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.
I recently completed a post about going paperless in my Foundations of College Writing course. As I continue to experience the benefits and efficiency of the Google Apps in the classroom, I want to share a simple strategy for formative assessment using Google Forms. The spreadsheet creates a visual model of every student’s research paper thesis statement. I provide meaningful, specific feedback (by color) to my seniors simply by reading one column of sentences and highlighting according to the standards on our writing rubric. Students immediately locate and compare their work to that of their peers, creating conversations before I start teaching.
RED=BEGINNING, ORANGE=DEVELOPING, YELLOW=PROFICIENT, GREEN=ADVANCED
Obviously, modeling is a best practice in the classroom. If you spend hours preparing writing lessons, which may or may not leave a lasting impact on learning, consider using the spreadsheets created by student responses to Google Forms. I use similar strategies to formatively assess samples of student work, including: effective introduction paragraphs, conclusions, organization of an argument, quote integration, word choice, and any other writing standards I wish to address. I insert comments to explain the rationale behind each writer’s assessment, but students often know the reasoning before I unveil the feedback.
This instant feedback teaches more in a mini-lesson than I can model or attempt to explain (especially for struggling writers). Students in Foundations need to see their words removed from the computer screen and hear their sentences read out loud. Immediately, they want to make adjustments before I even have a chance to comment or suggest improvements–so I let them. This promotes independent and critical thought. Writers gain confidence as they make minor revisions to attain proficiency, and beam with pride if their work is already green; they are not accustomed to receiving positive feedback–a major cause of their writing inhibitions. As revisions are completed, I change the color of highlighting for all to witness–simple, authentic, and lasting.
I have never been much of a technology expert in anything beyond the basics, although I was quite an Atari legend in the 80’s, made a smooth transition from VHS to DVD in the 90’s, and more recently converted from Windows to Mac. With all the talk of twenty-first century learners entering high school, I accepted the opportunity to become the first member of the English department to use a smart-board in my classroom (when Wisconsin’s educational budget was more promising). I learned how to incorporate PowerPoint into my lessons and entertained students with some less-than-artistic illustrations using smart-board tools. After a dozen years of inhaling chalk dust and smearing transparencies, I have grown fond of my new toys.
One of my favorite applications of technology in the classroom is Microsoft Word’s comment feature, which I use to provide quality feedback to my writers. I have designed numerous lessons in which students utilize the comment functions for peer editing while rotating from station to station in the computer lab. I have also crafted assessments based on students’ ability to comment on the revisions they make within the text of their own papers. Students must identify and articulate any changes to their previous draft on which I have typically provided feedback. I gain an accurate understanding of each student’s learning by reading the rationale behind the improvements. This is an excellent practice but it is inconvenient to access student school accounts, save as a new document with comments, or exchange emails with attachments. If only there were a more efficient system…
Last year, our high school’s library media specialist introduced me to the functionality of Google Docs during a freshman orientation session with my class. While many of my freshmen were not paying attention (naturally) to Google’s accessibility and collaborative capabilities, I was intrigued by the potential.
I had already set up a personal Gmail account and was in the process of constructing a classroom Google website, so looking into the rest of the Google Apps made sense. I set a professional goal to learn the system and teach students to utilize the new technology, knowing our district is heading that direction. A collection of new documents soon accumulated in my Drive (impressively organized in folders)–easily accessible from school, home, and my phone when needed. A creative vision of increasing student success and accountability began to form: no more misplaced flash drives or emailing between accounts; no more printer dilemmas; no more forgetting to save; no more “it’s on my home computer;” no more excuses; and not nearly as much paper.
At the outset of this school year, I explored the idea of going paperless in Foundations of College Writing, a semester-long senior composition course stationed in the department computer lab. I experimented with Google Docs for the majority of writing projects throughout first semester and learned with my students. Very few students were even aware they had a Google account already established by our district technology coordinator so I proudly guided them across the threshold. Initially, I relied on several tech-savvy students, who had no problem grasping the system (it cannot be that difficult if I taught myself). They communicated when something was unclear and helped me explain areas of confusion to their peers. By the time I officially assigned the research paper–the required touchstone of the course–my seniors showed no hesitation (how refreshing).
In response to a Google Form consisting of several guiding questions, students generated ideas for their research based on articles (informational texts) independently read throughout the semester. They identified issues worthy of further investigation, narrowed their topics, and composed a preliminary thesis. Student replies were neatly registered on a spreadsheet grid–a highly teachable document–in my Drive, rather than through multiple documents or a stack of papers.
The copy-and-paste generation learned to record and properly document research in a Google Presentation rather than on cumbersome note cards (so 20th Century). Visual learners arranged slides by topic or color–depending on individual preference–and soon sentences formed paragraphs. Bibliography slides were alphabetized and posted to a works cited page. All stages of the research process were organized and digitally recorded without having to save progress. Students shared their work with me, permitting access to monitor each step.
When writers composed ample content, I had them share with at least two other students. I have never witnessed such quality feedback through a peer editing exercise. They offered constructive advice to each other, while verbalizing their knowledge about writing (but is not always reflected in their writing). I learned as much–if not more–by reading peer feedback to check editors’ understanding of writing (see formative assessment), and was most impressed to see a student insert a comment reflecting my teaching.
The seniors appreciated the authentic conversations about the craft of writing, and preferred the immediate and ongoing feedback, “not days or weeks later.” They considered this exchange “educational” and “not as embarrassing” as begging for help from a writing instructor. Ultimately, after years of neglecting feedback scratched in the margins of their work, they were “more willing to pay attention to advice” and “finally understood what [I was] talking about.” My red pen was slightly offended, but technology had impacted my effectiveness in teaching students to write.
I sense the contempt of critics chiding me for selling out to the Cloud–paranoid of Big Brother. What about days when the server is down? Doesn’t reading student work take even longer? What’s the point? Well, Big Brother should be proud of our productivity, efficiency, and human progress (or does that make us a threat?). It is also our nature to adapt to technical difficulties as they occur, hence we store writers’ notebooks in a file cabinet, and occasionally practice our fine motor skills of manipulating a pen. Yes, the process of reading and commenting on student work is time-consuming, but the technology opens new opportunities to multitask; I can even read student work on my iPad while running on the treadmill without worrying about sweating on their papers. At the risk of alarming some, good teaching is time-consuming; the learning process is a journey requiring trust, patience, and commitment from teacher and student alike.
After a successful semester of experimentation, I confidently welcomed a new group of seniors to my first hour, paperless composition class. I will continue to reflect on my experiences, challenges, and improvements, and share the results. I am well on my way to understanding NCTE’s definition of 21st Century Literacies (see http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/21stcentdefinition), but more importantly, so are my students.
Note: no trees were killed nor red pens sacrificed in the 2012-2013 writing process