Sunday, July 31, 2011

Summer School Lessons

I just finished my first Summer School class ever, and let me tell you, it was one of the best teaching experiences I've ever had. I realized a few days ago that my favourite class is usually whichever class is in front of me, and this last class was no exception.

What I want to quickly jot down here are my personal highlights about this last month of teaching.

  • Students hand wrote every single assignment
The school I taught at didn't have wireless, and the classroom held one 'teacher station' computer. So, students wrote every assignment- save one- by hand. In my regular school, I've been campaigning (I call it campaigning, the dictionary would call it incessant whining) about getting our school equipped with a wireless network because for God's sakes, Burger King has a wireless network and we still don't? I'm definitely pro 1:1. So it came as a minor shock to admit that I think part of the reason for the students' improvements in their writing was due in no small part to the fact that they were putting pen to paper. I know there's an anti-cursive murmur out there, but I can't get on board with it, not after this month.
  • There were 9 students in class
Does this really need any kind of discussion? 9 students, 4 hours a day. Every day I could look every single one of them in the eye, ask a question, smile, tease, whatever. Every day I could (and sometimes did) collect one or two assignments and had them covered in feedback and returned the next day. Could I duplicate this with my normal assignment of 200 students? Ha. That is actually the sound of me crying.

  • Every time I assigned a piece of writing, I wrote one myself. 
Before the course started, I had just finished reading 'Write Beside Them' and it was like getting written permission to be a better teacher. I don't have the same circumstances as Penny Kittle in that I teach both writing and reading texts, but I made sure that at least one third of our day was dedicated to the writing process. I intend to keep this habit up when I return to my regular classroom because it was transformative for me and oh yeah, for the students too. Silent Reading became my favourite part of the day. We responded in Quick Write form to everything from YouTube videos to the tragedy in Norway. I shared my work and my challenges, and then they shared theirs. I learned (or relearned) that part of making a safe place for sharing in the classroom was not just expecting trust but showing it too. And I learned humility, when I shared what I thought was a brilliant first draft essay on happiness based on Alden Nowlan's "Glass Roses" to one of my students and she said it was 'just ok'. 

  • I forgot to give Unit Exams
This may sound facetious, but it's true. At about the three week mark I realized that I hadn't yet given a single unit exam, simply because we were too busy doing other things. And at pretty much that same moment I realized how useless and needlessly distracting unit exams have been for me. Series of rhetorical questions to follow: Am I anti measurement? Yes, probably, and especially as I get older (Har, har.) Would I rather my students spent their time at home reading, relaxing or enjoying their lives instead of stressing out about mystery exam questions and what the resulting number will be? Absolutely. Can I get away with not giving unit exams in my regular school? We'll see. I can be awfully forgetful.

So there you go, best month ever. I am a total teaching nerd. And now to enjoy August and to think about ways to make the 10 months of next year a lot like the month I just had. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

A novel unit - with illustrative diagrams

Interviews are silly things, aren't they- like the standardized testing of hires: no one learns anything meaningful, but you'll certainly come away feeling good or bad about yourself. Only in that kind of contrived environment would one adult ever ask another what her greatest weakness is. You don't want to know what my greatest weakness is- I probably don't want to know what my greatest weakness is.

Anyway, in the interview for my current job, I was asked by my now department head (a fabulous and wonderfully generous woman) if I would describe my best lesson. I had two answers for her and the assembled committee, the standard 'interview' response, and the real one. The first one I mentioned was pretty standard: Macbeth, grade 11. Lots of links to YouTube videos. Active use of a recently purchased foam rubber sword that I would slam onto desks at random times during the day. All of the info that I've covered in a previous post. The second lesson is what the rest of the post is about. (and transition!)

