Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Longest Week of My Life

In the days before my student teaching placement began, all I felt like I could do was hold my breath. All I had in my bank of knowledge was a brief and awkward meeting that had occurred before Christmas break and the (extra) Teacher's Edition to Hoover's scripted reading program. I couldn't picture how the days would be structured, what the third graders were like or the relationship that my cooperating teacher and I would have; and oh, how I wanted to know. I just wanted to picture it, to be in it. So as I laid in bed, tossing late into the night, I imagined every scenario that could possibly happen. I eventually lost consciousness, of course, and then it began. 

The first day of any experience, in my opinion, is often a blur of overstimulation, excitement and the struggle to guzzle in every aspect of your surroundings and commit those images to a neat flash card in your brain that will never fade or disappear. This placement was no different. I am thankful that we begin by mostly observing, because it gave me the opportunity to furiously scribble down my reactions and thoughts to everything before they passed through me and were forgotten. 

There is so much about this specific time that is awkward and new and strange and good. I feel that I know so much about teaching; I have near fully developed ideas of how I want to manage my classroom, things that I'm passionate about (social justice teaching, using authentic literature), and how I want to teach. Yet, the situation I'm in is still one of learning, which I wholly appreciate. This is not my classroom. I feel the tension of that sometimes and  I sure hope that it's normal. I have never been in a school that has so much technology resources available to them. Every classroom is equipped with a smartboard, and each student has their own netbook that stays in the classroom. I have never been in a school that spends 160-220 minutes per day on Language Arts instruction. For those who share my  terrible concept of time, that's the whole day, except for lunch, specials (art, gym, music, library), a 15 free time, and a 50 minute math lesson. 

Still during my first day, the students were instructed to view six images from the story they had just read that were in sequential order. They opened their netbooks and were told to go into Word and "retell" the story, writing a sentence that corresponded to each image. Mrs. M. reminded them that they did not need to be on the internet for this activity, since the images were displayed on the smartboard. I began to move around the room. I noticed a student opening internet explorer as I walked by, so I knelt down to his desk and reminded him that he only needed to be on Word. With attitude, he told me he knew and that he was going to the Pearson website (the student/teacher resource site that corresponds to their reading program). I was struck back a little by his tone with me, so I gulped and muttered "okay." I realized that I had no idea what to hold firm to, and how to guide students following someone else's management plan. 

After the day was over, Mrs. M. and I walked silently dropping the kids at their busses outside. I was feeling like our relationship was strained and uncomfortable. My attempts at questions or professional conversation were quickly dealt with and dismissed, like a checklist of things to do. The difficulty here is that it makes me more insecure in seeking her help, advice and wisdom, all three of which I need and value. She did end our time together that day by telling me that now that I had an idea of how things go and who needs more focus, she wanted me to circulate and be more helpful. I appreciated the direction that she gave me, yet it was paired with a slight frustration that I had been wanting to get up and move all day, but that I somehow felt that I needed her permission. 

The brightest part of this day was popping in the office on the way out and introducing myself to Dr. Mays, Hoover's new principal. She was incredibly warm and welcoming and offered to take me on a tour the next morning. Since I felt that I had absolutely no idea what was going on at the school, I appreciated dearly the chance to take in the big picture. On the drive home I processed, and determined that I needed to be more assertive and involved. 

I showed up on day two ready to begin again. Mrs. M. and I discussed some of the students she wanted me to concentrate on. One was a student with a speech IEP, another was a energetic and distracted student, and the other was one of her two English Language Learners (ELLs). Mrs. M. was excited when I told her that I was minoring in ESL instruction and could focus on giving these two students extra support when I could. 

The tour was so very special, everyone was open and encouraging. It became clear in the next few days that everyone I met remembered my name and continued to ask me how my experience was going. I was so grateful for the one-on-one time with the principal to talk about my interest in teaching, passions and impressions of the school. When the other staff members found out that I was student teaching with Mrs. M., the positive response was overwhelming. One teacher smiled while still clasping my hand, "You have a great, great mentor to learn from." That helped push me past the little sensitivities I was feeling about our relationship and set a strong goal and reminder to learn all that I can from this cooperating teacher that I am working with. 

At the end of day two, and every day since, Mrs. M. lets me pull the guided reading groups to the back of the room and work with them. This first day that I worked with a group, I was thankful that I was working with the two ELLs along with two other students. She gave me the "Strategic Intervention Low-Level Reader," which was a simple text that supports the story the class is reading together. The class story for this and next week is called "How Do You Raise a Raisin." The class had already read it twice at this point, had discussed it both times and I was now given a book called "Raisins" which simplified the process of "raising" a raisin. The students seemed disengaged, surely bored at this point by discussing raisins for the third day in a row. Thankfully I was armed with plenty of ESL strategies. We used hand  motions to model the process of planting a seed, picking a fat grape, laying it the sun, and waiting as the sun beat down on our grape, shriveling it into a raisin. The students perked up and were able to better describe the process and use their vocabulary words. 

I fell into a routine after Wednesday, learning something new each day like procedures for taking attendance, breakfast/lunch time, recess, bathroom breaks, dismissal, and gave my first spelling test. I am now in charge of all of these things, and often work with a few students in the back of the room staying on task. I learned a great deal about the kinds of technology used in the classroom, and at the same time discerned what technology still made the students lose interest and how I hope to change that when I teach. 

