Revitalize, Refresh, Review

  For those of us who are employed by school districts that adhere to the traditional school year and are awarded 70 days, more or less, of summer vacation, we know what those days off can do for us. Besides allowing much needed time for house and yard cleaning, family vacations and reunions, doctors appointments, and various other projects, we also have the luxury of sleeping in, reading the newspaper in the morning, catching up on favorite TV shows, and the pile of paperbacks that we’ve been saving. For many teachers, this is what allows us to return in the fall feeling refreshed. We were able to spend some time NOT caring for everyone around us, could go to the bathroom when we needed to, and knew that emails and phone calls were about planning lunch dates and movies, not faculty meetings and parent conferences.

   I have yet to speak with a good teacher that denies that teaching is a mentally, physically, and emotionally draining career. The weekends and shorter breaks over the holidays afford us an opportunity to do small charges on our internal batteries, but it is summer vacation where we really are able to step away from the demands of the job and truly revitalize ourselves. In my experience, it is only when I have enough time to myself that I can return to the classroom ready for the challenges that arise each day. There was one summer that I worked for a tutoring company. I took on four students for tutoring in reading and math. I saw them three times a week, and had to arrange around their family vacations and various activity camps. It was only different from my classroom in that it was five hours a day instead of eight or nine, and I had 3-day weekends. By the time school started, I felt like I had never left. There wasn’t a time where I stepped away from teaching, and therefore didn’t give myself the opportunity to return refreshed and ready for another school year.

   What I have discovered is that as I take a deep breath during my time off, I’m able to review the previous school year and discern what worked and what needs to change. After the initial excitement of being out of school and a few projects have been taken care of, I turn to what I’d like to do differently and what would make my life a little easier when I return to the classroom. One of the thoughts that has held my attention this week is the amount of assignments I give, and consequently the required time it takes me to grade them. I think there is a fine line between offering students enough practice and making the assignments worthwhile. While I believe in the importance of grading student work to gauge their progress, and offering prompt feedback, it can quickly become overwhelming if the papers pile up after a few days.

   I’ve always thought that it’s difficult to spend enough time on presenting new information during class, scheduling projects, and reviewing homework and other assignments. If too much time passes between completion of an assignment and student review of that assignment, there is some learning that is lost. But in order to review, there is some class time that is lost. I’m a firm believer that students are often not given enough practice on most skills and concepts to really master them. Hence the phenomenon of the students earning a good grade on homework or a project, but then bombing the test. In an attempt to prepare students for college, the Math Department at my high school has adopted the policy of 80% of the grades being based on tests and 20% are based on homework. Test anxiety aside, there are many times where students do well on completing the homework, but then fail the tests, and therefore fail the class. Have they really learned the material? Was it the teacher’s fault? Do they truly freeze up when taking an exam? All of those answers play a part in the balancing act of giving assignments and assessments, and student learning.

   What I’m thinking about is how to shorten the number of assignments students are to complete, and therefore limit the amount of time I need to grade them, and still offer students enough practice on the skill or concept. What I’ve considered trying is checkmarks on a chart instead of individual grades for each assignment. Some students are concerned about the grades and will want to know how much each assignment is worth. I would still review the assignment and know whether or not the student understands the information, but it might save me a little time in marking each item and recording a specific grade. The number of checkmarks can then be divided by the number of assignments as a partial grade, and the other would be derived from projects and assessments. I believe that encouraging students to keep their assignments in a place where they can easily review them and use them on other projects and even assessments would give students a reason for completing each assignment. For years I’ve taught at a micro level, using the small building blocks to lead up to the larger picture. I’m going to try working it the other way. Giving students an essay to write, then picking apart their own work for discussions on the parts of speech, punctuation, and sentence structure. Maybe I’ll start with linear functions, and work backwards to fractions . . .

   These are just a few of the ideas that my time spent revitalizing and refreshing myself and my outlook on my career have provided. One of the best things about being a teacher is the myriad opportunities to be creative. We try something, and if it works, we keep it. If it doesn’t, we tweak it, or trash it and try something different. A couple of ideas that I’ve tried have been developed into kits. If you’re looking for new ways to practice skills and concepts, take a look at my web site and go to the Teaching Materials page. And if you have a great idea about how teachers can revitalize and refresh themselves during their time off, leave a comment.