I am a 10th grader at Riverside High School. I am a student, golfer, and member of the #bowtieboys. I strive to be an advocate for every student, and I believe every student should have a chance to learn in their own way. Every student deserves a fair and equal education that is flexible for what they need. When this happens, students will be more engaged, and lessons will have more energy. This will lead to a better chance for students to retain the content taught, and hopefully learn some skills along the way.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My "Shadowing" Experience

            A couple months back, I had the amazing experience to “shadow” a teacher at my high school.  All the #BowTieBoys were given this wonderful opportunity so we could see a small glimpse of what it is like to actually run a school, so we could see what improvements we think need to happen to benefit the students and teachers.  Some of us shadowed administrators and others (like myself), shadowed teachers of core subjects.  I decided to choose my math teacher from my freshman year that day, Mrs. Briles.  The reason I picked this teacher is because I always felt comfortable and productive in her class, and I genuinely think she is a wonderful teacher.  She also has a lot of classes to teach.  She teaches Algebra 2, BC Calculus, and on a completely separate note, an impact study hall class, which I will touch on later.  She taught each of her classes in a different way that seemed to fit the students in that class perfectly.

            Once I got to her classroom at 8 o’clock, we discussed what we think needs to change in the school system, and she brought up some very critical points that I had not thought of before.  When she asked what the goals of the #BowTieBoys are, one of the main things I told her about is our push for more student voice and input in the classroom.  Her view on this was similar to mine, but there are some difficulties with implementing student choice into class.  For example, she expressed that she barely has time as it is planning lessons, grading, and trying to spend at least some free time with her family.  It would add an immense amount of work to every teacher schedule if they tried to take in the voice of the students in each class to improve, and that is time that some teachers really don’t have.  We did talk about other ways that she uses student choice in the classroom that are more practical, and some of them are truly brilliant in my opinion.  In her Algebra 2 class, the way she uses student choice, is in the homework assignments.  Full homework packets are given out at the beginning of each unit, and every class after that, one of the worksheets is due.  But these aren’t like your typical high school math worksheets that are just tedious and repetitive, they are almost all different.  Along with that, each problem on the worksheet is given a point value.  The easier problems are usually one point, and the harder ones can be up to five.  All the students need to do, is do enough problems correctly to get to the point value they are assigned that night.  So for the easier topics, students may only need to do three problems a night.  This also solves the issue of teachers giving students an unhealthy, and even unhelpfully large load of homework.

            The next topic we discussed, is what principles her classroom is built of.  She said that she likes to keep an open and warm classroom built on trust and respect. The way her classroom is set up also matches the way she teaches.  Mrs. Briles is the most happy and energetic teacher I have ever had, and she wants her students to be the same way.  All questions are accepted and answered at any time, and no student is ever put down for not understanding the content.  She also has a good personal connection with her students, and frequently will walk by her students and talk individually about if they understand the material.  Review games like Kahoot are often played before quizzes and tests, which the kids love and seems to be very effective.

 Mrs. Briles is often open to technology use in class, but then again she brought up some issues with completely letting students use their technology whenever they want.  This issue is what we called the “One Percent Theory”. She said the reason she doesn’t want to completely open her class to tech, is that she knows that there is always going to be a small percentage of students who end up taking advantage of that system by distracting themselves and everyone else.  To fix this issue, she lets students use their technology when doing independent work in class, and when they are done with an assignment.

            The last topic we discussed is about student punishment.  We were talking about how some students have been suspended in our school’s past, and due to administrative policies, teachers are not allowed to know why a certain student has been suspended.  They are only notified that it has happened.  I believe that this is a mistake that should be fixed.  Any student who has been suspended for any reason most likely has some other things going on in their lives that are difficult, and they don’t know what to do with those feelings.  I think it is a huge connection building opportunity between student and teacher if teachers were told exactly why one of their students was suspended.  Instead of just coming back to school to the same thing, this way teachers could sit down and talk to that student, which could change their lives.  After all, school is about learning life skills just as much as subject based content.

