Wednesday, April 1, 2009

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.