The Importance of Silence: Why Teachers Need Down-Time

Looking back at the kinds of teachers I have had throughout the years, professors included, I think I can safely lump all of them into two general categories: those with enough down-time and those without. This major distinguishing factor can have a very serious effect on how well a teacher works in the classroom.

Let’s take a look at two specific examples:

One of the English teachers in my internship school was telling me about the year she was chair of the department and how that changed her perspective on involvement in the classroom. “I was quite awful that year as a teacher,” she had remarked. “I knew my students could tell that I was always distracted with other things that I had made more important than them.” The duties of department chair were staggering, and besides scheduling and budgeting things for the English department that year, she was still expected to take on three classes of core English III juniors- all with only one planning period at the beginning of the day. “It was the seventh period afterschool that I ignored first. Credit recovery could be pretty self-sufficient, so I didn’t feel too guilty. Then it was my juniors that started to feel it. Then my seniors. Pretty soon I felt like I didn’t know who any of my students were, and that was not okay with me.” Her struggles pushed her to the edge, and the stress also made her physically ill on a number of occasions. She may have done a good job as department chair, but her guilt stemmed from the cost of that decision: her own students felt neglected by her in the end.

Another teacher I know talked to me about the importance of his down-time. “There’s never a single moment where I’m not doing anything,” he said with a smile. “I’m the kind of guy who appreciates the little things. Its busy work that keeps me going through to two o’clock.” I had asked him how much grading he does from home in comparison to his load at school. “I’d say it’s about 3:1 in favor of hours of work at school. For every three hours of work I get done here, I usually have about one hour at home to finish up.”

I found this to be an impressive feat, especially as I pushed along with my own classes this last semester. There were some weekends where I would spend six or more hours both days of the weekend just getting a stack of papers graded or a bunch of worksheets read. I couldn’t understand how he got so much done while he was at school.

“My secret,” he replied, “is my system of organization. My planning period is sixth period, right at the end of the day. Some teachers might take that as an opportunity to leave early every day. Granted, I have done that a couple of times, but I’m usually here well past three in the afternoon. I’m planning tomorrow today. It lets me always play catch-up during the day and grade things as I go. No matter what my students are doing at the time, I am always keeping ahead of them.”

I hope to emulate this teacher’s ability to balance schedule time with down time. I am not usually an exceptionally organized person, but I’ve noticed that I’ve gotten a lot better since I began actively teaching. The difference has been working ahead and having a plan. Once I felt secure in my plan, I could keep moving and get the next week done, or the whole unit done. It’s all about the timing.

The Allure of the Classroom: Ideal vs. Reality

I can remember exactly when I decided to become a teacher. It was my junior year of high school, and I was working with a stubborn old English teacher afterschool one day. My efforts on a particular essay assignment were below his idea of what I could accomplish, and so he made me redo it. The conversations we had and the effect he had one me resonate still today. The idea that one person can influence so many can be extremely alluring to many would-be educators.

Unfortunately, the best case scenario is not anything close to what I thought it would be. I am back with that same old teacher in that same old classroom but things are much different now. It’s not how it is in the movies, it’s not how it is on TV; it’s not even how it used to be when you were a student yourself. Being a teacher in 2011 is an experience all its own.

That clash between what I thought I was getting into and the reality of the situation came when I was struggling with my classes of juniors this past February. Trying to balance three classes of thirty kids, none of whom seemed to give a crap about the essay workshop we were doing, was pushing me to a breaking point. My mentor teacher and SPU coordinator both saw it coming, and decided to push me into the right direction. I had to break, like a bone that grew in the wrong way, before I was able to be set into the perfect position. I knew I was where I wanted to be but I wasn’t doing what I needed to be doing: my 100% focus had to be the students. I had worried so much about curriculum and classroom management and everything else that I had lost sight of that all-important bullseye of whether or not my students walked out of the room with more knowledge than they came in.

I’ve talked endlessly about that final goal, the end product of determining who benefits. I hammer that point home because it’s the one thing that I have been able to glean from every experience and every hardship. It’s the one big difference between what I thought I’d worry about and what I have actually been worried about in the classroom. When reality finally struck, I wasn’t ready for it at first. The shock of thirty-five faces waiting for a coherent thought at seven in the morning is pretty startling. I can see now why so many teacher candidates have bowed out before the end.

