learning to teach

New York

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.
New York

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.
New York

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.
New York

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.
New York

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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