The longer I teach...

After teaching in the public schools for 21 years and more than that with youth in Scouting and church, I think I'm finally beginning to understand what good teaching really is and isn't. My goal here is to be brief and share what I've learned.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Forty Percent of Your Job

Years ago I was working in my room as two teacher colleagues were visiting in the hallway venting about distruptive students and how some teachers deal with them. I was not trying to evesdrop, but the conversation was animated enough that I couldn't help but hear a portion of it, and I heard something by the vetran teacher that profoundly effected me.

The veteran teacher of the two said, "Some teachers will say, 'I don't want to teach behavior, I just want to do my job and teach.' The problem with that is that forty percent of teaching includes helping the students manage themselves in the classroom, so when a teacher says, 'I just want to teach,' they're really saying, 'I just want to do sixty percent of my job.'"

Very true.

There is a balance between teaching content and teaching the students. Certainly one needs to know the content being taught, but the skills needed to teach (like providing practice, monitoring and adjusting teaching, engaging students, managing off-task behavior) also need to be in place. Ignoring the background or self-mangement skills of the students will kill even the best lesson. A teacher can also waste teaching time because he or she does not know the content well. The bottom line is that students will benefit far more by learning the skills they need to survive in a classroom than with just learning the content. If the teacher can't teach them how to behave in the classroom, they won't learn the content anyway.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Focusing on the positive

lf the teacher (or parent) is focused--where the lesson only teaches a few things instead of many--students learn better and their successes learning things can be more quickly celebrated. Most people are uncomfortable learning or trying something new, so it's scary. A good coach or mentor--thus, a good teacher--has much more success encouraging instead of scolding. Yes, students need to know when they're wrong, but also when they're right--and when learning something new, when they're going in the right direction, even if they're not there yet.
Grading using a bell curve has never felt right because, by definition, half of those who are graded are below average. The bell curve is the result of random chance--not good instruction. If good instruction occurred, most students should "get it" and scores would be skewed to the right of the curve like this:
Successful students--indeed, successful people--all keep trying because they've been successful more often than not, not because they've been humiliated, discouraged or reprimanded. Sure, effort is a big key, but if the results of effort is criticism, they won't think more effort is worth the investment.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lecturing (blah, blah, blah)

Telling others what to do is easy. Helping them do or know something is harder, It is ironic that the older students are, the more lecturing they get. Some of the best teachers are kindergarten teachers and the worst are those who, at the university level, just lecture. Good kindergarten teachers mold students so well the children know exactly what to do and when. They practice and practice.

When teaching older students, s often unconsciously believe that "if I said it, I taught it." The human brain rarely remembers after only one or two times. How long can you recall a new phone number, an interesting quote, what was on the news yesterday, or the name of the person you were just introduced to?

When a student has to explain something they remember it much better. That is why good questions help draw out the lessons the student learned. An example could be in a Sunday school class learning about the story of Moses and the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. Instead of telling the class what we learn from the story, the teacher asks the class what they learn from the story. In a school setting the same can be done teaching world or U.S. history or geography. Best of all, the lesson is more likely to be remembered because the students explained it.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Learn by Doing

The founder of Boy Scouting said, "Boys learn by doing." I find it amazing that much teaching seems to be done using the same Aristotle and Pythagoras used: "Sit down, be quiet, and listen to the teacher." The problem is that children don't do any of those three things well.

I vividly recall teaching a difficult 7th grade math class. Most had never done well in math (and many didn't do well in other classes). When teaching (talking to the students), it was very hard to keep their attention and keep them behaving well. However, once I shut up and had them do the assignment in class, behavior problems almost disappeared and most were on task. The students wanted to be "doing" something--almost anything but listen to me. My best teaching was while I cruised around the room helping and letting them assist each other.

I have learned to now teach an initial short lesson and have them then apply it. For example, in computer class, I teach how to format a certain way and then spend double or triple the time having them practice doing it and showing me they can. I repeat the process and show them the next next thing they need to learn. In science, I briefly teach (talk about) a concept and their upcoming lab, then have them do the lab that reinforces it. After they clean up, I spend only 5 minutes reviewing the concept. In writing, I teach by demonstrating a writing technique and then have them write. After they write, they share and discuss (in a guided way as a large group or a small one) what they wrote during their practice.

This is exactly like when an teaches children (his or her own or others) proper behavior, ing what they should say works best. The children get it faster and they do it faster. The other part of this teaching is to immediately have the individual repeat what was taught. For young children, an example would be, "What do we say?" "Please," would be the answer. "Say, 'May I please...'" Then the child repeats it. The instruction is very short and the practice is as long or longer.

