Tag Archives: teacher

Sink or Swim, Teacher!

28 May

When I was in college, the most useless classes I attended were in Curriculum and Instruction. However, one of the things I took away from them was that teachers have different approaches… and most of them get thrown out once you hit the classroom.

Now you may be wondering why I hate Curriculum and Instruction (or C&E, as I called them). As a budding high school teacher, I was expected to take three C&E core classes. The first one was all about the “formal lesson plan;” how to write objectives, timing, activities… and put them in a complete package. The second was modern issues in education; the professor was great at discussion and presenting different ideas… but years later, I realized he never used a lesson plan. He literally appeared and just ad-libbed a topic from there. The third one was Social Studies specific, and focused on using primary, secondary, and tertiary sources in the classroom.

None of these eggheads had any idea how to actually run a class… and because they never taught us classroom management, I almost quit before my student teaching experience was over.

The old adage is that 75% of teaching is classroom management; if I’m to be fair, we had half a day covering that topic. Three semesters of training; all of it useless. Why? Because it’s really hard to emulate a bunch of crappy students. The “sink-or-swim” model had been the only way to actually teach teachers how to teach. Nowadays, they’ve realized a first-year “mentor” program is helpful. If you partner an experienced teacher with a new teacher, they’re likely to improve.

In theory, that’s what the student teacher experience is supposed to do, but I had two supervising teachers who were so checked out that they didn’t provide any assistance. In one, she held her class in line through fear, so when I loosened restrictions, they went crazy. In the other, when I actually taught them something, they thought I was the best teacher ever. One day, things got so bad, I was ready to walk out of the school mid-class and never look back.

So how did I end up teaching five more years, then teaching almost 15 in corporate settings? Substitute teaching; it reminded me a) what I loved about teaching, b) I had no responsibilities outside the classroom, and c) it was a safe setting to practice classroom management. Coordinators at the district office are so desperate for substitutes that a warm body will suffice; in other words, the best substitute teacher is the one who shows up.

So there was zero pressure to perform; you had already achieved expectations by being there. If things went really bad in one class, that’s all right, you never have to go back there again. Meanwhile, I learned techniques and tricks to how to manage a class by sheer repetition. I discovered different teaching styles just from the lesson plans that the regular teacher left behind. I experienced different administrative styles by showing up at different schools. I learned more in five months of subbing then I ever did in classes.

Just like no one knows how to teach leadership, no one can teach teaching, but people have made a lot of money pretending they can. Heinlein used to have many of his characters get a Doctorate in “soft” sciences (especially Education) because you could generate pure BS in your papers, and no one would call you on it. For example, one of his characters wrote her dissertation on:

‘A Comparison of the World Pictures of Aristocles, Arouet, and Dzhugashvili considered through interaction of epistemology, teleology, and eschatology.’ The actual content was zero, as honest metaphysics must be, but I loaded it with Boolean algebra, which (if solved) proved that Dzhugashvili was a murdering scoundrel… as the kulaks of the Ukraine knew too well.

I gave a copy of my dissertation to Father McCaw and invited him to my convocation. He accepted, then glanced at the dissertation and smiled. ‘I think Plato would be pleased to be in the company of Voltaire… but each of them would shun the company of Stalin.’

Robert Heinlein, To Sail Beyond The Sunset, p. 36

I didn’t really appreciate that joke until I did my own graduate work in Education. Oh… my… God… the amount of BS I learned how to generate was insane… but that’s a story for another day. What do you think? Is there a better way to teach teachers? Did you have a better experience than me? Let me know in the comments below! Then check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too steep for your wallet, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

“We Just Thought You Knew!”

25 Mar

A teacher once explained a concept using an iceberg as an example, saying how you could only see part of it; the rest of it was hidden. After the end of his brilliant parable, one student raised their hand and asked, “What’s an iceberg?”

Sometimes you run into a problem where you really don’t know what the basic concept, but all the commentaries keep going as if you do. For example, today is the Fast of the Firstborn. What does that mean? Well, it’s more complicated this year, because Passover starts on a Saturday night. You can’t fast on Shabbat (Friday night to Saturday night), because that’s intended to be a happy time. Okay, move it to Friday. Nope, because you’re doing prep for Shabbat, and you don’t want sadness to get in the way of that. So it’s shifted back to Thursday. Sunrise to sunset, you’ll fast.

Great! What does “fast” mean?

This sounds like a “duh” question, but it’s kinda important. Does “fast” mean just “no food” or “no food and drink” or “nothing passes through the mouth” (i.e., smoking)? This is not a “minor fast day,” because there are four other days that qualify… not this one. So what does a “fast” mean? I checked online, with three respected sources, and the answer is… “it depends.” What is your particular tradition? What did your parents do? What does your rabbi say?

