Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Report: What's in a Name?

As I mentioned in my last post, the first small improvement I wanted to make to my teaching was to use my students' names more often, especially when asking questions.  I had decided the way to do that was to plan out each question I was going to ask through the course of each lesson and assign each one to a student.

So, how did it go?  Well, first off, it turns out that I ask a LOT of questions in each three hour lesson!  In fact, hand-writing EVERY question took almost as much time as teaching the lesson itself.  Since I am paid hourly for my prep time, as well as teaching, I'd have to come up with a pretty darn compelling argument to be able to continue this process.  I did end up with some interesting insights about my own personal biases, however.  After assigning names for the first segment of the lesson, I went back and counted how many questions I was planning for each student, and I found that in that portion, I had unconsciously assigned about 30% fewer questions to the one black student in the class.  For the rest of the planning, I was more intentional in keeping the questions about equal for each student, but it made me wonder how many times in the past I've allowed the same bias to affect my teaching without realizing it.

Once in the classroom, I laid the sheets on the table where I could reference them, and dove right in.  The first fifteen minutes or so of class felt a little awkward, to me, though my students seemed fine.  I attribute my discomfort to the combined effect of using students' names much more than I'm used to and the fact that I kept looking down at my list of questions to see who I should call on next.  As I became more comfortable and my students got used to being called on frequently, I started referring to the list less often.  I noticed as I did this that I started addressing questions to the class more than when I was referring to the list, but still less often than I did in previous classes.

Throughout both classes this week, I noticed my students opening up and engaging more in class.  Since these were the first two classes of the course, it's probable that at least some of this was due to them becoming more comfortable with a new teacher, but I think some also was because I used their names to call on them.  If a teacher doesn't use students' names when asking questions, the students aren't sure who is expected to answer, and it provides an opportunity for students who are shy or who did not do the work to "opt-out" of the discussion. 

My conclusion?

I think a large part of the benefit of planning out was the fact that I thought consciously about how I selected students to answer questions, and less about actually having a plan of who to call on for which question.  I enjoyed the clarity of knowing who was going to answer the question, as well as my students' engagement when they realized that they WILL be called on.  I'm definitely going to continue using my students' names in class.  Given the long amount of time it takes to write out every question, I will not be continuing to do that for the entire three-hour class every week, but will probably focus on doing it for the beginning of class and my transitions instead.

If you have never put much thought into how you ask questions in your class, You should try this for a few weeks.  It will help you think about how to spread questions around more intentionally, and, as it did for me, may uncover some bias you have that you weren't aware of. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

What's in a Name?

"The sweetest sound in the human language is one’s own name."
— John Brock

 It's no secret that names are incredibly powerful when dealing with people, especially students.  However, this doesn't stop many people from not using people's names.  Whether we're not sure we'll pronounce them correctly, or we simply CAN'T REMEMBER a person's name doesn't lessen the impact of not addressing people by their names.

I, personally, have my own struggles with names.  First off, I find it very hard to remember most people's names- I get similar-sounding names (and sometimes not-so-similar names) confused, I convince myself that a person has this name, when it's actually something totally different, or I just go blank on someone's name.  In addition to this, or maybe because of it, I really struggle with calling people, especially students, by their names when I interact with them. 

In my training for my current test-prep teaching, my trainer made a BIG deal of using student names in class, especially when asking questions.  I still, however, have a bad habit of addressing questions to the class at-large, despite knowing what the company method is and how effective it is to use student names.

So, here's the technique for this week.  First off, LEARN my students' names.  There are only four in this class, so that should be easy.  Next, plan out for both lessons this week which student will be asked which questions.  Assigning questions in advance will take the guess-work out of calling on students.

What about you?  Do you struggle with using people's names?  Do you have any fool-proof tricks for learning names?  Leave me a comment!  And don't forget to come back next Monday to see how this technique worked for me this week.

Friday, February 27, 2015


Hi! I'm Tessa.  Trained in music education, I fill up most of my days working retail and put my passion to work teaching test-prep for a national company and singing in a couple of local community choirs.  I'm currently job hunting in a local teaching environment that can be charitably described as "dynamic," and casting my net as widely as possible given my extremely limited travel budget.  In the meantime, I'm trying to establish a DIY professional development plan so I can keep learning and developing my teaching skills while I'm finding a teaching position.  This brings us to...

Why start this blog in the first place?

It's fine to say "I'm doing my own PD," but what does that MEAN?  I found, after weeks of reading endless blog posts, beginning but not finishing books, and dreaming of magically transforming into a skilled, confident master teacher, that it didn't really mean much of anything.  I needed a new plan. 

Enter Evernote.  Great, now I can file, sort, and search the resources I find.  What's next?  One topic that pops up over and over on the Ed blogs I've been reading is using blogging to help students engage with material and make it relevant and useful to them.  Well, if it works for them, why not for me?

I have found that the huge availability of information on-line, combined with not being in an actual school teaching, has skewed my "do-it-yourself" learning into "do-it-BY-yourself"-- a recipe for isolation and lack of focus.  I need to reach out to other educators, get some feedback, and make connections.

So, I started this blog to establish a PLN, to make sense of my reading, to map out plans to improve my teaching, and to reflect on my teaching experiences.  Learning doesn't happen in a vacuum, so I need to breathe some life into this process!

Okay, but what exactly will be posted here?

I decided to start this blog now because I have a shiny, new test-prep class starting this week, which was practically BEGGING for a post-series about small techniques to improve teaching.  The first things you'll see here posts about which technique I'm focusing on each week, and reflections of how they worked.  Spring Break will be coming up in the middle of my class, so I'll have to branch out with some new topics.  Book reviews, ed news, ed tech, my current or upcoming Coursera course (taken, not taught) and music are all on the table, along with anything else I come up with!

Cool! What's next?

As I said, my class starts this week, so I'll be posting very soon with my first technique and should be posting twice a week from here on out, starting Monday!

Have a technique for me to try?  Want to ask me a question?  Have a resource that may be helpful?  Leave a comment!  I'd love your feedback!

Here's to a bright future,