Proud to be a Teacher

A few teachers have told me stories this week about parents who’ve voiced some criticism about the way learning has gone during this time of COVID-19.  It’s part of what tells me we are nearing the end—even if I didn’t already feel it on my own. The end-of-the school year always brings stress and strain from worried parents and disgruntled kids. A single case of dissatisfaction is amplified this year because our circumstances have been so unexpectedly different than ever before and all of us have worked so hard.

The reality is, the general public has suddenly begun to appreciate teachers in a way they never have before. Posts on Facebook, letters to individual teachers, thank you’s from kids. They’re the rule and they tell me the public is seeing—in a way they didn’t before—just how important teachers are, how difficult the job is, and how much dedication we bring to our work. They’ve seen the stuff we’re made of because they’ve brought us right into their homes in this very trying time.

So instead of focusing on how tired we are or on the once-in-a-while criticisms from the public or on the stresses we’ve experienced in this eLearning experiment, let’s stop for a minute and think about the positive side of what we have accomplished.

Let’s celebrate this:

1. In a way, most of us have been 1st-year teachers again. Oh, some of us were already flipping our classrooms and some of us were more tech-savvy than others going into this period of confinement, but most of us were panicked, distraught, distressed, or at least uneasy in the beginning. We had had so little experience with remote learning. Some of us had never participated in a Google Meet (or a Zoom meeting or a Webex or whatever), and now we schedule such gatherings with aplomb. Some of us had never used Flipgrid, Padlet, or Screencastify before—but we quickly learned. Wherever our comfort level with technology was then, look where it is now!

That means that our repertoire of instructional tools has expanded incredibly and when we get back to the face-to-face classroom we all yearn for, our new skills won’t leave us. Instead, our options will have expanded exponentially.

2. We’ve learned a lot about our students from informal conversations on screen. Some teachers even say they feel more connected now than they ever did. Because we care about our students’ well-being, we’ve begun our online lessons with wellness check-ins, casual conversation, direct inquiries, and kids have responded by really talking to us about what’s on their minds, how they’re doing, and by sharing their hobbies, their pets, even their siblings. (We’ve all got funny stories about little brothers and sisters popping up on the screen—as our own children sometimes do—about barking dogs, alarm clocks going off, water spilling, etc.) We’ve gotten to know our students in some cases better than when our conversations were confined (largely) to academics and school activities.  It’s hard not to become better acquainted when you’re a visitor in a student’s private space. Talking with kids online has been the modern-day equivalent of a home visit.

Instruction itself has become more individualized. Some teachers have found that kids who in class didn’t participate are now the ones they get the most interaction from. Some kids are getting more individualized attention now than they did in class because they’re the ones that show up to class meetings. And some kids respond more openly to teachers now because we ask how they are first. They think, rightly, “She cares about me.”

We do. We always have, but suddenly, they feel it.

3. We’ve been forced to focus on what’s really important in our content. When you don’t meet every day and don’t have the luxury of time to ramble or reiterate, you’re forced to reassess and find the simplest, easiest way to communicate what’s really important. Streamlining has become a habit now and it is one that will inform our instruction going forward.

4. And we’ve been forced to seek and find new resources to convey old ideas. At the beginning of this eLearning experience, we were deluged with resources. Every book publisher, non-profit organization, magazine, and museum in the country showered us with resources galore—and that may have added to some of the anxiety we initially felt. We didn’t have time to peruse the offerings, let alone view and evaluate the links. Though we were grateful for the help, there was underlying dread that the Best Resource Ever was right out there, and we didn’t have the time to look. But as time went along, we did. And some of us have discovered some wonderful sites and specific lessons that we’ll be utilizing from now on.

5. Teachers are problem solvers. And this spring, the problems have been huge—and here we are, problem-solvers par excellence. Story after story from teachers, parents, even the kids themselves inform this truth: When teachers are presented with a problem, they work hard to find a solution.

