swim, chem, baseball, I talk with my hands

First Semester Recap

I was naively optimistic about starting the new school, given how well I convinced myself the previous one had ended. In my head, the warm glow from May and June would wash over the new students, eager to learn and grow under this different approach to teaching and learning. But I forgot… I forgot that my students are eternally 15 years old.

Some background on the “system” that now guides my approach. I have fully adopted a standards-based approach to my teaching, changing how I organize, teach, assess, and support my students. At the center is an idea that is not new in any way. To call what I am doing “novel” insults the many educators who have worn a wide path for others to follow. What might be unique is that I implement this for sophomores in chemistry at an “Ivy-prep” high school. While there are many innovative aspects of the school, the institution is old-school in a lumbering, crushing manner in how it approaches the core operations, especially grading, homework, and testing.

Like so many white schools in the past two years, ours took a deep look at itself and recognized that it was differentially serving the students that attended. And then promptly did very little about it. I care deeply for my colleagues, yet who among us was willing to leap to support the kind of systemic changes necessary? Such an implementation of standards-based grading (SBG) was my way of taking a step.

What was remarkable about last year’s experience was the degree to which students trusted me and my approach. Students that would traditionally have fallen away and felt discouraged grew in how they approached the course and owned their own learning. I was deeply moved by the progress and growth I saw in them over the course of the year. I felt I had unlocked a “cheat code” in my teaching and left my old avatar behind.

Last year is decidedly not this year, and it could not have gone worse. Students were panicked. Students complained to their parents, the Dean, and anyone who would listen. I was marked as a teacher who was uncaring and caused intense anxiety unnecessarily, and I felt this coldness for months. I have always prided myself on my ability to help students connect with the ideas of the course by connecting with them as people, as humans trying to learn, with me as their cheerleader and coach. As the “awful chemistry teacher,” I felt isolated without that connection. What was the difference?

After some (slight) panicking and some (slight) emotional setbacks, I think that my “growth edge” is centered on one central idea: communication. While I cannot change each student’s mindset in the classroom, I can change how I message the core ideas and support them to understand how to succeed. I completely underestimated how invested we are in old ways of thinking. My naivete seduced me into thinking how eager we are to ditch old ways of thinking, even when they are toxic. My students would have wilted under a traditional “averaging point bucket” grading system. Every one of them would have died a slow academic death with every test, lab report, and quiz. Yet when presented with an alternate way of approaching the course, they collectively decided that was the best way.

Looking ahead, I will focus on two strategies. First, I will take the extra time necessary to help students understand how this approach works in their favor and provides them the flexibility to grow in their own ways. And I will also take the time I need to be more grounded – realistic – in my emotional expectations. After all, they are 15 years old.

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This entry was posted on 2022-12-28 by in Uncategorized.



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