Monday, July 8, 2013

Start From Scratch

It's July. It's time to rethink you class. In fact, it's time to throw everything in the trash and start from scratch.

One of the dangers of being an experienced teacher is falling into a rut. If you have taught the same course for a few years, you now have a good, solid unit for every month of the school year. You are past those rookie days where you figured out what you would do in each class the night before the class. Things are more comfortable and predictable. However, if you become stagnant, you run the risk of turning into that fossilized teacher, the one that says, "Pupils, this is the ditto worksheet for day 57."

The way to avoid becoming that fossilized teacher is to redesign your course. Keep it fresh and relevant, and the time to do that is in the middle of the summer after you have had a chance to recover from the previous year but before you have to return to campus for orientation. Here is what I would do every couple years to make sure my class was the best it could be for the students.

  1. Nuke your whole curriculum. Don't become emotionally attached to anything your have done in the past because if it doesn't help students learn, then it must go. It was a sad day when I realized that my free response journal assignment was taking a lot of class time but was not making my students better writers. I threw it out and used the time in class for a research paper writing unit - a unit so effective that students wrote me thank you notes after graduation telling me how it helped them in college.

  2. Get a huge piece of paper so you have lots of room to work. I would just use butcher paper on the floor, but you can put it on the wall if you are more of a spacial thinker. (Have you noticed how detective shows these days put all of their evidence on the wall? It is the new visual way to represent "thinking hard" and it is a lot more interested on the screen than a manilla folder.)

  3. Begin at the end. Ask yourself what your students need to master when they leave your class. This should only be 4-8 big skills like "Compare the journeys in adventure novels to student's own life," "Solve for two variables in an equation," or "Identify the major parts in plants and name their functions." Revisit the Content Standards and make sure that your students are learning what they should. You might even ask the teachers in the grade above yours what they would like incoming students to do. Write these big skills across the top of your page like column headings with lots of space in between.
  4. How can the student demonstrate that he or she has mastered that skill. Though a test or quiz may be part of the assessment, find a project or activity that will show the skill but is also engaging. Does the project deal with a real life problem? Is it a task that adult would do in the workplace? Is the project tied to the student's interests or hobbies? My students always worked much harder and wrestled with the subject matter much more when they were working on something that was meaningful, especially if they had to present in class. A Google search for the subject and "project" is always a great place to start. Write this final assessment project below the corresponding skill. Feel free to keep assessment 
  5. At the bottom of each skill column, write what you think students will be able to do - related to each skill - when they enter your class. This can be something like "Read  a novel with basic comprehension," "Solve a simple equation," or even "No prior knowledge of botany." How will you find out if students are actually starting your class here? Will you give a pre-test, a questionnaire or survey, an interview? A quiz show game during the first week of class is a fun way to get to know your students and find their baseline.
  6. You now have a series of columns with an exit skill at the top and an entrance skill at the bottom. Now list the facts and skills that the student must learn to master those exit skills. Spread these intermediate steps through the column in the order that the student should learn them.
  7. Next to each intermediate step, write when the student will complete it. Is it something, like my grammar lessons, that students will learn and practice once a week throughout the year? Does a column of skills correspond to a unit that your class will work on for a month or two? Be mindful of the academic calendar so that units wrap up before the end of a semester. Don't have a project due right after winter break. Save a fun, interesting unit for the time between spring break and the end of the year when students start to lose focus - this is the time of year when we read "Midsummer Night's Dream" aloud in class with props and costumes because the students loved it.
  8. What is the best way for students to learn this information? I am a big proponent of Blended Learning, and I believe that this is the place to introduce it into your curriculum. You know know what your students need to learn, take a moment to think about how they will learn it. Face to face lectures are necessary at times, but most teachers use lectures for everything. Moving content delivery out of the classroom frees up time for discussion, collaboration, and one on one help. Here are some alternative methods for delivering content to students; which intermediate steps lend themselves to each?
    1. Reading text in an article, website, textbook or teacher-created slideshow
    2. Audio lesson - much easier for the teacher to make and post online
    3. Screen cast - teacher's audio paired to a slideshow
    4. Online video - found on YouTube or some other source
    5. Teacher-created video - these are time-consuming, but can be used for several years or shared with peers. Check in next week for my guide to producing educational videos.
    6. Educational website - online games or helpful websites like Clickademics Essay Engine allow students to work at their own pace. The teacher may then use the time in class to help the students who need extra instruction.
  9. Reintroduce and adapt old activities that fit your learning goals for your students. Now that you know what your students will be learning this year, you can look back at activities you have used in the past and see if they are still applicable. Maybe you held a mock trial in your class during a debate unit. If you have eliminated the debate unit, see if your students can hold a mock trial of a character in a novel or a person from history. The good news about flipping your class and moving content delivery online is that you have more time in class for hands on activities.
  10. Add in grades and assessments. Grades are not the most important thing in education, but you don’t want to find yourself unable to demonstrate your students’ progress. Scan over the year and make sure that there are enough grades to measure student performance. Ideally, you should have a similar number of weighted grades each quarter or trimester.
  11. Prepare to launch. Are there any activities that will require preparation or special equipment? Plan ahead so that you can secure resources at the beginning of the year. Hopefully, you will be filming a few of your lessons. Film a couple during the summer to give yourself a head start.
  12. Copy your plan in a way that is easy for you to use during the school year. If your school has a way that they like to record the curriculum, use that form. The administration at your school will be impressed.

This will take a few days of your summer, but you will enjoy the benefits for the whole school year. And so will your students.

By the way, I found this book helpful during my master's program. It is what spurred me to do this the first time.

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