Friday, January 15, 2016

When Something Needs Fixing

Yesterday was the last day of the semester.  It came and went without much fanfare--we only got back to school from Christmas break last Wednesday, and our culminating events--the summative assessments intended to measure what the students learned over the course of the first semester--happened before Christmas, nearly a month ago.

Still, the knowledge that we're now on our way out of the school-year rather than into it is cause for reflection.

There's a lot that I can look back on and celebrate from the past few months, but most of those things, I've already written about.

Instead, I pause now to think about what has not worked as well--what needs work and attention.

There are two things in particular:

1) Guided Outside Reading:
I tried something new for GOR this semester.  Rather than doing summative book-talks when the students finished a book, I set aside three class days over the course of the semester for the students to read, and had conversations with them during these times.  These informal talks took the place of the book-talks, and students simply needed to email me a log of their reading when they finished up.

While I did enjoy the conversations I had with students mid-book in some ways more than I enjoyed the formal book-talks in past years, my main reason for setting aside these days (giving the students traction on their outside reading through limited, yet focused reading time in class) was never truly realized.

As with past years, I noticed far too many students rushing to finish up their books this week.  Once again, GOR became "that annoying hurdle to clear at the end of the semester" instead of the relaxing activity capable of sparking a passion for reading that I wish it was.

I have no solutions in mind for next semester.  I certainly don't want to return to the days of having 30+ last-minute book-talks.  I could, I suppose, set regular checkpoints that the students need to meet, or make a bigger summative assignment that would force the students to work ahead, but neither of these options would be likely to inspire an intrinsic love for reading, and may in fact make students all the more resentful.

The question I need to examine is this: what is the purpose of GOR?  Is it primarily for students to demonstrate their reading comprehension?  Is it primarily for students to connect reading to class themes?  Or, is it primarily for students to develop a love for reading, and comprehension development and connections to class themes are just icing on the cake?

I personally like the idea of that third goal.  The trouble is, it's just so blooming hard to structure in a way that doesn't end up feeling forced.  Muddying the waters is the fact that I have a number of students in AP English, for whom the page requirement per semester is 800 rather than the 400 that their classmates need to read, and for whom young adult novels probably won't be all that helpful in preparing for the AP test.

Colleagues have been recommending Book Love by Penny Kittle to me for more than a year now--maybe I need to carve out the time to finally sit down and read.  At any rate, I need to do something; if there's one thing I can't stand, it's using a practice that I don't believe in simply because "tradition".

2) Vocabulary:
In my first year as the 11th grade Humanities and English teacher, I was hyper-diligent about teaching vocabulary.  I would write five new words, drawn from an SAT study list, up on the board every day, and we would start class by going through the definitions and examples of those 5 words, followed by a short quiz on scrap paper.

Every week and a half or so, we'd have a full vocab test over 25 words at a time.  I wrote the tests myself: it was an elaborate fill-in-the blank test in which the vocab words came in context in a suspense story that I myself spent well over 15 hours writing.

The students enjoyed the story and most did fairly well on the test, but there were two major problems:

1) At student-parent-teacher conferences in November, I would ask students to tell their parents what we were learning about in class.  More than half of the students said "Vocabulary" without any hesitation, but then struggled to name anything else we were learning.  I realized that for something that was only worth 5% of the students' total grade, I was dedicating 5-10 minutes a day (plus the better part of a class period every 10 days)--a wildly disproportionate amount of time.

2) The students were performing well on the tests, but a number were unable to use the words correctly in their essays.  More jarring was the fact that many students who had started learning English later in their school careers were missing an entire set of mid-range vocabulary that their peers had picked up in their late elementary and early middle school years.  This resulted in more than a few student essays that were a combination of simplistic vocabulary and SAT vocabulary not always used properly.

It took me two years to decide to phase out my tests.  It was difficult for me to do, as I'd spent so much time writing a serial with weekly cliffhanger endings and I hated to let it go, but it was the right thing to do.

For two years, I required the students to keep an independent vocabulary log, but found this to be forced and artificial.

This year, I made vocabulary logs an extra credit option to supplement the students' reading scores.  Nobody has taken me up on the offer.

I do teach some vocabulary informally in the context of the readings we do in class throughout the year, but feel it would be time-consuming and disruptive to the flow to formally assess students on these words.

Again, I need to get back to the basic goal.  I want my students to expand their tool-kit as writers so that they have more ways to express a given idea, depending on the context.  In particular, I want my students to have access to descriptive and interesting ways to express their thoughts (I despair when I see students leap at every opportunity to use SAT vocabulary in their essays, and compare this practice to using a nail-gun to staple papers together).  I also want my students to have an increasing level of comfort in decoding vocabulary in the reading they do.

It bothers me when students treat vocabulary like Calvin does.

The trouble is, I have 51 students who are at 51 different places when it comes to their readiness to learn vocabulary.  Some are ready to tackle complex vocab lists while others really do need heavy remedial practice in the basics.

I have no ideas for how to accomplish my goal without it becoming an unwieldy and disproportionate focus of my class as it was in my first few years.  If my readers have suggestions for ideas, or even suggestions for resources to read that might provide me with inspiration, I welcome these heartily.

Though these two areas of my teaching have given me some level of frustration this semester, I am grateful for the many things that have gone well.

As I sit at Tully's on this Saturday morning to finish the odds-and-ends of my grading and finalize my semester grade-book, I do so with a profound sense of gratitude.

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