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August 20, 2010
Shedding My Fear of Fun, Part 2
A beginning teacher cannot change his or her teaching personality at whim, at least not consistently. She cannot decide to "be more fun." So, in order to make a classroom more fun, which is to say more engaging, more exciting and child-focused, a beginning teacher should change the classroom activities. The most straightforward change that I have seen is to make the classroom project-based. This might sound like a "duh" idea, especially to more experienced teachers, but I mean to suggest that everything, everything be project-based. Take, for example, the curriculum outlined in Everyday Mathematics, used in most city elementary schools. The daily lesson plans have an attractive hands-on focus, but there is only one lesson per unit, entitled "explorations," in which the students work together on larger projects. Now whether the project is group-based or individual, it seems intuitive to me that the entire math unit (be it shapes, number patterns or measurement) should be structured towards a larger goal. I have seen, and used, a unit-plan focusing on shapes that resulted in a class performance of "The Greedy Triangle" by Marilyn Burns. Some students worked on Hexagon and Octagon posters, drawing objects from life that conformed to those shapes, while others cut out and painted shape costumes. After a few lessons, my job became easy, walking between the tables, correcting students if they said "square" when they should have said "rectangle." During the independent reading block, we find that some students read while others pretend to read. This is because some students like to read and find it pleasurable, while others do not. Duh. And yet we still ask students to read silently for up to an hour, while we run from bored student to bored student using all of our imagination to keep their attention on their books. But I am done pleading with a student to enjoy reading, to have fun doing something he or she does not naturally enjoy.
August 19, 2010
Shedding My Fear of Fun, Part 1
As an elementary school teacher, I have always been afraid of fun. The noise, the energy and the constant excitement of play seemed too close to chaos. And, as I have written in previous posts, I was one of those new teachers who feared chaos more than anything else. I created clear, predictable schedules and hyper-articulated procedures. Every morning, we sang about the rules before the day began. This summer I have had an opportunity, mostly with my nephews, to watch kids play. I am not their teacher and we were not in a classroom, and so I was able to sit back and, for the past two months, learn a thing or two about fun. These lessons will be invaluable in the coming year. Over the next two posts I will first discuss how why fun can and, in fact, must be used in a successful classroom. In the following post I will suggest ways in which teachers and administrators can create a fun elementary school. It took me a while to recognize a basic feature of fun: it is not pleasure. This is clearest in organized fun, such as team sports. Very rarely do I see smiling on the baseball diamond or basketball court. Team sports rely on a competitive energy and a drive to succeed that are exciting in their own right, not merely as a means towards the sensation of victory. But it is also rare, in my experience, to see smiles on the jungle gym, where kids play in a non-competitive manner. Watch a group of kids play house, for instance, and you will find kids so engrossed in their make-believe that they don't take breaks to laugh. Yet at the end of a day of make-believe, those same kids will certainly tell you that they had fun. Fun, in other words, is anything that is wholly engaging.
June 17, 2010
Differentiated Instruction, Whatever That Is: Part II
I was confused by the concept of Differentiated Instruction. My students have different needs, especially when it comes to reading. Yet creating work for each group of kids created a fragmented environment in which there was little sense of communal learning or a common goal. I spoke to Ms. OldSchool, one of the finest, most experienced teachers in the building. "Mr. Arp," she said, "What you have to understand is that Differentiated Instruction is another word for what I've been doing for 20 years. "In fact," Ms OldSchool added, "every new idea they come up with is just another word for things that I have always done." She told me to forget about my auditory learners and visual learners, my lesson plans that catered to the kinesthetic or experiential students. She also, importantly, told me to forget about my data. "Data," she said, "is important for the big picture. You know you need to incorporate problem areas, such as short vowel sounds or digraphs, into the unit. But making a day's lesson about short vowels is going to be boring." The secret to Differentiation, in her view, was to keep all students interested in the lesson. "If they are excited," she said with authority, "they are learning." So I put on a play.
