Teaching methods-finding a balance

We’ve lately gotten a number of reminders (directives?) that classroom teaching needs to be student centered.  A significant portion of each class should be dedicated to having students “actively engage with the material.”  Of course, this begs the question of what actively engaging with the material really means.  It has even been suggested that the teacher not actively speak to the class for more than 10 minutes in the entire period.  Now, understand that I generally agree with this sentiment; student centered classrooms clearly increase student learning, but I come back to the concept of balance.

This is sticking with me today, in large part, because I am currently teaching the Arthur Miller classic drama, Death of a Salesman with my juniors.  Even though these are upper level students, they are not proficient at reading drama–especially an advance level drama such as this that incorporates flashback scenes and the like.  I know, with relative certainty, that if I simply assigned this to students to read on their own and then come to class ready to engage with the material, the large majority of them would be hopelessly lost.  Instead, I am using the time honored tradition of reading the play together as a class where students (and myself) choose parts to read aloud.  This is arguably not an engaging strategy as many students simply sit and listen.  In fact, many school leaders would probably say, I am doing my students a disservice by using this methodology.

But as a thoughtful teacher, I think through how I will present material to my students, and the benefits of this method are clear:

  1. Students have a shared understanding of the text.  We stop to discuss specific lines and scenes as we read them.  I hearken back to early in the play and make connections that they would not have made on their own.  After all, this is their first read; I’ve read the play a million times and recite large sections of it.
  2. Drama is meant to be seen and heard.  While students aren’t actors, I urge them to read with emotion, and I read my parts with necessary expressiveness.
  3. It’s generally an efficient method.  Time is always an issue in schools.  This ensures that the class accomplishes what it needs to in an appropriate amount of time.
  4. I don’t have to worry about students not completing the assigned reading
  5. While I don’t have precise data, students seem to like this method.  At the end of the semester, I always ask them what their favorite text was.  The drama that we read together is one of the most common answers.
  6. Again, I have no specific data, but students routinely tell me that they feel they have a better understanding of the drama we read in class than the material they read on their own.  These are developing readers; attacking the text together as a class helps them understand it on a deeper level.

I’m not necessarily saying this is the best method, but I think we need to remember, that in education, situations vary greatly.  There are times, in any discipline where this type of teaching may be an appropriate (or even the best?) option.  We are constantly encouraged to be thoughtful and reflective of our practice.  Sometimes that thought and reflection lead to lessons in which the teacher speaks for the majority of the class or some students simply listen and take it all in.  In our rush to change the way we do everything, we need to remember that sometimes, the old method works reliably.  Let’s pushed for student driven learning; let’s not throw everything out the window.  Let’s help one another find a healthy balance.


Technology and education


The last couple of days this week have been rough at my school in regards to technology.  First the internet went down for the majority of the day on Tuesday, then Aspen-our student management system and gradebook-has not been working properly either.  We are officially a google school, which means much of our work and information relies on the internet.  A the moment the internet went down, my public speaking students were delivering speeches using slideshows prepared on google drive.  In many ways, the school came to a screeching halt when we faced this technological mishaps.

In my frustrations with this situation, I began thinking about the role of technology in education.  Like I said, the large majority of our information that we use on a regular basis in my school is accessed through the internet.  We have technology listed as part of our evaluation as teachers.  We expect our students to use technology (google apps in particular) in their learning.  In the English department we even have competencies related to technology–meaning students must demonstrate competency with regards to various technological skills to receive credit for the course.  So when the technology doesn’t work, we are really left in a pretty bad situation.  I didn’t have a secondary lesson plan for my public speaking class when his slide show didn’t work, nor would it have been fair to expect him to simply present without it.

A question that is often asked of our society is-are we over reliant on technology?  It certainly seemed so this week.  But based on the system we have at our school, it doesn’t seem as though I really have too much of a choice but to be reliant on technology.  We often discuss how students need to have 21st century skills, but is it really my job, as an English teacher, to teach technology?  I don’t really have an answer, but the question keeps coming back to me.   I would say that we need to recognize that technology should be used as a tool–a tool for research, collaboration, publishing, etc., but not the be all and end all.

