Why I Didn’t Blog for One Month (even after signing up for a daily blog challenge) #AprilBlogaDay

I hope anyone that actually reads my blog doesn’t think I just gave up a month ago.  I signed up for the #AprilBlogaDay challenge and was pretty excited to be connected with like-minded educators.

However, I bit off more than I could chew, as some teachers are known for doing.  I feel like it’s part of our make-up and why we sign on to do what we do in the first place.  We know we can’t save every kid, but we’re going to try regardless.

So, the past month I decided to give myself time to reflect inwardly because I realized writing and tweeting was actually adding more stress to my already pretty stressful semester.  Keep in mind that on top of teaching full-time, I am also taking two writing-intensive graduate classes at Texas State University.  I’ve been working on an article for publication as well as my first official grant proposal.  Simultaneously, I’ve still been tracking multiple bills that are being discussed at the Capitol, some of which are extremely beneficial to Texas students and teachers, some of which could be potentially detrimental.

Being so aware of possible changes, both positive and negative, made me even more aware of just how much I care about teaching and even more about my students.  I decided to focus what energy I had left to making the final nine weeks of school as productive and rewarding to my students as possible.  I completely threw out my traditional lesson plans for Lord of the Flies and Julius Caesar and decided to make my classroom more student-centered.  Luckily, I have access to a cart full of laptops, so implementing change wasn’t too difficult.  Instead of reading a novel together, watching the corresponding movie clips, and ending with a final project, I resolved to let my students have more freedom in their assignments.

Because this is the first time I’m doing this in my classroom, I set up some expectations and provided assignment choices.  I didn’t just tell my students to “Go learn something! Yay!”  Every student was expected to participate in self-selected reading (SSR), practice grammar, write current event article reflections, and analyze poetry.  I gave them a “menu of assignments” and gave them a due date three weeks away.  Each day we met I tried to allow for at least 45 minutes (if not 1 hour) to be used to work on their choice of assignment.

The only portion that still had uniformity was poetry because it involved watching “Dead Poets Society” and completing reflection questions and analysis of the poems discussed in the movie.  We watched 15-20 minute clips over two weeks at the beginning of every class, and then students were given the rest of the time to work on the daily reflection/analysis activities along with their other assignments.  Meaning once the film clip ended, I did not say, “Okay, now everyone work on your Dead Poets assignment for today and turn them in before the bell”.  Instead, I gave them a full three weeks to complete the questions so they could come back to it at any time.  I had a few students take the papers home and ask their parents what they thought of the movie and the questions, but the majority of the kids did the work in class.

For SSR, if we were not watching a movie clip, I still projected a large 15 minute timer at the beginning of class and read my own book in front of the class.  However, instead of saying “everyone must read now”, I simply said: “If you want to use this time for SSR because you know you won’t do it otherwise, or you’re just ready to read, then please do.  If you’re ready to work on something else productively, you may do that but you are not allowed to distract those of us who are reading.”  Thankfully, the majority of my students used the time to read, and a lot of them kept reading after the 15 minute timer since they are allowed to use the remaining time however they want.  They just had to be sure to finish the required number of reading log entries by the due date.

Last year I started using NoRedInk.com but I was creating assignments and quizzes for my students.  This year I realized there is a “practice option” that allows students to work on actually mastering a grammar concept without a grade.  I typed up a list of grammar items that the practice section covers and told my students they had to practice every section at least 3 times before May 29th (end of our grading period).  Now this part is tricky because just because a student practices does not mean they master a section.  I can tell this by the red, blue, yellow, and green dots used on the site.  However, my goal is to expose students to as much grammar as possible without making it feel like a punishment, so I am actually grading on effort instead of the “scores” they get.  I have a few ESL students that I know have attempted sections multiple times, but still get a blue or red dot.  That to me means more than a green dot showing mastery.  Since getting good grades is so engrained in our students, many of them keep practicing even after they meet the requirement, and many of them have reported they are now more aware of errors in their own writing.  I haven’t had students tell me that when I used to do practice sentences and grammar quizzes, either online or by worksheets.  This site also covers MLA citations, and it has really helped my students understand I’m not being crazy when I talk about correct punctuation for quotations.

The most challenging part of this approach has been getting my students to write substantial article reflections without plagiarizing the entire thing.  I gave my students a list of websites to choose from and also said they could use any other source as long as it was appropriate and reputable.  Within three weeks, students had to choose two articles and compose two 250-word reflections using either Google Docs, Kidblog.org, or by simply handwriting it.  In the future, I am going to assign the reflections on Google Classroom to help streamline the grading process.  I got my inspiration for this assignment from Kelly Gallagher’s “Article of the Week”.  However, since I’m experimenting with choice, I did not provide the articles, only resources to find articles.  My students have become more aware of the world around them, and we have had meaningful conversations from topics ranging from the riots in Baltimore, to the earthquake in Nepal, and to why a NASA spacecraft recently crashed into Mercury.  I have learned that prior to my class, my students don’t have much exposure to MLA writing, something that is crucial during upperclassmen classes and, of course, in college.  As of today, if they’re keeping up with their work, students have written four article reflections.  I have watched the majority of them improve from copying and pasting portions of an article and calling it their “summary paragraph”, to picking two relevant quotes and discussing their perspective of the topic.

This shift in choice has definitely changed my role as the “teacher” in the classroom.  I’m now more just a facilitator, making sure my students are somewhat on task (some of them take a long time to explore sites for THE article they want) and answering questions as they come up.  However, if you look at my gradebook, most of my class averages are now around 70%.  But I don’t think this means they aren’t learning, and I’ve tried to communicate that to my students.  I know I can’t just get rid of grades, but I do want to instill the idea of a “growth mindset”, and hope my students realize failing isn’t always a bad thing.

I would love to write more on this, but I’m also working on my FINAL final for the semester, and still have a mountain of assignments to check since everything was due this past Friday.  I decided to update my blog as a “break” from the other work I need to do.  Time to make time for myself again…

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