Tweak It!

Katie Martin’s thoughts on tweaking learning experiences and the way we do things resonated with me this week, particularly as I am in the midst of doing just that.

A couple years ago I asked my grade 11 English students what could be improved or changed in the course. What did they love? What impacted them? What did they hate? The answers lead me to re-evaluate the way I did things and what I focused on.

I had started blogging with my students for the first time ever that semester while reading Frankenstein and resoundingly the students cited that experience as one they found relevant and impactful, but other things in the course – particularly reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest- were not so successful.

I love Cuckoo’s Nest, and it fit so well thematically with the other texts on the course (Frankenstein and Macbeth), but apparently, my students were not getting much out of it. That made me evaluate quite a few things. Was there something wrong with the way it was presented? What was it they didn’t like? Then I started to question why I was teaching that particular book. Was I just hung up on the fact that that is how I had always done it? So, I took a really critical look at the goals I had for that book and the course in general.

A big theme that runs throughout the texts in the course is mental illness. I wanted to keep that focus because it’s so very important to talk about in order to help support students and reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. Particularly in today’s climate of skyrocketing cases of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses as well as rising numbers of suicides in teens (Mojtabai). I also concluded that if the students weren’t relating to the text, then that discussion would never happen. So I decided I should change the text. But to what? At the same time, I also wanted to infuse more non-fiction texts into the course, so I settled on memoirs which focused on mental health.

I wanted my students to be part of the development process so we chose five different memoirs as a group: The Evil Hours by David Morris; Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen; Monkey Mind by Daniel Smith; When Rabbit Howls by Trudi Chase and the Troops; and Quiet Room by Lori Schiller. Students reading the same book formed small discussion groups and we regularly shared what we were reading and learning with the class as a whole. At the same time, we learned about stigma, the history of the treatment of mental illness, and talked about typical misconceptions. At the end of the semester, the students cited blogging as before as one of their favourite activities, but they also said that the memoirs were the most worthwhile learning experience they had had in years providing the real world connections and authenticity as supportive evidence.

I have since continued to tweak and develop the Mental Health Memoir Unit. For example, I began putting together mini-lessons focusing on different mental illnesses. Then I remembered John Spencer in Empower saying “What am I doing for my students that they could be doing themselves?” At that point, I scrapped the mini-lessons and started outlining the presentation project that now accompanies reading the memoirs. I wanted students to practice 21st Century learning skills like collaboration and critical thinking, as well as embedding technology in the process. I used the Triple E Framework outlined by Dr. Liz Colb as my lens to plan and assess technology use in the unit. What I came up with is this: Students begin by completing research using databases and composing annotated bibliographies. Their memoir reading group then uses this information and what has impacted them from the memoir to collaboratively develop a visual and oral presentation to teach the class about the specific mental illness their memoir focuses on.

Tweaking some more, I made some connections with experts in the mental health field who graciously Skyped with my students. We spoke with a Professor who teaches abnormal psychology in a nursing program and who has first-hand experience dealing with depression and anxiety as a teen. We also spoke to David Granirer who began Stand Up for Mental Health, a program that teaches stand up comedy while providing therapeutic benefits people helping them to overcome many of the fears and struggles wrapped up in their illnesses.

This semester I added some new titles to the collection of memoirs – Skin Game by Caroline Kettlewell, Unholy Ghosts edited by Nell Casey, Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield, Just Checking By Emily Colas, and Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi. I’m also planning on showing my students #BookSnaps so they can reflect as they read and then be able to use the snaps in their visual presentation. We are also going to have a Stress and Anxiety workshop lead by our board’s Mental Health Lead. Ultimately I plan to have students create Public Service Announcements to take their learning outside the classroom into the school and community and help create change and a more accepting and supportive environment for everyone.

I continue to tweak every time I teach this unit to ensure it remains relevant and continues to challenge students. I know it meets curriculum standards, but I want it to do so much more. In the Foreward of Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution by Armand Doucet, Jelmer Evers, Elisa Guerra, Dr. Nadia Lopez, Michael Soskil and Koen Timmers, Professor Klaus Schwab notes that “students must be adept…in developing profoundly human skills such as leadership, social-emotional intelligence, and critical thinking” and that collaboration, empathy and teamwork will define the education of the future.” This unit hopefully does that and also encourages students to see “the need for continued lifelong learning” that Schwab sees as pivotal for future success.

Doucet, Armand, et al. Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice. Routledge, 2018.
Mojtabai, R., et al. “National Trends in the Prevalence and Treatment of Depression in Adolescents and Young Adults.” Pediatrics, Vol. 138, No. 6, 2016, doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1878.
Spencer, John, and A. J. Juliani. Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning. IMpress, 2017.

One response to “Tweak It!”

  1. This is a great example of how student feedback can shape our teaching for the better! The whole process/outcomes reminds me of George Couros’ comment in a recent post, “Something that I always think about is that the curriculum is the minimum of what we are supposed to teach, but we can go above and beyond that.” Thanks for sharing!

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