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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Straying from Structure

After much deliberation and finagling, I received my teaching placement in Dublin, Ireland at Belvedere College this past friday. I must say, I was incredibly excited when I heard this name because I recognized it from the book, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. When I looked it up online, I realized that Joyce actually attended the school. Maybe I am just an English nerd, but I thought that that was pretty cool.

My first day at Belvedere College was a whirlwind from the start. I was introduced to my main supervisor, whose Irish name I butchered beyond belief. He was a charming little Irish man with fire in his eyes and more energy than a Tour de France cyclist. He gave me the fastest tour I have ever experienced. The man was jumping three stairs at a time and power walking like an olympian through each hall to show me the basic facets of the school. I was already breaking a sweat by the time I was to meet the teacher that I would be teaching under for the next three weeks. I was surprised to learn that he was a history professor (my major is english).

My SP's method of mentoring was very much to simply throw the student teacher to the wolves. I arrived thirty minutes early to his classroom, upon which he greeted me with a handshake and a geography book. He informed me that he would like me to teach the next 45 minute lesson on the following chapter in 30 minutes if I felt comfortable doing so. I took him up on his offer and started my first class with half an hour of preparation. Surprisingly, I found that it was one of the most engaging and interactive lessons that I had taught, despite the short amount of planning and the rather dry subject matter (The Properties of Land Settlement). I absolutely love Boston College and the education program that I have had the privilege of undertaking, however, this is one complaint that I have always voiced to my supervisors. Things are much too rigidly structured when it comes to lesson planning. Sometimes, it is not necessary to spell out exactly what the "learning objective" or exactly what the "academic language" you wish to convey is. Sometimes it is not always necessary to right up a formal 13 page lesson template. These things help to prepare people and some people swear by it, however, as different learners and teachers, it can also be a hinderance and a route to over thinking and overanalyzing when planning a lesson.

With 30 minutes of preparation and a brand new class of rambunctious 14 year olds, I felt much more comfortable transferring the necessary material. I was able to be more flexible with what the students wanted to discuss, which aided classroom involvement. I used some of the tools that Lynch has given me, such as do nows, pair and share, and setting strict time limits; however, I found my teaching to be much less rigid and to be tailored to the students rather than the lesson plan.

I went on to teach 3 more classes with 3 separate lesson plans, all with less than an hour of prep time. Each time, I was filled with butterflies, but I was pleasantly surprised with what the lessons were able to accomplish. The biggest difference between Irish students and American students (though this is a large generalization), is the willingness to talk in class. Irish students, both in my university as well as at Belvedere College are not as active when it comes to speaking in the classroom. Participation is not counted as much of the grade, it is not stressed early on like in the States, and students are often more shy about voicing an academic opinion, even at older ages. This was a challenge at first, however, I found that connecting with the students personally and relating history to contemporary issues lit a fire in their belly that made them want to speak. I think that telling jokes and small personal anecdotes is also invaluable when it comes to setting a class culture that is inviting and furthermore, enticing, for students to contribute.

At the end of the day, I felt what I call a "teaching rush" much like a marathon runner experiences an "endorphin rush." I was drained and rung out from five hours of teaching, however, I felt energized and lifted in my spirits. It was another experience that solidified my wanting to be a teacher.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Challenges of Teaching a "Typical Lesson" in Rome

On Sunday night I received a call from my SP here in Rome. She had been in a skiing accident over the weekend and asked if I could teach class all day on Monday. I was a little nervous for class to start, especially because I had such little time to prepare and wouldn't have my SP in the room with me in case I ran into any problems. Fortunately, the lesson ended up great and I think the students got a lot out of it. Additionally, since my SP wasn't there it felt like the classroom was really my own!

The students were all very excited to see that I was teaching when they entered the room. I tried to stick with two of their major class routines: twenty minutes of silent reading at the beginning of class and cold calling throughout class. The latter was a little challenging because I didn't know all the student's names before teaching the class. To combat this I had them write down their names on flashcards at the beginning of class and used those. The only problem with this that I encountered was when I would unknowingly call on a student whose English wasn't very good for a question that was pretty challenging. This made me think about the challenges of teaching bilingual students and the ways that teachers can make ESL students feel more comfortable. While it's important to hold these students to high expectations, it's also important to pose questions in ways they would most easily understand. Therefore, identifying the bilingual students early and noting their language proficiency is key to effective teaching. 

