Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Shifting Isn’t Over

“Okay, and if I had you in seventh grade two years ago, then you of course remember that Old Norse was the language of the … *silence* … Vikings, correct.  Remember, guys?  That was 7.4a?  The had all the short words like ‘axe, kill, die’?  *Students continue to copy what is written on the board regarding kennings and pay me no mind*

I think for a young and energetic teacher like myself, one of the hardest realizations I have been making in recent years is: maybe I am not the absolutely incredible teacher I have always thought myself to be.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a passionate teacher of kids and think I do a pretty good job of reaching them and giving them what they need on a human level – but content… how were they not retaining all the finer points of English instruction after I had taught them myself and in a myriad exciting ways?

When my students were in seventh grade, they engaged in a study of old languages, and based on this study composed an entire report guessing what original languages had derived their favorite words.  They worked with prefixes/suffixes and created an entirely new dictionary of made up, yet grammatical words based on this knowledge.  They kept track of every word they spoke for an entire day and then conducted an analysis of their lexicon’s denotation and connotation.  That was about as fun as I knew how to make learning roots, affixes, cognates – THAT standard that secondary English teachers know (and if you are like me, loathe).

The seventh graders engaged, learned, passed their state standardized tests, went to eighth grade, and by the time I had them again in ninth, didn’t remember a word of this “fun” we had had.  They remembered the experience of course – but couldn’t have told you the difference between Old Norse and Celtic or Dutch and Italian.  This truth, when I reflected, was quite a hard pill to swallow because I thought I had taught the content the “right way.”  I hadn’t “taught to the test.”  I hadn’t lectured, students hadn’t taken notes, we didn’t test rote memorization of said facts… and so, they shouldn’t have forgotten the material.  We had worked in groups.  We had hit the highest forms of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  We were analyzing, synthesizing, and creating – not merely understanding.  And yet, where did that leave them?  Maybe they remembered the information for more than a week, but they certainly didn’t for more than a year.

And thus enters my conundrum.  I am still searching for that perfect way of instructing and assessing.  In my first two years I taught the classic way: units and literature circles centered around texts that fit a chronological unit or essential question, I taught the standards pertaining to that unit, and we tested, wrote essays, completed worksheets or projects accordingly.  We had fun and students passed their state tests.

In years three and four I delivered instruction via an autonomous vehicle I had developed inspired by the work of Salaman Khan and Derrick Jensen called “The Curriculum Menu.”  The theory behind this style was “real learning” would occur at the formative level as students self-paced through the seventy required sub-strand of a grade over the course of a school year, completing formative assessments linked to each individual standard.  Once students had “mastered” all formative sub-strands, they could create a summative product that exemplified their mastery of the whole strand (ex: 7.4).  This method sought to address inherent problems of the system I was running in my first two years.  It negated the need for “re-assessment” as students were constantly re-assessing at the formative level.  No student created a summative until I knew they could ace it.  This also allowed for authentic pacing because students could quickly master content they had learned in a previous grade and spend more time on content that was giving them difficulty.  (This way I didn’t have to say: “okay we are learning nouns this week.  If you already know them, sorry.  If you don’t, you have this week to understand them before we’re moving on”).  We had fun and students passed their state tests.

In years five and six I have been conducting class like a business (offline in year five and online thanks to the inspiration and innovation of a colleague who is also passionate about real-world application in year six).  The idea behind this method was to immerse students in a “real world” situation so they could see how the primary English skills of reading, writing, and public speaking could apply in their real lives (especially within the adult world).  The problem with “Curriculum Menu” had been a pendulum swing towards focusing too heavily on standards.  In an effort to hit all seventy standards in a year, the onus was really on the student to properly pace.  With only two deadlines per quarter (one at the interim and one at the end) students had to complete an entire master strand within a month’s time.  This equated to approximately ten formative assignments per half quarter, plus the book they were reading outside of class, and their essays.  Some students had appreciated the autonomy and some fell hopelessly behind.  Also, as I mentioned in my previous post: the word was out.  Mr. A.’s class was fun, but the work was way too demanding and hard.  I am a big believer that students and teachers need to have a strong rapport to create a successful classroom and learning experience for all – so with half the school trying to avoid me and my accursed curriculum menu, I knew it was time to shift another way.  Thus, this classroom office secretly wove the state standards into authentic real world lessons very much the same way a mother may blend broccoli into her child’s smoothie.  My colleague had the idea of students running out of school online discussion boards about the texts we read, another group leading professional development activities for the class, and yet another group composing weekly newsletters that went home to parents.  I added my ideas of a research and development department that researched hot consumer products of multiple genres and using this information to develop a product of their own.  Then, using oral presentation skills, presenting their findings business style with charts and visuals to our class (or board room).  My information technology department analyzes media messages and maintains our company’s electronic image.  Our classroom marketing department looks closely at non-fiction texts in order to learn the skills of “selling” something.  Students are having fun and they don’t have standardized tests in ninth grade so I guess I’ll have to wait and see how they do in eleventh.  But the question keeps haunting me: are they REALLY learning?  They are certainly producing incredible work.  But is it sticking?

