Friday, January 05, 2007

Back in Mississippi

Ah, good. I was getting afraid that I was never going to get on this thing again. The last two times I had tried to blog (sometime in November), I forgot my username and password so I couldn’t sign in. Well, it certainly has been a long time since I sat down and actually wrote one of these things. It’s Friday evening, and Ben’s monthly update reminded me to read some of our program members’ blogs (also something I haven’t done in awhile), and I was inspired to give this blogging thing another shot.
In many ways, I wish I had been writing about my experiences from the first semester along the way. There were so many highs and lows, that if I even attempted to get them on paper this far after the fact, I’m afraid anything I were to write would hardly capture the essence of everything that went on. So for now I will stick to the present. School started up again this week, and I arrived back in Mississippi on Monday night. I’m not ashamed to admit I was dreading coming back. When I was on the plane it wasn’t so bad, but there were a few moments scattered out over the break when I foolishly let my mind drift off from my immediate surroundings and let it size up the daunting task facing me these next few months. Immediately my body was seized with terrible feelings of doubt and dread, and my thoughts repeated asked, “Can I really do this? Can I really go on with this job like this?”
I’ve decided that the hardest part of this job is that that you can never separate your life from it. It is always with you. On weeknights, weekends, even during Christmas break. I find it to be kind of strange that I never really have these negative thoughts during school; they only seem to arise during the time spent away from school. I went out to dinner on Tuesday night with two fellow teachers from Gentry and one of them referred to his phenomenon as being a “case of the dreads.” It is at least somewhat reassuring that almost every person I talk to has the same thought process upon coming back from break.
Wednesday, the first day back, went alright. Though as I drove to school on Thursday morning, I really wanted to quit. Now at certain points during this school year, in my mind I have toyed with the idea of what it would be like to quit. You know, the “what is life like on the other side” type of the thing (and by that I mean what would it be like to be a recent college grad living in a modern city in a non-backwards part of the country with a reasonable, lower-stress job and some semblance of a social life). Though until Thursday it was never a notion that I at all took seriously. Yet, Thursday morning, I was just about ready to be done with it all.
Another thing I’ve realized is that the days that are the most frustrating are the days when there’s no teaching going on. On weeks like Homecoming week, when nobody takes anything seriously, or state testing week when classes are frozen, you are left with the less desirable tasks of the teaching profession (controlling the kids) with none of the positive aspects (actually seeing the students learn).
The week before Christmas break and even Wednesday were very much like this. On Wednesday all I did was have the students do a writing assignment about how they thought the 2nd nine weeks went, made some announcements, and played a math game at the end of class. So Thursday was the first day where I had actually taught something new in a long time, and it really felt good. The topic was nothing special, multiplying radical expressions, but I had energy and most of the kids learned what was going on. Now it did not go perfectly. There was a little bit too much talking. I realize that on Monday I’m going to have to introduce some new components into my classroom management plan. I don’t think my classroom management had been bad up to this point, especially considering the changes that are occurring at my school, though my classroom management plan could certainly use a little re-invigorating. Yet despite all the minor frustrations, it felt like teaching was fun again. I went home after school on Thursday feeling pretty content with the state of things. It was hard to imagine that 12 hours previous I was on the verge of throwing in the towel. Friday was similar, a mixture of fun, minor frustrations, and more learning. With my Learning Strategies classes, since the kids didn’t have their individual books for this nine weeks yet, we began to act out A Raisin in the Sun in class, and the kids for the most part did an excellent job with it. It was interesting to see what the job of an English teacher is like.
So now as I sit in my room on a Friday night (of course I didn’t go out), and I look towards the rest of the school year, I feel like finally the task ahead of me is somewhat manageable. I know I still have terrible days ahead of me. And as JS made so clear to us this summer, that case of the dreads will probably never go away. Yet, if I have to be completely honest, I am, in many ways, glad to be back. Over Christmas break it was nice to visit with family and friends, but my life isn’t there anymore. It’s here, in Mississippi, with these kids. And much as I complain about being over-worked and miserable, I wouldn’t rather be doing anything else.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

questioning strategies

I know that one of my weaknesses as a teacher is that I tend to teach to the more able students in the class. Of course this is one of the greatest challenges that teachers face and no teacher is at all perfect at dealing with this problem. Yet especially during the first week of summer school I think I was guilty of progressing through a lesson while cultivating the understanding of only five or six of my students. Then one day I tried cold-calling by drawing random index cards with the kids’ names on it and ever since then I have made a conscious effort to call on a broader range of students.

