Sometimes my best work is not enough to get through to my students. Sometimes the careful planning to scaffold the learning does not lead us to where we need to go. Sometimes the feedback, timely and descriptive, falls on deaf ears. Sometimes we need a little bit of help.
When I returned to the classroom, I knew what I had to offer the students. I knew that I would ask students to own their learning: to think and to make decisions. And that I would build a supportive framework in which they would do that learning.
But they didn’t know this.
They didn’t know me. I had been gone from the school just long enough that all of my students had graduated. When they left, so did that “muscle memory” –that information that gets passed on from student to student about teachers and their expectations, style, and what you could get away with. I knew this was going to happen, and I knew that eventually we would build a relationship that would support deep learning. But time was not something I felt we had. These students had not yet experienced opportunities to make choices in their learning, to provide authentic feedback to their teachers, to be participants. I wanted these students to graduate “learning ready” and the clock was ticking.
I worked intentionally to speed up the process of trust-building. I told stories about the school, former students, and myself. I wrote blog posts to them and commented frequently on their posts. I chatted informally with them about out of school interests and goings-on. To no avail. They simply weren’t buying into what I was selling.
Rather, they sat and waited. Literally. With arms crossed and blank expressions, they waited for something familiar to happen. Where was the class novel? The chapter end questions? The grammar worksheets? They knew what learning looked like, and the blogging, self-selected reading, conversations, digital storytelling, researching, and metacognitive work was not it.
When the school invited a few former students to participate in an Academic Panel Discussion, there was about a month left in the semester. The grade 10s and I had not made the gains I had hoped for. Many of the students were still wary of the focus on the process of learning and the idea that they needed to take ownership of it. The driving force behind the Academic Panel Discussion was the desire to provide students with relevant and current information about the transition to post-secondary from their peers. Since we had never done this before, we decided to narrow the focus to university with the goal of repeating the event in the fall for our college bound students.
Our former students spoke to the challenges they faced when they left high school, but they also spent a lot of time talking about what the students need to do while they are in high school to be prepared to go: learn to make good notes, use every opportunity to get feedback on your writing, take risks in writing, read widely & beyond your favourite genre, make reading part of your day, practice time management, make using your agenda a habit, learn how to plan, contribute to class discussions, force yourself to do oral presentations, and participate in extra-curricular activities. No one talked about worksheets, chapter questions, jumping through hoops. Everyone told personal stories of confidence and accomplishment because when they left high school they had the skills they needed.
I hardly recognized the grade 10s when they entered class later that day. They were smiling and laughing. I could feel a relaxed and positive energy from them. They looked me in the eye and asked questions, they were interested in the lesson presented, they engaged.
What had happened? Well, I think that my current students heard a very clear message from my former students (yes, I had taught every member of the panel and the panelists’ stories made that evident) that the skills they learned in English class supported them well in post-secondary. I think that they heard that they could trust me.
We know how important the student – teacher relationship is. We know that we have to work hard to build the kind of trust for deep learning to occur. We know that this takes time. I also now know the value of getting feedback to my students from others.
What do my students know now?
Learning is growth mindset.
Learning is asking questions about what you’re interested in.
Learning is inquiry.
Learning is intellectual engagement.
Learning is asking for feedback and listening to it intently. What is it telling you?
In an earlier post, I wrote that everyone in the room that day changed. It’s true. The other teachers and their students continued the conversation in their classrooms that day, but importantly, teachers reported a renewed interest by students in their studies and in their pathway and course selections. The Principal was also impacted by the discussion. He heard a narrative that was positive, strong, and enduring, and that’s a story he doesn’t want to have end.