Sunday, February 24, 2008

Finding a Vision

I'm in a strange place with teaching right now.

On the one hand, there've been several reminders lately of how much work I still need to do at classroom management. I'm back to the place I was at the end of last school year, bemoaning all the situations that happen where I don't do anything, or do the wrong thing too late, because I don't actually know what I should do in response to that student. It's frustrating because just a few weeks ago I had a series of days where I felt like I was totally "on my game" and able to think quickly enough to make intelligent choices in classroom management. I started to see it, really, I swear I did! Where'd it go?

On the other hand, I've been starting to really get a clear vision of what I want my classroom to be. I have all these ideas I've been working on, introducing pieces of into the classroom, and generally spending a lot of time behind-the-scenes working out the details of how and why for everything from assessment to pedagogy. It's like I've been walking around blind in a maze for the last 3 years, occasionally stumbling into the right thing, and then suddenly I left the maze and got a chance to view it from above.

On the gripping hand, however, I realize that those sorts of visions are only part one of trying to get better at this teaching thing. I'm good at big-picture vision, and dreaming up interesting ideas. I'm also good at reflection, seeing where I went wrong. The problem is, I'm not so good at translating those two things into actually doing all the nitty-gritty work right and making the right decision in the moment. 'Great idea, poor implementation.' That's me.

I used to call this "follow-through" but that's not quite it. I got follow-through: I come up with an idea, I do it, I keep fussing with it. What I don't have is "not-starting-over-again-when-the-going-gets-tough", aka persistence. As nice as all these visions for next year are, they don't help me do a good job for the next 4 months. Rather than give up on working through this tough, winter stretch and planning how I'll do it better next time around, I need to be focusing on how I can bring all these ideas and realizations into the classroom now.

To that end, I've been giving myself assignments. These are specific things that I can work on, have a finite end point, and I can use in the classroom right now. Currently, my assignments to myself include:
  • Fixing presentations. Less text, more images. Less bullets, more story. Seems to be in vogue around the ednet right now.
  • Organizing test questions. My big plan for next year is to introduce an assessment scheme modeled on Dan Meyer's, but adapted for my standards, content, and students. To that end, I need a reliable bank of test questions on every standard I teach, organized by substandard (WHII9a,9b,9c, etc) and tagged by difficulty (still working on that part). So, every time I write a quiz/test for the rest of the year, I'm going back and tagging questions, adding new ones, and generally trying to do this as-I-go rather than all-summer-long. It's actually making me do a lot more thinking about the questions I write, which is good, because I hate writing tests and slack off on them usually.
  • Including processing/transformative assignments in class time. I wrote about this a little before, but it's become a big thing for me. Any time I plan a lesson and I think 'there's not enough time, have them do it as homework' it's a sign that it's time to reevaluate the lesson, make sure I'm keeping it simple, and make time.
I'd been meaning to write about some more of my stuff that's worked lately, and post some good links, but I've been ignoring the internet lately. I'll be back, don't worry.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Games, dream electives, and why I want a 20th century history course to be taught in 11th grade.

It's been a busy week. I've been starting a new semester, new units, generally trying to do a better job of staying caught up and taking a Spanish class. I wanted to make sure that I posted a couple of thoughts before they escaped my brain though.

1) I love it when I can make a game out of something to introduce it. This week was the "Scramble for Africa" game. (The day after I finished playing it with my classes, I found a nicer "Scramble for Africa" game someone had made. I now have a whole plan on how to make a totally cool, SMARTboarded up, version. Next year, though. Now I need to concentrate on teaching World War 1.)

2) World/European History and American history classes should all stop around 1890. Then you should do a 20th century/modern history class that combines the two. Seriously, February-May is annoying. I teach about World War 1 in US and then the next week I'm teaching it in World. I feel like I'm getting planning whiplash. It's not exactly the same curriculum, since the emphasis is different. (Example: with the Great War, in US I emphasize why we got involved and the 14 points, whereas World emphasizes the actual course of the war, Russian Revolution and overall Treaty of Versailles effects.)

Considering how much I had to reteach my US class that was supposed to be in the World curriculum, and how truncated those emphases are without each other, it makes much more sense to devote an entire course to the 20th century and include both perspectives in it. (This might also give us a chance to do a better job at including Latin American, African and Asian perspectives on a lot of these events.)

