Monday, September 26, 2016

Ownership of Learning in a High School English Classroom

The most difficult thing about being a public school teacher in 2016 is that the students have given up all autonomy in their learning. Especially when they get to high school, they're completely accustomed to being fed lectures, work, problems, solutions, and techniques for every part of their day. By that point, they're even accustomed to being beat back down, and quickly!, every time they try to rebel against the system.

During my second year of teaching high school English, I wanted to give my students just a small taste of actual control.

I had designed my curriculum schedule for second semester very quickly. I probably only spent about 20 minutes on it at most. It looked like this:

My four grades each still had seven unite left, and it worked easier for me to teach the same unit with all four classes, just using different materials. My OCD found it much more manageable that way. However, for the sake of my students, for the sake of something I knew they would benefit from, I relinquished control. I gave them the opportunity to redesign the curriculum schedule.

Now, at this point, I knew giving them complete control would be too much. They wouldn't be able to handle that sort of shift suddenly, so I'd have to decide what was on the table. I gave them each the list of seven units, and they decided how long each should take and how to order them. It was extremely interesting watching how the problem solving discussion evolved differently among each class!

Here's what they came up with:





After our discussions, I transferred all the calendars to separate sheets of paper. At first I thought we could hang them on the insides of different cabinets and open them during the appropriate class, but with the flexible classroom, I had students sitting against the cabinets every hour. Thus, change of plans, I moved them to a pillar at the front of the room. It was a rather inconvenient spot when I lectured, but I tried not to lecture so much, anyway. Plus, I think it was more convenient for the students to be able to see their schedule at the front of the room.

And the results?

First, yes, I was a little bit crazier not having everyone on the same schedule, but it was definitely worth it. When my students have more autonomy, I can deal with a little OCD-related anxiety. I own that, and it's mine to deal with.

It was also very important to me to listen to my students likes and dislikes. I gave them all a suggested time frame of how long I thought each unit should take, but then we discussed and compromised. My freshmen collectively hated poetry. They had taken 8 units of poetry in their school career thus far, and they knew their preferences. Even though I had planned to spend two weeks on that unit, we realized together that one week would suffice. This was helpful to them because they got to avoid more time with something they already knew wasn't their favorite, but also helpful to me because I learned that they had a very limited attention span for that unit. I would need to pare it down to just the most important highlights because if I included anything remotely boring, I'd lose them.

Some students admitted to me a few weeks or a month into the second semester that they were really surprised I followed through with the curriculum schedules they came up with. When I asked why, they told me that they thought it was a gimmick I was trying to sell them to get them interested in class but would eventually go back on. I was sad that they had that impression, but even more glad that I had made the decision to go forward with this idea. A month or two into the new schedule, as everyone realized I actually was serious, my juniors even came to me with the idea to replace their Shakespeare play for that year with Beowulf! They convinced me that it was a piece of fiction with arguably more historical significance, and I agreed. The unit was changed.

Some students listed designing the curriculum schedule as their favorite part of being in my class that year in their evaluation survey, and that makes my heart sing. <3

Friday, September 16, 2016

Daily Writing Journals

I'll be the first one to admit that I don't rely much on routine as a teacher. I'm fully aware that humans, especially young children, thrive on routine, but it's just not who I genuinely am as a person. I find it far more important to be an authentic person to students than to drive myself insane trying to be someone I'm not. (Though I'm sure they get SOMETHING out of the novelty I embrace instead, right?) There aren't many routines that I commit wholeheartedly to. Most of the time, I test something out, see how it goes, and then scrap it. The intent is, of course, to iterate on what went wrong and make it better, but my anxiety usually gets the better of me. Thus, the whole thing usually goes out the window, and we try something completely new. (This is something I'm working on.)

There was, however, ONE routine I did carry from start to finish during my second year of teaching high school English, and that was daily writing.

I think it started with inspiration from Corbett Harrison's extensive discussion of writer's notebooks, most of which I latched onto immediately, right down to his "Sacred Writing Time," which I incorporated into our daily schedule.

