This blog post was co-written by Becca from Science Rocks and Tara from Science In The City. They have 22 combined years of teaching experience in the inner city. To read about their backgrounds, hop down to the bottom of the blog post.
10 TIPS FOR TEACHING IN THE INNER-CITY
I started teaching 10 years ago and honestly didn’t give much thought to what type of school I wanted to end up at. After graduating (with student loan debt looming) all I cared about was getting a job. I completed my student teaching in the fall semester and wasn’t hopeful I would find a job mid-way through the school year. I started googling schools in my area and found out a middle school not too far from my apartment had a science position open.
It turns out the particular school that hired me had the highest poverty rates in the entire county. Many of the families were living in shelters or staying in cheap motels. We would send food home with the students on Fridays or many wouldn’t have anything to eat over the weekend. It was heartbreaking and also the most fulfilling job I could have asked for. I fell in love with the students and quickly learned teaching strategies that worked for me and my classroom. I remember my first month teaching I had colleagues mention to me “You need to be mean or they will walk all over you.” It turns out that what those students really needed was quite the opposite. They needed a mentor. They needed to be treated with respect. They needed to be understood. They needed to feel like my classroom was a safe place for them.
I’ve since moved from middle school to high school but am still teaching in a title 1 district and don’t see that ever changing. Each school and demographic has their own battles and struggles to overcome, and I choose to put my efforts towards helping kids in low income areas. Am I going to get Starbucks gift cards for Christmas or teacher appreciation week? Nope. But I’m getting something far better. I’m building relationships with kids whom many had given up on. I get to help kids be first generation college students. I get to learn and teach humility and empathy on a daily basis. I get to truly make an impact on their lives.
I started teaching 12 years ago, and ended up in an urban district. My education program had a big focus on urban education and social justice, but it wasn’t a particular goal of mine to teach in an urban district. However, I student taught in the city (as well as a neighboring suburban district) and it just happened that my urban cooperating teacher was retiring and negotiated with her principal for me to get hired into her position. I was pregnant (not very marketable), but she worked it out so that I was able to co-teach summer school with her, and she would be the sub for my maternity leave in the fall. I had a good experience student teaching with her, and it was too good of an offer to turn down!
Thus started my urban teaching career! I have now taught for 12 years in one of the poorest, lowest achieving districts in the state. I stayed at that particular school for 5 years, teaching Earth Science and Environmental Science. Then I transferred to a different school and taught middle school science for 2 years. Then as that school was closed down by the state, I moved schools yet again in the same district and taught 2 years of 9th grade Biology. During my last 3 years I have been working in a program throughout the district for students who are behind on credits and are taking classes online that they have previously failed for “credit recovery.” Students are scheduled into a computer lab with other students who are taking virtual courses (but maybe not the same ones). Different subject teachers rotate between the different schools to meet with their particular students, but also to monitor the computer lab and help students (of any subject area). Each of these settings has been a new learning experience for me, as a teacher.
I grew up in the same area where I live, but in the suburbs, rather than the city. The urban environment was foreign, despite being only a few miles away. I struggled at first with what it would take to be successful in that environment, but learned quickly. I am fairly small, and can be soft-spoken. I often experienced disbelief from people that I could teach, or would want to teach, in that environment. However, I don’t believe successful urban teaching is about intimidation or being ‘mean.’ For me it has been about building relationships, and seeing success for students who don’t have a lot of other sources of support, or models in their lives. For many students, knowing that someone cares, believes in them, doesn’t give up on them, and someone pushes them to do their best goes a long way. Many students come from families where no one has graduated from high school before, parents don’t speak English, and they may not have a stable place to sleep at night. Yet they generally want to be successfully at school, and to graduate, despite having so many strikes against them. I am proud to be able to be a small piece of that!
This blog post is all about why I think Cornell notes are beneficial for students, and tips on how to make them easier for teachers. If you don't want to read my background story on how I came to love them and you just want the nitty-gritty, skip to the bottom of the post :)
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My first year teaching was at an AVID demonstration school. If you are familiar with the AVID program, they require students to use Cornell notes during class. I was fresh out of college and had never heard of them before. I was really excited to use interactive notebooks and to be honest I wasn't thrilled with having a set note-taking format I had to use. It felt like I spent the first month of school telling students what to write on the left side of their notes, and what to write on the right side. Getting them to write summaries was like pulling teeth. BUT, after a couple of months things got easier, and students got better at knowing what to write. Eventually students enjoyed having structure instead of messy note pages. I tried my best to make sure my powerpoint slides had clear questions and bolded vocabulary so students knew exactly what to write and what was important. I initially tried to get students to write the summary for homework, but I soon realized they just weren't going to do it. Enter plan B. Instead I would go back the next day and have them review their notes and write the summary for bellwork. It was a great way to refresh their memories on what they learned the previous day. Then I would call on 2 or 3 students to read their summaries out loud, which increased the stakes for writing in complete sentences and explaining things in their own words, not just regurgitating vocabulary words and definitions. Often times students would even call each other out, and say things like "You forgot to answer the essential question!" By the end of the school year my little 6th graders were champs at taking notes.
