Sunday, February 3, 2013

New Semester, New School, New Challenges

I've just started the 2nd semester of my 2-semester teaching credential program at CSUSM. I'm optimistic that it will fly by smoothly. I think it will basically be a repeat of 1st semester (just without the fire, hopefully). I had a very nice, relaxing break. I slept in a lot, painted (watercolor all day), lounged in the backyard, and adopted a new shelter dog. I guess that's another perk to teaching--the breaks allow you to recharge. I guess that's how we justify the lower salaries.

I've started this semester with a new school,  new master teacher, new classes, new students, and a new university supervisor. I'd heard a lot of rumors about my new site--lots of gang violence. I tried to push the gossip and heresay out of my mind. I wanted to be unbiased, but of course, with all the news and rumors, that was impossible.

The first thing that struck me about the new site was the severity, sternness, and strictness of the new administration. Lots of rules. Lots of no's, and cannots. Security guards everywhere. I was intimidated and nervous. However, my new MT is very easy-going and laid-back. I got along with him instantly. He's been teaching for 27 years. I hope to be as relaxed as he is one day. He's a very good story-teller. I can definitely learn from him. Plus, I think he'll let me be pretty independent. The biggest downside is the scripted curriculum. There's not very much freedom within the lessons to try my own stuff--my favorite part.

That's okay. Mr. B. told me last semester to focus on classroom management and nothing else. I'll have to be very self-disciplined to accomplish this goal. My new MT doesn't do much discipline at all. Fortunately, my new classes, although very large (40+) seem to be comprised of very quiet, meek students. Maybe it won't be that bad.

I also love my Chemistry class. The teacher is fantastic and has been a wonderful mentor to me. He's letting me help the students with solving problems and has already let me lead the labs. The students in the class are enthusiastic about the material (it's an elective) and more mature (they're sophomores; my other classes are freshmen). I'm having fun.

The campus as a whole saddens me because of the gang violence and the hush-hush M.O. as far as discussing it as a school (or even a memorial service for slain students). The teachers seem burnt-out and unhappy. The students in my classes seem like they are good kids; they want to be there and are trying very hard. But I almost began crying the other night because it's not safe there. No one is safe. Kids get jumped on a daily basis; and random lockdowns are frequent. I'm making the most of it, and there are many positives for me, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to simply getting through this semester, earning my credential, and getting a job. Can we speed up the process?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

End of the Semester--How Quickly Time Flies

It's been awhile since I've posted. Yes, student teaching has kept me busy but the fire really put a kink in things. My apartment building caught fire in late October, resulting in chaos, destruction, and displacement. After going through a month of near-nervous breakdown, crammed into my boyfriend's tiny, one-bedroom apartment with my dog and bunny, we finally found a gorgeous house to rent together. Finally, it's the end of December, and we are happily settled in and moving on.

My student teaching experience here has been amazing. I'm still working on classroom management. 35 freshman are challenging, indeed. However, I absolutely love this job. I would love to be able to work at a school like this one in the future.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Letting the Anger Out--When Channeled Anger is Appropriate in the Classroom

I've been struggling with my students and classroom management lately. They don't listen, carry on side conversations while I talk, and talk over their peers when they are called on. After one of the best students in the class said she was having a hard time paying attention, I knew I had to do something.

At first, I was worried about being overly strict. I poo-poohed the other teachers and their warnings about laying down the groundrules at the beginning of the year. I resisted being firm with my students for fear of hurting their feelings. And I fell victim to a common new teacher plague: the desire to have my students like me.

Now that I've been leading the class, I've been gaining confidence. I work hard on my lessons, trying to make them engaging and interesting. When students talk over me, I get irritated. Now I realize this irritation, and, yes, anger, is because I'm being disrespected. My students are being disrespected because it's interfering with their learning. And that pisses me off.

Maybe it's okay to let myself get pissed off sometimes. It stirred me up enough to go home and think of a plan. Warnings have not been enough. I  have several girls who are repeat offenders, talking behind my back every time I ask them to stop.

Tomorrow is a new day. I'm prepared. When the repeat offenders begin talking (notice I said "when" and not "if), I will stop my lecture, turn on the lights and admonish the class:
"There is WAY too much talking when I'm talking. This is UNacceptable. I can't hear myself think. Those students who want to learn can't, and that is NOT okay. You are being disrespectful (point to rule #2). It is NOT okay to talk when I'm talking. You are to be LISTENING. When I call on another student to answer a question, you are to be LISTENING. This is your warning. Next person who I find talking gets sent out of the class."

This is what I'm planning on saying. Then, I will find whoever is talking afterwards (someone will) and send them out of the class. After 2 minutes, I'll have a one-on-one talk with them. We will talk about what it means to be respectful. I will remind them that talking over me or another student is RUDE and that if it happens again, I will move their seat away from the class and call home to talk with their parents. Most importantly, I want to ask them why they feel such a strong impulse to behave that way. If they're doing great and the lectures are too easy, maybe they can work on an extra credit assignment. If it's too hard, maybe they need a handout to help scaffold the notes they are taking.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bad Grades = Bad Teacher

Tuesdays are rough. I miss Monday while in class all day. I'm out of my rhythm by the time Tuesday rolls around. I know what we planned on Friday, but I'm dying to know what really happened. Did they change seats? How did they do on Friday's test? Who was absent?

