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Field notes 3/19/13

Laura H's picture


Ms. R 11th grade American History

Mr. T 10th grade English

Today Ms. R seems a little more stern than usual. While she is still joking around and not being “mean” in any way, she raises her voice to get the students attention at the beginning of class and tells them to put their “lids down” (referring to their laptops). She begins reviewing what the class accomplished yesterday, and shows a list on the smartboard comparing individual needs/interests in the environment versus business needs/interests in the environment. She says, “I feel like you guys didn’t get the most out of that activity, so we are going to try something else. I’m giving you three prompts: “I notice..” “I wonder..” and “What if?” and you have to look at this chart and fill in those sentences. So for example, I went to New York this weekend, and I noticed that M&Ms sold in Times Square were more expensive than those sold in the regular stores at home. I wondered why they would charge more and if other people noticed this price change. What if they donated the difference in that cost to a charity or non-profit organization?”

This is is the first time I have seen Ms. R run the class in this way. It is much more structured than usual and it seems as though the students are not used to it. However, as the class gets settled it is clear they appreciate Ms. R’s personal story about going to New York, and they respond well to the more structured prompts.

After the students type up their responses, Ms. R tells them to close their lids again and begins to moderate a discussion about the tensions between business interests and individual interests. She explains to me that this project relates to their “essential questions” for 11th grade (I posted a picture of them at the bottom). The essential questions for this specific project are:

-What is the balance between the interests of the individual and the interests of businesses in regards to the environments?

-What role should government play in regulating that balance?

-How do the country’s past actions inform its current policies related to environment issues?

The conversation quickly turns from a conversation about the basic economics of supply and demand, to a deeper conversation about class inequality, the role of government in regulation, whether humanity naturally revolves around money, and whether we need money to survive. About half of the students participate in the conversation, and those that do usually speak more than once. Near the end one student says, “This is complicated stuff.” Another says, “Ms. R, that’s a bigger question that for just history class. You basically asked us what is the meaning of life.”

It’s great to see such critical thinking going on in this classroom. It reminds me of a lot of what we have been talking about in my group related to instilling a greater “sense of purpose” in the schools and classrooms. For example, this discussion led some students to start talking about whether they would want to go into business in the future, and then I hear them ask Ms. R why she wanted to go into teaching, and what she originally started studying in college. At the same time, I noticed how frustrating it was to have this type of conversation with the laptops out. It seemed like because Ms. R is such an easygoing teacher, she didn’t want to enforce any rules about laptop use. Even when she would ask people to close their lids, some students would lean them down but still be using them, and she wouldn’t say anything. Many students in the back were texting on their phones, and many had their headphones in even during the discussion. When Ms. R did say something, they immediately put it away, but it seemed like she was hesitant to call them out for it. This also reminded me about what we talking about in Schools in American Cities in terms of teaching social and cultural norms. For example, in college it is very disrespectful to “behave” that way in a class. I myself felt as though the students were being disrespectful of Ms. R and of one another by behaving in this way, but I also felt like Ms. R allowed it so maybe it should be acceptable. I guess I just wonder how they are going to feel in a college setting when relationships with professors are much more traditional and formal.

At the end of the class Ms. R and I are talking about what she is doing for spring break, and she tell me, “I’m ready for break. I’m kind of over this. I mean, in a good way.”

This reminds me our class discussions about teacher burnout. Even in this school that is considered to be very high-performing and is a competitive place for teachers to work, the teachers are clearly tired and don’t have much time to be re-energized about their work. I wonder how the profession of teaching could be altered to address this issue.

In Mr. T’s class, the students are closing their poetry unit with their benchmark project with a multi-part wikipage, and then having a “Celebration of Poetry” on Friday where they will each recite a poem they wrote and have snacks. The wiki page includes the following components:

1) A quote about poetry

2) A memory poem (first draft, feedback from a classmate, and revised poem)

3) A riff poem (steal a line from another poem and incorporate it into a poem of your own)

4) An ode

5) A found poem (take phrases and craft them into a poem)

6) “I was raised by...” poem

7) Artwork to accompany a poem

8) Recording of reading of a poem

9) Detailed study of a poet (300 words minimum looking into the structure, content, and

deeper insights into poetry of one poet, using examples from at least 5 poems)

I love seeing how many different skills and learning styles are being addressed in this project. I notice that each student is excited about different aspect of the project. For example, one student already completed his drawing even though it isn’t due for a week. Another student was reading through all of the poems he had written and was asking me for advice about which one he should read during their celebration. The celebration also adds a level of fun and excitement to a topic that some students might otherwise find boring.

