Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Benefits of Varying Class Structure: Revisited

About a month and a half ago, I detailed experiences from one of my AP classes. I’m more than happy to say the class has become so much more engaging. While grades may not always be an accurate representation of information retention, I think it it’s telling that I’m on pace to earn a significantly higher grade this quarter. The climate of my classroom was very much one that did not seem to value diversified class formatting, which in part led to a high rate of student disengagement.

Out of nowhere, our AP class has embarked on an entirely new path. Worksheets, guided notes, and lengthy YouTube videos have been replaced with debates, role-playing activities, and multimedia research projects. Data is never the only measurement for student success, but the data certainly supports my teacher’s newfound strategies. Morale is high, which is rare for an AP class full of sophomores. Overall, the classroom is a much happier place to be in.

Others may disagree (and many of my past teachers have done so vociferously), but to me, there always has to be an outlet for fun in class. Now, ‘fun’ obviously doesn’t mean let students run wild and disregard any work that needs to be completed, but there’s always a way to spruce up class time. School is full of mandation, silent work, and surface level worksheets. In a sea of monotony, being a beacon of variation and/or joviality will ultimately build student rapport and foster a more engaging classroom ecology.

Take my current teacher for example. She can attest to the fact that changing class format can drastically affect the emotions of students. My teacher has been on both sides of the spectrum; at the start of the year, stressed out teenagers would call her names out of earshot, incessantly complain to substitute teachers if she was absent, and mentally check out during class. Due to her seemingly random shift in pedagogy, she is now treated much more positively. Gone are the remarks about her teaching style and the audible snores from the corner of the room. In their place are students excited to learn (or at least debate) and find their own definition of our world’s history.

Don’t get me wrong, though; this was no accident. Similar events would unfold if teachers anywhere made this switch. In the words of Nelly, “let’s break it down” real quick:

I won’t dive too deep into her past teaching decisions (because you can find all of that information in my first blog post), but let’s just say our student population was less than engaged. Videos, paired with worksheets, were given to us every single class and it was wearing on my peers and I very quickly. The non-participatory qualities of her teaching tactics led to lower test scores and a very disgruntled group of kids. I may not have a full grasp on this topic, but if I’m not mistaken, some teachers’ jobs rely very heavily on test scores. Regardless of whether or not paper and pencil tests have any merit, they can be necessary to ensure a teacher’s livelihood. Keeping this in mind, I believe a significant issue plaguing our class was a trend of declining test scores. It was getting to the point that the top scores were clocking in around the C or C+ range. Clearly, mastering nearly 80% of the material (at best) was not where we needed to be. From a purely data-centered standpoint this shift was warranted.

Rather than constantly holding classes that were carbon copies of one another, my teacher recently began varying our class structure. As I stated above, she’s seeing attention-grabbing activities with more enthusiasm.

My favorite of the activities that she has created and has us take part in, is her debate/reenactment hybrid. Take our World War I Treaty of Versailles edition for example. Each of the students were split into groups that represented the different countries involved in the conflict. We each had the allotted amount of time to prepare before attempting to persuade the other countries to give us what we wanted. Every group brought a different flavor to the debates,  whether it be through analogies, threats, compromises, or pointing blame elsewhere. The arguments were so fierce that they continued after we left the classroom. My classmates were on the way to lunch and people were arguing about whether or not Serbia was at fault for starting the first World War. If that’s not a true instance of engagement, I don’t know what is.

It should come as no surprise that collectively grades went up. Comprehension of the curriculum was also much higher, across her classes. The reasoning behind it is common sense. When students are engaged, information makes a more long lasting impact on them.

I strongly believe that school is not about teaching curriculum, it is more about teaching life skills. The independence projects like this require is so beneficial to us. Rather than having our teacher read the events out to us, with the winner ultimately getting final say about what happened, we all got to draw our own conclusions. There was no right answer. We were forced to figure out where we stood on the issues and then bolster them to a sometimes disagreeing crowd. That’s a skill that only becomes more important as time goes on. Fostering that growth would never be possible under the guidance of notes and worksheets.

Not only does this new formatting shift harness students’ desire for independence and engage us to a subject that has a bad connotation, it has given my teacher a more positive rapport with her students. In switching how her class is run, my teacher has shown all of us that she has enough self-awareness to know a change was necessary if we were going to be ready for the AP test. Most bad blood is gone because student trust has increased substantially. We know our teacher is truly on her side. She isn’t stubborn, her one goal is to make sure we learn. All of that became very clear after worksheets went extinct and constant, opinionated, and explorative work was re-introduced.

While this may be a non-English AP class that I’m highlighting, but just as in every other blog that’s up on my website, this can easily be taken to an English classroom and it will heavily improve it. The ways an educator can do that are simpler than they might imagine.

The biggest complaint from my teacher’s students before her revamp was her lack of conversation with students. She seemed very isolated from us and with a struggling class, that’s not really helpful. As soon as she started listening to the voices in her classroom and made an attempt to answer those voices, our class’ favorability of her was enhanced. Teachers need to allow students a voice in their classroom. How else with they know what is working and/or what is not? Although teachers may believe their lesson plans are having an effect on students, if their ears are deaf to the kids inhabiting their class, they will never know for sure.

On another note, we, students, know when a teacher is avoiding listening to us. It’s so obvious and on top of that it’s so off putting. That just shows as that a teacher will not change (regardless of student needs) and rips to shreds any possibility of a good relationship between students and their teacher.

