Coming up for air at NCTE 2009

November 19th, 2009 | Filed under: preservice, teaching

So, I had this grand idea that I would post weekly during my student teaching experience, but it looks like time (and mental energy) has gotten away from me to say the least. I’m in the eleventh week of my 14-week internship and I can’t believe how fast it’s all gone by. I’m having trouble just finishing the work I have to do as a student teacher – mainly my Impact on Student Learning project and my digital portfolio.

But my arrival in Philadelphia for the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference has me reinvigorated to reflect on my teaching experience so far.

Everyone told me it would be the hardest but the most rewarding experience of my life and I really think that’s true. There are so many students I’m teaching that I know I’ll remember for the rest of my life – some because of their amazing and unexpected insights during class discussions, others for their quirky behaviors that challenge my patience.

These are just a few of the things I’ve learned through this internship that I don’t think could be transferred to the classroom, which makes me so thankful that I decided to go the traditional route for this license (which included student teaching) despite my non-traditional/career-switching situation:

1. Classroom management cannot be mastered in a semester.

I have wonderful students. Most of jump right into my class discussions without my having to plead with them. They teach me new things every day. But…they love to talk and engage one another with goofy faces and smiles from across the room. On the one hand, they are 14-years-old! What should I expect? On the other hand I want so desperately for them to listen to their classmates during discussions and engage in the material. How do I get these exciting discussions going while also maintaining some level of decorum? I hate to “shh” them because I feel like it stifles everything. I want the lively discussion and debate without having to rein them in. Cake and eating it too?

2. Creating effective assessment has been the hardest thing I’ve done all semester and, subsequently, bringing closure to units and creating effective review of the material has been the second hardest thing.

We read “The Nose” by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, “Borges and I” by Jorge Borges and “To Julia de Burgos by Julia de Burgos” as the first unit focusing on identity and duality. It was a wonderful and challenging way to start the course. Some students panicked when reading Borges with the way he leads you around until you’re a bit dizzy, forcing you to read sentences over and over to find his meaning, but once they understood the theme of the essay and his purposes in creating a maze of words I could tell they felt accomplished. They beat Borges’ essay into something they could digest and found it rewarding. The same was true for our studies of Ryunosuke and de Burgos. But then came time to assess and that’s when I started panicking. I didn’t know how to even start creating a test let alone a review for the material. I settled on small group discussions of higher-order thinking questions about the material in an effort to tie all three works together. The test itself included multiple choice questions and two essays. I know in my heart that the essay questions are the way to go, but I did have some regrets as I spent hours grading 110 tests (meaning, 220 essays). Once I finally finished grading everything, I took 20 minutes out of each block to go over the test, showing models of students that received full credit on the essays. The entire assessment process really took it all out of me, but the reward was seeing that most of my students had learned a great deal and could show me so with their essays.

3. It excites me to see students reading and writing on their own (I have quite a few aspiring authors in my classes), but it always pains me when I have to tell them to put their works away in class.

It’s my class and they should respect that by engaging in the lesson not reading independently while the rest of us work, but I’m always afraid I’m doing some sort of damage by forcing them to close the book or put down the pen. And I’m not talking “Twilight” or “Harry Potter” here, I’m talking heavyweight literature. This is not a joke – I had to tell one of my ninth graders to put away his copy of “Anna Karenina.” Another was deep into creating characters for his next play. The top of his paper read “Dramatis Personae.” Seriously.

4. I need to learn to roll with the punches.

I don’t know how many times I’ve griped about best-laid plans in these 11 weeks, but I need to stop and just start getting used to working around things. It’s part of the job, but it’s been one of the hardest things for me to grasp. And I don’t think contingency planning within my lesson plans would make much difference. It’s something you get better at over time, I think. My cooperating teacher is great at it.

Speaking of my cooperating teacher, I don’t think I could have been placed with a better person. She has very high standards for her students and runs a tight ship in the classroom, but also connects with them on emotional levels. When it comes to what’s best for students, I really think she combines the best of both worlds. She doesn’t coddle them or let things slide, but she’s also kind and understanding of where they are in life. Fourteen is a strange age and after nearly 20 years of teaching, she really understands who they are when they enter that classroom and how jarring high school is.

I’ve learned a lot from her in this short time, but the two things that stick out in my mind are classroom management and the value of in-depth discussion. She is a true believer, and research has supported this, in the idea that talking and discussing an issue or work of literature helps you learn. As an incentive, class participation is 10 percent of the students’ grade. At first running a class discussion really intimidated me, but my university supervisor says I’m improving my method of asking leading questions during discussions – of phrasing questions in such a way that it optimizes getting the answers I want.

I’m looking forward to hitting the ground running tomorrow at NCTE 2009. I attended last year’s convention when I was in the middle of education coursework, but now that I have some real teaching under my belt I feel like I’m going to get even more out of the sessions. And I feel more confident about joining a round table discussion session.

I’ll be posting daily, hopefully, about my experiences in Philadelphia at NCTE. Hope to see you there!

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