Thursday, June 26, 2008

Learning to Teach

Sometimes I am like a broken record. I come up with something clever to say and I keep repeating it. Sometimes it isn't even that clever.

One of the ideas I have been pointing out repeatedly is this is my learning year as a teacher. Every day I learn something new that I will do differently next year. I imagine that the learning curve isn't nearly as steep for people who actually went to school to be teachers. I imagine they come out of school knowing all sorts of things that I am only slowly beginning to understand.

There is no text book for the PSSC prescription. My school has some computer books, but only a few. They are kept in the resource room and teachers can check them out to use to create lesson plans. We do not have the resources to give each student their own book or even the resources to let each student use a book during class. I know from my own learning style that I need a textbook of my own. Learning entirely from classroom lectures and notes written on the board just wouldn't cut it for me. So, when it was time to start the section on word-processing, I created a text book for my students. Using a document created by previous Peace Corps, a Step-by-Step Microsoft Word book sent by my parents, a textbook in the school resource room and my own knowledge of word-processing, I wrote a book that specifically followed the PSSC prescription. For every topic on the PSSC, I gathered the information and listed it. I also described how to do each thing. How to open and close a file, how to change the color of text, etc. At first, I only had enough copies to use in class and the students had to return them at the end of class so I could use them with the next one. However, in less then a week, I had enough copies to give one to each student to keep and take home and hopefully study.

In addition to the textbook, I also created assignments using the Step-by-Step Word book and the textbook from the resource room. Both books came with files that the students could use to complete assignments, which I saved to every computer (no network yet). At the beginning of each class I would explain the topic, then I would give the students the assignment sheet. In some classes I could leave the students to their own devices, only answering questions. However, in other classes I had to take the entire class through the assignment one step at a time and help each student individually to complete the steps.

I learned two very important lessons from this:
  1. Even within classes there were students who were way ahead and students way behind the rest of the class. This wasn't really a surprise. I am sure that exists in every class in every country. However, it is more pronounced here because the students are not grouped according to their abilities in a subject, but only according to their English skills. I would have students finish the assignment in a matter of minutes and then I would have nothing productive to give them for the rest of the class period.
  2. I could assign the students to do reading in their book the night before so they would be prepared for the topic the following day, but I couldn't easily verify they were doing the reading and I was pretty sure that they weren't.

After word-processing, the next topic was spreadsheets. This time, when I created the textbook, I wrote all the in-class assignments and included them in the back of the book. I also wrote worksheets to go with the different topics and included those in the back of the book as well. That way I was able to assign the students reading and a worksheet to complete. That way I would have a better understanding of whether or not they were doing the reading. Of course, it appeared that most of the students simply copied of the one or two students that had done the work. But I can only fight so many battles at once.

Putting all the assignments in the back of the book let the students work at their own pace. I would still teach a lesson on a particular topic at the beginning of classes, but students were free to complete the assignments as quickly or slowly as their skill level allowed. A handful of students raced ahead completing all of the assignments in a short period of time. But there were also the students who wasted class time, completing very little work. The majority were in the middle, working hard on assignments at about the right speed.

During the section on keyboarding I posted a grid on the blackboard. It listed each student and marked off incremental goals towards the overall goal of 20 WPM and 50 NPM (numbers per minute). As a student was able to type 5 WPM I would check them off on the grid. The same for 10, 15 and finally 20. I would also write in pencil their current WPM so they could see how close they were to the next check mark. This was extremely popular. The students checked this board everyday. Even when we hadn't done a timed assignment in weeks, so there would be no change to the board. I decided to continue this idea with spreadsheets. I created a grid that listed each worksheet and assignment. As the students completed them, I would mark them off. It has also proven popular and allows both me and the student to keep track of their progress.

I am still learning how to improve this technique. For example, I am trying to figure out what to do about students who are completing assignments faster than they may comprehend the concept. They can easily follow the steps in the assignment to copy and paste a formula in a cell, but may not understand what copy and paste means, why they would want to copy and paste and what happens to the formula when you copy and paste. Also, I need to find a way to help students who fall desperately behind in assignments.

This is just a small snapshot of the lessons I am learning all the time. I am also learning bigger lessons about how to organize my yearly plan and how to control my class (though this one is the one I am floundering at the most — I just don't have disciplinarian in my blood and have some how failed to figure out the detention system and have yet to successfully give a student a detention).

I keep telling myself that by the end of this year I will have everything figured out and next year will just be dandy. However, I wonder. I imagine I will continue to learn new things next year as well. Things that I will wish I will be able to implement the following year, except next year I will have no second chance. That is probably where this sustainability thing should come in. Hypothetically I will have a Samoan partner teacher who will be able to pick up where I left off and implement any changes we think are necessary in that following year when I am no longer in country.

For now, I will continue learning how to teach one little bit at a time every day.

— Sara

1 comment:

Barb Carusillo said...

I have been wondering what makes your blog so readable, (and not only because you are my kid, and I would flunk parenthood 101 if I didn't read it). I have decided it must be your experience in design and layout with the newspapers. You divide things into bite sized hunks of reading, making it easier to process, and less overwhelming. Unlike your mother's comments!