Career, Education, Teaching

Ah-Ha Moment with What We Teach

I am currently doing Project-Based Learning training and part of the training is going on externships. These externships are visits to companies in the STEM field and learning what they do, what skills they look for, and hopefully how to apply what we teach in the classroom.

One thing I am realizing with these externships is that we are not at all preparing our students for success after high school. We are not teaching them the skills and traits that employers look for and care about. We are not teaching them the traits and skills they need to solve everyday problems. We are not teaching them the social skills required to network and build lasting relationships. We are only teaching them academic content and how to take a test. How often do you have to take a test in life? More often than you’d think, but not often enough to justify focusing on it as much as we do. Much academic knowledge can be obtained on the job in a relevant manner. Provided we teach them how to be self-learners. We don’t, by the way.

Education, Motivation, Teaching

A Few Thoughts on Motivation

I’m currently reading about student motivation and how one of the things I should do is figure out what is “real” to them. What their reality looks like. I know many of my students last year had a part-time job because they either had to buy their own clothes and gas or they had to help pay the bills at home. I remember thinking that I couldn’t force them to learn something as pointless as chemistry when they had real-life problems to worry about. This is why it’s so important to me to teach things that matter. Teach skills that matter. Don’t get me wrong, I think chemistry and algebra and the other subjects are important, just not as important as helping provide for yourself or your family – especially when you’re planning a career as a mechanic or accountant or something that has nothing to do with chemistry.

I need for the things they learn to be relevant so that I have the motivation to teach it just as they have the motivation to learn it. That’s one of the reasons I’m so interested in project-based learning. And why I was so interested in the education chapter in the “Abundance” book discussing the fundamental things students need to learn to be successful. I want to feel like I am teaching my students skills that will stay with them, not facts that they will soon forget. I hate wasting time – mine or others’. I very much teaching concepts for the sake of teaching concepts. Students need to know how to apply what they learn in creative ways to solve problems.

While I do have academic standards that I have to teach, they can be a result of teaching more important skills. I can use PBL’s and similar type lessons to teacher collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. Due to the nature of the projects, they will also learn specific chemistry concepts along the way. Since they learned these concepts as part of a bigger picture project, they should also be able to remember the concepts longer. The projects will also help with self-confidence, speaking in front of others, reading and writing, and research skills.

My ideal class would be me teaching every concept with a PBL, but I don’t see that as reality. Especially teaching two subjects in only my second year. I haven’t even honed my classroom management plan. But maybe. The reward would be great and surely I have the ability and resources to do this. At least with chemistry since I’m more familiar with the subject (it’s the only class I taught last year). And I have two great teachers on my chemistry team and two great math teachers on my algebra team. So maybe I can pull it off. I’m actually a bit doubtful, but I know that if I push on and pretend that I know I can do it, I’ll be a lot better off and have a better shot of doing it.

Either way, I have to make one by the end of the week. I’m in PBL training and that’s the end goal. I’ll go more into that later. This was supposed to be a short thoughts post. Oops.

What non-academic skills were you taught, or do you wish you were taught, in high school?

Teachers, do you ever feel unmotivated to teach your content because you feel it’s not important? What skills, lessons, or content would you be motivated to teach?

Community, Education

Abundance in Education – Another Brick in the Wall

My mother is reading this book called “Abundance – The Future is Better Than You Think” by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler. She marked a chapter titled “Education” starting on page 174 and told me I would be interested in this. I am. If you’re interested in education, not just teaching, I think you would be too. In the next few posts, I am going to summarize the sections in this chapter so I can remember them and hopefully you will likewise find it interesting and provide your own insight on each section.

“Another Brick in the Wall” (179-182) talks about how schools were set up in during the industrial revolution and are set up like assembly lines where a bell sends a group of students from one class to another to all be taught the same subjects at the same age. For 150 years the way schools run has not changed and Sir Ken Robinson has been a voice calling for reform, saying that schools squash creativity and hold back potential.

A big issue the book points out is that no one can agree on what comprises success, so we don’t have an agreed upon set of goals for schools to accomplish. This leads to students going to college without being able to apply their knowledge (if they even retained it), interpret complex readings, think analytically, perform research, or write clearly. The book states that “50% of all students entering college do not graduate,” (181) and those that do graduate are not really ready for the workforce. I know I wasn’t ready to be an engineer after engineering school. I had a steep learning curve in the office after school and I feel like I didn’t even apply a lot of what I learned. Much of the stuff I did apply, I had to re-learn or refresh my memory.

I read a post a while back by an american teacher who taught in another country (Finland, maybe) and high school was at least set up with specific goals in mind. Students could choose between three different high school programs based on what they planned to do after school: go into the workforce, go to a trade school, or go to college. Each program was catered to prepare the students for where they planned to go after college. Students also had more options in classes to cater to what kind of trade school they would go to or what they planned to major in in college. I love this idea. It offers a clear purpose with specific goals for the school to accomplish with the students. And the students get to feel like what they are learning is applicable to their own lives. They also only go to school from around 9:30 to 2:30 so they are just taking advantage of the peak performance hours for teens and not burning out the students or the teachers, but that’s a rant for another time. (I so wish we did that here for our poor kids.)