June 14, 2010
Differentiated Instruction, Whatever That Is: Part I
If you are currently teaching, then you are currently wrestling with differentiated instruction. Or, pardon me, Differentiated Instruction, in capital letters. These are two of the most powerful, totemic buzz words in the field right now, and they present a true challenge for the beginning teacher. I would like to share my journey with Differentiated Instruction, over two posts. Differentiated Instruction, like other big ideas in the field of education, is intriguing, noble and vague. It has the satisfying flavor of an old idea: tailor your instruction to the specific needs of your students, in order to maximize effectiveness. But Differentiated Instruction also carries an intimidating pedigree of new research and scholarly categorization: children can be classified within spectra of learning types such as visual or aural, kinesthetic or, yes, existential. The beginning teacher, looking around his crazy classroom, can easily lose his read on the students in the haze of such classifications. My school had a solution. I was told to use my Data (another buzzword, perhaps even more primal and frightening) from reading assessments in order to plan lessons for small groups. Simple enough. Rabbit table, my second-lowest reading group, has difficulty recognizing words with long vowel sounds, especially the long o. I drew up a long o worksheet, and then the table wrote a short booklet using long o words, illustrated the booklet and stapled it together. Ka-BANG! Differentiation! What were the other reading groups doing all the while? Snake Table was working on their character analysis worksheets. Eagle Table was working on their character analysis worksheets. Armadillo Table was goofing around, but they were supposed to be working on their character analysis worksheets. My assistant principal, who is trying to help me differentiate my instruction, took this all in with patient dissatisfaction.
June 3, 2010
You Want To Lay ME Off?
As a teacher, I check in with the blogosphere and major news networks only after 5 p.m., so during the day I get my updates through the rumorsphere. On Wednesday, I heard about Mayor Bloomberg's proposed raise-cuts from Ms. AlmostRetired. She seemed downcast, and she came to me because I am one of the few young teachers at the school. Her bad news (not receiving the raise) could possibly be good news to me (the revenue saved might save my job). "You might like this, Mr. Arp," she said. "The raise I thought I was going to get next year might be your paycheck." She said it with warmth, and I appreciated her thoughtfulness. Because, you see, I have been Mr. MaybeFired all year. Our teacher's lounge has been ablaze with budget talks. At our monthly faculty meetings, our principal warns us again and again that our school will be facing serious setbacks and that not all teachers will be coming back next year. All eyes on me, of course. To the uninitiated, it works like this: In accordance with current union policy, widespread layoffs would be implemented by seniority. The first hired, as they say (again and again), will be the first fired. This leads to some interesting conversations. I remember Ms. AlmostRetired holding her head in her hands at lunch time, crying "Why won't they buy me out? I'm ready to go! Buy me out!"
April 26, 2010
Special Education For Beginners
I have a difficult student in my classroom. My interaction with this student is often frustrating because it brings down my batting average. That is to say, while my classroom management, in general, gets better and better, I find myself held back by the necessity of addressing one student's constant misbehavior. While this is a burden to any teacher, I believe that it is especially nettling to the beginning teacher, who clings to those moments of classroom harmony like precious manna. It is these moments, remember, that allow us to believe in ourselves as professionals. So the difficult student is especially difficult for us novices. And how difficult he can be! It seems that there is nothing I can do to change his behavior. I have so many preventives, anticipatory maneuvers, and corrective procedures, but nothing effects any permanent change. It seems as if his wiring is just, well, different from the other kids. And I'm a teacher, not a neurosurgeon! After nearly eight months of agonizing, floundering, creative, and desperate struggles, I see that the boy is still exhibiting the same behaviors as at the beginning of the year. So it is in a spirit of self-defeat and exhaustion that I ask: What can I do with this boy? The resounding answer, not simply at my school, but throughout the district and the city, is the same: special education. Special education makes me very nervous, and on behalf of other beginning teachers I am soliciting opinions on the matter. I'll begin with my anxieties, as these come more quickly to mind.
