Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Spring Break – Why is it so short?

Overall, reflecting on my spring break I was able to observe other teachers, work on my classes and complete some grading, and relax a little bit. My parents flew in from Minnesota on Thursday, so I spent the last part of break showing them around Colorado and then they came to see me teach my classes on Monday. It was really special and I was thankful that they were able to come on out. However, I am just wondering where all of Spring Break went? It seemed so short. I fell like I should have gotten more planning, more grading, or more preparation activities done over break, but it just did not happen. I feel like I could have been more prepared for the last two weeks of student teaching, but somehow that did not happen. I guess my only conclusion would be that Spring Break is just too short. Teachers deserve a break from the daily grind of teaching, grading, and planning, but it all comes back to balancing that with self care and personal relaxation. Also, the transition back into school mode has been tough, but I am getting through it one step, one day at a time.

Job Fair: Round Two

One of the other things that I did during Spring Break was attend another job fair, this one up in Greely, Colorado at the University of Northern Colorado. The first thing about this fair is that it is huge – over one hundred and twenty tables and school districts represented. However, I have decided that if possible I would like to stay in Colorado (for a number of various reasons) and somewhat close to Denver if possible. So the night before the job fair I went online to each and every one of the schools that was going to be at the job fair and I looked at their potential openings. I also had my short list of school districts that I was interested in, but did not get a change to talk to at the last job fair or they were not present.

So the morning of the fair, Thursday, I got up and drove through the blizzard up to Greely and got into a large line of other candidates. When I was in line the fair organizers provided a listing of all the school districts and their locations. Then I opened up the homework that I had done preparing for this fair and cross referenced the lists. This way I knew exactly which school districts I wanted to speak to and which ones I really wanted interviews with. So we finally got into the large gymnasium with all the school districts and I quickly got in line and completed two interviews with the two school districts that I was interested the most in. Then I also went and dropped off resumes at locations where the school districts had openings, but were not holding interviews. Then by about 9:15 am, because I did not have any other interviews scheduled nor did I feel that I needed to schedule interviews with school districts in New Mexico, Alaska, or small towns on the Western Slope I decided to leave the fair (also because the weather outside was getting worse and worse by the minute).

Overall, I think that the job fair was a success. I had one school district principal that told me that “Randon, you will get a job. I have no doubt about that. The only thing is if you want that job to be with us.” That was helpful and really did make me feel good. I think that completing my homework the night before really prepared me for the job fair in a way that put me ahead of the competition. It was a good day, all except until the three and a half hour drive back to Denver in the snow (it usually takes about an hour to get back from Greely). Now I just wait for the phone calls and hope that they start coming soon.

Watching and Reflecting

Over break I had the opportunity to observe Joseph Marlen, an English teacher, up at Conifer High School. My first impression of the school was that it was absolutely beautiful, situated up on a mountain top and surrounded by pine trees. The overall architecture of the building is a very North Woods type of log accented architecture with heavy emphasis on the forest green and wood contrast. The building looked like it was a year old, but come to find out it was over ten years old.

Anyway, I went to visit Mr. Marlen’s World Literature course. The first thing that I noticed when arriving in the room was the overall set-up of the room. At the front a projector and computer on a cart were displaying images on a wall and the rest of the students were situated at desks around the room that were in pairs all facing the front of the classroom. From there a large couch sat in the corner and some students were sitting on that as well. At the back of the room sat Mr. Marlen’s desk and a large counter that was holding a variety of other English related materials and papers. The first thing that Mr. Marlen did, at least that I saw, was ask the students to get up and respond to a question. He posed the question by asking the studens to put their opinions on one of the side boards in his classroom. It was great to see that he had the students get up out of their seats and display their own opinions to the class. This was really neat because it was an awesome pre-thinking activity. This was pre-thinking activity, but it would have been really interesting to come back to at the end of the period and see how opinions changed after the lesson.