Back to the book. This section goes on to mention that memorizing facts isn’t a needed skill in a world with Google, “but creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving” are the major skills needed to succeed in today’s workforce. They also still need the three R’s and corporate executives say they want people that “ask the right question,” (181).

Schools need to change, but how is the question. They need to more entertaining than TV and video games and learning needs to be addictive. I have no idea how we achieve that, but I can at least try to incorporate those bold skills into my chemistry lessons so they are learning the material and the skills they need to be successful. What ideas do you have for incorporating teaching creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving in a chemistry or algebra class? How do you teach those things in your classes? As a parent, what skills do you want to see your child gain in school? As an employer, what skills do you see are lacking that need more support?

Education, First Year Teaching, High School, Teaching

My Ideal Class

I had my ideal class the other day, and it was glorious. Of course I’ve had ideas of an ideal class in my head, but to see and recognize it in person has given me a very specific image of what it is – and I love it. I am writing it here, not to show off, but to remember this. This is what I will  keep in mind as my end goal when I am working on my badass classroom management plan and my kickass lesson plan over the summer so I can have this on a regular basis the follojwing school year. I don’t feel like I had much to do with this one, so I am going to describe the class, and then I’ll describe all the factors I believe were involved.

The lesson was on balancing equations, and it was an independent activity with the option to work together when stuck on a problem. I have not taught this to them yet, so the packet included all the information they needed plus practice problems.

The first 5-10 minutes of class involved me getting the students to get and stay on task – that part was obviously not ideal. However, once everyone got cracking, it was. The first 15-20 minutes of them working, I was going around answering questions and working problems with the students to get them started or unstuck on one of the first few problems; then there were no more questions. Once everyone had gotten going, they kept going. If a student got stuck, they asked someone in their group and the group would start working on it as a team. One group even went to the board to work out problems because they worked better that way. I had no involvement in the last 20-25 minutes of class other than to give permission for students to use the bathroom. Everyone was on task, the talking level remained at a good volume, we had music playing, and students worked with each other when getting stuck instead of calling me over. One group asked me which problem was the hardest, and when I told them which one I was not able to do, they took the challenge. They started working it out on the board. The bell rang and they didn’t slow down. Some students stopped by to lend a quick hand before going on to class. The tardy bell for the next class rang, and they were still engrossed. They finally figured it out and I gave them late passes for their next class. It was beautiful.

This was a pre-ap class, so these are students who ask questions beyond the scope of the lesson and are thirsty for knowledge. This was also something they had done before in 8th grade (they are mostly 10th graders now). Once they had a refresher, many of them remembered how to do it and ran with it. I did have to yell at them about the noise level about 5 minutes into class. Towards the middle of class, when the noise level was a good volume, I pointed out that the current volume level was perfect and exactly what I expected when working together like this. These factors, combined with the independent lesson (that came from the other chemistry teacher) allowed for me to see what an ideal class for me looks like and what I would like to strive for when planning the next year.

I say this is my goal next year and not this year because this is my first year teaching, and I already experienced major burn-out last semester from trying to do too much too soon. I will not be making that mistake again. My goal this semester is to work on my classroom management skills, which are majorly lacking; learn from my mistakes so I don’t repeat them; figure out things I want to do and don’t want to do for next year; and just try to do my best with what I have. As much as I want to plan my own lessons, I don’t have the time to reinvent the wheel. I can find or make things to add in here and there, but I’m not going to try and do my own unique lesson plan right now. Anyway, I diverge.

Tell me what your ideal classroom looks like. Have you ever seen it, or something close to it? What helped you get there?

Education, Teaching

Task Focused Students

It was pointed out after an observation that the majority of my students seem to be task-focused rather than learning-focused. This means that most of them just want to get the task at hand completed so they can move on. I don’t know if this is because completing tasks makes them feel more productive and gives them a sense of accomplishment, or if they just want to finish so they can watch videos and/or check notifications on their phones. I should not have let students have phones in class. Regardless, I have to figure out a way to get them learning-focused. Which means I have to find a way to make their grade based on their learning, and not their task-completion. Several of the teachers at my school have been moving towards this, so I have a network I can talk to, but I also need to figure out what will work for me and my classes.

The main thing these teachers seem to do is grade students based on whether they can verbally answer questions based on things they have been working on in class. If a student completes a worksheet correctly, but can’t answer any direct questions about the material that was on that worksheet, then we can know that the student wasn’t focused on the learning aspect, but on the task at hand. And possibly that student copied off someone else or looked it up online as students do.

