Teachers, take back your power and create an amazing end to this semester!
This is the time of the year when I wonder why I didn't take a sabbatical this year. I could be in the English country side, curled up next to 17th century stone fireplace that's hung with fresh pine boughs and ribbon, sipping a steaming mug of coffee, the snow softly falling outside the window, all while writing that book I've talked about for years.
Oh, right, writing a blog here. In the real world. No time for daydreams.
This week my brain started its usual bi-annual panic that I haven't taught enough, the students haven't learned enough, and how in the world am I going to do everything I want in the next three weeks?
To make it worse, in November I went to NCTE in St. Louis. Just like last year, it was fabulous. I came back with a head full of ideas, arms full of books, and my heart full of the good so many teachers are doing in this country. To be honest, this added to my insecurity and panic.
One session by a group of teachers I call The Paper Graders because of their blog has invaded in my thinking the past two weeks. Sarah Zerwin led the group in a session called, "Stop Grading: Empower Your Students to Evaluate Their Own Learning." The room was packed. For at least the last 12 years, I have done Standards Based Grading so the idea of assessing without points wasn't new. What struck me so deeply was the amount of student empowerment in these teachers' classes. While my students grade their own portfolios based on evidence they collect each month, it often feels like they're jumping through hoops I've set up for them. What The Paper Graders were doing felt richer. Kids weren't just being asked to do literacy tasks, they were being asked to live literate lives. (For more on The Paper Graders, check out their blog. Thanks, Kate, for introducing me to this!)
Isn't this exactly what I want for my students - to live literate lives? More panic. I've failed them all, I thought.
So, I took a deep breath, and started where I always start when I'm stressed, with a list. I opened my laptop, and pulling from our unit plans and portfolio assessments, I created a list of all the learning that has taken place in our classroom this semester. My list was concrete and consisted of both learning objectives and learning tasks (like Writer's Notebook entries, reading responses, and book groups).
Labeled struggling readers for years, my class is the first one many of my students have encountered that allows them complete freedom to choose whatever they want to read, to set the pace of their reading, and that puts the burden of thinking about those texts on them. There are no worksheets or comprehension questions to complete in here. Many of my students have read more books and written more than in any year before. Their engagement, their ability to find books they like, their ability to write ideas down, and the confidence it has taken to re-engage in learning after years of failure, are huge successes. Their sense of agency has grown along side the skills and strategies they've learned.
Then I thought about what typically happens at finals time - students have to prove they can do what I say they should be able to do. And, they take the Star test again, a test of what a company decides is important that they know. And we all go home for winter break feeling drained and a little yucky, like we are so glad the semester is over, and we hope break will rejuvenate us.
But, I wondered, does it have to be this way?
Suddenly, I realized what I wanted to do: find a way to make the end of the semester an empowering, joyful celebration of what each student has accomplished in our class. Instead of just completing our usual portfolio grading, I want to give the kids time to thoroughly reflect on what they've really learned this semester - to look at the writing and other work they've collected in portfolios and Writer's Notebooks, and describe the ways they each have grown. What do they want to say about the internal changes that have happened this semester?
In this country right now, the focus is solidly on what schools are not doing, what teachers are not doing, and what our students are not doing. Success has been shackled into a narrow definition of skills a student must posses by a strictly imposed time. Teachers, too, feel imprisoned by limiting visions of good teaching and student growth that are based only on test scores. This deficit mindset is causing our schools to struggle, our teachers to struggle, and our students to pay huge costs.
But guess what? Teachers, we are awesome, powerful, trouble-making souls. When we see something that's harmful, we act. We are the hope of education in this country. We make the daily choices of how to teach the curriculum we've been handed. Our words and actions matter tremendously.
Jarred Amato and the Project LIT Community to the leaders of the San Jose Area Writing Project to all the Book Love Foundation grant winners, I saw the difference individuals can make. We see the strengths our students possess, and we refuse to sail quietly into doom. It's time to live that in all our classrooms right now.
In my classroom during the next three weeks, I plan to celebrate strengths and growth. I refuse to be limited by what others say is growth, and instead will let my students' voices loudly echo through our classroom and beyond. I can't wait to see what they have to say.
Have a beautiful Sunday!