Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Classroom Snapshots

I get a lot of questions from friends and acquaintances about working in a high school. People are convinced that kids are much different than they were when we ourselves were kids, and they often wonder what it's like to work with them on a daily basis. They also wonder how much different school really is than the last time we darkened the door of a high school as students.

One of the things I've been frantically catching up on this week is my teacher observations since probationary evaluations are due February 10th. This is yet another issue in public education that the state has chosen to regulate, so there is no option of talking the district into an extension, even though we were icebound last week. That said, I've had a great couple of days visiting classrooms and taking in the teaching and learning that's going on there. It's one of my favorite parts of the job and one I don't spend nearly as much time doing as I'd like.

So, I thought that readers might enjoy a few snapshots of my experiences so far this week. To give a bit of context for these lessons: I supervise the social studies and special education departments here at All-American High.

  • I enter the classroom where a social studies class for students who are mentally retarded is taking place. Students and a paraprofessional are seated at the table with the local section of that day's newspaper opened before them. The teacher guides them through the lesson which involves finding and then reading aloud from one of the articles then locating the place where the story occurred on a state map. Once the location was identified, students were asked varying levels of questions depending on their ability level. Questions ranged from simple "what direction is that from here (north, south, east, west) to "okay, that happened at the intersection of these two highways. Tell me how you would drive from here to there." It was a great blending of current events with acquiring newspaper use, reading, and geography skills.
  • I move on to a regular World History class. Students are studying Renaissance art and architecture. The teacher uses a PowerPoint to take students through the main points, spicing up her lecture with pictures of major works and with snippets of video from our video streaming system. Kids are engaged and asking relevant questions. The teacher monitors their learning by interspersing quick "checking for understanding" questions at the end of each segment of the lecture and elaborating if necessary. With all the technology, this is not the high school history lecture most of us remember from our own experiences.
  • Next hour, I visit another regular World History class. This class is reviewing material from the Middle Ages study they finished just before the "Great Ice Storm of 2007." They are clearly not remembering the things they were supposed to have learned. Their total lack of recall tells me the material was not taught well in the first place. The teacher then gives them the last 30 minutes of the 55-minute class to work on some review questions from the first section of the next chapter and to get together with their partners to work on their scripts for a video project. Can you tell that this was an unannounced visit on my part? The saving grace is that the video project is a good one. Different classes have different topics, but this class will be creating scenes from the French Revolution, using a Forrest Gump-like character who just happens to be at the various events. I will be observing this teacher again, and I left him with specific comments regarding my concerns.
  • Next, you guessed it, World History. Same topic as the first class: The Renaissance. This teacher also lectures for a portion of the class, making some great connections for the kids to help them understand the historical events. He compared the rising middle class' demand for books in the vernacular to the demand of high school kids for clothing at Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch. Asked them if they thought those companies would continue making certain styles if they didn't sell. The kids looked amazed at the concept! He also shared his experience with parents trying to censor books in the school library last year at another school and tied that to the church working against the rising trend of humanism during the Renaissance. Then he talked about Da Vinci's various theories about the human body and their ties to Greek thought on symmetry and had volunteers come up to measure their heights and the length of their outstretched arms to see if they were equal (which Da Vinci said they would be). Finally, they took the last 10 minutes of class to play an old pub game from the Renaissance period called Nine Men's Morris. They are practicing for a couple of days, and then they are going to have a tournament. What a great way to get a feel for part of daily life in the period. And, what a nice way to use those last few minutes of class rather than, "work on your homework." I also had a neat conversation with a student about Fahrenheit 451 while I was wandering around watching kids play the game. He had make the connection between the censorship themes in the book and the censorship issues discussed by the teacher.
  • I then visited a U. S. History class and found that they were having a guest speaker. While not great for evaluation purposes, I couldn't resist staying. One of our media center assistants was sharing her experiences as a child living in one of the Japanese internment camps. You'd never know it to look at her, but she's 71 years old and was 7 at the time she lived in the camp. She had a number of pictures and documents to share with the class as well as her caution to avoid the racism that led to the internment of American citizens of Japanese origin. She specifically addressed the fears she had after 9/11 when she heard comments about "getting rid of all those Muslims" and talked about the non-Japanese citizens who stood up for her mother, a teacher, and helped get her released from the camps before the end of the internment program.
  • My final visit of the day was to our classroom that serves students with multiple handicaps. There was lots of action going on. It's a happy place where a number of our students in regular education work as peer tutors for one hour per day. When I entered, two of the peer tutors were playing catch with one of the students who is working on fine and gross motor skills and social interaction. Another student was working on various vocational tasks, such as rolling newspapers and sorting objects. Others were working on improving their reading skills and learning to tell time. The best part of the visit was when one of the students in a wheelchair asked me to dance. He loves to dance and listen to music, and we use that as a reward for his completing his work. We got the go ahead from the paraprofessional working with him, so he turned on his music and away we went. He holds your hands and sways back and forth and he really likes it if he can twirl you around his chair. :)

So, that's just a few of the things that were happening around here at All-American High today. What I've come to realize in my work is that things are both very different and very much the same when it comes to high school education now and when I was in high school in the 80s. Under it all, high school is very much like what you likely remember. It's just easier to get in touch with your friend through texting, IMing, etc. than it was to put in that call to the Princess phone in her room at night. :)

Tomorrow I'm off-campus at the "textbook caravan" where all the publishers will show off their new social studies textbooks. They are up for adoption this year. I'm looking forward to seeing what they've come up with in the last seven years!


Rambling Mom said...

That was interesting - thanks for sharing

Alto2 said...

I love your insight into education. I was really struck at your evaluations of the different history classes and how you could tell, right away, when the Middle Ages material was not presented well. It makes me wonder why that teacher didn't "get it" and the others clearly did.

Mom of 4K said...

Oh how I wish I had your media specialist to talk with my class. We have been talking about major hurdles faced by different cultures through history. We talked about Nazi Germany, South Africa, the intern camps in the US and US Slavery. It would have been so much better if we had someone we could hear from first hand. Tomorrow the students are doing a parallel of how Jews had to travel around through the help of the Resistance and The Underground Railroad. (I know, 3rd grade is a far cry from HS.)