Engaging the Writer

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I made a promise to myself to blog more this summer and haven’t made good on that promise primarily because I didn’t have anything to write about. This fits exactly into what I want to discuss in this post. I am about to embark on a new journey in a new position at my school. I was chosen to become the new literacy coach for the high school and I’m both nervous and excited about the job.

One of the needs expressed by teachers this past spring was a desire to focus more on writing instruction. We have noticed that our students struggle quite a bit with writing. Even students who appear to have very little delay in reading. Students show an ability to understand what they are reading but struggle to pose their own thoughts in writing. What is missing in writing instruction that will help students make gains?

I recently read a fabulous article on Linking Genre to Standards. The premise of the article being that students need exigency in order to exact good form. It is a habit of writing programs to teach formulaic writing–especially when working with students who are performing several levels below Enrolled Grade Level. The problem with formulaic writing is that it may give students a “purpose” for writing, but it doesn’t make that purpose authentic and it doesn’t help students understand why the form is used. It also does not put the choice of form in the hands of the student.

Why do people write? It’s more than just PIE (persuade, inform, entertain). I like the following quote from the article:

As teachers, before we direct our students toward ways to engage the interest of the reader and state a clear purpose, we have to engage the interest of the writer in a real purpose.

When working on instructional planning, we have to do more than just make sure we check off the standard’s list of genres (making sure that students write at least one engaging short story, literary analysis essay, persuasive essay, research paper, etc.). We need to impress upon students that writing is an organic meaningful action. Students shouldn’t just write to receive a passing grade. Writing isn’t about playing “school”. It is about sharing a message. It is about expressing one’s thoughts and feelings. It is about engaging and interacting with an audience.  But, as the quote above stated, we cannot get our students to engage an audience without first making sure students are engaged in the topic. Their writing should have authentic purpose; it should be a meaningful, purposeful act.

The article stresses that we need to teach them “WHY” we write, not just “HOW” to write. So when looking at the standards we need to carefully consider our instructional approach. Suppose we look at the following TEKS standard:

(14) Writing/Literary Texts. Students write literary texts to express their ideas and feelings about real or imagined people, events, and ideas….Students are expected to:

(A) write an engaging story with a well-developed conflict and resolution, interesting and believable characters, a range of literary strategies (e.g., dialogue, suspense) and devices to enhance the plot, and sensory details that define the mood or tone;

We need to ask ourselves, what situation would students need to be in that would engage them as authentic writers? Why would/should they write this story?

One could argue that standardized testing does not engage readers or writers and I would agree, which is why I would encourage administrators not to put so much stock in standardized test scores. Should writing instruction be designed around testing parameters? or should we work to develop meaningful writing skills and hope for transfer? Teaching form as formula may have short-term benefits that help prepare students for immediate writing tasks. However, it also creates limited writing competencies and disconnected learners. Skills don’t “stick” and writing loses voice.  In developing an effective writing program, we cannot continue to go the route of formulaic instruction in order to meet the demands of a singular assessment. We must help students find meaning in writing and write with their own purpose in mind. We must consider the “why” along with the “how” when designing lessons. We must create meaningful learning situations that prompt specific genres or forms of writing. We don’t just want students to do well in school or on tests, we want them to do well in their respective communities. We want them to be able to see writing as a meaningful tool for participating in social action.

I write this blog because I have something to say. Having something to say motivates me to write well. Having something to say and a desire to share it with an audience encourages me to carefully select my words and consider how my writing might be received by others. This is what we want our students to do. They must be reflective readers and writers, but first, they must find something to say. Rather than give them something to say, give them a reason to say it. Incite them, move them to action–show them that writing is more than just structure, grammar and words on a page. Writing is power.

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From Celebration to Participation

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I receive the ASCD Smart Brief newsletter every so often.  Today this article  jumped out at me.  I was drawn to the title:

Are We Creating a Generation of Observers?

