Friday, May 15, 2020

My Favorite Classroom Routine

A million years ago, when school was something that happened in person, and not through our screens, I never started class on Tuesdays through Fridays.  Instead, as the bell rang, I would sit quietly at my desk as a student called their classmates to attention.  The student would present for a minute or so on a current event or news story, summarizing the story for their classmates, before posing a provocative statement, asking their classmates to agree or disagree with the statement, then discuss why they agreed or disagreed.  15-20 minutes later, the student would move to wind down the discussion, and yield the floor to me, at which point I would introduce whatever plans I had for class that day.

What I've just described is my favorite classroom routine, News Circles.

News Circles were born out of a conversation I had with my principal three years ago in my capacity as Social Studies Department Chair.  We were discussing ways to increase student awareness of--and engagement with--current events, particularly global issues, before their Senior year, at which time we ask them to do a major research project on a global issue of their choice.  

What we came up with was a classroom routine in which students would share news stories each day, low-stakes to the extent that even if a student forgot and did not bring a news story to class, it wouldn't matter in the long-run because they and their classmates would at least be exposed to other news stories.  

I decided I wanted to pilot this idea with my Humanities class the following year.  

News Circles have morphed and evolved with trial and error over the past three school-years.  I realized early on that I needed to give my students ownership of the routine, and so formed a voluntary News Circle committee who would decide what, exactly, News Circles would look like, and then oversee it on a day-to-day basis.  

This year, the News Circle Committee took the ownership I'd been looking for.  Whereas the previous two Humanities classes had run News Circles as a 5-10 minute routine in which four or five students would briefly share news stories each day, this year's committee decided that the quality of engagement with a news story was more important than the quantity of news stories their classmates would hear each day.  So, they decided to assign one student to present each day, with the majority of the time going toward facilitating a discussion on their news story.  The committee asked me if they could have 15-20 minutes rather than 5-10, and I was happy to oblige if they genuinely felt they needed the time.  

Under the leadership of the current News Circle Committee, News Circles have become my favorite classroom routine.  Here are a few reasons why News Circles have been such a rich part of our Humanities class:

1. Student Leadership
The News Circle Committee has emerged as a respected leadership group this year, to the extent that all of them ran either for Student Council or Senior Council for next year, all citing News Circle Committee as relevant leadership experience, with most being elected in the end.  In addition to heavily changing the format of News Circles to introduce a discussion focus, the News Circle Committee members in both sections have worked to design a master schedule, assigning classmates to come prepared to share a news story and lead a discussion each day.  They have been dutiful in reminding their classmates when their assigned day is coming up, and in the rare event that a classmate has forgotten, they have been prepared to step in and present, themselves.  They have coached their classmates on how to effectively facilitate discussions, introducing a routine that I now use, myself, the Four-Corner Discussion (in which students must physically go to a designated corner of the room based on whether they Strongly Agree-Agree-Disagree-Strongly Disagree with a given statement or proposition).  In January, my committee in one of the Humanities sections even took a day to share other types of discussion formats they had researched, and talked the class briefly through how each could work.  And if all of that had not been enough, the committees in both of my Humanities sections have voluntarily kept News Circles going during our 45 minute GoogleMeet check-ins each day since we returned to online learning after Spring Break.  I have seen these students emerge as leaders in ways that would not have been quite as clear or dramatic were it not for News Circles.

2. Student Choice, Engagement, and Ownership
Obviously, this is a classroom routine designed by students, for students.  That alone increases buy-in.  But within the structure of News Circles, the committee has given their classmates a high degree of choice in what they bring to the table when they present and lead a discussion.  We have had stories on sports, on politics, on business, on entertainment, on fashion, on health, on human rights, on science and technology... students find what interests them, and it often shows in the way they tell their classmates about their news item.

3. Critical Reading and Media Literacy
This does not come up all of the time, but occasionally, the student leading will ask their classmates to read the article, or a pair of articles themselves to highlight contradictions or biases within the article. Sometimes, the discussions have ended up being less about the issue at hand in the article, and more about the way in which it was reported.