In the face of tremendous adversity and difficulty, I am proud to say that I have pushed on to the end. I stayed in the classroom until two days before my own graduation. It wasn’t about finishing my unit or waiting until I was done with class. It was about finishing what I had started. And that’s something I always take seriously.

Technology in the Classroom

Such an interesting week has been! Today’s events notwithstanding, I think I can speak for all of us teacher candidates when I say that I am very much ready for this all to be over.

This reflection will go over some of the technology in the classroom that I’d like to utilize in the coming years. I can remember back in the day, we would chuckle when the teacher could hardly use an overhead projector without burning a bulb out or flipping the wrong switch or never getting it quite in focus. These days, we’ve gone all digital. My own classroom (or at least, I should say, my mentor teacher’s classroom) has a digital overhead and a digital HD projector mounted on the ceiling. Some teachers in my building even have one of those fancy-shmancy Smart Boards I’ve been hearing so much about! So how do I get in on this action?

The easiest way, I believe, is to use the little thing in little ways everyday. Make the students comfortable with you using these new tech pieces. If I had a Smart Board, I’d use it to do interactive discussions (KWL anyone?) and give strong and flexible visual aids to the students. But it doesn’t stop there. I’d love to use video equipment too. Digital cameras and digital camcorders (such as the “Flip” model) can be easy to use and super mobile in the classroom. Recording a student’s speech and giving them audio voiceover feedback would be so cool! Technology should never be a barrier teachers need to tackle, it should be just another tool in the toolbox.

Now, I don’t recommend going the full nine on this one either. Notice I said “just another tool in the toolbox.” I think that making a separate Facebook page or a Twitter homework account might be going a little overboard. Make sure the students are focused on the content, not the medium. After all, who benefits? Making a lesson or unit more accessible to students in the information age might be a great idea, but not at the cost of the quality of what they’re learning.

I’d love to get a Smart Board. I’d love to have an iPad for every student in art classrooms. But if using technology in the classroom means OVER-using technology in the classroom, I’ll pull out a tattered copy of Eliot’s “Waste Land” and we’ll sit outside, thank you very much.

The Role Expectations of Teachers

(from pg. 63-68, EDU 4899)

#2: I identify with the role of relationship builder. This has been a pertinent role because I believe I understand the incredible importance of building a rapport with my students. Since my students are all between the ages of 16-18, I have to think back, ages and ages ago, to my own time as a teenager. I remember that if I didn’t think I could trust someone, I didn’t talk to them. If I couldn’t be flexible with the workload, I wouldn’t take that class seriously. In retrospect, I feel like I must have been such a handful for my teachers! (I’m sure my current mentor teacher could validate that statement as well)

I have a generally nurturing personality. I tend to be very compassionate about other people, and I think a part of that is why I came to teaching in the first place. I wanted to get young people to appreciate poetry and literature like I did. Now, I don’t expect all of my students to go bookworm on me; I simply want the majority of them to be able to think back to their high school career and say to themselves, “Boy, that English class was actually kind of fun!”

I also understand that fun and flexibility are not the goal of a teacher. They might help the process, but the bottom line must always be that the students are taking something new home with them every day. If I am up there cracking jokes and only worrying about how they are doing, I’m doing them a disservice. I want them to be able to learn.

That role of relationship builder will be a means; by establishing a system of mutual trust with my students, I know that they will be able to better understand what it is I am teaching them.

Tiered Lesson Plan

1.     Subject: English Language Arts

Grade: 11th (Juniors)

2.     Standard: Reading EALR 1.1 (At Grade Level);
“The student understands and uses different skills and strategies to read.”

3.     Key Concepts: Identify major themes within the first two chapters of The Great Gatsby.
Generalization: Certain themes (love, wealth, use of color, etc.) are prevalent throughout the text and appear in many different places. Students will evaluate these themes for significance to the novel as a whole.

e.g. “What can we deduce about Tom’s character in chapter one and two? What effect does that have on the theme of love and marriage within the novel?”

4.     Background: Introduction to the unit scaffolds the 1920’s and “flapper” eras, explains the role of wealth and prohibition, and gives the students an understanding of the geographical layout of 1920’s Manhattan (including the West Egg and East Egg regions). Use a KWL chart.
Previous knowledge that will helpful: Basis of American history, post-WWI in particular.

