Thursday, May 5, 2011

On Teaching Seniors, Part 1

I thought I'd update my blog. Because, you know, it's been months and months.

The school year is ending, and that means a few things. First and most importantly, it means reflecting on the year's successes and failures. Which assignments worked? Which failed? Which adequately engaged and challenged students? Most importantly, which assignments truly prepared students for the realities of post-high school reading and writing?

Second, it means witnessing the exhilaration of graduation day. As I tell my students, I'm not excited for graduation because I want them out of my life, but because I'm excited to see how they turn out.

Third, it means my Facebook friends list will soon grow. I never "friend" students or discuss politics or religion until the day after they graduate, at which point it's all fair game. I really get a kick out of former students' Facebook posts, and I find myself reposting Internet gems from them all the time. The Honey Badger comes to mind.

Fourth, it means I can pay more attention to my garden soon. But that's for another post.

Seniors are, systemically speaking, odd ducks. The battery of standardized testing occurs during the junior year, so the senior year is (or should be) about transitioning students out of high school. The curriculum, therefore, must be truly preparatory in nature. In AP English, this is straightforward despite the myriad agendas and requirements influencing the syllabus. State standards, district standards, AP College Board, CWC's concurrent enrollment program, parent expectations, and yours truly all have agendas - mostly reasonable - that filter into the class design. Regardless, we all have the same goal: replicate the college freshman composition and literature experience as closely as possible. After all, the vast majority of my AP students take the class for college credit, not in preparation for the AP exam. AP English, therefore, is about college, pure and simple. And I'm awfully proud to hear former students tell me they're blowing the doors off of their Honors English classes at UW.

Language Arts 12, however, is a different beast. Students enrolled in this class want to graduate from high school, and often, that's about the extent of their goal. A sizable percentage are heading to college but certainly not all of them. What's more, previous years' LA 12 curricula did not emphasize writing. When I taught it for the first time two years ago, using the district-approved curriculum, I was floored at how much we relied on worksheets - worksheets! - as a means of learning. And the state-mandated Body of Evidence papers were, I promise you, not up to college writing standards.

In fairness, parents, teachers, and administrators recognized the problem and wanted change, and as a result, yours truly was asked to rewrite the LA 12 curriculum for this year (I didn't teach LA 12 last year). My emphasis has been on relevant, post-high school writing. We wrote an APA research paper, three different literature analyses, a persuasive essay, worked on email etiquette, and the list goes on. The goal at all times was to ensure my students had exposure to "real world" writing requirements, especially if they were heading to college.

And therein lies the challenge.

Part of the larger discourse in Fremont County School District 1 right now is our students' rate of enrollment in "remedial" classes at college. A certain percentage of our students either wind up in remedial classes or never graduate from college at all, and the working assumption is that our school's curriculum - and by implication, my class - is not rigorous enough.

Well, shnookums, I take that accusation personally.

A few months ago I contacted the University of Wyoming in an effort to begin parsing this out; I wanted to figure out what specific skills our students needed and change the curriculum, not to mention my instruction, accordingly. As nice as they were, I didn't get very far. UW couldn't even give me a working definition of "remedial" classes. I have yet to contact community colleges, and when I do, I'll be curious to find out how they define "remedial." I don't use quotes here because I doubt the existence of such classes . . . I only question the meaning of the data.

Such numbers don't address two broad points: first, a student can pass my class with a 59.6% and then be accepted into college (probably not Yale, but certainly into a community college). A bloody awful percentage like that in either AP or LA 12 represents many things, a poor work ethic being near the top of the list. It's either that, or a well-entrenched attitude of "I don't care about this class." And then, a year later, after the student enrolls in community college . . . he struggles because he didn't care and didn't pay attention. So I question how much of this is curriculum and instruction, and how much is student motivation.

The second broad point is that enrollment in remedial classes is a lagging indicator, and a darn sketchy one at that. Do our students struggle solely in writing classes, or do they struggle in all content areas? Are these the students who partied made poor choices in high school and are now making poor choices in college?

I can see how filling out worksheets would not have prepared our students for success. My concern is simply that, as we investigate the "remedial class" issue, we take all factors into account.

And with that, I'm outta here. I've been honored by an invitation to the FFA banquet tonight, and Kathryn's finishing up some last-minute assignments before she - hallelujah! - walks in Laramie this weekend for her MBA.