Thursday, August 25, 2011

An Open letter to the parents and students, 2011-12 school year

I've decided this year to "go public" with my ideas and post some philosophical rationales on my class website, a sort of here's-where-this-idea-came-from post. I preach transparency, so I guess it's time to live it.

An open letter to the parents and students, 2011-12 school year:

Basic Philosophy
Mine is two-fold.
  • Choice and Consequence
  • Transparency
I believe in choice, and I will defend anyone's right to choice. However, I also believe in consequence - there is a result to every choice we make, and it is important to me to be aware of the consequences of the choices I make. Thus, I make this the center of my teaching practice - my students need to realize that they DO have choices, but also that those choices DO have consequences that will be upheld. Life teaches us that some choices have more positive (or more dire) consequences than others, and I believe that should be practiced in my classroom.

Secondly, I believe that rationales for making those choices should be available to all involved in the choice (hence this page of the website). You cannot make a truly informed choice if you are not truly informed. I do not want to hold "secrets" from my students - teaching is a collaborative act, and no real progress can be made if students do not understand the "WHY" of the "WHAT." Giving students a more clearly defined framework for WHY I am presenting these items to them is a professional goal of my own this year. 

Teaching Concepts
I have chosen 3 teaching concepts to focus on this year:
  • Student choice and flexibility
  • Student accountability
  • Teacher responsibility
Student Choice and Flexibility
Growing from my philosophy above, I have attempted to revise my own approach to the classroom; I would like to make it more "realistic" - too often, classrooms operate in a four-walled vacuum and do not take into account "real" life. We all experience good and bad days, and life provides us all with varied hiccups along the way. In an attempt to meet the students where many of them are, I am introducing CHOICE assignments this year (please refer to the syllabus for more information). These assessments will allow students to A) express their understanding of the content in a variety of ways, and B) have some say in how much they do. I believe this very much reflects the idea of choice and consequence, but also gives students some individual control of the work they do. A lot of the ideas from Race to Nowhere and The Case Against Homework were influential to me here.

Student Accountability
I firmly believe that students need a guiding  hand to stay "on track," especially towards the end of their high school careers, when the more "adult" experiences begin to accumulate. However, I also am uncomfortable with students "getting by" without doing a significant portion of the work - my job is to ensure learning takes place in my classroom, and assessment is the main method by which I judge that. So, a new "catch phrase" this year will be: the consequence for missing the work is getting the work done. (See also Dr. Douglas Reeves' ideas on toxic grading practices)

I am inspired by Tom Schimmer's blog post about removing the late work policy in its entirety - although, on reflection, I think that is too much of a jump to make in one year. Thus, I have a revised late work policy that I believe will both give students a little elbow room and still hold them accountable. There is an eventual consequence, but they have a lot of choices to make before that consequence is applied. And, of course, I will do my best to include the parents/guardians in those choices along the way.

Teacher Responsibility
Standing in front of the classroom, I am responsible for (hopefully) reaching and teaching the minds of up to 125 students per day (quick math puts that number at almost 1000 students at the end of this, my 8th year teaching). As such, I believe that it is my responsibility to model that which I teach. I seek to help students develop into creative, flexible, critical and reflective thinkers, and I need to follow suit in both WHAT and HOW I teach. 

Education is at an interesting crossroads these days, and our students are being presented with more and more challenges almost daily. To that end, we must be aware of our immediate neighbors, our global partners, our technological advances, etc. We are constantly looking ahead to the future, but we cannot forget the past, for the past is how we got to where we are today. I am currently reading David Perkins book, Making Learning Whole. He encourages reshaping our curricula to look at a larger, more relevant picture. I am looking to Perkins to figure out a way, for instance, to wake up the sleepy topic of Macbeth for my juniors. It should be an interesting journey...

Another book that has fallen into my lap lately is Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Prof. Cass Sunstein. This book focuses on how particular "choice architects" have great influence over the choices people make, and that sometimes people need a "nudge" in a particular direction. The implications of this idea on the teaching profession, I think, are quite large. The ideas from this book influenced some of the above policy ideas.

Finally, technology is prevalent in our society today, and I do not think it is "going away" any time soon. Thus, we must educate the users of technology in appropriate methods of use. I plan to try to integrate technology into the WHAT and HOW that I teach this year. Students will be utilizing blogs, Google Docs, and other web 2.0 tools throughout the year in an effort to both increase comfort with these powerful tools and, hopefully, inspire students to seek out further methods of use.

In closing, I encourage you to follow some of these links and read some of these books. And please, feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns about anything - I'd be more than happen to continue this conversation.