Thursday, September 24, 2015

Teaching Responsively

Teachers often talk of learning as a journey, and it may be tempting to think of that journey as being wholly separate from teaching.  Yet the truth is that teachers are still very much on their own journey of learning.  Complacency is the enemy of experienced teachers, a feeling based upon an illusion of total self-sufficiency: there is, in reality, always room for growth; always room for innovation; always some way in which we can stretch ourselves.

What I've learned over the past few years of my Master's program is that we need to embrace this fact.  It keeps us engaged in our calling; keeps us vital.  If we are fearful about discovering our areas of weakness, our teaching will stagnate.  While it's also important to celebrate our successes, the moment we look at our teaching and say "good enough", we bring our own journey of learning to a grinding halt.

In my early years of teaching, I did not dare look too deeply into the areas in which I needed to grow.  Asking my students for feedback on my class would have been out of the question--I was far too self-conscious.  For the past two years, however, I have made this a part of each unit.  On the last day of a unit, before moving on to the next unit, I ask the students to complete a brief reflection.  Aside from considering what they learned about justice in the unit, and sharing what their major take-away from the unit was, I also ask the students to share what worked well for them in the unit and what did not work well--what "clicked" and what didn't.

I'm always pleased with how honest the students are, even though the posts are not anonymous.  Today, my Humanities class did their reflection for the first unit and I read through their feedback after lunch.  I learned that many students really benefited from being able to read The Crucible out loud, or watch it being acted out by their classmates.  I learned that many students enjoyed our simulations--a meeting of the colonies, and a day in a Puritan schoolhouse.  I learned that many students appreciated the thesis-writing workshop, and the way that I broke down the essay into regular in-class work-times.

I also learned that several students felt lost while we were reading The Crucible in class--they struggled to follow along, and the prospect of reading a part themselves was so intimidating that they couldn't track with the plot.  Perhaps these students would benefit from an audio-book--something that they can listen to at their own pace, pausing as needed.
Mainly, I learned that many students have difficulty maintaining focus during times of lecture and note-taking in class.  In my mind, this is as good an argument as any for flipping a classroom, and as luck would have it, I have already prepared a series of flipped lectures for next week, as we start off our second unit.   I put these together last week, before I had received any feedback, out of a suspicion that I was losing students in my lectures, and the feedback I read today validated my decision.  The videos I made are 2-3 minutes each, and break the history leading up to the American Revolution into small, hopefully manageable chunks.  Ideally, I'd like for my students to be able to watch a video or two at a time on the train, waiting for friends after sports practice, or some other situation where they have a couple minutes handy--I do not want them to feel compelled to watch them all at once.  Responding to the feedback in an email I sent out before the end of the school-day, I asked the students to let me know how well the videos work for them, whether they prefer this to in-class lecture or not, and what I can do to use the videos more effectively.

I'm invigorated by the challenge, and the opportunity to do something creative and new!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Workshopping the Writing Process

It's wonderful how I have the opportunity to refine and develop good ideas into good practice with each passing school-year.  Last year, I had the idea of having my students write out their thesis statement and start outlining their essay more than a week before the teacher's draft was due.  This year, I have extended and developed this into a more formal writer's workshop.

We started at the same place as last year--I had my students choose the prompt that they wanted to respond to.  We then reviewed characteristics of an excellent thesis statement (clear, specific, debatable) and looked over samples from the previous year.  For several of the samples, I identified the main points and the organizational pattern for the students, but for the final sample, I asked them to identify the main points and the organizational pattern themselves.  So far, so good--the students could all correctly identify the thesis statement within the introductory paragraph, could identify the main points of the essay in the correct order, and could identify the logic behind the order of the points at first glance.

Here is the final sample that the students had to figure out on their own:

Sample Introduction and thesis:
The old saying goes, "you can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family."  In reality, we can replace the word "family" with the word "classmates", "neighbors", or "colleagues" and the statement still holds true.  Unless we exile ourselves from society as hermits do, we cannot avoid life in community.  What is within our control, however, is the way in which we interact with those around us, and it is in this choice that community either grows or suffers.  The growth of community is dependent upon a personal willingness to humble ourselves, a commitment to accepting others, and a common mission to serve the world beyond the borders of our community.

