Class Structure

I don’t claim the way I organize class is perfect, or the only way to go. But it works for me. And if you think it might for you, why not give it a shot? We all steal from each other; it’s a time-honored tradition among our people. The point of putting this website together is to make it as easy as possible to steal from me. Here is the basic rundown of how my classes work. There are two sections: Yearly / Quarterly Planning, and Daily Planning.

Yearly / Quarterly Planning

I teach the higher levels of Spanish, from sophomore through senior year. The first two, Grade 10 and Grade 11 (Spanish 4 and Spanish 5 in our system), each follow the same structure, although they explore different themes. And, of course, I have built up and selected different resources to go with each of the distinct themes. But the basic infrastructure of both years is the same. The year is organized into two segments: The Training Period, and Resource Exploration.

1) The Training period (2-3 weeks) is when students learn the expectations around the recurring classroom operations. These include:

  • Participation expectations. Mostly the usual: I expect your best effort and a positive attitude. A few additional tweaks, but you can find those on the “Training Period” page.
  • News article presentations . I make a list of the entire class (alphabetical is fine), randomly pick someone to start, and then, once they’re trained in how to do it, and once we’ve all practiced a couple of times, one student per class day will give a five-to-ten-minute presentation on a news article, which I will have selected and handed to them the day before.
  • SmorgasBoard Quizzes. Each day, students will take a general quiz on what one can do with a verb in the past, present, and future, in the realm of the real and in theory or fantasy. Results of the quizzes are kept track of for every student, but don’t affect the student’s grade. (The quiz is easier than it sounds.)
  • Note-taking. A Class Notebook is kept for each class. Following the same rotating schedule as the articles, one student each day is in charge of taking notes on what goes on in class. Each student also has his or her own notebook, in which they are to take detailed notes that should line up more or less with what’s kept in the Class Notebook. Students’ own notebooks do not leave the classroom; they live in crates, in hanging folders marked with each student’s name. (These folders is also how I return work to the students.) Periodically, I look through each student’s notebook and give them a grade on how well they’re taking notes. All assessments are open-notes – students have access to their own notebooks, and anything I handed them, or they themselves created. (No dictionaries, though.)
  • Major assessments. A couple of times per quarter, we will have in-class compositions on the resource we have most recently finished exploring. I always do in-class compositions to avoid cheating, and because I find students benefit from being made to think on their feet as they write.

2) Resources (rest of year) – Students are guided in exploring films, story collections, songs, poems, television programs, radio reports, etc., in series, each followed by a major assessment, practically always an in-class composition.

That’s it: Continue the cycle of resource after resource after resource, punctuated by daily, rotating news article presentations and compositions, until the end of the year. (If you’d like to see the details on my resources, follow the link to “Resources“, here or in the top menu.)

How far will I get with each individual group? I don’t know – we move on when we’re done, not because it’s the third week of the quarter. How many of these works will we cover in a year? Again: I don’t know – it depends on the dynamic of the classroom and the strength of the group. I don’t artificially hurry along the slower groups, and I don’t put the brakes on the faster groups. It serves neither sort of class to shoehorn them into a schedule designed not to improve their learning, but rather to conform with their teacher’s arbitrarily-established idea of how fast things should move.

There are advantages to keeping students on the same arc, at the same rhythm (or trying to) – but they’re all advantages for the teacher. My bean-counting, record-keeping self would have an easier time of things if I worked with a set schedule. But I’ve come to see most of the bean-counting we do as educators as an almost completely useless exercise, at least as far as student outcomes are concerned. Student progress is messy, unpredictable, and individualized. Confining everyone into one pre-determined schedule despite their many differences is like herding cats. Why deny it? Embrace the unpredictability. Expect it. Plan for it. The progress is going to happen that way, whether you like it or not.

Still, you may balk. There’s no way, I’ve been told, under this system, to know how far you can take students in one year. To which I respond: “You’re right. There isn’t. And there isn’t under a textbook regime, either.” What you CAN predict if you use textbooks is when you’ll move on to the next in a list of topics. But textbook-using teachers don’t have any more idea than I do whether the students will get the concept by that date.

I’m actually convinced that my students get farther, understand better, specifically because I don’t hurry / retard their movement through the curriculum. Which do you think is better: Getting all the way through an arbitrarily-paced curriculum, with the students achieving a vague and sputtering understanding; or, getting two-thirds of the way to the end, but understanding everything fully? Which group do you think will go into the following year more ready to learn? Or more confident in their abilities – which is an extremely overlooked key to student success?

(I talk more about these twin myths – the myth of the possibility, and the myth of the usefulness, of keeping different groups of students moving at the same pace – in a blog post called “Big Fat Lies”.)

Daily Planning

Lots of teachers at my school (and all over the place, sometimes at the explicit insistence of administrators) write the day’s class plan on the board at the beginning of the period, with every minute laid out in excruciating detail, culminating in something like “By the end of the period, students will be able to (bla bla bla).” The idea is that students do better when they understand exactly what the plan is and what they’re going to learn how to do at the beginning of the period.

I never do this, for several reasons. One is that it would be absurd – my classes essentially always follow the same overall structure. Activities vary, the works we are addressing at any given point change from week to week or month to month. But the general rhythm of each day is very predictable.

This lack of explicit schedule-telling doesn’t add up to my students not knowing what’s expected of them, by the way. When my principal does exit interviews with graduating students, he’s heard again and again that I’m one of the teachers whose expectations are the most clearly laid-out in the whole building. They know exactly what they have to do, why they’re doing it, and where we’re going, without my having to tell them in daily dry-erase form.

If I had to write a class plan on the board, though, I suppose it would look something like this:

  1. Do the usual calisthenics.
  2. Listen to a fellow student present on an article.
  3. Chat for a while about whatever subjects the article brought up.
  4. Continue to explore the resource we’ve been exploring / start exploring a new one.

A couple of times per quarter, the above is replaced with this:

  1. Write an in-class, open-notes composition on the work we’ve been exploring for the last few weeks.

At the bottom of either plan, I would write the goals for the period. But mine would be honest:

“Students will be better at and more familiar with Spanish.”

Change the date at the top every day; draw a box around the rest, with a note to the custodian:

“Erase When I Retire.”

That’s the whole she-bang: Systematized note-taking, daily verb quizzes, daily article presentations, in-class open-notes compositions, and constant resource exploration. I’ve given each of these main components of my class its own page, where I get into the why’s and the wherefore’s in more detail – but that’s basically it. No textbook necessary – the students get all the Spanish they can possibly handle, and more, from resources that are either free (online news articles) or extremely cheap (I buy one copy of a film to watch in class, for example, and I’m good to go). And, of course, they have you to lead them through it all and make sure they’re paying attention.

I have created many secondary tools and activities to go with each of the resources, which you’ll find on the Resources page. But you can make up your own easily enough – it’s simple to do. It just takes some getting used to. And when you’ve got some cooked up, let me know – I’d love to see them.