The best way to initiate a switch similar to my teacher is to know your students. All throughout the year, teachers should be learning about who their students are, how they learn, and what makes them tick. Without this information, if they are subjected to a difficult aspect of the curriculum, teachers will not be able to help them as effectively. If my teacher had seen that we were not connecting with videos and worksheets, and decided to give us PowerPoint presentations to do, we still wouldn’t have connected. My teacher knew that we were a class that loves to talk, argue, and get competitive. Naturally, this led to the introduction of the elements listed above. Variations within a class structure will never be the same across two classrooms - frankly, not everything can work. No one except for the teacher of the classroom can fully understand what is right for their students. Who else spends seven hours daily with these kids, outside their parents? It’s on educators to get down to a personal level with their students, otherwise student rapport will fall, test scores will fall, classroom morale will fall, and engagement will fall. A class without these components is destined to crumble under the weight of its own failure.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag, #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Responding with Humanity

“It’s not the end of the world if they’re doing something a little different” (Hochkeppel).

At the time that I started writing this post out, I was preparing for a State competition with the director/teacher/role model that I intended to highlight. That wasn’t really a necessary thought to share, but I found it funny. Throughout the school, he is widely recognizable as the sometimes eccentric member of the fine arts wing. Although his methods can be unorthodox, he has managed to capture the hearts of students of past, present, and even future.

I have been through a good amount of classes and productions with him at this point in time. Regardless of the ever-changing class and rehearsal format, one aspect of my interactions with Mr. Hochkeppel have remained constant; his philosophy towards teaching. Central in his pedagogy is the idea that students should have as much freedom as possible. The man affectionately known as H, believes very strongly that when students are given the chance to succeed, they will.

Over the course of a couple weeks, I held interviews with H in order to paint a decent picture of how he thinks. The quotes Mr. Hochkeppel shared with me in our interviews were pretty indicative of the way he runs class. I hope that by the end of this article it is clear why he is so impactful and so widely beloved.

“All these kids up here, they have the ability and they have the potential. Now all they need is to be given the opportunity" (Hochkeppel).

At my high school, this quote is synonymous with H. It can be found all over our drama department as well as a giant sign in the Black Box (the theater classroom). This mantra is very much one he lives and teaches by.

Outside of actually directing, students run every aspect of the theater department. We design and build the set, advertise the show, make the costumes, run the lights and sound, choreograph, and search for props (along with any left out aspects of theater). H has expectations and we know we have to meet them. There is no need for him to hold our hand throughout the journey. Not only does it harness students’ need for independence, it builds a mutual trust between the two parties. Mr. Hochkeppel professes his trust of us and backs it up with giving us space to try new things. In turn, our trust in him grows because it is ingrained in us that he is on our side. He believes “the best way to make high quality work when you have a band of… people is give them as much freedom as possible” (Hochkeppel). If H were to run the department in an authoritarian manner instead of one built on a symbiotic relationship, dissension would fester. Our shows would not nearly be as successful, his classes would not retain a lot of the curriculum taught to them, and frankly fewer students would want to join.

Effective teaching is all about establishing an environment similar to this. It is necessary for students to have freedom to make choices and mistakes on their own and to experience the consequences of each.

“Unfortunately, I think we graduate people who are not ready to take on the world… because we’ve kept them, artificially, from the world” (Hochkeppel).

Assignments that students are forced to complete often have no authenticity behind them. Most of the time, they would have very little value outside the walls of the school building. Instead of doling out worksheets “let’s create as real a world as we can imagine” (Hochkeppel) for students. “School doesn’t work for some great percentage of people, if working means you come out… a lot smarter and ready to take on the world” (Hochkeppel) and a lot of that stems from a lack of real world application. For kids, it’s not unusual to be faced with daily textbook readings and passionless reading response questions. The workplace just assigns adults projects that need to get done. If school is supposed to mirror future occupational labor, then the framework of assignments needs to shift.

One method for educators to potentially assuage this issue is to consider the real purpose of assigned work. Work students are completing should not be used as a distraction tool. If something is not directly evolving a student’s comprehension it needs to be axed. Even “behavior problems… [are] because you have intelligent people who are noticing they’re being asked to do something senseless” (Hochkeppel). A simple fix would be to get the ‘senseless’ out of school. Busy work, not only annihilates any positive rapport that’s been built; it creates a blurry image of what learning actually looks like. The latter is a potentially more serious issue.

“I don’t believe in tests beyond doing. The paper can fool you. You can get all A’s and not know how to do anything” (Hochkeppel).

Since my freshman year, I’ve had three classes with Mr. Hochkeppel as the teacher; Technical Theater, Public Speaking, and Creative Writing. All of them were different in subject matter, but were run with the same goal in mind: “getting students to ‘do’” (Hochkeppel). At this point, it is a given that paper and pencil tests do not always fully evaluate a student’s knowledge. Students may understand the material, but may have extremely bad test-taking anxiety. Due to the nature of assessments like these, some may still show signs of comprehension despite not actually knowing much about the topic.

When I asked H about his education background, he brought up how he fared in school. While he excelled at completing quizzes, he felt under-prepared heading into the professional world. H noted that “in real life, there aren’t a bunch of tests you have to pass. Nobody cares about what you can do on paper” (Hochkeppel). He is absolutely right too. If a surgeon scores well on every test they take in medical school, but then does not know how to safely complete a surgery, there will be very large ramifications. Mr. Hochkeppel is very outspoken that “rather than just giving students some Latin terms to teach persuasion… we should [have] students… persuade” (Hochkeppel). The best way to learn is to do. Regurgitating phrases onto a worksheet doesn’t hit the curriculum home a majority of the time. Just like in my history class [insert shameless plug for my blog post last week], without an opportunity to take off the “thinking cap” and put on the “doing cap,” information won’t stick as often.

