Learning is the Reward

No experience is wasted, unless you fail to learn from it.

Marble Mania Extreme, 2012

The following blog posts document classroom experiences and reflections about them from the eight years I spent teaching science and English at the Margaret Hudson Program to pregnant and parenting teen girls in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

Me, as Game Show Host (October, 2012)

I’m no Alex Trebek, but I run a pretty mean Jeopardy game in my classroom.  It’s one of our favorite activities to review material before a quiz or test.  While a few students turn their noses up at the fun, most students jump right in.  In fact, some days it gets so loud in my room they can hear us down the hall.  It was even louder before last year, when one of my colleagues used some grant money to buy a set of buzzers, which she generously shares with me.  Until then, teams had been using bells and other noisemakers to “buzz” in.

I discovered the magic of playing games for review during my first year of teaching, desperate to keep students engaged in the content.  The format has changed over the past several years–I’ve gone high tech.  The first year, I used a laminated game board and an overhead projector to keep track of questions that I read from a typed sheet.  Now I use the Flash Jeopardy game from superteachertools.com, which works like a charm and even includes sound effects.  With the addition of buzzers and a printout of the answer key this year, I can turn the activity over to a student volunteer to run the game on my SmartBoard.  I may give a hint now and then for a difficult question, but it’s mostly a student-run activity.  The bottom line is that they remember the material much more readily after playing the review game.

My second favorite game template from the same web site is “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”  It works pretty much like the TV game show, but since there are only 15 questions, I use it mostly for quiz review over small chunks of material.  It’s also easily run by students, and because it’s short, they can play the game the day before a quiz, and again just before the quiz if there’s time.

Then there’s Bingo, which works really well for vocabulary dependent material.  I’ve got a version for use with the Periodic Table of Elements, called “Element Bingo,” but it also works well in my physiology course, which is rich in medical terminology.  This one is low-tech, with paper grids the students place terms in themselves and dried kidney beans (from science labs) as markers.  I create clue slips with answers on them, so that students often run this one, too.

When I first began playing games in my classroom, I enticed students to engage by awarding extra credit points to winners, but I’ve since discontinued those rewards.  It started to feel as though I were bribing students to participate.  Now I keep Starburst or Hershey miniatures in my desk and pass one out after the game, because “everyone’s been a good sport.”  I have mixed feelings about providing rewards (my philosophy is that learning is its own reward, after all), but a small treat adds to the celebratory atmosphere after mastering a block of material. 

I’m always on the lookout for new strategies and games to help us review material and would love to hear suggestions from others.  In the meantime, we’ll keep our buzzers handy.

How Big is Your Paycheck? (August, 2012)

A key component of working with students for whom academic success is merely hypothetical is to encourage and support their identification of personal goals.  An activity I use with my classes to address this is called “How Big is Your Paycheck?”  Students are asked to identify career goals and then calculate how much education they’ll need to reach them.  Taking the activity one step further, we calculate how much additional money they can expect to earn as a result of meeting their educational and career goals.  The final step in the activity is to determine how much payback they can expect in terms of dollars earned for each day of school they attend.  I call this final number their “paycheck.” 

According to the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, an adult with no high school diploma can expect to earn about $23,500 per year. With a high school diploma, those earnings rise to more than $33,000.  For an associate degree, it is nearly $40,000, and for a bachelor’s degree nearly $55,000.  This varies, of course, with region of the U.S. and the specific career field.  But it’s a good way to reinforce the fact that staying in school provides real earning potential. 

For example, a sophomore student who hopes to become a physical therapy assistant will need three years to get a high school diploma before two years at the local community college for the required associate degree.  If she achieves that goal, she can expect to receive $16,500 more per year for the duration of her career.  Assuming a 30-year career, this translates to $1.2 million over her lifetime, and $495,000 more than a high school dropout.  When she calculates how many days of school she has yet to complete (things get a little more complicated here, but we go through it together), she sees that she is “earning” approximately $750 per day that she continues to come to school.   This becomes her paycheck.  We celebrate each student’s potential and create colorful paychecks for the class bulletin board.  In later activities, we explore setting and reaching goals and creating personal budgets so that students see what kind of lifestyle their earnings will buy them.

