When I was just a wee young lad with luscious red hair, completing homework was a hoop I had to jump through in order to go outside and ride my bike or watch television. Homework always came first in my house. Once I got home from school, I sat down and did my homework. Because I viewed it as a hurdle to having fun, I rarely devoted great effort or care to the completion of my homework. I did it to get it done. In school, my teachers graded homework on the check system: A check minus meant that it did not meet the expectation, a check meant that it was done, and a check plus meant that it was done very well. Therefore, I made sure that I put forth just enough effort to earn checks consistently. That was good enough for me. My teachers never took time in class to discuss the importance of effort or what quality work looked like, and so it took me quite some time to learn the value of hard work and great effort. Not until college did I start to understand that I should care about the work I completed as it is a reflection of who I am as a person. I wish my elementary and middle school teachers had taken time to help me learn the value of effort and taking pride in my work. I wish I had cared more about the quality of work I completed when I was younger, as I feel it could have helped me grow into a stronger student sooner rather than later.
As a teacher, I try exceedingly hard on a daily basis to make sure that I provide my students with the best possible educational program so that they can more rapidly transform into the best versions of themselves. I don’t want my students feeling the way I do in 30 years because I didn’t support them in meaningful ways when they were in the fifth grade. I want my students to see the value and benefits in completing quality work in a timely manner. I want my students to constantly be challenging themselves to grow and develop as thinkers, problem solvers, mathematicians, and individuals. I want my students to leave my fifth grade classroom in June feeling as though they know how to be effective and successful students in sixth grade and beyond. I want my students to value the vital study skill of time management. I want my students to understand what quality work looks like. I want my students to strive for excellence in all areas of their life, because they are worth it.
One of the many ways I can help challenge my students to grow and develop in the classroom is to be mindfully aware of every opportunity for learning. This past week was filled with teachable moments for my students. On Tuesday, my students had a large assignment due. They had been working on it since the middle of the previous week. They had to hand-draw a tri-layered map of the Silk Road region. As they had already completed a similar assignment during a prior Social Studies unit, my students knew how this complex assignment was to be completed. Before the previous weekend, I had informed a few students that they would need to spend some time over the weekend working on the task so that they would not have hours of homework on Monday evening. I contacted parents to let them know what I had asked of them, as fostering strong school-family relationships is crucial. On Tuesday morning, only three students turned in their completed maps at the start of class. At first, I felt frustrated. Why did many of my students not complete the only homework assignment they had last night? After I processed my feelings of anger and frustration during our mindful meditation in Tuesday’s Morning Meeting, I had an epiphany. My students are only fifth graders. How can I expect fifth graders to be perfect and do everything just so? The fifth grade is a year filled with growth and opportunities to practice study skills. As I began to accept the fact that my students need to fail in the fifth grade in order to learn vital study and life skills so that they are more effectively prepared for the sixth grade, a sense of serenity consumed me. I shouldn’t be frustrated, but instead, I should feel elated that I have another opportunity to help my students learn the value of time management and great effort.
So, instead of beginning Social Studies class that day lecturing my students on the value of hard work and how disappointed I am that many of them did not complete the homework, I started class by explaining how fifth grade is a time of learning and development. “I expect that many of you will fail in certain ways throughout the year so that you have the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and grow as a student,” I told them. This seemed to shock a few of the students, as their eyes grew big. “Why is this crazy man telling us that he wants us to fail,” they were probably thinking. I then had students share why they were unable to complete the homework assignment. I listed their many reasons on the board. I made sure to explain to the students that while this year I am referring to their rationales for being unable to complete the map task as reasons, the sixth grade teachers will view their reasons as excuses next year. “Use this opportunity as a chance to learn the importance of budgeting your time effectively,” I said to my students. I then had the students brainstorm possible ways they could prevent these same reasons allowing them to not complete their homework in the future. The students suggested wonderful ideas such as asking for help, making a plan or time schedule of how and when they would accomplish various parts of a task, and using their free time more effectively. It was a very insightful discussion, which I feel benefited the students well. They seemed to all understand the importance of completing their work by pre-set due dates. Later in the week, I gave the students another chance to practice this skill of time management.
The students began working on the final project for our unit on the Silk Road in class on Wednesday. Before they began working in class, I had each student create a daily schedule of the work they will complete so that they can be sure they are finished by the deadline of next Thursday. I had the students briefly write what part of the project they will work on each day in class and for homework outside of class. On Thursday and Friday, I began and concluded each Social Studies class by having the students review and update their daily work schedule. Did the students complete what they had intended to do for homework the night before or in class that day? If not, they revised their schedule to reflect the reality of the situation. This has seemed to really help many of the students stay on track with this complex and large final project. No one is falling behind, as they had on the previous mapping task. I am hopeful that this time management task will help the students be and feel successful next week when their final project is due. I intend to debrief the entire project and schedule task with the students in class next Thursday so that they are able to see the value in effectively managing their time regarding academic tasks and assignments.
As I assessed the mapping assignment when all of my students had finally completed and turned in their work, I realized that many of the students failed to meet the graded objective. Why is that? Were they rushing? Did they not understand what to do? As they had all been able to meet this same objective a few months ago with a similar assignment regarding ancient Mesopotamia, I knew that they understood how to complete the assignment. So, was it that they were not as engaged or didn’t care about this unit? They seemed to really like learning about the Silk Road when we began this unit, and so I don’t believe that engagement was an issue. Then what was it that caused many of the students to turn in work that lacked effort and did not display fine quality?
During Thursday’s Morning Meeting, I took time to share my findings with the class. I explained how the quality of work that many of the students completed was low and lacking effort. I discussed the value of holding the bar high for themselves and completing only work of which they are proud. I reminded them that while they have the opportunity to redo work in the fifth grade, they may not have this same opportunity in sixth grade and beyond. I want my students to value hard work and put forth more effort in reviewing their work against the requirements before turning it in so that they are handing in their best possible work. They seemed to understand what I was saying, but only time will tell. Plus, they are only fifth graders and have plenty of time to continue learning the value of completing quality work.
I’m hopeful that these two mini-lesson chats helped my students begin to see the benefits in completing quality work in a timely fashion. Next Thursday will be telling; however, even if not every student turns in a high-quality final project on time, I am confident that they are still learning and working out the kinks of the challenging skill of time management. Learning to be an effective student is an on-going journey full of failures and successes. While my journey to understanding the value in effective time management and challenging myself to complete quality work took longer than I wish it had, I did eventually learn these vital skills, as all of my students will too one day.