What Does Success Look Like?

This is the question I plan to ask my seniors tomorrow. They are doing individual or partner research projects on different aspects of the Middle East.  Several of them have chosen to blog their way through the research recording their process and findings. I want to know how they will know if they are successful with this project, aside from my evaluation of it. I want them to set some individual goals and think about what they need to accomplish. Then, they should be able to formulate a plan to get there. After they complete the project, before I weigh in on it, they will have to measure themselves up to their own standards.

There are many ways in life that we work to meet external standards, but the true meaning comes when we meet our own expectations. I will follow up with another post tomorrow after I get their reactions and responses.

I need a new system

It has taken me a little while to realize that changing my teaching means changing my work habits. I used to know how to manage the flow when the plans were clear and the same assignments came in at the same time. There were piles, and they were manageable. I planned on my own and shifted in ways that made sense to me.

For the last six months, I have been shifting more and more to individualized learning and diverse projects. My professional development occurs on a daily basis as I connect electronically with colleagues through social media. Many of my seniors are keeping blogs to document their research process rather than putting it all together in one long paper at the end. I need to find time to check in on those on a regular basis, as they are updating them. I am giving more process oriented assessments, which means I need to read what my students write as they work through the material, rather than simply a summative assessment at the end. I am trying to help my students get their work out to a wider audience, so I need to remember to tweet out links. I believe wholeheartedly in the value of revision to student work for learning, but that means I now see many assessments more than once per student. I also feel the urgency to return work quickly and with adequate feedback, since I know that is what will help my students the most. I am learning about and test-driving new technologies to see what might be useful for my own classes and my department.

Those are just the changes that come to mind off the top of my head. I am sure that if I reflected more the list would be longer. So, just stamping out fires and getting ready for the next class, the next day no longer works. Even the “to do” list gets buried and out of date very quickly. I think I need to create a schedule for each day with goals, tasks and enough built in crisis time so that the train does not get derailed. I would say I need to prioritize, but the reality is that the most “urgent” things may not be the most beneficial for my students. I may need to be a little less ready for some classes in terms of content to be more ready to provide feedback. There is a certain amount of planning that is necessary, but there is also such a thing as overplanning.

I am not sure what the new system looks like, but I know I need one. It needs to be structured enough to keep me moving among the various tasks regularly, but at the same time it needs to be flexible enough to accommodate variations and evolution.

Oh, yeah – I need time to blog, too.


A Personal Retreat

I am connected. I am out there. I blog. I tweet. I am part of a PLP (Powerful Learning Practice) cohort at school. I am connecting my students with other students and experts. I spent some time Friday evening following live tweets from Syria for my Middle East elective. I check email religiously, maybe even obsessively.

I am an extrovert. I naturally process best externally by talking things out. I have a noisy classroom where I encourage student voices. Most of the time, I have a hard time with silence.

Yet, sometimes I crave the silence, and the chance to focus on one thing. When my family cleared out of the house for a few hours today, I did not catch up on reading the blogs I have been meaning to read (my apologies to those folks). I did not catch up on my Twitter feed, where I know there were fabulous ideas and resources waiting. I even only checked email twice. It seems that nobody needed me desperately after all.

I read a book. Recommended by my friend Cristina, The Swerve took me back to the dawn of the Renaissance and then even further back to the world of the ancients, Greece and Rome. I found myself slowing down, reading every word and taking in a distant culture where manuscripts were copied by hand – a few steps removed from our digital culture of instant publishing.

Retreats have come to mean going off with a group of people to work on a specific task away from the crowd. Today I needed to take it a step further by retreating away from the digital crowd. I am emerging more centered and focused. Maybe next time I will even forgo email.

We owe it to ourselves and our students to model quiet spaces and focus. The world is awfully noisy. I love the connections as much as anyone, but sometimes we all need to unplug for a few hours. Can we help our students find these moments, even in our classes? I am all for collaboration, but maybe not all the time. An article reminding us of the introverts in the world gave me pause earlier this week. My Saturday reminded me of the value of introversion even for an extrovert, who feels the need to blog about it.

I love my life but it’s exhausting – why my students need to blog.

It’s lunchtime of another hectic day in my life. I have papers to grade, classes to plan, syllabi to update, etc. I have a meeting after school, then it’s home to have dinner with the family, check on homework and get the kids to bed. After that I will be doing triage of what needs to be done for me to be ready for tomorrow. After that, a little time to unwind, hopefully, before getting to bed myself. In between, I will check my Facebook page and my Twitter feed when I get the chance. I will also attend to email during those in between moments. I love my job. It truly energizes me to be teaching and learning with my students and colleagues. I love being connected to people electronically. I love my family. I cannot imagine not having my husband and children in my life.

So, given that I will not give anything up, how do I stay sane? Other than try to get enough sleep and eat reasonably well, the answer has come to be blogging. Taking the time to quietly focus my thoughts and reflect on the things that are on my mind is incredibly helpful. When people ask me how I have the time, the answer is that I make the time because I have really come to rely on it as a way to reflect and recharge.

