As I take the time to reflect on this semester, it is amazing to me how much I have grown, both as a person and in my conception of what it means to be a teacher. As with most learning experiences, I cannot pinpoint an exact time or place where this change first took effect. However, I can say that that the development and teaching of my unit plan definitely had an impact on how I now see myself in the classroom.
In the beginning of the semester, I had a very idealized view of what it meant to be an effective teacher. Based on my favorite high school teachers, I imagined an effective teacher as someone who was passionate about their subject matter and held high expectations of their students; who demanded a lot, but still engaged the students in a way that evoked respect and an interest in learning. My ideas regarding what an effective teacher is haven’t changed; however, my ideas regarding how one should actually embody these characteristics and put them into practice have changed a great deal. While teaching my unit, I was surprised how much work it requires a teacher to actually teach the lesson. Putting knowledge of content aside, I realized that it takes a lot for the teacher to communicate effectively and passionately. I thought demonstrating passion about my subject matter was going to be relatively easy. After all, I have always loved reading, and enjoyed going to my English classes both in high school and in college. While I am definitely passionate about teaching English, I was surprised to find how difficult it is to convey that passion to the students. I realized that I need to maintain a high energy level while teaching in order to gain student interest in the subject matter. Thus, while I might be passionate about my subject area, the students aren’t going to know it unless I demonstrate a high energy level throughout the lesson.
Effective communication was another area that surprised me in regard to its difficulty. I thought that as long as I was aware that I needed to communicate effectively, the actual communication part would simply come naturally. However, I soon realized that this is untrue; I need to rehearse what I am going to communicate to the students, so that they won’t become distracted by fillers or incomplete sentences. The biggest change in my idea of what it takes to be an effective teacher therefore deals in the area of communication with the students, in my energy levels, in body language and in my verbal communication.
In terms of my knowledge base, I felt relatively prepared during the teaching of my unit. However, I was surprised in how much I did need to know regarding the context in which the play was written in, as well as its historical parallel. However, there were times while teaching that I felt unprepared in terms of my knowledge base. For example, a couple of my students are very involved in acting and have been in numerous plays. A few times, these students (who had already seen Henry V) brought up elements of the character of Henry V (who in Henry IV Part 1 is known as Prince Hal) as he appeared in the later play. I, having not read Henry V, could not elaborate or assess their description of this character. I had not even thought about researching other Shakespeare plays that might have had the same characters; however, this experience taught me that it is necessary to look outside the main literary text as well. This was probably the most surprising insight into my knowledge base; that is, I needed to actually understand how broad my scope of knowledge needs to be. It has greatly altered my conception of what an effective teacher needs to know. Before JFE, I thought the teacher only needed to know the literary text they were teaching at the time, and perhaps some criticisms or supporting material regarding it. However, in my experience, I have realized that an effective teacher needs to have a much broader knowledge base in order to enhance a student’s understanding. An effective teacher not only needs to know the literary text, criticisms and supporting material, but also current events that the text might be related to, elements of popular culture that could be used in conjunction with the text, and other works of literature that the students might be familiar with and can be connected to the text. While this means a lot more work for the teacher, it also greatly enhances the effectiveness of his or teaching.
Teaching my unit has certainly caused me to rethink certain attitudes and values regarding my role as a teacher. Before I taught my unit, I was unclear on my position regarding the teacher’s role in the classroom. I believed the teacher had a central position in the classroom and part of that position was the dispensation of knowledge, but beyond that, I had no concrete ideas regarding the relationship between the teacher and the student in the classroom. Now, I believe that the teacher must establish a personal and informed relationship with each student in the classroom in order to most effectively teach. By establishing a personal relationship with the student, the teacher is more easily able to identify the kind of problems or misunderstandings the student may encounter. I also thought that a balance between direct instruction and cooperative learning was important in a classroom setting, but I had no idea exactly how that would work in a classroom. Now, I still believe that both direct instruction and cooperative learning should exist in a classroom; however, I think that more cooperative learning and less direct instruction is more effective in engaging the students with the material. Teaching the unit has also caused me to rethink the role of establishing a presence in the classroom. As I mentioned before, prior to teaching my unit, I thought that having a presence in the classroom would naturally follow knowing the material and being passionate about the subject matter. However, I quickly learned that this is not the case; as a teacher, one must work hard to communicate his or her expectations and goals for the class in order to engage student interest.