Point #1: (Personal willingness to humble ourselves)

Point #2: (Commitment to accepting others)

Point #3: (Common mission to serve the world beyond the borders of the community)

Organizational pattern: (Internal to external/personal to interpersonal)

Then, I had the students write their own thesis statements using our trusty Moodle journal tool.  I promised that I would provide feedback on each of their theses before class the next day, a promise I managed to keep.  Going over the samples ahead of time clearly helped to refresh the students' memory and I found myself making smaller, pickier suggestions for improvement--the wording of certain points; why not switch point 2 and point 3 for a more natural sense of flow?; etc.  Everyone wrote a passable thesis the first time around, and by the second round, most of them were fairly good, some outstanding.

Here are a few that my students wrote:

Communities can be broken by individuals undermining the community, groups of people discriminating other groups, or entire governments abusing their power at the expense of the community.

We must give mercy by encouraging friends with compassion, forgiving enemies with kindness, and serving the community with love.

Granting mercy does not show one's weakness, but instead displays the courage to restore relationships, repair a community, and stand up for God's love which heals the world.

In order to be a "City on a Hill", law by itself is too regulating, yet love in human terms is too accepting, laws must be motivated therefore by love, and love must be regulated by laws.

Being greedy with one's own rights leads to inequality in relationships with others, which results in a community that doesn't trust each other.

In order to be both just and compassionate, you must first be able to see in yourself right from wrong, then you must be able to fight for justice with compassion, and finally, you must be willing to show compassion to the unjust.

As with last year, my next instruction was for the students to take their main points and begin building a bullet-point outline, brainstorming examples from history, literature and Scripture which they could use as evidence for each point.

Today, I gave a brief tutorial on how to structure a body paragraph (topic sentence, examples/commentary, transition) before setting the students to work.  

To provide an extra layer of modeling, I am writing an essay of my own along with the students, and have my computer connected to the projector so that the kids can see my thought and writing processes in action.  This has been good, as it allowed me to remind the students (and teach to the new students for the first time) how to set up an MLA formatted Pages document--something I may have neglected to do, otherwise--as well as various other odds and ends.

Just like last year, the kids are all at very different places: some of them were still working on their outline today, while others already had a few paragraphs written.  What was good, though, was the fact that I did not monopolize the time--my tutorial on how to write a body paragraph was brief, and after I finished, the kids could get to work where they were at, and ask me for clarification on body paragraph writing later, if need-be.  Perhaps this is something that I can flip--that is, record and post a short tutorial video on--in the future.

I was impressed at the number of high quality questions I was asked while the students were working.  In fact, I barely had time to make progress on my own essay today, as so many students were asking me about the logic of their points, the hook in their introduction, the transition between their first two points, their topic sentences, what would be the best examples to use for a given point, and much more.  

There were, of course, students who did not make much progress.  Some students find it more difficult to focus on sustained writing during class-time, and my being busy answering other students' questions does not exactly lend itself to helping students for whom this is the case to find traction (this is where a co-teacher would be wonderful!).  Nonetheless, even the students who struggled to write more than a few sentences during class today have all completed thesis statements that have received feedback from me, and have all written a basic outline to help guide their writing.  Nobody will be starting from scratch next Thursday evening, the night before the teacher's draft is due.  

Once more, I am excited to read this first round of essays.  Increasingly, I am enjoying the opportunity to edit and give feedback on my students' essays.  It's a dialogue of a slightly different variety than I typically get to have with the kids in class.  There are plenty of opportunities to encourage and affirm, to challenge and critique, to suggest and direct.

I'm sure I'll have even more ideas for how to keep developing this re-introduction to writing at this time next year--I am looking forward to it already!!

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Amazing Potential of Inductive Inquiry

When I started teaching, I had two gears: lecture, and assigning independent work.  There was little rhyme or reason to which I would employ in a given situation, and even less nuance to the execution.

I remember the first time I taught my students about the Noble Savage narrative.  I was excited to teach it, because I found it really interesting--there seemed to me to be so much potential for good discussion in the idea that man is more pure living in a state of nature--but I had not spent much time thinking through my bigger purpose, or even necessarily how to teach it.  The result was a disjointed lecture with awkwardly phrased questions for the students.  Instead of lively discussion, painful silence.

