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.

1 comment:

  1. Sam,
    I'm honored that my comment continued your thinking about science. Viewing school through the #BowTieBoys lenses has been so helpful for me as I work with teachers. "What would Sam say?" and I can easily check what you have said on your blog or on twitter. What kind of questions do you have?

    And better yet, what is your story? You are a master story teller. This I love . . ."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."

    I will admit. I almost rolled my eyes at that as well. And yet, I was also instantly transported back to science classrooms in the 70's. No Promethean board. A 16mm film. Catch their interest. Discuss. No wait . . . a monologue interspersed with comments from one or two pets!

    Honest conversations, transparent dialogue, knowledge gaps - all of these led to the teacher building relationships with the class. And also perhaps created that desire and safe way to "learn together" in a community.

    Thanks for sharing your thinking and learning! Your school is fortunate to have you as a lead learner!