5.     Which part of the lesson will you tier? (Content, Product, Process)

a.     Content: What I want the students to learn with this lesson is what kind of person Tom is, and how the introduction of his character (to Nick) in the first two chapters of the book is instrumental in understanding his actions later in the novel.
Tom is a cruel and ruthless human being. He is racist and unfaithful to say the least, but his interactions with Tom (and especially Myrtle) reveal his malice to all others.

6.     Type of tier: (Readiness, Interest, Learning Profile)

a.     Learning Profile (more specifically learning style): Since I have a number of IEP students overall, I’ll use a change in learning styles to tier my lesson. The students are all expected to read the novel on their own; I will supplement this with an in-class reading of the dialogue heavy chapter two. Building an understanding of Tom’s character will be reflected within the dialogue from chapter two, and hearing other students read aloud in-class will reinforce the reading for those students who prefer auditory learning.

7.     How many tiers?

a.     Tier 1: Basic reading (overnight assignment) of chapter two from previous night.

b.    Tier 2: In-class reading and discussion following the reading.

c.     Tier 3: Finishing the KWL chart to bring everyone back together.

8.     Developing an assessment:

The easiest way to assess student learning for this lesson would be to finish the KWL chart with the students. The KWL (Know, Want to know, Learned) chart will be completed on the whiteboard as well as in the students’ notes. When the recap of the lesson comes to finishing the “Learned” column of the chart, the students (regardless of their tier) will be assessed on what they had learned as a class.

This technique will be collected (from their journals or notebooks), or simply used on the whiteboard as a more informal assessment.

Weekly Reflection: Week of 2/28

               This week has definitely been a turning point for me. I feel like I’ve come to terms with exactly what I am capable of now, and that it is reassuring to me. I know that when push comes to shove, I am able to stick it out and do what’s expected of me. Now that I know I’ve gotten a chance for my own redemption, I know I won’t waste it.

                The juniors started their evaluation process this week. They spent time meticulously going through each other’s essays (we put them into groups, more on this later), and by Friday they were almost all ready to begin the workshopping. Essentially, they had gone through each of their group member’s essays at least twice, and had marked up the text so they knew what to mention in the workshop. Once at the table, the person with the first essay would read their essay aloud. This was helpful for two reasons: a) the group was able to hear it again, and b) the author got an opportunity to hammer out any last minute corrections in real time. Many students who began the process this morning seemed to appreciate this chance to fix things on the fly. After the student was done reading, the group went around in numerical order and gave their first impression of the essay and shared their take of the author’s dominant impression.

                The dominant impression piece is important because they have been evaluating the dominant impression in other essays and works for nearly a month now. By understanding the author’s attitude and expression of details, they have picked up what the overall dominant impression of the work is. In general, they have become exceptionally good at it.

                Each group member then went through the essay and pointed out things that they liked and things that they think might need to be changed. Mr. Ferderer and I stressed with them that the process was not for tearing down the paper or the author; it was about giving them useful and positive feedback. I think this resonated with the students because they realized that once it was their turn in the “hot seat,” they would want to get good feedback as well.

                On Friday morning, Laura Phillips came in to observe second period. She is in charge of the district’s writing curriculum, and when she introduced herself she mentioned how lucky I was to be with Jeff. I replied that I knew, being a former student. As the observation went on, I could tell that Jeff was in rare form- even though he was not feeling well. Ms. Phillips must have really been impressed with the workshop process. Apparently, one of our fantastic young students had written an essay so touching that she was moved to tears. This made me so proud to be working with these kids. They all have such incredible stories and talents; it is a blessing to work with them every day.

                This week started out rough with my uncertainty about the SPU notebook, but ended on a truly high note for me. I am so glad that I have placed where I have been. All of my lessons seemed to work pretty well this week, too. Overall, I’d say this was a good week for my teaching and I know I learned a lot (as usual!).

To Each His Own: Differentiation

My understanding of differentiation has really become a double-edged sword. I believe that, when used correctly, differentiation can be extremely useful in the classroom. However, I have trouble believing in its effectiveness in upper level and high performance curriculum settings. I will take a moment elaborate on both of these points.

