As part of a group research project for an education policy class I took a few years ago at UC Irvine, some classmates and I interviewed Tim Jamison, who was the president of the Irvine Teacher’s Association. My most salient memory of that interview is still the suggestion he gave us as new educators: “Monitor and adjust.” I didn’t appreciate the profound importance of his pithy advice at the time, but I’ve since come to understand how central those two verbs are to the art of teaching.
I monitor my students’ learning and adjust my practice to various degrees on a regular basis. For example, I’ll notice that an explanation of a concept is met with confused faces, so I offer my students a new analogy to help them understand my instruction. Or, I might see from a formative assessment that more than half of my sophomores are struggling to integrate textual evidence into their expository writing, so I clear a few days to spend an entire class period each on two methods, breaking the skill down into small steps, modeling the process, and giving students plenty of practice and individual feedback. Very recently, I had occasion to put this mantra to use on a larger scale: substantially revising a six-week unit a week into teaching it.
Part 1: Monitor
I was beginning a unit on Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, which was largely unchanged from the last two years I had taught it. In the past, I had intended this unit to serve a dual purpose: to give students an opportunity to grapple with a complex and challenging literary text and to study the rhetoric of Shakespeare’s characters. The unit included activities as varied as completing a study guide focused on close reading key passages, creating marketing advice pamphlets that featured Aristotle’s three main rhetorical appeals, acting out key scenes, a traditional unit exam, and a creative final project.
While my students had generally not complained about this unit in the past, and several had in fact expressed their own surprise at enjoying Shakespeare, the way I approached teaching Julius Caesar required slogging through the entirety of the text, spending many class periods listening to untrained students butcher Shakespeare’s prose and then do their best to prove their comprehension, often to be rescued by an explanation by me. This year, the unit was feeling especially uninspired and unfocused. I was not enjoying it, and I’m sure my students were beginning to wonder what the point of all that passionless reading was for. I could have stubbornly trudged forward to the end of the unit, resolving to fix it for next year, but I knew I had to change course immediately.
Part 2: Adjust
Determined not to ruin Shakespeare and to give my Julius Caesar unit renewed focus and purpose, I began brainstorming solutions by going where good teachers always start: the end. What did I want my students to get out of this unit? What were the skills they absolutely had to master? Was it reading Shakespeare? Was it learning the play? Was it performance ability? Was it rhetorical analysis skills? Was it persuasive writing? I realized I had to be ruthless in my revision, and I had to let go of my personal feelings for the play. I wanted my students to improve their argumentative writing and speaking skills, and I decided my students needed, above all else, to deepen their understanding of rhetoric as readers and as writers. I decided, also, that they did not have to read every word of Julius Caesar or understand, for example, why a clock tolling in Act II is an anachronism.
Fortunately, after only a few minutes of reaching out to the web for inspiration, I stumbled across a blog post that struck a chord with me. The author of that post, who also teaches sophomore English and blogs at iTeach. iCoach. iBlog., wrote about his past frustrations teaching Julius Caesar and the way in which, after serious reflection and ruthless revision, he and a colleague decided to alter dramatically the way they approached the play in class. I decided to follow their lead and jettison much of the class reading and the unavoidable focus on comprehension that felt so counterproductive and instead focus intensely on what makes Julius Caesar a great play for the study of rhetoric: its speeches.
“I realized I had to be ruthless in my revision.”
Like the plan in the blog post, my new unit would require students to read and really grapple in groups and individually with only the text of a handful of speeches. To fill in the plot gaps, I would use the traditional BBC movie version of the play that adhered more or less perfectly to Shakespeare’s script, allowing students to see how the speeches they were studying fit into the larger picture of the play (after all, Shakespeare is meant to be seen and heard). I would also make the following amendments to the blog’s unit plan:
- Students would read all of Act I and close read several passages, including Marullus’ tirade against the plebeians in scene 1, in order to become more comfortable with Shakespeare’s language and to gain a strong understanding of the main conflict of the play.
- Students would take a couple days out of the speech analysis routine to read and perform the assassination scene from Act III for two reasons. First, I wanted to give my students a chance to learn a little about performing Shakespeare. Second, it would break what could become a monotonous routine and increase engagement. In prior years, playing with cardboard daggers was a highlight of the unit for my sophomores!
- The summative assessments would be twofold. Like in the unit after which I modeled my own, my students would write an argumentative essay about whether Brutus or Antony was more persuasive. Then, however, they would write their own speech, getting an opportunity to practice both their rhetorical skills and their public speaking skills.
I’m currently more than two weeks into my revised Julius Caesar unit, and I’m already seeing a major difference. More of my students are more engaged, and all of them are participating in close reading and rhetorical analysis with their groups on a daily basis. No one is getting left behind, and everyone knows what’s going on in the play. Every student is beginning to feel more comfortable working with Shakespeare’s language, and I am having a lot more fun watching my students take ownership of the play and of their own learning. I find that I’m doing less of the work, I’m getting more chances to work with groups and individuals during class time, and my students are learning more.
The lesson? Self-evaluation needs to be a constant habit of the teacher’s mind, and when something as big as an entire unit seems to be off-track, being flexible enough–and humble enough–to completely change course on the spot is worth it. Instructional redesign doesn’t have to wait until the summer or even the end of a unit.
Whether you teach Julius Caesar or not, I’d love to hear your thoughts, as well as your own stories about how you’ve applied the mantra of “Monitor and adjust” in your own classrooms! Share in the comments below about an adjustment you’ve made–or plan to make–and how it turned out.