This segment continues our several rounds through the student feedback I have compiled over the course of the year. The focus will be the elements of English/LA instruction that are not resonating with students (at least the diverse group of middle and high school students with whom I have had the pleasure of conversing). Once again, none of this is earth-shattering or ground-breaking, but not all change needs to be. If we can focus on fixing the "small stuff" we can make big impacts in our classrooms and for our kids. Please join me on this succinct list of areas in which we can improve to make our classes more engaging.
1. Memorization to regurgitate. Learning to quiz:
It's been discussed over and over and over again. We have beaten this dead horse so hard, and yet, this style of teaching remains the cornerstone of so many educators. We are plagued by the idea that we have THIS MUCH MATERIAL to cover in THIS MUCH TIME and so we pace it and pack it and plug on and on and on without much thought to real learning or retention. If WE can get through everything (despite snow days, assemblies, standardized testing, and whatever other interruptions can potentially surface) we have done our job. But our "job" of course is really to meet students where they are and take them somewhere further using the curriculum as a vehicle (not the end game).
The simple reality is that preparing lecture notes and quizzing students is the easiest way to deliver material to students and check our boxes of fulfilling our requirements. But we also know it is NOT the way that the majority of our students learn. But once again, it is easy. It takes almost zero effort on our part to get up in front of kids (who we also know are not experts in our subject) and deliver our comments on writing and literature. We don't need materials, stations, students to bring anything (not even their minds), and there is nothing for us to grade until the quizzes or tests that we can likely spit through a Scantron machine.
And what happens? The best students will dutifully memorize our material, regurgitate it on a test and promptly forget the material (which has been given no context or relevance to their lives) to make room for the next onslaught of pointless material. And this is what we pass off as education.
INSTEAD: This same class can be made infinitely more interactive with class discussions and circles. These all rely on routine and regulations in order to remain effective. But this simple fix can change monotonous lecture ,into a stage where students can share their voice. Regardless of the texts we are teaching, let's have students explore their critical thinking alongside of us. This still requires very little prep time - just knowing our subject (like we do), establishing the environment where all student voices are equal, expected, and valued, and allowing the students to take control with us guiding on the side. Now students are engaged and learning real critical thinking skills that will actually help them in their real lives. And no Socratic seminars where grades are based on how often someone talks. Allow our whole class (at least in portions across the year) to be an ongoing seminar. But how do we grade? I imagine it won't take long to figure out who always participates and who is shyer. This will allow us to differentiate by improving some students analysis skills, while we develop others' oral speaking skills - both real life standards of our discipline.
2. Teach what students will use in their real life and grade based on skills
More and more we are hearing the question from our students: "when will I ever need to know this?" And it is high-time we learn how to answer this extremely relevant question. And the passe response of "it will expand your mind" is no longer working. Maybe the real answer is we need to let go of some of our favorite things to teach (that may not speak to this generation) and focus on empowering them and equipping them with the traits of people we will eventually want to work with (and take care of us and our world). The English/LA classroom should have ALWAYS been a classroom based on the acquisition of skills - not vocabulary quizzes and tests on obscure literature references. Students need to know how to READ (and not just literally but figuratively), WRITE (in a manner that clearly expresses their ideas to an authentic audience), and SPEAK in front of people (both large audiences and small) - not shoving our oral presentation units to the back-burner and suggesting "presenting is too hard for kids - after all some are shy." NO. Everyone should be scaffolded in to sharing their thoughts - what bigger life skill can be taught? Begin during class circles, bump to small group presentations, to half class, to full class, and eventually to high stakes (like maybe on stage in the auditorium, under the lights, from behind a podium, with a microphone). Oh wait, that sounds too scary, we probably shouldn't even try...
BUILD THE ABOVE IN EVERY DAY: We must ask ourselves every day. Is this genuinely making students better at the skills of READING, WRITING, and SPEAKING. I have heard of reader's workshop, I have heard of writer's workshop, but I haven't heard of speaker's workshop. Let's make these fluid. Let's show kids how these are linked. Let's teach them to read so they can be critical and informed. To do so they must know how, but they must have space to read and to discuss. They need to read what they want and they need to have people interested in their thoughts in order to have meaningful conversations. Based on what inspires them, these students need to write. Whether in response, or pastiche (in the style of), or just because they are inspired. And once again, they need to have people who care about them as a writer and want to actively engage in helping them to improve their craft. This is all about the environment we are creating as teachers. And after all of this speaking and real-world interaction, I bet these students would be less and less frightened of speaking at length about their reading and writing in front of small groups, and then medium groups, and then large groups. And guess what, since everyone loves each other anyway, kids can be gently critiquing each other's presentations - all modeled of course by an adept and masterful teacher.
