Well ... Now What?

For the past four years, the first week in July has been the most nerve wracking period of the summer. You see, four years ago I began teaching AP sciences. First AP Biology then a couple of years later AP Environmental. I am one of those teachers who will say time and time again that I do not teach to the test, but let's be honest I do care about the scores. In a world of ubiquitous standardized tests (most of which are a joke) the College Board exams standout as an example of proper, rigorous exams. The kind of exam that teachers actually care if their students fare well on. So, as that first week in July rolls around I'm always a bit nervous to see my results for the year. Notice what I said there, MY results. I've learned over the last couple of years that students respond to the classroom, rising and falling in accordance to the expectations that are put in place. Sure, there is some level at which student responsibility becomes relevant, but if I am doing my job properly then they should be prepared. In past years, they have been prepared.

Last week the calendar finally read July 10th. I sat at my computer, anxiously waiting for the clock to click over to 4 PM. My assigned time to access scores. As I waited I reflected on all that had happened in the past year. AP Biology had received a yearlong schedule. AP Environmental had been moved to the spring semester. To the delight of my students, I had flipped my AP Biology classroom. Students had learned to think critically, write good lab reports, and accept failure as a learning opportunity. Some had come to the class hating science and left with a newfound love of the discipline. To say that I was feeling confident would have been an understatement. That's why when the clock rolled over to 4:01 PM and I read my scores, I felt a bit ill. In the few years I've been teaching AP science courses, I've never had scores so low. I was shocked and humbled. I had/have confidence that students loved the courses, learned quite a lot, developed soft-skills that will serve them the rest of their lives, and gained a strong appreciation for science. In my mind, however, a truly effective teacher can help their students love a discipline AND prepare them to excel on any standardized test.

Needless to say, the past week-and-a-half has involved a great deal of humility, self reflection, conversation with my instructional coach, and examination of my practice. As I looked back through the year, it was not so difficult to identify the fundamental mistakes that I made as I redesigned my AP courses. What follows is my course autopsy/action plan for the year. There was quite a lot that went well in the courses, so I shall endeavor to keep those things while adjusting for the opportunities that were missed.

  1. Action Item One: Student Accountability: One of the most ambitious/exciting changes that I made to my AP Biology course this past year was the move to a flipped format. Rather than using the resources that are already available, I decided that I was going to make my own series of instructional videos. Ultimately, I am confident that this was a good decision because I could ensure that the information would be delivered to the students in the same way that I would have done in class. Furthermore, making my own videos allowed for a better point of personal connection to the students. I hope to make the same leap with APES this year. My failure in this endeavor was a lack of student accountability. I generally operate under the premise that if you extend trust to students, then they will step up and take responsibility for their learning. In many cases this mode of operation has proven itself to be very effective and I will continue to extend trust to my students. The thing that I will be adding this year is a level of accountability for students with regards to watching the nightly videos. Because I no longer lecture in class, a missed video is a missed block of instruction. AP students are generally overcommitted in every way. So, it's a very easy thing for them to just think to themselves, "Oh well, I'll catch up on my videos later." Very likely I will be instituting short, daily quizzes to ensure that the students have actually viewed the night's lesson. I predict that this level of accountability will also enhance our classroom sessions as more students will have the background knowledge needed to engage in the day's activities meaningfully.
  2. Action Item Two: Formative Assessment: I have a few pet peeves when it comes to conversations about education. One of them being buzz words. It seems that there are a few pet terms and ideas people throw around until they have lost all meaning, context, and impact. Unfortunately, as a result of my pet peeve I often tune out conversations that sound oddly like a beehive. There is one term in education right now, however, that is getting a lot of play and has recently smacked me upside my big head. That, of course, would be formative assessment. It seems like a no brainer that teachers should be assessing what their students actually know on a daily basis and adjusting their lessons accordingly. I know many teachers who engage in this practice. Had you asked me, last year, if I engaged in formative assessment I would have told you absolutely. Though as I sit here writing I realize that had I been properly assessing my students along the way then, at the very least, their scores would not have been a surprise. Every class period I designed and every test I gave provided data that I could have used to adjust my instruction, if only I had taken the time to sit down and look at it. Hard lesson learned, highly productive/engaged teachers, don't let your instruction be a casualty of your pursuit of interesting external opportunities. This year will be all about data ... I hope. Speaking specifically I hope to actually sit down and provide feedback on the assignments that students are completing on a daily basis. This should help both them and me have a better understanding of their level of knowledge. Also, as every test I give is composed of AP questions, I hope to start going back to look at the items that were botched by a large portion of the class so that we can revisit the relevant concepts. Improvement in this area will likely require the largest time commitment, but will also probably pay the largest dividend.
  3. Action Item Three: Group Work: First, let me say that I am a HUGE fan of group work. One of my requirements for admittance to any of my AP Classes is the willingness to learn how to work as a part of a team. Almost everything that my students do in class is done as part of a team. In the past I've consistently allowed teams of three to four. This year I think it is going to be all about pairs. I believe very strongly in the value of students teaching one another. Not only does it help lift up a struggling student, it helps the stronger student to better understand and articulate the information. Group size, however, can be problematic. When working on tasks, teams of 3-4 often fall into the division of labor trap. They decide that each of them will take a portion of the work and very often there isn't enough work to go around. The result of this efficiency is that each of the students miss a good portion of the intended practice. Hopefully by moving to pairs greater responsibility will be placed on each of the involved students.
In all honesty, while the above will serve as the framework for readjustment, I will likely experiment with several other aspects of the class. While this year's scores sting more than a little, I am taking them as a much needed wakeup call. Often I am tempted to rest on my laurels, falsely believing that I've got a good thing going as an educator. In reality, however, I'm still young and I still have a lot of learning to do. Hopefully this year's lessons will move me a step closer to being the teacher that I hope to be. At the end of the year I had all of my students fill out pretty extensive evaluation forms. While working on the form one of my students asked me, "Mr. Kite, do we have to do this, you're already a good teacher?" To which I replied, "It's not about being good, it's about being better." My hope is that this year I can move myself and my students a bit closer to being better.