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Minimester

My school has a unique tradition of spending the first two weeks after Christmas break in what’s known as Minimester. Instead of regular academic classes, teachers and a few parents offer other interesting classes, for example, Philosophy and the Twilight Zone and a class about fly fishing. There are some oddities to the Minimester experience, but now that I’ve seen it happen a couple times, I’m thrilled to be teaching two great classes.

The first is called Shakespeare in Performance. Unbeknownst to each other, an SLP and I both proposed classes on Shakespeare, so we decided to join forces and split the class’ focus. My contribution is that we’ll be reading Much Ado About Nothing (my favorite!) and watching clips from three different film versions to compare the performances and broaden students’ views about how Shakespeare can be performed. (When the seniors read Hamlet earlier this year, many of them decided that the 1996 film version was “right” and that other performances were not. I want to emphasize that Shakespeare’s plays are malleable, interpretable.) We’re going to read the modern parallel text in the No Fear Shakespeare edition, which I’m sure makes some people cringe, but it’s a good entry point for these students, especially considering that we’ll be steeping them in the Shakespearean text in other ways.

Speaking of which, my colleague’s contribution is that students will be memorizing and performing monologues (using Shakespeare’s text) from the same play we’re reading and watching. We’ve chosen a speech by Don John (the villain), and two by Benedick (one as a cynic and one as a smitten lover).

My second Minimester class is about creepy stories. Together we’ll read and watch different kinds of creepy stories, rank the creepiness, and identify elements that made it creepy. So the kids can also practice creating creepy stories, applying the creepy elements they’ve observed, they’ll be turning innocent children’s picture books into delightfully creepy stories.

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Pathetic self-indulgence

The ignoble motivation for this post is to regain some of the self-respect I lost by not completing 85% of Jo Boaler’s class by the deadline. The due date was clearly stamped on every page, but instead of checking what day of the week that date corresponded to, I said, “I think that’s next Monday,” and moved on as if that were fact. I logged in to complete the necessary tasks today only to discover that everything was due yesterday.

The 79% that I completed before the deadline was not remotely wasted. My teaching has grown and my classes have changed as a result of it. And since the course was free, I can’t lament the sunk cost. But, gosh, I wanted that certificate for passing the course! As superficial as it is, that certificate kept me going in the class when all my other responsibilities and interests threatened to crowd it out.

So to everyone who cares (that’s exactly . . . no one but me), please make note that I did not give up on the course partway through, despite sore temptation. I persevered, and had every intention of reaching the passing mark, if not for a sloppy view I took of the due date.

There. Totally vindicated.

Testing to Aid Retention

This (by Tania Lombrozo on NPR’s Cosmos & Culture blog) interests me because it aligns with what I’ve seen for myself and my students.

And that’s not all: there’s also evidence that test-taking itself can improve retention for the material being tested. In a 2006 demonstration of a phenomenon known as the “testing effect,” for example, Roedieger and Karpicke had students read passages of text and then either repeatedly study them or repeatedly test their ability to recall them, without any feedback on how well they did on the tests. The students who repeatedly studied the passage were more confident about their ability to remember the content than those who were repeatedly tested. But the latter group considerably outperformed the former when it came to actual memory for the passage one week later.

So testing can be an excellent tool in an educator’s toolbox, but it’s one that needs to be used wisely. The American Psychological Association warns of the dangers of “high-stakes” testing in our nation’s schools, and a report from the National Academies of Science suggests few benefits to our current test-based accountability system.

Some Words on Teacher Certification

I came across this article on the Planet Money blog last week: “Why Einstein Was Not Qualified to Teach High-School Physics.” (The answer: because he didn’t hold the required teacher certifications.)

My initial reaction is, “Careful, now. Einstein was a legendary physicist, but I can’t say whether he would have made an effective high school physics teacher.” Then again, can I say that all those carrying secondary teaching certificates now make effective high school teachers? A perplexing issue, right?  Do teaching certification requirements ensure quality classroom instruction, or prevent great teachers from entering the profession?

Here’s where I stand. Education about education is essential for those who teach, but school systems should be in the business of maximizing the ways that talented people can enter the field.

Here’s my bias: I’m one of those people benefiting from a non-traditional entrance into teaching. I’m not yet certified but have plans to change that, and am an enthusiastic advocate of replicating in public schools the apprenticeship style of entry I experienced at a private school. If schools want to gain access to a large demographic of ambitious adults seeking employment and eager to learn a profession, they need to create entry level positions that can be filled by young college grads looking for work, who are potentially interested in teaching but not ed majors. (For me this was the “support teacher” position.) Let them learn some of the tricks of the trade, work with teachers and students, and find out whether their interest is more than fleeting before they have to fully commit to the profession. Schools would benefit from the chance to observe some of their aptitudes on the job before making a full commitment as well.

As these employees acquired experience and skill, they would be promoted to increasingly responsible positions on the condition that they seek any necessary certifications. This would be a more organic entry into the profession and would better match much of the rest of the workforce, where you climb the ranks by showing that you’re good at your job.

Stalling

The goal of teaching LD students is to make information, etc., accessible, but there is a risk of becoming too eager to give “help” when these students struggle. The result is a cluster of students who plead for help even when they can succeed without it, who throw their hands up at the slightest sign of struggle, who demand assurance after every thought, who insist that the teacher stand beside them while they work, just in case.

Realizing that I could do more to discourage such dependency, I’ve adopted a new habit of stalling when certain students ask for help with their work. I protest that it will take me some time to finish what I’m doing and that they should solve the problem as best they can without me—even if they’re unsure—and that we’ll discuss how they solved it when I make my way over to them. Or, at the very least, that they should skip that problem and move on rather than sitting immobile, waiting for teacher.