Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Finding Your Wings in the Classroom

In Finding your wings, Biology professor Burton Guttman has written a book called Finding Your Wings: A Workbook for Beginning Bird Watchers (NYC: Houghton Mifflin; 2008). He talks about learning two major concepts from his students about learning: “first, people learn best by actively participating in the learning process and second; people often try to learn at the wrong time.” He decided to use his teaching experiences to design a workbook that teaches beginners how to watch birds in the field. He first teaches beginning birders to learn how to see and observe wild birds. He teaches students to look for specific features. After learning basic features, he suggests you learn common birds first and then more details before moving to learning birdsongs.

There are other important chapters included in this book. One chapter discusses proper birding techniques and etiquette. Another chapter describes how to properly use your binoculars. The last half of the book focuses on "problematic groups”…all of which I have described as those birds that teach us all a little humility when we get somewhat uppity because of our growing knowledge base.”

I’m sure by now you are wondering what this has to do with teaching. When I read this article, I wondered if this is the process we should be going through when we teach a new class. I also read a new teacher’s blog tonight: Confessions of a Rookie Teacher and was thrilled to find out that I have been able to help this person in some way after meeting many months ago. Of course with this thrill came a sense of responsibility that I feel to support this person and hope those of you who read my blog will find time to go by and encourage her too. I began to think of something I could say that might help her and ran across this article. Since Andrea is also into nature (we met on a local hiking trail as we did trail maintenance together), I thought I could relate this article to teaching.

Before we can best meet the needs of our students, we need to take a moment and learn how to see and observe students. We need to look for basic features like:
· Which students are more productive early in the day? Later in the day?
· Do the students prefer to work alone or in groups? If in groups, is it just social or are they also productive?
· What is their home life like? How many siblings? Both parents at home? Are they the oldest? Youngest?
· What is this student’s strengths? Weaknesses?
· What motivates the student?
· Which students are the leaders?
· Which students use avoidance behaviors to keep from doing work? Why?
· Which students have personality conflicts?
· Which students complement each other when paired up by strengths?

Once you have this information, you might be able to use strategies that work for those with common features. Students who prefer to work in groups might work better together. You also might be able to pair students up by looking at strengths and weaknesses, which could complement each other and focus on each student’s strength. Leaders could also be used to help others. If you know why a student is trying to avoid an assignment (by possibly acting out), you might be able to get past the behavior and adapt the assignment in order for them to be more successful.

Proper teaching techniques and (teacher/student) etiquette is also important. As for techniques, keeping in mind that what you are asking students to do is relevant to learning and not just busy work is important. Techniques will be refined as a new teacher gains more and more experience and is in constant evolution throughout a teaching career. Making sure that students see a clear line between the teacher/student relationship is essential to a long successful career. Too many times I have seen a new teacher try to be the students’ friend. Remember that students have enough friends, but not enough good teachers.

Proper use of equipment is also essential to a successful teaching experience. Learn what new tools are out there and learn how to use them. More than likely the students already know how and would be thrilled to help you learn how to use it. Build a professional learning network (PLN) that can help you keep abreast of new technology, strategies, and techniques that are effective in the classroom.

“Problematic groups” could be described as those students “that teach us all a little humility when we get somewhat uppity because of our growing knowledge base.” I remember as a beginning teacher, I thought I could change the world! Now I look back and I’m almost embarrassed at my simplistic way of thinking. Don’t fall in the trap that I did. It is good to dream and have big dreams for your students, but don’t think you know it all just because you have learned the newest things. Many of the experienced teachers have survived (and possibly even flourished) in their career by finding effective ways to deal with problematic groups. Don’t be afraid to go to them for advice and suggestions (no one said you had to follow the advice but it will help you look at the situation from a different perspective which could open up possible solutions you never thought of).

I hope some of these suggestions will help new teachers find their wings in the classroom and have a successful teaching experience!

Photo credit: Bird of Prey by Oliver Scott

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