Using cold-calling certainly makes it harder for certain students to fade into the background and not participate. I like to think that students will pay a little more attention if they know that they could be randomly called on. It also helps you gauge where the class is as a whole in their understanding of the material. Because I am now calling on more students who are struggling with the concepts, it gives me the chance to give them assistance and lead them to the answer. By doing this other students who are struggling with the same concept may get their questions answered.

Of course there are downsides to using cold-calling. Sometimes you will get a student who is utterly clueless and then you face the choice between taking time to address their confusion or to move on with the class. And other students, because of their embarrassment or nervousness about being called on or not knowing the answer, will attempt to derail the lesson by making a joke out of their response. As with most aspects of teaching, the solution is that one has to simply strike a balance.

2nd videotape

The icing on the cake of my awful week of team teaching was that my worst lesson of the week was caught on video. My overall performance for the week was, in my opinion, horrendous. I am not sure why, but my ability as a teacher decreased significantly when teaching in front of my peers as compared to the students at summer school. Tuesday’s lesson (the taped one) was a borderline painful experience. It was bad for a host of reasons that I won’t bother to discuss. So I anticipated that watching the actual video would be an even more painful it experience. Surprisingly it wasn’t. This leads me to two possible conclusions: either (1) the videotape didn’t catch all my inefficiencies as teacher, or (2) I am too hard on myself. I would be inclined to favor conclusion (2) because in general I have always been hard on myself, but this would contradict my experiences in summer school when I often thought I was doing “good” and others around me thought I was not doing “good enough.”

If I learned anything from the video and this week in general it is that nerves sometimes restrict my teaching ability. As I discussed with js at one point, it is ok to be nervous and sometimes nerves actually help you to perform better. I believe this to be true sometimes for me, but also my nerves sometimes get the better of me and act as a restricting force on my teaching.


On the last day of summer school, with the end-of-the-summer test awaiting the students the following period, I had to teach one last lesson on the Pythagorean Theorem. And it was recorded. After watching the video I am pleased to say that viewing myself teaching didn’t bother me all that much. Of course there is always some degree of awkwardness that goes along with seeing and hearing yourself on videotape. But overall I did a decent job with getting them slightly interesting in the material, presenting the material in different ways, and going over practice problems until most of the class ‘got it’. Of course there are plenty of things to work on. The idea of teacher-as-performer is perhaps something that I still haven’t grasped. I have a tough time really putting myself out there. I still don’t really feel comfortable talking for long periods of time in front of the class. I remember as a student sometimes the most interesting parts of class were when the teacher would narrate a story about their own lives or experiences that had some connection to the material. Hopefully over the course of the year I will develop this ability.

Inductive Strategies

During summer school in June I tried an inductive strategy during a lesson on the area of triangles and trapezoids. In the previous lesson the students had learned that the area of a parallelogram is a = bxh. I was hoping to get the students to build on this knowledge and to use the fact that every parallelogram can be cut into two equal triangles to discover that the equation for the area of a triangle is a = ½ bxh. So I devised what I thought was going to be a thrilling lecture in which I would demonstrate using construction paper cutouts how cutting a parallelogram in half gives you two triangles and then lead their captivated minds along to the epiphanic moment when they would derive proper formula. When I actually performed the lesson it didn’t quite go the way I planned. It the end it worked out and I had one student who did discover the equation for the area of a triangle based the information I was giving them, but overall I lost a lot of students along the way.

