Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Benefits of Varying Class Structure: Revisited

About a month and a half ago, I detailed experiences from one of my AP classes. I’m more than happy to say the class has become so much more engaging. While grades may not always be an accurate representation of information retention, I think it it’s telling that I’m on pace to earn a significantly higher grade this quarter. The climate of my classroom was very much one that did not seem to value diversified class formatting, which in part led to a high rate of student disengagement.

Out of nowhere, our AP class has embarked on an entirely new path. Worksheets, guided notes, and lengthy YouTube videos have been replaced with debates, role-playing activities, and multimedia research projects. Data is never the only measurement for student success, but the data certainly supports my teacher’s newfound strategies. Morale is high, which is rare for an AP class full of sophomores. Overall, the classroom is a much happier place to be in.

Others may disagree (and many of my past teachers have done so vociferously), but to me, there always has to be an outlet for fun in class. Now, ‘fun’ obviously doesn’t mean let students run wild and disregard any work that needs to be completed, but there’s always a way to spruce up class time. School is full of mandation, silent work, and surface level worksheets. In a sea of monotony, being a beacon of variation and/or joviality will ultimately build student rapport and foster a more engaging classroom ecology.

Take my current teacher for example. She can attest to the fact that changing class format can drastically affect the emotions of students. My teacher has been on both sides of the spectrum; at the start of the year, stressed out teenagers would call her names out of earshot, incessantly complain to substitute teachers if she was absent, and mentally check out during class. Due to her seemingly random shift in pedagogy, she is now treated much more positively. Gone are the remarks about her teaching style and the audible snores from the corner of the room. In their place are students excited to learn (or at least debate) and find their own definition of our world’s history.

Don’t get me wrong, though; this was no accident. Similar events would unfold if teachers anywhere made this switch. In the words of Nelly, “let’s break it down” real quick:

I won’t dive too deep into her past teaching decisions (because you can find all of that information in my first blog post), but let’s just say our student population was less than engaged. Videos, paired with worksheets, were given to us every single class and it was wearing on my peers and I very quickly. The non-participatory qualities of her teaching tactics led to lower test scores and a very disgruntled group of kids. I may not have a full grasp on this topic, but if I’m not mistaken, some teachers’ jobs rely very heavily on test scores. Regardless of whether or not paper and pencil tests have any merit, they can be necessary to ensure a teacher’s livelihood. Keeping this in mind, I believe a significant issue plaguing our class was a trend of declining test scores. It was getting to the point that the top scores were clocking in around the C or C+ range. Clearly, mastering nearly 80% of the material (at best) was not where we needed to be. From a purely data-centered standpoint this shift was warranted.

Rather than constantly holding classes that were carbon copies of one another, my teacher recently began varying our class structure. As I stated above, she’s seeing attention-grabbing activities with more enthusiasm.

My favorite of the activities that she has created and has us take part in, is her debate/reenactment hybrid. Take our World War I Treaty of Versailles edition for example. Each of the students were split into groups that represented the different countries involved in the conflict. We each had the allotted amount of time to prepare before attempting to persuade the other countries to give us what we wanted. Every group brought a different flavor to the debates,  whether it be through analogies, threats, compromises, or pointing blame elsewhere. The arguments were so fierce that they continued after we left the classroom. My classmates were on the way to lunch and people were arguing about whether or not Serbia was at fault for starting the first World War. If that’s not a true instance of engagement, I don’t know what is.

It should come as no surprise that collectively grades went up. Comprehension of the curriculum was also much higher, across her classes. The reasoning behind it is common sense. When students are engaged, information makes a more long lasting impact on them.

I strongly believe that school is not about teaching curriculum, it is more about teaching life skills. The independence projects like this require is so beneficial to us. Rather than having our teacher read the events out to us, with the winner ultimately getting final say about what happened, we all got to draw our own conclusions. There was no right answer. We were forced to figure out where we stood on the issues and then bolster them to a sometimes disagreeing crowd. That’s a skill that only becomes more important as time goes on. Fostering that growth would never be possible under the guidance of notes and worksheets.

Not only does this new formatting shift harness students’ desire for independence and engage us to a subject that has a bad connotation, it has given my teacher a more positive rapport with her students. In switching how her class is run, my teacher has shown all of us that she has enough self-awareness to know a change was necessary if we were going to be ready for the AP test. Most bad blood is gone because student trust has increased substantially. We know our teacher is truly on her side. She isn’t stubborn, her one goal is to make sure we learn. All of that became very clear after worksheets went extinct and constant, opinionated, and explorative work was re-introduced.

While this may be a non-English AP class that I’m highlighting, but just as in every other blog that’s up on my website, this can easily be taken to an English classroom and it will heavily improve it. The ways an educator can do that are simpler than they might imagine.

The biggest complaint from my teacher’s students before her revamp was her lack of conversation with students. She seemed very isolated from us and with a struggling class, that’s not really helpful. As soon as she started listening to the voices in her classroom and made an attempt to answer those voices, our class’ favorability of her was enhanced. Teachers need to allow students a voice in their classroom. How else with they know what is working and/or what is not? Although teachers may believe their lesson plans are having an effect on students, if their ears are deaf to the kids inhabiting their class, they will never know for sure.

On another note, we, students, know when a teacher is avoiding listening to us. It’s so obvious and on top of that it’s so off putting. That just shows as that a teacher will not change (regardless of student needs) and rips to shreds any possibility of a good relationship between students and their teacher.

The best way to initiate a switch similar to my teacher is to know your students. All throughout the year, teachers should be learning about who their students are, how they learn, and what makes them tick. Without this information, if they are subjected to a difficult aspect of the curriculum, teachers will not be able to help them as effectively. If my teacher had seen that we were not connecting with videos and worksheets, and decided to give us PowerPoint presentations to do, we still wouldn’t have connected. My teacher knew that we were a class that loves to talk, argue, and get competitive. Naturally, this led to the introduction of the elements listed above. Variations within a class structure will never be the same across two classrooms - frankly, not everything can work. No one except for the teacher of the classroom can fully understand what is right for their students. Who else spends seven hours daily with these kids, outside their parents? It’s on educators to get down to a personal level with their students, otherwise student rapport will fall, test scores will fall, classroom morale will fall, and engagement will fall. A class without these components is destined to crumble under the weight of its own failure.

Thank you so much for reading this week’s edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag, #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.


  1. Thank you for your wonderful post Sam. I loved being able to see the teaching and learning process from two different perspective and the impact the shift this teacher made had on you and fellow students. I wish I could thank your teacher myself because we ALWAYS have choices and she CHOSE to make the choice that would have a positive impact on student learning (and even perception of her teaching). Very impressive!

  2. Sam It is refreshing to see you revisit a post and update us with new insights. It is powerful to recognize the relationship of a shift in teaching practice and to corresponding shift in tone, engagement, and attitude. I especially enjoyed seeing the conversations spill over into time outside the classroom. I do hope your teacher has noticed the shift as well.