The context is a mixed grade, mixed ability, and mixed age (14 and up) earth science class at New America School (NAS), a charter school in its second year in the South Valley of Albuquerque. NAS serves about 350 daytime students and 100 nighttime students. There were about ten classrooms, mostly portables with two classrooms connected by a hall and sharing two restrooms. Most students came from low-income families (nearly 100% qualify for free lunch) and are English Language Learners.
The class met eighth period every day (Monday through Thursday) from 2:03 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. This class started out as one of my worst behaved (defiant, disruptive, off task, etc.) and ended as one of my best, though I do not have any other work experience to compare them to. The fact that I started out with 24 students and only 8 Earth Science textbooks, the copier broke the first week of school when I wanted to give a pretest, and my projector and computer were unreliable contributed to my classroom management problems. The students came from diverse backgrounds: some of them from straight from Mexico, some of them bouncing from school to school in Albuquerque, some of them true freshman.
The students in this class could be disrespectful to themselves, each other, and me, and they all too often were socializing. Many of the students were friends outside of class and would talk about plans for the weekend when they should have been reading or working on assignments. Some of the quieter students started socializing after they noticed how much trouble I had at classroom management in the beginning of the year. Most of my discipline problems and suspensions took place in eighth period. Behavior improved after administration came to talk to the class, I had a class meeting, and students agreed to some classroom rules that they had a say in but lack of support from home and personal issues meant progress was inconsistent.
During the first semester, I struggled to make this class run smoothly. I worked with a consultant, I asked other teachers for help, and I observed the science department head (in addition to my mentoring from the math department head and team teaching in the math department) that taught Earth Science the year before and was currently teaching the same course. Since I had four other classes (Math Lab, Algebra 1, Algebra 1 2nd Semester (fall), Algebra 2 (spring), and 12th-grade Advisory) to teach and had never taken an earth science class before, I relied heavily on activities, notes, and lectures that the department head shared openly. I helped develop department assessments and created lesson plans that matched the textbook closely.
The format of the course, developed by the department head, consisted of lecture, workbook worksheets, and hands-on laboratory experiments. I shied away from lab experiments after a few mishaps early on but my confidence in my students grew after some of the disruptive students moved to another class, dropped out, or were expelled. Also, I shortened lecture and gave students time to read the textbook in class and work on make-up work during the first fifteen minutes of class while I took attendance and passed back graded assignments, etc. The students were expected to participate in whole-class discussion during lectures with visuals, complete in-class assignments, and complete lab report forms. The culminating assessment was a unit test primarily made up of multiple-choice, true-or-false, and short answer questions. The semester exam was given by all of the teachers of earth science and was given on the same day.
According to the New Mexico PED STARS Manual, this “course offers insight into the environment on earth and the earth’s environment in space. While teaching the concepts and principles essential to an understanding of the dynamics and history of the earth, the following topics may be explored: oceanography, geology, astronomy, meteorology, and geography.”
Since I had no classroom teaching experience and had an educational background in engineering rather than education, I struggled with creating unit and lesson plans. The following three-week unit plan and sample lesson plan were developed after much reading, looking at the work of colleagues in addition to asking them for help, and working with a consultant.
I felt like I didn’t have enough planning time for teaching five classes my first year and would have benefited from more time to collaborate with other teachers. I was exceptional at planning for 12th-grade Advisory and helped other teachers that had the same grade, I was average at planning for my traditional math classes, and I was poor at planning for a math intervention program that had no pre-existing structure that administration expected to primarily use a computer program that wasn’t what they thought they bought (it was a math worksheet generator rather than a complete interactive program like AR Reading).
Analysis of the Content and Learning Goals
I wasn’t very clear on content and learning goals at first and I’m still learning. During the oceanography unit, I wanted students to learn about the vast world ocean, ocean floor features, seafloor sediments, and resources on the seafloor in the first week. In the second week, I wanted students to learn what the composition of seawater is, the diversity of ocean life, oceanic productivity, and Earth Day. In the third week, I wanted students to learn about ocean circulation, waves and tides, shoreline processes and features, and then review and take a test. I know that my vagueness about content and learning goals impeded learning and retention. I learned to be more specific in my lesson planning in this class throughout the year.
