Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Mastering is more than expecting the best

In his article Fostering Mastery (Huffington Post, October 24,) Terry Newell discusses the delight of seeing students master a difficult skill, in particular a pianist.
As teachers we are expected to help students do their very best in their work, but sometime a student's very best would be real mastery of a subject or skill. In the article he points out that the only areas school place emphasis on mastery is where there are competitions, in sports, music, dance, or whatever - all of which are after school activities.
Of course there are many adults who do their day job just to be able to support their passion, which they aim to master, like an acquaintance who participates in very high stakes gambling, which I guess he figures he has mastered. Others use the subjects they work mastering in their day jobs, often as free-lancers. This could be professional photographers, IT developers, or even those lucky athletes who can make it as professionals.
In order to master something you have to be consumed by it. You practice hours on end, study the skills of others, read books, attend conferences or meets, compete with others in various ways. But that doesn't leave time for school work! Both my brother and my son got consumed by technology which competed with schoolwork and dropped out - although they "dropped in" again when they discovered a way to study their passion without the encumbrance of all the rest!
But life needs mastery in more ways than highly visible competitive activities. When I was teaching English and German in Denmark, I kept reminding my students that they needed to really master the languages, so that they could use them in their careers as fluently and precisely as possible. Many of the students had been abroad and understood why almost right can cause comprehension difficulties. They were motivated to work with their essays and practice conversation so that they would someday be praised for their fluency. That was more important than the grade I gave them (which, of course, was good anyway!)
As math teachers we have to encourage our students to master math. Any deviations from accurate math could cause serious problems in life (by not calculating one's financial situation well enough) or in a career - just think of what would happen if an engineer did imprecise calculations on a bridge, car, or space explorer!
Journalists have to master their skills of research and persuasion.
Is there a way we can motivated students to mastery in our classes?
I once had a mentor teacher who was inspired by words from an Olympic swimmer, about how he mastered his swimming techniques through many hours of drill. Unfortunately the teacher assumed that this could be applied to math students. He missed the most important part of the swimmer's message: motivation. Students have to be motivated to excellence, to mastery. Then they might be interested in drill. But I think they have to figure out for themselves in some way what they will drill. It doesn't help that a teacher says, "this is how you do it, now go drill it for an hour." Teenagers will often do the exact opposite of what you tell them to do, or at least do it unwillingly. We have to lead them to where they want to master the subject on their own with our support and guidance where they need it. There are many things they can figure out on their own. Sometimes they need encouragement to research the particulars they need, so we have to help them learn to be effective researchers, but there are also times when our own knowledge and experience is what they need, and they may be motivated to accept it, if we learn to present it at the right moment.
Let our job be encouraging mastery. Our job is motivation, not dishing out facts, procedures and drills!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Class size does make a difference

I have been taking a math course to complete the requirements for the MA in Secondary Math Education. I signed up for a course that had a prerequisite that I (and several others in the class) wasn't aware of, but because the class only has about 10 students, the professor realized this problem and used more time than he had planned to cover the prerequite material. He looked at us while he was teaching, and if we had puzzled faces he'd reteach the concept in a different way. We all felt comfortable enough to say, "wait a minute. Where did you get that equation from?"
But despite his help, I discovered I really needed the prerequisite course, and found that I would be allowed to swap the one for the other - after four weeks. The teacher of the new course graciously allowed me to start at that point with homework assignments. But the class is large, with 38 students in a large auditorium. It is very hard to see the board if I'm late and can't sit up front. He talks softly, so he's also hard to hear. He covers what he's writing on the board while he's writing, so we have to rush to copy it when he's through, and his comments about what he's writing don't make sense until we can see it. But the major problem is that he has no way of knowing how hard it is for us to understand, because we are so many, spread out too far. He asks very few questions to check for understanding, and is happy if someone answers correctly.
High school classes are getting up to 40 students these days, admittedly crowded together in smaller classrooms, so no one is so far from the board or the teacher. But it is really difficult to be aware of each student's needs in such a large group.
When I taught in Denmark, the union had negotiated maximum class sizes of 28, which always seemed large. However, we could easily fit those 28 students in a U-shape with a few desks inside, so everyone could see each other and I could easily approach each student. Second and third year classes, they were often much smaller, as the students could specialize to certain interests. I had many classes under 20. There was no problem getting to know each student and ensuring that everyone had a say in classroom discussions.
I am looking forward to having my own classroom, but not to having 5 classes with 40 students each (200 students and their parents to get to know.) Certainly it takes an especially talented teacher to reach all of her many students in today's large classes!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Engaging a classroom

