Sorry it had been awhile since I posted, so this one is pretty long!
Students want to be engaged, not bored. Students want to have experiences, not have facts thrown at them. Students will remember quality activities long after they have left your class, but will forget the questions and answers to multiple guess questions moments after they fill in the final bubble.
The trick to create meaningful, engaging, exciting lessons can be illusive. I can attest to that from personal experience. Great lessons don't just happen, they take hard work, and strong connections to your students. In your quest to create great lessons, you will FAIL (first attempt at learning)! You may also find that your students are more likely to fail in their attempt to meet your objectives. This is where reflection comes in. It is easy to see when a lesson fails. It is much more difficult to realize why it failed.
I have always reflected on both the successful ones and those that crash and burn. At times during my career, I must admit I blamed the students. You can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink. But with my summer of learning, I hope to never allow that phrase to be part of my reflective process. Yes it takes student engagement and participation to make a great lesson. Yes students need to be actively involved, and if you don't have a group of students who are willing to jump into the activity, it isn't going to ever reach the level of the great lessons we all dream about. But is it the students' fault they don't engage? The answer depends on the next question. If only a few students refuse to engage in the activity, but the majority jump in enthusiastically and participate in a meaningful manner, then it is on those students who decided to not participate. If the majority refuse to participate in the way you desire, then you haven't created a good lesson, or even worse, you haven't connected to your students to create the buy in to your classroom environment. I don't say this because all of my lessons are great, far from it. I don't say this because I have all the answers, again I am struggling to break free of mediocrity.
I present these ideas because they come from two amazing educators that I wholeheartedly respect. The first one is Tim Stauss who I had the privilege to learn from during my first teaching experience. As a brand new teacher, I sit with him and other veteran teachers during our lunch duty. We would discuss all kinds of things, educational and personal, and even share recipes. And if you know Tim, you might find this very interesting. He is a guy who can be very intimidating, even to other teachers, and here we were talking about how to keep lettuce from turning brown, and best lasagna recipes. Okay, back from the tangent. During one of these sit downs, I asked him about students who weren't doing well, and I was struggling to connect to them. He told me that same week, he gave his economics students a test, and most of them had low scores, much worse than normal, and many failed. I must have looked shocked because he quickly told me he threw the tests away. Here was his lesson, if the students as a whole don't do well, it is our fault as educators. We didn't prepare them well. He told me his plan was to reteach and then retest which he did. The results spoke volumes to all involved. I used this same mentality earlier this year when students in my Sociology class didn't do well on their first test. I wrote a post about this earlier. I learned from Tim, that what happens in our class is first and foremost under our control and we have to adjust and revise to create those opportunities we desire.
The second educator that has helped shape my belief that the engagement of students is in my control is Dave Burgess, who I have mentioned many times in my posts. He is the author of Teach Like a Pirate, and a fantastic social studies teacher. He not only discusses how to create great lessons, but also the fact that he too doesn't have perfect lessons, or great lessons everyday. He strives for self improvement, and works hard to create better lessons. I think that is the key, to continue to push yourself to improve. One of the biggest takeaways for me from his book was the aspect of developing rapport. You have to get to know your students, to create the buy in to what you are selling. To get students to understand what you are trying to do, and that it is okay to take a risk and even fail because you have created a safe caring environment.
Now that the philosophical groundwork has been firmly laid, here is the reality of my classroom experiences this year. I have tried to create more authentic, engaging lessons for my students. I have tried to create activities where they apply their knowledge and understanding to develop a new skill, or final product of some sort. Some of these activities have been previously discussed in other posts, such as the presentation to members of the school board as to what should be taught in school, or the 9/11 blog posts where students reflect on the impact of the attacks on the twin towers. In these and many other projects, I have added a student reflection piece to the final task. Students are asked various questions that help me determine what went well, and what could be improved, from their point of view.
The newest lessons I have tried include two from my US History course, and one that I developed and will introduce after the holiday break in World History. The first US history lesson is where students create their own constitutional congress. Their task is to create a constitution to govern the newly formed nation. Students had to research a specific delegate, and create a position statement answering 5 questions about the most important issues facing the new nation. The debate went okay, however students didn't get into their roles in the way that I had expected them to. They didn't fight for the method of representation that would preserve or protect their interests in the new nation as I expected. They struggled to represent the interests of their state with specific detailed ideas. When the activity was complete, I asked them for feedback on the activity. We spent more than half a class period discussing and reflecting openly about what went well and what caused the activity to fail, or at least be less engaging than it should have been. Students provided some feedback that I expected, but also through the dialogue, I began to see that there were aspects of the overall project that were missing to support students. It was through this dialogue that I have redesigned the activity for next year.
