Collaboration Review

Today could have been one of those dreaded teaching days – the “curriculum” or “professional development” day. In many districts, this means teachers sit and listen to someone in administration or someone hired by the district to discuss topics often unrelated to or out of date for many teachers. However, thankfully, our district allows us to select our own professional development and provides some real collaboration time for our teams. We are, of course, required to provide evidence of our productivity, but I can honestly say as a department who all sat in the same room, we were productive all day.

I am so thankful for that time and for the opportunity to work with my colleagues. As teachers, it’s easy to become the master of our own domain. It can be a tough dynamic because we spend most of our days being the Supreme Ruler and then infrequently sometimes then sit with other people who are also Supreme Rulers and others who are the “real” Supreme Rulers, and we have to stop being in charge. It can be hard. I’ve seen pride  and ego completely swallow productivity, teachers butting heads because they feel like they know more, are superior, or smarter in some way, and therefore, they feel they cannot possibly have anything more to learn from the others in the room. But I’ve found that most everyone has something to share and a technique about which I can learn. The teacher war stories are inevitable, when teachers get together, but it’s helpful to feel not alone because the same setup that leaves me master of my own domain also leaves me feeling lonely at the top. Hearing from others that I’m not the only one who worries about being good enough or smart enough, who worries about my students being prepared for the next year’s teachers, reminds me how connected we all really are.

Above all though, on days like today, I’m just so proud of the hard work we all do. We spent four hours this morning on preparing summer reading assignments, reviewing pacing guides, discussing novel selections, and another four hours this afternoon preparing assignments and calendars for the end of the year. I always feel better when I’m with other teachers – like I’m the best version of myself as an educator. Every conversation of which I was a part and which I overheard was collegial, purposeful, and above all, productive. We didn’t always agree – we have different philosophies, different focus areas, but every teacher heard the others out, voiced their ideas and concerns, and we just kept coming to compromises that were the best versions of what we discussed. We are better when we’re together. There’s no question in my mind.

I can make individual assignments and plans all day and all night, and I’ll be comfortable and even proud of the work I do. But when I work with others and develop something in collaboration with my colleagues, I feel sure that I’m on the right path. So often, as a teacher, it can be hard to feel supported since so many have opinions about what we do and how we do it, but so often those opinions come from people who aren’t in the classroom or sometimes aren’t even in a school. When we spend days like today together, it’s amazing what we can do when we support each other, challenge each other respectfully, and really push the boundaries of each others’ ideas to come up with the best version of an assignment or unit.

So often, we dread the teacher days of meetings. Even the students sigh in solidarity when they ask what I’m doing while they’re off, at home, and I say that I’m in meetings all day. But once I round out the day, every time, I feel so rejuvenated. Confidence can be hard to come by some days, especially at this point in the year, but I’m thankful for my colleagues who help me feel strong with only eight weeks left in the year! Soldier on, warriors!

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Summer Reading Musings

With the warmth returning and shoots pushing back up through the soil, my mind goes to summer, relaxation, all that I hope to accomplish, and reading. What’s on my list that I haven’t touched yet? What goal do I want to set for myself? If I’m honest, I rarely meet the goal I set. I am a grand planner – I make lists of all I want to do, set up timelines of what should be finished by when, and every summer, without fail, August 1st comes as quite a shock.

I know this is the same for my students. Every year I tell them to not wait until August to begin, and every year, the emails start pouring in around two or so weeks before the new school year begins with questions and issues regarding summer reading assignments. We all wait. We all procrastinate. And that reminder brings me back to the same place every year around this time… what do we do about summer reading?

A wonderful teacher I know, Tricia Ebarvia, wrote a piece recently considering just this topic, and she raised an important question: what is it that we want to accomplish with it? In trying to answer this question, I always start with what I know from when I was in high school. I read books that got us started on the school year – things we would begin with, books to grapple with, books we could learn with. What I know was my teacher never gave us something that didn’t teach us about the world and about our place in it. Books and reading were not a skill-based assessment, as so often they are now, but about a life-based assessment. We spent weeks discussing what Crime and Punishment could teach us about forgiveness, guilt, and punishment. Are there crimes for which there is no repentance? How do we go about forgiving those who have wronged use? Is there room for love in those relationships? Healing? How do we forgive ourselves, above all?

