Dear Students… Here are the 5 Big Ideas I Hope You Learned This Year

Amy Konen
Elementary School Teacher

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It's that time of the year where my students are tested to death. They have state testing, end of year testing, MAP (Measured Academic Progress) testing, end of unit testing and all of us are overwhelmed by it. With all this testing to see what my students learned, how much they grew in our fifth grade classroom, the stakes are high, as is the pressure for my students to perform.

During our PLC (Professional Learning Community) meetings on Wednesdays, our principal asks us to reflect on our teaching and how we did meeting our students needs this year. As I reflect, I think about where they were when they came to me and where they are now. I am a little surprised that my top 5 big ideas I worry the most about are not really academically based concepts. I am worrying about their growth as humans, as young people who are members of a community, of a team; I think about my young people who are at home with little support and a lot of trauma and I worry and reflect on whether I showed enough grace, modeled enough grit, and taught enough perseverance. Did I teach them to be kind, to have courage, to demonstrate empathy?

My math and reading scores, do not get me wrong, are extremely important to me, but if my lessons on how to be proactive learners failed, then my math or reading lessons will never be important enough to become priorities for my students. Therefore, these are my five main priority reflections this year.

Did I model Grit?

When my fifth graders came to my classroom last August, they were all good kids, truly. I was so excited to come back to the classroom and have the honor to work with these young humans. What I discovered was typical 9, 10 and 11 year olds who sat at their tables and waited for me to do everything for them. If there was something that required a little work, they waited for me to do it or show them how to do it. I decided I wanted my students to know how to problem solve for themselves, to know that they were the ones in charge of their learning. They were the ones who needed to be self-starters and not wait for me.

I worked all year, to put as many supports in place up front and then slowly back away as the year progressed. I modeled the Ten Steps to Independence from the Daily 5 Structure for everything. My students needed to understand they were in charge of gaining one year's growth in one year's time by doing the work when it was time to practice the skills introduced and modeled. I kept modeling the how and the why behind my classroom procedures so they understood their role and their power within that system.

In math, for example, during timings, I asked them to choose a goal every timing session and then at the end of the session, we would talk about why they either met or did not meet their goal. We then discussed what would happen during the next timing round so they, hopefully, would meet that goal. I heard reasons like, "I picked too hard of a timing to start", or "I did not get started right away", or "I was not prepared--my marker was out and I needed a new one."

When I first modeled this with students, the reflections were simple and surface level when we discussed what we would do next round. I heard responses such as, "I will get ready faster", or "I will stop talking between timings", or, "I will check my markers ahead of time." These were all great answers that helped us get better organized.

At the beginning of the year, I would observe kids who sat for the entire timing doing nothing and then, when questioned, would say, "Well, I didn't have a marker." Two months into school, and I never heard that answer again. Now I see kids advocating by asking if anyone has another marker they could borrow, or I see kids helping others out by running to get another one for someone. The reflections have changed throughout the year as well. Where I used to get management type answers, I now hear reflections such as, "I am going to look ahead to prepare for the answer coming up." I also hear, "I am going to take my flash cards home to work on my eights because they are the hardest for me." I love that they are beginning to think about the power they have over their own learning and it does not have to happen only when we are learning about it right that minute. That is when I feel good about the grit my students have developed.

Did I teach Stamina?

The world today is such a different place than when I grew up in it as a 5th grade student. I wish those who vote for our levies, who claim to know everything about what goes on in schools understood that. I say that because the kids today deal with so many more hardships than I ever had to from trauma, divorce, drugs, unstructured schedules, abuse, poverty, and then other challenges such as technology exposure and immediate gratification.

Every morning I check in with no less than 8-10 kids to find out what kind of evening it was at their house. Did they get dinner, enough sleep, a place to actually lay down and go to sleep? Did they experience a drug party at their house or have strange people come over and make them nervous? Were they safe or did someone hurt them? These questions, of course, did not happen at first, but after I got to know my students and earned their trust. It was then I was given some of these worries to hold on to during the day so they could get some learning done.

What I learned these past few years is that I did not need to solve these problems for my students, but that I needed to be the person they could drop these issues off with at the door and hold onto them so they could join our classroom as a "regular" student for a little while. There was so much freedom for students when I proved I could be that person.

