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Frequently Asked Questions
Where did these questions come from?
Like working with student teachers, the experience of developing this website, this web-based representation, has expanded my idea of the community of teaching: who it includes, and what is its nature. Emily van Zee, who was my university teacher when I was a student teacher, has shared some of my work with the student teachers now in her class at the University of Maryland. She asked her students to write feedback and questions about what they read and saw in my website.
I read their feedback and questions, and found that what I am doing with my students struck these student teachers as something they might want to try in their classrooms. I was very excited to read their questions and impressions. The idea that what I was doing in my classroom could possibly be useful to other teachers made me elated.
As a teacher doing inquiry into my practice, the data from the student teachers helps me see where I want to go next in my inquiry. I want to integrate my strategies for connecting with students (writing letters, having students to lunch, and contacting parents). I also want to tie the content of the essays I respond to more closely to the curriculum, without losing their personal quality.
I have included the entire messages for five of the student teachers, and I have excerpted the frequently asked questions, and some other questions not so frequently asked but of interest to me and perhaps to other teachers.
These questions are about the student essays and the letters I wrote in response to them. That was all I had on the website at that time. If you have other questions you would like to ask, please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
How does the letter writing communication relate to science learning?
How does a stronger sense of community relate to science learning?
How does having a student write about 'If you had three wishes, what would happen?' relate to science learning?
These are questions that student teachers, cooperating teachers, principals, and parents might ask. My view is that science learning is more about thinking, asking questions, and investigating ideas than it is about learning facts. There is nothing wrong with facts, but they are meaningful in relationship to the pursuit of the answer to a good science question.
A person working in a community of others will, I believe, be better able to generate good questions and ideas. A strong sense of identity as someone who is a valued part of the classroom community will help a student ask good questions and take part in a debate about the answers. The generating of science knowledge is a social activity. Communication and community contribute to the generating of that knowledge. A sense of identity as a valuable individual helps a student participate in communication and community.
There a lot of good essay topics that have science content besides the kind of personal experience that helps a teacher get to know a student. I have asked students to write about their pets (living things), their grandparents (inheritance, genes), smoking (health), going to the hospital (health), story about a baby (human reproduction), and the story of your name (nomenclature), among others.
How do you actually get them to write?
A colleague of mine shared a technique he has for getting his English language learners to write. He grades their rough drafts only on the number of words: 100 words gets an A, for example. In this way, when they are generating ideas in a rough draft, they are relieved of some of their inhibitions about making mistakes, and they can let their imaginations go. When they are trying to fill up the 100 words, they have to write about something. So freed from their worries about saying it wrong, and with all these words to work with, they often say some very interesting and creative things.
What do you do with a student who is very cautious to allow you to get close to him or her? If it is difficult to build a personal relationship with a student, where can you turn to help ease that tension?
I would say, don't push. They may not allow you go get close. But if you give them only positive words, it is possible that they will let you in. Think about them, who they are, and then respond to their actual words and thoughts. Sometimes it seems that they are not listening when, in fact, they are. You may not ever know if they heard you. Shy students want to be sure that you will like them in spite of the mistakes they haven't made yet, but fear making at some point in the future. "Naughty" students want to know you see the good qualities in them and not just the misbehavior.
How did you get your students to be so open with you?
I don't know. I didn't really do anything to get them to be open. When they are writing, often students are more open on paper than they would be in person. Maybe there is a certain anonymity to it. On the other hand, once I gave a prompt about peer pressure, without having built up much trust first, and most people said they had not experienced it. Intuition says that can't be true.
Answering without offering criticism might be part of it, but most of the student writing came before my answers, so I doubt that is it.
How did you find time to respond so thoughtfully to all of your students' essays?
This may be the hardest part. I write slowly, and each letter took me about 20 or 30 minutes. So I didn't do them all at once. I did a few each weekend. Kids had to wait for their letters, and sometimes asked me when they would get a letter. I didn't do this with all my classes. I have done it with about 5 classes total over about 3 years. Maybe two classes at a time is all I every attempted to do. Writing 60 letters to those two classes took almost all of one semester (what with everything else there is to do in teaching).
