First Person

Why I take time to teach perseverance (and let my fourth-graders write on their desks)

PHOTO: Kelly Wilkinson/Indianapolis Star
stephanie-smith

Every morning, I hand my fourth-grade students dry-erase markers and ask them to do something unconventional: write directly on their desks.

Their task is to write a goal for the day. I have seen them write things like “Today I will be a better friend” or more abstract ideas like “My goal is to accept challenges.” When it’s time to leave, we celebrate those who met their goals and encourage those who haven’t to try again tomorrow.

Daily goal-setting is one of many strategies I use to teach perseverance, self-control, confidence and teamwork — “soft skills” often referred to as social-emotional learning. Most require just a couple of extra minutes at the start and end of our school days, but the payoff seems invaluable.

Research shows that students who internalize those skills may actually be better at learning hard skills like math and reading, and are more likely to graduate from high school. One study showed that students were more motivated when they were told their brains are muscles that can get stronger with practice, just like any other muscle. This year, I’ve already seen students use their daily goal-setting to focus on tasks they used to think they could not accomplish, like multiplication.

I’ve seen this strategy work with students of all ability levels. We are a diverse community, and the same goals don’t work for everyone, especially my students who fall under the special-education umbrella or whose primary language isn’t English. But that doesn’t mean they are excluded. Part of the learning process for students is crafting their own goals that will work for them.

Another part of this exercise is practicing compassion. Nothing makes my heart happier than seeing my students take a genuine interest in each other. They’ve even written goals like, “I want to learn to speak English” (with help from another classmate) or “I will help Alan with his math today.” And they actually did it. Those two students sat together in class and worked on sight words and multiplication problems.

An important part of this work is defining these ideas, like empathy, grit and determination for students so I can be specific about what we’re aiming for. (I like ClassDojo’s Big Ideas videos, which explain those concepts through the eyes of a little monster named Mojo, and prompt my students to talk about how they’ve felt when they didn’t know an answer or were intimidated by a task.)

An unexpected benefit of these lessons has been personal. Lately, my class has been struggling with getting off-task — and, as all teachers know, every minute I spend asking a student to please stop talking or stop distracting others is a minute not spent on academic content or teaching the rest of the class. At one of those moments, I asked my students to empathize with me, one teacher trying to reach 22 of them, and with their fellow students, who wanted to learn but were being distracted.

We talked as a class about building a new set of expectations for our classroom. And by the end of the day, I had received two hand-delivered notes, secretly created and signed by each student in the class, saying that they were sorry for disturbing class.

The notes showed me that my students are learning compassion and also that they are beginning to value their academic time. I hope that it was a sign of soft skills leading to hard skills — students recognizing that how they act has an impact on learning the skills necessary to solve problems and succeed.

Stephanie Smith is a fourth-grade teacher at Roy L. Waldron Elementary School in La Vergne, Tenn.

First Person

Yes, an A at one school may be a C at another. It’s time we address the inequity that got us there

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Yacine Fall, a student who shared her experience realizing that an A in her school wasn't the same as an A elsewhere.

I was struck by a recent Chalkbeat piece by a young woman who had earned a high GPA at a middle school in Harlem. Believing herself well prepared, she arrived at an elite high school only to find herself having to work hard to stay afloat in her classes.

Her A’s, it seemed, didn’t mean the same thing as the A’s from other, more affluent, schools.

As a teacher, I know that she’s right. Grades are different from school to school, district to district, and I suspect, state to state. And it presents a problem that cannot easily be solved — especially in English, the subject I teach.

The students who sit before us vary greatly. Some schools have students who are mired in poverty and who are also not fluent in English. (Some entire districts are this demographic. I taught in one for many years.) Other schools are quite affluent and have no English language learners. Guess which population demonstrates stronger academic skills?

We teachers cannot help but get normed to our population. We get used to seeing what we always see. Since an A is “excellent,” we tend to give A’s — really, all grades — in relation to the population with which we work. To get an A in any school means that the student is doing an excellent job relative to their peers.

When I taught in my old middle school, most kids arrived below grade level in math and English, and some were several years below. We became so used to seeing below-grade-level work that it became our “normal.” When an eighth-grader who came to us at a third-grade level turned in four or five pretty good paragraphs on a topic, we were elated.

That kid has come so far! We would bring that assignment out at the next department meeting and crow about her success. And we would award an A, because she did an excellent job in relation to her peers.

The trouble is, you take the same assignment down the highway 10 miles to an affluent school, and that same paper would earn a C-minus. Their eighth-graders came to them using strong theses, well developed points, and embedded quotations. To get an A in that school, the student has to do an excellent job relative to much more accomplished peers.

Kids who are just learning English, who are homeless or move frequently, who could be food-insecure, don’t have those skills. They’re not incapable of developing those skills. But they are unlikely to have them yet because of the challenges they face.

I now teach students in a highly competitive magnet program in another state (600 applicants for 150 seats, to give you an idea). Now I am normed so far the other way, it makes me dizzy. These students have skills that I never dreamed any eighth-grader could possess. The eighth-graders I taught this year wrote at a nearly professional level. Many of them score in the 99th percentile nationwide for both math and English.

Now I realize that, in my old district, we almost never saw a truly advanced student. In fact, not only had most of us never seen an advanced paper, we rarely saw any paper that was above partially proficient, even from students we thought were working above grade level.

The reality is that if we truly tried to hold everyone to the same bar, we would see even more troubling patterns emerge.

We would see the good grades going to rich white kids, those who get museums and vacations and Starbucks in the summer, and we would see the failing grades go to the poor kids — entire schools, even districts, full of poor kids who aren’t good with English and who spend their summers in front of the TV while mom and dad work.

So we have these very different sets of standards, even with the Common Core. There is a faction who would say this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush talked about. I say this shows that socioeconomic status and students’ home lives are the major predictors of success in school, and that the bigotry that causes that is real.

What does all this mean for the student who wrote the original piece about her transition to high school? What it means for her, immediately, is she sees firsthand the vast differences in preparation and opportunity between the socioeconomic classes. In the long term, it could mean a lot as far as college choices go. I don’t think we know yet how to really solve this problem.

We as a society need to address the factors that limit access and equity for poor and minority children. Leveling that particular playing field may be the most important charge with which educators are tasked.

Mary Nanninga is a middle school English teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She previously taught in Westminster Public Schools in Westminster, Colorado.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.