3) I'm working on a dream electives list.
  • There's already the "Media and American History" one that Tom and I wanted to teach together.
  • I also want to teach "History vs Hollywood" as a semester course. The students would vote on 5 "historical" movies for us to examine, and it'd be very project-centered, encouraging them to use the research on the accuracy of the movie to jump off into research/projects about the time period.
  • "Italian City-States: A Historical Soap Opera" would be fun, although I'd need to dust up on my Florentine intrigue.
  • I also have always wanted to teach a social history-oriented elective that went at about the same pace as the regular World History courses. This would be my chance to incorporate all the pieces I think are missing from a standard history curriculum: art, music, clothing, food, daily lives of real people, social structures, literature, gender, advertising, propaganda outside of wartime, race outside of slavery, etc.
What history-related electives would you want to see taught? What changes would you make to the structure of the social studies curriculum?

Finally, how many of you agree that all high school history and english should be taught as humanities courses? (History provides the context in which we practice those language skills. English provides the great literature that we read about in historical context. It's a match made in heaven.)

Monday, February 4, 2008

Calvinists more likely to Cheat

No, not really.

However, a recent study examined the connections between a person's fatalism and their likeliness to cheat. The results were pretty striking:
"those with weaker convictions about their power to control their own destiny were more apt to cheat when given the opportunity as compared to those whose beliefs about controlling their own lives were left untouched."

Read the article if you're curious about the methodology of the study. I don't know enough to really evaluate them for myself, but the findings match with my observations as a teacher. The students who cheat tend to be those who look at grades and test results as something I do to them, or something they just get, no matter what effort they might or might not put into it. The students who actually see their grades as something they earn are less likely to cheat. (There is an exception to that rule: students who are pressured into achieving good grades to the point that they feel they have no choice.)

Friday, February 1, 2008

Cursive is Dead

Cursive is dead.* Praise your favorite deity!

When I get handwritten assignments from students, most of them print. The ones that write in cursive, I curse. It takes me several times longer to read most student cursive and that distracts from paying attention to the content, which is what I'm grading here.

Obligatory no-I'm-not-just-young-and-lazy note: I can read cursive. I can even write it better than most of my students. (I remember the capitals!) I can read it well enough to decipher letters written a hundred years ago. I haven't written in it voluntary except when I sign my name or write with a certain type of pen.

I have heard people complain about the death of cursive due to computers and the widespread existence of printers. I think they're missing the point: cursive has been dying since the invention of the ballpoint pen. Writing in script is much easier and more useful when you write with something in which the ink is loose and flows quickly (quill pens). When you write with something that is stingy with ink, like your standard bic pen, cursive is actually more work.

Although I think the ability to read script will stay useful, considering all the documents written in it, I think that it is time to make it a much smaller part of the elementary curriculum. It's dead. It has no reason for existing, beyond signing one's name.

PS: This is directed at the people out there who still make their students write exclusively in cursive.

PPS: This will lead to a larger exploration of issues about tech and "in my day" and the like, but not today. It's Friday.

*Inspired by an instant message conversation...
"Andrew: there was a huge ridiculous project for stats due today. Doing advanced statistical calculations by hand. its just tedious and useless and time consuming and bleh. I got 5 hours of sleep
Me: ugh. I guess doing them by hand proves you know them or something
Andrew: I hate when I'm too angry to get the assignment done, thats a stupid feeling . . .its like, a required relatively basic stats course I don't understand why she wants that.
Me: because you're in grad school now, and grad school is HAAAARD. or some such nonsense
Andrew: but its not even hard in a intelligent way! its hard in a time consuming and unnecessary way! COMPUTERS WERE MADE TO HELP ME**
Me: but when the prof was in grad school, you had to do it all by hand and it was good enough for her.***
Andrew: I disregard that reality
Me: have I told you about how I think cursive is dead and shouldn't be taught or required in school anymore?
Andrew: . . . no, but I agree
Me: aww, then I don't get to argue my well-reasoned explanation at you! I'll just go write it up in my teacher blog instead."

**How many of your students are having this conversation about your class right now?

*** Seriously, don't even start telling me about how you can use a slide rule or studied calc back when you had to look up logs in the back of the book. The microchip is here to stay. Get over it.

Why are you a teacher?

I've always wanted to be a teacher.

This is mostly true. There was a brief time where I thought I wanted to be a programmer instead, and some doubt in the middle of college. Otherwise? I've wanted to teach practically since I entered school.

I still remember, the summer before my younger-brother-by-3-years (I have 4 brothers) entered school, I made him come to two weeks of "school" with me. I don't really remember what I had him do, except that he had to spend 2 hours with me and what the chair he sat on looked like.

Since I can't even remember not wanting to be a teacher, I wonder about other people who teach. How did you realize you wanted to be a teacher? Did you doubt your career choice as a pre-service teacher, a newbie? Do you doubt it now? How do you deal with doubts? How did you decide that teaching beat out the alternatives you'd considered?