This period the students were getting a short look and introduction into Les Miserables as part of their unit and focus on Romanticism. However, it was interesting that in talking with students that many of them were curious as to the connection of this class period to Les Miserables. I was not there at the beginning of the period, so I have no clue how Mr. Marlen started class or how he set-up this assignment. That being said, I do not know if the students were just not listening or if they really did not have a clue as to the connection (I know that more often than not students have "selective hearing").

After the pre-thinking activity the students looked at a YouTube video to get the students’ attention to the overall text, which was really engaging and interesting. Then Mr. Marlen had the students look at a specific portion of the text, one chapter, and as they read they discussed the text as a class. My question, as they were reading, was wondering about an overall focus to the discussion. Mr. Marlen set-up the class, or so it appeared, to focus on punishment and specifically prison, but as we read the text it did not appear that the discussion was leading into that discussion. So my question after watching Mr. Marlen and his class study the text, was what was the overall purpose in reading this specific chapter? Why not read chapter one or chapter thirteen? Why this one in particular? I know that Mr. Marlen had a reason for this, because I saw he had some very good overall lesson design and flow ideas, but my suggestion would be to make that focus more front and center for the students - especially as they read. To read the text Mr. Marlen had an online version; however, there were issues in showing all of the text on the screen completely. One of those amazing technology issues that as a teacher you can never predict, but it was something that Mr. Marlen fumbled with and then did something I was really excited to see - he gave the power of the technology to a student. He handed over the control, the "all knowing knowledge" to a student. What an awesome display of humbleness and understanding that the students probably knew how to work the technology better than he did, so he handed it over to them. If only more teachers would learn this very simple lesson I think that students would be more engaged and excited to learn in the classroom.

Then later in the lesson Mr. Marlen had students copy down specific lines from the text and respond to them on the sheet of paper they were writing on. As they did this, reflecting on the experience, the students appeared to be connecting the pieces of text to the overall point of the lesson. At times I struggled with this concept and overall idea, of copying down text without a real context. However, what this made me realize internally is how well are my classes focused on the text? How much do I push my students to make connections to the overall point of the lesson or the unit during the class period?

As I reflect on watching that one block period I learned a few different things. Mr. Marlen had a clear purpose for the lesson, or so it appeared, but at times some of the activities the students were completing lacked that missing connection between what the teacher knows as the purpose and the students understanding the purpose. The same disconnect happens in my classroom, so it was nice to see it also happen in another classroom. What I really admired Mr. Marlen for was the relationship he had with his students. It was incredible the respect, knowledge, and experience he clearly had with these students. They were high energy, which he matched throughout the lesson, and they wanted to clearly go on Spring Break. Midway through the period, because of the high energy and a few elements of the lesson not going according to his plan, he switched methods of instruction. He went from a teacher-centered style to more of a constructivist style where the students shared what they learned by looking at specific portions of the text. Through watching Mr. Marlen teach I was able to self-reflect on the kind of teacher I want to be in the classroom - how I want my interactions with students and the overall lesson design to look like in the future.

AP or IB – That is the question

Also over break I was able to go visit Jason Leclaire, one of my cooperating teacher’s, Kristin’s, husband over in Aurora. On the day that I visited Jason he taught two sections of Advanced Placement Literature and one section of IB Program English. When I arrived at the school out in Aurora, the east side of Denver for those of you that are unfamiliar, I walked into an environment that appeared very new and up-to-date. The walls were painted nice, appeasing colors and the students appeared ready to go for class. I spent the first part of the day, the first hour, getting ready for the rest of the hours of that day. Jason and I went over the writing prompts and the material for that day and discussed how I wanted to be involved in the class discussion.

Then the first period of the day began. It is always interesting to watch people teach, but even more interesting to watch Jason teach considering I know very well the style and method that his wife, Kristin, teaches from. Furthermore, Jason started class with a sheet of notes about announcements that he needed to make and then started off the day with the activities and ideas that the class was covering for that day. Meanwhile, Kristin starts off class by going over the goals for the period as laid out on the PowerPoint and then discusses homework, which is also laid out using PowerPoint. They are both different ways to accomplish the same thing and nothing is wrong with either style, however it is very interesting to watch them both at work.

