I have four classes and three preps. I usually feel overwhelmed. I began teaching the senior class in February. While I welcomed the mature students, I lamented the extra planning for the class. After putting off grading in favor of planning, I decided I needed a new strategy. I lessened my workload. I have responsible students in my senior class, with probably more years of experience writing poetry than I do. I assigned a poetry project that required students to create activities that inspire and encourage creative writing, they also needed to work on their peers’ assignments and assess their peers’ behavior, participation and classwork (product).
My goal for this project began as a way to make my life easier, but it soon turned into a way to encourage students to become independent learners. I once thought of delegation as giving up control, but now I see that this “teaching” responsibility enabled the students to succeed in areas they already felt confidence, or else give some students that extra push to feel success.
I acknowledge their previous knowledge, their strengths and their talents, just by offering them a chance to share. Most of the students loved it. I loved it too. Because of the class dynamics, I could sit with the class and participate as a student. I rarely needed to intervene and the teachers of the day dealt with classroom behavior. For example, Tashema, a presenter for part of the class, took behavior managerial strategies she observed in her Government class. She began writing the names of students who were talking out of turn and taking off points. She then gave extra points for students that volunteered to read aloud. I did not need to step in as the teacher; Tashema already had the prior knowledge of how to manage small behavioral issues. In her reflection, Tashema recalls, “My experience of presenting was kind of easy because the class enjoyed our presentation.” Step one of classroom management, plan something interesting.
Of course, some students were not prepared the day of their lesson presentation, or their presentations seemed rushed or not what we agreed on beforehand during conferences. Two presentations were terrible. In both cases, the presenters met with me and we wrote out an activity plan, but they ended up doing something completely different, and off the cuff. It reminded me, that students could tell when teachers are not prepared; I could tell, and their classmates could tell. At the time, I felt like an Olympic judge that knew the gymnast’s routine and could not understand why she didn’t perform the routine. I did not need to intervene as a classroom manager, but the assignment of “Write a poem about war” without any prewriting did not inspire many of the students to write. I asked one of the presenters why he didn’t follow the plan, and he said, “I don’t know, my partner changed it.” His partner did not understand the original plan, and felt that her partner did not explain it enough to her.
I did not anticipate partner issues when I gave the class the option of working with one other person. I had students that got into arguments, one student who was weighted down with the work, and one of the partners failed to show up to school the day of his or her presentation. One problem occurred with the valedictorian, a straight “A” student, who would rather fail the project than present to her classmates. Mei is quiet and a conscientious student, but her fear of standing in front of her classmates overwhelmed her more than an “F” for a project. She wouldn’t even ask a talkative and confident classmate, Jazmin, who had been absent during the initial explanation of the assignment, to work with her. I asked Jazmin for Mei and they made a wonderful team. Mei didn’t speak and Jazmin didn’t have to type up the assignment. I still had to spend time trying to convince Mei to work on the project. She writes, “I think this kind of activity is interesting, but I would never do this again, because I don’t like presenting in front of the class like that.”
Another student, Julia, was transferred into my class, during our presentations. She did not have the option of working with a partner and she refused to speak to the class. She compromised by giving each student a packet with instructions, an example and a place to fill in the blanks. She did this all without saying a word, and her classmates actually completed the assignment.
In order to prepare for this poetry project, I taught several poetry and short story mini-lessons. We had time to plan in class. We spent days reviewing the lessons I taught, we read poems and emulated some of them. I shared my resources, books that included poetry and poetry activities. Behavior was not an issue, so I was able to conference with each student group to discuss their presentation activity. We broke down the ways he or she wrote poetry. I tried to help students remember how they begin to write poetry and together we broke down the strategies into steps. In one conference, I reviewed with Kentrell how he writes poetry, and we discussed the raps he writes. Kentrell’s partner writes, “We just thought of something that we both do, which is rhyme scheme.” I don’t know how to rhyme, but Kentrell and his partner are experts. In some cases, the students wrote the activity during the conference. We spent two weeks planning after about two weeks of my teaching poetry lessons. I felt the students were prepared to begin presentations. They chose dates to present, a two-week period with two groups presenting each day, except for the first group.
The first group, Franklin and Felix, requested an entire period for their presentation. I felt confident that the preparation would pay off in the end, but nothing ever seems to go as planned. My method of assessment changed after that first presentation. I wanted to make sure that the students participated, and acted respectfully towards the student presenters, so I announced that I would mark down which students were working and take off points each time some one spoke out of turn. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was pulled into the lesson. I wanted to write. It seemed so long ago that I wrote for fun, so I wrote, I shared and I didn’t assess the class.
After class I sat down for a conference with the Felix and Franklin and we developed a rubric (we should have done it before) and Felix and Franklin assessed participation, completion of the classwork, and behavior. They took their role as teacher for the day very seriously and I agreed with their assessments of the class. Felix and Franklin also assessed their own teaching. Did they engage the students? Did they encourage creative writing? Did the students write?
The inception of the delegation of planning and assessing began to alleviate my stress and workload. It occurred to me that it could work because many of my students have written poetry in the past, or currently keep a poetry journal. I knew that if I could model how to share ways to write, they could share ways they write.
This experiment with the senior class led me to think about placing more responsibility on the students, despite the mixed reviews from my students. Joseph wrote, “I didn’t like being a student [to my classmates] because people were getting serious about this project. People tried to become a real teacher.” While Joseph may complain about this aspect, I appreciated the way the students took their roles seriously. Joseph also wrote, “By doing this project everyone got a chance to express their feelings about poetry… I was inspired to take this same idea and use it for other classes.”
Before I try this strategy with a younger class, I need to answer these questions. How can I acknowledge the student’s talents, and prior knowledge, and still teach him or her something new? How can I bring his or her writing to a higher level? How can I challenge his or her concepts of creative writing? Can I use this strategy for students that do not have the prior knowledge in the topic? I constantly ask my students to evaluate their own work, participation, or performance depending on the assignment, so if I give my students the tools (rubrics) could they evaluate and assess their peers?