Other voices, other rooms, part 2

The Onion

Photo: The Onion












I’ve had such a nice weekend pretending that I don’t have any work to do.  Unfortunately, I have to finalize a paper topic, plan a class, grade a few stray papers, and write up a handout with revision guidelines.  But I’ve enjoyed the two good nights’ sleep, a Snork Maiden soccer game (they sustained their first loss of the season, against quite a good team, but they played very well), and an afternoon/early evening out with Stubb (we saw The Duchess and had a seafood dinner).  We also spent some time cleaning up the living room/dining room area so that we can have people over on Rosh Hashanah without severe embarrassment. 

And now, the second in a series of posts on watching other people teach.  In my first installment, I observed Dr. Tea, who has been at Starfleet Academy for something like twelve years, is in her mid-forties and is the chair of our department; last week, I observed a new colleague whom I’ll call Dorothea, who’s probably about twenty-five and recently earned her M.A.T. 

This was another Friday afternoon class, eighth-graders this time; as with Dr. Tea’s class, I found myself observing the students themselves, as much as or more than I observed Dorothea.  They look so young that it’s hard to imagine that my ninth-graders were at this point, developmentally, just a year ago.  And yet, even more than with the ninth-graders, it seems disingenuous to call where they are a point when there’s so much variation among them.  Some of the kids I would have guessed to be sixth-graders; some of them would not look completely out of place in the high school.  Most of them were pretty squiggly and squirmy, more so than the ninth graders but enough to remind me that some degree of squiggliness/squirminess is not totally inappropriate in ninth-graders, either.  Earlier the same day, I’d had to tell a student to stop poking the boy in front of her with a pencil; now I was amused to see a girl take a red felt-tip pen and lightly draw a heart on the back of the neck of the boy in front of her. 

Dorothea looked very natural, but also very businesslike, at the front of the classroom; she was thumbing through her notes, and taking attendance, and she started the class by saying firmly, “Folks, the period has officially begun,” and telling them to get out their vocabulary books, their Lord of the Flies vocabulary sheets, and a pencil.  She wrote Nouns, Verbs, and Adjectives across the board and asked them to contribute vocabulary words, telling her which categories the words belonged in as they went.  With some of the (more difficult, I guessed) words, she’d say to the child who contributed it, “Remind me what this one means,” which I thought was interesting.  Obviously she herself doesn’t need the reminding, but perhaps it is less intimidating than saying “And what does this word mean?”–which might make the child feel as though he’d walked into a trap?  Or perhaps it’s a locution that’s more likely to make the whole class think about the answer?  I shall have to ask her what the reasoning is.  They seemed to have a good grasp of the words, but there were occasions for her to usefully refine their sense of them.  After a number of people had volunteered twice, she said, “Now I’d like to hear from some people who haven’t spoken yet,” and after this elicited a couple more raised hands, she also called on a few additional students.

When they had the words on the board, she said, “Now we’re going to work in groups of two or three.  I’m going to let you choose the people you want to work with, and I’m going to give you two minutes to get into your groups–starting now.”  They had a worksheet that asked them to use vocabulary words in different ways, e.g. “Which words describe you or someone you know?” and eventually to write a paragraph about the characters in Lord of the Flies using two words from each part-of-speech column. 

This was interesting to me because although I like to review vocabulary words with my ninth-graders, and tell them fun etymology facts, and make them guess what words they already know share roots with the vocabulary words, I do this in ten-minute bursts now and then and don’t set aside time in class for them to practice using the words–I ask them to do that at home and don’t give any real guidance in doing it.  But if Dorothea’s exercise is appropriate for eighth-graders–and it certainly looked that way–maybe I’m expecting a wee bit too much from the ninth-graders?  I should check with the other grade-level teachers and see what they’re doing (we’re just starting to use the official vocabulary book for the year, although they’ve had vocabulary lists for the summer reading books and The Odyssey). 

Dorothea had clearly put a lot of thought into how the class would run, and her timing was nearly perfect.  I thought I could learn from how she didn’t get bogged down–I tend to get, not sidetracked, but overly engaged in whatever we’re talking about, and she kept things moving in a way that I find actually rather challenging to do.  When she got them back into their seats after the group work–“I’m going to give you thirty seconds to get back to your desks”–she asked for sample answers to the worksheet questions, and for volunteers to read their paragraphs, but she didn’t attempt to get to everyone and she kept them moving steadily through the worksheet. 

Something else I noticed is that while Dorothea’s affect is more serious than Dr. Tea’s, and she actually looks somewhat dour when talking to adults, she frequently flashed a brilliant smile during class.  Coming over her deadpan mug, it was rather dazzling, and a kind of reward to the students. 

So that was good to see: a different kind of teacher, a different kind of class.  It actually gave me a better sense of what a change high school must be for my ninth-graders.  And how much they have changed in a year.  (And will again: I remember, last spring, seeing some photos from the September freshman-class retreat and marveling at how much younger and softer their faces looked a mere six months earlier.) 

Next, I’d really like to see another ninth-grade English class (apart from my own); a tenth-grade English class; and some classes in other departments.  I will start asking around this week.


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] voices, other rooms, part 3 (plus lunch) Oh, what the heck.  This is one in a continuing series of observations of other […]


  2. […] mentioned to Dorothea and Romola that I was relieved that at least a few of them were able to remember the term […]


  3. […] there to do that (also pretty destabilizing, I’m sure).  Last year she had those classes in Dorothea‘s room, and that freed up her room to be a catch-all for those of us who share rooms–at […]


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