So I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to teach in the Head Start summer program at my international school here in China. The program is intended to help students going into high school to gain exposure to full English immersion classes in Math, Science, Socials, and Language Arts. I taught four blocks a day for 70 minutes each. Each class had anywhere between 12 - 16 students. Ten days straight; on the one hand, no break (kinda brutal), and on the other, open curriculum (YES! Free reign).
I had lofty plans. I'd been refreshing myself on Jo Boaler's work about mathematical mindsets (see my previous ramblings here). I was going to do a little study. Please note that I do not have any experience whatsoever doing educational research. While I have a general understanding of the scientific method, I was mostly doing this out of pure curiosity and a desire to become a better teacher.
Like all good mathematicians and in the name of good science, it was perhaps inevitable that first time was not the charm, and rather than have a very successful, replicable study, I instead gained some knowledge about how I might proceed in the future. Nice.
Content that I had planned to cover in 10 days would have taken closer to 18. The students had an incredible range of English speaking ability, with drastically varied dynamics between groups of students. The schedule did not operate on a cycle, so I saw the same group of students at the same time each day, which definitely influenced their learning experience. For instance, Group C who were absolute angels and ready to learn each day in my first period class were exhausted by the time they got to third period, which led to more behavioural problems in the classroom.
Group A: A challenging group. I saw them the period right before lunch each day and there was a group of four students who were unable to sit still and wandered the class during inappropriate times, such as in the middle of me giving instructions. I lost my cool on this group; shame on me because I wasn't able to regulate my emotions and respond calmly to the situation. Just to clarify, a "losing my cool" moment for me doesn't mean shouting or yelling, which is neither helpful nor productive. I simply raised my voice to get the students attention. But, in that moment, I had lost my cool because I let the students dictate my response rather than carefully assess the situation and respond calmly and accordingly.
Group B: Did absolutely anything in their power to NOT pay attention. Would whine anytime I introduced a new activity. Would put their heads down and sleep in class. I saw this group after lunch each day, they were my last and perhaps most challenging class because of the incredible amount of sleepers and students who wanted to do absolutely nothing. There were definitely some gems in this class that would have benefitted from being in a group with other, more responsive students. Lots of patience and flexible teaching strategies required.
Group C: The first group I saw each day and by far the best group. Students had a decent command of English and I rarely had to repeat myself. They would listen and follow instructions the first time. Students would always do as they were asked. The challenge with this group was pushing them to work slightly beyond their zone of proximal development.
Group D: A diverse group with students who always wanted to be two steps ahead, students who needed a lot of personal assistance, students who got distracted easily, and students who were happy with just coasting along.
HOW I COLLECTED DATA
I used Boaler's Mathematical Mindset Teaching Guide as a self assessment tool for how I was and was not strengthening growth mindset culture in my math classroom. I wanted to focus on changing students' inclinations towards math learning, challenging those who believe math is a subject that defies creativity and passion, and pushing those who already saw themselves as "math" students to expand their definition of what math is. With the help of my math mentor, I settled on collecting data through a mindset survey.
Students took a before and after survey. I added two prompts on the after survey that required students to provide written answers to the following:
- What I think math is...
- How math class makes me feel...
A source of error here is that for students with low English level, they may not have fully understood the meaning of the statements they were agreeing or disagreeing with. Another possible source of error (though unavoidable) are those students who "did" the survey by randomly clicking boxes just to appease their dear teacher.
HOW I TAUGHT
I chose content from YouCubed's Week of Inspirational Math. I chose these tasks because they were all low-floor, high-ceiling tasks and were designed to build good mathematical habits of mind. For example, on day 1, we did an activity called "Four 4's" which encouraged students to think creatively and work collaboratively to come up with as many expressions as they can that equal the numbers 1 - 20 using only four 4's and any mathematical operation of their choice (see picture below).
Other activities we did:
In terms of assessment, I wanted to stay as far away from tests or quizzes as possible. Instead, I focused on providing students with specific, written feedback on their journal entries, group quizzes, and one final presentation at the end. I wasn't concerned so much with what they knew, but rather the process through which they were learning and engaging with the material.
Select responses to "What I think math is"
"The most important things we need to learn"
-"Have unlimited creativity"
"Subject between creative and and teamwork"
"is very interesting. make my brain growing"
"Math makes me hate and love"
Select responses to "How math class makes me feel"
"Moer interesting than chinese class"
"It may not very interesting, but OK"
"happy that I learned a lot"
"I feel very good, I meet very good teacher also know the very good friend in the math class"
"I feel happy when I fiand the ancer"
"Good! make me more confedent"
WHAT I LEARNED
A majority of students already had tendencies towards a growth mindset in mathematics, perhaps as a result of the general high regard Chinese people hold for mathematics as a subject. For the most part, students liked math and saw themselves as capable of achieving if they worked hard enough. Of the 59 students I taught, a small number of students (three or four) were of the opinion that they were "just not math people" and were extremely hesitant in trying.
In the end, I can't really say definitively which factors of my teaching influenced (or failed to influence) a stronger growth mindset towards maths. What I do know is that the switch to low-floor, high-ceiling tasks was extremely freeing -- for me and for the students. It allowed us to take a concept or idea as far as we wanted to go. There was no script or prescribed problem set that the students had to work through in increasing levels of difficulty, but rather a greater depth of thinking, and the time and space for that thinking to happen. Despite (or maybe thanks to?) the lack of testing (there were none), students still engaged with the tasks and content at high levels, drawing conclusions they might never have done with a pre-made worksheet of the skills they were supposed to practice.
By building a stronger focus on increased depth of knowledge, it then follows that a necessary norm to advocate would be that math isn't about speed. When people refer to themselves as not "math people", that's usually what they refer to, the fact that they aren't fast at mental arithmetic. But math is so much more than that.