But how to incorporate this into my class where task-oriented has already been heavily established. That, I’m not 100% sure. I can’t even get students to raise their hands when I ask a question like how many think it’s this answer vs that answer. I suppose the best time to start implementing something like this would be after the Thanksgiving break since that’s just a few days away. Which means I have 1 week to figure out at least one thing I’m going to implement in order to begin transitioning my class from task-oriented to learning-focused.

One way could be to make daily or weekly grades a thing. I could have a list of names and a check-mark system. Anytime they answer one of my verbal questions correctly, they get a check. And anytime they volunteer to try and answer something, as long as it’s somewhat on the right track, they get a check. And they need a certain number of checks a week for a passing grade, more for a B, and more for an A. That might be too big a thing to start with, though. That might be something good to implement after Christmas break, but maybe I could do a smaller-scale version after the Thanksgiving break, like require them to only answer one question correctly a week for an A. Or maybe one for a C, two for a B, and three for an A. That would certainly make them have to pay attention enough to parrot back answers to me. Which is a start.

I watched a biology teacher give a verbal quiz where she showed a student a state of cell division through a microscope and they had to tell her what state it was in. If they couldn’t, they got a 50, and if they could, they got a 100.

Whatever I do, I have to do something. My test scores are getting worse and worse and it’s because the students aren’t learning, no matter how much practice I give them.

Do you recall taking a class where the set up made you be more focused on learning than on just completing the assignments? What made it that way? If you’re a teacher, have you ever implemented something to try and make the class more learning-focused? Did it work? Why or why not? If you’re not a teacher, but have a suggestion, I would love to read it. Perspectives from teachers, students (past or present), parents, and concerned community members are always useful and appreciated!

First Year Teaching, High School, Teaching

Setting Expectations

As a new teacher, setting expectations is the thing I find most difficult, and the thing in which I’m most lacking. It’s hard to set expectations from day one when you have no idea what to expect. I had been told several times that I needed to set expectations and the students would live up to them, whether they were high or low, and to be careful to not set low expectations. So part of it is you’re not supposed to “know what to expect” because you’re supposed to set the expectations for the students to live up to. But that’s difficult to do when you don’t know what expectations are needed. I didn’t know what kind of cell phone expectations I should have and enforce or that I needed to expect students to write in full sentences. I did expect students to write in full sentences, since I teach high school, but it never crossed my mind as an expectation that needed to be expressed or modeled in any way. Knowing expectations and setting expectations are two different things as well. I expected after the first month of enforcing the dress code I wouldn’t need to enforce it anymore. Students automatically took of their hats upon walking into the building and everyone had the holes on their pants patched. However, as time went on, I started noticing students wearing hats in class and me not catching them because I wasn’t expecting to have to enforce the expectation to not wear hats indoors. Kids are tricky like that, following rules so well at first that you stop looking to reinforce them because it had become unnecessary. It’s like they know when you stop looking for a policy to be followed and that’s the instant they stop following it. I guess it’s important to come to school every day with the same expectations and expecting to have to reinforce those expectations.

Setting and enforcing these have been extremely difficult and certainly my weakest area. Part of it is me not knowing what my expectations are, or at least not having a clear, specific idea or list of them. Part of it is not being 100% sure myself what a final product should look like because I’m not the one who came up with the assignment and haven’t done it myself. I’m working on that. I’m trying to take time to either do the assignment myself or look at good examples from the other chem teacher so I know what good work should look like.

Another problem is that I feel like this unit is lost already because I failed so miserably with teaching it that I just want to get it over with already and move on to hopefully do better on the next unit. The test is two days away and the students are less than prepared. Some of them will be fine despite my “help.” but I expect a high fail rate on this test. Which is part of the problem since students meet your expectations whether high or low. I can’t help being a realist on this, though. I just need a break. Good thing we get three days off for Thanksgiving! Wish it was a week, but I’ll take my three days plus the weekend and be grateful.

Okay, so to fix this.

First, I need to define specific expectations I have of my students, whether or not I think they’re realistic. I have to treat them as if they are. I need these expectaions to be as detailed as possible for myself so I am able to correct student behavior accordingly. Once I have my list, I can think of ways to express my expectations and the consequences of not meeting said expectations. I need to this for day-by-day expectations and for assignment-specific expectations. Good thing I’m organized and like making lists! Hopefully, this will help me get better and laying out specific expectations for my students, and once they experience or witness the consequences a few times, they will start working to meet these expectations. It will certainly be an uphill battle since I have been letting some things go for some time now, but if I jump in after this break, maybe they won’t notice as much. They’ll eventually get used to it and forget that it was ever any different. Afterall, they can’t even remember what we took notes on yesterday 😛

I would love some feedback on setting expectations in the classroom. What expectations do you have for your students and how do you express those expectations? How do you express expectations of an assignment in order to get something that actually looks nice as well as being accurate in the end? What advice would you give a first year teacher on setting expectations?