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Empowering Learners, Spring 2005
Extra-Classroom Teaching Handbook

Creating a Productive Space: A Guide to Extra-Classroom Teaching

Allison Jones

A teacher's purpose is not to create students in his own image,
but to develop students who can create their own image.
~Author Unknown

What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches. ~Karl Menninger

There are three good reasons to be a teacher - June, July, and August. ~Author Unknown


A goal that many teachers have is to ensure that their students can be independent thinkers. As a result, when the classroom is being structured, it is structured with the intentions of making a space in which students can ask questions and grow intellectually. However, when a student needs help, they are usually sent to us: extra-classroom teachers. We come in many forms: tutors, teaching assistants, mentors, extra-curricular activities leaders and share the goals of the teachers—to ensure students can think on their own. However, when you are an extra-classroom teacher, there are more constraints—time, knowledge of students, knowledge of material, etc. Yet it is still possible to create a space in which students can begin the process of self-learning.

Part I: Getting Started

This is when you are just starting. You have been assigned to a great position as an extra-classroom teacher. However, where do you begin? How do you form your classroom culture?

Step One: Mapping Out Goals (Why are you there?)

On my first day at M.A.S.T (Mentors As Student Teachers) I was excited. I had figured that the students would be just as excited as I was and I had a bunch of ideas as to what I wanted to teach and how I wanted to teach such as discussions and reading/writing short stories. However, when I arrived, I was presented with a sheet of paper that outlined what I needed to teach and by what date. As well, the students weren’t exactly thrilled to be in a classroom on a Saturday morning. Whereas an experienced teacher may have a back up plan, I didn’t know what to do and ended up asking the same questions over and over again and letting the students out early. The issue was not that I didn’t know how to teach; rather I did not have any kind of concrete plan nor was I of the requirements of the program.

The little details that I forgot turned out to have a huge impact on my teaching. I learned that it is crucial that extra-classroom teachers come in with a plan. Of course, that plan must be open and flexible allowing adaptation to the students’ needs. However, with little time and usually an agenda given to you by another authority and the nature of the program under which you are teaching, having a plan will offer more structure during the time you work and allow things to move more efficiently and quickly. Essentially this is the logistical aspect of teaching that can be forgotten when you are caught up in the excitement of teaching.

Questions to consider: What are the goals of the program under which I am teaching? Is there some sort of a timeline to mark the progression of students? What am I bringing to the program that I can share with my students?

Step Two: Mapping Out Goals (You are there for the students)

But all was not lost on the first day of M.A.S.T. when I had no clue of what to teach. A plus was that I got to know my students pretty well. Because I did not have a plan, I was able to talk casually with the students and get to know them in both academic and non academic settings: what are your favorite subjects? What do you like to do for fun? What is your favorite movie? What kind of writing have you done before? Do you like writing? Why/not?

While these questions may not seem very important, I found myself later on in my placement, reflecting on what I learned about them that first day. Many of the students did not enjoy writing, but wrote because they had to for classes. They enjoyed activities that allowed them to converse with one another but also allowed them to come up with new ideas for papers. These small pieces of their personalities showed me their attitudes towards writing—an attitude that would be a challenge to overcome if I ever wanted to get them to grow as writers and really grasp the material.

After I considered the nuts and bolts of my specific aims as an extra-classroom teacher, I was then able to reflect on the needs and ideas of the students. Most extra-classroom teachers receive small numbers of students in intimate settings. Use these to your advantage and get to know the students individually—it is time to especially consider their needs. All students come in with previous knowledge about many topics and often times that previous knowledge can make it difficult to pick up new information about what you are trying to teach. As well, students may have preconceived notions about your role as an extra-classroom teacher. You may be able to tell this by the questions they ask you or how they speak to you: how do they address you? Do they ask you questions about who you are? The answers to these may somewhat determine the role you have—are you there to give them answers? Check their homework? Be a friend? Once you recognize that you are ultimately there for the students, it is crucial to understand what they are looking for from you and the program.

Questions to consider: What are my students bringing to the classroom—culturally and other wise? What do my students want to get out of this program? How they define my role? How do they negotiate this? Where are my students in regards to the material they are supposed to learn? What resources can I provide that will help them?

