I have been teaching AP United States history for the last six years. Every year I try something different hoping that I engage students in an exploration of historical thinking and reading. The breadth of the course is often difficult to manage and because we are on a block schedule, the number of time we spend in the classroom together is limited. That means I have to figure out how to make every moment count.
On Twitter today, there were a few people having discussions about the value of homework and I was left pondering the amount of homework students in AP classes receive. Two years ago I learned about flipped learning and began to find ways to flip my APUSH class. I spend far less time talking in front of the class. When I first started teaching the class I found that I would stand in front of the projector going slide by slide through everything I knew about US history. Now, that rarely happens. Instead, students do the background reading at home and we spend class time clarifying, discussing, and practicing historical thinking skills. But not all students do the reading. Many still come to class without the necessary preparation to engage deeply with the content. I cannot imagine not giving homework. I would much rather class time be spent applying ourselves in historical exploration. Sometimes students use the time to finish some background reading or watching CrashCourse videos about the content. This is a choice they make and I try and reduce their anxiety by not grading everything we do in class.
Every day there is some kind of activity that we do in class. That could be a discussion about the reading, analysis of primary/secondary sources, map activity about Manifest Destiny, or project to show what students learned about the topic. Yes, there are worksheets - but they really are organizers to help students synthesize information into manageable chunks that create visual tools for review. And at the end of the period many ask, "Do we have to turn this is?" And 90% f the time I say no. Much of what we do in class is practice. I don't need to grade every assignment. This does not mean that I don't check for understanding or walk around the room to visit with groups to see how they are doing with the task. By stepping down from the "Powerpoint stage" I have more time to engage with students individually and guide their processing of information.
But why don't students do the reading? Well, first, many don't like history. I can't change that - but I certainly can do my best to help them see the value of historical thinking. Second, the textbook is pretty boring. But I did adopt a new textbook last year that is pretty well written and much more engaging than the previous one. So instead of assigning specific pages, I constructed essential questions for students to explore. They can use a number of resources to accomplish this goal including the traditional textbook, audio lectures I linked on my website, John Green's CrashCourse videos, Annenbergs Biography of America videos, websites like Schmoop, etc. By giving students choice in how they study I hope to encourage the development of their learning modalities. There are times I expect certain readings to be completed because they are connected to class activities (chapters from Zinn's A People's History of the United States or primary/second source documents), but in general there are always a number of options for reviewing course material.
Myron Dueck's Grading Smarter Not Harder inspired me to really think about the ways students would "show" what they are learning. Additionally, his argument about grading policies and the use of zero's pushed me to reflect on the value I place on giving assignments points rather than providing students multiple opportunities to reach learning targets. I started to create a document called "Student Learning Objectives" for each unit of student so that students knew exactly what to expect in class. Students learned that what we practice under "Skill Targets" won't be graded, but the "Product Targets" will be. My focus for assessment is on how the students show their learning instead of what they know. There is a tremendous learning curve for students because they often want "credit" for everything that they do in class. They want the points just because they did something. So many of their teacher give stamps and checkmarks for completion and students know they just have to turn in the assignment to get the points. I want to continue challenging them to value the process of learning over the final grade. But this is extremely difficult in an AP class. The high stakes test already creates anxiety, but I try my best to de-emphasize the text but know that what we practice in class will definitely prepare them well.
Goals for This Year
What the hell is water?
For the last couple years, as my senior AVID students entered the room on the first day, I played pomp and circumstance. Then we watched this commencement speech video about David Foster Wallace's essay, "This is water." Every time I read the words or see the video, I am moved by the simplicity of the argument but ponder the complexities embedded in the challenge for how we lead our daily lives. My intention is not to dwell on Wallace's description of a mundane existence where we, as "adults," do the same tasks over and over again, which breeds boredom and unnecessary anger. Instead, I hoped to talk about the act of choosing and the notion of awareness.
Wallace suggests that there is more to education than knowledge.
Sometimes, as educators, we forget that we too are surrounded by "water." It is easy to think, "oh that's not my problem" or "I can only control what happens in my classroom." Sometimes we even ignore the social context of our own classroom hoping that problems will solve themselves, the quiet students will soon muster the courage to speak up, or that the silent bullying will eventually go away. The hard lessons that teachers learn include the fact that nothing even goes as planned and there always has to be a plan B, C, and probably D. Being able to "read" the classrooms space takes practice and a willingness to make mistakes.
