Friday, 5 October 2012

Travel blog + new teacher = far too infrequent updates

Yes, I'm not neglecting this site on purpose.  But after a month of adjustments, my life is finally achieving some measure of balance.  So without further ado, a quick note that I sent to my favourite math practicum associate.

Good morning,

Well, I guess after a month of doing it, I can start to think of myself as a teacher.  Despite the insane amount of work required, especially since I don't have math this term, it has been an awesome experience.  Unfortunately, one of the unfortunate things about teaching three subjects that I wasn't prepared to teach (grade 10 science, 11 physics, 12 chemistry) is that I have had very little time to be a tourist while living in a fantastic country.  For as much as the people around here are incredible (whenever you need help, if the person you ask can't speak English they will find someone who can), I had no idea how tough it would be to learn Arabic.  At least my students are helping me with my Arabic; even though they aren't supposed to speak Arabic in class, there will usually be a 5 minute break in which I ask them to teach me how to say something new.

The students over here are wonderful.  They are far better negotiators than Canadian students so assessment is definitely a careful process.  And the joys of teaching in a private school where all of the parents know what the other parents' children are doing ... differentiations and modifications are extremely difficult to pull off.  Overall, picture a room that's half full of energetic students with the other half comprised of students desperate to get good marks.  There's only been one series of treats so far - my grade 10s marks leapt from a 70 average to high 80s after they worked incredibly hard on the first unit test ... so I had to get them some treats.  I haven't been able to get them their favourite treat yet (cupcakes of all things) but will find an excuse sometime.

I even avoided the new teacher's "teachers' college didn't prepare me for this" rant for the most part.  Oh, there were issues like:
  • Where are all of the grade 10 & 11 resources that you promised me so I wouldn't be developing 3 courses from the ground up?
  • How do you plan lessons when the power is out? 
  • How do you manage a class in a laboratory environment with rolling stools?
  • How do I teach with only a small rolling whiteboard, no projector and no access to computers?
  • Ummm ... where are all the grade 11 physics textbooks that you ordered? (back order cancelled as text out of print)
  • How do I teach waves and light without any laboratory equipment?
I figure that these are just the challenges that any new teacher would face (different issues, same stresses).  I realized very quickly that you get what you get ... so you can grumble or you can learn to deal.  I imagine that my desire to watch Shawshank Redemption again ("you either get busy living or get busy dying") was due to my initial stresses and 2 weeks of illness because of it.  But overall, my feedback has been great, my students are learning and administration has been incredibly supportive.

One of the best things that has come out of teaching science is that I remembered how much I loved science.  It had been years since I'd considered anything but math and history.  (get ready for an obscure reference)  Aside from the discussion with your students on elevator problems and normal forces after one of your grade 11 academic math classes, I hadn't thought of science in ages.  Strangely enough, despite having been a far better chemistry student (there are reasons I headed towards chemical engineering), I'm finding that physics is the class that I'm loving.  You don't get to slide textbooks (friction), hi-five students (Newton's 3rd law) or toss whiteboard markers (projectile motion) in chemistry.

The only difficulty I'm having with teaching physics is my class.  They've had a tough time in the school, and playing catch-up is extremely difficult.  One of the joys of international schools is that teachers who sign on for 2 years can't always survive the adjustment period.  My students had 7 math and science teachers over the past two years, and they're incredibly weak (mathematically and scientifically).  I'm still not sure that they understand why d = .5 a t^2 despite my attempts using v/t graphs, average velocity, and the ever popular "it's just one of those rules."  They are fantastic when you give them a formula and they know when to apply it ... but it's almost impossible to get them to visualize things outside of the box.  From what I understand, it's an outgrowth of teaching ESL students ... it's incredibly difficult to conceptualize things in a second language, especially when much of their Egyptian schooling is based on rote practice worksheets.

Well, I'm off to start getting my 10 science put to bed for the week.  After 1 month, I'm finally on top of the paperwork, interim report comments are done and I can finally devote most of my weekend to prep.  I keep telling myself that this will be the week that I finally can relax a bit during the nights ... perhaps this is the weekend that I get enough done to actually live that dream.

Best wishes and thank you again for such a fantastic practicum.  I find myself going back to many of the lessons you taught me - whether my students know it or not, my boardwork was far worse.

Friday, 31 August 2012

When did we cover this in Teachers' College?

I could use a Merlin right now

Tuesday is meet the parents day.  Wednesday is the first day of classes.  There, I said it.  It still doesn't quite seem real, but that moment is coming quickly.  And given that most of my new teacher colleagues and I are still seeking our classroom Holy Grail, I doubt that we really realize that it's almost that time.  This weekend is probably the moment when the transition starts and we recognize that the classroom will be what it is, it's time to change our focus to what is to come.  At least, it's a short week next week (two instructional days) and one of those days will be taken up by orientation and introduction.  You won't hear any complaints from me since I'm still locked into the too much to do in too little time mindset.