Those were powerful conversations. I often find myself thinking back to those conversations and those two classes (European Literature Honors and AP Literature) to find my way as a teacher. I loved reading so much. From childhood. From as far back as I could remember. Even as a child, books were about forging relationships and managing them, about how to deal with loss or the stress of being a child having made a mistake. But in all of these musings, I remember then that not everyone has the relationship I did with reading. Not everyone has the philosophical debates in their heads the way I do – should Jane have ever ended up with Rochester? Was it weakness or was it forgiveness? Was it love or was it nostalgia? Instead, many of my students struggle with just the words on the page, getting through the plot and characters, never even getting to the point of philosophical debate because they’re struggling to understand just what happened in the novel.

So then if that’s the case, how does summer reading change? With my students who are not avid readers, who are even fearful readers, how can I give them reading to get them started on the class when they struggle to know what happened in the text? When reading itself is a battle all its own? When they struggle to appreciate the words on the page for the beauty I want them to see because they are still trying to understand the literal meaning of the sentence? This is a struggle foreign to me – I loved books, still do, and I loved school. I loved English class. I do not even remember learning to read. I just remember reading. All of my favorite teachers were and are English teachers. I would not have survived middle and high school without two of them in particular.

What do I do? Even a choice book list is daunting. For many students, they have not been reintroduced to books they might enjoy, that aren’t literary canon but instead teenage reality. Some don’t even know there are books written for their age group! When they get a “high interest books” list, many of my students shrug them off without even perusing the titles let alone the descriptions. Giving choice this way doesn’t necessarily encourage readers then either. So now what?

I’ve thought for a bit about the idea of starting summer reading early. Of giving book lists weeks before the end of school, giving book talks with the upcoming teachers, letting students search them on their own. Years ago, I went to a session at NCTE with two teachers from a Montessori school where teachers looped with the students. They each had them for two years and in the last month or two of their last year together, the new teacher came up and started with this new group of students with a month or so to go, got them started on what would come next year. It got me thinking of something like this for summer reading…

I imagine in the library, somehow, we bring down each class of students and have them listen to us talk about each book option, read a high-interest passage from each option, and then talk about it a bit more, perhaps offering anticipation guide-type questions to discuss the themes and ideas in the book. Maybe we even have previous students recorded, talking about how much they liked that book and why. Perhaps, after we go through all of the choices, we let students then walk around like we did back in elementary school, when the Scholastic book days came and the lecture hall was just row upon row of books waiting to be purchased and yearning to be read. Then, in the world in my head, the students get in groups and start reading with a teacher. Popcorn style, if the group chooses, or read-alouds from the teacher to start. Then we split out into comfy chairs or on the floor or in bean bags and just read for 30 minutes. What if we did this for a week? Two weeks? Really get the students started at the end of the year with a book they love and ask them to finish it over the summer? What if, from our modeling, that’s what we ask them to do when they come back? Give a book talk to a small group of peers in the class who read the other books and do what we did – summarize, read, and then talk about it.

It’s a rough idea. It’s a perfect representation of my idealism. It’s what I would love to do if I had all of the time, money, and support in the world. I also know it may not fix every reader by any means. Some say it takes 17 times for something to become a habit… who knows how true that is? None the less – after five days of it – maybe it could feel less stressful for our non-reader students. And then maybe, selfishly, I can start the year without, “I hate reading” tattooed across every forehead. Maybe.

 