One of my sophomores didn't like the use of the word Sacred and took it upon himself to change the acronym shortly after I hung this poster at the beginning of the year.

In essence, it was this: Ten minutes of silent free writing first thing at the beginning of every class. 

In practicality, it was much more nuanced than I realized until now! Let's break it down.

What to write about?

This was the hardest part for a number of my students, children who grew up in the system and were used to always being assigned topics on which to write. I occasionally offered prompts if anything interesting had come up the night before, but students were free to ignore them if they had something else in mind. And for the most part, I actively encouraged them to just write about whatever was on their minds.

We had a few brainstorming sessions on the board at the beginning of the year. Eventually I turned it into a permanent fixture to help a couple with consistent writer's block.

What Can I Write?
1. Things I'm looking forward to. Things I'm excited about!
2. Fears. Things I'm worried about.
3. Vent. Something I'm angry about and need to get off my chest.
4. Something I've been sad about.
5. Exploring my feelings and emotions to see if I can find out more about them or where they came from.
6. A secret I can't tell anyone. (Remember to fold this page over and staple it!)
7. Reflection. When I go over something that happened, I can learn more about it.
8. Stream of Consciousness. Just write whatever comes to mind with no judgements. Sometimes I think thoughts I didn't even know I had!

For some reason I didn't get stories of various genres, poems, etc. down. This poster didn't go up until after Christmas, and I think at the time we had already discussed a lot of fiction. This poster must have been specifically for non-fiction "journal" type writing. (Note to self: Make one for fiction writing, as well!)

And for the record, I let the students know that I WAS serious when I told them they could write anything they wanted. We talked a bit about how to use writing to get things out that one is holding in and what a great stress reliever it can be. If they didn't want anyone (including me) to read an entry, all they had to do was fold it over and staple it shut. (See #6 on the poster above.) Some students did this when they wrote about drama, others did it when they wrote about inappropriate-for-school topics. I'm glad to report that there were typically a couple of folded over pages each day--that means that students were working through and processing something they found stressful or otherwise important, always a sign of good mental health! (Also see the section on Grading, below.)

And, yes, to return to one of my favorite points, I DID have a few students who frequently felt they had nothing to write about. That's one of the successes of this program! I'm glad I gave my students something different to constantly struggle with. It was a known struggle, something 99% of them continually overcame, despite difficulties, and what might be considered the public school version of "being bored," the necessity to rely only on themselves for ten minutes.


At the beginning of the year, I thought I would just keep a chart of participation. If someone wasn't writing, they were docked points. I quickly realized that wasn't something I wanted to spend ten minutes doing. Thus, an iteration! Here's what we ended up with:

Journals were collected at the end of every month for participation points, two points per entry plus an additional two points for reading through their entries again, identifying which one was their best work, and writing a short explanation for why on a sticky note on that page. (It usually worked out to be about 40 points per month, or roughly 20% of their overall grade.) If students were absent from class, they just had to make up the writing time at a later date, either during homeroom or as homework, as long as all entries were accounted for.

I had one student working on a story of her own, especially during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), so I allowed her to work on that during writing time. I knew that if she wrote "Worked on novel" under a dated heading, I could trust that she did so for that day. Shortly before term papers were due in History, I had a handful of students do the same, "worked on history paper," as well as shortly before college applications were due, "worked on college essay."

I didn't read every entry, but made a point to at least read the "best" entry, as well as a few more, time allowing, and leave a little feedback, all of which was about content, not structure. The intent was to hear the students' voices and to make a positive connection along with a little encouragement.

I didn't speak much on how much writing was expected, since this was a new concept for them, so for the most part, if it was more than a few sentences, and it was ABOUT something, I counted it. Some frequently lost points for writing, "I didn't do anything. I don't have anything to say." These were students that were already on my radar, and I conferenced with them, but probably not as much as I should have, considering it was still occurring at the end of the year. Definitely one of my biggest mistakes of the project.

Grading typically happened during self-led activities in class or during homeroom, so the students knew that I didn't open folded pages but did hold them up to the light to ascertain that there were, indeed, paragraphs of words. I felt transparency on that issue was worth taking a class period to do while they studied for tests or did other projects on their own, and it was never a problem.

