Best Practice: Interviews and Narratives, Coursework Example
The recommendation of a set of “best practices” has changed drastically in the last fifty years, yet teachers may still be confused as to what defines such a practice, how to implement these practices, and even how these practices are agreed upon. Indeed, they are at the center of a heated debate which favors some elements and replaces others. In this brief study, the literature of best practice will be briefly reviewed, a questionnaire will be presented and utilized in five interviews, and the responses of the interviewees will be analyzed for the current and potential use of best practices. The interviewees taught grades six to eight and each taught in a different subject area.
Despite the wealth of information regarding a wide variety of contexts, situations, faculty members, students, procedures, etc., there remains no clear consensus as to what composes best practices of education. Peck and Scarpati (2010) define them as “classroom teaching and management techniques which have been shown to accomplish specific goals in an efficient and effective manner” (p. 4). This is complicated by the unique benefits and challenges which different approaches may have during application in a variety of content areas and according to various instructional approaches and skill levels. Classrooms today represent a fusion of diverse populations. As a result, faculty are battling to find appropriate and effective ways to work with students of varying needs, while ensuring that each student obtains his or her highest level of achievement. Because many faculty lack necessary training and associated methodologies to bridge the achievement gap that exists between students, student achievement is inconsistent. It is important to the field of education to determine whether teacher educational practices affect student achievement, and if so, to what level. It is also important to determine if a teacher’s individual belief about his or her teaching abilities affect actual teaching practices. Although practices of education can be divided according to any number of elements, our examination of the literature seeks out examples of instruction as phasing between preparation, instructional delivery, and assessment.
Design plays an especially crucial role in the effectiveness of the lesson itself, and modern students are visually accustomed to a rapid-fire barrage of images or episodic information (Bean, 2008). The challenge, then, lies in the balance between the potential of technological literacies and the receptive barriers and expectations. The communicative and symbolic nature of spoken communication leads into the explicitness lesson’s exploration of idioms, similes, metaphors, and other implicit language. All materials must be designed with higher forms of culture in mind, and with the intention of appealing to students and engaging their interest. In media-inspired or media-supported lessons, this is often accomplished through reference to various sources of popular culture (Marghescu, 2010). Students can construct a broader generalization of learning which they can apply to a variety of content areas, and Bean (2008) writes that establishing reading as a social act provides a concrete reinforcement of the importance of language, reading, and learning. Nonetheless, these new literacies are still dependent upon critical evaluation and, consequently, on paper.
Students need some boundaries, and explicit course objectives and specific activities may provide a sense of security to the student (Wright, Stackhouse, & Wood, 2008). Nonetheless, intangible barriers to education will occur: a lack of consensus regarding the meaning and evaluation of proficiency, neurolinguistic barriers, and cognitive differences based upon socialization and experience (Brown, 1998). Professionals who advocate the cognitive approach often utilize specific strategies to examine expository literature and warn that the role of motivation, self-efficacy, and student will be highly interdependent (Farrar & al-Qatawneh, 2010). Being clear and succinct in the selection of my words and in the actual pronunciation of the words can be a barrier. Inevitably, an accent or confusing euphemisms come up in conversation. While this can be a positive interruption on a very limited basis, generally there is no easy answer about the origin of these unique sayings. The students read me more than they read the passage, and they would rather pretend to understand everything than admit that they don’t know something, so maintaining a balance of professionalism and passion for their educational successes is one aspect which has been highlighted by these discussions of best practices in reading and writing.
A strategy is meant to be a means to an end—not an end in itself. As a result of the increased pressure which is placed on teachers and students to produce high scores on standardizes tests, strategies for taking tests and for accurate guessing (or faking comprehension altogether) do occasionally take priority over the learning of the standards-based curriculum. In addition, each state usually has their own set of standards, and, as a result, states which seek to raise standards and expectations may jeopardize federal funding by seeking to demand more of their students, risking lower scores and unfair labeling (Afflerbach, Pearson, & Paris, 2008, p. 366). According to the authors, strategies were originally applied contextually and were not intended for generalization. Thus, the original use of strategies involved the development of specific techniques for specific problems- just as a sculptor uses different tools to mix, to chisel, and to shape. In the same way, strategies were meant to be inextricable from the specific challenges which they were designed to meet.
