Wednesday, February 15, 2017
I feel like human beings (in today’s society especially) are obsessed with looking forward. Whether planning our next vacation, our weeks, or even our next meal – it is surprisingly difficult to focus on the ‘now.’ I am guilty of checking these boxes and plugging along too, as I am an enormous planner. In fact, I plan everything. I can tell you what I will be doing from 7am-11pm every single day for the remainder of this calendar year (and I can also tell you what I will be wearing on that day). Okay, so the degree to which I plan is a bit obsessive-compulsive, but it is by this plan that I live.
I’ll never forget learning the concept of ‘entropy’ in physics during my junior year of high school. Entropy, or the disorder/chaos that surrounds us, is what I try to avoid at all costs. I like everything I do to have a reason, to be working towards something, to be neat and orderly. This way I can multi-task in several meaningful ways at a time. For example, planning out the clothes I wear ensures that I wear all clothing equally. As this may seem useless, the process has actually allowed me to keep my clothes looking brand new (since I don’t overwear anything and typically only repeat a shirt once or twice a year). So, when I wear a button down shirt I bought in high school, it appears to be brand new (as I have likely only worn it twenty to thirty times in my life). Also, knowing what I will wear each day eliminates huge stress in the morning. I can just grab and go. I use this method to pack my lunches, to grocery shop, and to plan my days.
On any given weekday, it can be assumed that I will be teaching from 8:45-3:45, will be engaged in an after school activity (whether musical from December-April) or another (extra help/tutoring) until about 6:00, and will be catching up over dinner with a friend (for business or pleasure) for the rest of the evening. On the weekends, I coach paintball from April-December (because during musical season it is too cold to play and I am busy on those weekends holding rehearsals, building and painting sets, and presenting the finished productions). In the summer, June is my month to travel, coach paintball camps, and/or teach writing seminars. I spend fourth of July with my brother in Charleston, the following three weeks of July directing my high school summer stock theatre program, and the first three weeks of August directing my middle school summer stock theatre program. These traditions will continue until some kind of large change occurs in my life.
When planning lessons, however, this style can be dangerous. I feel like we as teachers get trapped in our plans far too often – sacrificing real student learning and engagement for checking our boxes and plowing through our curriculum. I was recently talking to colleagues from another school who work in social studies and asked, “how long does it take for you to get through ___ unit?” Their response was, “I’m not sure because I’ve always taught it with several snow days in between.” With the mild winter we have had in Virginia this year, we are on a bit of a different schedule. But has that changed our plans?
To me, a common problem in teaching English is the idea of “the unit.” One of my #bowtieboys, Sean Pettit is famous for saying “units encourage forgetting” – and I’d have to agree. We are really good at delivering information to students (especially in the upper grades). We can do so quickly and efficiently… but how much are they actually retaining? How much are they actually LEARNING?
We remember for our own school days. We would take notes in class, engage in some kind of review activity the day before the test, cram what we could the night before, survive the test the next day, and promptly forget everything to make room for the next topic the following week. This is why we spend so much time at the beginning of every year “reminding” students about what they were supposed to have learned in previous grades. You never have to do that to someone who has learned how to drive or ride a bike. I haven’t ridden a bike in probably a decade and I am completely confident I could get on and pedal away into the sunset with no problem. Ask me now to take a test on sinusoidal waves and asymptotes from trigonometry. The results would be disastrous. So why do we still teach this way?
To me, a unit says, we need to know X material for Y amount of time before we move on to Z. Within this style are several inherent flaws. Let’s pretend I am teaching parts of speech to middle schoolers. I may say we learn nouns on Monday, verbs on Tuesday, adjectives on Wednesday, others (like an introduction to Adverbs, Conjunctions, Interjections, Prepositions on Thursday), and quiz on Friday. In doing so I have made a lot of assumptions. I am plugging along with a plan, and am likely staying paced with some arbitrary curriculum guide, but I am assuming my students will KNOW nouns after Monday, verbs after Tuesday, and so on. Simultaneously, I am assuming no one knows anything about these before they enter my class. What happens to the poor students who have known parts of speech since first or second grade? They are doomed to my busy work as we continue our “one-size-fits-all” pace. This could leave those students struggling with these concepts in the dust, and students who are not, bored and unengaged. This, as we well know, is a recipe for classroom management issues galore.
But units allow us to plan our quarters, our semesters, our school years. It is so nice to look at a calendar (especially for someone like me) and say: quarter one is content writing and reading nonfiction, quarter two is media literacy and grammar, quarter three is reading fiction and poetry while studying vocabulary, and quarter four is research and oral presentations. In doing so, I have packed the entire ninth grade Virginia English curriculum into the school year. Regardless of snow days, we are going to get this finished! The same problem can arise when pacing class novels. This is especially tricky because there must be pacing to ensure everyone is (forgive the pun) on the same page for Socratic seminars, fishbowl discussions, essays, and projects. But what if the inauthentic pace of the teacher is slowing down the fast readers while moving too quickly for the slower readers? My solution to all of this is to allow each individual student in a class to set his or her own pace.