This is a good question and although I struggled to understand most of his smaller points, I want to see if I can summarize his message:

We celebrate things like “Black History Month” or “Deaf History Month” in an effort to educate students about our (their) history and hopefully tie it to the present; however, these celebrations often result in a rehashing of the same information each year.  When students hear the same stories every year about Martin Luther King Jr or Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, they do not draw from it a sense of purpose; they don’t see the relevance.  Why do we celebrate Black History Month? It can’t simply be “lest we forget.”   Is there a way for us to take a celebration and create an experience that allows students to celebrate themselves rather than simply observe the celebration of others?  Can we push students to take history and make history?  Can we convince students to use celebration to bring about true social change?

My students are about to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but first I’m having them research the time period to get a better sense of the setting and themes  in the novel.  Many of my students had not seen or heard of Plessy v. Ferguson or Brown v. Board of Education or they had on a very superficial level (oh that was featured in our textbook or on a poster somewhere).  I was completely shocked by this.  When we began discussing the separation of blacks and whites during that time period, I was struck by how apathetic my students were.  They get that it was hard, they get that life sucked for black people back then, but it wasn’t relevant. They might as well have asked, “What does that have to do with me?”  And they are right, we don’t spend any amount of time answering that question.  We simply expect that they will show respect for a history that has made certain freedoms possible.

That doesn’t mean that the history that students are currently living in isn’t without it’s own obstacles to overcome.  My students are deaf and hard of hearing.  They are constantly being encouraged (and in some cases drilled) to have a sense of “Deaf Pride” and “Deaf Empowerment” but the image they are encouraged to portray is based on a historical definition of what it means to be Deaf.   Our students live in a world where cochlear implants are becoming the norm, more and more hard of hearing students are joining schools for the deaf, students have mixed language abilities that include Sign Language, spoken English, and in some cases a blend of home languages or sign systems (Spanish, SEE, creoles, etc.).  My students also come from a variety of cultures and ethnicities.  Students are unsure of who they are or what labels they want to attach to themselves. Shouldn’t they be the ones to define their own self pride?

I am reminded of when I was in high school.  I grew up around white people with very little exposure to the black community.  I often got picked on about this and was often told that I wasn’t “black” enough.  I was expected to label myself as black, but being bi-racial, I was also white.  I wasn’t allowed to recognize this part of myself, doing so meant I was somehow disrespecting my black side.  However, during black history month, I felt the power of the message more than my friends on both sides of the coin because it hit me that without the struggles fought during the civil rights movement, I would not have been born.  This relevance has made the celebration more valuable, I felt valuable in my light skin and I wanted to make a contribution to society.

Perhaps we should spend more time celebrating our students as they are. I’m not saying give up Black History month or Deaf History month, but instead find ways to make it relevant and purposeful.   While it’s nice that students look back in history and can identify who invented the cotton gin, perhaps it’s more important that we tell students that right here and now YOU matter-right here and now you can make a difference. How else will we build the Martin Luther Kings of the future?

Moments that Made Me Smile

This week has been a good week.  I always say that post spring break is my favorite time of the year.  By that time, students have had plenty of time to get used to my expectations and they actually start to enjoy class.  This week I’ve hit an unusual number of moments that made me smile but I want to share two that put a boost in my step.

#1  I’m doing my annual magazine project with the Seniors again this year (yea, I know I talk about this project a lot but I love it).  Normally it takes two weeks to get them all set up and ready to work independently.  This year, because of my efforts to flip instruction, my current seniors were ready to go within minutes.  On Monday, they had already applied for positions and had made press badges.  On Wednesday I announced the editor positions and we started our first team meeting for the first section of the Magazine.  The two chosen editors ran the team meeting and even assigned me a role.  My job was secretary: to take notes on the meeting.  It was awesome! The first section of the magazine will focus on local, national and world news.  The class made their recommendations for article ideas and the two editors listened to ideas, asked for clarification, vetoed ideas (by explaining why they were against topic) and ended the day by giving their writers an assignment.  Students were 100% directing their learning and they were excited about writing!  I can’t wait to see the results of their writing next week.

