What a Difference a Year Makes

Today we feature a post by a guest blogger.  Mary Catherine Keating is a Social Studies teacher that I work with at Chantilly HS.  Mary Catherine has really pushed herself as an educator this past year.  She’s revamped her teaching to truly meet the needs of her students.   After a year with her new approach, she spent some time reflecting on the struggles and successes she has had.


This day last year was a miserable day.  I received the report with my SOL [our state test] scores and they were horrible.  I had 22 students fail the test but eligible for a retake, and I had 5 students who outright failed.  This year a large change occurred.  I got my scores and they were amazing.  I have 16 kids who qualified for a retake and 2 students who outright failed.  In addition, this year I had 2 team taught classes and last year I did not, and my numbers are still stronger than they were last year!  

What changed in a year?  

Many things changed in my teaching this year.  The first thing that changed this year was being a part of Social Studies Digital Project with Fairfax County.  This project brought together teachers, librarians, curriculum and technology specialists to look at blended learning and project based learning.  As part of the program I was asked to change some of my traditional methods and embrace some new teaching ideas.  One of the biggest changes was letting the students take charge of their learning, which was very difficult for me.  As a teacher, the question I always asked is what if they don’t learn? Is its my job to make them learn?  If I give them everything then I know they were taught the information, they might not have learned it, but I gave it to them.  When I talked to my colleagues about flipping my lessons they asked “what if they don’t watch the video?”  I thought about this, but if the students don’t watch the video, my job as a teacher is to provide them with experiences in class that will allow them to learn.  I have to understand students don’t all learn the same way

How did this look in my classroom?  

First, I had to understand my students would not be getting all the content from me.  They would be learning from their classmates. Another change would be that there would be less lecturing in the classroom and students would be responsible for their learning.  As a type “A” teacher this was very difficult, but after my scores last year I knew what I was doing was not working.

How do the students learn the content if they are not getting it from me?

As a teacher I needed to see that my role was changing.  I was moving off the stage and the students were moving onto the stage.  One change I made was flipping my classroom.  Students would watch the lecture at home and we would do activities within class that were student directed.  As a teacher my role became finding learning opportunities for my students that were more active and less passive.  For example, when teaching the Turning Points of World War II, in the past I would either give the students a reading with the battles and a set of questions or I would lecture or show a video about  the battles.  I wanted to get through the information as quickly as possible.  This year I placed the students in groups and sent them to the library databases to create a presentation for the class on their group’s battle.  Other activities I have done this year have been the use of discussion boards, group mind mapping and visualization activities.  

Of course for this to happen, I had to admit I did not know everything.  

For example, for years I have avoided doing research in the library because I was fearful of the library databases. When I went to school we had books and something called the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature.  I was embarrassed to admit I did not know how to use the modern library because I had to ask for help from my school librarian, the people in the project and even students.    

As I was working this year I became frustrated and unsure about this method.  

In September, I began with the Reformation Unit, the first unit the digital project group put together and I found out very quickly this way of teaching was going to move slower than other ways I have taught.  I had to teach my students how to ask good questions, how to search using databases, how to work together in person and digitally.  Many students know how to use devices for social media but many do not understand how to have a proper conservation online.  All of this took precious time and as the first month went on I was wondering if it was worth it, because this was slowing me down.

I was ready to give up after the Reformation unit, but I kept up with the process and by the time we reached the Age of Exploration (another blended learning project unit) I was rewarded with student work that was impressive. For the Exploration Unit, the students were very self directed. We started the unit with the question, “How has the Age of Exploration affected your life?” and then we had the students use research to answer their question.  With the help of the librarians, the students experienced an inquiry based lesson.  They created their own questions and demonstrated their learning in a way of their choosing (Lesson Plan and Rubric). Students were engaged in their learning. I knew I was onto something when we were in class and I was showing clips that related to the unit and students were asking to use the clip to support their research.  

But as the year wore on I was falling further and further behind, and with strategic planning days and snow days I was farther behind than I have ever been. Many nights I woke up in a cold sweat because I was afraid of how badly my students would do on the SOL.  As team leader, I avoided the pacing question at our meetings because I could not admit where I was in the curriculum.  At the same time I also noticed that my students were more engaged and thinking more about what we were doing in class. In past years my students would come in, take notes, work together on a reading, or as a class we would watch a video together.  Every student was doing the same thing and in the same order.  Most of this work was by themselves.  This year, I moved the lecture to homework so when students came into class they may have a discussion question to answer, a quiz or some other assignment. If I really felt the student needed the information in the video, students could choose to complete the video in class or another activity I had prepared. Some days I may give three activities for students to complete but they could choose which one they wanted to complete first. After the SOL I asked my students what made my class different than other history classes they had and the response was my class was more interactive than their other classes.  I asked them to explain and they said we worked in groups more and the class was more active. As my students were talking about the things they liked. Many of them mentioned my hook activities which was a large change I made for many units. This was something I never took the valuable class time to do before.  Now I understand the importance especially since these were the things students remembered.   

