This week I was able to actually observe some lessons taught by one of my cooperating teachers. Based on the lesson I observed this week and what I’ve seen in the past, my teacher uses a lot of questioning techniques to assess her student’s knowledge. In some cases, mostly the same students answered her questions, because only a select few students actually volunteer and raise their hand. She would also just call on students to answer questions, especially for the questions that were assigned as homework, under the assumption that all students have completed the homework. She did not seem to have a system for checking each students’ homework individually, so she only assessed her students informally through questioning and answering.

I talked to my cooperating teacher about the different assessments they utilized and was very surprised by the answers she gave me. As far as assessments go, they are mostly crafted based on the workbook that they use for English instruction. Additionally, she has the older students produce writing samples sometimes. She showed me an example of an assessment she gave the third-year students, which had them write a letter to a “pen pal” with basic details about their friends, family, school, etc. For most of her assessments, the scoring is very straight forward, because they are either right or wrong. For the writing assignments, she said she assesses for completion and correct grammar as well as the required content, but she does not use a rubric or anything of that sort. She told me that there are two periods for assessments and get two final marks per year, in January and July. Students are assessed every 4 months. For each of the assessment periods, students take 3 written tests and 2 oral tests. Usually, at the end of the two periods, you do a final test to assess material covered over that whole period. I was surprised by how little assessments are given. How do they gather enough data to be able to complete students’ progress reports with so few assessments? What if students aren’t good takers? I feel like this system puts too much pressure on students to perform on their assessments.

My teacher said that she uses student assessments to see how well students understood instruction. If students make too many of the same mistakes, she will revisit the areas that they struggle with. She told me she once tried to re-administer the same test a week later, but it did not work very well and the results did not improve. She has her students revise their assessments to reinforce the material, and she has them translate the sentences for meaning and to see the grammatical and structural differences between the sentences when in English and Italian. Additionally, I was surprised to learn that 3rd-year students are allowed to use their dictionaries during an assessment.

In addition to the assessments that are administered through the school, after middle school, the students have to sit for state exams. They have to take assessments for all subjects in written form and orally. Many of the third year students have been talking about how worried they are for these exams. I’m not exactly sure what the outcome of these exams determines but they are clearly very important.

Overall, I feel like there is a lot of weight placed on assessments, which is really different from what I’ve seen in my past placements. Again this may be a difference that arises due to grade level since I’ve mostly worked with younger or intermediate grades. For my CI 407 class, we completed the whole child project, which involved us having to look at multiple different assessments and consider the students’ backgrounds and cultures to assess the student as a whole. I feel like what I’ve seen done here is the opposite of that. My teachers don’t even know all of their students’ names let alone intimate details of their life, meaning that their evaluations are based solely on students’ performance on tests. I am curious to see how the students perform when they are assessed like this.

