Friday, May 27, 2016

A Celebration of Learning

The past month has been filled with busyness of all kinds, and while I am usually diligent about setting aside time to write a blog-post each week, my spare time and attention during the month of May has been redirected to writing of a different kind.  In early May, I was honored to discover that the Seniors had voted as a class to ask me to speak at their graduation ceremony on June 3.  I accepted, and immediately set to work on writing my speech.  I put the final touches on the speech earlier this week and sent it off to be translated.  A sizable number of parents do not speak English and so having a printed copy in Japanese is vital.

I will post my speech next week after delivering it, but what I can tell you up front is that I am speaking on the theme of renewal, and using the analogy that we are all living "teacher's drafts" (the work-in-progress draft of an essay submitted to the teacher for feedback).  I feel like this is a relevant theme not only for the students, but for myself as well: I taught this class twice, first as Freshmen and then again as Juniors, and... suffice it to say we both did our share of growing up over the course of those three short years.

Speech-writing has accompanied all sorts of end-of-year grading, and over the past week, I have been providing feedback on the teacher's drafts of my 11th graders' Justice essays.  As of this evening, I have finished reading 37 essays, and have 14 to go.  Each one has taken me between 30 minutes and one hour.  Likely if you're not an English teacher, your reaction to those numbers is to feel particularly grateful that you're not an English teacher.

I'm weird.  I am thoroughly enjoying this time-consuming and largely sedentary task.  Granted, some drafts are much better than others, but what I enjoy so much is that each reveals what my students learned throughout the course of the past school-year.  I told my students on the first day of class back in August that our course-theme was "Becoming People of Justice", and that their final writing assignment of the year would be an essay engaging with what it means to be people of justice, and every unit I taught contained some piece of the puzzle.  Now I get to watch the students put it all together.  What is so exciting is that everyone has learned something.  Yes, I am grading these drafts strictly, and no I don't think I've given a higher score than a 'B' to anybody's draft so far.  Most have been in the 'C' range (I figure, this is my last opportunity to give feedback on these students' writing, so I had better make it count).  But everyone has learned something.  Everyone has grown.  Everyone is genuinely thinking through what justice means.

I think we as teachers need to be intentional about treating the final assignments in our class as a celebration of the learning that has taken place just as much as a summative assessment.  Along with these essays, my students are also preparing final projects which they will present to their classmates next week.  The instructions were simple: to choose a topic from class this year that resonated with them and to create a project of some kind that articulates what they now understand about that topic.  Projects can be paintings, sculptures, videos, skits, debates, songs; whatever format each student (or group, if they choose to collaborate) feels represents the best they have to offer.

Simply watching the students get to work planning and making their projects has taught me a lot about what my students took away this year.  For some students, it was our early discussion of labelling, stereotypes and biases.  For some students, it was our study of rhetorical fallacies.  For some students, it was our unit on agency and victimhood (actually, for quite a few students; I learned that this unit had a tremendous impact on a number of students).  For some students, it was our comparison of different worldviews.  I am looking forward to seeing the projects that the students come up with.  I won't grade these as strictly as I am grading the essay drafts, and in fact, my main criteria is whether or not the students clearly and successfully articulate an understanding of the topic they chose.  This, too, is a celebration of learning.

I know, I know... my seeing these end-of-year tasks as a celebration does not mean that the students won't grumble about the work-load, nor does it mean that the students will be filled with profound joy when they sit down to revise their essays or finalize their projects.  But perhaps they will recognize in my joy an invitation to look back at where they were in August and take pride in how far they have come.  Perhaps they will feel encouraged to reflect on moments, lessons or assignments that affected them significantly this year, whether they were difficult at the time, or not.  Perhaps when all is said and done, when my students have cleaned out their lockers, and walked out the door into the humid summer sun, they will be able to smile and celebrate, just a little bit.

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