#2 I joined #flipclass chat with a wonderful topic about what a personal PLN means to teachers.  It is quite the emotional topic for me because my personal PLN has completely changed my outlook on teaching.  I shared my struggles from the fall and even mentioned that back then I was ready to hand in my letter of resignation.   Jonathan Bergmann, one of the authors of Flip Your Classroom, asked if I would write a guest post sharing my experience on how attempting to flip my classroom has kept me from leaving the profession.  I was so honored to write that post.  Feel free to read it and please do share your comments! I’d love to hear what you think.

I am starting to feel valued as an educator and I am remembering why I became a teacher in the first place.  I enjoy watching my students grow and learn together.  I will always have struggles to reflect on but I need to remember to relish the sweet spots too.

Forgetting Everything is All Right

I’ve been sitting staring at this blank post for over four hours thinking about how I would approach my next blog topic.  This week’s various Twitter topics (as well as a post by fellow blogger @mssackstein) have all lead me to contemplate one recurring theme:  FEAR.  I have a masochistic relationship with Fear.  When risk is involved, I happily let fear hold the reigns of self-doubt.  I’m not much of a risk taker, never have been.  My brain has a habit of checking off all the reasons why something is not possible or why failure is imminent (Failure Expected And Received).   The actual act of delving into an unknown is physically stressful for me.  I spend every waking moment in Finding Excuses And Reasons.  My brain literally throbs from deconstructing all available routes, attempting to calculate the most successful path to a destination as if it could ever be a personal GPS.   However, I do not avoid risk at all costs, especially when it comes to my students.  I have constantly put myself out there and changed my teaching practices in efforts to better serve my students.  I feel this is a good thing, but I often run the gamut of perpetual stages of worry.  Am I doing the right thing?  Are my students truly learning?  Should I even be a teacher?  This panic (False Emotions Appearing Real) that I am desperately clinging to on a daily basis is what keeps me from becoming a truly effective teacher and advancing in my career.  There is a serious need for me to get out of my relationship with fear.

A side effect of my constant Frantic Effort to Avoid Reality is a negative reflection of the self.  So instead of spending this post harping on the multitude of flaws that seem to continuously re-purpose themselves in my mind, I believe I need to share some of the positive things that I do in my classroom.  It is time for me to be OK with occasional bragging. So, without further ado, here are some projects that I’ve had success with in my classes.

Nickel and Dimed Webquest: after reading a few excerpts from the book Nickel and Dimed, students were thrown into the world of the minimum wage worker.  They had to complete tasks such as: finding a job they were currently qualified to do (assuming the role of recent HS grads), finding an apartment, keeping a budget, figuring out transportation, paying bills, buying groceries, etc.  They also had to keep a daily journal of each activity including: describing what a day at work looks like, describing their living arrangements, sharing quick/frugal recipes, etc.  They also had to write a resume and cover letter, and fill out mock job applications.  I plan to do this webquest again this year after spring break and will have students BLOG rather than keep handwritten journals.  I would also like to add “SMH” cards that throw a wrench in daily living (such as getting sick, getting wallet stolen, car breaks down, etc.) and having them write about how they would overcome these issues.

Multi-Genre Writing Project: (idea taken from Tom Romano’s Multi-Genre Research Project) Student choose a novel from a list of traditional literature although students could do the project with any self-selected text.  They are to read the novel independently and create a folio of multi-genre writing that illustrates the themes in the novel as well as provides readers with an opportunity to experience the novel without actually reading it.  The goal was that their final product would be something that could be left in the library as a way to encourage readers to check out the book.  Their final product should contain: a letter to the reader (giving a short book talk or a 1 page introduction to the contents of the project), an author bio, additional entries that demonstrates at least 7 different genres (poem, interview, game directions, menu, news article, etc.), a bibliography and notes page.  I even create a multi-genre project along with my students.  You can view the Alice in Wonderland project I did several years ago (yes it’s all my own writing and I enjoyed writing along side my students for this project!).

