Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Classroom Community Day Two: Name Games

There used to be a man at Peaceful Valley Scout Ranch in Elbert, Colorado by the name of Chuck Forsyth. He was the ranger, the man in charge of all the support for camp. He lived there year round, took care of all the facilities and got trucks running again at the start of the summer. He bought all the tents, tools, and lumber for camp. He probably did an armful of other things I don't even know about.

He has a full gray beard and piercing eyes. He has a great sense of humor, but you didn't see it before he got to know you. When I first starting working at camp, all I knew was that if I broke anything, I'd be having a talk with him, and knowing that I made sure I didn't break anything.

Chuck had gotten to know me a bit better by my sixth year at camp, and he told me about a staff member who had worked there before my time.

"He did the most important thing any staff member could do," Chuck said. "He learned the two most important words for every scout."

What are those, I wondered. Merit Badges? No, that's lame. Scout Oath and Law? Not two words.

"Their first and last names," Chuck said.

I had a teacher in high school, Father Burshek, who taught world religion (comparative theology) to the seniors every year. He was considered by the student body to be one very cool guy. He had a love for music and one of the most comprehensive collections of jazz music (rumor had it) in the world. I was surprised when he greeted me by name in my sophomore year. The only time I'd seen him was when he gave Mass one Thursday a semester. I'll never forget how cool I felt - "Father Burshek knows me. He knows my name."

Rumor has it that Father Burshek flipped through the Rolodex of student names and pictures before the start of every year, memorizing the names of every student in the school. All the incoming freshmen, any transfer students, and reviewing everyone else1.

All teachers, I think, know how important it is to learn the names of their students. But few teachers do everything they can to ensure their students know the names of each other. I attended a tracked school (school within a school) of 360 students, but never attended my core classes with the same 90 students every year for three years. I should have known everyone's name by the end of middle school, but I think I might have known only half, and knew only ten or twenty after my first year there. Middle school was not a good time for me. Knowing names works both ways - you feel more comfortable when people address you by name, and less anxious when you know the names of everyone.

There are two name games I play on the second day of class, but I'm sure there are many more and probably some better ones out there2. Name tags are great too, I think. I used to think they're kind of silly, but I think they can help a lot. You might not wear them for these games though, as it sort of defeats the purpose.

In the first, everyone sits in a circle. The first student says their name, then the person to their right says the first student's name and their own name. Then the person on their right says the names of the first and second students, and their own name. This continues through the whole group until the first student who started says the name of everyone in the class.

  1. The second and third person to go don't really need to listen to everyone else say their name, only the first person and those who are waiting to go. You could possibly fix this by making everyone repeat everyone's name at the end of the game, if you had the time.

  1. The names are repeated 20 to 40 times, depending on the number of students in your class.
  2. Students don't get to choose who's names they remember, they have to say everyone's, whether the student is in their social group or not.

The second game I enjoy a lot more. You'll need six tennis balls. The students all stand in a circle. There are a few rules: you have to say the name of the person you're throwing the ball to before you throw it; each person should get the ball once, but only once; you need to remember who threw the ball to you, and who you threw the ball to. The teacher can start by saying the name of a student and throwing one ball to them. Once you have the ball again, make sure everyone has thrown it once. Then, tell students they will throw again following the same pattern as before; everyone throws to the same person they did during the last round, only faster. You repeat as many times as you want, eventually adding more tennis balls and throwing them to the first student at intervals after the first ball is thrown.

  1. Some students might get a little rowdy when they get to throw balls around the room. I tell them if they drop a ball, they have to start over. Usually this way they throw more gently and work together to make sure everyone catches the ball.
  2. I was the kid everyone made fun of in gym class - my bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is pretty low. Some kids who, like me, can't catch, might feel the eyes of their classmates, but you can encourage a positive atmosphere. The countermeasures for the first disadvantage can help here too.

  1. Everyone knows the name of the person they threw to during the game and hopefully picked up some other names as well (the names are repeated as many times as you play, which could be a lot if you go all the way to six balls, no mistakes).
Previous - Day One: Information Sheets
Next - Day Three: Classroom Grid
1. There were apparently at least two rumors about Father Burshek and I can't really confirm either one. The Rolodex makes a nice teacher legend though. Go back.
2. If you know other name games, you should definitely leave them in the comments. Go back.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Edupunk: New Name, Same Practice

I don't get it. Maybe it's because I was too much of the nerd in school, and never was a part of punk culture, so it doesn't resonate with me like it does with Alec. Or maybe I'm missing a crucial part of the definition. The Wikipedia stub states:
"Edupunk is an ideology referring to teaching and learning practices that result from a do it yourself (DIY) attitude."
If that's all there is too it, edupunk to me doesn't seem new, revolutionary, or going against any system. The cost or corporate ownership isn't an issue to me. If it works, use it. If is doesn't, don't.

Ms. Michetti beat me to the punch here. If you don't improve improve on something that already works really well, why do it yourself? If all the available resources stink, of course you would do it yourself. It's what a good teacher would do. As Ms. Michetti says, "it's just good practice."

