Tag Archives: students

Slice of Life #10: What I Like Best

Slice of LifeI have an American lit class that meets after a half hour period we’ve designated for collaborative learning and talking and working with peers and teachers. Many of my students came to class quite early today. Some of the students were discussing a quiz in history, sharing strategies they’d used to study and lamenting faulty memory when reading their history textbooks. I shared with them that my 8th grade math teacher had taught us the SQ3R method for reading textbooks, and since they hadn’t heard of it, I explained it to them. I mentioned I found it helpful for reading history textbooks in particular, but that I thought it also worked well for science. Maybe not so much for English, and I never used it in math. One student mentioned it was kind of strange that a math teacher taught it to us as it might not have been directly helpful in studying math. I said she was the kind of teacher who shared general success tips, such as study hints and note-taking methods, with us, even if it wasn’t necessarily going to help us in her class. She also taught us how to take cluster or web notes. I have never found that technique useful myself, but I’ve taught it to students who have found it quite helpful. My teacher—I still remember her name, Mrs. Sands—cared about our success and not just in her class. I knew she cared about us.

What I like best about teaching is not necessarily teaching the subject, but helping kids learn, whatever it is. I love sharing ideas and hearing from students. The conversation I described was a five-minute conversation before class, but it was a lot of fun for me, and I felt like we shared a bond over the study tips. Will they give SQ3R a try? I don’t know. But it only took a few minutes to show, and it didn’t take a lot of effort either, that I cared about my students’ success, and not just in my class.

I was in a colleague’s classroom either late last week or early this week (I forget which), and he had a small stack of writing taken up from his seniors. I noticed the names of former students, so I peeked (my colleague didn’t mind). I pulled the second paper out of the stack and started reading. It was good. I felt so proud of the student who wrote it. He had spent two years in my English classes, and he didn’t have a lot of confidence when he came in, but he worked very hard. He came in to work with me. He revised. He volunteered to have his writing workshopped. He is reaping the rewards of the effort he put into improving his writing. Of course, writing is an integral part of the English classroom, and we should be teaching students to write for a variety of audiences and purposes. It’s such an important skill to take forward, and I loved helping this student learn how to improve his writing. But make no mistake: he did the work that resulted in that improvement. He’s carrying that success forward in his English classes this year, and I don’t doubt he’ll carry it forward to future writing he does.

It doesn’t take a lot of work, I don’t think, for us to show our students that we are interested in their lives and struggles beyond our classroom walls. They will remember how we cared for them many years after they no longer remember content. Relationships are important. I remember most of my favorite teachers because of a combination of how interesting their classes were and now much we connected as people beyond the subject. I can clearly remember having teachers who made me feel invisible in the classroom, and I knew they didn’t really care about any of their students, or at least I didn’t feel it. In fact, I have had teachers who really seemed to dislike their students. I am not sure why they were teaching. Students are what I like best about teaching. More importantly, students are why I teach. And perhaps most importantly of all, I really like my students.

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gardening photoI have been writing this blog post in my head for months now, and I’m not sure I will really capture what I’m thinking.

I have changed a lot as a teacher over the years. I no longer agree with many of the ideas I expressed earlier in this blog. Perhaps some of the ways I have changed can best be expressed by exploring some of those opinions, why I held them then, and why I no longer hold them.

I used to be strict about late work. As in, I didn’t want to take it. Sometimes, I still would, despite saying, here on this blog, that I didn’t do it. I struggled with the issue of keeping track. It was easier for me, organizationally, if I asked students to turn in work on time. And that has not changed. It is still easier on me if they turn their work in on time. However, despite the fact that my school has a policy about late work, I take work late, and I don’t really penalize for it unless it becomes a chronic issue with a student who is clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have come to believe that perhaps students do not always meet a standard at the same time. Sometimes, some students need to take a little longer. Sometimes, things happen, and maybe it’s not even that catastrophic. Maybe they forgot. I forget stuff, too. That’s why, when I asked a student about a late project today, and she sheepishly said, “I’m still working on it,” I replied, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure it was on your radar.” It does cause a bit of an organizational issue for me, but one way I manage it is to have students do work electronically (which, by the way, was a suggestion from a commenter on the blog post I linked above). Keeping track of Google Docs and online quizzes works better for me than having bits of paper everywhere, and I find I can manage the work more easily.

Students also ask me if they can revise their work, and I always let them. Why? Because I think it helps them become better writers when they do. And I care more about that progress than I care about keeping a grade at a certain level. Some folks disagree with that stance and call it grade inflation. I used to have some real issues with grading myself, but partly those issues were based on expectations of an administrator who thought I was too easy on the kids. I was actually threatened with my job, so I decided I needed to be harder, and I tried to justify it to myself philosophically as part of being a rigorous teacher with high expectations. I just don’t think my students would say I don’t have high expectations today, even if I allow late work and revision. If I didn’t have to give grades, I don’t think I would. I have come to see them as a false construct. They have the value that we give them, and we can’t really even agree on what that value is. Some folks bestow A’s on students unwillingly and always sparingly, but the grade inflation battle was lost a long time ago. We can keep trying to defend that hill if we want to, I suppose, but I don’t want to die on it myself. So, I have a lot of high grades, and I didn’t used to have as many. I don’t think they came easy. I am quite concerned that students and parents focus too much on grades and not enough on the learning, and the funny thing that happens when you allow students to revise and to turn in late is that it doesn’t really become about the grade. It does seem to help students understand that the issue at hand is the learning, and they will work harder for me and do more than they did when I felt like I had to keep grades lower to please my administrator. At the time, however, I was very concerned that too many A’s said something negative about my expectations and the level of challenge in my class. Now, I think they tend to say students are learning the material successfully.

