A tale of two teachers

This year, I have the pleasure of seeing a lot of the work my colleagues do around the school. Like many schools around theĀ area state country (globe?), we are suffering from a severe shortage of substitutes and paras. Thankfully, due to the extraordinarily low turnover of teachers in my school, we do NOT suffer from a shortage of amazing, qualified regular classroom teachers. However, many of our teachers are at or nearing retirement age and that worries me. But that’s a post for another time.

In any case, I am a team player and besides, like everyone else, we don’t really have a choice – so I’ve been covering for a lot of other teachers while they are gone. I also have an ELL student this year and as the designated “surprise! I’m an ELL teacher now because I’m the only one who speaks Spanish and I also happened to have a free period!” person, I get to see first-hand a lot of work that the other teachers assign (as opposed to just hearing the complaints through students, or peering over their shoulder in study hall). In addition to all of this, I have a wonderful coworker who uses my room during 8th period to teach 10th grade health.

This coworker is the polar opposite of my teaching style. My style is very.. um.. loosey goosey would be good term for it. I am laid back. Kids interrupt me all the time and it rarely bothers me. My room looks and sounds like organized chaos most days – students are frequently shouting out things in English and/or Spanish. We do a lot of hands-on practice with reading stories, acting out stories, asking and answering questions, talking about pictures on the screen, and so on. I use a lot of technology in my room. I am frequently open to discussion, and in some cases, am open to discussion that has nothing to do with Spanish class because I think it’s equally important to discuss things that students need to know for their well-being as future adults (some random things that come up are stuff like, a student got in trouble because she got a whole bunch of overdraft fees on her debit card and she didn’t understand how that happened – kids don’t know that banks will debit your largest purchase first, then ding you for each subsequent purchase AND slam you with a overdraft fee for each of those purchases. In her case, she had moved money from her savings to her checking but that hadn’t cleared before the large purchase went through, and then she made a series of smaller purchases the same day). And especially since, in one of my Spanish classes, I have said ELL student who is a recent immigrant, and I want her to know about how things work here in the US because she is extra likely to get taken advantage of.

My fellow coworker? He’s twice my age. He does not do group work. He does not do technology. He does not do games or papers or discussion. The bell rings, he opens his notes, he lectures from the first bell to the dismissal bell and that is his class. The kids are mostly silent and scribble notes on paper as fast as their hands can write. It is, in every sense, the most traditional style of class. The other day, he busted out a LASER DISC and generally scoffs good-naturedly at all the stuff us youngin teachers do. But here’s the thing: his class is useful and compelling. He teaches during my plan period but quite frankly, I get nothing done because half the time I shut my computer and just listen, because he makes everything seem so fascinating. For him, the lecture style of education works perfectly. He delivers the content in a way that works. He doesn’t just give notes, but he peppers them with personal stories that work as an emotional hook to draw the kids in. In my opinion, he is a great teacher and it is going to really hurt our school to lose him when he retires in the probably nearish future.

So the point of this post is, sometimes we teachers get really hung up on methods. I do it too. I love my TPRS, I love my Kagan. But the method isn’t always what makes great teaching. Great teaching is what makes great teaching. How do we define great teaching? It’s teaching that delivers our content in a way that actually gets through to the kids, right? But that definition says nothing about method. I think some methods work better in some areas than others (again – lecture, in world language, does not work very well. But that’s because language is procedural knowledge, a working skill, and not declarative knowledge, knowing facts) but teaching is an art. My coworker has the lecture down to an art, and I am so glad every day that he “had to impose” on my classroom this year.

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Kagan conversion: why you should get training too

Something that I see over and over when I am on twitter (which I am reading far more frequently this year than last, for various reasons) are threads where I want to jump in and say ‘Need engagement strategies? There’s a Kagan structure for that!’ It’s kind of like the Portlandia sketch ‘Put a bird on it!’ only.. you know, for questioning kids. The most recent example was a thread on the ol’ worksheet debate: yay or nay. My take is that the debate is old and tired. Pieces of paper with words (aka worksheets) are not the problem; it is the tasks on the them that are the issue. And that isn’t even the underlying issue because 99% of the time, the task – in any subject – is asking students to solve a problem or answer a question. Our job, as teachers, is to have students solve problems and answer questions and we can either have them do that orally (enter: the lecture) or written (enter: the worksheet). For a long time, that was The Way Things Were Done because that was what we had available to us, and as our teachers were taught before us, and the teachers before them, and so on unto the beginning of time.