Other schools in our area have Technical Theater classes, but very few get as much accomplished as Mr. Hochkeppel’s do. Instead of wasting time on going over how one might build a set, his students just jump right in. Our learning mostly occurred through experience. If we built a faulty set piece, we inspected it and, with H’s help, found ways to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. The importance of “as early as possible… get[ting] kids judging: was this a good move or a bad move?” (Hochkeppel) is high because it grows their independence. It allows students to learn from their own mistakes, in real time, and figure out how best to solve issues proactively. In Public Speaking, in the first semester of my sophomore year, we didn’t discuss the theory of good public speaking. The class jumped right in and started performing, later coming together for constructive criticism. Currently, I’m in his Creative Writing class. On the first day of class, we already had an assignment. He explained that had we come together to converse about how to write creatively (instead of actually writing), nothing would ever get completed. Art is too subjective for there to be one, correct formula to writing. Not to mention, the word ‘formula’ and ‘writing’ shouldn’t ever be near each other in a sentence. Writing has a mind of its own and can take whatever form the author chooses. H understands his “version of what you gotta know is silly” (Hochkeppel) to everyone except for him. The way he writes is completely valid, but it may not make sense for me to adopt all of his personal guidelines. To me, that idea is crucial to a classroom’s success.

It is treasonous to the subject of English to pretend writing only fits one mold. Writing is about expressing what writers need to express. Educators that teach to check off boxes rather than let ideas flow free are leading their students to become bland and inexpressive. Mr. Hochkeppel agrees with that sentiment. He even goes as far as saying the current public education system is destined to follow that path more than often.

“Do the citizens belong to the state? I kind of think that’s the implication of the [school structure]” (Hochkeppel).

Individuality is often suppressed by the public education system. It is very true that “some go through school damaged by the continued assault on personal value” (Hochkeppel). In most of my English classes, when we analyze the books we read, our teacher stands at the front of the room and essentially tells us how we should interpret it. A couple of my peers have been shot down, in front of the rest of the class, because they had an alternative interpretation. I strongly agreed with H when he said, “I don’t think there should be some big apparatus telling students what the real story is” (Hochkeppel). That is transferrable to any subject. There are multiple sides to history. There are conflicting theories in science. There are abundant ways students can experience a book. “If we [break down] all the facts in the average SOL… you could say ‘that’s a decent fact to know’ but it’s not like you need to know that… for a good life” (Hochkeppel) and student rapport diminishes when teachers value trivia over true comprehension. There’s a stark difference between teaching disjointed facts and actually ingraining information in a student’s brain.

One of the biggest aspects of my Creative Writing class is analyzing each other’s work, for the purpose of understanding clear author’s purpose. Just because classmates differ in opinions doesn’t mean they need to come to a consensus. Disagreements are a very real part of life. Teachers should “trust people not to be good, but… trust people to look out for their own interests and to do what they see is right” (Hochkeppel). Who are teachers to tell us how we see the world is incorrect?

Mentally make a list of all the great thinkers of our world’s time. Albert Einstein. Sigmund Freud. Thomas Edison. Galileo. Some might argue we no longer have people like them in America. H vociferously disagreed:

“We look at [great thinkers] and say, ‘Wow why don’t we have smart people like [them] anymore?’ The fact is, we do. We have just as smart people… but we have funneled them through a system… which takes away… autonomy and… personal judgement” (Hochkeppel).

Rather than allowing students to find themselves, the current structure attempts to confine them to one way of thinking. The goal of school is to help students grow into fully independent adults. “We train kids to be afraid to do anything without an adult’s say so” (Hochkeppel) and when that is instilled in us, we are destined to fail in the outside world. If when we’re younger, we are not allowed to speak our minds or form our own opinions, we never will. That would be borderline apocalyptic for the future.

“Kids are made to feel like crap for not being good enough for these tests. Even though those tests aren’t an objective yard stick to measure value, we treat them that way” (Hochkeppel).

Students respond to humanity, more so than we do to hard data. On our first day of grade school, numbers become attached to us. Grades, lunch numbers, student IDs, class numbers – every aspect of our very existence is quantified. All the time, I start off the school year taking a ‘how do you learn’ quiz. Very few, if any, of my teachers follow through and adjust to the way I learn. We follow the same formulaic agenda:
  • Guided Notes
  • Worksheet
  • Discuss as a class
  • Test
It doesn’t matter if you’re an auditory learner, a visual learner, a kinesthetic learner, or a completely different learner; you’re doing the same thing as everyone else.

The opposite is also very much true. I’ve had teachers in the past who are overly reliant on test scores (specifically reading levels) and use them to divide classes into ‘smart’ kids and ‘slow’ kids. “It’s a bit of a mania when the end result is not better teaching, but a kind of non responsive way of thinking,” (Hochkeppel) H pointed out, when I asked about his thoughts on the sudden push for the “huge push nationally… for… data” (Hochkeppel). At this point it should be very clear that no two students think, work, or act the same, yet we get assessed in a one-size-fits-all fashion. 

Most times it seems that the system isn’t “meant to help every kid achieve their dream but rather as a sorting mechanism” (Hochkeppel). Data can certainly be a useful tool, but when it’s turned into the deciding factor of a child’s intelligence, it becomes detrimental to school in general. Over my eleven years in the American public school system so far, I’ve been labeled the ‘smart’ kid and the ‘slow’ kid. Both labels hurt me, personally. When I’m painted as belonging in the ‘smart’ group, I’m expected to know every answer when called on. If I don’t, I get a disapproving look from the teacher and maybe a discussion after class. When I’m described as one of the ‘slow’ kids, I’m told I need to put forth more effort – regardless of the work ethic I show. Mr. Hochkeppel believes “those numbers exist not to help the students to learn, but to help the powers that be, pick students and divide them [into who’s] valuable and… not” (Hochkeppel). Granted, I may not have the experience of graduate school or teaching a class of students, but I certainly have been led to believe that too. It’s very clear which students are teachers favorites and which ones aren’t when data becomes a focal point of the class.

