Teaching Induction: Reflective Teaching and Video

The last Monday before the winter break I had my first formal observation by my principal and was also required to video-record a lesson for my practicum course. Now that I’ve officially made it ‘halfway’ through my first year as a public school teacher…I find myself engrossed in a stream of reflection that feels a lot like the deep and urgent breaths a person takes after being submerged for far too long. Here are my thoughts.

It took me a while to sit down and watch this recording and another while to respond to my observations in writing because I am pinned beneath the weight of a looming and overwhelming inquiry: What am I teaching them? What should I be teaching them? And if I am to call in a ‘should’ then further inquiry storms my brain: ‘Should’ according to whom? The ‘should’of the Common Core? The ‘should’ of the NYCTF—as murky and unrealistic as it might be in light of my lack of experience  along with the lack of resources available to support new teachers? The competing voices declaring what ‘should’ are at once cacophonous and debilitating. At this point I am hoping to cordon off a cavern of solitude in which I will routinely reflect in order to unearth the ‘should’ of common sense. Death by philosophy will surely seize me when I begin to question: Common to whom?

Here’s the truth: I have no idea what will best prepare my students for coping with their present and preparing for their future. From what I can glean—during the limited amount of time I make to read articles by other educators—folks much more intelligent and experienced than I are similarly unsure which ‘should’ to place their bets on. Before becoming a teacher, I’d read many times about education being a “contested space” but for the love of mental peace, when will the storm subside?

A lot of time is spent corralling, soothing, organizing, and convincing—my students and myself. By the time we get to the lesson I am tired and, admittedly, at times, resentful. The lesson in this video was delivered to my most well-behaved and highest-performing class and much of the above is not as prevalent with this particular group of students as it is with the others. There seems to be a warmth in the classroom—even though one girl (directly before the camera—the student I reminded a few times, “Don’t whine. They won’t take you seriously if you whine…”) spent half the class disengaged because she was frustrated with her groupmates’ inaction. Am I exhausting myself because I am endeavoring to ensure that every last student is engaged, working, and moving forward? Isn’t that what I’m supposed to be doing? Isn’t that what is morally sound? The more time I put in the more a sad truth unfolds into my slow grasp: I’m not going to reach every kid.

Aside from my maddening ambivalences and uncertainties, I notice a few things in this recording that are worth mentioning. Most are things I want to work on and one is recognition of something I appear to be doing well…at least during this particular lesson. First, the good news: as above, there is an evident warmth and safety in the classroom. When I talk to the students I sound patient and even kind. Unfortunately, I do not successfully strike this note every day or with every class. Moving forward I am going to pray as I enter the building that I will be successful in achieving this throughout each class and the day as a whole. In order to achieve this I know for certain that I must do two things: make strong boundaries in regard to the number of hours I put in each week; and maintain my meditation and workout schedule (reliant on my success in making boundaries). I cannot continue working eighty plus hours seven days a week. It’s simply not sustainable.

Now for the stuff I need to work on: entry routine (warm-up), closing, and not talking so much. “Not talking so much” includes creating more opportunities for meaningful talk among students (bonus points for this! It also happens to be a citywide and CFN-endorsed instructional expectation), providing students with more time and opportunity to respond and or participate verbally, and ‘loosening my grip.’ My sense is that I talk too much because I’m a novice and it’s a control thing. If I were to count how many times I say, “Hey guys, listen up” it might feel like a self-inflicted waterboarding, drowning on my own compulsive expressions of anxiety. Do I really need the students to “listen up” as frequently as I request them to do so? How can I rearrange the dynamic so I am less center-stage and their own conversation and learning drives the lesson and demands their focus? My challenge with this—or their challenge—is keeping them on task. The few times I have tried to have students turn to a partner or discuss something with their group it seems one of two things happens: they ignore my request and continue on as they were; or, they ignore my request, abandon what they were doing previously, and enter into a raucous few moments of open social conversation unrelated to the subject at hand. Yes, they are young, they are wild, and they resist my ridiculous efforts to channel their energies.

Also needed (I suppose), an entry routine and a meaningful closing. Here’s what I’ve noticed with my students: They are very slow starters but once they start they do not want to stop. If I attempt to transition from the ‘meat’ of the lesson to some sort of closing or reflection they either ignore me or behave as if class is over completely. Now that I’m reflecting on and writing about it I realize my own feeling: good for them for ignoring me—they’ve spirit and aren’t so easily conditioned. Thank God. Imagine if my students took a newbie like me so seriously. However, I know that I am expected to begin each class with a warm-up and that I need to have some kind of meaningful closing. Too, many of my colleagues and I have noticed that a number of our students do much better when there is more structure. Indeed, I think that the number of students who prefer structure is greater than those who flourish when there is less. Although I am not experienced or educated enough to determine whether I agree that pedagogically this is the soundest approach (highly structured, clear beginning, middle, and end), I need to start somewhere. This last unit overturned our routines because we were working with computers most days, which meant (or at least turned into) not completing a writing exercise as a warm up then losing track of time because we were so into our work (score!) and closing by rushing to collect the computers. In short, I need to reestablish our warm up routine in a way that inspires buy-in from the kids—and me—and determine what kind of closing routine to implement. It must be meaningful.

