Wednesday, June 1, 2011

End of the Year Reflection

It's that time of year again.  Time to reflect and reevaluate what worked and didn't work in the classroom.  There are several thoughts on both:

What worked - If you want teenagers to become good listeners, let them speak.  It's amazing to see how focused this age group can be when they actively participate in the discussion process.  Before beginning To Kill a Mockingbird, I had the class get out of their seats and gather in the middle of the room.  I made a statement such as "all men are created equal" or "girls should act like girls, and boys should act like boys."  Whoever agreed with the statement, would move to the north side of the classroom, and whoever disagreed would move to the south.  We then had a respectful debate, allowing students to support their opinions with specific examples.  They absolutely love this exercise, and I am so impressed with their thoughts. (I don't recall where I first heard of this activity, but I've now expanded on it and added it to other units.) 
A second successful activity with a documentary.  After learning about the Scottsboro Boys Trial and using the event to show parallelism with Harper Lee's work, we talked a lot about civil rights.  The students are always intrigued by this time period; however, most of them know nothing about Emmett Till.  I ask the students to look up online some information about the boy, to find out about who he was and how he impacted the civil rights movement.  The next day, they listed on the board fact after fact, and then we came up with questions, things we didn't yet know but wanted to know.  The lesson that followed was the viewing of an Emmett Till documentary, and the students were instructed to jot down any detail that could shed light on our questions.  The film is powerful, heavy, heart-wrenching.  When the credits start, the students are silent, and I know they need to speak, to talk about this event, to relieve their hearts of the sadness.  But how does a teacher reach ALL of them?  I instructed the students to silently take out a sheet of paper and start writing about whatever they were thinking.  The sounds of pens scratching on paper and tiny sniffles were all that were heard, and after about 3-4 minutes, I asked them to stop writing and hand their papers to the student on their right.  They passed.  Now, they had to respond to what their neighbor had written.  Expand, agree, disagree, question... whatever... just respond until I said to stop writing.  Three-four minutes later, they passed the papers again.  And one more time.  Wow!  What incredible insight!  "I'm astounded at Mamie Till's courage.... Me, too.  I agree that she must have been a strong woman.  How else could she have insisted on having an open casket... I was thinking the same thing.  I actually think she did it for us, not for herself.  I mean who benefited from that act?  Not her...  It killed her inside.  The rest of the world had to see him, had to see what was happening, had to stand up."  "How could those dudes even look at themselves in the mirror?  Come on.  They were guilty as guilty could be... No doubt about it.  How about the pictures of them kissing their wives and having a party all the while knowing what they did to that kid... And the worst part is that they got off in a U.S. courtroom.  What kind of justice is that? ... Do you think that kind of stuff still happens?  I think people get off all the time, especially if they have money for a good lawyer." 
And the last activity is another keeper.  When students received their independent civil rights topics for research, I met with each to check out their sources.  After about a week of class-time research (laptops for online research for two days, and three days of in-class book reading/notetaking), I told the students to clear their desks, and once again, take out a sheet of paper.  They had to write for fifteen minutes straight about what they'd learned so far.  Bullet point lists, paragraph format, chronological order outline... I didn't care.  I just wanted them to write about it, feel like they were real researchers.  I put them into random groups of four or five, and then I told them that each student had a few minutes to tell the rest of their group about their research.  Other group members were encouraged to ask questions.  If the speaker couldn't answer the questions, these would become the target of research for the following week.  This was a great confidence booster for the students.

What didn't work - My 8th graders wanted me to do a "read-aloud."  Why not?  Who doesn't enjoy being read to?  One class chose a book called Shark Girl.  Okay.  Well, having never read this book before, it was interesting, I guess, but none of us were completely into it after about five readings.  The "fun" student-driven idea, ended up being a chore, and I hate to admit this, but we never finished it.  I think I'll stick with poetry and articles for read alouds. 
Another assignment that needs to be cut is the iMovie presentation.  At the end of our civil rights unit, students are given independent topics for research, as mentioned previously.  The final product is three-fold:  a 3-5 page paper, a poster depicting the event or person, and a 3-5 minute iMovie presentation that "teaches" the class about their topics.  Well, after two years of assigning this presentation, I've seen the technology issues, I've realized that I'm grading these poor kids on their technological skills more than their knowledge and ability to communicate that knowledge.  If one student's iMovie runs smoothly with perfect timing on captions and "We Shall Overcome" coming in and fading out at the right times, while another student's iMovie skips and doesn't play the video clip and won't open in iTunes for sound, what's the point?  I gave it a lot of thought this past week or two, and I've decided that the good ole speech is coming back into the classroom for this project.

Well, with the exception of a few missing assignments and a make-up test, my final grades are updated and ready for printing.  Another year down, another summer to reinvigorate, replenish, and reflect... but first - SLEEP!  Next year has a lot of promise!