perception of myself as a teacher


In the beginning of the year, I gave off an air of confidence. I felt, without any formal training, I was a pretty good teacher. I wasn’t the best teacher. Over time, I started feeling like I was getting better and better. But being a teacher isn’t just teaching the content. There’s so much more to the classroom than that. It took a while, a long while, to fully realize what it meant to be a teacher. The philosophy of teaching seems to fall the wayside. It’s about procedure, organization, time efficiency, management. If you don’t have those qualities, you can’t just teach the lessons. And within the lessons, there’s so much more than the content. Is every student getting what they need? Do they know what they need to do, what they are learning, what’s the expectations, and how do they know?

My confidence in myself has dwindled as the workload has increased. Part of it is because I spend so much time planning for lessons; I don’t have the energy to think of everything else that makes a classroom run like a well-oiled engine. I’m burning all my gasoline before I start the day getting the basics done, I have a steering wheel, wheels, but the frame isn’t solid. The wheels fall off, but the gas keeps burning. What happened? You can’t have a car without all the little parts working in conjunction. The parts need to work in order, a complex algorithm of gears, on and off switches, individual functions, and emergency systems in place, an airbag in a final disaster.

I’m not trying to use a metaphor to get back into philosophy; it’s a way to look at my perception of teaching. I’m putting in the time and effort; there’s no doubt about that. I’m usually the first person at school – and the last to leave; and then still doing work until midnight. Lesson planning takes all of my time. My perception of having a curriculum has definitely changed. Don’t get me wrong, I love the concept of project based learning. I truly believe that it engages students in so many ways, that they really get to apply what they’re learning. They are doing learning, not just learning. Curriculum definitely has its advantages as well. It has all teachers on the same page; they aren’t just doing whatever they feel like (though standards also address this). It allows a lot of team planning (though so do projects). It (curriculum) is really useful to new/student teachers. Without literacy or math curriculum (and teaching three levels of grade standards), I’m exhausting all of my energy into research, planning, graphic organizers, practice sheets, etc. There are a lot of sources online, but it’s not always what my students need. I’d love to be like Ayers, and have a project where I learn along with the students. That’s a fantasy. Projects need to be done back and front before even presenting it to students. Then you can structurally guide the students to what they need to learn, and what they’re interested in.

How did the wheels fall of right before the finish line? Can I put the pieces back together? I need to ask for help. If I were writing a story, my character would have a huge flaw. He can’t ask for help. He bottles everything up, and tries to do everything himself. He collaborates with others, but never tries to hint at any weakness. His organization needs to be revamped. He needs to be more effective with his time. He needs to broaden his focus. He needs to see the forest and all the trees. He works hard, but he’s never had to work this hard before. It’s both physically and mentally exhausting for him. Things did come easy to him, for most of his life, and when they don’t; he does everything to hide that, but that all breaks down. And if we look at this like a story, we’re in the falling action. He’s been beaten up, and he’s down. There’s a nigh impossible goal he’s need to obtain. He needs to overcome all of his weaknesses. He needs to rise back up. Regain his confidence. Ask for help. Get the support he needs. Get organized. Look at the end goal, look where he is, and look at what he needs to do. He can’t just take it day by day, surviving on coffee and snacks. He needs a training montage with 80’s music so that when he faces what he needs to do, he’s ready. He’ll work harder than he’s ever had to do before in his life. He’ll sleep in the summer. He’ll show that as the days grow longer, his eyes grow wider, and he’ll strain against every obstacle.
Maybe it’ll end up like Rocky. Maybe he’ll do all this, and still fail. At least that’s how he feels. But what Rocky did something we can all strive for. He went the distance. And in that, he succeeded.

“Why do we fall? So we might learn to pick ourselves up.”

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on blogging – part two


Making my writing public, so that the world knows what I have to say about education, schools, learning, and teaching has helped me grow as a teacher. It has also shown me how little I know. I’m on an island in the middle of my classroom, while there’s a world out there with teachers that have taught thousands of students, and combined, millions, if not more. I’m struggling to teach eighteen and to make it count.


Teachers have commented and liked (!) my blog. I’m sure they understand I’m a beginner, but their comments and likes make me feel like I’m on the right track. Occasionally, I comment on a blog (see: Cliff Mass) that incites the teacher passion I have within, because something was wrong on the internet! I got fired up, blogged, commented, shared, talked, and got more and more people incited, all because someone wrote something on the web.