Fast forward 10 years and I now teach a class of seniors who are taking college biology through duel enrollment. One of the entrance requirements to this duel enrollment course is for students to have been in AVID all 4 years of high school. It has been amazing to see them take notes without asking, and not just during standard lectures. We have had multiple guest speakers visit our classroom, and students automatically set up a notes page, write down notes and questions they have throughout the presentation, and summarize what the speaker taught them. All without groaning. THAT, my teacher friends, is amazing to see.
So in summary, here are a few things to take away...
Why Cornell notes are good for students:
Are you tired of hearing the following questions 10 times a day:
"What did we do yesterday?"
"Was there homework?"
"I lost my paper. Can I have a new one?"
"What are we doing today? Anything FUN?"
"Where do I turn this in?
I know I was. Want to save your sanity? I cannot express to you how important it is to establish routines in your classroom. If you train students the first couple of weeks you will be so grateful later. I've established routines so my students know exactly what to do when they enter the classroom, know where to get missing work, and see what we are doing that day. After a couple of weeks if a student comes up to me and says "where is the worksheet from yesterday?" other students almost instantaneously respond so I don't have to deal with it. Here are a couple of the things I have done in my classroom to save my sanity:
1. As soon as students walk into my classroom, they automatically grab whatever worksheet is in the basket by the door. The first week or two I have to stand by the door and remind them, but after that it is just habit for them to reach over and grab the worksheet. It saves me time later so I don't have to pass out the notes, bellwork form, or worksheet for that day. It is also really nice when you have a sub, because it is one less paper they have to worry about.
2. I was so crazy tired of hearing "What are we doing today? Are we going to do anything FUN?" (Really? Science is always fun). Anyway, I had my sister who has a cricut machine cut out these vinyl letters for my whiteboard. As soon as students come into the classroom they know to get out their bellwork form, write down the daily objective and homework, and have 5 minutes to complete the bellwork on the board. Those 5 minutes are time for me to take attendance, check any urgent emails, and often get lab supplies ready for the next period. In my class students pick up a bellwork form (by the door!) every Monday and turn it in every Friday. So if a student ever says "what are we doing today?" all you have to do is point to the board.
3. If you had students that were absent the day before, do they know where to get their missing assignment? (Hint: The answer should NOT be they have to come bother you to get it). I have a crate in the back of the room for all extra worksheets. There are 5 file folders in the crate, labeled Monday - Friday. If a student was absent on a Tuesday, they know to go to the Tuesday folder and grab whatever papers are in there. Also, if a student wasn't absent but lost an assignment in the depths of their backpack, they know they can find extras in the orange crate.
4. Do your students know where to turn in papers? Whether you use small trays or file folders like I do, it is nice if students know exactly where to turn in papers. I have another milk crate at the front of the room that has file folders labeled with each period of the day. I also have a folder in the very back for no-names, so if students have a missing assignment they know they turned in, they can check the no-name folder. (FYI: Walmart carries these milk crates for very cheap during back to school season!)
5. I don't personally use this last tip, but I know teachers that do and really like it. When students ask "what did we do yesterday?" I usually have them check their neighbor's bellwork form and copy down the objective. But another option is to have a calendar posted in the front of your room and jot down what you taught that day. If you laminate the calendar you can write directly on it with expo markers, but if it's not laminated you can use sticky notes instead.
Overall having set routines will get your classroom running smoother. Ever notice that in many IEP's it has routines listed as an accommodation? It is so much easier to start class when students know exactly what to do. Any other tips you want to share? Leave them in the comments!
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As much as we would love to have our lessons end 30 seconds before the bell rings, it rarely happens. Even if it does work out perfectly in 1st hour, 2nd hour is a completely different group of students and the lesson might require more or less time. It sometimes happens that the lesson is over and I still have 5 minutes left of class. It drives me crazy when students try and wait by the door! If you are a science teacher, here is a great idea to fill those last 5 minutes.
There is a show on science channel called Outrageous Acts of Science. During the show they show video clips and have scientists explain the science behind the video. The videos are all about 2 minutes long and fun for students to watch. Go to youtube.com and type in "Outrageous Acts of Science" in the search bar. You will get a ton of results. Pick out a few that are interesting. Then, head over to keepvid.com and copy the youtube URL into the keepvid site. I like this website because it allows you to download youtube videos and save them to your computer. That way you don't have to worry about commercials or streaming/buffering issues.
Another fun youtube channel is from Steve Spangler and is called "Sick Science." Click here to view the youtube channel. It shows simple science experiments and allows the students to brainstorm why they happened. It is great to have students discuss why they think something is happening and not just have it explained to them.
If you have some of these videos already picked out and ready to go, it will save you time later. I think you will find these clips are way more valuable than the students trying to sit on their phones or wait by the door. Any other ideas you use for those last 5 minutes? Drop them in the comments!
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