In preparation for a recent tutoring session, I opened the flash drive containing my curriculum files. As I clicked through, I relived past classroom experiences – sort of like paging through an album of cherished photos.
Most files contained homework worksheets or quizzes, the stuff of daily classroom life.
I also rediscovered favorite activities I had designed. In fact, I wrote almost all my own materials – daily and otherwise; I always disliked being bound by textbooks that did not meet my requirements or the needs of my students.
I was, however, not alone in creating the lessons I taught. Some of my teachers and later several colleagues impressed me with original activities they devised for their students.
Although I was a bundle of nerves whenever I entered John Wilson’s Algebra I classroom, in retrospect I had to admire the tests he gave every Friday, the ones that seemed torturous back then when he reseated us the following Monday according to our scores.
Years later I so wanted to emulate Mr. Wilson’s test-making habits. Unfortunately, I always typed from rough drafts, while he handwrote his tests, dividing a purple ditto master into boxes filled with questions based on algebraic laws and operations. Each week he dropped concepts we had mastered from the beginning of the test and added increasingly-complicated problems to the end. Hands down, his tests were the best classroom measuring tools ever – but my attempts to replicate them were in vain.
Isabell Lash remains the gold standard of English teachers for me. She influenced my student self and my teaching self with her integrated, thematic approach to language arts. At a time when literature, grammar, vocabulary, and writing were taught separately, Mrs. Lash combined them all. In our study of American literature, we might read a prose selection from the Romantic Period as well as a poem and then experience a related piece of music or artwork. We transformed the resulting class discussions into our own essays. Long after her retirement, Mrs. Lash’s efforts still inspired me to blend many skills into coordinated lessons for my own students.
I also admired activities developed by my colleague, Jane Sidders. The exchange program for her Creative Writing students and their elementary partners was popular, especially the in-person meeting at the end of the course.
But Jane also planned wisely for some of the most difficult students in any school: second-semester seniors. After she talked about a variety of books, each student chose the last book of his/her high school career. On delivery day, students took their seats where Jane had already laid out each crisp, new volume. My favorite part: the students never uttered a word that entire period; they began reading, remaining engrossed until the bell interrupted. Such a victory for the love of reading!
Another fellow teacher, Peggy Bowers, provided an endless supply of clever ideas for her English, Speech, and Acting classes, among them student adaptation of children’s books into plays they performed.
However, Peggy also eased the age-old problem of student discouragement about graded writing assignments “bleeding red ink.” Because English teachers must spend hours wading through stacks of papers to return them in a timely, meaningful manner, Peggy quite often read student writing for a single, stated purpose: one day she checked for thesis statements, the next day transitions, the third day supporting statements. Thus, her kids wrote often, each time advancing their skills without that sensation of drowning in red ink. Eventually each student chose one piece of writing to edit and submit for a final grade.
Science teacher Marcia Ward possessed her own eclectic repertoire of activities, affording her students opportunities to visit behind-the-scenes at the Mayo Clinic and to swim with the manatees in Florida.
I found a year-long project from Marcia’s Human Anatomy class particularly valuable. Course units were based on bodily systems: circulatory, muscular, skeletal, etc. Students represented each system on a life-sized human body of their own design. During final exam week they used their completed “bodies” as references in answering advanced questions about the interrelationship of the systems. Marcia’s teaching practice highlighted for me the importance of true academic understanding over mere rote memorization.
My own best classroom practice appears nowhere on my flash drive. Having attended a presentation about using individual white boards for daily recitation, I finally saved up to enough to purchase marker boards for my classroom and over the years found ways to continually refresh the supply of markers.
I never minded the outlay of funds. I loved that each student responded to every question posed rather than the class listening to one student answer as we went around the room. I loved that all students were involved all the time. I loved that I could observe exactly which students needed help with which items.
Then there was John Zeilman introducing pinhole cameras to GHS students and Jack Wood organizing archaeological digs right in his GHS classroom. My niece-in-law, Christina Sell, currently requires each Advanced Placement World History student to research an individual from an era and then portray that person during class discussion. Fortunately, many teachers such as these at every level work hard to be clever and creative on behalf of their students.
I hope all teachers will strive to dream up daily activities and final projects to encourage the joy of real learning and celebrate student success.