3. Lose the Cookie-Cutter Rubrics and Busy Work:
Please allow me to summarize every rubric ever created ever: You receive a 4 if you ALWAYS use figurative language, write in grammatically correct sentences, cover the expected content, and cite your sources. You receive a 3 if you OFTEN use figurative language, write in grammatically correct sentences, cover the expected content, and cite your sources. You receive a 2 if you SOMETIMES use figurative language, write in grammatically correct sentences, cover the expected content, and cite your sources. You receive a 1 if you RARELY use figurative language, write in grammatically correct sentences, cover the expected content, and cite your sources. And, of course, you receive a 0 if you NEVER use figurative language, write in grammatically correct sentences, cover the expected content, and cite your sources. Did you actually just read all of that? No, your students neither. This was the format of almost every rubric I have ever seen - in an age of standardization, who can be surprised? But let's not fall into this trap. Equally troublesome are the rubrics that follow the same idea... but with language rather than numbers. You are SUPERIOR, or EXCELLENT, or GOOD, or FAIR, or POOR if you... or you are PROFICIENT, SATISFACTORY, DEVELOPING, NEEDS IMPROVEMENT, or UNSATISFACTORY if you... wait a minute... this is starting to sound a lot like teacher evaluations too. Let's cut the crap (even if it makes the assignments longer and harder for us to grade) and assess students on just a few items at a time. Hopefully, these are items that workshop diagnostics (not tests) have shown us as the teacher is an area in which our class (or individual students) is/are weak. There is no such thing as being a bad worksheet filler outter. There is no such thing as being a bad movie watching note taker. There is no such thing as being a bad packet completer. So since these are not real life skills, let's omit these entirely from our classrooms and focus on the real. Our students (at all levels) are stressed. They have two many classes and too much work (because all of us as teacher think our class is - or at least should be - the most important thing in a student's life).
INSTEAD: Let's conduct workshops like explained above where teachers use evidence from previous workshops to determine the day's agenda. Make time for mini-lessons - hopefully they are interactive and engaging. Make plenty of time for students to DO (this way they won't have homework). Encourage them to talk with each other while they DO. Give them reading circles with people of similar interests, then switch it up. Do the same with their writing groups. Instruct them in a classroom that allows and encourages a very high expectation and organized form of chaos - like a typical office place. Because how can we even put a rubric on a class like this. "Well, Johnny, today you only SOMETIMES read your book, wrote in your notebook, and spoke to your group. I am concerned because last week you were ALWAYS reading, writing, and speaking (which was so much better than two weeks ago when you were RARELY reading, writing, and speaking)." Doesn't that sound ridiculous? Yes, I think so too. But let's definitely have meaningful relationships with students. Let's always be circulating, answering questions, posing new ones, conferencing, encouraging, scaffolding, and pushing. If we're going to watch a movie, let's really analyze and dissect. Let's rip it a part and find all the deeply human elements that resonate with an audience. And let's do it together.
In the end, the more we are engaged, the more they will be too. Let's love our subject, yes, but let's love our kids even more. Truly loving them is not giving them the free A, is not allowing them to play on their phones for half the class - but it certainly also isn't giving them endless assignments because we teach a "rigorous course filled with WORK." Let's get them up and moving, working together, and acquiring skills that they will use for the rest of their lives. In doing so, we will still be able to slip in all of our favorites: "Catcher in the Rye," "Lord of the Flies," "The Great Gatsby," and Shakespeare. How could we not? Classics are classic for a reason. They are timeless. And if we teach them, students will learn. But let's be open to learning a thing or two from them as well. I truly believe that making these small changes could truly revolutionize our English/LA classrooms. :-)
Bentley Chen @benjustchen18 http://bentleychenbtb.blogspot.com
Nihar Kandarpa @NKandarpa http://niharkandarpa,blogspot.com/
Jack Michael @jackmichael776 http://bowtieboyjack.blogspot.com/
Christian Sporre @CSporre http://christiansporrebtb.blogspot.com/