11 February 2011

An American Classroom

I spent my high school classroom observation today taking copious notes in the back of the room.  We were discussing Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.  Here are the highlights:
Because of an incident last week, in which the teacher made a mistake entering grades that resulted in many students seeing online that they were failing English, the teacher promised that he would bring donuts for his class.  Grades are entered online now so any student or parent at home can look at their grades (instant information) and the students were mad that it took him so long to bring the donuts (instant gratification). The students have very short attention spans--they're supposed to be writing about the journal prompt but begin talking the minute after instruction.  They multi-task-- read novel, write journal, search for assignment, talk to friend, look up words in online dictionary on an iPhone, etc.  Do we, as teachers, take away the cell phone or let them keep it to look up a word online?  It's a paradigm shift here.  How do you explain to kids that they need to spell properly when they argue in favor of text speak and spell check? 

There is a battle between Shakespeare and the students here--how do we teach students to engage in the text?  Give specific instructions: summarize the page in the top margin (comprehension), write questions in the side margins (inquiry), circle words you don't understand (vocabulary), write the "take-away" in the bottom margin (application).  The students are generally disinterested in Shakespeare and are easily distracted by a classmate singing a popular song.  "Shakespeare is like vegetables--I don't really like it, but it's good for me." 

They are wearing: basketball shorts, school sweatshirts, baseball caps, jeans, sneakers, camouflage, fashion boots, Aeropostale jackets, jerseys, tee-shirts, sweat pants, snow hat (two guys wear the same hats every day).  One Latina wears a leather jacket, dark jeans and dressy sandals.  One Asian boy wears slacks, a pressed blue button-up collared shirt, and a golden yellow tie.  Is he dressed up for debate?  In general, the students are dressed informally.  Their hair is clean but unkempt.  The teacher is wearing a sweater and slacks, I'm wearing slacks, heels, a blouse and a cardigan. 

There are five Hispanic students, two Pacific Islander students, one Asian and 23 Caucasian.  Eight students are absent. 

Posters on the walls include:
"The Wisdom of Einstein,"
"I Have a Dream,"
"12 1/2 Rules of Writing" (this one has many colors on a black background),
"Do all the good you can,"
"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture.  Just get people to stop reading them." -Ray Bradbury (this one has a picture of a burning book)

There is a rotating rack by the door with many old books on it.  From my seat I could see Passage to India, Gulliver's Travels, All is Quiet on the Western Front, The Catcher in the Rye, Legends of the Fall, Fahrenheit 451, Beowulf, and Hatchet

The teacher's desk has binders, a book, flash cards, disinfectant spray and paper towels, papers, tape, a laptop and printer.  There is an American flag prominently displayed and a UVU banner near the corner next to the old overhead projector.  There is a new projector on the ceiling and a white pull-down screen. 

The blinds are closed on the two large windows, it is a comfortable temperature and the classroom lights are bright and artificial. 

Referring to a difficult scene from The Merchant of Venice, one student says, "Can we just watch a movie of this? We'd understand it better."  The teacher said no.  He tells me privately that these kids can go all through their school years without thinking.  He is working to make the kids actually think about the text.  One student scoffed when he said, "I want you to put some thought into this."

In order to take the pages of copious notes that I did, I had to sit in the back, not participate as a class member or teacher, and write furiously for more than an hour.  This made me reflect upon Rachel's project, the authenticity of experience.  Was my method the best way to understand the classroom? 

What do I want to do in these classrooms?  What will I be allowed to do?  What will be the best thing to do?  Perhaps I should mix levels of participation.
After I ran out of paper, the teacher had begun to assess papers to decide whether the students had correctly completed them and thereby earned a donut.  The line of students was long as he read through each paper, so I formed a second line and began reading papers with him.  I came across some hilarious comments that the students wrote, and they were even applicable to the assignment! I think I would much prefer actual interaction with students and teachers to sitting in the back of the room scribbling notes.

Maybe a comparison between a typical American classroom--in which I've been a student for 14 years and a student observer/teacher for five weeks now--and the Tibetan classrooms would be useful for understanding classroom digital literacy. Attitudes, formality, the physical classroom, and other elements of a class related to digital literacy could be good points for comparison.  Even if I don't compare, it was interesting and telling to look for the subtle and not-so-subtle indicators of digital literacy (one student, answering the question "how would this story be different if it took place at my high school" said that the two lovers would just text each other) in an American classroom.

Photo credit Thomas Favre-Bulle

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