Sunday, December 16, 2007

When do I change?

So here's a question mostly directed at other teachers:

When do you implement a new idea that's going to take a lot of work to get going in your classroom?

Do you wait until the next school year, so that you can spend the summer preparing and integrating it in to your lessons with all sorts of plans ahead of time? Or do you jump right in not long after deciding it's something worth doing in your classroom? How do you approach a radical changes to your classroom in the middle of the year (if you make them)?

I'm thinking about this because I know I didn't do a good job of setting up the foundations of "how we use tech resources in this class" at the beginning of the year. I didn't do a good job because I had no idea where I was going with it, and because many of the things now available to me were in progress, coming "some time in the fall". (Some examples: we got Angel LMS in early November, I got a SMARTboard last week, our new laptop carts weren't ready until early December.) Not having these resources at the beginning of the school year means that they didn't get the routines built into using them that make my classroom run well.

I have all sorts of ideas that I'm not sure how or when to implement. I've been coming up with a list of ways to use blogging in a history class, for example. I've always loved the idea of the History Alive! two-sided notebook, in which the right hand contains notes and fact and the left is the place for students to be creative, to think, to reflect, to make personal meaning of history. Why not turn student blogs into the "left side" of their notebook? It would make keeping up with them easier for me, too! (The main reason I don't use the History Alive! notebook idea is because I can't figure out how to keep up with reading 150 notebooks.)

I know that doing a good job of bringing these tool into my class is going to take time. Time to get the students set up on them, time to get students used to using them, time to communicate my expectations about how to use them, time to figure out the quirks. Time, however, is the thing I feel I lack the most. As a high school teacher in Virginia, my entire year is overshadowed with the threat of the SOL tests in early May. So as much as I want to integrate blogging, I can't help but keep thinking about how many class periods will be spent on it and how little time I have to cover the material.

I know I've gotten rambly here, but one quick example to show you why I'm worried about this: At the end of November, when my World History classes were going to be tested on our Age of Absolutism and Enlightenment unit (which had spanned most of the month) I tried to introduce them to Quizlet as a study tool. I schedule a period for it, walking them through getting signed up and create a set of cards and various ways to use them. I then turned them loose to create flashcards and study. I had badly underestimated the time they needed to even create the cards (there were a *lot* of people in that unit) and then few used it to study outside of class. I didn't do my traditional study guide, focusing on the quizlet cards. For those who took advantage of it, it helped, but many didn't and many wasted the class time provided. Test grades for that unit? Terrible. Looking back, I know exactly how I would introduce this tool to my students in the future to make better use of it, but that doesn't fix how much I failed to do a good job with it this time.


Sean said...

Hi Penelope,
Such great questions here, I can't help but respond.

I remember my first semester teaching as a graduate student. About five weeks into the semester, I was pretty sure I'd figured out why things weren't going well, and I totally redesigned the syllabus. I recall coming in proudly with a new syllabus to a group of bleary-eyed practically-high school students at 8:00 a.m. and presenting my new plan with flourish. Perhaps it's clear from my dramatics here that the new syllabus not only didn't solve previous problems with the course, but it also didn't really work.

Since that time, I've thought of teaching as a long-term endeavor. As you say, teaching takes time - completely true. But we also know that teaching is most fun and exciting when we can be spontaneous, take learning in new directions, etc. Some of my best lesson plans were written on my palm on the way to class (revisions to a previously well-considered plan). The question, then, is can we make changes without unproductive disruption?

In the online world, I work with course templates - fully integrated modules that include all lectures, assignments, discussions, etc. for the entire semester, and which really cannot be altered a whit once the term begins. In a case like this, change takes a *long time. But, it does occur. One advantage that I have is that, since I can't make spontaneous changes to texts or assignments, etc., I have the time to really figure out how a new technology or practice might work. In some cases, I think it behooves the land-based classroom teacher to do the same. Use the time in the unchanged classroom to reflect on how the changes might best be incorporated into the whole flow of the term, maybe.

Taking your example of the Quizlet, on the other hand, it occurs to me that you could potentially introduce this exercise spontaneously and without a full year of planning. I think the secret is: you don't make it count for anything, and you introduce it as an element of play. Also, as we like to do in the student-centered classroom, you could ask your students to sit around in a nice big circle and talk to you about the experience.

As I continued to teach after that first disastrous semester, I learned to put into my semester plans a degree of flexibility - days when I didn't necessarily have a plan of any sort - so that I could much more easily bring in new lessons, experimental exercises, and the like. In my last semester teaching, this became a daily ritual. Every lesson plan included a little extra time when nothing was required to occur. This left me time to expand on certain thoughts or ideas, clarify, ask for questions or feedback, do sudden writing exercises, etc.

These are just some thoughts. Hopefully helpful. I'm completely open to talking more about this subject too!


Penelope said...


Thanks for the comment on all this. There's a lot in there to chew on, so I'll probably have more to add to the conversation later.

One quick note though-I need to do more asking them about why things did or didn't work. I often get to the "did it work?" stage and forget to ask them "why?"