Beneficial Lessons from a Classroom Observation

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Teachers have the powerful ability to increase the knowledge of children, strengthen the thinking skills of students, and prepare our kids to succeed and flourish at their diverse and important crafts. However, different teaching methods can be used to effectively provide instruction for different students, and there are many strategies teachers can utilize to successfully instruct children with learning disabilities. Attending the classroom observation session was very beneficial because I was able to witness teaching strategies that were effective and that I should replicate as well as teaching methods that seemed inadequate and that I would modify.

The classroom that I observed was a core language arts-reading and writing class at Hoover Middle School, in Merced California, and the class went from 10 am to 11 am. Mr. Hall was the teacher of the course, and the class consisted of 11 students with disabilities, including a child with ADHD, a child with autism, 4 students with gates and 5 students with problematic or emotional disorders. Additionally, the room represented cultural diversity, as the class included children with Asian, Hispanic and Caucasian backgrounds. There were no extra personnel or instructors in the class other than the teacher.

I had a mixed response to the atmosphere of the classroom. Although each student had a separate desk, the room was very small and the space to maneuver around the room was very tight, which I thought might make it hard for the kids to concentrate and easy for them to become restless. However, large windows ran horizontally across the outermost wall, and the sunlight entering the room and the attractive view of grass and trees adorned the environment of the room with a calm and comfortable atmosphere and with an energized ambiance that helped to generate a positive attitude within the room. Additionally, the brightness of the colors in the room added energy to the environment and made the room seem larger.

Behind the teacher’s desk was a long chalkboard on which the teacher had written the schedule for the day, important reminders about upcoming days and a section for upcoming homework assignments. I thought that writing the specific schedules and activity plans for the day and for the rest of the week was an effective strategy. Research studies indicate that many students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia benefit from knowing the specific established schedule, as this helps them remain concentrated on the necessary tasks, reminds them of the schedule by which obligations need to be completed and enables them to manage their time more successfully (Smith, Dowdy, Palloway and Patton, 2013). Thus, I thought that the teacher’s strategy of writing the specific schedule of the day and of the week on the chalkboard was a good method that can maximize the focus and productivity of the students with learning disabilities.

When the students walked into the classroom and sat at their seats, they were full of jubilant excitement. Some students were sitting and engaged in conversations with each other, one student was quietly drawing a doodle on a notebook, and another student was standing and walking among the other seated students to talk to various other kids. The teacher allowed them to maintain their conversations and to have a moment of free time for the first few minutes of the session. I thought this was an effective strategy as well, for the moment of freedom allowed the students to enjoy the experience of entering the classroom, gave them a chance to socialize with each other, and enabled them to get comfortable in the room.

However, after a few minutes, the teacher stood in front of all of the desks and raised his hand up in the air while remaining silent. This was apparently the teacher’s method of informing the students that it was time to stop talking and to start the day’s lesson. I was initially surprised and confused by this strategy and by the fact that the teacher wasn’t saying anything, such as “alright children,” or “let’s get started.” However, Mr. Hall told me that the purpose of the strategy was to get the attention of the students and to reiterate the classroom rule in which people must raise their hands to talk. Thus, the method served multiple purposes in that it told the kids it was time for the teacher to talk and commence the lesson while also establishing the consistent rule of raising hands to talk. The strategy seemed successful too, for after a brief moment the students all understood the teacher’s indication and gradually stopped what they were doing to give Mr. Hall their attention.

The teacher began the session by briefly summarizing the lesson plan that was scheduled for the day, which again is a good strategy as it facilitates a focused understanding of the schedule, expectations, and requirements for the day. The lesson plan was to discuss a short story that the students had read. The story was called Ta-na-E-ka, by Mary Whitebird, and the story involved a child who was a part of the Kaw Indian Tribe and who had to perform a rite of passage ritual by surviving for a few days alone and in the wilderness, a task which the main character was scared to perform. The teacher began the session by asking general questions regarding the impression that the students had after reading the story. The general questions about their opinions of the story did not seem to stimulate much enthusiasm or excitement, as at the beginning of the discussion the children remained very quiet and reluctant to speak.

However, the teacher then asked a question that involved whether or not the students thought they could go into the wilderness and eat insects, as the main character in the story was supposed to do. This question generated enthusiasm from the students, as the room erupted with laughter and with comments about how disgusting the concept of eating insects is. When one kid said “insects taste yummy,” this also evoked laughter from the children and from the teacher. Thus, the teacher’s question was able to eradicate the shyness, stimulate excitement in the room and encourage the children to participate in the discussion. After the laughter had subsided, it was apparent that the students were much more relaxed and willing to discuss the contents of the story. The question was a smart strategy of the teacher, for it seemed that Mr. Hall was very aware that the question about eating insects would facilitate discussion, generate enthusiasm and encourage the students to get involved in the discussion. I will utilize the same strategy when I teach classrooms by preparing certain questions that I can rely on to instill enthusiasm and to facilitate discussion among the students.

