The days at my placement site have been getting longer, harder, and more frustrating, but I was warned not to let the negativity color my practices, and that was some very good advice, indeed. But when I look back on my first journal entry, I have to laugh at the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, exuberant version of myself I was nine weeks ago. Reality clogged up my pipe dreams for teaching fool-proof units that were elegantly designed, engaging, and ambitious. The glossy ideals I had are no longer there, but there is something better now.
Flexibility. I have learned the beauty of planning lessons with some give. Of course, I’m frustrated that my beautiful, intricate, and delicate original plans are no longer relevant, but what I have is so much better because I know that the constant adjustments and concessions I have had to make have forced me to be more adaptable than I thought possible. My plans are still effective and engaging, but rely less on timing and more on broad goals. As a self-proclaimed control freak, I’m proud of myself for finding a way to adapt without giving up important and worthwhile lessons.
For example, I have noticed a disturbing number of students coming to class without something to write with, so I decided to turn the lack of preparedness into a teachable moment by implementing the “Box of Shame.” The Box of Shame is a pencil box that I stocked with 50 sharpened pencils, some pens, and a pad of Post-It notes. Here is how it worked:
“Ummm… I don’t have a pen. Can I have one?”
“I’m SO glad you asked, D--!” I cheerfully replied to the student as I handed him a pencil from the box. “THIS is the Box of Shame. It has tons of pens and pencils for you to use during class, but the catch is, you have to write your name on the Post-It and I will deduct 1 participation point because you’re not prepared for class.”
The student immediately threw the pencil back in the box, looked around the classroom and desperately asked, “Can anyone loan me a pen? Please?”
The rest of the students laughed and began chanting, “Box of shame! Box of shame!” until another student took pity and handed the unprepared boy a pen.
Since that day, the students nearly always bring a writing utensil to class, and I have noticed that when one student is unprepared, another will almost always come to his rescue. The beauty of that particular teachable moment is that the students learned to rely on each other, if not themselves, to be prepared. Nine weeks ago, I would have been furious that these kids were holding up my carefully tailored lesson plans, but now I see that I need to build in some flexibility, and in finding that flexibility, I can find teachable moments with lasting results.
Even when I came up against an incident of plagiarism, I found a way to react without ruining a student’s self-esteem. Since the paper the student submitted did not actually address the question, my cooperating teacher and I decided that instead of failing him for not completing the task (and very possibly plagiarizing), we would give him another chance to redeem himself by giving him the actual assignment to complete in class. By choosing this course of action, the student has the opportunity to receive a grade, AND I don’t have to accuse him of plagiarism.
I am learning how to balance being flexible and being rigid, too. My freshmen had an assignment where they had to create a Facebook page for a character from the novel they had just finished reading, and when we reviewed the pages in class, they were abysmal. Instead of outright failing them or omitting the assignment, I offered the class one last-ditch opportunity: to meet me in the computer lab during study hall and improve the quality of content on their projects. All but three students were in the computer lab during study hall, and they worked. By the time I reviewed the projects after school, I was so unbelievably proud of them and simultaneously relieved that the assignment wasn’t a waste.
My sophomores, on the other hand, need more rigid expectations. I was sorely disappointed to find only six, 100-point essays submitted today, after granting a 2-day extension, and I will not be offering any second chances. I suspect that the sophomores will realize their mistake when I hand them their grades for the quarter. It breaks my heart to see so many of them failing, but I am certain that a slap of reality will help them see what is expected of them.
I have high hopes for my juniors, especially after I chose to improvise Thursday’s lesson on scene directing by using their own writing. Initially, I had planned to give them a scene from Antigone to direct in small groups, but after one student asked if he could read his assignment, an alternate ending for Oedipus, I decided to put off the first scene from Antigone to allow him and his classmates a chance to direct a scene based on his writing. It went off beautifully. The class was engaged, constructive, and exhibited the basic interpretation skills I originally planned to teach using the film version of Antigone.
Being flexible with my lessons is difficult, but I’m finding myself more satisfied with the results than when I follow my lesson plans exactly as they’re written. As the saying goes, “A strong branch will break against a fierce wind, but a flexible reed will merely bend.”