The Author

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I am a high school English teacher, and mother of two charming little ones of my own. I teach in a high poverty urban charter school, while I live in a typical American suburb that has frequently been rated one of the safest cities in the country. It is a paradox I struggle with constantly, but it is my life.

Friday, September 23, 2011

My Week in Teaching: A Reflection

This has been an interesting week in teaching. It was the conclusion of our current unit. 

This month, Leslee and I put so much effort into planning this unit, and we felt like it was really well-planned. The focuses were literary analysis and comparison writing, which we taught through a graphic novel called Persepolis. Our secondary goal was to truly begin preparing students for college, as we taught them to annotate and discuss texts like college students.

There were many successes in this unit. Students had fantastic discussions about the literature. They pointed out profound depths to the novel, like the stark choice of only black and white for the artwork, and the fact that God disappears from the pages and somewhat from her life as she gets older. They truly began to understand many things about Iran and the history of the Islamic Revolution. Considering that many adults in America don't know anything about the Islamic Revolution, I feel pretty proud of that. Plus, they actually read and comprehended the literature. This, in and of itself, getting students to actually to read a book, is a major success. On the Accelerated Reader test (it is a comprehension test) at the end of the unit, I believe the average grade was something like 80%. I should take just this for success and be thrilled. And I am. 

The second part of this unit was teaching compare contrast writing skills. We lead them in the direction of this throughout the unit, and this week we explicitly taught them how to organize and structure the essay. It seemed like they really "got" it, and I wasn't worried at all walking in to the test this morning. 

We gave them a college style essay exam; in fact, we even ordered blue books for the students, so they would really get used to even the little things. (I explained that in college, they would have to buy them themselves and suggested they could make some extra coffee money by showing up to class with extra. Hahahaha). Anyhow... so after first period today, I wanted to cry. 

Too many of the essays were atrocious. Although I specifically told them not to use the thesis "Marjane and I have many similarities and many differences too," or anything like that, a lot of them still used essentially that same weak "similarities and differences" thesis, which basically says NOTHING. Then the ones who did understand the stronger thesis almost all just reworded the sample thesis I gave in class. I thought that giving it as an essay test and not allowing them to use the notes they took when I gave that sample thesis would prevent this from happening, but it did not.  I even found one paper was clearly plagiarized. How does one do that on an in-class essay test? Well, clearly, planning ahead, which made it even sadder. Such a good kid too. Plagiarism has such serious consequences, it truly made me want to cry. 

Leslee and I sat there wondering where we had gone wrong. How could the essays be this bad?  As I returned to my room to give the test to 4th and 5th period, I did not have high hopes. I asked myself, "What else could we have possibly done?" I resolved to examine the unit more closely, figure out a way to use this failure as a lesson of some kind (for me and for them), take a deep breath, and move on. 

But then I started to glance over the 5th period tests during 6th period. They weren't bad! In fact, they were actually... dare I say... good?  Yes, they were good! A quick glance at 4th period showed similar results. I heaved a sigh of relief. Perhaps first period was a fluke? A quick text to Leslee produced confirmation that her 6th period students also appeared to have performed well.

On the ride home (and sitting in the doctor's office waiting room for a ridiculously long time today), I pondered the results and reflected on the week. What was the difference between first period and the other classes? Well, Wednesday and Thursday. But did that make a difference? I thought about it further. I realized that Wednesday morning, I felt terrible. My throat hurt and my ears ached, and I was just plain exhausted. As I looked at the lesson plan that morning, I was certain I would barely have time to finish all of the activities, so I somewhat hurried through the lesson on structuring the essay. When I stopped to give them time for independent practice, I assumed the looming test would be enough motivation for them to get quickly to work, but alas, I found them wasting time. I sighed and did my best to recover and move on. 

My Thursday classes had a much different attitude. Perhaps it was the enthusiasm in my voice that morning. Perhaps it was the 10 minute deadline and the warning that they would be sharing their outlines with their neighbors that ignited their work, but they worked hard. They learned hard. In fifth period, we even got through all the required stuff so well so quickly that we were even able to have a light-hearted discussion about Marjane's nickname and the pronunciation of her name. We did a lot of laughing as they shared some gross mispronunciations of their names and I jokingly imitated how many of them had mispronounced Marjane's name at first. I could tell that they felt sophisticated with their new knowledge. I even let them leave 1 minute early to lunch. That never happens in fifth period (I am usually holding them after the bell), so this was amazing.

When they walked in today, they were anxious and clearly serious about performing well. They worked steadily the entire hour, and they even seemed to be following my suggested pacing for a one-hour-timed essay. One student said, "Wow! I can't believe I wrote for an entire hour! It felt like ten minutes!" 

As the bell rang, another student questioned, "Miss... Did you email my mom last night that we had a test today? She ran into my room and insisted I study."  I laughed. "Of course I did," I replied, "I always email all the parents the day before a test or big assignment. Did it help?"  He rolled his eyes, but then smiled as he admitted, "Yeah.... it did. Thanks, Miss!" 

Is there any magic reason why that one class performed so much worse than the other three classes? No, probably not. It is probably a combination of things. How I felt. Better weather.  The revised nuances in my lesson plan. Different attitude. More parents with email. 

But I do look back on it all and realize this: had there been more than one lesson on the actual structure of the essay before the test, they ALL would have performed better. We rushed it a little so that we could give them time to see the movie (and us time to grade) and still start our next unit on time. We pretty much have the rest of the year planned out, and we see the necessity to not keep pushing units back. But one more lesson could have done them a lot of good. They just needed more of a chance to practice the writing before the high-stakes essay test. Oh well. I have learned my lesson for next time.

It is sometimes hard to admit how much I learn through each stumble, but I swear, the more I teach and the more I learn, the more I realize how painfully much more there still is to learn.

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