What am I doing?
A colleague in the Social Science department recently shared a New York Times article on the value of student perception data as related to our annual student questionnaires. At the bottom of the article are the following three paragraphs:
One notable early finding, Ms. Phillips said, is that teachers who incessantly drill their students to prepare for standardized tests tend to have lower value-added learning gains than those who simply work their way methodically through the key concepts of literacy and mathematics.
Teachers whose students agreed with the statement, “We spend a lot of time in this class practicing for the state test,” tended to make smaller gains on those exams than other teachers.
“Teaching to the test makes your students do worse on the tests,” Ms. Phillips said. “It turns out all that ‘drill and kill’ isn’t helpful.”
That got me thinking about my own lecture-heavy AP Psychology course. Which do I do? Do I teach to the AP test, or do students “work through the key concepts” of Psychology?
My initial emotional response is that we work through the key concepts of Psych in preparation for the AP test. If I think past that emotional response, I notice the pronoun shifts: from teachers working through key concepts in the original article, to my rephrasing as “students” working through key concepts, back to me working through key concepts by way of lecture. Is that some linguistic trickery on my part meant to hide from me the fact that I am doing the work (teaching), and that students are not doing the work (learning)? I think so…
I’ve got to, got to, got to figure out a way to reframe the class so that more time, energy, and emphasis is placed on students learning/ teaching themselves. It has to be less me teaching and them passively receiving.
It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me
what planets are squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.
I want to know if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.
I want to know if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true.
I want to know if you can
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.
by Oriah House,
from the book The Invitation, published by HarperONE, San Francisco, 1999.
This was read as a prayer at an event for our freshmen in early-March, and bits of its phrasing has come back to my mind’s ear in quiet moments since.
Scoring Track & Field meets
Big thanks to Mr. Castro for all his help at the track meet yesterday, staying late into the evening!
It is without a doubt the single most stressful thing that I’ve done at SI in the fifteen years I’ve been there. It’s more stressful that serving on the Discipline Board and deciding students’ fate; more stressful than travel cross-country with Debate teams; more stressful than writing for or speaking in front of fellow teachers. It’s so stressful, it tips the scale toward Not Fun … but it’s a job that just needs to be done.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, but I’m glad that students appreciate my behind-the-scene efforts.
Student Questionnaire Reflections, 2013–14
Linked here are the unedited results of the annual student questionnaire given to my two sections of Advanced Placement Psychology in the Fall of 2013. Below are the requested reflection questions and my responses.
In which areas did your view of your teaching match your students’ perception? In which areas was there a difference? What might this tell you?
There were no surprises in reading the student comments this year. The things that work well, I know work well; and the things that I know that I can do better in, the students know too.
In what areas are you most effective as a teacher? What makes you successful in those areas?
Based solely on the written student comments, my strongest area as a teacher might be as an entertainer or comedian. I’m very glad that my joking doesn’t make students uncomfortable. One wrote: “His humor is biting, but he is careful not to offend anyone, and his amazing jokes make my day every time we meet for class.” Another student had a different take on my humor: “Sometimes his cheeriness, even when discussing rather grim topics is a little off-putting, and I want to make sure he’s like ok on the inside or something…” While I’m happy to play the entertainment card when I have to, to maintain engagement, I’d rather that not be the only thing that students remember me for.
Judging by the numerical data, students acknowledge other areas of strength. The question on which I receive the highest average score (a 5.94 out of 6) from students is #10: “The teacher knows the subject very well.” My second highest average (5.90 out of 6) is for #17: “The teacher is interested in and enthusiastic about this class.” Third highest average (5.84/6) is for #6: “The teacher explains the material clearly and in ways that are easy to understand, offers alternative explanations or additional examples, and clears up confusion.”
In what areas would you like to improve as a teacher? What steps do you plan to take and how can the school help you?
AP Psych is almost entirely a content-oriented discipline; the skills necessary to succeed in the course, students already come to me prepared for. For example, students need to be able to write clearly and concisely for the AP test… well, they come to me as seniors already well prepared for college writing. The one “skill” necessary for success in psychology is noticing details in a person’s or culture’s “story,” asking the right questions to uncover further details, and then figuring out likely causal elements that explain the story. The way I try and teach this cluster of skills is with the Case Study of the Week (the “Freak of Week” as students call it). In these regards, students either come prepared, or are easily taught and given practice in the necessary skills.
In regards to content however, the class is still largely lecture-based. A few students recognized this and wrote comments such as: “Mr Castro keeps class fun as we still get to learn the unit. He makes me want to engage in the class and also challenges me with projects, quizzes, and tests. I would suggest that he use a variety of activities for class instead of lecturing.” I try to make those lectures as entertaining as possible, but inherent in the methodology is a certain passivity. I would love to find or develop different ways of teaching technical content that is largely medical and/or scientific that isn’t so reliant on lecture. I need to talk to others who’ve negotiated this same shift, or to students who have experienced non-lecture classes in college that are approximate to AP Psych.