But it’s 2017. And this blog is all about Not Doing Things The Way They’ve Been Done, unless there’s a good reason, such as research-based evidence that it actually works. And I assume you (ustedes) read this blog because you are someone who wants to become a better teacher all the time. I can assume this because teachers who do not want to become better teachers don’t bother reading blogs. So here’s why I’m a Kagan convert, and you should be too.

In January of this year, I took day 1 of training thanks to my ESU. I loved it. I said, ‘Oh, this is stuff I do already.’ My favorite part was that day 1 stuff takes ZERO PREP. NONE. Okay, making your teams takes some prep but that’s it – the actual structures, the stuff you do in class? No work on your part. WHAT TEACHER DOESN’T LOVE THAT. I get MORE engagement from my students, LOWER affective filter, BETTER feelings of being part of the in-group, and I don’t have to do anything except what I’m already doing? Sign me up!!

Now day 2, this is where we get to the worksheet part. Day 2 structures included strategies like quiz-quiz-trade, fan-n-pick, or numbered heads together. Day 2 structures do require a bit of prep work on the teacher’s part. But here’s the catch – that prep work? Is probably stuff you already have lying around. It’s taking the questions you were going to ask already (in a worksheet format), and putting them in a different format like on a powerpoint or on index cards. These structures are great for world language teachers who are stuck teaching from a textbook or assigned curriculum who would rather not, or PERFECT for social sciences. They’re a little bit trickier for subjects like math, but they can also be easily adapted for literature, any of the sciences, you name it!

I’m going to day 3 here in a few weeks and I don’t know what structures are up next, but I’m excited. I will use them when I learn them. This year, I honestly use Kagan structures… nearly every day, in every class.

Okay, the structures are the meat-and-potatoes of the system. I’ve mentioned them here and here before. I can’t possibly explain how they all work, because there is not enough space or time – that’s why you have to go to the training sessions. Or email/DM me if you have a specific question. But there are many other parts to the system, and they all work together. Students are placed in teams, which is important for building comraderie. We want that closeness, that ‘we’re in this together’. Each week, they recommend that you do classbuilding and teambuilding activities. They only have to take less than 5 minutes a piece. I, personally, don’t worry about this because in Spanish, we’re already doing that in the TL, all day, every day! That’s literally half of what Spanish class is about! There’s also the positive interdependence piece – since everyone is part of a team, everyone is important and everyone’s work counts. There is no hiding. Everyone has to put in their fair share. I like this for multiple obvious reasons. Number one, the slackers can’t slack, because the peer pressure is too strong. (It’s easy to be a slacker in a trio. It’s much harder to slack in a pair. And with Kagan, even if you are in a trio, it is very clear on who is doing what, so there is no arguments over what you’re supposed to be doing.) Number two, quiet students get heard and socially aggressive students don’t dominate. Now, some students are just quiet (physically) and not actually shy, but this helps the actually shy students – I have yet to meet someone who is cripplingly shy in just a one-on-one situation. Kagan, due to its clarity, also helps students with anxiety – it is clear who goes first, what their job is, and what everyone else should be doing when they’re not speaking. There are no surprises.

I’m actually really surprised that I don’t hear more language teachers talking about using Kagan because if you already use CI strategies and especially TPRS specifically, it fits right in with how we want things to work. The only real difference is, instead of the whole class reporting to us (the teacher) all the time, the students are reporting to each other and then to us. Does it slow things down? Yes, especially the first time you are using a structure. But my hope is to get other teachers at my school on board and then by the time kids get to me in 9th grade, they can know exactly ‘RoundRobin, 1 minuto, Persona 3 empieza’ means without any explanation, off we go. There are really NO downsides to this system. After my trip to iFLT this summer and my initial TPRS training with Craig Sheehy however many years ago, these Kagan trainings have probably been the most useful to my practice. If you can get the training, go. I hope you’ll become a Kagan convert too. (And if you just want free talk throughs, there’s always google and yours truly!)