Last spring I decided to totally re-jigger my freshman English classes, and it worked fabulously! Being able to choose books that work together in my mind, such that I could write essential questions for our year's work, made a huge difference, and the course felt more coherent than it ever did when I was teaching the books I'd inherited.
As it turns out, next year I'll be rejiggering again a bit, because I proposed a change in our summer reading. Yes, for the first time in over a dozen years, the incoming freshmen won't be reading The Count of Monte Cristo. It's a totally fun novel, but it's also got a very complicated plot that was too much for our weaker incoming students, especially some of the international students. I proposed that we replace it with Rebecca, but that got voted down by my colleagues, so we're going with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I'm happy about.
And then, because of that change, I decided to drop Willa Cather's My Antonia, which only worked so-so, and replace it with Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, which will also add a Latino author to the mix.
So I have some reading and prepping to do this summer with these two new novels, neither of which I've read in ages, but I'm jazzed about it and think that both books will make my good course even better.
But here's the other HUGE thing that made freshman English so awesome this year: We dropped the final exam and instead had students do a portfolio and lead a final conversation about their learning this year. The portfolio included five revised pieces from the year (and rather than an entire essay, they had to choose and revise an introduction, a body paragraph, and a conclusion, from the same or different essays), including a creative piece that they had to record themselves reading. They also had to write two new essays, one of which tackled one of the essential questions of the year, using at least two of the texts we read this year, and the other of which was a self-assessment based on the "essential understandings and skills" that we gave them at the start of the year. And then they had to schedule a conversation with me and a trusted adult of their choosing, a conversation that they lead by presenting the two adults with a 5-8-minute overview of their highs and lows, goals met and unmet, etc. I thought of this as pretty low-risk public speaking, but many of the students have been nervous about the conferences, which has actually made this piece of the project turn into an even better learning experience than I'd predicted.
I'm two-third through with those conferences now, and this has seriously been the best way to end a school year that I have ever had! Dang, this is better than the final exam ever was! Some students have rocked both parts (the portfolio and the presentation/conversation), and some students have flubbed both, and in both cases I've had the opportunity to talk seriously with each kid about the experiences we've had during the year and about what I've most appreciated about her as a student and as a person. It will be interesting in the end to compare how the grades compare with an exam year -- so far they're ranging from C to A -- and it certainly has been more work than wading through blue books, but wow, it's been so much more rewarding!
I've found out some really important things about my students. For example, there was a student that I just failed to connect with all year long, and she wrote in her self-assessment about having trouble feeling empathetic in her reading of any of the novels. But then, during the conversation, it turned out that her 8th-grade teacher (at a different school) had told her that she was way too emotionally connected to the books that they were reading and that she needed to stop it. Yikes! So we talked about how that really wasn't very good advice, and how much fun it can be to throw oneself into a novel, which of course doesn't replace analytical thinking but does often lead to more engaged writing about that novel. It was the best conversation I've had with her all year long!
Every year as I grade final exams, I feel depressed about the myriad ways in which I've "failed," but this year I'm finishing the year feeling really good about my work with students and about their learning! In part, this is because I'm deliberately focusing on their strengths, whereas exams tend to make me focus on weaknesses. But, more importantly, as the students take ownership over their own learning, I'm letting go of that ownership and remembering that it isn't all about me, that they have agency.
What's also been nice is how much we've spread the love around. Not only are my two freshman English colleagues equally in love with this process, but so are all of the "trusted adults" whom students have invited. Some of those folks are family members -- I've had grandparents, parents, older siblings, and family friends -- but many of them are students' advisors, favorite teachers, dorm parents, and other adults on campus. And those folks keep commenting about what a great experience this has been, and the other teachers are talking about what this could look like in their departments.
So maybe we've started something that will lead to bigger change. But whatever happens in other departments, the English department is now very committed to keeping this going for our 9th-graders!