August 6, 2007

Balancing Our Needs with Curriculum Constraints

I hate the first weeks of school. There's so much "training" that has to happen so the classroom runs smoothly. Last year I elicited responses from fellow teachers about what they do to start the year in their classrooms. Although, I know I have little time to waste, as many would agree, I still need to prioritize what should happen first. Of course I have quarterly benchmarks with lovely assessments that pretty much drive what I have to do. What I want to do is skip ahead a few quarters and hit the benchmarks for the 3rd and 4th quarters that have to do with public speaking and researching.

In English, we pretty much do the same skills year after year, adding and building a little more in each area every year. Of course, my students should have some idea of what good public speakers do and definitely should have some good research techniques, including a good idea on how to document their sources. They should know these things because the building blocks are in the benchmarks, and the students have had competent teachers before me. However, the other teachers on the team and I are often disappointed by the quality of speeches and projects the students turn in.

The obvious solution is that I should start off the year reviewing and building speaking and research skills. The responsibility falls on my shoulders because these are language arts skills, skills addressed in my curriculum. It is difficult to hear the other teachers on my team complain about the students' lack of skills or abilities. These big issues, researching and speaking, are things I have observed throughout the year, but as I have tried to explain to my fellow teachers, these are skills addressed later in the year, and I do have more to teach than I can handle. (No, I don't take total responsibility for what the students can or cannot do, as they do not come to me brand new to life.) I teach a high stakes subject area. It's about whether the students can read and write. Researching and speaking are secondary--that is, not assessed on high stakes tests.

The rub is that researching and speaking are important, especially in our student-centered, project-based magnet program. Actually, in life, researching and speaking are equally important to the other communication skills, and these often overlooked skills could be more important in some career fields. I've found that explicitly teaching public speaking skills (about a week) and research skills (about a month) makes a HUGE difference in the quality of work students present. Of course! Guidelines are set and examples are given.

So, the big question is how do I squeeze 5 weeks of instruction that will help students throughout the year in all of their classes into a quarter of already-crowded curriculum? How do we ever balance what the students need to be successful in their learning process with what Very-Important-People-Not-in-the-Classroom need to see in test results? Very carefully? Stand back, folks. I'm a trained professional, but this one could blow up in my face.

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