Unfortunately, I have to wait at least an hour or two to find out. Tuesday mornings are staff meetings, 7:30 sharp. I attend every one, even though, oftentimes, I'm just observing. I feel like a fifth wheel as teachers stress about mission statements, annual goals, CST scores, and test scores, test scores, test scores. Teachers are critiqued and evaluated based solely on their students' standardized "benchmark.

I've always thought this was an unfair practice. Teachers compare scores with each other question-by-question to see who "dropped the ball" and who needs to "pick it up" in specific areas. Schools compare schools. No wonder, my master teacher is always in a bad mood afterwards. How can you evaluate teacher performance based on a single standardized test? The worst is that teachers are told to compare their scores to previous years. There are just too many variables in such a small sample size. One class can be vastly different from the next. One year is not enough time to implement and evaluate the true, long-term effects of a change. Yet, teachers are encouraged to make changes every year, based off last year. Many assumptions are being made, and false conclusions are being drawn from poor data.

I lived this frustration today. My students took their first benchmark exam and averaged D-. It was like a punch to the gut. I had tried so hard to teach them. We used activities, labs, discussions, assessments, etc., etc., etc. I stayed after school and skipped lunch to tutor students. To make it worse, my MTs 4th period Bio, which he taught solo, averaged an entire letter grade higher. I was desolate. I feel like it's my fault.

My MT was very comforting and supportive, but it's hard to shake off. I know I should expect to perform like an inexperienced teacher, but it's a slap in the face when your student performance suffers because of it, despite your best efforts. I suggested that maybe my students weren't able to demonstrate their knowledge because they don't have enough practice with the multiple-choice format. We're going to use a practice M.C. test to help them review. Having a possible solution to the problem, one that I can actually use and measure, made me feel better, even if it doesn't work. At least I have a plan of action.

At the end of the day, I love being in the classroom. I love the students. As long as I focus on that, I will be okay.

Flying Solo, Part 2

Mr. B. was out sick again today. He had warned me this might happen, so we had consulted on Thursday what to do in that scenario. After enjoying a quick, free breakfast with the faculty (Fridays are Faculty Breakfast Day), I hurried up to the classroom to meet the sub. She looked panicked; no notes had been left, and no lesson plans were to be found. I introduced myself, and reassured her that Mr. B. had prepared me to lead the classes. I asked if she would play a supportive role, and assist me in passing out papers, taking attendance, help keep students on task, and give me feedback on my teaching. She obliged, advising that I get my emergency credential paperwork filed with the district office ASAP so that the next time Mr. B. was out, no sub would be needed, and I would be paid for the day.
For first period, I played a movie “Life Story” (1987) about how Drs. Franklin, Watson, and Crick discovered the double helix structure of DNA. Students were not listening, talking, and socializing. I told them to pay attention and we would discuss it at the end of class. I then drew the double helix on the board, atom by atom, to discuss after class. Students that had been disinterested seemed mildly curious in what I was drawing. The room was quiet. When 5 minutes of class were left, I paused the movie and asked the class questions about the role of women in science, and the differences between now and then. I also asked them why they thought discovering the structure of DNA was important. Then, I showed them the structure of DNA on the board, explaining that it was a result of those discoveries. We discussed the A:T and C:G hydrogen bonding, the negative charge on the backbone because of the phosphates, and how scientists use this information in the laboratory to further research—PCR, DNA sequencing, and gel electrophoresis.
During second period, I hurried out to get lunch for myself and the student I was interviewing at lunch for one of my case study assignments. Third period, I was better prepared. I had saved the structure of DNA for the end, but started with a four questions for students to answer during the movie. This kept students on task. There was no talking during third period, although several students seemed bored or tired (sleeping). At least it was better than first period. The movie was definitely boring though.
Fourth, fifth and sixth periods were my Bio classes. Fourth period had met me for the first time the day before. Students were still wary of my ability to teach. My confidence and preparation won them over. The hardest part was I didn't know their names, and the seating chart was really hard to follow. Desmond's became Dillon's, and Jonathan's replaced Juan's. Students hate being called by the wrong names and are not very forgiving.

"Mr. B.'s still out?" they asked.
"Yup. What'd you do to him?" I smiled in return. "Don't worry. He left me completely prepared." I said this, half joking. Students look for opportunities to slack off on sub day, not work harder.

We started with a warm-up--students in Mr. B.'s classes are accustomed to summarizing their Cornell notes from the day before. However, today, I gave them a prompt: "Compare and contrast eukaryotes and prokaryotes." After 3 minutes, I called on a few random students to share. There were some initial protests, "We don't normally share our summaries!"
"We're trying something different today," I replied. We created a Venn diagram to illustrate the similarities and differences on the board. Students copied it into their spirals under their summaries.

Then, we finished up the Microscope lab from the day before. Students peer-graded each other's lab worksheets. Luckily, I had made up a key, allocating specific points for each section so this part was pretty easy.

