Sunday, April 10, 2011

Teaching: Perception vs. Reality.

I have a very good friend whose husband often tells me that I should just show movies to my students every day to make my life...and theirs....easier. He's only joking (I hope!!), but anytime I hear comments like that, it makes me realize how little people who are not in education know about what it takes to teach and to teach well. So, the focus of this post is Teaching: Perception vs. Reality.

Perception: Teaching occurs only when the teacher and his/her students are face-to-face in the classroom setting. There is, of course, some grading of papers that must be done, but this is easily accomplished when the teacher gets some prep time (a free period in high school or junior high school, while the students are in art or music in elementary school, etc.). All a teacher needs to do in order to prep for the act of teaching is to read the teacher's manual for the particular textbook being used, print off the reproducible worksheet, and stand at the chalkboard with a pointer.

Reality: Every teacher has his/her own method of preparing to teach a class. I will try to explain my own method here. First, I sit down and take a look at my school's designed curriculum for the course. I check it against my state's standards for my subject area as well. Then, I spend a few days reading through the material that I am to present to my students. Since I'm an English teacher, this is usually some form of nonfiction, poetry, drama, short story, or novel. While I'm reading the material, I'm often taking notes about the literary elements and techniques used by the author that my students must be able to identify and understand. I'm thinking of the best way to teach these things so that they are not merely memorized or labelled like some chart in a laboratory experiment, but rather are learned so that they can be applied in new situations. I'm mentally analzying the material. I'm looking for the larger concepts students must learn and then thinking of the best way to cull and distill these ideas down so that they are easily explained and learned one chunk at a time. This is usually when I sit down and make up the test the students will take at the end of the unit. I start with the end in mind because it helps me to make sure that everything I teach leads to that final assessment.

Once I have a good handle on WHAT I need to teach, the work starts on HOW I need to teach it. What will I introduce first? In what order should I teach each skill so that they build on one another and don't frustrate my students by asking too much or too little of them each step of the way? What form will my teaching take for each skill? I can't teach each thing the same way because that will lead to boredom. I can't teach each class totally differently from the ones before it because my class will become too unpredictable. I have to find the right balance of structure and novelty. Will my students understand irony better if I use a video? A song? A lecture? A written example? Maybe cartoon pictures will be a good introduction? Slowly, I build each day's lesson plans keeping in mind all of these things. Eventually, I string a few days together to form a week's worth of plans and then a week's worth of plans gets placed next to another week's worth of plans until I have a whole unit mapped out. It's much like stringing pearls. You have to learn which pearls go on the string first so that the others will look good next to it. If you are not careful about your pearl selection, you will end up with a strand of pearls that looks lumpy and confused instead of polished and planned. Lesson planning is no different.

Now that I know WHAT I'm teaching and HOW I'm teaching it, I have to figure out to WHOM I will be teaching. On the first day of class, I have my students fill out some information on an index card including three things they want me to know about them. I ask them to do a writing sample where they describe what they feel their biggest strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to English class and what goals they want to set for themselves this semester. When they leave, I sit down and read over all of this. As the weeks go by, I get to know each student through conversations held out loud in the classroom and in writing on their classwork. I use this information to inform what is being taught in the classroom. I am constantly looking to see how I can adapt the curriculum to them and how I can adapt them to the curriculum. A few weeks into the semester, I begin to get information on students with Individualized Education Plans and Gifted Individualized Education Plans. I learn things such as any specific mental, social, physical, or academic disabilities and abilities my students might have. I get to see some standardized test scores from earlier in these students' academic careers. I read over information from their parents and former teachers about how these students may or may not have reached earlier goals. All of this feeds into my classroom as well. Will I need to modify or adapt my teaching and assessment so that the education these children receive is more fair for them? How will I do that so it still assesses what the student needs to know and do? How can I make sure that the student does not feel left out or "different" because of this?

Once I've taken all of these things into consideration, then and ONLY then, am I prepared to actually teach these students. For one 90 minute class session, I have usually spent 3-4 hours of prep time. Much of this I do in the know, when I'm sitting with my feet up eating bon bons.

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