Evolving Common Classroom Practices

Sam is a 10th grader attending Stone Bridge High School. He plays paintball for Hogback Army and runs the soundboard for my high school’s Cappie-winning drama department. Along with being an avid pro wrestling fan, he “spend an unhealthy amount of time on Twitter (@TheSammer88).” His personal goal is to work with the #BowTieBoys and teachers everywhere to build an education system that greatly values student voice and student choice. You can read more from Sam on his website.

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Let me just preface this by saying I am not a science guy. I’m not inherently interested by the structure of cells or how to balance chemical equations. This year though, chemistry is easily one of my favorite classes and it is one hundred percent because of my teacher.

The pacing of his class is one that I’ve experienced in no other class before. Comprehension is valued above blind regurgitation of info. Whether it is through his notes, his labs, his practice, or even his tests, my teacher makes sure we understand the material.

When he uses different methods to get the information to us, it helps become more adaptable and well-rounded. “Equipping students to [work] in… one mode… will not serve students in… higher education… or the workplace” (Because Digital Writing Matters, 2010) and my teacher knows that.

In order to combat the one-size-fits-all aura school gives off, he comes up with as many different venues for chemistry as possible. All of them are pretty common ideas, but he attaches his own unique strategies to them, making him a very unorthodox teacher.

The Freedom to Grow at My Own Pace

Every thing he assigns us obviously has to be completed, but there’s really only one real due date per test. That is where his new pacing comes into play. The practice sets are all preferably due the class after they’re handed out, but my teacher is completely available to them being turned in late if extra help is necessary. Chemistry has a lot of algebra and a lot of equations involved, so as someone who isn’t the best at math and memorization, it’s really helpful to have the freedom to grow at my own pace. I talked to him about what his thoughts on grading were and he bluntly said, “I’m not here to get students an A, I’m here to teach chemists.”

At first, I was a bit confused as to what his statement meant. On the surface, it sounded a little bit standoffish. Once I started really looking at the way he runs class, I started to understand. His philosophy isn’t to teach students only for the purpose of getting us ready for state-mandated standardized tests. My teacher is teaching us chemistry. He tries his hand (and succeeds) at sharing his passion for the subject. Above all, he knows learning anything is a process. If a topic is not clicking, the hammer is not mercilessly cracked down. Sometimes taking time to slow down is crucial to student understanding. Having this option is integral to the incredible results his class creates.

His flexibility and willingness to walk through work with us has really increased his student rapport. Rather than leaving “slower students” behind when the pace is too fast, my teacher makes sure everyone is on board before we pull away. To me, it’s clear why he’s so popular within the student community. Other teachers would consider students lost causes if we didn’t comprehend their notes immediately, but my chemistry teacher does it right. He sees any mistake as a learning opportunity, a place to grow from. There’s no such thing as slipping through the cracks in room 402.

The Freedom to Explore

A big portion of science classes is the lab work. My chemistry class is no different in that way, but my teacher’s procedures are unique to him. We start off by getting some baseline information (safety requirements, materials needed, the allotted time, the goal etc.). Then, we, as a class, split ourselves up into groups and grab the safety equipment required to proceed. Once we are all geared up, we just jump right in. There is one catch though; the itinerary is completely up to the students. How we go about finding our result is up to us. Of course, if any of us struggle to find the next step or make repeated mistakes, our teacher is ready to swoop in with guidance.

Students taking part in labs in our class gain so much non-chemistry experience from our teacher’s almost entirely hands off approach. Through authentic experience, we improve leadership skills, problem solving, critical thinking, time management, and more. Our teacher one hundred percent believes that learning in school transcends curriculum and I appreciate him for that. Rather than feeding us answers and holding our hand through every step, we have the freedom to explore chemistry. Not only is that really beneficial to student growth, it’s so empowering when we’re given the reigns to our learning.

The Freedom to Maneuver

Tests leave very little room for maneuvering. That’s why my teacher’s way of handling them really impressed me. In most classes, tests are weighted very heavily, leaving poor test takers to drown in angry red ink. My chemistry teacher is still required to administer high amounts of points in tests, but to counter that he raises the point values of labs and problem sets. Another portion of testing that he has revised involves the multiple choice aspect of his tests. Our tests are structured so half of our questions come from multiple choice questions and the other half come from free response questions. In my opinion, awarding partial credit is positive because students are graded with more accuracy than an all or nothing style of grading. My teacher certainly agrees. Free response work and answers have partial credit awarded where students understood some, but not all of the material, pretty standard, unexciting stuff right there.

That’s where the multiple choice part comes into play. He is the first teacher I have ever had to come up with a system that gives partial credit on a multiple choice section on tests. When we were younger, teachers taught us test-taking strategies to help us guess answers correctly when we got stuck. Does anyone remember the rule that usually one or two potential answers are obviously wrong, so students should eliminate them as options? My teacher rewards students for being able to sniff out wrong answers. On our answer sheet, we may write two answer choices and circle the one we think is “most correct.” If the circled answer is right, we get all of the points available. If the circled answer is wrong, but our second choice was right, we get one-third of the points available. If neither of the answers is right, then obviously we get none of the points. This way of grading accomplishes so much for students and for my teacher’s reputation.

His student rapport is through the roof when it comes to tests. Students are less stressed heading into his tests, because they know if they show their knowledge of the topic, they will get the fair amount of points. Even if you just know the fundamentals, you will get your due. Not many other classes can tout that. The fact that he takes time out of his day to grade our tests with that much concentration shows that he is truly on our side and wants the best for us. Most of all, it shows the importance is not placed on grades, but on true understanding. He would rather encourage us by showing school is not “driven by grades, but by [the] series of unsung victories along the way” (Students at the Center, 2017).

While I have been talking about a science classroom, the information is easily transferable to English. When students are doing work of any kind, instead of pressing students towards rushed, imperfect work, foster an environment where quality is more highly valued than quantity. Any mistakes are immediately met with feedback on how to fix it. He understands true comprehension “requires rich feedback [for] the student” (Students at the Center, 2017). The emphasis is more on “details, nuances, and techniques” that can be applied to other sciences “than [completing] a standalone assignment” (Students at the Center, 2017).

It’s important to remain patient, but don’t be afraid to give students a push when the time comes. It’s important to encourage independence, but be ready to guide students when they hit a roadblock. It’s important to help students earn good marks on tests, but curriculum covered in class shouldn’t be governed by the tests. After all, the goal of education is to prepare students to function in the outside world, not to only be able to function when they have a guide telling them what to know.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

DeVoss, DaÌnielle Nicole., Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.
Kallick, Bena, and Allison Zmuda. Students at the Center: Personalized Learning with Habits of Mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2017. Print.

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