Saturday, July 11, 2009

Four Weeks Down

I have already finished two courses! After just four weeks! They flew by and it is nice to know that I worked my hardest. Here is an essay I wrote (don't worry, it's entertaining!) for one of my final exams. If you're wondering why on earth I would post one of my essay assignments...well I'm not really sure myself. I guess I just had fun writing it and wanted to share it with the world. :-)

The directions were to imagine that my classroom is the epitome for everything that is right in educating children, and because of that, a group of international educators are coming for a tour of my special community. So, using what I've learned in this class, imagine what these visitors might see as they observe my classroom in action. Enjoy!

My name is Sarah Collins, an international "education scout," and I am currently in the most highly recommended elementary school in the United States. Concordia Elementary School, known for its passionate staff, hard-working students, and incredibly high test scores, is a premier example of everything that is right in educating children. I have come here to observe a classroom in action. The warm-hearted administrators have set me up with a 5th grade classroom, taught by Mr. Aaron Riedl. From what I have heard, his top-notch teaching techniques have made him a favorite among students. Join me as I explore his unique teaching styles and bring back observations from his class.

The classroom’s first sign of life appears before I even enter the room. The joy of learning spills into the hallway and fills the nearby walls—from floor to ceiling. Artwork and projects are spread around the entrance as evidence of the hard work going on inside. After entering the doorway, it is no surprise to see the layout fashioned similar to the neatly organized art in the hall. Colorful maps, charts, and words fill the walls with discovery. Books line the walls and art supplies fill the shelves. The students’ desks are personalized and unique to each individual. The homey quality of the room calms anyone who enters.

Moving the attention away from the furniture, my attention focuses on what is happening with the group in the far corner of the room. As Mr. Riedl talks to his students, he does so in a manner worth listening to. His enthusiasm and positive attitude for the topic that he is teaching encourages the students to have fun learning. While talking with eyes open wide and arms moving from left to right, it is impossible to look away because everyone in the room is fascinated with his passion for the life that is in the curriculum. Pointing to the white board, Mr. Riedl discusses the schedule for the day and the learning goals that will coincide with each bulleted item. The students understand that the classroom is an open, inviting environment, so they freely ask their teacher any questions that come to their minds. "Mr. Riedl, my older brother is in 7th grade and he says that long division is the most boring thing on the planet," comments a female student. As the students laugh and some agree with her comment, Mr. Riedl pauses for a moment to think of how to respond. He eventually begins a story about how one time he himself actually used long division in a real-life situation. After the story, he clearly instructs the students to go back to their desks and get out their math journals. Satisfied with the teacher’s story, the students comply and begin chatting as they get up to transition into the long division lesson.

As the students sit down and get their materials out, Mr. Riedl makes his way over to me, introduces himself, and thanks me for coming in for a visit. I very much appreciated his hospitality, welcoming me into such a warm, comfortable community. He turned around, faced the kids, and while raising his hand asked, "Who wants cake!?" Nearly every child raised their hand as the volume of the room gradually elevated with excitement. "Well, so do I," states the teacher as he slaps a picture of cake onto the overhead projector. "Too bad this is made out of plastic!" he finishes jokingly. Mixes of laughs and groans can be heard throughout the classroom as Mr. Riedl begins his lesson of long division, using the cake as an example of something in real-life that can be divided up. After he shows the students examples of how to do long division, he shifts responsibility to them. Breaking them into small groups, he clearly and quickly instructs them to practice long division by writing a real-life situation beside each math problem they complete. He mentions to them that this is why long division can be so fun—because it can help us with predicaments that happen in our lives. Understanding the purpose of the exercise, the students begin to work creatively and diligently.

One of the 5th grade hands immediately goes up into the air, "Mr. Riedl, I’m stuck!" I could tell by the responses of the other students in the group that this child was regularly difficult to deal with. The teacher walked over with a smile on his face and began probing the student to understand the problem. Realizing that the issue was a difficulty with visualizing the concept, he offered her small cube manipulatives to work as an aid to learning. He also encouraged the other group members to work together and help each other, telling them that he is most impressed by teamwork. Another student spoke up, trying to stump the teacher, "Mr. Riedl, how could I use long division on my baseball team?" He looked down at the child and smiled, knowing the student’s intention. However, instead of just walking away chuckling, the instructor decided to take the student up on the inquiry. Rather than just giving the student a quick answer, he sparked the student’s interest by asking how many players are on the baseball team. "Twelve," the student responded. After a few minutes and several intriguing questions later, their discussion formed into a whole-class example, and the student ended up writing the baseball long division problem onto the overhead projector in front of the entire class. The 60-minute block of time set for math had gone by so fast that even the majority of the children were shocked at how fast the time flew by. The fun, intuitive learning experience seemed enjoyable for everyone in the room.

Realizing that my observation time was up and I needed to leave, I caught Mr. Riedl and asked him a final question about why his classroom works so well. He responded, "I just try to have fun with the kids and figure out ways to get them to understand the material instead of memorizing it. The best way to learn something is to want to learn it, and that’s what I try to facilitate. Add that to my role as a responsible, respectful role-model and you have the recipe for success in your classroom." I thanked him and said good-bye to the kids, who in turn respectfully waved good-bye to me as well. What can I say about my experience at Concordia Elementary School? All I can say is that Mr. Riedl’s room flowed magically. There was no special formula, just genuine people working together as a community for a purpose—to learn. I hope to tell others about how powerful a healthy environment and a love for learning can be with a group of kids. I learned a lot from such a quick visit.

--Sarah Collins

Riedlblog Label: Teaching