At the end of every school year, I do a lot of reflection. I have my students complete surveys, and I think through a lot of what I did throughout the year. This year brought about a lot changes in my classroom, so there’s been a lot of reflecting to do with this school year. I’ve learned a ton this year that has helped me in the classroom, and I would say this has probably been one of my most successful years. Thinking back, two things really pop up when I think about what made this year so successful: student choice and student-centered.
I read the book 180 Days by Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle last summer, and it really changed my perception of teaching an English class. So I changed up some of my curriculum. Almost everything went to student choice. I had my students read a book every day at the beginning of class for 10 minutes. For at least half of the year, the students had complete freedom of choice in what they read during the independent reading time. At other times throughout the year they read in book clubs groups, but they still had options to choose from. Only twice in the year did I have them all read the same book.
I realized that I was always making them read something that I chose, and even though I tried to choose books that would be interesting, I just couldn’t find something that worked for everyone. One of my biggest struggles has always been to get students to read books. They just aren’t interested in reading books when they get into high school. This year was different, though. I still worked to teach them literary analysis, I just did it with books they were interested in. They broke down characterization, theme, the effect of a setting on mood, and so on. They just did it on their own turf. I’ve gotten a lot of similar feedback from this year from students that could be summed up with this response from one of my students: “I haven’t read a book since elementary school, but now I have read at least 2 of them this year and it’s all because of book choice.”
I did a similar thing with writing. Almost everything they wrote was their choice of topic. What I realized is that this taught them some other thinking skills. A lot of my students had a really difficult time thinking of ideas at the beginning of the year. They wanted me to just give them a topic to write about, but I worked with them to help them brainstorm and come up with ideas, to access the creative side of themselves. There was a lot of self-exploration involved in this, so they learned a little about themselves as well.
Research suggests that one-on-one conferencing is one of the most effective methods of teaching. A lot of teachers don’t do this often because of the time efficiency of it. It simply takes too much time, and you can’t get to every student every day. I was doing something new this year, so I just went for it and dived right into the deep end.
During the 10-minute reading time, I would make my way around the room and talk to as many students about their book as I could. I tried to get about 5 students each day. This meant that I got to talk to each student roughly once a week, a little less in some of my larger classes. This is where I helped them work on their reading and analyzing skills. I would ask them questions about their book based mostly on where they were in the book. I talked to them about character development, conflict development, symbolism, theme, all of it. If they were having trouble with a concept, I would ask them questions to help them through the thinking behind the analysis. The best part was that I hadn’t read a majority of the books they were reading, so I wouldn’t have the tendency to give them information. I just focused on asking questions.
I did the same for the writing time. Each day, they would spend 20-25 minutes on a work in progress. While they were working, I walked around the room and read their current progress. Then I would have a conversation with them about what I noticed when I read. I would give them feedback on their writing and suggest things they could do to improve the composition. I usually got around to about 10 students each day, so I usually got in 2-3 conversations for each writing composition.
Doing this helped me get real-time information about my students, and I was able to adjust my instruction as I saw issues across the board in class. Otherwise, I just worked with each student on specifics.
First things first, this method of instruction was completely exhausting. I felt like I had run a marathon each day. I realized how much time I actually wasted in past years, giving instruction and then letting them work for days at a time. It was exhausting, but it was better.
Student engagement was the highest it’s ever been in my class. I’l admit that I’ve struggled a lot in years past to keep students engaged with my class. A lot of them simply don’t like reading or writing. When I turned it around on them and made them pick topics and subject that they were interested in. I didn’t have to try so much to keep them engaged because they were naturally engaged. Additionally, I didn’t have nearly as many discipline problems either because they were less “bored” than normal.
Grades also went up. I had fewer missing assingments, so naturally grades were higher throughout the year. As far as achievements went, my 3 honors and 3 collab classes scored just above the district average on our common assessments.
As for the students’ perceptions, I’ve gotten mostly positive feedback from my students. Many of them have made great strides not only in their abilities, but also their perception of my class. I have students who are reading on their own who never would have before. I have students who are writing and enjoying it. It’s not been 100% of course, but it’s been incredibly successful.