Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Day Eight!

Today was a PLC day, or otherwise known as a Professional Learning Community day, which basically means that the teachers are in meetings from 7:00 – 9:00 am and the students get to sleep in. A great deal for the students, but on the other end I don’t know. In all seriousness though, this was a great time of planning and excitement for our department. I went to the 9th grade Language Arts meeting. The really unique thing about AHS and the Language Arts department, and I have not heard of this before, but all the teachers teach either a section of 9th grade students or 10th grade students. This way they remain “grounded” with their teaching, really giving thanks for the electives that they teach, and they are also able to form relationships with underclassman. I personally think it is a great plan and I really enjoy seeing it at work in our department. I have been to a lot of teacher planning meetings before, but none of them was ever run like this one. There was a fellow educator in our department in charge of the meeting, but this “meeting” was really a lot more like a focused think tank of sorts. We had a couple of issues at hand, one major one was looking at how to assess 9th grade writing and learning through the use of topic sentences and thesis statements. It was really neat to see what that half of the department really thought about these issues and the testing of students in general. The one complaint, which is so true especially for 9th grade teachers, was that the state and federal mandated test results are given to the teachers so late into the school year that they really do the content area teacher very little good. By the time that the teachers receive the results they already understand and know their students. What we did find ourselves trying to devise was a “draft day” sort of meeting with the 8th grade teachers. As a 9th grade teacher, we would really like to know two sentences about the students we are receiving. What, if any, issues do they have at home, what do they need help with in the classroom and what do they really excel at on a regular basis. The teachers find themselves doing some sort of conference with the teachers in 10th grade verbally about every child when students register for classes. What we really struggled with, and actually tabled until our next meeting, was how to do complete our objective to share the information with upper level teachers in a method that is paperless, easy, and in as least amount of time possible. Other than that we talked about a variety of other issues related to testing and actually measuring student learning. What truly surprised me about this meeting was that everyone, and I mean everyone, was respected, talked, and provided their two cents. No one person took over the meeting and directed it down a path that could not be momentarily entertained or was the one overall knowing figure in the meeting. The leader of the meeting was very active in the meeting directing it when she needed too, but this meeting was a conversation. What can we do to make our educational experience better for the students? We really focused on that topic and made sure that we kept the students at the forefront of our mind. What really surprised me, though, was what this meeting turned into. It moved from a conversation to a sharing party. Remember that post a few days ago about sharing information? I think I called it “The Second Best Thing an Educator Can Do.” Well I got to see it in action. Basically we got onto the topic of the position paper, which is what basically all the 9th grade teachers are covering the first part of the semester, and then we literally all shared what we are doing in the classroom to make it engaging. Someone had a great idea about pre-paper lessons, someone else had a great idea about how to challenge individual writers to become better through a mini class mentoring project, and yet another teacher shared about what he is doing about changing the world (Thanks to Anne for the literal push and lead into the conversation). What really surprised me was that we were literally sharing ideas and things that worked in our classrooms and I got a lot of good ideas out of it. If only we had, and maybe this is just the student teacher in me speaking, we had a time just to sit and share departmentally what we are doing in the classroom each of us could take one piece, or the whole idea maybe, and make our own individual classrooms a better place. But let’s not stop it there; let’s go school and district wide. Imagine sitting in a classroom learning from a science teacher about a concept, but being taught a really new way to look at something that could totally apply to something that I am teaching in Language Arts. How amazing would that be? Imagine a complete day of sharing ideas and getting time to work those ideas into lessons, all with the intent on improving the educational experience for our students. Now some would say that’s called a conference, and to a degree I think that is what goes on at a conference, but more so I think that teachers in departments are worked so hard, all the time, that they get no real time to share what they are doing extraordinarily in the classroom with other teachers. What if, instead of paying to go to a big national conference, and I have nothing against national conferences, educators spent the money on subs for their classes and spent the day sharing at a location close to the school? Then they spent the day dreaming, sharing, and supporting each other together in the challenge of teaching. What would that do to the culture and the cohesiveness of the department, not to mention the educational experience across the department and in individual rooms? I really have no answer to that question, and maybe I’m shooting in the dark here and teachers collaborate all the time, which I know we do (heck I do it all the time just to get ideas for the next day), but what I am talking about here is a time of sharing and affirmation of good ideas in a formal setting in front of an audience of peers. What I saw when I shared my idea about challenging the students to physically make a difference caused some other light bulbs to go off in other teachers’ heads and when they spoke the same thing happened in my head. Why can’t we have that same feeling on a more regular basis as teachers? Why can’t we dream, affirm, and exchange ideas on a more regular basis? Why do we have to have a scheduled PLC day to do it on?