  • Special Ed teachers have made videos for the parents of their students, coaching them in how to help their children
  • Teachers of every subject and grade have reached out over and over again to connect with kids. When Canvas didn’t work, we tried individual emails—that was better. Then texts, phone calls, even delivering packets in person
  • When interactive learning proved to be awkward in a Google Meet, we’ve tried Flipgrid videos, Padlet posts, small group Meets and Canvas Discussions to complement whole class instruction
  • We’ve held Office Hours, but worked with students individually at all hours and on all days
  • We’ve created all-school videos to boost spirits and offer support
  • We’ve found ways to celebrate graduating seniors: yard signs, caravans, Twitter profiles, Facebook postings, special cards and letters, Instagram tributes
  • For incoming freshmen, 5th graders going on to middle school, whole schoolrooms of kids: caravans, videos from future teachers, letters from school counselors
  • Tech directors and Connected Learning Teams have fielded questions day and night and produced tutorial after tutorial to expand our digital toolkits

Creative problem-solving, flexible and innovative ideas for teaching and learning. You’ve adapted and come out on top.

You’ve been available. The kids have needed you and you were there.

You’ve modeled resiliency and offered optimism. Your positive mindset has done more than can be measured to keep students from checking out, slipping away. You’ve kept them engaged and on track.

When I was in the classroom, I always felt like Boxer, the workhorse in Animal Farm, at the end of the year: exhausted, but plodding on, one foot in front of the other, thinking “if I just worked a little harder…”

I know you always feel that way, too. I know because in the past we’ve commiserated in the hallways about papers to grade, exams to create and score, loose ends to tie up, recognitions to be given, rooms to dismantle, goodbyes to be said and the sheer number of extra hours all that means.

This year, it’s all that and more.

Thank you, Teachers. Thank you for being there, for not giving up, for sharing and caring and being what you have always been.

I have never been prouder to be one of you.

 

#Teacher Appreciation Week

#Red4Ed

The Students: What Keeps Them Going?

This post is written by my colleague Laura Whitcombe. Laura has been a member of the English Department at McCutcheon High School since 1994. Her specialty is speech, and in addition to sponsoring the award-winning Speech Team, she teaches the required sophomore speech class, the Ivy Tech Dual Credit course for juniors and seniors, and the Vincennes Early College Advanced Speech for sophomores. Her students’ answers to a question she asked them this week should give us hope, reassurance, and confidence that they’re going to come out all right at the other end of this remote learning experience. 

What is going on inside their heads? The minds of teenagers remain a mystery, but even more so when we cannot be with them in person daily. 

I read the posts written by education journalists and those who want to hand out advice. Just give feedback. Drop grades completely. The kids are traumatized. They are not the same kids as before we sheltered in place. But I don’t know… We aren’t in the Upside Down world of Stranger Things. We are just at home on our laptops.

On Mondays, my speech classes have virtual class meetings. None of us has ever done this before, so it is an evolution. At first, there were faces. Now there are avatars. I have asked a few what they are. But some I just leave alone. There are die-hard kids who always attend. There are hit-and-miss kids who sometimes show up. And there are kids whom I said goodbye to in my classroom and who never showed up online.

Most of my students are with me. More than half. Is that good? My academic classes have about 90% participation in meetings and assignments. My regular mixed-ability classes have between 60 and 70% participation. Some come for the meetings but don’t do the work. Some do the work but randomly attend the virtual sessions. I think that means that they feel good about the resources I shared. My videos, slideshows, document templates, examples, and calendars are providing students with what they need to do the projects. 

But I don’t know for sure. 

I have been wondering what inspired my students to keep working, so Monday I started the class by asking a question. 

“What is keeping you going?  What is motivating you to keep going to school?” 

It was nice to call on each student individually by name. It was just like an attendance question in the classroom. It was nice to give attention to each student. In my classroom this is my habit and consistency is comforting.

I was surprised by the normality of their answers. Grades. Grades still matter. From academic seniors to special education sophomores, most agreed.

  • They still want to try to do what they can do.
  • They want to do their best.
  • They are still thinking of the future. 
  • Some mentioned college.
  • They see a need to learn and have these skills for college.
  • They still need to earn their scholarships.
  • They have goals and are worried about the same consequences as before the shelter-in-place.
  • They said that they have self-discipline, and this is what they do: they get organized, build a schedule, and get things done.
  • Some said that they finally developed or had to develop this discipline. 
  • They were proud that they have been able to make this remote learning work even if they did not like it.