I have decided this year to teach through activities rather than lectures. I am not all knowing when it comes to historical facts, and my strength is not to stand and deliver but to propose challenges and allow students to engage in the learning by doing. My classes are created with students reading and discussing background information and then applying the information in a new meaningful way. This is challenging for us all. Students have to take on more ownership, and I have to be more immersed in their discussions to guide them through the process.
The next lessons again come from US History, and both of them again are role play activities. I have not taught US History for about seven years, so I have taken lessons from Stanford's Sheg or the Zinn Project to create opportunities for engaging lessons in my social studies class.
One of the last of these lessons was the Cherokee Removal Act where students had to take on the role of various groups who were connected or invested in the decision to remove the Native Americans from the south to west of the Mississippi River into Oklahoma. This was different from the Constitutional Convention because students didn't need to research, information, they were given information and had to apply it to create responses to discussion questions. They then represented their group's point of view to support or oppose the Indian Removal Act.
There was good and bad to this lesson, the good being that students delved into the events of the Indian Removal Act and were able to see the impact on the lives of the Natives. They also recognized the superficial and underlying reasons for others wanting to either protect or remove the Native populations. Students were exposed to different perspectives and able to engage in the discussion with details and ideas beyond anything I have ever done in the past.
The bad was the level at which some students connected to the material. Some students weren't able to truly able to represent the role they were playing. They weren't able to understand the complexities of their role.
The final overall good of this activity was the learning experience for myself and my students. At the end of the activity, I debriefed with the students about the experience and this is where the most important learning for me took place. I was able to discuss with students the things they liked about the activity, as well as things that hindered their ability to portray the roles as in depth as is necessary for a true representation of the issues connected with the historical event. One of the major things I realized was that I missed a step in the activity that the author explained to be important to assisting students. The creator of this lesson was Bill Bigelow, who taught history for many years before becoming a significant contributor to the Zinn Project. The reason why I mention him is because after I completed the lesson and the conversation with my students, I decided to email the Zinn project about my experience. I sent a message discussing what happened, and asking for help with areas of concern revealed through the debriefing with my students. What amazed me was I ended up talking to Bill Bigelow through several emails, and having the opportunity to see some examples from his actual lessons. The opportunity to connect to the author of the lesson was tremendous. I know you cannot parrot another's lesson, you will never do it exactly the same way they did, but when you find a good lesson, it is so valuable to talk to the creator for those little insights that make the lesson spectacular for your students.
The final lesson I put together as a culminating assessment for our Civilizations unit in World History. Students had worked in groups to research their selected civilization and then created a storybook about their civilization to present information to the rest of the group. This was the big activity in the past then they had to explain which empire was the best in an essay comparing the various empires. I wanted to create a more authentic assessment. Students were asked to create their own civilization, creating laws, deciding where they would live, and how they would structure their society. I even created a situation where they were having to rebuild the world post nuclear apocalypse. Students worked on the project for about 2 weeks to create their own ideal civilization. As part of this I asked some questions that connected to the ancient civilizations we had studied.
My reflection of this lesson. The good, students came up with some creative ideas, they had some good ideas for laws, and some struggled with the idea of how to structure a society. There were great opportunities for conversations about their civilizations while they were working on their projects. The bad, there wasn't much connection to the ancient civilizations.
I realized I got so excited to do the build your own civilization project that I rushed through the discussion of the ancient civilizations and that contributed to the lack of background knowledge in their final product.
The lesson here is to not rush the learning process. It is about the journey not the deadline. I know we all have to get through so much content, however if the students don't understand it, or can't apply it, what have they really learned? Excitement for a unit is priceless, but when the students aren't prepared for it, you may be alone in your original excitement and that excitement will likely be short lived as it is replaced with frustration.
Reflection can be a difficult process because we don't always want to hear the answers. If we truly want to improve, we need to reflect, seek insights from others and ponder the results of our reflection. When lessons fail to fulfill my expectations, I want to know why. I have spent too much time working on a lesson or unit to allow it to fail. I am determined to make my lessons significant, engaging, and meaningful to students and their learning, and when I fall short I need to know why so I can fix it for next time. No one likes to fail, but if you continue to improve then you will never really fail!
My final thought- when I struggle, I look to others for their insights. I have great colleagues, especially special education teachers who provide perspectives about how I have designed or instructed lessons. I have an amazing PLN who are willing to share their ideas with me, and help me strive for improvement. When things don't go as well as you would like, please ask for help. There are so many people out there who want to see you succeed, take advantage of their knowledge and experience. Continue to grow and improve, our students deserve our best!