My goal for the summer was to read widely and regularly. It’s my goal every summer, but I think I have accomplished that better this year than I have since my children were born – they are nearly 11 and pretty self-sufficient throughout the day. I am unable to concentrate on anything too substantive during the year, unless it is directly related to what I am teaching. During a regular week, I struggle to find a few hours where I can unplug, be silent, and focus on reading. Most of my reading happens in bed as I try to stay awake or fall asleep, depending on the night and the time. Part of the problem comes from a busy shedule, but much of it comes from having a mind that is too busy. I think this is a hurdle many of our students face. We like to blame their phones, but even without technological distraction, it is hard to see them feeling like they can take a few hours to focus on a single thing that requires attention and energy. Their attention is pulled in many directions and their energy regularly runs low.
Having the time to read and think about what I am reading has inspired me. Here are just two of the concrete examples I can point to where my summer reading is influencing me as a teacher:
Last year, with my Research Seminar I gave over control of the curriculum to the students. They learned what they wanted, how they wanted, and they chose how to demonstrate their learning to me and their classmates. I asked them how they wanted to be graded – on process or product – and then proceeded accordingly. At the end of the marking period, I wrote a narrative evaluation of their work and shared what I thought their grade should be in individual conferences. I invited their input, but as I think about it, it probably would have been hard for them to question me one on one, no matter how much trust we had built up. Inspired by Mark Barnes in Assessment 3.0 I am going to share my observations with my students this year, but I will let them evaluate and grade themselves, based on the criteria we agree upon as a class. (Note – I would not grade them at all if I was not required to enter a grade on the report card). There is a part of me that is nervous about giving up this level of control, but I also know in my heart that with regular feedback and reflection, they will do a great job.
The US History class I teach is thematic, and throughout the year there are a number of projects including a research paper where students are free to choose their own topics. That level of student ownership has been great, but I like balancing that with common work, so that we have some shared learning experiences. Inspired by Andrew Hartman’s book, A War for the Soul of America, I started thinking about whether or not there should be a common list of things that all Americans should know, and if so what would be on it. I still don’t know how I feel about it, but I am going to have my students attempt to create their own list while reading Paul Boyer’s American History: A Very Short Introduction (the book we begin the course reading). At the same time, we will try to create a list of essential questions that we want to address during the course of the year. These lists will be open to discussion, evaluation and editing as the year moves on. They will be thinking about content, but also about the meaning of the content, and the question of what content should be privileged over other content.
My summer of reading has led to a feeling of renewal. I have felt joy and a reawakened ability to sit still, be still and focus that has left me wondering how to sustain that for myself and how to help my students achieve that during the school year. I have spent years trying to unlock the secret of work/life balance during the school year. It might be that what I need is a rebalancing of attention – punctuating the busy day to day, hour to hour tasks with a regular period of solitude with a single book, one that entices me to interact with it.