Fly on the Wall – Live Blog

I am in an interesting situation – sitting in on another teacher’s section of history, while that teacher is not here. Students are working on projects. The tech educator is trouble shooting. I am here, and I know what is going on, but I am not really involved. I can just observe.

I have seen a student openly express frustration and leave the room for a few minutes (going to get another source). One boy was running into issues with a timeline software so he is now working on researching content. That is fine – he will go back to the presentation at some point. Sometimes you need to work through, and sometimes you need to step away. Another student is showing her group about Prezi, as they discuss what might be the pros and cons of it. The group that initially said they would do a Power Point because it was the only presentation tool they knew is now exploring Tripline. A room that began as a silent workspace now is crowded with good noise. Students are laughing AND working. One student just said “We actually need information now.” Every kid in the room is engaged. Some students have just declared that if the school pays money for a source to be in the Digital Library, it must be a good source. Hmmm. I want to butt in, but I think I will not.

When I walked in the room, it was very low energy. Now there is a healthy buzz. Thinking back to my section of this course this morning, with the same project, this is a far different atmosphere. My first instinct is to think that this is better than the quiet, serious, individually focused work that took place in my class. But that may not be the case. Students who need quiet to focus may not be getting very far with this atmosphere. At the same time, in a group project, the class time is really valuable collaboration time. Quiet work can happen in the spaces between classes.

So, what to do with this. My generally happy and energetic class has hit the doldrums with the Commodity Project. They are doing the work, but it seems to much like a chore. There was no joy in the room. Maybe it was the fact that my class met early on a Monday morning. Tuesday will tell. What can I do to restore the energy? My blog post about a colleague’s class has me thinking about mine.

Now, the boy who stepped away from the timeline software is checking out Tripline. This is working. Class is over. Wow, that hour flew by.

Discomfort or Disconnect

A conversation with a colleague inspired me to think about how to know what is best for our students. It would be nice to think that we can figure it out, create a model that does what we want and then simply implement. But more and more I think we need to see our teaching as fluid and nimble. I started teaching thinking that I could simply refine and hone and someday I would be a really good teacher as I continued to make improvements. It was a very linear view.

I now realize that linearity is not best practice. Learning is not linear; teaching should not aspire to be linear. The mix and balance of how I teach any course should shift in response to the students in front of me and their needs. At the same time, I know that it is my responsibility to determine those needs, which may or may not match up with their desires. I need to push them out of their comfort zones at times, in order to encourage growth and development. At the same time, I need to detect when there is a true disconnect.

I asked students who documented their final research projects for an elective course in the form of a blog what they thought about using that format. They responded by saying that they loved the process and gained a lot from working through their research and reflection in blog form. Then they said that they would not like for that to replace the more formal writing they had been asked to do in history courses. While analytical essays are not what most students enjoy doing at any given moment, my students recognized the value in that process as well. They would not have traded their research paper experience for more blogging. For students who were accustomed to writing formal analytical essays for their teacher, the blog pushed them out of their comfort zone. If I shifted exclusively to blogging, it would be the essay that was unfamiliar. So, in this case, balance seems right.

An example of disconnect would be the “objective” multiple choice tests I have given over the years. More often than not, students have done poorly on them. I viewed those assessments as useful in holding students accountable and challenging the students. Even those kids who did well on the tests carried very little forward. I spent far too long trying to fit the students into that form of assessment, rather than modifying the assessment to reflect what I care most about, which is demonstration of learning. I have come to see multiple choice questions as interesting class exercises to get students talking about the issues and doing some practice for those College Board tests they face. I no longer want those to measure the teaching and learning in my classroom.

So, in the end, my challenge is to help students manage if not embrace discomfort and to modify areas where it is really disconnect at work, not discomfort.

Marching along instead of hunkering down

It is one of those points in the year.  I am exhausted, uninspired, and unfocused. This is a familiar place, one that I naively think I can learn to avoid. Yet it is a natural part of the rhythm of the school year for me. It would be great to be able to move through the year without the valleys and then recharge during summer, with winter and spring breaks providing renewal along the way. It just does not work that way for me, or most teachers I would venture to guess. I am not that special or unique.

Experience also tells me that if I can just put my head down and move forward, even a bit, try to make it through a few days or a week, something will come along to give me my next burst of energy and excitement. For now, I need to take the path of least resistance, doing the things that are coming easiest and getting finished what needs to be done. The weight of my world is enough to carry at the moment. No need for extra pressure.  That may mean letting go of my daily goal of excellent classes in order to survive to teach another year.

The best part about times like this is that they lead me to feel greater empathy with students and with colleagues. I need to realize on any given day that my students may be wrestling with the burnout demons, or some personal issues that take all of their attention and energy. The same is true of colleagues. It is a helpful reminder to lend a hand and try to help someone along when the going gets tough. Impatience is counterproductive.

This is what I love about blogging. What began as a post of despair has ended in feelings of hope. I did not expect this to be something I would want to publish when I began writing, but I decided to trust the process.

We are all in this together.

Driven by Why, then How

I am starting a unit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in my Modern Middle East class. Yesterday I solicited advice about web sources to help my students research it. I wanted to stay away from lecturing. Given that I have second semester seniors in their last quarter of high school, I have decided to minimize outside work so there was no background reading for homework. We watched a video that set up the psychological positions on both sides and the main stumbling blocks, but it left my students with a lot of questions. Perfect.

After thinking about what the classes might look like, I was unsettled. I did not want to do another worksheet where I directed them to find the answers to certain questions in web quest-like format. At the same time, I did not want them to approach the task without focus. So, I asked myself why I wanted them to learn about this conflict, and how that learning might matter. I can tell them that it is important for being an educated global citizen. But that does not seem real enough to capture the attention and motivate seniors with one foot out the door.

It hit me in a random moment while getting ready for school this morning. The goal is for the students to be armed with enough knowledge of the conflict to recognize oversimplification and misconceptions about the issues. In order to assess that, I need to have them to confront and dispel the myths and half-truths they might encounter in their conversations in the “real world.” My task is now to create scenarios where students have to role play to set someone straight about some aspect of the conflict – water cooler, family reunion, neighborhood gathering, etc. The work this week will be for them to prepare for that.

Step 1: Compile a list of some common misperceptions or oversimplifications that are “out there”?

Step 2: Solicit volunteers to help me out by acting as the purveyors of misinformation.

Step 3: Get out of the students’ way, but stand by their sides while they work.

Step 4: Perform scenarios in History Theater

Step 5: Evaluate how well it worked – for all of us.

Please help me with Step 1 – identifying what they might encounter that they should be able to counter. Also – feel free to contribute any ideas about scenarios.