Monday, January 18, 2010

Process Over Product

When somebody asks me what I teach, sometimes I want to say, "People."  I know the question is usually referring to the subject matter or curriculum -- "Honors English I" or Romeo & Juliet are the expected responses.  I wonder if this is because in the day-to-day world of teaching we focus heavily on product, and the product that first comes to mind is not always the student.  We create lesson plans, then collect assignments; we tally points and track test scores, ultimately determining a final grade to print on a report card.   Ironically, we then get frustrated when our students become point-mongers and grade-grubbers rather than valuing their educational experience for how it develops them as human beings.

In AP English Literature this semester, I have been emphasizing process over product.  (Alabama football has been a daily topic of conversation in my home since August, so Coach Saban's coaching philosophy has obviously influenced me!)  I know that a grading system is necessary and that test scores aren't going to decrease in significance anytime soon, but can't we work toward success in those areas without making the class entirely consumed with them?

S. walked into class on Friday and said to me with sincerity, "I just have to say thank you for yesterday's class (when we had discussed some "great questions" raised in literature).  We never get the chance to contemplate some of these big ideas and it was nice to have some time to think and discuss issues that are at the center of our human lives."  I love teenagers, but more often than not, their worlds revolve around themselves.  I tell them this is natural and that they will grow out of it (I hope!).  So, when a student takes the time to thank a teacher for a day's activities which  revolved around thinking really hard about unanswerable questions, I had to take notice.  What made the impact?  Discussion is not new in my classroom. Sharing ideas in small group also occurs frequently.  So what was it that made a student actually demonstrate gratitude for time spent in my class?  And she was not the only enthusiastic one.  As I had traveled the room the day before and eavesdropped, I heard discussion after discussion that was questioning, insightful and, best of all, personally meaningful for the students.

I believe what has made the difference is changing our focus from the product to the process.  I am asking them to care about how they are learning and how they are thinking, asking them to be the one who takes an idea to the next level, to be the one who raises the inspiring question or makes the most insightful connection.  The focus has shifted from students completing assignment after assignment for me to students thinking for themselves. Students are not being assigned a particular set of chapters for reading; instead, they are reading at their own pace.  Students are in discussion groups with other students who are at the same place in the novel that they are -- no penalty or punishment for not being as far along as someone else.  Students are being asked to respond, react, reflect to their reading in authentic ways that make sense for them as individuals -- through charts or art or poetry.  I can see that when the students believe that what they think has value, they are willing to share, and they are willing to consider the ways that others think.  This becomes an environment rich for teaching -- minds open, hearts willing, souls stirred, curiosity peaked. 

I know not every day will be one of intellectual euphoria.  I know that there are still students in the class who are just putting in their time.  My optimism does not blind me to the realities of teaching 17-year-olds in a public school. However, I still believe a shift, however small, has occurred.  In the small world of C28, we are drifting away from amassing points in a gradebook; the points we are concerned with are the ones made in the texts we read, the discussions we have and the writings we craft. And through this focus on process, the product will be what we desire -- perhaps a fine grade in the course or a perceptive, engaging essay -- or, even better, a fine, perceptive, engaging person.

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