The month of May on the school calendar represents grueling tests of will, perseverance, and endurance… and I’m just speaking for educators. If it is this great a struggle for adults, imagine what wanders through the young, developing minds of our students?
In my ninth grade Visions in Literature and Composition courses, May presents the final stage of freshman training. In attempt to maintain the attention of students (and the teacher), I save the popular dystopian literature unit for the end of the year. And traditionally, it delivers.
Last year’s freshmen were treated to a different approach to close the school year. I gamified the entire dystopian literature unit and presented the ultimate challenge: Escape from Durstopia! They were hooked from the outset, but when they began discovering new missions with links to next steps for success, they were locked in. I communicated from the InfoTech Hub (Google Classroom) and added slides to a shared Google presentation.
Teams formed when necessary and individuals raced to conquer challenges. Students were slipping side quests to me before anyone else recognized the opportunities to learn or create. A group comprised of students from both classes even joined forces and stayed for hours after school to stump their peers with a coded scavenger hunt. Impressive. My students were doing more work and producing greater outcomes than I would ever consider assigning. Learners were not merely invested; they were immersed in our gamified literary universe.
So why would I save this level of engagement for the final month when I have an entire school year to plan? Why not start the year in game mode and see where it leads?
With a final pep talk from Michael Matera (I urge you to read Explore Like a Pirate and follow the action of #XPLAP on Twitter), Tisha Richmond, Adam Bold, Nick Davis, and Carrie Baughcam in June, I left University School’s Summer Spark with the vision and motivation necessary to construct my story for freshman English. Thus, Durstopia expanded from a single unit concept to a year-long experience. Plans are currently underway in my imagination and on dry erase boards in my office.
The transition in planning is an invigorating challenge after years of teaching the freshman curriculum. I am restructuring the order of our department units (with common standards, learning targets, and assessments)—units I have helped create throughout the last two decades—to tell a learning story within the theme. Here’s what it looks like at this point in midsummer form (questions, suggestions, and brilliant insights are always welcome!).
Visions in World Literature and Composition: An intensive study of the Communication Arts for 11th grade visionaries, focused on critical thought, literary analysis, writing, and discussion, with emphasis on individual growth and autonomy in learning.
Rationale: The Need to Push Exceptional Learners
I have the privilege of teaching two sections of high school juniors in Visions in World Literature and Composition. These are high-performing, mostly compliant students. However, due to the competitive culture we have created, the strong students have learned how to play the system to get (not earn) better grades than their peers. These respectful, conscientious students admittedly complete work to the minimum expectations in order to receive credit. I observe as students rush to complete (or copy) menial tasks for their classes with little thought or effort. Many will not push themselves to explore concepts outside of class or read beyond the assigned material. Yet, they constantly check their online average and wonder why they are not getting an A in the course. Is this a local issue? A generational issue? A cultural issue? How have our actions enabled extrinsic rewards to nearly silence intrinsic motivation?
Visions students are capable readers, writers, and thinkers–many of which are college-bound and in multiple advanced placement courses. The majority have supportive parents, but face the pressure of (sometimes unrealistic) parental and personal expectations. They rarely take risks in their learning and tend to be satisfied when a grade is secured. For students and their parents, learning is not viewed as important as the grade point average.
Some high-achieving students admit to not feeling challenged, but most feel overwhelmed with anxiety, knowing one subpar quiz will crush their average for a marking period. This stress is accentuated by the number of advanced placement courses on their schedule. As we direct more attention to accommodate the needs of all learners, my focus is on those already proficient in most English Language Arts standards.
I am frustrated with exceptional students settling for mediocrity by playing the game of school. And for what? To earn A’s and B’s so their parents may drive around town with a “Proud Parent of an Honor Student” bumper sticker on the back of the family SUV–but not to learn the material. They are honor students, but likely have little to show for their education. The reality hits when seniors struggle to craft memorable college application essays. It is time to push these students to create something greater–something authentic and meaningful. Let’s stop setting minimum expectations and have students challenge their own limits. This is a necessary step if we wish to remove the current ceiling on our schools. Continue reading
Students Beware: Veteran Educator Feels Like a First Year Teacher
Every year we hear more accounts of teacher burnout, and at times, I’ve considered trying it, but the negative thoughts pass as I continue my exciting journey
lifetime sentence through the high school hallways. I traditionally teach 4-5 different English courses from semester to semester, with a maximum of one repeated class per day. So, realistically, I don’t have time to get bored. This also means I have had the pleasure of teaching all brands of high school students in seventeen years. I could not enjoy a year without Visions in Literature and Composition–a class of bright-eyed 9th graders, who possess a zest for learning and untapped potential, but can’t avoid being freshmen. I love guiding juniors through the most important year in their educational journey and respect the content of Perspectives in World Literature and Composition. I am fully invested in Foundations of College Writing, my paperless senior writing course, in which I have become an edtech pioneer (self-proclaimed) by navigating a district 21st Century initiative, utilizing the power of Google Apps in our writing lab. My favorite class to teach has always been Communications, a public speaking course for upperclassmen. Despite my constructivist philosophy, no other class is as student-centered, simply due to the nature of its content.
