November 14, 2019
Teacher and Students Blurry

Week #9: End of Q1 reflections/takeaways

PL is really about finding ways to allow the learning to be more student-driven and to transfer ownership of the learning.
The question I find that I’m continuously asking myself about daily instruction: who is making the choices and why? For example, as I started planning this year I had a clear vision: Unit 2 would be Change and Revolution and students could choose a play. Then I kept thinking, what if they don’t really want to talk about change or about my essential questions? So I stepped back and tried to consider how to get their input. This is a daily challenge.

Group ownership is different than individual ownership
Probably like many veteran teachers I feel somewhat comfortable reading the room and gauging if people are “getting it.” I feel good about setting up units that everyone will participate in and getting some buy-in by soliciting their input about topics or texts. Transferring that to the individual, one-on-one level has proven much more difficult. For example, students chose the theme of Friday night lights and then generated questions for Unit 2. But that didn’t mean that Jackson in my bell 6 had any interest or ownership over that unit. So he wrote his essay but it was more out of compliance than anything that was student-driven. So I’m still working on how to make the infrastructure of the class allow for different entry points.

Student-driven learning is a great goal but also really hard; it’s got to be progressive, and the more academic the subject matter the more challenging it is to get there
I keep thinking that part of this is simply the challenge of teaching reading, thinking, and writing in a STEM era. We do not build rockets or hold cardboard boat regattas. We do the very internal, but very real, work of building ideas and the habits of mind that stem from the discipline of studying literature (like empathy, critical thinking, self-awareness, evidence evaluation). So an engaged student might be a quiet one who is testing out several different versions of a thesis statement or researching evidence. These are academic endeavors and may not appear as student-driven as STEM activities might. And because they’re academic, two things are true:

  1. It might take longer to get to student-driven, student-initiated learning. These kinds of tasks may not be as quickly within reach of students’ life experiences. They don’t know what they don’t know, and it’s hard to drive your own learning without at least some vision of where it might go.
  2. As a teacher I have to figure out real-world applications and steps that will put the academic tasks within reach. This means that starting with literary analysis will likely be frustrating to my students (and therefore me when I read their so-so essays later). I’m lucky to work with an English III team that’s invested some time in finding some ways that analysis writing shows up in pop culture and using those as mentor texts. This is not a new idea–I’m just describing scaffolding–but I think that if we’re hoping to see more student-driven work that we have to let go of some antiquated academic practices (even if colleges do them, which is oft argued as rationale).

It’s nearly impossible to think about being responsive and student-driven without reconsidering grading (eliminating the chase for points)
If students are going to own their learning they have to have a clear sense of where they are in relationship to the standard. That does not come through accumulating and averaging points. It does come with a thoughtful integration of standards into the daily life of the classroom and a transparent grading system that is rooted in those same standards. For me that ended up looking something like this:

  • Eliminating points: Our English III team made writing rubrics that categorize the work as sophisticated, solid, safe, or inadequate. Thanks to Allie Kolish I only use these words in the gradebook now. Students see their writing grade and if it’s solid they know the rubric descriptors for why and what they need to do to improve it to sophisticated. So if they wish to improve they don’t do extra credit or more tasks, they improve their writing.
  • I do the same for my other grading categories: Reading, Writing, Speaking/Listening, Language/Vocabulary.

Don’t give into the “next new shiny thing” argument
As a “veteran” teacher I get the temptation of dismissing new approaches, but personalized learning is really about being responsive and empowering students. Those are values, lasting values, not an innovation to chase. And even if it that wasn’t so, even if it were just the next newest thing, better to disrupt the status quo than to maintain complacency.

Photo Credit: Jaime Lopes
https://unsplash.com/@jaimelopes

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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