Fall Break is here, which means that the first quarter of the school year is in the books. My students have had a strong start to the school year, and I have challenged them more this year than in any year in my teaching career. Many have risen to the challenge while several have faltered. They have had to adjust to a gradeless, mostly paperless, standards-based, and mostly project-centered classroom. The have also had an extraordinary amount of class time to work on whatever they needed to complete. I circulated around the room answering questions and helping students as much as I could, and my students have turned in good quality work that meets the rigor of the English standards.
With that said, I have two more quarters left (due to the state test coming at the beginning of the fourth quarter) to help my students grow as much as possible. Normally, I don’t make very big shifts to how my classroom operates until the end of the semester. I like to sit back and truly evaluate what’s working and what’s not, and one nine weeks is barely enough time to make this determination. However, I also feel a sense of urgency to do as much as I can to help my students with what time I have left with them. Based on my own reflections and my students’ comments during the first quarter, here are the four shifts I plan to make entering the second quarter of the school year:
Focus on the focus standards. Due to the breadth of my English standards, I could justifiably say that my students touch on most of the standards in any given week. By the end of the first quarter, my students focused on eighteen standards in more detail. In retrospect, that is way too many. I don’t want students who are jacks of all trades, yet masters of none. My team of English 3 teachers have recently narrowed down all of the standards to the seven that we felt were the most important for students to master. I need to create assignments that focus more on these seven standards. We will naturally focus on some of the other standards, too, but I recognize that I tried too hard in the first quarter to hit too many standards.
Stop asking students to multi-task. In my project-centered classroom, I asked my students to work on three different project simultaneously: an in-depth vocabulary journal, a “make a difference project” that required students to research a social issue and figure out how they will make a positive change on that issue, and a “reading all year” project in which they read self-selected novels and completed a variety of mini projects on them. While I thought that they would enjoy the autonomy of choosing what to work on during class on any given day, they frequently felt overwhelmed. I need to restructure my lessons and projects so they have more continuity. This will help my students focus and should, in turn, improve their productivity and ability to learn.
Increase text complexity. When I take a hard look at what my students actually read during the first nine weeks, I think text complexity is lacking. They have read research articles (some of which are complex), novels of their choosing (some of which are complex), and an excerpt from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (definitely complex). I need to give them more challenging things to read so they can grow in that area.
Cement their learning. I have been so focused on organizing the above projects, and giving my students time to work on them, that they have not had any class discussions. By omitting discussions, I am denying some of my students an opportunity to learn how they do it best, by bouncing their ideas off of one another. Somewhat tied to this are student reflections. I did stop every now and then and had them reflect on their own learning, but I didn’t do it nearly often enough. When students are asked to recall what they learned and and put it into writing, it not only helps them remember it, but it also gives me a clear picture of what they have learned--and what they haven’t.