Thursday, January 19, 2017

Semester's End

Today was the last day of our first semester--the midway point of the school-year.  The past month has been busy, and I have not found as much time to blog with a seemingly unending stream of grading to do on the weekends.

In spite of the busyness, there's much to celebrate:

I. Excellent Class Discussions
My Humanities classes are now over halfway through Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  For the third year, I have asked the students to come to class prepared for seminar style discussions over the chapters assigned for that day.  Each day a pair or small group of students are responsible for facilitating the discussion.  I told the students before the first discussion that I would not get involved myself, unless somebody has a point of confusion that their classmates cannot answer, in which case, they may ask me to say something.  Otherwise, I get to sit back and take notes on the discussion, keeping a record of who contributed, and what was said.  The first year I had the students do this style of discussion on Incidents, one of my classes got into it, which made me feel that it was a worthwhile activity.  However, not every class, and not every discussion have gone so well... until this year.  I have two sections of Humanities.  One is large at 23 students, and has many energetic, talkative personalities.  The other is small at 12 students, and has many calm, quiet personalities.  Over the course of the daily discussions we have had this week, both sections have impressed me with perhaps the highest caliber of discussion I have heard in my teaching career.  A few particular things that impressed me:
-Everyone has their books open and is using direct quotes from the text to support their claims.  The students are engaging directly with the text.
-"Adding to what (so-and-so) said,":  Students are really listening to the thread of the discussion, and are not just tuning in to get their contribution credit before tuning out.  They are actively paying attention to what their classmates are saying, and are trying to build on what has already come up.
-"I really didn't get...": This has only come up a few times, but it's come up more than past years.  More students are willing to admit that they did not understand a particular scene or development in the plot, and ask for clarification.  Often, they find out that other classmates were confused by the same thing, but hadn't wanted to speak up.
-"This reminds me of something we talked about in (other unit)": Students are making connections to previous units in Humanities class, calling back to discussions about such topics as world-views and rhetorical appeals.
-"This reminds me of something we talked about in (other class)": This has been fun--students are making connections between the themes in Incidents, and topics they have studied in Bible and Psychology class!
-On Tuesday, my small class paused their discussion of the plot to talk at length about the theology of slavery, wrestling with how slaveholders could justify their treatment of slaves from a Biblical perspective.  On that same day, my bigger class drew a parallel between Incidents and Night, by Elie Wiesel, which they had read the previous year in English 10.  I'd noticed that parallel before, too, but one of the students brought up an insight I hadn't thought about: "It's interesting how Elie Wiesel's sufferings caused him to question God's existence, while Linda's sufferings seemed to strengthen her faith in God."  That left me thinking, which is always a surprise when teaching a book I have read through and taught so many times.

II. Silent Sustained Reading
This semester, I set aside a day each week on which my students would go to the library and read.  I asked that the students have at least one book discussion with me at some point during the semester.  While I did have a handful of students wait until this week to do their book discussions, the number was far smaller than usual, and the discussions were more substantive.  Did every student use every reading day well?  No.  However, as I listened to each student tell me about what they had read, it became readily apparent to me that more students had read the books they said they would read, and moreover, that more students had enjoyed what they read.  The highlight was a book-talk with one boy who described himself as a non-reader.  For the sake of his privacy, as I know that students occasionally read my blog, I won't mention the book that he read, as that might give away his identity.  I open every book-talk by asking for a basic synopsis of the book, and often the students spend a minute or two talking me through the plot in a nutshell.  This student talked for 15 minutes straight, and by the end I felt like I knew the whole story inside and out.  It was fun to listen to him retell the story, and as he did so, he would realize he'd left out an important detail about the setting or the characters and then back up and fill me in on the part he'd forgotten before moving on.  He was pretty into it.  While he talked, I looked up the author on our library's online catalog and found out that we have at least five other books by this author in our library.  He hadn't realized this, and seemed excited when I told him.  I hope he keeps reading!  All it takes is one book to spark a love for reading.  I wonder how many other students found that book this semester?

There's more to celebrate, and plenty more to look forward to, but time is ticking and I have grading to do, so I'll wrap up this post.

All in all, it was a good semester, and I'm looking forward to the semester ahead.  I hope to keep up with my blogging even after the baby arrives (just 5 more weeks!)--ironically, reflection time seems to only become more important, the busier we get.

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