Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Christa Weber's Interview with a Sixth Grade Teacher

Surrounded by cookie cutter houses with palm tree landscape, the Elementary school's campus does not give the impression of a low-income community. The school itself is a newer school, built eleven years ago in this semi-urban agriculture community. There are 900 students in this pre-k through sixth grade school, with averages above 30 students per classroom. Thirty-five percent of the students are proficient in English and 92% are Hispanic/Latino.

Entering the campus one must walk towards the playground to locate Mr. R's sixth grade classroom in the portables. Often you will enter a dead silent room as the students are independently at work either reading or moving ahead with their math. When Mr. R is taking the lead or facilitating students' interactions, there is a vibrant energy resonating throughout the room. Mr. R's energetic and often-funny approach motivates his students' learning and it is hard to find them out of line or off task. Creating this safe and positive environment was encouraged during the first week of school. He started the school year with a democratic drafting of class rules and procedures. This coupled with students who sit in groups and work together, helped to foster a cohesive classroom community. Every week begins with an overview of the WHAT, WHY, and HOW the class will adhere to the highlighted standards. Further simplifying these standards, the class creates objectives for the week. Mr. R's ability to adhere to the compulsory standards, yet provide class independence, is a skill he has learned through years of diverse practice, as an educator, an artist, and I am sure, as a parent himself.

At UC Davis, Mr. R followed his first passion and received a B.A. in Fine Studio Arts. After a brief career in custom home construction as well as on his family farm, he received a job teaching art for the military's MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) program. For five years, he taught art to the military personnel and their families, at what was then the Fort Ord military base. When the base closed, he received the chance to further his education. He took this opportunity to obtain his teaching credential at Chapman University. It was a constructivist program, where he was able to study under Jane Mead Roberts, the mind behind a small progressive charter school serving a heterogeneous population.

During the first six years of his public school teaching career, Mr. R was lucky to receive a unique experience. He worked in a multi-age, multi-grade program at a local public school. This exceptional program allowed his students to remain with him for two to three years. In addition, the program encouraged themed-based instruction with plenty of diverse projects. In this parent choice program, the students were actively involved in selecting the curriculum.

Overall Mr. R has taught in public schools for 16 years. His resume is lengthy with an assortment of experiences both in and out of the classroom. He has taught everything from kindergarten to sixth grade including intervention and technology, an out of the classroom experience he thoroughly enjoyed. Given this plethora of practice, he surmises his ideal classroom instruction promotes autonomy to empower students. He continuously looks for opportunities to incorporate his constructivist approach into an already stagnant teaching environment. He says you need to identify the standards, but get the students involved, evident in the class goals and objectives posted weekly. In addition, he believes in reviewing daily and using technology in his lessons. He says it is necessary to incorporate digital technology because the students are comfortable with it. He efficiently acknowledges the needs of a diverse cluster of students by grouping them together in order to provide peer support, along with the encouragement of student mentors and small group discussions. He always leads instruction with an "I do…, We do…, You do…" model and will pull additional small groups as needed.

Mr. R has remained motivated and passionate about his profession because he believes in what Thomas Jefferson said all those years ago*. Public Education creates fluent people and informs them of their choices. Proud moments are when old students visit or when he tracks the path they have taken in their lives. In conclusion, this veteran teacher provides this advice for new comers: Jump in! You are going to make mistakes, but the only way to figure it out is to do it. He also recommends moving around grade levels.

I feel very lucky to have the experience of working with Mr. R because he provides such a positive and unique perspective to teaching. Many teachers I have met in my short education career have been frustrated and cynical. I learn every day from talking to Mr. R that he does not check out at the door or ever on his students. He is committed and works very hard not only for his own class but to collaborate with the other sixth grade teachers so that they can pull resources and work together in targeting the needs of students for English Language Development.

Another equally colossal reward of witnessing his class is the simple way he makes clear, in sixth grade language, what needs to be addressed in the standards. It helps me as a learner, to know what we are aiming for and to see you do not have to give up entirely your beliefs and pedagogy. His rich background also creates a harmonious atmosphere and he is able to provide a great connection with the students. He is equitable and transparent in his teaching practice, providing a great role model not only for his students but also for other teachers to follow. He uses humor which the children enjoy, but also enforces a consistent management style.

