Thursday, September 23, 2010

Blogging Inquiry: Further Refinements to the Question

The last time that I wrote about the inquiry process, I decided that I'd come to a good point in my question-asking. I thought that I wanted to focus on balancing play with analytical writing:
How do I balance teaching (analytical) writing skills with the habit of playing with the text?
Now that we're a few weeks further into the school year, I find myself looking at that question and wondering what on earth I meant. I mean, I know what I meant: I want to make analytical writing accessible, and I want to help my students learn to cultivate a playful attitude toward analysis. I don't want reading and talking about the text to become a chore, something miserable, something that sucks the life out of books. But, given the students I have, is avoiding joylessness really the right focus? Or does the question need a bit more refinement?

I have a few weak writers this term. It's hardly surprising: I certainly don't expect perfection (not at any stage, really), but least of all do I expect perfection from freshmen. Even so, some students struggle considerably with putting their ideas together in a way that is coherent and thoughtful. So, the question really is: how do I reach those students? How do I coach them into improving their weaknesses as writers, without making them think I'm judging them as people? How do I make writing something that all students feel they are both able to do and able to improve at? I have some thoughts, but I guess that's what this term is about—finding out ways to shift my practice that will help these students.

Of course, making changes is all well and good, but I also need to spend some time proving that those changes have worked. How will I know that a shift in my practice has made a tangible difference to this group of learners? Can I just ask a student to report back to me about what works for him, or is this supposed to be more subtle? Am I supposed to sneakily notice what's different, even as I make deliberate changes and efforts with one particular student? The standard ways of assessing student achievement in English classes include essays and participation in class discussion. There are some informal assessments, too. But how will I know that one student has made more progress in his/her writing than another student who initially struggled equally in the class? What happens if I decide to broaden some of my changes to the whole class? How will I know then? Sometimes the best teaching I do feels accidental, some sort of alchemical procedure that just happens to work. Sometimes I know why it worked. I do spend a lot of time planning. But sometimes I'm not sure. Maybe that's a challenge to me as a teacher: I need to begin to be better at identifying not just what works, but why it works.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Refining Inquiry Questions

I'm thinking more about the question I'm going to work on this term as part of the inquiry project. Here are the two questions I started with last week:

1.How can I design assessments that are enjoyable for students and help me see where they’re meeting/not meeting standards?

2. How can I grade papers in a way that students can clearly understand what they need to do to improve? And how can that grading be done most efficiently?

I'm holding off on the third question I posted last week, mostly because so far this year, I haven't been encountering the same resistance. I'm sure it will be something I look into eventually.

I'm thinking that I'll combine questions 1 and 2 into a third, slightly different question: How do I balance teaching (analytical) writing skills with the habit of playing with the text? I'm focusing on freshmen, since I have two sections of them this term. The question is particularly important for freshmen, since they do need explicit writing instruction. Yet part of doing English is also learning how to enjoy the text, not just explicate it.

Part of the inquiry process is also identifying what kind of equity issue my question addresses. English classes tend to privilege the verbal, the folks who like to talk and write. They aren't such friendly places for people who like to think quietly or who want to go out and play soccer. So, how do I assess and reach those people? How do I get them to write compelling analytical essays, even if they'd rather be outside running around? It is an equity issue insofar as there are privileged groups and less-privileged groups in my class. I'd like to make the playing field more even.

I'm still working out how this question will manifest itself in my classroom. Will I try to design different prompts? Will I work with a couple of students who are really struggling, and try to offer them other ways to dig into the texts? And how do I sell analytical writing as fun? Stay tuned...

Friday, September 3, 2010

Beginning the School Year

It's the last day of the first week of school. I have a (somewhat tenuous) grasp of my students' names. We've established the ground rules and expectations, mostly. My students are all working on their first writing assignments of the year. It's not so different from any other year, really. Except the obvious. And yet: it's my third year at the same school. I feel like I actually know whom to ask for the things I need. I know where all my classrooms are, and I know the fastest way to get to them from where my new office is. I have a sense of the energetic rhythm of the year. I know what that the class I meet on the first day of class isn't the same as class I'll finish the term with. And I know that I will have more papers than I can handle at some times. All that it pretty reassuring. But the third year brings with it some burdens: it isn't just one long party. I will be getting class visits by the dean of academics and by my department chair. My lesson plans will be scrutinized, as will my way of relating to my students. And I'll develop some new ideas about how I can grow as a teacher.

This year, I'm also part of a group at Urban that's doing inquiry work. The inquiry work involves developing a question on which to focus during the year, then devising ways of exploring that question in teaching/coaching students. The goal is to create a more equitable classroom environment—to better reach more students. I'm currently trying to find a focus that's also somewhat in line with my goals as a third-year teacher. The questions I've been working with so far will not be surprising to regular readers of this blog:

1.How can I design assessments that are enjoyable for students and help me see where they’re meeting/not meeting standards?

2. How can I grade papers in a way that students can clearly understand what they need to do to improve? And how can that grading be done most efficiently?

3. What do I do with boys in my classes who are either a) confident that they are smarter than I am, and therefore dismissive of me (usually older students); or b) deliberately acting out for a variety of reasons (usually younger students)?

I'm not sure which of these questions I'll focus on most. Part of what I'm supposed to do is find a particular student and focus on that student's needs/the issues I have with that student. But it's a little too early to read my students. So right now, I'm just letting the questions marinate. And I haven't had time yet to consider my goals for my third-year assessment. So maybe something else will come up as the year goes on. Something always does.