For teen moms, whose likelihood of dropping out of school is greater than that of the average student, it’s an eye opener.  According to a recent CDC report, only about 50% of teen moms will get a high school diploma before age 22.  Depending on the way the figures are calculated, it’s estimated that about 75-80% of their peers will.  

The message: Education is important and pays big dividends.  I know my students have heard this, but this exercise illustrates the point more concretely.  I emphasize to students that there are also valuable abstract benefits that go along with educational and career success, like self-satisfaction.  In the process, students see how valuable it is to complete an education, and I learn more about my students’ goals so I can engineer lessons to better support them.  The payback is huge.

Life With the Natives (July, 2012)

From August to May, I spend my days with absolute natives, and these natives can get mighty restless!  These are not uncivilized natives, mind you; my students are digital natives.  Their restlessness has less to do with technology than hormones, but they sometimes get frustrated by technology-poor classes.  As a digital immigrant, I perceive the world somewhat differently and approach challenges using different skills.  You could say the natives and I speak different languages.

While some of my peers have been soaking up sun this summer–and collecting sand between their toes–I’ve been learning to create a digital biology classroom.  The class needed an overhaul anyway, so revamping it digitally wasn’t really any more challenging than it would’ve been otherwise.  In fact, I was excited by the idea.  Despite my immigrant label, I’m a new experience junkie, and I’m somewhat fascinated with new technology. 

After researching and selecting a learning management system and reconsidering course objectives, I posted a couple weeks of lessons for the beginning of school.  Come August 23, we’ll be ready to roll.  It won’t be perfect, but I’ll depend on student feedback to help hone the course, just as I’ve always done.  Meanwhile, students will hone their computer skills and I’ll help them develop the critical thinking skills necessary to effectively navigate the world of science online.  If I can also comprehend more fully their approach to learning biology, then I’ll consider it a fair exchange.

It’s been nice having time to do the research I never seem to get around to during the school year, and I’m hoping the work I’ve done will ease the burden of class prep for the first few weeks of school.  I predict by fall break, I’ll be neck deep in the swamps of teen angst again, but I’ll wade through it.  After five years, I’ve begun to trust that students will learn more or less what they should, in spite of some false starts and remapping the route.  Quite often, we start out to learn one thing and end up learning something different, but equally (or more) important.  And that’s as it should be.  If I didn’t adapt lessons and strategies to what students need or want to know, I might as well pack my bags and head to Tahiti.  At least in Tahiti, the natives are entertaining, what with their grass skirts and ukuleles.

For now, I plan to finish tweaking the course content and begin packing those bags for California.  Classes start in a little more than a month, but I’ll spend the last week before school soaking up some sun in Hermosa Beach and playing with my grandsons.  There’s nothing like digging in the sand with a couple of energetic, curious little boys to take your mind off the end of summer vacation. 

Out of a Job (September, 2012)

The summer before my daughter started college at Texas Tech University, I accompanied her to Lubbock for Freshman Orientation.  She was invited to attend orientation the week set aside for the Presidential Scholars so they could begin to get to know each other.  I think there were about 50 or 60 in that group, but there were hundreds of other freshman there that weekend as well.  We stayed in one of the dormitory rooms, took campus tours, and attended various sessions for parents and students, including a function with President Bob Lawless.  I was impressed that when I introduced myself to President Lawless, he told me how glad they were to have Kelly at Tech.  The man did his homework; he knew all the scholars’ names.

