2016: A Reflection

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After looking back at my 2016, I still feel very blessed to be where I am today.  As this year developed there were sometimes that I perceived my world to be bumpy and full of things that I didn’t necessarily want to do.  That being said, I also was given enormous opportunities that at the time terrified me, but now that I have settled in a little it feels wonderful.

Gifted Education

When the school year began in 2015 I was told that I would be teaching in the Magnet program at my school, with a group of learners that I had never taught before. I really didn’t understand what it meant to be a teacher of gifted students at that time and I am still growing in this area.  I was petrified with fear every single day as I worked through balancing the right workload and challenging the students without simply burying them in work.  And, at the time I also had this feeling that the kids would see through my facade and would one day begin jeering at me for really no reason.  I felt like they were looking at me like, “Jeez, where did they dig  up this guy?  He is such a poser.”  No one uses language like poser anymore, but it was how I felt.

As 2016 opened in January after teaching a few months I got more into what I was doing and overall I have had tremendous growth as a teacher.  As the year went, I became more comfortable with what I was doing, but I still have to recognize that my 1st year was one of survival and not necessarily one of tremendous impact.  At the end of the 2015-2016 school year I received some cards of thanks from some students who thought I did a good job and that made me feel good, but I also had them fill out an evaluation.  Before the evaluation I was feeling better about myself and the job I did even, if it was not perfect.  After the evaluation I had to look at myself in the mirror and accept some hard truths about what I had done.  They graded me with honesty and I appreciated their comments as I digested what they had to say and processed what it meant to me as a teacher.  Overall, most of my scores were a 2.0.  I was an average teacher, not the stellar one I had always strived to be.  

It hurt at the time, but as I sat down over the summer I began to reflect with rigorous discipline.  I was sad for a while because I had always thought I myself as a teacher that went above and beyond what I had to do with the students.  But here I was sitting with an average score overall from my students.  I was a C average teacher.  
Ian Byrd's mug

So as I reflected and began scouring the internet for information about gifted learners, modern 21st century learning techniques, and reflecting on my lesson plans from the year (which I knew were lousy anyway) I began forming a new world view.  I was once again becoming a phoenix that would rise from the ashes of my 1st year in the program.  I began designing lessons that would ask deeper probing questions after I ran across Ian Bryd’s work on content imperatives and some of the things on his blog.  His blog helped me understand the gifted learner and how to help someone who is gifted grow and achieve.  I have used his question generator myself many times as I form questions for my students and I have had my students create questions on their own as we dove deeper into learning.  I am grateful to Mr Bryd’s and the work he has done on his blog because it helped me be a better teacher and grow in my profession, which resulted in better classes for my students.  Thanks, Ian!

In 2015 I was given about 2-3 weeks before school started, including in-service week, to implement a curriculum that went beyond the basics provided by my district.  I had nothing left for me by the teacher who held my position for 10 years previous except for the few big projects that the English, Media, and Social Studies teachers were supposed to work on once a quarter.  In the 2015-2016 school year I wished I had something to at least base my lessons on and I did end up getting the school year calendars from the previous teacher. That helped me some with pacing, but left with a huge dilemma.  What do I do when I speed through the curriculum established by the county?  

At the time, I had no answer.  I developed projects based on the curriculum goals, but I still felt like something was missing.  We just weren’t going deep enough and were not going far enough outside the box.  All summer I was haunted by one student’s evaluation, “All we do is busy work.  He doesn’t teach that much.  He just gives us projects and lectures.”  I didn’t want to be that guy.  That wasn’t my purpose or my intent of my lessons.  But here it was, a student felt like all they did was the basics in long project form after I had droned on all class.  So what was I to do?  