As in all units, there were some instructional strategies that were effective, and there were some that were not so effective. Some of the instructional activities that were most effective in the teaching of my unit include the word play activity, listening to a part of the BBC radio broadcast of Henry IV Part 1, comparing a newspaper article to a personal account of the same event (by using a Venn diagram), and the Jigsaw activity. These instructional activities were effective mainly because they helped the students connect with the play. For example, the word play activity picked out several puns that Shakespeare uses to develop the character of Falstaff. The students became engaged in the activity because jokes interested them. The newspaper article and personal account helped the students connect events in the play to a real life example; by comparing the two, the students were better able to understand what was going on in the scene. Similarly, the jigsaw activity was effective because it connected four major themes in Henry IV to outside materials (a political cartoon, the Declaration of Independence, a Queen song entitled Father to Son, and a poem called Sherman). While the BBC radio broadcast did not specifically connect the play to an outside source, it did use actors to say the characters’ lines, so that every word was pronounced with intonation that directly conveyed Shakespeare’s meaning. It made the play come alive, and helped the students to see how the play was supposed to sound when it was read aloud.
However, there were definitely activities that were not effective. One such activity was the Syntax Surgery of Hal’s Soliloquy. The main reason that this activity was ineffective was because the students failed to see the significance of taking apart this part of the play. This was mainly due to a failure on my part to communicate why this was an important speech in the play. According to the survey that the students completed as an assessment to my instruction, this was the activity that was least engaging to them; they saw it as pointless and boring. Another ineffective activity was group activity on the poem To Lucasta, On Going to War. While this poem connected events of the play to an outside source, the poem was very short and only seemed to bore the students. This may have possibly been because the concepts that were addressed were relatively simple, and I did not pursue a deeper discussion regarding it. The poem dealt with the idea of valuing honor over everything, even love, and was directly connected to the feelings expressed by Hotspur to his wife in Act 2, Scene 3. Once the students grasped that concept (rather quickly, I found), I realized that I was unprepared to ask deeper questions regarding the material, and this dragged the activity down and made it less effective than it could have been.
I used both formal and informal assessment to inform my instruction throughout my unit. Each night, the students were asked to read a section of the play for homework, answer two out of the three questions on their homework sheet, and come up with one question that they had about the text. When I collected this homework sheet at the end of each week, I was able to see each student’s questions regarding the particular act, and then was able to go over the problem areas during the next class. I also used informal assessment to inform my instruction. For example, when we did the Somebody Wanted But So activity, it was clear to me which students read their assigned pages, and which ones did not. I was able to then group the students who read with those who didn’t, so that in small group discussion, they might understand the essential ideas in the scene. Another example of using informal assessment to inform my instruction occurred during the Jigsaw activity. With the students divided into pairs and exploring one of the four major themes in the play, I was able to go to each individual group and assess their understanding of the theme based on their discussion. I was then able to correct any misunderstanding regarding the theme or events in the play, which then was enforced when the student “taught” their theme to their home group.
My strongest area in teaching is in developing the lessons. I can plan strong lessons that well incorporate reading strategies that will enable student learning. I also am strong in gathering interesting and engaging materials to assist in my lesson. The areas that I still need to develop in student teaching occur in classroom presence and communication. Though I know the material and have planned my lessons meticulously, I still appear nervous and unsure while teaching. I then tend to speak softly and use fillers, which greatly affects communication by distracting the students or boring them. In student teaching, I will need to practice developing a professional presence in the classroom that commands student attention. Another aspect of this includes my energy level in the classroom. In order to command student attention, I need to show more excitement about the material. As a teacher, I need to be the leader and take a more active role in the classroom; in other words, I need to take charge and direct student learning. One thing that still puzzles me about becoming a teacher is exactly how to develop this kind of presence. I am not an outspoken person by nature, so I know developing an energetic and central presence in the classroom will be difficult. However, I think that the only way to actually develop this skill is to practice it. I am also unsure about how much information one should give a student without giving them the whole answer. I found that many times during my unit, a student would ask a question and I would give them the whole answer, without allowing them time to understand and make meaning for themselves. Finding a balance between not giving enough information and too much information was something that I really struggled with, and is something that I will need to reconcile during student teaching.
All in all, I truly enjoyed this experience. It was difficult at times (well, most of the time), but it really gave me perspective on what it takes to become a teacher. Many of the things about teaching that I learned have to do with behaviors within the classroom. These things, while they can be taught in the classroom, are not really understood until they are experienced first hand. If there was one thing of importance that I took away from this semester of teaching, it is that my attitude toward teaching and my relationship with my students is just as important as how much I know about the subject matter.