Teacher Courage and Student Courage

Hello, all!

So, all in all, I thought that this was a turning point of sorts in my teaching practice. This week I presented my HLP-E presentation on classroom management. After a lot of internal debate, I decided to discuss my important discovery that my struggles with an eating disorder over a number of years gave rise to a set of beliefs that go directly against best practices of classroom management. When I was researching I was particularly drawn to discussions of the importance of decisive body language in the classroom. Even though my weight has improved throughout the course of the year, I know that I still struggle with thoughts regarding my body, and that these thoughts have made it difficult for me to embrace and implement best management practices and dispositions. As a result of my increased awareness of this conflict between Ed/best practices for classroom management, I think that I am in a better position to continue to make personal changes (diet, meditation etc.) and behavioral changes in the classroom. 

I was nervous about sharing my experience in front of a few of my peers and my supervisor, and I questioned whether or not my personal experience would be appropriate for a professional presentation. Also, just as our class started, the Cathedral of Learning received a bomb threat, so we had to move to a different building. At the new building, we combined the two sections of our class, so I suddenly found myself faced with the challenge of sharing my research and personal experiences with all of my M.A.T./P.Y. peers. The Becky at the beginning of this program would have been totally thrown by this unexpected turn of events (as I mentioned in my presentation, inflexibility is a keystone of my eating disorder, and my eating disorder was less under control last summer), but I was able to take a deep breath and, in the words of Project Runway’s Tim Gunn, “make it work!” 

After the presentation, I received positive feedback from my peers, instructor, and supervisor, which was great. Yet, I think that I am most surprised by the fact that I actually feel proud of myself. Low self-esteem is something that has accompanied my eating disorder throughout the years, so I am not really used to feeling totally satisfied with myself without external input. In other words, if I had given this presentation a year ago, I would only have felt good/stayed feeling good if I had received positive feedback from others. In this case, I know that, regardless of the feedback that I would have received after class, I would have known that what I was sharing was honest, real, and important to my teaching practice.

I know this because my mentor teacher did not react to my sharing in the way that I had hoped that she would. I still really respect my mentor teacher, and think that it is important to note that I “sprung” the information from my presentation at an awkward time. When she came in for her prep period, we engaged in a brief conversation centered on her frustration with my classroom management. I listened to and validated her concerns, but felt that I needed to share the thinking and reflection that I have put into this topic. I really believe that sharing my story/presentation with her was a good move because I think that it will make our conversations regarding my teaching more meaningful and productive throughout the rest of the school year. However, in retrospect I wish that I had given her time to process the information first and asked if we could discuss it in relation to my classroom management on the following day. Since we were both emotionally worked up by the conversation that preceded my “reveal” of my presentation findings and discoveries, my sharing did not lead to the positive exchange that I had wanted it to. I don’t want to go into particulars of what either of us said, but I will say that I left the conversation feeling a little bit down and out. Although there was no awkwardness today, I want to continue to work on my relationship with my mentor teacher. My research reminded me that communication is a two-way street, so I know that there are a number of nonverbal and verbal things that I have done (during this exchange and others)  that are not working and that are reflective of my need to develop what Gardner terms “interpersonal intelligence.” Since professional relationships with colleagues and staff are so important, one of my personal goals for the rest of the year is to really work on doing what I can to develop a more mutually empowering professional relationship between me and my mentor teacher. 

On a happier note, I went out on a limb and asked my 5th period students (the students that I have taught the longest) to write down “plus/deltas” for me on the topic sign-up sheet for their upcoming Holocaust projects. I explained that one of my teachers in high school asked us to write down one thing that he was doing well, and one thing that he could work on. I was so scared about doing this, in large part due to my fear of rejection and wanting to be “liked” by students. Now that I am reviewing the students’ feedback, I am so glad that I got over that hangup! I am truly amazed by how spot-on they are. Even though their feedback will not replace my supervisor’s feedback or my mentor teacher’s feedback, I am really looking forward to using my students’ feedback to inform my teacher practice.

