Thursday, August 20, 2009

Things I Learned

This year I tried something new with my classes during the first couple of days. And I've found it very educational.

In the past I've done the syllabus and rules on the first day. I always get so excited to meet the students, but then I feel exhausted from talking all class period and disenchanted by the glazed, bored faces staring back at me (or at the clock on the wall). I so much want them to know that I'll only ever talk at them like this two or three more times during the year, but that's a hard-sell after 45 minutes of talking-teacher-head, and I can see them trying to decide what to tell their counselor to increase their chances of getting changed out of the class.

And, that's only one problem. Because of the nature of school, classes, and individual student needs my classes aren't usually complete (kids moving in and out) until the end of the second week. Last year we had the first three days, then during the second week of school Bobby had surgery. I was out the whole week with him and when I returned on the third week my second hour had 18 new students bringing the total to 24; so 75% of the class knew the sub better than they knew me. It made for a rough start, but it did get better. So, with all of those changes happening I end up going through the syllabus several times.

This year I decided to use something one of my colleagues used last year. I talked briefly about the class, talked them through a survey, then gave them an assignment. They were surprised at homework on the first day, but then relieved that it was pretty easy. I gave them each an index card. They folded it in half, wrote their name at the top, on the left side wrote down three things good teachers do, and on the right listed three things good students do. We talked about the fact that a good teacher usually teaches something, so things like "brings food every day" or "throws parties" or "never gives homework" weren't really going to cut it. I wanted them to think about the teachers they learned a lot from and enjoyed learning from. Then think about the things they have done when they were learning a lot or things they had seen other effective learners do. I told them that completed card was their ticket back in the room the next day.

I had a 100% completion rate! It's a great way to start the year: everybody had done their homework and I'm hoping to keep building that habit!

The things they had written down were quite telling. I still had a few folks ask for no homework, less work, or trips to the gym. But, I was surprised at the maturity and awareness reflected in some of their observations. One girl asked for a sense of humor but ability to stay on task. Another asked for help when she doesn't understand. One boy asked that we get out of the classroom sometimes. They wanted to be kept informed about their grades and be given specific instructions on assignments. We negotiated the amount of homework and one class asked for points based on their attendance and participation. Overall, they seemed to know how they wanted to learn, but more importantly they generally sincerely seemed to want to learn. That made me unspeakably happy.

There were some responses though that made me want to ask what horrible things they had experienced in previous classes. I'm sure we all have memories of the burned out, stressed out teacher freak outs. And, it was clear how strongly those must effect our students. At least 70% of the students had some variation on the theme "be nice." And one student asked that I "not yell."

We've been talking over both sides of the agreement, my responbilities and theirs. I'm drafting a contract that we'll all sign. But I'm keeping all of these cards in my desk.

Teachers are people, too. We have bad days just like students do (and I think we need to let them have those bad days, it's rough being a teenager). But, we also need to remember that our bad days can have a devestating effect on our ethos and a demoralizing effect on the students who are the victims of our irritation/frustration/wrath.

"Be nice" is to me like that all-encompassing favorite catch phrase of teachers: "be respectful." It sounds so simple, but can be so hard to live out.

This year I'm going to try really hard (and feel miserable when I fail) to be consistently nice to my students.


KnittingKel said...

That sounds like a great way to start off the year! I wish some of my teachers would've done that.

Arctic Knitter said...

Great ideas! I hope the rest of your year goes well (and that our class changes are over soon!)

alaskamommy said...

Man, why couldn't my high school geometry teacher been like you? I wonder if the hairy-eared man still teaches at Service..... Good for you for making the first day something interesting and setting the tone for the year.