During this sample lesson, I tried to teach too much at once. I wanted students to be able to: (1) Describe the major intrusive igneous features such as dikes, sills, and laccoliths, and how they form, (2) Describe batholiths and how they form, (3) Identify the factors that determine the strength of a rock and explain how rocks permanently deform, (4) Distinguish among the types of stresses that affect rocks, (5) Explain how isostatic adjustment is involved in mountain formation, (6) List the three main types of folds, (7) Identify the main types of faults, (8) Describe folded mountains and fault-block mountains and explain how they form, and (9) Describe plateaus, domes, and basins and explain how they form. As a school, we also had language objectives of listening, reading, writing, speaking which I should have elaborated on for each lesson.
It would have been nice if I was more familiar with the content and had access to sources beyond the teacher’s edition of the textbook. I didn’t know how to gauge prior knowledge at first but let some lessons be guided by student interest and experience. KWL charts in guided reading helped individuals. We covered a lot of material over the course of the year but didn’t go into much depth on any one particular topic. Overall, I wanted students to know, understand, and apply scientific concepts for a greater appreciation of the environment so they could later analyze and evaluate the media and consumer choices. I wanted students to have the tools necessary to be responsible citizens of the planet Earth.
I decided to attend Lehigh University (Bethlehem, PA) because that’s where Tau Beta Pi—the engineering honor society I actively participated in as an undergraduate—was founded. I heard of this new and exciting program in a field (energy systems engineering) that held my academic curiosity at the national Tau Beta Pi convention. I was one of five women in a class of twenty-five (professor of practice thought this was relatively good) and noticed there weren’t very many minorities or people from low-income families. I decided to move back to New Mexico and teach high school math and science to low-income students so I could encourage underrepresented/underserved populations to prepare for and consider studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.
I wanted to help develop character in the youth of our nation. Some of the inherent leadership values associated with this field that I appreciate are education and life-long-learning. Furthermore, the five character traits I learned in middle school and keep with me are fairness, honesty, responsibility, self-control, and promise keeping. Value-driven leadership is a powerful tool for influencing others.
Though I didn’t know what to expect, I believed teaching would be a good fit for me in terms of my career choice because I think education is important and in line with the concept of Right Livelihood. From the teachings of Buddhism, I believe I should avoid business in weapons, human beings, meat, intoxicants, and poison. Chemical engineering and energy systems engineering have provided me with a strong background in math and science, while providing ample learning opportunities that have helped me develop transferable skills.
My year started off shaky. I was hired to teach students Algebra and Physics. During cross-curriculum alignment over the summer, my assignment then also included Geometry and 12th-grade Advisory. The week before school started, I was no longer teaching Physics and Geometry, I was assigned to teach Earth Science and Math Lab. I didn’t know what to expect and I was not prepared. Other than last-minute schedule changing, I take responsibility for my lack of preparation.
During the first week, the copier broke and I didn’t have a projector. I was shy and too quiet but I introduced myself and had students do a bell work assignment to introduce themselves. Since I saw many of the same faces from earlier in the day and was intimidated by the size of the class, I didn’t adapt name icebreaker and ended up with time at the end of class. I started off with 24 students and only 8 textbooks so bookwork was difficult to manage too.
I had planned on going over the syllabus, school and classroom rules, and giving a pretest. One teacher suggested I read practice test aloud but that didn’t end up happening either, the class became chaos and another teacher came in that day to relieve me. I tried teaching the scientific method, went too quickly and failed to get the level of students, and the class became chaos. The assistant principal let me observe a couple of teachers. I really needed to work on classroom management and I wish I had read First Days of School before the start of the semester.