Below are a few of the plus/deltas(areas for change) that I am so glad that my students had the courage to share with me. This week I learned that teaching takes a lot of courage, and I can’t begin to say how proud I am of my students right now. Offering critical feedback to the teacher who presents the material and grades your work can be really intimidating (especially when your name is attached to the feedback!) The one thing that I am wondering about is how I can encourage the students who didn’t write anything to share their thoughts (maybe an anonymous/typewritten option would help?) 

Student 1

Plus- Makes class exciting

Change- You seem nervous or afraid <<< Students can indeed “read” me

Student 2

Plus- Getting less nervous, and speaking more loudly <<<Good to hear

Change- Explain the topic a little better, remind us more often when we have tests or assignments

Student 3

Plus- in class discussions

Change- Be less nervous. Relax. <<< Again, students can “read” me. Also, nice to know that, on the whole, the students are “on my side,” so to speak.

Student 4

Plus- Speaking to us directly <<<< I was really surprised by this piece of feedback. 

Change- Explain in  more detail <<< I am noticing that this is a trend across the board.

Student 5

Plus- You do a good job of thoroughly explaining things<<< Interesting- as stated above, it seems like a lot of students don’t think I explain things well enough, but this student thinks that I do. Is this a sign that I need to differentiated my instruction-giving in some way?

Student 6

Plus- Speak well (loud and clearly) <<<Again, I am so glad that the students are noticing and appreciating this change in my practice. It has definitely been a challenge due to my struggles with being a classroom presence, but it is clear that this is something that the students value and that is supporting their learning in class

Change- To start saying no to wrong answers << This is feedback that my mentor teacher has given me as well. I am a little bit surprised that the students care about this too. I hate saying “no” (part of my people-pleasing), but I need to make sure that students get clear feedback regarding correct v. incorrect/off-track responses. 

Student 7

Plus- You got comfortable with the class. <<< My reaction to this was a big smile. However, as other students have noted, this is still an area to work on.

Change – Need to take charge. <<< Ironically this is one of the students that sometimes needs to be redirected. This comment really affirms the research that I did for my HLP. Students need and want clear limits. It helps them feel safer and more secure in the classroom. Also, in a class where the teacher “takes charge” more instructional time is spent on helping students more forward toward learning goals. 

Student 8 

Plus- Have gotten better at speaking up and being more direct. <<Again, good to hear

Change- Be more enforcing with off-task students.<<< Again, evidence that students do care about classroom management!

I can’t wait to hear from more of the students in this period as well as those in other periods. If anyone has suggestions or good forms for eliciting student feedback, please let me know!

-Becky Wertz

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Balancing Act and Paper Swamp

Hello, all!

Another crazy week, another crazy weekend. This week has been the hardest thus far for me in terms of time management. I am scrambling to make sure that everything is prepared for my students this week. In particular, after viewing the HLP-E presentations this week, I determined that I need to make some slight changes to the research-based summative assessment that I had planned on sharing with my students this week. I realized that the various steps of the process did not call upon students to develop authentic literacy skills to the degree that such a project should. Therefore, I am trying my best to step back, reassess the assignment that I had initially planned on presenting to students, and modifying it so that the summative task will be more interesting, engaging, and meaningful for the students. Since I already gave the students a very basic overview of the final project, I feel that I can’t change how it looks, necessarily, but I can modify the structure of the tasks themselves and make space for students to identify their own research questions and to track their emerging insight on their personal questions throughout the research process. However, while I know what I basically need to do to improve my summative assessment, I know that, in order to create something that is truly worth the students’ time and of high cognitive demand, I will need to sit down and really think things through. I am a

allotting myself a few extra days to revise my summative assessment. Initially I had planned on presenting the summative assessment on Monday, but now I am planning on bumping it back to Friday. However, I know that I really need to introduce the final project by Friday in order for the students to have enough time to engage in  careful research and creative project planning.

As the rest of my M.A.T. peers know, this is also a very busy week on the Pitt front. The stress that I am feeling as result of the Pitt work and the anxiety that I have brought upon myself at my school site (lessons learned: 1) be careful with how much paper you hand out and collect from students and 2) Take the extra effort and be overly organized! You will regret it and create more stress for yourself if you don’t!) are getting to be a little bit overwhelming.