Kids need to know they are safe, that you are willing to try and understand and listen, but that you will also hold them to the same expectations (maybe with a few more supports in place) so they can feel good about themselves because you have confidence in them. I used to give my students a pass, or not call on them, or expect from them the same things as my non-trauma students. What I found is that I hurt them even more. I did so because my approach towards them sent the message that I did not think they were capable of doing what their classmates could. I inadvertently ended up hurting them even more.

Now I approach them with the same expectations for stamina as I do everyone else. I expect them to read for 25 minutes and write for 25 minutes just like their peers. If they need a break or to use a strategy to get them through on task and working hard, then they should use their power and employ a strategy. Since I have stopped enabling students and started validating them by expressing sympathy towards their rough evening, it has been easier to get students to work hard, employ their strategies as needed, and stay engaged with a task the whole time. I have stronger buy-in for working to achieve one year's growth in one year's time. I actually have students push through harder than I have ever seen them push before.

When I reflect on this question, I always find myself checking to see if I extended grace to a student struggling that day or if I was patient when they continually ask for breaks but still, used them all appropriately. Was I receptive when they reached out to me for a tool or an idea to help them get back on track? Did I pause, get their needs back in check and continue on from there? When I could answer yes, I found that my lessons were more successful, more rigorous, and more engaging because they were able to self-regulate and were able to use their stamina for the academics rather than the dysregulation they were used to experiencing.

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Did I teach Perseverance?

Perseverance is different from grit and stamina to me because I really feel like students need grit and stamina to have perseverance. I model this daily in my math lessons. I have very smart students in mathematics this year but I found that my math scores were lower when I compared reading and math. When I dug into why that was happening, I found that my students had not developed perseverance yet.

In my classroom, when I put a problem on the board I found that my students quit if it required multi-steps to solve, or more thinking to come up with the answer, or if the question was twisted so what seemed like the obvious way to solve it was not actually the way to solve it. They were done. They started disengaging, chatting with each other, waiting for me to do it for them.

I listened to what made them tick and what they loved doing and found this was a big group who really enjoyed video games. Those few who were not gamers, were sports kids. Most were on some kind of traveling team, outside club sport or spent hours on end playing video games.

Since we were using Prodigy in our classroom to practice some of our math skills, I used the video game analogy throughout the year to model what perseverance should look like in all parts of their lives. I asked them what they did when they "died" in the game. Did they quit? Wait for their mom to come downstairs or to their rooms to get them to the next level? They just laughed at me when I proposed such a ridiculous idea.

They told me they asked their friends, they watched others who already passed that part and asked what they did and then tried that. Others simply started again and tried a different tactic when they got to that part again to try and get further in the game. I asked them if they quit, or hit the screen or threw the computer or the controller? They laughed again and said that they just restarted.

Next, I asked them why they did that with math? Why was that different? They were using math in all those video games so why did that not make them mad when they worked hard only to die when they were almost to the end of the level. They just laughed and rolled their eyes at me and said they liked being challenged in the game and they were having fun.

As a result, when students come to a point where they are stumped in a problem, I now include into my regular dialogue how it looks like they just "died" it was now time to restart that level and try to get a little farther in the problem. It was something they could relate to and our conversations now include what they will try next and why. I no longer tell them what they should do next, instead I have them walk me through their plan, only correcting or offering advice when something is off in their math thinking and needs to be directly modeled in order to keep the learning moving forward.

When we get to test questions or hard, multi-step problems on exams, I let my students know this is a question where they will simply have to persevere through and that it might take some restarts. I get very little push back now and I also find that I get less "clicking thorough" because kids want to be recognized for showing perseverance in those harder problems.

Did I model and expect Kindness every day?

Watching my soon to be fifth graders last spring in their fourth grade rooms, I noticed that they would be sarcastic, teasing and trying to get even their best of friends in trouble. I watched as the behavior specialist, how this teasing would impact others and their own behaviors and I watched how teachers had to deal with that on a daily basis. These kids were not trying to be mean to one another but they did get great joy out of poking fun at each other.

