Thursday, October 29, 2015

Teacher Leadership

This week, I wrote a problem statement for my Master's class.  This statement will serve as the first part of what will become a full topic proposal for the action research project that I will do in the Spring--when I complete this project, I will have completed my Master's degree in Teacher Leadership.

No longer a newbie, I will be a Master teacher, at least according to my certification.

This year, I have had the opportunity to start applying what I have been learning in ways that I never could have imagined even a year ago.  I am serving as the chair for the English and Social Studies department, which entails leading the English/Social Studies PLC (Professional Learning Community for those who don't speak teacher-ese), participating in the Research & Development curriculum team (R&D, or "RAD" for short), and helping to orient the new staff members in my PLC.

This has proven busy at times--I've lost count of the number of meetings I have had over the past two weeks--but it has added a dimension to my job that was not there before, a challenging, exciting and above all, fun dimension.  It has given me the opportunity to look beyond my classroom walls to examine CAJ's curriculum as an entire puzzle.  It has given me the opportunity to both facilitate and be a part of rich discussions about scope and sequence, talking through how each class at each grade level fits together in service of our mission.  It has given me the opportunity to think about the future of the school, and to take part in meaningful planning and preparation for the future.

Because of this new role, which has me working with ideas as much as it has me working with my colleagues, I know that my personal education and learning will continue even after my Master's course has wrapped up.  Simply having a certificate saying that I am a Master teacher will not give me license to rest on my laurels.  In fact, the certificate ought to be a reminder that as a teacher, I am a lifelong learner, and that to be a leader within my school community, I must be committed to professional development, and committed to sharing what I learn with those around me.

It's a calling that came at the right time, in the right circumstances--I would not have been able to rise to this challenge two years ago or even last year, nor would I have wanted to.  God has a sense of humor, and He also gives us strength equal to the tasks He calls us to.  I'm perhaps more tired at this time of the year than I was last year, but I also know that I wouldn't trade what I am doing right now for anything in the world.  God is good, and I'm ever-grateful to be here at CAJ, at this time!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Finding a Working Structure for Classroom Debate

I don't think I participated in a legitimate class debate until I was in college.

For whatever reason, my high school teachers did not use debate as a teaching or assessment tool, and Lynden Christian did not have a debate team, so I simply was not exposed to debate until quite late in my career as a student.

Perhaps because of this, I was not comfortable teaching debate skills in my first few years as a teacher.  I could never get the structure right:  I probably went through 5 or 6 different debate formats in as many years of teaching and found each clunky and ineffective.  Sometimes I would have the class debate just one topic, with half the class on one side and half the class on the other side.  In this structure, students could only talk for a minute or two each, teams ended up repeating themselves a lot, there was little to no organization to the arguments, and there was not much time for good rebuttals.  Even when I started to divide the class into two debate topics, with 5 or 6 students on each side of both issues, the students still found it difficult to work in such large groups and to find unique points for each team-member to bring up.  Because these attempts at structured debate were so difficult to grade, I found myself struggling mightily to provide feedback that would be helpful in any way, and as a result, the students did not improve from debate to debate.

I also found it enormously challenging to write a good debate prompt.  I started by having the debates revolve around questions, but discovered this to be too open-ended.  I then moved toward prompts based on specific historical incidents, but found this to be too narrow and disconnected from my larger goals.  

Only last year did I find the magic structure and the magic prompt.

It all started, ironically, with another failed attempt at debate in Humanities class.  The structure was a mess and the prompts were too specific.  The students gave up partway through and I ended up not even grading it.  Refusing to let the failure of my classroom plans discourage me, we talked as a class about where the debate had fallen apart.  One girl, who had participated on the school's debate team the year before, kept saying, "Well on the debate team, we..." and that's when it hit me: why not use the structure and style of prompts that the Kanto debate league uses?

As it happened, I had already agreed to be the assistant coach for the debate team that year, and so when the season started in November, I set out to learn as much as I could from the students and my colleague who was the head-coach so that I could apply what I found out to my own classroom debates.

The Kanto Plains debate league uses structure and rules from the Australian school system.  Each team has three students: an opening speaker who introduces the team and presents the first point, a second speaker who rebuts the opposing team's first speaker, and a third speaker who both rebuts the opponents and supports the first two speakers without themselves introducing any new points.  

The opposing team is allowed to interrupt whoever is speaking with a "point of information" (or POI) once the speaker is at least a minute into their statement.  The speaker may accept or decline the POI, and if they accept, the student who brought up the POI must immediately ask a question or ask the speaker to respond to a contradictory piece of evidence.  A POI may also be used to ask the speaker to cite their sources--something that is quite necessary if the speaker rattles off a list of statistics without mentioning where the statistics come from.  This serves as a strong motivator and reminder for the speaker to provide verbal citations.

