I want to say that Spring had finally sprung here in gorgeous Middle Tennessee, but that’s a hard call to make. Tennessee weather is notoriously fickle – a beautiful breezy 70 degree day could easily give way to a bitterly cold 38 degree day. It’s confusing – no one knows how to dress, spring cleaners are stumped.
But for me, I know the signs of Spring. Like Lorelai smelling snow, I know when my Spring Spidey-sense is tingling: I’m chock full of ideas for next year! Now, I know for many of us we still have whole weeks of instruction left, which, TBH, yay! My students are busy little bees using modern pieces of pop culture to answer our essential question: In what ways does pop culture both create and reflect social values. (The conversations have been extremely interesting from a deep dive into the social criticism of Jordan Peele’s Get Out or how the two men of Black Panther might represent the ideologies of Malcolm X and MLK.) We’re still working -and writing – thoughtfully and intentionally in the kinds of ways that we can only really do at the end of the year.
Yet, I’m ready to start assessing what I did this year and how I can make next year even better. This week, I’d like to focus on what went well, before focusing on what still has room for improvement in my next post. Acknowledging strengths first before finding room for improvement is a pretty key part to a workshop mentality, so I’ll stick with that format here.
What have I tried this year #1: Conferences!
And they were a huge hit leading to building strong student-teacher relationships and better writing more quickly. In November, students were writing in ways that they typically don’t until March. Short, ten minute student focused conferences work! I’ll never go back. I teach AP Lang, so a lot of our conferencing focused around the kinds of writing students do on the AP test (not all, but a fair amount). We alternated between conferencing about a piece – ten minutes of focused feedback – and then receiving just a score on a piece with no feedback from me. Well, really a symbol that represented a score. Delayed feedback is a powerful tool. These scored pieces were then used in station rotations where we looked at mentor texts, worked in small groups for writing conferences and revised. The growth and buy-in were tremendous.
How will I improve this for next year: Writing partners!
I have a pretty heavy course load – 105ish AP students – and that’s a lot of time outside of my teaching day for conferences. Next year, I want to create writing partners and build in writing partner/in class individual/small group conferencing time. I could easily give up some of our bell work to devote to building solid partnerships and shifting some of that conference scheduling burden into the school day.
What have I tried this year #2: Choice reading for units!
Last year after scoring about a million essays at the AP Reading, one of my thinking partners and I realized how often students try to shoehorn in the literature they read in class into an argument essay. Ultimately, a lot of these essays were unsuccessful. So we began brainstorming how to fix this problem. You can read about that here and here. We have seen a dramatic increase in students’ synthesis and critical thinking skills as well as engagement with the course material. After all, right now they’re ‘reading’ a piece of pop culture and pairing it with a non-fiction title in order to discuss social values, norms, traditions. For example, my student who is viewing Get Out is pairing it with The New Jim Crow. Who wouldn’t want to watch a Marvel movie and call it homework over Spring Break?? We’re engaging in such deep, student driven reading and thinking, reaching the kinds of depths I only dreamt of when studying Gatsby. I won’t be going back to whole class novels for a while. This is an experiment that has definitely borne fruit.
How will I improve this for next year: Reading conferences/more time reading!
That sentence gave me such a rush of joy! Most of our reading is done outside of class, but next year, I’m making a concentrated effort to bring some of that reading into our class time as well. Again, I could move some of the bell work around and find time to read in class. I could also find more time to create buy-in after choosing texts for our units. This year, we followed the same format every time we chose new books: we broke down the essential question, brainstormed possible universal noun/extending questions, went to the library and chose our books, then began to read them outside of class. Next year, I plan on stealing some organizational ideas from a local elementary ed teacher. She has her students glue green, yellow, and red pieces of paper into their notebooks and as they work individually, they just flip their notebook paper to the appropriate color: green – I’ve got it; yellow – I might need some help; red – HELP! This process lets her know how to spend her time. I think when we go to the library next year we might try something similar – either grouping by preparedness level for choosing books or using pages in their notebooks to signal how comfortable they are in choosing a book. I found myself just running around after kids, asking about their selections, and I know some just slipped through the cracks. This approach would allow the librarians (who are amazing!) and myself to prioritize those students who need more guidance and get out of the way of the students who don’t. Additionally, we also spent about 30 minutes in the library choosing books. I think I will extend that time next year to include reading time after we’ve chosen our new books – time to make sure this is the book for me and time to ‘fall into’ a new text.
Finally, I want to make class time available to talk to students about what they are reading. I know reading conferences can be as valuable as writing conferences, but I’m much less sure about how to proceed on that front. Good thing I have a summer and excellent colleagues to get my ducks in a row.
What have I tried this year #3: Authentic writing!
For our final piece of writing in our education unit (answer the question: to what extent do schools serve the purpose of a true education?), we noticed that a lot of our conversations centered around problems within systems of educations. This observation led us to ask students to create a problem solution piece in a genre of their choosing to an audience of their choosing – ideally someone who could take actionable steps to fixing the solutions. The results were astonishing. Students were INVESTED, researching, conferencing with each other, agonizing over word choice. I vividly remember one student exclaiming: “If I’m sending this to my history teacher then it has to be just right – I can’t just complain. I have to make HIM care about it too.” From a kid who’s struggled to see how audience can affect a piece of writing all year, the concept crystallized when the audience became a real person.
How will I improve this for next year: More authentic writing!
This one is a little tough – the problem solution piece just worked naturally with our essential question and highlighted several skills students would need on the AP test. Finding more ways to write authentically for a real audience is an idea very much in its early stages, but there’s no doubting that a real world audience coupled with passionate student writing led to some of the best work of the year.
What about you?
I don’t know where you are in your year – are you just trying to make it through until the end of May? Are you already knee-deep in ideas for next year? Regardless, I would encourage you to list and celebrate your accomplishments from this year. It’s good and healthy to remind ourselves of where we have succeeded and how far we’ve come in just a year’s time. Happy Teaching!
Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Film as Lit in Middle Tennessee. Currently, she’s still reeling from that final scene in the the new episode of Game of Thrones: BRAN! And! JAIME! The last time they were together was the end of the first episode of the whole season, and here they are, together again, with so much between them. I can’t WAIT until next week!