Sunday, April 25, 2010

Building a Better Teacher

Okay, I know this NY Times article by Elizabeth Green came out weeks ago and everything that can be said has already been said ad nauseam, but I thought I'd take a crack at it anyway, seeing as how we're all about to finish the MAC program and become bona fide teachers, at least according to the University of Michigan. I knew before I even started this program that research has NOT shown that masters degrees in education are positively correlated with student achievement, but I chose to go through this program anyway. Why? Because I knew that I would get to spend an entire year in a real classroom under the supervision of a veteran teacher. No matter how much time you spend learning about theory and pedagogy, the real learning takes place in the classroom, planning and implementing lessons, practicing classroom management, assessing student progress, etc. I think that I will be a much better teacher because of my experiences this past year. But I also know that going through a program like this does not ensure success.

So, how do you build a better teacher? Doug Lemov, founder of the Uncommon Schools charter network in the Northeast, is trying to figure this out:

But what makes a good teacher? There have been many quests for the one essential trait, and they have all come up empty-handed. Among the factors that do not predict whether a teacher will succeed: a graduate-school degree, a high score on the SAT, an extroverted personality, politeness, confidence, warmth, enthusiasm and having passed the teacher-certification exam on the first try. When Bill Gates announced recently that his foundation was investing millions in a project to improve teaching quality in the United States, he added a rueful caveat. “Unfortunately, it seems the field doesn’t have a clear view of what characterizes good teaching,” Gates said. “I’m personally very curious.”

When Doug Lemov conducted his own search for those magical ingredients, he noticed something about most successful teachers that he hadn’t expected to find: what looked like natural-born genius was often deliberate technique in disguise. “Stand still when you’re giving directions,” a teacher at a Boston school told him. In other words, don’t do two things at once. Lemov tried it, and suddenly, he had to ask students to take out their homework only once.

It was the tiniest decision, but what was teaching if not a series of bite-size moves just like that?

The article follows Lemov through his exploration, and touches on the work of other high-profile experts like Deborah Loewenberg Ball, current Dean of the U-M School of Education, and Judith Lanier, who overhauled Michigan State University's teacher education programs. But the real focus is on Lemov, who created a taxonomy of what "teacher moves" that he has just published in a book (that is currently en route to my house) titled "Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on a Path to College".

Green's piece also investigates how education schools actually approach preparing teachers for the classroom. Now that I have actually been through one of these programs, I feel slightly more qualified to contribute to the discussion about whether these programs are effective.
Traditionally, education schools divide their curriculums into three parts: regular academic subjects, to make sure teachers know the basics of what they are assigned to teach; “foundations” courses that give them a sense of the history and philosophy of education; and finally “methods” courses that are supposed to offer ideas for how to teach particular subjects. Many schools add a required stint as a student teacher in a more-experienced teacher’s class. Yet schools can’t always control for the quality of the experienced teacher, and education-school professors often have little contact with actual schools. A 2006 report found that 12 percent of education-school faculty members never taught in elementary or secondary schools themselves. Even some methods professors have never set foot in a classroom or have not done so recently.

Nearly 80 percent of classroom teachers received their bachelor’s degrees in education, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet a 2006 report written by Arthur Levine, the former president of Teachers College, the esteemed institution at Columbia University, assessed the state of teacher education this way: “Today, the teacher-education curriculum is a confusing patchwork. Academic instruction and clinical instruction are disconnected. Graduates are insufficiently prepared for the classroom.” By emphasizing broad theories of learning rather than the particular work of the teacher, methods classes and the rest of the future teacher’s coursework often become what the historian Diane Ravitch called “the contentless curriculum.”
I have to give MAC some props, mostly because there really is a focus on literacy and teaching methods across content areas, even though past MAC graduates have routinely complained that they did not receive adequate preparation in classroom management techniques. I hear that from my classmates as well. My thinking on this has evolved and it reflects in part Lemov's findings. My mentor has said that classroom management in a general sense develops as you accumulate hours in the classroom, and because every teacher has their own style, it can't really be taught in the traditional way. But clearly Lemov has compiled this list of effective practices that every teacher can tweak to suit their content and their students. I still think that the idea of being "a natural" has merit, mostly because I'm told that I am one! And yet, it is reassuring to know that there are tangible techniques that can be taught. The key is to continue to reflect and try to improve.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Live Blog: iPods in the Classroom at the 2010 MACUL Conference