It’s been awhile…

Let’s call the title here an understatement. A year and a half later – no update. Clearly, it doesn’t mean I’m not thinking. It doesn’t mean I’m not planning. But it does mean that I’m getting caught in the moment of teaching, of planning, and I’m forgetting to reflect in a larger way. A colleague made a comment to me this week about the way I think – that I take awhile to process how I understand an idea while he spends less time on that part and more in the product creation itself. It was a lovely observation, not the least bit unkind or critical. Just an observation. And as always, I found myself surprised by just how precise his observation was. I’m always a little shocked when people “get” me, if that makes sense. It’s not that I think I’m invisible, but I assume that people aren’t trying to understand me. That while I care a great deal about them as teachers and understanding how they do what they do so well, that they are not in turn doing the same about me. I start with the assumption that everyone else is better at this than me and therefore I have a ton to learn. I assume too that they are not also trying to improve and learn but that they have it all figured out. While I consciously know that we never stop learning and trying, I also seem to think in my behavior that there will be some end point here where I have learned all I need to know and am now set in my ways as a teacher, the best I can be, perfect, and immutable because I don’t need to be. When I type that, I know how ridiculous it is. I don’t really believe that, but I do behave that way in regard to others. I assume they have all of the answers and have figured “it” all out. In reality, those teachers I admire and spend so much time watching, learning from, and listening to are still figuring it all out. They are doing what I’m doing – trying to learn from others but also trying to learn from themselves.

This is the part I think I’m missing. I am still going outside to learn. Each year, when I plan the next unit or next activity, I’m often re-inventing the wheel. I’m making whole new assignments or activities, new directions, but when I actually go back and look at what I did last year, I see that it tends to be rather similar. Some of my ideas are new. Many of them don’t work or don’t feel quite right. But many that feel comfortable and well-suited to the class and the students are ones I did before. I am redoing over and over what I’ve already done. I need to go back to the work I’ve done and work to reflect on it and revise it versus remake it from scratch. I can learn a ton from other people, and based on my personality, that will never stop. However, I also need to learn from myself. It comes from a place of confidence or lack there of, that I don’t seem to believe I know what I’m doing or that I’m something worth learning from, but I know, when I write that, that that’s not true.

I put everything I have and do on Google Docs. It’s all organized. It’s all there waiting for me to look at it again and reflect, revise, and reflect again. I just have to not be afraid to look back it and see what’s really there, the good that’s really already there. It may actually serve me well in terms not only of time management but also of building some confidence in this work I’ve done for eight years now. I have to have done something right by now. I know that. I do. I just have to look at it.

Where to end up? (Goals for the 1st MP)

I am not one to plan my entire curriculum, lesson by lesson, before the beginning of the school year. Obviously, after teaching it once or a few times, that happens to some extent, but what comes from that once or a few times in terms of lessons, I’m not married to. I’m more than willing to change and adapt for the new class and new school year. However, this year I want to have a clear goal in mind at least for the end of the first marking period. I know where I want to end up for the year, as seen in my previous post, but that feels SO far away on Sept. 2nd. Also, if I’m honest, it’s pretty easy to get lost and circle back a few times along the way if I’m not careful (though sometimes getting lost and circling back in teaching is good and necessary for the kids). But I don’t want to do that because of lack of planning or lack of a goal. Instead, I want to make benchmarks, just like I do for my students, of where I want to be by the end of the first marking period. 

However, instead of making it a “how far I need to be in the curriculum or the readings” type goal, I want to make it skill specific (and then by proxy, content specific). So, regardless of the level, I would like my 11th grade students to know and understand the following by the end of the first marking period:

1. Students will understand the origin of the term “American Dream” and how it has changed over time, including what elements of the country and history and world impact that definition and our access to it, as citizens.

2. Students will have a firm understanding of theme, will be able to track it over the course of a novel, and begin to comment on its effectiveness and meaning beyond a text. 

3. Students will be able to identify basic structures of grammar and conventions (tenses, parts of speech, types of sentences) and apply that knowledge to preliminary understanding of commas and semi-colon. 

4. Students will be able to develop a complex thesis statement, outside of the “listing what they will talk about later” style, and choose appropriate sources as evidence to support their reasoning. 

What about you? Where do you want your students to be by the end of the first marking period?

Where to end up? Goals for the Year

This post couldn’t come at a more perfect time. I’m visiting a friend in Dallas right now, and last night we had a conversation late into the night (the way teachers do) about the idea of differentiation and goals. When we say differentiation, we know that we mean things like chunking assignments or allowing for more time or offering more supports so the struggling student can reach the same goal set for the non-struggling student. But, the question we spent a long time sorting through was, does that mean we’re changing our expectations for students based on their abilities or are we supposed to have the same goals for all students? Does that really do our students a service, having the same goals when they’re not the same? Or does not having the same goals inevitably mean we’re lowering our expectations? These were some tough questions for midnight on a Wednesday, and I’m still thinking about it.