In all, while it is hard to say from the students' perspective whether or not they appreciated a stronger switch to teaching with mathematical mindsets in mind, I know that for me it resonates as a noble endeavour. Yes, it is much easier to write a test and spend 70 minutes of your life making sure no one cheats. But take that same test, rip it up, and replace it with a diagram, an equation, a single question, a blank sheet... and possibilities begin to emerge. Some groups may reach a higher level of understanding and some may not, but then again, we teach students, not subjects.
A little secret about teachers - we BS a lot, we are well practiced in it, in fact. There are generally two types of BS; the first kind is the half-hearted BS you tell yourself as an excuse not to do the dishes or mow the lawn. "There's nothing wrong with a few dirty dishes. Right now, there are more important things to do" - the means isn't really important so long as you achieve your goal. The second, more refined kind of BS is the kind that has a little more conviction behind it. It's the kind of high-tech BS machinery you never realized you possessed that only gets unleashed in the final hours before a major project, paper, or assignment is due. It is the BS that has the essence of utter crap and yet somehow manages to surpass even your highest expectations. Let's face it, there is something tasteful about BS-ing with conviction; teachers do it and improvisers do it. There's an argument to be made about stepping up our BS game as teachers and helping our students do the same, and we have a thing or two to learn from improvisational theatre.
Teaching, like improvisation, is a performance art. Both have entertainment value (or the potential of, at least). Both require quick thinking and have elements of spontaneity. Both operate within a system of carefully defined "rules". Good teaching, like good improvisation, requires that students and teachers (the "players") are closely attuned. In improv, this tuning process happens early on as players establish a "base reality" for the scene - the who, what and where. Only when this base reality is set, can players begin to explore the world that they've created together. In teaching, this is analogous to establishing students' prior knowledge on a subject. The prior knowledge is the base reality in which both students and teacher can build new learning upon.
Improvising is wonderful. But, the thing is that you cannot improvise unless you know exactly what you're doing
- Christoper Walken
Everybody can improvise and everybody can teach, but things always sound easier than they actually are. So naturally, when I found out I would be teaching drama, I underestimated how difficult it would be to do it well. I claim to be a math and science teacher, but I also dislike the whole 'I'm-not-an-English-teacher-so-it's-okay-if-I-can't -spell' type excuse. Who says a math/science teacher can't teach drama? Armed with vague memories of middle school drama, some words of advice from my colleagues, and a lot of research, I taught a group of grade eight students the basic elements of improvisational theatre.
The dream: foster greater teamwork, collaboration, and creativity amongst my students. The reality: a lot of reluctance, awkward silences, and miscommunication. Students were reluctant to participate because it potentially meant making a fool of themselves in front of their classmates. There were awkward silences because they were uncomfortable with the idea that they could control the dialogue rather than do what they were told. Miscommunication happened because students focused too much on making themselves look good at the cost of sloppy scene work.
Our first attempts at simple improv games failed tremendously. The foundation of trust wasn't there, and students had not yet learned the art of failing spectacularly. I challenged my students often and constantly pushed them towards more complicated tasks and scene work. What I didn't realize, however, was that my students probably needed a much gentler progression, and more scaffolding. If I were to teach improv again I would spend more time on the fundamental concepts and revisit them often. I would tell my students that you don't need to be loud to be heard, and I would focus more of my feedback on things that were going well rather than things that weren't.
Even though my little experimentations with improv failed in a lot of ways, I learned much from the experience and would do it again in a heartbeat. Not only did teaching improv put me out of my comfort zone in terms of teaching, but we had a lot of fun! In the beginning I did a lot of "telling"; I read up on the rules and common pitfalls and communicated these to my students in hopes that they would avoid them. This did not work. They did those things anyway. But they got really good at doing those things, so for half a class, we just practiced doing scenarios in which your partner either blocked or wimped* in a scenario and we talked about what that felt like and how to make it better. Then we tried adhering to the "yes, and" rule and discovered that it was harder than it seems! With repeated trials and errors, we slowly progressed to a point where a few students felt comfortable performing on stage, others began to feel a little less intimidated, and everyone learned a bit about what it means to work together effectively.
Teaching and learning about improvisation was like figuring out how to have a great conversation. When a scene goes poorly, it is usually because a player is too much in their own heads and not focused on their scene partner. Much like in life, this is annoying because we seldom have great conversations with people who try to make everything about themselves. As we continued to explore improv, both my students and I became more mindful of how certain responses can either help or hinder a scene. A friend of mine gave me some good improv advice, "You should always make your partner look good," which is another way of saying, "This isn't about you." For example, your scene partner makes an offer and says, "Wow, the view is amazing from here," and if you say, "What view?" then you are putting a lot of pressure on your partner to make something up to progress the scene. If instead you respond, "I have really bad vertigo, I need to get off this cliff," then you just made your partner look good by taking their offer, and adding some valuable information to it.
Wouldn't it be great if all class discussions could flow so smoothly? Where all students are equal participants, building on the ideas of one another, and each adding something of value? I see value in teaching and learning improv outside the drama classroom. This article makes some good arguments for why and how improv can be incorporated into all subject matters, and has some great sample games and activities that can be modified for all grade levels. If you are a teacher who is curious about how improv can be implemented into other subjects, I highly recommend reading this paper.
Below are a list of Tina Fey's four basic rules on improvisation, taken from her book Bossypants. In my next blog, I will elaborate on how I believe these rules are connected with my teaching practice.
*Blocking: Rejecting information or ideas offered by another player. One of the most common problems experienced by new improvisers.
Player A: Look at that dog!
Player B: What dog?
Wimping: Accepting an offer but failing to act on it.
Player A: We should go to the movies.
Player B: Yes.
"All the vacations!"
"Only work 10 months of the year."
