Meditations on a Cogen • Post-School Year Reflections

During the 2021-22 school year I’m having weekly co-generative dialogues (or cogens) with my students. In an effort to help me process these talks and document progress, I summarize and write reflections after each cogen. This is the 28th and final post in the series.

As the last post in this series, here are my final reflections and takeaways on my experiences holding weekly cogens this school year. A lot happened. There is a lot to think about.

Time
A primary concern I had at the start of the year was time. Last year — my first year holding cogens — fitting cogens into my schedule was a breeze. But with the rigid agenda of a traditional school year returning, how could I make time to hold weekly cogens?

In the end, I worried about time often this year, but not in the way I originally thought. Finding time for my cogens turned out not to be an issue. I simply built them into my schedule and prioritized them over other demands. In October, we adopted Thursdays after-school as our meeting time and, other than a few exceptions, it stayed that way. Given the 23 students who were part of the cogen, it was shocking that our meeting time didn’t need to change.

The bigger issue was student attendance. I constantly racked my brain about it. Would the students show? How many would remember? Though I reminded the students about our sessions regularly, I asked myself these questions every week (mainly during the first few weeks of a cohort). Surely, the chemistry of certain cohorts made them less prone to forget about sessions. But because cogens were new for my students, I wasn’t sure how serious they would take them. Attendance each week felt like a crapshoot.

Maintaining interest
Even when some kids forgot about the cogen, however, the future of the cogen was never in doubt. What kept my students coming back week after week? Perhaps it was the 5% extra credit they got for attending, but I doubt it. On an exit survey, 86% of cogen students reported that they would “Definitely” or “Probably” still have joined without the extra credit. (Many also confirmed this during the cogens themselves.) Several students praised my having snacks for them. At the end of a long day, it was nice to have something to munch on. Many others said that being heard and helping the class were big draws for them. On why they decided to join and keep attending, here are student comments that I found to be representative:

  • Because you’re a teacher willing to ask us for help instead of the other way around.
  • I saw it as a great chance in not only helping myself but also helping my classmates.
  • Mainly just to see what it was about.
  • The manner in which you approached me about it made me feel special.
  • I liked how we all got a say in whatever we were discussing. Even for the quiet ones, you would always invite them into the convo for feedback.

Class Improvements
Cogens are just conversations if they don’t result in action to improve the class. I’m proud of the class improvements we made this year. They were diverse and met the moment. In a year where we all were searching for answers, my cogen delivered. Some improvements we made included:

  • Developing DeltaMath goals to motivate the class (link)
  • Creating DeltaMath exam reviews (link)
  • Changing exam review strategies (link)
  • Holding in-class “DeltaMath days” (link)
  • Group quizzes (link)
  • Ungraded, “feedback” quizzes (link)
  • Restructuring after-school tutoring (link)
  • Key revisions of the metacognitive journal assignment (link)

Other ideas we had came up short. For example, the “Weekly Planner” we devised back in December was good in theory, but had no staying power. I used it for a week and then ditched it. I’ve learned that if my cogen is productive, then many of the solutions that get brought up will fail or simply never get implemented.

Coteaching
About halfway through the year, the cogens began striving for more. It wasn’t enough to simply talk about improvement; the cogens themselves had to be the change. Thus, the cogens evolved to be a space where we planned and taught lessons together. We accomplished this three times during the year. The first was a game of Bingo. For the second, we created an original board game called Infinite Levels. The third was a lesson that introduced rational exponents.

Each lesson took effort and took 3-5 cogens to make a reality, but I found designing, planning, and teaching alongside students exciting. Sure, my students don’t have the experience or command that I do, but that’s what made our partnership work so well. They delivered fresh, practical, and student-forward ideas about content and pedagogy that were often in my blindspot.

Looking forward to next year, the success of our coteaching leaves me wondering: How do my current instructional routines limit my students’ potential for taking ownership of their own learning? What inherent constraints have I placed on their learning without even knowing it? How might coplanning and coteaching with my students break the glass ceiling that exists in my classroom?

The development “on-demand” cogens
In the spring, the consistency and progress of my weekly cogens inspired me to create a multi-day lesson using a series of “on-demand” cogens. Based on the lesson, which was rooted in the historical mistreatment of farmers of color, I recruited particular students who I knew could support the design of the lesson. We met three times over the course of two months. There were so many layers to the lesson that I wrote blog posts after each cogen to help me sort it all out.

The cogens proved to be invaluable not only to the lesson itself, but also to my understanding of cogens and how to employ them. For the last two years, my cogens only happened weekly and were standard issue. While weekly cogens are now a mainstay for me, this new, “on-demand” variety of cogen helped me see how to use cogens to address specific needs in the classroom in a more spontaneous and nimble way.

Next Year
For my weekly cogens, there are two changes I’m looking to implement next year. First, I’m going to make them slightly longer. On the exit survey, many students said they wished the cogens were 45 minutes instead of 30. Increasing our meeting time would enable us to talk about more, hear more perspectives, and get more done. I wasn’t pinched for time this year, but still felt guilty asking the students for more than a half-hour each week. But given their feedback, it seems they desired a longer cogen too.

Second, I’m going run the cogens without offering extra credit. With the cogen culture that I know is possible, I want to try developing it without holding a carrot in front of my students. By offering them extra credit, not only am I inflating their grades (however little it may be), but I may also be assuming that they won’t attend without it. Besides, both last year and this year, most students told me in-person and reported on the exit survey that they would have attended the cogens without extra credit. Removing the carrot will be a big jump for me, as I use extra credit as a the cherry on top when selling the cogen to students, but I’m confident it‘ll work out. I hope this doesn’t blow up in my face.

What if…
The lasting impact of my cogens on my practice lies in how they systematically marry my knowledge of teaching to the learning profiles of my students. Cogens help me tailor my pedagogy to my students, empower them, and keep them engaged in learning. I do wonder, however, how much more impactful my cogens would be if I weren’t the only teacher doing them at my school. Whenever the makeup of my cogens changed, which was about every six weeks, onboarding the new kids took considerable thought and energy. As the year went on, this took away from the cogen’s effectiveness.

But what if cogens were normalized across all (or most) subjects and classes at my school? What if students were routinely a part of cogens with other teachers? This would mean that wherever students go in my school, they would already understand the purpose of cogens. They would know the different forms cogens can take (they need not only happen after class, like mine do). They would be well-versed in how to support their teachers in building community and making learning meaningful.

I don’t think this is a lot to ask of my school. A belief in cogenerative dialogues and a willingness to pilot them in our professional development plan is all it would take. This would give cogens the opportunity to take hold in others’ classrooms, give students the opportunity to be heard, and ultimately have a say in what happens in the classroom. By normalizing these nontraditional academic spaces for students, it would also make everyone’s cogens stronger.

The posts
Since this is the last post in the Meditations series, commenting on all these posts seems fitting. Despite a recent ChalkBeat article that references them, I’m pretty sure these posts were boring to the average reader. They were long-winded, unpolished, and sloppy. Yet, despite being off the cuff, I thoroughly enjoyed firing up WordPress after each week’s cogen and pouring myself into a new Meditations post. It was stimulating and reflective. Long after the students left, the posts helped me replay the cogens and make sense of what we discussed. Many weeks, I actually listened to the audio recording of a given cogen as I wrote.

In what was a long, tiring school year, I’m glad I followed through on my commitment to these posts. They will no doubt be a resource for me in the years ahead.

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