Tuesday, July 12, 2005

A Second Self-Evaluation

We had to videotape and evaluate ourselves again (for a grade). Here are my observations:

I took much joy in watching my gesturing and body language -- both seemed very instructive, which I wasn't expecting and I'm not sure I can explain. They just looked right, for the role I was playing. Similarly, good vocal variations in volume made me happy.

I need to speak slower when giving directions for HW. The HW is so clear in my head, that I need to be extra clear of my expectations so that I won't get (1) frantic phone calls from confused students or (2) blank papers the next day. Detailed directions need to be written clearly and read slowly. As such, I am trying -- and will continue to try -- to assign HW with 10 minutes left in the class. We'll see how this works, but so far it has given me sufficient time to close and to give students ample time to start their HW in class before the bell rings. I think students will appreciate this "reward" for good classroom learning. Especially in a block schedule. I also need to develop a plan for HW collection. All these details come pouring out of the woodwork (an idiom?) the more one "practices." Also, seeing oneself on film is a good wake up call for the boring teacher. I'd imagine. ;)

I need a second dry-erase board in the classroom; but I already knew that. For an English teacher, I find my boardwork to be very structured and methodical: Students will surely know what to expect -- organized chaos, manifest on the board. Thank you Princeton Review! My writing on the board seemed neat and organized.

The tape showed me doing a decent job of staying on task ("nouns," in this case) despite student efforts to discuss adjectives, Plato, etc. Normally, I'd want to seize these moments -- call them
"teachable" -- and run with the tangent, teaching all the while. Apparently, this is bad form; (I call it spontaneous teaching!) and should be squelched with lesson plans and objectives at every turn. So, this "skill" has found its way into my teaching style: I STAY ON TARGET. One hopes that this benefits the students more than it irritates me... Baah! Shackles... In this way, utility wins out, even though the brilliant tangent suffocates.

In conclusion, this evaluative experience has taught all of us a lot about teaching, presence, and boredom. We've all sat through crappy classes and brilliant classes; hell, we've all taught a few of each. I believe we've all grown exponentially for the experience. I know that I need to shore up holes in my classroom, concerning vocabulary amassment, calling students to the board, and finding a good time to enforce binder organization (e.g., can a teacher penalize a student on day 3 for not having the proper supplies? On day 4? In any case, what happens to the handouts (syllabus!) and notes taken during the interim?)

Live and learn...

How to Cook

As predicted: "Great suit, no tennis shoes." A ZERO for professional dress. Man, have I learned my lesson!

Again, my most beloved activity was impromptu: rapid-fire pointing and shouting verbs. All of 20 seconds long; but a lifetime of memories...

MTC: An awesome group of caring, intelligent, dynamic, forward- and free-thinking individuals from across the country committed to providing a better today for under-served children in Mississippi's public schools.

An observation:
Mississippians complain, "No one taught me how to cook."
And then oppress you for importing an oven...

Then again, what the hell do I know?

Monday, July 11, 2005

"But On the Other Foot..."

(Thanks Randy!)

Start giving in to inane demands (“don khakis or else”), and there’ll be insane demands (“wear your friend’s shoes or else”)… Soon enough, it's a perm and a shave for Old Mr Khaki Pants. This is simply "The Man" trying to exercise proximal control on a terrific teacher. Me. It’s bullshit, I know it’s bullshit, and I have no intentions of cowing to it any longer. Not once have I heard tell of a teacher failing to teach proficiently because of his or her footwear. And I cast aspersions on any individual with a counterclaim; I don't care if "this is Mississippi" and if it is "different down here." Get over yourself. This is, as I was so jocularly reassured in early June, still The United States of America. And, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, "Yeah, it's different down here; you've had your heads up your asses since 1840."

