The ongoing reflective home of the New York City Social Studies CFG.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Struggles in Teaching Practice: How to be More Student Centered and Driven

As the call for progress reports went out, I found it hard to believe that a quarter of the year was done.  I’ve pretty much felt like I’ve been in warm up mode thus far, which among other things, has meant I have yet to begin a project with my students, or any other form of assessment beyond essays and written check-ins.  Whereas there has been some inquiry, it has all been bounded, with me doing the research work.  I’ve yet to set my students free to come to their own conclusions from their own information.  I’m grappling with how to make my Government & Economics course more student-centered and driven.

This has never been a problem for me before.  In all previous history courses, I’ve maintained a good balance of a few weeks of content, followed by a few weeks with students doing inquiry-based project work related to the previous weeks’ content (at least until the end of the year, when my class became a test prep factory).  I’m having a hard time trying to figure out why this is an issue this year.

Part of me just feels overwhelmed my the sheer amount of information students should know to be active and reasonable democratic citizens in our quasi-capitalist economy.  My nature as a history teacher was to reduce what I was supposed to teach (do they really need to understand the Proclamation Line of 1763? I think not), whereas I now find myself thinking expansively about what students should understand (I mean, how could I not help students understand Judith Butler’s theory of gender peformativity when talking about identity).  I also find myself embracing the ability to drop everything and discuss current events.  Thus far we’ve spent a couple days on Troy Davis, a day on Steve Jobs, and a week on Occupy Wall Street and direct democracy.  I feared that this would be something I would not be able to bring myself to do.  Perhaps I’ve gone too far, though.

Struggles In Teaching Practice: When Students Aren't Learning

This school year I have fully implemented a grading system based on skills and learning targets.  It uses rubrics drafted in collaboration with my grade team and, more specifically, our 10th grade English teacher.  Due to this change, for the first time in my teaching career, I really feel I have a sense of my students’ knowledge of material, their standing within a specific skill, and ultimately, their progress in my course.  My special education co-teacher and I are able to pull up a student from our class and immediately recognize where they are with the material.  We have gathered so much meaningful data that it has changed the conversations we have about our students, made “kid talk” more productive, and allowed us to assess our students better.

The issue I’m struggling with in my teaching practice is what to do when students aren’t learning the material.  Now that we have this enlightening data, what do we do with it? 

Throughout my five years of teaching, I have always struggled with designing interventions to help students who aren’t doing well in my course.  But before, when grades were based on points given for the number of assignments completed, the issue seemed arbitrary.  If grades are based on assignment completion, then the obvious intervention for a student who is not doing well in class is to get him or her to complete more assignments.  However, if grades are based on something different, on actual student learning, the intervention is murkier.  A student may not being meeting proficiency in my course because of their attendance, because of struggles with reading or writing, or simply because they don’t eat breakfast. 

Students would need a tailor made intervention to their particular breed of struggle.

Sounds revolutionary, right?

I’m not opposed to this conclusion; however, needs-based interventions are outside the realm of what teachers have traditionally been prepared and trained to do.  I have great fears on what this entails in the expanding role of teachers and for the professional development and support necessary to confront this task. 

Second Meeting: Current Struggles in Teaching Practice

At our second meeting, we began what will become our regular format.  We considered current struggles in our teaching practice and then had presentations from two colleagues, Kate and Steve.

Kate presented a curriculum map for her 10th grade Global History course using the Tuning A Plan Protocol

Steve presented student work from a recent DYO assessment in his 12th grade Government course using the Tuning Protocol.

The writing prompt was:

What are you currently struggling with in your teaching practice?

A Change In My Practice: Thematic Curriculum

This change is at the front of my mind because ever since I have decided to make it, I have been constantly questioning if it is the right decision.

I am transitioning from teaching history chronologically to teaching history thematically.

I have taught 10th grade Global History for four years now (teaching for five).  I have worked diligently to develop engaging and insightful units, based them on the Global History Regents.  I have sacrificed skills for content and have felt that I have come up short in my actual purpose for teaching history.  This last year, my Regents results took a dip, and I realized that I was no longer engaging with the content and no longer forcing my students to develop critical thinking and writing skills.  Instead, I was teaching to a test that doesn't ask them to do either.

I believed that the solution to this problem was to attempt to embed skills more overtly into my units and develop curriculum around themes that would most resonate with my students (and with myself).

With the implementation of the Common Core and the coming changes to assessments, I believe that future Regents exams will need to ask students to do MORE and be MORE rather than less.  I feel like structuring a class around these Common Core skills will serve to make my students more successful beyond the Regents.

But that is IF I want the Regents in Global History to continue to be my personal benchmark of success.  I have many concerns about this new approach and am hoping that this Critical Friends Group will help to clarify and solidify this change in practice.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A Change in My Practice: Reading For Understanding in My Class

I am beginning my fourth year teaching in New York City.

During the first two years of my career, I had the opportunity to work with highly skilled students at a school that I described as "suburban-urban." My students came from homes that not only valued education, but made sure that the students' learning carried well beyond the confines of the traditional school day. For these reasons and more, teaching reading skills was not a part of my practice, despite the fact that if you cannot read, you cannot "do" history.

