Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Is it possible to make English class relevant?

One of the goals of our English department is to:

Make English class relevant to students' lives now.

This is a lofty, but I think, incredibly important goal.  Yesterday, I had a brief conversation with Susie, a colleague, regarding this goal.  I mentioned that I thought we had to ensure the texts we selected for students to read were relevant to their current lives.  She countered that it was the writing that had to be relevant.  This forced me to think about my original position and question the texts my students read.  How is The Kite Runner significant in the lives of students in mostly white, Canada-born Orangeville?  What about The Rez Sisters?  What possible connections can my teenage students make between their lives and the lives of middle-aged First Nations women living on a reserve?

In PLC today, Andrea, Scott, and I discussed this goal briefly, and now I am of the opinion that the writing is how we can make seemingly irrelevant texts relevant to our students' lives now.  Scott highlighted the fact that guilt is a driving force in The Kite Runner.  Perhaps the specific events and experiences of Amir aren't directly relevant to the lives of our students, but the concepts of guilt, or parental battles, or love, are in fact relevant to students.  We need to give them the opportunity to make these links.  Andrea pointed out that within The Kite Runner unit, we already encourage students to make connections via their defining moment speech.  This is a good point, and I think I am going to begin encouraging students to begin making and sharing personal meaning during our chapter seminars.

Now I think that many of the texts we study--even the Shakespeare we chopped from the course--can be relevant to our students, but as teachers, we need to encourage and welcome the personal connections via writing and speaking opportunities.

...but common assessment is foggy

I love how when some things, such as big ideas, become clearer, other ideas just become foggy.  Over the course of the semester, I have been doing some thinking about the drive for common assessments.  I always thought that common assessment meant that in all common courses all students do the exact same summative and culminating tasks.  This ensures that all students are meeting the same expectations and have similar experiences (despite having different teachers with different teaching styles).

At a recent staff meeting, I left with the message that common assessment didn't actually mean the EXACT same summative.  I breathed a sigh of relief, and I really hope that I didn't misinterpret the message.  What I
understand common assessment to mean includes:

  1. Teachers assess the same big ideas, enduring understandings, and essential questions.
  2. Teachers assess the same skills.
  3. Teachers have flexibility in designing their specific assignments, as well as the content they use, as long as they fulfill 1. and 2. above.  For example, tests can have different questions, essays can have different topics, English teachers can choose different texts.
  4. The culminating task is the exact same TYPE of assessment, such as an interview or an exam, but the content used may be different.  For example, two different English teachers can use two different short stories, as long as their students are all writing an essay.
I'm really curious how others interpret "common assessment" and what it looks like in their schools and/or departments.

Big ideas are becoming clearer...

About this time last year, I wrote about big ideas in the history and English courses I was teaching.

I felt that in history the overall big idea was really vague, but that the enduring understandings of each unit were the driving forces.  Lisa Unger, one of my colleagues, has done a lot of thinking about the big idea for CHC2D1, and has come up with some important questions that connect the enduring understandings to the big idea.  This has been incredibly helpful for me.  The big idea for CHC2D1 is "The Canadian identity is shaped by its past."  Instead of focusing on content-driven questions, such as "how did Vimy Ridge shape Canada's identity?", the focus has moved to broader questions, such as "how has participation in overseas shaped Canada's identity?" Or "how have contributions to the war effort on the home front shaped the Canadian identity?"  This can also lead into a compare and contrast question, such as, "what has a greater effect on a nation's identity: the role overseas or the war at home?"

I feel that these types of questions move the focus from covering content to using content in a way to answer significant questions.  This makes the big idea flexible in that teachers (and students) can choose what areas of content to focus on, but it ensures that students leave the course learning how to answer the same questions, perhaps just a bit differently.

Additionally, in my post from last year, I was rather critical of the fourth big ideas in each of our English courses.  The first three, that are common to all courses, have a built in flexibility and are easily applicable to the study of English.  As I previously wrote, the fourth big idea can be rather "strangling" to quote a colleague.  For example, the fourth big idea for ENG3U1 focuses on understanding the world around us.  At this time last year, the big idea in the course seemed to always be a stretch for me to explicitly teach.  It felt forced and the connections weak.

This semester, in collaboration with Andrea, we have fleshed out three key ideas that tie all of our texts together: identity, struggle and relationships.  I think this clearer direction also brings to life the big idea.  By studying these key ideas, students naturally begin to better understand the world they live in.  They can begin to see the connections between the experiences of others and hopefully draw parallels to their own lives.

The process of creating big ideas, and the freedom to play with them and challenge them, allows teachers to truly see their role in designing meaningful (hopefully) experiences for students.