Here’s where we came out – we have two sets of goals. First, we have goals for proficiency for the grade level, where we want ALL students to be by the end of the year and by the time they’re moving onto the next year (whatever level that may be). Second, we have goals by level. So for an honors class, I might then add to that grade level goal, in order to differentiate (and extend) for the honors students and push them further. Whereas for those students on-level, I might have the same grade level goals as I do for the course, and then adjust based on the specific students I have in the room versus as a whole, for the course. Does that make sense to anyone else? I feel like, in my head, I get that. But I’m still not sure if I’m “right” – can we even be “right” in education or is this one of those questions that comes down to philosophy? 

So, with what I thought about and decided last night, and continuing with the UBD-style planning for the upcoming school year, here are the goals I have for my students:

11th grade goals (comes from some extend from PA Core Standards though more focused based on my curriculum): 

By the end of 11th grade, students will…

– be able to identify, track, and analyze theme throughout a text

– connect (synthesize) texts to one another by theme 

– determine author’s purpose and identify supporting elements from the text that proves that

– be able to write a clear thesis that they revisit in each supporting paragraph in order to better prove their argument

– be able to write an effective introductory paragraph that employs various strategies (broad to narrow, historical background, anecdote, quotation) but avoids tropes like “since the dawn of man” and a rhetorical question

– be able to write an effective conclusion paragraph that does just repeat or summarize their previous points

– identify and eliminate passive voice to improve diction

– employ appropriate transition words between and within paragraphs

– determine meaning of tier three vocabulary words using root words, context clues, and connotation

– participate clearly and regularly in classroom discussions of texts and analysis

– communicate with classmates clearly 

 

By the end of 11th grade honors, students will…

– be able to do all of the above

– evaluate the effectiveness of an author’s purpose

– vary their diction and syntax to create voice in writing

– examine shades of meaning in diction and choose words based on their precise meaning for writing

– challenge other student’s thinking and play devil’s advocate in an argument to further their own purpose/thesis/claim

 

Obviously these are not hard and fast rules, but I feel based on our long conversation last night, the level of proficiency for my 11th grades is what’s listed first. Then, higher level differentiation starts in the second list. This will not only be used for honors students, as we all know sometimes we have higher level students in a non-honors class or higher than honors students in an honors class. So beyond this, I will use my best judgement. But I would love feedback on this. Is this where you see your 11th graders? Do you push further? How do you view differentiation versus proficiency? Are they at odds or on the same path? 

Backwards Planning – Understanding by Design

In our district, Understanding by Design (UDB) is old hat (in a good way). Everyone knows it and uses it. We’ve had Grant Wiggins come and speak, work with us a few times. and it’s the basis of how pretty much every curriculum planning starts in our district. None of this is to brag. But I assumed, based on this interaction, that everyone knows about UDB and Wiggins and McTighe, but recently, I’ve learned that’s not the case. 

Without outlining their entire work and replacing their text, because really how could I, I wanted to provide a brief overview here of how I start my planning process with UDB in August each year. If this seems useful to you, I HIGHLY suggest buying the book I linked above because it is easily the most important and useful thing I own when it comes to curriculum planning.

So the premise of UDB is backwards planning or “starting with the end in mind,” as the gentlemen say. For me, I look at the course I’m provided and try to think about what I want my students to know by the end of the year. As someone who teaches high school English, I’m a strong proponent of skill mastery usually being the end goal, and the level of mastery I desire and the specificity of what they master comes from their grade level, ability level, and what I know they need to enter the following year’s classroom (in my case, their senior year of high school). 

Once I have those end goals listed, I then start planning backwards. How will I know my students are there? What assessments will I provide to determine their level of proficiency? I then design and/or list assessment (projects, essays, presentations, etc) and create rubrics that outline my expectations. 

