Portfolio Entry #5: What I Wish I Knew at the Start of the Year

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

I’m going to examine this prompt again a little differently when I reflect on my year out of school in Entry #7, but here, I’m focusing exclusively on my Government/Economics course.  Back in March, I posted the following question:

How do I choose/balance between the following modes of praxis in a course where I’m not concerned with a massive amount of content for a state exam?

  1. Teaching through inquiry, which best develops students’ ability to think critically and to learn how to learn. In true open inquiry, learning a specific body of knowledge is limited or sacrificed.
  2. Teaching through extensive reading, watching, and research to gain the necessary cultural literacy to enter adult society and assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Given the tremendous amount of information students need, this limits the emphasis on skill development.
  3. Teaching students to do authentic intellectual work (which often, but not always, is through Project Based Assessments), which emphasizes the practical skills of communication and production, as well as have students engage with specific content.

I’m not sure I know the answer universally, but I do know how I wish I would have approached it for last year’s course.  I wish I would have divided the year into three equal parts, each mainly focused on one mode of praxis.

  1. For the first third, I would have focused on using inquiry using a slightly expanded version of Looking for an Argument.  I’d want the course to focus on a series of questions, many of them developed by students using the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique.  These questions would be based exclusively on current government events.
  2. The second third would focus on authentic intellectual work to make sure student learn how to research.  I still would use Project Citizen as the focus of this section of the class, but I would have added an initial research assignment where students choose one of the topics we looked at in the first third, and do something with that, perhaps an op-ed that would be submitted to local newspapers.
  3. The final third would be a more traditional course looking at the major ideas of classical microeconomics, budgeting, and investing.  I did six weeks of this; kids love it and need the info to be functional adults.  I think any attempt to do more with economics might be a huge disservice to students.  With that said, I actually think high school economics should be moved to math departments.

Next Entry: Top 10 Moments from My Year at Young Writers

Portfolio Entry #4: Reflection on Goals

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

I’m not sure I still like how I do goals.  Or maybe I’m just not good at setting goals.  But having done this goal reflection on my blog for two years now, I’m not sure how much value it adds to my life throughout the year.  With that said, I feel like the process of setting goals at the start of the school year, knowing that I’ll later reflect on them, has been worthwhile.  I am thinking that next year, perhaps, instead of setting measurable goals, I’ll pick some key questions that I’ll answer regularly.  But without further ado, here is my last reflection on this year’s goals.  As always, my reflections are in italics.

Teaching 

I will improve the way I give feedback to students.  Formally, I hope to develop a system to give students feedback about writing that meaningfully a) tells students where they are, b) what they need to do to improve and c) is efficient enough that I can provide frequent and timely feedback to all students.  I also need to make sure I am giving informal feedback more frequently to all students.  (I hope that moving to a Standards Based Grading system will enable these things to happen organically).

This was one of my largest areas of growth this year.  My final portfolio entry will be a big reflection on using SBG, but needless to say, I am a full convert, and it is a system that will greatly inform my new school.  

Students will have multiple opportunities to rethink and revise their answers to large essential questions throughout each unit, and will also reflect on and revise all major work.

More or less, I accomplished this goal.  I was better with essential questions than I’ve been in past years, and definitely had students do the most reflecting.  There was not enough revision in my class, though increasing time spent revising may not be possible with my students’ work completion rates.  I need to keep this goal for next year.  

Leadership

The Social Studies Critical Friends Group will meet once a month, and will be valuable for its participants.

We met once a month, and I believe it was valuable for all its participants.  We have at least seven people committed to continuing next year, which I take as a good sign.  

Advisory

100% of my new advisees will either graduate or earn at least ten credits by June.

Two students didn’t graduate because they were out of school for most of second semester for medical reasons; one missed by a few points on the Algebra Regents, which killed me.  

100% of my advisees will be accepted to college, and will have a plan to pay for it or whatever else they choose to do next year.

Everyone accepted, and with a couple more steps, everyone will have a plan to pay.

Personal / Professional Development 

At least once per week, I will write and publish a piece of writing about teaching social studies, be it about my practice or teaching in general.

