How Did I Do? The 2015-16 School Year in Review

This year I was observed by administrators twice.

Assistant principals showed up unnanounced in a creative writing class--then in German 2. They observed, took notes and talked with me about my scores and got feedback on how my lessons had gone. I got twenty minutes of feedback in total for both observations.

And they count. As a long-term teacher, I have tenure, but I take nothing for granted. My evaluation scores go into my permanent record. I work really hard to earn good evaluations and raise my game as a teacher from year to year.

But as much as administrators' opinions matter to my job, I underwent 70 to 80 observations every day from individuals whose opinions also matter very much to me--my students.

Here's a fact: beneath oceans of paperwork and regulations, students can tell whether a teacher is effective or not--and honest teachers can tell as soon as the final bell rings whether they taught that period well...or not.

As I clean my room and reflect on what I have learned about teaching, I'm also reflecting on feedback I got from my English 11 Honors classes. I will share this feedback here.


Setting up the reflection (you will find the full questionaire at this link), I wanted to focus on reading units and major writing tasks. The first section dealt with the texts we read.

I wanted to see how challenged students had been by the texts I selected, so I asked them. Moreover, I wanted to figure out of students had made the connection between challenging text and better reading.

There is probably no surprise as to the most challenging texts here. Moby Dick and a reading from Their Eyes were Watching God tied for number one. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is certainly a challenging read. To be honest, I was surprised how few found The Great Gatsby challenging. Usually that unit has readers scratching their heads, but this may have been because so many had been shown the film in their history classes.

The follow-up question was most intriguing, because it gave me a look at how effective the texts had been in developing students approaches to reading--if not their reading skills in general. More than half felt that the hard work of decoding texts like Moby Dick had ben worth the effort, and another 31% had developed skills that they had practiced in reading outside of class. (One example I noticed came during the TNReady writing exam. As I paced aimlessly around the testing center, I noticed my students annotating and marking the source text. This made me very proud.)

I asked students to describe what they learned in a follow-up question. Here were some responses:

  • "In both of the texts I chose, I had a really hard time comprehending due to the language. In Moby Dick, it was really hard to understand because it was so complex. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, it was the opposite-the slang was hard to read because I am not used to seeing things written that way. I'm glad we dissected them so thoroughly."
  • "The Love Story of J. Alfred Prufrock was worth discussing and writing about to understand, because it was a very complex and interesting story. Piecing it together will help me break apart more complicated texts in the future."
  • "The challenging text I chose was Their Eyes are watching god because it uses country slang. It was worth the difficultly because the story was very good."
  • "Moby Dick is extremely hard to understand if you just skim though the text. If you really take your time to read and re-read the paragraphs then a beautiful new book takes form."
Next came questions about the strategies I taught along with the challenging texts listed above.

The strategies were evenly balanced among the catetories. I would have expected the discussions to be the most popular, but a plurality of students felt that annotating text was the most valuable skill going forward.

The second question is a real-life dilemma that I face. I'm not a big fan of The Crucible, but the other English 11 teachers and I have agreed to make it a course-wide text. The amazing thing about the responses is that the two texts chosen most often, a unit on Native Americans and one on migration, were the least-challenging texts that I assigned all semester.


The final question in reading dealt with annotation. Check this out--

Somebody get this ELA teacher a mic to drop! Ninety percent see value in the lessons I taught all semester.


I had a tough time this semester with writing. With sixty students in my two ELA classes, I had never had as many essays to grade at one time than I had this semester. It took me two weeks to grade papers, and I think that hurt my teaching.

Still, there were two new things I wanted to emphasize in my writing instruction this semester.
  1. First, after reading Assessment 3.0 last summer, I was determined not to give grades on activities. Instead, I put more emphasis on commenting on students' work and giving them feedback (this is one reason it took me so long to grade assignments.
  2. I was also determined to make the 20% Project stick this year after experimenting last year. It had proved costly to me in the inaugural run-through. My students earned me the lowest value-added teaching score I had ever learned. I reconfigured the projects to focus on the standards of Informative Writing as well as research skills. 

For this activity students used the portfolios they had created in Google Docs. I have taught with portfolios since 1996, so I had some experience to draw upon here.

First I asked students about specific skills

This was a pretty good group of writers, but one thing that stands out was the semester-long focus on research skills, and--to a smaller extent--analyzing and synthesizing evidence from texts. To think that three years ago, prior to Common Core standards, students weren't using textual evidence at all, It is intriguing to see that evidence was third in emphasis now. 

This matches what I have observed. Students are better writers today, which frees teachers like me up to focus on things like research skills and complex sentence. Win-win!