Looking at the numerical data, my lowest average (5.51 out of 6) is for question #19: “This class/ teacher encourages me to become a person for others.” That is the lowest score for the same question since 2004–5, when I averaged a 5.25. That’s a bit disappointing, but I understand why. The early course material (on the history of psychology, on research methodologies, and neurobiology) does not lend itself to me trying to encourage students to be persons for others. If the student questionnaire were given in January, I would score much more highly. The Christmas food drive gives me a natural and authentic way to talk about the topic — and it’s an opportunity that I take full advantage of every year.
With student feedback in mind, what is one specific goal for your teaching that you might pursue during the rest of the semester and next year?
Fortunately, Disorders & Therapy is largely project-based, with maybe 30-minutes of total lecture over the two-and-a-half weeks. This is a good test for our Psych program — or, rather, the test for the Unit will be a good measure for our Psych program: do students perform as well on a standard exam following a project-based lesson versus previous years’ lecture-based lesson? We’ll see…
I have a sneaking suspicion that this particular student comment comes as a result of trying to lighten the mood during one of the Case Studies of the Week… which can often be about a serial killer. ↩
Here’s where one definition of Science comes in handy. All Science (note the capital S) aims to describe, predict, and hopefully be able to control some natural phenomenon. Psychology is no different — just instead of physics of meteorology, our aims are human thoughts and behaviors. ↩
One of the primary advantages of keeping a blog is that I am able to continue my personal reflections after the artificial deadline for turning in official answers. ↩
2013–2014 Student Questionnaire results
Below are the written comments from this year’s juniors and seniors in my two sections of AP Psychology:
AP Psych is an awesome class, and Mr. Castro is the man.
AP Psych is probably my favorite class because of Mr. Castro. He makes learning fun by making it relatable. It’s a lot of work because it requires a lot of reading on our part, but he makes it worth it.
Favorite class I’ve ever taken, best teacher here at SI.
Great job! My favorite class.
I enjoy Mr Castro and feel prepared for the AP test.
I love this class because of Mr. Castro. He makes AP Psych interesting and fun, and because of his enthusiasm, I feel more involved in the course.
I love this class! Castro teaches it so well and makes it really fun and interesting.
I love this class! Mr. Castro makes it so much and really memorable. It is, hands down, the best class I have taken here in four years. The material is challenging, but he always makes sure we know the material and we learn it in a fun way.
I love this class. Me.Castro is always prepared and ready to teach.
I love this class. Mr. Castro makes it fun and very entertaining.
I really like the lectures and activities (demos, Freak of the Week) we do in class. My only improvement would be to remind students about the projects that are due and not expect them to be checking the website.
Mr. Castro is a all around just a fun guy. I think his enthusiasm and humor definitely improve his teaching without hindering his “authority,” which sort of sounds counterintuitive when I write it out, but it works. Sometimes his cheeriness, even when discussing rather grim topics is a little off-putting, and I want to make sure he’s like ok on the inside or something, but I usually refrain. It’s hard to tell sometimes when he’s serious and honest and when it’s a joke or a front. That doesn’t interfere with the education though.
Mr. Castro is a genius. Every Monday I’m thrilled to start the day learning in psych class. Castro does what few teachers have managed - he keeps the entire class engaged and completely immersed in the material being presented. It’s a fascinating course that really requires me to think through what I’m learning and apply it to situations and people. My favorite thing is freak of the week and also when we experiment on each other which is always a total hoot.
Mr. Castro is a good teacher because he knows this subject very well and more importantly knows how to teach what he knows very well.
Mr. Castro is a good teacher for the course above. I have nothing more to say.
Mr. Castro is a great teacher. Psych is really interesting.
Mr. Castro is one of the best teachers I have ever had. He makes learning Psychology extremely fun, and his “Freak of the Week” challenges make the class think critically, promoting analysis of the course material. His humor is biting, but he is careful not to offend anyone, and his amazing jokes make my day every time we meet for class.
Mr. Castro is without a doubt one of my favorite teachers at this school. His enthusiasm for the subject he teaches is unparalleled. He is always concerned about your grade and is easily approachable in a situation where you attempt to raise your grade. Hands down, Mr. Castro is and AWESOME teacher!
Mr. Castro keeps class fun as we still get to learn the unit. He makes me want to engage in the class and also challenges me with projects, quizzes, and tests. I would suggest that he use a variety of activities for class instead of lecturing.
