the student is not me

I am sitting in the coffee shop Angel-in-Us in Daegu, South Korea. A little over a year ago I was sitting in a coffee shop, Espresso Royal, in Ann Arbor, Michigan doing the same thing I am today—commenting on/responding to student work. Today I am commenting on student responses to questions regarding their in-class research in an on-line forum (these students are in Mississauga, Ontario), last year, most likely I was responding to reflections on teaching.

The coffee shop experience is the same, my laptop is the same, the students are moving towards the same overall goal of improving their teaching. And I find myself wondering, have I improved my teaching? More specifically, are my responses germane to each student as an individual and their learning or am I guiding them to what I want them to learn? Have I stepped back enough or am I too far away?

At least I am sure that ordering the sandwich without mayonnaise was the right choice.

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First Day of Practice Teaching

It is three fifteen p.m. and the first day of Practice Teaching is about to begin in a rectangular room—all windows on one side, white board at one narrow end, black chairs for observers tucked up tight to the wall at the other. The room is filling up with fifteen Elementary 5th and 6th graders. Already the seven elementary Teachers of English are greeting the students, making last minute adjustments to schedule times and board work, checking their materials. The room is stuffed with desks and chairs in a long deep U shape; it is filled with the props and materials of the teachers and with the backpacks and pencil cases of the students. Over all this, hangs the expectant air of the first day of class.

The first Teacher starts by telling a captivating story of her sky jumping experience in Turkey and the adjectives of her emotions gently pepper her story leading naturally into the topic of the day.

Yet even before the first Teacher starts I am tucked into my chair in the back, computer in my lap, fingers at the ready. I am an observer. I am a typing machine. My goal is to record what I see and hear the students and the teacher saying and doing, note the time at transitions and/or ‘important’ moments, and to record my questions or responses in-the-moment as I keep typing, typing. I am focused. I am ready.

Unexpectedly during the second lesson, a young student leans forward from his chair and vomits onto the floor. No warning. I manage to type this down and am writing in the comment column: I wonder if he is just too excited? before my mind catches up with my fingers. As I am typing the Teacher moves quickly forward, assesses the situation and sends the boy out of the room (to the toilet, I presume) and one of the observing teachers goes to get something to clean up. I lean over and say to one of the observing Teachers, Could you check on that young man in the bathroom? I think he is alone. She is on her feet.

The boy returns, wipes off his chair, sits down, and continues his active participation. As I look back at my notes now, I see that the whole event took about five minutes and the Teacher never batted an eye, the students stayed with the lesson, the boy returned with a smile on his face. The class went on as before. And yet here I am, still thinking about it.

Teaching is so much more than teaching. Teaching is being prepared for the unexpected, for things we never write in our lesson plans.

And then Day-Mos throws up.

Final Day: Gallery Walk

Over the past four weeks (Phase One) during the afternoon sessions we have explored the Korean education system—from its history to current curriculum to classroom culture to teaching methods, the more influential methodologies and findings from second language acquisition that inform child-centered learning, and critical thinking skills. We explored these areas with various tasks using readings, discussions, panels and experiential learning activities. Most tasks were accomplished with group work. Often the groups created posters of their exploration and learning.

My goals during the these sessions were to provide materials that would prompt discussion between the Participants that would lead to learning new knowledge, arouse curiosity about their teaching practices and context, help them to notice their beliefs about learning and teaching and start to be able to articulate them, and to introduce them to critical thinking skills, reflective practice and the experiential learning cycle.

Tuesday was the last day of Phase One of our six month Program. For one of the closing activities I asked the Participants to take all of the posters that they had created during the course of the four weeks and put them up on the walls of the room in chronological order.

Once they were in order, I asked them to form groups of four or five and go around to each section of posters, read them, and do the following: 1. reconstruct the activity as best they could, and 2. discuss a) what they learned from that activity about teaching, b) what they learned from that activity about learning, and c) what they learned about themselves.  They spent about 50 minutes walking through their Gallery.

I stood in the middle of the room, silently observing. This is part of my assessment of their learning and my teaching. And while I am listening for discussion of content covered, I am also listening to their process. Did the content and process of the learnings, as I set them up, have any affect? Can they state their opinion? Can they say why they believe what they do? Can they relate the content to their teaching practice, to their context? Does the material engage them? How do they feel about themselves after this four weeks? Are they ready for the next Phase?

They seem truly pleased to “see” what they have learned. By what they say, I think they are impressed with themselves. I also hear that the process of learning is still in progress. They are not sure about some things, they are still questioning, still speculating, still trying on ideas. This is good. And while I wanted more in terms of depth of conversation, I know that I am greedy for their learning, I remember that it is their learning, not mine. My learning is different and separate, yet intertwined.

So much in a Gallery Walk.