            Right before her first class of the day (BC Calculus) started, Mrs. Briles expressed to me that she had one of the worst things that can happen to a teacher happen. She stayed up past midnight the night before to plan an engaging lesson for her calculus students, and then forgot to bring it to school.  It had been a very rough day and week for that matter for her, but when class started, she seemed to put all of that aside and give her students every ounce of energy she could.  This in my opinion, is one of the marks of a truly great teacher. Having the ability to push aside everything that is going on with you personally and still teach an amazing class is remarkable.  Even with her lesson plan at home, she delivered a great lesson that all the students seemed interested and engaged in.  I wish I could describe the use of some techniques she used in this class to explain the material to her students, but calculus is completely Greek to me, and I had almost no clue what was going on, given that I am three levels of math below this class.  The class mostly consisted of independent work and note taking, but all the students seemed to like it.  Mrs. Briles would go around to every student and make sure that they understand the material, and if not, she would describe how to do the concept in a different way. 
            The next block of the day was her impact study hall class.  Impact is a class run by Mrs. Briles that acts as a free period just like any other study hall.  However, what makes this study hall special is that every student in the class has either lost a family member due to an illness, or has a family member suffering with a severe illness.   All of these students get together every other day just like a regular study hall, but they have special privileges.  They can go to different schools to help with the special education programs.   Mrs. Briles told me the reason they do this, is that sometimes the best way to help yourself, is to help others.  This lesson was probably the biggest one I took from the whole day.  During this block, we talked about how teachers of core subjects can also help students like these, and other students with issues of their own, without making them feel vulnerable.  This is what is so beautiful about the impact though.  Before this day, I had no idea that a group like that even existed.  They aren’t pointed at, or made fun of.  They just band together to help others, even though all of them have had quite rough pasts.  The day I was there, some of the kids decided to go over to the local middle school to help their special needs classes, and the others just stayed and used their study hall period to do their work and talk.

            The last period of the day that I was with her, was her Algebra 2 class.  I took this class my freshman year and loved it.  For me as a student, math is probably my favorite subject, besides English, and Mrs. Briles did a great job teaching me that year.  The class had the same high energy teaching as her calculus class earlier in the day, but the way students worked was different.  There was more activities and chances for collaboration than there was for the calculus class.  The class started off with a math puzzle for a warm up, and once students completed that, they were allowed to either help others, or listen to music and use their phones.  Then she would go to every student to help them if they needed it, or just chat about whatever sport or activity they are a part of.  This is one of the most important things a teacher can do, because it shows your students that you actually care about them, and are there to help them.  Once every student completed their warm up, the notes started in the front.  This is what differed the most from her calculus class.  Instead of being more lecture based, it was very interactive.  Students were told to do problems together, and write their answers up on the board if they chose.  This is another great technique in my opinion.  Students get tired and bored if they are just sitting and listening, even the best students do.  Class wide activities can help students stay focused, especially when they seem to get out of focus.  She did not do this in the class I was shadowing, but when I had her last year, she would do projects like an around the room math treasure hunt, where the winner would get some sort of prize (gum, candy, snacks, etc.) for winning.  This use of positive reinforcement is a great way to keep students doing their work, and it also shows them a tangible reward for the hard work they have done. 

            Through the day of shadowing Mrs. Briles’ classes, I learned a lot about teaching strategies, had many discussions about school politics, and teachers lives when they either don’t have a class, or aren’t at school.  Teachers are very busy people, who generally have students’ best interests on their minds.  Students and teachers can work together to have the most productive and beneficial classes by leveraging student choice, rapport, and discussion.  I am so thankful that I got that opportunity to follow a teacher for a day.  The information I used will help me with my blogs, tweets, and presentations in the future. 


