Back to Tenth Grade: HOPAC-style

I went back to tenth grade today. In an attempt to understand what it is like for students at HOPAC and to improve my teaching, I shadowed the tenth grade class for the entire day. As a homeschool graduate, the experience was entirely new for me.

The morning started with homeroom, which contained the typical announcements, but also a short moment of sharing about the current ebola crisis in West Africa. Strangely enough, it was those two minutes when the homeroom teacher was sharing how two of the boarding students had separately dreamed about West Africa, with visions of light pushing back a cloud of darkness over the region, that was most touching for me. His subsequent encouragement that prayer does change things was also the only allusion to Christianity that I heard the entire day—an interesting note, considering that HOPAC is a Christian school.

After homeroom, I followed students to chemistry class, the first of four double periods. Admittedly, less than halfway through the 85 minutes, I was tired of sitting, bored, and confused. It was not entirely the teacher’s fault, as she asked continuous questions of the class, asking for volunteers and calling on individuals to answer. The class began with a review of the previous lesson and the experiments conducted, then moved directly into new material, using a PowerPoint display and an experiment carried out by a single student to illustrate the concepts. Even after a seven-year lapse in my chemistry studies, I understood the basic concept. My confusion was reflected in several students’ questions, all of us being hung up on what was perhaps a simple misunderstanding in language. I certainly don’t envy international students, most of whom speak English as a second language to start with, learning from teachers who are also speakers of English as a second language, teaching in English. After this first lesson, I realized that my lessons need to include something active or even a short break midway through the class in order to re-engage students. I also recognized the usefulness of reviewing previous lessons though questioning before moving forward.

Third and fourth periods were my own English Literature class, which I taught. Despite my earlier recognition of the need for active learning, the extent of the activity in my class was when students wrote any remaining questions they had about “The Tempest” on the whiteboard at the beginning of class. From there, I returned homework and reviewed the worksheet responses while walking around the room. Students made corrections on their worksheets and asked questions for clarification. Answering the questions written on the whiteboard took the remainder of class, despite my hope of giving students some time to work on the unit assignments due Friday. Looking back, I should have asked students to compile their final questions earlier, then assigned students or groups of students to answer and “teach” the class – thus giving students the advantage of both researching the answers, but also the sticking power of teaching the material. It would have also meant that at least a few students were standing and moving a bit, rather than students listening to my boring voice for nearly a full 85 minutes. Yuck!

The final two periods before lunch break was History. Of the “academic” classes today, this was by far my favorite. I still got tired of sitting and a bit bored, but the questioning strategies used by the teacher were interesting and made students analyze and defend their opinions. Brilliant. The class primarily consisted of student presentations in pairs over specific questions related to the Cold War. The advantages to this were clear: students were teaching, students had done the research and compilation of information themselves, and, the best part, students then had to answer questions on their topic from other students and the teacher. More than once, the teacher challenged students to state their own opinion (and defend it) with questions like, “Do you agree with Russia’s position regarding the U.S.’s role in starting the Cold War?” or “Was Stalin’s argument correct, or was he hiding behind it?” He made it clear that the “explain your answer” at the end of the homework assignment was more than just providing historical justification, but also included stating a personal opinion. As an English teacher, I appreciated the emphasis on developing oral presentation and communication skills, including the teacher’s criticism of students for using filler words. In addition, the teacher called on students who appeared to be struggling with the material to summarize the presentation or a specific answer for the benefit of the class, asked students who had not previously contributed to engage with the class by asking or answering questions, and directed student questions to the presenters, but then added his own answers and input afterwards. By the end of sixth period, I wanted to learn all I could about asking questions from the history teacher—his class was the most engaged I’d seen students all day.

After lunch break, students split into two groups. Half of the students had a double period of Physical Education and the other half went to Art. I divided my time, participating in the P.E. class for the first 45 minutes, then moving to the art class.

In P.E., the thing that stood out the most was the teacher’s management of the class. After break, the class was more than usually talkative, and yet she managed to quiet and focus them without raising her voice. In reality, her method of correcting them was more humorous than anything else. As a “student,” it was something I could respond positively to, without feeling that the teacher was angry or upset. The material was communicated clearly and concisely, and time was managed well, so that students who could not be immediately engaged in measuring their body fat percentages were setting up the badminton nets for use during the second half of the lesson. Even the warm-up before badminton was done in a way that encouraged teamwork and community, as the teacher instructed students to jog around the court while talking to each other. Besides setting the jogging pace at an appropriate level, this allowed students to do the talking they were clearly longing to do anyway. It also removed the emphasis on individual performance, as that was not the point of warming up before playing. Just as students prepared to begin their badminton tournament, I slipped out and moved to art.

Though I’ve never had any art training, and did not expect to enjoy the art class as much as P.E., I found the 45 minutes to be both relaxing and enjoyable. At the tenth grade level, art is a “guided self-study,” meaning that students choose their own projects and topics and are merely guided through them by the teacher. Around me, students were working with clay, paints, sketching (I got to sit as a model for two students), and chalk. The teacher moved between students, inquiring about their projects and the stories behind each piece of artwork. She encouraged students to keep a journal of notes about each piece, recording the process of coming up with the idea and its composition. The class had a positive and encouraging atmosphere, and it was clear that students, whether working in pairs or as individuals, enjoyed each other’s company and their work.

In reflection, students at HOPAC do spend much of their day sitting at desks, but teachers do not often lecture. Rather, they attempt to engage students through various methods of questioning. My own lesson might be the most boring of all, which leaves me motivated to find ways to allow students to be active in the classroom, to incorporate better questioning strategies, and to give students the opportunity to “teach” portions of the material. In addition, I hope to develop the respectful and encouraging atmosphere of the P.E. and art classes through my classroom management, feedback, and monitoring practices.

I undertook this professional development project in cooperation with my principal after reading this article by Valerie Strauss on her observations after doing a similar “pupil pursuit” in her own school.

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