April 15, 2010
“I Don’t Care,” Part III: Meet Ms. Ears
In a previous post I introduced the problem of creating a classroom environment in which students care about their work. Today I would like to look at another successful approach, that of Ms. Ears. Ms. Ears works with my class for one period a week, at the end of Friday. This is a loud, jovial, excited and generally unfocussed time to spend with my class. Friday is a day of games and celebrations, in my classroom, and Ms. Ears has to channel that celebratory energy into a 50-minute writing lesson. I am always impressed, then, to see my classroom so quiet and intent during her lessons, listening both to her and, crucially, to each other. When Ms. Ears is in the classroom, my children seem to be not only focused but also invested. In other words, they seem to care. Ms. Ears creates an environment in which children know that their voices are heard, considered, weighed, possibly even judged by her and the other students. When Ms. Ears calls on a student, she gets none of the throwaway responses that I sometimes hear: the mumbling, the one-word answer, the thoughtless pause, the embarrassed giggle, the sidelong look to a friend, etc. When she calls on a student she elicits a careful response. She does this with her ears.
April 6, 2010
“I Don’t Care,” Part II: Introducing Ms. Mom
In my last post I introduced the problem of creating a classroom environment in which students care about their work. Today I would like to look at one successful approach, that of Ms. Mom. Ms. Mom says: "These are all my children, my babies," about her third graders. Hers, as you might imagine, is a hug-heavy classroom. Students unconsciously place their hands on her when she is nearby, as if for support. Ms. Mom says to a student: "I'm going to be honest with you, because we are family. Your work right now is not what it could be, and you know it and I know it." She uses the words "love," "family," "son" and "daughter" as often as I say "pencil" or "book" or "addition." Ms. Mom is very giving, and all of her students feel this and relax in her affection, but she is also demanding. Wrapped up in her family talk you will often hear something like this: "Now, we are family, and that means that we can trust each other, and rely on each other. That means that we can trust each other to all get a 3 on that ELA test. We can trust that we are all getting our work done, in the classroom and at home. Because no member of my family is taking home a 2 this year." In other words, Ms. Mom creates an environment in which concentration, diligent reading and math preparation, and especially test scores, are part of the fabric of classroom harmony.
April 2, 2010
“I Don’t Care”: An Exploration in Three Parts
Five of my boys take home Daily Progress Reports, so that their parents can see how they behaved in the classroom that day. If they bring home an "S," for Satisfactory, then they know their parents will be happy, that they will be able to watch TV, eat dessert, etc. Last week, one of my most troubled boys, let's call him Cassius, was ramping up into the Red Zone, and I was using my entire arsenal to assuage him before he reached his crisis. "Cassius," I said, "remember your S. You want to bring home an S for mom, right?" His reply: "I don't care." Not, mind you, "I don't care about the S," nor "I don't care what mom says, or what Mr. Arp says." His idea was much simpler. I don't care. "I don't care" is one of the Gigantic Problems.
March 19, 2010
The Dreaded Hitback
"Why did you hit him?" I ask. "He hit me first, I had to get my hitback." "There is no such thing as hitbacks. You tell me if someone touches you." "But my mom told me not to let people hit me or push me around." Oh lord, the hitback. I first met the hitback on my first day of school, as well as its foundation: "Mom told me so." Recently, one mom spelled it out for me.
March 16, 2010
The Puzzling Demise of Running Around
In Mr. Arp's classroom, we have something called the Behavior of the Week, and this behavior is rewarded at the end of every Friday. Last week it was "Staying in your seat and raising your hand." Instead of standing up to sharpen a pencil or get a tissue, the students raised their hands, so that I could say things like "Excellent staying in your seat, I can see that you are really working on the behavior of the week." The students did very well, except Osmo. Osmo, of course not his real name, should have been born in a world without seats. He is a good reader, an excellent storyteller, and a fast mathematician, but seats are like hot coals to him. On Friday, during independent reading, he took a break from his work to run around the class with his arms flailing above his head. "Osmo," I said, calling him over to me, "why are you out of your seat without permission?" "Because," he said, as if admitting a secret, "I'm happy." Ouch. What could I say to that?
March 5, 2010
Ms. Mumbles and Mr. Reasonable
There is a teacher at my school who mumbles every thought that passes through her head. Sometimes when she speaks, it is hard to discern whether she is talking to you or talking to herself. She pulls groups of students and works with them on reading and writing. Imagine her, old as the sun, surrounded by third graders who are all leaning in, striving to understand what she is saying. They are silent, listening. When they finally understand her direction, they get straight to work. When they finish, they hold up their sheets to her and she either mumbles in approval or does not. If she is silent, they set right back to work to find their error and correct it. Cut to my classroom: I speak very clearly and in a nice loud voice. I give exact instructions; I tend to rehearse each sentence in my head before I say it. Imagine me surrounded by a roiling chaos of second graders, running around the room, throwing dominoes; the worksheets are on the floor, untouched, unconsidered. What in the world is going on here? Why does Old Ms. Mumbles get total respect, while Young Mr. Reasonable gets none?
