Pushing Beyond Their Limits

Six Flag Great Adventure from high up
Image by xmascarol via Flickr

I’ve got a great 6th grade social studies class.

They’re bright, chatty, funny, ambitious, and thoroughly indoctrinated into the hunt for grades.

It’s really sad to see, all these very sharp kids more concerned with getting the right answer and scoring 100 on tests than actually learning and making connections.

It is as if we’ve taught them to just regurgitate information instead of constructing knowledge.

I do what I can to fight that tendency.

I’m not big on tests, but a couple of months ago I started giving this class weekly assessments of some kind.

I’ve told these kids that everything in life, every moment, is a test and I’ve reinforced that occasionally by announcing the assessment after it has occurred.

Today I realized that I could not give them their weekly assessment tomorrow because they would be away on the 6th grade end-of-year trip, so I started class today with the announcement that I had good and bad news for them.

I gave them the bad news first: “There’s no room on the bus so I won’t be able to go to Great Adventures with you tomorrow.”

The students were stunned and upset. Then I reminded them that I had good news, too.

“Because you’ll be on your trip tomorrow I can’t give you your weekly assessment then…,”

Cheers!

“…so Ill have to do it today,”

Shock!

Some were angry, some very worried, and one girl looked like she was going to cry.

Even S, as close to a dream student as I’m even likely to see, reacted like I had betrayed her.

We’ve been studying the Renaissance the past two weeks or so and we’ve talked about how it contrasted with the Medieval era, how culture flourished and new styles of art, music, eating and fashion had emerged.

The past two days we’ve been starting to look at the age of exploration, discussing why people explore and looking at maps of the known world in the last quarter of the 15th Century.

Europe in 1470

Image via Wikipedia

My assessment today had one question.

What was it about the last half of the 15th Century and first half of the 16th that led to the massive amount of exploration by Europeans in that time? What else was going on that led to an explosion of voyages on sea and land in search of riches, spices, and the fabled Northwest Passage to Asia?

I was looking for my students to think about the Renaissance and how it really was a rebirth of culture. We had discussed how that rebirth was possible because of the relative peace of that era.

I wanted them to realize that the same peace that fostered the curiosity and creativity of the Renaissance also fostered curiosity about the earth and its limits.

As I walked around the room I realized that no one was giving me the type of answer I was expecting.

Many students were telling me why people explored and the rest were describing conditions of war, poverty and pestilence common in Medieval times.

I restated the question in different words.

No change in their answers. Even the one or two who realized this was the Renaissance time-period did not make the connection.

I stopped the assessment.

I explained that almost everyone was heading off in the wrong direction, that I knew they knew what was actually going on in the 1490s and beyond, but that they were giving me details of an earlier time.

Only now do I realize they were telling me why people have emigrated in the past century, something many of them have done.

In the middle of the class I knew that they had not made the intellectual leap I thought they would.

Most of the kids were angry that I had stopped them from continuing to write their answers, even after I told them they were going off in the wrong direction. After all, they had worked hard putting their ideas on paper.

The more accomplished students in the class were angry because I had asked them such a complex question.

I told them that I thought they could make the intellectual leap I was asking them to, but perhaps I was asking too much. I reminded them that after a few years teaching intellectually challenged students, I was still learning how to teach and assess intellectually gifted ones.

Then I told them that if they get every question right every time, they’re not being challenged enough; that they would not know what they were capable of until they failed at something because they had over-reached or had been over-challenged.

I explained that I assess them constantly and already knew that they got what was different about the Renaissance, that they understood many of the reasons men and women go off into the unknown.

“I know what you know,” I said,  “Now I want to discover what you’re doing with what you know.”

They thought for a while.

They looked at each other.

They looked at the floor.

They looked at me.

Finally one tiny girl spoke up.

“I remember at the beginning of the year you told us you would be very different from any other teacher we’ve had.”

I smiled at the memory.

“You really weren’t kidding, were you?”

“And I’m going to be your social studies teacher again next year!”

Smiles all around.

I think it was my proudest moment in my teaching career.

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5 Responses to Pushing Beyond Their Limits

  1. Lisa says:

    Devon,
    Wonderful article, I remember these struggles all too well!
    Here’s something to think about for next year: These classes are the best place to stretch into arts-integration with self-assessment. When students project their thoughts into an area that isn’t strictly right vs. wrong and follow with group discussion and inquiry; you can almost feel them grow a bit more each time! For the self assessment, thoughtfully re-word (flip) 4 of your objectives and then a fifth referring to personal craftsmanship. This way, students aren’t just throwing anything down and saying, “There. I’m done.” The final question is,”Did I (your teacher) do a good job? What could I have done better? What advice do you have for me next time I give the students certain point levels to each question – Did you include…(20 pts), Were you able to…(15 pts).
    They add up their points and look the the board for the corresponding letter grade. The final part is for them to say if they feel that this is the right grade for them and why.
    Maybe you already do all of this, but I loved it. It gives the students a powerful voice, helps with higher order thinking skills, basic math skills, and working on prior writing skills. The best part, you now have an assessment of your work, their work and their view to share for parent-teacher conferences… plus it’s the kind of documentation granting agencies love to see!!!
    Lisa Hutler

  2. Diane Lauer says:

    What a way to end the school year! Your belief in your students and ability to create a learning environment where students can take risks paid off. What a treat to have them again next year!!!! Congrats!

  3. […] After pushing a class of grade-focused students to think bigger, a teacher is rewarded. […]

  4. April says:

    I wish you were my children’s teacher! Unfortunately, most of my daughters’ teachers and tests only ask them to regurgitate the facts (and in multiple-choice form, no less) so it’s great that you are there to help some move beyond that and into a truly valuable education.

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