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                   Reflections from a High School Psychology Classroom:
                                Inspirations, Ideas, and Advice

                                      Rob McEntarffer
                             Lincoln Southeast High School, NE

       I have been teaching Introductory Psychology and Advanced Placement (AP)
Psychology at Lincoln Southeast High School for 13 years. I was awarded the Moffett Award
for Excellence in High School teaching in 2004 and have been a reader, table leader, and
question leader for the AP Psychology exam. I am currently studying for my doctorate in
education at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
                             My Early Development as a Teacher
        In high school, my favorite class was taught by Kerstin Vandervoort. She taught
Advanced Placement Literature and Composition, and her classroom was literally her work of
art. Every year Kerstin covered her room with white butcher paper and wrote words on it in
her wonderful 1950’s trained handwriting. She covered each desk with white word-filled
paper. The walls were lined with homemade bookshelves with multiple copies of the books
we were to read that semester, arranged by color and size instead of alphabetically by title.
Her whole room was composed, like a painting. I did not know why her room and class
fascinated me at the time, but now I realize that she was the only artist I knew. She spent time
every year creating her room, working at it like an art installation. By the time we arrived on
the first day, everything was in its place, ready for the opening act. I did not see anyone else
in my life spending time creating, and her class fascinated me.
         Her teaching was similarly creative. She combined traditional teaching methods with
radically new ones she created for each book we read. We wrote detailed analyses of Hamlet
as a tragic figure and wrote poems using only 10 different words in order to try to understand
Toni Morrison’s novels. Her class was the only experience I had that valued academic work
for its own sake, instead of for class credit or supposed preparation for the future. Kerstin
seldom mentioned grades (although she labored over our papers) and talked about the
importance of literature in our present lives, not the future. Every day I could tell she was
happy and she loved talking to and writing with her students. Later, in college, when I was in
my fourth major and fifth year, I knew I had to decide on a job that would fill my time after I
graduated. I was not thinking about a “career” yet—just a job that I would enjoy. College
taught me that I could be interested in and study many different subjects, but I did not learn
how to focus on one area deeply for any amount of time. I decided to major in education and
get my teaching certificate mainly because of Kerstin’s example.


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        After graduation, I was fortunate to get a job at my old high school. My first teaching
assignment included classes in psychology, philosophy, composition, and theater. I barely
remember my first few years of teaching. I remember being intimidated when I looked at the
school calendar. There were so many days to fill. I remember realizing that every day 150
students were being forced to come into my classroom for an hour, and realizing what a huge
responsibility I had. In teachers college, we learned some developmental and cognitive
psychological theories that related to student learning, but we never talked about the workload
and responsibilities of a teacher. Watching Kerstin in high school, I never thought about how
hard she worked, how many hours she spent not only on the visible aspects of her teaching
like decorating her room, but on the invisible aspects like preparing for every class and
commenting on student papers. I was not prepared for how many decisions I had to make
every class. That first year, I had a recurring dream about my old job: Selling shoes. I dreamt I
got to meet people, find the shoes they wanted, they would pay for them, and leave. I did not
have to talk with them or be responsible for them after they left.
         I became more comfortable during my second and third year, but I was still struggling
to fill each class in ways I thought were worthwhile. I was paranoid about boring students and
wasting their time. I stayed a few days ahead of the students and tried new assignments and
discussion topics, but my class was fairly random. Most students told me they enjoyed our
class, but I did not feel that I was really doing anything. I did not get the sense from my
classroom that I got from Kerstin’s. I did not feel like we were doing real work, work that
inspired students to dedicate themselves to a topic or idea. We were filling time creatively and
in an entertaining way, but I was frustrated.
                           Working at Defining Myself as a Teacher
       Then Randy Ernst, a psychology teacher at another high school in my town, invited
me to an National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored Psychology Teaching institute at
Texas A&M University organized by Dr. Ludy Benjamin. At the time, I was discouraged and
I was not sure if I wanted to stay in teaching, but I was intrigued by the institute. It almost
seemed too good to be true: If accepted, I would get to study at Texas A&M for a month, with
paid room and board, and I would get a stipend and free books. I applied more because of
personal interest than genuine dedication to improving my teaching. One of the requirements
was to write a statement about how we would use our training to benefit teachers in our
district, and I remember struggling to fulfill this requirement. I wrote something vague about
“teaching staff development classes,” and sent in my application.
         I was accepted and I drove my rusted old Toyota pickup truck all the way south to
Texas. At the institute, I met 30 dedicated psychology teachers; learning about their