Anyone who's ever cited the above reasons for why they became a teacher is a liar, and anyone who assumes the above is actually true has clearly never lived with a teacher. While I can confidently dispel the myth that teachers do not live at school, I cannot say that the dwelling of a teacher (or any educator, for that matter) has not effectively become a school, in the sense that the "teacher hat" rarely ever (truly) comes off.
While I'm sad to say that my year of teaching mathematics to a brilliant group of students in Kazakhstan is now over, I am happy to report that I will be working as a science teacher at a Canadian international school in Seoul, Korea come Fall. Currently unemployed, I have been spending my summer months contemplating the new school year to come. As a new teacher, I get thrown with a lot of advice:
"Make learning interesting"
"Don't just lecture"
"Let your students have FUN!"
"Whatever you do, don't smile until December"
"Whoever said not to smile until December is throwing out a bunch of bull-crap"
I mean, all this advice is helpful in some way, but mostly, I worry. I worry because I know that the advice usually stems from some past experience; perhaps my adviser has had a brilliant teacher in the past and wants to give me some insight on best practices, or maybe the experience was so traumatic that it is a warning against what I might become. I know, and am reminded every day, that teachers have a tremendous opportunity to influence the lives of their students, whether its for better or for worse. I would be lying if I said that thought has never kept me up at night.
So what does a young, novice teacher like me do during their free time? Well, this summer (like the last, and probably for many summers to come) has been filled with a lot of reading; books about science education, classroom management, cognitive psychology, teaching and learning . . . you name it. Books, and also a lot of web-surfing in search of inspiration and ideas for the next school year. The great thing about being a teacher today, versus 50 years ago even, is the incredible, vast, and extensive amount of information available literally (excuse the cliche) at our fingertips. With the advent of online textbooks, YouTube, massive open online courses (MOOCs), I really have no excuse for not knowing better. The issue now becomes knowing how to efficiently and effectively conduct searches, filter out the big ideas, and not get caught in fun yet unproductive Pintrest spirals, or the ever-so-looming YouTube vortex.
I find myself constantly striving to be perfect. I work, rework, and surgically remove minute details in my lesson plans until I am convinced they are just so. Then along will come some new insight I've read in a book or online article and I will repeat the process all over again. I worry about many things:
Will my students find this topic interesting? Can they relate this to their own lives?
What will they remember 10 years from now?
Is this an example of content-based, activity-based, or inquiry based teaching?
How can I work towards developing lessons that are more minds-on rather than hands-on?
How can I better scaffold this project to ensure top-quality work?
. . . and so on.
The result of all this worrying is twofold: 1) my brain is now attempting to process more information than it can actually take on, and 2) very, very slow progress with my unit planning. I realize that I need to just give myself permission to just be okay with being a novice. I mean, there really is nothing more liberating than knowing you are not the best and that it is okay (splendid, even) to keep learning - that is a belief I want to instill in my students too! Of course, knowing all this, it is still a constant struggle to be mindful of it, and I am sure I will be reminding myself (and my students) of this more than once.
So here's to wanting to be a great teacher, but okay with being good (modest?) one (for now).
For reasons I still do not fully understand, my grade 10 classes were combined with another teacher's classes today. Classes are 80 minutes each, and are split up into two 40 minute blocks. I spoke to the teacher of the other group beforehand, and from what I could tell from her limited English (and my non-existent Kazakh), it seemed like we would each teach a 40-minute lesson to the combined classes. It was not until the lesson began that I realized this teacher wanted her group to work separately from mine. The lesson ended up being a disaster, a huge flop, an extreme "UGH" moment if you will, and one that I'm not too proud of. It felt like I was trying to teach against a storm. I felt disrespected by the other teacher and students in the room because they were being extremely noisy while I was trying to get through my lesson. I asked them to quiet down a couple times but then the noise level would eventually go up again.
Thinking back, I wish I had been more adamant on insisting that I kept my classes and never combined groups in the first place. Again, for reasons I cannot explain, it seemed imperative to the other teacher that we kept the two groups together. So by the time my second class came along, I devised a new plan. I was better informed the this time around. I knew I had to share the same physical space with the other teacher and her students, and I knew that there would be at least minimal amounts of talking. I also knew that I didn't want to enter in a shouting match with the other class (fighting fire with fire just makes a bigger fire). Instead, I tried my hand at silent teaching.
I left the following note up on the board for my class at the beginning of the lesson:
The Results -
The silent teaching definitely got the students' interest and forced them to keep an eye on the board so that they could keep up with what was going on. A few students got the idea and were able to explain verbally what I was trying to do non-verbally - and English is their third language! (So proud!) The other class was noticeably more quiet this time around, and without me having to go into a shouting war with at least a dozen other voices, the noise level was much lower in general. I also noticed that some students from the other class were intrigued by what we were doing on the board, and stopped to observe our lesson. Once all six trigonometric proofs were finally complete, I gave a dramatic pause, and POOF - I got my voice back!
What Didn't Work:
The students who are less visual were really craving verbal explanations. While classmates volunteered to help explain concepts to those who didn't understand the first time around, two students told me that they still felt really confused after the lesson. I wish I could find a way to make this a less teacher-centered lesson, and create more opportunities for students to get involved. I did call a couple of students to the board once I felt they got the general idea of the proofs, but I was not able to assess all my students one-on-one. An exit slip would have been useful had time permitted.
I'll try my hand at silent teaching again in the future, but I'd like to find ways to create even more student involvement. Our topic this time was the sum/difference identities for trigonometry and it was very theory-heavy. Next time I think a topic (or even short demonstration) that is more straightforward to understand will be more effective with this teaching strategy. Also, I resolve to make facial expressions more dramatic for a fuller effect!
I later realized my big dramatic moment at the end wasn't as dramatic as I had hoped. I called a student up to the board to complete the last proof, and it wasn't until after I "regained my voice" that I realized there was a major sign (+/-) error!