The biggest struggle I faced during my day of teaching was with students calling out in class. Being in 6th grade, these students have a lot of energy. Their outspoken attitude during discussion certainly contrasts that of students in high school who are typically "too cool for school" and don't want to participate. While my SP has great classroom management skills, I know that these students in other classrooms have difficulty with behavior. A few weeks ago I sat in on a meeting between my SP and the 6th grade science teacher, who was having trouble keeping the class in order. My SP made two major suggestions to her: physical proximity, so standing next to students who are acting out and/or unfocused, and routine, so setting a regular schedule so students know what to expect. This conversation was great for me to hear as someone who is very interested in classroom management techniques. 

After talking to another student teacher who is pracing at the AOSR elementary school from The College of New Jersey I have a hypothesis as to where this classroom behavior may be coming from. My fellow student teacher explained to me that in her second grade classroom there is a huge lack of academic instruction. She complained that her students are scheduled every day to have multiple blocks of recess and art and music but very little science, reading, or math. While this may be fun for the students she says it makes it hard for her to get academic teaching time in and makes it difficult to really solidify any of the student's early academic skills. I think that this approach to education has some long term effects on the students in 6th grade that I am working with. They have trouble staying in their seat or going the whole class period without running to their lockers to get something that they forgot. These connections have certainly made me think about the affects of early education on long term routine building and academic standards. 

All in all I was very happy to have had the opportunity to teach three hour and a half lessons during my international prac. My SP was very grateful and I hope to be able to teach again soon.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Learning From My Students

Today was my final day at Maria Luigia, an unreal reality for me, considering the fact I began student teaching there on February tenth. Fortunately, I also got to visit the school I will be completing the rest of my international practicum at this semester today as well. Contrasting my previous experience, the next school I will be attending is a private Catholic school, with young students in elementary grades. I am looking forward to the opportunity to not only compare this experience with my American student teaching in public school elementary classrooms, but also relate it to my Italian student teaching experience in public middle school classrooms. I believe that, although I am disappointed I did not get to work an extended amount of time in Maria Luigia, the chance I have been given to student teach at two schools with distinct characteristics will enrich my international practicum experience in a extremely unique way, one that will encourage a great deal of critical, comparative reflection. In this sense, although I definitely would have liked to spend more time at Maria Luigia, I also am very thankful for my new placement and the revelations that will arise out of it.

When looking back on my time at Maria Luigia, I realize that I have learned probably more from my students than they have learned from me. Although my time in this school was so limited, it has greatly impacted me not only in terms of my teaching style, as I have discussed in a previous blog post, but also with regards to my own personal growth. Today, in particular, I listened to a great deal of discussion, in which I surprisingly learned a lot of new, complex information. For today’s lesson in classroom 3B, one I had been a part of the previous week; I gave a presentation on the life and works of Emily Dickinson. I have to admit that when my Cooperating Teacher first assigned this task, I was a bit confused. Although I had done a presentation on famous Americans the previous week, Emily Dickinson was certainly not an American figure I would expect an Italian teacher to present to an English learning class. Before my presentation, however, the students presented me with a great deal of information regarding the famous writer Giacomo Leopardi, as well as distinct writing styles including personal negative solitude, positive solitude, and social solitude. All of these presentations were impressively given in English. One student even described personal negative solitude with the metaphor, “It is like a rainy day that turns my soul gray.” Needless to say I was floored. I came prepared to educate students on a famous American poet, but I felt I was learning a great deal more about the intricacies of writing and history from these students than they were going to absorb from my short presentation. This only further built upon the knowledge class 2B had given me regarding historic Italian figures the previous week. I could not recall giving presentations on cultural figures of this caliber until my later years of high school during my own Spanish learning experience. In this sense, I came to appreciate even more the Italian system for second language learning, as it truly moves beyond simple grammatical rules and exercises to encompass an entire culture and usage of a language. I therefore am extremely grateful for my time in Maria Luigia, no matter how short it was.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Surprisingly Strong Impact of Simple Observation

