We never really know what are students face when they walk out the door of our rooms. We do to a degree, but so much can change in 24 hours between them leaving us and returning that it can be hard to predict everything. At the high school level especially we often only get a short block of time a day with our students. In my case, 50 minutes. I get 50 minutes to make an impression, 50 minutes to make sure they are happy, healthy, and safe. Oh yeah, I also need to squeeze some history in too.
I think we get very hurried in our short time blocks. We have so much to do that how often do we end class with trying to squeeze in a description of the homework, or yelling out one last "don't forget to get the permission slip signed" as students rush out the door. What is their last impression of us as they leave? Harried? Flustered? There's got to be a better way.
I took a grad class a few years ago and the professor did something that has stuck with me ever since. When the class time came to an end she didn't tell us to "have a nice night" or remind us of anything. She simply said, "thank you for your hard work today." She thanked us. I was speechless. I don't know why, it's a very simple thing, and yet something that we as teachers often forget.
Regardless of how the class has gone, the students sitting in front of you showed up, they are there, and many of them put their very best in to today's lesson. That best may look different for each student. For some students it was simply showing up, for others it was the exceptional effort it took for them to stay focused and listening. For others, maybe they conquered their fear of speaking in front of the class. Others still simply completed what was asked. Regardless of what it was, there is something that they did that they should be thanked for.
Have you ever had a student thank you (gosh I hope so) for something? It is wonderful, it can motivate you for a month. There's nothing better than a sincere acknowledgment of your effort. We need to start doing this with students.
I adopted that professors ending for class. I now thank kids for their hard work before sending them on their way. And you know what? It keeps the whole mood elevated all day. I get a few genuine smiles, and I get many "thank yous" in return. It's a nice human moment in the sometimes weird power structure of teachers and students.
I was recently talking with another teacher about this, and he told me he says "love you" to his students (as a group) as they are walking out the door. At firs this seemed odd, even a little inappropriate to me. Then he elaborated, he told me many of his students go through not just their whole day, but much of their lives never hearing those words, so he wants to make sure they at least hear it from an adult who cares. It makes sense.
I don't think I'm quite ready for that, but I know that I will continue to thank and acknowledge my students for their efforts. I truly am thankful for and to them, and there really is no better way to end class! It's simple and yet so powerful.
How do you end your class? .
There I sat, all at once excited with all that the coming year was about to offer, yet petrified at my own small existence in the world. The din of my fellow classmates chattering nervously floated in and out of my conscience as I took stock of my surroundings.
Who was Mrs. Elanjian? I'd hear stories, that she was tough and that she expected excellence. Beyond that though, I knew nothing about her. As I peered around the room, a picture began to form; a poster quoting James Barry extolling a woman's charm, a cup of tea freshly steeped, colorful pictures, flowers, and an assortment of decor that could simply be described as lovely. Finally, there was an art print. At 14, I didn't know what the title was, or if it was a "great work," all I knew was that I was drawn to it. A young woman swept up in a dance. The man so lost in the woman in his arms that we cannot even see his face. There are men and women seated behind them, enjoying the beautiful day. Even now, more than 15 years later I can remember the details of that painting. Every day for a year, I surveyed it, finding new details each time. As the school year progressed I created a story around the painting, who the people were, what they were doing, what they were feeling. As my own space in the world changed, the story changed.
Mrs. Elanjian was just as lovely as her room and she reawakened a love of reading and writing in me that had been lost somewhere in the trenches of eighth grade. She introduced me to my literary bestie Francie, in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and brought me to Paris for the first time in A Tale of Two Cities. I fell in love with the succinct elaborate prose of Steinbeck under her tutelage, preparing me to fall in love with the works of Fitzgerald when I finally encountered them. She was an amazing teacher, yet I can't think of her class without thinking of her classroom.Each day that year I truly learned something new, even if it was just from sitting at my desk and looking at a poster. Her physical room, her physical being, and her educational philosophies were intertwined, not independent. She was brining beauty and culture to her students through many mediums, not just the text assigned.
My point in all of this? What we choose to put in our classrooms matter. They should inspire, educate, and reflect the person that we are, and the people that we hope our students become.
I think elementary teachers do a wonderful job of creating inspiring classrooms where children develop wonder and creativity. Somewhere along the way, we lost that extra touch at the secondary level. Too much of education has become about the numbers, the tests, and ensuring the curriculum is covered. I'm not saying these things aren't important, but I think we need to stop and take a breath and bring some beauty back into our rooms.
What poster or piece of art inspired you the most? Hang it up, chances are it will inspire a student too. Flowers, though serving no educational purpose, elevate moods, and remind us of the word beyond the classroom walls. Find a quote that moves you. I promise you if a student sees that quote every day for an entire school year, it will start to become part of their being.
