Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Looking Back to Go Forward

Sure, its was the first day of school, but I don't need to speak too much about that. Josh Stumpenhorst explained my vision of the first day in an excellent post entitled, "I Blew It". On the first day, I mostly talk with the kids, find out about them, have them visit with friends, and start building community. Forget schedules, rules, stress, etc.

Instead, I wanted to write a bit about how last year informed my vision for this year. Teaching, as much as any profession, calls for reflection, innovation, and creativity. One of the many ways I reflect is by writing this blog. It is invaluable in that sense. Another important way of reflecting is (insert crazy idea here) by asking the students for their thoughts. I have my students fill out an evaluation form of me at the end of the year. Many responses are open-ended and I allow for anonymity by creating a google form (this also helps gather data for quick reference). Students are blunt, honest, and really helpful in their honesty. Some are funny-- apparently I elongate my "s" and tell bad jokes. Others are heart-warming--"This was the best year ever" or "I wouldn't change anything". Still others reveal areas for improvement. By looking closely at them I noticed areas where I succeeding, while also noting places for improvement. Here are some student comments and my reflection for those areas.

Pluses: Projects(PBL) and creativity
"i enjoyed the freedom and the way he teaches, we didn't feel like we had to think about grades so we were more creative on projects and got better grades. Also he was the first teacher to really teacher trust us and tell us that no matter what grade you got or if you got an award or not you still tried and thats all that matters."

"I loved how you gave us freedom when we did projects.  Even though I didn't use class time wisely sometimes, I was able to get to work really hard without someone telling me what to do, which is a huge accomplishment-- because I get really distracted easily."

"I enjoyed all of the interesting and creative projects that we did. Working with friends and being able to show our creativity was a great way for us to learn."

"I enjoyed all the internet projects and the freedom you gave us. I also enjoyed how you didn't stress grades and wanted more learning."

"The creativity and that we were able to help each other on things."

Pluses: Innovation Day

It was really neat for me have evidence that students started to think of themselves as learners who worked together to develop ideas and passions. Undoubtedly, this was great news for me to hear. Although some students commented that it shouldn't always be group, most enjoyed this style of learning. For students that enjoy more individual work I will try to give them more opportunities for that. The more I develop my projects, even better learning will ensue. 

Negatives: My grading policies

"Grade your students and and not tell kids grades arent important to you or else people will not try as much"  same student

"how you didn't care that much for grades. Didn't help as a teacher!"

As many of you know, I am not a big fan of grades in general, but specifically I am not a fan of how we currently determine grades in most schools. My answer to this was to give student's a lot of freedom to grade their own work, while downplaying their importance. I appreciated this honesty because I realized I needed a new system. One that allowed for autonomy (I think this helped with them valuing learning), yet offered more of a structure. I read about the 3P system and will be trying it this year.

Negative: Lax on "Discipline"
"It might be helpful to not be as laid back in the future"

"I get annoyed that the second person always gets caught. It is really unfair to everybody"

"Noticing the 'drama' in the class would help prevent a lot of the issue we had."

Once again I don't think I was clear enough to my students about why I was "lax". I do not believe in the punitive aspect of regular classroom management. But as my students told me this, I realized I needed to express my philosophy better and make it tangible. Over the summer,  I read Discipline that Restores and have developed a non-punitive system that allows for restorative justice and peacemaking.

In summary,  without this ability to reflect and ask my students about their feelings, I might not have had the insight to make the changes and improvements I did. Now they all might not work, but the only way to get better is to try, to reflect, and repair understanding. This is real learning anyway. A final observation is how this all relates to assessment. The best insight somebody can get is authentic feedback. Student comments and reaction helped me change practices. If they would have given me a general letter grade, I wouldn't have had the specificity needed to make progress. But yet, we continue to assess students meaninglessly with letter grades in the name of high standards? 

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