This week I took a little break from the study. It wasn’t intentional; it just kind of happened after a weekend away with my family and then a busy week to end the grading period (while simultaneously beginning a new unit). In that time, though, I applied so much of my learning in this space to our classroom practices, and the outcome left me, well, in tears.
We began our poetry unit in 7th grade this week. Usually, I begin this unit with a day to begin answering our first essential question in the unit: What is poetry? It’s an effective day to build background knowledge, but seeing as poetry is a mode of writing that is supposed to convey and evoke emotion, I have been disappointed in the past that the first day of poetry doesn’t mimic that same purpose. I want kids to be excited; usually, they are closer to mildly interested.
This week, I put four essential questions from our poetry unit up on the board:
- What is poetry?
- What is its purpose?
- What are some elements of poetry?
- Why does poetry matter to you?
The kids are used to beginning the day with essential questions, but when they saw four, already they seemed to know that our routine would be disrupted. We did our initial discussion on the questions, and then we watched a short video created using PowToon about the elements of a short story. We had just finished our short story unit, and I wanted to kids to be reminded of just how much they had learned about short stories while also seeing a model of a new way to show their learning.
When the video was over, I explained that our goal over the next few days was to answer those four essential questions on poetry and show our learning in a new way. They could use any medium they wanted, but they should choose one that fit their purpose and helped them best organize their answers.
A few weeks ago, I told this same group of students they could create their character sketch for their original short story however they wanted as long as they showed their character’s personality through thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. I was not prepared for the anger and frustration they would express. “Why can’t you just give us a sheet to fill out?” said one student. Another student lamented, “It’s just easier when you tell us how you want it because then I feel like I have a better chance of getting an A.” They were worried they would “mess it up.”
I was shocked. I had thought they would be excited, but instead, they felt anxious. In the short few weeks I had taught them, I had already demonstrated learning as cookie-cutter, when I had meant to do just the opposite. We had a great conversation that day about how it doesn’t matter to me how we assess their learning together — each one of them is different, and given the opportunity, they can show their creativity better when they aren’t bound to one format of learning. So that day didn’t go quite how I thought it would, but it set us up for a smoother day the next time around.
This week, when I let them decide who they would work with or if they would work with someone, they began moving around the room immediately. They asked questions like, “I can really use anything I want?” and “What if you don’t know the app we want to use?” I got to respond with things like, “Yes, absolutely!” and “Well, then I guess we’ll get to learn something together!” They were excited now that they knew the fun and benefit of freedom could outweigh the comfort of compliance.
The greatest part of the day, to me, was that there was no struggle to engage students in the learning. They really felt empowered that they could do this and take ownership and still succeed. I got to help students through the essential questions and content one on one or in small groups without sacrificing time with others to do it because they were all learning a new tool or researching poetry. There was no wasted class time for anyone, and students who normally don’t get enthused about language arts came to my desk multiple times to show me their work so far. They were always beaming with pride, and they were happy to struggle through some new concepts. They were teaching themselves to learn.
When the bell rang, I had to remind a few kids that it was time to go, and when they had all left, I sat at my desk and cried a few joyful tears. They hadn’t all used the same apps, and some of them didn’t use technology at all. They hadn’t followed a rubric either. But I had seen each and every one of them learn. They were all confident in their abilities. They were engaged and building background knowledge while meeting our other learning objectives. As a teacher, I couldn’t have asked for a better day.