In ELLs, this difference between strategies and skills is particularly clear, but improper use- or lack- of strategy may deceive the teacher into believing that a skill has not been acquired. Instead, that skill may be cognitively inaccessible. In reciprocal teaching, the student predicts, questions, clarifies, and summarizes their learning; this strategy is used before, during, and after reading and is often used in peer-to-peer academic exchanges (“Reading Strategies…”). Although Whitaker suggests that teachers use a writer’s notebook for taking notes on workshops, this during strategy is suitable to a variety of auditory instruction settings. This strategy could be comprised of notes from or about lectures or for tracking one’s own reading development and progress. The last strategy of this week was Conversations Across Time, in which the student makes connections between works which were produced or set during different time periods (“Reading Strategies…”).
ELLs are not the only student populations in need of specific attention and adaptation, and Gonsoulin, Ward, and Figg (2006) propose leadership as a mode of student engagement in learning- for at-risk and gifted students especially. The pairing of these two groups scaffolds, as at-risk students compete and/or interact and gifted students reinforce their learning through simple restatement and sharing such as occurs in think-aloud exercises. In general, students respond more positively to conscientious facilitation of student leadership, and the familiarity increases the general level of student engagement (p. 690).
The five interviewed respondents taught various subjects to students in grades six to eight. Mr. W. teaches sixth grade Mathematics, Coach S. teaches eighth grade History, Mr. S. teaches seventh grade Science, Mrs. R. teaches sixth grade English Language Arts, and Mrs. B teaches eighth grade Art.
The following questionnaire is based upon the identification of themes presented in the background research and upon various elements of the Sheltered Instruction Operation Protocol (SIOP), which details specific elements of teacher instruction which foster a positive learning environment for all students (Vacca, Vacca, & Mraz, 2005). Since the information from the questionnaire will be synthesized and further examined later in this paper, the questionnaire sought to avoid items which may be too specific to their content area, opting to focus on best practices for use across the diverse curricular scope. Nonetheless, the specific differences of the content areas will be acknowledged in the analysis, which will provide both results and a limited range of content-specific evidence-based practices.
How would you characterize your teaching philosophy?
How is teaching similar to and different from the expectations that you held prior to your first in-class experience?
How long have you taught your own class?
How often do you attend professional development or continuing education conferences, seminars, courses, workshops, etc.? Do you do so as part of a requirement or voluntarily?
Are your lesson plans developed individually or collaboratively?
How do you link content objectives with the development of a curriculum and of specific lesson plans?
Do you subscribe to one (or more) general or content-specific journals of education?
How do you select new approaches for integration into the curriculum?
What works of educational reference were key to your development as a teacher and which would you recommend today? (They may be general or content-specific.)
What strategies do you use in the classroom?
How frequently do you utilize graphic organizers?
How important is student engagement to you?
How is relevant terminology presented? Is it emphasized?
What role does technology play in your instruction? Do you consider yourself technologically-inclined?
What approach(es) do you utilize in regards to discipline?
How would you characterize the level of student responsiveness and adaptability of your lesson plans?
How do you foster connections between content, practice, and experience?
How do you adjust for student confusion during a lesson-in-progress?
How do you address suspected barriers to student learning?
What is your attitude toward diversity and variety in the curriculum? How do you manage class time for optimal engagement and minimal interruption?
How do you perceive the difficulty of the lesson plans which you deliver?
When and how do you assess learning?
When and how do you provide feedback?
How do you diagnose student barriers to learning?
This focus provides a working range for the consideration of the results, a focus which is not obstructed by longitudinal concerns of development. Each interview is explored through the presentation of the specific conclusions provided by the teachers’ responses to the interview. First, these results are condensed, explained in relation to the individual strengths and weaknesses of the teacher, and related to their content area in general whenever necessary. After which, each strength and weakness presented by this summary is addressed in relation to best practices and specific recommendations therein.
Mr. W, who teaches sixth-grade Mathematics, is a dedicated teacher who admits that he has foregone a “traditional family life” in favor of maintaining his focus on the education of his students. He expresses his belief that sixth-grade Mathematics is the turning point at which students from the simple equations of childhood to the abstract thinking and calculating which is necessary for adolescent math. He rotates his focus upon different approaches, depending upon the content and intent of the specific unit and upon the interests, talents, and skills of his students. Although Mr. W does implement procedures on the first day of school, discipline and routine are present but are not emphasized nor are they always exactly the same. While he describes the text selection as “pretty bland”, he supplements the detailed knowledge and examples with his own mini-lessons which are designed to help students conceptualize the basic concepts in a new and better way before they begin the reading of the text.
Although Mr. W is also a dedicated proponent of cultural diversity within his class and within the community- and uses numerous examples from various popular music and film genres and backgrounds, he associates technology use with episodic memory and short attention spans and attempts to replace many technological methods with the popular examples from music and film. (He admits to being an avid movie buff.) He perceives student engagement as the highest it has ever been and believes that the use of technology would only interrupt their interest and the transition from elementary to secondary math.
