Monday, May 29, 2017

With only two weeks left...

I think I have found a major problem with school.  This may be met with some resistance, but let's really think about this for just a second and be honest as we reflect about ourselves as teachers.  Although we almost always have our students best interests in mind and we almost always come to school with engaging and meaningful lessons in tow, we too are human, and we make mistakes.  We can fall pray to laziness, to mid-year burnout, to meetings and to paperwork.  And we can sometimes use the excuse of "I am the adult and you are the kid" as the reason why we are not teaching at our 100% best effort.

The major problem though, stems from the fact that we actually believe that students can't see through our pathetic attempts.  We think they don't notice when we watch movies every class, complete packet after packet, or only play "review games" and fill in the blanks on study guides.  They notice.  And the worst part is, they let us get away with it.  And herein lies the even bigger problem.  When given the option, students want to slack off too.  They don't mind watching our movies, listening disengaged to our lectures, mindlessly filling in blanks, and pretending to have a BLAST playing Kahoot! because then they don't have to do anything.  And there is a big difference between school fun and actual fun.  The fact of the matter is, students will accept boredom in return for easy A's.  We will forego real teaching in return for assignments easy to grade, and activities easy to plan.

The solution to this is:  REAL LIFE CLASS.

This is a new concept I have been piloting over the last two years, and one I plan on making the primary focus of my twelfth grade English classes.  The idea is, students enter our rooms every day with their own lives on their mind.  Sometimes they are so incredibly far away from reading, and writing, and speaking mentally that they can barely stand to enter.  We can all relate to this feeling.  How easy is it to continue teaching after receiving a cryptic e-mail from an administrator stating "let's chat before the end of the day" or after we left the house in the morning on not-so-great terms with our spouses or children.  In these situations, it is hard to stay focused, and nearly impossible to bring our "A-game."  Kids are no different.  Although we frequently attempt to belittle their personal dramas as "kid-stuff" - their recent breakup, or the dirty look a friend just gave, or their fight with their parents, or their outfit, or whatever is just as important to them at the time is our inability to pay our mortgage, or defaulting on a loan, or whatever serious adult stuff plagues our own minds.  So... let's use this to our advantage.

With this concept, students are encouraged (not to name names or to bring any private matter to the public) to bring their "drama" into the classroom.  We use this drama as the vehicle by which we teach the remainder of the class.  Normally we begin with an open class discussion about the topic.  Make sure the scene is properly set and we know with what we are dealing.  This acts as an excellent warm up and gets the entire class talking - because who doesn't want to discuss real life?  All of this is of course modeled at the beginning of the year using both the teacher's own dramas and the dramas of outgoing students who are comfortable at the onset of the year.

Once the initial discussion has taken place, the teacher gets to masterfully weave the English instruction around the topic.  This is stressful in the sense that we will walk into every class without a set "plan" - but requires us to have a massive knowledge of our content area.  We need to help a student understand the root of their current drama (the over-arching life theme, the motif, the conceit, the symbolism) and then we need to attach it to reading they will appreciate - reading that will help them.  Meanwhile everyone is benefitting (as every day focuses on the drama of real teenage life) - everyone is learning how to share orally - everyone is collaborating - and everyone is learning how to respect each other and differing view points.

How many times have we heard students say they don't want to read what doesn't interest them and they DO want to read what does.  This is the perfect way to find the perfect book for a kid.  We just need to have done our homework.  We need to know books - both modern and classic.  We need to be voracious readers (which isn't typically a problem for English teachers).  We need to be open to sharing ourselves with our students and to genuinely caring about their lives.  Oh, look, we are simultaneously building strong rapport without overstepping any boundaries.  As for writing instruction - so much self reflection and personal writing can come out of this.  This is where we teach what poetry is REALLY about.  This is where we teach memoir and creative nonfiction.  This is where we teach the catharsis of fiction - and how fiction is written (even the most fantastical) to mimic real life.  This is where we teach research - where we show students that they research all the time.  They are constantly researching and learning what interests them.  We will allow them to apply all of these interest and real life experiences to our assignments.  Obviously this is also automatic differentiation and personalized learning, since every student will be reading and writing about their own lives while simultaneously improving in areas where they need to develop more skill.

The most frequently asked question is, what if nobody shares a drama of the day?  Well, first of all, you don't only have to talk about the negative aspects of life - class can also be a celebration of the amazing, wonderful, positive aspects of teenage life.  But, still - what if the class is just quiet one day.  No one is upset, no one is jubilant, everyone is just chill.  It is on these days that we can weave in some of our favorites that maybe we have missed in previous discussions.  I like to have a hat with common life dramas from which students can choose the topic of the day.  Or, like I said, we can just announce in these situations that today we will be examining The Kite Runner (let's say) through the feminist lens and will be analyzing (blank) to learn about (blank) life lesson.

Other skeptics fear that we will never be able to complete the entire curriculum using this style of teaching.  I am guaranteeing that this is not true.  The trick is always consistency and building environment and tradition.  Too many teachers get bored of something too easily, or quickly change delivery styles if they think the students aren't connecting within a few days.  Anything takes time to fully develop - especially something that fully changes the norms of a preset construct.  In every single type of my "alternative delivery styles" I actually got the students through MORE curriculum at a deeper level than when I taught from the front of the room.  Curriculum Menu allowed students to hit every single state standard at their own pace and develop until they had attained mastery, The Classroom Office allowed students to work collaboratively on the curriculum both in and out of the classroom while utilizing real world technologies, and now R.L.C. allows the students to make meaningful, real life connections with each part of the curriculum - not only "hitting" every component, but establishing meaningful bridges at each level.

Regardless of how we are delivering instruction, we have to know that our students are watching.  They are paying attention.  They DO know what is going on (no matter how mysteriously adulty we seem to be).  And they will allow us to slack if we let them.  They will accept the boredom for the easy grades just as we will accept the easy activity and scantron exam for less planning (even though we know better).  Think about what your students need.  Think about what you need as a teacher.  And then use this summer to conduct some serious brainstorming and research.  This is the year to make your classroom exactly what you have always wanted it to be.  I know that I cannot wait!  :-)


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
Ryan Beaver @RBeaver05
Bentley Chen  @benjustchen18
Sam Fremin @thesammer88 
Spencer Hill @spencerhill99  
Ryan Hur @RyanHur09
Nihar Kandarpa  @NKandarpa  http://niharkandarpa,
Jack Michael  @jackmichael776
Joe O'Such @Joe_Osuch
Sean Pettit @seanpettit9
Kellen Pluntke @kellenpluntke
Christian Sporre  @CSporre
Dawson Unger @dawsonunger
Brian Van Dyke  @brian_van9

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