Sunday, September 25, 2011

The essential nature of 8th graders

I was responding to another teacher who asked about my teaching awards and about working with 8th graders. By the time I was done writing my message, I realized it was a blog posting...

I taught in Walla Walla, WA and won the state Excellence in Education award and then won the national Milken Award. That was a life-changing time in many, many ways. But... the way I won the awards was using the following philosophies, maybe they will help you. First of all, even Socrates complained about 14 year olds and how they wouldn't listen etc. I realized if they hadn't changed in a couple thousand years then I wasn't going to change the essential nature of 14 year olds. So instead of trying to change who they were, I changed the way I taught to match their personalities. At 14 they

  • can't do anything alone. Everything, even going for a drink of water, requires at least one buddy.
  • need to sprawl. Their bodies are growing so fast and the hormones are going up and down constantly they just really cannot sit in a desk for extended periods.
  • know everything and adults know nothing. When my daughter informed me that I was brushing my teeth wrong (according to her, not according to the dentist) I really got a lesson in knowing "nothing."
  • believe they are adults. Period. They do.
  • have to know why they need to know something.
So I created a whole curriculum which required them to work in partners or groups for nearly everything. We did stuff big, like poster paper on the floor instead of notebook paper on a desk. I played dumb (because I am an adult and I know nothing) and let them teach me everything. Everything!

And for the last two points keep in mind that I taught the most ancient of ancient history. To be honest I don't think I ever learned about Babylonia or Mesopotamia so I really had to sit in their seats and think how this could be relevant. I used to sit in their seats metaphorically a lot and think why should I care about... If I couldn't picture the teacher convincing me I should care then I knew they would be lost.

So my curriculum was Lehmann Enterprises. I "hired" them as unpaid interns (remember they think they are adults) the first day of school and all of the content was taught through work-based products. They created advertising, did live news shoots (which they had to script), made travel brochures, ran an election in which the whole school voted about Sparta or Athens... The content was embedded in what was being advertised, or being shown on the news, or what was in the travel brochures etc.

When your history students are sneaking out of other peoples classes to advertise for Sparta so the 6th graders would vote for Sparta and not Athens; when 8th graders are hurrying down the hall and saying "Can we start before the bell rings?" when they still as adults talk about Sparta vs. Athens, or false Buddha images, or their Century 21 BC ad... You know you created something compelling for them. And talk about learning, and unintended lessons Wow!

They learned the history and didn't even know they were learning it... Which is why the whole "teach to the test" movement of the last 10 years has made me crazy. If you make learning really interesting and compelling they will learn everything they need for the dumb test and a lot, lot more. Instead we are making school so incredibly boring that they hate learning. And... they do worse on the tests! Makes me crazy, crazy, crazy!!

Whew! That's a lot! But you asked so I got on my soapbox. The main thing to remember is you are not going to change the essential nature of 14 year olds. They are who they are.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Begging for communication

Can I just say... I hate to beg. Does anyone really like to beg someone for communications? Probably not, but it is becoming a real pet peeve with me.

Several business people I have been dealing with... Well let's just say I believe if they want my business they will provide some service and will communicate with me. I shouldn't have to keep asking and begging for the information I want/need to move forward with a business arrangement. Grrr

And as an online instructor I shouldn't have to beg students to communicate with me. A couple of recent instances have me really perplexed. I wasn't sure one student was getting my messages. In my emails I said, please let me know if you are getting my messages. Can I be more clear than that? I expect you to reply. I shouldn't have to tell you to reply, as a matter of courtesy a student should say "Thank you I got your message about blah and I understand/will do the following..." I am very prompt at returning student emails... they should promptly let me know they got my message.

In another case a student let me know after a multi-week disappearance from an online class that they had a medical issue. Unless you are in a coma, please ask someone to open your email and send a quick message to the instructor letting them know there is a medical emergency. In this case the medical issue wasn't an emergency at all and the student could have advised me about the need for an extension of due dates. However since the student did not contact me in advance or at any time during the several weeks of absence nor were there replies to my messages asking if there was a problem, I had no choice but to apply the late policy.

Communication is a two-way street. Students have a responsibility to communicate with instructors. And instructors have a responsibility to reply in a prompt, informative manner. Making me beg repeatedly to find out if the student is getting my messages offering technical assistance so I know if the help worked just ticks me off. And I end up writing a blog posting! In this case I guess the ignorance lies with the online student population. Hopefully the following plainly stated message helps dispel that ignorance: Students... you have a responsibility to communicate with the online instructor!