To Raise or To Ruin

A 3d graphic of the words in the question What Do You Think? This could be used to encourage people to participate in a survey or poll and ask their opinion or input on a customer service or other fact gathering project[/caption]I recently had an experience that had me wondering how we can keep children engaged and excited about learning as they progress through school.

Recently, I joined with a fabulous group of educators–reading coaches who were using a Looking at Student Work protocol following our first administration of common Parcc aligned interim assessments.

Each coach had brought samples of student work, all in response to the following prompt: “Retell the story from the crow’s point of view. Be sure to use details from the selection.”

Guided by a rubric the coaches each read the same sample and then compared their ratings in each category :in each of the four categories: Focus/Setting, Organization/Plot, Narrative Techniques and Language the work could earn one of four labels: Exemplary, Proficient, Emerging or Incomplete.

I joined one group as they reviewed sample #2. I struggled just to read it. Most of the words were misspelled, some letters were written backwards, and there was no punctuation at all throughout the essay. My colleagues appeared to be similarly struggling and rather quickly, we sadly concluded that the essay earned an “incomplete” in each category. We talked a bit about how poor the writing was for a fourth grader and wondered if the student had a disability or was new to the country and learning English. Our discussion prompted another read and one of us began reading the essay aloud. Each of us helped where we could as we made sense of words. We then read it aloud a second time and this time could see that while there were many errors and many areas of struggle, this student had read the story and was indeed retelling from the crow’s point of view. There were clues in the vocabulary choices and dialogue attempts that hinted at the author’s enthusiasm–truly, in this brief essay, he was the crow!

By this third read, we were all so impressed with this student. We could see his effort, could picture him as he wrote the essay, thrilled to have the chance to pretend to be a different character.

I found the reading coach from this school, who told me we had it right and that she had chosen this work sample in particular because of her fondness for the student, R. He had transferred into the school last year and had a number of struggles, including behavioral, but was an enthusiastic learner.

The next week, I went to meet R. A somewhat quiet boy with a great smile, he beamed when I brought out his essay and told him how much I had enjoyed reading it. He told me he loves reading, especially Captain Underpants, and liked talking about what he reads. He spontaneously hugged me when his principal took our picture and she told me later that he carried the essay around all day and had it with him as he waited for the bus home.

While I’m delighted that R loves school and loves reading, I am, of course, worried about him and students like him. It took four adults three reads of his essay to find the strengths and to find the jumping off points for encouragement. In the twenty minutes or so that we spend discussing his work, we noted areas for improvement, but did not have time to prioritize those areas and develop reteaching and intervention strategies.

Clearly, R is a struggling student in so many ways. His sample work and his standardized test scores put him in our “urgent intervention” category. There is so much for him to catch up on that one can reasonably wonder if he’ll ever catch up to his peers academically.

But the bigger question is what will happen to his spark and what will we as educators do to keep him an engaged and happy student even while we work to close gaps.

Will we use rubrics to help guide his growth or will they be a shaming or sorting tool? Will teachers have the time to read his words, or scribe for him until his writing improves? Will we encourage him to keep reading the books he loves? Will he still be an active class participant next year in 5th grade, or when he gets to middle school–or will he become demoralized over time and give up?

The key is likely in the way feedback is provided, so that R sees constant opportunities for improvement. What if we change the “ratings” to student friendly language so that the student can understand the teacher’s evaluation? Something like:

Exemplary=You knocked it out of the park
Proficient= You’ve got this
Emerging= Almost there
Incomplete= Let’s work on this together

Even better, providing students ample opportunities to self assess (perhaps using this Smiley Face Self-Assessment) might promote a sense of ownership and pride. And yes, this works all the way through high school.

Referring to my high-spirited toddler daughter, a friend once said, “Don’t ruin her.” He knew her spirit was worth preserving, even at the expense of some frustration. Some years later I’m glad I listened. To R’s future teachers–and indeed to all of us responsible for his learning– I say something similar. Yes, give him critical feedback and yes, help him to raise and want to raise his skills. But, please, let’s never ruin this sweet boy’s joy.

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