Monthly Archives: June 2013

From Cocoons to Butterflies: Teaching for a Decade (or, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I actually learned something)

Look, I was the last person to ever think that I wanted to be a teacher, despite prescient adults who told me repeatedly as a younger person “you’d make a good teacher.” As far as I knew, teachers were always broke and they worked with insolent young adults.

Fast forward a few years and here I am, wrapping up year 10…10 years!!!

For the first time EVER in my life, I’m not ready to poke a pencil in my eye and berate myself for all the little problems that manage to suck the joy out of teaching, or at least the joy of remembering that, in the broader scheme of things, I am not such an awful teacher (admission: I am often filled with doubts, though I’ve learned many of the teachers I admire are; but, because another teacher I admire said something, to treat teaching like a baseball season: never let your highs get too high or your lows get too low, I’ve become more gentle and forgiving with myself).

My first year teaching Honors and I accomplished some of the goals I set out to achieve: the kids improved their writing; I figured out how to do better close reading and textual analysis (not my strongest points; I will always be a better writing teacher), and the kids confirmed their learning in their final papers of the year, wherein they get to reflect on what they’ve learned and offer me some constructive criticism (they are absolutely gleeful at this part of the assignment; I told them that they can be brutally honest, as long as they remember to be nice; for the most part, they always comply). Their criticism is usually spot-on and I generally use it to make revisions.

Here, excerpts from some gems:

  • This class will definitely affect the way in which I will approach future classes and challenging circumstances, instead of having the mindset of “oh my god I can’t do this” I now have the mindset of, “okay, this is hard, but eventually I will be able to do it.”
  • I have never been more tired in my life. But I am a satisfying kind of tired. I have never had a teacher expect me to do more work before, but because you held us to such high standards, I have truly become a much better reader, writer, analyzer, re-reader, re-writer, and multi-perspectival analyzer [insert my thoughts here: say word?!]…And the student continues: My favorite aspect of the class was the amount of respect you showed us, which revealed itself in the ambitious level of reading and writing assignments. [Me: this same kid suggested I slow down the pace of the class because she often had a “book hangover” and wanted to continue our discussions. Love!!!]
  • This is the first honors english class I have ever taken. At the beginning of the year I was timorous [insert my thoughts here: LOOK at the use of one of our vocab words!!!] He continues: As the class went on you got a connection with each and every student and you were not going to fail them. You do everything in your power to have a productive class everyday of the week.
  • Part of the reason I think she [me] was so successful was because I felt as though the majority of the time, we as a class were learning together, not individually. I never felt as though I was being spoon fed information on a subject but rather that the classroom was an open pool for free thinking and discussion amongst ourselves.
  • I will always remember that going above and beyond helps. Teachers like to see effort, so when a student takes a simple project and makes it spectacular, that’s a plus. ¬†[Me: This from one of my students who I had to push every single day–and who pushed me back every single day–about why she just couldn’t be great. Eventually, she came around to seeing what I saw in her the moment I met her.]
  • [On the Macbeth movie project] It helped me branch out more from my cocoon of quietness into a butterfly of loudness. Being put up on the screen, wearing a fairy outfit and reciting lines from Shakespeare, in front of your classmates really changes a person.
  • My most favorite unit was actually the rhetorical analysis unit because I found it much to my liking. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I actually learned something that I can use later in life. Now thanks to you I know how to convince my mom to give me things I want and spend more money on me.
  • Most importantly I learned that teachers are never here to hurt you, they’re here to help you. I never thought that going to your teachers for help with your situation would help. Since you helped me bring my grade up and gave me helpful tips to make my work better I tell my friends “Go talk to your teacher, they’re there to help.”
  • What I really liked about this class is the stress of intellectual learning…I felt that I was finally connected to the world of intellectuals. Your class was one of the first times I felt like an intellectual in school…I always wanted to be an intellectual, so your little tips like reading The New York Times helped my wish become more of a reality.
  • Now I think of essays in terms of content and complexity of the prompt, not the length…I no longer dread essays and I have learned to just do it.
  • My experience in this class has taught me that writing is a process, that independence in a learning environment is a privilege that should be handled wisely, and that working with classmates is a huge contributor to learning.
  • The way I saw your class was like this: Everyone starts from the bottom and they slowly work their way up the ladder to an A. Climbing that ladder to me has been one of the hardest yet most liberating experiences I’ve had thus far in my writing career and you are the reason for that. [Disclaimer: not everyone earns an A; but few, if any students fail, and most end up fine in the end]
  • I know now that writing isn’t focused on how you start out, it is more focused on how the author finishes their craft.
  • I would also note that the literary citizens of the world events have reminded me how I should be interacting with the world around me even if it isn’t a requirement.
  • [Future English classes should know] This class will go beyond the surface of what “English class” entails. There will be presentations, discussions, that will pertain to a sort of question of the ages and call for higher order thinking and questioning. It is impossible not to learn in this English class.

