"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Monday, August 20, 2012

Annual reflection and setting new goals

I have never done this in public, but I think it's worth doing if only to publicly commit myself to some goals and raise my own level of accountability.  Now, as we approach the dawn of a new school year, it's time to lay out specific plans for improvement in my courses and my classroom.

Management Issues

Lateness - With only a 40-minute period, too much time is being lost to lateness.  Moreover, the problem got so bad late in the year with one course that it was hard to determine, even ten minutes after the bell, whether I had enough students to proceed with my plan or to shift course.  I would shift, and then the stragglers would show up.

One problem is that detention does not work.  It palpably does not work, because at the end of the year we still had dozens of students assigned to detention every day.  This is as effective as locking up drug addicts has been in fighting addiction in our country.  Yet we persist (in both cases).

I've spent some time this week reading everything I can find on the subject and it is all the same and it is all unhelpful, because the advice addresses individual aberrant cases of lateness, and a lot of attention is given to tracking and record-keeping.  I am fundamentally opposed to punishing myself for a student's misbehavior.  (That is one reason I don't have my own detention.  Another is that I am too involved in co-curricular activities to be able to drop what I'm doing and see a student after school.)

Phone calls home are school policy and I will, of course, comply.  But I don't believe in them, partly because we have so few reliable ways to communicate with our parents in a timely manner (will have to work on THAT this year) and because I teach seniors.  Parental disapproval and sanctions may be effective, but they are a poor preparation for the phase of life my students are about to begin.  They need to have their own discipline and their own habits in place, unless their parents are going to run their whole lives for them.

Clearly I need to move beyond sanctions.  Many of my colleagues (including many who should know) believe the lateness thing is cultural.  (Incidentally, that should not be viewed as racist.  Many European Mediterranean cultures do not value punctuality, and they are not generally oppressed minorities in this country.)  However, I need not investigate root causes or do some deep character education.  What I need to do is establish that whatever culture my students come from, when they enter my room, they enter MY CULTURE with my expectations.

So I need to be disciplined myself, start the class within a minute of the second bell, disregard who's there and not there, ignore late students when they enter (which I do anyway) and deal with lateness reporting issues later.  I will establish that I will mark absences at the top of the class and that unless they sign the latebook, it will go down as a cut, with the attendant consequences, which are out of my hands.  Hopefully, once it is clear that the class begins when it begins, the issue will diminish.  I only wish that I could flip my classroom so that the entrance was in the back of the room, but that is not practical for a number of reasons.  In any event, I will stop trying to use punishment and shame, and try and establish a social and cultural norm and set of expectations, at least within my own four walls.  Consistency.

This also supports a specifically educational imperative I want to press this year:  that, as we learn to write, we are writing in a specific and separate dialect called Standard Written English.  (Not Standard White English.)  SWE is not the way we speak every day.  It may not even coincide with formal speech.  It is a special, particular language which my students will be expected to use in college composition, and in most written communications other than to friends and family.  It is not a denigration of natural speech, but a commonly accepted and preferred alternate to it, and using it does not signal racism, but simply the employment of a Lingua Franca.

So in both punctuality and form of written expression, we have different expectations in the classroom than you have with family and friends.  Not superior, just different.

Phones - There is little or no support on the ground for a no-phones policy in class, although that is the stated written policy of the district.  Confiscation is not practical and could lead to liability problems, especially without support up the line.  Again, I must establish a cultural expectation, which I will reinforce with by distributing a copy of the page in the district handbook banning phones and having each student sign and acknowledge that.  I know that is no solution to anything, and is frequently an empty gesture, but perhaps it will be a signal that I intend to be consistent with that.  I must not let myself slip and lose heart about reminding students to get the phones out of my sight.  On the other hand, there will be times (I hope) when I will invite the students to use their smart phones in class, as a reminder that it is not that I am a Luddite, but that there is a time and place for everything, and that it is important to be present in the place where one is physically present, and to leave the cyberworld from time to time to be here now.  You know, all zen and stuff.

The Teaching of Literature  - I read an interesting piece this summer about the ascendancy of teaching literature over rhetoric in our high schools, which puts them out of joint with our colleges.  The fact is, I have never formally studied rhetoric, but as a former lawyer, I am familiar with and equipped to teach its application.  And as a reader, I am far more interested in journalism and other forms of non-fiction than I am in literature.

This comports with a district and building initiative to intensify the reading and analysis of short non-fiction on a regular basis.

So a couple of interlocking decisions.  I am not going to attempt to "teach" novels.  I will frame them and contextualize them at the outset.  Students will read them independently, using a schedule I provide as a rough guide.  I am still debating assessment of reading, whether to journal, quiz or other technique. From time to time, students will rotate in leading discussion, a process I will teach, building on what they learned junior year.  There will be the assessment of rote reading in a one-period timed test and a more important assessment in the form of a project which requires synthesis, as I have done historically since I began teaching.  The larger point is that our book of the moment should only occupy one or two days per week.  This leaves two days for writing and two days for everything else.