Class Magazine Project:  I mentioned this in a previous post.  I do this project absolutely every year for senior spring final project.  They love it, I love it, and the whole school looks forward to the annual editions.  Students run the whole show, writing all of the content, designing the layout and even creating their own advertisements.  The project begins with applying for editor positions.  Editors become the leaders and run pitch meetings where the rest of the class pitches their ideas for content.  Students are sent out around campus wearing press badges and collecting stories.  They write content and submit drafts to copy-editors who make any edits.  Final drafts are sent to layout editors who fit them into the magazine.  After content is written, students work in groups to create advertisements that compliment the articles they wrote.  My husband, a professional photographer, is “hired” to do the shoot.  He treats students exactly like he would a real client and students must have story board idea of the advertisement before showing up to the shoot.  Students also must supply all props and the product for the shoot.  Husband does shoot with some post-production, then images are sent back to groups for the final advertisement layout.  Students must create every aspect of the magazine from the cover,  masthead and index right down to the little details such as folio and cutlines.

NANOWRIMO: for those of you who haven’t tried this with your students, give it a try.  It’s one month (November) and it will really get the writing juices flowing for both you and your students.  This was a BIG deal for my students who constantly complain about having to write 500 words or more.  My students were not able to do the full 50,000 words but getting them to do 2,500 word stories was worth all the pre-planning.  Students worked so hard and were very creative with their stories.  Even if I didn’t join the program, I’d do something like this again with my students.

Retelling Shakespeare: My students know me as the Shakespeare Queen.  I LOVE Shakespeare and work very hard to pass the love onto my students.  We get all up into Shakespeare from learning about his background to doing reader’s theater with his plays.  I often have students read adaptions of the play and watch movie adaptions as well.  After seeing many different ways that Shakespeare has been interpreted, I ask students to create their own interpretation of a single scene from the play.  They create their own movie adaptions and it is so much fun to see what they have come up with.  One year I had students adapt Macbeth using characters from Harry Potter (talk about text to text connections!)

These are the projects that help me remember that I AM a good teacher and can be when I let go of FEAR.  So when you’re faced with a difficult year and feel undeserving of any accolades, take a look back at some of you favorite activities with your students.  Take time to reflect on the things you do well.  Everyone has flaws but indeed we all also have strengths.  Building on your strengths and don’t Forget, Everything is All Right.

Reflecting on Failure and Change

When I was little, I often donned the role of “Teacher” which really meant bossing my sister around and making her color workbooks.  In my eye, teachers were authorities you did not question.  They had power to change your life for better or worse.  This power was wielded over me many times in college as professors determined whether or not I was worthy of their profession.  When I became a teacher, I have to admit, this power was intoxicating.  At first, I struggled with wanting to be liked and at the same time staying in control, which lead to frequent power struggles and inconsistency.  They didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who I wanted to be.

Now seven years later, I began this year feeling like I knew who I wanted to be as a teacher.  I wanted to prove once and for all that this was the profession of my calling.  I wanted to flip my classroom and become an expert at integrating technology.  At the same time, I wanted to prove that I could finally do it all.  I wanted to be the super teacher of the year. However, looking back at this year, I’ve found that one thing still remains the same.   It turns out, I still want very much to be liked and I have a hard time giving up control.  Haven’t I learned anything these past 7 years?!

I will say this, I may not have written much on this blog, but at least it has been honest reflection that will hopefully help me grow as an educator.  It is this reflection that has allowed me to fix at least one thing:  I now know who I want to be as a teacher and I won’t get any better with the mentality that I have to be “the best”.  The tough part is making the change.

CHANGE #1: END THE PAPER TRAIL–  I don’t like passing out worksheets, but I find myself doing it often with one class.   I ask myself why I do this, and the truth is, I don’t know how to teach this particular group.  When I observed other teachers, they had students who dutifully filled out worksheets as well (as a fellow Twitter posted “A digital worksheet, is still a worksheet”).  These classrooms were so organized with students who behaved so wonderfully.  So I followed, and it worked.  My students behaved, they dutifully filled out worksheets, and I believed that they were actually learning.  But recently their work stopped making any sense.  They have become automatons who are able to go from activity to activity, completing tasks, but they aren’t making connections.  They know how to fill in a 4-square graphic organizer but they fill it with information that is still superficial and shows lack of understanding the topic.  Or an activity that they do in ASL becomes a complete failure when trying to transfer the same skills to English. I do notice a big change when assignments are more authentic or when I’m able to give them explicit 1:1 time.  I need to find work that is more meaningful at the same time something students can do independently while I work 1:1 with others.  So, Change #1: less paper and more 1:1 feedback (writing/reading conferences).

