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Changing Course

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The course of true love never did run smooth, and neither did my lesson plans. I’ve never understood how some teachers create a quarter calendar and stick to it down to what day the tests fall (then again, I don’t give tests either, because I prefer not to privilege my response as a reader above a student’s, but that’s another post).

Fortunately, there’s email. I’ve come to rely on it more and more as a way to continue the class outside of the time we’re all together in the room. Last week, for example, I had a lot of adjustments to make. Tweaks, really: a due date here, a change in requirements for a particular task there.

I went over the changes in class but I’m sure I lost a few as soon as I said, “Please get out your planners.” Some stay with me, but never all of them. It’s simply something I’ve come to accept: no matter how clearly I think I explain something, everyone will not get it. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a knock on my students. It’s the nature of communication, I’ve come to realize. Just because it’s straight in my mind and I THINK I’ve said it to them does not mean that the thought is transferred.

There are entire graduate English departments devoted to the notion that communication is impossible. For our purposes as educators, let’s take them at their word. The best we can do in our classrooms is try to get it right the first time, then repeat. Then say it again, another way, check for understanding, and be prepared to stand on our head for that last learner who understands the world in his own uniquely unfathomable (to us) way.

Digressions about half-remembered (okay, never got it the first time) literary theory aside, here’s an example (italics below) of my recent practical attempt to bridge the gap. I’ve glossed each amendment in an attempt to reveal how and why I zig and zag.

Intro. No frills, but includes an invitation to continue the conversation:

Here is a review of the announcements today in class. Some assignments and due dates were adjusted and there was new info. Please contact me with questions as needed.

First announcement. A due date for a big essay we’ve been working on for a Rotary Club contest. You’d think that’s the kind of thing I could get on a calendar before the fact, but, after a first workshop I realized they needed to hand it in to me for additional feedback, then workshop again. We will submit no essay before it’s time.

1. DUE: Four-Way Test final draft on Wednesday, December 10.

a. NEW: In addition to drafts and revision notes as usual, a two paragraph “Revision Narrative” is also required which talks about the choices you made as a writer as the paper evolved. A rubric was distributed in class so you’ll know how the essay will be graded.

b. NEW: In addition to the standard way of handing in the paper, also submit by email. Send me the final draft named “yourname4way” so I can submit it to the contest correctly.

I added the “Revision Narrative” because we’ve gone through so many iterations of this paper, I want them to look back over the drafts and consider the evolution. The second point is pure administrivia.

Next announcement, another essay due date. We’re writing for the Daughters of the American Revolution about the Gettysburg Address. We don't have time to put a high shine on it like we did on the other, but the history teacher will help the kids out, and I hope the fact that they’ve recently read Frederick Douglass in my class will come in handy.

2. NEW: DAR draft due Friday, December 19. (That’s right, the last day before Winter Break. If you aren’t going to be here, the draft should be submitted to me before then or on time via email). The requirements for this essay contest are printed on the back of the 4-way requirements (more copies available). Minimum 600 words; see Mr. C. for feedback on topics.

Both essays are for contests. The longer I teach, the more I try to design assignments that require “publication” to a range of audiences other than me. Getting it out of the room means student writers have to think about the reader at the other end, not just me with a red pen.

The next assignment is an example of a more local audience—our own school community. The form is also different. The art teacher and I collaborated on a “visual literacy” project. Aside from the fact that I always like the chance to mindmeld with another teacher, this fit because, well, we’ve been writing a lot of essays lately. Why not use the other side of the brain, too?

3. CHANGED: Opening Doors… Visual Communication project. If you are not comfortable in Adobe, you can do this as a non-computer-based art project (good old scissors and glue). The requirements other than the use of Adobe are still the same: completely cover an 8 ½ x 11 page with a combination of images and at least a paragraph of text to capture how Congressional has “opened doors” for you. Due date is still December 15.

A “warm up” assignment in Adobe preceded this one, and it became clear that all the students didn’t remember the software as well as the art teacher hoped they might. Hence the option to do it the old fashioned way.

Next, a straightforward reading assignment. We’re bookmarking as we go, another chance for kinesthetic-- and differentiated-- learning.

4. NEW: Read and annotate To Kill Ch 9-12 due Tuesday, December 9.

And here’s an announcement that’s a heads up related to an ongoing service project inherited from my predecessor here. For fifteen years she had the kids cook and serve a monthly meal at a local shelter. We’re keeping the chain unbroken, even though it costs a couple classes a month. Totally worth it, I’d say, especially when we can connect the activity to books we’ve read or the daily news.

5. REMINDER: Baily’s next week. We’ll assign food to bring, jobs etc on Monday as usual, cook and serve Friday. Think about a special holiday twist we can add.

Here’s an individualized reminder to the four kids who missed the last workshop. Nice to be able to do when you have small classes.

6. MAKE-UP: Runi, Cathy, Dan, and Andy only. Please come on Monday with drafts of your 4-Way so you can make the writer’s workshop during 9th period. You may work in pairs. Ask me for the rubric.

End email. One more way to say it all again, yet another chance to adjust the course of the course. Because while I’m busy accommodating various learning styles, various learners also need to accept my own particular teaching style. Together we can avoid icebergs up ahead… or at least make it to a well-deserved winter break.

2 Comments

I think your point about having them write for contests as a way to expand their thinking on audience is a great idea. How do you find out about these contests, and do you require they actually send them in? Is it just regular Googling?

Many small office users or basic computer users does not want a word processor like MS word or OOO’s, which has plenty of advanced features. Abiword is a simple and lightweight word processor, which does almost everything that MS word or OpenOffice.org does. Another advantage of abiword is that it is entirely free of cost.

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