The biggest impact however, was that the kiddo being the target of the "fun" was having absolutely no fun and would actually come back at another recess or another instruction block to "get even." This led to many conflicts that really were preventable. On our first day of school with me, we began with our kindness campaign and I told my students that we were going to get what we paid attention to so, therefore, we were going to pay attention to all the awesome things we caught our classmates doing. Our Affirmation Wall was launched.

Every day I did a mini-lesson during snack time and had the students focus on a student they normally did not interact with very much. Some days I had them focus on someone they had never written to before as well. The purpose was to catch their classmate or fellow fifth grader being kind or awesome in some way. It could be in the classroom, the hallway, the lunchroom, the cafeteria, the gym, or wherever else they might be. When they noticed someone doing something great for someone else, or showing kindness, they were to write them a letter letting them know they were caught being kind. We mailed our letters daily in our Affirmation Wall mailboxes.

Kids who did not receive letters reflected on what they could do differently in their day to be able to receive letters and those sending letters had to reflect on who they were writing to. Could they choose the person not receiving a letter? What could they catch them doing? The results were immediate.

By the end of the first month, I had more random acts of kindness. For example, the first month of school kids would go get their math boxes for Daily 3 math and almost every day a student accidentally knocked a box off the shelf. When boxes were tipped over, spilling everywhere, at first the reaction was always, "That wasn't me, I didn't do that." By the end of the first month, the reaction changed and two or three different kids would jump up right away to run over and help pick it up. Kids were hoping to get noticed for their good deeds.

While you might be thinking that wasn't really very sincere, they just wanted the recognition, that was true a lot of the time….at first. After a few more months, it was habit. Kids just did it without thinking and were not looking for recognition. The scorekeeping was over. A habit had been introduced. Now kid's Affirmation letters sound like, "thank you for playing with (this person). I know they do not always have someone to hang with at recess. I have asked before but they do not always join with me and they sure did with you. I think you have earned their trust. Good job."

These letters have taken such a journey this year and my class is kind to each other because of it. They are also noticing when others outside our class are not being kind and they will step in as well. They have even asked if they can be writing to others in other grades when they catch them in the lunchroom or at recess. I have had just a few incidents this year where students have slipped and not shown kindness and our conversations are much more powerful because they know the expectations and are able to own their part in the conflict--even when it is not really their fault. This has been the most powerful journey for them.

Did I model Empathy?

My class of fifth graders have a lot of different personalities, life experiences, educational paths, highs and lows--as do most of yours. Gone are the days of our cookie-cutter students (did we really ever have those students?)

This year I have a wide range of needs from the most behaviorally challenged, to the highest of gifted students. At both ends of the continuum, these students can very quickly impact the days of others. If they make an inflammatory remark, or are called an inflammatory name, or have others react negatively to them, or gang up when the student steals their learning, sparks will fly and conflict can happen quickly.

I knew I needed a classroom where calm prevailed and lessons were modeled daily about how our behavior impacts others. I explicitly taught students to identify what their most successful go-to strategies were to loosen the pressure in the room. Teaching them to understand that the situation might not really be about them at all even if they were the targets for the outburst, helped them understand that others might just be going through something.

We worked through what we could do to positively impact their situation. We worked everyday on how to give grace by forgiving a student or trying to see the world from their perspective. We talk about what to do when it is super hard to show grace because we are really just that mad. We celebrate and honor those who can give a sincere apology and those who can accept one and let the situation go and have a do-over. As a result, when kids are frustrated with a kid or kids see a student start to get worked up, they approach the situation entirely differently then they did at the beginning of the year and we have ended up with less conflict resulting from reacting to others behaviors.

Kids will be kids and days will be hard and some of those days are the most difficult even for me because I am tired or am stressed or have little patience on any given day. Kids are the same way without the benefit of a grown-up brain rationalizing for them. So as I reflect on this past year and celebrate all the growth my students have made as I watch them share, ignore distractions, offer kindness, notice the good in others rather than tattling, choose partners they never would have chosen last year, I am proud of what they accomplished, what they have learned. The best part is when I see their results on their MAP tests and their end of year tests, I am blessed with the added bonus that they even learned a little math and reading!

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Amy Konen