I admire these students who stay motivated. I admire that they are still with us. Thinking back on my own teenage years, I feel like I would have flaked out and dropped out. My mom was a nurse and I would have been unsupervised and left to my own devices. Maybe. Maybe if my peers were like the students in my classes and kept focused, then I would not have wanted to be left out or left behind.

Other students added these comments:

  • “What else am I going to do?”
  • “This is easy on my own schedule.”
  • “I am more relaxed because I can go at my own pace.”
  • “There is lots of time for me to do my hobbies.” They listed painting, embroidery, hoops in the barn, raising animals, working out, and of course, video games and sleep.
  • They showed me new turkeys, chickens, cats, dogs, and a couple of little brothers. They said that having the comforts of home was comfortable and comforting. 
  • Those with parents also working from home described an easy routine where everyone in the house goes to their own spots in the house to work online, then come together in the evening. 

I am impressed by their natural ability to adapt. They have been in school for 10-11-12 years. They know what to do. Teachers have led them through their coursework before and are leading them from afar now. They are not suddenly alien-beings because they are not in seats in our rooms. We, students and teachers, have the same values we did before. We value sticking with challenges and overcoming obstacles. We always have and students are with us.

Of course, I worry about the students who disappeared, but right now I am here for those who want to learn. I will be there for the others when they come back when we are together again, however that happens.

I am so happy for my students. They seem fine. Fine. That is good. And being good might be good enough. For now.

Laura is a graduate of IU-Bloomington and received her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction at Purdue University.  She and I led an educational exchange program between McCutcheon students and students in Pskov, Russia, in 2004. 

#Red4Ed

Third Quarter Doldrums

Around the Equator, there’s a 10-degree band where sailors take warning: the winds don’t blow and ships can’t sail, sometimes for weeks. Time passes slowly, cabin fever sets in, and at the same time, weather patterns can shift unpredictably.

The region called the Doldrums sounds remarkably like the third quarter, the hardest part of the year. Teachers often feel like they’re slogging their way to Spring Break.

  • There’s so much curriculum left to cover
  • We’re worried about kids who aren’t working hard enough
  • We worry about kids who have other challenges or scary life situations
  • We’re so tired, we need some sun, and stress reigns
  • There doesn’t seem to be light at the end of the tunnel

This year is so different. But in conversations I have had and meetings I have attended this past week, the mood felt like the 3rd Quarter Doldrums.

  • Concerns about curriculum. We’ve got a grip now on the technology, but we’re still juggling content: How much is too much? How deep should we go?  When is the advice to simplify, too simple?
  • Kids are behind. Will they be ready for the next level up? How do we determine “effort?” How can we document participation? How in the world can we figure out grades and be fair?
  • We still haven’t connected with some of our kids. Do they have connectivity? Are they still in town? Are they alone? Are they safe?
  • The pace is different, but it’s exhausting, still. Prepping online lessons takes twice as long as we’re used to. Many of us have small children and we’re suddenly teachers for them, too.
  • When we will reach the end? Have we done it right? What have we learned? What if this is a new reality?

The doldrums. A lot of us are there. Not everybody, but enough of us that I’ve noticed.

In my district, this was Week 5 (I’m counting Faux Spring Break and Spring Break as at least one week because most of us started working on eLearning then).  So we have three weeks to go. Hey! That means we’re in the 3rd quarter! That makes sense, then, why we’re in the psychological doldrums.

So how are we going to get through to the end? Not to be a Pollyanna about this, but here are some ideas for making it through to the end.

  1. Just as our students thrive on talking to us and to each other, we need community, too. I didn’t realize it as acutely as I do now until I saw a colleague on a walk at Celery Bog one afternoon. I nearly burst into tears. The best I could do was outstretched arms from a six-foot distance. So if you haven’t already, set up a Google Meet with your best buddy colleagues. I know that meeting with individual teachers, the Principals’ Meets, and the Literacy Team at my high school has helped me tremendously to feel connected
  2. It’s not too late to set goals for the few weeks ahead.
    • Books to read
    • Films to watch
    • Projects to complete
    • An exercise regime to follow
    • More closets and drawers to clean
  3. Try out a new technology. Your students—and you—know you’ve mastered what you’re doing already. Now try one new thing. No one will be impatient. They’ll be supportive and the kids will enjoy the variety.
  4. Go outside every day. Even if it’s raining. Just stand under a tree and breathe.
  5. And look for the humor in all this:
  • So many memes now about dogs exhausted from walking
  • Sanitation workers not being able to pick up all the discards from people cleaning up their homes and cleaning out their garages
  • The funny things your kids say
  • Your strange outfits for Google Meets (i.e., the pajamas on the bottom)
  • The fact that everyone in America needs a haircut

Three weeks to go! You’ve got this!  The wind will blow and you’ll be out of the doldrums before you know it!

#Red4Ed

Halfway There!

We’re halfway from the day we left for Faux Spring Break to the last school day of the year: May 15. The first thing I want to do in this post is to express my admiration for all the teachers I know.  This post is a shout-out to you in the form of a quick tour of some of the things I’ve seen during the past two weeks as I’ve visited your living rooms and kitchen tables or communicated by email, Facebook, phone, and Google Meet. And I know this isn’t the half of it. 

You’ve become technologically creative, utilizing aspects of Canvas many of us have never considered before—Discussions, for example.  Many of you have put up choice boards on Padlet, used Flipgrid for student presentations, even created Google Slideshows that capture your instruction all the way to the end—all the links are embedded; everything is in one place.

Kristin Lin, a Band teacher at MHS, for example, assigned YouTube videos to her students to teach them the language of orchestral conducting. I “sat in” on the lesson and learned that being a symphony director is a whole lot harder than it looks! Try this and see if you can do it! 

Kyle Harris, the 7th grade World History teacher at BGM, created a Padlet for his students to post art from Hudson School of Landscape Painting of the 19th Century. How beautiful is this spread?  Other teachers are using Padlet as a vehicle for organizing the students’ lessons throughout the week. Here’s MHS biology teacher Abi Bymaster’s Biology Padlet.

A teacher in the FACS national Facebook group created a choice board using  a different vehicle: Goggle Docs. MHS teachers Laura Cole and Laila Wilson added to it. Check out this impressive and comprehensive Google Doc choice board that blends practical ideas with creative opportunities. My personal favorite: Clean the Refrigerator!  

Most teachers are using Google Meet frequently and effectively, but sometimes an asynchronous meeting is better. As an alternative to Google Meet, Julie Riley uses Flipgrid with her 7th Grade English classes at WRM. Here’s a link to Honors English 7. If you have never used Flipgrid, this is a good chance to see it in action.

Some of you have created timely lessons out of this health crisis and period of confinement, engaging your students completely:

  • Dawn Grinnage, an English teacher at WMS, had her students, who are reading Anne Frank’s diary, keep journals of their own confinement. Read Sue Scott’s article about this thought-provoking project. 
  • Tasha Ploss’s Health Sciences classes at MHS are learning about pandemics and relating to an earlier read—Hot Zone
  • Jake McIntyre and Scott Royer, who teach social studies at MHS, are directing students to “current events” activities centered around Covid-19 because the subject is and will be a big part of American History. “They’ll be telling their grandchildren about this!”

There have been inspired ways of reaching out and keeping our kids connected

  • Suzi Ryan, A special ed teacher at MHS,  created a Google Meet for the kids that hang out in her room during her prep. She called it a “Virtual Coffee Break.”
  • Sarah Gustin’s entertaining Tik-Toks will be the stuff of legend when this is all over. Who knew principals knew about Tik-Tok?
  • This past weekend, the WMS team produced a YouTube video: Remote Learning, Too, that entertains and certainly lets students know their teachers are in this together with them
  • Encouraging emails from our principals have kept us motivated and made us feel appreciated.
  • Extra-curricular groups are still Meeting: Speech Team gatherings, World Food Prize, Academic Academic Super Bowl for starters.
  • At ETM, Band and Choir recruited current 5th graders using the school’s Facebook page. Here’s Andrea Bube’s YouTube for Choir. 
  • Camden Ritchie, music teacher at SMS, has been staging Ultimate Gimkit Smashdown competitions—open to the whole of SMS.
  • Sarah Gessel’s Mavericks Changing Minds (MCM) group is putting together a motivational video on 4 topics: creativity, self-care, learning, and connection. Interested in creating a 3-5 second video for the project? Contact Sarah at MHS.
  • And Mav TV is still broadcasting—if you haven’t seen last week’s episode, here it is. Watch all the way to the end and hear the inspirational message from Noah.

I’ve gleaned some tips from you that may help other teachers: 

  • If kids aren’t responding to Canvas, email them separately. Some (believe it or not) still don’t “get” Canvas; others will delete emails that come from Canvas—but not one that comes directly from you.
  • Instead of answering their questions over and over again, Jeremy Bloyd, ICE teacher at MHS, prepared a FAQ sheet to send out when the questions for the umpteenth time. It’s been working!
  • If no one shows up for your “Office Hours,” it could be that they don’t want to bother you. After all, they’re new to this themselves and may think Office Hours are sort of like doctor’s appointments. Email the students you need to see directly. Chances are, they’ll show up by direct invitation. 
  • Short on whiteboard space? Use your shower wall! Just be sure your markers will clean off afterward! (Thanks, MHS chemistry teacher Tasha Ploss!)
  • Kids having trouble with their computers: Remind them that they can make an appointment at their school with one of the unsung heroes of all this e-Learning: the tech team! A friend of mine’s daughter made an appointment with MHS’s Christina Bennett the other day. The whole transaction took place through the front desk. The students waited in the lobby for 10 minutes while Christina swapped out the battery (and carefully wiped everything down, before and after the repair).

And if our students didn’t really know it before, they know it now: We are human!  We have bad hair days. Our children “Google bomb” our Meets, wave at the screen, show off their birthday presents, and ask Mom to come see the new kittens—RIGHT NOW!  Our pets nudge the screen, scratch at the door, bark at the onscreen conversation, even knock over great-grandma’s lamp. 

I kind of like it, this informality. It gives us all something to laugh about, something not to take too seriously in this time when everything is so very serious. 

So great work, TSC Teachers!  From what I hear from administrators and families, I’m not the only one who is wowed by the efficiency with which you have learned how to navigate these waters, the grace with which you have adapted to the circumstances, and the ingenuity with which you have problem-solved. 

Have a great week! 

#Red4Ed

Teaching in the Time of Covid

Suddenly, we were dismissed a week early for what I have been calling “Faux Spring Break.” Two weeks to get ready for the last push: the 4th quarter, the culmination of the academic year. But faster than a finger snap, we learned we weren’t coming back at all. And now, many of us are stuck.

We’ve gotten past the inundation of resources. We have figured out what technology we are comfortable with and what apps or platforms we’re going to try. We’ve connected with our students (most of them) and we’ve tried all this out.

And, probably, we’ve learned a bit along the way about what works and what doesn’t.

And we’re exhausted. For sure we’ve discovered that it’s hard to teach, parent, and home school all at the same time and, simultaneously, distance ourselves from our friends.

Could it be that we’re asking too much of ourselves and too much of our students? Educators are serious people. We feel responsible for our students’ well-being and for their learning. How they are doing worries us. Our lessons worry us. Our content is important and before next year our students will need to have learned it. But teaching from the living room gets harder and harder to do.

Here are some ideas about how to downsize the load without lowering your standards, about forgiving yourself for the guilt you are feeling because you can’t be Superperson every single minute, about prioritizing your own children (if you have them).

I offer three simple steps to solve the problem of too much curriculum,  too few days, and too little face-to-face–and then two more steps that are designed to ease the guilt.

1. Make a list of the curriculum topics you have yet to cover.

2. Decide which ones are “Imperative” and which ones merely “Important.” Ask yourself some questions about those topics to help you sort them into one of those two columns.

● Is the topic a skill you need to teach?

Skills trump content most of the time. Skills, the students have to have; chunks of content are often dispensable. For example, in American Literature, the textbooks contain selections from a pantheon of great writers. Will the students survive if they don’t read something by Willa Cather? By John Steinbeck? By Truman Capote? Those authors are favorites of mine, and of course they’re important, but in the big scheme of things, students won’t be scarred for life if they miss reading “A Wagner Matinee” or Of Mice and Men or “Miriam.” Capote isn’t an imperative.

But research skills? Those are imperative for academic success in any class, and it’s the English teacher’s job to teach them. So don’t cut out the research project. Look instead for ways to streamline it.

But if content is king, the trick will be to cut it down to size. That is, communicate the big concepts, the essential vocabulary, the absolute must-reads. Put your time and effort into these imperatives.

● Is it a piece of sequential learning that you can’t skip?

In math and world languages and other linear-sequential subjects, you simply can’t skip some things. There are processes and constructions kids have to know in order to progress to the next level. These are imperatives. What can you do to compact the instruction so that you’re spending less time on each topic before moving on to the next?

Can you do the homework together on screen so you see the mistakes the students are making as they make them—and offer correctives right then and there?

Can you put kids in cooperative groups and have them help each other? You can create breakout groups in Canvas Conversations and in Google Meet.
Can you cut down the number of examples or possibly stop elaborating so much yourself?

● Is it an activity, rather than a topic, that you could dispense with or truncate?

Easy ones to rethink are extra readings and extra assignments. Do you have to require that? Eliminating enrichment material can save a lot of time and eliminate a lot of stress.

Is it a culminating project that involves teaching a process as much as the content? For example, a debate on an issue the students have been studying. What about conducting a Socratic Seminar online? Or a Harkness discussion? Or even have the kids work collaboratively using Google Docs? Something easier to model that doesn’t take up so much time—but still gets various points of view out there.

An independent research activity can be a huge time suck. What about putting the kids in groups and conducting the inquiry as a team? They can jigsaw their discoveries and divide up the presentation work as well. By working together, they get the advantage of collaborative learning—often more productive anyway than learning alone.

Teamwork saves time generally and it allows you to capitalize on the students’ natural disposition to chatter. (Which they need about now anyway.)

● How can you use a process you have to teach as a vehicle for teaching content? In other words, can you create a twofer?

I remember one year when I was teaching Animal Farm, as I did every year in 9th grade. I was short on time that year and needed to take students through the research process and give them enough background in Russian history that they would be able to see the novel as allegory. I ended up dividing 300 years of Russian history into six time periods and/or areas of interest. Students worked independently on a research question of their own, but they were organized in groups, each group addressing one of the six interest areas/time periods. As they researched their own sub-topics, they had a cohort of friends who were working on sub-topics from the same time period. The students worked collaboratively, and in the end, each group made a 5-6 minute presentation to the class on their period in Russian history. In this way, the class took a whirlwind tour of Russia—from Peter the Great to the launch of Sputnik. The students helped each other understand their period in Russian history, but also work through the processes at play in research and reporting. As I said, a twofer.

By the way, this is a perfect opportunity to create a Padlet for those presentations.

3. Create a game plan and then stick to it. Whether you go through my suggested process or arrive at your decisions about what to teach in a different way—say, you’ve found a ready-made online program or you’ve already figured all this out—the worst thing you can do for your peace of mind is second guess yourself. You’ve got this! You know your stuff, you know your kids, you know what they can do and have to do. Don’t be distracted from your plan by comparing yourself to other teachers or feeling inadequate when you read online about some miracle worker somewhere. You’re a miracle worker, too. Look what all you’ve achieved already: Just. Like. That.

4. Don’t feel guilty about what you’re leaving out. Yes, inevitably there will be gaps. But every kid in America is going to have some gaps this year. Your students won’t be the only ones. And guess what: Next year, Amazing Teachers, just like you, will find those holes and fill them in. Because that’s what we do. We are teachers. We fill holes and then pave the road to success. Every single day, for every single kid.

5. Finally, don’t forget your own kids. When this is all over, they are going to remember how they felt during this time. If you’re so stressed you can’t help them and can’t enjoy them, they won’t return to school in the fall remembering the good things about this period of confinement. And there are good things: Families are spending time together: they’re enjoying books, movies, games, puzzles, and even yard work together. You’re getting a look at your own child’s learning process and they’re seeing you in the role you play every weekday most of the time. They’re watching you cope. You’re modeling.

Good times. Shared experiences. Families growing closer. Positive values. Good things can and are coming out of this.

You’ve got this, Amazing Teachers!
#Red4Ed

Forward to Finals

Just two weeks ago we were in the throes of final exams, stressed about whether we’d get all that grading done before dismissal for Winter Break, whether PowerSchool would be operating and we could get our grades in on time, whether the stress that got to our students would abate or build as they waited for the verdict on each of their classes. So I hate to bring that all back.

Nevertheless, I can’t write this post without summoning the Ghost of pre-Christmas Past. During finals week, I talked to many teachers in my building about their final exams. How they planned them, what accommodations and adjustments they made, and the creative ways they devised to assess their students’ knowledge.

In the Media Center, where my office is located, students were making round table presentations about their research into a dietary staple or a food of economic importance in a selected third-world country. “The Hunger Project” in this AP Biology class caught my attention because each student had created an Infographic to capture the essence of their investigation. Google provides templates for infographics; the students supplied the creativity.

It made me wonder what other creative delivery methods teachers were utilizing to assess their students’ learning. It didn’t take long to hear about other alternatives to standard essays, multiple choice, matching, and short answer questions. An AP History teacher uses podcasting as a tool. Instead of a traditional research paper, students create entertaining scripts in which they investigate the truth–or the fiction–behind popular historical topics. Who knew that Napoleon changed his wife’s name to a moniker he preferred? Josephine Bonaparte’s real name was Rose. But wait! There’s more! Listen to this Podcast.  And this one.

A culinary arts teacher could have elicited pretty boring paragraph answers to questions about safety and sanitation. Instead, the students put their creative minds and a sense of humor to work creating Tik Tok videos. Fun to make, fun to watch!

Dual credit speech students delivered Commencement Speeches in the auditorium; students in other speech classes made award presentations and delivered acceptance speeches. Theater Arts students wrote and performed original scripts. In a Special Education speech class, students drew topics from a hat and delivered impromptu speeches. Although I didn’t see any this semester, in other years, I’ve watched as students delivered their knowledge in the form of TEDx talks. Of course, performance is a natural when the subject is oral communication–or art or music or PE–but there are others: a portfolio of creative writing, a photography exhibit, a display of ceramic or wood art objects, or a musical rendition.

This is not to say that essays, multiple choice, and matching aren’t important or don’t have their place. Many of the teachers who devised the alternate forms of assessment I’ve just described also had written tests. But the range of formats throughout the building gave students a break from the tedium of pencil and paper and the opportunity to creatively demonstrate what they’ve learned, to work together, to learn new skills (e.g., infographics and podcasting), to show their humor and to laugh a lot (the Tik Tok videos). Refreshing.

And so was the PE exam I was invited to watch unfold. The class was Weights. When I showed up at the beginning of the exam period, I went to the wrong room. Wouldn’t you, too, think showing up to the weights room would be logical? But no. The kids were all in the gym itself–and dressed for gym class. I was puzzled, decided it must be a performance exam–but why not in the weights room? Turns out, the performance part of their exam is incorporated into the two 9 weeks grades. The students were in the gym for an old-fashioned paper and pencil test.

Unlike the 9th grade biology teacher, whose students sit cheek by jowl in an overcrowded classroom, who creates multiple versions of her exams so that no two students have all the same questions, the Weights teacher has the luxury of space. Spread out on the gym floor, armed only with a pencil–no sleeves to tuck a crib sheet in, no phones to sneak a peek at–these students, clad in their gym uniforms, sprawled on the floor and watched a video the teacher had made of former students executing the 26 lifts they had learned over the course of the semester. The present students filled in the blanks with the names of the lifts and completed a vocabulary test as well. And then what?

Something wonderful: They got to play dodge ball. They loved it! And they needed it. After a week of tests, whether paper and pencil, electronic or even performance: release!

Which is what we all felt, too, when the final bell rang.

So why am I posting this now? Why not just before that final bell? To be honest, no one would have had the time to read it before the bell rang–or the inclination to do so afterward, during Winter Break. But now that we are back in school and beginning a new semester, it’s a good time to take a look ahead to possibilities for May. Maybe this post will spark an idea that will change it up for you and your students. Even if it doesn’t, welcome to second semester!

 

 

 

Museum of Civilization

It’s nearing the end of the semester. Teachers are writing final exams; students are presenting culminating projects. I’m visiting classrooms to see some of the exemplary work my colleagues and their students have been doing.

Earlier this week, my colleague Sarah Gessel and her students mounted an exhibition in the Media Center called the “Museum of Civilization.” It was a curation assignment, inspired by Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel that has become a staple of the English curriculum following an all-community read that our English teachers had a hand in designing.

A character in that novel establishes a “museum of civilization,” an exhibit at the deserted airport, of the world as it used to be. Mrs. Gessel wanted her students to understand how objects become symbols of individuals as well as of the collective. She wanted her students to understand that their individual dreams and ambitions, their likes and loves, their pastimes and pleasures, their actions and accomplishments encapsulate them as individuals and, collectively, characterize their generation. She wanted them to think critically about the objects in their lives that capture the essence of each of them. Here was Mrs. Gessel’s assignment:

Background: In Station Eleven, we learn that Clark is the keeper of the Museum of Civilization at the airport. There, he preserves items of the past that represent mankind before the flu. 

Question: What three things would you personally put in a Museum of Civilization a hundred years from now that would represent you as a whole? You may not use a phone.

Assignment:

  1. Choose three items that represent you as a person.
  2. Create a display “From the collection of ___________ (you)”. Your collection should contain a brief description of who you are (written in 3rd person!), including birth year.
  3. For your display, you must have the actual item.  If that is not possible, a picture will have to do.
  4. For each item, you will create an informational label (like you see in a museum under an artifact). It should contain:
    1. The time period it is from
    2. Its use or symbolism
    3. Why the object was important to him or her
    4. What it tells the future about the person  
  5. Here is a very basic, rough idea of what I am looking for…except yours should be real…not on a document.

Here are some of the items students brought to school:

Some of their artifacts were poignant–a necklace made with a dear friend, now deceased; a stack of recipes from a grandmother; an old movie camera that launched what might well become a career:

Yes, there were earbuds and screens, but not many. In fact, what I noticed in addition to the wide variety of artifacts was the overwhelming lack of electronics. Admittedly, Ms. Gessel forbade phones, but earbuds and other electronic paraphernalia did not dominate the displays. Instead, there were the indicators of family, friendship and faith. Of interest in the arts, organized sports, and individual artistic pursuits. In children, in 4-H, in books, in cooking. Ms. Gessel’s students, like most teenagers if critics would just look beneath the surface, are not the zombie-like, plugged-in and tuned-out youth so often caricatured. These are kids I want to know better, unique and interesting individuals who are going to be in charge of a world I want to live in.

And here’s what happened afterward, after the spectators left, after the voting by gallery-goers was over, after the grades were assigned: The students looked at each other’s displays and something spontaneous occurred. Here’s what Ms. Gessel wrote to me:

My heart is full as I am sitting here thinking of the time we just spent last hour enjoying each other’s company as a class. All of their “stuff” is great, but what made so many of those items in there come to life were the kids. Watching them ask each other to play their instrument or sing or dance or compliment each other’s artwork or just comment on how nice it was just to chill with each other and listen…WOW. No museum can hold that amount of wonder or life. This is why I teach and am still teaching!

If you would like to know more about curation as an instructional tool, click here to read this article by Jennifer Gonzalez in Cult of Pedagogy.