Saturday, November 8, 2008

Worst Class... Best Class

Friday was a crazy day for me. I have been very stressed about my workload this week and it all came to a head on Friday. My worst trait as a teacher is returning papers in a timely manner. I struggle with buckling down and pumping out the grades as opposed to giving time to each paper and enough constructive criticism to help each individual writer grow and improve, yet feel accomplished. It's hard to grade papers!

But, that's not the story today, just a background on my mood.

So, I was feeling pressured and overworked, but I always love losing myself in the class period and getting down to work with the activity/lesson for the day. The objective for the day with my British literature class was to review "The Nun's Priest's Tale" from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. We had fun classes earlier dramatizing "The Miller's Tale" and things seemed to be going pretty well with Chaucer.

As an opening activity I asked students to briefly talk with a partner and write down some important ideas and a quote from the story to share with the class. We began the "go around the room" with a quote from the end of the story. The fatal moment came when I asked a follow up question. Then, the boom fell. Silence. The student who had offered the quote tried to explain and figure something out to say, but couldn't find the words. I asked the rest of the class to help, but...nothing.

I literally threw my hands up in the air and ended the lesson. I asked students to reflect on their lack of participation and offer ideas for ways to improve in an email to me.

My best quality as a teacher is my desire and willingness to reflect. I spent the rest of the day reviewing their comments, taking to another grade level teacher, and agonizing over how I could help them to be more successful. To work together, share ideas, take risks and make guesses. How could I help them feel comfortable and risk failure in order to achieve a deeper understanding. I devised a lesson plan and practiced it with my later section.

My second class British literature class also has problems with participation during general class discussions. A couple of students will attempt answers only after awkward silences. But the majority of students won't speak, maybe if called on, but it's so painful for both them and me that I hate to do that and put someone on the spot.

I started class by asking if they wanted to go with "regularly scheduled programming" or try something radically different. I would give them a task and when they accomplished it they would be dismissed, even if that was in ten minutes. They were a little reluctant but then encouraged each other to give it a try. They encouraged each other to get energized about a challenge in English class.

I showed this Power Point.
View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: education learning)

Then gave them the quote that the other class had struggled with. They quickly got to work, reorganized themselves into a circle in the back of the room and began discussing. In the course of their conversation they talked about the main points of the story, the final moral lesson presented by the Nun's priest, and how it related to one of the major themes of the Canterbury Tales. They made connections to their own prior knowledge and experiences. Everyone talked except for one student. Some students took charge at various moments, but others who had rarely shared ideas during class gave the most accurate and interesting comments. And, they praised each other, asked questions, organized themselves and almost forgot to use me at all as a resource.

When it was all said and done, they had reviewed the story, examined the text in close detail, and learned a little bit about themselves and their classmates. Now I have to figure out how to keep up this momentum. Or, maybe it's not that difficult. They accomplished so much with one quote (which I didn't even pick) and the freedom to examine it on their own terms with a clear mandate to include everyone.

One student wrote:

By the way Mrs. Clark Evans, I really really really liked this. You let us just figure it out and it forced us to talk. We heard from classmates who normally don't talk too! We should definitely do this again.
Now, back to grading papers!


Patrick Higgins said...

Here's where you had me, and them, I believe:
"My best quality as a teacher is my desire and willingness to reflect."

If one thing came through for your students it was that you listened to them. You took a failure, a rather public one, and pivoted in front of them. The student quote at the end of the post demonstrates what several of them were most likely feeling, even if they didn't intimate it the same way.

In a new way, you showed what the use of assessment should look like. It wasn't a book test, an essay, or anything pscyhometric, but you used it to inform your instruction. This is what we need everyone to be doing: look at your practice, look at what the students "tell" you, and make adjustments. The added bonus for us is that you wrote about it here and we can share it with more people.

And I hear you about the grading of papers. Feedback on graded material was always my downfall.

SCMorgan said...

I love how you handled this. I, too, feel overwhelmed this year. I often let that feeling be an excuse for not reflecting on how to be a better teacher. But you stopped yourself, re-grouped, and gave them a different way to figure out how to contribute and participate. I applaud you!!

Miller said...

This post struck me as I, too, struggle with the same kind of issues. Full class discussions that go nowhere or rely on one or two students. In my experience, the classes that are the richest usually come about when the kids take over - either purposefully through my lesson plan (not as common unfortunately) or accidentally.

I like how you turned it back on the students and empowered them to "solve" the problem. That's powerful. But it's only possible because you took the time to stop and reflect.

Rae said...

:) thanks mrs. clark evans