Before the students begin working on their wikipages, Mr. T gives them a chance to show a YouTube video featuring a poet they found that they like. Two students show videos of young people doing slam poetry, or spoken word poetry. The first one is about heartbreak and uses explicit language, but Mr. T doesn’t seem to mind, and the students are all respectful. The second one is about body image. Both are very powerful and emotional.

This reminds me of the two articles we read for Schools in American Cities by Monkman and Brondy, where students took ownership in the class. Even though this activity only took up the first ten minutes of class, it gave the students a chance to showcase a topic that was interesting and relevant to their lives, making the unit more engaging for everyone. It also gave them a chance to bring in culturally relevant material, while connecting it with the more traditional material they were studying.

This class the students are working on the detailed poet study, and Mr. T has them make comments on five poems of the poet they are studying. Then he asks me and the student assistant teacher (SAT) to go around and hold mini conferences with the students to make sure they are on track for this assignment. He also goes around and has conferences with some students, but because there are about 30 people in the class, having 3 teachers or assistant teachers allows us to give each student more time and attention.

I notice that Mr. T is making more of an effort to find ways to involve me in the class which I appreciate. I also notice that he always provides examples whenever he gives directions, not just for the students, but for me too. For example, when he asked me to hold a conference with some students, he said, “Listen to how my conversation with Alyssa goes, and you can get a sense of what these conferences should look like.” I took notes of the questions he asked her, and noticed that while he offered his own suggestions, he never imposed his own opinion. He was always pushing her to further her own ideas. This was very helpful for me when I help my own conferences. With the students, he always posts a sample assignment online so the students can get a sense of what he is looking for. I personally find this very helpful.

I work individually with a few different students, and they all seem to interact with me differently. Michelle wants to talk to me about her poems the entire class and I feel as though I have to pull away so that she will focus on writing the assignment. Nick, on the other hand, does not seem to want to talk very much about his project. I can’t tell if he has ideas and just doesn’t want to share them with me, or if he actually doesn’t know what he is writing about.

Working one-on-one with these students made me realize how listening is a key component of teaching. I tried to take note when the students were telling me about their ideas, because I noticed how Mr. T’s questions were always very specific to what the students said. Even if they only had one small idea, he would push them to build off that and he almost always got more out them this way. However, it was much harder than I thought it would be to try and push their own thinking without inserting my own opinion or interpretation of the text too much.

Questions I am left with...

One thing I noticed this week was the contrast between Ms. R’s class and Mr. T’s class in terms of “classroom management” or “behavior.” Although neither teacher is particularly assertive, Mr. T enforces the rules of his classroom more often than Ms. R. However, I wonder what other aspects of Mr. T’s classroom create the type of environment where there are fewer issues with students talking over one another, or being disruptive during independent work periods. I notice that the tables in Mr. T’s classroom are separated into groups, and his room his larger than Ms. R’s. Ms. R’s small class creates the feelings that everyone is on top of one another, and therefore makes it easy for students to distract each other when they are supposed to be working. I also wonder about the actual curricula of each class. Mr. T’s students have many opportunities to include their own personal experiences/interests into their work (i.e. with the podcast project and the poetry unit), and therefore they genuinely seem interested and engaged when they are working. It’s almost as if he “tricks” them into learning, because they combine modern, culturally relevant topics, with more traditional skills and topics. While Ms. R tries to do this by including current events (i.e. Obama, the environment, businesses), it seems harder to make history as personally relevant to the students’ lives. For example, when she tells them to read four pages from their textbook (A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn), they all complain. Overall it seems as though it is combination of many factors that create the classroom environment.

"Essential Questions"