CHANGE #2: ADJUST MY DEFINITION OF ASSESSMENT– I enjoy having students work on projects.  I believe that students retain information better when they are able to apply what they learned to something they’ve made.  However, with high-stakes testing becoming more and more obtrusive, I worry that these project-based assessments do not translate well to paper/pencil tests.  So, I have continued to give test-simulated multiple choice assessments that include prompted written responses.  However, doing so is only confirming my fears.  Students are not doing well on these paper/pencil tests.  I’ve always assumed I was good at getting students to think critically about a topic; however, when it comes time to take a test, students are still failing.  What am I doing wrong? I believe that my tests and projects don’t assess the same things.  A project is a demonstration of what a student is capable of doing with the information they’ve learned.  A test is a demonstration of what the student is able to remember.  I need to take a more comprehensive look at my assessments.  I need to do a better job of identifying the skills my students need to retain once the project has ended and reassess those skills ongoing.  I need to make it clear to my students as well, what standards they are meeting and on what scale.  So, change #2: stop grading multiple-choice tests and instead make sure my students are able to CONTINUOUSLY apply skills in an authentic and meaningful way.

CHANGE #3: GIVE STANDARDS BASED GRADING A TRY. This is going to be the toughest change of all for me.  However, I believe in it wholeheartedly.  The concept is that a teacher should be able to identify a set of priority standards that students MUST meet by the end of the year (I don’t mean the TEKS or even IEP goals, but instead a teacher recognizing skills that students MUST have before they can move ahead in the general curriculum).  These standards would then be assessed throughout the year and students would be graded on how they are progressing with the standards.  It sounds wonderful to be able to say exactly what the student is or is not able to do.  It would provide more specific information to add to an IEP and help towards writing better goals/objectives.  What makes this a tough change for me is deciding the standards as well as figuring out the grades.  Ideally, a letter grade would not be assigned, but instead a meter of progress would be given.  A student should not be penalized for needing additional time to meet projected goals.  So, in a world that still wants to see letter grades, how do I introduced standards-based grading? What will it look like?  I need to research this a bit more and talk with others who have made the change.  Improving my teaching will require change #3: starting the year off with a clear set of manageable standards.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to make all three changes this year and I definitely want to at least attempt to make these changes in the fall.  The most important thing I must remember is that attempting to be “perfect” is going to send me to an early grave.  I need to let go of “winning” and embrace my own failures.  I don’t have to be a teacher of the year; I do need to be okay with being me.

Finding Authentic Readers to Foster Authentic Writers

My seniors just finished up a persuasive unit that included a research paper and a persuasive speech.  Working on this project was quite daunting both for me and my students.  There are so many skills that go into writing a GOOD research paper and then aggregating that information into a GOOD persuasive speech.  Not only do they have to demonstrate competency in these skills, but my students have to do it in two different languages (ASL and English).   Needless to say, they found this project more difficult than reading Beowulf.  I, on the other hand, found it difficult to grade these assignments, especially the persuasive speech.

I  don’t know about other English teachers out there, but I find it so hard to get students to revise their drafts.  Students automatically go from first draft to editing to final draft.  They don’t seem to understand why revision is important, even after a writing conference with me.  To my students, when they write something, it makes sense to them exactly how they wrote it the first time, so why change it.  They have a hard time considering how the sentence or paragraph might read to a different audience.  Likewise, I find it hard for me to separate feedback for revisions from feedback for editing.  I often break out the colored pen and mark student’s grammatical errors simultaneously with margin comments about coherency.  More often than not, the grammatical errors get the most attention and the students ignore my coherency feedback.  I need to revise the way I give feedback.