What did it look like in practice?

We used the timer from Online Stopwatch on the SmartBoard to make it visible to everyone. I started the timer soon after the bell rang each English period, and there was to be no talking while the timer was going. If students wanted to share with someone, they were to save it until after the timer. If they had a question, I encouraged them to write it down and see if they could figure the answer out for themselves.

I used a flexible seating arrangement in my class, so students came in, sat in a desk or found a cushion, got out their notebook and pencils, then chatted with friends, waiting for the bell to ring. There were occasions when I had to make a quick announcement before writing time, but I tried to start the timer when the first bell rang as often as possible so as to maintain the routine and not distract them from what they were planning to write.

My seniors got in the habit of listening to music on the SmartBoard while writing. They would give me suggestions of what to play (which ranged from hard rock and metal to dance-y pop to literal classic music), and I would queue it up on YouTube. My juniors selected one student to play DJ (the same person every day. They must have all appreciated her taste in music), and she played mostly Disney songs and pop-ish country music from her phone. My sophomores and freshmen preferred to listen to their own music on headphones or write in silence.

Once music was set and the timer was going, I gathered my notebook and found a spot on the floor among the students, modeling expectations. I tried my best to write with my students every day. That was my intention, anyway, but I had four main English classes. Forty minutes of writing every day is wonderful for me because writing is what I do, but to have it segmented in quarters was a test in patience and developing new skills. Just as my students were learning how they could write EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. for ten whole minutes(!), I was learning how to chunk my writing. The buzzer frequently went off right as I was getting into the flow of my work.

And then there were the occasion or two where I just needed to get some paperwork done quickly, and the ten minutes at the beginning of class felt like the right time. That's not a good excuse, and I was always disappointed in myself whenever I did so, but the students were rather forgiving because they knew I wrote with other classes.

After the timer went off, there were a couple of minutes during preparation for grammar in which students could share their writing if they wanted to. At the beginning, I frequently read what I wrote aloud. It was mostly silly little stories back then, but my students loved hearing my writing voice, and I loved being able to model it for them. I encouraged them to share aloud, as well, but they rarely did. Instead, I started giving them two or three minutes to share with a friend before moving on. To encourage feedback (which we also discussed) I handed out sticky notes to anyone who was sharing, on which their partner wrote one reaction they had to the writing and one question. This was an interesting idea, but it didn't seem to work well. Only a couple students gave feedback. Others just read and handed the journals back, perhaps to discuss privately later.

Student feedback

My other greatest failing was not scaling the project up properly. I started with expectations right where I wanted them to end up--ten minutes of writing every day. I didn't even realize that I should start slow. My juniors and seniors adapted pretty well, but after winter break, my freshmen and sophomores were burnt out. We held class meetings about how to make it better, and they decided (separately) that they would like to write every other day for the rest of the year. After that, they were satisfied.

This would have been a good way to begin the project, only writing every other day. Or perhaps only for five minutes per day, as my sophomores were contemplating. Especially for younger students, starting with a lower time frame and slowly increasing would have been preferable. Another idea I had after the fact that would have been especially good for younger students is workshopping a different type of writing every day at the beginning of the year. It would probably work well in an elementary classroom to workshop different genres and styles for the first semester, then free write after winter break. Alas. Live and learn!

Regardless, my juniors took immediately well to journal writing. They actively looked forward to it, scowled at any distraction while the timer was running, and thanked me numerous times for assigning it. The seniors generally disliked it but didn't complain.

Final thoughts

I'm thoroughly pleased with how this program turned out. We may not have written many formal papers this year, but we DID write. Every. Day. (Okay, Monday through Thursday. Fridays were blocked for another activity. I guess I forgot to mention that.) I'm so pleased to have shown my students that writing isn't a scary thing--it's just something we do, and it's a useful tool for a myriad of instances. I'm glad to have given my students an outlet for some of their difficult teenage emotions, and we talked at the end of the year, especially my juniors, about how they could continue this project on their own, even when it wasn't an assignment. A couple eagerly agreed that they would. <3