Another semester at my Alma Mater, Niagara University, has come to an end. Overall, I feel it was another successful semester with my pre-service, aspiring secondary English teachers. Located on the US/Canadian border, NU has a unique mix of American and Canadian students. In addition, my class, English Methods, also usually has a mix of both graduate and undergraduate students as well. This semester the class was evenly split by both nationality and program. Meeting the needs of all of my students presents a very unique and rewarding experience for me as a teacher.
All students in my class are required by the university program to log 30 "Learn and Serve" hours, wherein they observe an assigned area teacher in practice and then teach a minimum of one lesson. Here, I require students to videotape themselves teaching a lesson and have them watch it and write a reflection, turning in both for a grade. I do NOT score the lesson or teaching itself; rather, I assess their ability to honestly and critically assess their performance as well as provide them with both warm and cool feedback to offer suggestions for improvement. The entire semester, and the teacher prep program itself, stresses the importance of self reflection so that by the time students are in my class, they are fairly proficient at this important aspect of teaching. In addition, beyond the required reading of Integrating Differentiated Instruction + Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids, I also require that students read a text that specifically explores teaching secondary English called The Reading/Writing Connection: Strategies for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom and write Learning Log Reflections about what made sense and what they might try to use in their own classroom practice.
For the major project required for my course, students are charged with designing an entire unit plan based on the UbD model that includes many components (see unit plan link). I assign the unit plan along with the rubric for assessment and a model unit on day two of the semester and for the rest of the semester I model each piece or component along with strategies and best practices. In addition, I provide students with a variety of helpful links, tools, and my wikispace to review and pull ideas for their own unit.
Roughly halfway through the semester, students are also required to teach a lesson from their unit to their peers. This exercise allows them to try out their ideas and receive feedback from their peers as well as turn in a completed lesson plan and associated handouts to me for feedback as well. Students then have five days to email me a reflection of their teaching; I promptly assess all pieces and return to them the following class so that they can polish it and submit it as one of their required two lesson plans in the unit.
I must say that each semester I am impressed with the majority of units that students design and submit for their final grade. However, what concerns me is that some are fantastic designers of learning experiences but not so great at implementing them or developing realistic timelines for doing so and some are not so great at designing the unit but do a great job at teaching that one lesson from it. How do I address this in a way that everyone can benefit? How do I help these passionate young adults to see the importance of the parts equaling the effectiveness of the whole? Your comments and ideas are most welcome here.
Now for the BIG question...Are teacher prep programs truly preparing students for the realities of teaching today?
The final two sessions of my class address (1) designing a course syllabus and devising a grading policy and (2) discussing student teaching concerns and interview questions at a place off campus where we also have a bite to eat and a beverage. For this last class, we first discuss all their many concerns about student teaching, which seems to be very overwhelming for them. I try to offer practical advice and quell their nerves as much as possible. As for the interview questions, I provide them with an actual form from my former district used by interview panel members for a secondary English position and go through each while allowing time for students to ask questions and make notes to use in preparation for thmeselves. Then, I have a magic envelope in which are roughly 25 other likely questions they will encounter in their quest for a position. Each student is to pick a question and read it aloud, posing it to the person on their right. Here, they become so flustered and don't know where to start; it's painful to watch and I can't tell you how many interview candidates I have seen with the same reaction in the interview process. Although I offer suggestions, discuss the use of buzz words without actual examples, and a million other facets of being on "the hot seat," I still see young teachers much like my students fumble through first interviews. I completely understand that they will get better once they build confidence and a repertoire of experiences through student teaching, but somehow I feel as if I am still not preparing them for the reality of what they face in finding their first job.
What are your thoughts on this? How do we better prepare and mentor young teachers to take the reins? What can we as teachers do and what should teacher prep programs be doing differently in order to serve our students better? As a side note, beyond the required NYS teacher certification requirements, my university also gives a comprehensive exam to all students; sadly, there is over a 40% failure rate on this assessment. I have not seen it; I am not permitted. But students have told me about it and I am befuddled at what is being assessed on it.
So, this is my current classroom practice and I'm asking you, reader, how do I challenge the bureaucracy and thereby provide my students with practical and meaningful experiences that mirror the reality of teaching today?
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