Many of my students are not that different. They are busy. They either choose to be as busy as they are or do not really have the choice. Either way, they lack the space and time to process their thoughts. I used to think that blogging would be a luxury, an add-on for my classes. Increasingly, I think it is necessary. Now my challenge is to provide the time for my students to put into practice what I am preaching and practicing myself.

Now, after giving myself the permission to pause here, it is time to head back to “To Do” list.

New Course – Fresh Start

I just finished my first draft of the plan for my Modern Middle East course. I know that it is a draft because I always have to adjust as I go. I am really excited and just a little nervous about it. I know the rap on second semester seniors, and I have taught them before so I have experienced the slump. I hope that they will be invested enough to pull it off. The subject matter is too important for them to just sit passively and bide their time.

After looking for a book or two and feeling dissatisfied with my choices, I decided to rely on news sources, articles, and specific excerpts as needed. It feels like the right thing to do, but it is also a little risky because there is no text to default to.

In terms of assessments, I have decided to go public mainly. Student writing will be public in a class blog format that will be accessible to anyone with an internet connection. I am hoping to have students present research in a lunchtime forum format where anyone on campus can come. Given the subject matter, these seem appropriate. I am also planning to have students analyze a news source as an assessment. I am thinking I will assign them an online news source when they arrive in class and they will need to provide a briefing for the articles they find related to the Middle East. That will help me know whether or not I am achieving my goal of having them really able to understand the region enough to make sense of the events.

I saw a fabulous Frontline episode on Syria today which I am hoping to show the end of the first week. It provides an underground look into the resistance and an analysis of how the country got there with the historical context of the Assad regime. It will provide a good touchstone for comparison as well as a model for how we can learn. Get grounded in the current events and then provide the analysis of what has led there.

I also hope to get speakers with some expertise on the region to Skype into the class to provide us with an outside perspective.

I am putting this out there to process it in my mind, and also for my PLN to scrutinize. I am open to suggestions and words of wisdom/caution.


The Challenge of Confusion

I did not realize until I got to graduate school that confusion in my work was actually a positive thing rather than evidence of my shortcomings. In my study of history only uncertainty led to real progress. Although it is a little daunting to think so, I am beginning to believe the same may be true of teaching in the 21st century.

In working with students on research papers, I am trying to encourage them to work through the problems in their projects. Those who craft a research question seeking to avoid possible trouble spots, also avoid complexity and the growth that comes from working through it. If they are not confused and/or stuck at least once, they are not digging deep enough. True meaning comes from wrestling with a broad range of evidence, digging past the obvious, and considering anything that might challenge what you believe to be true. It is only through honestly weighing all of the evidence that you can really know what you believe. Questioning comes at a cost – direction, certainty and confidence.

Teaching can feel the same way at times. I have been diving into some new activities and areas this year – arranging Skype sessions for classes, creating student and class blogs, connecting my students with other students. I have been taking time to explore a vast new array of sources and resources. I am developing a PLN so that professional development is continuous. I am teaching more collaboratively than I have before. Still, there is a nagging voice in my head that reminds me of all of the activities and topics I used to do that I no longer seem to have time to include. I am not certain of the payoff, and I do not always feel effective. While I would like to think that my research analogy would hold here, I am afraid that would be too simplistic. It would imply that once I figure it out I will be fine. More and more I think that teaching will require the courage to face the challenges, embrace the endless possibilities, seek clarity and make game time decisions using my best judgment about what the students in front of me need most. And there are likely to be as many answers as there are students.

What I am most sure about is that while I may have the answers or the formula for a student or a class period, I should not write them down with permanent marker.




Hard Choices

It was serendipitous. Yesterday morning I was scanning my Twitter feed more closely than I have in the past few weeks before diving into grading final papers for my senior elective. I came across something that Becky Ellis posted, an article titled “Meaningful Work: How the History Research Paper Prepares Students for College and Life.” It caught my eye particularly because we are beginning a six-week long research paper in junior year US history classes this week. It has always been one of my favorite parts of the course – I love working with individual students on research and writing. I also really enjoy reading their end products. I have learned so much over the years from my students this way. What I learn through working with kids on this project translates into the rest of my teaching. So far, so good.

Then I began reading the final papers. I wrote extensive comments as usual. When it came time to assign a grade, I was uncomfortable. I found myself tempted to assign grades that I believed were inflated for their work because I was grading to my expectations, not their output. I quickly realized that I could either provide inflated grades and tell the students they were lucky and should not complain, I could provide the grades I thought the papers earned and deal with the backlash, or I could take advantage of having had the final papers due with three weeks left in the course and treat them as drafts. I decided to do the latter. Something had broken down in the process, and I needed to give them time to revise.