Teachers make choices every day: what do I teach, do I give a test, should I grade that homework assignment, do I go to that department meeting? The list probably goes on and on. But more importantly we make choices every minute: did that students really "get it," should I review that concept, do I explain that differently, do I need a visual, does that student need a minute to think? Quality teaching can only occur when one reflects on the choices made.
When that student walks in late every day, instead of chiding him or her for being lazy, unorganized, or unmotivated I should consider that something else might be occurring. Instead of yelling or intentionally mocking the student falling asleep every day during 1st period, why not think about the home environment that may or may not allow for a good night's sleep. And instead of telling the students who doesn't get homework done that they are going to fail, why not consider that he or she may not have a quiet space to study at home or time because of a family situation?
Wallace's video says that these types of questions are probably not suitable for all students. But teachers must reflect upon their "natural default setting." What does the setting say about how we think about students, learning, and schooling? We need to raise our awareness and consciousness to include the possibility that we too have choices. We choose to make each day a learning experience that will change each student's life. We choose to smile, wave, and joke with our students because we are all human and need to express our positive emotions. We choose to create spaces where experimenting, failing, and reflecting are normal processes.
There isn't one final answer (it's not a multiple choice test after all). But we must continually tell ourselves: This is water.
In the last few years, I have become more "connected" as an educator through the use of social media. I had been opposed to the use of Twitter, primarily because I had only seen it used by my students to distract themselves from class or homework. However, a colleague of mine explained how she used Twitter to connect with fellow educators in order to get new ideas and inspiration. I was wary of joining my first Twitter chat and just "lurked" for a while. Learning the language and trying to gather your thoughts in 140 characters was quite a challenge. It was through the exposure to some amazing educators, their tweets, and their blogs, that I decided writing my own blog would be an effective way of reflecting.
But what do I have to say? And if I say anything, will anyone actually listen? So many thoughts about schooling and education research fill my mind as I am completing my PhD in education. I just spent the last few hours coding some of my data, which are book club discussions about dystopian fiction and how youth explain their understanding of power, identity formation, and resistance. But this post is not about that. It's really about one question: Why did you enter a PhD program?
Two years ago I sat at the CA chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME) with my advisor and she asked this important question. I stared at her for what felt like a few dreadful minutes. Why? Who asks that? Actually, it's one of the most common questions I get. Well that and how much is it going to cost and what do you plan on doing after you are done? I looked at my professors, a woman who has inspired me to be a better educator and a better person. She pushes me to think about schooling as a process whereby teachers and students can make a different in the world. I didn't want to be wrong. I didn't want to give an answer that would make her seem like she was wasting her time. When I think back to that moment, I wonder how many time my own students feel this same way.
I told her that I certainly wasn't in it for the money. She laughed. What I said was that I looked into PhD programs because I did not want to be a complacent teacher who did the same thing year in and year out until retirement. I too wanted to feel challenged by learning some about myself, about my students, and about education. Being in a doctoral program has been one of the most challenging and fulfilling processes. From day one, I was challenged to think about research, education, and teaching differently. Now I am not saying that every one should go out and get another degree; however, there is certainly a need for educators to continue honing their craft. If we don't ask questions or seek inspiration to make every day a new experience for ourselves, and most importantly, for our students, then we can't expect to see any change for our world.
As I get closer to finishing my dissertation, the first thought I had was that I would no longer have access to academic journals. I never realized how much I love and revel in new scholarship. In fact, it wasn't until I became a doctoral student that I found my passion for presenting at conferences. The only way that education is going to change for the better is if teachers actively seek ways of being that change. Teacher conferences are my favorite. Participants show up to your session because they are interested in the topic. Sometimes a few walk about - but I do not take it personally. The subject wasn't what they wanted at that moment. Teachers give honest feedback. I learn more from the questions and comments I receive, which makes me a better presenter and helps me shape my ideas.
So I take this foray into blogging for many reasons. First, I have never written so much in my life before starting a PhD; however, I learned that writing helps me crystallize my thoughts and forces me to organize my ideas. Second, I want to actively contribute to my field. Teachers have a lot to say about what they experience in the classroom and this is one platform upon which we can build networks of support. Finally, I want to challenge myself to actively reflect upon my teaching. A student recently interviewed me about being a teacher and one of her questions regarded what I liked about teaching. My initial response response was that every day is different and every day is on opportunity to learn. I want to take more time to think about those moments.
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