I decided that for this school year every quarter we would delve into the philosophy that made America what it was and is today.  We would spend class periods debating the validity of the thought patterns provided by those in our collective past.  I also decided I wanted to hear what the students had to say about all of these issues and help them connect the information to some of the issues of our own time and place.  I wanted us to work through our issues together, even when I don’t necessarily have all of the answers.  I also settled into a belief that I am not there to preach from my position of power, but to let the students decide their own beliefs after hearing the arguments of both sides.  I decided I wasn’t going to leave ideas out even if I didn’t like them and instead began opening discussion to historical methods, concepts, and philosophy.  The result so far has been deeper, more profound, discussions between all of the students in my class.     

So far, this year we have discussed some of the following ideas in the classroom :
  1. The impact (positive/negative) of the Enlightenment and the transatlantic imperial world of ideas/philosophers on Americans of the Revolutionary Period.  
  2. Read a collection of political essays by Howard Zinn to help my students understand who he was as a person before they read a part of A People’s History.
  3. Howard Zinn and the impact of his brand of history by analyzing one of his chapters about the American Revolution after going through the traditional Narrative that is provided by my district.
  4. We read Chapter one on Historical Heroism by Loewen in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me and juxtaposed it against other sources supporting heroism and our yearly constitutional convention where the students role play one of the Framers of the Constitution.  They just finished writing their essay responses to the process and I am interested to see what they thought of the whole process.    
  5. I plan on talking about Emerson, Thoreau, and others from the expansion period.  I also plan on exploring some of America’s early relationship with Latin America during the time period of my class, which would help us discuss America in a transnational sense.    
  6. And, of course there is so much we can discuss I the Civil War and the issues that arose from the period.  I did some stuff on the use of total war as an extension activity that I will probably use again.  I also plan on exploring why the soldiers went into combat and what motivated those to charge up hills to certain death, such as Pickett’s Charge.  
  7. Finally, I also plan on looking at the legacy of the Civil War and how the narrative of Reconstruction was constructed this year over time by different authors.  

I also came to a conclusion this year that my concept of history mostly centers around political history and in a lot of ways I am deficient in my knowledge about certain topics. I once thought I knew everything that I needed to know, since I have a masters degree in history and a bachelors in social studies education, and was talking about all the topics that I needed to in class.  But after watching the public dialogue that has been exchanged over the last few years and the questions that I have been asked by many students, I now feel like my knowledge is incomplete.  I just feel like I need to know more to do a better job than I have been doing.  

I now know that I need to know more about the effects of slavery, race, class, and the relationship between American Indians and the US.  I know the basics, but just the basics cannot help me explain the intricacies nor can they help me explain the narrative while doing so in a manner that is respectful, just, and attempt to bring some sort of dignity to the people who lived the experience.  I know I cannot bring dignity to those who are now gone, but I can bring dignity to the story and the way we examine the narrative without quickly dismissing complaints or the narrative as unimportant.  So this year, I’ve been expanding my own knowledge so I can better help my students understand our modern world and how we ended up where we are today.  I know writing and understanding history is an ongoing process that I will have to keep reading to make sure I keep having pertinent discussions with my students and to make sure I also understand what is going on in the world.

Image result for 21st century learning catching up or leading the way

I also have been implementing 21st century skills in my work with students that I began in 2016 with a blog project that has since, evolved into having my students use the blog on a regular basis.  I believe we need to teach the skills of the digital world as well as those of the physical reality in which we live.  If we do not students will be left behind and those who have those skills will be able to control the world.  I have decided that I will try to implement these skills, even though others have told me that it is a waste of time, is not in the curriculum, or could get me into trouble because I am using the internet.  Personally, I think that if we do not teach children how to interact with others on the internet they will not do it in a positive way and we need to help students understand how to have a positive footprint, instead of being terrified to have one.  We all either currently have one or will have one some day.  Shouldn’t we teach students how to make sure their footprint is positive when others find it instead of wondering why there is no footprint?  I think we should, but I know I am in the minority right now.  

Overall, I feel like I am incredibly blessed to be working in the position I am in right now.  I am enjoying trying to challenge and expand my ability to teach new learners that I know some have never had an opportunity to teach.  My 2016 was kind of a crucible that has helped form me into the teacher that I am today and that is ok.

I hope you all have a great and joyous 2017!

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