Friday, October 12, 2007

The teaching life

My situation is typical of a language arts teacher. I’ve got a pile of essays to read this weekend. Seventh grade writing. Sometimes it’s hard to be optimistic.

I had a good week at the middle school, though my grand plans for the week were all for naught. Tuesday I had scheduled a re-write session of an earlier assignment, The Lying Paragraph. This is an assignment I designed that goes along with their ISAT pre-test and also the book we’re reading as a class, Freak the Mighty. The question: In what circumstances is it okay to lie? Before the assignment, after reading Freak, we talked about situations in two chapters in which the characters lied. For their paragraph, the students had to write a topic sentence, provide support for the topic sentence from Freak, another supporting example from their own lives, and a concluding sentence.

In the original assignment, I used a sandwich graphic organizer. Many observant students noticed the graphic organizer was for a cheese sandwich. “Where’s the beef?” they asked, oblivious of the pop culture reference.

Instead of grading the paragraphs, I provided critical comments, usually in the form of questions. On Tuesday they got the assignment back and spent time in class re-writing the paragraphs, with me on hand, of course, to decipher my handwriting. My original plan was for them to spend 10 minutes on the re-write and another 10 doing the peer review. It didn’t work out that way. They needed 20-25 minutes to do their re-writes, even though it was only 4-5 sentences.

On Wednesday, they did their peer review workshop. I wisely set up the workshop by asking those who re-wrote their paragraphs to hold them up in the air. Those who didn’t were both publicly shamed and singled out to leave the classroom. Once I got the class going on their peer review workshop, I dealt with the slacker contingent by having them write a paragraph about the importance of turning in homework on time.

The peer review workshop required them to follow the directions on a worksheet I wrote. The first thing they did was read the paragraph twice, on the second time marking it with proofreading marks. They were given a sheet of proofreader’s symbols at the beginning of the year, and we use those marks three days each week in our Caught Ya! Daily Oral Language exercises. So they’re familiar with them.

Next, they had to write a complete sentence or two explaining what they liked and/or disliked about the paragraph, with an admonishment to be specific. “Don’t just write, ‘It was cool.,’” I included in the instructions. Third, they had to check off from a list of 10 statements addressing problems with the paragraph, like “no indentation,” “missing words,” and “unclear topic sentence.” Last, they had to pick one of the sentences in the paragraph and re-write it in their own words.

Of course, no lesson is entirely original. Mine is based on a complicated network of ephemeral influences, but not cribbed from any one directly. I wrote it straight from scratch with no cuts and pastes or even looking at other sources.

This lesson was successful on many fronts. The paragraph re-writes were an immense, in some cases, startling improvement on originals. The critical feedback from fellow students was insightful and, in most cases, helpful. More importantly, the students got into the lesson and there was an atmosphere of cooperation and learning, students teaching students while I stood off smugly to one side, smiling, arms crossed (like cheesy video footage of Mussolini). Which reminds of that episode of The Office when Dwight, coached by Jim, gives a Mussolini speech at a corporate function and gets a standing ovation.

But the extra time taken to do the peer review workshop and drift between the commons area to police/ check the progress of the slackers meant that I didn't have time to explain and present a homework project. No big deal. It wasn't an original assignment, but one I chose from a schedule of assignments associated with Freak.

This weekend I am grading drafts of essays students are doing for their “Me” Project. This is a big project also designed by my cooperating teacher. They have to write three 250-word essays, one each about their past, present, and future. This also connects to the paragraph exercise because, as I tell them, sentences make paragraphs and paragraphs make essays. Separate your topics with new paragraphs.

For the draft editing, I do many of the things my students do in their peer reviews. I copy edit the text, but don’t correct one type of mistake more than once. It’s surprising how many students miss a mistake after correcting the same one in a previous sentence. I also write two or three suggestions and try to highlight two or three good things. Another sandwich technique is to buffer one critical comment with two positive ones. Sometimes, especially with struggling writers, this can be a real challenge.

My toughest students are the former English Language Learner (ELL) students, where English is not spoken at home. Most of my learning disabled students have wonderful aides and individualized instruction. The aides adapt the lessons for each students, and in many cases the work from my learning disabled students is of higher quality because of the aide catches many common mistakes before it reaches my desk. Also, the work is often typed.

But the former ELL students, used to a similar support system, are set free, unassisted, into the general student population once they attain a certain level of proficiency. I guess that 9 out of the approximately 10 former ELL students are below grade level in writing and reading. Many really struggle in a monolingual environment. It's not what they're used to.

My cooperating teacher stayed out of the classroom after first hour most of the week. The kids noticed her absence and were a little more tittery and prone to misbehavior, but they never got out of hand. Years of substitute teaching and recent clinical experiences have taught me a thing or two about classroom management. It also helps to be a big, tall guy who talks softly, but can get loud and angry when I need to. One thing I never do is be loud and angry when I'm really angry. In upset moments I keep my cool and talk slow and low. My body language and stern manner show my anger. When I act loud and angry, it is just an act. Why? Because if students ever saw me really lose my cool, I'd lose respect from them and they would, like my students at West a long time ago (early 2004), get a kick out out of getting my goat. I've only acted loud and angry twice, the first time after Mrs. F told me I was too easy on the kids. The second time today when 7th hour (read second to last period on a Friday) got rowdy after most of them had finished a 15-minute ISAT essay response question.

Overall, I have to pinch myself for the easy time I have with classroom management. Here's a few tricks I've learned. I know I've many more to learn as well.
* First rule. Remember to earn their respect by treating them with respect. Listen to them and respond to what they say. Say Please, thank you, excuse me, and apologize sincerely if you do them wrong. Treat them with the same respect you would treat adults, or, to use a damn business paradigm, this being Das Kapital America, customers.
* Second rule. Delegate tasks. Give the class as much pride and ownership in the class as possible. Put their artwork and good assignments on the wall. I learned this one from Mrs. F.
* Third rule. Keep the rules simple and few, and be consistent and fair with discipline. Adolescents have a hyperkeen sense of justice, albeit an egocentric one.
* Fourth rule. Be flexible with the seating arrangement and move the troublemakers front and center.
That's all I can think of for now. I'm a lot more intuitive with my classroom management than these rules suggest. For example, I always allow for a little bit of noise and tittering if I think the spirit of the class needs it. How arbitrary is that? Very. I just sense the energy level of the class and know when they are getting too distracted and restless.

While I don't believe in scripted instruction, I follow a plan for the day, detailed enough to make for smooth transitions between activities. It is in these transition times that the class can get a little rowdy. And sometimes that's okay.

Treat the students like people and be sensitive to their needs, and they will follow you to the ends of the earth.

It was indeed a good week. A short week that seemed to last forever, but a good week nonetheless. Whoo hoo. Bring it on Friday. I’d party down if I wasn’t so damn tired.

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