Case in point: I'm co-teaching grade 7 English next semester. Since I'm in a sense mentoring the other teacher, I started planning my units by using the same textbook he is, because I saw it as the easiest way for him to improve his teaching.

I chose a unit called "Dragons." Dragons are cool, right? The students would have fun with it, I could read aloud Eragon for the first few minutes of every class, and there was an assignment in the textbook where students pretend they're on a radio show - perfect for making podcasts. And technology is great for at-risk students.

So I started writing my first lesson plan.

Luckily, built in safeguards stopped me before I got too far. Theory into Practice has been around for a while, but Relevancy/Schooliness is new. I considered adding it a while ago, and Clay convinced me of it's importance. There will be at least one kid in class who won't see the immediate relevancy of learning about dragons. Or drawing one. And that kid will be right. Not to mention the fact that the textbook wasn't using any educational theory I'm familiar with, nor did it differentiate. So no more Dragon unit, and no more textbook. The textbook doesn't work for me, so I'll do it myself.

I plan a unit on gender roles; relevant because the girls get stuck cleaning the classroom way more often than the boys. The girls have something to gain and the boys have something to lose, maybe even beyond the schoolyard (I hope). We'll read A Girl Named Disaster aloud as part of the unit, which will fit in nicely with our next unit on immigration, which has it's relevancy in the riots that happened last month in Johannesburg and just down the road 30 km in Jane Furse. And I'll differentiate and scaffold as much as I want. Just as much as I did before anyone was calling it edupunk.

Here's the thing though: my counterparts at the school have spent the majority of their professional careers teaching under the Bantu education system. They were taught during Apartheid. They are going to need a lot of additional professional development to get to the point where they can connect lessons to specific educational theories. So when I teach my coworkers to lesson plan, we use lessons from the textbook. In the teacher's guide, each lesson is already paired with it's Learning Outcomes and Assessment Standards (standards set at the federal level). Instead of listening to a 30 minute to hour long lecture everyday1, they're getting direct instruction, followed by modeling, followed by guided practice. Occasionally, they get to do group work, science experiments, or create authentically assessed projects. For the teachers, the textbooks work relatively better. They may be sold by a corporate power like Oxford University Press, but it's closer to good practice. So they use it. Why not?

1. I'm not saying lectures are the root of all evil, I'm just saying you don't use them every time you teach. Go back.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Teaching Reading: A Reflection and a Way Forward

Starting my semester as a student teacher, I was asked to cover two district required books with the students: The Pearl by John Steinbeck and Night by Elie Wiesel1. I tried to use what I had learned at university - methods that were supposed to be on the cutting edge: book clubs, sticky notes, bookmark prompts, double-entry journals. It could have been beautiful, but it was a failure. Because the most critical element in life-long reading was missing.


You can't mix mandated reading with methods that encourage life-long reading. It doesn't work. No one outside of school has a required reading list written by someone else. That's ridiculous. Readers read what they want to.

District required reading is schooly.

Ever since reading Daniel Penac's Better than Life, I've been struggling with the question "How do I hang the Reader's Bill of Rights in my classroom and still teach reading?"

And now I know the answer: Teach reading; don't teach themes in specific books to the whole class when only half the class is interested in reading the text.
  1. The right to not read.
  2. The right to skip pages.
  3. The right to not finish.
  4. The right to reread.
  5. The right to read anything.
  6. The right to escapism.
  7. The right to read anywhere.
  8. The right to browse.
  9. The right to read out loud.
  10. The right not to defend your tastes.
My answer, I think, addresses rights two through ten. The critical prerequisite for number one (from the teacher's point of view) is that students have a text that interests them. My job is to help them find it. If they still choose not to read during class after we've found a book that they will read at some point, then I've fulfilled my duty, I think. They still have to do something productive during that time and not disrupt others' reading (their right to read anywhere). A student may still choose not to read though, and I'm not sure what to do with that yet. The argument "you can choose not to read, but you'd be choosing to receive a poor grade" is lame, in my opinion.

Models of Unschooly Reading Instruction

Following are the various models I've come up with for properly teaching reading as I see them. Each model is rated on a scale of 1-10 (1 is low, 10 is high) on Constitutionality (ability to adhere to the Reader's Bill of Rights), Potential Learning (ability for the method to meet standards or teach specific themes/genres to the entire class), and Unschooliness (how real world the learning is).

A. Students read what they want individually

Students choose any book, periodical, collection of short stories, or other text. Student provides evidence of their learning by writing a summary, book report, or creates another form of evidence. Students share what they're reading with others. Struggling readers are given support with their trouble area and offered texts that match their reading level.

Students can exercise all of their rights, but must read at least one text in full, or in their book report explain why they chose not to finish or chose to skip pages in a certain section.

Constitutionality: 9
Potential Learning: 5
Unschooliness: 8, depending on available forms of evidence students can submit

B. Students choose from a wide range of books on a broad topic and read individually

The teacher identifies a broad theme (like historical fiction, diversity, socio-economic status) and finds a significant number of books and genres (novels, short stories, graphic novels) students can choose from. Fifty might be enough. Students can submit books to be considered. (Though they would have to read them and understand the theme to know if they could be considered, in which case maybe they won't learn anything new in that unit but instead should focus on something else. But they have a right to reread, and their presence in discussion might be beneficial to other students, so perhaps they read the same book, but explore an additional element or go deeper.) Struggling readers are given support with their trouble areas and texts that match their reading level. This option requires a lot of work from the teacher, however.