Jason’s period of IB students really had an extreme lack of classroom management issues. In fact, it was completely amazing to watch these students at work. During the period they took a section from Heart of Darkness and applied it to a vast knowledge of literary terms and techniques to prove an individual point to the class about something that was going on in that section. It was very powerful to see each student in the class performing at a very high level. In addition, it was very powerful to see in the discussion that followed after the examples how students referenced each other. It was not just that whoever said this and I think that is a good point, but it was Brady said this and I agree with him because… and the discussion went on from there. It was incredible to watch how everything unfolded with the discussion in the IB class.

After this period we had lunch and then another round of the IB students. Once again, these students were fantastic. They were thinking critically about issues in the text and then they were applying concepts and higher order thinking not only to the sections that they presented on, but also to other sections. Again, Jason did not have any classroom management issues either with this class. This second class led me to understand that Jason’s classes are very structured and ordered; it just does not appear to be like that on the surface. Jason knows exactly where he is going with every lesson and the students seemed to know also, which made it really fun to sit in the back of the classroom and watch where he was leading them. One thing that I noticed overall about the IB program students is something that Jason told me during the first planning period of the day. He told me that IB students are in a program, they take all their courses in the IB program and then hopefully at the end they receive an IB certificate and a high school diploma. They are highly achieving students who really want to be there, where as the AP students are just students that have decided for one reason or another to take an AP class. This, however, is not a bad thing; it just puts the entire experience into perspective with the types of students in each class.

One thing I want to mention before writing about the AP students, the students in Jason’s IB program were extremely engaged in the classroom discussion. Normally a teacher has to try really hard to maintain the engagement of the students in the classroom. However, Jason had no problem with this because his students were honestly engaged in a classroom discussion for the entire block period. They did not waiver, they did not change, they did not check out for any length of time – these students were genuinely engaged in the discussion happening in the classroom. It was truly amazing to see and something that I cited as a result of the IB program and all the students knowing each other, but also being very motivated at the same time.

The next class that came in was the AP students, and let me tell you that there is no real way to distinguish between an AP and an IB student, but somehow I just knew by the way these students acted, how chatty they were, and how their range of abilities was all over the place. These students were like the exact opposite of the IB students, but at the same time these students can pick and choose what they want to take for AP classes whereas the IB students are in a program. That distinction between program and individual class came through with the differences in student makeup, ability level, and overall class size too (the AP class was another ten students larger than the IB classes). The AP students started off class with a timed writing, which meant that I was free for forty minutes. During this time I was able to go next door to a study skills / college preparation class and discuss with the students the transition into college and about college life. It really dawned on me that I only really have two months left of college. That is it and then I am done. I am really nervous about graduating in general, but at the same time I think I am ready to move on. However, it was a lot of fun to meet with these fifteen students who have struggled in high school and to see them all going to college or university is a huge deal. It is from there, though, that I think I really inspired them to go on and do their best during one of the or possibly the greatest time of life – during college. After about forty minutes of chatting with these students I went back to the AP classroom and was able to lead a discussion over the text that they had just wrote on for their essay. This discussion was kind of nerve wracking at first, new students that I did not know, teaching them, wow what an experience. So I did that for about fifteen minutes and then Jason took over and finished the class up with some announcements.

After school Jason and I talked about a whole variety of things that had happened that day and throughout the field of education – including which battles to fight. I noticed that throughout the day there were many students getting up and leaving to go places. Some of these students had passes and others did not. Jason told me that going to the whole issue of using the bathroom during class is one of the battles that he does not fight anymore. He used to, but then he re-evaluated and decided that it really was not worth the energy and time to fight it. We talked about a number of battles that he did or did not fight and why. I left with the acknowledgement that I will figure out which battles really matter to me and from there I will continue to be a better teacher.

Observing Jason was immensely helpful, if only to see what AP and IB students are like in a better light. However, learning from his teaching style, activities in class, and overall attitude toward teaching were extremely beneficial as I go back to Arapahoe and Wartburg.