Have you ever tried something new and realized you made a huge mistake? I’m sure we’ve all been down that road before. I was completely convinced, due to their fantastic marketing campaign, that the new ice cream brand with the chocolate shell around the outside was going to be my new go-to dessert treat. Unfortunately, it was a bust. The ice cream lacked genuine flavor and the shell was super difficult to scrape away from the walls of the container. I went out on a limb, only to have it crack and fall away from me. That’s life though, right. We take risks every day when we leave our dwellings. Roof tiles could fly off and hit us. We could be in a car accident. We could trip and fall down a hole leading to Narnia. Good things can also come our way on a daily basis. We could buy a scratch ticket and win thousands of dollars. We could rescue a puppy. The sun could shine and remind us of how lucky we are to be alive. Life is a gamble. We just try our best to get by and do what we believe is right for us and the world. We never really know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We should live our lives to the fullest each and every day. We should take risks and try new things whenever possible. Sure, some of those risks will not pay off and in turn be mistakes, but that’s how we learn. We learn by making mistakes, by failing. I learned how to ride my bike by falling off of it 17,000 times. I still have the scars on my left knee to prove it. We need to break free of our comfort zone and embrace life. Some days will be hard, really hard. Some choices we make may result in tears or loss, but the best things in life are only the best because the journey to acquire them is long and arduous. If I had learned to ride my bike on the first try, I would not have spent every waking moment each summer on it. Because learning to ride a bike was challenging, when I finally did learn, it so amazing. My perseverance and quest were what made it so sweet. So, even if that one new thing you try doesn’t work out as expected, don’t give up, just, as Joe Dirt once said, “Keep on keepin’ on.”
As a teacher, I have to embrace new ideas and risks on a daily basis if I want to be the best teacher for my students. I need to try new approaches and practices in the classroom to best support and help all of my students. What works with one student may not work with another. How I teach a unit one year may be really effective, but it might not work the next year due to the students in my class. I need to be flexible, adaptive, and open to trying new things. Talk about a Growth Mindset. Great teachers must always possess that “I can” attitude. We can’t crumble under the mountain of work we have to do each and every day. We can’t walk away when things become difficult in the classroom or during a parent conference. We keep going and going like the Energizer bunny, until we have helped all of our students taste and feel success. Yes, some days are tough. The emotional scars our students have would shock most ordinary folk who do not work with children. As teachers and caregivers, we need to face this baggage head on. We need to help our students learn and grow in the face of adversity. We need to fight the good fight no matter how hard it may be. But isn’t that why we became teachers? To help students? To help them see the light at the end of the struggle? Indeed it is. We didn’t get into education because we thought it was going to be easy. We got into the teaching profession to make a difference, to struggle, to be uncomfortable, to try new things, to fail, and to have fun. When our students smile because they finally understand a challenging concept or realize that they can do something they thought impossible, it makes the journey totally worthwhile.
To help my students gauge their progress in the fifth grade, I provide them with feedback on their effort, focus, and attitude in the classroom on a daily basis. I want my students to know what they do well and what they still need to work on to improve. Life and learning are non-stop adventures. We can always grow and improve. I want my students to know and understand how they are progressing in school. I want them to see that their choices impact themselves and others. I want them to know the great things they do. I also want them to understand that mistakes are opportunities for learning. So, I enter a grade and much specific feedback on Google Classroom for the students to see each and every day. This process takes about 15 to 20 minutes each afternoon or evening. I have found that it really helps the students know the expectations as well as ways they can improve, especially during the first few weeks of the year.
While most of the students read this feedback quite regularly during the start of the school year, they stop checking their daily effort grade and feedback after a few months. Despite the great advice that lives in these comments they receive each day, the students only find them useful for a short period of time. Does that mean they no longer need the feedback? Do they know themselves as learners in two months and can draw their own conclusions about how they are doing in school? Why do some of the students stop checking their grades and feedback? So, I began thinking of new ways to provide my students with feedback on their progress, and that’s when it hit me like a sack of Honey Crisp apples. At our school, we empower our students to own their learning. Our goal for students who graduate from the Beech Hill School is that they will know themselves as learners. They will understand their strengths and weaknesses, and have strategies to address challenges faced in and out of the classroom. They will be self-reliant and independent young people who are reflective and thoughtful. But, does that happen by having teachers tell them how they are doing in their classes? No, they learn to advocate for themselves and truly understand how to continue to learn and grow. They ask questions and seek guidance on their own. That’s when I realized that if I want my students to get to that point by the time they graduate the eighth grade, I need to change my practice of giving them feedback. I can’t steal their thinking. I need to help them learn how to think for themselves and self-assess. I need my students to learn how to know themselves as students and learners. I need them to see their strengths and weaknesses. By providing them feedback on all of these things, I’m preventing them from being able to do so on their own. Perhaps that’s why they stop reading them, because they see no value in the empty feedback I am giving them. So, what if I turn the tables and have my students provide themselves with feedback on their progress? Ownership is something we value at our school. Do fifth graders really have the metacognition needed to genuinely know how they are doing in school? Perhaps some of them might. How do they learn to be aware of themselves as students if we don’t allow them to practice? What if I scaffold the process in the fifth grade? And that is just what I did last week. I moved away from me providing them with feedback and transformed it into a dialogue.
Throughout the day, the students self-assessed themselves on their effort, focus, and progress in each class or activity last week. They made notes on paper they kept on their desks or in their pockets. At the close of each day, the students checked in with me to review their progress. They shared their self-reflection and self-assessment with me. In most cases they were spot on. They were able to see what I saw. They really do understand themselves as students and learners. These conversations were very quick and short. I agreed with the student and asked them what they need to work on for the following day. Once or twice though, a student’s perspective was slightly askew and so they needed guidance in how to accurately understand their strengths and weaknesses. These were the fun conferences because they forced me to brainstorm specific and meaningful ways to help them understand their struggles or successes in the classroom. I have one student who doubts her abilities in Math. She doesn’t believe that she is a strong Math student, when in reality she is quite strong. Because she had negative experiences in Math at her past school, her self-esteem in regards to Math is very low. I’m working to help her believe in herself and see the strength she has within to do great things in Math. Even these longer conversations took no more than two minutes to conduct. I would share my insight with the student and ask them what they need to work on for the next day. That was that.
While it’s only been one week, I feel as though turning the process over to the students has made a difference. They are now owning their learning and choices, as they have to summarize and discuss their daily progress with me. They have to admit their struggles and areas of success to me each afternoon. The students seemed to be more thoughtful in the classroom towards the end of the week, I believe, because of this new feedback method. Who wants to admit, aloud to their teacher, that they were completely rude and disrespectful in class or unfocused? The students want to share positive things and so they are working towards being more focused, thoughtful, and mindful in the classroom so that the conferences are short, concise, and positive. Will they always be that way? Of course not, because life happens. No one is perfect and students will have bad days, as will their teachers. Some conferences may be difficult for the students, but they will most definitely be useful and helpful for them to learn how to be self-aware of themselves as students. I’m really liking that I took a risk and tried something new to better support and help my students continue to learn and grow.