Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Structured Chaos....Confessions from a Former Traditional Teacher

I confess.  I started as a chalk and talk teacher.  I admit it.  I loved to lecture.  I still love giving presentations before people.  I enjoyed learning from lectures in college and grad school. My favorite high school teacher, Ms. Petrusky was a lecturer. I still love logging on to itunes and watching a great lecture.  I especially loved the amount of content I could cover in a given lecture.  I had gone to TC, read all about Bloom's Taxonomy and seen all the studies on student retention.  Nevertheless, my argument was always that while students did not retain as much from a lecture as when they themselves taught it, they covered more ground, so while the percent was less, the coverage was overall greater.  I started my teaching career chalk and talk all the way (albeit with powerpoint and a smartboard.)  My students, mostly AP, did excellently on the AP exam.  We covered ground in no time.  BUT....

Right after the AP, I asked students what they learned.  They remarked "to study hard."  Then, I'd ask them what tangible lessons they learned long term.  They looked at me like I was nuts.  I realized despite their overwhelming success on the AP, I had not succeeded in my goal as a teacher entirely.  Yes, studying hard was important, but it was only part of the equation.  These students already knew that.  They were a self selective bunch.  They had chosen to be in an AP course.  To take the AP.  A few had dropped out along the way.

Besides test taking skills, they hadn't gotten any long term skills that were transferable down the road.  They weren't any more passionate about learning history than they had been when they walked in.  In fact, many admitted to me they just took the course for college acceptance.  They didn't know how to be strong independent learners, which was really my goal.  I had taught them to directly, as a result, they didn't really know how to prepare for something similar in the future without me.  I had been the vessel for all their knowledge, which was nice, but not productive beyond that exam.  They knew the importance of studying hard, but not how to study or learn.

Ok, so I admit it.  That was my failure.  I grew tremendously from this experience. I knew that wasn't how I wanted to be, but I was still searching for a solution. I thank Danny Jaye for this.  In January of 2008, I began working on NJ teacher certification.  Come March, while on maternity leave, I interviewed at the Bergen County Academies.  There, I met him the first time.   Confident, yet humble, he ushered me into his office.  We spoke about education.  His obvious understanding of what it took to make students really succeed, not just on tests, but in the real world. was astounding.

I knew upon meeting him that I not only wanted to work for him, I wanted him to mentor me.  There was a series of rather intense lectures us "new teachers" were given at orientation by other people, none of which were inspiring or fruitful.  However, my conversations with Danny Jaye throughout the year, his "open office" policy, and his visits to my room made a huge difference in my teaching.  I worked on transferring the control of the lesson from myself to my students.  I gave them ownership over their ideas.  I began experimenting with the socratic method, something commonly used in my law school classes.  I had freedom to create my own elective and projects around student's requests. He encouraged me to be more interdisciplinary.  I even used the electron microscope in a class about crime scene analysis in history.  He encouraged me to create a mock trial team and even hold mock trials in class putting major leaders of history on trial and enabling students to take positions as lawyers, witnesses, and jury.  I had a lot more to learn, but my time at the Academies, with such a supportive principal, definitely helped make me the teacher I am today.

Now at New Milford, Eric Scheninger, has an approach to management that is very similar to the concept in Good to Great.  You hire the right people, put them on the bus, and let them drive.  As a result, there is a lot of freedom in terms of teaching.  Thanks to Danielle Shanley, our Director of Curriculum who is amazing, I secured 6 computers in the back of my classroom.  This has enabled me to create a real blended learning environment.  It has also enabled me to experiment with several different teaching structures.  My latest creation is "structured chaos."

New Milford was really my first time dealing with students on all levels in the same course.  It was also my first time dealing with students who were classified as "special ed."  Sure, I had dealt with IEP's before, but I hadn't dealt with the functionally mute or students with significant learning disabilities (not APD or ADD).  Honestly, I was pretty freaked out the first year teaching at New Milford having an aid in my class that was called inclusion.  One of the courses I taught had 35 kids, 12 with rather complicated IEP's.  The challenge was to make sure I could address all of their needs while still making sure they learned the required information and skills.  It was tricky.  I was overwhelmed by the class size (since then, my class size has been reduced to 25 which to me is good).

Before that, I had pretty much been relegated to teaching only honors and AP courses.  Having a masters in Gifted Ed, most schools prefered for me to work with that population.  I loved teaching "gifted" and advanced students.  I still do.  However, this experience made me realize, I can also love teaching all students.  I especially love the mixed classes because I believe, if taught correctly, the students can gain a lot from each other.