My lesson on permutations was inspired by this post by Dan Meyer. I teach a group of very bright and mathematically inclined students at our school. While my students' computational abilities and mathematical knowledge are almost second to none, a majority of them tend to lack skills of inquiry and critical thinking. This is due to the fact that the curriculum is dense and completely knowledge driven, which leaves little opportunities for linking (making connections) or creativity. I believe the second culprit of this phenomena is the post-Soviet style culture and traditions in which the Kazakh education system is rooted.
I see that my colleagues are under constant pressure to deliver heaps of content from a prescribed curriculum which is flawed to begin with. To provide some context, one term is roughly 6 weeks long. In those six weeks, we typically cover three units of work, with a prescribed 12-16 hours of teaching per unit. The end of each unit is followed by a formative assessment (1-2 hours). This leaves 10-14 hours of actual instructional time, of which is no where near enough time to cover all the topics we need to cover AND engage students in meaningful inquiry-based projects.
As a result of the limited time constraints, we are basically teaching one new concept a day. The students, meanwhile, are left to soak up as much as they can (like sponges that retain very little water, or knock-off expandable water toys that actually stay the same size) before the end of term summative. Add to this the other 7-10 classes the students are required to take, and you can see the students have an enormous workload. They are in school six days a week, at least 9 hours a day. There's just no time! The default solution? LECTURES.
There aren't many opportunities for engaging students in rich learning tasks, but I try to squish in bits of it whenever I can. As I said, my students are extremely gifted but are used to thinking in terms of algorithms and formulas, so I often get a lot of blank stares and a lot of "Why are we doing this?" when I engage them in conceptual thinking - which is exactly the point! "Why ARE we doing this?" I ask, and that really grinds their gears! Slowly but surely, the students are getting used to this rather "oddball" tendency of mine (in their p.o.v.) to turn things around put the onus of learning on them. And golly I think it's working!
So anyway, here's how I began our unit on Combinations:
I placed students into groups and organized a placemat activity. Instead of me asking the questions, I wanted to know what opportunities the students saw when looking at this picture.
Some answers they came up with (no modifications made):
- How much combinations can be made sum of digits in each number is 53?
- How much combinations do we have if key consist of 3 digits?
- What is the possible length of the hardest password?
- How many possible variation of making code with all numbers (all numbers can be used one time, and must be used)?
- How many numbers that password include?
- What is the probability of randomly unlocking the lock?
- How many explosive charges are required to blow it?
As I ponder this list I see a rich minefield of opportunities before me. Within a five minute brainstorming session, my students touched on permutations, probability, and of course, "real-life" problems.
I put "real-life" in quotations here because I believe the relevance of math to everyday life is relative. My version of "real-life" is different from my students, and I certainly don't expect all my students to be making calculations with factorials on an everyday basis. I was blunt with my students, though I certainly didn't mean to be... it sort of just slipped out. "Some of you might never use this again in your lives," [cue snickering, whoops], "but..." There's always a "but" of course, and I'll leave it to you and your imagination to fill in the rest of the sentence.
Once the snickering subsided, I proceeded to introduce factorial notation. The sequencing worked out beautifully because once the students were familiar with factorial notation, we revisited the lock picture and the students were able to derive the formula for permutations themselves! All I did was ask "How many possible combinations are there?" and students were quickly able to discover that we needed to define more parameters in order to answer the question. E.g. How many digits are there in the code? Can numbers be repeated? Beautiful!
At the end, I gave them the following exit questions:
1. Define permutation, in your own words.
2. Give an example (not used in class) of a permutation problem.
I was surprised at some of the responses I got. First, I learned that the class had a diverse understanding of the word "permutation" (I never actually gave them a definition), so now I know where the gaps in my teaching were. Second, not only did their examples show me the depth at which they understood the topic, but some students were able to accurately predict the types of questions we would be covering in future lessons. So instead of using textbook questions, we can explore the ones they came up with in class. Brilliant!
I don't teach for the vanity, and let's face it - teachers do not exactly have the best reputation these days. Something stupid about money-hungry fiends who take up way too much of the taxpayer's money, blah blah blah. It's not like we are educating the future citizens of the world or whatever, so no big deal. For the record, it is a huge burden to teach kids stuff they will never use in real life. Even textbooks have to work extra hard with their fancy graphics and enticing fonts to convince children that modeling the shoulder height of a male African elephant is an example of using cube roots in "real life."
Note that the problem states "a male African elephant," as in a (singular) male African elephant. Why the hell does nobody ever care about the female population? What made this particular male elephant so special that he can have his shoulder height modeled by a mathematical function? Won't the other elephants feel left out?
Some days I feel as if I am teaching from inside of a five foot thick cinder block that's been buried ten feet underground. A few sympathetic students will strain their ears and squint their eyes, but no one is really listening.
Other times my lessons go so horribly that I wish I could morph into a bird and fly away. At least that will be more exciting than what my students will have to endure. There are moments when I forget that teaching is not the same thing as learning, and there are instances when I knowingly commit the heinous crime of giving my students the "I taught it so you should know it" attitude. I know, I'm awful.
I have been told that it can take years to make a difference in someone's life, and most of us do not have the privilege of witnessing that change. I have also been told that making a difference in somebody's life can be as simple as handing out a lollipop.
My "lollipop" moment happened on my graduation day.
Four years ago I was an orientation leader for the incoming class of con-ed 2015, Queen's University. A couple of us volunteered to write letters to future members of the con-ed family that year. I had a lot of fun with those letters and wrote them on hello kitty paper and decorated the margins with stickers from my personal sticker collection (of which I am very proud of). Only one person out of five responded to my invitation to email any questions or concerns they had to me. Orientation week came and went, and for a while, that was that.
