Explain Better

April 26, 2010 at 12:54 am (Uncategorized)

Ok, so I’m big on reflection. I mean, this blog is a kind of school-mandated reflection, but I’m naturally bent towards it anyway. In fact, I’m probably too introspective, pensive, critical. Someone once said that our strengths become our weaknesses. This is so true. Thinking and reflecting are good, brooding and mulling without end are bad. I try to strike a balance between these subtely distinct traits when it comes to my teaching. After all, the unexamined lesson is not worth teaching. But I also need to avoid getting too down when things don’t go well.

Last week I had some frustration with how part of a lesson went. But by writing this blog, I’m attempting to spin some “thought-judo”–meaning, instead of getting bogged down in the failures, push that energy towards constructive reflection.

I broke the class into groups and assigned them different topics to research. They were to become experts and then present the information to the class. I gave the students their topics as well as five questions to focus on. However, I was apparently vauge about the standards I expected for the presentations. I said something like “I’m looking for a very high quality” or “you all must be the experts on your topic and it must show through your presentation.”

Many of the presentations, however, were weaker than what I was looking for. I’m beginning to realize that me saying that I want a strong product isn’t enough. That’s a little tough for me to swallow because I know the students know the difference between a weak presentation and a strong one. But I think, because my expectations were general rather than specific, there was a tendancy to slip toward the lowest common denominator.

How to combat this in the future? Well, two things, probably. For one, I may want to make presentations something that occur somewhat frequently, and if so, I should be a little bit harsh on the first assignment. For two, I need to give out rubrics with very specific expectations. Especially for the first few times the students do presentations, detailed rubrics seem to be a must.


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A Little Too Friendly?

April 6, 2010 at 10:32 pm (Uncategorized)

Double Chin Alert!

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Successful Discipline

April 6, 2010 at 10:29 pm (Uncategorized)

My best class, fourth period, was beginning to get out of hand. This is bad news. I was knee deep in a week long stretch of deteriorating behavior. My CT was consistently out of the room. The kids felt comfortable, too comfortable, with me. My own behavior, by coming out of the gate too lax and self-deprecating, seemed to encourage the students to talk in class, even when I repeatedly asked them not too. But fourth period? Et tu Brute? Fourth period was my dependable “good class,” full of enough shy kids that speaking out of turn was painfully awkward for the few students who would be so inclined.

But yes, even fourth period was now getting out of hand. Speaking out of turn was a small problem, but the bigger one was complaining. Two girls in particular were the culprits. For one, this was a perpetual problem. She had a swagger about her from day one, likely worn as a some sort of misguided self-defense mechanism, that said “I do what I want and don’t care what you think.” But now her neighbor was beginning to get in on the action. As the corrupting influence of the “bad apple” spread around the front left corner of the room like a thick yellow cloud of mustard gas, I got nervous. I couldn’t ask these students to do anything, much less correct behavior in the room, without being met with a chorus of complaints, verbal jabs, or under the breath threats.

Things came to a head when I cracked down on a student who had been whispering the entire day. Her friend, the “bad apple,” took her part, protesting that the girl I had corrected hadn’t been talking. This precipitated a back and forth between me and the two complainers in front of the whole class. Their behavior was so frustrating, so unnecessary, that I almost lost it. I felt in my body surge up a strong desire to close up shop and end the lesson there. I paused for a critical moment, contemplating my options. Thankfully, I chose to move on and finish the lesson.

However, I closed things up a few minutes early that day and asked the two problem students to talk to me outside. This was my first “see me outside” moment, and I was a little nervous. It went well, however. I made it clear my frustration wasn’t personal, that I like both students as people, but that I needed the complaining to stop. They responded mostly with dodging eyes and furrowed brows, but weren’t overtly defiant.

I made sure the next day to greet both of those girls with a smile and a friendly hello the next day. They responded well. I continued to show, through subtle words and actions, that today was a new day, and that I bore no grudge. I’m happy to report that behavior has been a lot better since then. This episode is probably the least of my behavior problems, but surely gives me some hope and some direction when pursuing discipline of students in the future.

And that, I guess, is what student teaching is all about.

