Blow It Up

It’s raining.

For several days, I’ve been trapped while working on revising my opening unit of my IB English 11 course. The opening unit is on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Ur-text, A Handmaid’s Tale. It was a bad trapped. Like coffin buried six feet underground and running out of oxygen with mud seeping into the pine box trapped. I was ready to stop. I was ready to fall back on the old unit plan. I was ready to…yep, go all old school and traditional. You all know what that looks like: stand at the podium, point at them for a few questions, write words on the board or Smartboard, read assignments to them, collect to the in-basket.

But, this morning, my run postponed by some much needed rain falling across Upstate New York, I had that moment of clarity. Staring at the Chromebook, it finally came altogether. Maybe in the hero’s journey of unit planning and lesson design, I had the archetypal moment where the rain comes, purifies, and the sun rises on epiphany and enlightenment. Ha!

Old me did the classic AP/IB English teacher move: Pack it all in. When I taught Atwood’s book, my students studied “A Modest Proposal,” “Rape Fantasies,” “Siren Song.” We looked at satire and satirical techniques, tone, formation of tone through diction, imagery, details, language quality and syntax. We looked at conservative social movements in 1980s America. We had three essential questions that we looked at. We looked at feminism. Kids wrote a commentary and did a visual essay. We looked at current events like social movements in the Middle East and declining birth rates. Man, I was good at giving them all a lot of college level content.

After the last time I taught the book, I knew something had to change.

Oh, and I also wanted to add readings from Richard Wrangham’s Demonic Males and Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of Patriarchy. I loved all this stuff, and I was sure to impress upon my students how much I loved it. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t embracing the change.

I’ve had a lot swirling in my head around change: Starr Sackstein’s book Hacking Assessment, stuff from the Buck Institute for Project Based Learning, George Couros’ Innovator’s Mindset. I was looking to leverage the power of Schoology, my desire to flip my classroom. How to bring in Edublogs to my IB students? And, I really wanted to bring sincere inquiry to the process of learning between myself and students in my room. My understanding of from all of this is for me to stop talking and give students the opportunity to do it themselves.

How could I combine all that great stuff that I used to do with all the new approaches that I wanted to embrace? Thus, the coffin-like stuck that I found myself in the past few days.

Then, the rain came, and my run was still postponed. I was in Schoology fiddling with the calendar, unit outline, essential questions. I stopped and deleted it all.

I had to burn it down. Blow it all up.

I made a simple decision. We would look at one question in this book. The essential question were going to focus on: Is satire an effective form of political commentary to promote social change?

From this decision, and really this moment of clarity, everything else is falling into place.

The first thing that came after that was the final project. Students will create some kind of satire of a social ill or problem that they’re passionate about. They’ll integrate satirical techniques. They’ll comment on each other’s work. They’ll pick a genre for their satire and a mode to display that satire in.

From there, I was able to start to backwards design the necessary lessons, calendar and timeline, and then figure out what needed to stay and what I could cut away. Then, I was able to design a Grading Outline to show students what needed to be completed to earn a grade in each grade band.

It’s still not all done, yet. I had my moment of clarity about 90 minutes ago, and then I’ve spent about 30 minutes writing this reflection and post. I’m working on it.

Anyway, rain’s stopped. Time to go log some miles!


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