March 1, 2010
Stone and Fire: A Tale of Two Teachers, Conclusion
A case study: There is one student, a boy that I will call Lucas, who had Ms. Stone one year and Ms. Fire the next. Actually, he was my student for three weeks. The principal took him out of my classroom and put him in Ms. Stone's. She could tell, after observing him for a few minutes, that he was far too much for a first-year teacher like me. Lucas has that fatal combination, which I have met a few times since, of severe emotional disequilibrium and remarkable intellectual ability. On my first day, he walked right over to my computers, without saying a word of greeting, and turned them on. He then called me over and said, quite calmly, "These computers don't seem up to date, Mr. Arp. What is this? Windows '98? I can tell it's '98 from the icons and the desktop background. Is that the kind of classroom you run? And why are there no words on your vocabulary wall?" By the end of the day, he had gotten into two major fights, and would not listen to a word, not a single word, I said. I'm sure that veteran teachers have met quite a few Lucases, but I was totally overwhelmed. The tone of adult authority that drove the rest of the class had absolutely no effect on Lucas. Perhaps veteran teachers have developed strategies for their Lucases. Let's see how he did with Ms. Stone and Ms. Fire.
February 26, 2010
Stone and Fire: A Tale of Two Teachers, Part 2
Unlike Ms. Stone, Ms. Fire is always smiling, except when she is mad. And when she is mad she is disappointed, and surprised. She is surprised to find herself mad, as if every time were the first she has ever felt mad at a student. If I am in the room she will look at me in disbelief, as if she needs another adult to confirm that a student has angered her. Can you believe this, her look says, can you believe a student has made ME mad? It must be serious. And the kids all go silent. The offender is deep in shame and pulls one of the 42 faces of shame, ranging from sullen shame to giggling shame to crying shame. This happens many, many times a day. All good teachers do this, of course, making their frustration look like the first, the only frustration they have ever felt over the behavior of a child. After school or in private they will laugh about it and say that it is an act, or a trick, but I know better. Good teachers do feel their frustration as if it is the first, the only. If it is a trick, then it is a trick that they play on themselves. Good teachers are surprised when kids do not do what they need to do. But Ms. Fire takes it a step further and makes that surprise, that real disappointment, personal. I cannot believe that YOU have made me mad, YOU whom I KNOW. She becomes a musician, playing their shame like a violin. What a risky move!
February 24, 2010
Stone and Fire: A Tale of Two Teachers, Part 1
Among the effective teachers at my school, there are two who could not be more different from one another. I have renamed Ms. Stone as a tribute to her emotional detachment from the storm and strife of the classroom. The other, Ms. Fire, has earned her name with her fierce involvement in the lives of her kids. I met Ms. Stone at the beginning of my first day of school. "Remember," she told me, "these are not your children. I have my children at home, and I am their mother every afternoon and evening. These students are not my children." She runs her class from on high, leading with crystal-clear demands that follow upon explicit, oft-restated lessons. Her classroom is sparkling clean at all times. When I am in her room I marvel at the quiet, contented labor of her students. It would be as unnatural to act out or play around in her classroom as it would be to fly out the window. In fact her authority, as well as her entire pedagogical style, is very much like gravity: It is constant, and in its constancy it is calming and comforting. Ms. Fire is always comparing her students to her own children. "My son would never talk to a grownup like that," she says, or, "She is like my son with her math, but her reading is much better." She told one girl, "Are you sure you want to talk like that right now, when I live two blocks away from you and see your mother at the store?" Ms. Fire is deep in her students' business. And her students fight and act out, but only when Ms. Fire turns her back. They certainly get aggressive with one another far more frequently than do Ms. Stone's students, but they also are kind and friendly with each other. In a word, there is more living going on in Ms. Fire's room, more social interaction and far more discussion of various grievances. And Ms. Fire's kids also do their work.
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