I got a lot of help from the consultant that worked with the school. She sat me down and helped me create unit and lesson plans. She gave me advice and sent me an article on classroom management for high school teachers (Palumbo, 2007). I made an effort to get my class running more like clockwork. The classroom culture and environment improved immediately.
Routine for class was 15 minutes reading/makeup work, 20 minutes of lecture with visuals, 20 minutes of individual practice, and then 2 minutes of closure where we wrapped things up and I told students what to expect the next day. We occasionally viewed educational videos and did hands-on lab experiments. Before tests, students would compete in a Jeopardy! style review game for extra credit.
Lab experiments were another issue of concern. We would go over lab instructions, I would think my students understood, and then my students couldn’t apply what they had just read. My students had poor reading skills (many testing at elementary school levels) and when some students got together, they wouldn’t follow instructions. I didn’t understand why one student could do fine earlier or later in the day and then act out when certain other students were present. I later learned to break things down into smaller steps, seat some people away from others, and make everyone be explicitly responsible for something. I also got better at monitoring students while they worked. This resulted in on-task behavior in all but a handful of students.
I took a class period to go over school rules and create classroom policies (Wong, 2009) that everyone could buy into. For a short time, all students were quiet and on-task during work on individual and group assignments and looked like they were paying attention during lectures. Since I had trouble reaching parents and thought contact information would help, I made copies of our classroom policies promoting respect and responsibility for teacher, student, and guardian.
All but one of my students (a young woman with a history of violence that kept getting suspended and was later moved to another class) agreed to be respectful and responsible. I had only one parent object (sadly, that student later dropped out). I wasn’t able to follow through with collecting 100% of agreements and contact information because I got sick the week before winter break and I missed a week of school after winter break because my fiancé died.
I didn’t miss a day of teaching after that and noticed a growing attendance problem. During a professional development day, a committee decided to use reward cards signed for attendance and citizenship. The use of rewards improved attendance slightly. However, days of field trips (typically Thursdays) and rain still had low attendance, sometimes only 10-50%.
For example, during the week of the oceanography unit, class ran according to plan Monday through Wednesday then class was so small on Thursday, we elected to have a makeup/extra credit day. The following Monday, I gave double lectures. Some days, I would have students volunteer to read slides so I could walk around and add to content, this particularly helped with a student’s behavioral problems that I didn’t know had ADD.
During this time period, another student started a different medication and instead of hyperactivity that included walking around and falling out of his chair, he would just sit there and there wasn’t much I could do. He was very low-functioning but had great art skills. I gave some extra credit points for participation and altered his assignments but he didn’t respond as well as he did before the medication switch and got suspended for smoking marijuana at school in broad daylight.
Dress code was being enforced by security during spring semester so that was no longer an argument and I focused on disrespectful language. I got the idea to keep track (Wong, 2009) of vulgarities so students would be aware of what they were saying. I also assigned one student an action plan (Wong, 2009) that was completed under parental supervision to promote respectful language within the classroom. Though vulgarities continued to a lesser extent later in the year, the classroom environment was much more respectful.
By the end of the year, I at least taught students to push in their chairs, pick up after themselves, and work on tests on their own. I didn’t yell and I didn’t become bitter or sarcastic. Academically, though I can become much more effective than I was during my first year, examining pre- and post- tests showed that learning did take place.
What Students Learned
I felt like the students warmed up to me over the year and had a similar comment come up in evaluations. I felt overwhelmed during fall semester and was starting to cope during spring semester; consequently, students learned more during spring semester. The class progressed from sheer chaos to a structured and more respectful and responsible environment.
Most students did not master the content, partly because there was too much and I couldn’t cover it all thoroughly. About five students completed all the assigned work, though only two completed the work well. About five students (including three with attendance problems) needed more time and benefited from makeup work during the beginning of class and on makeup work days. I had trouble keeping the majority of the class engaged in learning the whole class period though most of them eventually responded to corrections. Some students dropped out, moved away, or got expelled. I had a variety of new students in my class that enrolled from the waiting list to keep our numbers up that assimilated into my class.
