I heard recently (ashamed I don’t remember the source) that we need to stop saying “best” practices. We should be focusing on “better” practices, as what is “best” today may not be best for the children we teach in the future. With that in mind, we need to continue to be on the lookout for teaching practices that we feel are right and good for the children we have in front of us on a day-to-day basis.
I have the utmost respect for elementary school teachers. Just how do they teach ALL the subjects every day? They should have six plan periods! Then I think about the secondary school teachers who are “held more accountable” because many of those students are going on to college. They are pressured to help students be “college-ready” and they still need to fit in all of their curriculum – especially math teachers! Yikes! Looking at both ends of the spectrum, I feel grateful to be “in the middle” at 7th grade.
No matter what age we teach, there is pressure. Mandates from “on high,” parents breathing down our backs, students with difficulties we cannot even imagine in this day and age. No matter all this, my students always come first. When it comes to creating a culture of learning in our classrooms, we all need to make time for what we believe is right and good.
For me as an ELA teacher, when it comes to content, this means providing time for students to read. Read consistently (every day!), read widely, read what others are reading, listen to someone else read, and sometimes read again and again, with new lenses. This means providing time for students to write. Write consistently (every day!), write lists, write about themselves, write about others, write about what they read, write their own opinions and ideas, and write with the intent to publish for a broad audience.
My students are often stressed. Why should I add to this? One way they become stressed is when it comes to grades. Each tiny mark or point could make or break their day. Students often ask to check the online gradebook the period after a test “to see if she updated grades yet.” They’ll check three times in my own class period. Where is their mind when I’m trying to have them focus on learning? On a grade. For me, doing what’s right and good means getting rid of the marks and points. I don’t want to leave my students’ grade to a computer who happens to only know how to average whatever I put in. It doesn’t matter to the calculator that the revised piece of writing the student turned in is ten times better than the first “polished piece.” No. Teachers need to replace that mark themselves. Instead of doing this, I go one step further. I only provide narrative (often in the form of a screencast video) feedback. You’ve been there – once students see a mark or points, they often ask, “Why did I get this grade?” without even glancing at the written feedback. Or worse – they toss the grade in the circular file after they see the single letter or number on the top. I’d like for my students to improve their work – not “get a better grade.” I’d like for them to focus on the learning, so I have to focus on it first. Doing so not only alleviates stress and pressure but encourages students to use feedback from peers and me to improve their work.
I’ve read reports that show that students’ engagement in school wanes the older they get. I believe part of this is due to relevance. There’s a joke I’ve heard… The middle school math student asks the teacher, “When am I going to need this in real life?” The teacher responds, “When you’re helping your middle schooler with his homework.” I am aware of many teachers trying to make their curriculum more relevant to students, and I believe this is another piece of the puzzle in developing a culture of learning in the classroom. Who is the audience for their work? If it is only the teacher, most likely the work is not so relevant. Instead of saying “Turn it in,” we should be saying, “Publish it!”
When it comes to trust and the development of humanity, this means taking time in class when students dictate. When they walk into the room and some congregate in a corner to discuss an issue that’s important to them, take the time during class to discuss it. If the topic is a heated one, ask students to first write down their thoughts. When they share, every child should have a voice, and writing thoughts first helps with this. This time is perfect for practicing how to have a discussion. Practice points include listening, responding with respect, body language, eye contact, and word choice. (What adults couldn’t use more practice with this?)
To create a culture of learning in the classroom, substitute feedback in lieu of points and marks, make classwork as relevant to your students as possible and provide time for students to practice the skills you believe are right and good for them to succeed, such as discussions of all kind. It’s okay to be vulnerable by letting students know you don’t know everything, and we should all learn together. Keep the conversations going about what is right and good for children!