Reflection: Fall Break Edition

It’s a rainy day here in the Triangle—a not-so-perfect way to wrap up Fall Break—but I can’t complain: it’s been a terrific few days. First, my wife and I got away for a little R&R with some friends in Charlottesville, one of our favorite places on the planet. We spent the weekend wine tasting and eating delicious food in some of our favorite restaurants (especially Mas and The Local). It was a true epicurean experience and a much-needed opportunity to step away from school work for a couple of days.

I would say it was an opportunity to recharge my batteries, but it was the third consecutive weekend on the road for my wife and me, and we didn’t sleep as much as I would have liked, so I returned home still feeling tired. It’s been nice to have a couple of extra days (yesterday and today) to catch up on other things that I have been unattended to with our travels of late. I was ultra-productive yesterday—by noon, I had picked up the dog from the boarder, done the laundry, dropped off at the dry cleaners, written one last letter of recommendation, and mowed the lawn. The afternoon was spent grading and reading. I’ve gotten a much slower start this morning (I blame the weather), but I’m hoping to return to school tomorrow having climbed out from under the massive pile of grading that’s developed over the last several weeks. That will be a good feeling.

Speaking of grading, it feels like I’ve done little else these last few weeks. Right at the beginning of our weekend travels, I was hit with a perfect storm (largely of my own inadvertent design, of course). In the span of about a week, I received essays from every one of my students, as well as revised essays from about a dozen other students. Coupled with the end of the first midquarter and the attendant student comments, as well as an earlier-than-expected deadline for letters of recommendation, I just haven’t been able to get it all done. I try very hard to return all student work within one week, but by the time I return the last essays of this batch, it will have been about 2.5 weeks since I received. Some of that is due to the timing of Fall Break, but I need to do a better job of spacing assignments so that I can get things back to the students more quickly.

I’ve also realized that although my policy of allowing students to revise their essays seems to be paying dividends, it means I have a lot more work. Essentially, for every essay I assign, I’ve assigned two. I’ve been giving far less feedback on the revised version (something I’m not entirely comfortable with), but it’s been the only way. Going forward, I think I need to assign fewer essays and space them out more evenly. This will not only allow me the opportunity to provide more meaningful feedback; it will also give the students more time to reflect on their work produce stronger revisions.

I’ve been pleased with my new grading system so far. I know that a good number of my students are uncomfortable with not knowing their averages on a daily basis, but interestingly, it’s the students who are most “grade-oriented” who stand to benefit the most from this system. So far, though, the discomfort that students feel when I pull the proverbial rug out from under them has led to good and productive conversations (as opposed to grade animosity), which is one of its primary goals. I hope to post more about this soon.

Friday was also Parents’ Day at school, which I found I was much less nervous about this year. Perhaps it’s age or experience or insecurity, but I’ve always sort of dreaded Parents’ Day. Not so this year. Although I still felt a few butterflies walking into a classroom full of parents, I felt little or no anxiety leading up to the event. I even had a one-on-one (two-on-one, really) meeting with a mother and father who were a little anxious about my grading system, primarily because their daughter was anxious about it. Needless to say, this did make me more nervous, but I was pleased to find that they were very open-minded and very easy to talk to.

As with most parents, they were concerned about their daughter’s education and just wanted to know more. After talking for about twenty minutes, the father said, “You know, I think this class is going to be very good for [my daughter].” It made my day to be able to explain the method behind my seeming madness and have parents respond favorably to it. I felt validated, because although my method is a good bit different from what most parents or students at my school are used to, it is absolutely done with the girls’ best interests in mind.

In the Government classroom, it’s been a period of adjustment. I started the year very heavy on Harkness because I wanted the students to learn what it was all about. As I suggested in my last reflection, I’m starting to realize that I’m less confident in my abilities in teaching Government this way. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself drifting to the board more and more to explain this or that. This is an area where I’d like to do more professional development: how to keep the classroom student-centered when not focused on discussion. Without a radical redesign of the course—something I can’t feasibly do mid-semester—Harkness won’t work every day. I’m coming to grips with that. In the future, I’d like to do more coached project-based learning coupled with Harkness discussions (a hybrid, perhaps, of the Paideia classroom).

In history, I’ve found myself wanting to spend more time teaching skills—particularly research and writing skills. We’ve done a little bit of this, as we critiqued a couple of anonymous student essays, but I’d like to do much more, and I’d like to get them into the library (either physically, or virtually, via databases) more often. I’m struggling a bit with a shift away from a “coverage” model, though. Although I know—intellectually—that the amount of “things” that I cover doesn’t make all that much difference, that skills are much more important in the long run, when it comes time to actually decide what doesn’t get covered, I struggle. There’s so much material, and I love it all. I’m going to try to work on what Parker Palmer calls “teaching from the microcosm” a bit more. Perhaps I’ll take this approach in designing our next major unit on slavery.

Lastly, we’re at the point in the year when I need to pay more attention to my well-being. When things get crazy, as they have been the last few weeks, I have a tendency to try and work twice as hard or twice as much. That’s not sustainable. It’s not good for my physical or my mental well-being, and when I’m not at my best personally, I’m not at my best for my students. I’m realizing that it’s not good for anyone when I run myself into the ground.

Furthermore, if I hope to serve as a positive role model for my students, I can’t come to work every day exhausted and irritable. I don’t think I’ve done that yet, but we’re reaching the point in the year when I probably would start to, so I need to be more conscious of how I’m eating, how much sleep I’m getting, and how much time I’m taking for myself. As I alluded to in a recent post, I haven’t found the time to read lately. That’s more of a problem than one might think. Not only does reading increase my subject-area knowledge, it also helps me to keep my eye on the big picture. In other words, teaching and learning are not really about whether or not the commas are in the right place. They are about ideas and inspiration. When I don’t read often enough, I have a tendency to get bogged down in the minutia. Not to say that comma placement is unimportant, but it should be kept in perspective.

  1. We need more bloggers/tweeters doing this kind of writing.

    • Matt said:

      Thanks for the kind words, Stephen. I write these reflections primarily for myself, but if others find them useful or interesting, all the better.

  2. NIcely put. Those questions/issues are ones that so many of us struggle with. I have tried to tell myself this year that my feedback needs to be prompt not perfect and that grading and assessment need to be more conversation than in the past. I want kids to talk to me about how they can improve, and ask for clarification when needed. I am still looking for balance in me/them and content/skills. Thanks for the post.

    • Matt said:

      I think you make a great point, Molly. Prompt is probably much more important than perfect. Unfortunately, I tend toward perfectionism in all facets of life. I’m trying to work on that as I think it may rub off on my students from time to time, and that’s not the example I want to set for them. I agree completely, though, about the importance of promoting a positive teacher-student dialogue. Hopefully that will continue.

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