4. Presentation and Facilitation Skills
Although it is an informal, low-stakes routine, it provides every student with an additional opportunity to practice their presentation skills and become more comfortable speaking in front of their classmates beyond our more formal class speeches and presentation assignments.  Perhaps even more beneficial is the challenge of facilitating a discussion--figuring out how to rephrase questions if necessary, or break big questions down into smaller, more manageable parts.

5. Critical Thinking
Coming up with discussion questions themselves is a worthwhile activity.  Something the students started to do without prompting from me, but which I plan to make an expectation in future years was to ask bigger-picture essential questions that pick up on the implications of a specific news story.  In other words, most students are not asking simple or factual discussion questions based specifically on the story they shared, but rather larger, more foundational or philosophical questions raised by their news story.  For instance, today a student shared an article about how some anti-vaxxers have changed their minds about vaccines in light of the COVID outbreak.  Rather than asking questions about her article specifically, she instead posed the following questions to her classmates in a discussion that lasted about half an hour: 1) Should vaccinations be mandatory?; and 2) Is communal good more important than individual freedom?  I love it when my students are able to see the forest through the trees.  In fact, my fellow high school social studies colleagues and I have been reading a book on essential questions by Wiggins and McTighe (the same duo who wrote Understanding by Design), and although this book is designed to help teachers create better essential questions to drive their units in class, we realized that we can and should be teaching similar skills to our students, and encouraging them when they do ask good essential questions.

6. Debate Skills
So far, I haven't even mentioned the discussions themselves.  Because of the nature of the Four-Corners discussion, which has been by far the most popular discussion format this year, students cannot hide and must decide where they stand on an issue--literally.  Few statements this year have yielded unanimous results, and even in the rare cases where every student is on the agree side of the room, or on the disagree side of the room, there is disagreement about degree with some students standing in the "strongly" corner, and some not.  After students have gone to the corner that represents their stance on the issue, discussion and disagreement are inevitable.  Not every student speaks up, but everyone is a part of the back-and-forth by virtue of having taken a stand.  Students will question one another's faulty logic or point out a lack of evidence, or qualified sources as they rebut one another's positions, and it's not uncommon to see the "bystanders" in these discussions physically change their minds as they listen to the debate, walking to a different corner to show that a particular argument had convinced them. Sometimes, the different sides concede or compromise, and on several occasions, they have even recommended rewording or qualifying the statement/question at hand to reach common ground and agreement.  Sadly, this school-year will end without a formal debate in Humanities class, an unfortunate but necessary casualty of COVID-19 and the limitations of emergency online learning.  However, I believe that this class is in many ways more advanced in their debate skills than previous classes because they participate in debate informally each day through News Circles.

7. Awareness of Current Events
It's funny to me that this original purpose for News Circles was the very last thing that I thought of as I listed out the benefits for this blog-post.  This does not mean it's an after-thought, by any means.  The students are coming away with a broader and deeper awareness of what is happening around the world, why it's happening, what the implications are on a smaller more immediate scale, and a wider long-term scale, and what they, themselves, think about what is happening.  Inevitably, they are learning about history, sociology, psychology, politics, economics, culture, geography and so much more as they lead and participate in News Circles.  None of this is formal, and it's hard to quantify, but it's exciting!

Nobody would have wished to spend the final three months of the school-year doing emergency distance learning instead of regular schooling.  On my end, I have assigned the students work that they are to do independently, and the vast majority are keeping up with our end-of-year assignments.  Using our 45-minute Google Meets to lecture seems to me an ineffective use of both my time and my students' time, and initially I was skeptical of having set, required GoogleMeet times each day, but when it became clear to me that my News Circle committees were not only willing, but genuinely eager to use that time to continue News Circles, I knew that important learning would continue to happen in my classes.  This was not what I would have expected or chosen for my students, but in this difficult time, News Circles have given my students a way to show initiative and rise to meet such unique challenges.  I'm glad that I have this as a classroom routine, and grateful for a group of students who have shown me just how good News Circles can be.  I won't soon forget. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

Life and Learning in Disrupted Times

When Prime Minister Abe announced on the evening of Thursday, February 27 that all schools would be closing until April, he took a difficult decision out of our school's hands--the complexities and challenges of determining when to shut down campus due to the spread of COVID-19 were no longer ours--or our fellow international schools'--alone.  We may have been surprised at the timing of the directive, but our leadership team had prepped us for the possibility of a shift to online schooling as early as the beginning of February.  I do not believe any of us were caught off-guard.

