Saturday, September 12, 2015

Meet them Where They Are

I have three sections of German 1 this year.  Last year I only taught German 2 and German 3, and it's nice to have students who are just starting German again.  It's fun watching them figure out how logical German is - that ein Bleistift - a "lead-writing-utensil" is a pencil.  The flip side is that I hear "die" pronounced like die in English (long i), rather than like dee (long e) as it is in German, over and over and over again.

All 3 of my sections of German 1 are full - with 30 to 32 students in each.  They're all a mixture of 9th, 10th, and 11th graders.  And all 3 have more boys than girls - a ratio of about 2 to 1.  Which makes me wonder - where are all the girls?  French?  Spanish?  I'm not sure...

But that's where the similarities end.  The first two sections are pretty challenging.  There are a wide variety of students - some are socially and academically where I'd hope for high school students to be.  But both sections also have a significant number of students who don't yet have the skills they need to be successful.  

This is a first year language class, so I'm not talking about a lack of German knowledge.  I'm not even talking about weak English language skills.  This is more a lack of school success skills.  Students who sit for 20 minutes and don't take notes with the rest of the class because they don't have a pencil, even though extra writing utensils are available in the room.  Students who are absent and don't make an effort to get caught up, even though I give them a paper with everything they missed:

Students who call out "I don't get it!" loudly as soon as they can't do something, rather than reading the directions, trying a bit more, looking at their notes, or asking a tablemate.  You get the picture.

It reminds me a lot of my first year of teaching when I had a very squirrely section of 9th grade algebra, and my wonderful mentor teacher advised me that it's sometimes just as much about teaching social skills as it is about teaching math skills.  Meeting them where they are and helping them get to where they need to be.

So, after those two classes, I start wondering what it is that I'm doing wrong, what I should do differently, etc.  

Then I teach my period 5 class.  And everything goes perfectly.  They listen to instructions.  And follow them.  They participate, try, and help one another.  They have all mastered logging in to their online textbook by now (the 6th week of school).  And they are mastering the material, as you can see by the number of students in just this section who got an A on the last quiz:

There are still some weak students, but there are enough strong students that they set the tone.  The weaker students (sometimes) follow their example.  

It's fascinating to me just how different these classes are, even though on paper they are indistinguishable.  

So, now I'm thinking about how to help the two weaker classes learn both German and academic success skills.  I pondered this a lot on my run last weekend.

One thing I've noticed: I normally have my students seated in table groups of 4 so that they can work together and practice speaking with each other:

When I'm giving an assessment, I move the desks into rows.  I noticed that on those days period 3 and period 4 did much better.  They were more focused and listened better to my teaching and my instructions.  So, I decided to keep the desks in rows for those two classes for a while.  

For period 3 it has already made a huge difference.  Period 4 is still a work in progress.  It's not ideal - the groups are much better for sharing materials and speaking activities.  But I think it's what they need, for now.  As we progress and students are more clear on my expectations, we'll try groups again.  For now, though, I'm meeting them where they are, and working to help them grow to where they need to be.  Stay tuned...

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