Sending the Right Messages About Learning

This week, my daughter learned how to write her own name.

It was very cool to watch this process unfold. She’s been interested in letters and writing for some time now, but she hadn’t mastered writing anything other than O. Suddenly, thanks to her preschool teachers and time, her writing ability has taken a giant leap forward.

But the best part is her joy. When she writes her name, she is so proud of herself. Her face lights up. That’s the special magic of learning– it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. She’s excited because she’s accomplished a goal she set for herself. She’s confident because now she knows she can write other words if she keeps trying.

As a teacher, it’s always really interesting to witness an authentic, self-motivated moment of learning like this, because it flies in the face of so much of what we end up doing in schools.

It wasn’t an assessment given to her by someone else. It didn’t happen during a special block of time called “Writing.” My husband and I didn’t immediately correct her and tell her that the horizontal lines on the E were too long. We didn’t write an A at the top of the paper.

So much of the learning that happens in my daughter’s preschool class is like this. It’s self-directed; the kids choose what they want to play with, and there’s learning embedded in that and gently facilitated by teachers. It’s not based on formal assessments, although the teachers do have benchmarks that they’re observing for and working towards with students. It’s driven by students’ interests; one week, every activity they did was related to dinosaurs because the kids were into dinosaurs. It’s iterative and hands-on and collaborative.

Why do we lose so much of this by the time kids are teenagers? Why do we sacrifice that joy and magic of learning to schedules and bells and worksheets and silo-ed disciplines and one-size-fits-all and tests? What lessons can I learn from all of this, as a high school teacher?

High school can’t be exactly like preschool (although most of my students could definitely use a nap). But I can work to build in more opportunities for my students to guide their own inquiry by choosing texts to read or current events to explore. I can give my students time and space to set and share their own goals. I can remember to infuse “play” into my class.

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Last night, my daughter’s teachers sent home a “Family Conference Form.” It’s not a report card… except that it kind of is. When my husband told me they’d given it to him, I immediately felt nervous. What did they say about her? Is there anything negative on the paper? Is there anything she’s not doing well? Is she behind in any way?

Whoa.

She’s three.

I suddenly realized this is what my students’ families might feel like when we send report cards home. It feels like a judgment, potentially an indictment, despite all of the best intentions of the teachers.

Yikes.

The report card–sorry, “Family Conference Form”–started with a 3-page list of all of the things my daughter knows how to do (including “Gallops, but not smoothly,” which I think is super funny and weird to have as a learning standard, but that’s probably why I work in high school teacher and not early childhood). I felt my heart rate decreasing as I read the list. I felt proud: That’s right, my baby can use controlled linear scribbles. She can use controlled linear scribbles all day if she wants to! The teachers had added some notes and examples throughout the document of times when she had demonstrated certain skills, which I appreciated, because they helped me get a sense of what those skills might look like in practice.

Then I got to the last page, which was just one paragraph. It said that she is a pleasure to have in class and listed some ways she is awesome. Then: “Below I have listed a few of the developmental goals that we are currently working on with her.” There was a list of 5 bullets naming skills she should continue working on. And that was it.

Three pages of positives. Three pages of things she can do. And five bullets of stuff to work on.

I liked those odds.

I felt reassured. My kid’s teachers knew her, and they saw all of the ways she was growing. And they had set some goals for her that felt totally doable and not overwhelming, and invited me to help them reinforce those skills at home if I could.

At my school, we use standards-based grading. That means, instead of sending home report cards with one letter or number grade listed for each class, we send home a big list of learning targets linked to standards and color-code them based on the student’s current level of mastery. In that way, it’s sort of similar to my daughter’s form. It’s detailed, it’s broken down into discrete tasks.

But thinking about it now, I bet that a lot of families skip past the details and just look at the colors. They see red, red, yellow, green, yellow, and focus on those reds and yellows. The greens get lost in the shuffle. I wonder how we could better prioritize the things that students are doing well–frontload them–so families and students get a more balanced sense of the student’s progress. Even if a student has a lot of “reds,” it’s important that they get some positive feedback on the things they are learning or the ways they have grown.

If report cards will continue to be an important way that we communicate with families, how can we ensure that they send the right messages about learning?

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About those five bullets on my daughter’s paper? The fourth one struck me. It said that one goal to work on is learning to write her name.

The most important thing we can remember, as teachers and as parents, is that neither of us, working alone, sees the full picture. We have to work together to support kids as whole people.