Thursday, March 17, 2016

Mid-semester conferences

This week, something happened that has not happened since my first years of teaching: I wound up with extra class-time.

Our mega-unit on worldview is drawing to an end, and when I'd sat down to set the calendar back in January, I had anticipated needing every spare minute all the way up to Spring Break.  However, due to my usage of lecture videos instead of in-class lecture, and a mid-unit decision to not dive as deeply into the progressive movement (which was somewhat tangential to our unit goals), I wound up with two weeks of open time; no small amount in Humanities class, which meets two periods a day.

Having this amount of extra time would've freaked me out in my earliest years of teaching, and very likely I would have responded by putting together busy-work--empty calories to chew up the class-time.

Now, however, I see it as a rare privilege and have treated it as such.  The kids have had the whole week to work in class on a poetry assignment and on the teacher draft of their unit essays, free to come to me for guidance or assistance at any time.

The flexible timing allowed me to do something I have never tried before: substantive one-on-one conferences with the students.  I put together a schedule with ten-minute long blocks and asked each of the students to sign up for a time to come and talk to me.

My Humanities class tend to be a quiet bunch.  They never complain, nor do they get overly worked up about things, for better or for worse.  They are dutiful, conscientious students, but it can be difficult to read how they are doing, and how they are responding to the lessons I'm teaching, strategies I'm using, and assessments I'm giving.

The conferences have been enormously helpful to me as a teacher.

For starters, it's been largely an affirmation that things are going well.  Every student has been able to identify particular lessons or assignments that they really enjoyed and articulate specific reasons for why they enjoyed it.  I learned that many students enjoyed reading The Great Gatsby and putting together a scrapbook of the major symbols (my big assessment on Gatsby--that's a topic for a future post).  I learned that many students are really relishing the chance to think about and wrestle with the topic of worldview in this unit.  I learned that many students appreciate the flexibility of my prompt for this unit essay.

I also asked students what they had found frustrating or uninteresting.  While it may be that a number of students were too polite to offer me feedback, I did appreciate the few suggestions I received.  I learned that students wished I would sing more, and wished that I would play characters more (I did more of this in the first two units of the year).  I learned that a number of students were not happy with the last in-class simulation (it had been kind of flat, with a majority of the class not really getting into it).

Several students blamed themselves for struggles in Humanities class, and I was able to have constructive conversations with a few students about time-management and work-habits.

I also learned that many students have found my use of lecture videos helpful.  I did receive some useful suggestions, such as doing more to follow-up on specific videos in class, or possibly offering more of a platform for students to discuss or ask questions about the videos, but overall the reactions were much better than I expected, given how quiet the students have been.  In particular, students thanked me for including transcripts of all my videos in the description boxes on YouTube, saying that this had been helpful as they went back and re-watched or re-read.

This feedback fit nicely, timing-wise, as I have been separately interviewing a sample of students in my Humanities class in greater depth about the use of flipped classroom strategies for my Master's project throughout the week.  It gave me a clearer sense of what my findings and my research will mean for my classroom moving forward.

Perhaps more than anything else, it was good to have a conversation with each of my students.  I felt like I was able to come away with a deeper understanding of how each student is doing, and what I can do to serve them more effectively.  Because so many of the students tend to be shy, and I tend to be shy, conversations such as these do not always happen naturally and it was a valuable opportunity.

The question is, how can I make sure that I'm intentionally carving out time for conversations like these on a more regular basis in the future?

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