Again, backwards from here, I think about how will I prepare them for these assessments? What do I need to cover and how in order to get them ready to reach mastery on these skills/assessments? This is where I plan my activities and formative assessments. I try to match the parts of the rubric to formative assessments and check-points over the course of the unit and the year, so I can see how the students progress. Doing this, I can catch them before the major assessments if there are issues or misunderstandings. Depending on my time, I might also put engagement strategies in here and various formative assessment strategies, to keep things fresh and interesting in the classroom. 

Only after all of this do I add in the content. For me, the focus is on what I want my kids to learn HOW to do by the end of the year, not WHAT. The what is still important to me – I’m an English teacher, after all, and I love books, especially classics (though YA lit is a huge thing for me too!). Once I have the rest of the plan done, I match content to the assessments and activities, asking myself which content will best convey these ideas and skills to the students? As much as people may think English teachers just pick books they love (and in a different way, we do), we usually pick books we know are great at illustrating things like theme, syntax, imagery, etc. In picking those, that’s where what we like might come into play, but what comes first is what teaches the skill or idea best. 

Usually, within picking the content, I try to use a theme to connect the texts. I wrote an earlier post on trying to decide between units by theme or skill and concluded I prefer a balance of both. With this style of planning, you can get that. Once you have your skills covered, then you can pick your theme to unify your texts as well, giving students a grounding for discussion and connection (another set of skills!). 

Obviously, this is an EXTREMELY rough outline of UDB, so I highly suggest getting your hands on a copy of the book if you can (either edition). Let me know below – how do you plan? Have you used UDB? Do you use another style? What’s your process? 

10 Steps for Setting up my Classroom in the New School Year

As the time for planning creeps closer and closer (who am I kidding? It’s already here), I would rather procrastinate by thinking about what I could do differently in my classroom set-up and design. My first year, I spend hundreds of dollars at teacher supply stores and on fancy posters with graphics and Shakespeare images or cartoons of famous authors. However, I realized how infrequently I used those and how infrequently my students look at them. Moreover, it didn’t feel like me. Once I got myself a bit more settled into my classroom management and curriculum plans over the years, I felt like four years in (last year), I was ready to re-examine my room set-up. I overhauled my classroom and made it me. This year, I will tweak a few things but leave much of it the same. Below, I’ll share a list of what I have done or will do, in order to set up my room for the new year.

1. Floor and table lamps – no fluorescent lights! My students always notice at the start of the year that the room seems “dim” the first few days but they adapt quickly and all of the sudden fluorescent lights are horrifyingly bright in my room, on days when subs come in and the overhead lights go on. I suffer from debilitating and frequent (three days + a week) migraines, so light is a big no-no for me. Plus, I’ve heard fluorescent lights can be bad for young mind over long periods of time (although I don’t know if I believe that…). Regardless, I have table and floor lamps with warm lights to keep the room lit but calm. 

2. Sheer drapes in a blue-green color – thankfully I have a great view out of my window to the courtyard, but sometimes my students can be distracted. So not only do the drapes help just a tiny bit to keep their attention inside, but they further add to the home-y feel of the room with the lamps.

3. Book corner – this will be a new thing this year. I have quiet a few book shelves lining the back of my room which can make the back feel cluttered. I will be moving one or two of them to the front corner of the room, where there’s some space thanks to the removal of some unnecessary equipment. With this, there will be a bit of a book corner created by the book shelves. I thought about even adding an area rug there on the floor, but I’ve heard if it doesn’t cover the whole floor, it’s a magnet for dirt and dust. So I’m still mulling that part around. But there will definitely be a book corner.

4. Classroom library – I came from an inner city school that did not have a library in the high school. So myself and another English teacher spent our time collecting books for huge classroom libraries, so our students always had books to read and books that were high-interest. Over the years, since I’ve moved to schools with libraries of their own (my city school closed 😦 ), I have added many more book high-interest books and classics to the collection, as well as resource books for me and the students. This means fewer students leaving my classroom to go to the library for a book! They can skim the shelves, but they “leave it at home.” 

5. Printed and laminated quotation posters – Posters are EXPENSIVE! This was the biggest surprise when I first started decorating my classroom. I couldn’t believe it! And they never felt right for me. Last summer, I started printing out some of the internet memes and license free pieces from the internet, on high-quality settings on my home printer (in color), and then I bought a CHEAP mini-laminator to protect those. They are small posters – only 8 1/2 x 11 inches at most, but it means that I am saving a lot of money on posters I don’t much like and instead can have a lot of interesting and more purposeful posters on my wall. 