The most basic definition of differentiation would be to tailor each lesson to the specific needs of students (or groups of students), so that it becomes what is commonly known as a “tiered” lesson. Using background information about the students and constant use of formative assessment, differentiating the curriculum can assure each student is on the same page. Benefits of this technique are rather straight-forward; a tailored lesson for each student allows for very individualized feedback on every assignment.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe that true differentiation would be as effective in a higher performance classroom. By “upper level,” I am referring to those students in AP courses, or even an Honors program. Let me set up a scenario to illustrate my point: I am creating a prompt for the next essay assignment for a class of juniors. Keeping differentiation in mind, I would need to create two, three, sometimes even four different prompts in order to tailor the assignment to my students’ varying abilities. This is not only an exorbitant amount of work for a normal teacher, but as a first year teacher I would have no previous material to build off of. Creating three or more prompts from scratch means, presumably, doing three or more times the work.

Perhaps with a more experienced teacher or with a class that is not quite so varied in abilities, differentiation would be more effective. Sadly, in my current situation, I do not see the application working very well.

Speaking of Inspiration

The first assignment of my latest education class was to reflect upon my inspirations, and to discuss what my “ideal” classroom looks like. It’s funny for me to think about for a number of reasons.

I am currently student teaching under the direct supervision of the man who is my inspiration. I won’t go into too much detail (since this is a public forum), but Mr. F is the reason I am a teacher today. I have been blessed with a history of excellent and insightful English teachers, but this particular fellow pushed me to become something more than I thought I was capable of. Now, I come into his classroom every morning and I am learning something new every day. I don’t know if he’ll ever read this, but I cannot thank him enough for how he’s influenced me.

One of the reasons he has been so influential was the way he approaches his educational philosophy. His goal, as he reminds me every time I am writing an assignment, is to remember what the students are getting out of it. I plan on taking that with me to my own classroom. The bottom line is this: who benefits from what I’m doing? Whether I am trying to guide a “discipline problem” student back to being on task or grading another stack of essays for the AP kids, I will always remember to think of what they will get out of it.

With that in mind, my ideal classroom is really quite simple. As long as it has four walls (preferably well-lit!) and enough seats for my students, I’d be happy to call it home. Seriously. Although, to be honest, I’d love to have a row of theater seats along one wall. That’d be pretty sweet.


Methods Showcase Lesson

The metaphors for teaching that we discussed on the first day of class are the topic of this particular section, and will serve as a resource for my showcase lesson. There are four different metaphors I will discuss, in three sections.

The first set is the metaphor for knowledge (Labaree 1996; Becher, 1989). The concepts of hard or soft knowledge and pure or applied knowledge can be somewhat difficult to grasp, but with the idea of this lesson in mind I believe I have narrowed it down to the basic elements. With an English class, the curriculum is going to be full of soft knowledge. Regardless of the novel or poem in question, interpretation is most often the central problem. Finding safety in one’s own thoughts and observing the same work from different perspectives is what a good English class is all about. My classroom will certainly supply its students with soft knowledge. As for whether or not it is pure or applied knowledge, I would assert that my lesson is somewhere in between. True, it might lean a little towards pure knowledge (abstracted from particular context), but I believe that a truly comprehensive discussion of a text should include practical ideas based on context as well.

The second set is the metaphor for teaching, as depicted by O’Brien, Moje, and Stewart (2001). My personal teaching style definitely supports the “teaching as celebrating experience” model, based upon my emphasis on the students’ individual experiences in the classroom. This teaching metaphor is best described as an expressivist teaching style, where the teacher tends to accentuate the personal identities of dominant cultures. My ideal goal is to have the students understand themselves and each other from a number of new and interesting perspectives while in my class.

The third and final set is the metaphor for literacy, as defined by Scribner (1984). My chosen philosophy aligns with the “literacy as a state of grace” metaphor. This allows the students to become more cultured or knowledgeable, and views literacy as a path to self-actualization. In many ways, I truly believe that it is. A good reader is also a good writer, and vice versa. When a person has become both, I believe they can call themselves truly self-actualized. This metaphor centers the curriculum on the talents of the gifted reader. If my students work hard to cooperate with their peers, they will all become gifted readers by the end of the year.

Attached to this post are the three pieces of my showcase lesson: 1) the lesson plan itself, 2) my artifact for the discussion in class, and 3) the explanatory piece for the showcase.

Simply copy and paste the following links:

Thanks for reading!