Bottom line: Mississippi's public schools are among the worst in the nation. The schools need competent teachers not prima donnas. So, for MTC, I'll take my ZERO in sneakers. And if the school board comes a-calling, I'll make it clear this fall exactly what they're throwing away. [It should be noted that I have no problems (well, maybe not "no problems" -- but certainly "few") with MTC's enforcement of this "perceived standard;" my issue is with the standard itself -- not the messenger.] This is the same superficial idiocy that makes high-school seniors care more about penmanship than literacy or, dare I say it: what makes Bill Cosby so right. Lest we forget, the man has a PhD from the University of Massachusetts and has written on education for years.

So let’s put the emphasis back where it belongs: in an English classroom, that’d be on literature and the fantastic individuals (oh, now there’s a word! Jonathan Swift, infamous conformist… sober Poe, phony Salinger, and sane Woolf… oh my these paragons of formality!) that have given us their genius. But, then again, what the hell do I know about teaching? Ah…

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Eyes on Me; Pens Down

As if testifying to my last blog, the most effective and highly-regarded aspect of my mock "First Day of School Lesson" was "Eyes on me; pens down." A phrase I spontaneously invented (or at least spontaneously remembered from 10 years ago). I yearn for extemporaneous lesson plans and the excitement and challenges found therein.

Unfortunately, I was script-tied for most of the 40 minutes yesterday -- but did manage to impromptu a bit (thanks to unruly "Eat Me" students, tangential conversations I couldn't help but initiate, and student concerns about grading, etc.).

Thursday, July 07, 2005

My Fault, Sir?

Increasingly, I feel that my success as a student in the Teacher Corps has much less to do with my academic effort and ability, and much more to do with how others (unfairly? [That is the question.]) perceive my work. Perhaps it's foolish to desire an objective standard against which to measure the educator, but how beneficial is it for me to feel that my academic success in no way hinges on whether or not I work my hardest, do my best, and deliver an effective lesson? This evaluation process feels so colossally subjective and unpredictable that I have no confidence in my ability to sufficiently "correct myself." In fact, I fear that each evaluation will pull me farther from myself, and who knows what this will do to my teaching ability? The goal: to improve and to learn. But today: I am struggling to perform something that has always come natural. I am regressing.

I have never been nervous in front of a crowd -- well, not since puberty, anyhow. I'll address a group of 5 or 5,000. My confidence has always come from the crowd's positive vibes and an inner calm. But now... I don't know... Standing in front of a class feels wrong -- as if I can do no right in the presence of an evaluator. "Tough shit; deal with it." Right? And I agree. "This will make you a better teacher in the end." Fine, I trust MTC to see down the road. But, today, to be trite, I feel like Sisyphus on my endless chore. No matter the effort I put forth, I will always fall short. I will always be judged, critiqued, and assigned a number. I feel no positive vibes in a roomful of evaluators out to trick me. For every bar I hop, hoop I jump, there are six more obstacles on a different track that no one has mentioned. The only person on my side is me [sic]. And I don't know even know where "he" is anymore.

My inner calm is gone. As I've written before, while teaching to an evaluator (instead of to my students' needs), my every thought turns to lesson plan and procedure. Instead of feeling in control of the lesson and on my toes, I am ceaselessly beleaguered by nonsense: If my focus on the lesson is superb, my set will have been too short; if my objectives are awesome, my handwriting will bomb; if my shirt is tucked in, I'll trip on a shoelace. Self-doubt, self-doubt, self-doubt; and where this comes from, I have no idea, and I find it neither productive nor helpful. In fact, it's breaking my spirit -- devouring the good teacher inside me. The passionate educator who loves literature and children and communication. Who thinks on his toes and can correlate any tangential conversation to literature or the writing process or English. The more I read about Mississippi or from In the Deep Heart's Core by Michael Johnston, the less confidence I have in my ability to teach, in the futile task of teaching English to illiterates, in my two-year commitment to secondary public education (anywhere). Hell, I could (should?) be teaching freshman comp. classes at any university in the nation, et cetera.