* "I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness...Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." August 13, 1786 (Thomas Jefferson to George Wythe)

Friday, May 4, 2012

Michael Mutshnick's Interview with a First Grade Teacher

The elementary school site where Ms. L teaches serves a predominantly Latino population and English is the second language for most of these students. The instructional staff consists of twenty fully credentialed teachers. This elementary school has been on program improvement status since 2001 due to low standardized test scores.

When questioning the staff at my school site as to what teacher would be considered exemplary in terms of their contributions to student learning, one instructor (Ms. L) was suggested by nearly all of the instructors that I approached. Ms. L has been working in education for thirty-one years and has held a variety of positions including working as an Academic Coach for English Language Arts, a Special Education and Resource Instructor for 18 years, as well as a first and second grade classroom teacher. Most of Ms. L's experience has been within the this one district, but she began her career as an educator within the Central Valley of California after completing a credential program at a local State University campus. Ms. L identifies herself as White (Not Hispanic) and does not speak Spanish, yet she has primarily worked with a population of students that are English language learners (ELLs) throughout her career. When asked if her lack of Spanish speaking ability hindered her effectiveness as a teacher, she responded that at times, abstract concepts were much more difficult to teach to ELL students, however most of the subject matter in the first and second grades was more concrete and as long as she utilized sheltered instructional strategies, most students were able to understand the subject matter.

When considering her professional philosophy, Ms. L stated that she believes all students have the ability to learn whatever their ability level is, whether this is physically imposed as a result of a learning disability, or where this is defined by scores on standardized tests that have been completed. Ms. L strongly believes that it is the responsibility of each teacher to motivate and engage every student in their class in an effort to create meaningful opportunities for learning. It is the purpose of public education, according to Ms. L, to create a desire within students to pursue life-long learning.

The set-up of Ms. L's classroom reflects this belief. With an emphasis on safety and 'educational flow' as she calls it, she has endeavored to create a learning environment that is accessible and functional. Students are grouped in sets of four and share a desk with one other 'elbow partner.' This set-up allows for multiple opportunities for peer interaction throughout the day's lessons. Additionally, there are two separate 'story areas' where the class can gather together and work as a larger group.

As Ms. L currently teaches a first grade glass, literacy is a major focus of her room. Many children's books are set-up around the room and accessible to all students to use throughout the day. In addition to the children's books throughout the room, each table grouping has a set of leveled-reading books that all students can use during instruction, or 'check-out' and take home to read with their families. The alphabet and a number line are displayed prominently along two walls of the room and an entire corner next to the story area is devoted to phonics and phonemic awareness instruction with large books, pocket charts with letter cards and word sort cards. All classroom materials are kept within locked cabinets and storage bins stacked along the walls.

In considering the standardized instruction required by her elementary school's program improvement status, Ms. L stated that it is increasingly difficult to connect with students individually and tailor instruction to their needs. While she feels that the quality of the scripted curriculum has improved over the years that she has been a teacher, the pacing of such curriculum is prohibits appropriate student intervention. This typically creates a situation where lower performing students are referred to special intervention programs outside of the normal classroom with a district coach in order to address special needs. This contributes to a lack of personal connection within the classroom between the student and the teacher.

Despite the challenges faced by standardized tests and curriculum, Ms. L has managed to stay enthusiastic about primary education and her role as a teacher. This positive attitude is reflected in Ms. L's demeanor and kind manner with which she communicates with all of the students, within her class and out on the playground. Ms. L maintains this enthusiasm by continually taking advantage of district professional development opportunities to not only learn new teaching strategies, but to also share her experience with other teachers. Having co-teachers and student teachers within her classroom, as well as her involvement as a support provider for the California Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) Induction Program, helps to keep her energy level up, as well as pass on her love of teaching to a younger generation.

In reflecting on my conversation with Ms. L, I find that despite the many challenges teachers are facing currently within the California public school system, the focus must remain entirely on the students within your classroom. Enthusiasm has to be drawn from within yourself, as well as from those that share a love of learning and want to pass this on to a younger generation of students. There will continue to be changes in the way that the state or certain districts mandate what and how our students should be taught, but it is up to each teacher to strive to ensure that the material taught within their classroom is accessible, relevant and meaningful.