Ideally, perhaps, I wouldn’t be doing this now. My classes would be well-functioning machines with students who acted out of care for one another at all times. But I don’t live in a perfect world, teach in a perfect school, nor am I a perfect teacher. I started my year out with a strong unit on classroom community. We talked about the elements of the classroom: mind, voice,time and space. Students came up with guidelines for how to use these elements to create a positive learning community. At the end of the unit my students surprised me by suggesting that we add a fifth element–heart.
But as the year goes on, we begin to take our classroom community–and the learning it supports–for granted. We expect more and more from students, increasing the complexity of the work each month. We are excited when we see them learning and growing. Then we slam a standardized test on them–no, 4 standardized tests. We push them hard, and then congratulate them on their work. But all this time, what has happened to the community? It has grown somehow. It, like them, is older than it was in September. But is it stronger?
What have I done to help my students continuously grow as members of a learning community throughout this year? Far less than I should have. I succumbed to many of the ills of the factory model system of schooling over the last few months. Even though I design my curriculum to bring out the voices of my students, I’ve failed to address things they’ve said or done to one another that jeopardize our community. On the surface, I always respond to inappropriate behavior, but on the deeper level I’ve failed.
I’ve committed a great sin of teaching–being more committed to “the curriculum” than to the students. I’ve gotten caught up with doling out consequences–and sometimes neglecting to dole out consequences–for students who break basic rules of conduct. For minor misbehaviors that happen on a regular basis, consequences are and were never the answer.
The answer, in my experience, is class time. Kids understand that the things we choose to spend class time doing are the things we really value. Class time is our time to help our students grow. If students interrupt and undercut each other in discussions, for example, a million warnings, detentions and calls home might not make the difference. They only serve to keep these behaviors down to a barely tolerable level.
Earlier this week I found myself less than inspired to teach. That’s when I decided it was time to break out of the habits I’ve allowed myself and my students to develop, little by little, over the last few months. We’ve taken a break from fiction writing, even though students are pretty excited about the stories they’re writing. I figure, they will still be excited when they come back to them in a few more days.
Yesterday and today we used class time to discuss what’s been happening. I must say, it’s been both liberating and painful. One student got me where it hurt when she said, “It’s late in the year for this. We should have been doing this months ago. We can’t change now.”
But another student rushed to disagree. “It’s never too late to change,” she said.
A boy, who had admitted earlier to playing around a lot and cutting on others, added, “If we want to change the class, each of us just has to start with ourselves.”
Tomorrow groups of students will each “unpack” a category from our daily whole-class self-assessment practice [these include (1) agenda, (2) quality of work, (3) student jobs, (4) golden rule and (5) neatness] and create guidelines for how they would like the class should ideally function in their category. Later I plan to have students reflect individually in writing on how they specifically will try to help the class bring about the change we have been talking about
To be continued…