The prompts are phrased as positive statements with one team arguing the affirmative and the other team arguing the negative.  The affirmative team is tasked with setting the definition and parameters for the debate, and so long as these are reasonable, the negative team must accept and respond to the terms set by the affirmative.  

By this structure and these rules, each member of the team has a clear role, each member has ample opportunity to both present their points and support them, and each member has ample opportunity to rebut, both through formal rebuttals as well as POIs.  

My last failed attempt at organizing a class debate had been in October.  I tried out the above structure in January and it was a night-and-day difference.  Predictably, the POIs were rough the first time, and many students forgot to verbally cite their sources, but overall the debates were much smoother, and also much more engaging for the classmates who were watching each round.  Our final round of debates for the year in April were better still.

Therefore, I was excited to see how things would go this year, starting off with this structure.  Our current unit in Humanities class is entitled "Rhetoric, Revolution and Human Rights", using the history and rhetoric of the American Revolution and early days of American nation-hood as a spring-board for bigger questions about human rights and government structure.  Our debate topics were as follows:

1. The solution to gun violence is stricter gun control laws.
2. The freedom of speech should have limits.
3. The freedom of religion should protect certain kinds of discrimination.
4. The government sometimes has the right to invade citizens' privacy.

When I introduced the debate, I had several students assist me in putting on a skit about how to use POIs.  I put a lot of energy into emphasizing the importance of verbal citations and letting the students know that it would be very embarrassing to be caught without sources to support facts or data.  This clearly made an impact because a majority of the students did a stellar job of verbally citing their research as they delivered their statements--they must have been determined to avoid being POI'd on missing citations!

It was a strong round of debates, especially given that it was the first round of the year, and that most of the students had not done a debate since their freshman year.  For each debate, I had the non-participating students fill out note-sheets tracking the claims, evidence and rebuttals as they watched their classmates, and then had them decide the outcome by voting based on the evidence.  The students took this seriously, and after one debate, a desk-group debated amongst themselves about which side had been more convincing for several minutes before finally deciding which way to vote!

While not every student enjoyed the first debate, an equal or greater number discovered that they had a talent or passion for debate that they had not recognized before.  It was fun to watch several usually quiet and reserved students come to life as they powerfully defended their team's position.  

I was also able to provide more specific feedback on the rubrics as I listened and evaluated the students' performance.  I made the decision to copy and paste the rubrics into emails that I sent off to the students later in the day--I hope that the timeliness of the feedback will encourage them to think through my feedback more carefully, even though we still have several months before our next round of debates.  

All in all, it was a fun week and one that affirms to me that after so much trial and so much error, I have finally found a good way to facilitate and teach classroom debate.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Bringing "Guided Outside Reading" Into the Classroom

One of the year-to-year mainstays of English class at CAJ from Middle School on up through High School is Guided Outside Reading, or G.O.R. for short.

The intent behind G.O.R. was originally to ensure that students were reading on their own time, outside of class, and when I started teaching at CAJ back in 2009, we as teachers tried to be consistent about emphasizing the outside part of Guided Outside Reading.  I personally did not provide time in class for G.O.R. and adamantly refused to have book conferences with students during class: I expected them to sign up for a 10-minute conference with me before or after school, during study hall or during lunch.  During those book conferences, I would ask a variety of questions about what stood out in the students' minds, how the book impacted them, what reading strategies they used, and how they could apply a Biblical perspective to what they read.  All worthwhile questions--unfortunately, 90% of the students would inevitably sign up for book conferences during the last two or three weeks of the semester, and a handful would simply not sign up, and therefore lose a lot of points off of their final reading grade for failing to complete G.O.R.

Students would cut corners, using SparkNote summaries instead of actually reading the book, or superficially skimming rather than really getting into the book.

Instead of developing within students a love for reading that would carry over outside of class, it was quickly becoming an annoyance--a hoop to be jumped through.

It became clear to my colleagues and me that Guided Outside Reading needed a bit more rooting inside the classroom.  

This year, one of my personal challenges has been to set aside the occasional class-day for reading.  Of course, this is tremendously hard to do--so many different activities compete for our precious in-class time--but I finally offered students a free reading day on Thursday this week.  The rules were simple: they had to bring their G.O.R. book and they had to keep electronic devices and other homework in their bags so that they would not be distracted.  I informed them that I would come around and talk briefly with each student as they read to find out a little bit about what they were reading.  What followed in both my English and Humanities class was a fascinating 40 minutes of short conversations with my students:

I heard from several students about books that they had just finished, and we were able to make connections with themes from class.

