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December 2016 | Volume 58 | Number 12
The Ins and Outs of Academic Help Seeking
Tent-bound at the top of the world, British mountaineering legend George Mallory and his companions would pass the time by reading Hamlet aloud. A schoolmaster by trade, Mallory is legendary for attempting—and most likely, failing—to be the first Westerner to summit Mount Everest.
Closer to sea level, I recently kept company with Hamlet over an eight-week student-teaching internship as I endeavored toward an M.Ed. My graduate program did its best to acclimatize me for this final push, but that didn't make the view from base camp seem any less breathtakingly impossible. Teaching is an enormous undertaking. No amount of preparation can substitute for learning by doing (and failing). Unlike Mallory, though, you will make it off the mountain—I did. And from my short time as an absolute beginner, I've gathered 10 strategies for surviving as a new or student teacher.
As a student teacher, you will be eager to dive right into the content you are excited to teach. When I taught Hamlet to seniors at a public high school in Washington, D.C., last year, I was fired up to get to deep conversations and activities, plus a little overwhelmed at the prospect of teaching Shakespeare's longest play. I wish I had pressed pause on the periled Prince of Denmark and spent more time introducing myself, while getting to know my students' learning styles and background knowledge. Establishing these types of connections earlier would have helped create relational trust and better informed my instructional design.
At the end of the internship, I put together a brief PowerPoint "quiz" on some of the details of my professional and biographical background. I could have done something like this at the beginning of my internship. Letting kids in on where you're from, your interests, and professional goals or accomplishments is a quick and easy way to make connections. Likewise, I could have surveyed students on their expectations for how learning and assessments would be structured, their knowledge of Hamlet or other 17th century literature, and their goals for the course and how I could support them.
Two weeks into my internship, when my newness was wearing off and students would no longer come to attention out of politeness, I realized I had failed to be explicit about my expectations for classroom management. Start your internship with a discussion of your expectations, and how they align with the way your cooperating teacher is already conducting the class. My must-haves for order were simple. I asked students to:
Invite feedback on these items and post them in the classroom so that you can easily (and optimally, nonverbally) refer to them, as needed.
Can you successfully, in eight weeks, read line-by-line a dense, five-act play that's packed with unfamiliar vocabulary and phrases? Maybe, but you will bore your students to tears. In my panic for coverage, I abandoned a lot of the good advice in backward planning about building curriculum around essential questions. As a result, my lessons struggled to strike a balance between close reading everything and reading for the central themes and arguments. I overloaded students with the minutiae of the text (not surprisingly, this is also the easiest to assess). Consequently, I not only hampered their ability to enjoy Hamlet, but also to apply text themes in their discussions and writings.
Start with the end in mind—the culminating task that will demonstrate students' knowledge and skills—and then build lessons around essential questions that gradually lead students to that understanding. This will save you from sending your students on a close reading death march. EngageNY is an excellent online resource for units and lessons that target your close reading on the most important parts of a text.
Mid-panic about curriculum coverage, I had a serendipitous run-in with the school's instructional coach. "You're teaching Hamlet?," she asked. "I have the Folger Shakespeare Theater's guide to teaching that text." Google is great, but sometimes you just want an authoritative book that lays it all out. This resource also helped me dial back my fixation with content coverage. Locate your school's instructional coach, introduce yourself, tell them what you're teaching, and invite them to come by to observe you, any time. Be a sponge to the advice or resources they have to offer.
One of my big goals was to have students run their own discussions and navigate content and tasks with autonomy. Because my students were seniors, I knew these skills would help them succeed in college. Really, students at all levels benefit from—and are capable of—taking ownership of their learning. As much as you are chomping at the bit to cover content, you will also have to dial back and give kids practice time to learn the structures and protocols for any new (to them) self-directed learning activities (like gallery walks, transitioning between learning stations, and fishbowl and other Socratic discussion approaches). Teaching Channel, Educational Leadership's "Show & Tell" column, or your district's YouTube channel can be good free resources for teaching students to use a particular strategy.
My school had a block schedule, which meant students spent a lot of time in the same place. To make learning more dynamic, we played a heads-up style game where students held index cards displaying key character names or academic vocab (e.g. tragic hero, catharsis, or hamartia) to their forehead, while their teammates gave them clues to guess the name or term.
We also used an exquisite-corpse-meets-telephone game hybrid to play around with envisioning central themes. Each student started with a sheet of paper with a famous quote from Hamlet at the top, such as "To thine own self be true." Students read the quote, then folded the paper to cover just the words. In the space directly under the quote, they translated the words into images and passed the paper to the left. The next student folded the paper to cover just the images, then wrote out a new sentence based on the images drawn by the student before them. This cycle repeats until the page is full. (See example.)
When students had trouble visualizing the tragic tale of Pyrrhus, Priam, and Hecuba, we broke out the Ren Fest–inspired prop box and acted out the text. For a quick factual review, students took out their phones to compete in a Kahoot! quiz, with questions, results, and individual standings projected on the SMART Board.
Often, I'd amp students up with these activities, only to bring them crashing down with a very long period of seatwork or close reading. Better chunking of my lessons, revisiting the "fun" activity, and introducing competition into other aspects of our time together would have helped alleviate the energy crisis in some of my class periods.
This step is essential for clarifying the range of what you are looking for in student responses and performances. I'd start many classes with a quick quiz to check that students were keeping up with reading. Even with these recall-based assessments, I encountered nuance in student responses that I hadn't accounted for. Sometimes, I needed to write better questions. Other times, novel student responses were an indicator that I could go deeper with my assessments.
Uptalking is a vocal tic common to nervous public speakers. It's the habit of making statements sound like questions, by ending sentences on a high pitch. (See the YouTube video "Uptalk in Public Speaking" for an example of the difference between uptalk and "straight talk.") As a new teacher, you're going to feel unsure of yourself, but you don't want students to question your ability to lead them. Scripting key points of your lesson, ahead of time, and recording it on your phone or performing it for a friend, are good ways to check for uptalking. There will no doubt be lots of times you legitimately feel unsure during a lesson. What if you don't know the answer to a student's question? Develop a canon of responses that probe student thinking or return ownership of learning to the student. ("That's a good question. What do other people think?" or "What makes you curious about that?")
It's 12:00 a.m.; how many pages deep is your Internet search history for the past eight hours? As a student teacher, I had a love/hate relationship with the Internet. In hindsight, I recommend bookmarking a list of about 10 expert organizations serving your content area. (See "Ten Trusted Sites for New Teachers" for examples.) By limiting your sites, you'll eliminate grazing on the entire Internet, and you'll also get more adept at retrieving relevant content from your go-to sites.
Often without an assigned desk or workspace, student teachers log a lot of hours on laptops. The rhomboids are the muscles at the base of your neck and in between your shoulder blades. These muscles tend to weaken in people who spend a lot of time on the computer—especially laptops—causing the shoulders to gradually collapse inward, and developing a case of what I like to call "praying mantis arms." Google or YouTube rhomboid-strengthening exercises, or yoga for computer users, and you will find a wealth of stretches and routines to supplement your vital, and oft-neglected, self-care during your internship. Take care of your rhomboids and they'll take care of you—you'll have more restful sleep and carry less stress and pain in your back and neck.
Student teaching will come with epic highs and exhausting lows, but my hope is that these tips will ease some aspects of an unavoidable learning curve. You got this!
Laura Varlas is the managing editor of ASCD Express and a contributor to Education Update. She emerged from her student-teaching internship (mostly) unscathed and earned an M.Ed. in teaching from George Washington University.
Copyright © 2016 by ASCD
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