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classrooms was a revelation. At the time, teaching psychology was just one of my four
“preps,” and I took it as seriously as all my other classes: I studied the introductory text we
used, made sure I understood the terms well enough to explain them to my class and provide
some examples for them, and tested students over their understanding of these terms. At the
institute, I was exposed for the first time to the discipline of psychology, and saw that it was a
habit of thinking, a way of understanding the world, not just a collection of terms. Every day
we got to listen to specialists from various psychological fields talk about their research. I
heard the stories behind the terms in my textbook, why certain methodologies were chosen,
why conclusions were made, and how psychology evolved. Psychology became a more
complete story to me. I saw psychology as a process of discovering rather than a finished
body of knowledge. I met teachers in many stages of their careers and saw that teaching
psychology was a task that could be fascinating and all-consuming, and to which I could
dedicate myself. For the first time, I saw research as a creative endeavor.
        The next year in my classroom, I began to encourage my students to do their own
research. I did not know much about how to choose research questions, research methods,
define variables, or analyze data, but I still asked my students to do all these things and we
worked at them together. I saw many students commit fully to this project. They started caring
about whether what they were doing was worthwhile and valid; they did not merely complete
assignments just to show me they knew what they were doing. Students’ work became about
their own goals instead of mine. Eventually I wanted to learn more about research, and I
started my Masters degree in educational psychology, with an emphasis in quantitative and
qualitative research methods. As I learned more, my students’ projects became more
sophisticated and satisfying. For the next 10 years, I encouraged my students to think and
reflect on psychological concepts, but beneath it all we were doing research, and these
projects became the core of my class.
                                The Examined Life of a Teacher
      Later, I got involved in psychology at the national level through the American
Psychological Association (APA) and Teachers of Psychology in Secondary Schools. I was
invited to teach at other psychology institutes inspired by the Texas A&M experience. I
became a reader in the AP Psychology program. All these experiences gave me the
opportunity to talk with other teachers about their goals for their classrooms and to define my
own goals further. My primary goal in my classroom is to help students discover the
psychological ideas about which they are passionate. My class is an elective, and students
enroll in the class with a basic interest in psychology (or at least their conception of
psychology). My class builds on this interest. I think the class would be in some way a failure



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if a student entered with an interest in psychology, but left with a lot of knowledge but no
further interest.
         To help students discover and build on personal interests, I let them choose much of
what they do in our class. For each area of psychology we study, I ask them to complete a
project. The goal of the project is that they use some of the theories we discussed to analyze a
topic that means something to them. This freedom of choice can be a challenge for many
students. Often the most difficult part of the project is choosing a topic, especially since I
resist giving them ideas for their projects. One of my objectives is to help students learn how
to apply psychological theories to their lives, so I will help them develop topic ideas, but I
will not give them a topic idea. After students get used to this system, most embrace it and
start generating their own ideas as soon as we start a new topic in class. Students develop their
own ideas, research the theories they want to apply, and generate their own products to share
with me. Some students turn in traditional papers, but others turn in Web pages, posters,
PowerPoint files, pamphlets, etc. My classroom filled slowly with projects I kept from each
class. I proudly display the three-dimensional brain sculpture with brain areas that light up
when the appropriate button is selected, and the outdated computer turned into a metaphor for
consciousness with labels and interactive quizzes. I ask students to explain their analysis by
creating whatever product best fits their project. This choice of product turns into another
analytic task for the student. I think these projects are some of the most valuable learning
experiences we do in my classroom. Students get to use psychological theories in ways they
generate themselves, instead of responding to specific questions that someone else (me,
textbook writers, etc.) think are important or interesting. I hope that this skill transfers to the
students’ lives outside of class and to other classes.
        Along with these projects, I assess students on their knowledge of the psychological
theories we discuss in more traditional ways. Because I teach an AP psychology course, I
develop AP style tests for each chapter we cover. I try to write multiple-choice questions that
require students to understand and apply theories instead of just recognizing definitions of
terms. Each test also includes an AP style essay question that requires students to apply
theories from more than one area of psychology. Students may be asked to choose an
appropriate therapy technique for a specific scenario, and then use their knowledge of
research methodology to design a study to test the effectiveness of this therapy technique. I
model what I see as reliable and valid assessment practices for students on these exams. We
discuss the purpose of the exams and why they are designed the way they are. We discuss
limitations on the reliability and validity of the exams. Students quickly become skilled at
pointing out elements of the exam that limit the test’s ability to assess their knowledge
(sometimes too adeptly). We analyze specific multiple-choice items for problems in wording.