Then, I think about best practices for teaching reading to students (I’m still not proficient in doing this consistently with students).  We annotate the text, make notes in the margins, jot down questions about portions that confuse us.  We also read together, read aloud, or get together as a group and discuss what we read and compare notes.  I also think about the comments section that I read fervently on some of my favorite blogs.  People have a wide variety of different views/interpretations on what they read.  I’m sure if readers were to give a grade, the grade would range from A-F.  I’m also sure blog writers take this feedback and apply it to future entries (or even to revise current ones).  I’m also sure that writers are a lot more careful at revising each of their blog posts before publishing them.  (I know this particular post has seen several mental and print revisions over the course of a week).  This made me realize that students need more authentic readers/viewers to give feedback on their writing (or signing).  It can’t just be me, and it certainly can’t just be peers within the class.

So what’s wrong with peer revision or teacher feedback?  As a class, we’ve developed a culture surrounding the teacher’s expectations.  Students have come to  learn what I look for in good writing.  They’ve acclimated to my definition of good writing.  Even reading each other’s writing, they all parrot similar responses: “This part is good, it grabs my interest!”  or “I was confused by this, can you clarify?”   or “I think you should consider adding more description.”  These responses all sound like something a teacher would say, not something you’d find within margin annotations or even a blog comment.  Our students are even afraid to fail at giving feedback.

So how can we mimic the type of feedback we get out in the real world?  We can start by not trying so hard to mimic it.  We should make use of publishing (blogging and actually having students invite people to read their blogs, disseminating an online student newspaper or magazine, asking authentic audience members to come in for text review, or to judge student presentations).  I think we’re afraid to give students this authenticity because the backlash can be biting.  We don’t want to damage a student’s self-esteem; however, students eventually need to face reality.  Not everyone is going to like what they wrote, but that doesn’t mean that what they wrote was awful.  We have to let our students know that feedback is feedback, the ultimate control of the final draft is theirs.  I bet our student’s motivation to write would drastically improve if they knew that they actually had an authentic voice (and not just a completed assignment).  Imagine if they knew a local author was going to take a look at their short stories, or that their blogs received a large number of views with relevant comments.   I’m sure there would be initial panic but I’m also sure we’d see better writing from them.  I know I’m more motivated to write on this blog after seeing it re-tweeted and hopefully I’ve become a better blogger through this process.

So, I decided to make the persuasive speeches a bit more authentic.  I wanted to do something like TED without scaring my students to death.  I invited a few “judges” and outsiders to come view my students’ persuasive speeches and it was a wonderful experience for them (and me).  They could see from the comments that the judges each had very different views of their speeches.  The judges all gave very detailed feedback on what they didn’t understand and what they felt the student did well.   It made me realize that something like “persuasion” is a matter of perception and should always be viewed by more than one person.   Their live speeches were also recorded and then posted on Voicethread; the Voicethread was then shared within the school so that students could continue to receive feedback and comments (much like TED).  Students will now be able to take this feedback and make revisions to their speeches.  I’m hoping they will be able to video record their final revisions to make polished speeches that we can broadcast school-wide.  (Let’s hope with all the upcoming testing that we actually have time to do this!)

I’ve done this sort of authentic assessment before.  In fact I do it every year since I started teaching high school. Every spring, I have seniors do a class magazine for their final project.  It is a great way for them to demonstrate their learning.  I consider myself the CEO and have very little role in the content they select for this project.  In fact, my one job is to “hire” editors to run the magazine (they all create resumes and cover letters explaining why they feel most qualified for the role of editor).  The editors are the true bosses that make sure that the magazine runs smoothly.  Every student contributes at least 4 articles to the magazine and they even design the layout as well as all of their own advertisements.  My husband, a professional photographer, is even “hired” to do the photography work for their advertisements (they must first storyboard their ideas and be able to clearly explain them to him on the day of  the shoot; they are also responsible for any props that are needed for the shoot.)  Students absolutely love this project, and I love it as well.  I give VERY little revising or editing feedback; all editors are responsible for making sure that drafts are print ready, and quite frankly, students are more than willing to revise their own work without being told.  Editors do evaluations on their employees and employees do evaluations on their editors.  Final magazines are published through ISSUU.com (although this year I plan to switch to Joomag so that students can add ASL videos).  It’s a fun project.  Every year I do this project, and I know that the reason it is successful is because students become authentic writers to an authentic audience.