But, then again, Johnston must've persevered. He's had an inspiring career in education, despite abysmal beginnings. So I soldier on tonight. Writing lesson plans I don't believe in, spending hours fine-tuning meaningless details that I shouldn't give a shit about, practicing and planning for a lesson that would be much better off-the-cuff. Aren't I supposed to care more? To look forward to school? The irony! In my humble opinion, I would be a better teacher if left alone to read literature all summer (say, The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature) and to interact with students rather than evaluators. However, I know my Mellencamp... "I fight authority, authority always wins..." Oh, but I do fight!

I'll let MTC continue to break me down because I trust they'll build me up stronger. I guess we'll find out in 4 weeks... Man, I feel like shit...

London Blasts

Why, if the first blast happened at 2:51 am, Mississippi time, was there no word of the coordinated attacks on morning radio? Songs played as usual...

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Self-Evaluation

I really dislike watching myself on film – always have. Now, to self-evaluate…

I am loud; that’s for sure. I look and move as if I were on speed – especially juxtaposed with student lethargy. I walked the classroom constantly and consistently for 60 minutes, without seeming nervous or aimless. My wandering looks natural and, to me, presentable. One of my strongest strengths (ha!) is my ability to seamlessly and easily integrate humor and joy into the lesson at hand. I never realized how smoothly my jokes slide into the lesson or how effectively I am able to press on with the lesson before students get out of control. I am constantly in charge, in control of the environment – even while allowing for “chaos.”

Some criticisms: I need to raise my voice and stiffen its tone when “I’m serious” about giving classroom instructions. I could hardly distinguish an “I’m serious” tone or inflection on video.

Like any teacher, I click the marker top – not habitually, but too often.

I spend way too much time guessing at what a student might have said and need to spend more time pestering students to enunciate and project. Mine was the only consistently audible voice on the tape, and my facial expressions were laughable as I struggled to decipher the teenage mumblings. A good activity might be to have students shout answers to a partner across the room during some special group work.

I need to wait longer after asking a question (This was mentioned as an aside during my formal evaluation.) so that students have sufficient time to interpret the question, think of an answer, and raise their hands. My conversational style needs to allot for the fact that high-school students aren’t as quick to react or as swift to opine as university students and professors.

I’m not sure how well under-achieving high-school students can understand and follow me; I speak so quickly and have learned to correlate topics so readily that I fear much is lost on the kids. Fortunately, I ask “explain what I just said” questions, instead of “who doesn’t understand” questions. At least, I try to.

I have to make especially sure to explicitly write out important information on the board. Unfortunately, I am really painfully slow at copying material from the book onto the board. I need, either, to copy onto the board before class or to have a student read aloud for me to copy.

Everyone should see him or herself teach on video. Eye-opening…

Sunday, July 03, 2005

School Boards

What does a school board do? I had no idea, so I asked Jeeves (www.ask.com) and found the following in a blurb entitled “Why School Boards”:

  1. Your school board looks out for children – first and foremost. Education is not a line item in your school board’s budget – it is the only item.
  2. Your school board is the advocate for your community when decisions are made about your children’s education. The school board represents the public’s voice in public education, providing citizen governance for what the public schools need and what the community wants.
  3. Your school board sets the standard for achievement in your district, incorporating the community’s view of what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Your school board also is responsible for working with the superintendent to establish a valid process for measuring student success and, when necessary, shifting resources to ensure that the district’s goals are achieved.
  4. Your school board is accessible to you and accountable for the performance of the schools in your district. If the schools are not producing, it is your right as a voter to select new board members who will see to it that your students and your schools succeed.
  5. Your school board is your community’s education watchdog, ensuring that taxpayers get the most for their tax dollars. Public education is a $423 billion business. In the majority of districts, school boards have taxing authority. That direct oversight – and responsibility – should not be given to politicians whose first priority is something other than education.

