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Philosophical Meanderings

I have a cunning plan…

Next year, we’re planning on implementing a new SIS and gradebook at our school. Groundbreaking news, eh? The kicker is that our new gradebook supports individual assignments for individual students.

Think about that for a second.

For the first time, I can build assignments that are specific to an individual student, and not have to worry about the hassle of reporting said assignments in a gradebook designed for assignments given out to the entire class.

This makes me excited. Thrilled, even! I’ve been differentiating for a few years now, as best as I can, but my efforts have been hampered by the need to create the same assignments for each student. Sure, Tracey’s got an essay and Mark’s working on a short story, but they both need to be out of 35 and according the gradebook they’re both due on the same day, even though that’s not true and the short story shouldn’t really be out of 35, anyway. No more! It also means that I can lessen the impact of competition in my class. I handed back a set of essays today, and instead of the students listening to me about how they can make their next essay better, they spent most of the time quietly asking each other who got the highest mark, and slipping a calculator from one hand to the other to figure out what the score at the bottom of their detailed rubric meant. Yes, real learning was happening today in my class, folks. 

So, here’s the question, and one of the reasons I’m posting today: how do I make individualised instruction, true individualised instruction, work? I teach English Language Arts and I’d like to pilot this process with a single group of senior high English students. I’d also like students to be exploring texts which interest them instead of assigning a single book for an entire group of learners, for instance, as well as allowing them the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in forms they choose.

This is my first draft:

1) At the beginning of the year, I photocopy and hand out the ELA outcomes to students. Together, we spend a week ripping these apart: I help them to understand them, and they come up with ideas and suggestions on how they could meet these outcomes. Instead of coming up with specific assignments and giving them to them over the course of a semester, in other words, they understand exactly what their outcomes mean, and then build their own “program of studies”.

2) Students then spend some time figuring out what they want to learn and trying to mesh that with what the government requires them to learn. They negotiate, with my help, this rocky terrain in order to come up with texts to learn and assignments to complete to show understanding of curriculum.

3) Then, students do it: they work independently (I’ve got a great bunch of learners in this class who will relish this opportunity!) over the semester to meet outcomes for the course. I help students to find texts, meet with them one-on-one and mentor them as they complete assignments, read books, do research, and so on. I schedule learning meetings with them on a regular basis (once a week?) where they show me what they’ve learned, create deadlines for assignments they’re completing, and give them feedback on assignments already turned in. Students are also collaborating in the class and online in a forum that I’ve created to teach and learn from each other, both in and outside of the classroom.

4) Over the semester, I conduct seminars and mini-lessons on creative writing, essay writing, poetry analysis, and so on, acting very much like a teacher. These mini-lessons take no more than fifteen or twenty minutes and can be on-demand, meaning that if a group of students is struggling with a particular concept, I step in and  teach the entire class. Mini-lessons are recorded and put on YouTube so that others in the class (or students from other classes) can watch these lessons later.

5) By the end of the semester, students will have completed a portfolio of learning with assignments that are directly tied to the program of studies. Students have pursued learning that’s of interest to them, and I’ve acted as a learning coordinator instead of a teacher — the veritable guide on the side instead of sage on the stage.

It seems perfect in my mind, and that’s where you, oh Cooperative Catalyst, get to pop my bubble with a multitude of shiny little pins. I’d love to hear some feedback on the above: where am I going to go wrong? What do I need to adjust? What am I not seeing right now?

I’m incredibly excited about the opportunities afforded to me by, of all things, a gradebook. For the first time in a long while, I’m seeing the transformative power of technology in a very real way. Here’s hoping that it’ll actually work out as planned, and for goodness sake, please do give me some feedback!

About alanthefriesen

Educational anarchist doing all I can to de-school students.


4 thoughts on “I have a cunning plan…

  1. Your plan is music to my ears and a soulful reminder of what teaching could/ should be. Can you send me a link to the grade book you are planning to use so that I might assess it’s ability to support your plan. I wish I could be a fly on the wall of your classroom next year ( I train teachers in Socratic seminars by the way, so your post spoke to my life’s work)

    Posted by Nancy Letts | May 25, 2013, 6:40 am
  2. Oy! As soon as I see that Pearson is involved, my palms begin to sweat, but Power Teacher looks interesting so I’ll spend some time really looking at it. I’m a consultant, no longer a classroom teacher, but since my focus has always been on issues of social justice(flattening the pyramid in every classroom, every faculty room) I help teachers focus on creating an honest community in every classroom as they attempt to differentiate or individualize instruction. I give them graph paper with two axis. The verticle axis labeled with phrases like “Just got by,Pretty good, super star, etc–instead of letter or number grades. The horizontal axis is labed with elements of your curriculum (essay writing, reading and writing poetry, reading novels, reading science fiction, reading for I formation, etc). Kids make bar graps showing how well they’ve done in the past with each of these subheadings. No names on these graphs. Put the graps on the wall the next day. Kids walk around, observe the results and share their observations. Because the graphs are all over the place with results, the time for discussion begins. Teachers ask, “If you all have different strengths, likes, and dislikes, would it be fair if I ask you to do the same work every day? I i gave you the same homework? The same assessments,resources,or support?”
    Finally the essential question: “What does FAIR look like in this class? What should it look like?”
    My experience, as you proceed, is to continue to focus on fairness and community so that students don’t sort themselves into tracked groups. Frequently changing the makeup of groups helps students construct for themselves that fairness exists in your room,

    I hope some of this helps. I’ll bet, from reading your post, and your identification as an educational anarchist, you’ll make it work. If you’d like to stay in touch and let me know how you’re doing, I’d be honored. Check out my website to read some of my posts and the trailer for our documentary.
    Whatever you decide, I wish you continued good luck!

    Posted by Nancy Letts | May 25, 2013, 12:05 pm
  3. One of the most engaging blog posts I have read in a while. I hope you follow through on your plan. Obviously there will be adjustments as you proceed, but that is part of learning anyway, and what should be happening with the students we teach as well.
    I have often wondered why more people weren’t talking about how we can incorporate the common core standards into engaging curriculum. To me you begin with what will engage students, then build in all the skills and concepts the world expects students to learn. It’s not rocket science. Good teachers have been doing it for years, but maybe not broadcasting it to the world.
    I also liked how you were planning to be upfront with them about what the bottom line for the course of study would have to include, got them to ‘own’ this, and then let them have the flexibility to decide on ways to accomplish these goals or better yet give them the power……
    It also was clear that you were not sitting back with your feet up, but serving as the kind of facilitator which is so necessary. There is time for dialogue, for feedback, for feeding in a specific skill that is needed, for having high expectations.
    My one question, a bit tongue in cheek, is how do you write lesson plans?

    Posted by bpsargent | May 25, 2013, 12:42 pm

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