However, despite knowing this, I still start every year in “teacher” mode, expecting that I have to teach all the skills before they are able to successfully do a project like this on their own.  I often ask myself, why can’t this project be year-around?  Is it possible to do this and still cover the required TEKS?  Likewise, why should I limit this only to my seniors? I teach 9th-12th, but usually reserve this as a “treat” for my seniors.  Shouldn’t this be something in which all students are able to participate?  Also, wouldn’t it be amazing to collaborate with another school on a project like this?  (Especially during years when current events are explosive–presidential elections, worldwide natural disasters, political issues that span the globe, etc.) So what’s stopping me?  I think, just like my students, I need an authentic audience.  I need validation and approval.  I need someone to collaborate with and discuss ideas about what may or may not work.  Are you, dear reader, interested?

Reviving the Dead by Killing the Sage

Reflection is quite a process that starkly resembles standing in front of a full-length mirror under a spotlight. Every wrinkle, blemish, and unsightly hair becomes grossly apparent.  While there are certainly highlights (like the way a single tendril of hair curls in a perfect spiral), the ugly truth always seems a lot more pronounced and hard to ignore.  My most recent blemish feels like an oxymoron.  I’m a Deaf woman who apparently does not like silence.  This is even more astounding if you know me.  I’m the wall flower that hovers in the corners with my arms and legs crossed, the body language of a defensive, private persona.  I even laugh silently.

So, where does this fear of silence come from?  I get stage fright when standing and presenting/speaking in front of a crowd (including  students).  In order to feel comfortable, there has to be an exchange.  I like collaboration because it allows me to bounce my ideas off “quietly”.  In other words, I prefer doubles tennis to randomly smacking a ball against the wall with a racquet.  How on earth I became a teacher who must stand in front of classroom full of mildly disinterested high school students is an enigma.

A big buzzword going around educational circles, and one I wholeheartedly advocate, is Inquiry Based Learning.  I love the idea of students “discovering” learning and finding their own way around things that adults have determined our students “MUST” learn.  Without getting into a debate about overly narrowed standards, I want to focus on the belief that questioning is the most important part of learning.  So, I ask my students questions all the time.  The problem is, often, they don’t answer.  Worse yet, the ultimate paradox, I often attempt to answer my own questions.  When I catch myself doing this, I immediately respond “well, that’s just one idea, you don’t have to use it.”  Well, guess what?  They use it, verbatim, on responses to test questions, in parroted responses when I try to get them to follow with another possible answer, or when turning to talk with a partner.  They regurgitate.  It’s a horrible feeling as a teacher to watch a class full of students upchucking the proverbial hairball, MY hairball.

BUT, I have begun to hit upon why I do this.  I fear silence.  I fear that maybe students don’t understand the material; maybe they need an idea or an example to get them started; maybe they lack experience with the topic; maybe my principal will come in and find students unengaged.   However, I’ve also come to the conclusion that my students don’t answer because they smell my fear.  They know that if they just stay quiet long enough, I’ll help them out with an answer.

So, dear friends, what is a teacher like me to do?  My Answer (see, I can’t help myself!): Shut up.  I don’t have to be the sage on the stage.  I don’t have to have all of the answers, and I need to stop spending so much time asking questions that I can easily answer on my own.  I need to expand critical thinking skills by getting students to explore ideas.  I want to develop an environment where there are no wrong answers, but rather valid or invalid premises.  I’ve begun giving my students questions and letting them know that there are no right or wrong answers to these questions.  Instead, I expect them to support/justify their answer with evidence.  A funny thing happens, students start answering.  At first, their answers are clipped and look more like questions (wanting so badly to be the student that gets the answer right).  Then, you start to see wheels turning and students come up with some pretty neat ideas.

