Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Possibility of More, Part II: Go Big

Now, I’m fully committed to this idea. If I’d have kept this to myself, I probably could have found a way to weasel out of this; but, fortunately, I shared the idea. I guess I’m looking at it as my grand experiment – can a group of high school juniors and a couple of seniors rise to this challenge? Can they recognize what kind of opportunity they’re being given? One huge benefit working in my favor is the fact that our school has a motivated student population. With American Lit being a college prep class and over 92% of our graduating students going on to colleges and universities, I don’t have to worry about many behavioral problems in this class.

Even with an inspired group, I knew if I wanted this to work, I would need to keep in contact with the students individually to help them talk through ideas, answer questions, ease concerns and stress, and monitor progress. So, after talking with my support team (see part I), I developed a worksheet and attached it to my webpage to give my students some things to think about. Concurrently, in the second class, I informed them that they need to meet with me once every six weeks (3 times during the semester). During the meetings, they needed to talk to me about their Final Project ideas; how they were going to show me they were “worthy” of an A grade while still thinking outside of the box; commitments and risks they were willing to take on; and contributions they would make to the class, the school, and eventually the world. I emphasized they needed to do more than just be a body in the classroom – they needed to leave a positive mark and begin to see themselves as important contributors. Likewise, I suggested they play to their strengths for the Final Project: do what they do well. (It took about 25 conferences before I began to see the error of this suggestion, but more on that later.) Moreover, I had to deal with week to week grades for sport eligibility and student/parent feedback. Karl Fisch and I played with this idea and figured the best way to go about this was to grade them as I normally would, using a traditional grading style and system. This would be a little bit of a game because they would still get an A for the semester. I would use traditional grading as feedback only – giving them an idea whether or not their quality of work matched my expectations. That way, by the end of the semester, they’d know the level of depth and craftsmanship I expected in their projects. Karl also helped me understand that these grades would help take pressure off of the Final Project because if a student does well all semester, but falls apart on the project he/she can still pass the class. Additionally, if a student does none of the assigned work over the course of the semester, but ultimately shows his/her learning in the final, then they will still get the A.

Conferences would occur before and after school and during off hours (we run a variable schedule and the students understand that off hours are to be used to meet with teachers, so this helps the conferencing process) beginning the next Monday and concluding Friday of the following week. Their responsibility was to look through the worksheet, schedule a conference that fit both our schedules, prepare their answers, and actually show up at their scheduled time (for many, if they can remember to make an appointment, showing up on time is the biggest challenge). With Back to School Night coming up on Wednesday of the second week of school, I knew I had to have conferences set-up and a plan of action in place. No one seems to worry quite as much as parents when their child is in the middle of a new process.

The best news, as I headed home Friday afternoon with one week of school completed, was how excited and positive I felt about American Lit and the new school year ahead (despite the fact that I have 210 students in all of my classes combined). I truly believed I was doing something beyond the normal classroom that would allow these students to grow not just as American Lit students, but, most importantly, as learners and human beings.

Also in class, we began by reading Emerson’s “Gifts” and “Self-Reliance” – two essays that invite the students to look at life differently. I challenged them with some of the most difficult reading they’ve ever done because I believe that Emerson (and later Thoreau) offers the perfect perspective to high school juniors – find your own unique place in the world, follow your personal dreams, and celebrate the fact that your own ideas are more important than anyone else’s. Once we discussed these in class and more people understood Emerson’s points, the students really seemed to enjoy the transcendental ideas – and a few recognized how well these ideas played into the overall idea of this semester-long experiment (even I’m not sure if this was pure coincidence or pure genius on my part).
Right at 7:00 Monday morning, I had my first conference and it was good – the young man had written down ideas on what he’d do for the project and had obviously thought through how getting an A this semester would impact him personally and as a student. Needless to say, I was encouraged. But, as with everything else, the later conferences at the beginning of the week were up and down. Some people had thought through exactly what they wanted to do and how it would look and others seemed to have put in no thought whatsoever. I was also trying to figure out what I truly wanted to learn from these conferences. More than anything, it was a great opportunity to get to know these students on a more individual level. Instead of looking at a sea of 32 faces in each of my two sections, this was an opportunity to find out each student’s individual passions and strengths as well as a chance to alleviate some stress and fear while clarifying individual questions. At Ray Hawthorne’s suggestion, I had a 3x5 note card for each kid and jotted down notes as we talked. Likewise, I found myself refining the questions I asked: by the end of the first week of conferences, I was asking mostly about what they wanted to do for their final and how they wanted it to look; what commitments they would make for our class in terms of participation and work effort; and what risks they were willing to take since they knew they could not fail. It became obvious to me that most were not ready to answer the “bigger” questions about how this will impact their futures and what contributions they planned to make in the community and the world. Therefore, I’ll save those questions for later – probably the end of the semester.

