No, I'm not presenting at an EdTech conference. Nor am I addressing the PTA.
The words for which I am searching are to be spoken to none other than a very small (12 students) but challenging 5th grade class.
I have had challenging classes before, and I can only hope that I have continued to grow and learn as a teacher. Funny how that doesn't really make it any easier.
This isn't even "my" class.
Here's the situation: As I mentioned previously, I am working with the 5th grade class on the Meet the Candidates webquest. The kids are required to work together in small groups to create a political ad. There's a high level of interest in the project. They are motivated and excited.
The problem? They are finding themselves unable to work together productively. There have been tears, arguments, and me having to intervene with small groups as well as sit and "process" with the larger group. Friday was the most difficult day so far.
I thought, based on MY experience as a teacher and the groups I have led in the past, that I could lead any groups to success. Did I say that there are ONLY 12 students in the class?
I am humbled. Challenged. Learning IS messy, isn't it?
What I see here is, I believe, the failure of years of schooling that was based on worksheets and workbooks, the individual pursuit of academic skill-building taking precedence over the skills of collaboration and community building.
The 5th grade classroom teacher is great. She is open to all ideas, discussion, suggestion. I think, if nothing else, she and I are a model for the students as they watch the way we collaborate.
We discussed the problems over emails this weekend. Should we allow only some students to work on the project? She says that this is what the kids want. They feel that the school should do something about the kids who misbehave. We (the adults) are all talk and no action.
I thought about it.
I thought about the "misbehavior." It really isn't misbehavior. It is that they DON'T KNOW HOW TO WORK TOGETHER. THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN REQUIRED TO WORK IN GROUPS. THEY HAVE NOT BEEN TAUGHT. Because it's FLIPPIN' HARD! It would be so easy to let this project melt into dust, to "babysit" them in the computer lab, give easy assignments and let them play games. SO. MUCH. EASIER.
But sometimes learning involves struggle. And what kind of message would I be giving them if I gave up on them just cause it's hard for me to watch them struggle?
I am going to talk to them tomorrow, and I am searching for the words to say. I think I will start by sharing this quote I read in David Warlick's "Open Letter to the Next President" in Tech&Learning Magazine:
"The real problems of the world are not problems of science and math. They are problems of communication, people, communities and values."
If I had my way, and I mean this, I would throw out all the grades and the other stuff that school has become. I would focus all of my energy on the community, on teaching them to compromise, discuss, value one another, understand the other person's point of view, work together.
I thought it somewhat ironic that Friday was such a difficult day. Our school is a Jewish Day School, and Thursday was the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Of course, I don't really expect 5th graders to understand the idea of atonement. But I think they can comprehend the fact that none of us are perfect, that each of us can improve ourselves.
That, as I see it, is the hardest part. I think that each one of them thinks that someone else is the problem. They aren't really willing or able to see their own role. So, as I was saying, the teacher suggested that maybe a solution was to take certain kids off the project. That way the other kids, the ones who have an easier time getting along, don't have to lose out on the opportunity to create the video, the most motivating part of the lesson for them.
And I thought about it. A lot.
I have concluded that that is not the best solution. We are studying a presidential election. It is emotional and can be very divisive. But we will all have to live with the results of the election. If the candidate I am supporting does not win, I anticipate having to suffer based on what, in my opinion, are the poor choices made by others. This is part of life in a democracy.
And I guess that I believe that this is part of life in school. I am going to try my hardest to work with the kids, to express myself, to help them learn the difficult skills of navigating life on earth with so many other human beings. If we fail to make our videos, we will fail together. I think we will succeed. But the most important thing is that we learn something.
Wish us luck.