Sunday, November 9, 2014

Attitude of Gratitude #8: A Memorable Moment

Woo hoo! Over half-way through being half-way through the Attitude of Gratitude Blog Challenge! Today's prompt asks me to share a memorable moment in the classroom and how it reminded me what I love teaching. I'll use this prompt to practice my story telling skills, an experiment in narrative. It went a little long, but it's definitely a decent first draft. 

Friday morning's class is typical.  I was a few minutes early, but I lost precious prep minutes hunting for the exact key among the half dozen on my key chain. Thankfully, Alonzo offered to hold my bag as Lisa grabbed my water bottle so I could focus on opening the door.

I dashed to the computer/projection podium, hoping the browser had  been updated. I  planned to demonstrate how to embed a TED Talk on blogger. Students shuffled in with half-drunk cups of coffee, taking their seats. Students greet each other, unpacking backpacks and opening their notebooks, while I scrambled to write the lesson plan on the board.

I've lost three minutes of our fifty-minute hour.

After the a five-minute daily "throat-clearing" routine - goals, updates, announcements - I dove into a new partner activity. Will it work? Have I planned enough? Have I overestimated, or worse, underestimated my students' capacity for "productive confusion"? I took a deep breath, urging myself to trust the students. To trust the process. To trust my instincts and experience.

Steeling myself, I delivered the multi-step instructions. I did three it three ways: on the board, orally, and by asking partners to explain the process to each other. I've learned from making many mistakes that a single iteration of directions DOES NOT WORK. And I know I'd have to check with in with three or four of the pairs to make sure they are clear on the task.

We're now down to forty minutes, forty minutes until student begin to make their exiting noises - keys jangling, zippers zipping, squeaky chairs skidding from beneath tables. Where did the time go?

Students began the process, one partner slowly reading a shared text as the other jots down codes above phrases and sentences for particular strategies the author uses: "A" for action, "DI" for Dialogue, "DE" for Description, and "T" for "Thought Shot." The purpose? To reinforce the basics of narrative writing we've been working on throughout the semester, but in a new way. I hoped students read our daily goal or heard me when I explained the process. I hoped they'd see the relevance and not be bored.

During the first round, I survey room, attempting a nonchalant meander about the room, not wanting to look like a security guard policing student behavior. I'm really gathering information: What does their body language say? Are they simply complying with the task, or are they "into it", working with a sense of purpose?

As I "stroll" between the aisles, I gave my "teacher look" to Ivan, who grinned and got back to work. I answered questions. "What's a thought shot again?" "Can a sentence have more than on code?" Good. The questions are substantive. No one has asked me how many moves they have to find or if they can stop after finding one of each.

When I passed Jeanie, we made eye contact and I smiled, placed my hands over my heart, signaling that I'm happy to see her. She's been having a hard time lately, and to make things worse, someone rear-ended her car yesterday. Luis, the budding screenwriter, exclaimed that he could do "code" his scene analysis assignment in his film studies class.

I quelled a desire to jump into the pairs. but reminded myself not to hijack their learning. So  leaned in to listen in on different pairs, not to commandeer or to police behavior. I wanted to gauge what students are getting. Before, my approach silenced students. They'd flinch, nervous I was judging their thinking or implicitly signaling they are off-task. Or they waited for me to lead their group work. But now, two-thirds into the semester, they are used to my eavesdropping.

Seeing Arturo and Douglas fiddle with their cell phones, I make the decision to let it slide. Ditto with Candace and Justin who are chatting this week's episode of Freakshow. Will I ever get them to focus on the task at hand? I wonder, am I giving up? Or is it about letting them make their own choices? Admitting they weren't bothering anyone else, I circled the border of the class, offering help as needed,

The process took three rounds. The second round, "readers" and "coders" switched roles. The third, partners together reviewed the passage they read and coded, checking each others work, revising initial answers.

After each successive round, it's more difficult  to get students on to the next step. That's a good sign. Eyes focused on the texts and each other, students are actually engaged in the process - exceptions noted above. Good. Great! Instructions were clear enough. The challenge wasn't too difficult, nor too easy. And the conversation during the third round sounds . . .meaty, meaningful. Quelle relief!

As the rounds progressed, my "stroll" (reconnaissance?) became less purposeful. No one looked like they needed me. Even the cell-phone users and the side-talkers looked involved. Finally. Did they just need more time to warm up to the task? Or was it the effect of the whole community working that got them focused? I seem detached while I scan the room, but my mind darted back and forth between thinking about students' engagement level, whether the lesson is working, and how to transition into the next chunk of time, if there would be any time left!

I drift about the room, eventually leaning against the counter, two thirds of the way from the front of the class. Watching them lean into their work, I had time to snap a couple pictures to post on our private Facebook page and to readjust the time for the TED Talk introduction. Do they need more time? Will I have enough time? 

I glanced at the clock.  Time on task without me talking? Thirty minutes. Excellent. Fifteen minutes of direction instruction, double that for student-to-student discussion. I can live with that ratio. 

But I didn't have enough time to demo embedding a TED Talk. And I didn't have enough time to fully debrief the exercise. The minutes tick by while I mentally improvise. 

I patch together an online reflection assignment, one that asks students to discuss the use value of the activity and to evaluate the effectiveness of working in pairs. Students began closing their notebooks and packing their backpacks as I make the final announcements and finally dismiss the class, less than a minute left on the clock. One student, Noel, commented as he left, "Wow, that class flew by!"