In reflecting mid-year, here is what I have realized IS and IS NOT working for the students in this regard:

1.      We begin every class with a “Literary Term of the Day” Students learn a new word for their reading/writing “toolkit” and are told how they can apply it to their life.  RESULT:  Some words that we refer back to a lot have stuck with the kids.  I would say 60% of the words they have “learned” have not.  They are not tested on these words – more just reminded of them in context.  It is just often when this occurs, students will go: “oh that was a… it was that a-word… oh it’s a… umm… an… allusion!” (only knowing the word once they have looked it up in their notebook’s glossary of literary terms).

2.     Next (alternating in three day cycles) students engage in a random quick write (usually used to create classroom community as students almost always share their writing during “circle”), analyze a modern song, or analyze a not-so-modern poem.  RESULT:  With quick writes, the prompt heavily dictates whether or not students will engage and share.  And although we have established wonderful classroom communities, some topics are just off-limits in a public forum for ninth graders.  Most students agree that they really enjoy analyzing and discussing the songs.  About half of the students enjoy analyzing and discussing old poetry (and the half that like it only do because we always relate the old words back to our real life situations of today).  However, regardless of level of enjoyment, students only remember the content of select songs and poems.  On the other hand, they have developed EPIC analysis skills – which I believe to be more important.  But still, I do confess myself shocked that the messages of some have evaded their memories completely.  I stand behind the quick writes because writing is writing and writers need to write.  Period.

3.     Finally, students engage in “office time” – the opportunity to work in small groups with their departments on their company expectations, silent reading of our class novel, or reading aloud from a group text.  RESULT:  The office work is going extremely well, students seem to be understanding group texts, and when they compose their in-class essays about out-of-school reading – the majority seem to have read and understood the important messages the novels have to impart.  But, will this follow them into tenth grade and beyond?  I wonder what I will learn from these two years and how I will once again shift my instruction accordingly.

I know, however, a major aspect of my year that wasn’t jiving for me or my students was my one sophomore class.  We actually had a class meeting on the first day of third quarter and agreed that we had just been “going through the motions and checking our boxes.”  We have since completely overhauled the class (all student ideas) – which I plan to share in next week’s blog: kind of a "before/after makeover edition."  

And this is where I invite you to be a part of the conversation.  I have spoken about this with my colleagues, and endlessly with my students (including the other #bowtieboys) but I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.  Have you ever had an experience where you knew your students had both mastered the content (in a way you would be shocked if they later forgot) and had an enjoyable and engaging experience in the process?  Am I overthinking it?  Is forgetting okay and not even an indicator of lack of learning?

Feel free to comment here or chat with me on Twitter @misteramistera .  I would really appreciate your input – the thoughts of YOUR students – anything you offer as we explore this instruction/assessment enigma together.


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 (Blogs updated weekly beginning 1/31)
Ryan Beaver @RBeaver05  (Blogs updated Mondays beginning 2/6)
Sam Fremin @thesammer88 (Blogs updated Fridays beginning 2/3)
Spencer Hill @spencerhill99  (Blogs updated Tuesdays beginning 2/7)
Ryan Hur @RyanHur09  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Joe O'Such @Joe_Osuch  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)
Sean Pettit @seanpettit9 (Blogs updated Sundays beginning 2/5)
Kellen Pluntke @kellenpluntke  (Blogs updated Saturdays beginning 2/4)
Jack Selman @jacksel6 (Blogs updated Wednesdays beginning 2/1)

Dawson Unger @dawsonunger  (Blogs updated Thursdays beginning 2/2)

1 comment:

  1. Jason,
    Thank you so much for sharing your honest reflections with the world. Brave means opening up your classroom AND your thinking to share the good, the bad, the ugly . . . I've been looking at and studying "transfer" the last couple of years and trying to identify why this learning transfers for this kiddo and not for this student sitting in the chair next to them.

    It's not easy to identify specific causal factors. However, by including the students and changing your practices, you are on the right path. The path of continued learning. Watch out for the twisty bends and hairpin curves! Journey on!