In all honesty, I had forgotten all about those letters. But one of those letters had been sent to a young man named Mike. Mike went on to become the Rector of Queen's University in 2014. On the day I received my Bachelors of Education, I walked across the stage of Grant Hall to shake the Rector's hand. He leaned in and said to me, "April I just wanted to tell you that you were the one who wrote the letter to me. The one with the hello kitty stationary and all. I wanted to tell you what a difference it made." I was so shocked I nearly pushed him off the stage (okay, it was a gentle nudge, but my family members who were watching from the balcony swore that it looked like I punched him in the shoulder).
That story still gives me warm fuzzies every time I think about it. Who would have thought that a letter I wrote, and purposefully sprinkled with tacky looking gold-trimmed stickers would have been something that could ever have an impact? I mean, okay, I doubt I drastically altered the course of his life by sending him that letter, but I will be forever grateful to Mike for showing me what I difference I have made.
To quote Drew Dudley who quoted Marianne Williamson, "Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, and not our darkness, that frightens us."
Sometimes our students have small ways of telling us we matter, and they will come at moments when we least expect it. On Friday, I complimented a student for the cute stickers she had on her notebook. Surprisingly, stickers are not easy to come by in Kazakhstan, and if you know me, you will know that I am a proud owner of a shoe-box full of stickers that I have been hoarding since I was seven. Today, that student came to school with a pack of happy face stickers. She gave them to me.
So, to my fellow teachers who may feel discouraged, worn out, or overworked, I say - teach on! Follow your guts and stick to your principles. Teach because you matter more than you know. Teach because you are powerful beyond measure. Teach because you have the courage to teach.
Last Thursday, I finally got to meet some of the students I will be working with this year and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! I started off by introducing myself as one of the new international teachers at the school. Teachers go by a first name basis at the school, so the students call me "Ms. April." Since I will be working with them for the entire year, it was only fair that we take some time to get to know each other. I passed out two pieces of paper to each student (one white, one blue), and my first task for them was as follows:
The first unit we are covering has to do with series and sequences. The blue paper I passed around to students contained a sequence with a missing number. The idea is that answer to their sequence problem would determine the order in which students would speak. In theory, this seemed like a great way to tie in bits of math instruction along with my introductory spiel, but since all of them were English Language Learners, this part of the activity took longer to explain than I had anticipated. While the students worked on the Starter activity, I passed my camera around and asked them to take a #selfie of themselves so I would be able to better learn their names. The students had a lot of fun with this, and I got some pretty nice pictures at the end:
I had a professor in university who started off his very first lecture with the statement, "Ask me anything," and it's stuck with me since. I appreciated how he did not choose to just hide behind all the abbreviations attached to his name (trust me, there were many), and owned up to the fact that he was a real life human being who eats, poops, and sleeps just like you and me. So, I let my students ask me anything they wanted to know about me. I figured they were all curious to learn more about the new young and beautiful looking international teacher at their school (ha!).
Most of them wanted to know where I was from, what I thought about their country and their city, how long I would be staying at the school, and what my hobbies were. I answered their questions in earnest and they shared some facts about themselves. I am from Canada; I've had a very enjoyable time in Taldykorgan so far and I love seeing the mountains as I walk to work everyday; my current contract allows me to stay for one year; and I enjoy reading, playing volleyball, badminton, and drawing. I learned that most of the boys enjoy playing football (soccer) and basketball while the girls had a wider range of hobbies, including playing musical instruments, watching anime, and reading. I got the feeling that the students wanted to share more, but their limited English language prevented them from sharing any thoughts that may have been too difficult to express.
After the sharing, I showed the students some pictures that represented me and where I am from. In particular, they were very interested in my grade 8 class photo. I explained to them that I grew up with people from many different ethnicities, and that there was no single colour of skin that defined "Canadian." Also posted some examples of my artwork from high school since drawing is one of my hobbies. I got a big reaction from the boys when they saw my pencil crayon drawing from the cover of "World of Warcraft" which I wasn't expecting. I think I gained some massive cool points for that.
I shared with the students what my reasons were for teaching, and talked a bit about my teaching philosophy in language that was more accessible to them. I framed my classroom expectations within a brief talk I called "How to Ace Math Class." There are only three rules in my classroom and they are not optional. They are: listen ACTIVELY, take good notes, and participate! I took some time to talk about what each rule entails, and explained the rationale behind each one. I chose these specific rules because I learned from the experience international staff that the students will often chat among themselves during instructional time, and that they are used to being spoon-fed information so it is not unusual for students to sit passively in class. I think if I were to teach in Canada, I would have to rethink these rules a bit. Keep in mind that many teachers in Canada and the US will spend at least the first week discussing expectations and classroom procedures, I only had 20 minutes - and that is longer than most local teachers spend on this topic. The culture here is just different, and the norm is to jump right into curricular content. The good news is that there are no major behavioural issues with the students. As I learn more about my classes, however, I will continue to introduce and rework new routines and procedures on an as-needed basis so that we can have a successful year together.
My concluding message? "Never miss an opportunity to be fabulous," (advice from one of my teacher idols Tina Seelig).
So I've been reading a lot recently. Nothing new there. The most recent title being How children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. Tough explains the science and psychology behind the power of character and how it is a more accurate predictor of future success (in academics, health, family relationships...etc.) than IQ or socioeconomic status. This then got me thinking about my own character and how it has informed my thinking and my decisions; my experience in schools and how well my teachers prepared me for the Real World; and lastly, it got me thinking a whole lot about chess.
From the young age of 8, I had learned enough to know that I was not gifted, nor did I possess any special talent for the subjects like English, Math, and Science, which are valued by our school curriculum. I only needed one standardized test to figure out that in my teachers' eyes, I was not considered special. I remember feeling overlooked as some of my peers were exclusively "selected" for specialized gifted programs. I now realize how misplaced those feelings were. At the time I was considered an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner (the acronym now more adequately replaced by ELL for 'English Language Learner), which meant that my reading and comprehension levels hindered me from performing at my true ability. Secondly, even if my English skills allowed me to perform at grade level, who is to say the test could accurately predict my academic achievement anyway? Maybe 8-year-old me was not able to comprehend the severity of the tests and the bearing it would have to my future academic success. Or perhaps I was bored and just began filling out bubbles at random because I couldn't read the damn questions anyway.