To feel that power, and intensity, the hive gathering on its prey, to speak truths, undoubtedly unperturbed by his position, by Mass, I say blogging is here to stay. Do I not sense that there could be moments where hours are not kind, and words do not flow like wine? Constant blogging, setting aside that brief moment to write something that I myself do not have time to read, and then gather more information whilst waiting for my morning java? How do I take it, that these teachers pour their very souls thereunto the world, their students, and the community? How can I not partake?


These posts, here and here, show my growth as a blogger, because they started a conversation. The latter post is the infamous Cliff Mass response, and the former is the trend in finding out what the students are learning, and how do we know. I don’t think anything though could top the Mass post because the conversation crossed over (to Mass’ blog). My comment can also be found on his blog.


Outside my cohort I have received comments here, of which I have also commented outside the cohort.


Blogging, onward!


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Testing Teachers

Testing Teachers

Reading this article, I really think Cliff Mass is missing the mark on a few points:


1. The testing process to become a teacher is much more than the West B. There’s the West E and the EdTPA.

2. Math content knowledge is sorely lacking, but there is (at least at UWB) a much more comprehensive look into how math works, the multiple ways to solve equations, and why it works. Dividing fractions is simple, but why it works is pretty interesting. Can you prove Pythagoras’s Theorem Algebraically  Geometrically, and beyond? Personally, I have gone beyond Calculus, Linear Algebra, Matrix Algebra, but deep understanding of math isn’t enough to be able to teach it. How many college professors in mathematics could teach fifth graders?

3. What is the purpose of math? Are we training excellent calculators? We have programs like wolframalpha that can solve very complex problems. There are innumerable computer calculation tools. Is computation more important than problem solving? Understanding why we use mathematics is becoming more and more important. Algorithms and math facts are on the way out, because they don’t take number sense, and instead rely on following steps that calculators already far exceed in speed and accuracy.


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high cognition; high participation




In the demands of a math class (or any class for that matter) I really want to push my students to work out new ideas. I wanted to draw them and release them with new ways to think about the world. I started with a worksheet and the steps to master the topic, but I had to make it worth my students’ time. I had a basic lesson plan that (for my field instructor) looked a little too by the book. I won’t lie, it was a pedestrian effort at first. I was tired, I had several other lessons to plan. I had a lot to plan. I had a lot of homework, but really, there’s no excuse.


So I went over the lesson plan again. And again. And again, again and again.


How could I get more students to participate, and have them actually have to use their noggins? Hand raising only goes so far. It has to be relevant to the lesson. Pair share (turn and talk) is better, but there isn’t as much accountability (until I have super teacher hearing). What to do?


This was a lesson on graphing on coordinates. In reality, as long as the students know the number line (or at least how to count), there isn’t much to graphing coordinates.


(x,y) (go over, go up) (run then fly) (etc, etc, etc)


I used the ActivBoard to get students up there working towards graphing points, then describing coordinates. I got most students up to participate, and held students accountable when they made mistakes (negatives were sometimes an issue). But I still wanted to get everyone up, but how?


I was thinking about the lesson all morning before the observation, and then it hit me. How do I get everyone participating? Make them the coordinate points! Make the room the graph. It would have the students apply their knowledge, superimpose it onto the room, and find their spots. It worked flawlessly. I could see (!) where everyone was in the classroom, literally. There couldn’t have been a better formative assessment. And then when there was a summative assessment on graphing a few days later, everyone got it.


(The launch for the lesson was pretty good too, it started with a talk about newton, dropping a baseball, students timing it, and putting those points on a graph and looking at its motion over time, cool stuff)

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what are they learning and how do you know?

what’s going on?


Is this, perhaps, the most important question for new teachers? Not only are the students are learning, the teacher must have verifiable proof that they are learning. It seems like it would be useful to think of teaching like a scientific experiment. What am I teaching them? What is the procedure? What observations and data do I need? Was my lesson good?  Continue onward!


Now that I am left to my own devices while my master teacher is off on an adventure, I need to be really serious about how I know the students are learning. Glazed over looks doesn’t count. Nodding heads doesn’t count. Projects count. Writing counts. Discussions? They help to inform, and there are standards on speaking, but for math, science, etc. I need more varied data.


