In school, we had these yearly athletic competitions to see who could do the most push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups. Being the very unathletic type that I am, I was never able to do a full pull-up. The bar was just too high and I was never strong enough to reach it by pulling. No one ever challenged me to do a pull-up and I wasn’t strong enough to reach the bar with my chin. I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the support system in place. There was no encouragement or purpose. Why should I even try to do a pull-up? In college, I wanted to get in top physical shape. So, I worked out in the gym on campus daily. They even had a pull-up bar. Once I had been working out for several weeks, I tried my luck at the pull-up bar. Sure enough, I could do it. I had focus and a purpose. I wanted to be strong to stay fit. With a reason to be in shape and the gym to support me, I did what I needed to do. The bar was within my reach then.
As a teacher, I hold the bar high for my students. My expectations are rigorous and high. I know my students can meet the demands placed on them with support and encouragement. I tell them from the start of the year how they will be graded and assessed so that they know what is expected of them. We use a standards-based grading system on a 4-point scale in the sixth grade. I then tell them why we grade in this manner. The students need to acquire certain skills and be able to complete particular tasks in order to matriculate into seventh grade. Our grading system provides the students with the opportunity to challenge themselves, redo work that does not meet the standard being graded, and receive extra help and support throughout their academic journey. In my classroom, education is not about getting the grade, but about comprehending the material and being able to apply, synthesize, analyze, and evaluate it. For most units covered throughout the year, the students have options and choices when completing work that demonstrates their ability to meet or exceed the graded objective. I want the students to be engaged with what they are learning about and find it relevant. If they choose how they display their ability to meet the standard, they will have more buy-in and care about what they are learning. While the bar is high as it is difficult to analyze and synthesize information and knowledge, with support and choice, the students can easily reach the bar and in most cases hop right over it.
Today in Science, the students completed work on the Biodiversity Unit as they finished addressing and answering the five Evaluation Phase questions. I told the students this is the Test for the unit. I need to be sure they learn what they need to know to be prepared for seventh grade Science. During the class period, I meandered through the classroom talking with the students about their work. I read over many of the answers the students had devised and asked them questions to poke and prod at their understanding of Biodiversity. I want them to be sure they show all that they know about the material covered and how it applies to them and their world. I offered some advice to a few of the students as well. Some of the boys asked specific questions, which I either answered or put back on them. I really want the students to realize that many of the questions they ask can be answered by them or with the help of a peer. When I did offer feedback to the students today, I noticed that many of them applied it and changed their work based on the suggestions provided. Although several students said, “I’m done,” during class today, nobody finished the Evaluation Phase in class because I held the bar high and wouldn’t allow them to settle for the bare minimum of meeting the learning target. I know all of my students can exceed my expectations for the course. They just need to prove that to themselves sometimes.
In some cases the challenge can be by choice and sometimes the teacher needs to propose the challenge and support the students as they journey towards the next step in their academic career. The focus should always be on the skills and the students’ understanding of these skills and their ability level. We need to help our students demonstrate their true potential at all times. I like to do this by asking questions and forcing the boys to think about the material or content in new and creative ways. A lot of what we teach in the sixth grade is directly related to problem solving. If the students know how to creatively and effectively solve problems, they will find much success in all of their classes. The bar needs to be held high for real learning and success to happen. Students don’t learn without a struggle. However, we as the teachers, need to be there to help give them a boost up to the bar so that they can reach it and realize that they can do it. Education is a team sport.