I’m currently blind to all other weaknesses in my teaching because a person can only take so much self-scrutiny.

Girls Can! But you knew that, right?

Theresa is rich—not so much with money or material assets—but certainly with intelligence, imagination, and a relentless commitment to share. She is my older sister—by adoption, that is; I decided that she should play that role in my life and true to her own character she readily and happily agreed. We met through an ad, which she had written and published on craigslist, calling for volunteers to donate their time to an organization called ByteWorks. The ad, like Theresa, expressed an openness that encouraged anyone, anywhere, of various shapes, skill-sets, and sizes to join in the fun. We’re a community, after all. Let’s join together and collaborate!

Theresa describes herself in less romantic terms. When I asked her what motivates her to spend a substantial amount of time and energy working on grass-roots informal education programs she explained, “I’m a total butthead and can’t work within the system and deal with politics.” She added, “The only way I can know I’m making a difference is to go out and make it.” The thing is though…these days Theresa isn’t just donating her time and energy by joining an already existing program, she is actually in the midst of developing and piloting a program for girls that is designed to give them the opportunity to practically experience their own abilities to explore, tinker, and problem solve. The program: Girls Can!

What is Girls Can!? It’s not about telling girls they are smart and capable, it’s about creating a space in which girls are given the opportunity—including access to mentors—to experience their own abilities. The Girls Can! program links high school girls between the ages of 14 and 18 with adult mentors, who with a very light touch provide the girls with guidance and support as they build their own computers from scratch. Yup, from scratch.

Since its inception in November seven girls have joined the program at St. Elizabeth Academy, where Girls Can! is being piloted. The girls participate when they can—some join for an hour and a half during time allotted for elective studies or study hall, others join after school, and now—Theresa just initiated Saturday hours—some join twice a month on Saturdays. Essentially, despite the girls busy schedules and the limited amount of time they are able to attend Girls Can! sessions, all seven girls have already collaborated to build one computer—which they jointly agreed to raffle off to raise funds to be used to purchase more components—and four girls have built themselves computers. More components were recently delivered and the other three girls in the program will soon build themselves their own computers.

What does this mean? It means that the girls in the program—in a very short time indeed—go from “looking at a box of expensive electronic components thinking ‘I can’t touch that’” to digging into the box of components, tinkering with various parts, and building an operational computer. Most importantly, the girls are developing learning attitudes that enable them to transfer the skills they’re developing to other topics of inquiry. Theresa has noticed this shift in the girls’ thinking, and states that they are learning “the skills to take a good look at it [any problem] and figure it out, get rid of that ‘I can’t do it’ fear. Once they get that it will benefit them wherever they go.”

Any other results? Well, at a time—adolescence—that is infamous for dramatically altering girls’ relationships with their fathers, the girls in the program have reported that “my dad wants to know how I’m building this.” Older girls have told Theresa that their “boyfriend wants to know all about it.” In short, Theresa laughs, “Dads want to know [the computer’s] specs and the boyfriends are jealous.” This is an empowering lesson for girls at a time that is too often marked by a loss of power, as the pressure to be cute and not too smart is pressed onto them. They are learning that “you can be confident, you can be smart, and people aren’t going to think less of you for that, in fact, they may even think more of you.”

One participant told Theresa during her first Girls Can! session that when she is older she plans on being a nurse or working in a hotel. These days her goals have changed substantially. In the short-term she is applying for a part-time job at a local computer center because “she feels confident to deal with and talk about technology.” In the future she plans to attend Washington University, where she intends to study bio-informatics. Eh?! Girls Can!!!!!

Other folks have noticed the tremendous and positive influence the program has had on participants: the school’s teachers and administrators. The principal is so impressed by the difference she has recognized in the participants’ learning attitudes that she is currently working to establish Girls Can! as a for-credit elective course in order to provide more girls with the opportunity to attend the sessions on a regular basis. The program has also caught the attention of another community-based organization that has expressed interest in linking up with Girls Can! to build computers for a women’s shelter in St. Louis.

Telling them “you’re smart” isn’t enough, says Theresa. “I’m not telling them anything. They are learning by doing” and as a result they independently recognize that they are capable, smart, and interested.

If you are interested in establishing a Girls Can! chapter in your school, community center, or living room, or would like to contact Theresa to learn more about the program, feel free to contact her via email at tmk@girls-can.org.

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