As I lay wake in bed last night, I reflected on my first semester as a teacher at CHS.
In an effort to not lie awake tonight, I decided to put my thinking about my classes on paper. I think it’s important that we, as teachers, think about our successes as well as about where we think we fell short. Far too often, I think, we focus on our failures to the exclusion of the things that we do effortlessly and well.
This is the reflection I submitted to Carrie this morning about my III/IV class.
Reflection for the End of Term 1, September 2009 to January 2010, for English III/IV
I am inordinately pleased with the work that was done in my English III/IV class this term. Given that this was my first experience teaching at CHS and that I had a class composed of students who demonstrated vastly different levels of ability and motivation, I can say with a high degree of confidence that every single one of the students comes away from our time together with stronger reading, writing, and thinking skills.
My primary focus in any class I teach is the establishment of a strongly cohesive learning community. As a practitioner of the Harkness method of teaching, I center my classroom around whole-group conversations in which I strive to be more of a guide or moderator than a leader. The only way Harkness teaching works is if the students are willing to buy into the idea that they are responsible for the ideas that are discussed and the avenues of thinking that are investigated. This class adapted exceedingly well to this method of instruction due mostly, I think, to the fact that there are several energetic thinkers in the group who were not only willing to express that thinking, but who were also ready to help their classmates long in their own thinking process. Two or three of the students did most of the intellectual “heavy lifting” in the beginning of the term, but I watched as more and more students began to get the hang of the course. By about Thanksgiving, nearly everyone in the class was an active participant.
I was surprised to find that a significant number of the students in this course were lacking in some of what I consider to be the more foundational writing skills, so a fair bit of time was devoted to the steps of the writing process. A number of students – and two in particular – resisted this method, which involves prewriting and drafting, because they’ve been conditioned (or conditioned themselves) to think that if they couldn’t turn out a perfect piece of work on the first try, they didn’t want to do the work at all. More than a few students struggled mightily with the idea that I expected their initial drafts to be bad, and their discomfort with the process of revising and editing led them to refuse to participate in it at all. As a result, I feel that the students’ writing as a whole has not improved as much as I would have hoped.
I am delighted, however, by what I see as a significant improvement in their critical thinking and inquiry skills. In the beginning of the semester, I had a room full of students who could tell me with some authority what the plot of something was. We could talk with confidence about who the characters were and what they did, but most of the students couldn’t articulate the “whys” of the thing. They had profound trouble expressing what I call the “big ideas,” though; the themes of a story or the motivations of characters to behave or speak the way they do. As the semester progressed, however, I watched as more and more “light bulbs” turned on, and students began to understand not only the breadth of what we were examining, but the depth, as well.
I knew that important work was being done when the students began to call up experiences they had outside of class to help them articulate the work we were doing in it. My favorite story of the semester is about Kiki, who was struggling with the concept of honor in the context of the film The Last Samurai. Several of her peers were arguing against a character’s decision to end his life in ritual suicide, and Kiki was trying to explain to them that, in that person’s culture and that person’s understanding, what he was doing was the only right thing to do. She experienced a “light bulb” moment just then – her eyes got huge, she banged the table with her fist – and she then proceeded to explain the idea of situational ethics in terms of a television show she knows I am familiar with. She explained, clearly and enthusiastically, how the characters in that show behave in ways that we – we there in the classroom – find abhorrent, but that we completely understand in terms of the lives those characters lead and the culture in which those characters exist.
Kiki’s explanation was a perfect example of the kind of thinking I ask my students to demonstrate, and hers is not the only story I have from this class. I want for my students to be able to take the things we learn and experience in the classroom and apply them to the questions and situations they encounter in their everyday lives. That’s the purpose of teaching critical thinking skills and I count this semester, for this class, as a resounding success.
Where I fell short is in inspiring my students to work for me on the page. I encountered a similar problem in this class that I did in my English I/II class (and that several of my colleagues have expressed as a concern for them, as well); students simply didn’t do the work that was assigned to them. The work they did turn in was most often well done – and was occasionally exceptional – but I found that they were, to a student, inconsistent about putting forth the effort to get the work done in the first place. I will continue to reflect on this aspect of this semester; while I’m not willing to take on full responsibility for my students’ willingness to do work outside of class (we can only lead horses to water, after all), I am not unmindful of the idea that I can do more to inspire my students to want to do the work I ask of them.
Overall, I am profoundly proud of the work these students can do as a result of the time we’ve spent together. They have engaged and delighted me, and I send them off confident that they’ll be able to meet many of the challenges they will face as they continue their education beyond CHS’s walls.