One of the questions I get asked every time during a job interview is what my version of classroom management is. I hate that term, because it leaves the students out of the equation. I manage, you be managed.
As far as I can see, if the students are engaged in meaningful, sense-making learning experiences, a good classroom experience just happens.
I just got a new Teaching Tips from Coach G today, where he provides a couple of suggestions that I had learned previously, but they are worth repeating, since I'm not, unfortunately, practicing them yet. In a tip called Replacing Classroom Chaos with Control, he recommends using "data" to identify problems that have already arisen. This is data from a coach or peer who observes your classroom, or from a video.
Among the solutions are:
  • Always have some easily understood, but somewhat time-consuming, activity on the board when students come in, so you have time for taking attendance and whatever has to be done in the beginning. Don't give students a chance to get going on something else, but give them the opportunity to be quiet with math for a few minutes in the beginning of class, to get focused on what will be happening during the hour.
  • Although I want students to learn by doing, in cooperative learning groups, there is still a need for up-front, whole class teaching. I discovered during student teaching that it is extremely important to face the class as much as possible, keeping your eyes moving. That means using overheads, document cameras, or pre-prepared slides or activities on an Electronic White Board, so you don't have your back to the class while you're writing things.
  • On the other hand, if things are pre-prepared, be sure to give students enough time to read and take notes from what is there. My student teaching master teacher would display on the white board, and then write on the overhead as he was talking about it - although that makes the students look two different places at once.
Other things that I have found helpful or have inspired me:
  • Equity sticks or cards, one for each student, color-coded by class, so you can keep track of them. Students know that they will be called on. If you replace the cards at the back of the pack, then everyone knows they will be called on. On the other hand, they also figure they won't be called on again. So occasionally shuffle the cards, so students get called on more than once. Cards are great, but I found them clumsy to work with, so popsicle-sticks might be a better solution.
  • I expect that group boxes of materials are common-place in elementary school, but I think they would be great in high school, too, so you don't have to take time handing out rulers, markers, scissors, etc. to groups. I've bought my boxes, but not having a class, I haven't gotten around to equipping them.
  • My master teacher in preteaching discovered that we (at least I) kept looking for my markers, equity sticks or whatever, so she gave us all a simple canvas tool belt filled with supplies as a getting started gift. It has not been in use yet, but Coach G suggested the same thing. Don't waste time looking for stuff during class. Make sure that everything you will need is available - either in group boxes or your tool belt, or somewhere else front and center.
  • Seat students in primarily in cooperative learning groups, but angle the groups so that everyone can see up front. I've observed classes with groups, where some kids had their backs to the board. Either they had to turn around to look at the board (strain on necks) or they just looked in front of them, and missed things. It might be possible to work out a way to quickly move the desks into "looking front" position, and then back to groups.
  • As Coach G suggests, teach only long enough that you know that at least one person in each group "gets it." Then let the groups figure out themselves how to make sense of it all. And be sure to hold every member of the group responsible for understanding, so the group ensures that everyone gets it.
  • Of course, while the students are learning in groups, you are working the classroom, trying to position yourself so that you still have an eye on everyone while you work with a group, asking questions, giving tips or leads, but not giving the answer! You have to be ready to move on quickly if need arises.
  • Some teachers change the groups regularly, so the class gets to know each other - or to avoid conflicts arising in groups. It seems to me that Groups that function well together and learns well should be able to stay together. Disfunctional groups may need help to learn to work together. It takes time to learn to cooperate effectively.
And again, I look forward to the not impossible situation that I will have my own classroom soon to practice what I blog about!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bilingual children learn even better