Before I finish up, I'd like to quickly congratulate our drama department (run by Mr. Hochkeppel) on winning the state championship in Virginia's one act competition! It was a great experience and it is certainly deserving after all the work our cast and crew did. There is zero chance we could have accomplished this without H at the helm. He has been a role model of mine for the past two years and I'm honored to have the privilege of working with and learning from him for two more upcoming years.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

“You can’t keep… people down if they’re free, but you can certainly affect them greatly by taking twelve years of their life and making them subservient, obedient, and non free thinkers” (Hochkeppel).

Hochkeppel, Glen. "Interview with H: Part One." Personal interview. 18 Jan. 2017.

Hochkeppel, Glen. "Interview with H: Part Two." Personal interview. 8 Mar. 2017.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Employing Controlled Chaos

While brainstorming for last week’s “What is Science?” blog post, I compiled a list of engaging lessons I’ve taken part in. The one I’ve chosen to highlight this week is one of, if not, the greatest example of controlled classroom chaos I have ever experienced. This time it wasn’t a science classroom where this took place, it was in sixth grade history. It may seem like a little bit of a stretch to reach that far back, but I still remember every detail and I don’t think that memory will fade any time soon.

Just like every standout teacher I’ve had, my history teacher made a lasting impact on Day One. Regardless of his initial success, the history lessons I was subjected to improved as the year continued. The time frame we were in during this specific lesson was the French and Indian war. Even though we were interested in every class, some of the information seemed to be falling on deaf ears. For a bunch of eleven and twelve year olds, it was hard to picture why guerilla warfare worked so well or the inefficiency of weapons. After all, we lived (and obviously still live) in the twenty-first century. Outside of using a time machine, it was going to be impossible to transport us into the French and Indian War… our teacher clearly felt otherwise.

Seeing that we were having trouble visualizing the war, my teacher set up a scenario for us to act out. Now, that might not sound exciting at first glance. It was obviously more participation-driven than guided notes per say, but an “act out” wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. My history teacher decided to take it to a whole new level, a level that I have sadly not revisited since.

 As soon as he corralled our attention, my teacher began explaining his idea. We were going to fully recreate the battle of Fort Duquesne in class. We weren’t just going to talk about the war in funny accents; we were going to have a full-on battle in class. For those of you who are a little bit rusty, let me break down some elements of the battle that the activity highlighted:

The British and American Side:
·         Fought in a very structured, open battlefield style
·         Were very loud and telegraphed their actions/movements
·         Underestimated the opposition’s numbers
·         Utilized inefficient 1700s weapons

The French and Native American Side:
·         Used guerilla warfare tactics (concealed themselves, reorganized the fort)
·         Remained almost silent, not giving away any information
·         Had higher numbers than expected
·         Also used inefficient 1700s firearms

This was all unknown to us at the time, but we were about to learn everything firsthand. We were split into two large groups by my teacher. Those of us who were on the British/American team were escorted out into the nearby locker bay so we could strategize. Once we were far enough away from his classroom, my teacher began to brief us on the information we needed to know to play our roles correctly. Because we were the classic European army, we needed to be organized in a rigid formation before entering the battlefield [classroom]. In order to intimidate the French/Native American team, we were told to loudly stomp our feet with every step we took down the hallway. My teacher reassured us that it would be easy because the other group was in an enclosed space. Clearly, we would be able to slowly pick them out, one by one. He concluded by asking that we get in our formation by the time he returned from the officer’s quarters [classroom].

Calmly, but quickly, us snobbish redcoats grouped ourselves into two lines that extended a quarter of the way down the lockers. Just in time, my teacher walked back to our turf with a stack of papers in his hand. I internally groaned because I thought we were going to have to fill out a worksheet in conjunction with the activity. Much to my surprise, he started crumpling up the papers and giving a handful to each student. This was to be our ammunition. If we saw a rival soldier, we were supposed to hit them with a bullet [paper ball]. If we were hit with a bullet [paper ball], no matter who it was from, we were supposed to die [drop to the floor, playing dead]. Most importantly, our group was never allowed to break our formation. That would dishonor the countries we were fighting for and nullify any potential victory we obtained. My teacher jogged back to his classroom and gave us the signal to begin our march.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. I’m confident the amount of noise we were creating was bewildering students of other classes, but it didn’t matter to us. The pride of Britain was all we cared about right now and the way we’d show it was by annihilating our fellow classmates. Our squad reached the door, and one of our two line leaders slowly opened it up. The room was uncharacteristically dark. If that didn’t faze us, the upheaval of all the desks did. Desks and chairs were flipped, leaned, and stacked to create barricades for our opponents. While we were processing the new aspects of the war we didn’t have prior knowledge of, bullets [paper] started flying. Our first six warriors dropped before they could even toss their paper. Even though we couldn’t see many soldiers, we started almost aimlessly sending our bullets across the room. I saw an enemy insurgent sitting in the corner of the room and I knew what I had to do. With haste, I lobbed my biggest paper ball in her direction. Much to my chagrin, it went nowhere near her and I suffered a mortal gunshot wound to the ankle before I could try again. Soon, our entire legion of students was relegated to lying on the floor. The lights came on and we were disappointed to see very few of the French and Indians had been affected by our onslaught. My teacher flipped on the lights and requested we all help clean up the mess we had so successfully created.

Before scooping up the scraps of paper we’d tossed all around the room, I took in the view. Our former classroom was in utter disarray. Not one desk was untouched, papers were strewn everywhere, and students were picking themselves up off the linoleum ground that they’d previously been laying on. Many teachers would shudder at the amount of damage we had done, but mine just sat back and smiled.

When the room had become relatively clean, we started to break down the events that we just experienced. Everything that occurred in our little battle had a purpose. The disarray was similar to the way the French decided to defend their fort. Our side faced so many more casualties than our opposition did. That was very reminiscent of the death ratio between Britain and France in the battle of Fort Duquesne. Paper doesn’t fly very well and neither did the bullets from the 18th Century muskets. My team wasn’t given the information needed to win, just like how Britain’s Fort Duquesne was overconfident and incompetent. It was clear how much thought my history teacher had put into this activity. Too often, I feel like my teachers put certain aspects of a project up to chance and they end up ruing that decision as things fall apart.