Mr. W is correct to fear the interruption of student engagement, which is an invaluable asset and popular feature among the list of best practices. Still, the conscientious application of technology can enhance the lessons. In Bellamy and Mativo’s A Different Angle for Teaching Math, one of the authors explain that “It wasn’t until I found myself in the real world that I first encountered anything I learned in a geometry classroom” (2010, p. 26). There are certain things that cannot be simulated through small-scale assignments, and technology and communication, as the authors write, provide insights which are particularly useful for the understanding of invisible concepts: rhetorical processes, pure theories, invisible forces, etc. Visualization is extremely helpful for visual learners and aids all students- regardless of learning style- to comprehend and perceive more regarding their world. Rader conducted a study of the connection between visualization and speech and language of at-risk students, but her test items were directly related to mathematics as well, since they addressed terminology, size, shape, color, sound, quantity, location, action, and time (n.d.). Her study indicated that the early use of visualization techniques presents long-lasting, interdisciplinary benefits and that every year which passed reduced the general efficacy of this approach.
Coach S, who teaches eighth-grade History, admits that- for the school district, for himself, and for the majority of his fellow coaches- the position as an athletic coach takes priority over the coursework and education which he provides. He coaches basketball and has taught History for sixth to eighth grades for the past twenty-six years. That is not to say that he does not care. The success of his basketball program has enabled him to lobby for new textbooks on behalf of some of the teachers, and he has become the “go-to guy” for making requests to the school administration. He frequently utilizes PowerPoint presentations, because he believes that the format is easy for students to understand and because it can easily be modified to include new information or to be linked to new content objectives. He regularly attends department meetings, which are generally led by a fellow History teacher and coach who resents coaching. Coach S hears students complain about how dry his fellow coach’s instruction is and often wonders what they say about his class. More than any other reason, Coach S believes that teaching History is the best opportunity to develop empathy and good civic values.
Coach S seems to subscribe to the happiness principle, which states that every person has an obligation to maximize happiness and reduce suffering (Brulde, 2010). This belief does not preclude the student’s own individual system of ethics, though, as the method of producing the greatest happiness remains a subject of much debate. The mere emphasis upon the happiness principle does encourage people to consider their actions as influential for themselves and others, consider elements of happiness to be globally interrelated, and consider their well-being as inextricably tied to happiness itself (p. 568).
Mr. S, who teaches seventh-grade Science, believes his content area to be one which the students struggle with most. He has taught the same subject and grade level for the past six years. Frustrated by his lack of mobility within the school and by the attitudes of parents and teachers, he moderated the difficulty of his lessons in response to parental pressure and now dreads the prospect of making lesson plans. Perhaps as a result, he does not expend the same level of effort as the other four teachers and simply dismisses graphic organizers as “irrelevant” to Science. Although Mr. S prefers the classical and conservative approaches, which he considers to be the only “proven” methods, some content-specific challenges he faces force him to find modify or abandon his approaches in response to the unique organization of the subject material. He is not familiar with other approaches and “tacks ‘em on” with his existing lesson.
Kohn (1999) states that faculty with low self-efficacy blame students for their behavior, when in fact many faculty neglect to recognize that their classroom management methods must be evaluated- not students’ behaviors. Improving efficacy in elementary sciences is often related to vocabulary building and retention. In one teacher profile, Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz (2005) explore the methods of one Biology teachers who uses a graphic organizer (called “writing-to-learn” or WtL) to allow the students to display, discuss, analyze, and reaffirm their own comprehension and cognitive structuring. In addition to building vocabulary, students essentially provide a road map to individual barriers to learning, as they make comparisons, restate, and create connections between new elements of instruction (2008, p. 260). This WtL graphic organizer could be used by Mr. S to understand gaps in learning and again raise class expectations and efficacy through scaffolding. To relieve his skepticism, Mr. S could attempt this strategy himself- just as he would need to model WtL before its utilization (p. 261). This strategy is also viable for other content areas. For more details about cognitive restructuring, Mr. S may refer to the best practices lesson plan provided by Sayre (2006).
