My One Great Lesson This Year

12/26/2010
The first 13 colonies...
Image by anna_bencze via Flickr

This has not been my most successful year as a teacher.

Even so, I had one great lesson.

My 7th grade social studies class was learning about the British and Dutch colonies that eventually became the first thirteen American states.

To begin my lesson I made a grid of nine possible tasks my student could do in the next two weeks.

I assigned each task a separate spot in the classroom and asked students to stand in the spot of the task that most appealed to them.

I immediately noticed that my group of six girls who always wanted to work together did not all choose the same task. Interesting.

I looked around the room and noticed that three of the tasks did not have a single student interested in it.  They all seemed like good tasks to me, but it has been a long time since I’ve been a 12-year-old.

What would have happened had I assigned one of those unpopular choices as the assignment for everyone? Or if, thinking I was offering differentiation, I had given my class a choice of those three unpopulated tasks

I shudder at the thought, especially since I’ve been guilty of both approaches more often than not.

Here are the six tasks students chose:

Create a 3-dimensional map of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam;

Write and enact a conversation between as many colonists as are in the group;

Write and produce a newscast as if television news covered the colonies;

Make broadsides or brochures aimed at convincing people to relocate to the colonies;

Create a map of one or more of the colonies showing some aspect of the colonies not usually seen on maps of them;

Write a letter or deliver an oral report to King George III about life, development and events in one or more of the colonies.

Gezicht op Nieuw Amsterdam by Johannes Vingboo...
Image via Wikipedia

Each group was about evenly divided between boys and girls and each had students from different levels of prior performance. The students had self-selected more heterogeneous groups than I could have created.

I told the students to get to work and they did.

Each group immediately sat down and started to plan the execution of their task. As I wandered the room I heard the students discuss approaches, talk about what kind of map they should make, divide their tasks into parts, discuss which students were better suited for different parts of the task.

I asked each group if they had any questions but none did.

They didn’t need me.

Their excitement was palpable.

When the bell rang to end the period they kept on talking. I had to throw them out of the room.

Every day for the next two weeks, as soon as the students arrived in class they went to work in their groups. I’d walk around observing and being available for questions or instructions.

They didn’t need me.

At the end of the first week I asked each group to give me a brief oral report on their progress. All were making strong progress.

The map group was making a resource map. The persuasive writing group had decided to make a broadside AND a modern-style real estate brochure.
Scripts were being written and revised. Rehearsals were starting.

They didn’t need me.

In the second week I saw the 3-D model group folding brown packing paper as if they were doing origami. I wandered over and in response to my quizzical look one girl explained they were creating the ships for the harbor.  Then a boy asked me if I knew that Wall Street was called Wall Street because the Dutch had built a wall on that location as the boundary between the settlement and the natives. I smiled broadly as I walked to the next equally busy group.

They didn’t need me.

Midway through the second week four of the groups presented me with a joint letter explaining why they needed one more week to prepare their projects and presentations.

Granted.

Throughout the three weeks there were a variety of visitors to the room. All of them saw me wandering around fairly aimlessly watching and listening as the groups worked. Worked hard. Worked almost constantly.

They didn’t need me.

In the fourth week the students used Flip cameras to make videos of the newscast, the conversation, the oral report to King George III, and of the groups explaining their map, brochures and 3-D map.

They knew I had the Flips so they decided on their own how to do their presentations.

All the projects showed tremendous effort even if some of them showed less than tremendous execution.

The students clearly demonstrated they had learned a lot about the colonies and, in reflections they wrote afterwards they said they had learned about cooperation, about process, about how when they realized one approach was not working they were able to switch their work to a new one because they had discussed various approaches at the beginning.

They deeply appreciated that I had not steered them, that I let them choose their own assignments and decide on their own what they should include and how to accomplish them.

They didn’t need me.

Some of the projects proved to be more difficult than expected, usually because the students over-reached and weren’t totally up to the task.

These kids are very high achievers who are not used to failing. Some of them were a little dejected by their less-than-perfect work until one very sharp boy said that he was thrilled with his project no matter how bad it was because he finally felt challenged by a school assignment.

I was going to say something like that but, again, they didn’t need me.

I needed them, though.

I needed them so I could learn to let go, to get out of the way and to trust my students to work on their own.

I needed them to show me that students know how they learn best even if they can’t put it into words-

I needed them so I could realize that even an old teacher can learn new tricks.

I needed them to help me discover that if you just point kids in the right direction you might be surprised at how far they travel on their own.

Most of all, I needed them to let me have one great lesson this year.

I needed that most of all.

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Making a Point, Missing the Point

12/21/2010
Lava Lamp Red
Image via Wikipedia

I am still astounded at the new things I’m realizing now that I am responsible for taking a library that stopped progressing sometime in the mid-1970s and bringing it into the 21st Century.

The first thing is that organization, never my stro

ng point, is essential in a library. There is so much to keep track of: books, borrowers, the card catalog (more on that in a bit) return dates, trends (more on that, too, in a minute) and new releases.