Observations on Classroom Management

My experiences with classroom management here have been very different from what I’ve seen in my placements in the past. I do think it has to do with being in a different grade level to an extent, but cultural differences certainly play into it as well. From my observations and my conversations with my cooperating teachers, it seems that this is an area where they face many struggles. Like with any school, the level of management that is required is very different from class to class. From what I’ve found, in general, the youngers students have fewer management issues than the older students. Most of the behavioral issues seem to stem from a lack of engagement in the teaching material. To be quite honest, I don’t blame these students for being checked out of the lessons. The scripted curriculum they use for English instruction is quite dry, and I’m afraid that I still don’t know enough about these students to be planning lessons that match their English proficiency level, so most of what I’m trying to teach them doesn’t really seem to register with them either. I was a lot more successful with my Japanese food lessons than I was with my American geography lessons because at least with the food they were somewhat intrigued by the topic. On the other hand, despite my efforts to create activities and utilize worksheets, the geography lessons still seem to be something that the students can’t really connect with and some of the language may be over their heads.
From what I’ve seen, there are no specific procedures or routines for classroom management. The biggest behavioral issues that I’ve seen are just the constant chatting between students. This issue is only addressed through verbal warnings and may solve the problem to an extent, but the quiet doesn’t last for very long. I’ve seen both of my teachers stop lessons and angrily scold the students, but I don’t think the students take them very seriously. Mostly, the behavior is ignored if it’s just a student or two, and only addressed when the class becomes too noisy as a whole. I think the reason this is such a persistent issues is because there are no real consequences for the students, and they just see it as something that they can get away with. I asked my teachers if students ever get sent to see the principal, but they were very surprised by this and said that they don’t. From what I understand, the principal isn’t even always at school. There is no individualized management to address each student. The class is only ever managed as a whole, which is also a reason why the warnings don’t really have an impact on the students because they can easily hide behind the rest of the class and brush it off as if it wasn’t actually meant for them.
Many of the teachers mostly just raise their voice to get through to their students. This week I witnessed a substitute teacher bang on the table to get the students to quiet down, and I’ve heard from some of my other classmates that they see this done in their classes often as well, even in elementary classrooms. Most of the teachers take an authoritative position to try to get through to their students. I am no expert in classroom management, especially for middle school students, but I wonder if they would have an easier time managing the students if they tried to connect with them more. The students don’t seem to have a lot of respect for the teachers, and it is pretty clear to see that there isn’t a strong relationship between the students and the teacher. I think this is probably quite difficult to achieve since the students see so many different teachers in one day, and only for a short period, but I don’t think it’s impossible. I know managing the students is a stress factor for both of my cooperating teachers, and they have opened up to me many times about how they feel at a loss for what to do. I think both of them are rather burnt out because of this. Although I don’t have any clear answers for them, I can only say from my experience that the best way to manage students is to get to know them and address them individually, address even small behavioral issues right away so they don’t snowball and cause disruptions and frustration, and take a calm yet firm approach with them. Additionally, students need to know that there are consequences to their actions and be held to those, or they will never learn to stop behaving inappropriately. Good classroom management isn’t about controlling the students, but rather, motivating them and engaging them while showing to them how much you care about their educational success. Students need to be held to high standards, and if you do, they will respond to them, as they see that as a sign that their teacher genuinely cares about them rather than just ignoring their undesirable behaviors.

Engaging Students at the Middle School Level… Impossible Task?

One of my assignments this week had me reflect on how to engage students and how I’ve seen it done in my placement. The first and only two lessons I actually observed before taking over the teaching, the teacher started the lesson by going over the homework she had assigned at the end of the previous lesson (she also closed the lesson by assigning next week’s homework, rather than reviewing or wrapping up the lesson). One by one in order of their seating chart, students read off their answers to the homework questions. In this way, student participation was not an option. Even throughout the rest of the lesson, she never really asked for volunteers, but rather, called on students. From my personal experience teaching these classes, if you ask for volunteers to answer questions, you could end up waiting for someone, anyone, to raise their hand for quite a while. I also tried to engage my students and encourage their participation by giving them worksheets and other activities to help them follow along with the lesson, but some students simply chose not to do them. Even in some of the classes where we simply played review games for the whole class period, some students chose not to participate. The teachers have talked to me several times now about how they don’t really know what to do with students who choose not to do their work. From my general observations, it seems that the teachers believe that it is up to the students to make sure that they are following along and doing what they need to do to make sure they are successful in their classes. From my personal middle school experience in Japan, there was this same expectation, that it was up to us as students to take responsibility for our own learning. I was actually an underperforming student in middle school because of this. I was very unmotivated and checked out in most of my classes. In contrast to this, through my college education, I have come to think that it is up to the teacher to arouse and sustain student participation, as well as ensure that they are engaged and participating throughout the class.

