Monday, September 29, 2014

New Experiences, New Lessons

I remember walking down the hall to my first classroom as a teacher. Based on some of the research I did on the school, I knew which classroom I would be receiving, but the principal walked past it. There was also another opening that was next to the office. "Please don't give me the room next to the office," I thought to myself. "Oops, we went too far," she said. I was about ready to start celebrating until she unlocked my room. "Here's your new room. Aren't you excited?!"

To be honest, looking at the room, I was far from excited. Desks were piled in a heap in the center of the room. There was stuff on the counters that belonged to multiple teachers that may never be claimed or used. Then there was the shape of the room. I was accustomed to rooms that had four walls and tended to be some sort of quadrilateral. This room, however, had five walls, none of which were the same size. A decent size island in the "kitchen" (sink area) served as a base for a massive CRT television and home to a laser-disc player.

Although I was a bit disappointed by the shape, a small and silly thing to be bothered by, I did have a feeling of excitement. I didn't know how everything would work out, but I knew that there would be adventures to be had, lessons to be learned, and a year full of new experiences.

Throughout those first two weeks, before most teachers had even started setting up their rooms, I rearranged the desks at least two to three times a day. It was impossible to get them to fit correctly, unless I put them in rows, which I was not about to do. So I talked with my principal and received permission to do away with the teacher's desk and television. Now there would be more room for learning.

But things still weren't right. I had trouble walking around and would be challenged to reach every student. Imagine students trying to sit in chairs at their desks; they would be nearly on top of each other and unable to move around without hitting. This wouldn't do. So back to my principal I went.

Talking with her, I was able to express some of my concerns and we arrived at an idea. I would start switching the desks out of my room for round tables. These would allow more people to sit in a smaller area and work in groups, but paradoxically have more space. So as the year started, I began moving desks out and tables in.

Some of the students loved the tables. They quickly saw advantages of them and enjoyed the new adventure. However, some students missed their desks. They wanted a space that was immediately defined as their own, with all of their belongings right there with them, and what they had known in the past. To top this off, I wasn't able to obtain as many tables as I had needed for everyone to sit at, so some students were at desks and others at tables.

This forced me to learn new behavior management strategies as the students were constantly right next to each other, looking at each other. At times, it was a challenge, but I learned a lot because of it. However, because of the lessons I learned last year, starting this year with all tables and no desks went significantly smoother.

There were a few parents last year, and a few this year, who were uneasy about the tables. After some experience with them, they eased in to them and saw many of the benefits.

This past week, I started giving a few students stability balls to replace their chairs. A few students seem apathetic about them, but overall the class, and a number of parents, are excited to have them.

I was talking with one of our custodians the other day and he made the comment that my room kept changing. Thinking about it, I had to respond to him that my room should look different every year.

As teachers, we have very different groups of students coming into our rooms each year, sometimes each period. Additionally, the world around us is constantly changing and traditional paradigms of education may not be as efficient. We need to constantly be trying new things, having new experiences, and learning from those to make our classrooms an effective environment for learning. I am fortunate in that my principal allows, and encourages, me to try new things, make mistakes, and learn from them. Isn't that the sort of modeling that the students benefit from? When I show them that it is alright to take a chance, fail, and recover from it, they learn that process and can begin to reciprocate it in their own lives.

What have you been wanting to try? What is holding you back?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Drawing Laughter

Walking into the room, I can only assume what she saw, what she heard. Her reaction is easily justified when you think about it. The students laughing, not little giggles, but noisy and disruptive laughter. The substitute teacher standing silently before the class, whiteboard marker in hand.

"Hey! Be quiet!" she bellowed. "What would your normal teacher think?!"

What had started as a normal, boring vocabulary lesson would turn out to be much more.

The students at this school had been taught to sit quietly in their seats, aligned in rows, and absorb the content that the teacher presented. It was very similar to what most of us were taught, if not identical. (Which is apparently the same as Sumerian classrooms c. 2000 BC.)

