Jane Hansen taught me to think about evaluation in terms of e-VALUE-ation, or what one values about her work. We all want to be heard. Often as administrators, teachers, and students we don’t listen to the diverse voices that fill the room. Truth-telling takes a degree of bravery. It requires the asker to step forward and embrace her vulnerabilities, and it charges the teller to tell truths that may be uncomfortable to release into open air. This type of work gets done in school buildings and classrooms where the notion of “equality across stories” is embraced and honest talk is supported by open listening. When a student, parent, or teacher tells his story, and is shut down by the listener, he will withdrawal, and the world will be less because he stopped talking. As teachers we often evaluate our students, but seldom do we ask our students to evaluate us. The most powerful evaluation is the one that looks up, telling those who have the power to make change WHAT to change. In an effort to enter into these honest conversations, every month I ask the fifth grade boys in our classroom and the graduate students I teach in the evenings to do some truth telling.
Yesterday, I asked my boys to pause and reflect on these questions. They wrote their answers on paper and handed them in anonymously. These were the questions I asked them to contemplate:
What IS working for you in our classroom (structures, activities, projects, etc.)?
What is NOT working for you in our classroom (structures, activities, projects, etc.)?
What is something you did in another classroom that you would like to do in our classroom?
What are some other suggestions you have to make our classroom better?
This was their truth-telling. The items are listed according to their level of frequency in the boys’ responses, with number one shared most frequently. I did not provide the boys with a list of choices, as not to limit their critique.
What is working:
- Writing Workshop
- Genius Hour
- Reading Workshop
- Writing in our daybook
- Light homework with a focus on reading
- Reading picture books
- The integration of technology
What is not working:
- We can’t play our favorite games on Spelling City
- Not talking in the halls
- People are not paying attention to parent readers
- The room is too small
Suggestions from other classes:
- Reader’s Theater
- Math Jail
- Jeopardy in social studies
- Prizes for good behavior
Suggestions in general:
- More Writing Workshop
- Genius Hour everyday
- More integration of the arts
- Play soft music
- Free time to do what we want
- Brain breaks to relax
- Let us talk in the halls
- Get more space
As I reflected on what “is working” for the boys, I was struck that almost every boy voiced a desire to have more time in Writing Workshop. We have writing workshop five days a week for 45 minutes, but as a writer, I know that the more you write the more you want to engage in the practice. Genius Hour is a time the boys explore topics individually and collaboratively that speak to their passions. I am going to try to open up more space in our week for the boys to chase their own interests. I go light on homework, with the majority devoted to reading. Students have consistently supported this practice, and I see their love of reading grow out of that philosophy.
My boys were honest about what is “not working.” I have tried to use the website Spelling City to supplement our Word Study program. We have the free version, which limits the games and level of individualization. I know that has frustrated the boys. We are working on getting the premium version. I agree, it is perhaps unnecessary to be 100% silent in the halls. Today during morning meeting, we will brainstorm how we can move through the halls in a way that does not disturb other classes, but perhaps opens up space for quiet talking, just as we do as adults. The bustle of the lunchtime routine, at times drowns out the voices of parents as they read. We agreed to wait to dispose of trash until the book was complete.
The boys’ suggestions were thoughtful. There are things I can’t do. Our room is tiny. The space at times makes us all feel confined. We have tried to pour into the halls and make use of the larger campus. I wish we had more space too. I philosophically disagree with giving prizes as a reward for good behavior or most books read, but their comments let me know I need to make my reasoning more explicit. There are other things I can and will do. I will start to play soft music in the background today. We won’t do it all of the time, because I know music is distracting to some learners, but we will do it sometimes. I can also easily infuse Reader’s Theater into instruction. That is something I frequently do with classes, but I have not done it this year with this group of boys. We will do it next week. I am creative. I love to paint. I have struggled to find places inside our spaces for open access to art materials. I will charge myself to find space this afternoon. Math Jail and Jeopardy are two games I know speak to the competitive nature of boys. Check, those are easy integrations.
This morning and over the coming weeks, the boys and I will continue to talk about these ideas. In three or four weeks, I will ask the boys to e-VALUE-ate me and our classroom work again. Together, we will open up space for everyone’s story and make our classroom reflective of who we are and what we need.