I heard from a number of students who had just chosen a book the day before when I had sent a reminder email about our reading day.  I was able to talk with them about why they chose the book, what they expected the book to be like, and if they had already made it a chapter or more in, what they thought about the book thus far.

I heard from many students who were in the middle of the book they had chosen, and we were able to talk about interesting moments in the books up to that point, predictions about what would happen next, and what reading strategies they were currently using to make progress.  

I made recommendations to students who had finished and were looking for a new book to read, and suggestions for students who were struggling or stuck.  

In each class, I managed to speak with 17 or 18 kids.  While I did notice a few kids who had dozed off, noses pressed against the pages, most were reading carefully and none were working on other homework, or on their computers.  

I am willing to bet that even with this one day of reading, a number of students found traction in reading their books that they would not have had the opportunity to find if it had been a purely out-of-class expectation.  I realize that I cannot stop at just one reading day.  While I cannot afford to set aside a day each week for reading, I intend to set aside at least one reading day each month.  Each time, as the students march further into the books that they are reading, I hope that our discussions about their reading will also become deeper and richer.  

And maybe, just maybe, my self-professed "non-reader" students will stumble upon that book--the book that makes them into readers--and reading outside of class will become not a chore, but a joy!

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Power of Timely Feedback

If you were to ask a group of teachers to share the part of their job they enjoy the most, likely nobody would say grading.  In fact, chances are that more than a few would cite grading as their least favorite part of teaching.  This is understandable on one level--most of us went into teaching because we enjoy working with students, and grading seems a rather solitary endeavor.

Certainly, this was my mentality in the first few years of my teaching career:
I HATE all this grading--I wish I could just focus on teaching!

I now realize that I was setting up a false divide between grading and teaching, as though the two were fundamentally separate.  Indeed, grading is a vital part of teaching.  When I grade an essay, I have the opportunity to give focused, specific feedback that I would not have the opportunity to give on a normal day in the classroom.

And while it's true that time spent grading is certainly different from time spent interacting with students face-to-face, it is not, at its heart, a solitary task.  When I grade an essay, I engage in a meaningful dialogue with each and every one of my students.  I react to their ideas.  I share what their  supporting examples reminded me of, and recommend additional articles, books or movies that they made me think of.  I bring up concerns or challenges.  I ask questions of clarification.  Sometimes, I ask questions that I don't know the answer to, myself, but want my student to wrestle with when they revise.  I get to affirm what my students are doing well as writers, and make suggestions for the areas in which they are weak.  It may not be a live conversation, but it is a meaningful one.

Or rather, it can be a meaningful conversation.

For the dialogue of student work-teacher feedback to truly have an impact, the teacher must be prepared to commit to a quick turnaround time.  Any more than two weeks is essentially a loss--really, it shouldn't be any more than a week.

I actually discovered this firsthand from a student's perspective, in my Master's program.  I found myself deeply benefiting from the feedback professors would leave on my essays or reflections when they returned them within a week.  Any longer than that, and I would struggle to remember the assignment itself, even as I read through the professors' comments.  Having experienced this myself, I resolved to do everything I could to get student writing back quickly, knowing just what a vast difference timing could make.

My first set of Humanities essays started coming in a week ago, and my first set of 1st period English essays started arriving yesterday.  As of this morning, I had read and commented on every Humanities essay I had received.  Because of our new late policy, I was receiving late submissions (all of which fell within our 5-day grace period) throughout the week.  Though I would not have wished for so many students to submit work after the due-date, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was able to read and return essays as they came in during the week.  With the submissions staggered in this way, my turnaround time was no more than 2 days per student.  I was even able to get a start on essays that students in my 1st p. English class had submitted early yesterday evening.

A number of students have expressed amazement to me, and I told them that if I was going to make reading their essays a priority, then I hoped they would make reading my feedback and revising accordingly a priority.

This is my sincere hope--that my students will engage with my comments, questions, suggestions, and challenges while their original writing and thought processes are still fresh in their minds, and start thinking through how to improve the quality of their discussion as they revise.

I won't know for sure how carefully my students will read my feedback until I receive the final drafts in mid-October.  Currently, I have finished reading and commenting on 26 of the 51 essays, just over halfway through.  I am happy with the pace I have set, and hope to have the rest returned before heading off into the woods on Wilderness Camp on Tuesday!