Just as I was getting comfortable with the adjustments I have made to improve each course, an unexpected opportunity presented itself. At the end of last school year I was approached with the possibility of teaching Creative Writing, a course made popular by its previous teacher, my colleague and friend, who was moving on to another district. I always warned her students I was going to join the class as a student and write with them. And now I am, but the students are mine. Although I feel the uncertain thrill of a first-year teacher, there is renewed energy in my school day, and my passion for writing is awake after years of neglect.
Where Do I Begin?
The emphasis of my professional development over the summer focused on writing, as I outlined a plan for teaching the extensive genres of Creative Writing. I sought the advice of two of my favorite experts–Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle–who reminded me to model more writing for students in each of my classes, not solely for Creative Writing. For teachers who have never read the works of Gallagher and Kittle, please find the time. They speak directly from the classroom with authentic voices and practical approaches for improved writing (and reading) instruction.
Despite the knowledge I gained through research, I struggled up to the final days of summer vacation, before finally sketching my plans for the course on the syllabus presented at the top of this post. Yes, that’s the syllabus I handed to students as they entered the classroom on opening day. I am not an artist, but I felt I had to be the first one in the class to take a chance. I was obligated to show–rather than tell–what to expect from the course they signed up for last year (actually, I felt obligated to warn them about what they were in for with me as their instructor). Although I was unsure of their initial reaction, I have since been rewarded with positive feedback from enthusiastic writers. Students respected my honesty, vulnerability, and energy, and as a result, now trust the guidance of a first-time Creative Writing instructor.
Where Do I Go From Here?
After gaining the support of students, I had to build a community of writers who encourage each other and feel secure sharing their work. The class is composed of twenty-two upperclassmen with varying interests, social circles, and writing backgrounds, so I anticipated a challenge. Our early activities (highlighted in my previous post), discussions, and sharing sessions broke down many barriers through laughter and storytelling. But I do not take much credit for the positive learning environment that has evolved; I work with great students–genuine, compassionate, young adults.
One early influential mission was to create six word memoirs as a means of getting to know each other. After a day spent introducing the assignment and brainstorming possibilities, I once again stepped out of my comfort zone and was first to share several final options. I projected three sentences on the smart board, mentioned what I intended to express, explained my conflicts, and asked for guidance.
Students provided constructive feedback in an intelligent conversation about the writer’s craft. Without teacher direction (I simply asked questions, clarified responses, and thanked contributors for their thoughts), students engaged in an unforced discussion of good writing, audience, purpose, effective punctuation, word choice, and the power of one sentence. Confident writers (several AP students who have been exposed to complex literary analysis) first expressed specific details about quality writing, but surprisingly, some tentative writers shared observations; other students listened and processed in silence. Their commentary was inspiring. The result… my life in six words:
Walking far beyond the pedestrian path.
The twenty minute dialogue not only impacted the rest of the semester for our sixth hour team, it provided another highlight in my teaching career. Two days later, we sat in a circle and all twenty-three shared a six word memoir. Each author left the audience craving the rest of the story (which is a logical transition to our next mission: the autobiographical narrative). After admiring everyone’s contribution, I presented one final challenge to the class. We needed to publish our words–allow the world to hear our voices. Several visionary artists took a lead role, and within a week–after having us choose between five songs to accompany our words–produced a class video. The video might not signify much to a general YouTube audience, but it forever unifies our class. It also gave me something more impressive than my artistic syllabus (which I handed out…) to showcase during Back-to-School Night. As the parents of my writers watched intently, waiting for the words of their son or daughter to flash across the screen, they were overcome with emotion (several to tears). The power of the written word, combined with the potential of our children’s minds, made a bold statement about the quality of our educational system. I am proud to share our video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkymNjSz_OI with you. Enjoy.