The final suggestion would be that Mr. S keep diversity of gender in mind as well. Female, adult professionals with the same scientific credentials as their male counterparts are more likely to pursue other career fields due to perceived gender bias (Hasse & Trentemoller, 2011). From a study of more than five countries, the authors identified three basic work cultures which may be to blame, which they termed as the Hercules, Caretaker, and Worker Bee models. In two of these three models (Hercules and Caretaker, specifically) women report being undermined due solely to their gender or their status as a mother and may also report sexual harassment. These two models encourage aggression and ethically-questionable tactics. Puka (1990) writes that education, as a producer of modern social norms, subtly encourages young women to be subservient, gentle, and passive and should, instead, include elements of gender empowerment and self-affirmation.
Mrs. R, who teaches sixth-grade English Language Arts, maintains a learning environment of absolute control- from her own delivery of the lesson to the arrangement, discipline, and development of the classroom. Student engagement time is maximized, and the majority of the students have risen to meet the challenges which she sets. Her lesson plans have been adjusted and elaborated continually throughout her fifteen years teaching in the same grade level and subject area, providing her a distinct sense of specialization which often places her in a position of leadership during the department’s weekly teacher collaboration meeting. Content and objectives are clear, practical, and in accordance with much of the available educational literature. In addition, she has a revolving, working quota of sorts for the number of different types of exercises utilized per two weeks, and she confers with the other teachers regarding their opinions on various texts. During the paperwork process in preparation for the interviews, the principal identified her as one of his best and most respected teachers. While a general (displayed) lack of empathy for students definitely contributes to the stability of her classrooms, she indicates that certain students feel overwhelmed and “crumble under the mounting expectations. ‘What my mother wants, what my friend want, what my teachers want’… They come to me already on the defensive; they just don’t want to listen.”
In most regards, Mrs. R combines many of the best practices. Her lesson plans are pragmatic and conscientious, and, although she clearly dominates lesson plan development, there is an established collaboration between her and the other teachers in the English department. Every minute of class time is utilized to establish a sense of routine and security, and students eventually go about tasks independently- without any request whatsoever. Learners develop a sense of natural autonomy and self-confidence and work together efficiently. From her own characterization of class responsiveness and adaptability- and from the reconfiguration of her lessons- it is clear that her approach is centered upon the lesson rather than the student, as recommended by the majority of the current best practices literature. “Best Practices Related to Interdisciplinary Education” claims that- in addition to the adoption of a student-centered learning approach – interdisciplinary sharing encourages students to view knowledge as overlapping, thus increasing the student’s perception of the value of learning (2009).
Her somewhat-perennialist beliefs advocate a changeless foundation of core concepts which emphasize key learning for the child as both student and future citizen (Cooper, 2007, 300-302). She acknowledges the therapeutic value of the arts and other electives but believes that they are impractical and unrelated to her content area. During a “Drawing Concepts” exercise, Mrs. R circulated throughout the room to encourage each student and remind them that they would not be graded on the drawing itself but on the effort and thought shown. Nonetheless, many of the features of her teaching philosophy could easily accommodate features of the student-centered progressive teaching philosophy which also places great store in methodology (pp. 306-308).
Mrs. B, who teaches eighth-grade Art, is a teacher who expresses her beliefs that rules stifle creativity, especially in the development of her older middle school/ junior high school students. Unsurprisingly, her student-centered classroom evolves as she attempts to continually challenge her students. However, timeliness and order have fallen by the wayside. Although her creativity has blossomed, the students do not organize, budget their time, or practice the self-discipline to build the artistic skills necessary to realize their vision. Additionally, she finds that students are often preoccupied with the meager or unclear direction she provides. They have become so independent in their learning that she finds it hard to control or guide them. This is her third year of teaching, and the first year she taught English to ninth-grade students.
Wong & Wong (2001) address these issues of procedure and discipline in their new classic How to Be an Effective Teacher: The First Days of School, which Mrs. R cites as a primary guide for her disciplinary management. The authors suggest that praising a child’s natural abilities does little to encourage the development of new skills. For this reason, Wong and Wong recommend that teachers only praise specific, positive behaviors. This continued interest in individual actions and accomplishments also encourages the students to accept responsibility and enjoy accomplishment (p. 20). In such a freely-evolving learning environment, there is a particular need for the stability of such behavioral procedures.
The study of these five respondents presented challenges unique to each person’s individual teaching philosophy and style as well as a select number of subject-specific challenges which the teacher must meet and overcome. Nonetheless, from the current and potential best practices recommended by the literature for each of these five mini-studies, a comprehensive picture of educational improvement can be formed. From Mr. W’s interview, it was clear that technology is occasionally undervalued for even the most receptive and dedicated teachers. Coach S demonstrates that a teacher has multiple skills and means of providing benefit to students- even when this benefit is not directly realized through instruction.
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