Student excitement was billowing after going through our reenactment. Although we weren’t supposed to let his later students in on it, each one of us found friends in other classes to rattle off a recollection of events to.  Sitting at the lunch table, I couldn’t help myself and I just started spilling out information to kids with different teachers. After explaining the whole scenario, there was a little bit of a silence at our table. Confused, I thought maybe they wanted to tell me what they did in class, so I asked them. Our grade had two really popular history teachers; my teacher and one down the hall. My peers told me that the other popular teacher just let them research and fill out a March Madness bracket for their classwork. Even as a sixth grader, I was bewildered with the decision making of their teacher. Intentionally allowing your students to essentially accomplish nothing seems like a poor conclusion to come to. He probably wanted to create positive student rapport and I guess it was technically succeeding. Meanwhile, my history teacher was able to build a good relationship with his students, while still churning out good results. Tests are obviously not the only way to show a student’s comprehension, but not one of my classmates got a grade lower than an A on the French and Indian War test.

It’s probably not hard to imagine the amount of excitement this generated for his class. I mean, my teacher hosted a full-on mock battle in his classroom. How many students can say they’ve experienced something even remotely similar to that? The amount of thought my teacher put into this activity was commendable. The unordinary disruption to daily class life was readily welcomed by the student body. The activity helped us fully understand the context of the battle of Fort Duquesne. The lesson clearly was successful too, because to this day I still remember most of the battle’s key information.

As always, the foundation of what this instructional period entailed is easily transferable to the subject of English. For example, let’s say a class is having trouble comprehending the context of a novel. Take a section of the book and create a scenario for students to act out. Once we’ve lived it, it’s much easier for us to wrap our heads around. However, incorporating a dramatization isn’t the important takeaway here. The fluidity that my history teacher brought to the class was the real key factor.

Making it even easier on my history teacher, we each got our own experience out of our dramatization. So he didn’t need to tailor the activity for any particular students. The activity was differentiated without any extra effort on his part. He let laid out the ground rules and let the reigns go, freeing us to personalize our time-traveling adventure. My teacher knew (and knows) full well that “good teaching doesn’t take place by teaching a list of objectives, but by intentionally planning ways for students to create their own learning” (Students at the Center, 2017). Instead of reading off a PowerPoint word for word, he decided to design a broad activity and have us run wild. In retrospect, this was obviously the right idea. If I were to meet up with former classmates from his class, we would probably all tell the story a different way. The information we learned however, stuck with us and would remain the same.

To students monotony is just another part of their daily school routine. Teachers should not be afraid to purposefully upset the established order for the benefit of their students. Variations in a class’ agenda will get us to perk up immediately. A little unorthodox can be good for students. When educators step out of their comfort zone and put themselves out there with an activity, students are encouraged to follow suit. Getting students fully invested and moving is important. Switching tables and moving around the room “gallery-walk style” are not good enough. Just like integrating technology for the sake of integrating tech is pointless, having kids walk around the room aimlessly defeats the purpose of having students move around. Figuring out reasons for everything students are doing may take a decent amount of time to do, but at the end of the day, if activities like this help students, an attempt should be made. From my experience, the attempts can be just as useful as the tried and true. Teachers can model a healthy learning process with their attempts throughout the year. Students and teachers will be learning alongside each other all year, allowing for a completely even playing field. When students teach teachers even a tiny detail, it’s beneficial. Exposing that weakness and allowing room to grow shows students that teachers are one of them. It should not come as a surprise that when my history teacher employed these tactics, his positive student rapport crashed through the roof.

The last big part of this lesson that I’d like to touch on involves the culture my teacher created in our class. With the aforementioned class period, my history teacher initiated a feeling among the students that we had to go all in. Imagine if students just went through the motions during the Fort Duquesne reenactment. The information would have gotten lost in the shuffle. Also, creating activities that require one hundred percent of a student’s attention is important. Rather than outright banning student cell phone use, teachers would be better suited in using engaging lessons to mitigate class disruptions. At the 2016 NCTE Conference, Dr. Sara Kajder said, “Rather than complaining about students playing Angry Birds, we should be asking ourselves why they are.” Students turn to other sources of engagement if classes are disengaging. “New media literacies… demand a highly participatory culture” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010), therefore we can’t expect a simple worksheet and video to grasp students’ attention. By utilizing activities that excite students, through controlled chaos and “demand[ing] a highly participatory culture” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010), through hands-on activities, teachers will be able to ensure that their students are comprehending the material while concurrently building rapport.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

DeVoss, DaÌnielle Nicole., Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.

Kajder, Dr. Sara. "Digital Literacy Can't Wait: Advocating for Access, Autonomy, and Authenticity." 2016 Annual NCTE Convention. Georgia, Atlanta. 19 Nov. 2016. Speech.

Kallick, Bena, and Allison Zmuda. Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2017. Print.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Hooking Students from Day One

Since last week I wrote about my current chemistry teacher, I think I’m going to stick with the science theme. On my last blog post, Fran McVeigh left a comment saying, “I believe that I would not have been so science-phobic if I had a teacher like yours.” That got me thinking. I was very science-phobic in middle school, and probably even in elementary school. When I got to high school, there was a clear shift in my scientific interest level.

All summer, leading up to the school year, I was adamant that I should avoid taking biology. My middle school had billed biology as a class students should only take if they were seriously considering a future in science. I did not (and do not) foresee a scientific career for me, so I did not think biology was the class for me. Not only that, being new to high school I thought I would be overwhelmed by the workload. I didn’t want to be swamped by my new workload and jeopardize my GPA before I even got my footing, so it took a lot of convincing for me to drop earth science.

