I figure the next step in preparation is to have a clear idea of the goals I have for myself as a teacher and for my classroom. “Vision” might be a better term than goals; a goal connotes a specific metric that’s achieved, while a vision suggests more a clarity of purpose, a foresight of direction.
Let’s start with an assessment of my current situation.
Here I Am
This is going to be my fourth year at my current school, an esteemed Quaker private school in the outskirts (but not yet suburbs) of Philadelphia. I had a rough first year, but every subsequent year I’ve felt more and more comfortable with the community of the school. My reputation among the students and families, I think, has also improved over time. The sixth graders I taught my first year here are now entering their first year of the upper school, and it was satisfyingly bittersweet to see them graduate at the end of this past June.
This coming school year, I’ll be taking on three seventh grade classes and only one eighth grade class. It’s understood that I’ll be the lead teacher for the seventh grade English program and an active, but ultimately subordinate, contributor to the eighth grade team. I’ve taught seventh grade for my entire term here and only began to teach eighth grade for the first time last year.
Though the seventh and eighth grade English teachers generally work much more independently than the sixth grade Language Arts team, there’s been a push (at least since the time I’ve arrived) to coordinate our efforts and expectations to be more in sync with one another. That’s generally meant that we could (and should) collaborate on making major assessments that could be roughly equally applicable across our classrooms.
The thing is, each of my co-workers are very unique teachers in their own right. I say that with the utmost respect; it just means that it takes constant thought and trial-and-error to find a level and kind of collaboration that we can all be comfortable with. The dynamics of the teams are constantly in flux, with the assigned roles and responsibilities of each teacher shifting from year-to-year — and more often than that.
Add to that some fundamental changes in the administration, and it’s tempting to play it safe and go with already established routines and activities. Too bad I’m practically allergic to such a mentality.
We follow a fairly complicated block schedule in my middle school. What it generally means for me is that for each class I will normally teach a forty-minute session once a day, except once a week I’ll teach an hour-long session. And once every two weeks, I won’t teach that class at all.
Generally this also means that I’ll occasionally have days where I teach for marathon stretches throughout the entire day, and I’ll also have days where I face long stretches of open-ended preparation time, and I’ll have plenty of days in between those two extremes.
From my experience, there’s been one more consequence of our complicated schedule: it’s pretty difficult to schedule regular times of meaningful collaboration.
Strengths and Weaknesses
I think my strength lies in my passion for my subject and for instruction. I’m constantly brimming with pedagogical ideas, and I love analyzing and discussing the texts we read. I’m intensely interested in exploring technological and interdisciplinary opportunities within my classroom, and I work well with my peers. I also think I do a pretty good job in explaining things clearly, and perhaps I enjoy doing that a little too much.
Weaknesses: I’m not very good at administrative work, and I’m a slow and reluctant grader. I also do a lousy job of managing my energy; I’ll often have manic bursts of productivity in which I’ll often overcommit to too many things and then struggle to stay enthusiastic in crashing moments of exhaustion, self-doubt, and even illness.
As a teacher, most people — including students — find me pretty personable. I’d say, on average, I’m flexible, fair, and… fun? That may be going too far.
Seventh vs. Eighth
The seventh grade English program centers around the theme of “People in Places” and strives to emphasize geography and setting. Last year we did several major projects for this curriculum that were, uh, unwieldy. However, I feel the curriculum is one of the most cohesive among any of the grades and constantly presents some interesting possibilities.
Not having taught the sixth grade last year, I’m not familiar with the seventh grade class and only really know them by their reputation (which has been… mmmm…. spotty).
I have interacted with many of the incoming eighth graders before, and so I have the advantage of having a past rapport with that class.
The eighth grade English curriculum centers around a year-long Memoirs project that involves writing and anthologizing a number of short personal vignettes throughout the year. It ends up being a rather major undertaking that’s almost been a rite-of-passage for the eighth graders. Unfortunately, the teacher who headed and originated this project is no longer with us, and it’ll be interesting to see what direction this project will take now that he’s gone.
Break It Down
Both the seventh and eighth grade curriculum is dominated by units of literature study. We typically read six or seven major texts, devoting about 3-5 weeks per text. Most of that time is devoted to reading and discussing the literature; students are expected to read 20 pages a day. There’s typically a week or so given to a project or major writing assignment with a unit test at the end. These projects are typically where students get to explore interdisciplinary connections, technology, or creative expression. Sometimes, if appropriate, there’s also a movie or field trip at the end of a unit.
We are also expected to do weekly instruction on vocabulary and grammar.
My classroom has a PC computer attached to the school network, Smartboard, and projector. I also have my personal Macbook, which takes advantage of the school wifi network, and I’ve also come into the possession of an old iMac G4 with an Epson scanner, which does not yet have a wifi card. I’ll be able to reserve the use of a school computer lab or a mobile cart of laptops — though not all day every day, of course.
And One More Thing
Knock on wood, I’ll be a dad at the end of November. I’ve announced that I want to take my three-week paternity leave then, which almost takes me to Winter Break. That means I’ll be incognito for almost an entire unit.