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Mini Lesson Reflection

April 6, 2010 at 10:25 pm (Uncategorized)

Opening Narrative:

As I planned for this mini-lesson, I gave UBD a go for the first time. Basing my planning off of the template provided me, I decided on the goals of the lesson, first very generally and then more specifically. To me, this was the critical part of the operation. Determining worthy goals gives me a destination to steer towards as I craft the rest of the lesson. From that point, I then decided upon appropriate evidence that would allow me to decide weather or not the goals had been met. The process then concluded as I used these guiding principles to lay out the specific activities that would make up the lesson and satisfy its goals.

I think this system worked relatively well. My overarching goal, for students to be able to articulate the major causes and goals of the Progressive Movement, seemed to have been met. My biggest piece of evidence was the “First Letter Activity”, which was turned in, and the subsequent class discussion about the activity. This provided ample evidence for me to assess how well the class, generally speaking, grasped the points I was trying to make.

Lecture PowerPoint

Lesson Plan: Progressive

Understanding by Design

Seeing myself teach on camera makes me aware of two things, one good and one bad. The good one is I seem to be confident and active, working my way around the classroom and speaking loudly rather than cowering behind a podium and clinging to notes. The bad thing I noticed was somewhat of a corollary to the good thing. I tended to speak too fast, which caused me to mumble to some degree. It also contributed to my wait-time deficiency and failure to give the students enough time to copy down the notes as I moved along. The feedback I got was helpful. Most of it was pushing, which might hurt more, but certainly provides specific areas where I can step up my game. I got a few really solid and specific suggestions from the tuning protocol.

This lesson will survive in its essence, however, I am looking forward to polishing it. For one, I want to synthesize the lecture and visual discovery which will allow me to make the lecture time more interesting and dynamic, as well as break up the writing. I also want to tweak my note-giving system. Personally, I’d like the kids to take their own notes, but that seems out of vogue these days. I also will go back and do more research so that I am more of an “expert” in the area I’m teaching on. Once these changes are made, I think this lesson can be an effective introduction to the Progressive Movement.


As I prepared for this assignment, I knew I wanted to come up with an introductory lesson for a unit I was soon going to teach. Since I was starting with the Progressive Movement, I decided to start there. As detailed above, I began my backward design process by coming up with the goals of the lesson, then figuring out the way I’d check on these goals, and then detailing the specific flow of the lesson. I decided the objective was for students to be able to articulate the causes and goals of the Progressive Movement.

As I began to specifically design the lesson, working backwards, I was aware that the Progressive Movement is generally seen as dry and unrelated to daily life. I tried to combat this to a small degree with my anticipatory set, which asked the students to consider problems in their communities. The goal here was to get the students to see that the desire for reform is indeed a relevant one.

Here’s me introducing the lesson with an anticipatory set

I focused on the first three facets of understanding from Wiggins and McTighe: explain, interpret, and apply. As this was an introductory lesson, my main goal was for the students to understand what Progressivism was, why it was, and what context it developed it. My anticipatory set was a small movement toward the “apply” facet, while my lecture, visual discovery, and processing activity hammered home the “explain” and “interpret” facets.

Here’s me facilitating discussion during the visual discover portion


I think doing this mini lesson was very helpful for my teaching, especially since I plan to use a similar lesson in my actual classroom. I think the lecture, visual discovery, and activity all were very effective toward achieving the objective. Though this lesson was not strictly limited to SOLs, I believe it provides the groundwork which will allow me to more specifically address the SOLs in subsequent lessons. Student involvement was decent, as both the visual discovery and the processing activity gave students an opportunity to talk, think, and write apart from my direct instruction.

I’m generally happy with this lesson. Its overall thrust will remain. However, it was by no means flawless. I want to polish it along the lines of some of the feedback I received. Specifically, I need to figure out a way to do the notes better, incorporate the visual discovery into the lecture, speak more slowly and carefully, and give clear directions.

Here is a link to my unit plan. The first lesson is a revised version of the lesson I gave here:

Here’s my unit plan

Reactions to Watching Myself

Watching myself was a particularly helpful, if humiliating, experience. I don’t want to be too redundant here, as I’ve integrated my experience watching myself throughout all my answers, my opening narrative, and my appendix. However, I will relate a few choice tidbits gleaned from watching myself.