We had a discussion the other day in our afternoon Italian culture class about this exact journal topic. We have all been seeing more teacher centered and traditional lecture-like instruction in our placements. This seems to be the case for most of my classmates who are in elementary school placements as well. I’ve found a lot of similarities between Italian culture and Japanese culture, and so I related my Japanese schooling experience to what I’ve been seeing here and contributed to the discussion by making another comparison between the two cultures. Because we have been almost conditioned to view teacher centered, lecture style teaching to be “bad” or unengaging, we may see what we are seeing done here as something out of the norm or something that you shouldn’t be doing as an educator. We have spent so much of our pre-teacher education learning about ways to differentiate, meet all our students’ needs, and utilize student-centered teaching strategies. With that being said, with mostly homogeneous cultures like Italy and Japan, I think this style of whole group instruction has been/can be successful in some cases. There is some level of diversity in the classes, but there are still only about one or two non-native students per class that I have seen. In stark contrast to that, American classrooms have been becoming more and more diverse, which creates a large need for differentiated practices. This difference in teaching style that we are noticing may have to do with this difference in student demographics, in addition to many other factors as well. Although I wouldn’t say it is inherently “bad” teaching, it certainly doesn’t seem to be working with my middle school students here.
Even in the U.S., at some point in a student’s career, it becomes their responsibility to make sure they are learning in class. Because I’ve been in elementary schools and I’ve been taking classes revolving around elementary school teaching, this style of teaching seems unfamiliar or out of the norm to me, but it isn’t necessarily the case. So exactly when does this change of responsibility from teacher to student happen, and how are students made aware of this? If we want our students to make it to higher level education, at some point they are going to have to learn to take responsibility for their own learning. I always admired how well my cooperating teacher in Urbana instilled this sense of responsibility in her students at as young as a 3rd and 4th grade. But there will still always be students who choose not to be responsible, and although in elementary school, we still make great efforts to get through to these students, will their middle school teachers do the same? How do you make students who, in middle school, have no motivation or foresight to see how important it is that they are successful in school engaged? This has been my number one struggle during my placement here so far. As someone who was that unengaged and unmotivated middle school student myself, I’m still quite clueless about how to be a good teacher to someone like that. Although I think some of it is due to cultural and linguistic differences, I also think a lot of it stems from me just not being very familiar with middle school aged students. I have noticed that I am a lot more successful with the 1st year students (6th graders) than I am with the 3rd year students (9th graders), so I do think that the ages of the students are playing a role in this dilemma that I am facing.

As far as my cooperating teachers here go, they seem to be just as lost in this area as I am. In fact, one of my cooperating teachers and I had a long discussion this past week about how burnt out she is because of this. She is only a third-year teacher and she only works 21 hours a week, but she confessed to me how exhausted and lost she feels all the time. She even told me that she wanted to quit teaching, and would do so if another employment opportunity came her way. I don’t blame her, and I’ve always said that it takes a special kind of (very brave) person to teach middle school, but I wonder how much of her education prepared her to handle student management? I’m curious to learn more about the pre-teacher education system here and will have to ask her more about it when I get the chance.

Week 2 in Italy

Over my first two weeks of being in this placement, I got to talk to my cooperating teacher a little bit about what school is like here and the different duties that she has as a teacher. Because she teaches classes back to back, it is hard to find the time to really sit down and talk to her, but I have learned bits and pieces of what it is like for her as a teacher during the short conversations we’ve gotten to have over my first week and some corresponding through email. From what I’ve learned through my classes in the afternoon, and through what I’ve been observing, teachers have a lot of autonomy as far as what they choose to teach and how they choose to teach it. There are some national standards that set benchmarks for what students need to be able to do at the end of each grade, but they seem to be pretty broad and teacher are free to interpret them how they wish. My cooperating teacher simply said that she plans lesson objectives based on the topic and the time of the year. Right now I am teaching the 3rd year students about Japanese food, which we will then compare to American food and Italian food. The 2nd year students are also working on a project involving food and nutrition, so I am talking to them about the food pyramid/eating a balanced diet, and we are practicing how to give advice using “You should/you shouldn’t…” In addition to these special topics that teachers have chosen to include, they also follow a scripted curriculum for English. The other teacher that I am working with is focusing on present simple with the 1st year students she teaches, and I spend my time walking around assisting and engaging students in speaking practice. Most of what these workbooks focus on is grammar and vocabulary. In my opinion, this curriculum seems quite dry.
The teachers I work with seem to select teaching and learning strategies based on the students’ strengths and weaknesses. I’ve seen both teachers utilize strategies like think-pair-share, grouping, and (very brief) one on one conversations (for speaking practice) with the students. My teacher seems to be very aware of each class and their different needs. Some are more easily engaged while others require more activities and/or games to help the lesson seem more fun for them. For the most part, I have observed a lot of lecture style teaching. The students sit in desks that are in rows and the teacher stands at the front of the classroom. With that being said, the teacher doesn’t just talk the whole time. The students actively participate in sharing answers and practicing pronunciation. Many times the teachers will have the students engage in conversation with the students around them.
When it comes to students with diverse needs, many students get outside support in addition to the accommodations their teachers make. For example, the special needs students get aids that follow and assist them. One student who is from South America gets special one on one tutoring for Italian. As far as accommodations inside the classroom go, my teacher has said that she generally simplifies a lot when they are first starting to learn a new topic and gradually give them more difficult tasks. She often utilizes pair work and peer tutoring and believes that it is useful for both those in need and the high performing students. I agree with this idea. In my past placement in Urbana, I would often pair higher performing students with lower performing students for subjects, especially like math, and found the results to be very good for both students.
Getting to compare these two different educational systems has been very interesting, and I find new similarities and differences between my experiences at home and my experiences here every day. Through my placement and my afternoon classes, I am excited to continue to compare the two systems and cultures throughout my time here.