Due to all of the negative feelings I’d harbored over the summer, let’s just say I was less than excited about entering the biology class room on the first day. My teacher had a large mountain to climb if he wanted to engage me. I had already made up my mind that biology was going to be a waste of time, so had I been in almost any other class, I would have been treated like a lost cause. Little did I know, my interest in science was about to be rejuvenated.

Milling about, waiting for class to start, students picked seats and chatted amongst themselves. It was all pretty standard. Then, the warning bell rang, soon followed by the late bell and biology began. Our teacher flipped the light switch and we started class in the dark.

A curious silence came over the class, as we waited for him to put his flipchart up on the Promethean board. His bright white slideshow cut through our palpable pause. Giant black letters that read, “What is Science?” appeared. I was not the only person who rolled their eyes at that. What a cliché way to start a class. My body slumped down upon itself in preparation for the imminent, inorganic conversation, destined to be dominated by teacher’s pets looking to start off on the right foot.

My teacher spoke up to initiate the conversation. Skipping the typical introductory bullet points, he called on the first kid he saw. Better yet, he called on them by name. “What is science?” He repeated the question that was plastered on the front screen. The student seemed a bit unnerved and stuttered through an answer involving “doing labs and papers and stuff.” Our teacher let their answer sink in and because of the lull; the class broke out into little sniggers. I remember my teacher’s response so clearly to this day, he said, “I don’t understand what is so funny. I asked ‘what is science’ and he gave his answer. His definition of science will not be the same as yours, yours, yours, or yours.” He went on to describe how that differentiated perspective is what made him fall in love with the subject.

He called for another student’s interpretation. They brought up different units they’ve had in past science classes. A different student’s hand shot in the air, wanting to share their idea. With each new student came an absolutely different view, our teacher was right. His interludes describing the year’s plan were interjected only when they made sense. Sometimes he was even forced to say we wouldn’t cover a certain topic or that he wasn’t fully capable of understanding that topic. He followed up quotes like that with apologies and promises to work with individuals wanting more information. This process continued until every kid in the room had an opportunity to explain what they thought of science.

His passion for biology showed through every time he spoke. Every answer gave our teacher’s voice more volume and clearer tint of curiosity. Leaving this class, I wasn’t magically transformed into somebody who loved science, but I came away knowing that our teacher was absolutely qualified and excited to teach the subject. Due to his love for biology, he was determined to transfer some of the energy he put forth over to his students.

Even though my anecdote was kind of short this week, there is a lot of good to pull from this opening class. My teacher was aware of the “critics [who] often accuse the American schools of crushing children’s creativity” (Setting the Record Straight, 2004). He knew what students say in the hallways. For example, the student I wrote about earlier said science was based around papers. In order to combat that mentality, my teacher integrated a huge class discussion to put the school year in motion. In addition, the excitement my teacher possessed for biology was very obvious and the expression of that excitement was necessary to grab our attentions. Bringing in every class member was another perfect decision. Keeping the introductory discussion to a minimum was another small, but student-focused choice. His transparency and advocatory attitude were fundamental elements (no pun intended J) in building positive student rapport in a short, ninety minute period.

Energy is a great way to hook in students. Teachers excited to be in class are not guaranteed to have a positive rapport with students, but without a tangible enthusiasm, students will lose interest immediately. Nothing is more off-putting than seeing an educator who doesn’t want to be there. Some students view school as a boring waste of time. Why perpetuate that stereotype by showing apathy towards class? In my opinion, being so openly energetic was a crucial step in my teacher’s victory over our attention spans.

As I said above, not one student was allowed to sit alone and refuse to participate. To be completely honest, no one wanted to either. Everyone was so engaged that even the shyest kids in the class were in a position where they were desperately wanted to share their “scientific definition.” Too often have I been in a class where a teacher starts to pick their favorites on the first day of school. Just like history shows us all the time, when an elite group forms, the commoners, with no special attention, become alienated. “In using… labels we create… barriers that do a disservice to teachers and students” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010) and those barriers are a toxic ingredient in creating a positive classroom ecology. By separating the class into cliques, teachers cut up the very fabric of their class before it even has a chance to be thread. My teacher was smart and made sure to incorporate every single patron of his biology class. Everyone left that class feeling like their perspective was important and they were reenergized to return in two days. Putting value in a student’s word is very empowering and it’s a great step to building positive rapport with students.

Hosting an open discussion is a great way to foster students’ taste for inquiry. Inquiry pushes student understanding to the next level because we are forced to form opinions and defend them if necessary. When our teacher asked each of us what our definition of science, we had built-in defenses for why we were correct. The basis of education is “teach[ing] students to be curious, skeptical, even contrary to ask for the whys and the hows behind what’s in the rote acquisition of facts” (Setting the Record Straight, 2004). The facilitation of conversations like “What is Science?” build a space for students to question, an idea that is absolutely transferable to the English classroom.

When my teacher pointed out the topics he did not have a full understanding of, he was demonstrating a form of transparency not often seen. Teachers’ admissions of weakness are actually endearing to students. Not only does it prove a teacher does not pretend to be perfect, it also opens up potential opportunities for students to flip the script and teach the teacher. Moments with role reversal like this are longstanding memories for students and hit home the material in a more direct way. While “educators tout… the importance of [fostering] ‘soft skills’ such as” the ability to teach a peer, “the profession’s attention to [soft skills] has too often been secondary” (Students at the Center, 2017). Showing chinks of armor makes it known to students that you are one of them and will not pretend to be a larger entity than them. That idea is one hundred percent crucial to creating a mentoring relationship with the student body.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

Bracey, Gerald W. Setting the Record Straight (Second Edition): Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U.S. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004. Print.

DeVoss, DaÌnielle Nicole., Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.

Kallick, Bena, and Allison Zmuda. Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2017. Print.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Evolving Common Practices

Let me just preface this by saying I am not a science guy. I'm not inherently interested by the structure of cells or how to balance chemical equations. This year though, Chemistry is easily one of my favorite classes and it is one hundred percent because of my teacher.

