Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Honest Teens

J using  his exam review to guide his writing during our exam.
The school year is coming to an end. Students and I are reflecting on the work we've done. Teenagers are amazing: truthful, honest, quirky. To prepare for our final exam I return to students a few of the initial assessments we completed the first week of school. Teenagers love to think about where they are as people and as students. The first week of school I asked students to set priorities for themselves as students and people. This week they re-read their priorities and reflected on their progress toward them.

One students review what they wrote in August, they write me a letter. To guide students' thinking, I used a reflection question that Jennifer Ansbach shared with me: "Where are you now [in terms of your priorities]? How did you get there?" Students' writing made me cheer. One student, talking about our weekly Socratic discussions, said, "It took like a couple of months but now I am not afraid to talk in front of large groups. It was helpful to know that if I talked then no one would make fun of what I say because I was afraid of that." Another writes, "This year I have found a few books that I have truly been captured by and my reading and vocabulary has improved and grown. I have gotten to be this way mainly because of your persistent effort to make us read and record our reading," my teacher self does a happy dance: yes!

It is not about me though. Getting ninth graders to reflect on their work is about teaching them to take responsibility for their learning and to think critically about their own performance--to celebrate their accomplishments and recognize where they need to tweak or adjust  to improve.

Students are insightful. One writes, "It is my choice and  I will decide what is or isn't worth the effort. My teachers have influenced me greatly because of how enthusiastic or committed they are to their subject. It's almost contagious. I think that if someone is passionate about something their passion will rub off on others." Her passion for baking and Dr. Who certainly spread through fourth period this year,so much so that after she shared her citrus sugar cookies with me, I gifted her with a zester and we had quite the baking conversation/demonstration before class one day.

Students surprise themselves, "In the process of trying to get a good grade, I found the joy in reading." He surprised himself. Another student surprised me. His honest claim speak volumes, "I did not set my priorities straight and I am disappointed in myself for that." When I was a teenager my parents, I'm sure,  wished I would have been so forthright.

Students sometimes say things that disappoint me. One student set developing relationships with teachers and growing as a reader as a priority. She wrote, "How do I tell you were I'm at in terms of those priorities? I don't have any type of relationship with my teachers, but I did become more of a reader." It saddens me that she still feels disconnected at the end of the year and I have to look honestly at how I may have contributed to that.

Sometimes what disappoints me is a surprise. One student shows me she's internalized the scale from the new teacher evaluation protocols when she  writes, "I thought I was ready and prepared for anything that came my way. Truth be told, I wasn't. My priorities at the beginning of the year were to be able to study better and make new friends. On a scale of 1-5, I'm at a 3. I believe that I'm at a 3 because I learned how to study better but am still shy around new people." Scales are a tool for assessment and evaluation. Taken too far or used too often they have the potential to limit thinking.  I hope students see scales only as one tool of many--certainly some things are better measured by words and actions than by numbers and ratings.

It is nice when students recognize my efforts. One student wrote, "You push us to do more than we see in ourselves and although we complain and throw fits, in the end it's all for us." I'm so glad that this students sees the belief I have in students and their abilities. But just as often students say the opposite. Some see my expectations as "too high" or see my performance as not good enough. I had to laugh when one student wrote: "Honestly, you did okay as a person but for some one who has been doing it for 20 years you could do better." I can do better, but if I have created a thoughtful environment where this student feels comfortable and able to speak his mind, then I have succeeded. I have empowered my students and taught them that I value their voices. This particular student wasn't specific, so I'm not sure where I fell short in his eyes. I do know though, that while students may not see how or where I improve, I do.

My students take a reflective exam. In past years we had time to spend a week looking back at our work and using it as evidence on written self-evaluations. This year  I shortened the reflection. I gave the students an exam study guide the week before exams and we practiced by writing reflection letters. Students are prepared to reflect on their exams. I can't wait to read what they write.


  1. WOW, Lee Ann. I love the priority goals and the reflective final. I am constantly amazed by the work you share! I try to have my students reflect and give feedback often too, but you have taken it to a whole new level by incorporating the reflection with academic goals (i.e. supporting claims with evidence) in your final. So neat!!!! Thanks for sharing your incredible ideas!

  2. Lee Ann -- Thanks for sharing not only your reflections but the actual documents used. That's extremely helpful.

    Even if there are disappointments, which are inevitable, you led a lot of students toward important realizations as readers and, as you say, "people and students."

    You led a lot of teachers toward important realizations too, and I'm grateful to be in that tribe.


    1. Thank you, Gary. Your encouragement and support has made such a difference in my teaching life. I'm glad to be in your tribe too.