Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Teacher Blogging Challenge Meme

I had a neighbour question my blogging habits.  I told him I love to get my thoughts down in writing.  He scoffed, "But why put it out there for others to see?"  He seemed incredulous of the idea that this is a way to connect with like-minded souls or a way to share ideas in hopes of criticisms that will help further refine my thinking.  So, in solidarity with other teacher-bloggers, I'm doing this 20-day challenge, but, because I abhor single-sentence or repetitive posts, and to minimize the number of teaching posts here, I'll do it all in one go.

Favourite Book to use in Teaching:

The Drunkard's Walk - It's a fantastic read about how we misunderstand statistics.  (Anyone who bows at the feet of Malcolm Gladwell or many current educational writers should give it a thorough reading.)  It has a great analogy in it that I use often to explain human behaviour:  We're like molecules.  As a group, we are very predictable - if it gets cold we'll move closer together.  But individually, we're utterly unpredictable.  We know molecules will get closer together, but we've no idea the trajectory of each individual molecule.  So, when stats suggest that people do x because of y, they mean most people, which could include you, but we don't know if it will.  We just don't know.   This is yet another reason I prefer teaching philosophy over social science - it's more honest about the limits of our understanding of humanity.

Organizational Tips / Social Media:

I use a website, but I use it in a very specific way that I think works really well.  My youngest once had a teacher who had a website that was colourful and bouncy, but you'd have to click on 20 different icons to check for updates regularly, and I just stopped looking.  I couldn't easily tell what was new or old, and I couldn't tell what the focus of her homework should be on any given day.  And I could never remember what each of the creative icons actually were.  But it looked exciting!  My site is boring but clear, which, I think, is better for teaching.  I'm not out to sell something with my site!

I have a drop-down menu for each course.  The course homepage has general information, links to every assignment, and, for senior courses, the major due dates for the semester.  It's a resource page that doesn't change at all.  Then I have a Daily Work page first in the drop-down menu that has current assignments due at the top, and what we did in class each day (topics, notes, handouts, etc.) below.  It takes me less than 5 minutes a day to keep it current, and I update it every single day.  I have other pages in the drop-down menus with useful information specific to each course.  I also have a main home page with general policies and writing tips, and a page about myself with contact information.

I also use Facebook, even though we're cautioned not to use it with students.  It's just too handy.  Some people use password protected sites (Edmodo, Schoology...) that students might check periodically, but even with e-mail notifications, I find students don't check their e-mail as compulsively as I might.  The benefit of Facebook is that most kids are already on it, so when I post a reminder, they get it immediately without any intentional effort on their part.  I find I can post short, topical videos there for interest's sake, and students will actually watch them even though they're not officially assigned.  Then I can slide in a few articles later that many actually read and discuss the next day without any prompting from me.  Sneak teaching!

AND I take all assignments through e-mail.  I save the assignments as "student's name - assignment" in Microsoft Word which has a "review" feature that lets me write in another colour.  A benefit of this is having all student work saved in a folder on my desktop so I have a copy of all process work and final assignments.  Just scrolling through the names tells me who's in danger of failing because they have fewer titles beside their name relative to the rest of the class.  Assignments never get lost, and each student's progress becomes crystal clear.  Before I did this, I had a record of marks, but didn't actually have the first piece of writing to be able to compare it to the final piece.  It helps, also, to be able to check back on my own feedback to the student to better understand where they went wrong on a final copy.

What I'll Do Again:

Short clips from The Daily Show are gold!  It's politics, but it's funny.  As soon as kids see Comedy Central on the screen, they fall silent in anticipation.  

What I Won't Do Again:

I sometimes get impatient, and I want to get to the ideas in philosophy without labouring through the readings.  I hope they'll read it at home before class, but I know that's not always the case.  So, instead of assuming it's been read (and understood) and just soldiering on with the ideas, I need to read them all with students.  There were many misunderstandings this year that I think were the result of the pieces just being explained in class instead of closely read.  I also sometimes forget how difficult some of these readings are for them.  They've been raised on summaries of summaries in textbooks with headings and pictures, and they're a bit traumatized when I drop some Hume or Hobbes on them.