There are likely more things to keep track of, but those are the ones I’ve discovered in my first two weeks. I hope some more experienced librarians I’ve come to know will inform me what I not paying attention to that I should also be focusing upon.

The second thing I’ve realized is that it is almost impossible to go directly from being an excellent 1970s library that unfortunately finds itself in 2010 to being a 2010 library ready for whatever develops in the next decade or two.
Let’s start with the card catalog.

The subject catalogue (
Image via Wikipedia

We have a lovely wooden card catalog unit with a matching four-drawer file cabinet. Both pieces would look terrific in my house. The newest item in that file cabinet is a clipping from the New York Times of November 8th about the results of the Presidential election held the day before.

The card catalog is an anachronism. I just uncrated 15 cases of books and have a stack of catalog cards about a foot high that I need to file. I can’t begin to estimate the amount of time it will take to do that filing, but I have to think there is a better use of my time than doing that.

One potentially better use of my time would be to organize our non-fiction section currently in total disarray. It does one no good to look up a topic, say the grammar of Old French (perhaps you wonder as I do why we have two books on that topic), and not have a clue where to find the books filed under 841 in the Dewey decimal system.

Or perhaps an even better use of my time would be to figure out how to sell off that non-fiction section (complete with six — count them! — six different encyclopedias) and the lovely wooden card catalog and file cabinet in order to buy a few e-readers.

My friend and colleague Lisa Nielsen has been hosting an interesting conversation about e-readers vs. books on her blog. The conversation started with the news that Principal James McSwain of Lamar High School in Houston, Texas got rid of many of the books in his school’s library and replaced them with e-readers and a coffee shop.

I’m not at all interested in the discussion of whether a

coffee shop belongs in a high school, but I am interested in the fact that Lamar High School can afford to buy a bunch on e-readers. So can a lot of schools around the country. But I’m scrounging for bookends.

A black metal bookend.
Image via Wikipedia

Think about that for a minute. E-readers for a rich district and school, but my poor students get to watch me try to scrounge bookends.

While you’re thinking about that I hope you come to understand that until we find a way to make sure every student in America has access to the same resources, whether they are great teachers, e-readers, or classrooms with heat, all the other talk is meaningless.

All the education reformers, all the politicians, all the teacher unions and all the teacher-training colleges are all avoiding the central issue affecting the future of education and the future of our country: the large and growing gap between the rich and the poor.

Find a way to fix that and you’ll see a whole bunch of other problems you waste time talking about disappear.

E-readers? Maybe someday.

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I’ve Failed, and I’m Almost Glad I Did

12/06/2010
A black and white icon of a teacher in front o...
Image via Wikipedia

Today was my last as a classroom teacher

My classes are being taken away from me.

My principal has lost confidence in my teaching ability.

So have I.

Oh, I do okay with my high-flying 7th grade class and they were distraught when I told them that I would not be their social studies teacher anymore. There were tears, some of them theirs.

I did not do so okay with my low-level 8th grade class.

I completely failed as their teacher.

I can make all kinds of excuses: there are 35 of them; all their other teachers struggle with them; they were a ‘bad’ class last year and more difficult students were added this year; and more, but the fact is, I did not reach them in any way.

Oh, there are one or two students in the class who I connected with, but not the other 33. My lessons were flat, my class management totally ineffective. A good day was one where the books flying around the classroom was the biggest behavior problem.

I had a double period with them today and they were oddly well behaved. Some of them even worked, but only three had the draft of their exit project written report due today. They did not know it was our last together.

They are not learning and I was getting more and more frustrated.
Tomorrow they will have a different social studies teacher. So will my other classes.

I have long championed the value of failure as part of the learning experience and I already know one of the ways this failure will benefit me (more on that in a moment), but it still does not feel very good to fail and I’d much rather have been a better teacher for those 8th graders and my three other classes.

Then again, had I not failed I would not have the exciting new opportunity presented to me.

Tomorrow I start my new job as the school’s media specialist.

I will be taking over the library and trying to drag it into the latter stages of the 20th Century.

I’d rather drag it into the 21st C. but the budget and some Department of Education regulations won’t allow it.

Even so, the late 20th C. is a big step forward from what we have now.

Now I know nothing about being a librarian.

TL09 View of School Libraries
Image by vanhookc via Flickr

Nothing.

No worries; I’m fortunate to have some of the best school librarians in the country offering to help me out.

Through Twitter I have ‘met’ Shannon Miller from the Van Meter, Iowa schools, DM Cordell, a retired school librarian from upstate NY, Beth Friese from Georgia, Melissa Techman from Virginia, and Susan Myers from South Carolina. I am sure they will get me off on the right track.

What one does as a media specialist is undefined and seems almost unlimited, but I think it will have a lot to do with helping students make connections that will be as important to their learning as those librarians will be to mine.

Today one door slammed shut.

Tomorrow a different one swings open.

I will go through it smiling.

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