Insert Transformative Practices Here.

Consider this a fact-finding mission.

Here’s some context:  I am new to the district I work in, meaning I just started here in July.  I was hired to come in and supervise three departments, three departments that had not been supervised (in the traditional sense–whatever that is–) before.  Curriculum had been looked at, but a group effort to make it flow from K-12 hadn’t been attempted.

In New Jersey, schools are grouped according to something called a District Factor Group, which is a value consisting of wealth components and educational levels of the residents taken from the most recent census data.  The group we belong to is very close to the highest (on and scale that rates them A-J with A being the lowest, we are an “I”).  The top two socio-economic levels usually comprise most of the top performing schools within the state.  Withing that group, we rank near the bottom in most of the measurables society uses to gauge us.

Are the two items related?  I’m sure there is something to the fact that there hasn’t been an earnest evaluation of what we do in quite a while, and going through such a process is often painful the first time, but it must be done.

I’ve talked to the teachers, specifically in the English Department at the high school, and outlined a plan to change the sequence of the courses offered.  None of them liked it, and, in fact, most were opposed.  That plan is now being debated in public.  It’s equal parts structural/course sequence change and curriculum change.

But what I am finding I really need is more input.  Input from the teachers and students.  Input from the network out here.  How do re-arrange situations in which students don’t view their learning in certain “levels” with any seriousness?

I need models.  I need ways to help kids who don’t like to read and engage in “literary things” find value and meaning in what they do in their academic classes.  I need ways to make it come alive for them.

I also need ways to do this so that teaching these kids in this new way does not drive my teachers insane.

There are models I’ve looked at that I love.  I’ve read Readicide and am mining that for ideas and inspiration.  What else should I read?  Who else should I talk to?  What are you doing that is making this type of difference?

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Aha!

Take a quick look at this video:

It may be contrived, it may be produced by a major publisher, but notice they didn’t try to sell anything.  Also notice that the students were honest in their assessment of their reading habits before and after choice.

Do we underestimate the power of choice in student reading?  Do we accept that students must read certain books regardless of whether or not they are ready for them or want to read them?

Look, I understand the Broccoli Effect, but if you asked me whether or not these students learned more about the skills they will need to become lifelong critical readers through a teacher-paced dissection of TKAM, or what they did through reading books of choice, I am going to say that the choice ruled.

This is perfect timing for me as we have been analyzing where we lose our students when it comes to reading, and how we can correct this.

Reflecting on the Fly

J. Clark Evans posted a piece at her blog, My Continuing Education, today called “Worst Class…Best Class” in which she recounts a recent day where the discussion in her 10th grade British Literature class did not go as she wanted to.  We’ve all been there on that day where you’ve hatched out these ground-breaking discussion questions about the novel you are reading or the era you are studying, and then when you unleash them on your students in the hopes of them coming to a new great American understanding, they look back at you as if you weren’t even there.  What do you do then?  Well, Evans did this:

I literally threw my hands up in the air and ended the lesson. I asked students to reflect on their lack of participation and offer ideas for ways to improve in an email to me.

My best quality as a teacher is my desire and willingness to reflect. I spent the rest of the day reviewing their comments, taking to another grade level teacher, and agonizing over how I could help them to be more successful.

I learned a new word today via the Open Dictionary: Andragogy.  Andragogy means the practice of teaching adults with emphasis on participation of students in the planning and evaluation.  Due to the nature of the Open Dictionary, I can’t be 100% sure it’s an official word, but I like it’s meaning nonetheless.  Evan’s example of andragogy is on that I feel we are lacking more of.  While she is teaching “almost adults,” the point is the same.  Can we teach our students to be part of the planning process?  Look closely at the way in which she implemented it too:

My second class British literature class also has problems with participation during general class discussions. A couple of students will attempt answers only after awkward silences. But the majority of students won’t speak, maybe if called on, but it’s so painful for both them and me that I hate to do that and put someone on the spot.

I started class by asking if they wanted to go with “regularly scheduled programming” or try something radically different. I would give them a task and when they accomplished it they would be dismissed, even if that was in ten minutes. They were a little reluctant but then encouraged each other to give it a try. They encouraged each other to get energized about a challenge in English class.

My favorite part of this was the conclusion she came to from the morning’s failure.  It wasn’t to let the students design the learning completely on their own, but rather to design something teacher-driven, but aimed at the students’ expressed desires from the morning class.  We are really beginning to look at assessment-driven instruction–using what our students know and don’t know to drive what we teach–in our district, and I like this example.  Here is the comment I left for her:

Here’s where you had me, and them, I believe:
“My best quality as a teacher is my desire and willingness to reflect.”

If one thing came through for your students it was that you listened to them. You took a failure, a rather public one, and pivoted in front of them. The student quote at the end of the post demonstrates what several of them were most likely feeling, even if they didn’t intimate it the same way.

In a new way, you showed what the use of assessment should look like. It wasn’t a book test, an essay, or anything pscyhometric, but you used it to inform your instruction. This is what we need everyone to be doing: look at your practice, look at what the students “tell” you, and make adjustments. The added bonus for us is that you wrote about it here and we can share it with more people.

And I hear you about the grading of papers. Feedback on graded material was always my downfall.

Using assessment doesn’t mean that you give pre-tests or previous examination grades; it can mean that you make an informed decision based on information you gathered through observation, much like Evans did.  This, I feel, is sometimes lost when we talk about using assessment to drive instruction.