The pacing of his class is one that I've experienced in no other class before. Comprehension is valued above blind regurgitation of info. Whether it is through his notes, his labs, his practice, or even his tests, my teacher makes sure we understand the material. When he uses different methods to get the information to us, it helps become more adaptable and well-rounded. “Equipping students to [work] in… one mode… will not serve students in… higher education… or the workplace” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010) and my teacher knows that. In order to combat the one-size-fits-all aura school gives off, he comes up with as many different venues for chemistry as possible. All of them are pretty common ideas, but he attaches his own unique strategies to them, making him a very unorthodox teacher.

Every thing he assigns us obviously has to be completed, but there’s really only one real due date per test. That is where his new pacing comes into play. The practice sets are all preferably due the class after they’re handed out, but my teacher is completely available to them being turned in late if extra help is necessary. Chemistry has a lot of algebra and a lot of equations involved, so as someone who isn’t the best at math and memorization, it’s really helpful to have the freedom to grow at my own pace. I talked to him about what his thoughts on grading were and he bluntly said, “I’m not here to get students an A, I’m here to teach chemists.” At first, I was a bit confused as to what his statement meant. On the surface, it sounded a little bit standoffish. Once I started really looking at the way he runs class, I started to understand. His philosophy isn’t to teach students only for the purpose of getting us ready for state-mandated standardized tests. My teacher is teaching us chemistry. He tries his hand (and succeeds) at sharing his passion for the subject. Above all, he knows learning anything is a process. If a topic is not clicking, the hammer is not mercilessly cracked down. Sometimes taking time to slow down is crucial to student understanding. Having this option is integral to the incredible results his class creates.

His flexibility and willingness to walk through work with us has really increased his student rapport. Rather than leaving “slower students” behind when the pace is too fast, my teacher makes sure everyone is on board before we pull away. To me, it’s clear why he’s so popular within the student community. Other teachers would consider students lost causes if we didn’t comprehend their notes immediately, but my chemistry teacher does it right. He sees any mistake as a learning opportunity, a place to grow from. There’s no such thing as slipping through the cracks in room 402.

A big portion of science classes is the lab work. My chemistry class is no different in that way, but my teacher’s procedures are unique to him. We start off by getting some baseline information (safety requirements, materials needed, the allotted time, the goal etc.). Then, we, as a class, split ourselves up into groups and grab the safety equipment required to proceed. Once we are all geared up, we just jump right in. There is one catch though; the itinerary is completely up to the students. How we go about finding our result is up to us. Of course, if any of us struggle to find the next step or make repeated mistakes, our teacher is ready to swoop in with guidance.

Students taking part in labs in our class gain so much non-chemistry experience from our teacher’s almost entirely hands off approach. Through authentic experience, we improve leadership skills, problem solving, critical thinking, time management, and more. Our teacher one hundred percent believes that learning in school transcends curriculum and I appreciate him for that. Rather than feeding us answers and holding our hand through every step, we have the freedom to explore chemistry. Not only is that really beneficial to student growth, it’s so empowering when we’re given the reigns to our learning.

Tests leave very little room for maneuvering. That’s why my teacher’s way of handling them really impressed me. In most classes, tests are weighted very heavily, leaving poor test takers to drown in angry red ink. My chemistry teacher is still required to administer high amounts of points in tests, but to counter that he raises the point values of labs and problem sets. Another portion of testing that he has revised involves the multiple choice aspect of his tests. Our tests are structured so half of our questions come from multiple choice questions and the other half come from free response questions. In my opinion, awarding partial credit is positive because students are graded with more accuracy than an all or nothing style of grading. My teacher certainly agrees. Free response work and answers have partial credit awarded where students understood some, but not all of the material, pretty standard, unexciting stuff right there. That’s where the multiple choice part comes into play. He is the first teacher I have ever had to come up with a system that gives partial credit on a multiple choice section on tests. When we were younger, teachers taught us test-taking strategies to help us guess answers correctly when we got stuck. Does anyone remember the rule that usually one or two potential answers are obviously wrong, so students should eliminate them as options? My teacher rewards students for being able to sniff out wrong answers. On our answer sheet, we may write two answer choices and circle the one we think is “most correct.” If the circled answer is right, we get all of the points available. If the circled answer is wrong, but our second choice was right, we get one-third of the points available. If neither of the answers is right, then obviously we get none of the points. This way of grading accomplishes so much for students and for my teacher’s reputation.

His student rapport is through the roof when it comes to tests. Students are less stressed heading into his tests, because they know if they show their knowledge of the topic, they will get the fair amount of points. Even if you just know the fundamentals, you will get your due. Not many other classes can tout that. The fact that he takes time out of his day to grade our tests with that much concentration shows that he is truly on our side and wants the best for us. Most of all, it shows the importance is not placed on grades, but on true understanding. He would rather encourage us by showing school is not “driven by grades, but by [the] series of unsung victories along the way” (Students at the Center, 2017).

While I have been talking about a science classroom, the information is easily transferable to English. When students are doing work of any kind, instead of pressing students towards rushed, imperfect work, foster an environment where quality is more highly valued than quantity. Any mistakes are immediately met with feedback on how to fix it. He understands true comprehension “requires rich feedback [for] the student” (Students at the Center, 2017). The emphasis is more on “details, nuances, and techniques” that can be applied to other sciences “than [completing] a standalone assignment” (Students at the Center, 2017). It’s important to remain patient, but don’t be afraid to give students a push when the time comes. It’s important to encourage independence, but be ready to guide students when they hit a roadblock. It’s important to help students earn good marks on tests, but curriculum covered in class shouldn’t be governed by the tests. After all, the goal of education is to prepare students to function in the outside world, not to only be able to function when they have a guide telling them what to know.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

DeVoss, DaÌnielle Nicole., Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.
Kallick, Bena, and Allison Zmuda. Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2017. Print.

