index card, and when you have a question that needs answering, or are in need of a volunteer for an assignment, you simply turn to your deck of cards. The fate of this unborn answer depends on how you cut the deck.

The twenty students in our classroom are typically very passive learners. I typically will call them by name and ask them to answer a question I have. I do not let students slide by like zombies in my classroom. Considering this, I was not sure how Cold Calling would benefit me. But within five minutes of using this technique, I realized that it leant a very real method to Mr. Hebert’s madness.

After announcing that I would be using card to determine who would answer questions today, I asked my students to volunteer to come to the front of the classroom and dramatize one of five vocabulary words on the board. Predictably, no one volunteered. Dramatically shuffling the cards, I selected one at random. The young man whose name was called reluctantly came to the front of the room.

I could tell Leo needed some assistance in his assignment, so I pulled another card that brought Jamie to the front of the room. Asking them which of the five words they would be acting out, they said, “I don’t know.” So again, I turned to the cards, and Miguel selected a word that they should act out. Eventually, they came up with a humorous way to illustrate the word mutilate, and took their seats.

I repeated this practice for the rest of the words, and used it later on in class to ask reading comprehension questions. Simply put, the cards worked. The students did not grumble or shoot me dirty looks when their name was called. It wasn’t even as though I were the one selecting them. The hand of fate had chosen them to answer this question about Malcolm X; the teacher just read the name out loud. Students remained on their toes and on task. The cards gathered attention but they were not a distraction. It made my normally passive crew a little more active, and was a complete success that day.

I will definitely use this method again in my regular classroom. I would not use it everyday, because that would lessen the effect of surprise cold callings. But with passive groups or on days when students are particularly lethargic, the cards will magically appear.

A Reluctant Disciplinarian in the Trenches

Last week I read Gary Rubinstein’s book, The Reluctant Disciplinarian, and was pleased by his self-effacing look at his first year of teaching. He seemed a perfect example of a teacher whose students, “Ate his lunch.” When he recounts his laxity about classroom procedure, rules, and even personal dress, I cringed. He was certainly ready to teach mathematics, but in no way was he ready to teach students.

In the book, Rubinstein described his carefree student teaching days, where his students were careful not to mess with the new guy lest they incur the wrath of their “real teacher.” This calls to mind the idyllic teaching situation we MTC first-years are presently enjoying at Lafayette High and Oxford Middle. The building is immaculate, students are respectful, and we have plenty of support from our fellow teachers and administrators. Everything is run like a military war game, meant to prepare us for the harsh realities of conflict: specifically, teaching at a poor school in Mississippi. Sadly, just as a military simulation cannot tell a soldier how they will react in combat, the student teaching experience in Oxford does not represent the real challenges of being a teacher in a critical needs area.

If MTC teachers do not learn from the mistakes and advice of people such as Rubinstein, we will be as miserable and frustrated in our attempts to teach as he was. He advocates consistency, discipline, and preparedness, and I believe these are three traits that must be modeled by teachers. The students waiting for us in August when the school year starts are every bit as capable of making our lives challenging as though who tormented Rubinstein his first year. Perhaps even more so. But hopefully, if we prepare ourselves for battle with an intelligent plan, we will be able to avoid the terrors that Rubinstein experienced. As for myself, I do not plan to be a reluctant disciplinarian: I plan to be a resourceful classroom manager. Now I just need to decide on an appropriate exit strategy.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Differences between Oxford and the Delta

After a couple of weeks, I have come to possess a warm affection for Ole Miss. I was not sure what was waiting for me here, having spent five months in the Delta earlier in the year, but only one previous afternoon in Oxford. Now, though, I feel qualified to make some comparisons between life in Oxford and life in the Delta.

In Oxford, you have Square Books.
In the Delta, you have no books.

In Oxford, you can go to the gym and lift weights.
In the Delta, you can lift cotton bails.

In Oxford, you can chase after squirrels, rabbits, and attractive coeds.
In the Delta, you can run away from cockroaches and giant mosquitoes.

In Oxford, men wear polo shirts and women wear make-up.
In the Delta, men wear overalls and women....well, I guess they wear overalls too.

In Oxford, there are bars in the downtown area.
In the Delta, there are bars everywhere; except in the Delta, the bars are in windows and doorways.

In Oxford, the University is a center for the exchange of ideas.
In the Delta, juke joints are centers for the exchange of ideas.

In Oxford, it is hotter than hell.
In the Delta, it is really hotter than hell.

