It's about three weeks into our school year, and I'm only just beginning to tread water rather than drown. I am, once again, a new teacher. And while I don't have to relearn a lot of important teaching skills that can act like anvils attached to the ankles of a teacher new to the profession, I do have some big hurdles to clear, which include: developing a discipline system that works with my school, developing a data collection system with the materials I have in my classroom, writing and implementing a curriculum for my world history course and advisory, developing relationships with families and staff members, and tweaking the existing curriculum provided by the district for my language arts course.
As a result of the time I've devoted to my new classroom, I've been away from education policy for a while. In fact, I don't have a clue what's going on in the world of education outside of my school (and the Tacoma teacher's strike). Therefore, I thought I'd blog on - get this - teaching.
This year, I have two freshman language arts classes, one freshman advisory, and one sophomore world history class. I've noticed that the classroom management techniques I use with freshman are significantly less effective with my sophomores, who I think pose one of the biggest challenges I've ever faced teaching.
With my freshman, I use the time-tested technique of raising my hand to get their attention. When they see "the hand", my students are trained to raise their hand, stop talking, and nudge their neighbor. This is far more effective than simply saying, "I need your attention." The hand is a visual signal that remains in place until everyone is paying attention. It doesn't die quickly like the spoken word, and it's not as obnoxious as turning the lights on and off. It respects students and their conversations. However, for it to work, it requires that the vast majority of your students have at least a modicum of respect for their teacher and peers. They must care that they're inconveniencing someone else.
After three weeks of waiting for everyone to stop talking completely before I begin my instruction, my freshman classes work smoothly. Not so with my sophomores.
In my sophomore world history class, there are a significant number of students who "the hand" doesn't work for. Waiting for everyone to stop talking in that class increases its toxicity. Instead of nudging their peers, my students become frustrated with me for assuming that they'll ever stop talking. I suspect this is because they've been in classes with each other for the past few years and know what works and what doesn't. So today, I tried something different.
The bell rings.
"Okay guys, we're going to try something different today," I say. "Instead of waiting for people to stop talking, I'm just going to teach. If you want to learn, you should sit close to me so you can hear and with people who you know won't distract you. How much you learn today will be entirely up to you." How much they learned last week was up to both me and their talkative peers. The frustrated faces of the students who wanted me to move on compelled me to rethink my approach.
Although it was rough, especially for the first half hour or so, the gears were turning. I didn't feel like the class was failing those students who wanted to learn. We read a portion of Bartolomé de las Casas's A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and analyzed it using the SOAPSTone technique. About 3/4 of the class had a meaningful conversation about las Casas's credibility, his purpose, and the effects of his writing. I then asked how they thought Europeans found their way to the New World in the first place. We made some predictions and then did Cornell Notes on the causes of the "Age of Discovery" - first making a point of discussing the implications of referring to the period with such a moniker.
After about an hour, I felt I had most of the class participating. Unfortunately, our block periods are unusually long (105 minutes), and after about 80 minutes, I started losing students again.
When class ended, I interviewed students on the way out: "How did it go this time? Do you think it was better than last time?"
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Everyone agreed that moving on was the right move, including myself. Nobody's education was sacrificed. I got through the material I'd hoped to and the interested students managed to have some rigorous conversations about the material.
Had an administrator walked in, it wouldn't have looked very organized. My disengaged students were very disengaged. But if there's one thing I've learned in the past year and a half, it's to eschew appearance in favor of substance. I think it's unfortunate that so many of our new teachers are being taught the exact opposite. If you want to teach something meaningful, focus on the content. If you want it to look good and please you administrator, focus on the appearance.
(More on meaningful teaching here. More on the problems with appearance-centered teacher training here.)
By no means would I call this class a success. It was progress. Better than before. We still face significant barriers on our way to a high-functioning class. My hope is that an ongoing concentration on building positive relationships with my students and their families in addition to their increasing ownership of their own learning will move us closer to something we can call success.