Thursday, August 9, 2012

Preparation and Reflection

Though the last 10 days have been fairly solitary compared to the constant family and friend time in Washington, the hours have sped past.  A decent percentage of those hours have gone into curriculum planning... I'd say roughly 25 hours since last Tuesday.

This is work that is very difficult to start in on--the summer before my first year of teaching, I spent hours staring, helpless and intimidated, at a World History textbook not knowing how I would even begin my planning.  "Should I try to get through the entire book or should I go more in-depth on selected topics?  And, if I decided to go in-depth on selected topics, which events and historical figures should I choose?  And, how could I teach the material in a way that would be engaging and meaningful, and...?"  Curriculum planning is an intellectual work-out, which is something that teachers don't discover until they actually start teaching (as a student, even while taking education classes in college, I'd always assumed that teachers had it easy; "how hard can it be to give assignments, right?").  I've been in that terrifying place where I never got over my curriculum-writer's-block, and I know what it's like to plan a day at a time, but never really feel good about the product of that planning.  Thankfully, we're only first-year teachers once.

Despite the toughness of starting the process of curriculum work, it is immensely rewarding work once started.  I'm in a unique position this year... well, unique for me, anyway.  For the first time, I'll be teaching the exact same classes two years in a row.  This will be my 3rd consecutive year of teaching the Junior Humanities and English classes, and my 2nd year of teaching Freshmen World History (I guess 3rd if you count my very first year in which I taught a Freshmen Humanities block... but I'm choosing not to count that).  This means that I had a foothold for all of my planning, going in.  The bulk of the planning that had gone into my Junior Humanities class happened two years ago, before I taught it for the first time.  That was an exciting summer, as I adapted a really strong curriculum that had been passed down to me from the superb teacher who had architected the Humanities class.  My own planning and later while teaching the course, my own style took that class in a different direction from the notes and framework I'd been given, but those notes had a spirit of joy and enthusiasm for learning that I tried my best to inject into my teaching.  It was an exciting year, through and through, fun for both myself and my students.

Last summer, I did something very illogical, something I really wish I hadn't done: I essentially overhauled the framework I'd built for my Humanities class the year before (in spite of having a wonderful year).  My best excuse for doing so is that I'd read too many books on pedagogy over the summer (which actually has the potential to be very counter-productive) and was trying to work in every last piece of advice from all of those books: the result was a class that was structured thematically, had good essential questions, but suffered from a lack of concrete content, a lack of connectivity and most significantly, a lack of direction.  It was stuffed with good, miscellaneous activities and assessment tools, but still stuffed in the way that a child might cram toys, clothes and other random objects into a closet when told to clean their room.  All of this might have worked out smoothly if I'd at least put in the hours of careful thought and planning that I'd done a year before, but I was still riding high from the success of the previous year and I (wrongly) assumed that experience and good essential questions would be more than enough to capture the imagination of my students and to inspire them with a love for learning.  Don't get me wrong, I'd still planned, just not as much as I now realize I needed to, and not as carefully either.  And, students still learned, but it was very much despite my poor planning and lack of coherency in the content of the class.  It turned out to be a good year, and probably about on par with what would be expected of a third-year teacher... but it was a let-down after my 2nd year, and a personal disappointment on my part.  Please note that I do not blame my students in the least: they were patient with me, and did strong work--they finished the year well and not only met but exceeded my expectations for them... I just feel like I could have done more for them, had I just kept building on my existing Humanities framework rather than trying to do something new and different.  Fortunately, we learn from our mistakes.

Thus, this year, I decided to revisit what had worked so well for me before, but this time I started a step back with deep consideration and examination of CAJ's learning targets (which had been conspicuously missing from my planning the first time around).  I developed new essential questions based on those targets, tweaked old questions that I wanted to fit in, and launched into my planning from there, using my notes and calendar from two years ago as a reference.  It was like putting a match to gunpowder: the ideas have sparked, crackled, and exploded in glorious, rapid-fire fashion.  Everything seems to be falling perfectly into place, and already, I have my first semester planned out, almost to the day.  I've loved every minute of it.  I go to sleep at night looking forward to the work I'll get done, the progress I'll make the next day.  I've crafted assessments that I feel really get at the targets, but are engaging and meaningful for the students; I've planned out activities that I feel will be helpful and fun; the spirit of joy and enthusiasm for learning that I'd tried to inject into my first Humanities class is very much present in what I'm doing now.

I must confess, it just wasn't there at this time last year.  I started the year excited about one thing: storytelling and the possibility of including storytelling in my classes, having just taken a really good class over the summer.  And the storytelling unit was fun, but things fizzled out after that, and I was left feeling directionless... a sense of "okay, where do I go now?"  For a time, I was upset that the students weren't excited about the class, or what we were studying, but I eventually came to realize that I wasn't all that excited about it, either, and that the problem was mine because how could they be excited if I wasn't?  I was working hard, and I think my dedication showed, but tireless dedication is not all that inspiring or infectious if it's not coupled with a genuine, visible joy in one's work.  I'd been so focused on taking the suggestions of so many experts that I'd completely done away with the ownership I'd had before.  I'm grateful for the wisdom of those whose books I read, and I hope to one day reach the level of mastery that those teachers are at... but that doesn't happen overnight, or even over a summer.  Nor should I try to make it happen.  I need to reflect and improve my courses and my teaching, but it's a process that needs to happen organically, with breathing room for my own style to grow, too.

I think I've got that in the planning I'm doing now.  I'm feeling confident and eager to bring into the classroom what is currently on paper and in pages documents.   I've got a little bit more planning I'd like to do, but there's no panic; just excitement, joy and an enthusiasm for what I do.  I need to hold onto this feeling!

No comments:

Post a Comment