As students return to school in the fall, they’re not the only ones full of curiosity about what the year will hold. Teachers see it as a new beginning as well. We reflect on the children we’ve sent on their way, and think about how we can revise our strategies and improve our instruction in order to give a new group of students a rich and meaningful experience in our classroom. During these first few weeks of school, I think about what I might do differently, what didn’t work, and what can be improved upon. But I also consider what I did right and how I can take that knowledge and continue to transform the learning experiences of my students.
The last two years gave me an unusual perspective on this kind of reflection. In a practice that’s not standard at my school--though it can be at others--I kept the same class for two years, teaching the same students in both fourth and fifth grades. Looping, or teaching the same group multiple years in a row, allowed me time to craft stronger relationships with my students, but also gave me a chance to focus more on developing their thinking skills rather than simply advancing them toward the next grade level.
Under the traditional system of one year per set of students, I had grown accustomed to a certain level of frustration with how much time I spent during the first few months of school simply reintroducing basic learning skills. But given a second year with my class, I was able to instill productive work habits and teach useful skills early on and then reinforce them during the next two years. Once we’d solidified some basic skills, we were able to move toward analyzing richly layered, complex materials; using hands-on approaches to relevant learning; and applying rigorous thinking in all content areas. Those core instructional elements led us as a class to discussions that went beyond the usual skill and strategy questions that students are accustomed to (e.g., “Where did this story take place?” or “What was your favorite part of the text?”). Instead of focusing on literal examinations of material, we considered how a text worked and what it meant on a deeper level. For example, after reading Pat Mora’s poem “Words Free as Confetti,” we spent time understanding how words impact our lives, and analyzing how authors develop tone and mood through their selection of words or through precise uses of literary devices. And instead of assigning the usual essays--about whether we should allow students to chew gum in class, for instance--we considered issues of real relevance to their lives, in assignments that required students to consult multiple sources and employ persuasive devices to argue points on issues affecting the world.
More rigorous standards and elevated expectations result in dramatic changes to the kind of activities that students engage in on a daily basis. Instead of giving students worksheets where they practiced identifying examples of figurative language, we worked together to analyze real, authentic text and how authors use language to make a point, and we examined the effect these decisions had on us as readers. Rather than doing endless worksheets on memorized math facts, we read articles that presented real-world conundrums and used our knowledge of math practice and textual evidence to reason our solutions. And instead of simply reading excerpts from textbooks about historical events, we gathered photographs, journals, advertisements, and other primary documents and used them to construct time lines that connected events across time and cultures. I didn’t just tell my students that I had higher expectations for them--I showed them through the material we encountered and how they needed to think in order to access it deeply.
Our collective interest in using rich text for authentic analysis was a fundamental shift in the kind of learning my students became equipped for. Rather than being “doers” my students were really becoming “thinkers.” Witnessing this contrast, teaching and learning using college and career readiness standards, while also pursing in-depth professional learning opportunities about the new standards, has inspired me to make key instructional changes in my classroom as this new year begins. I won’t have the luxury of looping again, so my challenge is to accomplish the same shift in only one year. In the coming year, I hope to to excite my students with discussion, challenge them with tasks and activities that are truly cognitively demanding and relevant, and ultimately to craft a new group of original thinkers. I know now more than ever the value and the potential of raising my expectations for students. Higher standards shouldn’t just be a hope for some kids, but instead should be a fundamental element of every child’s public education. Every student deserves the opportunity to spend their school days engaged in work--and in work that’s worth doing.