This week I’ll be teaching a little of everything. I’m still teaching my SS unit dubbed American Foundations. I’ll be teaching small groups literacy. I’ll be teaching math (and observed again!). I’ll be doing morning and afternoon routines. By golly, I’ll be doing almost everything, but that’s just the way the week will work out. For SS, last week I collected good data using a MCT and discussion. That will help me plan this week. For math, I’m a little lost because of the week on/week off schedule. What are we learning? Geometry. What exactly? I’ll find out. For literacy, we’ll be following a direct instruction model with a gradual release of responsibility. That means the students will have to show me (written?) that they can do the task (drawing conclusions). It’ll be a busy week, especially with finals. I’ll just have to take it day by day.

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i’ve got to admit it’s getting better


Like John T. Spencer was in his first year, I wanted some real assessments, or hard data. I wanted to know where every student was at. I did it with… wait for it… a multiple choice test. Yes, I used the dreaded, MCT (I don’t believe that’s a real acronym). I did it with a twist. The whole class took at the same time, using electronic voting, but then we talked after each question. In real time (and later in an Excel spread sheet) I could see who answered correctly, how long it took them, plus I could see as a whole class what was still stumping them.


I also made the test myself. It was only 8 questions, but I want them to be meaningful. Each question prompted a good discussion. A lot of the questions had more than one right answer, but I was looking for the best answer. Since this was still a formative assessment (the summative assessment will be a project), if I were to put it on a final test, the MCT would allow room to explain your answer.


The question that nearly everyone got wrong:


Slavery increased in America due to:

a. Demand for cheap labor

b. Introduction of guns as a trade good in West Africa


There were two other options, but I don’t remember what they were. Those two options caused all of the arguing. It’s where we spent most of our time arguing/discussing. Most thought slavery increased because guns allowed different tribes to capture more slaves, BUT only one student said that without demand from America, there would be no incentive to take slaves. Either way, this question could produce a hearty essay, even for someone in high school. I just thought it was amazing to see the detailed and inquisitive discussion from a single multiple choice question.


P.S. Why the raccoon? They’re my favorite animal. Plus, they’re really smart. They learn and apply new skills. They’re crafty. And they wash their hands. Who can hate on that?

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“fixing” bad schools


Usually headlines like The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools on the New York Times and other establishments are some long winded ideas from people who aren’t teachers, or who look at models that wouldn’t fit the whole country, but every once in a while, an article get it right.


It looked at a typical inner city, diverse, and poor community in Union City, New Jersey. The difference is that the school in question is not private, a lottery choice school, charter, but rather a public elementary school. The school has raised expectations, given oversight to teachers, valued early to late education, and looking at the student as a whole individual who needs cultivating. To some people, this may seem bizarre  dangerous, or unattainable country wide, but that’s wrong.


Already with the influx of teachers nationwide connecting to each other more than any other time in history (blogging, twitter, et al), common core standards being adopted, and a better understanding of what testing does and doesn’t do, schools have never had a greater opportunity to rise. Some of the ideas aren’t new, even perhaps a century old (Dewey), but a growing teacher community can start to adopt these standards together. Expectations need to raise. Critical thinking and higher orders of expression need to be cultivated.


I have been lucky to work in a classroom that gives me such freedom to teach – but still follow standards. It’s by no means a challenge to take the droll textbook and connect it to the lives of the students. Sometimes it’s challenging conceptually for both parties (teaching about slavery, number systems other than base 10, understanding what a hypothesis is and how to form one, determining theme, mood and tone) but the benefits are endless.



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how much do they really understand?


I have been teaching a new unit as of late on the foundations of America (as I called it). It covers the American Revolution and slavery and everything in between, and it’s really tough.


I just had my first formal assessment from my field instructor. While we didn’t have time to finish our conversation, one point that stuck to me was whether I had considered teaching junior high, or high school for that matter. While command of the subject on my terms was fine, the students, in her educated perspective, weren’t grasping the concepts the way I was teaching them. I was teaching them with high expectations, very high. And they are a high achieving classroom, of that there’s no doubt. Where did I go wrong?


Along with teaching the social studies content i’m also doing a read aloud of the book Chains. The reading level, while accessible, is difficult because of one main factor, context. I don’t mean student context in this case, but an historical context. There is so much going on in this time period. The unit I’ll be teaching spans 8 weeks of our time (4 weeks my time) and decades of the most pivotal moments of history.


