There are so many apps that “make teaching better” and we all know that most of those apps don’t serve that purpose for every teacher. Just like students learn differently, teachers teach differently. Three or four of the six people in my department use Edmodo which is a good platform for online discussion and work. I used it for a couple of years. Then I switched to Google classroom which another colleague was gung-ho about. It’s taken me some time to figure out the best way to incorporate Google classroom; I’ve ended up pairing it with Twitter for getting basic information out to my students and letting them know when to check their classroom for assignments. I allow students to turn in everything except essays as either handwritten assignments or digital submissions. There is no one true way to teach or to learn, but some ways are more effective than others.
Another tool I’ve taken to using this year is Flipboard. I’ve been using the app for myself for a couple of years. It’s a great place to store articles that I might want to use or reference or share later. This year I set up a magazine for my Honors Research Projects. Everything they sent to me got a brief read-over and the articles that were reliable were put into a new magazine for students to reference back to and pull from. I have everything in one place and it’s helped me figure out the process for future years. This is only the second time I’ve done the Honors Research Project.
Two years ago I got certified to teach WR115: Introduction to College Writing as a dual credit class (students get both high school and college credit). This is a foundational elective class that works on getting students ready for research, analysis, and argument at the college level. It fits perfectly in the high school classroom. Every year I tweak what we do to improve the skills sets students will have available at the end of the year. I am confident that any student who does all the writing assignments will become better at writing and be ready for WR121. Unfortunately, not every student sees themselves as college-bound, not every student enjoys writing, not every student is motivated to do more than get a C. I can and do push at them, but they don’t always respond well. Sometimes I let them make those choices for themselves with little argument from me. It’s their time to get used to making those choices.
Last year I got certified to teach WR121 (not an elective) through a credit-by-competency program with Eastern Oregon University, Blue Mountain Community College, and a wide network of rural high schools. Even though I was coming on board teaching the class a few years after its inception, there were ongoing issues with the process and with the shared grading. The passing rate wasn’t high across the group and it was even lower for first year teachers in the program. I spent a lot of time thinking about what to do differently this year. Unfortunately, WR121 is pretty easy for students to pass at the college level for several reasons: it is a truly different environment, one professor grades all their work and can see their improvement, and one professor versus three anonymous graders. I have been totally honest with my students about how challenging it is to pass the class; I also have a senior who took WR121 over the summer and told everyone what they did in class, what the assignments were, and why he thought it was easier. One big project versus six to eight smaller ones. The class time to focus on critical thinking and verbal analysis. The lower number of students in the college classroom helps too.
This year I reworked how I do everything in an effort to help students learn how to write and think the way they would need to in order to pass the portfolio (which primarily rests on the Research Project). I have fewer students attempting it, because their colleges won’t honor the credit, or they know they aren’t ready for the WR121 credit, or they’ve heard from various sources how much easier it will be to pass next year. We have spent so much time pushing students into this idea that they have to have college credit. We are in some ways retarding their growth. So many of the kids who are in upper level classes are afraid to branch out on their own in case it makes them look stupid; a fair share of other students hold onto “their knowledge” of “how things work” so that they too are locked in a shell. Teachers aren’t supposed to give too many Fs (as if we give the grades instead of recording the level and quality of work turned in) which means students get extended deadlines or chances to retake tests.
I keep thinking back to Neil Gaiman’s Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts in 2012 and his three important lessons for getting and keeping a job (forgive the paraphrasing)—1. Do good work. 2. Get the work done on time. 3. Be a good person to work with. He said that anyone who had two of the three would be fine. I tell my students they need all three, plus 4. Be willing to get help/learn something for the job. And, 5. Take responsibility for failures, learn from them, and the next time fail differently or fail better or don’t fail at all.