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Kids Matter… Their Thoughts, Their Feelings, Their Work

As a teacher, my job is to facilitate learning. I am there to help students discover new ideas and create work they are proud to show and inspired to share. My responsibility is to prepare them for the future AND to ensure they enjoy their present days.

 
Ideas, time, and space are needed for kids to feel like they can produce products that matter. After finishing literature circles, kids were given choice of final projects and partners. Mrs. K and I allowed our kids to collaborate with kids from other classes. Their projects spilled out into a mix of workspaces: our classrooms, the hallways, outdoors, the library, a spare room across the hall, and on one crazy day the cafeteria. The greatest joy of teaching: hearing kids excitedly coming together to create.
 
There is a saying teachers get asked more questions than any other job, and I think this might be true. The other day, I tried to see how many times I could answer in the affirmative.
 
Yes, you may work there.
Yes, you may use that.
Yes, that is a GREAT idea!
 
Each day it is important that we give students authentic learning opportunities. As a mom, I know, my daughter’s work I keep is the work she creates. As a teacher, I want my students to have as many chances to produce as possible. Kids matter… their thoughts, their feelings, their work. If as educators, we are only pushing through tedious tasks because we are “preparing children for the future,” we are missing the point of education. Education is meant to inspire, uplift, and empower us as a people. What lives are we preparing our students for if drudgery is the means to the end? Life is not in the future; it is NOW and nobody understands that better than children.
 
“We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.”
  ~Stacia Tauscher

  

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Based on the novel Double Dutch, these boys created a board game about how to survive on your own, like the character Randy did in the book.

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These students wrote, acted, and directed a script based on the book The Uglies.

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Two girls hard at work making a children's book based on the novel Romiette and Julio.

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A collage depicting the novel Romiette and Julio along with a paragraph explaining the text. Work is always more fun when you are creating with a friend.

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Kids had the option to create on-line projects or use the computer to facilitate their work. These girls were searching for on-line images that could help illustrate their collage.

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When Life Interupts Your Pacing Guide, It May Be a Moment to Remember

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Every teacher has something called “The Pacing Guide.” This is a document we design at the start of the year that outlines the curriculum and how we intend to cover it. When teachers get stressed, it sometimes has to do with the pressure of the pace. Snow days, picture days, sick days all throw off the efficiency of how fast we move through the curriculum.

Sometimes pacing guides are helpful because they keep us on track. For example, before we can take the kids to see a real Shakespeare play; we have to study the play, which means that the literature circles we are running must be wrapped up at a certain time. Other times they trap us, “WHAT!? There is a last minute school wide assembly!? I don’t care if the kids are going to love it, how am I supposed to finish my lesson on incorporating dialogue effectively!?” Silly yes, but all teachers have “those” moments when we hold so tightly to our curriculum that we lose the moment.

This is what I try to live by… the curriculum is NEVER as important as the child. But sometimes in the era of testing and teacher accountability, it is easy to get caught up in pace of the curriculum… teach, test, repeat. We all need to breathe and relax because the kids are just that… kids. They are going to forget pencils and homework; they are going to need to talk with a guidance counselor about a fight with a friend; they are going to want to go outside on the first pretty day of spring even if it isn’t scheduled on the “pacing guide.”

This week a young man in my class got gum stuck in his hair. As a teacher, I could have made him feel badly by scolding him from detracting from the lesson on essay writing, or I could have said that tried and true teacher statement, “See, this is why we don’t chew gum in school.” Instead, pausing the lesson,  I sent students out on missions for peanut butter and a fine tooth comb. It took about 15 minutes, but we got it all out. As the young man smiled and thanked me for helping him, I thought this will be one thing he will remember about 6th grade language arts. Because gum getting stuck in your hair, a teacher willing to help, and classmates laughing at a pause in learning, trumps writing an essay.

As we move through the school year, it is important to cover the curriculum, but I think it is more important to value and honor childhood. When my students leave me, I know I will have taught them intro phrases, comma placement, and dialogue rules. I will expose them to the writings of Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. My students will study a Shakespeare play and my all time favorite middle school novel Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. Before they leave me, they will know many Latin and Greek roots, and they will write creative stories, letters, essays, and poetry. However, twenty years from now, I don’t know if it will be remembered that all that learning took place. The pacing guide will be covered, and for the most part, kids will retain the information, but I don’t think it will necessarily be linked to me or my class. Instead, it is going to be the moments they remember: a fierce kickball game, a joke we shared, a time I helped with a personal problem.

Yep, I’m convinced, gum in the hair will be the memory of 6th grade for my one young student, and it wasn’t even on my pacing guide.

“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” ~Maya Angelou

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Self-Reflection and Final Grades

When teachers feed kids all the “right answers,” we rob them the joy of discovery. When teachers give kids strict outlines of what an “A” looks like, we make them fearful to risk trying something a new way. And when teachers make grades the sole reason for work, we steal from students the internal motivation to create.

After our last set of class projects, I let the kids grade their own work with little help from me. Each student had to self-reflect on their assignment and then defend their grade. In general, students gave themselves fair assessments. A few kids were overly critical of their own work, which led to discussions about mistakes being okay when creating. In fact, true learning often comes from failure to do something right the first time. On the flip side, a few kids were too ready to give themselves an A, without reasons to support the grade. For those students, we had talks about how to look at your own work with fresh eyes. Overall, I felt students were accurate in their self-assessments, and I valued the thoughts they recorded about their work.  With rare exception, students received the grade they requested for themselves.

Self-reflection is a powerful skill. As a teacher, I constantly think about how things can be better for the next group. I don’t wait for somebody else to tell me how to improve my lessons; I do it for myself. As teachers work to make kids more independent thinkers, we need to give them the tools to self-evaluate. Helping students share their thoughts about their work is important. Educators need to equip students to be self-reliant learners and risk-takers, because they deserve chances to create and reflect about the things they produce without fear of the final grade.

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