How do I make slavery accessible? How do I get students to really truly understand the extent and brutality and systematic dehumanizing of generations of different peoples?


One thing that I will say worked in class (and agreed upon by the field instructor) was I had everyone line up in a row, and to go to one side of the room if they strongly agree, and the other side if they strongly disagree. They could stand somewhere in the middle if they felt that way too. I asked a few decent questions, but one really stuck out.


Was slavery good for America?


Every student went to the “strongly disagree” side of the room except one student. I asked her why slavery was good for America, she answered that America wouldn’t have benefited from free labor to build such a strong economy (I’m paraphrasing, what she said was better). Slowly students crept towards her. We were having a real discussion of slavery amid all the confusion.


We have time. I have time. But the confusion is good ways. I told the class this is a difficult topic. It’s difficult for adults. The students are doing great. I need a lot of work though. I need to find ways that send a spark into the discussion, trying new tactics, strategies along the way. I need to understand as I want the students to understand.

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grades (inside and out)

As I’m learning to be a teacher, I have been paying close attention to formative assessment and true growth of students. I was reading this blog post and this one where a teacher teaches that learning is the goal, not grades. It’s so important in the classroom to create the concept that we are here to learn. It’s beyond amazing – but there are a lot of forces against this idea.

Parents put a lot of pressure on their students and teachers so that they get the best grades possible. Yes, parents I have talked to have been very concerned about their child’s learning, but up there is grades. It’s the starting and ending point for many parents, and eventually that gets instilled into the children’s minds. The students stress and grub about grades.

I have been grading a lot lately, and got my first taste at grading backlash. I’m still getting better (and more consistent at grading) but I have flaws (I am human). Even with rubrics it seems like points here and points there are dangling on a fence, and I have to tip them in the right direction. This is difficult, and the students find it difficult.

And there’s been something going on internally as well. I still care about grades. Really I do! I’m still in school – teachers are teaching me to be a teacher. So much in what I do is to see that that number followed by a decimal point and a zero. If it’s a 4.0 I’m relieved, anything lower and there’s a tinge of stress. I’m really trying to fight against this programming in me. Learning should be the focus. It’s what I tell my students. How do I tell myself that?

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inconsistently consecutive


The setup:

Teach four (4) lessons on four (4) consecutive days to four (4) different groups of students. The lesson plan is the “same” every time.

The reality:

The plans were different every time. The lessons were different every time. Most of this was done subconsciously. After two lessons I did rewrite the lesson plan to reflect on how my thinking had changed. But something else has been happening that I hadn’t noticed: I’m becoming a better teacher.


I have been frustrated as of late with the disconnect from learning about teaching and teaching. I feel like I have been drilling on how to play shortstop in baseball, and then I arrive to a basketball game. Sometimes I arrive to a baseball game, but I’m a relief pitcher. Sometimes I can play basketball just because I’m taller than everyone else (this is also true in teaching elementary school students). Then my cooperating teacher noticed something — improvement.


A recount:

I adapted a guided reading lesson from a new curriculum my cooperating teacher was auditing. I had to focus points, reading fluency and understanding of theme. I was originally going to put a lot more focus on the former (as my students understand concepts pretty quickly) but the exact opposite happened. I changed the lesson on the fly multiple times. I focused on theme, had the students play off each other, grab onto major points, hit fluency when needed and moved on.


Each lesson had a different group of students that I changed the lesson both in planning (context) and per situation (improvisation). I thought, since my co-teacher said I had done well the first time, the next time I would choke (sports metaphor). It didn’t happen, though during lessons I usually internally cringe when I think I could have phrased something differently. But then the students were saying some pretty amazing things. The more we discussed, the more students understood. Then the last lesson occurred.


The last group I had was quite diverse. The book we were reading was 15 pages. One student in the last group read the book in three minutes. Another took ten. Another took fifteen. The last took twenty five minutes to read. I ended up doing four indivualized mini lessons within the mini lesson (inception). I had to get up and redirect a student who was making flip books out of sticky notes. I got a student who rarely contributes to tell me what theme is, and found it (including citing evidence) in the book. When reflecting with my co-teacher, she praised me and redirected me (3:1, more on that later). For the future, I should have had the slow reader read on his own for about ten minutes before having the group join together. There were plenty of notes my co-teacher gave me, but this was the most praise I had received yet. Just feeling good about teaching.

Next week, work on discipline! I need to find a balance between anarchy and the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket.


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