As mentioned last week, we are piloting this idea in my current sophomore level English class. My freshmen are still plugging away at their office work (mentioned in my first post) – but class wasn’t going as well with the tenth graders. I knew mid-year I had to throw out my perfect calendar (and being planner extraordinaire – this was extremely difficult) because “reading” And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie and Animal Farm by George Orwell and “rushing” Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and 1984 by Orwell were very different experiences. My original plan was to give each novel a month of class time – this way my students would be sure to have read all eight sophomore level texts. Reading the first two books within their months felt authentic, but rushing the other two into their month’s time was a miserable and challenging task through which the students suffered. We were analyzing songs and poems simultaneously and due to the brevity of these pieces, THAT aspect was going okay… and the students enjoyed the ensuing discussions, but there were still other elements of the class to fix.
Students did not like the way we were instructing vocabulary – having different units per week, working through the book, studying, and taking quizzes. The scores were always dismal and students admitted that they barely glanced at the words because they didn’t believe they would need them in their real lives. Being an English teacher, and having to re-familiarize a few of their words myself, I could see where they were coming from. Because we still have to teach vocabulary, we decided to ditch the workbook and to pull vocabulary from our current class novel, Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Now, rather than taking tests and filling in blanks, students are learning the skills of deciphering complex vocabulary in context – a skill they agree will definitely come in handy in the real world.
We have also created more of a writer’s workshop model for teaching writing. Rather than forcing the students to write analyses of the songs and poems we analyze together in class, students are now able to dabble in a myriad forms. Some are creative writing, others are writing presentations, some are researching, and some have decided to continue composing analyses. During these class workshops, I have time to circulate and meet with each student, and in the mean time they are working with each other, asking for opinions to improve their writing from their classmates. This new method is much more enjoyable for the students and is producing much more authentic results. Not only is the writing quality higher, it is more passionate – because students are writing what they want. It always comes down to choice.
I truly believe we will be better served in letting going of the schedules to which we so desperately cling and allowing the students to dictate the pace of the class. This, once again, cannot be done in a “one-size-fits-all” manner – but in a way that reflects true student choice: creating an environment in which each student has the space to learn at his or her own pace. Cynics discuss how students will take advantage of this style – choosing to work slowly in order to complete the least amount of work. In my experience, I have found that boredom trumps all. Eventually, that student spending a month writing a haiku will get tired of their own game and seek to move on, especially when the culture of the class is to move as quickly as one can (while actually learning the material) to ensure the greatest amount of coverage. I know that at the end of the year, I would rather have an entire class truly understand 75% of the prescribed curriculum than have been exposed to 100% of the curriculum with less than 50% retention.
Within this choice, be sure to build in “doing.” This isn’t about students choosing which lectures you deliver, but students choosing in which hands-on activities they plan to engage. English is a content of skills. Students should be READING, WRITING, and SPEAKING – not studying the rhetoric of these disciplines. With the proper amount of time to work and struggle in each, students will see how these concepts apply to their real lives and why it is important that we study English. This will be the kind of class that brings us the biggest “returns” for our efforts: returns in student growth, returns in mastery of concept, and returns in an overarching appreciation for a class that is otherwise commonly loathed by its population of students. Otherwise, we may be able to follow our calendars and check our boxes, cover our curriculums and manage our snow days… but we will spend our Septembers re-teaching the grade before and wondering when we will finally see the returns we desire. When we finally witness the fruits of our collective labor.
If you are interested in hearing from these students yourself - please follow their blogs/twitters as well. Even more shifts are taking place - and I can't wait to keep you in the loop of all there is to come. It is our belief that shifting the classroom paradigm to a 50-50 partnership between student and teacher will be the key in making learning engaging, enjoyable, and accessible to all. We seek to support teachers as well as students in this identity shift - all from the daily thoughts of teachers and high school students themselves. :-)
Jason Augustowski, M.Ed. @misteramistera http://jasonaugustowskibtb.blogspot.com (Blogs updated weekly beginning 1/31)
Ryan Beaver @RBeaver05 http://ryanbeaverbtb.blogspot.com (Blogs updated Mondays beginning 2/6)
Sam Fremin @thesammer88 http://samfreminbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Fridays beginning 2/3)
Spencer Hill @spencerhill99 http://spencerbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Tuesdays beginning 2/7)
Ryan Hur @RyanHur09 http://ryanhurbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Joe O'Such @Joe_Osuch http://bowtieboyjoe.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)
Sean Pettit @seanpettit9 http://seanpettitbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Sundays beginning 2/5)
Kellen Pluntke @kellenpluntke http://kellenbowtieboy.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Jack Selman @jacksel6 http://jackselmanbtb.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Wednesdays beginning 2/1)
Dawson Unger @dawsonunger http://btb-dawson.blogspot.com/ (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)