I asked students to explain which areas of their writing they had worked to improve this year. Here are some responses:
  • "I worked to support my ideas better with the text by trying to find in text something that related to me. I think I have a lot of thoughts in my head, so I just worked to see if I could find phases in the text where the ideas I have could have originated from."
  • "In my "Jeep" paper, Mr. Dittes commented that I used OK vocabulary, but I did not use any complex sentences, but in my most recent paper he commented that he loved my dashes."
  • "I had a small improvement in placing and crafting thesis statements in my writing, and I gained a significant understanding of MLA, footnotes, and endnotes. I had already known about MLA but not to the extent that I do now."
  • "I learned how to GIVITUP."
What I take from these reviews is the power of teacher comment in writing. Even though I was able to give less individual attention to classes that were packed with kids, comments could do my teaching and re-teaching for me. That means a lot, and that is one tool that I will carry forward in my teaching.

As for the 20% Project--which ended up being nine blogs, at least five of which were researched--that was addressed in one of the final questions: 

This was my best way to gauge what skills students would take forward from my class. In which writing tasks did they feel best prepared for future English classes? The 20% Blogs were cited by half the kids as adding value to their future. The second-highest task was the long argumentative essay we did this year, analyzing three pieces of women's literature, The Yellow Wallpaper, "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," and "The Story of an Hour."

Final Grades

I do an activity on the first day of school that goes over criteria I have for students and asking students to predict the grade that they will earn. This final survey gave me a chance to ask them how they had done over the long semester

Almost 90% of students had met or exceeded expectations. Follow-up questions went over specific criteria I had identified at the beginning of the semester. 

Aside: This was a strange semester. Regular snowfalls before spring break cost teachers two of the first nine weeks of teaching. Testing took out another week and a half of the second nine weeks. I chopped a unit from the first nine weeks (two weeks on whether Native Americans influenced the U.S. Constitution) and a 2 1/2-week unit from the final nine weeks (on Cormac McCarthy's The Road). I regret the teaching that I didn't have time to do.

I asked students to compare their writing in May with the initial writing task I assigned in January. Here are the results:

How grateful am I that 0% wrote that their writing was the same!

Other results show that 81% felt that they supported their ideas with textual evidence better, 71% had stronger opinions and theses, 45% had improved their punctuation (I really stress the use of semicolons, dashes and colons), and 40% used paragraphs more effectively to organize ideas and separate their conclusions from the bodies of their work.

Give Mr. Dittes a ______

At the beginning of the semester, I had also asked students to set up a rubric by which I might be judged. They had done this on the first day of school without knowing much about me (except for the four who had taken German 1 and 2 from me).

Here are my grades
(One caveat. This was not a required assignment. Forty-two of 58 students took the survey.)

Still, it was interesting to read students' responses when I asked them to elaborate on the grade they had given me:
  • "He has really prepared me for college-level English. This as always been my worst subject, but over this semester I have seen more improvement in myself than ever before."
  • "I loved the "free writing" aspect of your class. I never once felt restricted as to what I was allowed to write. That freedom really allowed my writing to take flight and excel far beyond what I thought I was capable of."
  • "He was organized and always had a lesson planned"
  • "Great teacher. Ready to teach everyday, always on time. Has a bunch of activities compared to some of my teachers."
  • "I liked this class, but sometimes the amount of work was overwhelming. Other than that, I think Mr. Dittes is a cool dude."
  • "He gave good points and was always excited about what he was teaching. He was always able to keep everyone interested and had a steady laid back pace of teaching which everyone seemed to enjoy."
  • "Doesn't give enough in class time for assignments."
  • "The criteria I wrote down for a grade of 4 was that a teacher should be passionate about what they teach. Furthermore, this genuine love for English and writing has been apparent in every lesson and unit."
  • "Mr. Dittes is one of the very few teachers who have stood out to me more than the rest of the high school teachers that I've ever had. He always offers help, his comments and critiques are helpful, and he is a very open-minded individual which I highly respect and greatly appreciate."
One student captured the critique that I would give myself, and that view deserves to be considered.
  • I did think that Mr. Dittes made my reading skills better. I know how to look for key ideas and understand what the text's point is coming across. He also made this class fun with the field trips, skits, and projects we did. However, I don't really think I did so great on my writing as my evidence and explanation as I still do pretty poorly on it. But overall, He did pretty great on teaching us and I hope you have a extraordinary summer Mr Dittes!
Writing will be a focus next year, that's for sure. Higher-quality responses and clear results are what I want to have for each and every ELA student.

How did I do? Pretty well. I had some great kids, and Station Camp High School is about to see a pretty remarkable senior class next year.

Have a great summer students. Have a great summer everyone!