Monday, September 3, 2012

It's School Again! Huzzah! (Part 2 of 2)

The freshmen had their first day of school with us last Tuesday; on Wednesday, the rest of our students returned and I got to see my seniors for the first time since I last had them all as sophomores.

This year, one of my goals for my math class is to get my students writing more and to practice digital citizenship by focusing on communicating with peers in an online environment. To that end, one of our opening activities was for students to respond to a discussion board prompt on our echo course page.

The questions were pretty simple:

Many of the responses were encouraging to read; a lot of students stated they were planning to go to college after high school and that they were excited for graduation. Several students said they were excited to have me as their teacher again because they enjoyed how I teach (which I'm not particularly sure how to feel about since I think I was probably doing many things wrong two years ago).

Some students had their priorities straight:

While other students took a rather avant-garde approach:

Still, I learned a great deal about my students. A few of them said they wanted to go into graphic design; one wants to be a zoologist; one is thinking about cinematography or film; a few are considering getting business degrees; one wants to be a mechanic; one has aspirations of joining the FBI; some are planning to go into the military; and many, many more. There is a lengthy, eclectic list of careers my students want to pursue after high school, which is awesome.

Other students are unsure of what they want to do after they finish high school, which is also okay. I'm hoping that during this year I can connect with these students and help them figure out plans and goals for themselves for a post-high school existence.

At any rate, this discussion board activity served two important purposes. First, as I just detailed above, I learned a lot about my students. I know more about their post-graduation plans and their interests, which will help me a great deal in tailoring our class to incorporate their interests. Second, the activity established a baseline for their ability to communicate and interact with each other in a supervised online environment.

I saw some good things. The students were able to follow directions well for the most part, did an "okay" job of using polite language (save for one student who jokingly said her mom would "beat her ass" if she didn't get a good grade in math), and responded to each other's posts while making an effort to comport professionally.

I also saw some things that need a lot of work. The vast majority of the students re-posted each question and answered them in a list format. I would like to see them get away from re-posting questions and answering in a paragraph form. (Not that answering in a list format is necessarily a bad thing, but I would like to see them practice putting their thoughts together in a coherent, flowing format.) Spelling, grammar, and punctuation remains an issue; I realize that I'm a math teacher, but that doesn't mean I can't give them feedback on these things. (Actually, I minored in English at Michigan State, and am certified to teach the subject in the state of Michigan.) The replies that students wrote to each original post were also, for the most part, superficial. I saw a lot of "I agree with you"-type posts that had little depth and weren't suited to continuing the conversation. Again, not necessarily a bad thing; plus, I wasn't expecting most of the students to be able to do this on the first go. We were simply establishing a baseline to help us identify what to work on. By the end of the year, I'm hoping to see well-crafted, thoughtful responses and replies that result in deeper conversation. (To be fair, this probably requires a deeper topic than what I gave them to start with.)

Outside of the discussion post activity, the majority of the time was spent administering a math benchmark test to establish where the students are in terms of content mastery. This benchmark will help me determine what the students already know, what they still need to master, and thus where we should focus our efforts as far as mastering content is concerned.

Probably the coolest thing of the week that happened was Friday. Many students still needed to finish their benchmark from Wednesday/Thursday, while others were already finished and weren't going to have much else to do. This seemed like a great opportunity to preview the election-themed project that we're going to be launching when we come back from Labor Day weekend.

I decided to get together the students who were already finished with their benchmark in each class for a Critical Friends session. The students had seen the Critical Friends protocol in their sophomore English class and were somewhat familiar with the procedures, so I gave each class a quick refresher before starting.

It went alright in my 1st period class, but the students more frequently got off-task in 2nd period. I realized that I needed to designate a few students to be responsible for steering the "I Like/I Wonder/Next Steps" portion of the session and keeping everyone focused on the task at hand. So, in my 3rd period, I asked the group if anyone was comfortable leading the discussion. Three students immediately spoke up, so I told them they were responsible for keeping everyone on task. I presented the project idea and sat back to let the students discuss it.

I hadn't expected what transpired next.

One of the students I designated to lead the discussion immediately chose a student to read the entry document out loud. The other students all listened intently as she read through the entry doc. After she was done, one of the other student leaders grabbed a dry erase marker to start writing "I Likes," "I Wonders," and "Next Steps" on the board while the other two called on students for their feedback.

I was amazed. I was very proud and excited. I thought to myself, "SOMEONE HAS TO SEE THIS!!"

So I shot a quick Skype message to our assistant principal, who came down a few minutes later as the session got in full swing. We were enraptured by how well the students had taken over the conversation, listing several "I Likes," "I Wonders," and "Next Steps" while conducting themselves in an orderly fashion:

I was very impressed with what the students were able to do on their own. I had actually intended to listen to their conversation and write down all of their feedback myself (as I had done for the first two periods), but they completely took care of that for me! The only thing I'd done was to assign a few students to lead the discussion, and they took it from there! It was really awesome to watch.

I did the same thing with my 4th period class and got similar results. Our principal stopped by my room during that period and was very proud of the students for what they were doing -- she even joined in and gave some Critical Friends feedback herself!

As I said, the students had previous experience with the Critical Friends process in their sophomore English class, so I made sure to track her down and let her know what had transpired in my class. When I told her they not only remembered Critical Friends, but successfully ran a session on their own, she did a happy dance.  I imagine the news must have been incredibly satisfying -- it showed that these students had actually been listening to her two years ago.

So my week ended on a high note. The students gave me some great feedback for our project, and most of them seemed to be interested in the idea.

I would love to expound more on Week 1 (and I did give an update on the Ninja Board), but there's still much I need to do for Week 2! A teacher's work is never done. Until next time!

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