The Teacher as a Student – Findings

Reading ‘Teacher spends two days as a student and is shocked at what she learns‘ from Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post.

Key takeaway #1: Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.

We know this. We know it so well that unfortunately I think it’s become one of those accepted limitations that gets heaped until the issues that will be solved by bigger picture shifts. So Strauss suggests:

  • mandatory stretch halfway through the class
  • put a Nerf basketball hoop on the back of my door and encourage kids to play in the first and final minutes of class
  • build in a hands-on, move-around activity into every single class day. Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine. I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.

The third bullet point has real merit. Ensure that a moving exercise is completed is seriously feasible and would address the issue (albeit in a bandaid way). I think of more substance would be progressing on a shift to student-centred environments whereby students have the agency to be able to decide when it suits them to move around.

Key takeaway #2: High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes.

We also know this? What are we doing about it? Self-directed learning is becoming the norm in my classroom, but I’m aware of my tendency to resort to chalk and talk approaches where it falls back due to unpreparedness or something not working. How do we address this as a wider issue? It is a massive shift that is being asked of the teaching profession in this regard, but it is building momentum. Strauss’s answers are:

  • Offer brief, blitzkrieg-like mini-lessons with engaging, assessment-for-learning-type activities following directly on their heels (e.g. a ten-minute lecture on Whitman’s life and poetry, followed by small-group work in which teams scour new poems of his for the very themes and notions expressed in the lecture, and then share out or perform some of them to the whole group while everyone takes notes on the findings.)
  • set an egg timer every time I get up to talk and all eyes are on me. When the timer goes off, I am done. End of story. I can go on and on. I love to hear myself talk. I often cannot shut up. This is not really conducive to my students’ learning, however much I might enjoy it.
  • Ask every class to start with students’ Essential Questions or just general questions born of confusion from the previous night’s reading or the previous class’s discussion. I would ask them to come in to class and write them all on the board, and then, as a group, ask them to choose which one we start with and which ones need to be addressed. This is my biggest regret right now – not starting every class this way. I am imagining all the misunderstandings, the engagement, the enthusiasm, the collaborative skills, and the autonomy we missed out on because I didn’t begin every class with fifteen or twenty minutes of this.

Some merit in these solutions too. I don’t know if an egg timer has as much value as a powerpoint timer or a smartphone app. But that’s a keeper. Starting with questions is such a easy one too. I often do a questioning to test recall, but again shifting the power and the responsibility to the students, maybe that’s more valuable, maybe that’s the future.

Key takeaway #3: You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.

This finding sort of surprised me. I didn’t foresee this coming up and I guess this makes sense. I do tell the same people again and again the same instructions – get out your book, stop doing that etc… Strauss’s solutions:

  • Dig deep into my personal experience as a parent where I found wells of patience and love I never knew I have, and call upon them more often when dealing with students who have questions. Questions are an invitation to know a student better and create a bond with that student. We can open the door wider or shut if forever, and we may not even realize we have shut it.
  • I would make my personal goal of “no sarcasm” public and ask the students to hold me accountable for it. I could drop money into a jar for each slip and use it to treat the kids to pizza at the end of the year. In this way, I have both helped create a closer bond with them and shared a very real and personal example of goal-setting for them to use a model in their own thinking about goals.
  • I would structure every test or formal activity like the IB exams do – a five-minute reading period in which students can ask all their questions but no one can write until the reading period is finished. This is a simple solution I probably should have tried years ago that would head off a lot (thought, admittedly, not all) of the frustration I felt with constant, repetitive questions.

The main thing here is ensuring a positive response to students. Sarcasm and closing off to the most basic of questions are really hard to avoid – I would argue that relationships is a key aspect of this that might sometimes justify the response. However, the point was well made here in the sense that we ought to be conscious of showing our empathy for students.

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