So, when the students came to class we had the tough conversation – what they had seen as finished products I was treating as drafts. I had them read over their own papers that they had submitted just before Winter Break; then I began conferences with each one. I sent them back copies with my comments and we postponed the class presentations of research. The room was somber, but there was an underlying feeling of relief for some, who knew they had not submitted their best work. We talked very briefly about the possible reasons for the outcome, including time pressures and multiple commitments, but in the end, everyone got back to work.

The last three weeks in my course have now been changed. I am shifting into research paper mode with my seniors as well, although we are in the draft to final paper stage. I did not provide the check-ins and support for them that I do with my juniors. I think I dropped the ball. Yes, they are seniors, but they do not need to work in a vacuum. In fact, it is probably more valuable for me to model with them how to have productive conversations about their work to help them be able to solicit feedback in the future.

At first, some took it personally that they were not good enough. I stressed that it is exactly because they are better than the papers they turned in that I am having them continue to work on them. I have great confidence that they are capable of more. If I thought they had reached their limits, the call would have been to assign grades and move on.

In both cases, the junior year research paper and the senior elective paper, focusing on process and project means giving up some content. I hate racing through the US survey, but I love having dedicated research time built into the curriculum. I hate not exploring more of Modern Asia,  but I love that I can make the decision to work on the craft of history. Come to think of it, the choices were not so hard.

Exam Week Reflections

A few years ago, I hated exams. Now I do not anymore. What happened?

I have moved toward giving exams that reflect the way I teach and mirror my expectations throughout the course, and I have been happier. There is value in having students think, reflect, synthesize and apply. While there are different ways to do this, having students sit and do it together in a room is really not so bad. Students do not like them, but that does not necessarily invalidate the exercise. And, as long as colleges operate this way, college prep schools would do students a disservice by not having exams at all.

The creation of an exam in a collaborative team requires a discussion about expectations. It is really important that we as teachers stop and think about what we are asking of our students, in terms of what is essential and what is reasonable. We have had many years to learn what we know about our subject and gain the insights we have. Students are early on in their journey.

An exam provides an opportunity for me to evaluate where students are in using their skills as historians. It can be a helpful reset for me as a teacher, to recalibrate where we need to go in the second part of the year or in what I may need to rethink for next year.

For my senior elective I gave the students what I would consider an exam (the essential questions I would hope they could answer) without warning. I wanted to see what they had really learned without studying. Then, I gave them the opportunity to finish the questions later. The unprepared answers are really about grading me and how well I constructed the class to accomplish my goals, and the prepared answers will be graded. After that activity, students moved into individual projects. For that class, that model worked.

Not every course needs to follow the same model. In some ways it feels easier in a climate of education reform to say that exams are outdated. At the risk of being labeled a dinosaur, I am not so sure. A well-crafted exam can be a good learning experience.




Edublog Nominations

I have just begun blogging with students, but I am amazed at the quality of reflection and writing present in the blog posts by this student. She has written about a variety of topics, some in response to s specific assignment and some on her own. For Best Student Blog: Rebecca Cerasoli – “Memes of US” http://rcerasoli.edublogs.org/

I began using Twitter in the spring and have found one incredibly valuable hashtag. The resources, advice and support I have gotten from the people connected with #sschat has been invaluable. I love the chats, the resources and the impromptu conversations on Twitter among this group. For Best Hashtag: #sschat

Doing as I say – Project Sanity

A trip to EdCamp Harrisburg, Quaker Community Day and a cold converged this weekend to get me thinking about the idea of modeling behavior for students. I heard passionate people on QCD living and breathing service. We had some fantastic role models for students in attendance. At EdCamp, there were several occasions where we came back to the idea of being role models for students, whether in the area of academic risk-taking or continuing to work on our lessons to improve our teaching. This morning I woke up with confirmation of something I suspected when I went to bed – I have a cold. Deciding to hang close to home and putter through the day, led me to this post.

For the next month (and hopefully longer) I am going to commit to living the lessons I teach, and modeling what I believe to be healthy productive behavior. Here is what I think that means.

1. Depend more on sleep than caffeine to get me through the day. That means getting about 7 hours of sleep a night. (I realize that occasionally that may not be possible, but there needs to be a really, really good reason.)

2. Use my time well. Work during most of my free time, but balance that with the occasional social conversation. Avoid getting sucked into surfing the web when I am should be doing something else. Save the surfing for when my work is done.

3. Prioritize tasks each day to be sure that everything that must get done, does get done, while recognizing that some things I would like to do will not get done.

4. Do the tasks I do not enjoy with diligence.

5. Let my passion shine for things I do enjoy.

6. Take some risks in my classes, without fearing failure.

7. Eat well, and generally take care of myself, which means resting more when I am not feeling well.

These are the thoughts I have at the outset. If you have any suggestions to add to the list, add a comment to the post. I may do the same, if other things occur to me. What I have named Project Sanity will be a work in progress. Expect updates and then a debrief.