As the year went on and I kept getting further and further behind I would bring up my dilemma with my department.  Teachers were saying that students need to know the content to pass the SOL and that  content was more important than skills. In fact, I noticed when I met other teachers and we talked, the question where are you in the curriculum always came up.  I did not want to let teachers know where I was because I felt I would get funny looks, plus I was putting so much pressure on myself.  My students did horrible the year before and I got through the curriculum, how bad were my scores going to be this year? However, with all the pressure and questioning I could see my students were learning and were engaged.  They were talking about what they were learning and arguing about history.  At one meeting of the the Social Studies Digital Curriculum group Alice told us it was ok to keep on the path, she told us not to worry about covering everything.  Alice said: “good teaching is good teaching” and I agreed.  I knew I was on the right track, but I kept hearing the pressure of the test.  I was lucky that I was in a school that did not require teachers to be on the same page on the same day.  I was supported by the administration that allowed me to keep doing what I was trying to do.

By March I was close to giving up, when one of my team members brought an SOL review project idea.  

I looked at the project and thought about Mike’s motto: Time Place and Path.  I modified the project to cover the curriculum I was not going to cover.  (The project can be found here).  The students were going to work on the standards, (Cold War, World Religions, Decolonization, and the Modern Topics) that  I was unable to cover using their own time.  Students would take practice tests on the standards I did not cover until they got a hundred.  I gave them the project the last week in March and they had until the test on May 26th to complete the project.  I just checked in with the students periodically to make sure they were staying on top of the project.  

In addition, another teacher and I created Google Classroom that reviewed all the standards for the year.  What I noticed is students who were having trouble completing the assessments on eCART [our county assessment system] were Googling  to answer the questions but when they had assessments that they had to keep taking over and over they were going to the Google Classroom to learn the missing information.  What surprised my students was how Google was not helpful or gave incorrect information. Students found Googling answers on twentieth century people not very helpful.  The students liked the Google Classroom for help because they felt the videos and readings presented correct information in a manner many of them could access.   

In addition, students were giving other members of Chantilly access to the classroom.  I required my students to join the class but I had 31 students enrolled from other teachers’ classrooms who joined the class to use for their learning.  I also was surprised by how much the students were using the class.  One of my students moved to another school system and she wanted to keep her FCPS Google Apps for Education account so she could have access to the classroom to review for SOLs.  While she was not able to do this we found that the videos were public and she could access the videos even though she was not a student. I polled one of my classes and half of them used the Google Classroom to prepare for the SOL instead of the after school reviews.  I asked them why, and they said they preferred Google Classroom because they could access it on their own time, and they could determine what they wanted to review.

After the SOLs I surveyed my students on the different methods they felt was most helpful for studying for the SOL.  What surprised me was how many students choose the self directed over the teacher directed  activities.  Many students did not attend after school review with teachers in the building.  Students were learning from the SOL project and the online course.  In addition, for data purposes, students took  a practice SOL and in the past they forgot about it.  I had students asking me to put the practice test online with unlimited attempts so they can review for the test.  Please remember these are standard students who sometimes lack the motivation to prepare for SOLs.

My biggest change is what I did during the month of May.  

Last year when May came I spent the three weeks before SOL just shoving or reviewing curriculum at my students.  I would hand out packets to my students filled with reading and questions, plus there was the Cold War video done in a day.  In additions I did all the religions in a day with a PowerPoint and the students copying the chart from the book. I just dreaded the month of May, pick a topic and we did it in a day.  I use to joke with my students that I was stuffing as much information in their heads as possible.  I was determined that we would review and cover all the information for the SOL.  I sometimes felt I was the best prepared for the SOL because I was the one doing all the work.

I trusted my students and kept working with them doing project based learning.

This year I found myself really behind with my students and while I was in a panic I was not going to follow my previous method.   The last class before the SOL I was working on turning points of World War II.  I had the students using the library databases and teaching their peers about the battles.  Even though students used the databases for the exploration unit I found they thought they only were allowed to use the high school resources.  Many students had a difficult time with Britannica School, which was the main database we were using.  Students were missing the background information to access the resource.  They were surprised when I suggested they use the Middle School section to start. I explained that when I don’t know something I look for the easier resource to acquire background knowledge.  

I made my students take charge of their reviewing for the SOL.

I was not doing it for them this year.   It was totally up to the students they had to learn what they were missing and what I found is the students did it.  I think they were able to do it because of the skills I gave them through the year.  While my students did the review project, I don’t think it was the project itself that resulted in the improvement of my students. By doing the project they had to figure out what they did not know, and they had to learn it themselves.  Had I not spent the year working with them on how to learn I do not think they could have been as successful.  In the past I had given SOL review materials and very few students completed them, why would they when they knew I would do it for them in class.  My fear of letting them take charge of their learning was actually preventing them from learning.  

I was talking to my students about what they did to prepare for the SOL and I was surprised by the different responses they gave.  One student said she went on Quizlet and found a review activity.  Another student told me how she liked the review sheets posted on Google Classroom,  I asked why she did not use the videos, she said “I learn better when I read the information.”  Over the years I would call May packet month and even though we were doing the packets in class few of my students completed them. Many of the students would just copy down the information or copy the information from another student or the internet.  No true learning was going on, and many days I went home exhausted because I was doing all the work.   This year I watched students come into my classroom during Charger Time and try and answer the questions from the project together.  My favorite response was when the students would work together and tell me why the correct answer was a wrong.  They took over their learning.  I asked them why they did the project when in the past my other classes did not do their SOL review packet.  They said that is what we are suppose to do, but I asked why was this year different and they said, “Mrs. Keating you told us we were responsible for our learning.  You just showed us how to learn.”

After all the retakes were said and done, there were only 3 failures this year compared to 11 failures last year.

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