For me, it was wonderful to see the excitement that came from many of these conferences; how many students seemed to embrace this opportunity to follow their passion and show their learning in their own way without a pre-set rubric or series of expectations. I have students planning to do everything from poetry to essays, from original artwork to photography to choreographing a dance, from making an original film to writing a play to putting together a documentary, from writing an original rap song to making a rock video of original music, to writing the music for and performing in a string quartet. And, more often than not, it’s a combination of several of these elements. Needless to say, I was impressed by wealth of talent these students bring to school every day that, unfortunately, we get to witness far too infrequently.

For most, how they wanted to put the project together (even if they weren’t sure if their idea was feasible) was much easier to figure out than what they wanted to say. So, along the way I helped them break down the topics into three areas: 1) expand on an over-riding idea for American Lit: What is the American Dream? Or, what does it mean to be an American? 2) Take an idea from something we read this semester and expand upon it: self-reliance, non-conformity, etc… from Emerson. 3) Show what you’ve learned and/or how you’ve grown throughout the semester (I suggest they keep a journal of their ideas so they’re not sitting at home in December wondering what they read in August). Ultimately, I just wanted to make sure they connected their ideas to the class in some way.
My next challenge was Back to School night. Our school schedules it so that each class meets for 6 minutes before moving to the next class – eventually, over the course of 2 hours, a parent will make it to every one of their child’s teachers; making it a long day for teacher and parent alike. With only 6 minutes to convince parents I was experienced enough to handle the curriculum, serious about giving their student an A for the semester, and, at least somewhat sane. The parents from my 3rd hour class had several questions about how this would all work and one parent asked (not at all unkindly) if I was kind of flying by the seat of my pants with this experiment – I assured her I was. Others wondered if their kids would merely take advantage of this process and not learn anything along the way. This seemed to be the predominant theme until a father (who had previously remained silent) raised his hand and told the others that his daughter is typically a straight A student and she’s been talking about this American Lit class more than any others. Additionally, she’s planning to work harder in this class because she wants to be proud of her Final Project. I couldn’t have paid someone to do a better job of allaying the parents’ concerns (and if I had more than 6 minutes with this group, I would have found out who he was). My 5th hour American Lit parents were much less vocal and seemed to take things more in stride. I imagine by this time of night, most of them were on their last legs and just hoping for the night to end. My victory was that not a single parent saw this as a big negative. Surely, they have questions and concerns (though I’ve not received any emails so far), but not so much that they see no value in giving their student the freedom to take some risks.
It wasn’t until the Wednesday of the second week of conferences that I had my greatest “aha” moment. As I mentioned above, I wanted my students to play into their strengths in giving their Final Presentation. Yet, as I talked with more and more students, I realized that the last thing in the world I wanted them to do was play it safe for their final. If I’ve already told them they couldn’t fail, why not make the final the biggest risk of all? Why not attempt something they’re not sure they can pull off? Why not ask them to shoot for the stars? And, that’s just what I began to do. I implored them to go big and stretch themselves. To find something they’ve always wanted to do and have the guts to go after it. They have the definitive educational safety net in place and I don’t want them to waste that opportunity. So, last Friday I gave the class a little pep talk about taking advantage of this opportunity because they’ll probably never be in another class where they’re virtually guaranteed an A (they’ll only fail if they put little or no effort into the Final Project). I also wondered what they would be telling themselves if they had a chance to risk and they played it safe – are they going to live their entire lives afraid of their own success? Finally, I informed them that I was going to send this out to the world (I’m not sure anyone beyond my wife is actually reading this, but don’t tell my students please, Anne) and that they could either prove the notion that most high school students are apathetic (some true pessimists would probably say just pathetic) or show the world that they will rise to meet any challenge placed in front of them.

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