August 23, 2011
It is said that hindsight is 20/20. It is with hindsight that I begin the planning for next semester.
Before I even start thinking about what my course syllabus is going to look like or which texts I am going to assign for in-depth study or look at my course roster, I pause. I load up my daily, reflective notes from the previous semester. I pull out the student work samples I asked to retain, the good, the bad and the ugly ones. Finally, I open the 9 1/2 x 13-inch manilla folder chock full of student evaluations. I lay them out on my kitchen table in their distinct piles, sample student work divided out by specific assignment.
I start with the student sample work. This helps refresh my memory with what students accomplished during our time together. I make notes on what worked. Did the student product match my end goals? Did students have the needed skills at the end of the semester? It not, where did it go wrong? Did I spend too much time? Not enough? Was there one area that the students generally need more instruction on (this is how I discovered I needed to spend more time on plagiarism)?
Next, I go through my daily reflective notes. What did I struggle with while in the deep end and daily grind of learning and teaching? Did I try a revision activity that utterly flopped? Did I stumble upon a great new way into the personal narrative that will help move students beyond the pithy “so-what” in their writing? Did an article in English Journal help shed some light on my teaching style? How can that blog post I read become part of my core teaching beliefs?
I open my student evaluations for the first time. After I remember what we did in the class, I’ve looked at student work, and I’ve refreshed my mind with what I thought at the time in teaching, I look at what my students thought about my course and my teaching. What worked for them? What didn’t? What do they think that they could use more time on?
My student evaluations are invaluable and every word the students write, weigh heavily on me. My courses are shaped on these assessments. I tell the students this prior to them filling them out. I encourage them to be completely honest. I let them know that what they write about will influence the course next time I teach it.
After I’ve looked through the evaluations, I type up my first thoughts. What seems to be the commonalities and the differences? My evaluations are anonymous so my own teacher biases, which I try to step away from, are removed for me. I summarize my thoughts from gathering and viewing this data. I note what assignments and activities seemed to have been the most productive for the students. What activities ‘stuck’ with them? What will the students take with them outside of the class?
After this data extraction and synthesis, I start with a blank file document on my computer. I review my notes; what assignments am I going to use again, or am I going to change them and which new assignments am I going to add? Which readings resonated with the students, which ones did we all dislike?
When completed, I step away for at least a few days…sometimes a week. I let my mind percolate before I sit back down and backwards plan for the next semester. This process results in drastically different outlines for each semester I teach. Finally, I only complete the roughest of outlines for the semester—big picture themes and assignments.
No matter how much time I spend looking back, the biggest variable in planning for the start of the new semester are the students themselves. And that is one aspect of starting the year off teaching that I am unable to complete until we’ve already started.
While Vanessa Alander searches for a high school English position, she spends her days as an Adjunct English Professor (First Year Composition and Literature) at Plymouth State University. She has dual M.Ed’s with dual certifications in Elementary (K-8) and English (5-12). She enjoys using technology to foster writing skills and is implementing a paperless classroom this year.