So, two years ago, in a desperate bid to not have to reread Lord of the Flies, I asked the then grade 11 students if they would be willing to read a different novel- anything else- and if so, would they be willing to buy their own copies? (No, I don't hate Lord of the Flies, this will be a post for later). Socioeconomics were not a grave factor at my school, and I bought a few extra 'class copies' just in case. Anyway, they were and they did, and so that year we read The Kite Runner, to moderately successful effect. My favourite day was definitely when we cut kites out of garbage bags and went outside to the field. There's something so touching about a group of 16 year old boys running around yelling 'for you a thousand times over!'

My best lesson happened the next year, since after that taste of deviating from the cannon: both in terms of literature and class structure. This of course meant that I also had to cope with losing a lot of control, or at least what I perceived as control: tests, lectures, chapter questions, everyone sitting down at the same time. All the things that look like great teaching on paper, but in practice quickly become monotonous and boring as reading Lord of the Flies for the sixth time in two years.

I figured I knew about 10 novels that I could help students understand. They ranged in difficulty, and frankly, the book selection had a lot more to do with which class sets sat in our bookroom than which concepts or themes I wanted them to explore. I think the final chioces included Lord of the Flies (yeah!), The Great Gatsby, The Kite Runner, Of Mice and Men, 1984, Brave New World and Night. To get them to make their selection, I just passed the books around for a few minutes. I think that for several students, book length was a major factor in their choice. The stickler in me balks at that- some of my favourite novels are nothing short of tomes, but when you're in a good story, it flies by. "Experience that!!" I wanted to yell at them. "Learn to love books the way I love them!!!" But the, um, rational part of me figured that for someone who isn't already in love with reading, length can be a real concern that does need to be taken seriously. (Which feels like a different post in the making).

Once they chose their books and groups (not always in that order but oh well), the next thing I did was rearrange the desks accordingly. Some groups sat at tables, some sat in pods make up of desks that were pushed together. It was an unquestionable hodgepodge- definitely not a shape you'd see in a student teacher undergraduate management class.

Which of these seating plans is more interesting to you?

Next, their first assignment involved filling up a blank calendar. I figured the novel unit would take about 15 days (90 minute classes every day for 4 weeks). The handout I made ended up looking something like the diagram below. Nowadays I'd add a task about Voicethread, something involving online discussion boards, maybe making a cake or something. Or I'd have the students come up with mini projects of their own, even better.

So, on that first day, the only job the students had was to discuss and fill up their calendar with those tasks, in any order they wanted. If they wanted to do the final first, fine, good luck.* If they wanted to do a trailer towards the end of the unit, good call, I think that makes the most sense too. But most important to this task, I stepped back (a bit) and even if the students chose an order that had some clearly flawed logic, I either let them do it or at least got them to explain their reasoning.

*In retrospect, now I probably would put that task twice: write the final, write the final again.

At the end of each class I'd collect what they did and look over it. For some, I'd just put a checkmark if it was done satisfactorily. Depending on the assignment though, most things got handed back with comments or questions that tried to move the students to the next level of understanding (the bloom's taxonomy way, not the 'think outside the box' way). If there was something amiss though, like a clear language problem, or a misunderstanding of either the task or the text, I'd write down that feedback and the next day, the students would have to add to, or modify the task from the previous day before moving on.

And so, every day that class would come to class and get started. I didn't lecture or introduce anything. I'd walk around and ask 'what are you working on today?', sometimes I would have to gently or firmly remind them to get it together.

There were quite a few gratifying moments that came from the experience: walking past a group of two boys who normally showed up to class just to put their heads down arguing rather spiritedly about Piggy's death. Getting to sit down with a group and talk about dystopia and whether or not Big Brother's telescreens sort of already existed. Playing a silly game with great music to get a group of girls in the mood for the Great Gatsby era.

I don't want every unit I ever plan to take on this format: different genres wouldn't fit, and I don't think all lecturing is all bad.  At the end of the unit, all the students wrote a final essay for me, and yeah, I'd say those essays were on par with those that I've received after lecturing a full unit's worth. The difference was that for that unit, the students were the ones doing the work.