Friday, May 7, 2010

How do you know?

It's the last six weeks of school. The runaway train is slowing down, and I'm slowing down even faster. I'm ready to step back from the hectic pace of the year and begin spending more time reflecting and planning, less time grading and prepping. But first I have to get through these six weeks.

All is not lost, however: I have a blog. And here, I can think about all of those things which I cannot yet indulge in too fully. I hope this is the beginning of my re-emergence as a blogger, and as a writer.

Here's what's on my mind today: As a part of the professional development required in my second year as a teacher at Urban, I've been asked to ask my students how they know how they're doing in my class. The answer to this question at almost any other school would be simple: this is your grade. But at Urban it's more complex. We can't just show a grade; in fact, we almost never tell students what their grades are (sorry about the PDF!). We write long narratives, with equally long rubrics. But no grades.

What does that mean for a subject like English, then? In practice, it often means that students are unsure of how they're doing. Even with detailed narratives, one-on-one meetings, and my frequent availability, they still feel like they don't have a sense of where their strengths and weaknesses are. The lack of clarity is more frustrating for freshmen and sophomores, who are still learning to see themselves. I find that my juniors and seniors seem to have a fairly strong idea of themselves as English students, especially themselves as writers. By that point in their Urban careers, they've written enough self-evaluations to begin to see themselves more clearly and honestly.

But I don't just teach juniors and seniors. I spend just as much time with freshmen and sophomores. What I found from an informal survey I took of students is that they do have a sense of what it means to succeed in English: they say that English is about analytical self-expression, in class discussion and in writing. And that's generally true. They say that they see how they're doing by reading comments on their papers, by the way I react to their comments in class, and by seeing how their peers react to what they say. They wish I could write even more on their papers and that they could see a timeline of progress toward the elusive goal of English perfection. I want that goal to seem less elusive.

I'm not going to write more on their papers; I write too much as is. So much of the challenge of teaching, and teaching well, is achieving balance between work and life. Yes, teaching is an all-consuming profession. But I don't want to be consumed by it. Pursuing a full life gives me more space in my teaching, gives me more reserves to draw on, and gives me more air to breathe.

But I wonder about how to get my students to chart their own progress, so they can better see their growth over time. Some initial thoughts:
  • Students create their own set of goals at the beginning of the term (I already have them do this, but less formally). As they achieve each goal, they can check it off and add a new goal.
  • I could read papers and make marginal notes and fill out a rubric for them (already a standard practice: students self-evaluate on the rubric first). But instead of an end note, I could take 5 minutes to talk with each student about the goals of the paper, what it has done well, and what needs work. Then students write in their own words what they are proud of and what they'd like to work on. The obvious constraint here is time. And this idea doesn't get at getting students to see/evaluate their participation in class.
Obviously, neither of the above ideas is perfect. But what they all have in common is a focus on getting the students to see themselves as essential parts of their own learning process. That's the goal. I want them to think of English as something they can do: I want them to show themselves to be insightful readers and speakers, and writers who write authentically, from the heart. They are all capable of achieving this ideal, but I don't think they all see the way to get there.

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