What follows is a transcript of a letter written to me by one of my international students. It’s a constant reminder of why I teach.
Dear Ms. Bacon,
I have to tell you I was so happy to get Biology on my schedule my first week here. But I also have to tell you that on my second weekend here the only thing I could think about school was, “Oh no, biology!”
I was afraid of talking, I was afraid of making mistakes, I was afraid of trying. The day of my first presentation in this class, I showed to be weak, but you showed me I was wrong.
You helped me transform my weakness into strength.
The moment that I was standing, facing the whole class, and everyone was paying attention in my words, I realized that biology is not just about cell, muscles, bones, plants animals. As the word says, Biology is life. The study of life. Biology helped me to face my fears.
And you Ms. Bacon, you helped me to climb the biggest mountain I have ever faced. That was my first mountain in a long time, and I know it will not be the last. Thank you for all biology, and more than that, thank you for teaching me how to face my mountains using my own weapons.
I’m exhausted! After a week of end-of-semester assessments I’m not sure how I’ll find the energy to start over again on Monday.
I’ve spent the last week listening to presentations of learning (POL) from students, an alternative I’ve offered to students in one of my courses before but never in all of them. I also didn’t anticipate how many students would opt for a POL instead of writing the exam.
I keep the choice of how to present up to the kids and the choice of what outcomes/standards to speak about is up to them as well. What is not optional is the discovery/creation of connections between units, between courses, between the world outside the classroom and within themselves.
What I discovered is that the process revealed so much more about students thinking than a traditional exam ever could. POL allow conversations to happen; for both teacher and student there’s an unveiling of how students learn. I witnessed deep personal connections that went beyond content to reveal deep thinking and wondering. Young people are aware and outward-looking. They are concerned about more than themselves and passionate about our world.
Not all of the presentations were illuminating nor did they demonstrate understanding of content but they still had value. Students who didn’t “show up” all year kept their appointments. And it’s hard to fake your way through a conversation with your teacher about how you think you did versus what it needed to look like and what you are capable of.
As I reflect on the process I realize that students must feel safe and supported in order to be vulnerable enough to take this on. That the relationship between us is the key to make this even a possibility.
I’m not as ready as I normally would be for the new semester. No end-of-the-semester turn around time for me. When I start to feel a bit hard done by, I look at a letter written by one of my international students and suck it up. Noone ever said doing the right thing would be easy.
Students in my class get rewrite opportunities on assessments where they are not meeting standards (expectations) for the learning outcome. Usually I have a rewrite prepared and most students manage to do better with seemingly little or no effort.
For the end of term credit recovery I changed it up a bit. I asked students to show me what they know about the particular outcome(s) they weren’t successful on, any way they want. They book an appointment and then demonstrate their learning.
This morning I had a student wanting to show me what they understood about the scientific method. She went through the standard steps with examples and it seemed OK but then she showed how she applied the scientific method by running an experiment on herself studying with or without caffeine. She explained what she learned and how she would redesign the experiment next time. Now we’re talking…
And then the goose pimples happened…the real connection, the why I teach, and why learning about the scientific method matters.
” Science doesn’t have to just be for scientists. We can use our critical thinking to solve everyday problems. Different for everyone, but it comes down to the steps (observe, ask yourself “why”, figure it out, look at what you can do, re-try again).”
In Biology 12, I asked my students to do a presentation on a digestive disorder of their choice. They got a day to research their chosen topic and present the next day. They are required to have an image to display and they should be able to connect their disease to the digestive system. But it’s not about the content; it’s about showing up and facing their shared fears of speaking in front of an audience. This assignment facilitates this process.
Today, before we could even start, a student asked if she could please present to me at lunch because she’s afraid to speak. Inside my eyes were rolling but outside I said “No.” I explained that for her this was a mountain she needed to try and climb and that I was looking for her to try. I explained that she was there to teach us all something, that we wanted to learn from her. I also said that if she tried and failed that was ok. She could try again another day.
I went over the self-assessment rubric where students are asked to reflect on what they are proud of and what they struggle with, as well as the peer feedback prompts, two “I noticed” and one “I wonder”. I connected what I was asking them to do to the core competencies and the importance of being able to communicate. I shared with my class how vulnerable I still feel when having to speak in front of an audience, then I asked for volunteers.
And my student who had asked to do it at lunch put up her hand. I couldn’t believe it.
In a preamble to her topic, she spoke to the class about who she is, where she is from and the challenges she has faced since coming to our school (she is an international student). In her country she is a top student who gets high marks on tests. Here she sometimes receives “minimally meeting” or “not yet meeting”. She reflected on how this new way of teaching and learning is helping her grow, how she still continues to try her best and not give up. She spoke of the kindness of several of the other kids in class, about how they knew her name and gave her a sense of belonging.
She presented what she had learned. She was confident and eloquent and when she was done I told her how proud I was of her and how proud her dad would be. And then I told the class how proud I was of their kindness. If there is one thing in the world I wish for my kids is that they be kind to one another.
We struggle to hold kids accountable yet we still clear the path for them to make things easier and less onerous. We don’t allow them to feel that fear, to work through it and conquer it. When we provide challenge and situations that are uncomfortable we provide opportunities that allow students to climb the mountain and see the other side, to see the possibilities instead of the limitations that fear creates. They are victorious. They are triumphant. They carry themselvesa bit taller and know what it is to face fear and overcome it.