We're all wearing these
Overall, I will need some time to change my focus.  Despite my student-centred focus ... these past two weeks have been all about me.
  • My classroom needs these items fixed
  • There aren't enough textbooks for my class
  • My class needs these items (posters, bins, whiteboards, tools, technology).
  • I need a desk
  • I need a lockable cabinet
  • I ... My .... I ... My ....

I have to admit, that despite the feeling of autonomy that I'm enjoying, I never realized how much work went into setting up a class for the year.  During my practica, I never saw what my associate teacher went through in order to set the class for the year.  And, even if I had, many of the items that I'm developing, pondering, creating and considering ... those issues have been dealt with years ago.  So yes, it probably makes complete sense that I'm feeling slightly overwhelmed as I can't even rely on my past experience and practices when I look at my to-do list.

Always something up my sleeve.
Take classroom management.  I was fortunate enough to have associate teachers with three vastly different classroom management styles.  Add to that the theoretical underpinnings we discussed in teachers' college and ... I'm suddenly at the education buffet picking and choosing the elements that are going to sustain me for the coming four months.  Although I don't plan to reinvent the wheel, and I've talked to three or four of the returning teachers to learn their systems, I recognize that my management style is going to have to be my own.  I also realize that I'm probably going to miss things, and that I've considered elements that really don't need to be there.  Finally, I know that the system I have developed is likely going to be too paperwork intensive and will need some adjustments.  If it works out for me ... I'll likely post it someday.  If it doesn't, pick a card, any card (ie I'll find something else to write about).  For now, I've got my expectations, I've got my ladder, and I've got my tracking system.

And no, this wasn't intended to be one of the many post hoc teachers' college rants that erupt from new teachers from time to time.  Oh, those vibrant discussions made for some fantastic stress relief during teachers' college, but I've got 33 students to think about and have to toss away my "of course you can repeat the past" Jay Gatsby cap for a while.  This was nothing more than one of those new teacher revelations that classrooms don't organize themselves ... and that there is far more going on behind the scenes than I could have possibly imagined.

Well, I have a couple more templates to develop and I'm on to planning my first six lessons.  Yes, I have every intention of counting the three carbon copy introduction lectures individually ... it'll be good for my ego tomorrow.

Monday, 27 August 2012

This Can't be Mine

Approximately a week ago, I crossed the threshold of what will be my first classroom.  The bus had picked us up at 8:00 to head to the school and I'd been up since about 4:30.  I'd been awake and asleep all night - not due to any specific thoughts; but, the excitement of the whole novel situation kept my level of energy at 11.  I would never walk into my first classroom again so this one would be special.  Despite my early wake-up, it took me three tries to exit my apartment.  Yup, I was in enough of a hurry to get there that I kept forgetting something that I'd figured I would need.

Sadly, our view was obscured by apartment buildings
When I got on the bus, there were no tired eyes.  The level of energy wasn't at a fever pitch, but there was a subtle feeling of excitement and anticipation.  About the only thing that deflected our level of new classroom enthusiasm was our first view of the Great Pyramids as we drove on by.  It was finally happening - that perfect blend of math, science and ancient history all rolled into one teaching contract.  Although I had repeated some version of that phrase often enough to be a mantra, it still held the same level of emotion as when I first uttered it.

Sitting through the first part of the staff orientation was agony.  I'm filling out forms and discussing important issues when I could be seeing my class.  Finally the tour started and we wandered by.  My name wasn't yet outside of the room, but I knew from the description that it was to be mine.  To avoid seeming excessively anxious (in an attempt to maintain a thin veneer of moderate calm), I didn't stop to peer into the windows and just gave my corner a cursory glance.  Finally, the tour was done, the keys were handed out, I wandered back up to the 4th floor, unlocked my door ... and almost cried.

You talk about ideal tables - I don't even have a desk
I spent the first 15 minutes walking through the room in a daze.  After that, the "I don't have"s and "I can't find"s kicked in.  Within an hour, I got to the point where I seriously wondered what I had gotten myself into.  This couldn't be my room.   Although I didn't have a firm vision of what "my classroom" would be, there was some subconscious vision akin to Plato's universal ideal in my mind.  After all, I'd completed three vastly different practica and each of those associate teachers had a space that was theirs and it was great.  I was facing a classroom that didn't even have a whiteboard that I could use effectively ... let along a projector, laptop and dare I say, smartboard.  Direct instruction always has a place in teaching, and I didn't see how I could possibly deliver a lesson in my room.