Grading was depressing. I gave points for showing up and attempting the work. I noticed confusion between similar terms such as longitude and latitude which cleared up in the majority of students that attended class by giving them the mnemonic “lat lies flat.” Students came into my class with very little academic skills and minimal knowledge of earth science and left with improved behavior and some knowledge of earth science. This teaching experience wasn’t very successful but it was a huge learning experience.
Case Analysis and Reflection
A better understanding of teaching and learning will help improve classroom management and enhance learning and retention. There are many explanations why I struggled so much and now that I have a better understanding of teaching and learning, I know there are several areas that I can improve. I will explore information processing, retention, transfer, arts, and thinking skills.
Today’s environment at home and in school contributes to attention deficit. I gave students more space in between them, made my classroom quiet and orderly, and had to learn how to implement BIPs. My lesson objectives and vocabulary exceeded the working memory (5-9 chunks, 7 chunks on average) of students age 14 and up (Sousa, 2006, page 46). Students got more out of class when I used fewer objectives and chunked. I had to help students make sense of content by slowing down and give various reasons why the content was meaningful and useful (Sousa, 2006, pages 49-50). Developing clear objectives helped keep my students focused.
Appealing to different senses helps keeps students focused. I am aware that my sensory preference is visual and I lacked auditory and kinesthetic activities (Sousa, 2006, page 57). Letting students hand out papers and put away their own books helped add some needed movement while lessening my load. As the year went on, I got more comfortable and was able to show my personality but my teaching could use more humor (Sousa, 2006, page 63). Perhaps I could offer extra credit for content-related articles and jokes or work that into lessons.
I think a wider variety of activities (I never did bring in a guest speaker), would help generate interest; students were greater motivated by behavioral accountability (responsibilities within the classroom); and students completed more assignments when I simplified my grading process and was able to return papers in a more timely manner (Sousa, 2006, pages 65-66). Timely feedback helped students learn what they had trouble with and helped me learn how to alter instruction.
I need more experience to find the balance between getting students concerned about learning but not so concerned that they stress out and break down. During the year I noticed that I went too long between tests and needed more formative assessment to test for long-term storage (Sousa, 2006, pages 70-71). I need to provide more opportunities for students to work in groups and learn from each other rather than so many individual assignments (Sousa, 2006, page 72). I have many ideas for future work in the area of information processing.
Once I figure out how to teach more effectively, I must take measures to ensure students retain what they learn. I must strive to create a positive learning environment (Wong, 2009) so students can get endorphins in their blood and stimulate their frontal lobes-the area that monitors higher-order thinking (Sousa, 2006, page 84). Refraining from sarcasm creates a neutral environment but humor and respect would promote a positive environment.
Class ran better when it was broken up into 15-20 minute intervals. Two 20-minute lessons instead of one 40-minute lessons increases prime learning from 75 to 90% of the total time. I relied heavily on verbal processing and need to focus on providing activities with more visual processing and doing (Sousa, 2006, pages 94-95). If I focus on fewer objectives at a time I can provide more feedback and give students more time to practice.
Practice over time increases retention (Sousa, 2006, page 99). Something interesting to note about this particular class was that from 2-3 my adolescent students were expected to be losing focus at the same time my focus was up after an midday slump (Sousa, 2006, page 101). Emotions, the primacy-recency effect, variety of learning method, rehearsal, and circadian rhythms contribute to retention.
One concept underlying the ability to learn is transfer. Transfer involves how past learning affects new learning and how much new learning can be applied to future situations (Sousa, 2006, chapter 4). My students seemed to experience negative transfer more often than positive transfer.
I realize students had a low degree of original learning and did not have many opportunities to practice their skills (Sousa, 2006, page 141). Low levels of mastery will take time to overcome. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the similarity between latitude and longitude interfered with student learning both concepts (Sousa, 2006, pages 142-143). My students had a variety of associations unfamiliar to me. However, I can definitely strive to associate positive emotions with learning through humor and real-world examples among other strategies (Sousa, 2006, page 145). I need to work on minimizing negative transfer/interference and maximizing positive transfer. Arts promote brain development and positive transfer.
