Thursday, June 14, 2012

Reflections on Year 4: Changes for Year 5

As I look back on my first four years in the classroom, like every teacher, I have had success and failures. For every Socratic discussion where I could sit and listen to kids think and create meaning together – sometimes without saying a word for 60 minutes – there has been an also present inability to reach kids, an inability to eliminate the achievement gap in my classroom. However, looking back on my four official teaching years, and this past year in particular, my biggest struggle involved a seeming malaise that ran through many of my students that precluded them from really trying to reach their potential in my classroom.

So, how to go about building a culture where students know that their best is expected at all times? That there is not a time when it is okay for them to just skate by and do average work? To start with, it deals with my expectations of their use of classtime. I believe that I need to be clear about what the expected standard of behavior and participation is in my class – which I think I do an okay job at – but also be certain to hold all students to this bar of acceptable behavior every day, from the moment they enter my class to the time they leave it. Not just on days when I am well rested, or in a good mood, or full of energy. Every day, every student, every minute they are in my classroom. This will certainly be a challenge to enforce all the time, with the all the time being the important part. However, if I can provide meaningful time for thought, exploration, and collaboration while my students are in my classroom, then I believe that I will be closer to reaching this goal of creating a culture where the best from everyone – myself included – is expected every day. And I need to be sure to hold all students to that standard all the time.

I will also allow more time at the beginning of a unit for students to wrestle with an essential question. A brief note to differentiate essential questions from unit questions: unit questions are more specific in referencing, in my case, a historical time period, while essential questions are asked broadly about the big ideas of a unit. For instance, an essential question for a unit on imperialism might ask, “What is the best way for an oppressed people to try to gain their freedom?” while the unit question would ask, “What is the best way for an imperialized people to try to gain freedom?” By giving students time to work around these more general big ideas and questions from a unit, and doing it collaboratively, I hope to have students both activating relevant schema they have regarding the big ideas from the essential question while also allowing time for kids to teach each other and build each other’s schema around the ideas a given unit is based around.

On a different note, I will never lecture about historical content ever again. This will become a post later, but through the exposure I’ve had to the ideas behind the flipped classroom this year I believe that my classtime can be better used for other things than lecture. Hopefully, this will open up even more space for historical exploration and creation within my classroom, as well as more time to connect the ideas of a unit to current events. These ideas of a flipped classroom as well as the time for students to actively and collaboratively explore the big ideas of a unit were based on time I got to spend learning from Ramsey Musallam about both flipped classrooms, but also his ideas on Explore-Flip-Apply framework for a flipped classroom (the Explore section, as I currently envision it, is the previous paragraph).

I also plan on consistently giving students as much choice as possible in how they express knowledge to me. Will I still be emphasizing learning how to write in some of my assessments? For certain. More on that – and the changes my Humanities partner and I are planning – in the next paragraph. I had great success this year in asking for students to demonstrate their knowledge in any way they saw fit. When provided with a rubric and a general outline of the thinking I wanted to see from them, it was amazing what they were able to dream up. I look forward for more opportunities for students to be creative in expressing their knowledge.

Finally, the last big change will involve the writing process. Similar to in years past, the English teacher that I work with sat down with me last week and we plotted the scope and sequence of writing instruction we will do over our two year loop with our shared students. It is an ambitious agenda, but certainly do-able. Two big changes for next year: first, we will be explicit in the new skills that we are teaching in each of the Humanities papers we collectively assign. This will help our students to know what aspects of the writing process they are expected to have grown comfortable with, as well as which skills we are introducing. We are hopeful this will make more clear what skills our students should have developed early stages of mastery – or at least comfort – in and which skills they should still feel comfortable about struggling with. We will also be asking students to blog about their writing process throughout the year by reflecting on what aspects of a particular writing assignment they are proud of – with copied and pasted proof from their paper – as well as what aspects they are still struggling with.

However, the coolest part of this blogging we will be asking our kids to do around writing involves the creation of writing groups. These writing groups will be tasked with reading each other’s writing blogs and commenting on the progress they have seem within their writing groups. We also hope that this asynchronous reflective process will let students reflect on their writing when they are ready, not at the drop of a hat in class when we ask them to reflect on their writing successes and struggles. Hopefully, this will lead to more of an exchange of drafts of papers through Google docs and will help to push our students’ writing.

Rereading this, it seems like a lot to tackle in a year. However, such is life – if you don’t love teaching enough to really challenge yourself to improve your craft or the education of your students, well, I’m sure there is a more lucrative career option out there for you, right?