Well, I've taken the long way to get to this week's question.  What do I wish that they'd told me during my pre-service teaching program?  I'm sure that this will change.  Sometime soon, I'll probably return to some of my previous gripes (lack of classroom management training, lack of practical / real-world education skills, insufficient focus on fast and effective organizational tools).  But for now, I wish that they'd advised us that no first classroom will live up to our expectations so we will have to adapt our teaching style to suit our surroundings.  We've seen classrooms that have taken our associate teachers years to develop and it's rare that we'll walk into a class that will have that same feel.  We haven't had those years to acquire furnishings that fit our visions ... nor have we had the years of purchase requests necessary to acquire those items that will allow us to teach in the manner we would prefer.  And, if I continue to focus on what's wrong and not on what I can do, I'll never feel at home in my class.

Sometime towards the end of last week, the switch flipped in my mind.  I haven't wrapped a towel around my head and started pretending that all is well, but I've moved away from impossibilities and started to see potential.  Teachers' college indirectly taught us to be adaptable, so I'll find a way to make it work.  Also, I remembered that I would be one of the select 4-6 people actually teaching this year out of a class of 40.  I have a feeling that most of the other 34 would be thrilled to be in my position.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Returning to Form

Well, all it took was a quick set-up of a travel blog (over here), and I can return to posting teaching blogs here.  And yes, it has been a wee while since I visited here for purposes other than travel.

When the idea of blogging as a teacher was initially proposed to me in my 21st century educator's class at Brock University, Ontario, I loved the idea.  Sometimes, it's critical to return to previous thoughts and feelings, if for no other reason than to do a quick "wow, I can't believe I've changed this much."  But, as practica come and go as a pre-service teaching student, the blogging part of my practice fell by the wayside.

Well, I graduated from teachers' college, and started the job hunt process.  Given the availability of teaching jobs in Ontario, this blog would have likely become one of those lonely blogs crying out for an author and an audience, were it not for the call I received on July 15th.  While I was eating lunch, my phone rang (a rarity) and in my typically familiar way, answered with the expectations that my mother was calling.  15 minutes later (and some delicate choking as I finished my then current sandwich chomp), I had set up an appointment to skype on the following day to discuss a position in Bangladesh.  Well, it was going to take a bit of a sales job to convince me, but I figured that I might as well chat with them.  When they called back, suddenly the opportunity was going to be in Cairo.  Given that I'm a history junkie and I was looking at a 2 year contract to teach math and science within 17km of the pyramids ... I couldn't believe that they spent the entire phone call selling me on the opportunity (as I was expecting that I'd need to be pitching myself).  Well, here we are, a little over a month later, and I've been living in Maadi, Cairo, Egypt for a week now.  Today was our first day on site and I realized ... that I was actually going to be a teacher.

So, back to those questions.  Why did I decide to blog?  Well, part of it is the reflective part that I mentioned above.  Now that I'm starting a real teaching job, I wanted to ensure that I followed through with my previous commitment.  The other part ... I really do enjoy writing and don't need too much of a nudge to do so.

And the blog name - well, initially, it started out as eccerexsum or "behold, I am Roy."  Once I'd created the blog, it didn't take me long to realize that the name didn't suit me.  It felt far too egotistical and it never truly felt like home.  So, I needed a name change asap and I figured that I'd start with my surname.  Given that I tend to be on the slightly analytical side of the personality spectrum (if you define slightly as frequently paralyzing due to the time required to consider all angles), deliberations made the most sense.  

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Arrival

It's definitely time to dust off this blog and get it up and going again.  After two years of preparation and a slightly hectic summer of job hunting, I'm about 2 weeks away from finally being a teacher.  Overall, it's been a whirlwind month (has it really been that long?) between first learning about the possibility of a job in Egypt and today.

Week one involved dealing with administrivia galore.  It seemed that whenever I tried to complete one task (getting certified in Manitoba), another few tasks were added to my to do list.  I found that I was so focused on what I needed to do (will my police check arrive in time) that I never really sat down to realize what was happening.

Week two was my week of waiting.  I started planning for the courses that I would be teaching and amassing any resources I could find to get myself ready.  Things started getting crossed off of my to do list and best of all, I was no longer adding to it.

My third week was the shopping week.  Things such as luggage, teaching equipment, power converters (etc) were acquired and it finally started to dawn on me what I was up to.  Despite having advised everyone how thrilled I was to be blending math, science and history in such an amazing way (teach two and live close to the third), it didn't really start to feel like reality until this week.

