Archive for November, 2009

The Social Studies Classroom: Lesson Observation

A few days ago, I observed a lesson in a 12th grade government classroom on the Origins of Government; more specifically, Constitutional Convention and the New Jersey and Virginia Plans. Prior to this class, students read the text and answered questions provided on a worksheet. The instructor used a PowerPoint presentation to present the material, occasionally calling on students to read what they had written on their worksheets.

The PowerPoint was wordy and had no visual organization, just bullets aligned in one column. The notes were thorough and complete; they would have been perfect with the proper headings, subtitles, and indents. Students added the lecture material to the completed worksheet. The lesson followed in the same order as the worksheet. I took a look at a few of the students’ worksheets and found the majority of them to be difficult to decipher. If the questions did not act almost as “topic headings,” their notes would be nearly impossible to read.

If i were presenting this lesson, I would have taken the opportunity to use charts and/or diagrams to present the material. A Venn Diagram of the New Jersey Plan, Virginia Plan, and the ‘Great Compromise’ would have worked well. I also would have engaged the students more; perhaps have them complete the Venn Diagram in groups using their worksheets and then go over them as a class? A mock “Constitutional Convention” would be fun. Dividing the class into the 12 colonies (R.I. did not attend), students would have to hash out a system of government. In order to emphasize the complexity of the debate and issues, I would require that students form a system which is unlike the current one we have now in the U.S.

I believe the lesson may have been successful for the more advanced students who were able to read and interpret the material from the book prior to the lesson. For those students who did not fully understand what they read, they may have struggled to conceptualize the instructor’s lecture. The instructor sometimes speaks at a level above many of the students’ understanding. The topic itself can be pretty dry; however, the instructor did do a great job of dispersing interesting tidbits of information throughout the lesson to catch the students’ attention. For example, he shared with the class that James Madison was 5’4 and just under 100lbs…Very petite man.

A brief outline at the beginning of class and/or list of objectives may make all the difference in the world for some students. Even I find it difficult at times to decipher where the topic he is speaking about falls into the theme, Origins of Government.

Teaching in the Real World

Until the last two weeks of my internship, I was only able to interact with the students at a minimal level. After creating superficial ‘assignments’ of sorts; I was able to convince my CT to allow me to pull students during their study hall and work with them individually or in small groups. As I got to know certain students better, I came to realize that there are a lot of students which go almost unnoticed. They have no personal relationship with the teacher or any sort of connection for that matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if some teachers didn’t even know their names. To me, this is unnacceptable. You never know what kinds of struggles a student may be facing. Teachers can provide essential aid, guidance, and/or comfort; but, if we don’t reach out to them, how will we ever know? Some students need assistance in meeting their most basic needs; until these needs are met, often the content material has little to no significance to them. They have more pressing matters on their mind. We can’t allow them to slip through the cracks.

Assisting students with such needs can also be emotionally draining. My CT emphasized that you have to be able to leave such issues “at the door and walk away.” I’m not so sure I can do this. A friend of mine who teaches elementary school was telling me about one of her students who has been (and presently is being) sexually abused. She told me how hard it is to put the little girl on the bus everyday and send her back home to that; some days she literally can’t do it and the principle does for her. How does one walk away from work and block that out of their mind? I know I couldn’t. No way.

A good teacher is emotionally invested in the achievement of their students. Where does one draw the fine line between completely consuming one’s existence and being able to walk away and live a separate life?

Organization of Information

Tomorrow is my last day of observing! Time flies.

Over the past week I’ve been working more closely with the students. The manner in which I present the information to the students is very different from how my CT does. There is no doubt that he really understands his content; however, it doesn’t seem to stick with some students. I believe they understand what he is saying in class, but when they go back to their class materials, they can’t make sense of it. The organization of the information is almost as important as the information itself.

For the majority of the class period students are either copying notes from a PowerPoint presentation with an overload of words or reading the book and answering questions in class. Lectures are presented in bullet format, without using indents or outlines; just straight bullets. Some students become overwhelmed and stop writing, others have no motivation.

The students are given review sheets prior to each quiz and test, which I think is awesome. However, students are not utilizing these study guides because they are overwhelming. The review usually consists of a long list of questions, single spaced, and double-sided. In addition, many of the questions are difficult to answer and because the organization of the information/notes is not as clear as it could be.

Last night I re-worked the review sheet for a student I am helping during his study hall. I did not change any of the questions at all, I just re-formatted it. Using two columns, I put the questions in the boxes on the left side, and left space for the answers in boxes on the right. The paper is formatted so that it can be folded in half and students can flip it back and forth, quizzing themselves as they would with flash cards. The visual clarity seemed to make a huge difference in his ability to comprehend the information.