The last half of class was beginning a lecture on "Organelles". Unfortunately, I spent too long asking students questions so we didn't get too far. At least I know what we covered was truly covered: I waited to make sure all students had enough time to copy down what they needed into their notes and stopped to ask them questions after every 2 slides.

For 5th and 6th period, I thought it would be easy since these are my regular two classes. It wasn't. First, I was flustered from teaching all day and kept forgetting which period I was on. We had just switched to a new seating chart too, and I kept messing up student names, even though I knew better! It was embarrassing. I hate how the brain fails you when you need it the most.

Second, my students misbehaved more because they knew me! I thought it would be the opposite. I guess because they felt comfortable with me, they thought they could get away with it. Mostly, they weren't paying attention and talking when I was talking. I had to move one student to a different chair because he refused to stop talking, turn around, and pay attention. However, on the flip side, students from my classes participated A LOT more than usual, especially the students who had been seeing me individually for tutoring. I think this is because they felt at ease with me as their teacher. This was very gratifying.

Class was fun though. In addition to what we covered in 5th period, we also spent some time going over model essays students had written from the week before. I hadn't had time to give them feedback so it was nice to slow down and review what a few class-generated, full-credit essays looked like.

I also played a :30 second YouTube clip of a white blood cell chasing a bacterial cell so students could appreciate the size differential between eukaryotes and prokaryotes. The students loved the video, particularly because the cells literally came alive before their eyes.

The sub said she loved my energy and how I switched up the activities so we didn't spend more than 10-15 minutes on one thing. One thing she told me I need to work on is not talking over my students. When I'm talking, and other students begin having a side conversation, I need to be silent, make eye contact, and use proximity control instead. All in all, subbing was a FANTASTIC experience. I can't wait to lead the class again.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Flying Solo

My master teacher was sick today. He dragged himself in to ask if I could take over. Much to my surprise, instead of feeling nervous or anxious, I was excited and frothing at the bit. This was my chance! I was going to try teaching biology to 35 freshman ALL BY MYSELF!

4th period filed in. The second they saw me, I heard, "We get an easy day. It's a sub." Not if I had anything to say about it. As soon as the bell rang, I took the reins. It was clear from my confidence that I knew what I was doing. I reassured them they would not be slowed down by Mr. B's absence. Then, we proceeded to start a new unit on the cell. I helped them learn new vocab and then taught them a section on prokaryotes and eukaryotes. I wowed them with stories from my research days, when I would spend hours looking at fluorescent markers in cells under the microscope. I shared with them surprising facts about bacteria. They actually seemed interested. Then we segued into the microscope lab. They were excited about actually getting to see these cells for themselves. All in all, 5th period went off without a hitch.

6th period wasn't as smooth. This is my normal class so they knew me and didn't try to get away with anything...until the last 5 minutes of class. But first, I got locked off Mr. B's computer and had to quickly switch over to mine. Meanwhile, I directed the students to copy the new vocab off the Word Wall. Soon, we were up and running again. I modeled for them how to prepare a wet mount slide of cheek cells. Everything was great until one student got super ancy and started flicking (read: flirting) water on the girls. I gave him a warning but he did it again, behind my back. I held him after and spoke with him about self-control for a few minutes after class. Not too big of a deal.

Tomorrow I get to to do it again but for all 6 periods! I already prepped; I just want to look over my slides and make sure everything runs smoothly. Can't wait! The things I need to work on: firm classroom management with clear-cut rules and expectations, timing (keeping track of when to transition and when to wrap it up and clean up), and pacing (slowing down during lectures). Today was the most fun I've had so far!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bearer of Bad News

How do I best communicate bad grades to students? After the first test, it was obvious widespread communication would be needed. The average was a D. Way too many students were doing poorly waay too early in the year. They needed an intervention.

But what's the most effective way to deliver the news? I didn't want to call the whole class out. I was advised against this, since it punishes the successful, high-achieving students in the class and humiliates the low-students. I decided to use the small-group/individual more private setting. As they worked on their labs, I went down my highlighted list of students I needed to talk to and circulated to each one. In groups of one, twos, and threes, I patiently delivered the same news:

"Your grade is a D or lower. You need to do something different. You can do one of three things: study harder, study smarter, and/or make an appointment to see me during lunch, or after school." I followed up with an explanation of study smarter (study strategies and tips which I could teach them, such as active reading, note-taking, test-prep, and test-taking strategies). This was followed up with my site's policy on Fs on progress reports: 1st progress report--academic referral. 2nd F-student is kicked out of the class.

I thought this policy was kinda harsh, and I told my students so. I felt so bad for them. Some of them were almost in tears. I tried to reassure some of them it wasn't too late to change. The year was still young. I encouraged them: if they worked hard in class, studied hard outside of class, and saw me for help outside of class, they would not fail.

Students have been seeing me on a regular basis at lunch and after school. It's been invaluable for building my bond with each student and getting to know them as an individual. Some of their grades have increased dramatically, which has been the best news. I've also called parents of students with Ds or Fs to tell them how to help their student succeed. The majority of students, however, continue to fail. How do I convince them to do something different?