Formative Assessment:

Since we can no longer include marks for the formative assessments in the report card mark, I've been struggling to get students to do the little exercises that they've done for years.  I tell them that formative work can be used to alter a mark if it doesn't accurately reflect their ability, but that has little effect.  I might have to give them class time to do these - a hard choice in a school with MSIP already reducing class time by 20%.  In social science classes, I have challenges they do to practice the theories in their own lives (break a norm, etc).  In philosophy and civics they do lots of writing exercises and quickie quizzes.  I play jeopardy at the end of every unit too.

I Wish I Were Better At...

Getting kids to do work by the due date without the threat of losing late marks.  Since we can no longer deduct late marks or give zeros - highly motivating punishers that are rarely actually implemented - I end up chasing students for work. Instead of spending my prep time creating engaging lessons and assignment, I’m on the phone trying to get parents also to help motivate students to do the work. Doing “trickle marking” a little at a time as assignments are submitted instead of one big session on the due date and returning the work promptly after takes significantly more time. And it takes up valuable class time negotiating extensions with students when the majority miss the due date.

Part of the issue is with me, for sure. I hate the looseness of things being partly completed. Having assignments unfinished out there is like having a cupboard door ajar. And I’m horrible at motivating. I waffle between a nagging show of concern ('let’s solve this problem' or 'I’m disappointed you didn’t try your best'), scolding ('enough with the excuses already'), pleading ('you really need to do this'), threatening ('you could be suspended by a V.P.'), and humiliating (names of the negligent on FB). I’m too soft for this. I can deduct late marks and put deductions and zeros in my markbook no problem, but pleading does jack shit, and threatening them and humiliating them makes me a little weepy. It’s embarrassing.

A teacher at another school commented that my students aren’t submitting things on time likely because my assignment isn’t interesting enough for them. Well, if reading and writing about philosophy isn’t interesting enough to philosophy students, then I’m not about to get them to make the diorama-de-jour: a website, or tweet from a philosopher’s perspective, or make a philosopher’s facebook page. To be prepared for university courses in philosophy (and many other humanities courses), students need to be able to competently read essays and write essays. If they don’t like it, at least it’s better for them to find that out in high school. But, because the comment hit a nerve, I asked my students why so many completed work for another course instead of this one. Would they prefer a more creative assignment? They confirmed that it’s not because of interest, but because some teachers are still taking off late marks. I told them they’re wise for doing the other assignments first then.   Good for them for prioritizing.

BUT with a colleague’s help, I found a loop-hole: Students can lose marks on their seminar if they fail to implement comments I left on their essay (a new category on the seminar rubric – Refinement of Ideas). At the very least, they have to get the paper in before the seminar using my feedback to refine ideas for their presentation.

Classroom Management Tip:

Be interesting.  Instead of reading about facts, I tell stories.  The information's the same; just the method differs.  That's all I've got, but it been working for me so far!  The only time it falters is when I'm asked to teach outside of my subject area where I might not know the content well enough to make it interesting.


I give very little homework actually - just the big assignments.  I give them things to think about at home, but rarely do I get them to do something I check the next day.  Homework is just class work they didn't finish.  Pre-MSIP, I also got them started on the big assignments in class to be available to answer questions, but now they do that on their own but e-mail or message me with questions.

Classroom Wish List:

The speakers for my data projector kept cutting out, and there didn't seem to be money anywhere for new ones, so I bought some myself, and that's not uncommon.  When I need something for my classroom, it's faster and easier to just get it myself.  Maybe that's the master plan!   I do wish to stay in my current room, but there are noises about an impending reno that might oust me.  But I'm very, very lucky to have a room I can set up for myself - with plants everywhere even!  I haven't travelled room to room for many years.  Small luxuries can have a big impact on our lives.  

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