The lesson fulfilled the educational curricula and core language arts standards established by the California Department of Education. According to the standards established by the California Department of Education, 6th grade students should be able to cite textual evidence to support claims about the text, accurately summarize the contents of the text, understand plot development and character response, and determine the meanings of words, phrases and sentences within the text (California Common Core Standards). Many of the students appeared to be capable of performing these tasks and of achieving the core language arts standards. During the initial classroom discussion about the story, it was evident that the majority of the students understood the words and sentences, were able to discuss the primary theme of the story and were able to identify the developments regarding the characters and the plot. Additionally, during the discussion some students were able to reference details in the text to support their opinions about the characters and the story. The teacher also did an exceptional job of encouraging the children to use textual evidence, as on multiple occasions Mr. Hall asked students who had expressed opinions to explain why they have formed their opinions, which motivated the students to successfully use details of the story to explain their points.

However, some students seemed to experience difficulties in understanding the text, the themes of the story, or the concept of using textual evidence. The teacher asked these students questions because they were the only children who had not participated in the discussion, but the students seemed unable to understand certain sentences and themes of the story and were unable to coherently answer the teacher’s questions. This led me to believe that the students in the classroom were not necessarily all on the same educational level and that the students might benefit from additional assistance such as special education.

I also was surprised that the teacher did not use any technological or visual aids in the lesson. Studies indicate that many students with learning disabilities learn more effectively when their minds are stimulated by visual representations or technological applications, as the visual aids can attract their attention and enhance their comprehension of the subject matter (Smith, Dowdy, Palloway and Patton, 2013). Thus, I would have used pictures, powerpoints, or other visual aids to maximize the focus of the students when the discussion began.

Another strategy of the teacher that I disagreed with was Mr. Hall’s insistence on students only being able to talk after they have raised their hand and have been called on. Although I understand why the teacher wanted to enforce this rule with consistency, there were some moments in which students were about to make points but were unable to do so because they shouted out spontaneously rather than raising their hands and awaiting their turn. Thus, while I do not mind the general policy of encouraging the students to raise their hands when they want to make a point about the teacher’s questions or the about the story, I think sometimes it might be best to allow a free discussion when the comments are focused on the lesson and the points are appropriate to the story, as this freedom can enhance the enthusiasm and exchange of ideas among the students.

However, I strongly agree with the teacher’s strategy of making his questions about the story relevant to the students. Students with learning disabilities tend to comprehend information with more efficacy when they can relate the information to aspects of their own lives (Smith, Dowdy, Palloway and Patton, 2013). Thus, by asking questions that encouraged students to reflect on their own cultural traditions and on how they would respond to the situations the main character was experiencing enabled the students to understand the concepts of the story and to remain enthusiastic about the topics being discussed.

After about fifteen minutes of discussing the story as a class, the teacher then divided the students into two separate groups and had the groups work together to answer a series of questions about the story. During this time three students with IEPs left the room to receive instruction from specialists in the recourse center next to the classroom. The specialists possessed the advanced knowledge and superior skills required to help these particular kids overcome their disabilities and improve their cognitive skills.

Meanwhile, the children in the classroom were divided into two teams to answer the discussion questions. The questions encouraged the students to compare and contrast the characters in the story, to understand the personality traits of the different characters, to discuss the nature of cultural traditions, and to comprehend the particular struggles that the main character was experiencing. Although both groups remained focused on discussing and answering the questions, the groups definitely displayed different dynamics. One group was relatively quiet and reserved while calmly collaborating to answer the questions, and the other group was hyper and loud while discussing the story and answering the questions. Because the loud group was still concentrating their energy on the story and on the assignment, the teacher did a great job of not interfering or disrupting the excitement of the group even though they were a little loud.

The teacher also did an excellent job of trying to give an adequate amount of attention to each group. Mr. Hall stood over one group to observe their discussion for a set amount of time, then walked over to the other group to mark their progress as well, and continued to walk back and forth between the two groups periodically to ensure that the discussions were operating effectively and that he was available to provide guidance when necessary. I also thought the teacher demonstrated great judgment and balance when devoting attention to a group, for he seemed to know when to simply allow the group to talk amongst themselves and when to jump in to provide specific direction for the discussion as the students answered the questions. Additionally, when students needed help understanding certain topics or required the teacher to answer certain questions that they were struggling with, the teacher was very quick to provide individual instruction for the students who needed assistance.

