Thursday, September 27, 2007

If a Teacher Lectures and No One Listens...

Trained in the Nancy Atwell-era, I’ve only ever delivered a mini-lecture in my classroom, which usually tops out at about 15 minutes. However, part of my responsibility is to prepare students for professors whose expertise and style may better lend itself to lecture. Despite a few bum experiences, I often found lectures illuminating and captivating as a student. Isn’t the ability to listen attentively a skill worth teaching?

In her Washington Post piece, “Breathing Life into the Lecture Hall,” Valerie Struass explores the current state of the classroom lecture in today’s colleges. Not surprisingly, professors talk about using PowerPoint and/or clicker systems to enliven their lectures and ensure students are engaged. At the end of the article, however, Strauss shares the observations of Julie Reuben, a Harvard education professor: “Professors often spend their adult lives researching a particular topic and feel they have a unique synthesis and understanding of the research. They want to talk about their work. And although the process of putting together the lectures is a creative, intense experience for professors, it doesn't always translate to students who have to sit and listen, Reuben said.”

Who hasn’t sat and listened to someone wax poetic about something he or she found fascinating that ceased to fascinate in the translation? And yet, I can’t help but feel that learning to listen to lectures, especially those put together creatively and intensely by people who “have a unique synthesis and understanding,” is part of what being a mature learner means. As students mature, their own learning preferences can’t always be at the center of the learning experience. By college, students should be able to listen to people whose complete passion for their subject eclipses their ability to monitor audience response. As voters, we often make our determinations through listening to speeches, to debates, to interviews. Learning to listen attentively therefore impacts the democracy, right?

I applaud the inclusion of visual bullet points and intermittent statistical assessment of who understands and who does not via PowerPoint and clicker systems, and I’ve used both. I’ve also prepared mini-lectures and worked on teaching note-taking because I think learning to listen to lectures takes practice. Yes, all teachers and professors should use lecture purposefully rather than habitually. Yes, teaching should not be about the professor’s ego and pleasure. I’m not about to start lecturing for half an hour in my classes, let alone an hour and a half. However, I’d hate to see the lecture go completely. The lecture is the snooty cousin to the speech which is the political root of the voting system. “Free education for all” means preparing individuals with the necessary skills to participate actively in their democracy. I know not everyone will learn best through lecture, and I think teaching methods should be varied, but I urge us as educators not to erase the expectation that people learn to listen.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Teaching with Good Principals

One of my goals as a blogger is to create spin. Yes, spin. I hope to do so in a savvy, positive way rather than an obviously-indulges-herself-in-false-logic kind of way. Negativity and education can seem inextricable when we look around, whether we look in the newspaper, around the cocktail party or in the faculty room. In many schools’ cultures, there lives an “us versus them” attitude between teachers and administrators. “They” get paid more. “They” wanted out of the classroom. “They” don’t have to deal with what teachers deal with anymore. That may be true, but administrators also deal with stuff I don’t think about: Is the boiler at the right temperature? Will the union call for a strike? Did the booster parents stop arguing with the PTA parents? Are all the buses here? Newsweek’s “The Principal Principle” by Barbara Kantrowitz and Jay Mathews actually moved me to tears as I read its profiles of great principals around the country. So often in my classroom, I felt alone and anonymous, swamped by papers and student needs I didn’t know how to address. At times, I felt measured only by my students’ grades and scores. Often, my 150 or so students created more variables than I knew how to manage. Administrators deal with these same issues, at a much higher volume.

Good administrators put themselves between teachers and problems. Good administrators may not have a peer within the building. Good administrators ensure the safety and integrity of the school as a system. Good administrators have to pretend to like many more people than I have to as a teacher! Give me a minute to climb off my soapbox. Okay. Listen, I teach, but in the time I’ve been teaching, some of my teacher friends have climbed over the wall into the front office. I already know they’re good folk. I already trust them. The politics of many work places asks us to take sides, and when I was new, several factions sought to win my loyalty. Heck, several factions will always seek loyalty. Happiness as a teacher, however, stems from empathy not only for students, but for all the people within our system, which includes administrators. I’ve grown happier as a teacher since I’ve let go of thinking that no one who left the classroom can care about the classroom as much as I do. Just like I believe my students possess a variety of talents, I realize educators come in the micro-vision and macro-vision versions. My teacher blessing for all teachers out there: May your body feel rested, your mind feel at peace, and may your building be managed by excellent administration. Without their foundation, we’d get much less done…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Cell Phones: Keep them Hidden or Limit their Use?

The community college I work for permits instructors to set the cell phone policies in their classrooms. Most students possess the maturity to turn off the ringer during class, but some students do leave to take a phone call. Around the student center, students sit in isolated little pockets, talking to their old friends via cell phone. It certainly colors the atmosphere in my classroom, but because of the age of my students, the problems are minimal.