I had started the vocabulary lesson as I knew how - having experience being a student, but no formal training in pedagogy or behavior management - and I was bored. I can only imagine how the students felt. So I decided I was going to do the lesson a bit differently. There were a number of nautical terms, so what better way to illustrate the concept for them than to actually illustrate it?

The problem with that is that I am a terrible illustrator. (By which I mean that I have not invested the time in lessons or practice to improve my skill and have little interest in doing so.) So I did what any person would do; I made my sketches even worse, intentionally, and made up a story that slowly introduced each vocabulary word.

The students could tell that the illustration and story were intentionally silly, but they were humored. They laughed and wrote what they needed. They were engaged.

Then another adult walked in, not knowing what was going on, just that the class' behavior was very unusual. She wanted to do her part to help with what was seen as an out of control class. After a few minutes, I assume she saw what was going on.

Looking back, I wouldn't change the story. I would rather try something new, look silly, and have my students engaged than fit a traditional mold of education. This can be at conflict with parent or administrative demands, but I think that the results prove it worthwhile. Never be afraid to learn, try new things, and engage your students.

What have you tried in your class that is unorthodox? How did it work? What did you learn?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Like A Lightbulb

Over the summer it was one of my goals to get out of the house. I remember many summers sitting around doing nothing, complaining about being bored, and this was not going to be one of them. When I was given the opportunity to go to a family friend's lake house, I did not pass up the opportunity.

This is a place that I have enjoyed going since I was little. The water is usually a murky green and filled with algae and all sorts of other living things. (I've been told that the algae is great for your hair and skin.) When I am there, we usually embark upon some sort of project to improve the house or maintain it. You see, our family friend is blind, so he has trouble doing some of the work on his own. (He has great stories of his visits to hardware stores asking for help picking chainsaws and other large tools.)

On this trip, we would spend some time working on a project that I had never done before: the community pump house. In order to supply the neighborhood with clean water, they draw water from a pipe from a pipe running into the lake. The water was then run through a state-approved filtration system before being distributed to the homes. We would be installing and wiring some components to help automate the process. Although I had very little wiring experience, I did have some and we were expecting it to take two or three hours to finish the project. Opening the wiring box and removing the covers revealed this adventure.

There is another wiring terminal on the right not in the picture.
I'll admit I was a bit overwhelmed at first, but willing to take on the new challenge. I began determining where the new wires were coming from and was able to label them and connect a few to the correct places before running into trouble. One of the switches would need to be wired to a power source in order to work, but my instructor had never seen the panel before and wouldn't be able to help me, so we had to call the person who designed it...and lives in another state with (apparently) incorrect wiring diagrams. Working through it, I had to decipher engineering jargon and new concepts. After a few hours of playing with wires, testing switches, and being told "It should be just like wiring a light socket for a light bulb." we decided that time would be best spent moving on to another project. (There may have been a loud "POP!" in there, too.)

This experience made me think back to my own classroom. Some of my students enter knowing exactly what to do and can do well from the first instruction. Others, however, lack the necessary foundation and need extra support before they can be set free. These students will be frustrated and challenged and may be ready to give up before achieving their goal. Sometimes we plan great activities that should work out a certain way but do not end up going as we have planned. Are we going to get frustrated and discourage the students or will we take a few steps back and provide them with a stronger foundation to help them learn more effectively? I've learned that, no matter how great the activity, if they are not ready for it, they are not likely to benefit from it. As teachers, we need to know our students' abilities and help them thrive from there. Just because we are ready does not mean that our students are. This does become challenging with such diverse groups of students, but I believe it is possible to find a way for collaborative exploration that fosters learning and challenge for each of the students.

Do you have ideas for differentiation or stories of times that you have learned from? Share them below!

Oh, and for those who are curious, the reason that we were having such great difficulties was because of a blown fuse hidden behind a section of one of the terminals. That may or may not have been my fault...