With the exception of the period I couldn’t type because of a broken wrist, I met this goal, and will continue it moving forward.  

Every two months, I will write and publish a self-evaluation of how I am doing on these goals.

Check. Check. Check. Check. And check.

Next Entry: What I Wish I Knew at the Start of the Year

Portfolio Entry #3: Best Unit

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

In hindsight, there’s only one unit I taught I would be willing to hand to another teacher.  It’s not that the others weren’t good, but all my government units ended up responding to events at the time, and my economics units were okay units I took from established curriculum, since my background in economics is not strong.

That is not to undersell my Project Citizenship Unit, as it is one of the best I have taught in my career. It had all the hallmarks of my greatest units: students learned and applied a new skill set (researching), were able to choose from a range of topics that interested in them (any public policy that affects them), had a structured project to guide their inquiry (a persuasive speech and Project Citizen), all ending in a public showcase of their work (Citizenship Night).  While this was not dissimilar to the History Day units I have done over the years, I think adding a deliverable halfway through the process, the persuasive speech, really took the development of students’ skills within the unit to a new level than in earlier years, since they got formal feedback doing research once, and then immediately had to use that skill set again.

The one area where this unit could have been greatly improved was in preparing students for the last part of Project Citizenship: writing an action plan to carry out their proposed policy change.  I didn’t do anything to really prepare students for this, other than teaching them in earlier units how government works.  Looking at some case studies and theories of action, even if for a day or two, would have paid great dividends (thanks, Critical Friend Andy, for pointing that out).

Project Citizen Unit Plan

Project Citizen Curricular Materials

Next Entry: Reflection on Goals

Portfolio Entry #2: Best Things I Used from Other Sources

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

I’ve found the teaching truism, “good teachers borrow; great teachers steal” to be an inspiration as I progress throughout my career.  The more I teach, the more of what I do comes from others.  This year, I stole three different things I would highly recommend to any teacher who could use them:

- My highest recommendation goes to the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique (QFT).  Someone on Twitter recommended the QFT to me last summer, and it was a perfect tool for an inquiry-centered class.  The questions I got each time I used this were phenomenal, and in many cases, became the foundation for my class.  I wrote about using the technique here.  Coincidentally, I was at a conference last week where I got to meet the folk from RQI. Over dinner, I told Dan Rothstein about my use of QFT, and how it seemed to work like magic.  Dan explained to me the science behind its brilliance: it combines divergent thinking, convergent thinking, and meta-thinking.  I could not do this full justice, so for further information, I’ll plug his book.

- I’m a big fan of the Buck Institute’s work around project-based learning.  Unfortunately, I only made time to use one of their Project Based Government units: The Better Budget Simulation.  It’s a great unit, that really helps students understand just how complicated government decision-making is.  It was even more powerful in that we did it as the Congressional “Super Committee” was failing to make similar decisions.  At the heart of this, and all Buck’s curricular units, is a very simple algorithm that can guide any inquiry based unit. For any given situation students are in:

  1. Have students create a problem statement
  2. Students draft a list of what they know and what they need to know to address the problem
  3. Students write questions about what they need to know (note to self: insert RQI here)
  4. Either as individuals, in groups, or as a class, students learn what they need to know
  5. Re-craft the problem statement, and repeat the cycle.

- Finally, one of the highlights of my year was Citizenship Night, where students presented their work from Project Citizen.  My next entry will go into more detail on the unit, but anyone looking to get their students independently and actively involved in policy should look to this curriculum.

Next Entry: Best Unit

Portfolio Entry #1: Best Lesson

Each of the past two years, I put together a portfolio of my work along with other teachers at Bronx Lab.  I missed that tradition at Young Writers this year, so have decided to take some time to do it on my own before I completely dive into the work of opening Harvest Collegiate.  

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.

