Semester 1 Reflection: Build Your Own Civilization

Among the many unique features of my new school, Harvest Collegiate, is that our humanities courses are one-semester theme-based courses that, for the most part, are electives.  This means I completely wrapped up courses last week, and start a new term with a new course and students next week.

This past semester, I taught two courses.  The first, Looking for an Argument, was probably the best I ever taught.  The structure was creating by Avram Barlowe and Herb Mack of Urban Academy, and you can read more about it here, and buy it here.  I hope to write more on that soon. My second class was an interdisciplinary English and Global history course which I dubbed Build Your Own Civilization.  The global focused on ancient and golden aged civilizations, while the English focused on post-apocalyptic or “kids on a deserted island” scenarios.  In addition, the first 30 minutes of every class was devoted to independent reading of books of the students’ choice.  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to what I’ve learned about independent reading to East Side Community High School’s very well established program, my former colleagues Steve and Chris at Bronx Lab, and my department mate Kiran, who generously gave me all her independent reading materials.

I want to start with my students’ reflections.  I borrowed heavily from Paul Blogush’s evaluation, and was quite please with the info I got.

First, I asked my students to choose one words to describe myself, and one word to describe the class.  Here are the results:

I’m not sure I could be happier about helpful and challenging being the most common words to describe me, and am quite pleased they found the course interesting.  The one student who described me as “awesome” but the course as “less awesome” actually points towards my feelings about the class.

Second, I gave students a number of statements to agree or disagree with.  The results are overwhelmingly positive without too much difference between then, so I don’t have much to take away from them, other than the lowest score was on “Teacher created a class that allowed students freedom to choose,” which points to an immediate actionable area for improvement in the future.  The full results are below.

The most interesting and helpful information came from the more open response questions.  I asked students the most important thing they learned in class, and the overwhelming majority wrote that they improved their reading, learned to love reading, improved their writing, or improved their organizational or time management skills.  Only a small handful wrote anything about the content.  I think this is significant, and reflective of my thoughts about the course about the class.  The course did a really good job of developing students’ skills, but I question how essential the content I chose actually was.

When asked the most important skill they learned, the majority of students mentioned argumentative essay writing, which was the main form of expression in the class.  When asked about how I could improve the class, there was no common theme.  While many students wrote “nothing,” I think the range of answers points to areas where I failed to meet the individual needs of students as opposed to the fuller range of the class.  All of my student’s responses to these questions are below.

Finally, I asked students to freely express their thoughts on the course.  I owe Paul Blogush a debt of gratitude for the structure of the survey, as all the earlier questions scaffolded up to this one, providing really thoughtful writing. My students’ responses are wonderful, and quite helpful both because of what they say and don’t say.

The most powerful comments come from students who discovered a love for reading.  One student wrote, “First of all, if it weren’t for you… I would hate books and I would not be able to read for a long amount of time.”  Another wrote, “I learned to love to read. READING is life. Reading helps me in almost every other course, including science, social studies and more.”  The independent reading program had a transformative effect on these students, which I hope will lay a foundation for further success in high school in all their courses.  For students who came in as strong and motivated readers, the program was successful in helping them encounter new ideas and genres.  One student wrote that she “[took an] interest in other genres of books and I’m glad he did because I only used to read romance … if it wasn’t for Steve, I would have never read books like The Fault in Our Stars and Everyday and now that I have read them, I can’t imagine not reading that.”  Overall, the independent reading aspect of the course was probably its greatest success.

Other students wrote about how challenging the course was for them, though these students largely fell into two camps: students who the course was challenging but with enough fun or support to make it worthwhile, and those who thought it was too challenging. Towards the former point, one student wrote that “It was my favorite class in this school…because it is the most fun and the most challenging.”  For these students, it seems the course hit the perfect sweet spot.  But on the other hand, there were students who wrote things like “YOU HAVE TOO HIGH EXPECTATIONS FOR OUR ESSAYS…THE HUNTINGTON ESSAY YOU GAVE US I NEARLY DIED” and “challenges sometimes made me want to give up and not even try because the task was to hard.”  While both these students later talked about successfully completing the assignments, I think this speaks to tendency I have to throw kids into the deep end and then only throw them the life-preserver once they’re drowning. While there’s something to be said for this with older students, I think this was an important reminder that for ninth graders, they should probably see the life preservers out there waiting for them in advance to enable them to try to swim in the first place.

My Thoughts

Overall, I’m really happy with the experience I had and shared with students.  I was apprehensive at the start of the year about teaching ninth grade for the first time in eight years, but I both enjoyed it and felt successful in doing so.  The course was undoubtedly successful in developing students reading and writing skills.  However, I think it’s significant that very few students wrote about what they learned.  I’m not sure what they learned was actually that important, nor significant to their lives.  The content was interesting and held their attention, but was largely trivial.  In thinking about my plans for next semester and beyond, I am trying to focus more on ensuring the content is essential and meaningful.

My other major regret for the course is that I focused on too many skills from both history and English.  Students improved a little in a lot of areas, however, I saw much more growth in Looking for an Argument, where we covered far more content but focused on only a small handful of skills.

In the end, I really enjoyed the class, and feel satisfied with its results.  With that said, I’m not sure I”ll be teaching this class again.


Build Your Own Civilization Curriculum Map

Survey Data



2 thoughts on “Semester 1 Reflection: Build Your Own Civilization

  1. Steve, I continue to be astonished by the efforts you put into teaching by evaluating yourself, your curriculum, and reviewing feedback from students. Asking for feedback from your students is not something that all teachers do. Progress forward is movement in the right direction and certainly the school and your work speaks for itself. ***** I still remember those amazing unforgettable teachers I had many years ago (Ms Yaus – English, and Mr. McCall – Chemistry ). They pushed me hard to excel and to not be mediocre. You are one who puts their heart and sole into their profession. I love reading your posts. I so look forward to my daughter having you this semester at Harvest Collegiate High School. Keep up the great work Steve.

    20 years from now, your students will forget many of their teachers, but I am sure they will remember you.
    **** a grateful parent at Harvest Collegiate High School.


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