Sunday, March 31, 2013

Learning can be fun!

"Math class is tough." -Barbie Doll (1992)

"To most outsiders, modern mathematics is unknown territory.  Its borders are protected by dense thickets of technical terms; its landscapes are a mass of indecipherable equations and incomprehensible concepts.  Few realize that the world of modern mathematics is rich with vivid images and provocative ideas."  -Ivars Peterson

Currently, I am working on my PACT. Well, currently I am writing this blog post, and procrastinating on my PACT. It is due in a week, and I've spent hours and hours making very little progress during my spring "break." I have re-watched myself teaching this lesson so many times, and believe me, watching videos of yourself teaching should really be reserved for a special level of hell.

The PACT is just another (major) hurdle to clear to get a California teaching credential. It involves video taping lessons, writing lesson plans, and describing what you planned, did, and what students did and learned in excruciating, and incredibly repetitive detail, responding to semi-confusing, jargon-y, overly-complicated prompts. So basically the opposite of what teaching is really about: making subjects accessible to students.

One moment during my teaching of the lessons stuck with me. I taught a learning segment of three lessons on measurement. We made our own rulers, measured objects in both feet and inches, and discussed when it's best to use a yardstick, measuring tape or inch ruler. Most of my students seemed to get it, but mathematical discussion and real problem solving is a huge weakness, and I get the feeling that it's a nation-wide problem in math class, and not just in mine. (And I'm not just randomly speculating--check out this great TED talk on math curriculum). Still, we were using real rulers! Manipulatives! Getting to physically do math!

And at the end of my second lesson, we were packing up and getting backpacks ready to go and one of my students goes "Ms. Elson, aren't we going to do math today?"

This was the best-and worst-thing to hear. The best because it meant that my students were engaged, and having fun--they didn't realize they were learning! But the worst, because there is also this pervasive belief that learning--that learning math--is not fun. That because they were enjoying doing the work, it couldn't possibly have been math.

I think that's why students decide they don't like school--because there is this societal belief that learning and school is hard work which cannot be fun. That having to read or do math can be punishments. That recess and lunch are what students look forward to. It's not all the students' fault--it's the language we all use--parents and teachers in life. Sure, sometimes the only way to get a student to read is if they're required to. But hopefully students realize that just because it's homework doesn't mean they can't enjoy it. We see this everywhere. Everyone looks forward to the weekend. Everyone complains about their job. No one likes to wake up early, Mondays are the worst, LOL I'm looking at cat pictures at work because I'm so bored.

I'm guilty of it too! Classes start tomorrow, and I can't say I'm excited about 2-3 hour evening classes again, plus I dislike homework just as much as my students do. But I still enjoy a lot of my classes, and now that my takeover is over, I enjoy going into school again. I may be terrible at getting out of bed in the morning, but I chose my career because I love working with kids and education is something I'm passionate about. I was also a kid who liked going to school. I have more books than there is space on bookshelves in my room, and I still buy new books despite no time to read them. I still enjoy learning. And sometimes I find myself complaining about work/school, and exaggerating my complaints/relief at it being Friday because that's what everyone else is doing.

I tell my students that yes, learning is hard, and sometimes not all fun and games but it's still important. But maybe it could be fun, if we just reimagined the value we put on things. It's amazing that simply by calling some random activity a game, and making it slightly competitive can get kids excited. If we can simply begin to instill a passion for learning and being curious, we wouldn't need to go to extensive lengths to get kids to read and do math.

For now, it's back to my PACT, a most decisively not fun experience. Though I don't feel like I'm really learning anything, at this point, unlike my second graders, I can see and reason the value of trying, and putting in the work for the benefit of my future.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

If you can...Teach!

“Great teachers will never be able to make up for bad parents, nor should they be expected to.” -Taylor Mali

“Certainly teachers themselves can do a better job of letting the world know how hard their profession is, but frankly, they have real work to do and a lot of it, so they don't have a whole lot of free time on their hands.” -also Taylor Mali

Teaching is hard, and the past two weeks have been two of the hardest of my year, because it was my 2-week solo teaching take over as a student teacher. It was probably good timing, then, for someone in my teaching program to pass along this video:

For my classmates whose takeovers have been going swimmingly, I am happy for them, I really am. I'm in a program with some amazing people, but it's hard to listen to their successes--so Roxanna Elden (from the video) definitely resonated with me. It's so hard not to take things personally and feel like a failure when mine felt like a disaster-despite positive feedback and encouragement from my resident teacher, other teachers at the school, and my supervisor. There was definitely more than one day that ended with me in tears when I got home. That's not to say that I did not learn a lot and that my kids didn't, because we all did. But if I tallied actual learning time, and time it took to settle my students/manage the room, it would not be remotely the tally I'd hope for, despite trying everything I could think of. Students, good or bad, definitely push the envelope with student teachers.

Still, it boggles my mind how rude, disrespectful, and defiant some students--eight year olds!--can be. How the actions of a small group can impact an otherwise lovely group of kids' learning environment. That said, it wasn't a total disaster, and one day shines brighter than the rest. One day was my silver lining, the day that reminded me what learning can look like. That day was the day I took my students on a field trip to the wetlands. My students loved it! One student struggles in school, doesn't pay attention, doodles, plays with scissors/paper/pencils during class, and rarely (though it does happen) gets excited or engaged in his learning. Yet on this day, he looked absolutely giddy the entire day, totally thrilled that he was getting to explore nature and science. And he wasn't the only one.

In fact, all of my students (save one, who had to sit out of one activity for breaking all two of the rules the woman running the program laid out for us) were actively engaged the entire time listening better than they ever do in class. It was good to see what has been a really tough class for me, be successful. Of course, it also showed me that my students need to learn to tap into their curiosity and potential in class--that they are capable of more than what they show me. But that day showed me how teaching can, and should feel: not bogged down by constantly waiting for kids to listen, but hands-on, interactive, and fun.

There needs to be a shift in how students view school, because too many students, even in the younger grades have given up and decided school isn't fun. And once you've decided it's going to be hard and boring, well, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unfortunately many students decide that acting up and getting in trouble is easier than actually learning, and it gets to the point where then they act up because they are way behind, and that's a way to get out of work. And then a teacher ends up being less of a teacher and more of a parent, or a babysitter. It's sad, and it's unfair to the students who are willing and ready to participate, because these troublemakers who have made the choice not to learn, are also choosing to disrupt and take away valuable learning time from students who need and want to be there.

I'm currently overwhelmed by how much a teacher needs to take into account--with English language learners, and the plethora of different cultures in California, much less the rest of America, teachers must be aware of more than just the subject they teach. Teachers need to be aware of where a student comes from, their home culture, their English proficiency, learning style and social abilities.

As one woman discusses about her year teaching in Botswana, "I quit after a year, demoralized by the school’s atmosphere. I found teaching hard work, the hardest job I’ve done, and I would be wrung out at the end of each day [...] So now I say, 'If you can, teach.'"

It's a good thing my supervisor and resident teacher both are supportive, think I'm doing a great job, and I get positive feedback when I feel like I'm totally screwing up. So I guess I'm doing most of the right things. It may not always be pretty, and being a student teacher is different than having your own classroom, but in some little, itty bitty way, I'm making a difference in a world that is making it very hard for a teacher to do so-and in a classroom that is making it very hard for a student teacher. I'm excited for my own future classroom, knowing that, having (just barely) survived my solo teaching, I can, indeed, teach.