This last week, my students have composed letters to their successors. This isn't a new activity for many of us. Although this learning activity was not designed to provide feedback on our class, it was full of their experiences and perceptions which provided me honest insights into our classroom. As I read through their letters jammed packed with conventional (and unconventional) advice, highlights from this school year, carefully worded hints for thriving in 6th grade and best wishes on an amazing year full of learning adventures, I was thrilled at their expert ability in sharing their unique voice. In their voices, I found some hidden lessons (some old, some new) waiting for me that I thought I would share. Some of it was expected....and some of it was not.
1- Cross-curricular learning topped many of their lists. As a grade level, we have planned and implemented six full-day, hands-on/simulation days, in addition to a month-long unit that led up to our Space Camp trip. My learners' writing exuded enthusiasm for the connections that they discovered which bridged the gap between content areas. This brought to mind hearing Tony Wagner say that innovation comes where content areas intersect. Innovation is a team sport dedicated to removing the boundaries of content disciples in order to create, not simply consume content. My students confirmed these ideas for me and led me to resolve to create further cross-curricular units of study in the near future.
2- Learning is active, not passive. In a great majority of their letters they described their favorite learning activities, from our Book Tasting to the Case of the Missing Teacher. They enumerated all the fun (yes, I used that "f" word) they had in their Lit Centers where they actively created, read, wrote, published, explored, discussed, and discovered new things not only about content but also about themselves, their peers, and the world around them. Their letters were overflowing with action verbs outlined what they had done during this school year.
3- Technology is a powerful tool, if used correctly. Many of the students shared some of the specific tools they used to write, publish or connect with their peers in class and worldwide. However, the one constant was what they gained from using these tools, not the actual tool. Yes, they mentioned Twitter, Instagram, Skype, Smore, Tackk, Weebly, and Google Drive (plus a host of other tools). Yet, what they valued most was the learning and connecting that transpired due to these tools. They learned how to explore new ideas, question themselves, and develop as learners. One student stated, "We have devices in class every day, but that doesn't mean we're always on it. But, they are always there when we need them to help us grow and learn."
4- Choice reigns supreme. In almost every letter to their successors, students mentioned that they had the freedom of choice...from their reading selection to their genre of writing, from their method of publishing to the goals that they set for themselves. Many of my learners shared their excitement for our Innovation Day and our class' Genius Hour. What did these have in common? The ability to pursue personal interests in a way that was meaningful for them. They had the ability to solve problems, learn new content, and create something new to share with others. As I mentioned in The Power of One Word, Choice, choice makes a world of difference to students who have had "school" done to them instead of having the control to help themselves move along their own learning continuum. This was especially evident in the letters composed by my students who are struggling students...students who (I hope) can now see the power of learning in transforming their lives.
5- Everyone's voice matters. When I conferred with my students, one observation I immediately discovered was how different each letter was. It was in the unique style and personality of each student. Several students mentioned in their letters how important blogging had been to them. Through their letters they described their journey as hesitant writers who struggled with sharing their ideas due to lack of confidence or unwillingness to put words to a screen (pen to paper). They explained that because of regular practice, encouragement, and conversations with peers, near and far, through their blogging, they realized that they had something important to say. This motivated them to join more conversations in class and through digital mediums. One student said, "I learned that I really do have the power to make a difference."
6- Habits are hard to break. Here was the surprising part of the letters. Although they mentioned the previous items, what surprised me was how often traditional advice along the lines of "complete your homework on time, don't talk during class, and study for tests to get good grades" appeared in their letters. I do not assign homework. Our classes are filled with talking with less than 10% of the time of me being in the front of the class. Most of our assessments are project based/performance assessments as students are scored according to standards mastery. So why did they include that advice for their successors? I've spent days contemplating this and I couldn't really come up with a good answer. Their advice seemed so contrary to what we've done for the last 170 something days we have been together.
Perplexed, I finally asked my students to explain. And honestly, they didn't have a great answer other than that's what they felt like needed to be included. Several students even pointed to previous experience with previous teachers who had encouraged these types of letters with that type of advice. Habits. That's what they have heard for the last six years of school. Many hear the same advice from their families. When it comes down to it, it was a knee-jerk reaction. Is any of this advice necessarily bad? No. Does it fit within the structure of our classroom? No. Do my students truly believe that this year was a break from the "reality of school"and that they will return to that traditional method next year? I hope not. My first instinct was to ask them to remove it, but ultimately I decided not to. It is their letter. Their voice. Their message. I would be taking away their voice. Their freedom. That is not something I will do.
What will I do? We will do what we've always done. We'll have an open discussion about it. We'll explore what learning really is and who they want to be as individuals. Because ultimately, like in our classroom, it really is all about them, their needs, goals, wishes, and dreams. We're just along for the ride.
photo credit: Justin in SD via photopin cc