I don't think there has ever been a time in my teaching career where I could say that I have truly become comfortable with what I am teaching. I taught at my first school for one year before getting married and moving on. My second year teaching was at a school so far away from my home that I moved to a closer district the next year. I taught at the middle school level for two years before being non-renewed, and fell into my current position the next year. I have now been in my district for eleven years, which might have found me in a fairly comfortable place if not for all the new classes I have been "allowed" to develop. In those eleven years, I have taught twelve different classes. Now, some have a little overlap, but creating a new class from scratch nearly every year was a lot more stressful than I realized.
Until today. Today, I got an idea what it really feels like to know what is going on.
Right now I have two sections that are working through the Modeling Chemistry. One is a regular chemistry class and one is what we call applied, that is made up of "those" kids.
My first year with Modeling was, well, tumultuous. The entire situation was new to my kids as well as to me. Even if they hadn't been so incredibly resistant, I am pretty sure they would have sensed my unfamiliarity with the process. They can smell fear, you know.
Last year was my second year, and while I was at least more familiar with the material, I still had some issues and wrinkles that I needed to iron out. Luckily, the kids I had were much less resistant. I think word had spread that I could take whatever they could send my way and stick to my guns. I am pretty sure that if I had given in, just a little bit the year before, I would have had a lot more testing of boundaries. As it was, I had a great group of kids who for the most part bought in to what I was trying to do. For my part, I spent a lot of time writing out exactly* what I wanted to accomplish with each lesson just so I could go back and remember what worked and what didn't. While I'm not obsessed enough to read it all out during class, it has proved invaluable to look over beforehand and remember what types of things tripped kids up. Since I seem to know where I want them to go, my questions and prompts are actually leading them there.**
The other day, I assigned the first worksheet in my chemistry class. This is not a common occurrence, as I really try to save homework for special occasions. The worksheets in the Modeling units are wonderfully done. These are not "right there" questions that kids can google, nor are they all repetitions of the same problem. When my kids came to class today, there was true panic going on. They had tried. They didn't get it. Their parents didn't get it. They were never going to pass this class.
It took awhile, but I reminded them that we had had this conversation about homework awhile back. Remember how it's practice? And struggling is actually a good thing? This doesn't count toward a grade, so let's whiteboard the problems and see what we come up with.
Then things got really tense.
The first couple of questions were pretty straightforward. The group presented and every head in the room turned to me to see if I was confirming their excellent work.
Cue the crickets.***
Finally someone, almost with a twitch, said, "well, is it right??"
So I said, "do you think it is?"
These pauses are going to kill me.
The group presenting, of course thought they were correct. When I asked if anyone had written anything different, no one spoke up. So I asked them if they had any questions about how this group came up with their answers. Again, not a sound.
As the group started moving towards their seats, one student turned around with her paper and asked me if what she had was acceptable. So I stopped the group and had them go back up to their whiteboard.
Now, here's where it got tricky. We stopped and talked about the overall purpose of whiteboarding. It isn't just about copying down the right answer on your paper. This is about learning from each other and being able to ask questions when you don't understand. Not necessarily asking ME, but asking your classmates to explain their thinking.
The big question for this question was that the student had done the problem in a different manner, but came up with the same answer.**** There followed a huge discussion about whether or not this was "correct" for this problem. Apparently, in the past, there has been only one way to get to the right answer, and that is how the teacher has already explained it. No free thinking allowed.
Yeah, whatever. Personally, I would like to see this every time. While this student explained how she came up with her (same) answer, a couple other kids were nodding their heads. Comments like, "oh, I get it now" started rumbling around the room. Kids were talking to one another, asking good questions. There was really only one smart-alec in the room and he was put down pretty quickly.
By the end of the hour, I had students fighting to present their problem on the whiteboard. I had retreated to the back corner and didn't say another word.
It took us two days to whiteboard this worksheet. In fact, with this class, we are taking quite a bit longer on everything, but I am so okay with that. All of those little details that have taken all trimester to even get the nerve to bring up the last two years are being addressed here in the first month.
And they are buying into it!
So today, we are whiteboarding a lab. The discussions going on are amazing and so beyond anything I would have expected up to this point. I am wandering around the room listening, waiting for questions. There are none. I hear one group who seems to be struggling say "well, we will present it and see what everyone else has done. Maybe they can show us where we messed up." Whoa! Really? I move on to eavesdrop on another group. They have a gorgeous multi-color whiteboard that oh-my-goodness includes a particle diagram!
I'm pretty sure I'm dreaming here. I am also a little nervous because I don't really know what I did to get here so quickly (or, for that matter, at all). I'm not entirely sure I did anything at all. I think, though, that it comes from knowing exactly where I want my kids to go and having a plan as to how to get there. What I do know is that I have never been so excited, or relaxed, about where my classroom is headed.
*When I say exactly, I mean word for word, every-question-that-makes-sense-OCD-scripted type of write out.
**Now this is probably not news to most of you. I can see you shaking your head, wondering, "is she serious?" All I can say to that is, yes. Yes, I am.
***There seems to be a lot of awkward pauses in my room this year.
****Seriously, the stars are all in alignment today.
*****My footnote addiction seems to be getting worse...sorry about that...