Constitutionality: 7
Potential Learning: 8
Unschooliness: 7

C. Book Clubs or Literature Circles

Students are introduced to six or eight books on a narrower theme (like color, poverty, coming of age). Students submit their first, second, and third choice of book. All students are guaranteed to get one of their top three choices. Throughout the unit, students participate in book clubs where they clarify the plot line and discuss character motivations, themes, and personal opinions. Or, in literature circles, students take part in two groups: one that discusses the specific book and another small group that discusses major themes and connections between texts with one student from each book club group in the second small group - like a jigsaw group.

Constitutionality: 4
Potential Learning: 9
Unschooliness: 6 (even though book clubs are more common place outside of school, the narrow range of book choices is a more schooly thing)

D. Real World Reading

I'm coining the term, but have no idea if someone else has tried it. It's only an idea in my head right now, so who knows if it will work.

Students choose any text to read. They may choose to read it alone. They may choose to read a text with other students and form a book club. Some students may choose not to finish a book and leave the book club. Other students may finish their first book and decide to join a book club to start their second. Students may decide to investigate a particular theme and form literature circles (with members reading books individually or in book club groups). Students (as individuals or in groups) may ask the teacher to guide them to a group of books with a specific theme or of a certain genre. They may choose to read with a partner. They may choose not to read during classroom reading time but work on something else, like a writing piece.

Students complete a reading portfolio with evidence of their reading throughout the semester or year. This may include group projects from book clubs or individual work. Students know and understand the state standards, and each possible form of evidence students have the option of producing is matched with the standards it addresses. Students may propose additional forms of evidence. Portfolios must meet all the state standards.

The amount of teacher work involved is enormous. The payoff would be too.

Constitutionality: 9
Potential Learning: 10
Unschooliness: 10

I think these models could be set in a progression - A & B during first term, C during second, and D during the last semester.

How do I deal with the required reading? Like the teacher down the hall did when I was student teaching: give them three days in class to read it on their own and don't formally assess it. Or maybe I'll read it aloud. Maybe. But I still won't assess it.

I'm sure I'm missing some methods for teaching reading - please leave me your criticisms of these models and the many other possibilities in the comments.
1. I think every teenager should read Night. Especially if they have no idea what the holocaust was, like my students. But I won't force it on them. I might do a webquest to get them interested though. Go back

Monday, June 2, 2008

Classroom Community Day One: Information Sheets

Charlie commented on my post where I did Clay's meme:
My question is what are truly effective ways to address bullying in schools. It seems students suffer so much and so many are unaware of this going on. How do we address it to make it stop? I've googled the bullying sites and seen the nifty programs but it still seems like too little.
My philosophy of teaching stems from my social experiences as a middle school student. To prevent bullying in my classroom, I plan to use the first month in a classroom for community building.

The last time I had a classroom of my own I was student teaching during second semester. So I haven't tried using these methods on my own. But other teachers I met during my college years have used the methods I'm detailing here.

Day One: Ask students to fill out an information sheet about themselves.

This is a nice way to get to know a few details about your students at the start of the year. I also use this day to take pictures of all my students which I then turn into flashcards and begin to learn students' names. Learning names is one of my weak points, but by doing this I usually know all their names within the first two weeks of class.

My information sheet looks something like this:


Class period:

I own a: tape player CD player mp3 player/ipod cell phone

I have access to a computer at home: yes no

I have access to the internet at home: yes no

Number of siblings:


Sports I like to play:


After school today I will:

This weekend, I will:

I think I am:
The second section helps me with a couple of ways I might try to bring technology into the classroom. When I grade writing, I like to read and think aloud and record for the student. Based on the responses I can decide if I want students to buy a tape or a CD-RW. If many have an mp3 player I might e-mail them the files or put them on a password protected website. I also want to know how fair it is for me to ask for typed work depending on the amount of time they have to complete an assignment. I'm also planning on using Twitter to break down the schoolroom walls. From this information and the student's age, I can also start to think about the socio-economic status of my students and their previous successes in school. This will inform my teaching but also just a few of the challenges I might face in helping to build community.

The third section I take and start making a grid for every class. Each grid has a space for every student with some of their facts written in, but without their name. Of course I don't put in any information that might have been shared in confidence.

On the Day Three, I'll pass out one copy of each form to the students and give them about an hour to fill in all the spaces. I might start the class with a quick icebreaker. I also might choose to associate a small grade with it and make a few different versions of the sheet to discourage cheating, but usually just saying "don't use this time as an excuse to talk to your friends" and "don't copy off of each other's sheets" works well enough. I put myself on the grid too and try to complete my own sheet modeling the activity and getting to know the students as well, finding the ones I share common things with (I don't usually remember who is who from filling out the grid during the previous two days).

Day Two: Two Truths and a Lie Name Games