One thing that I have learned throughout the course of this internship is that it is especially important to carve out a little bit of personal time when stress is at its highest. Because I did yoga this weekend, I was better able to focus on the tasks at hand and to prioritize my work. While a few downward facing dogs did not eliminate my stress, the time that I invested at yoga helped me to use my work time far more efficiently than I would have otherwise.

I will look forward to checking in at the end of this week. Good luck, everyone!


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Teaching life beyond the classroom walls

Last week and this weekend have been challenging and rewarding on a number of counts. In terms of challenge, planning lessons and materials for my unit on the Holocaust and Anne Frank continues to be difficult yet rewarding. I really am getting a way better sense of how much time and effort teachers have to put in outside of the classroom (beyond “just” the work of grading papers and projects) in order to be successful.

However, for this post I want to focus on two small out-of-the-classroom activities that are not directly related to my unit and lesson planning. Specifically, I want to take a moment to reflect on my experience of 1) sending positive emails to students’ parents and 2) discussing my teaching practice with a non-teaching intern..

In the past, my mentor drew my attention to her act of sending positive emails home to the parents of students who worked hard on certain projects. I have begun to send positive emails to students’ parents. I have been particularly interested in praising the positive attitudes and behaviors displayed by a number of the “unsung heroes” in my various class periods. Through my process of honing in on my classroom management, I initially tended to focus on just the students who tend to be off-task or distracting. While I will certainly continue to work hard to make expectations and consequences clear for these students, I also feel that it is equally important to recognize those students that are working hard to make the learning environment more productive and enjoyable. While I am ultimately the “decisive element” responsible for communicating expectations and adapting my instruction so that it will support each student’s success, I believe that students can help to sustain a positive and productive learning environment. Thus, in my positive emails to several students’ parents, I noted that these particular students model a positive attitude and positive behavior for their peers. In a few emails I noted that the parent’s child treats me and his/her peers with respect. Even though this isn’t a strictly academic disposition, respect for the teacher and peers definitely helps to create and sustain a literacy community. My modeling and expectations are important, but students play an important role in modeling appropriate behavior as well. Sending positive emails home is also really helping me to develop a stronger sense of myself as a teacher.

The other “out of the classroom” experience occurred this weekend. I reconnected with a student that I went to high school with. We were not close friends in high school (we were just in the same homeroom), so we had a lot of time for small talk. Unsurprisingly, we both talked about our internships. He is an accounting intern, and I learned that that job is more complicated than I would have thought. I asked him about his job, and quickly learned that it entails so much more than I would have thought. I thought that accounting was just about plugging in math formulas, but I learned that, in fact, more complicated dimensions of the job entail logic and creativity. Likewise, I had a chance to share the ins and outs of teaching, including all of the skills and responsibilities that I hadn’t known about prior to my internship experience. On the whole, I thought that it was quite interesting to have the opportunity to discuss professional practice with another new professional. Even though our specific job responsibilities are quite different, I became more aware that, while teaching is a difficult practice to master, other professionals are overcoming similar hurdles and coming to view their professions in a new light as well.

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Keeping my chin up

Wow, what a week! There have been so many highs and lows that I don’t even know where to begin!

This week I started the implementation of MY unit on WWII/The Holocaust. I quickly learned that, even thought I had all of my plans for the week set ahead of time, the lessons continued to evolve throughout the week. Also, I am finding that I am still tweaking things that are coming up later in the unit in order to better meet students’ needs. Part of me wonders if I should be more prepared, but I think that my overall preparation this week was pretty good this week and that it is smart practice to adapt and change lessons in a unit if necessary. This unit will last through the end of April. I am definitely finding that it is hard to plan a unit of that length in a limited amount of time. Luckily I had time during the PSSAs to locate resources and outline each week of my unit, but I still feel like a fair bit of the unit is by no means “set in stone.” Has anyone else who has planned a unit had this experience? How concrete should unit plans be? How much room for changes along the way should there be?

