The Life of Bon: What We Did in Class This Week

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What We Did in Class This Week

The two hardest days of the year to wake up and teach are:

1) The day after Christmas break
2) Daylight's Savings in the spring.  Today.

But we made it this morning.  Made it to school with our baby and French teenager in tow.  Three stars for us!

This year I am teaching three junior classes.  This is my fifth year teaching juniors and it feels comfortable.  Easy. I can tweak my plans and my units each year, but I have a solid base that makes the day to day planning, teaching, and grading so much easier.

This year my "tweaking" has mostly involved trying to adequately prepare my students for their required testing.  And there is so much testing!  Last year Utah rolled out a new statewide testing system, the SAGE.  It is more rigorous and more difficult than our old test, the CRTs.  The biggest change is the addition of a writing portion.  Juniors are required to write two essays for the writing portion- an informative essay and an argumentative essay. Students are given three or four passages about a certain topic and then asked to write an essay on it.  It takes three class days (85 minutes each) for the writing portion and then two to three class days again in May for the English portion.  That is five- six days of classroom instruction for the statewide test.

Last year students took the writing portion at the end of the year.  This year, the writing portion was boosted up to the first week of February.  One of the drawbacks of teaching half time is that I miss half the meetings.  Usually I get the gist of the important info shared in the meetings, but sometimes I miss big things. That means the second week of January when my department head came in to give me the SAGE schedule for two weeks away I about had a mini stroke.  What?!  My students have to be prepared to take an end of the year writing test?  In two weeks?  But we haven't even done their big research paper yet!  We haven't gone over informative writing!  How do I get them ready for a test that measures year long growth in two measly weeks?

The result of this was a January classroom that was a scramble scramble scramble of trying to get my students ready for the SAGE.  I had to tell myself to relax and that I had been teaching my students writing all year long.  Still, with my maternity leave going until mid September and the end of the year testing boosted up to February, I felt like we were robbed of time and like I was sending them into battle wildly under prepared.  They had had four months to learn what should have been learned in a year.

When I found out they would be taking the SAGE in February we were smack in the middle of reading Great Gatsby.  I cut half of my teaching plans for Great Gatsby, skimped it down to the bare minimum, and January became a frenzied mess of Daisy Buchanan, thesis statements, prohibition, rebuttals, and extramarital affairs.  It was wild, but I hope and pray that something of what I taught stuck in those young kids' heads. 

Last year I taught Gatsby in May.  SAGE testing, though, cramped our style and made the teaching of the book rushed.  This year I decided to teach Gatsby in January so that none of the state testing got in the way of giving the book the attention it deserved.  Looks like that plan was a bust.

We finished our SAGE testing on February 9, we tested on Gatsby on February 13 and then we had two wild weeks to get the kids ready to take the English and Reading portions of the ACT.  This isn't technically part of the core for juniors, but the state pays for every junior to take the ACT on March 3, and I felt like I would be doing my students a huge disservice if I didn't help them prepare for it.  The two weeks leading up to the ACT we took timed practice tests, went over the structure of the test, reviewed testing strategies, etc.  Although it is not very "fun", teaching ACT prep is very rewarding to me.  All year long I teach things that I know will benefit my students, but they don't see the benefit until sometimes years later.  I have received messages from students in college, "Thanks so much for what you taught me.  I didn't think it was important when you were teaching me, but I have used the skills so much since."  It is rewarding to get these kinds of messages, no doubt, but it is a delayed gratification.  When I teach the ACT, I get the reward of seeing my students use what I taught them almost immediately.  The day after they take the ACT they strut into my class,

"It was exactly like you told us it would be!"
"I would have been lost without those strategies you taught me."
"When I came to the who/whom questions I knew exactly how to figure out the right answer!"

Now we are doing a short unit on Dead Poet's Society.   It is the one movie we watch in its entirety.  (Poor deprived children that don't get to watch movies in English)  I love going over the poetry references in the movie- almost all of the poetry we studied in December.  I also love it for its larger application questions.  What is the purpose of education?  What makes a good educator?  How much influence should parents and teachers have on teens?  It is always a fascinating discussion and leads to a lot of debate about what really is our purpose sitting at these desks, teaching this grammar, coming to school day after day.  One of the best discussions of the year.

Wednesday we will start our research paper.  The kids are dreading it.  But there ain't no rest for the wicked, right juniors?!

Now, just a word on our pacing and core curriculum this year.  In the five years that I have taught, our core has changed drastically.  Utah implemented a new common core, as most states in the nation did.  The new core calls for more rigor, more nonfiction reading, less time "playing" so to speak.  The first year I taught Gatsby I did vocabulary activities with it, a journal project where students had to write as if they were one of the students, a unit about the symbolism of the color in the book and a funeral for Gatsby.  This year all of that was scrapped in order to give test prep priority.  It makes my heart sad.  I understand and I don't understand.  Some teachers and I were recently lamenting all the fun and creative things that we used to do in our classes that we have slowly had to take out to make room for the more intense testing, the rigor, the demands.

I understand the high school students are entering college unprepared.  They are not reading or writing at the level that they need to.  But I don't know that taking out all the enjoyable parts of learning and replacing them with more "rigor" is the answer.  I also don't know that that is not the answer.  There are no answers in education, but to me it seems like you give a goal that teachers need to meet and then you allow them to get there how they may.  One of the things I loved about teaching AP is that there is so much freedom with it.  There is a big test at the end of the year.  Students are expected to pass that test, but what an individual teacher does to get those students to passing the test is completely up to the teacher. There is so much freedom, creativity, trust.  I love that and I wish I saw more of that for all teachers, not just AP teachers.

Speaking of AP, 49 students signed up to take AP Literature next year.  I did a happy dance.

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