During my second day at Maria Luigia, I visited one of the classrooms I had already been to, as well as a new classroom. Throughout the course of the two hours I was at my pre-practicum, one particular experience stood out to me as being extremely relevant to my future as an educator both in Italy and in the United States. During the first portion of my school day, when I was revisiting the classroom I had attended last week, I listened to students’ group presentations in English on an array of famous Italians throughout history, including Leonardo da Vinci, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Francesco Guicciardini. During these presentations, I noted a number of difficulties the majority of students encountered. A number of students struggled with the use of “lived,” instead using “lied” and “lifed” in its place. Additionally, students grappled with the past tense word “wrote,” incorrectly attempting to conjugate the irregular word to be “writed” on multiple occasions. In this sense, I experienced first hand a phenomenon that was emphasized throughout my Teaching Bilingual Students course, or the difficulty second language learners of English have with past tense, especially the irregular past tense. Moreover, students also had trouble forming questions that made logical sense, an observation that surprised me, as I had never seriously considered this aspect of language learning. For example, one group presented the question “Who was?” instead of “Who was he?” In a similar manner, another group posed the question “Who Leonardo da Vinci was?” instead of “Who was Leonardo da Vinci?” It therefore became clear that the use of past tense permeated the majority of the students’ struggles and was an area that required a great deal of targeted instruction and work for this class.

Observing students’ presentations was, therefore, extremely eye opening and informative for my future lessons. I became keenly aware of the particularities of the English language that most cause second language learners confusion, aspects I had not considered in much depth prior to this experience. Previously, I had mainly focused on employing simple vocabulary and sentence structures, rather than delving into the more specific grammatical functions of the phrases I was using. I was also not truly considering the students themselves in my presentation planning. I was generically attempting to use one single formula for all of the classes I was teaching (simple vocabulary and tenses) rather than individualizing my teaching styles and adjusting them to fit the needs of each class. Through the basic experience of carefully observing the students talk, I learned a great deal about their needs, as well as how to have the greatest impact on them during my very limited time at Maria Luigia. Therefore, although I only have one more session at this placement before I begin attending my second placement, I will be sure to integrate this newfound information and realizations of the importance of individualizing my instruction to fit the students’ needs, as well as integrate this practice into my future instruction to become a more competent educator as a whole.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Adjusting My Instruction to Aid Student Comprehension

         Today I officially completed my first day at Maria Luigia, where I will be teaching once a week to a variety of English language learning classrooms for the next two weeks. In Maria Luigia, I will be teaching middle school Italian students the English language. Unfortunately, due to conflicts with my class schedule change in February, I will have to begin a new teaching placement at a local elementary school. I am anticipating, however, the unique opportunity to compare the different experiences, and how each will impact myself as a teacher. Nevertheless, for my first day at Maria Luigia, I was asked to create a short presentation on myself (including family, interests, schooling, etc.), using basic phrases and tenses for a lower level English class, and more advanced vocabulary as well as the present perfect tense (I did not even remember what tense this was) for two more advanced English classes.
            Throughout the course of my first day at Maria Luigia, I was able to apply knowledge and skills I gained through my Teaching Bilingual Students course at Boston College. During my first presentation, I relied solely on the phrases I had written on my powerpoint slides, not truly engaging with the students or asking questions and checking for clarification. Although I attempted to use some gestures in order to aid in student comprehension, it was not a conscious part of my instruction. After gaging feedback throughout my presentation, however, I became aware of a variety of phrases that needed to be changed and simplified, as well as areas I could actively involve the students and make the material I was presenting to them more memorable. For example, on one of my slides, I had written “I take Italian and art history.” Many of the students, however, vocalized a great deal of confusion with this statement. I therefore became cognizant of the fact that a lot of common expressions in English are not easily understood by those who are not fluent, and readily changed my wording to “I study Italian and art history,” to achieve greater understanding.

               Moreover, I was sure to include a greater variety of facial expressions, gestures, and slower speech productions to better reach the students following the first presentation. While delivering my first presentation and aiding in the completion of a class activity, I was told a few times to slow down my speech. Even when I was consciously aware that my speech was lagging far behind what is typical of a native English speaker, many students continued asking for my instruction to be delivered “PiĆ¹ lentamente.” I began to consider how confused and frazzled I become when Italians converse with me, particularly igniting a memory of a tour guide who had earlier showed myself and the other Parma students a library in the city, and even when asked to slow down, still seemed to speak a mile a minute. For the remaining two classes, I talked at a rate that seemed almost silly, but in the end resulted in universal understanding, and created a safer, less intimidating environment where students readily participated and were eager to practice their English without feeling nervous or hesitant. In this sense, I was already required to make conscious, active adjustments to my teaching style and techniques, ones which touched upon the culturally competent practices highlighted throughout my Teaching Bilingual students course. I am anxious to continue bettering my teaching style, as well as am apprehensive for how difficult it will be to teach elementary school students in the upcoming months, as their English language abilities will be significantly below the students I have worked with thus far. Nevertheless, I am already looking forward to next week at Maria Luigia, and disappointed I have such limited amount of time with these students. I hope that, despite being restricted to solely two weeks, I will be able to impact the students and inspire them to continue their English language learning with passion and motivation. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Language and Lifestyle in Rome

