Friday, April 8, 2016

Learning Flexibility

For years, I was spoiled: I taught the same students for English 11 and U.S. History in back-to-back class periods.

This enabled me to teach those subjects as a single, blended Humanities block.  The bell would ring at the end of 3rd period, but the students would stay, and we would continue whatever activity we happened to be doing.

Among other things, this arrangement allowed me to design and fine-tune several classroom simulations intended to take up the full 90+ minutes of class-time.

Unfortunately, this arrangement also had significant ramifications for when other subjects could or couldn't be scheduled, and as CAJ has expanded its science and language offerings in recent years, it became necessary this year to break up the Humanities block in order to allow for more scheduling flexibility.

My 2015-16 Humanities class meets 3rd period and 5th period.  The bell rings at the end of 3rd period and the students go away to their 4th period classes.  They return 50 minutes later for 5th period, and we resume our Humanities lesson.

In some ways, this has helped me think through how I use my two periods of class-time more consciously.  Being able to march straight through the bell was nice, but I'd be the first to admit I'm not great at holding to an organized schedule, and sometimes often-times, time would get away from me, the result being that I would have to scrap or push back some other activity I'd planned for the day.

I've actually found a fairly nice equilibrium this year in which 3rd period tends to be more structured and guided, often involving the whole class together examining or discussing some topic, and 5th period tends to be independent work-time for a bigger class assignment.

The greatest challenge has been making my simulations work with this new schedule.

I watched two simulations that I had spent hours designing start strong during 3rd period, but then fizzle when students came back for 5th period.  I'd designed these simulations with an uninterrupted 90 minutes in mind and all of the momentum the students had built up 3rd period would have completely evaporated when they came back 5th period.

It was frustrating and disappointing to see activities that I'd spent so much time and care creating falling flat due to circumstances beyond my control....

...until I realized that circumstances were not beyond my control.

For our final simulation of the school-year, on the decision to drop the atomic bomb, I decided to tweak the format to fit a split-period model.

The original simulation had called for 55 minutes of research and about 40 minutes of discussion, with the actual vote happening on the next day of class.

This year, I shortened the research time to one class period--roughly 45 minutes, factoring in my short introduction to the simulation.  The discussion would start after students came back for 5th period, and would last only 30 minutes.  10 minutes would be set aside for closing arguments and the vote would happen in the last 5 minutes of class.

While this meant shortening each component of the simulation more than I would have liked, I decided that it would be best to leave the students wanting more, rather than less.

The adjustments worked.  Students researched and collaborated diligently in their teams during 3rd period.  It was not a lot of time, but they used it well to put together the arguments and evidence they would need during the 5th period discussions.  The teams met in separate locations outside of the classroom so that they would not be tempted to start the debate too early or talk to any of their indeterminate classmates before they were supposed to.

Then, when the students came back 5th period, they were able to build fresh momentum in the discussion portion of the simulation.  It wasn't as though they needed to try and get back into character, or find their place, as they had in the previous two simulations that had not gone so well--it was a new phase of the simulation entirely, so the students merely needed to apply their research.  Plus, with only 30 minutes, the students could not afford to waste a moment: they launched right in, and the entire half-hour was filled with heated conversations, the indeterminates asking probing, thoughtful questions and the teams trying to provide the best possible answers.  The closing statements felt poignant, and voting on the same day actually gave the whole simulation a better sense of urgency.

The lesson I've learned in all of this is the importance of flexibility.  It is tempting to blame external factors such as scheduling when an activity does not work the way I had hoped it would, but the most constructive response is to ask what I can change to make the activity work.

This is a lesson I will not soon forget!

Representatives from the "Drop" and "Don't Drop" teams try
to convince indeterminate classmates to vote their way.

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