Yet some days it is really hard to sit back and wait for students to discover learning.  The truth is, I’m waiting for them to discover MY way of learning–I have to remind myself that this mentality is one that assumes that what I know and teach is the “right” way to do things.  We don’t want students to blindly accept what teachers tell them or what textbooks state.  So I’m going to try to kill the sage and instead help my students to become sages of their own.

Re-Evaluating FLIP

I embraced the flipped methodology whole heartedly as I researched it during the summer last year. I entered the fall fully believing that it would revolutionize my classroom. I still believe in the flip but have now come to re-evaluate it and redefine it. After thinking about all I have done half way through the year, I’ve found that I don’t really “flip” all that much in my classroom. At least, not by original Khan Academy definition. I don’t send home lectures/lessons to students and then do work in class. In fact, the flip has made me realize how pointless homework has become. Just by seeing that my students don’t even watch the videos I so painstakingly put together, I came to realize that it doesn’t matter if it is a worksheet or a cool video lesson. Students do not want nor seem to have time to complete all the homework they are assigned.

I’ve changed my view on what I want my classroom to look like. I want students to LEARN not just DO. I want them to MASTER concepts, not simply be EXPOSED TO concepts. I want QUALITATIVE results, not QUANTITATIVE results. I want AUTHENTIC learning objectives, not STANDARDIZED objectives. I want all students to feel a level of SUCCESS with their learning. I don’t want them to obsess about grades.

This fall I am making an effort to get rid of homework all together. If students are not able to finish in class, it gets pushed until the next time I see them. I’m also making an effort to allow for self-pacing. I want students to be able to master skills at a pace that makes sense to them. It is possible to have a set of standards for all students to master, but it is NOT possible to have all students master them at the same time, especially within one classroom.

I find that I stil make the occasional video or keynote for students to view on their own time but these are resources for students to access. They are still responsible for their learning. I rarely lecture in front of the class and I spend most of my time roaming around the room checking in on students and helping where needed. I like this the most. I hand out a list of assignments/skills for students to work on and they go through the list deciding what they want to work on and when. They check their own work and move on when they feel ready. They see me if they want extra practice in a particular skill and they take quizzes to gauge their mastery. Today a student came up to me after class and said…”I like this class.” He managed to complete all of his assignments and found that his reading level had jumped a grade level (this was a big deal to him and me). He said he finally understood how to improve his reading, and he’s anxious to see his reading improve even more. He is proud because he knows HE did all of the work. He is motivated because now he has something that applies to him on a personal level. He has a goal that is not something the teacher set for him, but something he decided for himself. This is empowerment.

I have a long way to go before my classes become what I want them to be (or better yet, what students want them to be). I still have troubles relinquishing control over the assignments or control over what students should be doing during class. I had one class where I was constantly shushing students and asking them to stay on task. I deducted points for chatting, and constantly became frustrated and angry that they would not listen or pay attention to each other. I finally said, “you know what, as long as you complete the work and understand what we are doing today, then I don’t care if you chat or get all silly, etc.” Of course, several students took this as a sign to chat through the whole class and I sat there literally on my hands with my mouth in a tight line, but at the end of class, every one of them turned in their assignments and could respond to exit slip questions. I realized that I was trying to control something that really wasn’t important. Now, if my principal were to come into the classroom for evaluation, it might look like my class is a zoo, but they are learning in their own way.

Then I think to myself about attending workshops or department meetings in which sometimes teachers chat with each other while a person is presenting. These side conversations may or may not be related to the information being presented, but I also don’t believe that they are not getting the information.

We have to begin to instill a sense of responsibility in our students. They have to take ownership of their learning and their behavior. We have to let go of control and give students the opportunity to tell us what it is they want to learn and why. They have to be able to leave the classroom and take something with them when they move on into the world. It’s a BIG lesson that will take me time to master, but I’m hoping that I can begin to connect with my students more and encourage them to make the most of school.