So, how was I going to succeed in teaching large classes with students of multiple levels and abilities (not to mention some students that barely knew English)?  In a traditional class, the teacher would dumb down the material, appeal to the middle of the road student, spend most of the time remediating, and cross his/her fingers.  That wasn't working for me.  I felt especially bad for the really motivated and talented students in the class who wanted to learn more detailed, complex material, but who I couldn't reach without losing the "lower level students."

So, I knew something had to change.  Thankfully, I had the power to try out several different approaches.  I began doing more and more projects in class.  I always did a lot  but this time, I provided students with more choice. I began giving my ELL students different assignments and rubrics altogether.  I began giving them xeroxed copies of different textbooks with more basic English, but covering the same material to read as homework.  I began having my in class aide work in a corner with students of a mixed group to work on remediation or to guide them through a project.  It helped he was knowledgeable about history.  He rotated the group he'd help and the groups themselves were flexible and reconstructed for each project.

I began focusing on my student's strength.  All of them had at least one or two really amazing talents.  These talents I wanted to capitalize on, but I also wanted them to be challenged in their areas of weakness.  If they had too much choice, they might not choose to challenge themselves.  I created projects around skill sets I wanted my students to acquire.  I worked backwards writing out which skills I wanted them to acquire that year and then framing the projects scaffolding them to acquire them.  I customized the projects to different learner groups that changed depending on the acquisition of a different skill.

So, practically speaking, how does this look in a classroom?  Well, when teaching the Great Depression, I might have six kids in the back working on a spread sheet about the impact of the stock market crash on financial holdings in the oil and tobacco industry.  They then hypothesized as to why the impact in those areas was less than in commercial merchandize.  Students in another group of 5 work on looking at photographs produced by WPA photographers to document the Great Depression.  They look for similarities and differences that reflect common themes of the Great Depression and target areas of the country that were most affected.  Their goal is to figure out which area of the country and which population in the country was most affected and why.  They create a prezi on this.  Another group might look at transcripts of fireside chats and concludes who the target audience was and hypothesizes how effective FDR's "chats" were looking at newspaper articles.  They can do this by listening to audio on ipods and communicating via a google doc.  Another group, possibly of students who were confused about the concept of a depression, can work with the aide or myself on causes of depressions and who the Great Depression affected the most.  I can talk it out with them with their textbook as a resource and perhaps a brief video clip from the time.  I can have them take notes and list out causes and effects.  Those notes will be graded. If the aide is working with that group, I circulate the classroom and assist or direct when needed or vice versa occurs.  What skill are they all the groups working on mastering?  Using primary sources and manipulating them, but they all working within groups that are tailored towards their individual learning portfolios.

How do I learn this, I really get to learn my students.  I become a student of my students, not just a teacher.  I talk to them in the beginning of the year.  Find out how they learn best, talk to their parents about their educational history, have them fill out surveys.  I also see their scores on pre-assessments, if administered.  In the beginning of the year, the ELL student might be put in the group looking at photos, but as his/her English increases, I might put this student in the graph group, and eventually even in the fireside chat group.  There may be students that don't get the concept of a Depression, so they are in that remediation note taking group, but those aren't the same kids every day or week.  They rotate.  It largely depends on the skill being covered in that project.  Each project might be worth 40 points, but the rubric for each kid is different, each group.  Each student has a role.  After each group is done, they can come together in a giant circle (we literally move the desks together) to report on their progress, give a presentation, and get feedback from peers in a harkness method of semi-socratic peer lead instruction.  I then serve as a facilitator and grader.  The class revolves around unit projects, very rarely, if at all having tests.  When they do, sometimes I give them choice within the exam of picking 40 questions to answer in any format they like.  Or, I make the test an option beside a paper, a project, and a presentation. They pick. The students become engaged and self directed learners.  At times, they come up with a project proposal topic within a specific unit to work on.

Just recently, I had a team that chose to work on a board game on battle strategies during WWII.  It was a smashing success.  I had another team work on a powerpoint on the rise of dictators and a third team create a lesson plan with activities and primary source documents on Japanese culture post WWI and emperor worship,specifically focusing on it's influence on Japanese militarism and kamikazes.  The goal was content based- causes of WWII, but also skill based, strategizing and organizing content to prove a point.  Each group came up with a unique conclusion.  I was blown away with their work.  Kids can do so much more than you think they can, if you just give them a chance.  All kids can.  Now my students walk out of my class telling me that they can pick up anything, read it, analyze it, write about it, present ideas regarding it, debate it, and manipulate anything.