Friday, November 3, 2017

Not "What Am I Teaching?" but "What Are They Learning?"

I love this collaborative activity for helping students carefully observe how a professional writer uses transitions.

What are my students really learning? What do my students think they are learning? Does it match what I think I’m teaching them? Yes, the first quarter is done, the grades have been sent home, and the parents have been conferenced with, but every so often it’s good to check on the extent to which students’ perception of what they’re learning matches my perception of what I’m teaching. Do they understand that it’s about more than vocabulary words, stories, comma splices, and thesis statements? 

To find out, I asked my 10th and 11th graders how they had grown this quarter in English class in the 5 big areas our Christian school targets for all students:
  • Understand God, His world, and my place in it.
  • Think critically and Biblically.
  • Collaborate with others, respecting them as God’s image bearers.
  • Communicate truthfully and effectively.
  • Create ideas, products, and solutions.
What I discovered about my teaching and their learning, is that there are a lot of places where they are getting it, and one place in particular that I need to do a better job of communicating.  

That one place was relative to the first objective: Understand God, His world, and my place in it. Maybe because it starts with “God,” most students seemed to start (and end) there—whether they are Christians (in which case they wrote about things they had learned about God) or whether they are not (in which case they wrote that they hadn't learned anything). I have to do a better job of communicating that everything they learn is about the world—if they believe in God, their knowledge of the Artist and the artifact inform each other, and if they don’t, they still understand things about the world—and if what they understand about the world has any significance, it also helps them understand how to relate to the world. 

There were a couple of exceptions, and I definitely need to build on these responses:
  • Rhetoric is a large part of the English language, and I’m happy that we took the time to learn about it.
  • Use things I’ve learned to argue for righteousness. If I ever see something I don’t agree with, I can try to argue for my beliefs.
  • We learned about the space landing, and this really helped me to understand His world. It’s amazing how we designed and invented technology to even be able to fly into space safely.
  • We read Things Fall Apart and Cry, the Beloved Country. We learned more about African cultures and more about the history of our world.
  • Just being in class. Hearing and watching everyone teaches me about His creation and works. By sharing opinions about books and articles, I can understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, which God has created.

Starting with the second objective, think critically and Biblically, the responses were more uniformly what I would have expected. Most of them realized that thinking Biblically is an additional critical lens that Christians apply: 
  • I now see language in a completely new way, and find myself analyzing almost everything I hear and see for elements of rhetoric, from news broadcasting to just regular conversations.
  • When I was writing my death penalty essay, I thought very critically and Biblically because I had to choose a side, and it was pretty hard in this case. I used the Bible to really influence what side I chose to argue for.
  • When we were writing [our own] Screwtape letters, I had to reflect on myself and my own mistakes. The whole unit was super convicting, and being able to write about it made it more intriguing.
  • By forming opinions, making connections, and analyzing the course texts.
  • I wrote the paper on Cry, the Beloved Country. It incorporated the book with real world problems and the Bible.

The responses to the last three objectives just made me happy: students are learning what I am teaching.

Collaborate with others, respecting them as God’s image bearers:
  • Every day when tables have discussions, I think we all give ideas and respect what each other say. It’s a very good environment to just say what we think. Even playing competitive vocabulary card games pushes us to collaborate and encourage each other.
  • We did a lot more work together when editing this year, and I think that I have really seen the value in having a fresh perspective and set of eyes for my work.
  • “Having each other’s backs.” When we were revising or reading over other’s writings, it helped me learn more about them and their writing, something we will need to know in order to respect/understand them as image bearers.
  • There are group discussions, we are all engaged. We incorporate good ideas and respond respectfully to everyone’s input.
  • Any and all group discussions by asking for people to elaborate on any topic/idea discussed and listening intently to opinions.

Communicate truthfully and effectively:
  • I have a better understanding of what speech is used for convincing vs. conveying. I better understand fallacies as well, and what kinds of argument are flawed. I am also much more conscious of listening to understand and listening to respond.
  • We edited and revised each other’s essays. We truly helped each other out and gave helpful advice that we actually used. Peer revising helped my essay to become MUCH better.
  • Researching for our argument essays was one way I learned how to find accurate facts.
  • Through my short Cry, the Beloved Country presentation, I feel like I was able to get my main point (which was how unfair society was against non-whites at the time) through effectively.
  • Sharing in front of the class my ideas on a book I just read and my review of it as well.
  • Writing thoughts and opinions in my paper. Sometimes it’s hard to talk truthfully and effectively out loud to your classmates. But on paper (for me), it’s easier…, so I can share and communicate with everyone through my writing.

Create ideas, products, and solutions:
  • I learned a lot about writing, and it seems like with every essay I write, the more I realize how much I need to improve, but I think I’m getting better, especially my argument essay.
  • I think The Screwtape Letters really pushed me to develop new ideas about things I never even thought about. The topic was totally new for me, and I felt like it opened my eyes to new concepts (thoughts of the devil and God).
  • Researching for data on my [argument] paper on nuclear energy. To impact the world, I’d need to learn how to do so, and research is part of it.
  • Writing a paper on Cry, the Beloved Country. I hope it will encourage change by encouraging good stewardship of the earth.
  • When we were preparing for our presentations. Making good slides was a challenge, but it was fun, and researching was fun, too. I learned so many things from just creating slides.
One thing I'm really pleased with is that students have understood that what we do in group work--whether it is about a peer's essay or about the novel we're reading--is helping each other. Service learning is not something saved for special outings, but something we do every day.

Go ahead--ask your students what they've learned relative to your course's big ideas. You'll get some encouragement, and some ideas for how you can focus them even better on what really matters.

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