|by Harry & Rosemary Wong
Special to the Gazette
March 1, 2010
Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn
What They Don’t Teach in School
“When I first started teaching, I honestly had no idea what I got myself into.”
Jessica Fenton walked into her first year in the classroom and like so many new teachers, was caught off guard. The obstacles she encountered left her feeling unprepared and overwhelmed. She ran into problems that were never dealt with in her college education courses. She struggled to find answers for the stressed out parents asking for advice. She had piles of administrative paperwork. Juggling teaching with meetings and extra-curricular activities seemed impossible. Finding time to prep for classes she wasn’t trained to teach meant giving up sleep.
You see, Jessica was trained as an elementary school teacher. However, upon graduation, she was offered a position teaching ninth grade English.
“Never in my life did I ever think I would teach high school,” says Jessica. The last time Jessica had been in a high school classroom was as a Senior—during her own high school days. And now she was beginning her professional career—as a high school teacher at Riverview High School.
In addition to teaching, Jessica was also coaching sports, chaperoning school dances, volunteering on various committees, and helping with graduation. She was working from seven in the morning until midnight every day. Yet still, she did not feel prepared.
“I was discouraged,” she says, “because I did not completely understand what was really involved in being a teacher and most importantly, how to manage it all.”
Jessica knew that she loved being a teacher. But by the time the Christmas holidays came, Jessica was at a breaking point. “I could not possibly teach forever,” she says, “by putting in the hours I was putting in and by being involved in all that I was involved in—and stay sane.”
She knew it was time for a change.
A Few Simple Changes
Over the break, Jessica committed herself to learning how to become a more successful teacher. She attended professional development seminars and classroom management workshops. She read books, including Enhancing Professional Practices, by Charlotte Danielson, and our book, The First Days of School. And she stole everything she could.
Jessica soon realized that a few simple changes could turn everything around. The process would have to start with establishing procedures and routines in her classroom. She developed a list of clear procedures that she knew would make her classroom routines flow smoothly.
Once she had these procedures outlined in her plan, she taught the procedures to her students. This is where most teachers fail when they complain procedures don’t work in their classrooms. These are the teachers that just tell the students what to do and then expect the students to do it. There is no rehearsal or reinforcement of the procedures.
Using the three-step procedure for teaching a procedure that’s taught in The First Days of School, Jessica
According to Jessica, “It was not so much the curriculum that I needed a handle on but it was more about management and organization.”
Once the students had a clear understanding of how things were going to run in the classroom, Jessica was able to teach with ease. She distributed two handouts to her students. The first was a department-wide course outline which explained the literature they would be studying, how they would be graded, and the policies for assignments and homework.
Most importantly, at the bottom of the paper in bold letters was this statement:
“The degree of success earned by the student will depend on
Click here to see the department’s English 10 Course Outline. This handout also was sent home for parents and guardians to review.The second handout was a Course Information page. This laid out each of her major procedures on paper for the students to reference. It listed the specific breakdown of how each day was going to be run. It explained Silent Reading (her version of an opening of class bellwork assignment). It said what each student was to bring to class every day, and how they were to organize their work.
Click here to see Jessica’s Course Information page.
By setting her expectations of her students and herself up front, she set the stage for a successful rest of the year.
“I realized, I can do this! After returning to school from the holiday break, I was a changed teacher. I have never looked back since and I have never been happier.”
For information on how to create and implement procedures and routines, read Chapter 19 in The First Days of School or view “Using the First Days of School, a DVD featuring Chelonnda Seroyer, an English teacher like Jessica Fenton, found at the back of the book, The First Days of School.
Jessica and Erin Gruwell
In the start of the 2009 school year, Jessica had the opportunity to meet a long-time idol, Erin Gruwell, the teacher of the Freedom Writers. Jessica says, “She is someone I aspire to be like. I want to teach with as much passion and enthusiasm as she exudes when teaching.”
As a new teacher in Long Beach, California, Erin Gruwell was shocked when she found out that only one student in her class knew what the holocaust was. She decided it was time for a change.
Her new curriculum centered on tolerance. She inspired 150 disadvantaged students to write their stories, keep journals, make movies about themselves, read books about other teenagers, and relate the materials they studied to their own lives. These students became known as the Freedom Writers.