This week has also been demanding in other ways. For this entire unit, I will be teaching all of my mentor’s classes. Since it is the same course, there is technically only one prep, but each of the classes has its own strengths and needs. My second period is usually half asleep, so engaging the students is often a challenge. In contrast, most of the students in my new 9th period class are talkative and have high energy. Classroom management/behavior management can be particularly difficult with this group. Each of the other class’s has its own energy level. I am finding that it is really difficult to predict how each class will respond to a lesson and how I can adapt what I am doing so that I will better engage the students in any given class. Thus, in my future lesson planning I want to start thinking through “potential problems/things to consider” for each of my class periods. Knowing that each class period has its own “vibe,” I want to be better prepared to engage my students throughout the day. 

There have also been a couple of other challenges this week. First, teaching all day is exhausting! Prior to this unit, I often assisted my mentor by circulating around the room, helping students, etc. However, I also had a lot of “down time.” There were times when it was appropriate to be sitting down. Now that I am responsible for these afternoon classes, I am up on my feet quite a bit more during the day. 

Critical feedback this week also posed a difficult challenge. On Thursday, my supervisor observed a lesson that I had put in a great deal of thought, time, and effort into planning. I differentiated my instruction by assigning articles based on students’ ability levels, created groups that accounted for the social and academic needs of students as well as their reading levels, and worked hard to create a coherent lesson with clear transitions. However, despite these efforts, my lesson fell short in two key areas in particular: delivery/classroom presence and facilitation of student-to-student interaction.

After my observation, I was pretty discouraged and mad at myself. Why are these things that everyone else is getting so hard for me? Why,even though I know what best practice is, am I still making these errors? And why am I still stiff during my delivery and failing to interact as authentically with students as I should?

This time last year, I would have given up. At Allegheny, I was an excellent student and was used to being praised for   my level of insight on my essays, my willingness to go above and beyond assignment expectations, etc. In my view, the Becky of March 2011 would not have been willing to persist in working on something that she did not excel at. In my college experiences, I sometimes avoided engaging  in activities that I felt that I was weak in. For instance, although I was an active member in my sorority, my activity was very selective. I participated in activities, but often shied away from more social, crowded events because I knew that I was not the best at making small talk. Looking back, if I had put myself in those situations more often, I would have had opportunities to develop my interpersonal skills.

By contrast, I am now putting myself in a situation (and staying in a situation) that is challenging me on so many levels. Every day I am keenly aware of the fact that I am struggling in some critical areas that are not struggles for others. At the beginning of my internship experience, I viewed my struggles as signs of my being dumb and perhaps signs that I would never have the “stuff” to be a good teacher. While I still have moments of doubt and concern, I am now willing to stick things out and recognize that this is part of my process. I am doing the best that I can and have changed significantly throughout the year. Yes, some of the things that are only starting to “click” for me now are things that some of my peers nailed practically from day one. Since I have let a bit of my inner perfectionist go, I can now accept this reality and focus on moving forward and working on my own goals rather than assessing my worth as a teacher in comparison to others. 

Because I have developed a more positive and self-accepting attitude throughout the year, I was able to quickly rally after Thursday’s lesson and revamp my lesson for today. Based on my feedback, I knew that I have to work harder to engage my students’ during lessons. Also, I have to vary the modes that I use so that I can maintain student interest and motivation throughout the lesson. Originally, I planned on having my students work in their groups to prepare brief summaries and explanations of the articles that they had read. Upon reflection, I decided that that idea was pretty boring. Thus, I decided to have my students discuss the concept of adaptation and then work in their groups to adapt their various essays on German youth. Specifically, I had each group adapt its essay into a brief scene that would best highlight the key beliefs and ideas articulated through the reading. While there were definitely some issues, I was quite pleased with how it went! Across the class periods, students were engaged, and a number of students commented that it was “fun” and “a good idea.” Also, I noted that one of my students from 3rd period who rarely offers to participate actually raised her hand to share an idea today! Yes, this might seem small, but I am celebrating that moment because I know that it was big for that student. I hope to continue to reach and engage my more reluctant students throughout the remainder of the year.

