Teaching 13 year-olds takes special talents and skills. Energetic, constantly moving around, jabbing, joshing, and dozens of other behaviors are natural for these boys and girls. Teaching a 45-minute lesson on John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, then, is no easy task. And that is what faces John DiCosmo this October morning when I observe this lesson. This particular class, the teacher calls “boisterous.”
DiCosmo, an experienced teacher who has taught nearly a decade and is in his second year at Terman Middle School* is in his mid-30s. He wears a brown sport coat over a checkered red and white shirt with a slate blue tie and dark slacks. He, too, is in constant motion as he works through a series of activities with his 25 students. An instructional aide is in the room who works with about a half-dozen special education students going through the different activities that DiCosmo has planned.
As students enter the large room and put their backpacks on tables, they go to bins in the back of the room and take copies of The Pearl and then go to a cart to grab a Macbook Laptop. There is a word wall on one side and admonitions on the bulletin boards and walls.
On the interactive white board (IWB), there is a “warm up” question that the teacher directs students’ attention toward: What would you do if you found a treasure of millions in cash free and clear. How would your life change?
The bell sounds and the period begins.
Students type in their answers and their answers appear on the IWB (no names attached to their answers). As DiCosmo scrolls through student responses—they are using the software called Padlet, he asks: “What’s the pattern here in the class’s answers? Students raise hands and some yell out. He calls on students. He jots down on the whiteboard what students see as patterns in their answers: buying lots of things; giving to charity.
Then the teacher asks: “Why are we asking this question?” Some students guess that the book will be about finding a treasure. After listening to student responses, DiCosmo says that he has produced a video trailer summarizing and highlighting points in the story. He tells me later that one of the requirements for the unit on The Pearl is for students to produce their own trailers for books they have selected. And he wanted students to see what a trailer could look like.
Teacher shows the trailer in which he has enlisted other teachers on his 7th grade team to play the parts of Kino, Juana, the doctor, etc. who live in a poor Mexican village where the men dive for pearls and sell them to buyers to support their families. Students laugh loudly when they recognize their teachers.
After the trailer is finished, teacher asks the class: “What questions do you have about the book’s early chapters (creating your own book trailer)? ” Students type in their questions and they appear on the IWB.
DiCosmo notes the rising noise as some students talk loudly to table-mates. He says “If you are goofing around, I will kick your comment off the screen.” Some students shush the others; class quiets down noticeably.
Teacher goes over student questions that show up on IWB. He then directs the class to look at the worksheet he has prepared about the characters introduced in the first chapter and asks the class to put in key quotes from the text. They will be hearing a narrator read the first chapter. He hands out post-its so students can write notes that can be later transferred to the worksheet they have in front of them.
He asks students to follow the professional narrator as he reads the text. Take notes, and raise questions, he says. DiCosmo turns on the audio and the reader begins chapter 1.
I scan the class and all students have their books open and appear to be reading along as the narrator reads text. A few take notes on their post-its. The reader mentions “songs” and DiCosmo pauses the audio and asks: “What are the songs here?” Teacher calls on students whether they have their hand up or not. To a few answers, he says, “good.” He tells students that “the song of evil” will return. The narrator resumes and reads section where the scorpion stings the infant Coyotito and Kino and Juana fear that the child will die. Students appear engaged in listening and reading along. Not a murmur in the room.
Kino and Juana take Coyotito to the village doctor who lives in a large house with a servant. After knocking on the heavy wooden door, the servant sees who is there and tells the doctor that a peasant, his wife, and an infant stung by a scorpion along with other villagers are at the door asking for help. The doctor tells the servant that since they do not have any money, to tell him that he is away. The servant does so. In anger, Kino smashes his fist into the door splitting his knuckles and bloodying himself. Chapter 1 ends.
DiCosmo stops the audio and asks students to write down one reaction they have to the end of the chapter. I look around and see students writing on post-its and tapping away on their devices.
Wall phone in classroom rings and teacher takes the call, says a few words and hangs up.
DiCosmo then asks if students have posted their reaction to end of chapter 1. Looking around the room he sees that many, but not all, are nodding their heads. He then segues to final activity of the period.
Using the game-based software Kahoot, DiCosmo gets students to enter the pin (he has listed it on a slide) to access the game. The point of this game is to review word roots including prefixes and suffixes for a quiz next week. Students open their devices to the program and click to the slide on their screen that is exactly like the one showing on the screen in front of the room. This is a timed exercise with 21 questions. Teacher reminds students that they need to log in before they can record their answer to each question.
A bouncy tune starts and students go over a root or prefix/suffix (e.g., chrono-, geo-,hydra- ) with four choices listed from which to choose. Students have played this game often and they are excited. A number are moving their bodies to and fro in time with the snappy melody. They want to be the fastest to answer and win. Eight of the 13 year-olds can’t sit still and they go to the back of the room and stand over a table eager to punch a key for the correct answer. A countdown of how many seconds are left to complete each question on a root word shows on screen. As students tap in their answers, the number of students who submitted answers shows up on IWB until nearly all students have submitted their answers.
DiCosmo clicks a key and a bar chart of the students’ responses appears on the front screen (with no names) showing how many students have picked the correct answer and how many erred. Then he displays a scoreboard showing the top five students (with first names) who are the fastest and most accurate in choosing answers. Students applaud when the scoreboard reveals who is in the lead or whether the lead has changed.
After finishing the competitive game, DiCosmo gives raffle tickets to the five winners; every Friday, the teacher raffles off prizes (e.g., candy, the chance to move your seat elsewhere in the class, etc.).
With only a few minutes left in the period, the teacher asks students to log off and return the device to a cart. He reminds students about homework due next class and tells students to post one “meaningful comment, question, or reply to Chapter 1.”
Buzzer goes off and students exit the class.