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.

Letting Go

Far from the sage on the stage mentality, giving students choice is, on many levels, letting go– letting go of the image of a decorous, well-oiled classroom, letting go of tried and true, familiar texts, letting go of neat, staid assessments with prescribed answers. In short, providing choice in a student-centered classroom requires us to widen our scope of what it means to be teachers and have faith that we, and the students, will survive, and perhaps even thrive.

I remember an old Billy Blanks Tae Bo boxing workout video in which Billy shouted out to his viewers, “you’ve got to give some to get some!” In the student-centered classroom, what teachers are giving is always changing, and what we are hoping to “get” is more engagement from students. Ultimately, we want to turn around the giving and getting, so that students receive intrinsic rewards from what they “give” or put into the learning process. All of this involves risk and uncertainty, meaning that we must open ourselves up just as much to the possibility of failure as we do to success.

In my four high school ELA classes ranging from freshmen to seniors, students have selected independent reading texts; they read and journal on these texts each week alongside our additional class reading and activities, and roughly once per quarter, they post book reviews to a class blog using Blogger. Using a Google Spreadsheet for each class, I also try to keep abreast of their reading choices as they change, whether students are rejecting or finishing books. Finally, I have a running survey using a Google form that students have been asked to take repeatedly throughout the year each time they finish or switch texts in order to keep general data on their preferences.

The “wins” have been numerous: from students who have cited this as the “first time” they enjoyed a book, to artfully composed, insightful, engaging blog posts, to groans and disappointment when independent reading day had to be rescheduled, there is no doubt that many students are both “giving” and “getting.”

Others, unfortunately, are not. When it came time to write our second blog post of the year, several students were still reading the same book with which they had started the year–some were genuinely still enjoying the book and were close to finishing, yet others had not used time effectively and had hardly made progress, thus, they had very little about which to write on the second blog post. Faced with the prospect of a shallow piece of writing, I felt forced to allow these students, for a lower grade, to complete their posts on classroom readings we had just finished. This is far from an ideal solution, but I do not believe in dishing out zeros when I can find some way for students to participate in the task at hand.

I also have students–many of them seniors–who, at this point in the year, are hard pressed to do any type of reading independently.  For this reason, I am exploring audio options such as audiobooks and quality podcasts for some students. Again, this is not my preference, but I feel that I must expand options in order to gain greater participation during the second half of the school year.

For the most part, Google Forms, Spreadsheets, the Google blogging interface, and Google Classroom have been helpful in disseminating, gathering, and organizing materials and data in this process with predictable glitches along the way.  At one point, our blogs were blocked by the school’s censoring mechanism, something our capable technology experts were quick to fix. At other times, spreadsheets open for students to edit and update were not accessible to all students since only freshmen and sophomores are currently one-to-one.  This required me to do a lot of “chasing down” in order to keep information current, as students frequently forget to update spreadsheets at home.

In the end, giving students choice is worth it, and I’ll keep throwing and blocking punches to stay in the ring.