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Benefits of Varying Class Structure

Currently, I am preparing for a test in one of my AP classes. As I was studying, a thought came over me: The difficulty of the class has grown exponentially while the year has progressed. My stress levels reflect that, the same way my grades and work levels do. Naturally I wanted to find a common factor or at least a reason why I suddenly feel overwhelms.

I’ve been taking mental notes what we’ve been doing in class and I’m surprised this didn’t hit me sooner. The structure of every class is as follows:
            1st – Video for either thirty minutes to an hour
            2nd – Teacher explains video followed by lunch
            3rd – Fill in blank worksheet about specific topic
Two aspects of this schedule stick out to me; the uniformity of class procedures and the constant use of videos and worksheets.

When a class falls into monotony, so do the students. Every class is the exact same and it wears us down. It may be comfortable to have an unchanging structure every day, but eventually disengagement starts to set in. We stop putting forth energy and we start blindly going through class. No excitement is ever built from constantly repeated activities. There is a simple solution though. Just by switching up our class agenda (whether it be marginally or significantly), my teacher would be able to regain our attention. After spending so much time utilizing the same classroom components over and over again, a shift would be welcome. That brings up another question though. What can my AP teacher do to spice up class?

When there are a group of people together, chances are the amount of interests everyone has will vary greatly. Try asking those with similar interests how they express their passion. Answers will spread even further. It’s no different than when there is a collection of twenty or more students in a room, but I know that’s common knowledge.

It is unrealistic to ask teachers to craft individual assignments for students, based on personal work methods, however there has to be a happy medium. In my opinion, my teacher misses the mark when it comes to reaching that medium, and many of my fellow students agree. This is not an attack on our teacher; it’s just our perspective on a class that is not working for us. Her heart is in the right place having us watch videos. On the surface, it makes sense. Our generation of students is a digital one. We have more technology at our fingertips than ever before. In showing videos to us, I’m confident our teacher was trying to connect the information to us in a way we are comfortable with. Attempting to find a different way to do conventional work is commendable, however this idea just happened to fall short.

As my class was watching the most recent video picked out for us, I observed the room. Maybe one or two students were actively paying attention. Almost the entire rest of the class was on their phone, talking amongst themselves, or flat out sleeping. Even me! I decided evaluating my classmates’ focus was more enticing than watching the video. To me, that sounds like disengagement.

In a way, I feel bad for my teacher. She clearly tried to reach out to us in a medium that we enjoy, and it just didn’t work. With the guidance of Troy Hicks, Danielle Devoss, and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, in “Because Digital Writing Matters,” I believe I have pinpointed the potential issue. Watching a video and filling out a worksheet with obvious answers does not fully involve us. Our teacher integrated technological tools into our classroom, but attached nothing to them. That is a key misstep.

Digital resources “demand a highly participatory culture” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010). Students prefer active assignments. We would much rather be doing something than be told how to do it. It’s almost a cliché at this point; but kids sometimes need to make mistakes to grow from them. Incorporating a digital element in the classroom shouldn’t remove the interactive aspect of work. Technology has created a more involved social climate just through widespread television and mainstream social media websites. It loses its purpose when it’s offered to students with no clear purpose. Now, that issue could just mean my teacher needs to be more transparent about what the work accomplishes, but that’s a blog post for another time.

One reason I think I am not doing as well in my class is because in a way, I’ve lost my teacher. The personal element of the student-teacher relationship has been replaced with alternating YouTube personalities. It’s impossible to ask a YouTube video for more clarification. Now, obviously I can just reach out to my teacher on my own time, but with the worksheets assigned being so specific to the video I can just skate by in class. It’s only when I’m out of the class that I face trouble. Studying is next to impossible when your whole comprehension hinges on tidbits from a video and nothing more. Our class, as a whole, struggles because “access to tech tools won’t ensure… [we] learn” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010). We still need a bridge between the cyber world and the living world. My recommendation to her would be take one or more of these guiding suggestions and integrate them.

If work must be created in conjunction with the videos we watch, it should be more centered on overarching topics, as opposed to questions like “who made the YouTube video?” This would prepare us for chapter tests, AP tests, and essays in a much, more efficient way than the current model.

The videos do not necessarily connect with all of our class’ members either. I don’t know whether it’s because people are more kinesthetic learners or they prefer reading over listening or something else. There are a multitude of reasons YouTube may not entice students, however some students may enjoy the videos. No two students are the same. Just as I said earlier, ask a group of twenty how they learn and you will get twenty completely different answers. Rather than playing videos for the class, our teacher can offer a variety of options in an effort to reach out to as many different types of learners as possible.

Another way to engage the students is to avoid the video altogether in favor of a more interactive activity. Well thought out games, group projects, “act outs,” and more can positively impact a classroom environment. A common theme between these options is the ability to gain life experiences. That’s why I’m a big fan of them - they don’t just teach for a test. Videos and blank worksheets “cannot measure many of the important qualities needed to enjoy life or succeed in it” (Setting the Record Straight, 2004). The alternatives (mentioned and unmentioned) above invite students to grow team-building, enhance leadership skills, and teach students about social cues.

In the near future, I intend to have a meeting with my AP teacher to discuss my newfound struggles with the class. I believe just by making some slight changes, our class’ experience will become much better. We don’t require a drastic upheaval of her lesson plans; it would just be beneficial if different elements are put in place to keep us engaged. I will definitely update this blog as the situation unfolds, but I still think she will be receptive. Like I said, her heart is in the right place, but the class just needs a couple of tweaks to reinvigorate us.

Thank you so much for reading the opening post to my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

Bracey, Gerald W. Setting the Record Straight (Second Edition): Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U.S. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004. Print.
DeVoss, DaÌnielle Nicole., Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.