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I share the rubric I use for grading their essays, and how I developed it. I explain how to use
the rubric (I use the grading process used to grade the essays on the actual AP exam). I
indicate on their tests what points on the essays they missed according to the rubric.
         Two years ago during one of our discussions of the purpose of the test and validity, a
student asked me why they were not allowed to correct mistakes on the test for more credit. If
the purpose of the test is to assess their knowledge of the psychological theories, why not
adjust the test score if students demonstrated increased understanding by correcting their
tests? I did not have a good answer to this question, so we decided as a class to try it. I asked
students to take their exams home and “correct” any mistakes they made. They researched the
questions using their textbook and notes, explained why their original answers were wrong
and what the correct answers were and why. I decided to give students half credit back for
these corrections. Students report that this experience is valuable, and not just only for
improving grades. Student misconceptions are corrected quickly and they gain experience
analyzing and understanding why test items are worded in certain ways.
        This experience and others like it taught me how important it is to ask for feedback on
my teaching from my students during our class. I do not understand why we do not ask high
school students to evaluate our classes. I made up my own class evaluation form, and I ask
students for feedback in at mid-term and at the end of our class. Students submit these
evaluations anonymously, and I report the results in class. This discussion allows me to talk
about my rationale behind my decisions and sometimes to make needed changes in class. In
my classroom, I want to work with students to create worthwhile learning experiences, and
allowing students choices in their work, giving them continuing chances to demonstrate
understanding, and asking for honest feedback during the course helps me adapt our class to
meet my goals and theirs.
                                   Advice for New Teachers
        One of my favorite teachers, Charles Brewer from Furman University, says “Teaching
is a good life if you don’t weaken.” When I first heard him say this aphorism at the Texas
A&M summer psychology institute, I did not know what he meant. I think I understand now.
Teaching requires our full attention and commitment. Students respond when we
communicate our passion for the ideas we want to share. It is too easy for us to weaken and
teach only what it is easy for us to teach: what the textbook says, what we taught last year, or
what we know students will enjoy. My favorite moments of teaching come when I managed
to help students understand the ideas I see as important. Sometimes in class I am able to
communicate an idea and why it is important for all our lives at this moment. For that
moment, we are all focused together as a class on an important idea. When students



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understand the idea and why it is vital, we can talk about implications, perspectives, and
variations on the idea. We become partners in exploring a vital idea, and their ideas add to my
understanding and appreciation of the idea. I hope new teachers find their ways of connecting
with students in this way. Teaching is fascinating because it is so difficult and so rewarding
because we have to work so hard to ensure the rewards for ourselves and our students.
                                                  Final Thoughts
        Some days as I am walking through the hallway during one of my planning periods,
the enormity of “school” hits me. I walk past other teachers in their classrooms and I realize
that in our building we have 1800 people all working at understanding the world. Every hour
of every school day between 7 and 3 o’clock the people in our building are spending time and
effort to study, talk about, and explore ideas. I feel lucky to live in a time and place where so
much effort is given to education. It does not always work, not everyone (students and
teachers) appreciates it, but I love being amazed over and over again at the enormity of the
task and our willingness to engage in it. I am glad and grateful that I chose to become a
teacher. I am grateful that I had an inspirational model to follow into this job. I am grateful
that my students let me and helped me figure out that I loved teaching during the first few
awkward years in the classroom. I am grateful for the excellent psychology teachers who
offered me advice and opportunities to become better. For me, teaching high school
psychology is an excellent way to share the excitement and relevance of psychology with
others.


†
  From T. A. Benson, C. Burke, A. Amstadter, R. Siney, V. Hevern, B. Beins, & W. Buskist, (Eds.), Teaching psychology in
autobiography: Perspectives from exemplary psychology teachers (pp. 222-227). Society for the Teaching of Psychology.
Retrieved [insert date] from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology Web site: http://teachpsych.lemoyne.edu/
teachpsych/tia/index.html




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