Friday, December 4, 2009

Teaching Social Studies in the NCLB Era

Well, it took me awhile to figure out how to actually embed this archived podcast onto my blog, but I finally managed it! Podcasting is such a great use of technology and I can envision students really getting into a presentation that employs a tool like BlogTalkRadio. It's much easier than I thought it would be. My partner Jenny and I decided to discuss the challenges of teaching social studies under No Child Left Behind. We conducted a live interview with my field instructor, a retired teacher from Ann Arbor, and incorporated a great interview clip from NPR with an expert in social studies content. If you have 30 minutes, I highly recommend that you take a listen! Oh, and how proud am I that I figured out how to remove the autostart from true to false so that the podcast wouldn't automatically play whenever I link to my blog? Go me!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Live Blog: Seabiscuit on American Experience

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Teaching with Technology

Okay, so the fact that I'm a student teacher two days a week with a mentor teacher doing most of the teaching should be the first indicator that my experiences so far don't represent how things will be in the future. But it's a good place to start. Having spent so many weeks exploring ways to incorporate new technologies into classroom instruction hasn't really changed my mind about the essence of teaching, that it's really about the interaction between the student, the teacher, and the content. With or without twitter, that reality is constant and it should be a comfort to us all. Perhaps when I'm a full-time teacher in my own classroom, I'll view technology as something more than just a nice bonus because I'll have total control over how to best use it. But for now, the best thing, by far, about technology and teaching is the sheer volume of INCREDIBLE resources available online for teachers to steal. And I mean steal in the legal sense! Part of me is skeptical about the purpose of designing anything from scratch anymore. Everything has already been done and it's likely been done by someone far smarter and more experienced than me. Why create a brand new worksheet on Jacksonian Democracy when the National Endowment for the Humanities has an entire site devoted to lesson plans and classroom materials on the subject? What's the purpose of developing assessments from beginning to end when countless sites make countless examples available for anyone to use? Why not take what's already out there (and what has been shown to work) and modify it for your own purposes?

Being a new teacher, I think I can safely speak for many of us that the biggest concern I have relates to content mastery. My mentor said that it can easily take five years or so before you really feel comfortable that you "know" your stuff and can teach it without studying too much beforehand. Five years is a long time! Planning lessons and units is really challenging and I don't think that I would have been able to produce the level of quality that I want without the help of all these online resources for teachers. No one wants to rely on the textbook all the time. Now I can go to one of any number of great sites to find specific information that I need about a specific event or concept or person. For learning the content, there's nothing better than having web access. Now, I don't suggest that everything out there is reliable. Of course not! As a history person, I had better not depend on resources that I tell my students to back away from slowly. But in a pinch, you can almost always find what you're looking for. And if you're developing something more indepth, it's absolutely invaluable.

I do love technology. But so far I love it behind the scenes!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Population in Claymation!

Okay, not the greatest claymation video of all time but not bad for a first time attempt! Stefan, Sade and I put this together in class yesterday. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The hiatus is over

Well, that was an unplanned break from blogging! They warned us that the fall would be insane and they were right (they being the faculty and former students of the MAC Program at U-M). But it's important to find time to post, it's a great way to get some of the disparate ideas swirling around my mind into some sort of coherent structure. Otherwise they will continue to float in the ether, taking up space and clogging my neurons from processing new information. Okay, I made that up. But it sounds real enough, right?

Teaching is such a unique profession. Now that I've spent some time in an actual classroom with actual students and an actual teacher, I can rest assured that I chose wisely. It just fits, you know? In my former life as a theatre guru, I never quite felt comfortable. I felt capable but not necessarily confident and I definitely didn't feel the passion. But now I can't wait to get to school in the morning! Tuesdays and Thursdays are my favorite days of the week because I get to be with my kids in my classroom (okay, it's not technically mine, but I can pretend!) talking about history. It's a blessing to have the opportunity to make a living doing what I love to do and even on my worst days, I will always know how lucky I am.