On Saturday night, there was a mixer for all the students, and my shy daughter was reluctant to go.  She had purposely chosen a large school in another state to “reinvent” herself, but she had cold feet.   She was now afraid she wouldn’t know anyone, afraid no one would speak to her. I can’t remember clearly, but I think there were a few tears (hers or mine, I’m not sure).  “Go to the party,” I urged her.  “Give it an hour, and if you really don’t want to stay, come back to the room.”  I walked her halfway across campus to the student union building and told her I’d come back in an hour and wait in the same spot for 10 minutes.  If she chose to ditch the party, I’d be there waiting for her.  If she decided to stay, she could walk back to the dorm with the other students after it was over. 

After waiting for her at the appointed place and returning alone to the dorm room, I waited up for her a little anxiously, to hear how things had gone.  She returned, elated to have met a girl she had gone to middle school with but with whom she’d lost touch.  She had met some new people as well, and she was now eager to move to campus in the fall.  It was then that I knew she would be all right; I was out of a job, and I celebrated her victory over fear.

It was a different story the day that same daughter started Kindergarten, many years earlier.  I remember the same nervousness and excitement.  I imagined the tears as she clung to me, refusing to let me pry her hands off my shirt as I left her in the care of her first teacher.  When we got to the classroom door, and I prepared for the tearful goodbye, my daughter tossed a “Bye, Mom” over her shoulder and carried herself determinedly and tearlessly into the unknown realm of school.  I cried all the way home.

What I learned between my daughter’s first and last days of school was a meaningful lesson.  My job as a mom, and now as a teacher, is to support those children in my care as long as they need me.  My goal, then and now, is for them not to need me.  I want my students to stand on their own, prepared to go forward into an independent life.  Every year, I am entrusted with a new crop of young girls who are confused and afraid.  I prod them, often against their wills, to take responsibility for themselves and their children, to become more educated, self-confident young moms.  My job is to put myself out of a job.

Scavenger Hunt (September, 2012)

This is what my Saturdays are like: after the newspaper is read, the dogs are walked, and I’m showered and dressed, I sit down at my computer to begin the weekly scavenger hunt.  What am I looking for?  Interesting and informative lesson ideas or activities that address the class objectives I’ve outlined for the coming weeks.  With six different class preps each day, this can sometimes stretch beyond Saturday.

This week, for instance, I’m planning to review sentence structure, parts of speech, and punctuation rules with my junior English class.  I could pull out the Language Network textbook and choose some applicable exercises.  Badda bing!  Done!  But it seems to me there will be resources online that are more engaging for my students.  So off I go. 

My first stop is “Grammar Bytes,” a site I’m familiar with for interactive exercises and quizzes at chompchomp.com.  I think I can use some of these, and it will give me a fall-back if students whizz through the other planned activities. Then I see what Google nets me.  Several more good sites come up.  Something in one of them gives me an idea: why not teach parts of speech by using Mad Libs? 

I remember using Mad Libs several years ago, only to be frustrated by students’ inaccurate knowledge about parts of speech.  I think I’ll try it again this week, after reviewing parts of speech.  After a short search, I locate a pretty good site of online Mad Libs at rinkworks.com/crazytales.  Another idea pops up in about.com for giving students words on sticky notes that they’re instructed to place on one of the eight parts of speech posters placed around the room.  Good for getting students up and active.

Another WordPress blogger, who writes “Working in Adult Literacy,” gives me an idea about teaching sentence structure by accentuating punctuation pauses in readings.  Good idea.  How do I adapt it for my juniors?  A couple of searches later, I get the idea to let students punctuate a well-known story, after we’ve reviewed basic punctuation rules.  I now have an unpunctuated, all lower-case version of “The Princess and the Pea,” just waiting for students to make sense of it.

Now I have lesson plans for one class, and it’s time to move on to anatomy and physiology, where I plan to have students begin to build a glossary of medical terminology this week.  What about creating an online glossary or online flash cards, maybe one with games and quizzes that use the terms?  I remember reading a list of sites at techlearning.com a while back that might work.  Off I go.

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