I used to talk too much in my classes, and some days, I probably still do. But I have really worked on it over the years. I can remember writing lectures that were basically scripts, if you can believe that, when I first started teaching. I had to have complete control and go bell to bell. My second day in my own classroom was a complete disaster. I had just received my 33rd student in the class, and I was trying to get him sorted. I only had 28 desks, I think, and the kids were being too talkative, and I wasn’t starting class on time because I was dealing with this new student, and I said to the kids that they should be working quietly while I handled the situation, adding that “It should be so quiet I could hear a pin drop.” Geez, does that make me cringe. Guess what happened? Every kid in the class dropped his or her pen. I was furious, but then we “started” class, and I pushed through. That first year is not something I like to think about at all. I made so many mistakes. Part of the issue, though I didn’t understand it at the time, is that it was all about me and my control and not about the students. Today, one of my classes had a Socratic seminar. They are actually one of my favorite things to do with students, and I should do them more than I do. Students do all of the work in a seminar. I look down at my notes and do not say anything. Students run the discussion themselves. One of the girls in the class today remarked that it was the best Socratic seminar she’d had in school. The students really need to be taken seriously as leaders of their own learning, and they need to be given the control. Giving students control doesn’t mean we have lost control. Letting them take control of the class, the direction of the discussion, tells me much more about what students have learned than standing in front of a room talking at kids did.

I actually sent this article to my students, my students, today. I honestly believe that ten or fifteen years ago, I never would have shared it with them because I wouldn’t have wanted them to get ideas. A few years ago, I heard a student ask one of my colleagues, “Why do we have to learn this?” and the guy actually responded, “Because I said so.” I cringed. But that the same time, I used to think certain content was dreadfully important to learn. I used to give regular tests. I can’t remember the last time I gave a test (aside from a final, which I was required to give or which I agreed to give because the department wanted to). What I want students to learn has changed completely compared to my early years as a teacher.

  • I want students to learn to work together collaboratively.
  • I want them to learn that writing takes work, and you need to revise. The writing process helps.
  • I want them to learn to communicate their ideas to others with clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • I want them to learn to think critically: to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. I want them to learn to ask questions.
  • I want them to learn to create. All kinds of things: videos, podcasts, poems, essays, stories.
  • I want them to learn metaphors. We think in metaphors. When we learn new information, we compare it to what we know and classify it through metaphor.
  • I want them to learn to comprehend, use, and enjoy what they read.
  • I want them to learn the value of critique: how to do it helpfully and how to use it to improve their own work.

These are all important skills and habits of mind that can be taught in a variety of ways. None of it really requires certain content, which is what the article I linked is getting at. Working with content is a means toward teaching these more important skills, but the content is not the end itself. When I began teaching and relied on lecture, content was all I taught. I don’t think students learned a lot of the more important skills in my bullet list. And the truth is, they didn’t really learn the content either.

One of the messy aspects of having a blog is that some of that evolution of thought has taken place in public. As a result, I have had to field emails or comments from people who quibble with some stance or other that I took seven years ago because my thinking on the issue is still published here. I actually had to close comments on older posts because 1) after a year, everyone else has moved on, and the only person who will see the comment is me, so it’s not really a conversation anymore, and 2) most of the time, if it’s a comment on a post that old, the commenter really isn’t invested in a conversation anyway, and they can be downright trolls on occasion. The occasional negative or even rude comment is part of blogging, I suppose, but we all want folks to judge us on what we’ve learned and the progress we’ve made. We don’t want to be held to ideas and opinions we no longer think are important. Maybe we have learned some things that have changed our minds about something we used to believe. We grow, we change, we evolve. Maybe we should let the learning be a little messy and give students that same time to evolve.

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The Kids are All Right

I just came across this tweet by Jim Burke:

Jim Burke's tweetI feel the same way. I love to hear from students, both current and former about the great things they’re doing out there in the world. Jeremy came by the school to visit last week and told me about his work with the Wilderness Society. He’s been blogging with them at WildernessU-Georgia. You can learn more about him by clicking on their About page. They don’t have posts tagged by author, but if scroll a bit, you can find some of his posts. Here are a few recent ones:

As his former English teacher, I’m thrilled he’s writing. He graduates from college this year, and I’m proud of him.

I shared Jake’s blog and wonderful photography with you recently, but here it is again, in case you missed it: Life of Jake. Jake is a gifted artist with that camera—something I didn’t know about him when he was my student, but I’ve been happy to discover it since then. He’s also an excellent writer and thinker.

Julian is really busy with college, but he blogs about GTD, organization, and productivity at 2WheeledLife. He has some helpful tips, and I have enjoyed discovering all he’s learned.

They are just beginning to go out into the world and do great things, but I’m really proud of them, and I will be interested to see what they do in the future. And I don’t worry too much about the future, because in the inimitable words of Who, “the kids are all right.” [Sorry for the paraphrase—I teach grammar and can’t write alright. See? Although I will voice my radical opinion that it should be standard when its cousins altogether and already are. Just saying.]

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