Small steps forward

Posted on March 15, 2012 by

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Thursday morning saw me sitting quietly at the back of the class, a wide smile plastered on my face, watching as my co-teacher conducted the best class I have observed during my 2+ weeks of teaching in Georgia. All twenty students sat quietly, worked diligently and participated in the class. My co-teacher called on random students to answer, something I had done in front of her but had never seen her do, and the rest of the students sat quietly as the chosen student answered. As I watched the class unfold, I couldn’t believe how much had changed since I first started teaching with my co-teacher, just over two weeks before.

When I stepped into my first class on February 8th, I was planning to spend most of the class observing. This plan lasted for all of about 20 minutes, at which point it was clear that my co-teacher was unable to control the class. Our class of 25 2nd graders was chaotic.

She only worked with the six 2nd graders who jumped out of their chairs to answer questions, but she ignored the remaining students in the class. The neglected students had no books on their desks, played around and talked constantly in Georgian. They made no attempt to pretend to pay attention and my co-teacher made no attempt to make them participate. As one student struggled to read that lesson’s chant and I strained to separate his voice from the constant chatter of his classmates, I immediately saw my opening.

Calmly, I walked to the front of the room and waited for him to finish. Without yelling, I instructed all of the students to sit down. After a translation, they complied. They were quiet because they were curious what I, the new American in their lives, had to say. “What is it? Is it a dog?” I chanted the first line of the song. They looked at me and giggled. “Everybody,” I commanded calmly. They looked to my co-teacher, she translated, and they followed me. I praised their efforts and we started again.

“What,” I said again as I raised my hands next to my shoulders and turned my palms upwards, as if asking a question. The students did the same. “Is” I said as I pretended to walk in place. They walked in place. “It,” I closed my fists, extended both arms and pointed my index fingers directly at them. Soon, they were pointed at me. “Is,” we walked in place again, “it” I pointed at my students, they pointed at me. “A,” I held up one finger and watched my 20 2nd graders do the same. “Dog,” I used my hands to make air quotes and put them on my head like ears. Soon, my second graders were also pretending to be dogs. Word by word, we acted the rest of the song together as a class. Then we repeated it a few times and performed it together, with only the students talking.

From that point on, for the next two weeks – this pattern repeated itself in almost every level with that co-teacher. When she struggled to hold control or command the class, I stepped in, seized control and encouraged all of the students to participate. I started to write phrases on the board so that the students without books could also learn. I made students read, write and speak almost every word. I called on students who never answered; quieted those who always did and reviewed the rules with the classes who were truly unruly. But, I did a lot of the teaching and student management and was starting to doubt that this approach would also help my co-teacher improve her teaching style.

But, as I watched her conduct an excellent 1st grade lesson on Thursday morning, I noticed several of my own techniques reflected in her approach. She wrote on the board, asked for answers and made the students write. She called on every student, especially the shy ones. She asked questions and waited for an answer. She encouraged their enthusiasm and commanded their attention. She had the whole class repeating words as often as she had individual students speaking. She rarely yelled. And, most importantly, she gained confidence and had more fun as the class unfolded.

As we walked to the second hour class, I couldn’t stop gushing about the class. She was encouraged when I told her that it was the best I’d seen her teach. All day, she seemed bolstered by her success – we discussed planning lessons for our classes and began to discuss student management techniques that did not include screaming at the students until they behaved. Sadly, this conversation was interrupted by the bell and I soon found myself in class with a teacher who believes in yelling. But, as I walked into the pouring rain, a quiet smile spread across my face as I realized that my short time has already made a difference.

This post is available in Georgian!

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