There’s no perfect time to try new things in the classroom, but my favorite time is right now.
I always think that I’ll revamp all kinds of lessons, policies, practices, texts, etc. at the beginning of each school year. After all, I’m feeling new and fresh and eager to begin school with all my new school supplies.
But August isn’t the best time for me to try new things.
To begin with, no matter how eager I am to start a new year, there’s simply TOO MUCH newness in August. The kids are new to me; I’m new to them; the class is new; the expectations are new. Everyone wants to see how their friends have changed over the summer and show off their new outfits, hairstyles, or muscles. There’s just anxiety all around.
Even if I wanted to try new things, and I do try some, I can’t even REMEMBER all of the things I thought I wanted to change. I find myself craving familiarity in the midst of all the change, and my brain is fuzzy from summer.
Then there all ALL THOSE THINGS teachers have to think about: taking attendance, learning names, planning the syllabus, making a million copies, filling out piles of forms, meeting new teachers and helping them learn the ropes, cleaning our rooms from the mess we left in May, for goodness’ sake. (That last one may just be a personal problem.)
I find that the best time for me to try new things is actually right now, after spring break.
There’s an energy that comes from spring. The sun is out; everything is new; the plants are starting to turn green. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel (even though there’s a giant hulking shadow in the tunnel called “standardized testing”).
There’s a freedom in already knowing the students and having a relationship with them. There’s a trust that isn’t quite there at the beginning of the year. And there’s a sense in which newness keeps everyone engaged. None of us want to be bored with the SAME OLD THING.
If I’m going to try new things, I do keep a few principles in mind.
For one, I make sure that I am flexible with my assessment. As I’m experimenting and don’t know exactly what I want, I should be sure that doesn’t create anxiety in my students.
I find that right now is when the students and I are most open to newness. This may partly be because I teach seniors, so they feel like they’re on their way out anyway. They aren’t AS nervous about me wrecking their GPA or their college plans or their lives. I mean, they might gripe about trying anything, but that’s just the high school party line. I stopped worrying about griping a REALLY long time ago.
But still, I want to make sure that I don’t inadvertently provoke bitterness because I’m unclear about my expectations on the front end and then a stickler on the back end.
I spend a lot of time assuring the students that I’m not totally sure what we’re doing, but that they will not pay the price for my experimentation.
On that note, I try to involve the students in the process of trying and learning the new thing. I ask them questions about how an activity or a lesson went. I ask them how it could be better. I write down what they say. I adapt and explain how my adaptations relate to their suggestions.
Also, the first time I try anything, it’s not really that great. I have to be prepared for this and use the experience to learn how to improve. Let me repeat: the first time you try anything, it probably won’t work like you want it to. Just like the first time you try a recipe or a hairstyle or a Pinterest craft or that eyeliner trick that everyone else seems to be able to do. It probably won’t fit right or feel right.
That doesn’t mean it’s a failure. It means it’s the first time you’ve done this thing.
Last year, in the spring, I decided to rework my use of Harkness discussion and split the class in half to create a smaller discussion circle. I had to create an observation sheet for the students who weren’t in the circle, and I’m probably on my 5th version of that document now.
Last year, in the spring, I decided to try teaching two completely new major works with a completely new assessment for my epic unit. I didn’t know either of these works really well, and I doubted myself. The assessment worked somewhat, but it didn’t really live up to my vision.
But that doesn’t mean that those changes were failures. It means that I got the trying out of the way, and this year I can revise accordingly.
This, by the way, is a final principle of trying new things: you always have the freedom to revise or abandon the new thing. There is no pressure to do it perfectly the first time or to continue with a practice that isn’t working.
This year I decided to start a campus Twitter chat. This year I decided to change my entire research project from one over a contemporary novel to one over poetry. I have no idea if either of these endeavors will bear the fruit I hope they will.
This year I’ve set aside the last few weeks after our AP exam for some serious experimentation. I don’t even know exactly what we will try yet, but I’m excited to find out!
Will you join me in this endeavor? What are some new things you want to try?