6. Printed and laminated Common Core posters – Our school recently made the move back from Standards-Based grading to traditional grading, but during SBG, we were required to post the learning targets we would hit every day on the board. Instead of rewriting them every day, I had a poster made on VistaPrint ($15) and laminated it at school, and then I bought red arrow magnets from Amazon, so I would just move the magnets every day to the new targets, depending on the lesson I was teaching. Even though we won’t have SBG this year, I’m sure we will still have to post the standards we’re covering in the day’s lesson and it helps the students know the purpose behind the lesson, so I will definitely keep these up and used all year long. I printed two posters, one in blue and one in green, for the two different grade levels, so I could distinguish between who was doing which targets each day. They came in handy, without question!

7. Accommodating ADHD students – I read about something on Pinterest regarding how to set up for your room for ADHD students. One of the things that really stuck with me was keeping the front of your room, where your students are facing, free from clutter or too many things to look at. So I will be trying to keep it simple at the front of the room, just with the targets and the homework. Any extraneous or distracting posters will be moved to the sides or the back, so students can look at them before class starts or after it ends, without being distracted during the day’s lesson. 

8. Student Info/Supply Station – At the entrance to my classroom, I have a bulletin board and the tops of some bookshelves. I have yet to put something worthwhile on those bulletin boards. This year, I’m going to use this as an info station for students, a place for me to put laminated copies of the school map, the laminated emergency evacuation route, a smaller white board for each of the homework notes, and a section for the announcements for the day or week, from the principal. On top of the bookshelves, I will have an area for student supplies like extra paper, pencils, markers, tape, a hole-puncher, rulers, tissues, hand sanitizer and moisturizer (a big thing with my high school boys now… who would have thought?), and my book sign-out binder. When students borrow a classroom library book and want to take it out of the room, this is where they go to sign it out and sign it back in. It’s also where I can go to check who has what, when I know I have something and cannot find my copy of it. I also check it at the end of each marking period and remind students to bring things back, if they’ve had them for awhile. The best part about this station is it means students have their own area to go for things that doesn’t keep them crowding around my desk!

9. Power Strips – With a one-to-one school and a nearly paperless classroom, my students use their computers also every single day in the classroom. That means most of the time, at least 5-10 of them need to charge their computers for one reason or another. The four accessible plugs I have just won’t cut it, so I have three different power strips around the room, one in the back and one on each side, so anyone who needs it can charge their computer without going very far or crowding around a single corner. It allows for less disruption and means kids can get to charging without requiring my assistance, figuring out which plugs work and which don’t. This way, they just plug-in and continue!

10. Pictures of them – I saw an Instagram wall on Pinterest that I loved, and I want to adapt this for my students! I have another bulletin board on the back wall that I want to find a better use for. I had some samples of student work on it, but I find those are only helpful during that assignment. Otherwrise, they just sit there. However, at least in the first part of the year, I think having pictures of the students in the room can really help to build a community. So I’m thinking of combining two activities I saw on Pinterest into one – having a student stand at the white board and their classmates write compliments ONLY around his/her head and then my taking a picture of that student and printing it out, to post on the back board like a classroom Instagram feed. Perhaps then I will add to it or change it as the year goes on, with other pictures of things they’re doing and activities they’ve done, since they’re such a visual generation and at the age where they like taking pictures of everything they’re doing, no matter how simple! 

Let me know below what things you will be keeping up in your room this year, what you will be changing out, and what you will be moving around! I’m definitely interested in hearing about any and all set-ups people have, especially for the high school level!

Blogging Plan (August & September)

As my EdTech 537 course comes to a close, the final assignment asks us to develop a blogging plan so we might continue this discourse beyond the boundaries of a graded assignment. Initially, I was skeptical about how I would ever be able to do such a thing during the school year, since we all know teachers become time-crunch robots come September 2nd (August 1st if we’re honest). However, as I started developing this blogging calendar, I began to see how beneficial this might be for me, selfishly. I’ve decided to blog two ways – one as a teacher on this blog, outlining my classroom practices and reflecting on what happens in my room (honestly but respectfully, of course). And then two, opening a blog for my department to post student writings, so we might use it as a means of building community in our district and our building, showing off student work beyond just our bulletin boards.

