The penultimate day of the 2021-22 school year a week ago involved Marching my students through the Florida heat for them to return their school laptops through the side door of our Media Center. What do after that? I gave them blank loose-leaf paper and asked them to write about the following – not for a grade, but in order to get some feedback from students.
We followed the writing time with a class discussion, and I collected the journals, put them all in a folder and took them home with me after finishing packing up my classroom for the summer so they could do my floors. Call me insane, but yes, one of the first things I did this summer vacation was to read those journals. I guess it was a way of putting the year to bed finally – but it also made me feel that I’m on the right track – even if I’m more critical of my own teaching than anyone -even at the end of 30 years.
So – what did my students say? In an era where our highest ideal in education seems to be lockstep conformity to curriculum edicts from on high (I sometimes think one of the underlying philosophies of the powers-that-be in education is that decisions affecting a student’s education should be made as far away from that student as possible.), my students told me my class was different. And different, apparently, is good.
Final Journal Grade 9:
• What were your favorite activities/assignments we did this year and why did you like them?
• What did you learn the most from?
• What is the most important thing you learned?
• What do you wish there had been more of?
• Any other feedback?
I frame my ninth grade year around the inquiry question “What is the Purpose of Education?” I tell them early in the year that their final exam will be to write about what they think the purpose of education is. They are free to write about the topic as an essay in any style, as a short story, as a comic strip, as a poem. As… nearly anything. As long as their writing is good and they somehow address the topic, they have done their job.
Favorite things nearly always involved Autonomy and Choice and Open-endedness. They like having choices for projects after we’d read a play or book. They liked have the freedom to choose their own topics to write about. Instead of assigning them the research report out of the textbook, they were able to choose their own topic and develop it. I told them to research something they knew something about already, but wanted to know more about. I read reports about the history of Legos, horseback riding, video game development, Jazz music, orcas, and alternative fashion in Japan, among many, many others. They were interesting – I learned things! They got to chose their own word to define for the definition essay, their own favorite thing to write about for the Enthusiasm, their own frustration to argue about in their Free-Range Argument essay. They chose the topics. They focused the topics. They developed the topics. They decided how their information should be organized, which research to use and how to blend their own details with their sources. In the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (which I’m seeing referenced a lot lately – I may need to re-read it), author Daniel Pink says that one of the chief things that motivates people is autonomy.
Has no one considered that a lack of autonomy might be making many students hate school and many teachers flee the profession?
Students also appreciated being taken beyond the five-paragraph essay format. Many of them said they felt as if they’d been writing the same boring essay in the same boring format for years. The topic might change, but it was, essentially writing as compliance. Some of them said being given some new organizational tools and new types of details to play with made them actually like writing again. Many of them had grown to hate it. Some said their past teachers had essentially made them feel like terrible writers because they didn’t follow the teacher’s directions carefully enough. Really, past teachers?
Many of them said that they learned the most from all our writing activities – both the writer’s notebooks and the major writing assignments. Depending on which projects they chose after Romeo and Juliet and Fahrenheit 451, students wrote between 11 and 14 major pieces of writing. Many of those pieces were essays, but they also got to write scripts, fiction, sequential art (comic strips), poems, and more. Only a few complained about the amount of writing – most were grateful to get the practice because they were actually getting the chance to have fun with writing, write about what they cared about, and try out different modes of writing.
Some said they learned the most from our reading activities – annotating texts in different modes. Some realized for the first time that there should be things going on in your head while you read! You should do more than just decode the words. Many of them had never realized that!
They felt they were getting better at reading and writing – another of Drive’s key to motivation: Mastery.
What was the most important thing you learned? Many of them said it was the whole purpose of education thing itself. They realized that they had just been sitting in class for 10 years (if you include kindergarten) not really thinking about WHY they were there. They just assumed they had to be there – to get grades and then get out eventually. They said that going forward, they will be thinking about what their purpose in getting educated is. Based on their final exams, they have varying opinions about the purpose of education – just like we as adults do. The purpose of education is to find out what your good at, but it is also to learn how to learn for yourself. The purpose of education is learn things that will allow you to make a living, but also make you wise enough to make a life. Some said the purpose of education is to teach you how to think for yourself; others said the purpose is to make you a good citizen.
They are all right. Education has many purposes. (I revealed my three main purpose on the last day of school – I’ll write about them here soon!)
Some said the most important thing they learned was how education can actually help you survive in the real world (despite complaints to the contrary). Some said they learned about how to better regulate their emotions thanks to our particular way of reading Romeo and Juliet, who are awful at regulating their emotions. Some said they learned about the power of words: whoever makes the definitions has the power; who ever censors books tries to have power but ultimately gives more power the wordsmiths who create books. Some said the most important thing was the idea (from Scott Newstok’s speech “How to Think Like Shakespeare”) was Inventio – the ideas that you build an inventory of knowledge so that you can then go out and invent new things. Some found the article “Automation and Anxiety” from first quarter most important – it made them realize that the number one job skill in a world where automation will be taking away more and more jobs is the ability to be able to learn anything. Which makes all learning practice for learning. Which means there is no such thing as a pointless class.
They found meaning in what we were doing – the last of Drive’s keys to motivation: Purpose.
What did they want more of (or less of – I told them they could suggest that too)? Grammar instruction, actually. But I think they’ve been trained to think that means worksheets or workbook pages. My grammar instruction (usually) happens during their writing. Some wanted to read another novel or two (time did not permit). Others wanted more longer pieces to read because longer pieces give them more to delve into. A few wanted less writing assignments, more many more actually wanted MORE writing assignments.
My “Any other feedback question?” was generally answered with a “Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s different. I’ve never had an English class like this one before.” I find this sad. I don’t want to be special. I want to be common.
Not every journal was rapturous and positive. Some wanted more silent reading time for their own books. Noted. Some thought I give to much work. Some students didn’t like doing as much discussion as we did. Some students never turned in a journal, so they probably felt they hadn’t learned anything and nothing nice to say. Or they were just playing on their phones. One student’s answers were all “IDK.” Very insightful.
I know things I want to improve on for next year, but I know that there are a lot of things I want to keep doing. And things I want to do more of. I sometimes think about how much more I could do if 25 instructional days weren’t taken up with state and district assessment. That’s a whole novel. Or 4 writing assignments. Or a project or three. But those standardized assessments are important – right?
I’m not so sure. No one mentioned standardized tests once in any journal. Not as a favorite thing. Not as a thing they learned from. Not as something important. Not as something they wished there were more of.
In a system that seems to think standardization is everything – what students want is something… different.