I once read an interesting comparison regarding technology in education and cereal.  You can put sugar on cheerios, but everyone still knows it’s just cheerios.  You can put technology into a bland lesson or assignment, but everyone still knows it’s a bland lesson or assignment.  How very true.  Sometimes this gets forgotten in our rush to have chromebooks for every student or whatever other technological marvel is out there.  Let’s not get wooed too easily but all the bells and whistles and have a reasonable and balanced discussion about when and how to effectively implement technology in the classroom.  Poorly implement technology doesn’t help anyone.


A great lesson

I was recently reading a series of posts in which teachers described the best lesson they have delivered in their class.  (I wish I had saved the link because I can’t find it for the life of me now!)  This has inspired me to share a lesson from my classes just before Thanksgiving break.  Is it the best lesson I’ve ever done?  Probably not.  In fact, I don’t know how I’d answer that question, but I was pretty darn happy with the outcome of this lesson.

So let’s talk background.  My students have been studying the Transcendental works of Ralph Waldo Emerson including Self Reliance.  For those of you unfamiliar with the work (or it’s been a looong time since you read it), in Self Reliance Emerson makes a case for nonconformity suggesting that finding your true self comes not conforming to societal expectations.  He argues that society demands conformity; in fact he argues that “the virtue in most request is conformity,” and that greatness comes from acting based on your own individual ideas and thoughts despite the potential consequences.

After reading the text, to get students to apply the meaning of Emerson’s words to various scenarios I gave them this worksheet which I stole from a colleague of mine, Tim Cain, who developed it many moons ago.  In fact the reference to BUM sweatshirts and Calvin Klein jeans much amused and perplexed my students as none of them was aware that popular clothing used to include stuff like this:


Despite the outdated nature of that particular statement, the worksheet is an effective tool for students to apply Emerson’s ideas and justify their answers with textual support-an important Common Core skill.

I then polled all my students as to whether or not their answered yes or no to each statement (yes=Emerson would agree; no=Emerson would not agree) and placed that on the board.  This looked a little something like this from one class:

  Yes No
1 7 13
2 0 20
3 0 20
4 0 20
5 20 0
6 3 17
7 5 15
8 0 20
9 0 20
10 0 20

Once these totals were on the board, I told them that as a class they must come to a consensus, and then I sat back and watched.  What of course happened was that one student took control and essentially demanded conformity of the others.  As I watched them, I began to see some of the recognize this.  In fact, in one class, one student said, “fine, I’ll just change my answer.”  Once they had come to consensus on the answers, I asked 3 of them to tell me which quotes they used to justify their answers.  The chart on the board now looked like this:

  Yes N0 Student 1 Student 2 Student 3
1 0 20 C C F
2 0 20 E E E
3 0 20 A F F
4 0 20 A A A
5 20 0 B A B
6 0 20 F F A
7 0 20 C E D
8 0 20 A A A
9 0 20 D D D
10 0 20 A B B

Again, I told them that they must come to a consensus, and again one student took control and began demanding conformity.  I could see it in their faces as they realized they were being expected to conform to make things easier while  others acted as nonconformists and fought for their answers.  They also did some beautiful close reading as they pointed out the finer points of each quote pulling out individual words from the quotes.  In one class, one student even went back to the text to look for the context of the quote to further prove his point.

As the class came to a close, I stopped the activity and administered a quick exit card of 3 questions:

  1. Why did I make you do this exercise?
  2. Did you personally act with self reliance during this exercise? why or why not?
  3. Why did you let (name of student) take charge and act as the class leader?

I followed this up later with further reflective discussion though they all answered correctly that this was an exercise in conformity.  I pushed them further to see how the society of the class demanded conformity and why they did or did not stand up for what they believed to be correct.  What I liked about this particular lesson is that it demonstrated in a concrete way how society expects conformity and how they react to that with the added benefit of close reading.

Was this the greatest lesson I ever taught?  Who knows, but it was certainly a successful lesson that I was proud of at the end of the day and my students walked away with a deeper understanding of the text.  I’m going to call this one a win.