In Oxford, the local high school students are well-behaved and you can understand what they are saying.
In the Delta, you will need a translator to understand what your kids are saying. Here's a hint: if everyone in the class is laughing except you, they are laughing at you, not with you.
Hope you enjoyed these comparisons. Feel free to add your own.

Friday, June 03, 2005

A long journey to the Delta

It was busy, it was exciting, it was exhausting. The first week of MTC was everything I was expecting, and more.

I am returning to Mississippi, where I lived and substitute taught for the second half of 2004, to begin a new chapter in my life as a full-time classroom teacher. It was a long journey from college graduation in June of 2004 to finally joining the Teacher Corps this week. Originally, I had planned to be a member of 2004 Corps, but a cut in the budget courtesy of newly-elected Governor Hayley Barbour resulted in the elimination of my spot in the program. This was incredibly disappointing, and left me grasping at straws as to what I would do in the coming year.

I knew that I wanted to join MTC, and so I was willing to wait a year to be a part of the Corps. Back when I was planning to join the '04 Corps, my girlfriend Jamie accepted a position with Teach For America to teach in the Mississippi Delta. The revelation that I would not be able to join her in the Delta was obviously very stressful to our relationship. We resigned ourselves to spending the ensuing year apart, as I thought it would be impossible to find a job in such a depressed economic place as the Delta. With that in mind, I accepted a job to become a second grade teacher's assistant at Shore Country Day School, an affluent private school on the coast of Massachusetts.

That summer, I worked at Exploration Junior Program, a wonderful educational camp for students entering grades four through seven. Midway through the summer, as the realities of long-term separation from my girlfriend set in, I began to consider the possibility of joining her in the Delta. In the end, my heart made the decision for me. I called up the prinicipal of Shore and resigned my post, a month and a half before I was scheduled to begin work there. I packed up my car and drove down to Mississippi. In my mind I hoped that I was making the right choice.

My first month in the Delta was notable for the frustrations I experienced in looking for a job. No one needed a teacher two weeks into the new school year, and the only jobs available were posted by trucking companies. I considered the possiblity of obtaining a trucker's license, but I finally decided that to be a little too impractical. The only positive of the situation was that I was able to support my girlfriend during her first month of teaching fourth grade. We made many late night trips to the photocopy center, and I graded so many of her students' papers that I soon knew all of the students by name and writing style.

I stayed in Mississippi through the middle of December. Eventually, I became eligible to substitute teach, and I always enjoyed receiving the call to come in and sub. I taught a little bit of everything: I was an elementary gym teacher, high school art teacher, special educator. I got the opportunity to try a lot of different things. One day, I even threw on a hair net and apron and worked with the lunch ladies at Carver Elementary School in Indianola. I enjoyed these ephemeral experiences, but inside I longed to be a full-time teacher with my own classroom. I knew that I could do a good job, and I wished that I was called to teach more often than the two days a week I usually spent working.

While I was in Indianola I noticed many of the terrible problems that worked to slow down student achievement. Students are unmotivated, and too many of them have no fathers to encourage them. Their mothers and grandmothers often work two or three jobs, and rarely have the opportunity to spend time with their children. This contributes to a cycle where students in junior and senior high school have children of their own, starting families before they have had the opportunity to receive the education necessary to improve their own station in life. The list of problems is lengthy and convoluted, and presents a daunting challenge for communities in the Delta and programs such as MTC.

Eventually, lack of work caused me to make the decision to leave the Delta in January of 2005. I took a job teaching sixth-grade science in a camp setting in Julian, California. I worked with a YMCA program there, and spent upwards of 23 hours a day teaching and mentoring students. It was a difficult job, but rewarding and exciting at the same time. I picked up some Spanish from the many Mexican students I worked with, and was revitalized by the chance to work with young people on a daily basis. I missed my girlfriend while I was away, but I enjoyed my time in California, and I looked forward to the prospect of joining her as a fellow teacher in the Delta.

Now, I am back in Mississippi. The challenges I left behind are still here, but I feel that having my own classroom this year will provide me with a greater opportunity to affect positive change in my students. I believe that education is the greatest weapon we have for fighting poverty in this country, and I strongly believe in the goal of the Mississippi Teacher Corps. We have a great group of people here this summer, and we will have to support each other tremendously if we want to be as successful as possible. I fully anticipate this to be the most exhausting, heart-breaking, and challenging two years of my life. But if I did not think that I could make a difference down here, I never would have shown up to orientation. It is my belief that everyone in our program feels the same way.