As mentioned in 6 Lessons Confirmed (& Learned) from My Students, my students wrote letters to the rising 6th graders. The letters, though full of sound advice, humor, and their unique voices, included recommendations that seemed dissonant to the classroom learning environment that we had created. My learners recommended things like "complete your homework on time, don't talk during class, and study for tests to get good grades."
The day after I wrote that post, we sat in a large circle (in each of my classes) and I explained to them my desire to be the best teacher possible for all of my students. I continued by asking them to give me honest feedback to the questions that I still had. I talked a lot about perceptions and how many times we can think we are doing one thing when in reality we are doing something different. Students chimed in with their understanding of those types of experiences.
I knew that they all understood the power of honest feedback because we had been engaged in that type of learning environment for the entire year. I also knew that I needed to be open to listening and accepting whatever they shared with me. To be honest, I was a bit nervous because my students' insights are the ones that I value most. We have spent a year learning together. They know sound educational practice. They regularly cut through "fluff" to get to the heart of a matter. They know how to analyze and question. Now, I'm asking them to turn all of that to answer a few of my questions about our learning environment and my teaching practice.
As we talked they were brutally honest, but kind. I learned that much of what they had written as advice was not about our specific class, but about the overall grade level. They shared what they loved about our class: having freedom and a voice in their learning, small group instruction to support/challenge each student where he/she needed, assessments they always felt prepared for and never surprised by content, the ability to share their thoughts and ideas with others.
Then they shared what they didn't love: "Mrs. Ramsay, since we spiral within our standards and gradually get harder as we work towards mastery, why do we have to move so quickly? They are just going to come around again, aren't they?" That is not only truth, but it's supported by educational research and brain research. (Yes, I believe in sharing the strategy, rationale, and research as to the "why" of what we do in the class each day.) Personally, I had felt like we were moving slower this year than in previous years. Of course, this had been their only year with me. They had nothing with which to compare the pace of our lessons. Looking through their eyes reminded me that we did need let them have time to marinate on ideas, delve deeper into topics, and spend time just reading and writing for the enjoyment of it.
Another student voiced his desire to spend more time in small group. As I was trying to figure out what he meant as a majority of the students' time is spent in small group, he clarified that he wanted to have more small group time with me. He went on to explain how the time we spent working together face-to-face on his reading and writing was what helped him become a stronger student. Honestly, this one cut right to my heart. This student was in the one class that I only had for 50 minutes (on a good day) instead of the almost two hours I had with my other groups of students. I always felt rushed to "get in" as much as I could within that time period while still individualizing the instruction for all 30 of them (my largest class). One practice that I had was for me to move to each group to work with them wherever they were instead of conducting small group lessons at our table; I would do this two to three times a week while doing small group/one-on-one conferring the other days. It seemed faster...Faster? Did I really think that? Since when is "faster" a sound educational practice? Never!
It's funny that I went into this conversation with one set of questions and left with something so much more valuable. I learned that my students have the ability to provide deep, meaningful feedback. They were honest without being unkind. They justified their answers with evidence, support, and their experiences. Most importantly, I saw how amazing they would be as advocates for themselves and their peers. These kids totally blew me away with how they conducted themselves throughout this conversation. They are awesome....and I'm going to miss them.
And me...what did I learn? I learned that we all need a reminder from time to time about sound educational practice. I had taught them about how the brain works in regards to learning. I had modeled and explained why we used certain practices and strategies. Yet, somewhere along the year, I had felt that end of the year push to cover everything and I lost sight of the most important thing of all...the time my students needed to learn. Time that we all needed. Time that I'm dedicated to providing each student in the years to come.
photo credit: Βethan via photopin cc