Thursday, August 23, 2012

Out of the chute

So this year is a big step for me.  I left a school with people I loved, students I loved, and where my reputation preceded me with students that didn't even know me.  Even though I was a little burnt out when I left, my time there was the most formative of my 12 years of teaching as far as becoming a better teacher.

At my new school, I'm a newbie. I went in the cafeteria today and had to figure things out.  I'm occasionally not sure where the stairs are and I have yet to get a key to get in my room, as opposed to having a janitor's set worth at my old school.  Almost everything is different here for me, I'm the new guy, I have no reputation to fall back on and it's no longer a guarantee that I'm the one trying really weird stuff.  I have 4 preps, 1 of which I've never taught before and is an AP class, and another that I taught so long ago I think it was 3 iterations of curriculum ago.

All of that said, I love it.  Cutting myself loose from the sure thing and instant respect at my old school has made me really know that I have to get after it each and every day.  On every other day I don't start teaching until 11am because of plan, but I'm there at 7am in any case, and I work frenetically that whole time.

I'm at a school that has 1:1 technology and we use it every single day.  The only paper I've taken up has been signed syllabi and even half of those were sent in digitally.  I'm working with students every day to fully utilize the tech we've been gifted with.  For the past two days our network has struggled under the load of doubling the student population from last year.  So in one of my classes today we had no access at all.  No big deal, I made a few copies, but rather than them writing on them, they took pics, converted to pdf and wrote on that the same way we've been doing for the past week.  We've done new stuff that I borrowed, stuff that we made up and some things that were decided on the fly.  It's exhilarating!

I have some issues, some just with trying to generate my video content for two new classes while trying to wrap the curriculum into my head at the same time.  But wow, it is nice to get out of the chute and start to limber up the creativity.  I can't wait to get around the first bend and really hit my stride!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Questioning (by students)

After the success and transformation that researching flipping and associated things last summer, I decided I was going to spend part of this summer trying to shore up a few other deficiencies in my teaching style.  I've dabbled a bit with inquiry the past few years and wanted to head a lot more down that road.  As I was looking for some books to enlighten me (I know, books...we all learn in different ways, books are it for me!) I came upon a couple of good ones that I really feel will further transform my classroom the next couple of years.

The first was a book called Making Thinking Visible that I'll post about later in the week, it was great and my wife agrees, so it must be true.

The second really amazing book is Make Just One Change , with a subtitle of Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions.  It really hit me on the head with a gaping hole in my teaching.

I'm no teaching rookie, this will be my 13th year, and my 12th year of teaching Chemistry which is the bulk of my day.  A year or two ago, it came into my head that despite what my students and others may have thought, that I was not that amazing a teacher.  My kids love me, but we've all know a teacher at the school that the students love who isn't a good teacher.  One of my great fears is being that guy, hence the trying to improve a lot the past couple of years.

The subtitle pretty much explains the idea behind the book. It revolves around the QFT or Question Formulation Technique, which as presented is a pretty straighforward and some might say restrictive way to teach students to ask questions.  The essential path way is:

  • Produce your own questions
  • Improve your questions
  • Prioritize your questions
Behind each of these is a fairly strict method, for instance, for producing, there are four rules: 
  1. Ask as many questions as you can
  2. Do no stop to discuss, judge, or answer the questions
  3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated
  4. Change any statement into a question.
Let me say right now that I abhor restrictiveness and anything that smacks of a program in general.  To me a great flaw in education is that we find what works in one school and try to adopt it wholesale in another school, to mediocre at best and horrific at worst results.  So as I'm reading through the book and thinking about my classroom I'm chafing a little because the authors keep emphasizing how at least at the beginning you need to hew to the rules.

As I got further in though and thought more I remembered that students tend to excel best when they have a ton of freedom within a structure (one could make that argument about people in general I suppose).  I began to see how doing this for 45 minutes once at the beginning of the year to get them used to the structure and guidelines could have an amazing effect.

Fits in really well with a lot of philosophical constructs we use in education today like inquiry and flipped classrooms, but the focus is really on fostering independence and evaluation skills in students.  It doesn't just say, hey, have students ask their own questions, that would be good.  In fact, that is the smallest part of this. Instead, the bulk of the book is on developing evaluation skills and discernment to sharpen their questions to the best possible questions.

I realize that I talk a lot about wanting students to learn process as much as the right answers, but I have remarkably few things in place to support, encourage, and even demand that.  I think this method will make a big difference.  I'm sure my anti-programmatic self will rebel against a few parts of it, and am sure my kids will too.  But for anyone interested in making a small but significant change that doesn't upset all of their apple carts, this is a great resource that teachers should check out!