For one, I’m doing well in the confidence category. I seem to have a solid presence in the room and am not afraid to interact with the students. I also noticed I have the ability to “serve the ball back” to the students when they have comments, questions, or insults.

Watching the video also made me aware of those places where I fouled up. For instance, early on in the lecture, as I was fumbling my way through my first slot note experience, I am visibly nervous and stuttering. When I watched this, it brought back my feelings when I experienced this moment. I remember wanting to throw my hands up and quit, just because I hit a rough spot.

Here’s me screwing the pooch

To me this teaches two lessons: for one, it underscores the importance of preparing and “playing teacher.” This helps me identify potentially hazardous parts of the lessons and give me a chance to practice navigating them. The other thing is the importance of perseverance and moving through difficult moments.  They are inevitable and it’s important I don’t get too bogged down.

Comments Received During Tuning Protocol

The positives I got form the protocol were generally things I knew were my strengths: confidence, humor, and my ability to phrase meaningful questions on the fly.

The negative comments I received were more helpful, since they helped reveal/fix problems in my lesson. Some of the most helpful included suggestions on how to do the notes better, pointers on how to integrate the visual discover and lecture, and instruction on doing a more solid closure. I have already begun to incorporate these suggestions into my revamped lesson. While I’m still trying to negotiate the best way to do notes, I’ve changed the lecture to include the pictures (rather than keeping these two activities distinct). I’ve also spent time thinking about how to do an effective closing. Taking Dr. Hicks suggestion, when I actually give this lesson I will conclude with a diagram on the board referring to “causes” and “goals,” with spokes emanating from each word with examples of these two categories.

Here’s me asking about integrating visual discover with lecture


I look forward to reworking this lesson after having done it once and receiving feedback. As I’ve already indicated above, I believe the general thrust and structure of the lesson will survive. I will, however, polish it by incorporating many of the suggestions I received. Specifically, I will tighten up the anticipatory set by categorizing the responses I receive into social, political, and economic categories; I will integrate the lecture and visual discovery; I will re-tool the notes so they flow better with my lecture style; and I will create a more powerful conclusions which alludes to the guiding question and leaves the students with the important information.


1) What is the extent of classroom involvement (e.g. are the same students doing all the talking)?

  1. The talking was fairly evenly spread out. There were a few students who didn’t volunteer at all, but there weren’t really a select one or two who did all the talking. This was nice, as it happened naturally. However, I did ask questions to specific people one or two occasions in order to get participation from those who weren’t volunteering information.

2) Are the students engaged in the lesson?  How can you tell?  What do students’ facial expressions and body language tell you about your instruction?

  1. Overall, the level of engagement was good. The initial lecture/note-taking portion was the low point, with some students looking very disengaged. However, this was mitigated by the fact that the direct instruction didn’t last long. The “Visual Discovery” and “First Letter Activity” seemed to really engage the students, judging by their level of participation and

3) What kinds of questions do you ask? Can all questions be answered with a single word?  How long do you wait for responses?  Do you ask students to explain and/ or defend a particular answer or approach? Do you ask students to compare or evaluate alternative interpretations or strategies?

  1. I asked lots of follow-up questions. These questions weren’t pre-meditated, rather, I tried to come up with them on the fly as a response to what was being discussed at the moment. The questions were of mixed ability, some could be answered with one word, others required more reflection and explanation. My wait time could be improved. Generally, if someone didn’t speak within two seconds, I began to answer the question or rephrase it. I did indeed ask students to backup or defend their answers, which I think is helpful.

4) Were there any opportunities for students to ask questions?  How would you categorize the students’ questions (e.g. did they indicate confusion and a need for clarification or understanding and extension)?

  1. There seemed to be limited opportunity for students to ask questions. I moved quickly (too quickly?) through the lecture and visual discovery. It’s hard accurately measure how this would be in a real classroom, but I think there is more room for improvement here. Generally, the few questions I received were for clarifying confusion, rather than for extension.

5) What roles (e.g. expert, facilitator, co- learner) did you play in the videotape? Was each role appropriate for the situation?