I take this assignment seriously, and they do, too, much because I think that the students who took the course in the fall directly impacted the changes that this current group of students experienced. Thus, hopefully they know that I value their opinions, and that I, too, am continually figuring out how to be the best teacher I can be, every day, but I need their help to get there.

And, of course, the suggestions they offered are ones that I will think about and turn over as the summer winds on, but I will no longer let them eat me up as they did before. The amount of learning that students own and can write about matters, and the revisions to the course I make as a result are constructive and offer the opportunity for even more students (and their teacher) to do this work–joyfully, on most days.

After 10 years of doing this, I am more joyful and more satisfied than I have ever been as an educator.

As soon as I got on the train to go home–feeling a bit bewildered that a school year ends much more with a whisper than a shout–I opened my book, Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng [note: you should just read this book right now] and fell right into it. That’s a sure sign that summer’s here: time and freedom to read my own books, time to slow down, time to savor, time to catch up, time to dream…

Welcome, summer.


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The Day When the Kids Ran the Show: Student-Generated Rubrics

There’s the school of thought that encourages teachers to turn over creation of a classroom rubric to students. I’ve known about that school, but have always regarded it as entirely too time-consuming: brainstorming? Discussion? Consensus? Couldn’t I just do that with other assignments? Better still, couldn’t I just use my trusty rubric and move around some of the categories if I was doing something different?

Chalk this one up to always learning (me as teacher as much as them as students).

We have about two weeks left in school and my students have been writing a series of processing papers (called Inquiry Papers) guided by their own questions as they read Frankenstein. I generally don’t grade them until the end; rather, I just look over the questions, give them completion credit, and make broad comments about themes I see across the papers. Now, though, it’s time to grade their best work. Thus, it also seemed an appropriate time to try out something new (I’ve been working on not rolling out too many new ideas, but instead being thoughtful about what the kids need at the time, what I need and ultimately by what is most important for them and what we’ve set out to do): student-generated rubrics!

I began by asking them to do a brain dump of the qualities for an Inquiry Paper that meets expectations. From there, they brainstormed all the skills one would need to be able to write such a paper, which then became criteria that was then grouped into categories. My directions to students were broad: after they’d done the brainstorm, they then had to figure out what it made sense to be evaluated on and they had to reach consensus. Thus, I was going to observe their process to make sure everyone was involved–no one could sit and watch. Then I pretended to busy myself doing something else, but I could hear them and make covert observations.

What did I see? First, the discussion of everything we’ve been working on skill wise: “the question has to be a HOTS-one” (from Bloom’s taxonomy); “I think the quality of the question is really important”; “yeah, but you better analyze it”; “no hit and run quotes”; “the analysis has to be thorough”; “I don’t think you should put a formula in there [re: number of paragraphs]; she doesn’t care about how many paragraphs you have, she cares more about what you have to say and how you say it” (I almost collapsed with joy on that one, btw), and on and on they went.

A student from each class volunteered to type up the rubric and we looked it over the next day for any revisions (there were few). Now, students have a few days to evaluate their papers against the rubric, pick their very best inquiry paper, make any necessary revisions, and submit that paper for a grade.

I know those papers will be of the best they’ll write all year. I just know it.

Next year, I’m going to start the year with this exercise: students will have a few analytical papers that we’ll read (and practice our close reading skills, for sure), then we’ll do the same process. Thus, they’ll know what is expected from the beginning, and what it looks like, in their own language, but we’ll also constantly revise the rubric (well, they will and I’ll use what we come up with) as they develop more mastery with the content and ¬†become more sophisticated writers (I have to give credit to my co-worker who made this suggestion about how to extend this process).

The theory met the practice when they created the rubrics, and the result was, as usual, fantastic.

You just have to let them be great, and you just have to go along for the ride.

Here you go if you want to see for yourself English Rubric 4th block

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