In a nutshell: If the students do it, they learn it better. Good teachers assist students as a coach, rather than lecture.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Immediate Practice

Years ago after my first year of teaching I was asked to attend a workshop on managing classroom behavior. They told us about "proximity praise" where the teacher thanks those sitting next to the one with poor behavior for doing well, hoping the one misbehaving will change (it works quite well, by the way). Then they ed it. Finally, they broke us up into small groups and we each took a turn being teacher and the misbehaving child. Everyone of us struggled with not trying to first tell the misbehaving child to stop. Often when those being teacher last have seen the mistake so many times they more easily do it correctly. Not in this case. That experience firmly taught me the value of practicing soon after instruction what was taught and ed and the value of having all practice the new skill.

In a nutshell: Make sure whatever taught, the students need to practice right away, not just as homework or later on a test.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"Show Me" Training

Another pivotal moment in my view of what makes good teaching came when, in 2006, Charles W. Dahlquist came to our area to do some training for leaders of young men. At one point he gave instruction on shadow leadership. Instead of just telling us, he showed us. He had an pretend to be a boy, stood him up in front of everyone and then asked him where his shadow was (it was directly behind him). He then had another man get up to pretend to be the "boy's" Scoutmaster and stood him where they "boy's" shadows was. He then asked us who was in the limelight and showed us how the Scoutmaster could whisper things to help the one in the light be successful. In teaching parlance this is called ing or demonstrating, and this was extremely effective. I have not been able to think about shadow leadership without thinking of that demonstration. I saw that good teaching included showing, not just telling. I remembered again that people will be far more likely to do what they have seen rather than told.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Teaching, Scouting, Coaching, Parenting, and Writing

My most dramatic epiphany regarding teaching was in the summer of 2005. I was part of the Oregon Writing Project and for one of my assignments wrote the following (so this entry will likely be my longest but it sets the stage for subsequent thoughts):

Pedagogy, curriculum alignment, cultural competency, rubrics and authentic assessment...this is the jargon of academia, but where does real teaching take place? Prior to my years in college, I had abundant experience working at Boy Scout camps and taught younger boys various skills, like first aid, swimming, life saving, and knot tying. These experiences allowed me to have numerous experiences with boys ages 7-17. I was told, however, they were not "valid practicum teaching experiences."

Now, after 18 [21 now] years of teaching in the trenches in low socio-economic schools and innumerable workshops demonstrating successful practices, I've come to believe that those initial experiences are much more valid when teaching than I ever thought and specifically when teaching writing. Good teaching includes many natural components of Scouting, coaching and parenting.

Scouting: "Scouts learn by doing." "Teach by being a manager of learning: ask them to try to show you if they can do it, show them, have them do it, test them." "Provide immediate advancement when they've earned it." "Good program doesn't focus on advancement, it is a part of the program, so they will advance by being a part of it."

Coaching: "Good job!" "Good hustle!" "Let's work on that in practice." "You need to come to practice every day." "Team work is important." "You are competing with others, but you are also part of a team." "You should prepare before the season begins." "We compete with other teams in our same league." "Let’s work on just one thing at a time."

Parenting: "What would you like to do?" "Let's do that together." "What did you learn today?" "Show me." "That's great--let's put that up on the fridge." "Why don't you read it to me, and I'll type it for you?" "Let's have a pick-up party!" "Do you want to wash or dry the dishes?" "I can’t compare you to your brothers or sisters because you are unique."

Teaching: Practices that work include all of the above. Students need to feel successful immediately. They need to feel safe and they need to be coached while doing, instead of being told. Students learn best by having options during their learning. Once they've done something successfully, they benefit from being congratulated and rewarded for a job well done. Students need to be assessed based on where they are, at their own level. "The curriculum needs to be individualized." Students need to be actively engaged in what they are doing. Technology is a tool to do something better--not an end in itself. Finally, students need to be involved in one-on-one time as much as possible.

Teaching writing: The best writing incorporates short, focused lessons, student choice, one-on-one instruction, and positive encouragement. The writer's workshop has these components imbedded in it.

One of the chief components of the writer’s workshop is the mini-lesson. It is a brief lesson that focuses on just one aspect of writing. Students then receive immediate opportunity to practice what was taught in the mini-lesson. Experienced writer’s workshop teachers may do their own writing during writing time, ing what is to be done. Students have a limited choice for writing topics. The teacher sets the guidelines, but the students are free to choose within those guidelines so they have more of an interest in the paper.

Another major component of the writer’s workshop is sharing student work. This lets the students know they will actually have an audience for their writing and provides an opportunity to celebrate students writing. Celebrating student work is such an encourager for students of all ages, as is the cheering found so often in Scouting, coaching and parenting. Yet another crucial component of the writer’s workshop is a one-on-one conference. This gives each student the personal time they need to be encouraged and to learn one more way to improve their writing, specific to the student’s skill level.

Good teaching, and specifically good writer’s workshop instruction, focuses on the development of each student as an individual while moving them all along the path to becoming more proficient. The students are motivated to help themselves improve and practice the actual skills they will be tested on. This individualized, encouraging instruction is better teaching.