In Which I ReThink How I Teach English

After four years, I’m going back to teaching English.  In four years, much has changed in the curriculum in our district.  I will be teaching 11th grade, or Junior English.  The focus is on American Literature.  Our school is using Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and my PLC has common prep periods so we can work together and go over our common assessments.

In the past, I could run my class anyway I wanted.  I used the curriculum guide and everything, but I had a good deal of freedom, otherwise.  Since we are using common assessments, I will probably need to work in conjunction with the other teachers more.

But, here’s the thing.  I want to rethink the way I deliver instruction and grade students.  I want to offer students shaped choices that encourage them to learn the way they like to learn.  I think they will do more if given these options.

I don’t want to do that thing where their grade is based on how much work they do.  I’m not teaching a class on doing classwork or homework, so the grade shouldn’t be affected much, if at all, by their output of work, or attendance for that matter.  I want to have a standards based class in which they earn a standards based grade.

For example, the first three weeks of the class looks at the use of rhetoric in Op Ed pieces and asks the students to analyze the persuasive techniques the authors use.  We look at ethos, pathos and logos, the Aristotelian concepts of persuasion.  In the end, the students should be able to write an analytical essay about a persuasive piece of writing.  There are over 16 individual standards in the entire 3 week unit.

So, I would take those standards and put them into my grade book.  Not assignments, just the standards.  Then, I would offer a few different ways that students could demonstrate their mastery of the standard.  Now, the analytical essay really encompasses five standards all by itself.  That assignment might go into the gradebook because it is a summative assessment.  Or, I could list the five different standards that are there.  A student might be able to proficiently demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the significant ideas in the work being analyzed.  So, they receive a “B” on that standard.  I can tell from the essay that they do understand these ideas.  Right?  But, maybe their control of grammar isn’t proficient.  Maybe they are an English Learner so the essay isn’t well-written, even though I can see that they understand the topic.  So, for that, they might get a “D”.  They explore the significance of personal events in relation to the work they are analyzing, but the rhetorical strategies are not in depth.  So, that gets a “C”.  The work is legible (they typed it), and for the most part they got the spelling, the punctuation and capitalization correct.  So, that standard gets a “B”.  They followed directions and the manuscript is entirely correctly formatted.  That gets an “A.”

One essay, five standards, five grades.  Averaged out, I’d say that they got a B- on the essay; 405 out of 500 points.  That seems fair to me.

The thing is, I would let the student keep rewriting the essay until they were satisfied with the grade.  If they went back and corrected the grammatical errors, I would revise that grade.

Also, earlier in the unit they must master standard WR 1.1 “Demonstrate an understanding of the elements of discourse (e.g. purpose, speaker, audience, form) when completing narrative, expository, persuasive or descriptive writing assignments.  Technically, that standard could apply to the summative assignment as well.  So, if I see that they have demonstrated this, I would put at least a “B” grade in the gradebook for them, too.

Standard RD 1.1 says they should be able to “Trace the etymology of significant terms used in political science and history.”  If the student can tell me what ethos, pathos and logos mean and where they came from they would get at least a “B” (proficient) in the gradebook.  They don’t have to write it down.  They could verbally do that.  They could make a video that contains this.  The standard doesn’t say it has to be written.

So, basically, I don’t want a grade based on anything but how I assess that they have mastered the standards.  In some cases, they can do it anyway they want.  In others, the standard specifies the way it gets demonstrated.

I’m both excited and scared of this.  It’s not a “normal,” “traditional” classroom.  It might be chaotic.  But, it might be a room full of engaged students who feel empowered because they have a choice over the way they are learning.  I would become less a “deliverer of instruction” and more of an educational guide and supervisor.

See, I used to have students come in and write a journal topic for ten minutes.  During that time I checked off their homework.  Then we would probably talk as a class for a while.  I might go over the homework or start explaining a new concept.  Or, we would read a story together.  They would answer comprehension questions at the end.  I would read through the answers, check off that they did it, reteach stuff that got missed or just move on.

What standards were they working on?  I don’t know.  Did they master them?  Not sure.

So, this would represent a complete rethinking of the way I run a classroom.  Yikes!  I’m hoping some of my teacher friends can chime in and offer me some resources to make this go well.  And, even if you’re not a teacher, can you offer a suggestion?  But, anyway, I’ve got the summer ahead of me to refine this.  So, that’s going to be fun.

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