The little things seem to make a world of a difference…

Election Results

Last night the Virginia state election results were announced; the Republicans made a sweeping victory. There’s a whole lot to be said about this. Political analysts are going to tear this election apart with a fine tooth comb in order to get meaning out of it. Even more significantly, in New Jersey, the Republican candidate for governor won. A Republican winning in New Jersey is a pretty big deal; they never win in New Jersey. Generally speaking, Virginia tends to be more conservative. The fact that Obama won the state as a Democrat in the presidential election is uncommon.


From the Republican standpoint, these wins are a sign to the Democrats and Obama Administration that they have overreached their boundaries, stretching too far and doing too much. Democrats are going to most likely to explain the results as being misrepresentative of the general population, using exit poll statistics. For example, last year during the Presidential Election, 20% of Virginia’s voting population was under the age of 30. According to exit polls conducted in yesterday’s election, only 10% of voters were under the age of 30. In addition, the White House released a statement about Deed’s campaign claiming it was poor.

No matter what the explanation may be, this is two significant wins for Republicans in states which Obama won just last year. Next November, elections are being held for the House and Senate. Right now the Democrats control both. However, if this trend continues, that could easily be changed, with Republicans making huge gains in the House and Senate.

Decisions and choices which could completely change the face of the United States are being made; decisions which by no means can be taken lightly. As teachers, particularly high school teachers, we have a civic duty to make the students aware. There is no room for apathetic citizens during this time of change.

Interview with CT

*note: responses paraphrased

1. Why did you decide to become a teacher?
Well, I originally went to college with intentions of becoming a lawyer; I was pre-law. I was also involved in college basketball. At some point I decided that I wanted to coach and there was no way I was going to be lawyer and coach. I decided to teach and coach instead. Plus, my dad was a high school government teacher and coach.

2. Was there a push from your parents to be a teacher?
Actually, there was a push from my parents do something different [besides teaching].

3. What subjects have you taught?
Oh everything. World Geography, Government, US History, Sociology…I can’t even remember anymore. I prefer Government.

4. Have you ever had a parent lose their temper in a conference?
Actually, yes. I would like you to witness that today, but at the same time I don’t. I was teaching a unit on the Civil Rights about 15 years ago and would tell stories about growing up in the Roanoke Valley. Stories about the way it was when I was in school. I lived in a predominately white neighborhood, and went to an all white high school. The only contact we had with African Americans was either with maids or athletes. Back in those days, all of the maids were African American, or so it seemed. Anyway, I told the students this and then told the story about how there was one integrated park where all of the boys would meet up to play basketball. At the time, there was an African American mom who wanted her daughter out of my class because she did not want her to be exposed to these sorts of stories. In her argument to the principle, she claimed that because I attended an all white school, I shouldn’t be telling these stories. Let me tell you, she was raging mad. It was the most lunatic thing ever.

5. What are some of the biggest challenges you face with regards to students here at Balfour High School?
Motivation and Drugs. With regards to drugs, predominately Marijuana; some of these kids will grow out of it to be productive members of society; some might just be later than others. Too many of them think that they can take up space and not do anything. They believe in the fairy godmother school of grades. Somehow someone is going to come down, wave a wand, and the grade is going to be what they want it to be.

6. Do you think that the lack of motivation stems from lack of ability [with regards to Joe]?
For him he has to give a great effort; I am concerned he may be lacking in ability. In most cases, this is not the situation; however, it might be in his. Motivation and a lack of ability are definitely intertwined; I am going to have to give more effort in seeing if I can motivate him. My teaching style probably does not work for him. He needs that extra help, the study hall. But he’s got to get here.

7. Do you believe homework is effective?
No, because I used to give it. What it does is provide 0’s because they won’t do it.

8. What is the number one piece of advice you would give to new teachers?
Remain calm, be consistent and firm in your tone, and don’t let the students see you flustered or excited.


In my cohort group for American Schooling we were discussing “deculturalization” and one member directed us to the following NPR special:

NPR: American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many

During the 1940’s, Native American tribes who were considered to be the most recently “hostile” were targeted for “civilization” through boarding school programs. The intent of the schooling was to transform Native American children completely, ridding them of their native languages, customs, and even names. A few of these High Schools remain in operation today; however, the circumstances have changed. Their culture is embraced at these facilities and many Native Americans are fighting to keep them open. They risk closure due to a lack of funding.

I was initially shocked to realize that this was occurring during the 1940’s, but after reflecting on what else was occurring at the time period, I remembered that the Japanese were being placed in internment camps, Chinese were denied citizenship, and African Americans were still battling for minimal rights and equality. One cannot deny that injustices occurred, and in order to move towards a post-racial society, we must recognize this in our classrooms.

It is important to challenge student’s beliefs and allow them to recognize their own voices. As teachers, we bring our own culture to the class as well as create one within the classroom. Even something as little as a student’s exposure to an open-minded teacher can make a difference in the way one views another.