High school teachers don’t teach only the mature students; they teach everybody who gets off the bus, so the cell phone issue isn’t as easy for them. According to Jo Craven McGinty’s New York Times piece, “Student Cellphone Rules Still Vague Despite Law,” city parents (including some City Council members) want a bill that would “allow students to transport cellphones to and from school.”

Currently, cell phones are banned from New York city schools. Where should the cell phones that are legally transported be while at school? “The Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, said the bill would place the onus on education officials to figure out how and where students can store their phones during the school day.” City Council member Mr. Koppell, who supports the ban states, “’We have enough problem with discipline in our classrooms and order in our classrooms that we don’t need to make the teacher or the proctor a policeman to make sure the cellphone is off.’”

I get it. Parents want to ensure that their kids can reach them and vice versa, especially after school. However, adolescence is a time to gain maturity, and handling cell phone usage with consideration and good judgment is something with which many adults wrestle. Do schools really need another “onus,” Ms. Quinn?

Cell phones could be like hats. Students are allowed to wear hats to school, but then are expected to store them in the school-provided locker. If students wear hats in class, teachers are expected to stop them. “Remove your hat, please” comes from adults’ lips as often as “Good morning.”

No, wait! Cell phones could be like vending machine items. Students may only buy sodas and snacks before and after school despite the fact that the machines are usually on throughout the day. Students may buy a soda or snack as long as they don’t drink or eat it in class. Students are not supposed to use the vending machines on a bathroom pass. If students drink sodas or eat snacks in class, teachers are expected to stop them. “Put the soda away, please” can be heard as often as “Hello.”

Maybe cell phones are more like the dress code. Both cell phones and personal appearance can provide a distraction, right? There’s a list of appropriate and inappropriate dress, so as students come in the classroom, teachers monitor strap thickness and underwear coverage. Or MP3 players, that’s it! Cell phones could be regulated by the “can be seen but not used” rules of the ear buds…Ugh. Just writing about all the things teachers regulate before the teaching begins exhausts me.

If students know cell phones aren’t allowed at all, they will keep them hidden. It keeps the issue more clear: “Don’t let me see a cell phone in the school.” It is sad that parents can’t be sure their kids are safe on the way to school and want them to have cell phones, but must schools take on that problem, too? If schools create a whole new procedure around cell phone storage (look at how well we manage hats, vending machine items, and dress codes), we’ll just create more work for teachers, which takes time from learning.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Is Teaching in Need of an Image Makeover?

Slate Magazine’s Ann Hulbert wrote a very interesting piece on teachers’ image last week, “Back to School: Could Teachers Become the New Lawyers?” The title strikes me because I’ve said to fellow educators bemoaning how some students don’t seem to respect us that, “If we want them to give us respect automatically, we should be their lawyers instead of their teachers.” As I type that, I realize how bitter it sounds. I guess I’ve just accepted that since American respect often pairs itself with careers that are well-paid, I would have to earn students’ respect rather than be granted it.

Hulbert writes about the new wave of Hollywood films on teaching that are shifting the teacher archetype: “Strangely, perhaps, the spectacle of obsessive administrators and anxious teachers in the trenches…just might help buttress a field that could use some defeminizing. High-pressured and punishing—of such macho qualities is social cachet often built in the world of work. Nowhere…do you hear anyone touting the familiar (female- and family-friendly) perks of the profession: the long summer months off, the seasonal breaks, the 3 o'clock dismissals, the heartwarming kids…The scene is more reminiscent of, say, the Union army, beset by struggles and squabbles within the ranks, yet striving to make slow headway on divisive home ground.”

The “defeminizing” point makes me wince. I suppose since my father taught challenging students, I didn’t grow up with a “female” or “easy” image of teaching. (Really, for the life of me, all I can think of in keeping with her reference is Little House on the Prairie. Has teaching adolescents housed by the thousands in one building ever been easy? Would I have ever eaten an apple I found placed anonymously on my desk?) I don’t think the description of teaching she provides is new; more likely, the kinds of teaching conditions she feels foster “macho qualities” in teachers have grown more prevalent.

Okay, disagreements aside, Hulbert is right that Americans need to understand more about what it takes to teach well. I’ve tossed about the theory that, like jury duty, all citizens should be required to do some “public school duty” every few years. Even if all they do is collect equipment after gym class, issue tardy slips during passing time, and monitor the cafeteria, I feel Americans would vote for school budgets and teacher salaries with a whole new respect.

A friend of mine discussed recently that even though people claim staying home with your kids is “the most important work of all,” they still won’t think much of it on a resume. To a lesser degree, my experience with how people view teaching is similar. “You’re a teacher! How wonderful!” is what you get told at a party, but the business world is suspicious about whether or not we teachers know how to work a forty hour week. If Hollywood can change that, I say more power to them.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher