Thursday, January 28, 2010

Taking Time

This is not a new complaint.
There's not enough.

It's hard during the midst of the semester to find a spare moment to sit down and reflect on my goals. I find that I spend much of the semester treading water, trying to stay afloat of all the grading, lesson planning, parent contact, emails, etc. It's ironic because I find that when I do give myself time to reflect on my teaching, when I participate in professional development opportunities, when I take the time to blog, I come back to my classroom much more energized. So, I thought I would take a moment at the beginning of the semester, when first semester grades have been put to bed and there is a bit of breathing room, to reflect and set some goals for this semester.

I set one main goal for myself this year - revising my final assessments, making sure that they connect with the skills that I teach throughout a particular unit. What I've been able to do is redesign some of my units. My unit for Night now ends with both a creative and analytical assessment where students put together a creative piece and write an analytical essay both based around significant quotes. This better fits with what I do with the memoir - teaching analytical discussion/writing skills, incorporating quotations into written work, and connecting to themes presented earlier in the class. It worked so much better than a traditional test. In fact, I redesigned a few other tests similarly.

Here's my problem. I like how the new assessments are a better measure of what we've learned and practiced throughout the unit, but they are much more involved, heavy on the writing. This is fine for now, when I've only got 25 assessments to grade, but how do you incorporate more meaningful assessments when you have 90 students to grade? I have struggled with this my entire teaching career. How do I make the work in my classroom meaningful and not kill myself with the grading of it?

The core content classes in our high school have just finished putting together common final assessments, in which students take multiple choice final exams that are composed of higher order thinking questions. But I still struggle with whether or not a multiple choice test is the best measure of what a student has learned. Especially in an English class. Are one or two questions on tone enough to assess whether or not a student can write clearly about an author's style, tone, and technique? And yet such multiple choice tests make it easy to get feedback returned to students in a timely manner. I supposed it is about finding the balance, which I'm not sure that I've achieved yet.

So for the second part of the year, I think I need to revise my goals. I still plan to look at my unit assessments, striving for more of a backwards design approach, but I need to balance this with what I can realistically grade when I have three full classes.

A second goal I plan to work on is increasing the transparency of my classroom. I found during first semester that I got an amazing response from students and parents alike about how open my classroom has become. Posting all my assignments and handouts on the web, inviting parents to participate with us on our class Ning and wiki, and especially granting students and parents access to the classroom via our live streaming web camera has been a positive experience. While students presented their "This I Believe" essays in class, parents joined us, emailing me wonderful positive feedback for students that were not even their children. The parents especially have liked having this opportunity open to them, even if they rarely take advantage of it. The students were the ones to use it most, watching the classes they were absent for. And for me, it has been an amazing vehicle for assessing my teaching. So I plan to explore how to continue that transparency.

Now, I just need to find the time.


Healigan said...

I just finished reading 146 essay exams (11th and 12th grades). It was grueling, and yes, my family just had to pretend I was not in the house. But I have learned so much about my young writers! Of course, I had to grade them (6 short answer and 2 essays each) for the report cards, but the real gift was finding a real sense of who they are as writers, as a class, and as individuals. It was worth it--better than their blogs, wiki work, and formal essays. What did I give up? My time and my old view of them. It was low tech, to be sure, but I feel like a good teacher.

Me said...

Grading is the worst part of teaching, especially when the work is bad. Keep up the good work.

Jennifer Ward said...

Healigan -

I couldn't agree more. My students right now are drafting their personal narratives, an assignment based on NPR's "This I Believe" program. I learn more about my students through this writing process than I ever would through any multiple choice test.

I struggle though because I see our district, our state moving toward these standardized, skill-based, multiple-choice exams. I feel stuck between these two competing views in education which our district/state claims are not in competition. On the one hand there is the standardized, multiple-choice test which purports to measure higher-order thinking, while on the other hand is the move to incorporate more project-based learning. I tend to favor the more authentic, project-based learning; however, more and more we are feeling the pressure to standardize. In the end, I'm afraid standardization will win, and where will that leave our students?

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