Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Classroom Observations

Last week I did the first of my classroom observations that I'll do before the summer institute starts at the end of June.

The first day, I observed two Teach For America teachers teaching bilingual classes at a charter school. Both classes seemed very well behaved. All the students were attentive and classroom procedures went so smoothly that you almost didn't notice the transition between activities. I also noticed how quietly and quickly minor disruptions were handled by the teachers. I think that is one of the main things that I learned from watching their lessons. I think back to last summer teaching English at summer camps in Italy and I realize that minor disruptions by students were multiplied by the teachers (or "counselors") when they stopped the entire group activity or lesson to address a single student who was acting up. Last week I saw teachers walk around the room while talking to students. They were constantly putting a student's hands back in their own lap, tapping a student on the shoulder and pointing to the "time out" table, or picking up a student who had sprawled out on the carpet during circle time. All these disruptions and more were handled without ever speaking or stopping the lesson. (The classes I observed were kindergarten and 2nd grade, by the way). Lesson learned.

I'm sure that order and efficiency of the classes I observed is the fruit of the year's labor. I had the fortune to visit the class at the end of the year after they've had nine months as a class together. To the casual observer, classroom management seems easy. I actually did observe one student in the first class who was constantly talking out of turn, getting out of her seat, and generally being disruptive. The teacher told me immediately after the class that she just transferred to the school and has had some trouble adjusting.

The second day, I watched a 2nd grade class in a regular school (also taught by a TFA teacher). At first glance, the school was quite deceiving. It's only five years old and a really nice facility. All around the school construction of new homes is taking place. I arrived at the school just as the school bus was pulling up and letting all of the uniformed students off the bus. You would have never known that this school is in one of the worst performing districts in Phoenix. Inside the classroom, the differences between the students in terms of being on grade level wasn't immediately obvious to me. Students seemed to be all participating in the morning carpet time and "stations." After lunch, I was given the chance the work with the students individually on reading. That's where my shock came. I started out working with a student who could read the words on the page, only very slowly. Then I worked with a student who could barely sound out the words and often invented words based on the first letter of the word. Finally, I worked with a few students who fluidly read all the words without stopping to sound them out. The gap in learning was huge.

My main observation the second day was based on a question on the observation form. The question asked if students worked together and seemed supportive of each others' learning. To that I would have to say no. During the morning "stations," students were put in groups where they rotated between five stations. In one of the stations students worked with the teacher on reading, in the other four stations students were basically left to work on their own and in groups. Here I saw students that seemed to be competing with each other rather than being supportive of each other. I constantly heard students saying "That's easy!" when another student was working to solve a problem or read a sentence. They were always quick to point out who couldn't read. Some students had taken over the reading for their partners when they were supposed to be reading to each other. "This is what we do because he can't read," one girl told me. Overall the atmosphere wasn't cooperative. It must be so discouraging for a student to be constantly told by his peers that what he's working on is "easy" and to have all the students point and say "He can't read." This has me thinking of ways that I can really emphasize a cooperative classroom environment where students want to help those who are struggling.

Hopefully next week I will visit some upper elementary classrooms. I am kind of leaning toward wanting to teach lower elementary though.

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