I'm wondering what kind of reaction you got from your colleagues..
I got this idea from another teacher who did it with one of her classes each year, and from a student teacher who did it with his classes. So as a colleague hearing about it myself, I responded by wanting to try it. Another colleague I told about it thought it was a great idea, but didn't think he would have time to do it.
What were some of the comments from pre-service teachers?
Message no. 154
Posted by (Student 23) on Wednesday, December 17, 2003 4:35pm
Subject Comment to Claire
NOTE: I couldn't access the actual snapshot, but was able to read the rationale for writing letters, and the actual letters themselves.
i. I'm wondering what kind of reaction you got from your colleagues when you talked to them about how you were going to enter into this great letter writing campaign. Did you have any second thoughts as you were answering all those letters?
ii. What you have achieved with your students is something I am deeply interested in creating in my classrooms. I think it is absurd how we have gotten to the place where teachers and students can develop close, trusting relationships. You are to be commended for fighting that idea and fostering some wonderful things in your students. I applaud you for the tenderness of your responses. You have a gift for communicating some pretty hard things to middle schoolers. I am sure they respect you deeply for it.
iii. You might have addressed this, but I could not access it. However, I would like to see the reasons for the letter writing communication and how it relates to science learning. I recognize the value of the activity in it's own right, but wonder how it fits into content.
Message no. 127
Posted by (Student 8) on Thursday, November 13, 2003 11:25pm
I really like how Claire took the time to really get to know her students. I think this allowed her students to realize that she really is interested in them. I also like how she responded to their essays, and she wrote quality personalized messages back to them, not just the generic "super job" on top of their papers. I think that every teacher should get to know their students this way. It will not only help the students but it will allow for teachers to better understand where their students are coming from and thus allowing us to teach them better. I also think that this kind of communication between students and teacher should occur everyday, all year, at all times of the day. I think this is a wonderful way for teachers to really get children thinking about themselves and also to get them interested in coming to school.
Message no. 138
Posted by (Student 7) on Tuesday, November 18, 2003 12:22am
i. It is really amazing that you answered all of your students. You really spent time reading and analyzing what they wrote. How did you find time to respond so thoughtfully to all of your students' essays?
ii. This is such an amazing exercise. I was shocked at how honest the students were with you and how much they were willing to share about their personal lives. I see it is important to allow students to answer and write about things going on in their lives. This activity can give a teacher a glimpse into a student's life which they might not say in a conversation.
iii. I really like that you provided honest feedback. This gives the students a feeling that their writing is worth something and that you have a vested interest in their lives and success.
Posted by (Student 17) on Thursday, December 18, 2003 11:36am
Subject Claire's Snapshot
This is a wonderful description of what it means to be an effective teacher, I feel. These ideas are all great in the fact that they aim at helping the children feel more comfortable in their own classroom, which is imperative to successful learning.
One question I would raise is what do you do with a student who is very cautious to allow you to get close to him or her? If it is difficult to build a personal relationship with a student, where can you turn to help ease that tension?
This is a model for the type of classroom I would someday like to have. I have learned from this snapshot that it is possible to create an atmosphere where the teacher is more of a friend, more like an older sibling, than a strong authoritative leader. Keep up the good work, and best of luck to you in your class!
Message no. 135
Posted by (Student 20) on Monday, November 17, 2003 8:42pm
Subject comment for Claire
I really enjoyed reading this snapshot! I truly feel like these are techniques that I would love to use in my classroom next year. So far in my student teaching year, it has bothered me that I haven't been able to really connect with my students. I was a camp counselor for many years, and I miss that fun side of interacting with young children. Claire's ideas of writing letters and inviting her students to lunch are great ways to encourage a closer relationship between the teacher and students. I would be interested to see how your investigation turns out, and would love to hear any other ideas you have about this topic! Thank you for sharing your snapshot with us!
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