Thursday, September 24, 2015

Teaching Responsively

Teachers often talk of learning as a journey, and it may be tempting to think of that journey as being wholly separate from teaching.  Yet the truth is that teachers are still very much on their own journey of learning.  Complacency is the enemy of experienced teachers, a feeling based upon an illusion of total self-sufficiency: there is, in reality, always room for growth; always room for innovation; always some way in which we can stretch ourselves.

What I've learned over the past few years of my Master's program is that we need to embrace this fact.  It keeps us engaged in our calling; keeps us vital.  If we are fearful about discovering our areas of weakness, our teaching will stagnate.  While it's also important to celebrate our successes, the moment we look at our teaching and say "good enough", we bring our own journey of learning to a grinding halt.

In my early years of teaching, I did not dare look too deeply into the areas in which I needed to grow.  Asking my students for feedback on my class would have been out of the question--I was far too self-conscious.  For the past two years, however, I have made this a part of each unit.  On the last day of a unit, before moving on to the next unit, I ask the students to complete a brief reflection.  Aside from considering what they learned about justice in the unit, and sharing what their major take-away from the unit was, I also ask the students to share what worked well for them in the unit and what did not work well--what "clicked" and what didn't.

I'm always pleased with how honest the students are, even though the posts are not anonymous.  Today, my Humanities class did their reflection for the first unit and I read through their feedback after lunch.  I learned that many students really benefited from being able to read The Crucible out loud, or watch it being acted out by their classmates.  I learned that many students enjoyed our simulations--a meeting of the colonies, and a day in a Puritan schoolhouse.  I learned that many students appreciated the thesis-writing workshop, and the way that I broke down the essay into regular in-class work-times.

I also learned that several students felt lost while we were reading The Crucible in class--they struggled to follow along, and the prospect of reading a part themselves was so intimidating that they couldn't track with the plot.  Perhaps these students would benefit from an audio-book--something that they can listen to at their own pace, pausing as needed.
Mainly, I learned that many students have difficulty maintaining focus during times of lecture and note-taking in class.  In my mind, this is as good an argument as any for flipping a classroom, and as luck would have it, I have already prepared a series of flipped lectures for next week, as we start off our second unit.   I put these together last week, before I had received any feedback, out of a suspicion that I was losing students in my lectures, and the feedback I read today validated my decision.  The videos I made are 2-3 minutes each, and break the history leading up to the American Revolution into small, hopefully manageable chunks.  Ideally, I'd like for my students to be able to watch a video or two at a time on the train, waiting for friends after sports practice, or some other situation where they have a couple minutes handy--I do not want them to feel compelled to watch them all at once.  Responding to the feedback in an email I sent out before the end of the school-day, I asked the students to let me know how well the videos work for them, whether they prefer this to in-class lecture or not, and what I can do to use the videos more effectively.

I'm invigorated by the challenge, and the opportunity to do something creative and new!

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