Finally, week four happened along with the typical last-minute crises that always crop up despite the best laid plans.  As my dealings with my student loan have always been slightly confusing and frustrating, my arrangements for repayment were par for the course.  I went through the typical packing crisis of what to take and how will I fit it all in such a small place (thank goodness my wife was able to keep a cool head during the process).

Well, I've arrived.  Sounds slightly anti-climactic doesn't it.  During my flight over (somewhere between watching the "Hunger Games" and "Shakespeare in Love", the full magnitude of what had been going on hit me.  At least my "what the hell am I thinking" moment of reservation occurred somewhere in the air over Newfoundland ... and it was too late to reconsider.  By the time I arrived in Frankfurt, I was tired enough that any concerns and worries had faded from my mind.  During the flight to Cairo, even the large population of crying children couldn't keep me from fading in and out of consciousness throughout the entire flight.

Well, time to get back to my kitchen clean-up.  Tonight will be our first touristy-trip part of orientation and I can't wait.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Would you read a dictionary? So why don't you like word problems in math?

Every so often, I'll ask my class whether anyone "would rather be in an English class right now."  Inevitably, I'll get a few people willing to confirm that math is not their favourite subject ... and I'll try to contain my smile.

I proceed by handing out a dictionary, a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style and another grammar book.  Usually one of my volunteers is a little more outgoing, so I'll ask them to read a bit from the book they've been given.  After they've read a couple of lines, I'll take over and ask whether that's the kind of book they typically read, or would they usually choose another type of book.

At this point, I'll start reading from a novel with great description (The Hobbit, Invisible Cities) and ask them what's going on in their minds while I read.  Once they get over the shock of a math teacher reading to them, someone will advise that they're picturing the scene.  Step one of solving a word problem covered - draw a diagram.

To get to step two, I write out a clause and description filled sentence on the board, such as:  "As the geese honked with anticipation, the terrified boy wandered along the path through the deep and forbidding forest," and ask the students what's going on?  It doesn't take too long to get to 'the boy walked along a path through a forest."  I cross out the initial clause, cross out the rest of the descriptive words and 'translate' wandered to walked.  I close by saying that math is nothing but another language so why not take the same approach when reading word problems that you do with books.  I ask the students what the nouns, verbs and grammar of math is and get some examples of the following:

  • The nouns of math:  numbers and variables
  • The verbs of math:  the operations (sine, multiply)
  • The grammar of math:  formulae
So far, this approach seems to be working.  The two times that I've used this introduction, my students have gone from groaning about math word problems to ... gentle mutters.  I confirm that the dictionary is just as important as the drill math question ... but once you've mastered the initial skills / grammar, it's time to move to real world applications.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Lingering indecisions

During a recent class, the topic of how to deal with student plagiarism came up.  Although the presenters merely brushed up against the topic with the standard comment that it should not be condoned, I was in a slightly playful mood so I challenged them on that statement.  (I should have prefaced by saying that our class has an amazing rapport so challenges are welcome).  I pointed out the bottom image in their PowerPoint and advised them that I love the work from that site and wanted to use it in my presentation the week before ... until I checked out the terms of use and discovered that there was a fee to use it.  Yes, I proceeded to ask how we could challenge students on plagiarism when we sometimes model it ourselves.

Wikipedia is always my image friend
As the class was nearing an end, the topic didn't come up again until our psych class the next day.  We were discussing appropriate uses of technology in the classroom, and when copyright came up, for some reason many in the class turned to look at me.  Well, I offered them my 60 second creative commons summary and then confirmed that I do live in a glass house.  I felt that it was only fair to confirm that I have done the same thing in the past.  I'm not proud of the fact, and ignorance is rarely a defense, but I did find a YouTube video once or twice that had been posted by someone other than the creator of the work and used it in my class.  I stayed silent when the inevitable "what's the problem, you'll never get caught" point was raised, but couldn't stay silent for long.

Second choice ... wanted the Simpsons' interactive one
Shortly thereafter, someone raised a question that I wish I could answer easily.  Where is our balance point between education value and modelling correct practices?  In other words, what do you do when you find that ideal video on YouTube that is perfect for your class ... and you know that it's posted there illegally?  Well, I wish that I could say definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, that I would follow my beliefs and choose another method of teaching.  After all, there are many ways of getting the message across, and I always have the option of .... but that video is ideal, and as a student teacher, I don't have the funds nor the time to purchase it.  For now, I have a couple months to mull this over since my next placement is technology free (yes, there was an audible whimper).  And while I'm spending a month getting covered from head-to-toe in chalk dust, and remembering those halcyon days when the projector and computer were assumed, I'm fairly certain that my belief in the importance of modelling proper resource use will outweigh any other considerations.  I just wish I was sure.