Somehow, I managed to pull myself out from "struggling ESL student" status to "straight A student" by the time middle school rolled around. That was a transformative period in my life for me, because that was when I consciously attained what researcher Carol Dweck refers to as "growth mindset," the belief that intelligence is malleable. I was able to experience firsthand that hard work and dedication could get you the results you wanted, which in my case was good grades. My obsession to prove myself in school, however, led to a complication later down the road - a loss of creativity and independence. The school system is set up in such a way that only certain students are seen as "good" - those who conform to the school rules, listen to adults, follow instructions, and can memorize facts for a test. Not to say that these traits are not valued, but it was not until high school that I encountered teachers who really pushed me to think critically and creativity. To put it bluntly, teachers liked me because I was easy to teach. Oftentimes, I find myself looking for the same traits in my students as a teacher, but those are not the only qualities I wish to value in my future classroom.
So, what is this thing about chess anyway?
Reading about chess coach Elizabeth Spiegel and her students at IS 318 in Brooklyn was kind of . . . awesome. And inspiring. Not knowing much about the chess culture myself, I found it fascinating the amount of rigor in which Spiegel and her students put into their work, and also the incredible amount of strategy involved in the game itself. I mean, I always knew chess was a game of strategy, but I never really gave it much thought until now. I am probably the worse kind of chess player out there, only thinking about my own moves one step at a time, moving pieces with no real motives or reasons to do so, and seldom stopping to analyze my opponents tactics. Personally, when I play games, I prefer those that require minimal mental effort. Yet, I am also a little envious of Spiegel and her students, and disappointed at my own lack of determination. But what I am determined to do, is apply the same amount of determination and rigor into my own teaching, and I think blogging is a good place for me to start.
In his book, Tough poses a question that I often ask myself, Is it better to be a little interested in a lot of things (like I tend to be), or a lot interested in one thing (like Spiegel)? For Spiegel, the answer is obvious. Being deeply dedicated to one pursuit allows full immersion and to understand what it is like to be passionate about something, an "optimal experience" by the words of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Optimal experiences are "those rare moments in human existence when a person feels free of mundane distractions, in control of his fate, totally engaged by the moment (136)." I wonder, how many people can say they have had experiences like that, and better yet, how many are able to set themselves up to have more of those experiences?
I am a newly certified teacher. And while I've still got the energy, patience, and starry-eyed optimism, I know that I have to confront the reality that this overly optimistic attitude will not last forever. Over the years, I have met a lot of well-meaning teachers who, despite still wanting the best for their students, have become bitter at their jobs and their students. While I accept that there will be days when I too, will feel like calling it quits, I do not want that to be a forever-feeling. I am aware that as a first year teacher I will be investing a lot of time and energy into my practice; developing lessons, reviewing material, creating assessments... the list goes on. Therefore, I need to find ways to channel my time and energy wisely early on to avoid burnout and to keep myself motivated throughout my first year (and of course the years to come). Never Work Harder Than Your Students by Robyn R. Jackson is an excellent read for both new and experienced teachers that breaks down the seven most essential principles of great teaching into its individual components.
The seven principles of great teaching are as follows:
Simple, right? With the exception of maybe the last principle, all of these are straightforward and should come at no surprise. Any teacher will be able to tell you why adhering to these principles is important. But what does it mean to start where your students are? How does one demonstrate this principle in practice? Moreover, how many educators purposefully act out these principles and regularly reflect on them?
To become a master teacher, Jackson asserts, is to develop a master teacher's mindset. Many teachers attend workshops, conferences, and events to hear about the latest fads and techniques. They apply them to their classrooms, and can end up with disappointing results. I admit, I am guilty of this myself. The first step is to focus on the why rather than the what or the how. Strategies only work inasmuch as you believe in them, and only if they align with your own principles of teaching. Jackson writes,"... [What] separates master teachers from the rest of us is that master teachers learned how to use the principles effectively, and rigorously apply these principles to their teaching. In fact, these principles have become such an integral part of their teaching that master teachers no longer have to consciously think about them. Applying these principles have become a natural response to students' needs" (5).
Below, I list a five of my top take-away points from the book.
#1. Understand the currencies you and your students are spending and use them to help your students acquire classroom capital.
Knowing your students is not just about learning your students names or playing get-to-know-you games. There are some things you cannot learn about your students just by playing two truths and a lie or getting them to fill out an information sheet. This is not to say that these activities should be stopped, but I think it is important to remember that there is much more to each student than what they choose to present themselves as in class. Remember back in the day when you used to think teachers lived at school and how surprised you were when you ran into one at the grocery store? Well, it's kind of like that. It's easy to slap labels on a student and call them "lazy," "trouble-maker," or "class clown," especially when we rarely get to see them outside the context of our own classrooms.
Jackson encourages us to think in terms of "currencies." What currencies do you value in your classroom? For instance, an ideal student to me is one who shows up to class on time, is inquisitive, polite, asks for help when needed, and has good learning skills like initiative, teamwork, self-regulation...etc. But let's be real - most students come to class with their own set of currencies, and those may not be congruous with the ones you choose to accept. A good starting point is to become aware of what currencies you value, and what currencies your students are spending. Then, look for ways to bridge the disconnection either by helping students acquire classroom currency, altering your own, or rewarding students in the currency they value.
#2. Unpack curriculum standards BEFORE you start looking for activities and worksheets for a lesson.
