A new school year approaches, and I find myself wondering why I have spent so long in the past crafting fun activities for my students to do. Sometimes, I feel like teaching has become a tightrope we are expected to walk between simple, predictable fun and absolutely innovative creation. Students expect us to entertain them, make the time they pass in class bearable, but they don’t expect to become passionate and that is the problem. They don’t expect to care. Why oh why have we let that happen?! After a good long think, I’ve decided that the expectations I’ve set for myself and for my students are not really working anymore. Sure, I’ve created fun activities, but what is it all for? And what’s the point in doing it if the students can’t seem to naturally apply what we’ve learned to their actual lives?
Here’s what I’ve decided: 1)The English class is the best place for real-world application of skills that we have been learning forever. 2) Students need to work in a way that MATTERS to them. 3) I am bored to death with fun activities that are temporarily rewarding but forgettable in the long run. 4) My students need better, they need harder.
With these resolutions, I have created a new format for my classroom, borrowing what I think to be the best from the philosophies of Writing Workshop, the Flipped Classroom model, and Differentiated Instruction. I want to set down the basic operation here, mostly so I can organize it in my own mind and maybe get it out there to others where it could prove useful (and where you can help me fine-tune my thinking because we all know how smart you are).
The basic structure for my class works like this:
Students will set their own goals based on “I can” statements I have made from the Common Core State Standards and other English concepts that I feel to be important and not completely understood. Each week, I will meet with students individually to determine three new goals (one reading, one writing, and one other). We will set goals they actually need and check their progress the next week. We will talk about how to work on and show progress in these goals. This will be a large part of their grade, which will be adjustable as they learn more.
The week for a given student might look like this:
Monday is independent reading day where we read books of our own choosing. In my school, we use reading strategies to “report” on these, turning in the work we’ve done to implement a strategy with a reflection on its effectiveness for that book. We turn these in once a month. At the end of class, we book share and discuss briefly.
The rest of the week depends on your schedule, but basically students will cycle through all the following:
1. Conferencing with me + discussing in small groups–I will talk to each student each week. We will set new goals, check old goals, and set a game plan for the rest of the week until we meet again. We will discuss what the student wants to read to meet their reading goal, what they are writing to meet their writing goal, and how these two can coincide. We will be able to put misunderstandings and questions to rest through mini-lectures, personalized to that student.
2. Reading Goal day–On this day, students read a short story, article, chapter of a book, or whatever else they can learn from. They will be responsible for responding to the piece through an essay or other format, showing their mastery of their personal goal (Don’t worry, we’ll discuss options together).
3. Writing Day–Students will write what they want about what they want in whatever way they need. They will be able to work on the same piece repeatedly, so long as it shows mastery of their goal for the week.
4. Article of the Week (a la Kelly Gallagher). I’ll have a specific article they read with a specific format for response. This is a good place for them to practice the skills they are working on alone, and gives us an opportunity for more unified discussions as a class.
Basically, the only homework I’m assigning is for them to read a one-page guide (or watch a video, etc.) I’ve created (or other) that will help them with that week’s goal, write a paragraph summary and a paragraph application reflection. They’ll get maybe two a week of these. Anything else they do at home (other than nightly reading) will be their choice or because they didn’t work well that day.
What I do with resistant kids–
I still have plenty of those fun and kind of meaningless activities in storage. Also worksheets. And if all else fails, I’ll start calling in reinforcements and give them books that swear. That seems to do the trick more often than not.
Basically, I want my students shaping their own education. I realize this is not possible in many other classes, but in English it is not only possible, it’s necessary. We have to make them care about the written word, feel success at their use of it, maybe even LOVE the written word. I want my students becoming smart and active learners, not passive vacuums of knowledge which they will forget when they empty the bag.
I realize this is a new format for the English classroom. I know that it will be hard, but I’ve come to ask myself several questions lately that I can no longer ignore: What are my students getting out of my class? What is this whole thing for? What do I want them to remember years and years hence?
Honestly, I want my students to remember that I pushed them harder than they’ve ever been pushed before, that I encouraged them to be better, that they did more than they had any other year. I want them to work their butts off and like it. It’s ambitious, I know. I am reminded of those days when I actually thought movies about teaching were things that could happen in real life to more than one in a million teachers. But I have to try. I will make it work because I care, because I am tired of seeing people take all their other classes seriously and not English, because I am sick of students thinking that they already know English and don’t need no more.
It is a work in progress. It will probably scrape by at first until I fiddle with it and make it work. It will not work without the guidance of parents and students and administrators, but I am stubborn and not afraid of asking for support.
I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Good luck in the new school year to all of you.