Year 1, Or The Great Experiment

Although I spent a good part of my graduate school years as a teaching assistant – developing my classroom skills, learning how to teach through experience and on-campus training, etc. – the transition to teaching high school is pretty much like starting over from scratch. There are many reasons for this (as you might imagine), some based on the age difference and environment, some on the sheer fact that I’m teaching classes that are new to me and also teaching them entirely on my own. I’ve spent as much time as possible this year trying to observe other teachers to get ideas, not to mention talking to them individually and in team meetings to share strategies and approaches. (There are also, of course, myriad resources out there for creating effective lessons.)

In the end, much of this year will come out in the wash, so to speak. There are many things I will take with me into future courses, but Year 1 is really about learning the ropes. Like my freshman advisees, I am also a freshman – and that’s all about adjusting and getting the hang of things.

This means that sometimes, I feel like I’m experimenting. Like today.

I teach two sections of sophomore-level Atlantic World History. We’re right in the midst of the English Restoration and the creation of the Proprietary Colonies, and our task was to start working on this chart to help us break down the social, political, and economic components of the English colonies in North America (along with sources of conflict). My original plan for this class today was to focus on three big conflicts they read about in this chapter – Pueblo Revolt (not British, obviously), Bacon’s Rebellion, and Prince Philip’s War. That is, that was my plan until I decided yesterday that they would create their own colonies instead.

Here’s how it worked: each student chose a slip of paper that defined their colony as either a Royal Charter or Proprietary Colony. I slipped the chart into Google Docs and gave them access (we’re a 1:1 PC tablet school). I added enough blank rows for each student to have one, then asked them to create their own colony, filling in each row of the chart as they went. They had to create a social structure, a political system, and an economic foundation ,then describe any sources of conflict.

Before long, students were making alliances with one another and deciding which colonies would be their enemy. It got to be pretty awesome, actually, and they wrote a lot of detailed stuff (in comparison to my paltry colony, which had a social structure I described as “Love All, Serve All,” and sources of conflict=h8rs).

But then, we went over their colonies: each student described what they had created and what their colony was all about, and in the process, it was clear how much they’d absorbed from reading about the colonies. Sure, I had some proprietary colonies with dictators (or the king actually living IN the colony and ruling), but there were students who had made alliances so that their ally could grow tobacco without forcing Native Americans off of land in their own colonies, for example. Or they had trading partnerships with each other or Native Americans in their (fictional) region.

Some of them took details from the original colonies; some mostly fictionalized things. In the end, though, we jumped from that assignment and each took on one of the real colonies to lay out the information they really needed.

And I was pretty impressed. I’d worried that it might seem like fluff – and maybe to some people it is – but with this group, it was pretty awesome.

It’s experiences like these that make me want to stand up and cheer. They make me feel like a success, that I’m doing the right thing. And trust me, there are plenty of days when you don’t get that feeling – so I take every good experience and make a mountain out of it!

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