Saturday, July 9, 2011

Evolution of a Teacher

As I graduated from college armed with a teaching degree I set out for my first teaching position. The one thing that has remained the same throughout my tenure is my philosophy: Every student can learn. I am constantly on a quest to find how to best match teaching and learning.

The early years

My first year of teaching was probably not unlike any other teacher in the early 90s. I walked into my room full of desks, a chalkboard, and a big desk. I was fortunate enough to also have a file of worksheets and other seemingly necessary papers. My classroom also came with shelves of books and magazines in the target language! I spent time looking at all the resources and the sacred teacher-edition of the textbook assigned.

While I was presumed well-trained in Madeline Hunter lesson design, my learning activities were very teacher-fronted, sit-n-git style of teaching. My units were directed by the textbook and consisted of vocabulary, grammar, test, repeat. Of course at the time I believed I was doing a bang-up job. To any of my students from that year, I apologize!

This position lasted only one year and I moved to a public school. I was wise enough to know that there was more to teaching than what the textbook was providing. However, this was the approved curriculum so on I went.

During the next two years I discovered a way to assess students orally, but it was only a small portion of the grade. Conversational activities and projects also became an introductory part of my teaching style.

My fourth year of teaching led me to my current landing position. I was fortunate enough to be greeted with a curriculum director who later took on technology responsibilities. This person was very liberal in allowing me freedom to experiment and take risks, giving me the greatest advancements in my teaching.

A textless environment

Knowing that conversation was the ultimate goal in a world language classroom, I emphasized this in my daily lessons. While still being guided by and using a textbook, I started to unconsciously wean myself from its proverbial apron strings. I began to bring in realia from my travels. The world had begun to have a distant presence in my classroom.

My nagging frustration with a textbook was still there. Elementary classrooms had learning outcomes in the form of a checklist that guided their curriculum and they used that list to report to parents. I began writing outcomes for each of my courses; I needed a guide for what I was doing. I took these lists to the Curriculum Director and this began the journey to curricular freedom! By the next year, I was teaching without a textbook telling me what to do.

Eventually I realized that there was a need to assess all components of a language: reading, writing, listening, speaking, and culture. This guided my lesson planning. The following year my district commenced block scheduling. What a revolutionary way of teaching; I quickly grew to love the extended time with students and develop the needed relationships with them. The students kept notebooks divided into the different skill components. I would collect them and grade them at home. This did not last long as I spent too many hours and sleepless nights going through thrown-together binders only to have students look at a grade and none of the feedback. It was disappointing to see all those hours reduced to a 2-second glance.

The notebooks quickly transformed into something that has become a very powerful strategy that I still use today: conferencing. Conferencing allows me to individually work with each student every 2-3 weeks. We celebrate their successes, reteach difficult concepts, and have mini-lessons to advance top students.

The couch classroom

Sometime between here and the year 2000 I was able to make a trip to a classroom about 1½ hours from my district. It was another revolutionary experience for me. The teacher had no textbook, but was connecting to classrooms across the world. I was envious of his connections and did not know how to make these connections. Any answer just sounded like, “Well, you just go out and get them.” How? I really wanted this.

Another interesting component of this classroom that really stayed with me was the idea of couches. He said, “We learn our first language in the comfort of our home so why should the learning of our second language be any different?” Rather than the traditional student desks in rows for learning, he got couches donated from people who wanted to get rid of theirs, but still had some life in them. About 6 couches were arranged in a semi circle with kids from all levels of the language. Since I was never comfortable with rows in my classroom and always had a semi circle arrangement, this was inviting to me. His statement was one that would stay with me for many years. I wanted what he was able to achieve.

The 21st Century

Welcome to the 21st Century! Computers didn’t crash, I didn’t lose all my money and investments, and there was no chaos in the streets.

That summer I started my masters. Four years later I completed this journey. Honestly, it was the beginning of yet another chapter in my evolution. My final research project was entitled “Computer-Mediated Communication in the High School Classroom”. The idea of using technology to help students become better learners was born.