Below, you will find the blog plan for this blog in August and September. The overall focus is the realities of a high school English classroom, with August focused on planning the curriculum for struggling readers in 11th grade American Literature, and then September focused on reflection on those plans. I want to also post some of what I do in the classroom, the technologies I use, and the honest discussions of what worked and what didn’t from my original August plans. I think this becomes powerful for me because it will help me to organize my thoughts as a teacher and give me a place to positively reflect, instead of moving into that place many of us find ourselves come February and March, down-trodden and looking for any exit possible. If I can use this blog as a floatation device for self-reflection and self-improvement, I might just be able to keep my head a little higher above water when the months get long, the days get long, and the sun seems determined to sleep for even longer. I hope you’ll join me!

August_plan September_plan

 

Unifying theme versus skill? (Choice post)

August is right around the corner… literally. And we all know what that means!

Month of August

 

With only five years under my belt, I still do the Sunday plan. I get the sense that some seasoned teachers do this by choice but that most are pretty much planned from memory after a certain point. I’m nowhere near there yet, so Sunday is always my planning day (and thus my dread) and therefore August is my planning Monday. With the first of the month around the corner, it means that my PD books are in piles in the living room and my brain is swirling around all of the files I want to rewrite and reorganize in my Google Drive for the year’s curriculum. Reading Twitter as part of my prep and thinking, I came across this article from Edutopia and it got me thinking – do I focus around theme or skill for each unit?

I believe there are drawbacks to both, and in some ways, the drawbacks can be the same. With theme, by focusing on one theme but a variety of skills throughout, I find myself often get burned out by a given topic of conversation. For example, our curriculum has us discussing the “American Dream” as the first unit. By the end of it, the students don’t even want to hear the phrase any more. They are so sick of hearing about, talking about, and reading about the American Dream. But they do have a strong and thorough understanding of its strengths and weaknesses.

On the other hand, by focusing around a single skill, the unit can feel disorganized and disjointed without a topic to keep it flowing. Yes, we can build toward mastery of a certain type of variety and practice it with a range of texts, but there’s something in me that misses the connections we can make in conversations by not having some sort of unifying theme between the texts while building toward mastery in a given skill.

This brings me to my final point. I believe what I hope to try this year is combing the two – focusing on a skill and a theme, and in places where I would normally overdo it with theme, I will focus more on skill practice and tweaking. Then, my students may not get so burned out by the topic and will still polish those necessary and vital skills of the content area. Also, I’m thinking that by making my themes broad enough, it will allow for large scale discussion and not over saturation on the topic. Instead of talking about the “American Dream,” we could look at “freedoms” for example – really broaden it. Our original theme would encompass that and wouldn’t require a rewrite of any curriculum, but if I move the magnifying lens out a bit further we can solve the problem without much stress.

In closing, how do you handle curriculum development for your courses? Some content areas decide this for you, but others may not. Do you organize around a theme or topic? Or do you organize around a skill? Which do you prefer? What strengths or weaknesses do you see in one choice or the other? And how do you compensate for any weaknesses you perceive? 

Your Relationship with Reading (Poll post)

Dear Reader. I married him. Ha kidding – English teacher joke (Jane Eyre). Anyway – dear readers, I would like to ask you a favor. I will be teaching some less than enthusiastic readers this year, and I was hoping to give them a picture of what adult readers look like. Most of my students think that teachers were born good readers, always like to read, were always good at reading, and read high level literature for fun all day long. Meanwhile, they think, normal people don’t. So I’m hoping to utilize this week’s post and poll to test out my hypothesis (that that’s just not the case). If you could take a moment and just answer a couple of questions below about your reading habits, your earlier reading experiences, and your current reading habits, that would be great. I will be sharing this information, anonymously, with my students as evidence (hopefully) that reading isn’t just for English teachers and that their preference for it might change over time.

Thanks for your time!