Next week will be a short week leading in to spring break. In light of that holiday, I am already anticipating that maintaining student engagement and interest might be particularly challenging. I am looking forward to refining my plans for next week so that I can make the most out of the time that we have together next week!

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Coming out from behind the curtain

This past week was a little bit rough because my mom gave me some “tough love.” Sometimes I share how my day at school went, relating the highs and lows. On one particular day when I was dwelling on the lows and related that I was frustrated that I keep making the same mistakes, my mom essentially called me out for hiding behind my shyness and letting it keep me back. Even though I was initially defensive, I had to admit that she had a point. Am I afraid of being successful? Or of falling short even when the shyness is stripped away? Am I using shyness to keep me from feeling completely inept?

Through that conversation, I now realize that I need to essentially “just do it” and act confident. By deciding that shyness will not be a primary issue or roadblock, I will be better able to focus on other areas of my teaching that need to be addressed (such as lesson planning, classroom management, differentiation, facilitating discussions, etc.)

Last week and this weekend I have had opportunities to practice taking more initiative. At PERC, I had the opportunity to interview with two school districts. Although the interviews were far from perfect, I think that they both had a few high points. However, the hardest thing was definitely displaying confidence and pride in the work that I have done through my internship. I have always been hard on myself, so I really need to practice looking for and believing in my strengths and the progress that I have made this year.

I also took initiative this weekend when I decided to draft a letter to the parents on the 8th grade team. Since I am planning and implementing the upcoming unit on the Holocaust, I thought that it would be a good idea to 1) let the parents know that I am planning and implementing the unit 2) that some of the material is sensitive/difficult and I want to support their children and 3) that I will be available to address any of their questions or concerns. My mentor did not suggest doing this but thought that it was a great idea. I hope that this letter will help contribute to my students’ success and well-being throughout the unit.

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The line between “messiness of learning” and just plain old mess

This week, my students were taking the PSSA, so I had time to continue planning for my WWII/Holocaust unit and to do more research for my action research and seminar projects. If anyone is looking for an informative, intriguing, and reader friendly book on classroom management,  I would highly recommend Fred Jones’ Tools for Teaching.

While reading this book and other resources, I was struck by how effective classroom management is a blend between structure and adaptability. It is critical for teachers to create structure in the classroom, yet to also recognize that the classroom environment is impossible to control completely. There will be times that individual students or groups of students will respond to tasks in ways that we do not anticipate, times that they will behave in inappropriate ways that we do not anticipate, etc. From what I have gathered,expert teachers recognize this and do not attempt to micromanage their classrooms.

However, I am still having trouble envisioning how I can strike this balance between firmness and adaptability. In order for students to enjoy learning, the classroom environment has to be warm and welcoming. Right now I feel like I am struggling with finding ways to articulate and discuss rules with students without coming off as overbearing and thereby creating a tense classroom environment.

At the same time, I now see that there is definitely a difference between “the messiness of learning” and a plain old mess. Without some structure, limits, etc. students do not know where or how to apply their intellectual energies. As a result, they will, in most cases, opt to fill up the allotted time by socializing with their peers instead. My experience at my book club today underscored this reality. Even though the book club is not a class, I want the students to get something out of it. Originally, my goal was for students to, at the very least, learn more about their own and their peers’ reading preferences.

Today our meeting was a plain old mess. The students who showed up seemed to have a good time, but I did not adequately plan for or structure the meeting. Consequently, students gave me about ten minutes of their time in the beginning before dispersing around the library to sign in/sign up for Goodreads. I had shown the students how to do this the week before, but I noticed that only a couple of students spent more than five minutes looking up books. Instead, they began to socialize.

At the beginning, middle, and end of the meeting I felt quite frustrated and helpless. I felt nervous when the students first started to trickle in from their study halls and was not sure how to facilitate meaningful discussions among the students. Subsequently, I lost control of the group and got mad at myself for not planning for the meeting more adequately. Finally, I started to berate myself for not stepping up and leading the club in an effective manner.