Portfolio Entry #1: Best Lesson

My best lesson of the year was one I came up with about three minutes before class.  In November, we spent most of the month looking at Occupy Wall Street, and we were moving towards a more traditional look at the meaning of democracy and its structure within the United States.  I used the Right Question Institute’s Question Formulation Technique to have students create questions, but they came up with so many good ones, that I was not sure how to move forward.  I decided to put democracy in action, and let my students decide.  My writeup of what happened is here.  What was great about the lesson was not only that it allowed students to apply theories of democracy, but that it also revealed many of democracy’s flaws.  This then gave us a rich case study to use throughout the coming classes, as we examined the advantages and disadvantages of democracy’s various forms.

This lesson also reveals the power of turning complete control over to students.  I later used this as inspiration for a task I gave teachers in my Critical Friends Group: give students directions in the first five minutes of class to complete a complicated task, and then sit back and let them work without your help.  I think both students and teachers would learn more and differently if opportunities like these were more frequent.

Next Entry: Best Things I Used from Other Sources

Reflection on School Year Goals #4

At the beginning of the year, I set a number of goals for myself, one of which was to reflect on said goals every two months. My fourth and penultimate set of reflections are in italics below.

Teaching 

I will improve the way I give feedback to students.  Formally, I hope to develop a system to give students feedback about writing that meaningfully a) tells students where they are, b) what they need to do to improve and c) is efficient enough that I can provide frequent and timely feedback to all students.  I also need to make sure I am giving informal feedback more frequently to all students.  (I hope that moving to a Standards Based Grading system will enable these things to happen organically).

My students just completed their last major essay for me, and for the first time all year I made the time to conference individually with every student.  One thing I’ve been working on is being better at naming students’ strengths so they know to keep doing those things.  I think this went really well in conferences, and gave many of my students a much needed boost of confidence heading into college.  I also gave them one concrete next step to take in their individual development, in addition to feedback on meeting our year-long standards.  I think this is a model that I need to use more.

Students will have multiple opportunities to rethink and revise their answers to large essential questions throughout each unit, and will also reflect on and revise all major work.

This was accomplished for all the major work and questions in the past couple of months.

Leadership

The Social Studies Critical Friends Group will meet once a month, and will be valuable for its participants.

Still meeting this goal.  

Advisory

100% of my new advisees will either graduate or earn at least ten credits by June.

Unfortunately, one of my advisees will not meet this goal, but everyone else will.

100% of my advisees will be accepted to college, and will have a plan to pay for it or whatever else they choose to do next year.

Almost there on this goal.

Personal / Professional Development 

At least once per week, I will write and publish a piece of writing about teaching social studies, be it about my practice or teaching in general.

I’ve kept this goal up, though my “publishing” has more and more taken other forms.  

Every two months, I will write and publish a self-evaluation of how I am doing on these goals.

Check. Check. Check. Check.

Reflection on School Year Goals #3

At the beginning of the year, I set a number of goals for myself, one of which was to reflect on said goals every two months. My third set of reflections are in italics below.

Teaching 

I will improve the way I give feedback to students.  Formally, I hope to develop a system to give students feedback about writing that meaningfully a) tells students where they are, b) what they need to do to improve and c) is efficient enough that I can provide frequent and timely feedback to all students.  I also need to make sure I am giving informal feedback more frequently to all students.  (I hope that moving to a Standards Based Grading system will enable these things to happen organically).

Now that I’m essentially 3/4 of the way through the year, and as most of my thinking turns to school-wide structures for next year, I am more and more excited about the use of SBG to help students know where they are and what they need to do to improve. With that said, I also have become aware of some of the limitations of how I implemented SBG in my social studies class. SBG has really helped my students understand what they need to do to improve individual assignments, but they are still struggling with how to improve overall.  I think a lot of this has to do with the number of goals, particularly for the year.  Twelve goals for the year was too many, especially as some (Imagination, Questioning, Revision, Reflection) only come up on rare or isolated assignments.  I would also rethink the goals of Sourcing and Evidence, combining and changing them to be “Selection of Evidence” and “Use of Evidence.”

I am doing a better job of more frequent informal oral feedback, but have struggled to get informal written feedback to students in a useful manner. 

Students will have multiple opportunities to rethink and revise their answers to large essential questions throughout each unit, and will also reflect on and revise all major work.