I am so excited to be working with The American Overseas School of Rome this semester. The warm, familiar nature of the school culture provides an extremely welcoming environment that has made my experience of coming to a new school alone very easy. My SP is absolutely amazing and her style of teaching perfectly aligns with the style and techniques that I strive to model when in the classroom myself. I am also especially excited because this is my first experience in a middle school classroom! Since I chose teaching as my career, I have always wanted to teach at a middle school level but have not had the opportunity yet through the pre prac program. Therefore, I am excited about experiencing a new age group and comparing it to my experiences with high school. 

However, since arriving at AOSR I have had a hard time deciphering whether or not the differences that I am observing should be attributed to the Italian education system and culture, the middle school grade level, or the fact that AOSR is a private school. There are several independent variables and therefore it is difficult to make definitive statements about teaching in America versus teaching in Italy, but I hope to provide some examples of differences that I have noticed. 

The most obvious of these difference lies in language. AOSR is composed of a mix between Italian students that speak proficient English (usually because of their parents) and American students who have moved to Italy because of their parent's work. Because of this, students are occasionally joining or leaving the school. I notice that as the students enter the classroom at the beginning of the day they all speak Italian to each other. However, once the lesson begins everything is conducted in English. The students are good about maintaining their English in class, however, whenever they get overstimulated by something that has been said they will speak to their peers in Italian. Although my SP must then calm them down and restore order in the lesson she does not seem to mind the occasional dual language in her classroom. 

Despite some language barriers, I love that the AOSR students are very eager to learn and seem to love going here. While most students speak English fluently, some students are definitely more hesitant to participate because it takes them a little bit longer than usual to articulate what they want to say. Since there is such a mix in participation from these students, my SP employs cold calling throughout her class. In the past I have discussed the pros and cons of this technique with my various supervisors and SPs. My reservations towards using it have always involved the anxiety or embarrassment that it causes certain students. However, in this classroom the students seem very comfortable with the style and are always prepared to answer when called upon. It also prevents these eager students from completely overshadowing the less participatory students. Because these students are only in 6th grade, they definitely struggle with not calling out in class. Whenever a student calls out the answer, my SP always gently reminds him or her that calling out is not polite and then calls on another student to answer. This helps students learn that even if their answer is right, they must first and foremost adhere to the rules of the classroom and respect their peers and their teacher. This positive experience with this teaching technique certainly makes me more confident and comfortable with the idea of cold calling in my own lessons. 

Another one of the many reasons that I feel so at home at this school is because my SP has sufficient time to show me around the school, introduce me the the other faculty, sit down to talk with me. As compared to my past pre prac experiences, my SP here seems much more available to me as a student teacher and much less stressed and crunched for time. Unlike the American schools, this school has no standardized tests and no state or common core standards that they must meet. While the American teachers at my past schools would always comment on the lack of time and low pay, the teachers here in general seem so much happier with their jobs. This has furthered my opinion that the American education system needs to cut back on its standardized testing. 

Since arriving in Rome I have also noticed the importance that Italians put on work in addition to life as opposed to focusing solely on the importance of having family, health, and other non work related obligations, taking a back seat as it does in America. During the day this is shown in the Italian siesta culture where businesses close and people return home to rest between about 2:00 and 4:00. While talking to my SP I found out that the life before work lifestyle even carries over to AOSR. For example, at this school the students and the teachers take shuttles to get to and from school. The shuttle for teachers arrives at 8:30am leaves at 5:00pm and the school expects teachers to only work between those two times. Therefore, the school does not expect teachers to be staying in for lots of extra hours or taking home lots of work with them. My SP said that once she gets on the shuttle her work for the day is essentially done and she is able to go home and relax the rest of the night. AOSR definitely has a great community of teachers who all seem happy and excited to work there and it has definitely made me rethink the expectations we set for teachers in the US.