We simply are not doing enough.
It’s that plain and it certainly is that simple. We talk about meeting standards. New revisions come out; we push more. We read the rhetoric in the news about kids falling behind or how the I-Generation is lost in a paralysis of screen time and self absorption. The standards are high and if we want to get them into the right colleges, make them tough enough, and make them have the skills that we have, we have to push them.
So, we work them. We work ourselves. Lesson plans. Homework. Grading. All of it in the name of meeting standards and getting them to the next level.
But, we forgot one thing. The standards by which our lessons are supposed to be guided by are not those written in some state education office. They are not some piece of paper with technical language or some assessment that supposedly measures them. None of that are the standards we must teach to.
The kids are the standards.
We are beholden to them and only them. They are why we show up to work everyday. We cannot forget that.
Unfortunately, the education industry has seemingly forgotten. According to the Center For Disease Control’s (CDC) latest findings, suicide rates amongst students ages 10 through 16 has increased by 70 percent during the period of 2006 through 2016. In another study, the CDC found that the suicide rate has doubled for girls ages 15 through 19 during the the period of 2006 through 2015. With suicide on the rise, anxiety at alarming levels, and students facing an inordinate amount of stress, it is clear that we have forgotten that they are the standards. (“Gateway to Health Communication & Social Marketing Practice”, 2017)
Today’s students are not weak; they are not soft. They are intelligent, creative, aware. They have passions. They have a desire to make change in the world. They stand up for themselves. One only has to look at the legions of brave young people protesting gun violence in schools to realize that this generation has a lot to say.
It is up to us, the educators, to foster that voice, listen to that voice, and provide an education that is skills based. We must arm kids with skills that will prepare them for an ever changing world. We must rid ourselves of outdated practices, eliminate unnecessary and ancient pressures. We must set a tone in our districts and our classrooms that puts kids’ voices front and center. We must value what they have to say, foster passions, focus on skill development, and be mindful of their stresses and anxieties. We must provide an environment where failure isn’t an end and the skill of revision is fostered. That environment is best cultivated when a district truly comes together with both teachers and administrators valuing students enough to care about what they have to say, teach them how to process and express their thoughts, advocate for themselves, develop opportunities for authentic work, and provide a culture where learning and well being are equally valued. If we can, our students’ well being will not only improve, but they will leave us with a more meaningful education that will prepare them for life’s inevitable challenges.
We must do more.
Those statistics about suicide rates and the mention of anxiety being at an all-time high are scary. Today’s world is different. Today’s students have infinitely more pressures on them than we acknowledge. Safety concerns, family dynamics, high academic expectations, cost of the college admissions process, the cost of going to college, the uncertain job market, and the political climate are just a few of the many pressures that are more intense for this generation.
Fact is, today’s students need much more from than “more” work. Because they come to our classrooms dealing with high pressure, life stress, and uncertainty, we must evolve in our classroom practices. The days of rote tasks, prescribed curriculum, cookie cutter assignments, and a one size fits all approach must end. In order to turn out healthy students who are ready to face the challenges of the world, we teachers must reframe how we look at our job.
I have three cornerstones of my class. First, I must establish a culture of learning, not number chasing. The grade is not the focus. The learning of skills is always the priority. So, how can I shift that focus in a world of online grading portals, a flawed and corrupt college admission process, and students feeling pressure to conform to expectations?
For an English Teacher, shifting the focus to the process is two fold. First, the writing process is just that–a process. Students need to experiment with the process of writing in order to find what works for them and, more importantly, what works in order for them to develop a strong voice capable of making an impact.
This is where the concept of the redo becomes the focus of writing and an English class. My students are permitted to rewrite a piece until they achieve the highest scores on the rubric. This allows for students to truly develop their writing. They can take chances with writing interesting hooks, incorporate different forms of argument in a piece, experiment with different structures. By removing the immediate pressure of a grade, a student can refine their voice and learn a style that best suits their strengths. Additionally, it allows for them to dive deeper into research, search for more compelling evidence, and question their sources. With more opportunities for revision, student voice becomes stronger and more intentioned.
The second cornerstone to developing student voice is allowing students to choose topics that they are passionate about. A method that values the importance of voice and choice is the QUEST Model. Question (challenge and expand your current knowledge), Understand (contextualize arguments and understand author’s claims), Evaluate (consider individual perspectives as well as big picture of an issue), Synthesize (combine your knowledge, ideas, and perspectives into an argument), and Team, Transform, Transmit (collaborate, reflect, and communicate your argument to an audience) are the pillars a classroom that wishes to put skills on the forefront, not prescribed content.
When writing or even when choosing literature to read, students are able to choose topics they are passionate about, make a claim, investigate their claim, evaluate multiple sides, incorporate their beliefs as well as the other perspectives, and then find a way to communicate and challenge their findings. My students choose their content vehicle to their mastery of skills. We are not beholden to a prescribed, one size fits all curriculum module.
