May 16, 2022

Week #6: Sometimes everything isn’t amazing

One thing I tried: For Unit 2 I took a series of steps to make the infrastructure more student-driven: students co-created the unit topicthe essential questions, and their own writing prompts. As we finished our readings, they participated in a Socratic seminar and finished a second piece of writing for the quarter. Week 6 was the week to finish the writing, and it brought to light the distance that still exists between what I imagine personalized learning to look like and what is actually happening as students grind out some essays.

In a perfect world I imagine students coming to class eager to jump into the next phase of their research or project–that momentum towards learning exists. In reality, most days my students need a jump start, a direction, a push, some reassurance, some cajoling. This week I envisioned a lively writing workshop week where students would be drafting, researching, discussing, and conferencing with me. While some of that has occurred, the general mood (which is a purely subjective read; and in my experience frequently misread) was compliant. Students seem tired of writing about their topics or disheartened that evidence is part of argument writing. Although they have self-selected topics and readings (and a specific, real world audience), at times the process of writing is simply hard work.

For some students this begins to turn into a compliance thing, which is what I was hoping to avoid by personalized the unit and task. So, while the task and unit infrastructure has been personalized, the classroom atmosphere feels the same.

Students also began exploring book options for Unit 3 this week.

It’s hard because you go online and hear success stories or see great pictures of classes examining rivers or setting off rockets, and the distance between that and watching kids struggle over their thoughts and sentences seems miles apart. I don’t believe the work itself is of any less value, but it’s definitely not as sexy. I suppose I am in the throes of my own learning pit. Part of it is my own preference for what a vibrant classroom is: lots of discussion, debate, dialogue, questions, movement, and creation. But I also believe that giving students space to mull and reflect, to string words and ideas together, to struggle over how to anticipate an audience’s needs, is worthy work.

What I liked/didn’t like: I do like the topics students chose, ranging from whether or not high school sports reinforce gender stereotypes to what type of effect playing sports has on students’ mental health. I like that it’s been set up as a problem to solve: how will you convince your audience to think, feel, or do something about it?

What’s next: I’m anxious to read their work, which isn’t always the case in a one-size-fits-all prompt about a forced whole class read. I’m also interested to compare them to the goals we set after piece #1. I hope there has been some progress we’ll get to celebrate together.

Photo Credit: Andrew Neel

Nathan Coates

Nathan Coates is an English/Language Arts Teacher at Wm. Mason High School. This article is cross-posted with Mr. Coates' personal reflection blog. You can view his blog here. Twitter: @MHSCoates

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