Slice of Life 2013

Reflection on Grant Wiggins’ posts: A Day in the Life of H.S. Students & Middle School Students’ Favorite Activities/Subjects

On Friday, I happened to come across this Grant Wiggins blog post and I’ve been thinking about it all weekend, wondering what to make of it. Judging from the number of hits this post has gotten (50,000+ as of this morning), I’m guessing that many of you have been thinking about it as well.

It’s not like it never occurred to me that the life of a student (in this case high school, but in reality not much different from my middle school students’ classrooms) can be difficult, tedious, and downright painful.  My colleagues and I often talk about how unrealistic it is for us to ask students to go all day with little to no breaks other than their twenty minute lunch (please remain in your seat) and the three-minute change of classes. Most teachers could not do it, yet we expect young adolescents to endure this every day. It’s just how it is. Get used to it. Stop complaining.

Except it really is wrong to expect from them what we ourselves could not do, isn’t it?

Some might say that we (adults) have lived through it and we turned out okay. But did we? I can’t speak for you but I know we had recess through the 8th grade. We walked home for lunch (a one-hour break in the day), we had P.E. every day. We also didn’t have test prep, remediation, or a developmentally inappropriate curriculum to master.

At my school, we don’t have and have never had recess. Some of us have lobbied for it over the years but it has regularly been shot down for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with our schedule and squeezing every minute out of the day for “instruction.”

But aside from the school-wide implications of this teacher’s shadowing experience, what does it mean about my own classroom? This post has had me asking myself some hard questions…Do I allow for movement? Do I teach short mini-lessons to break up the class period?  Do I offer relevant project-based learning? Am I being responsive to my students’ needs, both academically as well as physically/emotionally?

While these questions have been running around my head all weekend, they were joined by even more challenging questions pertaining to my subject area.

As much as I would love to think that English Language Arts is most students’ favorite subject, I know it is not. Another great post on Grant Wiggins’ blog discussed a survey of middle school students about their most interesting assignments/subjects. This reminded me that in spite of my deep love for all things English, the majority of my students (and probably yours) do not enjoy it.

Take a look at the chart at this chart from the post. ELA ranks as #1 least favorite subject.



This should not be news to me as I regularly survey students at the start of the school year about their likes/dislikes. This year there were only about 10 or 12 students out of the 135 I teach who listed ELA as their favorite subject, and with rare exception these students were academically gifted  in language arts.  Science was the #1 favorite with math a close second.  Social Studies was up there with ELA as least favorite. Students cite “doing experiments or labs” and other “hands-on” activities as a chief reason for loving science.

What’s a devoted ELA teacher to do with this information?

I’ve been thinking about the structure of my class and how much time we devote to certain activities. I know that one task that is particularly disliked by most students is writing, even for those who consider themselves good at it. Writing takes time. How do I break up the class period to allow for movement, change in task, and still allow enough time for students to think deeply enough to write well?

Reading critically is also difficult for most students. I do try to break up close reading tasks with less challenging work, but again this is hard. It takes time for students to engage with text and move to the level of analysis required for some lessons.  How do we balance critical analysis with other less cognitively-demanding tasks?

Reading and writing are mostly sedentary activities. Do students need to be seated quietly at their desks to complete their work in my classroom?  What could I do to allow more freedom of movement?

Some of the challenges I have in my current position are very large class sizes (average class size of 30 students), academically leveled classes, and sixty minute class blocks. We switched to longer class periods this year. While the change to longer class times was initially welcomed by most teachers (we were at 47 minutes last year), maintaining student attention has been challenging.  It is also very difficult to have a lot of movement when classes are packed with students. The noise level can be a problem and it can feel rather chaotic with that many bodies moving around a small space, making it difficult for some to concentrate on the tasks at hand.  I still incorporate movement and group work but I find it quite challenging and almost impossible in some of my classes. This is especially true in my inclusion class. How do I balance the need for movement with the need for quiet required for thinking?

So what do I do with this information? How can I alter my classroom experience to better accommodate the needs of my students?

I am not sure. I do know that I plan to do some observational research this week. I will keep track of the amount of time my students spend on any one activity and take notes about the level of engagement I observe. I also plan to look for ways to incorporate more movement into our everyday routine.  I will continue to look for ways to increase student interest with relevant lessons and activities.

ELA teachers: Have you been able to make changes that have increased engagement in your classes? If so, I would love to hear from you.