2015-16: Year in Review

Today I am writing about the academic year that has recently ended (since I taught summer school, it only ended a few weeks ago); tomorrow I will post a research brief for the upcoming academic year.

Last year, I taught U.S. History for the first time, as well as a senior English course (my third year teaching this course) and Journalism (my seventh year overall, and third after a two-year hiatus from 2011-13).  I also became the co-chair of our school’s accreditation process, a three-year project.

Teaching U.S. History
 
I grew significantly with regard to teaching about race, in part because  I was teaching two hours of U.S. History. I am certainly no expert, but my students and I had multiple discussions about race as part of our inquiries, and students seemed to grow increasingly competent and confident in writing about race. For example, we identified – as part of a Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) lesson – racism in the New Deal. I think these regular conversations about the role of race in U.S. History made it easier for me to discuss race when it was appropriate in English, for example when a pair of students were reading Sherman Alexie or when students were researching racism in their project group.
Breadth vs depth
 
This was a challenge, to say the least, in my first year of teaching history. My students all improved at reading and writing about documents, and most improved significantly.  (I am basing this conclusion primarily on the improvement I saw over the year in our Document-Based Question, or DBQ, essays.) I am very pleased at how much we grew in this area. Yet I also missed opportunities, in part because my pacing was so shaky – for example, one of my students (who is deeply interested in gender and LGBT issues) came across sources that discussed the role of women in World War I, but I didn’t find space to encourage her to push this inquiry further.
Curriculum Integration
 
This didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, but I did learn a lot. We turned it into a workshop, which was a good format, but I needed to give the kids more structure. Scaffolding is important if I am to ask students – who have spent most of their lives performing tasks set by teacher – to think more creatively. They certainly can think creatively, but many kids need a bit more guidance at the beginning.
Another thing I discovered too late – the kids needed more help assessing their products. Again, this is largely because my students have, for most if not all of their academic lives, not been asked to evaluate their own work. They have, for the most part, simply created products and then received an assessment.
In particular, my students had not really considered the difference between process and product before we began to discuss self-assessment. We began these discussions far too late in the year, in March and April; one of my students pointed out in a blog post that these conversations needed to take place at the beginning of the year. In particular, he was referring to our use of criteria charts; he said that he would have liked to have created a criteria chart at the beginning of the year to get a better idea of where his group’s project was going.  (It’s worth noting that this student’s group’s completed project was one of the best.)
One idea for moving forward this year:  to start with a class project in the first semester of senior English to teach the process, then have groups work more independently in second semester. I also want to create a sort of notebook of forms/organizers, such as the research log. I need a way to give kids feedback on their use of tools like the log.
In U.S. History, I will take a slightly different tack. I instead to do a research workshop that will focus on writing Letters to the Next President in the fall semester; then, in the second semester we will work on a projects based on a presentation I saw by Peter Paccone at the California Council for the Social Studies 2016 Conference. I’ll write more about this as the year goes on.

Technology

I still need to get over the hump of teaching kids how to select, not merely how to use, tech tools. I think a module/resource-bank approach might help with this – instead of teaching a specific tool to the whole class, I would teach how to use a tutorial (for example), and also teach students how to locate these self-teaching tools. Perhaps an assignment could be for students to teach themselves how to use a tool?
Teacher-Leadership
 
I will have more to say about this as the year goes on, I am sure, but my major insight here was that I need to do less in order to accomplish more. I have taken steps to thin out my load; I will step down as Key Club adviser at the end of this school year, and I have ended my two-year term as an officer for the El Monte Coalition of Latino Professionals, the community service group that I belong to. I hope to improve my overall health and balance, while improving my performance at work, by taking these steps – counter-intuitive and difficult, admittedly – to reduce my workload.
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