The next day, our final day with the students on campus, we mobilized to give our students the proper instructions and preparation for the shift to online schooling.  Instead of giving the students one final day to finish up their essays from the previous unit, which I had been planning to do, I moved up our introduction to the next unit, which I had originally been planning to do the following Monday.  As luck would have it, I had decided to totally revamp the final stretch of my U.S. History/English-blended Humanities course in response to Teaching For Transformation training on February 10 and 11.  At the time, I wondered if I was crazy for dismantling the three units I had already planned, and which I had taught before, combining, revising and editing to create one entirely new large and untested unit.

In hindsight, I can only say that the timing was providential.  As I planned this new unit, online schooling was constantly in the back of my mind, and although I planned on the assumption that we would be on campus, in class, I also consciously developed plans that I knew I could adapt to an online platform easily if I needed to.

So, on Friday, February 28, the last time I saw my students in person, I had detailed plans ready to go for them. In addition to a broader unit overview--something that I share at the start of each new unit, outlining our standards, essential questions and summative assessments--I also shared a document titled "Online School Emergency Plan" which contained a checklist of the main tasks students needed to be working on, as well as a preview of the activities and materials that I wanted the students to stay tuned for on Google Classroom.

My Online School Emergency Plan (or at least part of it)

This mega-unit concludes a year-long study of justice, using U.S. History, literature, essays, and speeches as case-studies, and will (hopefully) culminate with a student-organized relief trip to Tateyama in the Chiba prefecture at the end of May, to assist in ongoing clean-up following the devastating typhoons from this past fall.  The students have been planning this relief trip since November, and part of my reason for so drastically adjusting my plans was so that I could adopt this service project into my curriculum, affording students with an authentic and intentional way to apply the principles we have been studying in class.

I realized that introducing all of this online would not be terribly effective, so took time on that final regular class-day to explain my thinking on this to the students, and get them started in reflecting on what good charity does and does not look like with a four-corners discussion (in which students stand in a corner of the room corresponding to Strongly Agree-Agree-Disagree-Strongly Disagree) on the old proverb "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

When the bell rang at the end of class, I felt confident that we were ready to go online; that we had successfully laid the groundwork for the weeks to come.

For any of my teacher friends at schools in the States who are now facing, or are likely to face, a shift to online schooling, here is what I have done for the past couple of weeks, for what it is worth:

I have posted a Weekly Check-in Video every Monday in which I recap what we have been studying, look ahead to the plans for the coming week day-by-day, remind the students of upcoming deadlines, and simply check in, asking for questions or feedback.

Me rolling into frame to start my weekly check-in video

I also informed the students that I would post three short rhetorical fallacy videos each day (the final portion of our study of rhetoric for the school-year), each one defining a rhetorical fallacy, providing an example, and explaining what makes the example a fallacy.  This took a lot of time to put together, and I spent four-five hours in total over the course of that first week planning, recording, then editing 23 videos that all ended up being about two minutes apiece.  For my examples of the fallacies, I had some fun using my daughter's Anpanman, Thomas, Mickey Mouse, and Shimajiro toys.  I posted three new videos each day, asking the students to keep up with the fallacies in their notes, and also asking them to comment on the post on Google Classroom with a "got it"; "thanks"; or a specific response/question based on the videos, simply to confirm to me that they had at least seen the post.  Through these comments, I learned that many students really enjoyed and looked forward to the fallacy videos each day, and that some were even invested in the ongoing storyline and relationship drama between several of the Anpanman and Thomas characters in my examples.  I actually planned my final sets of fallacy videos accordingly to give those characters a clearer arc.  Also, from the comments, it soon became clear to me who was tracking with me--even on a superficial level--and who to watch more closely.

The owl-teacher (a fan favorite), about to launch into a lengthy slippery slope fallacy about the consequences of playing video games in the middle of class.
Why did I choose to go through the fallacies using daily videos?  I felt like it was important, especially getting started, to provide students with a daily routine--something short but consistent that they could plan to do for Humanities.

