17-18: Year in Review

Post date: Jun 1, 2018 8:15:28 PM

I've never been so ready for a Summer break. This year was difficult - really difficult. I made more adjustments more often than ever before to try to make it work for my kids. I didn't. It didn't work. I've had endless conversations with my colleagues about how to reach them and teach them and while I think it got better throughout the year the results simply weren't there. So, this won't be the most inspiring of reflections but there is value in reviewing your failures (and admitting to them) in order to move forward.

If nothing else this should be helpful to those who email me and say "I wish I could do what you do!" Believe me, you can! I'm not a magician by any stretch.

So, what went wrong?

Class Make Ups

Due to issues out of my control I had no GATE classes this year and, apparently, will not next year either. I'm a GATE kid myself. I know how they think and many of my lessons, jokes and strategies serve them best. I've always had more on-level kids than GATE but having that outlet for my creativity and personality was a huge uplift every day. Not having that at all this year was draining. Many of my favorite activities such as my History Mysteries work far better with GATE kids. This year I ended up skipping many of them because my kids simply were not ready for the amount of reading required.

I had more kids in reading intervention this year than ever before. I had more kids on IEPs than ever before. It is simply not fair to those kids to expect them to handle the independent nature of many of my "big" activities. As a result, my few high achieving kids missed out as well.

I'll avoid a rant here but "Inclusion" is a failed experiment already. It was awful for my SPED kids and it was awful for my high achievers. Throwing them all into one class - even one like mine where differentiation is built in to the core with CYOA - doesn't work. By serving all we are serving none. Unfortunately, I expect more of this next year.

Skipping Steps

My class assumes, at this point, that students have had instruction in writing with evidence. It is a core tenet of Common Core. I don't expect my kids to know anything about history but I expect them to be able to read and write with at least a basic level of ability. I can't assume that any more. Our schoolwide average reading level was at 4th grade (we are a 7/8 school mind you.) This includes all of our GATE kids. I realized very early on this year that my kids simply were not prepared to handle even the simple, sentence-framed version of our historical argument paragraphs. I had to take things down to a far more basic level than in past years.

That meant more basic vocabulary (not even subject-specific) and WAY more reading practice. While this definitely helped as the year went on it was too late. Many of kids had settled into their own low expectations by then and I saw no change in my overall grades from 1st to 2nd semester. I plan to start much more slowly next year - especially when it comes to assessments and make sure to build my kids up.

So, what am I planning to do to fix it?

Refocus on Fun

"When the subject permits, we let fly with all the satire and gags at our command. Laughter is no enemy to learning." - Walt Disney

I didn't lose all the fun in my class this year - and certainly not all the laughter. A vast majority of my kids picked my class as their favorite on their end of year survey and the most common reasons were "it was fun" and "you were funny." I'm glad they still felt it - but I didn't. At least, not to the level of past years. Due to the academic challenges of my kids we spent a ton of time and energy on reading practice this year. While some of those activities had some fun in them (still love the Charlemagne bias reading!) most of them just came so fast and furious that we didn't have time to unpack the fun that could be there.

Given that whenever I present to other teachers it is about the importance of fun in education I should probably not lose sight of it myself. When I played Jeopardy late in the year my kids absolutely LOVED it. I haven't played Jeopardy in years. I have made much more involved games and found it hard to justify the amount of time the game took to play. It quickly reminded though that time is very well spent. Sure, I took an extra 20 minutes over a shorter game but I bought well more than 20 minutes worth of future motivation and engagement. I need to play more games like that early in the year even if they have limited, or no, academic value.

Build More Connections

I've always been a "relationships first" proponent when it comes to teaching. This year for reasons ranging from issues with my own health to frustrations with lacking rigor across my district I just didn't engage as deeply with my students as I usually do. I still had kids in my room all the time but my lunch group was smaller than it has been in years.

Still, I had enough evidence of the importance of those connections to make it a goal to get back to it next year. I had one student who I kind of took under my wing second semester. She failed my class 1st semester and was failing again. I had a heart to heart with her and encouraged her to start coming in before school and at lunch to get caught up. She did. Then she kept coming. It allowed me time to get to know her and see her slowly - very slowly - open up. She's still not quite there yet. She finished with a good grade in my class and very poor ones in her others. The relationship I built with her was the motivation she needed to perform. I'm excited to work with her again from the jump next year and help her to break further out of her shell and get on track with all her classes.

Another student of mine was facing bullying issues early in the year. I told my kids early on that no matter how many adults ignored their issues I never would. She put me to the test. After another of teachers told her "that's just how middle school is, you'll be fine." she came to me. I didn't have to do much. I talked to her counselor and her homeroom teacher. I checked in with her a couple times and she said all was fixed and I and didn't hear (or think) about it much more. As the year went on she went through a very typical "I just turned 13" phase where her whole look started to change. She started to slip, just a bit, as a student as well. I was able to talk to her about it and she very quickly returned to her old self. She ended up being one of my top students after that. I showed her that I cared and she returned the favor by doing her very best work for me.

I plan to find, no, make more time for these connections next year.

Find the Big Ideas

The weekly reading sheets seemed to stretch the amount of information I was delivering to students this year. Many topics that got skipped over in the past we got to cover through reading. It ended up being way too much. Too many topics means no topic really gets to stick. This Summer my big project is to find those big ideas I wanted out of each unit and make sure they are embedded into nearly everything in the unit. Telling one story at a time is one of Mickey's Ten Commandments for Disney Imagineers so I should know this already. I've always struggled with this because there is just so much stuff in the 7th grade CA standards. Teaching it all doesn't work anyway so why bother?

I want them walking out with a few big key ideas that will carry them into future history classes.