It wasn't until reading this section of the book that I had realized I had been approaching lesson planning all wrong. In attempts to speed through the process of lesson planning, I spent countless hours after school searching up activities, creating worksheets, and making SmartBoard or PowerPoint presentations that explained a particular concept that was related to the unit I was teaching. Looking back, this was a very scattered and disoriented approach; it was partly driven by the fact that I had limited control over the unit planning as a student teacher, and partly because of my limited knowledge and experience. To put it crudely, my approach to lesson planning was more "How can I best fill up this 70 minute period?" rather than "What is the best way to teach X topic so that my students can meet the curriculum standards?"
The best way to begin is to unpack curriculum standards. Read through each curriculum expectation and decide if it is asking for content or process mastery (e.g. "Describe the characteristics of a quadratic function" v. "Find the roots of the function"). There may be other implicit content or process knowledge required to achieve a certain goal. Jackson suggests breaking each of the goals down by mapping out a detailed trajectory to achieving mastery and identifying checkpoints along the way.
#3. Your expectations say more about your own sense of efficacy than your students' abilities (84).
Wow. Just think about that for a minute. High expectations does not mean making a course more challenging. It is not just about believing in your students' abilities to do well. Jackson's mathematical analogy for what an expectation is is so beautiful I will repeat it here:
In mathematics, an expectation is the probability of an occurrence multiplied by the value of that occurrence. In other words, expectation is comprised of your belief that something is true, and how much value you assign to it. Thus, having high expectations for your students means believing that you have the ability to handle it, and that you think it is important to do so (82). (The Stockdale paradox also serves a relevant point here).
#4. Show students how to fail.
Some may call me perceptive, empathetic, and caring, but at times, these are just euphemisms for "she likes to tip-toe around students' feelings." I don't like watching students struggle, and it's hard for me not to step in and support them. I want to see them through to the end. I want to make sure they "get it." But sometimes, you just have to let them struggle in order for them to see the value in learning from their mistakes. I'm getting better at this the more I teach, but my weakness is definitely helping students who have math anxiety. It stresses me out to think that such a wonderful subject can cause so much panic.
To show that you value incorrect contributions, it is important not to shut down incorrect answers because then you just run the risk of playing "guess what the teacher is thinking" (a horrible way to learn I might add). Instead, if a student gives an incorrect answer, you could respond by saying something like, "Thank you! That is a wonderful non-example."
#5. Never work harder than your students.
This requires that you have a clear understanding of your responsibilities versus what
your students' responsibilities are. For instance, our duties are to:
1. Be well-prepared to teach.
2. Determine what will be taught and to what degree; what behaviors you expect students to demonstrate as they are learning; what procedures you and the students will use to learn it; what products students will produce; and at what point the lesson will close.
3. Provide clear instructions and explanations of the material and ensure that students understand the criteria.
4. Clearly communicate, model, and enforce behaviour expectations.
5. Demonstrate enthusiasm for subject matter and for students.
6. Establish structures and supports so students can access the material.
7. Assess student progress, adjust instruction based on the feedback, and share feedback with students.
It is not our job to solve our students problems. Remember that we cannot control our students, but we can influence them by showing them how to manage their own behaviour.
Hope you enjoyed this article. Please leave your questions and comments below.
Jackson, R.R. (2009). Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.
I love books. I love the smell of them - of new books in particular. Sometimes, if I can't decide two books I really want, I will give them each a good sniff and see which one gives off a nicer aroma.
While I was at Queen's University I worked at the Education Library where I got to sample hundreds of children's books, resource books, guide books, and books about teaching. It wasn't until summer of last year that I really fell in love with nonfiction. In the past, I had always been a fan of fiction (fantasy, historical fiction, action/adventure, sci-fi...etc.) because reading that I could travel to different worlds, meet new people, and have adventures of my own all in the comfort of my cozy little reading nook. I read a quote somewhere that went something like this, "if you don't like reading, then you haven't found the right book," and I think there is much truth to that. After finishing The End of Molasses Classes, I was hooked.
At first, my journey into the nonfiction world had began as pure information gathering. I wanted strategies and ideas on how I can improve my own teaching practice. Soon, this knowledge would be amalgamated into my own professional knowledge and teaching philosophy. I eventually experienced a hunger and a thirst for reading nonfiction that I was all too happy to satisfy. The more I read, the more questions I had, which led, of course, to more books. A tip: Always befriend the librarian, because she will have the most up-to-date information about the latest books and will be sure to give you a good recommendation.
Some books I read this past year:
You will notice that many of these titles are directly related to the teaching profession, and I highly recommend all of them. Two of them (i.e. Creativity Inc, and Outliers), I read out of pure interest, but found indirect ties to my teaching practice nonetheless. Creativity Inc, for instance, is about Ed Catmull's journey to building an animation empire (Pixar Animation) held up by pillars of creativity, joyous storytelling, and "emotional authenticity." His building an empire, and teachers leading a classroom are more or less analogous, if not the same thing. In teaching, I think it is also beneficial to draw from sources of inspiration outside the realm of education because it broadens your thinking and opens your mind up to more possibilities. Otherwise, you run the risk of stagnating and taking up the "my way or highway" mentality, which I actively try to avoid.
Officially an Ontario Certified Teacher (OCT), I now have access to the Margaret Wilson Library, which is a library dedicated to all the certified teachers of Ontario. So naturally, the first thing I did after I finally received my membership was order a book! More on this later.
[The last week of teacher's college] "What a waste of time. I can't wait for this to be over already."
[The last day of classes] "Wohoo! I'm free! Time to live my dream and start a blossoming career as an educator and shape the lives and minds of thousands of children for the better!"
POST-GRAD PHASE 1: Quarter-Life Crisis
"I need to find a job."
"Minimum wage? No way."
"Why won't they hire me?"
"AM I NOT GOOD ENOUGH?"
POST-GRAD PHASE 2: Reality Check
"It's only been two weeks since classes ended, why am I getting so worked up about this job hunting business? I need to relax a little."
