Monday, February 25, 2008

Frostballs and a “Relevant” Lesson on Estimation

I grew up in the Bay Area of California where it doesn’t snow and you can grow into adulthood without ever seeing an icicle. But every once in a rare and wonderful while, we did have frost.

I remember one such winter day when my friends and I got to school before the first bell and headed for the playground to make “frostballs.” We set to work scraping the frost off blades of grass on the field and mashing them together into a giant lumpy brown ball. We were so proud of that frostball that we carried it to class and the teacher let us put it on a plate by the window. Without so much as a pause she turned our frostball into a lesson on estimation complete with graphs and a rich discussion. Everyone in the class had to guess how long it would take for the ball to completely melt.

We talked about what prior knowledge informed our guesses. Some students had been to the mountains and made real snow balls. Some reflected on how long it took an ice cube to melt in a glass of water. Some talked about how the frostball’s position in the room would speed or delay its melting. Some wanted to experiment with smaller balls before making their guess. In the end the ball surpassed all our guesses. Nobody saw its final meltdown after the last school bell of the day sent us home.

Twenty years later I still remember so much from that tiny experience: the questions we asked, the charts we drew on the board, the stories we shared of melting things. That teacher took a moment from outside of the classroom and used it to build some key skills in her students. That probably wasn’t the day she planned to teach about estimation, and she didn’t have a worksheet or a textbook to guide her lesson but she managed to cement some learning into my brain even without these tools.

Making learning relevant to the lives of our students requires more of our ability to be smart and spontaneous and to open our eyes than it does our ability to plan complicated lessons. If you watch and listen to your students, you’re likely to find sources of inspiration a million times richer than what you’re given in the curriculum.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Habits of the Teacher Mind

“When we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”
~ Wendell Berry

In reflecting on “Habits of Mind” that we want to cultivate in our students it’s interesting to note that they are often similar to the habits we need to cultivate in ourselves as teachers.

Every second we spend in the classroom requires us to make decisions – some small, some large. We have to mediate conflicts while simultaneously ensuring students are comprehending content. We have to plan lessons at the same time we grade past assignments. We have to dedicate ourselves to our students and to our lives outside of school.

How do we do all these things? We employ our own set of “Habits of Mind.”

Much of what we know about what works in the classroom must be learned through trial and error, and patient progress through experience. At Inspired Teaching we have spent several years learning from teachers and from our own teaching experience. Our observations have generated a list of qualities we believe exceptional teachers possess and what follows is an attempt to condense them into what we could call Habits of the Teacher Mind.

What would you add to this list? What would you take away? Let us know!

Habits of the Teacher Mind

Inspired Teachers are…
  1. Passionate about the art of teaching, the subject matter, and the students we teach.
  2. Compassionate and dedicated to building positive, and productive relationships with and among students, colleagues, parents and the community.
  3. Observant and proactive, using the data we collect from our students to help them reach their full potential in school and in life.
  4. Reflective and curious, always seeking new ways to improve our practice and reach our students.
  5. True facilitators who know how to get the most out our students by holding them to and helping them reach high expectations.
Our goal is to teach students how to think, not just what to think and as educators this is also the goal we hold for ourselves.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Teacher Expectations and Student Outcomes

While browsing the web in preparation for writing this newsletter, I came across the following quote:

“Research ‘clearly establishes that teacher expectations do play a significant role in determining how well and how much students learn’ (Jerry Bamburg 1994).”

It reminded me of a student I had who truly demonstrated the truth of this statement.

Alex was your classic problem child: never came to class on time, never had his homework, never read the book, never paid any attention, always had a talent for disrupting my lessons.

Alex was on his third try at eleventh grade English by the time he came to me. He couldn’t seem to pass the class and an attendance record dotted with trips to the juvenile detention center hadn’t helped. So when the year neared its end and he was clearly going to fail--yet again--he decided to take radical action. He stayed after school.

I was impressed with his last-minute interest in passing my class, but by this point I had pretty much given up on him. It would take a feat of human genius to make up the months of work he’d missed.

What I hadn’t realized about Alex in all the time he’d spent disrupting my class was that he was capable of feats of genius.

He stayed after school every day. He took home every book to read. He wrote. He reported. He wrote some more. He took tests, and passed. He talked. And as I began to learn more about this boy who became a man when he was still a child, I came to understand the person he’d been in my class all along.

He didn’t know his father. He was the caretaker for a physically disabled younger brother. His mother had been in jail for the past several years, and at present he was raising himself. All of that might have been the reason for his behavior, but that’s not where he placed the blame.

He told me that his childhood dream had always been to become a doctor. He poured over anything he could find to read about science and the human body. He imagined himself curing the sick and caring for those in need.

And then he had the teacher, one teacher, who killed that dream. “She told me I would never amount to anything and that it was stupid to think I could become a doctor. From that day on I just believed her.”

In that instant school became a requirement but not an opportunity for Alex. And all he wanted to do now was live until he was 27. That was his big life’s goal.

To think one teacher’s comments could do all that. It angered me and humbled me at the same time, for I too had given up on this boy.

Ultimately, he ended up passing my class. Then he started passing all his classes. He graduated with a “most improved student” award and went on to start a successful career in the military.

His story has a happy ending. But whenever I think of Alex, I think about all the young people like him out there whose stories don’t end that way, and of the teachers who knowingly, or unknowingly, play a role in what their students become.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Cooperative Learning Lessons

The suitcase project was pure genius on my part – except for the fact that it was also a total failure.

We had only a month left in the school year and I had completely neglected literature from the 20th century, so I put the students in groups and gave each group a decade to research and a project to complete based on what they found.

They were to identify a book from the time period and create a “suitcase” for one of the characters from the book filled with “artifacts” from the era they’d studied. The project had a rubric, a choice sheet, a task sheet – the works.

But unfortunately for me and my best-laid plans, giving students a project of this magnitude at the end of the school year (when they’d never worked in groups before) ended up in disaster.

Only one group finished its project. The rest ended up with ruined friendships, half-read books, mounds of lost work, and weeks of lost time.

What I had failed to do was prepare students earlier in the year for this grand finale. And a year later, informed by this experience, I did just that. The results were quite different. The projects were fantastic. These are some of the things I learned in the process:

  • Discuss your expectations before you have students begin working together, and solicit their input in identifying what a group needs to do to make the learning experience meaningful and effective.
  • Begin with something simple like pairing students and having them read and reflect on a passage. After trying a relatively low-risk exercise talk with the class about the benefits and drawbacks of the experience. Do these kinds of activities regularly until students are ready to move on to more complex projects. Mix up the groupings so they learn to work with different peers.
  • Plan even a simple group activity well in advance and run your instructions/expectations by another teacher to see if they are clear. Make sure students understand what they are supposed to do before they break into groups to work. (This minimizes the time you have to spend answering the same question for every group.)
  • If things fall apart (students veer off task, the project becomes unexpectedly complicated, etc.) take time to talk with the class about what went wrong and use their input to recraft either that assignment or a future group project.