Reflections on "Plan A": My personal pedagogy of belonging

Note: This year in my 11th grade English class, I am experimenting with “Plan A”: If every student cooperates instead of competes, gives full effort every day, and takes responsibility for their own learning, then everyone is promised an A.  I’m not doing this to be nice; I’m doing it because I think it will help student learning.  For more details about Plan A, see the first blog post.

In case you missed it, I used to teach and coach with a competition-based pedagogy which worked very well with the AP students and elite athletes at SLO High. But when I transferred to Morro Bay to teach “college prep” English, my style of coaching and teaching completely backfired in the face of an entirely different culture. Thus, I resigned as head coach of the basketball team, and instituted “Plan A” in my classroom — where I promise every student an A if they all cooperate without exception.

These are my reflections after two months. I hope they aren’t too random.

Just because everyone gets an A, it doesn’t mean we’re anarchists. At the center of “Plan A” is a very common core.

Every worthy construction has a strong bedrock, and in our case it’s called The Checklist, a student-friendly, scaffolded rubric of the ELA anchor standards. The example below is just the first page, and it shows a fictional illustration of how it works. It’s pretty simple. They do all their assignments in their journal (you could call it a portfolio), and then within reason, they cite every time they exemplify one of the state standards, and put the corresponding page number on their checklist.

The Checklist
Controlling and improving my level of communication.

Reading Standard 1: Read what text says explicitly; cite evidence; draw conclusions

I can…
I wrote it.
“I got this.”
I can teach this.
1. Show comprehension (paraphrase or summary) of what the text is actually saying.
1, 3, 5, 8
6, 13, 18,
18, 24
2. Point at (and cite) direct evidence (quotes) that leads to explicit meaning.
2, 4, 9
3, 10, 19
3. Infer conclusions based on what’s above.
2, 4, 10
10, 11, 19
4. Show where the text leaves matters uncertain.
They have their checklists of all twenty anchor standards on their desks every day, at all times.  They have expressed satisfaction that they understand the explicit goals of the class, and it guides them on their independent projects.

The Checklist helps me more than the students.

I am constantly referring to The Checklist to make sure my lesson lesson is grounded in the CCSS. And conversely, when I’m trying to think of new lesson plans, I look at The Checklist and immediately come up with several ideas.

It’s sometimes hard to teach without using grades as a threat or bribe.  That’s a good thing.

It is still a habit of mine to say things like “if you don’t take notes on this, you’ll fail the quiz” or “you won’t get an A on the paper unless it includes a Works Cited page.” It’s much more difficult to convince the students to use MLA format for the intrinsic value.  But I like the challenge. Whenever I feel a tendency to lean on grades as an end purpose, it’s a sign that I should check what I’m doing. I need to explicitly tell the students why the assignment is important to their lives, and if I can’t do that, I should probably reconsider the value of my lesson.

Yes, with an A promised to them, some kids are coasting.

But those kids are always coasting.  I think they’re coasting less now, but I can verify that with assessment results soon. Yes, their grades are inflated, but if their learning is verifiably improved, how much do I care? That’s a real question, by the way. I do care, but I’m not sure how much.

Yes, the class is more successfully cooperating as a result.

A simple example: I put the desks in a circle, and I challenged the class to participate in a classroom discussion in which everyone participated appropriately or I would revoke “Plan A.” On their own, they had to elect some officers (a moderator, a sheriff, etc.) and then each student had to validate somebody’s else comment by name, and then offer their own contribution.  Then all I did was occasionally offer just a little bit of advice or guidance in stress-free environment. It was better than any classroom discussion we had last year, and it was really easy.

I’m not sure if the individual writing is sufficiently improving.

But it might be. I get test results soon, and I’m also going to do a thorough audit of their checklists in the upcoming week.  I just graded a batch of common assessments, though, and so far, so good.

One time, a sub-group of slackers was formed.  I scattered them. And then the class combined forces to save them.

So, I gave the class the option of six different topics to specialize in, so that they could join groups of common interest.  To “qualify” for their favorite group, they were asked to answer a simple review question, and then “apply” for that group (if they wanted to specialize in logic, they needed to write a syllogism, for example). There were five students who intentionally failed the application process, so I put them all in the same group, one which nobody else had applied for.  This group, now unified, did nothing. I worked and worked with them, but nothing.  When it came time to present to the class, they were basically silent. In a spiteful, immature way, I considered revoking “Plan A” for this class. I thought about directing the peer pressure of the other five groups on this particular one. But this class was supposed to be cooperative and helpful, not full of coercion or vengeance.

This was what I came up with. The next day, I told them to get into five groups that had at least one of each kind of specialist — it was a fun little problem for them to solve.  Then I made the five slackers the “captains” of their new group. I told them if they wanted “Plan A” to continue, each group needed to prepare their captains for an assessment/quiz/contest on all six topics. To be honest, those slacker/captains did not become experts in all six topics, but I’ve never seen them learn as much in one class.  And it was awesome to watch the other students become teachers.

I didn’t feel good calling out these slackers by name, and it went against the spirit of the class to threaten them with an assessment. But I justified it as one step back to go three steps forward. In a culture where it’s paramount to “belong,” it was a significant punishment when they were individualized, called out by name, and separated from their friends. I have very mixed emotions admitting this, but one of the “captains” actually left the class in tears when I first announced the new groups/captains. But she came back, we had a great talk, her new group was welcoming and helpful, and her attitude towards class has been exemplary ever since.

There is an authentic environment of belonging.

There is relatively little anxiety about individual learning disabilities, struggles with English, or any other handicap.  Everyone works at their own appropriate pace, in the least constrictive way imaginable.  I’ve never had friendlier, more cooperative classes.  The previous example was one of the

There are a lot of technical advantages.

I’m trying to make my blog post shorter, so I’m going to stop here, but I’ll soon write about how easy and natural it is to make accommodations for individual students in the environment of “Plan A.” It also easy to write “lesson plans” for other teachers, replace texts that are too heavy or controversial for some students, and work through learning disabilities and/or anxiety issues.  And finally, now that I’m not grading 150 teacher-centered assessments all the time, I am free for more authentic lesson planning, relevant professional development, and some self-reflection (like this blog).

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