My children are bilingual English and Danish, since their father is Danish. They also speak French, Spanish and German. Their early years were spent in Denmark, where there are many foreign language programs in TV, and usually only children's cartoons were dubbed. So they got used to hearing not only English and Danish, but also Norwegian and Swedish and many other languages. My son used to pretend talk in various languages, with a perfect accent (but few words and no grammar.) Both have grown up to be very smart and culturally very adaptable.
An article in Education Week show that science behind my experience bears out. Science Grows on Acquiring New Language.
“We have this national psyche that we’re not good at languages,” said Marty Abbott, the director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in Alexandria, Va. “It’s still perceived as something only smart people can do, and it’s not true; we all learned our first language and we can learn a second one.”
I started wondering if all these monolingual teachers are afraid to let their bilingual students be "better" than they are, since they can do something the teacher can't.
I am always perplexed to meet students who speak another language at home, but have not been encouraged to keep building it to a level of Academic Competence. While I was studying secondary math education at Claremont Graduate University I found that many of my foreign-born fellow students did not know how to talk about Mathematics in their native language. They miss out on the opportunity to approach problem solving with the logic of two different languages. What a waste!
Other studies also suggest that learning multiple languages from early childhood on may provide broader academic benefits, too.
For example, at the science-oriented Ultimate Block Party held in New York City this month, children of different backgrounds played games in which they were required to sort toys either by shape or color, based on a rule indicated by changing flashcards. A child sorting blue and yellow ducks and trucks by shape, say, might suddenly have to switch to sorting them by color. The field games exemplified research findings that bilingual children have greater cognitive flexibility than monolingual children. That is, they can adapt better than monolingual children to changes in rules—What criteria do I use to sort?—and close out mental distractions—It doesn’t matter that some blue items are ducks and some are trucks.
When I get my own math classrooms, I plan to encourage bilingual students to talk math in both English and their native language. Bilingual immersion programs to this very well, but I think that regular classrooms can also encourage this (as long as there are at least 2 students who speak a particular language.) Math concepts are the same, and a lot of the vocabulary is cognate in some languages.
When I lived in Denmark, whenever we teachers had to do book inventory at the end of the year, I found myself starting to count in Danish, "en, to, tre, fire, fem seks, syv, otte, ni, ti....eleven, twelve, thirteen...." I've heard other foreign born adults do the same. But the counting is the same!
Our language is a very important part of our identity. As part of my CGU coursework, I wrote a blog called Negotiated Identity, where I reflect on a book Negotiating Identities: Education for Empowerment in a Diverse Society we read for class, and brought in a lot of other thoughts and material that I discovered as I read.
Students who are born with two languages are extremely lucky! We have to encourage them to become truly bilingual, also in their academic language.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Still looking but teaching a little, too

Wonder of wonders! I finally started doing a little teaching, or rather tutoring. I have one student in Physics and one in Geometry. Both of them tell stories about teachers who lecture up front and then give homework. The Physics student even had a lab about the recent unit AFTER the unit test. The teacher evidently considers labs to be "activities" to make things a little interesting, not real learning experiences.

The Geometry student flunked Algebra I with one teacher and got an A with the next. Geometry was going the same way before she signed up for a tutor.

As students of education we're taught to differentiate teaching. In order to do that, you have to know who's getting it and who isn't. You can't know that standing in the front of the class and collecting homework once a week, graded by teacher's assistant.

On the other hand, it's a lot to ask of a teacher to know each of 40 students well enough to differentiate. So it's a teacher problem as well as a problem for teachers...and their students.

I've been enjoying Coach G's Teaching Tips on the Teacher Magazine website. On October 5, he told us his secrets for Differentiated Instruction: A Practical Approach, where he writes:
You do, of course, need to provide some whole-group instruction, and you should certainly make it as engaging as possible. But you should also make it as brief as possible. Forget the ideal of every student grasping every lesson. What's more important is that you present key information in a clear, organized way so that students have notes to refer to when the real learning begins--during practice. In fact, in my classroom, where I assigned students to heterogeneous groups for independent (and interdependent) practice, as soon as I was sure at least one student per group grasped a concept, I was ready to move on, since I now had a full complement of assistant coaches.
or how about this great tip from September 27:
Don't Tell Students to Show Their Work--Make Them!
Are you constantly on students to show their work in math (or other) classes, but to no avail? If so, try giving them the answers up front--for class work, homework, even a test or two. Really, what better way to stress the problem-solving process than to limit an activity to that process?! Do this, and you'll really be messing with kids at first--especially if, like many of my students, they care more about getting work done than getting it done right. What are these students to do when the directions for an assignment are, "Show why the given answer is correct," and they can't get it done without getting it done right?
I am just looking for an opportunity to put these great tips to work!