Tuesday, May 27, 2014

8 New Things I Tried This Year

This year I returned to the upper school after two years away to teach one section of our revamped sophomore English curriculum. While I worried that teaching this class would pull me away from my work as an instructional coach (it did), the time I spent this year with my hilarious, challenging, endearing, and frustrating students supported my growth as a teacher/learner that has and will strengthen my work as a coach.  That's because this year I returned to the mindset I had as a first-year teacher waaaay back in 1995--the mindset of "why not."  As a coach I want to support teachers as they try new things and as they stretch themselves beyond self-imposed limits. So as a classroom teacher I "why-notted" my way through the new Brit Lit/America Lit mash up curriculum.

What follows is a list of some of what I tried. Some of the things on the list were enormous undertakings (the first two); others were a one-off. I'll provide a brief explanation of each, but really what I'm doing is making my list of future blog topics!

1.  Standards-based grading

I joined a growing group of FHS teachers using Active Grade as my gradebook tool. While the most frustrating thing about SBG is that we force it to end in one overall grade at the end of each quarter, the delightful thing is that students can see how they are progressing in specific aspects of the curriculum. There is so much more to say on this...

2.  Passion projects

I began the year with the idea that I wanted kids to improve their reading, writing, research, thinking, and presentation skills by exploring one of their own passions. So I created a 20% time concept that would run through every A day of the year (our school is on a 6-day cycle) and incorporate a range of learning opportunities all built around students' individual passions. Students wrote children 's books, created infographics, started a blog, read blogs, and reached out to experts in their fields of interests. We ran out of time before we got to the final project--Make Something/Do something--which I regret because it would have brought all of the other work together. 

3.  Literary analysis reality tv-style (confession cam assignment)

I'm pretty proud of this one since the idea was entirely mine, I think!  I wanted to approach literary analysis in a new way--one that would still require close, careful reading and rereading as well as a synthesis of that reading. So for our study of Arthur Miller's The Crucible I asked the students to select one character to become and get inside that character's mind throughout the play.  They had to choose four moments from the play, consider their character's reaction to/explanation of the event, and sit down on the couch to film a "confession" about it.  You can find the assignment here and the planning doc they used here.   A completed doc can be found here.  The students' footage was proof that they understood the characters in the play and could analyze it successfully.

4.  Personal visual representation and reflection project

We finished our year with a study of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta.  We were taken with V's personal icon (the red V) and wanted to find a way to help kids visualize their end-of-year reflection.  This was a short assignment that resulted in personal icons that were thoughtful and creative (also plenty that were sloppy and fairly shallow!).  Here's an example:

5.  Book trailers as an independent reading project

Book trailers are not new, but were new to my sophomores.  They were surprised to learn that publishers are creating book trailers as a way to market new books.  We watched several together and created a list of "ingredients" of book trailers before they created their own.  With the help of iMovie's trailer feature, some students produced high quality book trailers that revealed their understanding of the book and its core.  I found it to be an excellent way for kids to creatively synthesize the central issue of a book and entice others to read it.

6.  Database-only research project

Our school has invested an enormous amount of time and money in developing a large database collection for our students.  Unfortunately, most students do not know that we have these resources and/or they do not know how to use them. So, when we set out to conduct our research for our school's annual GatsbyFest, I required the students to use our online databases to research their chosen key court case of the 1920s.  The process was both distressing and fascinating for all of us as the students realized they were uncomfortable with anything but "googling it."  They appreciated the information that was available to them through the databases, but I don't think they are ready to abandon their Google addiction yet.

7.  An assortment of online tools:  Today's Meet, Animoto, Educanon, Socrative, Goodreads

These tools have all helped me differentiate my teaching and assessment, expand my communication with students, and encourage greater student engagement.  Give them each a try!

8.  100% transparency with my students about my teaching philosophy

I am grateful to the kids (Tamika, Christine, Justin, Mitch, Danny, Kory, Nick, Conner, Bryan, Maddie, Christina, Megan, Janie, Genna, and Lexy) for their willingness to engage in the year of "why not" with me. While some of them still ask questions that chip away at my spirit (How long, how many paragraphs, will this be a 4...), they have all had to think and work in ways that challenged them this year. 

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