Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Learning and H1N1: Students Skyping into Class

I think make-up work is the bane of every teacher’s existence. No one I know likes the idea of kids missing class, and then having to relay information not just once, or twice, but multiple times to kids who are missing from class. Lately, with our good friend H1N1 making his presence known in our schools, make-up work and sick kids are on the rise. It seems that everyday for the past week or so when I have started class with my cheery “Hello everybody” the number of students replying “Hello Smith” is dwindling. And that makes me sad.

In order to combat this loss of personality in my classroom, and more importantly to keep my students abreast of what we are discussing, I showed the kids Skype the other day. We talked about how I used Skype extensively last year with my grad school classes at Pepperdine, and how they too can stay in contact with the class even though they are at home in bed sick. I had a few students take me up on the offer to Skype into class yesterday and today. The students have different computers at home with two capable of using a webcam and microphone and the other just being able to listen and text/chat back to class. What was really impressive was that the students’ willingness to be connected back into our class when they are at home feeling crummy. They want to participate, they want to stay in touch, they want to continue to learn and aren’t letting the flu get in their way. Watching my other students react to the webcam in our classroom and then being able to watch the girls and boy connect into class, many of the students thought about what an amazing use of technology they were witnessing. We were truly extending the walls of the classroom to homes in Littleton doing our own part, along with the number of hand sanitizing dispensers we have installed here at AHS, to put H1N1 out of our minds and keep on exploring the wonderful world of Macbeth.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

32 boys and me: Tales from the all boys' class

This year, I added a new prep- Single Gender All Boys English Nine- yep, 32 boys plus Anne Smith in a first hour Language Arts class. This class has been one of the most interesting I have taught because it often requires me to rethink my lesson plans at the last minute in order to keep the boys motivated and encouraged.

The class follows the idea that each gender learns better when separated and taught by a teacher of the opposite sex. I have watched this class from afar over the past years and learned a considerable amount just within these first few weeks. I don’t know if I could have prepared myself more for this class other than growing up with three brothers of my own, but this class has been and continues to be a mental challenge.

I knew I would really need to change the focus of this class in-order to meet all the boys’ learning needs. Many in this class are struggling writers and readers thus probably the reason that they are in this class. Some weren’t even aware that they were in this class- they had not selected to be in a single gender class. Obviously, we are overcoming a number varied backgrounds, impressions, and approaches to this class.

To start the year, I wanted to continue work I had done last year with my freshman- removing the possibility of the D. This went over very well with the boys. Many admitted that they didn’t want to settle for poor quality work and should be held to a higher standard. Others liked the challenge that lay before them asking them to do more than they had in previous classes. The premise behind the No D policy is that the students can’t earn a D. Students will receive an F and be asked to redo any work that doesn’t meet the expectations of the A, B, and C quality work that they defined- yes, THEY DEFINED. They created the expectations and so they are aware of what it takes to achieve their desired grade. Along with this, the students have multiple opportunities to redo their work up until the 6 week grading period. Last year, this whole approach was met with rave reviews. My students worked so hard and improved significantly in their reading and writing eventually coming to the realization that it is better to do their best work the first time assigned than to do “crap” work and be asked to redo it.

Enter the problem: so far this year, my grades are really low- really, really low. Now I should say that these grades are not mine, they are the students, and they have earned them. Right now the kids are sitting with some of the lowest grades I have ever seen- they would put Bart Simpson to shame. I am wondering what is going on? Why aren’t they doing their PLNs? Why aren’t they redoing the work that has been returned to them for improved grades? Why does it seem that I care more than they do about their work? Why aren’t they coming in? What is going to happen to this class if this keeps up? Is this the same way these policies affected the class last year, but I just don’t remember?

The kids are turning in some work, (many turned in very impressive "What Matters" blogs- check these out) but not all of their work. Is this because they have up till the six week period to get the work in? I know I confronted this same obstacle last year, but the kids soon learned that there is a lot of make-up work to do if they wait till the end? Is there something to the fact that this class is first hour? Am I not doing my job here? Am I overwhelming instead of inspiring?

Last week, I had the kids do a reflection piece on how everything is going for them considering they have been in my class for three weeks? Surprisingly, a number of the kids weren’t concerned about their grades, but much more concerned with learning how to do the PLNs correctly. This is fabulous insight for me- I need to take some time to slow down, re-plan and give them the time they need to learn how to do the assignment in a professional manner. I always get trapped in this idea of plowing through material rather than doing it correctly- hmm, same problem my students are facing! What an epiphany. Why don’t I give them the time? If this is what the boys need to get back on track and be successful, I need to meet those needs, not the needs of the grade. With the increasing demands on our test scores that our school is placing on those of us who teach ninth grade English, I guess I am worried about preparing my students and not just for the test, but for life. I want them to improve reading and writing, find a personal connection with literature, make a difference, change the world, but I need to remember that it all begins with baby steps. Go slow to go fast…

Over the next couple of weeks, each of my ninth graders will be coming in for a writing conference with me. I am going to use this one to one time to talk with them about their work they have submitted thus far, to go over their CSAP scores letting them know I know where they are at and in what ways can they improve, review their writing sample they submitted on digital footprints, and finally, talk about some of the work they have already submitted. Hopefully this combination of one to one meetings, slowing down the pace of the class, and refocusing the purpose to “what matters” will lead us all in better directions.

Ahh, reflection- I guess Karl Fisch is right; it does put everything into perspective.