This goal is getting better. Students had opportunities to workshop and revise persuasive speeches, and there is lots of time for revisions built in to our current Project Citizenship work.

Leadership
The Social Studies Critical Friends Group will meet once a month, and will be valuable for its participants.

The group gets better and better with every meeting, and the core group of ten (eight original members, and two wonderful additions) are reaching new heights together.  There will be a longer post on this in the near future, and I’m planning a session for EdCamp Social Studies to share with more people.

Advisory
100% of my new advisees will either graduate or earn at least ten credits by June.

All fourteen are on pace with credits, and my advisory did particularly well on Regents, so this goal is looking very good.

100% of my advisees will be accepted to college, and will have a plan to pay for it or whatever else they choose to do next year.

At this point, nearly all have been accepted somewhere, but we have not yet started on having plans to pay for it.  I think this will happen in April.

Personal / Professional Development 
At least once per week, I will write and publish a piece of writing about teaching social studies, be it about my practice or teaching in general.

Back on pace, and doing more writing than I’ve done since my first year of blogging now that I’m not on Twitter.  

Every two months, I will write and publish a self-evaluation of how I am doing on these goals.

Check. Check. Check

Help Wanted: Existential Teaching Dilema

This evening, everyone in my critical friends group is sharing an “existential” dilema we’re struggling with about our practice. Here’s mine:

This is the question I’ve struggled with since I began planning my Government/Economics course last summer: How do I choose/balance between the following modes of praxis in a course where I’m not concerned with a massive amount of content for a state exam?

  1. Teaching through inquiry, which best develops students’ ability to think critically and to learn how to learn. In true open inquiry, learning a specific body of knowledge is limited or sacrificed.
  2. Teaching through extensive reading, watching, and research to gain the necessary cultural literacy to enter adult society and assume the responsibilities of citizenship. Given the tremendous amount of information students need, this limits the emphasis on skill development.
  3. Teaching students to do authentic intellectual work (which often, but not always, is through Project Based Assessments), which emphasizes the practical skills of communication and production, as well as have students engage with specific content.

Some notes towards an answer:

I recently re-read Horace’s Compromise, where Ted Sizer writes that schools should only really focus on four things:

  1. Helping students develop understanding, which is done by questioning.
  2. Helping students to gain knowledge, which is done by telling.
  3. Helping students develop skills, which is done through coaching.
  4. Helping students obtain decency

There seems to be a strong correlation between Sizer’s first three duties of an “essential” school and the three modes of praxis I struggle to balance. At the school level, I think there is a clear need to balance all three, along with ensuring all students are decent people (and given that most of my thinking right now is about macro-curriculum planning for the school I’m helping to open next fall, having that clarity is a huge help). My feeling is that a thoughtfully and intentionally structured school would be filled with classes that allow students and teachers to primarily focus on one of the three areas, to make sure that the course’s transfer goals are clear, and to decrease the cognitive load on students, allowing for maximum development.

In the overwhelming majority of schools though, there is little attention to how the entire curriculum works together. At best, there is some alignment vertically within subject areas, or horizontally across grades. It then falls to the thoughtful teacher to make an independent decision on how to address these three goals…

I’m very curious to hear how teachers, parents, and students would respond to this question.

Blog Updates

3 small new things here:

1) New design.  Long overdue.  Hope you like it

2) One of the things I did really like about Twitter was the ability to quickly share other good, provocative, and otherwise noteworthy articles and blogs with an audience.  Since I’m no longer tweeting, I’m going to try to do more quick blog entries here pointing to other interesting reads.  These posts will be under the “Good Reads” category, and have lower case titles.

3) I’m also trying to tackle more books about education.  While being an active blog reader and twitterer has helped me develop professionally over the first quarter of my career, I’m embarrassed at the dearth of education books I’ve read in that time period; there are two books I’ve had on my to read list since 2004!  I have a nice pile next to my bed now, both of new books and ones I’d like to re-read, and am looking forward to writing about these as I read them.  Three down so far this year, and will post about them soon.