Every subject area can utilize this way of exploring. Social Studies teachers can use their curriculum to have students explore issues of a time period and apply either apply an argument to that particular time period or to today’s world. Science can explore issues in the field in the same way. Even Math can show the practicality of learning concepts rather than just having students complete worksheets.
The third cornerstone is soliciting student input. After each unit, I will have students complete a feedback form that asks them about the unit. I want to know what worked and what didn’t. I want them to have a voice in their learning.
Tips For Effective Student Evaluations
- Make it anonymous
- Make evaluation questions short answer questions so students can elaborate
- Ask them what they wish we had done
- Ask them what activities they did and didn’t like
- Ask them about your teaching style
And, at least once per week, I will ask them, in class, how the current unit is going. Sometimes a simple pause and “how’s it going?” will give you some valuable insight as to what they are struggling with.
Their voice makes me better. Their voice makes the class better. Their voice empowers them as learners.
I love my job as a central office administrator; in my position as Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services I have the opportunity to change systems, to, hopefully, change hearts and minds. It should be the goal of every district leader to inspire and to invoke lasting change that will make their school system better for kids long after they leave.
The challenge that I struggle with is making a difference for specific students and families, something that as a teacher and building level administrator you have the opportunity to do on a daily basis. The yearning to interact with students, to build authentic relationships with students prompted my superintendent, Mrs. Ileana Eckert, and I to create Leadership Council in January, 2018. We both agree that it is the best thing we have done in years!
Our goal was to facilitate a diverse group of High School students with representatives from grades 9-12. This was not just honor students, but a true cross section of the student body. We designed an application via Google Forms with a flyer and brief description of the program. We were pleasantly surprised by the number of students interested in our program (over 200). We solicited the help of our Social Studies coordinator, Bill Champione, to help narrow our group down to a manageable 20 students and help us devise the sessions.
The structure is simple. The meetings open with a leadership activity, often similar activities that I use with my administrators. I have found that the students appreciate the content and complexity of thought. There is no need to dumb or numb the material. These students demonstrate, as most students will, that when you have high expectations, when you respect their ability to think, when you listen to what they have to offer, they will rise to the occasion. This fact had me contemplating why do we often feel we have to spoon feed students, provide them with a pre-prescribed recipes for success? Is it any wonder that students lose interest in school as they progress through our system? This was evident in 2015 Gallup poll that indicated that less than a third of 11th grade students felt engaged at school. (Jason, 2017)
The second and often most enlightened portion of our meeting is when we provide the students with the opportunity to speak to us about what is and what isn’t working in our schools. At first, the students seemed a bit shocked that we wanted to hear what they had to say, but once they realized they truly had our ear, we were listening, and they could trust us, the floodgates opened. We were shocked to hear that many students are truly fearful that a school shooting could be a reality in our schools. We were not as surprised to hear that they felt homework was often excessive, a waste of time, and took away from more important life and learning experiences.
I have always tried to listen to students, to have real conversations with them, but in this venue their intelligence and insights were profound. One student observed that too often students sit in class plowing through content with no opportunity to interact with classmates and build relationships with teachers. “I have had classes where I sit next to someone for an entire year without having a single conversation with them, and may not know a thing about them. Yet in the real world, when we get real jobs, won’t it be important to get to know, and team with the people we work with? Is it really that important to know all these dates, places, and people who have died 100 years ago when I don’t know anything about the person sitting right next to me?”
A profound and accurate statement that has influence the work I do with teachers and administrators.
The third portion of our meetings is where we get to work. We guide the students through various protocols that allow them to collaborate in groups, to come up with action steps to make our schools better. They have developed an anonymous survey that teachers can use to get feedback from students on how to better meet their needs. They have made school safety recommendations that have been implemented, and they have contributed to policy and practice changes in how homework is assigned. The work they do is real; their suggestions are some of the best we hear. The time we spend together is time that Mrs. Eckert and I cherish, not just because we get the opportunity to connect with students on a different level, but because they teach us how we can improve our schools.
When I ended one meeting after two hours, the students couldn’t believe that our time was over and went so fast. They said they didn’t want to leave our Board of Education room. I joked that it was because of the lunch we provided, the home baked dessert my Superintendent lovingly distributed, and the fancy name plates we had produced. The kids laughed and said all those things were great and made them feel special, but Leadership Council was their favorite thing about school because we listened to them as if they were adults and treated them like what they had to say mattered. As much as they may be getting out of this experience I know I am getting even more.
The students are the standards. By looking for ways to amplify their voice, by teaching them how, when, and why to use their voice, we are making schools powerful institutes of learning. The best educators look to increase student voice by cultivating it, providing the practical skills that students need in order to be effectively heard, showing them how, and help them understand exactly what they are championing and why. The best educators remove the red tape that often gets in the way. Our students need it and we need that for our future.
Gateway to Health Communication & Social Marketing Practice. (2017, September 15). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthcommunication/toolstemplates/entertainmented/tips/SuicideYouth.html
Jason, Z. (2017). Bored Out of Their Minds. Retrieved from https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/17/01/bored-out-their-minds
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