Every summer I set my intentions for the next school year. These “New Year Resolutions” help me improve and refine my practice and keeps my teaching fresh. Often times they are built based on my learning experiences, reflections, and readings from the summer season.
One resolution came courtesy of listening to a lot of Hamilton this summer. As Aaron Burr advised Alexander Hamilton, I plan to “Talk less, smile more” this year. Not for the reasons that Burr would suggest, but to create a student-centered and student-driven classroom. My goal is to be present- physically and cognitively. Students are very much creatures of the moment and I want to meet them there. I plan to focus on my students, listen for misconceptions, and look for teachable moments. I want to get to know them better as individuals and enjoy them more.
My first project with my fifth graders was assigned and presented last week. I’d been hemming and hawing about how to broach the subject of the election, knowing that I needed to, but frankly feared potential fallout. But the stars aligned and we needed to hold elections for Student Council Class Representatives. We were reading Off and Running by Gary Soto, about a girl running for class president and learning important lessons along the way about popularity and the importance of helping your community. Students were not required to be in the race for Class Representative, but I asked all students to participate in the experience by creating and presenting a product for our mock election. I gave my students a choice of products such as creating a campaign TV commercial (live or pre-recorded), dressing up and delivering a campaign speech or creating a campaign poster and presenting it to the class. We learned about persuasive techniques and they had to utilize at least one technique in their product. We had great discussions about what they were seeing in this year’s election. Due to my fears, I set some initial ground rules, like stay away from specific candidate’s names, don’t ask Mrs. Maloney who she is voting for, etc. As it turns out, my students were quick to identify fear tactics and didn’t like that technique (ahem, US Senate race in Arizona). They also pointed out campaign promises that could be realized and those that were empty platforms. We decided to focus on emotional appeal, slogans and catch phrases, and promises for our mock election.
Friday was presentation day and it brought me back to my resolution. My students arrived bubbling with nervous excitement, overflowing with posters and props, and looking, in the words of one student, “fresh.” Boys and girls sported ties and button-down shirts. I didn’t know there were so many sequined clip-on ties in the world. George Washington himself even made an appearance to extol the virtues of one candidate.
Presentation days are always some of my favorite days of the school year. They are a demonstration of our work using speaking and listening standards which are crucial life skills. Presentations are a chance for my students to show what they’re made of. Creativity abounds. Nerves are present, but so are laughter, awe, and pride. This was our first big presentation of the year and it set the stage for the quality of work and effort I expect for the rest of the year. Presentation day also sets the tone for ways we support each other as a learning community, from applauding at the end of each presentation, to holding each other’s posters, to being active listeners. In this case, the rubric required students to identify the persuasive technique(s) they found in each other’s products so it was an excellent opportunity to practice active listening and assist me in grading that aspect of the rubric.
One of the first students to present validated my goal of listening and being present. And pretty much my teaching philosophy.
“We only have one year in fifth grade. Let’s make it the best year ever.”
They had great platforms to improve our school and classroom: “Keep the Community Snack Bowl full!” “We should have soft music playing in the background when we work.” “We need to build a taller wall so we don’t lose playground balls over the fence!” “We should paint the walls and put potted plants outside.” “Our school lunch is really good but it isn’t enough food for a growing child.” “We need a longer recess. Research shows that 15 minutes isn’t enough for fifth graders!” Holy cow – logos! I was saving that to teach next!
Then came a video with a Katy Perry look-alike and real life local celebrities like “Rowdy” Randy Schiller and Representative Lela Alston –celebrity appeal! Impressive! And then there was one of my favorite emotional appeals. Picture a tiny fifth grader standing on our stage, “I’ve seen some hard times. Yes, I’ve been through some tough times… times when I missed lunch recess or didn’t have enough time to eat my lunch.”
I also learned that my students can make really incredible videos. Fade-ins, captions, music, costumes! Next time I need help creating one, I have many little people to ask for assistance.
In the words of one of my students, typed into our Google Classroom (another New Year Resolution!), “That was fun, Mrs. Maloney.” I’m listening, kids. Keep those ideas coming. After all, you only get one fifth grade year!