Thursday, February 10, 2005

"How much do teachers get paid?"

That's what one of my students asked me today after his first teaching experience.

My students spent the last week planning lessons on different kinds of invertebrates. They are teaching in pairs, and they only have to do a 20 minute lesson, and I'm still in the room for back-up, but it's giving them some interesting insights into what it's like to be a teacher! (I swear, that was not the ulterior motive in designing this unit).

"Now I understand why teachers never play games!"

That was a comment during a pretty awful attempt by two of my "teachers" to lead the class in a trivia game reviewing what they'd taught about sponges. Basically, they realized that when you organize a game - unless you have very, very tight discipline - you spend 90% of your time arbitrating and about 10% reviewing.

The students had about 4 or 5 class periods to research their group of invertebrates and design a lesson plan - complete with a homework assignment - to teach their classmates what they learned. I provided some ideas for how to structure a lesson, and a "syllabus" to follow, which listed what they should accomplish each day in order to get the project done on time. I'm trying to move them away from depending on me for instructions, and more in the direction of using classroom documents to guide their work. From today until the end of next week, two or three groups will teach each day. They have to turn in a lesson plan, a copy of anything they plan to hand out, and the homework after they collect and grade it. They also have to grade their own teaching using a rubric, which I will also use to assess their work on this project.

The lesson plans are really cute. I made them write an aim, a one-sentence summary of the main thing they want their students to be able to do. Then they added more detailed objectives that fleshed out the aim. Then they wrote a narrative describing the sequence of the lesson, including time estimates. And finally, they wrote down what the homework will be. I see in their plans unconscious - or heck, maybe it's conscious - imitation of the language that I use in my daily aim and in other aspects of my teaching.

Given the complete confidence with which students criticize their teachers' methods, it was interesting to watch them get up there and do exactly what their teachers do, sometimes even more so. They are big on lecturing, assigning articles for the students to read, and putting notes on the board. The homework assignments so far have been fairly good; we talked about what kinds of assignments require students to think, and what kinds are just busywork or don't really emphasize the science.

Some kids really get the critical thinking idea. During a lesson in which a game of review hangman was turning out to be too easy, the "teachers" decided to stop giving clues and just have the students guess the words. Another student protested, "But then it's just hangman! We don't have to know anything!" He was out of order for criticizing during their lesson, but I couldn't help but smile, 'cause I'm pretty sure this kid has never thought of himself as a future teacher.

The problem - and it might be a big one - is that the kids aren't learning much about invertebrates. They did a good job of becoming experts on the group they studied, and that has value, but the lessons aren't that great. I provided a background article as an overview of invertebrates, which should help, and the kids (at least in one class) are being proactive about asking questions, but they are still getting a mish-mash of facts without necessarily seeing the big picture for any particular group of animals. I was talking to a colleague about it, and she said, "Well, I don't really know anything about invertebrates, so is it really a huge problem?" I can live with the kids only knowing a bit about echinoderms, but I really hope the insects and arachnids and crustaceans lessons are done well.

Would it have been better for me to do a single lesson on each group of invertebrates myself? Would it have been better for me to spend a few days on the most important (from a "what most adults know" perspective) groups, and then assign research projects on the other groups? Are they getting other stuff out of this project that outweighs the disorganized information about invertebrates? Will they have future chances to build on what they've learned? Is it okay to be an expert on cnidarians but not know a whole lot about cephalopods? Is it okay to be an expert on cephalopods but not know much about arachnids?

Another experiment in science education.

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