Teaching English 2 is an interesting experience, between helping all of my students pass the English 2 STAAR test and preparing my Pre-AP students for the rigors of college English. How do you, in one class, provide analytical, writing-intensive assignments for advanced kids AND extra help on basic skills for students who have never passed a reading or writing test . . . and make both groups feel supported??
I have refined my curriculum every year, trying to find the best way to teach ALL the English things before the STAAR test in April and the new college classes in August. However, I don't want to simply "teach to the test"; I want to give students more ownership and show them how to use these literacy skills in later classes and as adults. Each year, I find strategies that go into my yearly repertoire, but I also find even more activities that don't work so well . . . the kind that either bore my advanced students or lose my struggling students. The idea of a self-paced classroom was my dream--my advanced kids could work ahead and do more complex assignments, and my struggling kids could spend more time on learning and reviewing the skills that they have a hard time understanding. Unfortunately, I was having a tough time reaching that pot of gold at the end of the teaching rainbow.
One of the blessings of being an iCoach this year is that I get my own Chromebook cart, so I can integrate technology into my lessons without worrying about tech availability. With the Internet at my fingertips, I wanted to give this self-paced dream a chance. I figured this would be the best compromise for those students that needed to do more critical thinking while other students could review a little more on some of the basic skills without worrying about falling behind on classwork.
I call my solution a "unit guide". It's a website with ALL the unit materials made available to the students. The Home page has the notes and practice work we do as a class at the beginning of the unit (so they can go back if they were absent or want to look at the examples and explanations again). The Skills Review page has curated lists of websites and practice quizzes for the different terms and skills that are important in that unit--this page is especially helpful for the students who have not yet passed their unit assessment and want to spend more time working on the terms and skills they don't know before retaking the assessment. Finally, the Assignments page holds all the documents and forms that students need to complete and turn in for a grade. I give one due date for all the assignments, and their final grade for the unit depends on how many of the assignments they've turned in and the quality of the work they've turned in.
I'm only in our second unit right now (English units are really long!), but I've already tweaked the process several times. I initially did the unit guide in Google Slides, which is great if you want to do self-paced learning on a smaller scale (which I do with my Advanced Creative Writing modules). However, I wouldn't recommend using Slides if you need to include a large amount of materials, if students don't need to use every single slide, and if you plan on having more than 10 students using the same slide show at the same time. Making the unit guide as a website has made it a lot easier (and faster) to navigate, and I can make the distinction between study materials and assignments a little clearer.
Another thing I changed was that, in the first unit, I was creating my own documents and practice quizzes for every section in the first unit, and it made the unit guide SUCH A LARGE MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB OVER! In the end, only a few people even used those materials, and it was just not worth all the work when there are already quizzes and helpful resources out there. It was a great reminder for me that I don't need to keep reinventing all the wheels! Curating links and practice quizzes in the Skills Review section is more than sufficient, and you can always create a more helpful guide only if a student specifically asks for something more clear. I haven't had anyone do that yet, so hopefully that means the links I picked are clear enough!
I feel good about this unit guide, but there are still things I want to continue tweaking. Many students have done well with this set-up, but I'd like to add more engagement, and support for my struggling kids, especially when I can't hold everyone's hand through the process. I break up the work days with Review Game Days to increase engagement, but I'd like to keep that focus on their individual work.
Another avenue I'd like to explore is breaking each assignment into tiers. I want to encourage my more-capable kids to do complex versions of assignments, but I also want more accessible, review-like options for the students that need that help. I've tiered writing assignments in previous years with good success--the kids that normally turned things in did more complex work, and some of the kids that didn't always turn things in completed the lower-tiered work, so I saw a lot more participation, and most of my kids did more work than they usually did.
Overall, I'm pleased with the direction of my units and feel hopeful that, once I've ironed out some of the major wrinkles, this will be an effective way to reach my kids at all levels while giving them choices in the pacing of their work, the texts they use, and how they show me their mastery. Doing this with technology has made the process a lot easier to figure out, but it has also given me ideas on how to do this same concept in a low-tech way if I don't have constant access to a Chromebook cart in future years or if we ever enter an Internet Dark Age. ;) My dream of self-paced learning is slowly being realized, and I cannot wait to see how this process will continue to get better and better!
This blog post was written by Commerce High School English Department Head and iCoach, Amy Nolan.
Heather Kilgore & CISD Tech Team
District Instructional Technologist Team for Commerce ISD. Sharing the great things happening in the classrooms in Commerce ISD.