I also assigned to them several longer-term tasks:

Of course, they had been working on a unit essay when we were still in school, and while this had been due on Friday, Feb. 28, originally, I gave the students a few extra days to finish in light of the general chaos of that Friday.  This was the first major due-date of online schooling, and I realized that not being physically present at school freed me up to give several pointed reminders about the due-date during the day on Google Classroom--something I would not ordinarily have had the time to do.  In the end, only one student submitted his assignment late (by 12 minutes), and he proactively contacted our principal, in accordance with our late-work policy, to explain that he'd gotten caught up playing the piano and lost track of the time.  As this was a teacher's draft, one of my ongoing projects (and more time-consuming tasks) these weeks has been to read and provide feedback on the essays.  I am still in the process of reading and commenting on these essays, though I hope to have them finished by late next week.

I also assigned the students to read a chapter from one of our core texts, Healing for a Broken World, by Steve Monsma, regarding the Christian call to solidarity, and the problems with an overly individualistic approach to poverty and suffering on the one hand, and a paternalistic approach on the other hand.  We discussed this chapter in an online video conference using GoogleMeet on the Thursday of that first week, with most students in attendance.  Students who were not comfortable speaking up in the video conference were able to type and post their responses or questions on Google Classroom.

In the next long-term assignment, I asked the students to apply what they had learned about individualism and paternalism as they researched Native American History using a large selection of resources that I had culled for them, ultimately evaluating the federal government's Indian policy over the course of time.  As there were three separate questions to which I wanted students to respond, I broke this assignment down into two checkpoints and the final due-date, with the first checkpoint on Tuesday, March 10, the second checkpoint being on Thursday, March 12, and the whole assignment being due on Friday, March 13.  Yet again, not being in school freed me up to take 20-30 minutes from 4:30 pm on the checkpoint days to quickly click through the students' documents on Google Classroom to see who was on track and who was not, providing brief feedback in their online grades.  I was impressed that most students responded to this timely feedback and their responses for the second checkpoint seemed much more cohesive and complete.

In addition to all of this, my student-led News Circle committees have planned activities to keep their classmates plugged into current events, with the committee in one class asking their classmates to look at both sides of several issues of their choice on and fill out a short document summarizing what they found, and the committee in the other class holding Google Meet discussions each Friday, discussing the North Korean Missile Launch the first week, the Australian bushfires this past week, and media coverage of COVID-19 this coming week.  In this, I have been thoroughly impressed with the leadership and initiative of my students on the News Circle committees, who volunteered to do this job at the start of the year, and who have consistently gone above and beyond to facilitate awareness and discussion of current events with their classmates, even in the midst of a disrupted online schooling schedule.

Coming up: 
Having finished the rhetorical fallacy videos, students must now go on a scavenger hunt for five fallacies of their choice, finding an example of that fallacy in the news, in political debates, or in movies or TV shows, then explaining how their example shows that particular fallacy.  This scavenger hunt will be due next Friday, before Spring Break.

The students are also reading a selection of Native American poetry, and will write their own poem in response to Diane Burns' "Sure, You Can Ask Me a Personal Question", responding to the assumptions and stereotypes others may have about each of us based on our culture, appearance, gender, hobbies, etc. We will share our poems in a GoogleMeet poetry read on Tuesday.

Finally, the students will have an opportunity to hear from my brother about his two years teaching on the Pine Ridge reservation, and his insights about Indian policy as he finishes law school, in a GoogleMeet question-and-answer session on Thursday.

Online schooling is not without its bumps, of course, and I do have a few students who seem to be struggling mightily in the absence of the structure and accountability that a school-day offers.  Importantly, it has become clear quickly who is struggling or falling behind.  The challenge moving forward is to find ways to encourage, support, and hold these students accountable virtually.

By contrast, I have also had a few students tell me that they prefer online schooling to regular school and that they have thrived at budgeting their own time, accomplishing much more than they ordinarily would.

I think in either case, online schooling is holding up a mirror to the students, that would not have otherwise been held up, revealing something to them about their own strengths and weaknesses as both learners and workers.  I know that I definitely would have struggled with the lack of structure when I was in high school, and also that I definitely would not have been able to recognize that for myself at the time.

We are soon to start our third week of online schooling, and while I admit that I am tired and that I miss the regular school routine, it has been reassuring to know that life and learning can go on even in a disrupted and disruptive time such as this.