By: Toni M. Poling
There is something about the first few days of the month of May that makes me happy. The air is perfumed with lilac and the books in my classroom windowsills are dappled with sunlight. If there was a Maypole outside, I wouldn’t be able to resist dancing around it.
There is also something about the first few days of the month of May that makes my blood pressure skyrocket. The days in the school year are numbering fewer and fewer but my “To Do” list continues to grow longer and longer. My calendar resembles the one in the 1-800-Contacts commercial used by the lady who can’t fit in an optometrist appointment because she has to take her cat to the masseuse, though my issue is more likely taking my kid to the orthodontist.
This is the point in the year where my tank is empty, my bucket is empty, even my classroom pencil holder is empty! Every container I have has a gauge that reads “E,” but my classroom remains full of students and I have to figure out a way to give them what they need. I have to find a way to fill my bucket.
Let the Students Fill Your Bucket
Recently, I presented at two statewide conferences: ECET2 and the WVCTE conference. At both conferences, I presented on what I call transparent teaching. For me, transparent teaching is essentially acknowledging to my students that the “why” and “how” of what I’m teaching and the pedagogy involved deserves an answer. It’s checking in with my students to make sure I’m meeting their needs. It’s keeping them in the loop and really listeningto their feedback.
One tenant of the teaching profession I do my best to live by is that teachers should be reflective practitioners. I consider it part of my job responsibilities to actively reflect on my teaching, learning objectives, and curricular decisions to ensure I am making the best decisions for my students. It occurred to me some time ago that my students should be involved in those processes as well. After all, they are an integral component in my classroom equation.
My PLC at school has been focusing this year on 180 Days, the latest collaborative work from Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. In the text (which I LOVE), they discuss using book clubs (similar to the literature circles many of us remember from our pasts). I curated some novel sets, let the students sign up for the novel of their choice, and provided time for discussion. The groups kept discussion logs and I floated from group to group to sit in and join the conversation. I loved it! Group discussions around books are some of my favorite things! At the end of the unit, my students’ culminating assignments were a book review (think Amazon-style) of the novel they selected AND a reflection paper on the book club experience itself. Admittedly, when it was time to read the reflection papers, I was a little nervous. I knew the book clubs hadn’t run perfectly and there are definitely changes I will make before I do them again, but I had enjoyed the experience so much that I really wanted to make sure my students had enjoyed it, too. Even more than that, I needed to know that they had learned during the process.
When I read the reflection papers, I was struck by how insightful my students were. The papers provided excellent insight in to ways to increase the scholarly conversations that were occurring. One in particular suggested doing a modified Socratic seminar (a technique we’ve used in class many times) to provide an opportunity for whole class sharing from the small groups:
“I think it would be beneficial to split the discussion time up; for part of the class, allow the people in each group to gather and discuss the book they read and gather their thoughts. For the second part of the discussion period, allow the books to form one circle (similar to the Socratic seminar setup we did for the discussion of Robert Frost’s poems) and give each group a specific amount of time to discuss the novel they read and compare/contrast various aspects of each novel.” (Emma)
I will definitely be incorporating this in to the next round of book clubs!
Perhaps the most surprising part of the students’ book club reflection papers is the personal notes the kids included. Some of these personal notes brought tears to my eyes and they all contributed to refilling my bucket. Some of the comments discussed connections to previous activities:
“During the first book club, I finally realized the fruit of our labor in class when we hadstudent-led discussions. Time and time again [Mrs.] Poling led us in discussions on pieces of literature and during book club I felt as if the training wheels were off and I was doing great. Our discussions were pertinent to today’s society as well as our book, they were intellectual and philosophical conversations in which everyone who was present benefitted.” (Jacob)
Others were more personal:
“Lastly, thank you for this book club experience, I enjoyed my partner, the book (for themost part it was a little sad), and the discussion time in class.” (Maleri)
There is no better feeling than when a student acknowledges, recognizes, and appreciates the efforts we put forth in our teaching.
The bottom line is that we all need to acknowledge that sometimes our buckets are low. Sometimes they even feel empty. It’s at those times that we need to find a way to fill our own buckets, take some time for ourselves, so that we can get back to being the types of teacher- leaders our schools and our professions need us to be.
WVCTE is wondering how you fill your bucket at this pointing the year?