Week 1 Student Teaching in Italy

Last week was my first week of being in my placement here in Italy. I am placed in a middle school, where I will be working with all of the students that go to the school, specifically during their English time. As someone that is used to being in elementary school classrooms, this is a big adjustment for me, let alone the cultural and linguistic differences that I have to navigate. I have two cooperating teachers that I am working with who have very different teaching styles. It is very interesting for me to get to see both. The English lessons that they have seem to come from a scripted curriculum. The students work on exercises in their workbook accompanied by listening and speaking practice. In some of the classrooms, I am working with the teacher to help students practice their conversational skills as she continues to follow this curriculum. In my other classrooms, I am teaching the students about Japanese food, then American food, so we can compare and contrast the different cultural influences and how they show through in the food we eat between Japan, America, and Italy. I am struggling to come up with ways to approach these lessons and make them engaging for the students. I barely have enough background knowledge on them to know what skills they have that I should be building on and what ways that I can support them in areas they need to improve on. Having never even observed a typical lesson in these classes, I’m not sure what kind of activities and teaching style the students are used to. I’m unaware of the resources that are available to me in the classroom/at the school, which also makes it difficult to plan for activities. In this way, planning for these lessons has been a real challenge. Although I am used to working with students who have different first languages, working with a whole class of students like this is completely different. I’m trying to think of ways that I can connect with these students during the one hour a week I have with them. Being in this placement really makes me think how amazing it is that middle school teachers teach so many different students.

Aside from what I’m learning through attempting to teach, I’m also learning a lot about the Italian education system through my conversations with my cooperating teacher and the Italian culture classes we are taking in the afternoon. From what I understand, teachers seem to get very few hours and are paid very little compared to what we are in the United States. I was talking to my cooperating teacher today about applying for jobs, and she was so surprised to hear that we apply to jobs individually through schools. She informed me that here, they have to apply through a general application and can only choose one city and 20 schools that they would like to apply to. Then, based on points (I am unsure of how these points are allocated and will have to ask her more about it) the teacher candidates are placed on a list. From there, the schools will call the candidates they would like to interview. I was most surprised when she told me that teachers often do not know whether or not they have a job for the school year until September 1st. Even if you do have a job, you may not be full time (18 hours), meaning that you wouldn’t get a full salary. Given the fact that there is little job security and little pay, I am not surprised that teachers often go one strike here (although it is only for a day, and seems to be somewhat ineffective). It has definitely put a lot into perspective for me. I’ve been so caught up in how broken our education system seems to be that I never thought about teachers having it much worse than we do in other places. With that being said, I am very surprised by the state of the education system here, because I had a general image of European countries having excellent education systems. This may be true in several other European countries, but certainly is not a generalization that can be made for all.