Friday, April 29, 2011

Two Hundred Words

Two Hundred Words
by Rob Watson

A few years ago I moved to State and found a job teaching. State issued me a temporary certificate to teach Science. I taught two sections of General Science to high school freshmen and two sections of Ecology to juniors and seniors. The freshmen had no choice. The juniors and seniors were either interested in the subject, or afraid of Chemistry and Physics, or thought they would get to catch fish by shocking them with electricity. (a popular lesson in the former teacher's class)

The General Science book was enormous. It weighed about 15 pounds. I tried to follow the built in lesson plans. They had been divided into two 45 minute lessons for each section. Each lesson had suggested activities and a suggested time allotment. It became immediately clear that the authors had never spent a minute in a real freshman high school class, nor had they made any real effort to test their activities in a real setting. Their 10-15 minute enrichment activities usually took an hour (60 minutes) out of a 85 minute class. I, early on, calculated it would take most of the year to finish Chapter One.

Please do not misunderstand. The lesson plans were thorough and well done. I would have loved to work my students through the whole thing. All I needed was twice as much space, four times as much time, and a couple of assistants to set things up for the activities. I stopped reading the "list of Materials" so I have no idea about how many other things might be needed.

The science teachers in that school system, junior high and high school, had gotten together and assigned subjects to be "covered" by each grade level there. My specific assignment was not quite clear to me. Mostly due to a lack of faith in those teaching before me... my freshman students demonstrated a thorough ignorance of science topics. I had a "lead teacher" whose task was to keep me on the right path. I always felt he was over-matched by my stubborn insistence in doing things my own way. (when I found scientific ignorance in a competent student, I felt honor bound to educate that student.)

In the classroom I tried to explain the topic and offer real examples of the application of the topic. By the "evaluator" of my teaching skills, this was called "lecture" and was thoroughly condemned. More "activities" were suggested. (see above under: please do not misunderstand).

My tests were mostly definitions in one form or another. I liked repetition, I tried to get each definition onto four tests during the year. (Remember the research that says you need to see an advertisement four times before it registers? Some years ago, professional educators roundly condemned a math book that did this. Because the math book did too much repetition and didn't "cover" enough different topics.)

As I made out my final test I was horrified to count only 200 words and definitions as the total of all I had taught. ( less than 1.1 scientific definition per 85 minutes of classroom time) With my real defects in controlling the classroom, the poor evaluations on my teaching style, and the guy I was suppose to replace staying on another year, the schools decision not to renew my contract seemed to be a good one. (There was also a serious lack of students)

Salve to my wounds came a year later when a tenured friend reported to me that my students had scored better on their "No Child Left Behind" evaluations than any previous class. Who would a thunk it?

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