This school year is still toddling around, unsteady on its feet, yet I have already been faced with doubts I was not expecting to have. I spent a great deal of my career in a school that housed one grade level. While this made for a tight-knit community of professionals, it did not offer me the opportunity to continue communication with my former students on a daily basis. Now at a high school, teaching mostly freshmen, I am blessed to get to watch them grow and to keep in touch with them, as many of their routes from one class to another pass by my classroom and some have even signed up to take my computer science class. And while this is a blessing more than anything else, it has also made me very aware of their current place on the conveyer belt of education, as Rick Wormeli has called it (link to his post that inspired this one). When passing a former student in the hall, I may ask, “How is English going this year?” or “What are y’all doing in English?” or “How is tenth grade treating you?” Innocent questions, right? Not so much. Because teenagers are blunt human beings for the most part. And because their answers aren’t always what I want to hear.
“You need to do more dialectical journals this year. We have to do them every night.”
“I never really learned how to do DGPs in your class. I still don’t know how to diagram a sentence.”
“I didn’t really learn anything in your class. I mean, I learned to blog and get out my feelings, but that’s pretty much it. All we did was read and write stuff in your class. Oh, and I learned what a utopia is. But I don’t know what an intransitive verb is.”
And each time I hear an answer like that, I wonder why I wasn’t an accountant. Or a barista. Or an office worker in a cubicle. I feel like a failure at this teaching thing.
Because the truth is I spent the majority of my life last year researching new ways to reach my students, conversing with expert educators across the country via Twitter, planning lessons with colleagues, questioning my students about their interests so I could bring those interests into my classroom, reading about the skills my students would need in the future, seeking out students with untapped leadership abilities and nudging them out of their comfort zones, and starting and maintaining a podcast where my co-host and I interviewed people about the latest trends in education, incorporated them into our classrooms, discussed the results on air, and even taught some of our students how to take over for an episode.
Yet all of that boiled down to my students feeling like I didn’t prepare them for their bellringers and for completing a graphic organizer.
Let me clarify this bellringer and graphic organizer thing. The DGPs my students didn’t quite get were bellringer activities (Daily Grammar Practice) that require students to label parts of speech and parts of the sentence, capitalize and punctuate a sentence, and then diagram it. The dialectical journals are just graphic organizers that require students to find textual evidence and write commentary. Both of these activities come from a prepared curriculum that most of our ninth and tenth grade English teachers choose to follow. But I digress…
My motto for myself all last year was this: What can I offer my students that they would not have gotten if they had skipped my class? In our school system, upcoming freshmen are allowed to take a test to qualify for English 9 credit without having to take it. In addition to this fact, the ninth and tenth grade standards for Common Core are exactly the same. So the students who are in my freshman English class have two years to master my standards before possibly taking an AP or dual enrollment course.
But, as we all know, there are things our students need to know that are not in our standards. Those skills needed for the future I researched? Not in my standards for the most part. So I decided I would cover my standards, of course, but I would cover them in a way that would help my students find their own voice and develop their creativity, problem-solving, technology, and collaboration skills, all skills they will need in order to be productive adults in this world.
When tackling the standards about analyzing and writing arguments, for example, I had students analyze the same argument presented in multiple formats (spoken word, songs, posters, magazine covers, etc.). Then they had to create an argument of their own in three different formats. Some of them chose to write songs or rewrite the lyrics to existing ones. Some of them wrote poems. Some created infographics or videos. And some published blog posts. But all of them covered the standard.
One way the prepared curriculum would have had me teach those standards would have involved dialectical journals (graphic organizers) and a handout with an excerpt from a few speeches and prepared questions for students to answer about the speeches, culminating in an essay. Both methods teach the standards and teach the standards well.
But my way did not teach my students how to complete a dialectical journal. And this is what my students focus on–a graphic organizer.
When I saw that my students’ evidence was not strong, I created a lesson that had them collect all the evidence on index cards as they read. Then they had to make connections between pieces of evidence and form assertions based on the evidence they collected. After they formed those assertions, I had them form new groups of evidence and write more assertions. Again, not a dialectical journal. And while a dialectical journal is a great tool for teaching the concept of evidence and commentary, it’s still just a tool, and definitely not the only tool.
Those pesky parts of speech they still don’t know? Not in my standards. Sentence diagramming? Oh, I love it. I love it a lot. But not in my standards. Yet this is what my students focus on–skills that are nice to know but not even in the course of study (except that punctuating thing), at least not at the high school level. I chose, instead, to pull sentences from my students’ writing and have them fix any issues with grammar or mechanics they saw and would personalize grammar instruction while giving feedback during the writing process. But this apparently didn’t help them be rockstars with DGPs.
The thing is my students did complete dialectical journals first semester. They did DGPs all year long. We diagrammed sentences on Fridays just like all the other classes did…because I didn’t want them to get to the next slot on the conveyer belt without having exposure to those things I knew they would encounter (and maybe in part because I’m a grammar nerd who loves to diagram a sentence). But I didn’t assess them on these activities, because that’s what they are: activities that are used as a means to teach the standard. I didn’t make them a big deal. And I didn’t make them do a bunch of them. And my students seem to think I failed them because they were not as prepared for these activities (and the workload that often comes with them) as students whose teachers did follow the prepared curriculum much more closely.
And this breaks my heart. It breaks my heart so much that I almost bend to the pressure. I almost want to follow the prepared curriculum to the tee, to make DGPs a huge deal and to make them complete a gazillion dialectical journals so that my students will get to the next spot on the conveyer belt and feel like rockstars. Almost.
But then people like Rick Wormeli, who inspired this post, and my curriculum coordinator, Khristie Goodwin, and my colleague and podcast co-host, Cade Somers, and so many of the wonderful educators in my Twitter PLN remind me that I am on the right track. Although it is sometimes a lonely track to be on and one that my students are too young to understand, it’s the right one. And, hopefully, one day I will stop doubting that. But, in all honesty, that day hasn’t come. Most days I feel inadequate and guilty and lost. I feel like other teachers have it together more than I do and that I’m just spinning my wheels and churning out students who can’t complete a DGP correctly if their lives depended on it. So until the day comes that I stop doubting, please keep encouraging me. Because there continues to be days when all I can think about is how I can still go get that accounting degree if I need to…
and Starbucks sure is calling my name.