Saturday, June 24, 2017

New Courses Lead To New Opportunities

This fall, my husband and I are expecting our third (and final) child. In October/November, our children will be turning three, two, and newborn. The closeness in age between my two daughters has been such a blessing to our family, and we are beyond excited to be adding the"epic conclusion" to our trilogy. Organized chaos is the only term that seems appropriate to describe both our personal and professional lives which have melded into one, and we sincerely embrace the pandemonium that we have created. Teaching during the day while co-coaching and co-parenting after school with two small children in our arms have only made my family stronger - physically (holding children for prolonged periods of time has a way of toning the triceps) and emotionally. Of course the pace our lives move at is brisk, but as a teacher, I had already become accustomed to fatigue long before babies entered my world. Chomping on Cheerios with the little ones in between critiquing the elocutionary shenanigans of my "big kids" fill my afternoons seven months of the year.

To assist me in finding some work-life balance, my course load has taken on a routine over the past few school years. Teaching familiar courses and collaborating with teams that have seen little alteration, has allowed me to continue functioning. This coming school year, however, I will take on a course I have yet to teach in my instructional career and will be teaming up with new faces. Change is often regarded as a challenge, and it certainly is, but aside from the time required to make any small deviation from the norm successful, I am eager to open a fresh page and tackle uncharted territory.

What I find rejuvenating about the opportunity to pursue courses I have yet to teach is the opportunity to explore texts that I have not visited since my high school days, engage in conversations about literary devices and character development with adults and students alike, and the task of crafting lessons that focus on students current needs and perspectives. Situations, resources, and events alter so quickly in our world that the prospect of developing curriculum at this moment to reflect the present time is exciting. The taxing part, however, is beginning. Like a young person who sits at a blank Google Doc contemplating how to start a literary analysis, I found myself at the end of this past school year, overwhelmed with where to begin. Pacing a course is always a concern of mine. Wanting to stimulate and stretch students' abilities in a manner that is rigorous but also promotes a strong sense of academic curiosity is no easy feat. Cognitive dissonance is valuable but can also deter a desire to learn. So where to begin?

1. Start with the Skills

Initially, I sat down at my keyboard and brainstormed a list of skills students need to master before moving forward. Promoting literacy skills - the ability to read, write, speak, and listen - is essential. Students need to be utilizing and applying these skills each day and need to be taught to value how interconnected they are. Not only do literacy skills matter in an English classroom, but they also matter in all academic areas not to mention their daily lives. Finding ways to hone these skills is essential no matter the curriculum or content being presented. Examining the curriculum map and required skills that have been crafted by divisional leaders and course curriculum designers is also essential. The more coherent and collaborative level-based teachers are, the more continuity can be created for our students. Learning is a staircase and helping students take the appropriate steps and relying on the knowledge they have been previously taught only enhances their ability to succeed and grow.

2. Establish a Theme and Vision for the Course

After exploring the curriculum map, talking with colleagues, and reflecting on the essential learning targets, I wanted to find a way to create cohesion in the content that I will be included. While some predetermined texts have already been selected for me, I do have some freedom to select shorter works, nonfiction articles, and a second novel to incorporate into my new course. Determining a theme and reflecting on my own experiences with students, I began scouring the Internet to find pieces to pair with Catcher in the Rye that will pique students' interest and allow them to discover nuances and make richer connections between their reading and their lives. As I began to reflect on the cynicism of Holden Caufield which is used as a device to mask his sensitivity and attempts to cope with life challenges, I began to realize that our experiences significantly impact our perceptions. While Holden can be labeled as jaded or spoiled, he's lost and struggling to cope with the situations that life has presented to him, much like many teens who are searching for a better understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. In addition to critical academic skills that will help a student succeed in a classroom setting, I want to cultivate empathy in my students. This coming semester, I will teach to the American Dream while also encouraging students to examine their communities, to reflect upon how their actions and choices impact others, and to seek out ways in which they can make a positive mark on the people they encounter every day. To instill these ideas, I crafted a list of "life challenges" that I will present my students with each week. Each week, students will be asked to give three arbitrarily selected compliments to people they would not normally speak with or give a gift (even a homemade token or item from a vending machine) to someone who appears to need a bit of encouragement, or some small task like this. Each Friday, I intended to have students blog about their experience and what they have learned. Hopefully, these modest but intentional tasks will allow them to think deeply about their roles in the lives of others and reflect on what that means for us as readers of literature, writers, and communicators.

3. Dive into the Curriculum

Strong teachers are perpetual learners. This summer, I am tackling a reading list that not only contains the texts I will be teaching in the fall but also reading a selection of texts that will help me live out the themes I hope to teach my students. Personally, I love nonfiction and motivational books. I love reading books on personal growth and perspectives on how to view the world. One of my favorite reads from last summer was Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't by James C. Collins. This summer, my favorite nonfiction read has been 59 Seconds: Persuasion: Think A Little, Change a Lot by Richard Wisemen, highlight different methods that people can apply during communicative experiences to win over audiences, and make a substantial impact on those we meet. Many of these strategies are discussed in speech courses and could be considered common sense, but so often we learn these lessons through communication mishaps and failures. While I read this book, I slowed my reading pace down to take notes and consider how the persuasive techniques and strategies that I was being presented to me could be incorporated into my course. I attempted to make connections to how Holden and many teens simply do not understand how to present themselves, how to express their ideas, and engage in self-disclosure as a means of positively fostering relationships. I am excited to utilize some of the anecdotes and examples from this text to my students and even suggest it as a free reading choice during the I-Search project my students will complete at the end of the year.

4. Create a Tentative Plan and Leave Room for Deviation

During the middle of this semester, I am anticipating a maternity leave. While I am not due until the very end of October and could be gone for the last six weeks of the semester (which I am sure would make my sub's job easier), my last daughter decided to arrive early - a whole month early. With a history of expeditious punctuality and a few warnings from my doctor, I have a feeling that this child will follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Considering my life situation and the fact that I am a planner (to a slightly neurotic degree), I have begun to map out a detailed daily schedule. This level of preparation is not necessary, but it provides me with peace of mind. Having some semblance of a schedule, with an estimation of unit lengths, is essential and also bolsters both synergy and cohesion of skills throughout the semester. Themes and connections are also easier for teachers and students alike when a general calendar is laid out ahead of time. Developing this type of schedule also allows for backward mapping, which is helpful when attempting to develop authentic assessments that measure student growth and progress accurately. One token that I have learned from my impulse to over-prepare is to always build in additional time. Whether a project needs to be extended or simply a discussion warrants the need for further exploration, having extra time allows a teacher to differentiate instruction and gear curriculum to the individual students enrolled in any given course. Being flexible enough to take the time to thoroughly revisit a skill or delve into an activity is so critical for student learning and development.

5. Don't Forget the Fun

Learning requires work! Honing skills, writing, and reading a text might not always be students' favorite experience. That is okay. But when we allow them to demonstrate knowledge in different ways, utilize various tools (that involve technology and more traditional approaches), and vary our class period structure keep learning fun. When we carefully relate content to the present day, incorporate multimedia, and find ways to make learning more student-centered, the careful thought that is required pays off. By instilling our passion and personality into lesson planning, we can only enhance our students' experiences and their overall perception of the course. In a learning environment that leans into fun, students are far more likely to be successful and grow not only as students but also individuals.

I can't wait to see what this fall brings. New experiences both in the classroom and beyond can only lead to wonderful discoveries.

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