A Perfect Time for Reflection & Growth

The new year is often equated with resolutions, new chances, and new beginnings. However, when you teach in a semestered high school with finals the end of January, your new beginning is a few weeks away --  and those few weeks are a little frenzied, to say the least. We need to get kids back on track after the break, finish delivering our courses, prepare final assessments, grade those assessments, do report card, and get ready for a new semester that starts within days of finals. Yes, it's exhausting!

My original intent was to write a post about how to deal with ending one semester while preparing for another, but then I realized that I don't really have much advice, other than what I tell my students: the next few weeks are going to be busy. You aren't going to have a lot of me time. However, if you want to do your best, you just have to suck it up and get 'er done. Sleep. Eat well. Exercise. Most of all, you need to work on preparing for the end of the semester.

While reflecting on this, I decided that one of the most important things I need to do as a teacher (other than survive this crazy time), is to practice what I have been preaching to my students all year:
reflect on what I've learned in the last five months and use my learning to improve my skills. I don't have to write finals, but I should look back at what I've learned from my first semester classes and use that learning to improve my practice. So here are four things I'm going to do to before I meet my new students in a few weeks. Maybe you might try a few yourself.

This can be both affirming and scary. Of course we'd love to have our students tell us that everything we did was an amazingly fun and engaging learning experience, but let's face it: we are human. We all have room for improvement.  Maybe we designed an activity that was an absolute blast but, in the end, it didn't really do much to advance student learning. Or, we delivered a lesson that stuck -- they finally learned how to cite their sources, but the lesson left them snoozing. Maybe they have suggestions to help you find a way to make both better. You'll never know unless you ask. You don't have to wait until the end of the semester to do this, either. You can ask for feedback at the end of each unit, and that way, it's fresh on everyone's mind.

I like to take the time to look back at what worked and what didn't over the last few months before I start planning for the next ones. This year, for example, I added several new things to my back of tricks. I've always done a lot of work on the revision process when my students write essays, but this time I chose to take more time with the pre-writing stage.  My students went through a series of stations that required that they spend time really thinking through and or gazing their ideas. It worked so well! The were very ready to begin their first draft and that was clear in their final essays.

My "worst" lesson was not actually one that flopped. Instead it was my own failure to make more use of something that I know works. Last year I started using more mentor texts for both Readers' and Writers' Workshop. They work. I love them. But, when you're an old dog like me, it's so easy to roll back into your old habits and keep doing what you've always done. It takes more planning on my part to switch my lessons around to include mentor texts, and I failed to do that enough. I will aim to fix that next semester.

After doing my own reflection and reading through my student evaluations, I need to carve out the time to use that all-important feedback. Nothing makes me more frustrated or disappointed when students don't use my feedback to improve, so I'd be pretty hypercritical not to use theirs for my own growth.  The trick is finding the time to do that when you're in the middle of the frenzy that is the change of semesters (or longing to start your summer in May/June). One way to avoid having to do this when you're overwhelmed with the change of semester, is to do the evaluation throughout the term, at the end of each unit.

This, I think, is the most important advice to myself and to you: aim to make only one major change. Yes, we should always tweak what didn't work, but if we want to take on something totally new to us, it's ok to make small steps. Have you always been interested in using a workshop approach in high school? Would you like to use more formative assessment? Or would you like to try stations with your teens? All of these would be wonderful additions to your classroom, but you'll drive yourself insane (and set yourself up for failure) if you try to do it all at once. Choose one of those things, or experiment by trying something once or twice. Then, when you're ready, try one more thing.

For me, I am going to add one day a week of Writer's Workshop in my International Baccalaureate class. Because of the nature of the course, I don't have a lot of room to experiment. They spend most of their time reading and writing analytical essays about author purpose and technique. I'd like to spend more time with them practicing their own techniques, in the hopes that it will help them better understand how other writer's use theirs. The hard part for me will be balancing that with getting all of the reading covered -- because we never seem to have enough time. I think it's going to be worth a try, though, because I've seen the power of it in my other classes.

You can grab the feedback and reflection forms that I'm going to use here.  I hope you have an amazing second semester, and that you and your students are able to learn and grow with each other!

Jackie teaches and learns in Room 213. You can follow her blog at Real Learning in Room 213.

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