Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dialing down the Bling

We started the new unit. The one I mentioned being excited about…Yeah. Well. I guess for every great lesson like the “Here is New York” copy/change, I owe the teacher karma universe a dud. Mission accomplished!

What went wrong? Well, for starters, I think I oversold it. Too much, “Guess what, folks? We’re about to start the most exciting thing ever!” Too little, “Look, here’s the deal. You may have passed the state exam, but until you pass this class, it isn’t over.” In fact, I think all my mistakes designing and launching this unit fall under the category of overkill. See, I’ve made “engaging and educational” units for this course before, with tepid results. Students struggle to maintain motivation once the deal breaker exam has passed. My teacher narcissism tells me that with the perfect unit, I can counter this emotional backlash. To woo students into focused attention, I dolled up a unit with group work, technology, interviews, and real life case studies.

I think my unit’s academic core got obscured by all the bells and whistles. As I explained the three day activity, I could feel students shift back in their seats. I could taste their determination of “busywork” in the air. I purposely put this showoff unit before a more old school read-n-write unit because I wanted to appeal to students’ appetites, to see their eyes light up with interest. (Whenever I reach for the emotional payoff, I lose ground on powerful lessons. Apparently, I seek to prove this to myself over and over again.) I know not all is lost; students will trudge dutifully through the assignment and meet the writing and critical thinking objectives. It just didn’t engage them the way that I’d hoped.

In hindsight, I think I’ll put a sensible shoes kind of unit after the exam next year. Instead of trying to create a level of engagement after the state exam that might not be psychologically realistic, I’m going to reassert the quiet purposefulness of our writing work with a more standard unit. Maybe students need routine after the big emotional upheaval of the deal breaker exam. Like coming home from school and finding Mom dressed up for a big night out instead of khaki pants and a pocket tee, my students started at all my lesson glam at 9 a.m. in the morning. I guess my own post exam emotional backlash, after weeks of mundane test preparation, makes me want to dazzle students with my ability to make learning fun. I’ll need to measure out my lesson bling with greater moderation next time!

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

4 comments:

Michelle said...

Wow, I think it's interesting that you are being so harsh on your own teaching methods. Sometimes it is hard to get students motivated at all, so you just want to go with the complete opposite - rather than bringing up yet another unit with the same exercises and rhythm you do the others, it is tempting to go the complete opposite. I don't blame you. I would do the same thing. Maybe if you just went into the lesson with the attitude that this is something new, rather than exciting, this might stimulate participation among the students. Students are harsh critics, I am myself, and am almost looking to the teacher to challenge me with something new and innovating to tackle. However, I really commend the energy you put into the lesson plan. This is better than many teachers merely saying, "okay kids, we're starting the next leg of your learning." That can be more disappointing.

Kate Kellen said...

Thanks for the words of support, Michelle. We wrapped up the unit in class today, and the products have made me re-think my own comments, too. It's tricky to find the right combination of flash and substance; I'm definitely giving this whole unit more time to gel in my reflections.

Take care,
Kate

Michelle said...

I am planning on having my own creative writing or freshmen -level writing class when I go for my MFA. Not only will this help with the tuition, but I am really looking forward to sharing my excitement and knowledge of writing as well. I think I will look forward to reading students' work as much as I did seeing what my peers were coming up with in my classes. Are there any suggestions you have to keep momentum going within the classroom? It is one thing to have enthusiasm as a teacher, but it must be hard if there isn't any participation at the other end. I always try to comment during discussion so as to avoid that moment of silence. That would be one of my biggest fears as a teacher.

Kate Kellen said...

Michelle, your question is a big one. I think everything I write about teaching is essentially about keeping my energy up in the face of students' struggle to engage.

In short, we are at our best as teachers when we lose our fear of that "moment of silence." Once we are confident that what we are doing has merit, we can endure that time, perhaps even consider it a sign that people are thinking! For me, that confidence can ebb and flow as I try new things; it isn't a constant state. However, once we achieve it as teachers, we know that we can get there again, and that helps us through all kinds of tense teaching moments.

Take care,
Kate