Last year, I was presented the challenge of working with many students who had neither the skills nor the home life of the ones that I left in Queens. Soon after the year started, I realized I need to change what I was doing with my students. After meeting with my new ICT partner, we decided that reading skills would need to be an essential part of our class. Taking a suggestion from our principal, my partner had previously used reading symbols that had improved students' abilities to complete readings and answer accompanying questions. The basic concept had students "Marking Up" readings using symbols such as "*" (star) for information that is important, "?" for developing clarifying questions and "S" for areas of the reading that surprised them (there are three more advanced symbols that students will learn in the future) . My hope was that by interacting with text, students would be able to slow down their process and gain a better understanding of what they were reading. We focused on these symbols for the first month or two of the year, but after falling out of practice using them in class, we learned a cardinal rule of teaching: If you're not consistent with practice and clear with expectations, whatever you are doing will not work.

This year, I returned with a clear goal in mind:

Teach, and be consistent with the use of, the first three "Mark Up" symbols to ensure that my students master them by the end of the first semester in January.

While teaching these classes and skills can often be difficult (and dare I say boring) for both student and teacher, I am committed to this change (within a change) because I believe it can begin to address the greatest academic deficiency for my students. I look forward to gathering data and sharing my findings on this blog in the future.

A Change in Practice: How I Use Primary Documents

Last year, I began really changing how I used primary source documents in class. For most of my career, I used primary documents to give students factual information and eyewitness accounts to what was going on in various times and places. I had somewhat blindly accepted that it was better to use primary document to “bring history alive,” rather than relying on the deadened accounts found in textbooks. I also imagined I was “empowering” my students to become historical interpreters, rather than relying on politically correct interpretations put forth in the textbook. In reality though, I don’t believe my students experienced primary documents that differently from how they would have experienced the textbook. I wasn’t teaching them to interpret, but rather to find factual information in relatively unproblematic texts I had chosen with a clear takeaway in mind.

Last year, I began doing much more work putting primary documents in opposition to each other. This forced students to do the critical work of historians in order to construct history for their selves. I began selecting primary document sets that, if not outright contradicting each other, forced students to take multiple documents into account in order to draw complex conclusions about causation and historical significance. Very much connected, I shifted from having my students do analytical writing to doing persuasive writing using primary documents, thereby forcing them to use the documents as evidence to support their claims.

I initially made the change because I realized that in my previous years teaching US, I wasn’t really having my students doing much thinking about history outside of their project work. When I began constructing a new global curriculum last year, I wanted to ensure students were playing authentic roles not only on projects, but also regularly in class. While my major assessments had always asked students to include more than “just the facts,” the way students had been learning hadn’t done the same. I was asking myself, “How can this work be more engaging, challenging, and worthwhile?”

My initial change was just on some gut hunches; I’m not sure I could have articulated any of this at the time. The “data” that led me to the change was the mostly boring writing I was getting from students. Once upon a time I had looked forward to reading student essays, but I realized that since I was no longer asking students to think in service of the Regents gods, I was also not getting the best work from students that allowed them some level of individual expression.

I knew the change was successful when students started being excited by what they found in primary documents, and when I saw them actually using that information in their work on a regular basis.

My thinking on this got pushed exponentially farther than it ever would have otherwise when I started working on the NYC local assessment pilot for the new teacher evaluation system. The three other people on my team were all brilliant at doing this kind of work. Most importantly, they named some of the things I had been doing, but not doing so intentionally, so that I could recreate some of my successes. They also named the specific skills students needed, and gave me tools to teach these skills.

Now, I’m wondering about how to fully integrate this kind of learning into my government & economics course in a way that moves students beyond the dominant “token-liberal vs. token-conservative talking head” political discourse so prevalent right now in the country. How do I get students to move beyond the simplistic “I agree with this perspective over that perspective,” and towards one where they can critically articulate and analyze the rhetorical structures and tools being used to manipulate viewpoints, and the discourse itself.

First Meeting: A Change in Practice

While most meetings will focus on the work of a small group of teachers, the first meeting sought to have everyone participate in thinking about how they improve as teachers.  Using the Change in Practice protocol, each teacher shared a way in which they improved their teachers. Teachers who choose to will be sharing their writing on this site in the coming days.  The prompt was:

Describe a significant change you have made in your practice: 
  • What were you teaching/doing? 
  • What change did you make? 
  • Why did you think you should make a change? How did you know you should be doing something
    differently? Was there a question that led to the change? 
  • How did you decide what to do? Was there data or evidence of some sort that made you think you
    should make a change? 
  • How did you know whether the change was successful/was working? 
  • Who else played a role? 
  • Now, what are you wondering about? 

S2CFG's Mission

The mission of the Social Studies Critical Friends Group (S2CFG) is to provide accomplished social studies teachers, who have foundational experience in the classroom of at least three years, with a peer network to support their continued development beyond that which the small school can always provide.  Taking inspiration from both the National Writing Project and the National School Reform Faculty, S2CFG members will hold monthly in-person meetings in addition to participating in an online network to share and develop best practices, curricular units, and performance tasks.  The group will also provide a forum for teachers to discuss the issues they face in formal or informal leadership roles in their schools.  Members will be expected to produce at least one piece of reflective writing each month about some aspect of their professional practice, as well as present at least two NSRF protocols during the year looking at either their classroom or larger school issues.  Members can expect to gain a wealth of ideas and support from other strong and accomplished social studies teachers.  However, it is our goal that the S2CFG will not only give teachers an increased sense of community and purpose for their own professional lives, but that it will also serve as a springboard to develop teacher-leaders who will serve as professional and curricular developers for the larger education community.  S2CFG will share our work (units, performance tasks, tools and documentation of our project) across networks of schools, and members will have opportunities facilitate and present at various conferences and institutes.