For future book club meetings, there are several things I can do to make the time more meaningful for my students. First, I can have students sign up for passes during English class if they are truly interested in coming to book club. That way, I will know how many students to expect and be able to prepare the space, activities, and materials accordingly. Also, by doing this I will limit the problem of students who have been coming up simply because they decide that they want to escape their real study hall periods. Last but not least, I need to start planning more structured, engaging activities for the book club. The book pass activity is not working out very well since, on any given day, only about 10-12 students show up and many of them are reading the same books. If anyone has any suggestions, I am looking to try something new!

One final set of questions that my book club experience has left me with is, “How is positive discipline/behavior management in the classroom different from positive discipline/behavior management in extracurricular environments? What elements should stay/look relatively the same? What elements, if any, are not appropriate to implement in extracurricular environments?”

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PSSAs, unit planning, and unexpected connections

One of the biggest takeaways from this week- the PSSAs are intense! Even though I will not be able to proctor the PSSA tests, I did receive the traning. I was shocked by how strict some of the guidelines are. For instance, the students are ONLY allowed to read a book when they are done testing. In the past, teachers have shown movies to students once everyone in the room was done testing. Now, however, students are not even allowed to read magazines or draw.

 The overall atmosphere at the school has undergone a noticeable shift. This week, my mentor and I administered an in-class writing test in prepration for the writing PSSA test. My mentor told me that, in an effort to replicate the context of that testing situation as closely as possible, we would not provide students any help, instruciton, or feedback during the writing process (which lasted Mon.-Thurs.). It was very weird and I regretted the fact that I had little time to interact and connect with my students.

However, I was a bit relieved when an administrator came in for a walk through observation. Later in the day I found out that he visited a number of rooms to see how teachers were preparing their students for the PSSAs. What would the administator have thought or said if I was doing something that didn’t look like the actual PSSA? Would I have been able to confidently defend my instructional decisions? This surprise observation made me more aware of the fact that I need to always be prepared to field questions regarding the rationales for my lessons.  On this particular occasion, I got lucky. It looked like a PSSA, so I did not have to explain what the students were doing and why they were doing it it much detail.

Even though this week was rather dull, it did afford me with time to start planning my upcoming unit on WWII and the Holocaust. Right now, I have come up with a basic conceptual focus. I think that it needs some work, but right now I am interested in exploring the questions, “What is resistance? How did individuals resist injustices during the Holocaust?” Throughout the unit, I want to complicate the concepts of conformity and resistance for students. This is definitley the most exciting yet also the most overwhelming responsibility of my internship thus far. My mentor has told me that students usually enjoy this unit. I really want the students to learn a lot about themselves and this period of history. If anyone has any good resources, please let me know!

Finally, the week ended on a positive note. Since I hadn’t had many opportunities to talk to students this week, I assumed that they would forget about my 10th period Friday “book club.” Admittedly, I have felt like the book club had hit a bit of a wall. After the first book pass meeting, I found that there were never quite enough people to get a truly interesting book pass going. However, since I don’t have funding, I have been trying to think of different things to do.

To my surprise, a few students from different periods asked me today if we were going to have a book club meeting today! I honestly had no plans and assumed that the students would not be interested in seeing me after the writing test. Also, I knew that the students have a Blackboard vocabulalry assignment due tonight, so I assumed that no one would be interested.

In response to the unexpected student interest, I decided to show them Goodreads and help them set up accounts if they were interested. Even though the monitoring/teaching was a bit hard in the library (since the computers are not all located in the same area of the room), quite a few of the students seemed interested. However, beyond that it was nice to see that, despite its flaws, the book club continues to attract a wide range of students. I have a solid handful of avid female readers who do well in English who have come each week, but another group female students stopped by as well. One student really struggles in class can sometimes can have an attitude, so it was great to have an opportunity to chat with her in a more relaxed setting. Also, a couple more boys stopped by today! Even though I suspect that some of these students were mostly looking to get out of a strict teacher’s study hall, they each checked Goodreads out and offered suggestions for what they would like to see and do in future book club meetings. If anyone has any suggestions for things that I can do to build this club up a bit, please let me know. I am toying with the idea of finding a cheap set of books to offer to students who are interested in reading something together, but I am open to any and all ideas!

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