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Comfortable Classrooms

            Inspiration, Intelligence, erudition, enlightenment, creativity.  These words are words commonly used to describe learning and are the qualities that all teachers strive to bring out of students.  Dark, Uncomfortable, Dull, Cramped, Closed, Confining.  These are words that students like myself use to describe the average high school classroom.  Students often base their judgement on their classes based on the atmosphere and ambience that it provides.  I believe that if you want your classroom to be a place for creativity and intelligence, then the classroom should physically show that.  It seems that one of the life lessons that many teachers try to get across to their students is impression management.  This is all about making yourself seem open, smart, and likeable to people within the first five minutes of meeting them.  The issue I see with the average classroom, is that it puts of a gloomy and dull vibe to students, which is the opposite of what you want the students themselves to be.

            One of my issues with public school today, is the drab and boring classrooms that my classes take place in.  Even if a teacher is very warm with their students, it will be hard for them to be the same if they are sitting in a room with cold metal and plastic desks, gray walls, and the occasional “motivational” poster.  It is vital for the productivity of students in class that they are comfortable, both physically and mentally.  I find it very frustrating that many English classes (which out of all the core subjects is the most creatively driven) the environment yields nothing but tired and uncomfortable kids. 

Would you rather work in a gray box, or in a place with options to choose from?  Every student learns differently and has individual needs that help them work.  Some students, like myself, work best in groups.  Some other students would feel either uncomfortable in a group, or distracted.  Therefore, I think that the arrangement of desks in the classroom needs to have some variation.  For example, if you have a classroom of 20 students, you could have four groups of four desks, and then four desks in the corners of the room for independent workers.  This set up will work in your class, but it needs to be free seating.  A shocking number of teachers still used assigned seating in high school.  That just makes students feel like they are being controlled by the teacher too much, which in turn makes them less likely to be open with their ideas and opinions in that class.

Another way to make the classroom more comfortable, is to simply put some amenities that you would find in your everyday home.  This idea came to life in 2 of my English classrooms in the last three years, and it was great.  We had couches, coffee machines, and coffee tables.  This made all the students in these classes feel like they were in their own homes.  One of the biggest objections to this idea, is that some educators believe that the comfortable setting will just distract students from their work in class, but from my experience it does the opposite.  When my teacher made this change, students seemed more connected, comfortable, productive, and overall happier. 

I know this isn’t a very practical idea for every classroom though, because most school systems do not have the budget to pull that off, but there are some cheaper alternatives to this.  For example, instead of couches and coffee machines, it could simply be bean bags in parts of the room, to add to the comfort.  Posters are also a good way to lighten up your class, but they shouldn’t just be simply space fillers.  They should be an active part of class, and maybe even tie into a lesson or two.  My history teacher does this perfectly.  He teachers his lessons with a laser pointer always, and a massive map that takes up the whole back wall of the room.  He will use that map and pointer to show the movement of people, or show imperial conquests.  In that same class, the rest of the wall space is filled with interesting posters that all tie into either a lesson or activity at some point in the year.  Another simple thing that can help your students feel more connected and comfortable, is to have a designated charging station for phones and electronics.  In my math class, we simply have cubbies in the back with an extension cord, so many people in the class can charge their phone at one time.  This also doubles as a way to prevent students from misusing their devices during class time.

But having an open classroom that encourages creativity is not going to immediately change with some objects being thrown in the room.  Teachers need to make sure they are making themselves appear very kind and personable with their students.  This will build on the connection between student and teacher, which you can read more about in my blog titled Building Real Rapport.  When teachers tie in some of their personal life experiences, they will make their students have more likely to be open personally with teachers, which will help their well-being overall.