  1. I played the role of expert and facilitator. “Expert” came out during the lecture, where I delivered knowledge directly to the students. Interestingly, some weaknesses in my own knowledge surfaced here, perhaps limiting my effectiveness in that role. As far as “facilitator,” I tried to lead a discussion on the pictures we examined, as well as set up the students to take part in the processing activity. The role of facilitator was very appropriate for these activities. Being the facilitator is far more fun and easy for me than being the “expert,” however, in a real classroom where students have less intrinsic motivation, I may find it more difficult to be the facilitator rather than lecturer or expert.

6) What kinds of tasks did you ask students to do?  Did you capitalize on their previous knowledge and experiences?

  1. I asked the students to take notes, participate in a discussion of visual images, and complete (in groups) in an acrostic. I tried to capitalize on prior knowledge by constantly referring to or asking about the causes of Progressivism. The purpose of this was to show that the Progressive Era was not a random occurrence, but rather a reaction to the historical setting it was in. However, it seemed like the students didn’t have a lot of prior knowledge that they felt connected to the Progressive Era. This was a limiting factor, but one I foresaw and tried to compensate for by referring to the “causes” frequently.

7) What instructional opportunities did you take advantage of? Why?

  1. I took advantage of the Socratic set up of the visual discovery activity to take students responses and direct them towards my goals and the understandings I wanted the students to come away with. Similarly, I framed student responses to the acrostic in a way that would communicate to the students what I thought was most important.

8) What instructional opportunities did you not take advantage of? Why?

  1. I did not take advantage of the notes/visual discovery in the sense that these two activities could have been merged into one, more powerful, activity. This merger would probably have made the notes more visceral and integrated, rather than a bored prelude to more engaging and disconnected activities. I did this because I didn’t even consider merging the two until it was suggested. I was thinking in a rigid way, not playing with different strategies to look for the most effective way to employ them.

9) What evidence did you see of the students taking intellectual risks?  Does the class look safe as an environment for getting something wrong?  Do students talk to each other as well as to you?

  1. I didn’t see a lot of intellectual risk-taking. I think this is mainly because I set things up (unfortunately) so that there wasn’t a ton of opportunity for student reaction. However, in my real classroom this is often a necessity due to behavior issues/lack of motivation. So there’s definitely some tension there. My use of humor may scare some kids from taking risks, so that’s another fine line I’ll have to continue to negotiate. It did appear that there was talking amongst the students, which, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, can be both a good thing and a bad thing.

10) Do you push students to take risks, to speculate, to offer conjectures about possible approaches, strategies, and interpretations?

  1. I certainly did by asking effective follow up questions. However, I also undermined myself by leaving insufficient “wait time.”

11) Were the learning goals for the lesson clear and achieved?  Did you adjust your lesson so every student could achieve your goals?  What is the evidence for you answers, both in the videotape and from other sources?

  1. Learning goals were partially clear. Meaning, I had a written guiding question on the board, but I didn’t have an agenda or “SWBAT” objects listed anywhere visible. These things were on my personal lesson plans, but weren’t listed publicly. I didn’t adjust my lesson much so every student could achieve the goals. Maybe this occurred in a “soft” form, as I walked around and interacted with the groups to make sure they understand what I wanted from the “First Letter Activity,” but there were no big adjustments made.

12) Explain how your design and execution of this lesson affected the achievement of your goals? (Think about anticipation in handling student misconceptions, the unexpected questions from students, the unanticipated opportunity for learning you captured, or your planned strategy and its outcomes in the lesson.)

  1. I started with SOL standards when planning this lesson. Then, I thought about how best to get students to understand the Progressive Movement as a reaction to American industrialization. These two factors led me to organize my lesson around the causes and goals of the movement. In this way, I hoped student would walk about with an understanding of the context of Progressivism. My belief is that history is awful and boring if it is just memorization. Therefore, from the get go I had the goal in mind of firmly entrenching Progressivism in its historical context. I think this “backwards design” was helpful, because it help me construct the guiding question and order my lecture in a logical way (i.e., the Progressive movement was a reaction to this and that, and the Progressive Movement targeted this and that). More evidence of this was seen with my anticipatory set, which sought to get kids thinking about citizen action to combat problems even in our day.

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