Step Three: Confidence Combination

A hard part of being an extra-classroom teacher is achieving the goals of the program yet ensuring that your students are learning at a comfortable pace and that their thoughts and ideas are being carefully considered. While logistical aspects of teaching such as time may seem like a major constraint, what usually holds extra-classroom teachers back are their own frustrations. Many of the students in M.A.S.T. share a background similar to mine which was helpful in terms of establishing a relationship with them. However, I found myself abusing this common background—I made judgments about them because of what I experienced when I was their age as opposed to asking them questions about their own thoughts and feelings. This often resulted in me not being able to teach the material affectively.

All judgments and doubts must be checked. As well, it must be realized that understanding of the material will not always come immediately—success does not always appear in the form of a right answer. What you are looking for is the ability for students to think on their own and come to the right answer as well as pick up skills that they will be able to use in the future. There should be competence inside and outside of the classroom.

Questions to consider: What are your expectations for your students? How do you view yourself as an extra-classroom teacher?

Part II: Examining Classroom Culture and Assessment

As an extra-classroom teacher, it becomes easy to get into the flow of things: to not pay much attention to why you do the things you do on a regular basis. As well, when it comes to assessment, it may not be your responsibility to “test” the learner to see if he/she has learned something. However, both jobs are major responsibilities of a extra-classroom teacher as the nature the relationship you form will most likely be more casual and inevitably have an impact on how and what the student learns.

Step One: Making the Normal Unfamiliar

It is difficult to examine classroom culture because many things that go into running a classroom (i.e. lesson plans, seating arrangements, etc) become habits—they are things that we do to get the job done. However, creating a classroom culture that allows students to begin (or continue) the process of being independent thinkers and learners requires questioning those “little things” that we do.

I had made a decision early on in M.A.S.T. that I would ask the students at the beginning of our sessions what they had learned in school about writing that they would like some help on. However, one session I forgot to ask this question and the students had a hard time understanding what I was teaching. Finally someone blurted out “But my teacher said don’t do that.” I hadn’t realized that I created a culture in which students reconciled different writing methods/ideas when I asked them what they had learned in school and explained them in the context of the classroom. I also learned the importance of incorporating their experiences into the classroom.

Other things such as where I placed seats or whom I paired with whom also influenced how they acted in class. Some students got used to working with each other so placing them in different groups altered the way they worked. How the students interact with each other and with you is an important dynamic.

Questions to consider: Are the students comfortable with one another? Are they asking questions? Are they working together? Am I asking them questions? Am I trying to learn from them?

Step Two: Making Assessments

Depending on the nature of your position you may or may not be required to “test” your students to make sure they understand the material. However, regardless of the position, each extra-classroom teacher wants to make sure that not only do their students understand the material but also that they will be able to figure out the answers again on their own in the future as well as take whatever skills they have learned in the process and apply them on a regular basis. One of the most frustrating parts of M.A.S.T. is that I have very little say in the assessment: it is a final paper to be presented to the other students, parents, and coordinators of the program. However, what I do in order to assess whether or not my students understand the material, I have them do little writing exercises at the beginning of our sessions and let each other review them. I also review drafts of the papers and tell them there is a mistake in the paper, without telling them exactly what it is. Instead I tell them the type of mistake it is: spelling, punctuation, etc.

However, while I may be able to assess knowledge of material, it is still difficult to assess whether they will use and internalize the material. These things are difficult to assess as they cannot simply be written down. They require reflection on the part of the student and the teacher.

Questions to consider: Why is it necessary to assess their learning? What methods of assessment are appropriate for my students?

Part III: Reflection and Conclusion

Asking students to give feedback can be a challenge in itself but it has enormous benefits. It allows you to not only see what the student is taking away from the sessions but also it is a chance to reflect on how you taught: what trends did you notice? What would you change? Teaching is a process that takes time to develop yet may change depending on who your students are. The key is to be constantly examining the space you have created.
The issues outlined above are very broad so that they can be applied as needed depending on where you are teaching and whom you are teaching. One question the ties all of these topics together is: What is my role as an extra-classroom teacher? This question has theoretical and logistical aspects from what an authority has told you your role is to how you view education and the process of learning. The key to creating a productive classroom culture is to ask questions and seek those answers not just from yourself, but also from your students.

 

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