There’s a joke that says, “Two Jews, three opinions,” but it makes it very frustrating. You don’t wanna approach your rabbi with the question, because it makes you sound like an idiot. So in the end, you’ll just do what you want to do, basing it on whatever’s convenient. Some helpful rabbi wrote down “since it’s on a Thursday, if you are even “minorly inconvenienced,” you can get out of fasting. So I’m going to go with “no food until sundown” restriction today, but still drink water… because that’s what I’ve done before for minor fast days, even though other authorities go through the “no food and drink from sunrise to sunset” rule.

“Is this the sort of fast I want, a day when a person mortifies himself?

Isaiah 58:5a (CJB)

So I have to ask myself, “why am I going through all this legal hoops if I’m just going to do what I wanted to anyway?” First off, because my wife reminded me of it–I was going to blow it off, like I have many years–but once reminded, I feel obligated. And so I’m left with this strange “half-assed” fast.

When I was teaching live, I would frequently remind me, “There are no stupid questions,” because if you don’t know it, chances are, the person behind you doesn’t know it either. The teacher needs to read the room; if the student looks confused, address it. But how do you know what they don’t know?

Using sci-fi as an example, there are details you have to address, those you have to skim, and those you just throw out there for flavor. Faster-than-light travel is currently impossible, but we understand faster-than-sound travel, so you can address incredible speed and g-forces, but then you skim over the actual device that makes it possible, and then have people puking from breaking the light barrier. Why? Doesn’t matter, it just emphasizes that it’s difficult. The trick is knowing what is important enough to address and what is important to skim.

There’s no real answer for this question, so I’ll throw it to you? How you do determine what’s important when explaining a concept? How you do react to a “stupid question?” Let me know in the comments below! And if you liked the sci-fi example, check out one of my books and find out more about how I address faster-than-light technology. Or if you’re not that interested, simply download one of my stories, and you’ll get a similar (but lesser) flavor!

Fight, Freeze, or Flight

23 Mar

It is exhausting to view the entire world as a threat.” The quote is talking about PTSD, but I’m gonna take this out of context, and apply it to the world around us. How do we tackle that which we can’t control?

The answer is simple; we react the same way we do with any dangerous situation, “fight, freeze, or flight.” Now maybe you haven’t heard that phrase quite that way before, but it is an option that many people do. Scary thing happens and you freeze–paralyzed by your own decision making–because you’re not really sure what to do.

Some are frozen because your body can’t process the new information that doesn’t fit into your worldview. In education, there’s actually a theory called “transformative pedagogy,” which actually tries to force the student to reexamine their beliefs by presenting data outside the student’s mindset and having them address it. It can be very effective.

Now imagine if every class were designed that way. If you take four to five courses a day, and every single one of them was trying to transform the way you look at the work, you’d be exhausted. There’s only so much shock one can take to your worldview before you either fight it (reject the contradiction completely), freeze (accept the contradiction and either struggle with it or ignore it), or flight (accept the contradiction and change your worldview).

Let me give an example of this… and it’s not the one you’re thinking of. 180 years ago, a preacher by the name of William Miller revealed to his followers (anywhere from 50 to 500 thousand of them) that Jesus would come back to Earth on October 22, 1844. As you might guess, Bill was wrong. After what became known as “The Great Disappointment,” there were four reactions:

  • The prophecy was invalid, Miller was a fraud: Some of these went back to their old churches, a lot of them just became agnostic.
  • The prophecy was valid, the date was invalid: These became the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
  • The date and the prophecy were valid: These joined the Holy Flesh Movement, which eventually collapsed, and then they joined the Shakers.
  • The date was valid, the interpretation was invalid: These became the Seventh-Day Adventists.

Since I have a lot of love for SDA’s (they’re like Jews for Jesus, but nicer), let me put my conclusion this way. In a classroom, when faced with contradicting data, you aren’t going to come to the same conclusion that your teacher wants you to. The J-Dubs and the SDA’s had the same teacher, different result.

My wife sees this a lot in her classes. I don’t think she’s deliberately using a transformative model, but she’s often confused by students who reject (or “fight”) the contradictory information. Say you have your students read Heeding the Voices of Our Ancestors by Taiawake Alfred; it’s his doctoral thesis before he went all activist-y. He’s talking about the Mohawk reserve just outside of Montreal. Some arrive at the same result that my wife has: “Aren’t (white) Canadians just bastards? Free the native peoples!” Her university has a large number of conservative students who might fire back with “The Mohawk people are dealing with an unrealistic model that doesn’t conform with modern life.” And some (like myself) might freeze and say “both views are valid. Why can’t we give more sovereignty to the reserve, but still have it subservient to the Canadian (but not provincial) government?”

As the teacher, she has her own transformative moment. Do you accept that your conservative students have a valid but opposite worldview? Or do you just shake your head and say “I just don’t get it.” Or do you reject them and say, “Oh, they’re white supremacists and/or conspiracy theorists.” Having read many of their papers, some are conspiracy theorists, but in my opinion, conspiracies are just another way of dealing with the contradictory information. I think I need to write my belief on conspiracy theory tomorrow.

But I could be way off… what do you think? How do you react when faced with contradictory information? Does it depend on the information… or how much you care about the subject being questioned? Let me know in the comments below!