Although Mr. Hall was very diligent to give his attention to each group and to provide individual instruction when students had questions, watching him rapidly walk from group to group suggested that the classroom might benefit from having an additional instructor or specialist in the room. Having another instructor would have alleviated the need of the teacher to rush from group to group, would have allowed each teacher to designate their attention to a particular group and would have increased the amount of individual instruction each child could have received.

However, Mr. Hall did do an admirable job of devoting a sufficient amount of attention to each group, and it was evident during the interactions that he had a very strong relationship with all of the students. The students seemed to have a tremendous amount of respect for the teacher, seemed very comfortable talking to him and asking questions to him, and seemed to perceive Mr. Hall as a friend as well as an instructor. The teacher also appeared to truly enjoy dealing with his students and to be very knowledgeable regarding the backgrounds, strengths, and weaknesses of each student. As he conversed with the groups and with the students, this comprehensive knowledge of the kids and their disabilities helped him understand how to most effectively support and assist the different children.

The teacher also did an admirable job of assisting the two students who were English learners. The students seemed capable of reading, but the process was still a struggle for them and the students were challenged by some words and sentences. However, there are many strategies to help kids learn to read English effectively, including the use of graphics, oral language, references to prior knowledge and body gestures (Iratene, 2013). The teacher devoted some time to give each English learner individual instruction, and during the process Mr. Hall helped the English learners by repeating certain reading concepts, encouraging oral language, articulating certain phrases and providing guidance to facilitate reading comprehension. Additionally, Mr. Hall effectively used simple sentences and provided helpful reminders regarding prior knowledge that the students already possessed.

The kids in the class remained very well-behaved for the teacher. Although spending an extensive amount of time in their groups caused the students to become restless, to lose concentration on the task, and to start goofing around and making jokes that were not relevant to the task, Mr. Hall seemed capable of correcting the behavior and redirecting their attention back onto the task by using simple verbal cues, such as “stay on the track.” The short verbal cues worked effectively and were able to remind the students to remain concentrated on the story and on the discussion questions. Thus, while the teacher did not use a reward or token system, the verbal cues and the respect he had with the students enabled him to keep them focused and encouraged them to behave well. Additionally, Mr. Hall facilitated good behavior by establishing specific rules. Students with learning disabilities respond very well and demonstrate better behavior when the rules and behavioral expectations are clearly articulated and explained for them (Smith, Dowdy, Palloway and Patton, 2013). By specifying and explaining the rules regarding the group work, Mr. Hall helped the students demonstrate appropriate behavior.

After the allotted time for the group work had passed, the teacher then stood still between the two groups and raised his arm in the air silently as he had done before. Again this was effective in getting the students' attention and encouraging them to stop talking so the teacher could speak. Mr. Hall then had each group take turns expressing their answers to the discussion questions and tried to encourage each kid to speak. After the groups had explained and discussed their answers to all of the questions, the teacher spent the final minutes of the period reminding the students of their homework, the lesson plan for the next day and a reminder about an activity later in the week. This is effective, as specifying the schedule enhances the ability of the students with learning disabilities to remain focused and to complete the required tasks.

Observing this classroom was a very advantageous experience, as I was able to absorb the strategies that were effective and learn from the methods that I think need modification. The strengths included a relaxed and energetic environment, a clear structure for the students, and the ability of the teacher to encourage good behavior from the students, keep students concentrated on tasks, and facilitate discussion and participation. Challenges that I would address include the excessive use of the raised hand policy that can limit free discussion, lack of visual aids, and lack of an extra instructor to help increase the individual instruction of the students. By learning from the advantages and challenges of the classroom, the observation has allowed me to prepare my own teaching strategies and to maximize my own teaching abilities.

References

California Common Core Standards: English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and other Technical Subjects. (2013, July 1). California Department of Education. Retrieved from http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/st/ss/documents/finalelaccssstandards.pdf

Iratene, M. (2013, January 15). ELD and SDAIE Strategies. San Juan Unified School District. Retrieved from http://www.sanjuan.edu/webpages/miratene/resources.cfm?subpage=90953

Smith, T. E., Dowdy, C. A., Polloway, E. A., & Patton, J. R. (2012). Teaching Students with Special Needs in Inclusive Settings. New Jersey: Pearson Inc.