POST-GRAD PHASE 3: Guilt
"Oh God. Is that... It is..."
"OH PLEASE GOD I WILL TAKE ANY JOB I CAN GET AS LONG AS I DO NOT HAVE TO SACRIFICE MY DIGNITY!"
POST-GRAD PHASE 4: The Return To The Job Hunt
[Applies to any and all jobs available]
"What if they want to hire me?"
An entry I wrote for my educational law and policy class:
In my first year I became a tutor in the classroom to make some money on the side and get additional experience in the classroom. I had been working closely with a little boy in the third grade who was diagnosed with Asperger's and had behavioral issues in the classroom. He was short tempered, ill-mannered, and never wanted to stay on task. It was a challenge to engage him in the classroom, and he would almost always require additional supervision or individualized attention (either in the form of an EA, me, or the resource teacher) at school. Oftentimes, he would lash out in anger at the teacher or his peers without warning- he could go from 0 to 100 in an instant, and you could never tell what the next minor thing that would set him off would be. Needless to say, I had doubts in my mind about my future prospects as a teacher. If these were the types of challenges I would face in my classroom (and this was just one child), could I become the teacher that these children needed me to be?
It wasn't until one day during lunch that I remembered why I was there. The little boy (George, let's call him) was sitting alone out in the hallway- his head was down and he wasn't eating his lunch. I sat next to him and asked, "George, what seems to be troubling you today?" "My dad doesn't like me," he said. "Oh?" I asked. "He says I'm stupid and sometimes he hits me when I'm wrong." In that instant, my fears and doubts dissolved. I stopped seeing him as some an explosive time bomb sent to make my life miserable but as another fellow human being- with feelings and emotions just like you and I. What he had said had bothered me, so I ended up reported this to the Principal and she stayed with me while I made the call to CAS (Children's Aid Society). It was a nerve-racking call to make, but the Principal was supportive and reassured me that making the call did not always mean the parents will be put under investigation. Oftentimes, they would collect information and no action would be taken until they had enough grounds to persue the case. At the time, I only had very limited information and did not want to be the cause of George being separated from his parents. The lady on the phone asked me whether I saw any visible bruises on George (I didn't) and asked for direct quotations of what George said. The call only took about 10 minutes to make, and it felt like the right thing to do. I do not know what George's life is like today, but it was evident that he was in a school with teachers that cared and loved him. As a teacher, I may never know who the "Georges" in my classroom are, but I can do my best to provide the loving, caring, and supportive environment that my students deserve.
Has anyone else had a similar experience? What was it like for you?
The 2014-2015 academic year marks my 18th consecutive year of schooling. Over the last two years, I've developed a horrible case of "senoritis," which, according to Wikipedia is "a colloquial term mainly used in the United States and Canada to describe the decreased motivation toward studies displayed by students who are nearing the end of their high school, college, and graduate school careers." (Preach Wikipedia, preach). Three years ago, you would never have caught me skipping classes, using my cell phone in class, or sitting in... you guessed it - the nosebleed section. On one hand, I absolutely cannot wait to be out of school and teaching in my own classroom. On the other hand, it freaks me to think that I will eventually touch the lives and underdeveloped mind of hundreds of children to come, children who will eventually grow up to become the future leaders of their generation.
Ever since popularized videos like Suli Breaks' spoken word poem on"Why I Hate School But Love Education" and Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk on "How Schools Kill Creativity" I've begun to question everything. At first it was a very cynical, and unhealthy type of questioning that gave me fuel to justify the "senoritis" I was feeling. I have been a very successful student all my life, and that's because I've learned to navigate the system. When it comes to skills like memorization, test-writing, and exam-preparation, I am an expert in my field. Eventually, this made me feel inadequate and ill-prepared for life in the Real World. I wondered what life would have been like if I had been exposed to the same kind of education that Logan LaPlante calls "Hackschooling." The more people I met and spoke to about the crisis around schools, the more I realized that the school system I have loved all my life was failing people all over the country. School - which gave me my friends, my hobbies, my love for learning... was starting more and more to resemble the factories they once were.
"There are three things you need to remember as a teacher, " Bev Kokerus said in a recent workshop on occasional teaching at the Faculty of Education. "The first is be memorable. The second is to find the positives. If there are none, turn the negatives into a positive. And last is to take care of yourself and your family." I needed to find the positives again. Once I began to do some soul searching, it wasn't that hard.
The first question to ask myself was why I am here? I'm here because I want to be. I think back to my first few weeks at Queen's and how it was absolutely enchanting. As I delved deeper into my studies the beautiful scenery faded into the background and I began to take all the little things for granted. I stopped noticing how pretty the trees looked against the bright blue sky every morning, how incredibly serene the sunrise overlooking the lake was, how calming the quiet hum inside Douglas library could be... I wasn't alone in this process. The effects of senioritis were widespread, and as we entered our fifth year of university many of my colleagues and I had stopped noticing our surroundings entirely. Get good grades, get a job, pass that course... no wonder school had begun to look so bleak!
Occasionally, I will find myself falling back into that predictable slump I try so hard to avoid. Turn the negatives into a positive. Okay, so I admit I have met some people in my young life who were never meant for school. I also know people who never had the opportunity to have an education - and I know how powerful schooling can be in a person's life. Perhaps, my initial disillusionment and perhaps overly optimistic perception of schools had not been in vain. Yes, senioritis is very real, but I also know that I am lucky to be here. And yes, schooling and the education system as it exists today can still be crappy, but need to reframe my thinking and see this as a challenge rather than permanent flaw. While it is important to stay curious, we also need develop a healthy ways to question the world (that doesn't turn you into a pessimist). School can still be that fun, magical place where learning takes place and I can keep my starry-eyed optimism about the world. It is now my mission as an educator to help students see it that way too.
International math educator who writes, occasionally.