I love summer break’s gift of decompression. It is during the weeks from mid-June to mid-August that my brain defrags the preceding school year’s experiences, condensing them into a more manageable series of memories, lessons, and principles.
What are we about?
One principle that I began examining in the Fall of 2011 is that of the core purpose of my classes. What are my students and I about during the course of a trimester? When my students first meet on the day after Labor Day, what is our driving purpose for all of our weeks together? Essentially, I’m trying to answer the “So what?” question of my course. What is its significance to a student’s life? Why does it matter? How will it lastingly impact them? How will it improve their days on the planet?
Last fall, I began considering these macro-level questions for the first time, and I formulated the following sentence: We are about becoming better readers, writers, thinkers, and people.
This neatly summarized the key areas in which I want my students to grow while we live and learn together in a given term. At the end of my courses, I want them all to have grown in their aptitudes for reading, writing, and thinking, and I also want them to have developed character. Though I still agree with this purpose statement for my students and apart from a few emphatic references to this sentence at the start of the year, I rarely mentioned it after September; few of my students could probably tell you today what the core purpose of our class was during the 2011-2012 school year.
Furthermore, my ideas about these areas — reading, writing, thinking, and being a good person — were rather vague. Thanks to time, hindsight, and a few key breakthroughs, I am clearer on what I mean by our purpose sentence.
Becoming better readers
I use a two-pronged strategy for improving all of my students as readers: I teach them how to read grade-appropriate complex texts (as defined by the Common Core State Standards [CCSS] for ELA and Literacy and exemplified in Appendix B of that document), and I expect them to read recreationally. I believe both prongs are imperative at just about every level of education.
Every student, regardless of reading ability, should be taught how to read texts that are grade-level appropriate. Sure, some of them will come to me with remarkably below-grade-level reading ability, but that doesn’t mean I only require them to read texts that are within their reach. Just because Johnny’s reading is currently at the Diary of a Wimpy Kid level instead of the All Quiet on the Western Front level, I am still going to require Johnny to read All Quiet on the Western Front with loads of explicit instruction and scaffolding from myself, particularly when we first start the novel. The alternative to this is allowing Johnny to solely read books of his choosing or books that are slightly above his abilities; unfortunately, the college/career world will not make such concessions for him; inevitably, my friend Johnny will be faced with complex texts well beyond him. Lowering the standards for Johnny defeats all of my purposes as a teacher.
But at the same time, Johnny will grow stronger as a reader by reading books he enjoys, and books he enjoys will often be at or slightly above his reading abilities (especially with my guidance). This is where choice reading comes in. Due to time constraints, I can’t give as much daily time to choice reading as I’d like, but I can and will give some because this is the second prong of my strategy in improving my students as readers.
Becoming better writers
I want my students to be able to express themselves in writing. When they someday write a cover letter for their resume or a request for a raise, I want my students to feel up to the task. There are several prongs to my strategy for seeing this happen: grammar/mechanics instruction, formal writing, and informal writing. Or, in sum: write a lot.
For grammar and mechanics, I’m indebted to a colleague who uses an excellent synthesis of rule learning, sentence correcting, mentor imitating, and applied editing. In a given week, this colleague’s students will learn or review rules for a given skill (e.g., the seven “do use” and three “don’t use” comma rules), correct teacher-created sentences that contain errors related to that skill and past skills, create sentences to mimic mentor sentences that use the skill, and then edit whatever piece of writing students are currently working on for that skill. Once I have convinced students that they had better not dare to let me move on from grammar instruction if they have an unanswered question, I hold students accountable for this grammar knowledge with rubrics that give writing conventions an ample emphasis.
For formal writing, I aim to give students one extended formal task each unit. Since I teach freshmen, this is often an argument of some kind. For informal writing, last year I required students to submit five fresh pages of journal writing each week.
Becoming better thinkers
Gerald Graff helped my understanding of what it means to be a thinker. In his essay “Hidden Intellectualism,” Graff essentially argues that, in whatever realms students argue with their peers, whether it be the best baseball team in the league or the greatest pop song of the summer or the superiority of the Xbox 360 versus the PS3, students are engaging in intellectual activity. This is where educators will find the link between the academic thinking we want our students to strengthen and the lives our students lead every day.
In other words, Graff helped me see that my students will become more comfortable in the argumentative cultures of the various academic disciplines when they see them as akin to the argumentative cultures they are already comfortable in. This coming school year, I’m going to spend the first month attempting to more fully achieve this bridging with my students, but in the past year I saw great success in this area simply by repeatedly arranging for frequent debates in our history and English classes.
Becoming better people
Ever since reading Rafe Esquith’s There Are No Shortcuts, I’ve resonated with his class’ mantra: “Be nice. Work hard.” He takes predominantly ESL fifth-graders in Los Angeles and reads through a bevy of classics with them, ranging from Steinbeck to Shakespeare to Malcolm X (i.e., he and his students “work hard”). But he also has high expectations for how his students will conduct themselves as people, and he has a vision for their lifelong deportment (i.e., he and his students strive to “be nice”). As a result, his students tend to grow not only academically, but they also become nicer and harder working people.
So even as a beginning teacher in Baltimore, I knew I wanted my students to become more than better readers, writers, and thinkers. I knew that academically and intellectually strong people can still be horrible friends and miserable coworkers if they lack the ability to be nice or the grit to work hard.
But the question was always this: How do I teach students to be nice? How do I teach them to work hard?
And the answer is predictable: Through a combination of explicit instruction and consistent role modeling, I can have a positive impact on the growth of student character.
But then more questions arise: What, exactly, do you explicitly teach students about being nice? Which aspects of character are most worthy of explicit instruction?
Thankfully, the answer to these questions was in the works when I was about ten years old. In 1994, the Knowledge is Power Program charter school movement (commonly known as KIPP) was born, and, inspired by Esquith, one of the successful school system’s key slogans is “Be Nice. Word Hard.” For nearly twenty years, these schools have been honing in on character education that works, and the fruit of their labor is their list of seven highly predictive character strengths.
The seven strengths — grit, zest, optimism, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, and curiosity — were chosen from a list of 24 human virtues compiled by Peterson and Seligman. Though all 24 of the virtues are found to lead to “happy, engaged, and meaningful lives,” KIPP chooses to focus on the seven that are most closely linked with college and career success.
Armed with this newly discovered information, I joined with several colleagues during this past school year in teaching these seven character strengths. Because we began our initiative near the middle of the year, we don’t have a lot of data to show for our efforts, but we did notice students expressing an increased awareness that there is more to success than academic and intellectual ability.
I am still not content with my first half-decade of character education, but I have only grown increasingly convinced of the importance of this thread in my classroom.
Upon reflecting on my first year of using an explicit purpose for my classes, I am excited by the lessons that I’ve learned and I look forward to being more explicit about our purpose for the duration of the coming school year.