Reflection is Essential

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It is a bit cliche to start a new blog at the beginning of a new year (particularly when I have so many unfinished projects…). I blame my grandfather on my mom’s side for my inability to finish things. He was a voracious reader, and he loved to write. I am a little, lady version of him. Unfortunately, he also lacked the gumption to follow through with his writing projects. When I was 15, my grandma gave me one of his old journals. The first two pages are filled with brilliant ideas about the purpose and importance of writing and keeping a journal. They are beautifully written and convincing. There is nothing after those two pages in that journal. Classic.

But this year, I am experiencing success in the class like I never have before. And, like something beautiful and ethereal, I want to capture it all and keep it forever. And, well, there is no time like the present to try.

It is just good practice to track what happens in your classroom and reflect on what is working and what is not.

I mean, really, this applies to just about everything in life. Certainly, my two-year-old tests my reaction to all types of behavior, and he knows that when he snuggles into the nape of my neck, sighs, and says “I just really love you, mamma” that my heart will melt, my knees will go weak, and I am putty in his hands. He knows that putting his toy trains in the fridge was funny at first, but is starting to get old. Still, he has to test out my reaction to his shoes in the fridge. Because that might be different. And based on my reaction, he adjusts his behavior. It’s kind of amazing, and can backfire sometimes, as every parent knows.

If I had car trouble, I wouldn’t want to pay an hourly wage to a mechanic who tries only one thing to fix my car, over and over, to no avail. That, I believe, is insanity.

It feels so silly to say it because it seems like a no-brainer, but it bears repeating: As a teacher, it is so important to pay attention to the students. And to be flexible enough to adjust for them.

I have taught so many lessons in my six years teaching. I have learned many more. Most of what I tried my first three years, in all honesty, was a massive failure. How do I define failure?

  • Students are not learning. And, I don’t mean, they can’t pass a test. I mean, they aren’t learning.

It took me a few years to work out that a few things are needed before students can learn. My very own Maslow’s Hierarchy, if you will.

  • Curiosity (good news, this one comes naturally… use it. Just stop trying to destroy it).
  • Interest/engagement. (rule of thumb: if it bores me, it’s bound to bore them).
  • Buy-in (we are salesmen, really. It’s unfortunate how often I have to convince students that learning is actually, just good for them).
  • A mentor they can trust (don’t betray them or treat them like dirt. This happens a lot… Treat them how you would want to be treated…).
  • An expert in the room who is comfortable modelling the skills or explaining the content they expect students to master (this is a big one).
  • A facilitator who allows them freedom to explore their own way to skin a cat (I mean, master those skills) and knows how to encourage and foster that authentic learning. (Avoid the mind-set that there is only one correct way to do things- your way- because that is myopic, and will be unsuccessful with most students).

If all of these things are missing from your classroom, then chances are, you and your 21st century students are missing out on some opportunities for learning.

I know because I have lived it. Again and again. So, in order to avoid insanity (and misery lol), I had to try something different.

So, this year, I switched from middle school to high school (because I was not an expert at understanding the youngins, and it is helpful to be aware of, and honest about, your strengths and weaknesses), and decided to use my fresh start to try something new. I am blessed with a department chair and administration who supports me, trusts my judgement, and gives me the freedom to skin this “teaching cat” my way.

And guess what?

It’s working.

It’s working so well that I feel compelled to document every single moment, to capture it all, so that I can dissect it, and pinpoint what is making it work. So I can reflect on my practice and grow, and improve. Because I have learned a lot in this past six years. But the biggest lesson I have learned, is that I don’t know it all.

Part One. Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to Freshmen

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So, let’s be clear. I am a high school English teacher, and mostly I am making this blog for myself. Can it be helpful to other high school English teachers? I think so. I wish I had come across a blog like the one I am about to create when I was a new teacher. It may have saved me years of embarrassing mistakes in front of large audiences of adolescents. That said, I would argue that this can be beneficial for any teacher. Because, while I created this unit to teach To Kill a Mockingbird, the content is not the star of the unit. The stars of the unit are a whole lot of student-centered, student-driven lessons that indeed helped students to develop new skills that could then be transferred to new content. I believe that I am not a teacher of content. I am a teacher of skills. Content is the vehicle for practicing skills. For example, at the beginning of this year, my students really struggled with symbolism. Sure, they could define it on a quiz, but they couldn’t identify it in the short stories we were reading at the beginning of the year. Harper Lee used symbolism brilliantly, and so this content was great to use to help students develop the skill of recognizing and understanding symbolism.

I will be linking to all of the activities and documents I created for this unit. All of my work is done on Google docs/classroom. Please feel free to use and modify any and all things posted here. At the end of the day, for anyone who does come across this unit, I hope you will learn the most valuable lesson of all, one that your teachers probably failed to teach you: trust yourself. You know your students. You know how to reach them. Don’t be afraid to. And if you fail, well welcome to the club. Take notes and move on. Try something new.


The Particulars:

  1. This unit was taught over 13 80-minute blocks that meet every other day.
  2. At the beginning of the year, I set up this routine. I play a song or read a poem to the students every single day. I cannot stress the success I have had with this (it’s my first year trying this, even though I have wanted to do this for years). These can be used in any way, to develop and deepen themes, to explore character development, to review figurative language. I mean, really, the list goes on. I like it because every single day, my students walk in happy and excited to see what is going to happen. They are called to the music that can be heard in the hallway, and when I hand them a lyric sheet and say hello as they walk in, students know that I care about them. They come in and talk about the song with their peers and then take their seats and get out their notebooks. Every day, the routine is the same, and they actually do it. Once the bell rings and I take attendance, we listen to the song again, and depending on the day I will give them a prompt about it to respond to, or just ask them to jot down things they like or notice. It is low-stakes writing that I do not grade. It gets them engaged, and thinking, the second they walk in the door. No time is wasted. It’s brilliant. Try it, and use it in a way that makes sense for you.