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.

The Self-Paced Classroom

Generic Definition of Self-Paced Learning:  most commonly encountered in college, self-paced classes are classes in which students don’t actually attend class, but instead complete coursework on their own. The basic expectation is that by the end of the course, students will have completed all requirements with a passing grade.

The actual idea of a self-paced classroom for high school students (or even younger) often makes teacher’s cringe.  We think that by doing a self-paced curriculum, students will naturally err on the side of laziness and simply not do the work at all.  I was a skeptic at first as well.  I envisioned students holding all assignments until the end of the 6 weeks and me sitting on mounds of assignments trying to catch up with grading.

I have been doing Self-Paced with my Junior and Senior classes so far this year, and I have to say that it works BETTER.  When combined with Edmodo, it produces competition and students actually want to be the FIRST to get their assignments done.  It also makes grading easier as instead of grading several essays and assignments at the same time, I get them at different times and can give more focused feedback.  Students are more willing to write several drafts as a due date is not looming before them.

However, the self-paced class has been hard on some of my students.  The students who struggle the most with self-paced are the students who are used to meeting deadlines and not being asked to redo assignments (students who prefer that once something is turned in, they never have to see it again unless it contains an A).  Also students who are used to lots of whole-class instruction with modeling and pre-teaching will struggle with self-paced.

In my self-paced classroom I do a lot of pre-assessment in which I assign work that shows me what students can do.  Then I tailor assignments that help students improve.  Students must meet with me on an individual basis to receive modeling and specific instruction.  As the class is self-paced, everyone may be working on different things, so it’s rare that I give whole-class instruction.

This means, that initial assignments will receive lower scores (which is expected as students have not yet learned the material).  For students who are used to getting A’s on all of their papers, seeing pre-assessment scores causes a lot of stress.  For students who are used to a classroom which moves from Teacher to gradual release of responsibility to student, a self-paced classroom will be a challenge.  The concept is that all responsibility goes to the student and that the teacher acts as support model to help scaffold learning.

If you ask my students whether or not they like the self-paced class, you’ll get a mixed response.  Some will tell you they hate it and wish they were back in their old English classrooms.  Some will tell you that the love it and feel more motivated to participate in class.  Others will tell you that they are overwhelmed but like the challenge.

Today I had to stop today to remind my seniors not to stress out about due dates.  I explained that I place dates on Edmodo to help give advanced students something to do in case they finish early, but that other students are not expected to rush their current assignments in order to complete the new ones. The general idea is that I have 2 benchmark dates that assignments must be turned in…3rd week grades (there will always be at least 2 assignments that must be turned in by this time)  and 6 week grades (all unit assignments must be completed).  I’m hoping that by the end of the semester we will see that students are taking ownership of their learning and determining how to better organize their time.

The truth is, they need this kind of preparation for college and for life.