The above conversation was running through my head for the first couple of hours of the day today and then I went to Anne’s second hour English 9 class. She was giving them a primer of the format of a formal research paper for most of the period and a pep talk the rest. See tomorrow, one of the coolest things as AHS is taking place (at least in my opinion). The 9th grade honors students are live blogging with Dan Pink. I have blogged about this opportunity before, but it is just such a cool thing to be indirectly a part of that I can’t even explain it. If you want to see the live conversation, click here and it’ll take you to Karl Fisch’s blog and the information about seeing the web stream. It was great to see how excited the students are to have a conversation with a man that is so well known in the arena of writing. I cannot wait to see what tomorrow brings.

Third period, my 10th graders, was a new and exciting challenge. We were re-capping what we covered yesterday, the active and passive voice, but with a new twist – I was being formally observed for my student teaching program back in Iowa. This brought a new pressure and element you could say to the conversation. I did my best, which I thought was pretty good, and then the period was over. It went so quick. We spent the entire time on re-covering the active and passive voice, but unlike yesterday I felt like today really made a difference. The students began at least to understand the difference between and how to correct passive and active voice. That made me really happy though, that students were really getting to know and understand what I was teaching. After the period was over I had a long conversation with my college representative about my teaching. She commented on a variety of things that could be improved, like making sure that all the students are all on the same page before moving on. See I asked the students to pull up a handout I posted on the online class calendar and while they were doing that some of them probably shifted over to their e-mail or some other website while they were waiting for the others. I think that was a natural reaction to having a computer in front of you and being able to multi task, at least for a short amount of time. She made some good comments about paying attention to one side of the class, as I apparently paid and called on more people on one side than the other. Further, she gave me feedback that my presence within the classroom was good and that I engaged the students. However, I apparently use a very limited number of words to affirm students when they give the correct answer, so that was something to work on. I was happy she came and finally got to see me, and frankly it was nice to get the first one (of seven) observation out of the way, but today was such a weird day. I was stuck in this teacher, collaborator mood all morning and then had to quickly shift to educator and teacher in a mere matter of minutes. The students were in a little different type of mood today and, like every day, I over planned what I was doing today. Classes were shortened, which made the classes feel rushed at times too. All in all, it was a good observation. My college representative said some very nice things and gave me a few things to work on. The last thing she commented on was that I have the gift of a natural teacher. She said that I have the sense of “reading” my students, great mentors (Kristin and Anne and the rest of the staff at AHS), and an awesome situation in which I am learning to grown into a great teacher someday.

The conversation with my college representative took the entire forth period, which upset my seniors because they were waiting for me to show up. I saw a few of them in the library during fifth period and they told me how disappointed they were that I did not show up. I explained to them the whole observation thing and having a conversation with my representative and then they understood. I could still see it in their faces though, they felt let down. One of the great parts of teaching is having those personal relationships with students. Even as a student teacher, if I know that I missed a class for a legitimate reason even, I feel like I missed out on something and the students notice. I feel like I missed part of my day and it was not complete. The students missed me and reflecting on it, that is a huge compliment to me I guess because that means that I am making some sort of an impact on their life to the extent that they want me in class with them. That is quite an honor, at least I think, for a student teacher to reach week two even before he has completely taken over the class.

Sixth period was with my wonderful ninth graders again. Today we covered MLA citations, which are something they have never done before, and then I gave them time to work on their Assignment – Change the World papers and to actually find some research. I thought the lesson was good and I modeled an example for them on the computer, but I felt at the end of the period that something was off. The way I explained it to Anne was that teaching that class today was a lot like fishing. I put out the bobber, the information, and then put the hook on there, the actual reinforcement (the assignment they need to complete for tomorrow), and somehow don’t think many of them will bite. I didn’t see blank stares from the students, like they really understood the assignment and what they needed to do, I just feel like they are fish swimming around the bait, almost like they are waiting to see if I’ll reel it back in anytime soon. I thought the lesson was good and they obviously understood what they needed to do, it was just that they were not accomplishing it as quickly as I expected. I guess I just need to remember two things: One, they have never done an assignment like this before. Two, there is no easy assignment for a freshman – thanks Anne.

What Anne and I finally talked about, and this is my big take away for the day, is that as teachers we put ourselves out there on the line every day. As teachers, we work really hard, create awesome lessons, challenge students, and provide an awesome learning environment every day, but we put ourselves out there every day. In addition, we put not only ourselves, but more so we put hearts our there every day, no matter the return. That’s the hard part of teaching and I think that’s where I got today. Tomorrow when I walk into that classroom I expect to see six MLA citations from every student. Will it happen? I can guarantee that it will not, but that’s not the end of the story. I will still put my heart out there – no matter what. As teachers, that’s what we do time and time again, day after day, and period after period. It’s not an easy job though, because if it was everyone would be doing it.