A few years ago, I had the brilliant brainstorm to have the students identify how the Noble Savage narrative came up in film and literature, looking at movie trailers for "Dances With Wolves", "Pocahontas", "Tarzan", "The Last Samurai" and "Avatar", and reading the first chapter of Deer-slayer by James Fennimore Cooper.  This proved more engaging than the lecture--especially when I made the decision to actually sing "Colors of the Wind" rather than just show the YouTube video--but it was still detached from a bigger purpose, and clumsily executed: the task grew tedious quickly, and the first chapter from Deer-slayer proved too lengthy to read in a single class period.

Last year, the lesson on Noble Savage finally found its place in a module on labels and assumptions, in a larger unit about the relationship of love and mercy to justice.  I also made the conscious decision to not tell the students about the Noble Savage narrative right off the bat--they had to wrestle with each of the movie trailers, as well as short excerpts from Deerslayer and Washington Irving's Traits of Indian Character without knowing what the unifying thread was.  It turns out that this simple switch makes a big difference!  When the students are left a little bit off-balance, not knowing exactly what thread unites all of those movies and those excerpts from literature, they are more motivated to find the answer.  Deduction (starting with a general rule and applying it to specific examples) has its place, to be sure, but induction (starting with the specific examples and finding the general rule based on the examples) is more engaging in the classroom.  When I made the switch last year, it was an arbitrary decision that happened to work out well.  This year, I intentionally played up the disequilibrium by telling the students at the outset what the common theme wasn't: not all were love stories; not all were about a war; not all were about Native Americans.

It was fun to listen to the students wrestle and try to make sense of things.  In both the Humanities and 1st period English class discussions, students caught on to the right answer quickly, having very nearly (or in one case, completely) arrived at the Noble Savage narrative with their small groups.

It's exciting to realize that something as simple as the type of inquiry I ask the students to do (inductive as opposed to deductive) could have such a profound impact on engagement with the task. Already, I can think of a few other lessons and activities that I can restructure so that they follow this same pattern.  It is my sincere hope that my students will hold onto these understandings more closely as they have been earned by actively seeking to overcome confusion, rather than simply passed down to them by me.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Community Through Story, Revisited

One year ago, I blogged on a class assignment in which my students needed to share significant stories from their lives.  One year later, and another class is in the process of sharing their stories.
When I told some students from the class of 2016 that the 11th graders were doing this assignment right now, they replied that this was one of their favorite assignments from Junior year and that it had made a big difference in the way they started the school-year.

Once again, we are hearing all kinds of stories, but the thing that really amazes me about all of them is how open and vulnerable the students are willing to be.  Though some students are telling amusing stories that are important to them, the majority are baring their phobias, their deepest struggles, their insecurities, pain that they've felt and pain that they've caused and now regret, for all to see.

I cannot think of a better way for the students who are listening to practice our newly-minted classroom rules and policies--this is where trust is either built or broken, and indeed before the first students presented their stories in each of my classes, I shared this reflection on trust that I wrote in 2011.

So far, the students have been amazing listeners--attentive, encouraging, respectful.  My Humanities class has only one student left who needs to present, and my 1st period English class is more than halfway through.  I hope my students will keep up the maturity and kindness they have already shown in the first two days of story-telling.

However, the building of trust and the shattering of old assumptions is only the beginning.  Even more than last year, I am learning a lot from these stories.  I had taught the Class of 2016 when they were in 9th grade, and so I knew them fairly well when they returned to my class last year for English or Humanities.  The class of 2017, on the other hand, is brand new to me.  I'd coached a few in Middle School Cross Country several years ago, and worked with a few more on the yearbook staff, but that was it.  So, the past two weeks have been a whirlwind of learning names (done!) and getting to know personalities (making progress!).  With nearly every story I have heard so far, I have found myself going, "Ah, okay... I'm glad I know that."  I'm discovering about learning struggles, perceptions, past experiences with school, both good and bad... and I'm realizing that it might have taken me all year to learn this information without the storytelling, if ever.

Once more, I feel affirmed in this choice of a first major assessment--it not only has the potential to set a good tone and break down barriers, but it also helps me to get to know my students on a deeper level.  This was an aspect I feel I underestimated last year, but which I'm sure will be tremendously valuable in coming years.

As I settle down for a much-needed weekend (read: time to work on Master's homework, grade the first round of AP essays I received today, and maybe rest a little bit, too), I am looking forward to the week ahead, and hearing the rest of these stories.