Yesterday was one of the tough days for me — we’ve all had them — when students seemed to push back on every choice I made, I felt boxed into a lesson I didn’t love, frustration mounted for all of us, my patience ebbed, and pride flowed. The whole endeavor of teaching and learning seemed to hang by a slender thread.
But that thread must be woven of something other-worldly — of unicorn hair and phoenix feathers — because it finds a way to hold every time. That thread tugs, eventually, at the best of who I am and how I want to be. It makes me find a better way.
And that’s how I’ve come to look at, and love, teaching. It’s not easy, ever. Not when the world at large and powers-that-be seem distant and tone deaf to what children and schools need from society. Not when there isn’t close to enough time to plan and prepare to teach as I’d want to ideally. But if I accept that those tensions are there to stay, I can find a way to work through them. And that’s what I’ve decided to do.
This school year, I’ve been on a journey to put my students at the center of our learning. That means finding ways to make the learning meaningful to my students as people — that is, personalized. And it means being responsive to their needs as learners — in other words, customized.
Most of my efforts to meet this call have meant developing completely new units, and that’s been exhausting and won’t scale for teachers with multiple preps or those seeking life-balance. Moving into the fourth quarter of this school year, I sought support. I sat down with colleagues to learn how to work toward these ends from our existing curriculum for 10th grade English. The unit from which we worked had two summative assessments: a literary analysis essay on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and a multimedia presentation based on a social issue.
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing
upon the shoulders of giants.”
~ Sir Isaac Newton
Editors Note: This post, originally titled, “A Week of Gratitude #ThankATeacher #TLC2014,” was first featured on Sean’s blog, “Constant Learning….” on May 11, 2014. Sean revised this piece to share on Tchers’ Voice.
None of us make it completely on our own. Family, friends, good fortune, and often a lot of teachers serve as the parents of possibility. I was acutely aware of that truth in my own life, when in May 2014 I was announced as the National Teacher of the Year.
For Teacher Appreciation Week, I sent cards and photos with appreciation and gratitude to five foundational teachers in my life. And I even popped in on two of them. Below is a re-post of my reflection on that experience:
The past couple of months have given me great cause to reflect on the people who have shaped my life. I was able to give my family the opportunity to meet President Obama, I was able to share the joy that has come into my life through students and colleagues at Patapsco HS and CFA, and this week I was able to extend some gratitude to the Teachers who made that all possible by unlocking my potential. There are certainly more than these five who are deserving, but here are five educators who shaped the man I am today:
Here’s a startling statistic: 40% of high school students are chronically disengaged in school. There are enough reasons to go around, and I’d agree that many of them are outside of a teacher’s direct control. But some of them aren’t. As we pursue a set of skills, I have a great deal of control over how that happens in my classroom, so going into this school year I asked myself:
How can student-interest and inquiry drive the learning?
How can my teaching be more responsive to student needs?
How do I help students realize their own agency and ability to effect change?
We’ve finished the first iteration of trying to move my 10th grade English courses to become more personalized. Students concluded a quarter-long investigation of a social justice issue of their choice. Throughout the quarter, my focus has been to help students move toward mastering skills, while allowing personal choice in content and questions, and customizing feedback and instruction for each student.
Students are working on reading informational texts, writing arguments, speaking and listening, and creative writing. Most class periods begin with a 15-20 minute mini-lesson and then students go to a self-selected station to engage in their work. Three to four tasks are due every two weeks.
Here are 4 positives I’ve found as I’ve personalized learning:
This is part of Sean McComb’s Getting Better Together series, In Pursuit of Personalized Learning. Sean and all the Teaching Channel Laureates are going public with their practice and seeking support in getting better from colleagues and the Tch community.
Last winter I watched my son, Silas, move from cautiously cruising along furniture or, with parent support, take his first furtive steps independently. I remember how his chunky stumps wobbled as he lurched toward the object of his desire.
And that’s pretty much how I feel as a teacher right now.
I have an idea of how I want a personalized (student-centered, inquiry-based, interest-driven) classroom to operate. I’ve seen folks model some pieces, I’ve listened to master teachers explain their processes, and I’ve done a great deal of thinking. Now it’s time to let go and step out.
Over the next quarter of the school year, students will engage in a Justice Inquiry project. I created the graphic below as a reference for the students and me to grasp all the components at once. We’re all pretty excited (and nervous) to dig into this work that’s very different than our norms, but I want to pause to record some key steps we’ve taken to get to this point.
This is the first in Sean McComb’s Getting Better Together series, In Pursuit of Personalized Learning. Sean and all the Teaching Channel Laureates are going public with their practice and seeking support in getting better from colleagues and the Tch community.
“Aye, McComb! Why haven’t we been doin’ this allll year?”
With all the sass she could muster and an eye roll that might call for an exorcism, Jessica posed this pointed question to me three Junes ago.
And the question stuck with me. Why hadn’t we been doing this all year?
Let’s talk about what this was. We had just concluded our third lit circle discussion of a social justice project. Students were able to select a topic from about a dozen different issues around the globe. Jessica had chosen to research human trafficking and anchor her research with the narrative of Lakshmi in the novel SOLD, by Patricia McCormick. She and three other students had just finished an intense discussion of the novel and the connections they’d found in their research. They were enthralled. The narrative humanized the research. The research placed the story in the real world. Jessica, who was in her own words a ‘tough cookie,’ was, for maybe the first extended period of time all year, authentically and deeply engaged in work she found compelling and personally valuable.