I’ve come to the end of my third year teaching, and it’s time to reflect on the highs and lows of teaching middle school in Yerevan (February-June).
1. Setting high academic expectations.
Middle schoolers are just at the point where you can start teaching against the textbook. I really enjoyed reading and discussing Plato’s Apology with my 12 year old class – many were asking all the right questions. Small group discussion is one of my favorite ways of teaching, and small classes at QSI really lends itself to this way of teaching.
Both 12 and 13 year olds also wrote an 8 page research paper. A couple students learned the hard way about plagiarism, but others said they took off reading and writing about topics of their interest. I was proud of some of the areas my students tackled: comparing Machiavelli’s The Prince to his Discourses on Livy, comparing Greek art as mimesis and the use of fractals in computer graphics, comparing strategies of the Roman Empire to those of the US, and whether Ebola caused the Black Death (apparently yes, say some scientists).
We used a lot of technology – Edmodo continues to be useful, and I discovered Socrative, a free app that gives immediate feedback on quizzes and exit slips.
2. Having fun
I love teaching history. We enjoyed dressing up for our Greek god party on Mt. Olympus. Later we were served by slaves at our Roman patrician banquet, complete with proper reclining seating arrangement on mats. We also built scale models of the Pantheon, and Hagia Sofia (OK – the last one was a little hard to do!)
Any time you can do a field trip to a Mithraic temple (Garni), a medieval monastery (Geghard), and hike into a canyon is a win win.
We capped off our year by doing some archaeology – students were assigned one civilization from the text book and produced 3 artifacts for burial. Inscriptions were written on pottery, and then smashed with a hammer. After burial, groups then had to dig up other people’s artifacts and try to figure out which civilization they were from.
Debates were a great way to explore topics in non-fiction and get to the core ideas of texts. Students usually begged for more, because they think they aren’t actually working.
8 different classes a day is ridiculous for a 12 year old (for a fun critique of school’s hidden curriculm, read John T. Gatto‘s Weapons of Mass Instruction). Sometimes they just need to go outside and play soccer (and realize that their teacher is not bad).
3. Character education.
7th grade can be a social minefield for students. It was a privilege to be part of the conversation when the going got tough. I love that QSI rewards students for excellence in character, evaluates areas of improvement, and makes them part of the report card. You end up reflecting a lot more as a class about virtuous actions (however, I felt like my experiment with daily reflections morning and afternoon – the Stoic method – was a failure, since you can’t force someone to go through therapy, the have to want it).
Teaching about the Armenian genocide was a particularly rewarding experience. I have a blog post about it here.
1. Way too much computer time.
When I arrived to Yerevan in February, many students in the 12 and 13 year old class did not even have binders – they just took notes on computers like a university class and handed assignments in on Google drive or in unformatted emails. Because I used Edmodo and Socrative, it was a constant challenge to change their habits, and I believe I failed at this – doing an 8pg paper to cover multiple units also didn’t help. I felt like I betrayed Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Your Brain. Students need less screen-time, not more. I believe principals who think they are doing their elementary a favor by getting I Pads are sadly mistaken.
2. Brain drain.
After picking up and moving to Yerevan from Winnipeg (in the space of a month) and teaching middle school for the first time, I spent way too much time researching for my courses, and not enough time planning the actual objectives. Perhaps reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of Rome (abridged of course) was an unnecessary burden that prevented timely assessment and contributed to burn out. There are other ways to engage the classroom without having all the good stories.
I also spent too much time blogging, which is way more work than it looks like. In the last 3 years I’ve written a 200 page book worth of material.
I drank way too much coffee, which made me into a (sweaty) walking zombie by the end of the week. Everyone reacts slightly differently to the substance, and I’ve realized that by Friday too many cups of coffee makes me slightly depressed. I remember a speech to our graduating class in Winnipeg telling us to “STAY AWAY FROM COFFEE.” (Christine Rhodes) Now I know why.
3. Sweating the details
Switching from a large public school to a private school with classes of 10 or less has a way of making you more relaxed. But that doesn’t mean you should let go of the reins too much. Just because students aren’t really that loud and people are generally doing what they’re told isn’t good enough.
Treating my 12 year olds like they were more mature than they really were set me up for problems, especially with entitled students. I tried to live by the William Glasser approach (godfather of the QSI way), but there was something missing, and that was discipline and habit. Sometimes no amount of reflection on behavior will influence future actions unless students are explicitly told that they are wrong, and forced to make a habit of acting correctly.
The biggest thing I learned this year was to be prepared with a variety of immediate and incremental consequences and NOT to give warnings. Giving warnings is a recipe to be inconsistent, since you have to remember all the warnings you’ve given. Better to keep the learning curve and expectations high, and treat poor behavior like a bad habit.
Over all, this adventure in Yerevan was challenging but really rewarding. I met some great educators, had some once in a lifetime experiences, and have lots of foibles to learn from moving forward. Many people said I had “the most challenging classes in the school.” Well, I’m both relieved and disappointed to hear that – relieved to know that I survived with a tough class, disappointed to hear that I wasn’t as effective as hoped in molding habits and behavior. Perhaps this is the best way to begin work for an organization like QSI that values character education.