The Teaching of Writing AND Reading Non-Fiction  - This provides an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.  As mentioned, there is an initiative to stress non-fiction reading.  The plan as it stands right now, is to assign new non-fiction reading each Monday.  (Note to self -- because photocopying must be submitted in advance, must have non-fiction selected before leaving building on Thursday night.)  This can be in class, silently or aloud, partially in class and partially independently, etc. etc., depending on the specific task to be performed in connection with the reading -- analysis, rebuttal, extrapolation.  Then writing based on the writing can be assigned every other week, to be submitted electronically by Thursday.  I must then faithfully review and assess all writing over the weekend and return e-mail it before Monday.  On alternate weeks, students will be re-writing per my comments, to be submitted the following Thursday.  That is, one week write, next week rewrite.  After one semester, and with the use of projections and lecture-demonstrations, students will understand the edit and rewrite process well enough to do peer review, and start to incorporate those ideas about better style into their own drafting.

I have to brace myself to work harder this year and get better at seeing around corners.  At least this year, I've read most of my literature once already.  And the longform work must be interlaced with more short work.

Assessments - More of them, more at higher levels, more rapid marking and return of them.  Last year, my students rarely had the opportunity to benefit from comments.  That must change.

Advanced Placement -  I have ideas about re-formulating the Advanced Placement, starting with administering practice tests within the first week and regularly thereafter.  Earlier classes seem to have been completely sandbagged by the test, and there is no reason for that.  As high level as the class is, at some level it is all about the test at the end.  I am determined to have some 4s and 5s this year.  I will have more to say about this after next week, when I complete my mini-course on teaching AP.

Social Justice in Film  - Very charged up about this new elective.  I have always had trouble designing assessments for electives.  I am thinking of two principal modes at the moment -- having students blog about each film and having a rotating assignment of introducing and giving context to each film.  I will give the student a list of terms, names, etc. which are connected to the film and ask them to prepare 10 minutes for the class.  (Naturally, I will be prepared to back this up.)

Work Deadlines - This year I really want to walk the talk.  Keep deadlines myself and hold students to them.  I must start at the beginning of the year and not accept late homework at all, other than for excused absences.  I understand that students are allowed to re-take tests, but if they never hand in a paper assigned in lieu of a test, can they "re-do" that?  I am inclined to given them the 55 for a missing assessment and then assign something else, rather than give the impression that deadlines mean nothing, and that any work can be handed in at any time before the last day of the marking period.  That was just making me miserable.

I am hereby putting my DC and my principal on notice that my September gradebook may look very scary, but I am confident the situation will correct itself if I remain firm.

Use of the School Website  - As soon as possible, I am getting all my classes to the computer lab, show them my page, show them where their work is posted, give them the Twitter feeds and the Facebook page they can like in order to receive information about all the homework assignments.  It must be clear that if they are absent, excused or not, they are responsible not only for doing the work but for finding out what it is.  I must consistently refuse to answer questions about what the past work was except to direct them to the website.  They must learn that this is how most college courses operate.  The professor will not chase you and scarcely will talk to you about past assignments.  They must assume responsibility.

Apps - Speaking of the school website, I have it on reasonably good authority that a bright high-school level hacker/code monkey could write an app that makes our school website legible on a smart phone.  I would love to offer a prize for a student to do that for all the obvious reasons.  I also want to research free or cheap apps that help students manage their assignment calendars, not to mention college and scholarship application deadlines, which leads me to...

The War Room - I hope that Coach T and I can hold to Mr. Gregory to his agreement to commit Room 401 to be a War Room for college applications and scholarship applications.  Too much was compromised last year due to students not managing timelines.  We need to support that, to counsel students on their choices and to celebrate ALL THE ACCEPTANCES.  Last year, some got noticed and some didn't.  That's not right.  They are all a big deal, and we have to make them that way.  Which reminds of something else that needs to be different this year...

College Presentations during English instruction time  I need better advance notice of this, and they must be limited.  There have to be other times and places found to meet with seniors other than decimating a graduation requirement course.  Also, I'm putting my foot down on this specifically -- NO CLASS TIME AFFORDED TO FOR-PROFIT SCHOOLS.  We don't know what those schools are doing, what kind of financial problems they could create for our students, and they are off-mission for us.  Yes, some post-high-school education is the goal for all Newark Public School students, but AHHS is specifically a college prep school, and our message should be consistent.  Again, there must be other means, other times for the for-profit schools to reach our kids.

Well, that's all I can think of now.  There are a lot of details that are still fuzzy to me, such as the sequencing of my literature units (chronological order did not work), but this reflection was more about architecture than engineering.  Time for the latter later.

Now I've published this and you can all throw it in my weary and bedraggled face in June!

1 comment:

  1. Damn, you're ready to go! I hope you're able to keep your resolutions and your students "get it." And your administration...