Reflection: One Quarter Down

As I reflect on the past two weeks, I realize that it hasn’t been that long since I wrote my last reflection. I’m starting to think that every two weeks might actually be a bit much. It doesn’t feel like enough has changed, and I frankly don’t have much to report. Perhaps monthly reflections would be more appropriate, with more focused posts as needed on specific events or issues.

Generally speaking, though, things are going well. We’ve reached the end of the first quarter, and it’s so hard to believe that we’re already 25% of the way through the school year. It’s the second and third quarters that can seem to drag on forever (those winter doldrums, I suppose), but I have to say that I’m feeling better about my classes than I was at the same point last year. I certainly still look forward to seeing what they bring to the (Harkness) table, and I suspect that I’ve still only seen a fraction of their potential–both as individuals and as a group.

The end of the quarter means that it’s time to convert their “performance scores” into actual letter grades for the report card, and a few of them will likely be disappointed. I just hope it doesn’t negatively affect the classroom environment, but it’s a shame that we have to go there. There’s a part of me (a steadily growing part) that wishes I could say to colleges, “If you want to know if this kid deserves to attend your institution, you assess their work! My job is to teach them!” Too often, the ranking and sorting that colleges implicitly demand from us gets in the way of the teaching and learning. Alas.

In other news, I took a mini-leap of faith with regard to abandoning coverage and decided that we weren’t really going to “cover” the Articles of Confederation or Constitution at all in American history this year. (“WHAT?!” exclaim the old-timers from the back of the room. I know; it’s apostasy.) It helps that I will have many of the same students next year in Government, so I know that it will be covered fairly extensively then, but I made up my mind that it was more important that we focus on deep knowledge and skills rather than ever more content. So our unit on the revolutionary period was really focused on questions of separation from Britain and the development of an American identity rather than on an overview of the structure of American government. We moved through the unit chronologically, starting with the French and Indian War and the “ideological origins” of the Revolution (to use Bernard Bailyn’s phrase), but we pretty much stopped in 1776.

As I was writing the students’ essay assignment for this period (an adaptation of an old AP exam DBQ), I decided that I wanted to do something different. Some of the students aren’t quite understanding how to construct a good essay. With a few exceptions, they don’t seem to want to come ask me (how I wish they would!) but it’s obvious that some of them aren’t quite sure of what a clear thesis statement, strong supporting evidence, or probing analysis really look like. So I decided that we were going to write the essay as a class.

Since this is the first time we’ve (or I’ve) done this, I broke the essay down into a ten-step process. We started yesterday with all students bringing a thesis statement to class. Then the students shared their theses and worked to choose/refine/re-develop one that would satisfy the group. Interestingly, in both sections, students started off the period mostly on the same page. I feared that they were rushing into the “easy answer,” but eventually some student shared a piece of evidence that contradicted the thesis, and the class was forced to re-examine its conclusions. One section had not been able to agree on a working thesis by the end of the period, and as they began to rush (to adhere to the timetable I established initially), I had to remind them: “Quality takes time.”

We’ll move forward next week with writing an outline, supporting paragraphs, and an introduction and thesis. Then, students will revise and proofread the essay and suggest improvements. Finally, we will assess the essay collectively according to our standard essay rubric. In addition to the learning opportunities provided by this emphasis on collaboration, it’s an exercise in democracy–a way to implicitly teach the birth of America through the “hidden curriculum.”

In my Government class, I had the students read three articles (of their choosing) on the Occupy Wall Street protests. Initially, I had no grand goal for the day beyond helping them acquire a general familiarity with the protests. As I read more about them myself, though, I realized just how much this protest reflects American political and social thought. We’ve spent the first quarter reading the likes of deTocqueville (on equality and democracy); Robert Bellah (on individualism vs. community); Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (on the social contract); Gordon S. Wood and Leonard Richards (on the motivations of the “Founding Fathers” and the legacy of the Revolution); and James Madison (on faction and tyranny of the majority).

In short, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing important ideas in the abstract, and I realized that by discussing Occupy Wall Street, I had the opportunity to make it come alive. Our discussions on Friday didn’t go as well as I had hoped, but then again, even I hadn’t expected to make these connections when I first asked them to read about the protests. So, I encouraged the kids to reconsider these issues over the weekend. We’ll try again on Monday, and if necessary (or if there is sufficient interest), we’ll continue throughout the week.

I’m already well “off the rails” of my syllabus, I think, but I’m coming to believe that despite the value of extensive prior planning, flexibility gets me (and my students) much farther in the long run. So that’s where we are right now.

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