When students return to school in the fall, they’re not the only ones starting over. As a teacher I think about what I might do differently, what didn’t work and what can be improved upon. But I also consider what went well.
The last two years gave me an unusual perspective on this kind of reflection. In a practice that’s not standard at my school, I kept the same class for two years, teaching the same students in both fourth and fifth grades.
This experience happened to coincide with a time of fundamental change in standards and expectations. In response to growing achievement and opportunity gaps here in Colorado and around the country, my state recently adopted the Common Core/Colorado Academic Standards, which are more in line with college and career readiness. State tests had been found to be inaccurately measuring student performance, and data suggest that a lack of basic skills is the reason nearly 80 percent of students were unable to successfully complete first-year college classes.
Looping Them In
Looping, or teaching the same group multiple years in a row, allowed me time to craft stronger relationships with my students, but also gave me a chance to focus on more than simply advancing them toward the next grade level. I was able to teach basic skills and productive work habits early on, and then move toward more complex materials and analysis.
We went beyond the usual skill and strategy questions (“Where did this story take place?” or “What was your favorite part of the text?”) to examine the meaning and purpose of a text. I didn’t just tell my students that I had higher expectations for them—I showed them through the material we encountered and how they were required to address it.
For example, reading Pat Mora’s poem, Words Free as Confetti, we discussed not only the literal meanings of the author’s words (“What is confetti?” “What is an abuelita?”), but also analyzed how authors develop tone and mood through their selection of words and literary devices and use them to make a larger point. (“Why did the poet use occasional Spanish terms?” “How might the ability to communicate in two languages have affected the poet’s experience of the world?”)
Everyone has to learn math and historical facts, but instead of doing endless math worksheets or reading excerpts from textbooks about historical events, we incorporated our factual learning into projects like timelines, gathering photographs, journals, advertisements and other primary source documents to connect events across eras and cultures.
I was able to see the effects of this shift toward gleaning meaning and purpose on my students. They became noticeably more engaged, their responses more sophisticated and authentic.
Witnessing this contrast, while also pursuing my own professional learning opportunities about the new standards, has inspired me to make key instructional changes in my classroom as this new year begins. I won’t have the luxury of looping again, so my challenge is to accomplish the same shift in only one year.
I hope to excite my students with discussion, challenge them with tasks and activities that are cognitively demanding and relevant and ultimately craft a new group of original thinkers.
Higher standards shouldn’t be reserved for just some kids. Every student deserves the opportunity to spend their school days engaged in work—and in work that’s worth doing.