Once you’ve done that, check out one of my books! But if you think that $1.99 is too much for an author you barely know, download some of my stories for free, and then tell me what you think. Maybe then you might buy a book of mine! 🙂

Getting Over the Hurdle

27 Oct

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation about blowing up the established reading canon. Matt Ryan disagreed with my guest, so I invited him to also talk. Matt is a high school English teacher from Massachusetts, as well as the host of #CanonChat on Twitter. You can follow him at @MatRyanELATeach.

Marcus: How do you deal with students who have difficulty reading “canon books,” but have no trouble with other books? For example, my son (dyslexic and ADHD… whew, what a combo!) will devour Keeper of the Lost Cities and Harry Potter, but has to be forced to sit and read Fahrenheit 451.

Matt: I’d say that many students have trouble reading canonical books. This is where good teaching comes in. We need to provide background knowledge necessary for understanding some texts. We have to walk some students through the text, modeling how to read. If we simply place the books in the hands of students and instruct them to read, it’s no surprise they will resist. Another approach is to build up to classic texts. There’s a reason I teach The Scarlet Letter later in the school year. I build their skills and stamina before I expect them to read Hawthorne’s novel. Ultimately, to put it simply, it’s really hard work to teach some classic texts. 

Marcus: I think your phrasing that “modeling how to read” is really key. My wife struggled with teaching her college online course this year because although she had a great live-course modeling how helping her students learn how to write a proper research paper, this year it completely failed because the students didn’t bother actually reading / watching her lectures… oh, and ignoring her comments. So… more the fool them.

But I liked your phrase “Building up their skills and stamina.” It’s a good goal and I like that perspective of it. What are some of the tricks that you like using in your class?

Matt: The most significant decision I make is the ordering of the books I teach. I strategically begin with books that I know students will enjoy and will be easier to read. So in my American Lit course where I teach The Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn, I open with Station Eleven and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and some short stories. They learn that they can read book and they actually enjoy it. And then when it comes to the more challenging texts, I have buy in. Also, by pairing books, their themes help to illuminate each other. For instance, I pair The Scarlet Letter with a contemporary novel by Silas House called Southernmost. And I pair Octavia Butler’s Kindred with Huck Finn. By pairing books, suddenly these old classics seem fresh.

Marcus: Do you also encourage reading outside of class? How?

Matt: So this is the most controversial part of my teaching, although it really shouldn’t be. When teaching a novel, I give my students daily quizzes on their reading. The quizzes can’t be passed using summary sites because the questions focus on details; not obscure details, but points that would be remembered but are just not included in general summaries. These quizzes have completely transformed my classes. Students quickly learn that they can no longer get along fine with fake reading. Those who typically read continue to read, while the more reluctant readers start to see success. Then they realize that they actually like reading and class is much more exciting when they can actually participate in the discussion. The change has been remarkable. Students want to talk to me outside of the classroom about the books. They come into class asking to be quizzed. Students are vocal about their opinions of the book, both positive and negative. During class discussions, most of the students are engaged in the discussions. In short, the reading checks work. Yes, students will occasionally not read and score poorly on a quiz. But overwhelmingly, they are reading more than they ever had in school. At the end of the year, over and over again my students have shared how, by holding them accountable for their reading, I’ve helped them to rediscovered their love of reading. Compliance isn’t always a bad thing. 

So… what do you think? Is Matt on the right track? Or is his defense of the canon flawed? Let us know in the comments below!

My Superpower is Lame

18 Sep

My superpower sucks. I pass street lights and they dim slightly as I pass by. It’s not that exciting, and it’s also not consistent. I can’t even focus my superpower and make it happen on demand. It’s time to take my power and reach my true potential.

Imagine what I could do with this power if extended to the Nth degree. I could suck electricity from the grid and then shock people with it. Blow up things with several thousand volts. It’ll be pretty cool.

If comic books have taught me nothing, it’s that I must have a sensei. A mentor with equally badass power who can drive me to my full potential. The problem is I need to show a glimmer of hope in my superpower before I can draw his attention. So if I can start sparking people other than rubbing my feet on the carpet, that might be a good start.

The weakness to this superpower is that I can’t wear a watch. I already seem to drain the watch battery faster than most. It’s weird. I fear that as I reach my true potential, I’ll have to stop wearing my phone near me (or give it up at all) because I’ll have it suddenly explode in a flurry of sparks. Probably have to give up being online at all… not that that is a terrible loss. I figure if I have to give up my work-at-home gig, I can rob banks with my frightening destructive power. That should keep me going for a while. I would miss television, but there are plenty of books.

I could find a manual typewriter and still write books. Maybe hire someone with my ill gotten gains to keep running my online press… who knows? And of course, I’d get away with it because who would believe lightning coming out of someone’s hands! Might have to wear gloves to avoid accidentally zapping folks, but I figure that would be part of my training.

Anyone know a mystic sensei that could put me on the path to wealth and power? A supervillain I can be a powerful henchmen for? An apprenticeship for mutants? Let me know in the comments below!

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