Classrooms should be places that a warm and open to students, but in America it has diverted from that.  Classrooms now are boring gray boxes that seem to just drain the life out of the students in the class, and really have no positives.  With the addition of some simple household objects, and a kind personality from a teacher, the productivity of students in the class will skyrocket.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Classroom Collaboration: Discussions

              “Students in classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning” ( Homo sapiens are naturally a very social species, and I believe that students' social skills should be practiced and taught in school as well as content. After all, part of school is about teaching kids how to be functional adults. Too often teachers hold long lectures in their classrooms that students lose interest in very quickly. One positive way to get the same messages across to your students in an engaging manner is to make the classroom have more of a collaborative nature. The best way to go about making a collaborative classroom is by having more open discussion in class. Discussions can be a beautiful thing in the classroom if done correctly. They force students to actively think about the content that they are learning in class while incorporating that skill building component. Another great thing about discussion is that you can tie in real life issues and morality into the lesson. This will further increase the level of engagement of students in the lesson.

             As a student, I have always had a very difficult time staying focused in lectures and lessons that do not actively teach the content. It’s not that I am just bored and don’t care for that class but I just don’t find lectures particularly interesting, and I do not retain the information best from just listening to someone talk about it. I have talked to many of my fellow classmates and they feel the same way. It seems most students today need an active classroom with application to the real world in the lesson. In one of my classes, we have been reading off the promethean board for the last hour of class all year, and I would say 90% of the class had a very difficult time staying focused. Instead of just complaining, I and a few classmates talked to this teacher about bringing in some discussion about the text we were reading. The next class instead of just sitting through a a story shared to us, we were asked what we thought the morals of this particular story was, what lessons were taught, and if we agreed or disagreed with the author’s/narrator’s view. Almost immediately, students that did not regularly participate in class were saying some really great things, and a great discussion started about the philosophies of the story, and how it relates to issues today. “To accept the author's vision and thinking or reject it” (Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, 2013). I walked out of class that day still thinking about what was discussed in class, instead of being tired and bored, as did other students. The mark of a great class is not that the student leaves with answers, but that the student leaves with answers and more questions.

            Discussions need to have some framework however; it often fails when students are given absolutely no structure to stick to. This is one of the most common objections to teachers making their classrooms more collaborative is that students will end up going on tangents and then everyone will start talking about whatever they want. The role of the teacher in discussions is often debated. I believe that the teacher should carefully guide the discussion and act as a participant, without completely taking over. This is often the issue with Socratic seminars, teachers act as the boss of the conversation, and it shuts down the open feeling that discussions should provide. For example, the teacher should ask thought provoking questions that let students connect to their personal lives like “Is ‘live life in the now, and don’t worry about the future’ a good philosophy for high school students to live by?”. This way students can really think about how to use the information and lessons they are learning in their own lives.

            Students often think that teachers are on a level above them, instead of just people. Talking with your students in this manner will help reduce this difference in “class” if you will. If students feel that their teachers are working with them, as opposed to just supervising the work, they will feel more connected and open in class and will be more likely to contribute to the class more often. This connection will build rapport between student and teacher, which is a very important aspect of school, as you can read more about in my first blog post. This will also improve connections between students, which is a very important skill for students to learn.

            Collaboration and discussion is a great way to engage students efficiently, especially in reading. Having a discussion about a reading assignment gives students a reason to read what they are assigned. Also, students will be able to pick up on some things that other students might have seen that they missed, furthering their knowledge on the text. Instead of just asking your students to silently read in class, you should encourage them to share what they have gathered. This collaboration can make students look deeper into text than they might have before, because they can see why they should read.

            No student likes sitting in a dark, dull, lecture based class where they feel like their time and individuality is being wasted. School is supposed to be a place that brings students creativity to the surface, not keep it bottled up until a lecture is over. Having deep connected discussions with your students is one way to make them feel more connected and engaged in class. It creates collaboration, while teaching skills and content simultaneously. If a discussion is executed properly, students will leave with more knowledge, and will still be thinking about what they discussed.

Works Cited:

Freemana1, Scott, Sarah L. Eddya, Miles McDonougha, Michelle K. Smithb, Nnadozie Okoroafora, and And Hannah Jordta. "Scott Freeman." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Beers, G. Kylene, and Robert E. Probst. Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2013. Print.

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