Sunday, August 23, 2009

We Need to Have Fun Too

I am someone who can work alone for hours. Part of this is because I tend toward perfectionism and do not always stop when I could stop, and part is simply because I don't get fidgety easily. But a larger part is that I am an introvert -- I find large crowds daunting, and I have to work consciously and with effort to feel capable at general conversation. I do not mean to make myself out as a freak -- I just know I am someone who would more often than not choose to be by myself in my classroom planning or grading than out and about with others.

So, I set myself a goal last year: take my lunch every day to our student commons and eat with the teacher who had commons duty that period. I was successful with actually doing this probably half the time, but I measure a much greater success in what I gained from these casual lunches. I ended up playing my flute in our school's first-ever pit band because of lunch one day with the drama teacher. I discovered a powerful read in Aldous Huxley's Perennial Philosophy because of a lunch with a substitute teacher. I discovered things about my colleagues that I never knew because I let myself be discovered too.

Now comes the opening of this school year. Our school as a whole seems to have set an unstated goal of collegiality. We have had a happy hour, a faculty luncheon, a gathering at the Upper School Head's house, and tomorrow is team building. And I am so energized by all of this. I am looking forward to the school year not just because I love to teach but because I really like my colleagues too. In fact, I am in a small way sad that the students will show up Tuesday because I know this will drive us at least somewhat back into our individual classrooms.

So I have renewed my goal from last year and will bring my lunch to the commons again. I will do all I can to stay in touch with my colleagues. In the end, even we as teachers need to have fun at school -- fun with our students of course, but also fun as professional adults with other professional adults. Now comes remembering to reread this blog when I am mired deep in grading in October!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Literature Circles

I have used literature circles for many years. My students always enjoy them, and I get better each time with setting up the process so they truly engage with their books. I particularly enjoy doing this with my ninth graders when I have them write their own tests as a group. I was given the opportunity in college to write a final for a class rather than take one. I was petitioning to take my final early, and the professor offered me this instead. As I wrote that final, I realized how smart the professor was about assessments. I had to really know my stuff in order to create a final I thought he would deem worthy -- the writing of the test probably took me longer than the hours I would have been in the exam room taking his final. It was a powerful lesson for me, and my ninth graders have benefited from it. They are always amazed when I tell them they will write their own tests. The discussions the groups end up having as they decide which questions to ask are always the best of the whole lit circle process. I know they know their stuff when I see strong tests.

This summer I had another chance to really learn something by doing it. A colleague of mine set up an online literature circle in our school's ning to work through the first five chapters of Understanding by Design, our assigned faculty summer reading. I was glad to have a structure set for me because I knew that meant I would get the reading done, so I signed on. Well, if you have any doubts about the efficacy and power of the literature circle process, banish them now. As I worked through a lit circle role for each chapter, I saw the beauty of the lit circle pedagogy in action. It is reading strategies come alive -- when I read a chapter knowing I was, say, the connector, I read specifically for that goal. I ended up remembering far more with this focus than I ever do just reading something to read. I had a scaffolding to pin my reading on and to give me a road map through what is some dense reading a times (trust me on this one if you have not read UbD). I also knew I did not have to worry about every detail because I had my lit circle partners focusing on the other aspects. I knew I would learn from them, so I could learn at this first stage better because I was more focused. Then the discussions we had helped me pull everything together -- I looked back at the book, I remembered things I had forgotten, I learned things I had never thought about ...

While I knew in my mind that literature circles were a good thing, to participate in one gave me so much more insight into why they work so well. Once again, I am reminded that DOING something is the most powerful way to learn. A great reminder particularly as I begin a new year with my students ... can I get them to DO more in their learning?