Students were introduced to more and more technology. Projects were created to culminate learning. We eventually got rolling labs, ceiling mounted projects and teacher laptops. I felt like I was at the height of my profession and had perfected teaching. Like everything, new changes were on the horizon.

New Changes

In 2009, the Board approved to move forward with the 1:1 laptop initiative and a computer lab walked into my classroom every period. We also dropped block scheduling for a traditional 8-period day, had to prepare for a site visit and equity visit, and hired a new administrator. These were some rather major changes in a couple of very short months.

When hearing of the switch from block to a traditional schedule, I knew some of my students would have to sacrifice some of their 4-year plan for graduation. The Technology Director and I began researching possibilities. I first started creating something in my course websites. Eventually we decided on Moodle since it was free and had lots of youtube tutorials. I logged over 250 hours creating two courses in Moodle. Mind you, I had zero experience with Moodle, was previously teaching in a mostly teacher-fronted classroom and had to create a course in which students could take the year-long course in about 8 weeks over the summer, completely from home without a teacher in front of them. There was tons of scanning, Internet-surfing, power-point creating, adjusting of worksheets and handouts, and creating audio files so the students could teach themselves. In the end, it was so successful that I also created the remaining two levels in Moodle and used this to guide my courses the next fall.

Moodle was a place to house all the tutorial links, learning activities, virtual tours, and any links that the students may need. I essentially became a paperless classroom within 2 months. Later that fall I had a great opportunity to meet up virtually with 2 other classrooms in the state and create collaborative projects between classrooms. Students were working with kids from the other two schools to create projects and turn in electronically in their perspective classes. My learning curve made a huge turn upward that year. We worked for over 4 months on these projects before the teachers met face-to-face, and that was to present the project to a group of fellow educators!

While I quickly realized that I was really just digitizing my regular classroom, I saw a need to give the students more than just word documents and power points. They needed the connection to the real world and more “Quadrant D” experiences. I did some research on project-based learning and incorporated these components into my assessments. This also allowed me to “google-proof” my activities and assessments.

Since the online environment was all set up, the past 2 years students were able to take any course independently online. I have learned a lot from these homeschooled and independent students as well as the crash-course summer students. They have secretly been my guinea pigs for the past 2 years.

The Nagging Couches

The idea of the couches from my trip across the state was still in the back of my mind and an ideal that I continue to achieve. During this past year, I began conversations with the Technology/Curriculum Director, and a couple science teachers. I even began an online PLC to discuss the topics of standards-based assessment and reporting (#sbar) and a flipped classroom and have visited some flipped classrooms in the state. Given the outcomes I had established many years before, the practice of making student redo assignments to a minimum level of proficiency, and my experience with Moodle, the possibility of #sbar and #flipclass has become well within my reach. This is a great step toward the couch approach and makes conferencing with students much more feasible and on-demand.

Next year my classroom will only have a handful of desks for the purpose of minimal test taking and for those who prefer to learn in a desk. The majority of my classroom will be at large tables and assigned to a “family”. All levels will be mixed – I through IV. The “toddlers” (level I) will be learning not only from me, but also from the “teenagers” (level II), and the “parents” (level III and IV). They can also cross families and have discussions with their cousins, aunts/uncles, etc. If I am busy helping a student in class I can just tell them to ask their family. We all learn together; the teacher is not necessarily the fountain of knowledge.

The typical lesson will include the first 5-40 minutes 100% in the target language in conversation or some hands-on task. Just as a family may sit around the supper table and be able to communicate about nearly any topic, so too can each family in class have a conversation and work together to a common goal. The remaining time will be spent accessing Moodle to take assessments, discuss outcomes, watch online lessons, and collaboratively or independently work through learning activities.

Students will be working at their own pace to show proficiency with the outcomes. Deadlines will need to occur to keep students moving forward and make good use of class time. This is one thing I learned from my independent kids. Without deadlines, they will wait and then panic at the last minute and turn in less than adequate work.

I hope to keep moving forward with #sbar and #flipclass so stay in touch! Who knows, maybe next year I’ll be able to have my couches and reach beyond my idol of all those years ago.