Mr. Castro presents the material in an interesting and relatable way so that we always enjoy his class.
Mr. Castro rocks. I love his class even though it is a ton of work.
Mr. Castro you are one of the best teachers I’ve had!
This class has by far been one of my favorite classes. Mr. Castro is an amazing teacher and I connect with him better than other teachers because of Kairos. It’s a great classroom learning space and everything is easy to comprehend because he states each fact in a way that sticks in our heads.
Mr. Castro is great because he is always available before/after school and he knows the subject well and can make the subject fun and interesting!
Although at times a difficult class, Mr. Castro makes AP Psych worth it. His unique personality along with the amount of intelligence and knowledge he knows about Psychology is passed impressive. He explains the unexplainable, and can translate anything into “human terms”!
Casto might be my favorite teacher I have ever had. Wow. I actually get excited every time I see that it is second period. My only suggestion would be to have all of the test material covered in the powerpoints because it can be easy to miss some material from the book. He is an incredible teacher.
Castro does everything to teach us the material in a way that effectively prepares us for every test. I appreciate the variety of activities we do in class to demonstrate various concepts of psych.
Great class and even better teacher!!! You rock!!! But in all seriousness, the class is taught very interactively and from a bunch of different styles that make it easy to learn (demos, experiments, etc.) the homework always relates to information directly on the test, and the material presented in class helps me to better understand hard ideas and concepts. Also really fun and upbeat
I enjoy having more freedom in this class, where no outlines are due to make sure we are reading, even though it makes it slightly harder to motivate myself to start reading. Other than that, psych is one of my favorite classes!
I like this class because although it’s all lecture, Mr. Castro keeps us engaged and awake with jokes and fun stories. However, I feel hopeless with raising my grade because my grade mostly depends on tests grades and I’m not a good test taker.
I love this class! He really lets us organize how we spread out our work load and so I don’t stress over his class. I find class extremely interesting and absorb everything we learn. I think the activities he uses in class really help us understand the material. His class is challenging but fantastic. He’s a great teacher.
I love this class. Mr. Castro is one of my favorite teachers at SI. The class is challenging, but the work we do in class is fun and helps us to understand the material.
I love this guy. He knows so much about the subject and is able to retain everyone’s attention with his humor and great connections to real life situations. I feel comfortable asking questions in class and though the course is challenging, it has become my favorite class.
I really enjoy this class, especially the “case study of the week” on Wednesdays. I think the workload is appropriate for learning the material and the projects are really fun to do.
mr. castro is such great teacher! he is very enthusiatic and open to all his students. i love his class and i look forward to it everyday.
Mr. Castro is the best teacher I have ever had.
Mr. Castro is the bomb. He’s perfected his methods of being efficient and effective in teaching the source material as well as has fun with it. I’ve learned a lot about myself and others through this course and its one of those classes I wish we had more than 80 minutes of.
Mr. Castro makes class super enjoyable. His power points are to the point and cover a majority of the text’s material which helps me understand what I am reading. He also assigns fun group projects. I like going to class and want to learn about the material every day.
Teacher explains the material clearly and gives a reasonable amount of homework every night.
This class is engaging but challenging and Mr. Castro is a fantastic teacher who encourages his students to do their best and love to learn
Very interesting course. Mr. Castro is hilarious.
Reflections to follow [edit: reflections here].
More broadly, the findings suggest that pure happiness is about getting what we want in life—whether through people, money, or life circumstances. Meaningfulness, in contrast, seems to have more to do with giving, effort, and sacrifice. It is clear that a highly meaningful life may not always include a great deal of day-to-day happiness. And, the study suggests, our American obsession with happiness may be intimately related to a feeling of emptiness, or a life that lacks meaning.
Part of me wonders to what degree this is a function of cognitive dissonance, but the tension between happiness and meaning is still an interesting one worth considering further.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
Robert A Heinlein, Time Enough for Love.
Specialization is for insects, and college majors; high school should be about exploring the world of ideas, and getting a glimpse of what is at least possible as a general area of study.
Our Director of Communications made the following suggestions to me in regards to writing an article for our alumni magazine:
A piece that touches upon and mixes the following:
1. Running & praying
2. Turning off notifications as distractions
3. Making a vacation a real vacation
I see these three as strands in the same fabric — being attentive and, as my classmate who just survived a bout with cancer says, “giving yourself grace.”
I’m not sure though that I’m self-aware enough or can adequately articulate what running is like yet. The higher regions of my brain seem to shut down on a long run. I’m sure some monk somewhere has written about a similar state, but I don’t have the words for it.
And so that leaves me with the next two suggestions. I’ve begun collecting my thoughts around the evils of “notifications” on our phones and computers… we’ll see together what comes of it all.