I love my life but it’s exhausting – why my students need to blog.

It’s lunchtime of another hectic day in my life. I have papers to grade, classes to plan, syllabi to update, etc. I have a meeting after school, then it’s home to have dinner with the family, check on homework and get the kids to bed. After that I will be doing triage of what needs to be done for me to be ready for tomorrow. After that, a little time to unwind, hopefully, before getting to bed myself. In between, I will check my Facebook page and my Twitter feed when I get the chance. I will also attend to email during those in between moments. I love my job. It truly energizes me to be teaching and learning with my students and colleagues. I love being connected to people electronically. I love my family. I cannot imagine not having my husband and children in my life.

So, given that I will not give anything up, how do I stay sane? Other than try to get enough sleep and eat reasonably well, the answer has come to be blogging. Taking the time to quietly focus my thoughts and reflect on the things that are on my mind is incredibly helpful. When people ask me how I have the time, the answer is that I make the time because I have really come to rely on it as a way to reflect and recharge.

Many of my students are not that different. They are busy. They either choose to be as busy as they are or do not really have the choice. Either way, they lack the space and time to process their thoughts. I used to think that blogging would be a luxury, an add-on for my classes. Increasingly, I think it is necessary. Now my challenge is to provide the time for my students to put into practice what I am preaching and practicing myself.

Now, after giving myself the permission to pause here, it is time to head back to “To Do” list.


New Course – Fresh Start

I just finished my first draft of the plan for my Modern Middle East course. I know that it is a draft because I always have to adjust as I go. I am really excited and just a little nervous about it. I know the rap on second semester seniors, and I have taught them before so I have experienced the slump. I hope that they will be invested enough to pull it off. The subject matter is too important for them to just sit passively and bide their time.

After looking for a book or two and feeling dissatisfied with my choices, I decided to rely on news sources, articles, and specific excerpts as needed. It feels like the right thing to do, but it is also a little risky because there is no text to default to.

In terms of assessments, I have decided to go public mainly. Student writing will be public in a class blog format that will be accessible to anyone with an internet connection. I am hoping to have students present research in a lunchtime forum format where anyone on campus can come. Given the subject matter, these seem appropriate. I am also planning to have students analyze a news source as an assessment. I am thinking I will assign them an online news source when they arrive in class and they will need to provide a briefing for the articles they find related to the Middle East. That will help me know whether or not I am achieving my goal of having them really able to understand the region enough to make sense of the events.

I saw a fabulous Frontline episode on Syria today which I am hoping to show the end of the first week. It provides an underground look into the resistance and an analysis of how the country got there with the historical context of the Assad regime. It will provide a good touchstone for comparison as well as a model for how we can learn. Get grounded in the current events and then provide the analysis of what has led there.

I also hope to get speakers with some expertise on the region to Skype into the class to provide us with an outside perspective.

I am putting this out there to process it in my mind, and also for my PLN to scrutinize. I am open to suggestions and words of wisdom/caution.


The Challenge of Confusion

I did not realize until I got to graduate school that confusion in my work was actually a positive thing rather than evidence of my shortcomings. In my study of history only uncertainty led to real progress. Although it is a little daunting to think so, I am beginning to believe the same may be true of teaching in the 21st century.

In working with students on research papers, I am trying to encourage them to work through the problems in their projects. Those who craft a research question seeking to avoid possible trouble spots, also avoid complexity and the growth that comes from working through it. If they are not confused and/or stuck at least once, they are not digging deep enough. True meaning comes from wrestling with a broad range of evidence, digging past the obvious, and considering anything that might challenge what you believe to be true. It is only through honestly weighing all of the evidence that you can really know what you believe. Questioning comes at a cost – direction, certainty and confidence.

Teaching can feel the same way at times. I have been diving into some new activities and areas this year – arranging Skype sessions for classes, creating student and class blogs, connecting my students with other students. I have been taking time to explore a vast new array of sources and resources. I am developing a PLN so that professional development is continuous. I am teaching more collaboratively than I have before. Still, there is a nagging voice in my head that reminds me of all of the activities and topics I used to do that I no longer seem to have time to include. I am not certain of the payoff, and I do not always feel effective. While I would like to think that my research analogy would hold here, I am afraid that would be too simplistic. It would imply that once I figure it out I will be fine. More and more I think that teaching will require the courage to face the challenges, embrace the endless possibilities, seek clarity and make game time decisions using my best judgment about what the students in front of me need most. And there are likely to be as many answers as there are students.

What I am most sure about is that while I may have the answers or the formula for a student or a class period, I should not write them down with permanent marker.




Hard Choices

It was serendipitous. Yesterday morning I was scanning my Twitter feed more closely than I have in the past few weeks before diving into grading final papers for my senior elective. I came across something that Becky Ellis posted, an article titled “Meaningful Work: How the History Research Paper Prepares Students for College and Life.” It caught my eye particularly because we are beginning a six-week long research paper in junior year US history classes this week. It has always been one of my favorite parts of the course – I love working with individual students on research and writing. I also really enjoy reading their end products. I have learned so much over the years from my students this way. What I learn through working with kids on this project translates into the rest of my teaching. So far, so good.

Then I began reading the final papers. I wrote extensive comments as usual. When it came time to assign a grade, I was uncomfortable. I found myself tempted to assign grades that I believed were inflated for their work because I was grading to my expectations, not their output. I quickly realized that I could either provide inflated grades and tell the students they were lucky and should not complain, I could provide the grades I thought the papers earned and deal with the backlash, or I could take advantage of having had the final papers due with three weeks left in the course and treat them as drafts. I decided to do the latter. Something had broken down in the process, and I needed to give them time to revise.

So, when the students came to class we had the tough conversation – what they had seen as finished products I was treating as drafts. I had them read over their own papers that they had submitted just before Winter Break; then I began conferences with each one. I sent them back copies with my comments and we postponed the class presentations of research. The room was somber, but there was an underlying feeling of relief for some, who knew they had not submitted their best work. We talked very briefly about the possible reasons for the outcome, including time pressures and multiple commitments, but in the end, everyone got back to work.

The last three weeks in my course have now been changed. I am shifting into research paper mode with my seniors as well, although we are in the draft to final paper stage. I did not provide the check-ins and support for them that I do with my juniors. I think I dropped the ball. Yes, they are seniors, but they do not need to work in a vacuum. In fact, it is probably more valuable for me to model with them how to have productive conversations about their work to help them be able to solicit feedback in the future.

At first, some took it personally that they were not good enough. I stressed that it is exactly because they are better than the papers they turned in that I am having them continue to work on them. I have great confidence that they are capable of more. If I thought they had reached their limits, the call would have been to assign grades and move on.

In both cases, the junior year research paper and the senior elective paper, focusing on process and project means giving up some content. I hate racing through the US survey, but I love having dedicated research time built into the curriculum. I hate not exploring more of Modern Asia,  but I love that I can make the decision to work on the craft of history. Come to think of it, the choices were not so hard.