In 1997, she founded the Freedom Writers Foundation. (www.freedomwritersfoundation.org) This organization works to “inspire young, underprivileged students to pick up pens instead of guns.” Today, Erin Gruwell continues to share her experiences with teachers across the country.
Erin Gruwell believes that learning is the most powerful tool a teacher has:
Read the complete interview with Erin at http://www.healthytimesonline.com/archives/freedom_writers.htm
At the end of the meeting Jessica had with Erin, Erin presented Jessica with a very special learning opportunity—Come to the Freedom Writer Teacher Institute in California. Erin told Jessica that to attend the institute would change her life and her classroom. Jessica went and came back ready to start another school year.
Implementing What She Learned
Much like Erin Gruwell, Jessica also shows a deep passion for her students and her work. She says, “I was born to be a teacher. I am very passionate about my students and teaching; my students can attest to this as they have seen me laugh and cry with them. I feel comfortable when I am with my students like I am ‘at home.’”
Jessica values the connection she makes with every student. She works to relate to every single one of them in a very personal way. This is evident when you walk into her classroom on the first day of school.
The day begins with a PowerPoint presentation. As she introduces herself, she goes on to explain not only her credentials as a qualified teacher, but also her own personal reasons for why she loves to teach. She then shares “Five Fun Facts About Me!” which includes the time she went swimming in a lake with fresh water sharks!
Click here to see Jessica’s First Day of School PowerPoint presentation.
Later, Jessica asks each student to fill out an In Class Check List. This short form asks each student to identify the way they learn best, giving them a say in the way the classroom will be run. She also polls the students about what they are most concerned about in her class, and what areas of the material they are struggling with.
By doing this, Jessica opens up communication between her and the students for the rest of the year. She shows them that she wants them to succeed, and then asks them how she can help them do that.
Click here to see Jessica’s In Class Check List.
Continuing in the trail of Erin Gruwell, Jessica also sets high expectations of her students by handing out a survey. The survey asks the students what grade they hope to achieve in her course. Then how they plan to achieve it. At the end, each student is required to sign a statement that states their own personal commitment to achieving their goals.
Click here to see Jessica’s Learning Goals Survey.
Jessica has also incorporated Erin Gruwell’s ideas of tolerance into her classroom.
Jessica encourages her students to identify with the stories they read. Every day, class begins with twenty minutes of silent reading and independent study as bellwork. Students are allowed to choose literature from a variety of genres. Each student gets to pick what he or she wants to read. The texts are later used as a basis for various reports on course topics.
Procedures and routines in Jessica’s classroom also reflect tolerance and respect. As a first year teacher, Jessica “stole” ROPE from a colleague and then created LAMPE as two simple ways for students to remember her classroom expectations.
A Happy Ending for Jessica Fenton
As a brand new teacher, Jessica wondered what she was getting into. She struggled and almost gave up by December break. Now in her fourth year of teaching, Jessica says, “I have the best job in the world. I love teaching and working with my students.”
She is also an active contributor to the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association. As a member of the Ad Hoc Planning Committee, she shares her experiences in the classroom with other teachers in her area. More importantly, she shares her passion and her dedication to making a difference in her students’ lives. And she has time to do it all!
In a speech for the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association Council Day, Jessica said, “I feel like I am the luckiest person in the world . . . to have met so many amazing educational leaders who have helped me through my journey.”
And although Jessica is now a very successful and effective teacher, she still continues in her efforts to learn and develop in her profession.
“You are either born to be an inspiring teacher or you learn how to become one. Every day, I try to become a better teacher and to learn from my students.”
Jessica has some advice to teachers, especially new teachers:
Jessica admits that she still has a lot to learn (“I am still pretty early in my career” she says), but also tells us, “I learned a lot my first year of teaching, through the good times and the bad times.”
New teachers and even veteran teachers who need a shot in the arm—don’t discourage! A few simple changes and you too can be on the path to success!
To Jessica and to all of the educators who continue to share your stories with us, we are most grateful that you give us the opportunity to pass your techniques and inspiration to others in the profession. The most successful teachers are the ones who steal everything they can get, and share everything that they have learned.Please continue to share and learn and grow as we journey together on the road of effective and successful teaching.
For a printable version of this article click here.
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