The school I worked at suffered from not having art classes. When the art teacher quit, administration decided not to hire a new one. Instead, they hired a local artist to work with some students on a mural that wasn’t completed. There are some ways for me to incorporate arts into lessons. However, since “skills [such as observing accurately, thinking spatially, and perceiving kinesthetically] are not usually taught as part of the science curriculum but are home in writing, drama, painting, and music,” students need art programs to learn at their best (Sousa, 2006, page 216). Research shows that music, visual arts, and movement can enhance learning.
I borrowed speakers to play music from a teacher that sometimes used my classroom and saw improvement in myself and my students before and after winter break. Research has shown music can “relieve stress, diminish pain, and treat other more severe disabilities…” (Sousa, 2006, page 223). Letting students select appropriate music also gave me greater insight into different cultures.
Imagination and meditation would be beneficial in classroom settings. Imagery can be used to help students succeed on tests. Imaging (seeing something already experienced) and imagining (seeing something not yet experienced) are useful skills (Sousa, 2006, page 230). “Imagery not only affects survival, but increases the quality of life.” (Sousa, 2006, page 230) I would support health and afterschool programs that teach stress management techniques such as yoga and meditation, I don’t think there’s enough time to do enough during school.
Movement is good for physical and mental health. “Not only does the movement increase cognitive function, but it also helps students use up some kinesthetic energy…” (Sousa, 2006, page 233). Some math and many science concepts can be related through dance and would help with understanding retention. Movement would help behaviorally and academically.
As a math and science teacher, I emphasized domain-specific knowledge and critical thinking skills. Working with the educational consultant, I learned to focus on metacognition and encouraged students to think out loud and be able to explain how they arrived at their answers I was so focused on covering material that I was stuck in lower levels of thinking: remember, understand, apply. The tests were mostly multiple-choice, true-or-false, and fill-in-the-blank. Some extra credit assignments involved: analyze, evaluate, and create, but only when technology failed. I was assigning work that was more difficult than necessary and lacked complexity (Sousa, 2006, page 256-257). In the future, I would like to incorporate higher order thinking into my everyday lesson plans.
I was very ignorant of student learning and understanding. I now have a better understanding of information processing, retention, transfer, arts, and thinking skills. I learned a lot during my first year of teaching and am learning even more by discussing and reflecting now that I have more theoretical knowledge.
This case gave me a greater appreciation for teaching and learning. Looking back, there are many things I can do differently in future instruction. I will address decisions about curriculum and instructional design and how I would do things differently in the future.
My classroom environment changed over the year and was different from some other teachers’ classrooms. I was able to be a little flexible and rearrange tables according to individual vs. group work. Books and supplies were readily available to students. I would be more assertive about requests for resources, perhaps write grant proposals in the future.
I would definitely have a clear plan about the first days and weeks completed ahead of time. I have some rules and policies that worked for my particular situation and would adapt them to new situations. I would keep units (plans, lesson plans, resources) organized and make time to collaborate with other teachers.
I would make lessons that appeal to all senses and intelligences. I would enlist the help of other teachers and bring in guest speakers from the community to talk about different concepts. Since I am aware of my preferences, I can ask for help in areas of weakness and maximize on my strengths.
NM PED STARS Manual (http://www.ped.state.nm.us/stars/dl12/SY2012%20STARS%20Manual%20Volume%202.pdf)
Mooney, Carol Garhart. (2000). Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget, and Vygotsky. Upper Saddle River: Redleaf Press.
Palumbo, Anthony and Joseph Sanacore. (2007) Classroom Management: Help for the Beginning Secondary School Teacher. Brookville: Heldref Publication.
Sousa, David A. (2006). How the Brain Learns: Third Edition. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.
Wong, Harry and Rosemary Wong. (2009). The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher. Mountain View: Harry K. Wong Publications.