Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Enacting My Vision

Yesterday I shared a Donahue poem called "For a New Beginning" that a mentor shared with me this summer.  As the title suggests, the poem speaks to that chasm I find myself in at the school year's beginning, the chasm where I try to find my way out of what has been to explore what might be.  He writes, "[You] Wondered would you always live like this./ Then the delight, when your courage kindled,/ And out you stepped onto new ground,/ Your eyes young again with energy and dream,/ A path of plenitude opening before you."  I asked my students to imagine to what they would dedicate their energy, toward what they would dream.  And I also told them I would share the new ground I'm attempting to tread on this year, so here goes:

1.  Classroom culture:  this doesn't come easily.  As I shared with my students, I switched schools every couple years and dreaded when teachers would ask me to meet someone new, or to stand up and tell the class about myself.  I'm trying to imagine different ways getting to know one another can look, but to also instill in my students the importance of knowing themselves and their classmates.  I often begin the year eager to create this environment, but get excited about the curriculum at the sacrifice of that culture.  I realize that's a mistake.  Further enforcing this realization was a session I attended at Learning Forward this summer with Kathleen Cushmann, whose new research identified the 13 factors that most strongly correlate with students' mastery of content.  #1?  "A sense of safety and well-being".  Additionally, Senate Bill 191's new teacher evaluation system measures a teacher's classroom culture, reminding us of the importance of the relationship among students and between teacher and student if one is to learn well.

2.  Reflection:  After each class I teach, I ask myself what went well and how I'll strive to improve in the days to come.  I repeat this process at a unit's conclusion.  I feel I improve all the time because of it.  So why don't I consistently ask my students to do the same?  Both the Common Core Standards and the new teacher evaluation system ask students to consistently engage in the evaluation of self, others, the importance of the material they learn, and ways they learn best.  I incorporate this in my classroom sporadically, at best, and hope to do this better this year.  One way I'll do this is using a score sheet that asks students to rate their level of understanding of our learning objectives before and after class as well as to evaluate their in-class effort each day.  More to come on how this practice works...

3.  Soliciting student feedback:  Another part of the new evaluation system, I hope to encourage my students to give me feedback on my practice.  I've also engaged in this practice perfunctorily in the past, but gave it up largely because I anticipated the compliments and criticisms to come.  Because I reflect so consistently, often this feedback was just another painful reminder of where I fell short, but I realize its importance as I certainly don't always see what's happening in class from a student's point of view.

Here's to your new beginning, to the delight when your courage kindles you forward to the path of plenitude which opens before you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What I Learned This Summer

As with most summers, I spent a good deal of my vacation learning. I focus on improving my understanding of effective teaching as well as my understanding of the students I instruct.  Though I read avidly throughout the year, summer also provides opportunity to immerse myself more deeply in the world of literature.  Here are some highlights from my summer learning, in no particular order.  Bear with me, I love to learn and certainly learned a lot in a few short months:

Highlight 1:  My first professional development was at my Alma Mater, Trinity University in San Antonio. As I have the last several years, I spent a week reconnecting with the Department of Education faculty and its alumni, developing curriculum with recent Masters graduates.  I can't say enough about the wonderful faculty of this department and the wealth of knowledge, support, rejuvenation, and inspiration they provide me.

Highlight 2:  Upon the recommendation of Becca, a brilliant scholar and wonderful young lady in my Honors American Literature class last year, I read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, a beautiful collection of short stories about Indians acclimating to American culture while hoping to maintain their cultural heritage.  I will surely recommend this collection to both friends and students as a masterfully crafted piece to study and simply a work to read and enjoy. Lahiri's work is certainly the best book I've read in over a year.

Highlight 3:  I attended the Learning Forward conference.  My favorite sessions included a keynote by Carol Dweck, who, in addition to a long list of accolades, is a professor of psychology at Stanford University.  I learned I can change the way my students think about intelligence and can challenge their understanding of their capacity for learning.  I will certainly share her research with my students to help them understand no potential is limited and will keep her research-based advice in mind as I give my students feedback.  Another highlight from Learning Forward was a session by Jane E. Pollock and several faculty from local high schools about giving effective feedback.  I walked away with two great strategies for monitoring students comprehension and for giving them feedback on that comprehension, both of which I will implement this fall.

Highlight 3:  I rarely read non-fiction, but challenge myself to read a few works each summer.  The Learning Forward sessions I mentioned above inspired 2 of my 3 selections including Drive by Daniel Pink and Classroom Instruction that Works (2nd. edition).  The former complimented Dweck's research about motivation, and though Pink primarily contextualizes his work in business, he challenged my thinking about students' motivation.  The latter publication, co-authored by Jane E. Pollock among others, discusses the 9 strategies most strongly linked to students' success according to researchers at McRel, certainly a great text for all teachers to read and keep in mind at the school year's beginning.  The last non-fiction text I read, a recommendation from Dr. Shari Albright, one of the brilliant professors of Trinity University I previously mentioned, was Teaching 2030 by Barnett Barry,  a book that challenges educators' notion of what's best for kids given the world's trajectory.  Barry's text is more philosophical than one that easily translates into the classroom, but I found his vision for education's future inspiring as I enter the school year.

Happy 2012-2013 school year to all teachers and learners.  Please share your favorite summer learnings.  I know that's one of the first things I'll ask my students to do.