The day I told my students not to study…

It has been my goal to foster the idea of a learning community in my classroom. Because it is a stand alone class, my senior elective has become my laboratory for experimenting. Last year I adopted a nimble curriculum that allowed us to move to topics of interest on any given day. We shared two common books, but students researched other topics of their choosing within the broad framework of modern Asia. I gave a “pop exam” the Monday after Thanksgiving, where I asked students questions I thought were essential to the course. They submitted their work at the end of the period, as a test for me and the course. I would be able to tell how much they had internalized without preparation. Then, they had a week to finish and revise before they submitted their answers for a grade.

This year I am taking additional steps to empower the students, and check for learning. My first student presentation was two days ago. I have not seen the class since. When the students arrived at class, I asked them to write on an index card what they learned from the girl’s presentation about the Great Leap Forward in China. There was some outrage when I said they could not look at their notes. One student even asked me the purpose of notes. I pointed out that they did not need notes if those were just to look up information. If taking notes helps with attention, focus, or processing, it is worth taking them. I told them I would not grade this card but rather the collection of notecards once the presentations are done. I also want to give them the chance to go back and talk to the presenter if there is a topic they are not so comfortable with. On the back of the card, they were to write any questions they had after the presentation that we could investigate further.

The notecards were pretty good, for the most part. They had understood the key events and historical dynamics and they had some specific details. I will do the same next class for the presentation that was today. I told them not to study their notes in preparation. I do not want them to study right before class, either. I want to assess what they internalized. I do not think I have ever really actively told students not to prepare for an assessment. Is this a win, either way? Or is this a failure if they actively prepare?

While I am committed to the idea of meaningful learning and shared responsibility for teaching, I am still working this through. I will be challenged again when we discuss the different books the students read on China. They had a choice of three different books. Once we finish research presentations, I will wrap my head around how to discuss multiple books at once.

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ABD – and why

It came out of nowhere and hit me hard. I realized why I never finished my dissertation and thus will have spent four plus years in grad school to earn the label ABD (all but dissertation). It turns out that I never really cared about my topic. It was not mine. It was something my advisor thought I should write, and since I did not have a better idea, I gave it a shot.

Throughout school I had muscled through papers I did not enjoy. This time, however, it was just too much time and work for me to push through. My advisor had a vision for what he wanted me to write, and It did not come easily to me. I enjoyed the background reading somewhat and I really did like the archival work, but I could not write the dissertation.

I was teaching part-time and writing, but I found any reason to work on my teaching and not my writing. I thought I needed the proverbial bucket of glue to keep myself at my desk. What I really lacked was passion.

Through the avoidance of writing, I discovered what I truly love. My passion is teaching. And by teaching I mean working with students to help them learn and grow – not standing in front of them showing them what I know. I never was great at the college lecture model. I love history; reading the stories of people and their choices is endlessly interesting to me. But I am passionate about teaching. I gravitate to articles about teaching and learning. I try new techniques. I think about my teaching a lot. This blog is evidence of that. I am able to get into the zone where I lose track of time and just feel so alive and full of purpose. I never really felt that way when I was attempting to be a scholar.

My dissertation was my advisor’s passion, not mine. I have followed my mother’s advice from when I was growing up when she told me to do what I loved and I would end up loving what I do. It took me a little while to sort it out, but now I have. My new challenge is to take the next step and empower my students to learn through their passions and do their work, not mine.

Reading in Class – A Live Blog Experiment

This could be really interesting, or not. It is Friday afternoon and I am having my last period class of seniors – read. They had a choice of three books to read about contemporary China, so they are not all reading the same thing. I first thought I would model for them and read alongside them, but then I got this idea.

I am hoping that by watching them read, I can learn a bit more about them. So far, it is quiet and everyone seems to be focused. Nobody is sleeping and pages are turning. Most kids have found their way to the comfortable furniture, but that is not unique to today. A few kids are breaking their concentration and having a very quiet conversation. The only discernible phrase to me was “Tiananmen Square” so I think they were on topic. A few kids are listening to music but they are focused. It is actually hard for me to sit here and watch them read. A few eyes are getting heavy, but so far, fifteen minutes in, all are still awake. There is some fidgeting, but not too much. One student just shifted seats, perhaps an attempt to be less comfortable and less tempted to sleep. Nope, he is trying to get more comfortable.

One student came over to ask a question about what she was reading, and I discovered that she is almost to the point I set as a goal for next week – she is reading ahead. Every once in a while a see someone with an amused look. One student just took a very long drink of water and is visibly slumping. Another just tried to move his early dismissal for sports up by 25 minutes. That caused a bit of a break in the concentration, but we seem to have gotten it back. Wow – someone has given up a chair to lay down on the hard floor. After about 40 minutes, I am going to allow them to shift to working on their research projects for the last half hour. This is clearly a lot for some of them.

So, I think I am concluding that I need to devote class time to reading. There is nothing like spending classtime on an activity to show students you value it. There is also something about the structure of the class and the community of the group that is useful. I will be interested to see what their take on it is. Now that I have given kids the option to shift to research, about one third of them did. The rest are still reading. One student is taking a suspiciously long time to return a Kindle to the library. Just discovered him in the hall working with the two other students who shifted to research.

I left the room for a few minutes and came back to find the students still reading. After a brief interlude to point out to me a passage that she found interesting, it was back to the book for one girl. WIth seven minutes to go in a 70 minute class at the end of the day on Friday, there are more than half of the students still engaged in their books. I’ll take it.

PS After an end of class debrief, the kids appreciated the time to read but they disagreed about when the best timing would be. Next idea – flex time.