In general I love teaching lessons that involve inductive strategies. I believe when students learn the material inductively, especially in math, it gives them a whole new perspective that they would never had gained if it had been presented deductively. Of course time constraints necessitate the overwhelming use of deductive strategies, though I believe it is important to incorporate inductive learning whenever possible. If I learned anything for the lesson above it is that it is difficult to give an inductive lecture to a group of teenagers. Next time I think a more hands-on activity involving manipulatives would engage the students better.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

In coming to Mississippi, I had a vague knowledge of how the educational system of the Delta remained divided along racial lines. The black kids went to the high-need public school where we would be teaching, while the white kids maintained their distance by attending the private “academies” that are scattered throughout the region. That this practice is an accepted fact of life in many parts of Mississippi was reinforced by an interaction that I had with student at Holly Springs the other day. When I told him that I would be teaching next year at Indianola he replied without any hesitation, “Oh, at the academy.” Like any do-gooder northern white, I was quick to separate myself from any association with a segregationist institution. “No no, I’ll be at Gentry High School.”
In his ambitious focus-paper Re-segregation Maneuvers, Dave Molina attempts to show that, through analyzing three cases (two in Mississippi) in which financial interests intersected with public education, there is “some sort of benefit” to the white establishment in terms of preserving an economic structure that depends on a large, poor, and uneducated work-force. In first Mississippi case he discusses various legislative initiatives by the state of Mississippi that attempted to foster the growth of all-white private schools, and the supreme-court decisions that declared them unconstitutional. In the third case he makes a connection between the fact that the prison system is Mississippi’s fastest growing industry, the relationship between criminality and poor schools, and the fact that the states school system is still controlled by whites (who benefit from “industrial growth tied to criminal labor force”).
I found the discussion of the succession of dubious maneuvers by the state of Mississippi to avoid school integration to be of particular interest. Apparently the state tried a number of times to approve public funding for students to attend private schools in order to avoid the loss of the state’s sales tax receipts from poor white families who would now be spending more money on education. Fortunately most of these measures were struck down by the supreme court, yet the persistence of the all-white “academies” and the segregation of Mississippi’s schools into the 21st century is an example of how the courts can only go so far as an instrument of change

Monday, June 05, 2006

In the past, when a new communicative phenomenon has entered in

It is with a little bit dread that I sit down to write this blog. In the past, whenever a new communicative phenomenon has entered into our society, its seems I am always one of the last ones to catch on. My family only started getting aol my junior year of high school, a full two years after most of my peers began gleefully iming each other via the internet super-highway. Needless to say, it was a tremendous detriment to my social life. Following that when cell-phones became all the rage, I personally held out against getting one. After spending a year at Bucknell as the only freshman without a cell-phone (once again, a tremendous detriment to my social life) and realizing that a future without a cell phone was looking increasingly grim, I broke down and bought one. Most recently when the facebook craze was sweeping college campuses, I stubbornly refused to hop on the bandwagon (this time effect on my social life was small, though still negative). And it was only about six months ago that I even discovered what this latest phenomenon called “blogging” actually was. I can attest to that fact that I was never even remotely tempted to join the millions of bloggers worldwide. But now I find myself involved in a program where spilling my guts in an online journal for everyone to see is required. What's even scarier is this thought lurking somewhere in the back of my mind telling me I might grow to like it.

Anyway, since I arrived in the state of Mississippi on thursday evening, things have gone well. I am not overly stressed out yet (though that may soon come). I have met some cool people in the program. I have experienced a little bit of Southern culture and although it and the people involving in it are very strange to me, I think it will be something I will enjoy learning about. Strangely my biggest concern over these last few days has been very basic: how to acquire enough food to quench this persistent hunger that keeps arising in my stomach (mom, if youre reading this, dont freak out, ill be ok). Its seems the world is against those of us who weren't so lucky as to be able to digest a wheat protein known as gluten.

School begins tomorrow, though the first week shouldn't be that hard for us first-years since we will only be teaching two lessons apiece. After that we will see.