Pictures of faraway places and time allow the mind to travel beyond the cinderblock wall. They encourage day dreaming, and I'm going to say it- let them! Let students day dream a bit, invoke curiosity about the world beyond their hometown. Give them a way to get lost when the real world becomes too difficult. It's okay to spend time discussing something, or showing your students something, simply because it enhances the human experience.
They will spend their adult lives producing, working, and (hopefully) being productive members of society. At times they will see the worst of humanity.. Help them to learn to take time out seek out the best humanity has to offer, simply by looking for something beautiful.
Years later, I looked up that painting, it is entitled, "Dance at Bougival." I will admit that as my own artistic preferences have developed over the years I was drawn to a more modern style. My favorite painting is Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. I think though, I like it for the same reasons. There's a mystery as to who the people are and what they are doing. Each time I see it, the story changes based on where I am in my life. That curiosity, that amazement that can be found in simultaneous complexity of art was first awakened in my 9th grade English class, an unintended side lesson., one that has stayed with me my whole life.
I have never asked Mrs. Elanjian about her classroom, or why she decorated with the things she did. I suppose that like me, she wanted to bring beauty to her room, and she choose things that spoke to her. The result was a calm oasis of beauty amidst the tumult of early high school.
I guess what I'm trying to say is go ahead, create a space you love to be in. You deserve that, but just as importantly- your students deserve it as well. Evoke emotions in them, and send them off to do battle against the world armed with the knowledge that beauty exists, if they seek to find it.
What inspires you? What is your favorite thing in your classroom?
I experimented this week with something I had done before, but hadn't done at the high school level. I allowed students to create their own test! Regardless of how you feel about testing, we as teachers are at the mercy of our state and district policies in terms of assessing students and assigning grades. Though I dislike both tests and the grading process, it is a reality that I am faced with frequently.
I recently gave my ninth graders the opportunity to create their own exams. They worked in groups, and each group was responsible to create 15 test questions based on the materials we had been covering this past unit. I really enjoyed this part of the process as it created a natural way for them to go back over their notes and other materials. This is something that students often struggle with. They curate materials, but do not always know how to use them when it comes time to study. A structured activity that facilitates their review of concepts and material can be helpful.
I gave very loose parameters. I did not require each group to come up with a certain number of true/false, open response, etc. I simply asked them to create 15 questions that they felt best represented the material that we covered. I also asked that they create questions that were challenging but fair. In other words, they should not be trying to "trick" each other. Rather they should consider themselves part of a larger effort by the whole class to create their exam.
I'm sure a few of you are thinking, wouldn't they just make easy questions on purpose? How can I ensure that they cover all of the important points? Would they even put forth a good effort for something like this?
Of course I had concerns like that too, but I truly believe if you empower students, they rise to the occasion. Furthermore, by having them create the test, they have a sense of ownership and responsibility. I was very impressed with the questions that my students came up with, and I found that overall they put in a lot of effort, as they knew that this would ultimately impact their grade.
After they turned in their questions, I used them as a "bank" and pulled from those questions to create the exam.
I had one more surprise though. Instead of giving them a pre-created open response question, I asked students to create their own open response question and answer it. After we talked through their initial confusion (and shock), they got to work. I checked in with each student after they created their question to ensure that they were on the right track before they wrote too much. I was very pleased with their questions. Though some students wrote about similar themes, they each did so in a unique way. I think that the freedom to structure the question as they wished, allowed them to expand their writing. Sometimes answering a question I created can stifle their ideas or creativity, I feel as though I got a lot more out of them with this method.
Will it take longer to grade individual questions and responses? Yes. Will it be worth it? Yes.
Of course this method may not work for every student or every classroom or every teacher. I'm not suggesting you ditch every test in your folder and have only student generated exams. I'm simply suggesting that if you are in a rut, or feel like your students could use a little challenge, have them create their own exam! I promise you will be amazed!
If you aren't sure where to start, or your students are stuck, try using Bloom's Taxonomy. You can have students create one question for each "level" and even use the question starters. This is also a great way to introduce your students to the evolution of knowledge and why simply memorizing and repeating is something to start with, but not the final stage of knowledge. Here is a great example of Bloom's question starters that you could hand out to your students:
To get a little healthy competition going, you could offer a few points of extra credit (or some other incentive) to the team that you feel creates the best questions. Give some kind of guideline as to how they will be critiqued.
Use the questions the students create in a review game.
After they create their questions, allow students to see a copy of "your" exam. Let them see how close their questions came to those on the original exam.
As a final benefit, I think creating their own exam (especially when using Bloom's) allows students to see just what goes into creating a fair test. Again, this may not work for everyone, but if you're looking to shake things up, give it a try!
Have you ever let students create their own exams? What tips can you offer other educators?