Questioning success

What if we empower students with choices A through D, and they choose E, none of the above? The competition: Netflix, Snapchat, Instagram, Finstra, Amazon, iTunes…The odds seem unfair, almost tragic. Is this an excuse for my shortcomings as a teacher? Or the April voice of a teacher of seniors–many of whom have been accepted to colleges and watch their grades plummet passively like children on slides at a park? Perhaps it’s a little of both with a grain of truth at its core.

This year, I attempted to make the ELA classroom more student-centered, integrate technology, and create authenticity through having all four classes choose independent reading texts for Fridays. They would read, journal, and once per quarter, write book reviews on a class blog. Students were also instructed to fill out a multi-question Google form for every book they completed or disliked and switched; this way, I could track their preferences.

Two out of four classes continued to read, journal and blog throughout the year with many students therein who looked forward to Friday reading sessions, engaged with journals, and blogged effectively; some even admitted to enjoying reading for the first time. There were select students, of course, for whom this was not the case–perhaps they never found the right book, took a zero rather than complete a blog, or neglected journal entries. However, in the other two classes, the results were flipped, with only a few students engaging repeatedly in all aspects of this process. Many were so disengaged, in fact, that for quarters three and four, in the name of adjusting practice to meet student needs, I had to modify these activities drastically.

Was it coincidental that most students who thrived in this model were from honors classes? Certainly, I had students from the C1 and C2 level classes disappointed that we would not continue the project, but most were indifferent. In the honors level classes, according to survey responses, a majority of students seemed to enjoy the Friday reading and journaling, but although most completed the book review blogging, it became another academic chore to be done for a grade, and rather than improving throughout the year, grades and the public eye notwithstanding, some of their work actually declined; they published careless grammatical mistakes and proofreading errors in the name of “getting it done.”

At the end of the day, school was still school, and I was still the teacher assessing students with traditional grades. Were there students who read more books than they otherwise would have? Yes. Were there students who did not expect to enjoy reading that made that leap? Yes again. But what does success mean in the classroom? What does a student-centered classroom really look like? I had one student say, “It’s not you Mrs. Black, I just don’t like to read at all.” Yet, if this is an ELA classroom, is there not a minimum basic expectation that printed matter be involved?

I did not expect for all students to walk out of my classroom in June loving reading, tossing their iPhones for the latest New York Times bestseller, but I did hope that opportunities for choosing material involving their interests and writing in public, more “authentic” ways about their choices would be effective for more than half of my students.

I am still not sure how I will move forward with this knowledge in the next school year–perhaps some student groups would be better off with quarterly, rather than year-long projects. For now, I will rest with the knowledge that school may not be the place in which students prefer to spend their days and that books simply do not appeal to everyone, but I can continue to communicate with them, take their needs into consideration, and hopefully expose them to one or two new skills and ideas along the way.

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