Reflection: Thanksgiving Edition

Yikes. It’s been a month since my last post, and although I have a whole slew of posts percolating in my head, I just haven’t found the time to write. Or, more accurately, I’ve been busy writing some other things (including my teaching philosophy, which is now posted). Be on the lookout for more here in the coming week or two, including:

I tell you this, dear reader, in the hopes that I’ll actually make time to do it. Hold me to it, would you?

Anyway, let me begin this reflection in earnest by giving thanks for making it through November with my sanity intact. For me, the stretch between fall break in early October and Thanksgiving is often one of the toughest times of the year for some reason. The novelty of new courses and relationships has worn off, and everyone (students and faculty alike) has reached their full-stress plateau. Seniors are typically driven to the breaking point by the pressure of college applications. After witnessing their older friends’ gnashing of teeth, juniors are so worried about their own applications that they grade-grub at every opportunity.

Not this year. I’ve got a great group of kids, and I still have (I think) a good relationship with almost all of them.  There have been a few incidents (as there inevitably will be), but I think my conscious approach to seeing the world through my students’ eyes is working. They’ve also responded well to my demands of “face time” around potentially contentious issues. For instance, I recently asked students to reflect on their participation at the halfway point of the quarter (I had to submit a grade for the progress report and wanted their input), but unlike in past years, I asked students whose appraisal differed significantly from mine to come and meet with me. Some of those students were disappointed to learn that I didn’t rate their participation as highly as they had, but I think they genuinely appreciated the fact that I spoke directly with them about it rather than just ignoring their thoughts and simply giving the grade myself.

In general, though, there are three things I want to focus on regarding my teaching over the past month—some good, some not-so-good. The first is a collaborative essay which my students wrote in late October/early November. The second is my plan to have students keep self-assessment journals. And the third regards my general approach to unit/lesson planning this year.

On the whole, the collaborative essay went really well. Students didn’t really like it, for two reasons I think. First, some of them (particularly the stronger students) felt that they could have done better work on their own, and to be honest, they were probably right. That said, I wanted the weaker students to learn from the stronger ones: What does a good thesis look like? How do you write strong topic sentences? I can teach those skills, but witnessing them and discussing them with a peer makes them accessible in a way that direct instruction can’t provide.

I broke the process into several stages, some of which were completed individually, some in small groups, others as a full class. I had allotted about five days for the assignment, but it quickly became apparent that it would take longer than that (in the end, I think, we spent about eight or nine class days on the assignment). Although efficiency wasn’t my goal, I think I will structure the assignment differently in the future, as this was probably too much. By the end of it, everyone seemed to be a little bored (including myself). I will also have students work in Google Docs. I realized toward the end of the experience that there was a tremendous missed opportunity in not familiarizing students with collaborative technology, and I think it might have alleviated a good bit of their anxiety about the collaborative writing process. In the end, I allowed them to revise the class essay individually so that they could put their own stamp on it and a number of students took me up on this offer.

Still, despite the bumps in the road, I was exceedingly pleased with how things turned out. The assignment was based on an old DBQ which, to paraphrase, asked students to assess the extent to which American colonists were unified at the start of the Revolution. In the beginning, my students almost unanimously agreed that they were unified. As they continued to grapple with the contradictory sources, though, their thinking became more complex. Ironically, as they became less convinced of the colonists’ unity, they became more divided themselves. I reminded my students that their own actions paralleled those of the colonists in some ways; they were trying to resolve disputes in which they all had an individual stake, and yet they were doing so in a collective and democratic fashion.

At times, the conversations grew heated, and I had to step in, but in the end, the essay benefited from such a dialectical approach. More importantly, in my opinion, my students learned that conflict is (and always has been) at the heart of the democratic process. They also learned that democracy takes time, but that the finished product is often better as a result. I hadn’t set out to explicitly teach those things, but in retrospect, they strike me as among the most important lessons I have ever taught.

In other (much less self-congratulatory) news, I’ve been a bit disappointed in how I’ve managed another aspect of my class this year. I began the year with the plan to teaching my students (through exposure if nothing else) to the concept of self-assessment. My hope is that if students learn to self-assess, they will be much more likely to accept responsibility for their own learning and take initiative to improve. (This is all in keeping with the “healthy habits of mind” I discuss in my teaching philosophy).

Rather than just slapping a grade on everything (as I’ve done in the past), I have tried to de-emphasize grades except at regular reporting periods (typically about every four weeks—still too often in my opinion) and emphasize instead the importance of student self-assessment. I’ve done fairly well on the first part of that plan, I think (even if some students and parents stopped just short of calling for my head at first), but the second part of that plan has been almost a total failure. I recently looked over some self-assessment journals and realized that very few students are writing in them at all. A couple of them are (you know this type), a couple of them never did (you know this type, too), and most of them started off well before eventually forgetting about the journals altogether.

I’ve realized that I need to be much more intentional about this if it’s something that I value (and I do). Mere exposure is not enough, and I should have known that. I’m trying to think of ways to make the journals more meaningful, and I find the possibility of blogs appealing. I’m not sure I really want my students putting their self-assessments out there for the whole world to see, but I do think this would be a way for me to give more regular feedback, and it might possibly let them see that their classmates often struggle with similar issues. It seems to me that this sort of thing might create another level of conversation and meta-cognitive awareness in the classroom.

I also think there would be great value in having students submit self-assessment rubrics for their major assignments. It would create an added layer of paperwork for me (just what I need!), but it would provide fodder for productive conversation with students when our assessments differ. It would also send a much stronger message about the importance of self-assessment than just the journal by itself.

Lastly, I’ve come to recognize the pros and cons of my planning approach this year. I started out the year with great hopes for planning my units (in one course, at least) by the principles of Understanding by Design. I realized pretty quickly, however, that UbD planning is incredibly time-consuming, and that went out the window. I’ve still tried to apply certain ideas (essential questions, opportunity for reflection/revision, etc.), but it hasn’t really been systematic. I hope to take another look at UbD next summer and hopefully do more with it, but

One thing I have done, though, is to deliberately not plan my entire semester. In the past, I’ve always blocked out my entire semester in advance. That plan was usually thrown off by about the third week—if not sooner—but at least it gave me a sense of “where I should be” at all times. This summer, I came to see that as a vestige of the “coverage” mindset, and I also recognized that it prevented me from tailoring my teaching to the students I had. In effect, I was planning to teach courses, not kids. In the interest of differentiated instruction (a big push at my school right now), I made the conscious to only plan one unit in advance.

This has been pretty disorienting to be honest. I still believe in it, but as things have gotten busy, I’ve been underprepared at times. I’m struggling to shift my own personal paradigm from coverage to inquiry, and so I’ve fallen back on coverage when I’m less prepared. This is particularly true with regard to assessments (and again, a stronger familiarity with UbD would probably help in this regard). In the future, I think I need to do a better job of establishing a “bare-bones” outline in advance so that I can have a road map for myself—and my students—while still adjusting things as needed to fit their needs.

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