Who knew?! And, apparently, there’s sharp debate as to the necessity of school boards. I won’t pretend to know more. But I do wonder why more teachers or young people don't serve on school boards: Teachers providing the inside-perspective needed to restructure inefficient policies and appoint effective superintendents; youth being the key to energizing and invigorating these bodies with fresh ideas.

Whenever one sees a photograph of school board members, they are always five or six well-intentioned quadragenarians, looking corporate and legislative. But, then again, how “sexy” is it to serve on the school board? The position appeals to socially-responsible, civic-minded parents and businesspeople. Not youth on the rise.

With long hours spent prepping, teaching, monitoring, counseling, grading, and juggling, the teacher becomes too drained to benefit the school board. Even energetic, idealistic young teachers need rest – need a break from education. Or else: Burnout. The ideal educator never beats the buses out of the parking lot but neither should he or she destroy him or herself every day in an effort to do everything simultaneously. So I guess that leaves the kind-hearted, financially-secure, middle-age folk to save our public schools.

It bothers me that, to join a school board, one needs only the mayor's appointment or an election victory. No background in education, no managerial experience, no prior community involvement necessary. Just being at the right place at the right time. No guarantee of having a “most qualified applicant.” But, then again, who wants the job?

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Homeroom

What the hell does a homeroom teacher do with 30 kids for an unspecified period of time? Teach them? Discuss current events? Assigning homework and grades is clearly out, so what “positive incentives” exist for listening and obeying? “Silence or Detention” – so much for positive consequences!

What does a homeroom teacher do to maintain order and control over a (definitionally) chaotic classroom? (By its very existence, homeroom is a designation indicating that: “We school administrators have fucked up, have forms to complete and details to iron out; so, we are sending a classroom full of students to every teacher. No teacher will know what to do – because we don’t know what to do. And since we’re in charge, we just want to share the SNAFU. Enjoy! With love, Your Boss.”)

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Luckiest One

How I’ve benefited from 3 weeks spent watching three marvelous MTC student teachers. The many approaches, wits, and avenues. We’ve each stuttered and come up short; we’ve each rebounded with human-interest stories, humor, and genuine teacherliness.

The student-teaching experience was a good taste but hardly filling. I wanted to stay late with those kids, to call home for those kids, to go the distance with those kids. But I couldn’t. Every time I got cooking, it was no longer “my turn.” And so kids were passed from one of us to the next. I got to know a few, but I passed too many more off on other student-teachers, saying to myself, “Oh, Ms. X can take care of that student.” This is a dangerous habit.

We had some students exceed all expectations when they buckled down and did the work; we had other students come up short time and again. Below-average reading skills, writing skills, and learning skills were heartbreaking to witness. A classroom full of students (15, 16, 17, 18 years old), struggling to pass ninth-grade English. And to be honest, I don’t know why they still care at all. For some, it’s military service; for a few, it’s junior college; for most – I have no idea. Something (maybe family? maybe not) pushes them on. This was mind-boggling. And I've seen this country.

I’m not 22 and fresh out of university. I’ve had time and adventures to balance myself and my ideals with reality and the “outside world.” I've had time to rebound after my liberal arts education, to steady myself against conservative blowhards, to cut my teeth with real-world accountability, and to feel confident about my footing and who I am. I feel smarter, better, and stronger for the years I spent traveling and learning on the road -- in good company.

I cannot imagine all these just-graduated-last-week colleagues of mine. They are amazing. I cannot imagine jumping from undergraduate life into the world of responsibility that teaching is. But this cohort -- these teachers -- are amazing. So smart and idealistic, so ready to combat injustice and to make a difference. For so many, this is a first job. And I am daily encouraged by their enthusiasm. These young teachers are going to be outstanding. And I am the luckiest one in the lot. Every day for a full month, I've been in the company of emerging greatness.

This student-teaching experience has reaffirmed my dedication to children and to MTC. For years, I have been waiting to teach high-school English. Only 5 more weeks to wait…