My two biggest struggles of the week were observing her classroom management and trying to swallow this reading program and all that it entails. Her classroom management plan seems weak and unenforced. There is a wall with a pocket for each student containing four different colored notecards signifying a certain reward/punishment by the end of the day. All students start on "high-five" which are the rewards that they receive and can spend at the school store, the next level is warning, the one after that is loss of free-time, and finally office-referral. This system has potential, but often it is used as a threat that is not followed through on. It just doesn't seem to be a huge care of Mrs. M. to strictly manage the classroom environment. I don't want the classroom to be a boot camp style where no movement is allowed, I just don't understand why the students are allowed to walk around, grab books during math, or walking over to take a lego piece to play with. From what I observe, since the students aren't always held accountable for paying attention, the class transitions to an activity and a handful of students have no idea what is going on. It makes me worried for when I begin to teach, how I should frame things to not step on my teacher's toes. 

My second big struggle is with the reading program. I have a diverse bunch of feelings about using scripted programs like this one. I see how helpful it could be to teachers and there are an absolutely incredible amount of resources that come paired with it. I however mentioned earlier that I am a proponent of using whole language programs and authentic literature in the classroom. I am incredibly frustrated by the stories that serve no purpose than to further a specific vocabulary list and target skill. I don't like handing the "low-level" readers to students who ask why they can't read the "high-level" reader about California field workers on strike in 1965. Obviously there is not much that I can change about the use of the reading program as a student teacher however, I'm feeling limited by how much I can challenge myself and my students while still fulfilling the standards and topics in the textbook. 

Still, I am looking forward to the next week and what this experience will teach me. Beginning next Wednesday, I will be teaching the first time slot of the day. I hope to find myself able to rise to the occasion managing the classroom and using my scripted teaching material. In the experiences I've had this week, I hope to be a slightly more firm and "teacher-like" presence in the classroom. This means upping my discipline and holding students accountable to my standards of behavior as well. I hope to begin blogging a couple of times in a week, so that not every post is quite so long. 

And so ended the most emotionally-packed, transition-y, and observational week of my life. I can't wait for the next one. 


  1. Sasha,

    A great reflection that shows the tensions and goodnesses of your week. You're in a stage of transition and disorientation!--but your attitude is great to continue with excitement and openness to learn and grow in whatever the circumstance. I'll look forward to reading again at the end of the week!

    Professor Mattson

  2. I so enjoyed and learned from reading your blog. You have such a way with words and strong description which will help all of us know you more.

    Your description of the types of technology was very good. I’m hoping you will use it a lot. I’m glad you are striving to learn what keeps your students interested.

    Wow! 160-220 minutes per day on Language Arts instruction is a lot. This school must be struggling to make AYP.

    Stepping into another person’s classroom does have its difficulties. Your interaction with the young man using the Pearson website is a great example. You will learn by trial and error what works and what doesn’t. Learning the “dance” and “flow” of working with another person in the room will take time, for both of year.

    I’m glad you will be able to use your ESL knowledge in this class. I loved the strategies you used with the students who were thinking they were going to be bored with the class story.

    I loved this comment: “One teacher smiled while still clasping my hand, "You have a great, great mentor to learn from." That helped push me past the little sensitivities I was feeling about our relationship and set a strong goal and reminder to learn all that I can from this cooperating teacher that I am working with.”

    Navigating the waters of classroom management will be somewhat of a challenge. If your teacher isn’t consistent, it will take a forthright effort for you to do so. I think you need to be firm, fair, and consistent. Maybe you could use her system and show her that it does work if she follows through.

    Hopefully, you may be able to build on to some of their scripted reading program. I know you will have to use it, but you might be able to get creative in what you bring to the program. Give it some thought, but move slowly.

    I look forward to reading your future posts.

    1. Dear Sasha,
      I found your blog to be both informative and insightful. I am so glad Dr. Mays and the other teachers welcomed you so warmly.

      Smartboards and netbooks can be very useful if they enhance the lesson and are not used as toys.

      Scripted reading instruction was probably prescribed by the state of Illinois since the school is not meeting AYP. True educators are not at the top of the food chain at the State Board of Education. They are bureaucrats who have not been in a classroom in a long time, if ever. Good classroom teachers find ways to make this method work.

      Since so much time is spent on language arts, do they incorporate science and social studies into the lessons?

      Discipline will be a struggle at first, especially if Ms. Martinez is not firm or consistent. You will need to walk a fine line, but since you already recognize the difficulty, take time to think through your strategy for classroom management using her system.

      I am looking forward to your next blog. I will arrange a time next week to observe you. Good luck this week.

  3. Sasha,

    Thank you for the detail of your and sharing your challenges and positive experiences of your week. Sasha, I agree with your statement about being assertive. At times I feel the same way, it can be uncomfortable or awkward, but in the end its worth asking questions and making an effort to network with other teachers.

    I wanted to also commend you for thinking outside of the box and effectively getting the students back on track and getting the students interested in the story. I’m sure those students are having fun learning and working with you in small groups.

    I am facing a similar challenge with classroom management. Comparable to your class my students can do what they want when they want without any consequence. I am planning to have a day where my students will be involved in making the classroom rules and consequences, in hopes that they will see them as fair and easy to follow. I’ll let you know how it goes once the rules and consequences are enforced.

    I’m looking forward to hearing about your next week.

    Jessica Colvin