“Think small” is my new motto. It helps me handle the complicated too-muchness of it all.
Maira Kalman (from And the Pursuit of Happiness)
This year, when selecting a single word in place of a list of resolutions, I decided to focus on the word small. It is easy for me to get overwhelmed, feel the enormous weight of an issue, and dwell on big problems. Embracing small as my word for the year helps me sift through what is beyond my immediate control to take steps toward a solution in the moment.
This “think small” mind-set came in handy last week. My coteacher was working with a small group. The rest of the class was working in pairs on an assignment. All of a sudden, two of our eighth-grade students—on opposite sides of the room, luckily—started shouting at each other. One of the girls, Maya, stood up and postured, challenging the other to do something about it. Immediately, I swept her into the hallway to process, and my coteacher stepped in with the other student.
I was shocked. There had not been any sign of tension between the students. Neither of them had exhibited anything close to this level of disrespect in the past.
Knowing there had to be more to the story, I told Maya that what had just happened wasn’t like her. I explained that I thought something else had to be bothering her. She began by telling me what had happened in the classroom to set her off. It started with a dirty look, escalated to, “What are you looking at?” and continued to snowball from there. Again, I told Maya that it wasn’t like her to get upset so easily and asked what was really underneath her anger. Much to my surprise, Maya burst into tears and gasped out between breaths, “We. Have. A. Math. Test. Next. Period.”
After processing with Maya, we returned to the classroom and I pulled the other student into the hallway. Our conversation went pretty much the same as the talk I had had with Maya, except this student didn’t cry when she admitted the math test was getting to her. She just sounded defeated.
Later that day, I walked into the hallway on my way to a meeting to see a colleague of mine processing with another student in tears who was upset because she had already gotten two wrong on an eight-question assessment. She didn’t want to keep working on it, because more than two wrong would mean a failing grade.
I realized that if these three students were showing outward signs of the pressure to perform at a high level, there had to be countless others internalizing the same negative feelings.
I felt like marching the students into the administrator’s office to show them what the pressure to produce numbers was doing to our students. I felt like empowering students to rebel against a system that too often fails to recognize their eclectic talents. I felt like quitting.
The words wound their way around my heart and snaked their way into my thoughts. I can’t change an entire system, I argued. The words firmly lodged their rebuttal in my gut: No, but you can work within the system to change this moment, and maybe other moments, too.
I began to think of small ways to change how my students experience the moments we spend together.
The first change I made was to end class each day with an intentional compliment to build students up. Although my coteacher and I often gush about how great our students are after class, we rarely take the time to say it to them.
Now, each day before we give students the signal to pack up their belongings, we take a minute or two to remind them how proud we are of the work they are doing. Today I said something like, “Do you have any idea how awesome you are? Today I watched you dig into your author study and tune out the distractions. I had the chance to talk to some of you about the amazing thinking you are doing—noticing symbolism and tracking relationships between characters. Mrs. Johnson and I are so proud of you!”
It is easy to forget the power of specific praise, until you watch it light up students’ faces or they immediately shift their body language from drooping head to chin up in the air. It is a small move that makes a meaningful difference.
After encountering so many students bedraggled by the pressures of testing and producing high scores, I began to worry that my students believe their purpose at school is to test well. I decided to take the small step of simply talking to them about my concern.
Before our most recent assessment, I had a reset conversation with my students. I asked if they want to do well when a test is set in front of them. They all answered, “YES!” However, they were not so confident in their responses when I asked, “Why?” Their answers hovered around things like, “To get good grades,” and, “Because it’s good for me.”
I pointed out that the only reason they answer questions after reading a passage is to measure how well they read and understood the passage. I reminded them that even though the questions seem like the task to do, the heart is really in the reading itself. I even started a call-and-answer mantra that we repeat every time students are completing a reading assessment. I ask, “What’s more important—the learning or the score?” and students respond, “THE LEARNING!” Simply talking about our purpose helped shift students’ mind-sets from scoring well to demonstrating their learning.
After the assessment, we had a similar conversation. Students’ body language indicated that some of them felt regret and disappointment when looking at scores. Nobody should feel shame over an assessment score. We talked about whether they thought the score reflected what they had learned.
In some cases, students saw the connection. In other places, students felt a disconnect between what they had learned and the score they had been able to produce. I explained that these tests are only one measure of all the skills they have gained. And I asked them one small question: “What’s more important—the learning or the score?”
Perhaps the most important small move I have made in response to students vexed by assessments is to filter messages they receive outside my classroom. Sometimes, well-intentioned displays of encouragement add to the pressure students feel. I believe it is my job to reframe, or even replace, those messages.
A recent display in my school celebrated that our students are “Soaring to Great Scores.” I have been working hard to make sure my students understand that scores are important only when they are representative of student learning. I thought the sign would send the message that scores are a more valued outcome than learning. I was able to change the message to “Soaring to Success.”
Another recent celebration at our school is that our eighth graders have the highest percentage of students who scored at the College and Career Ready Lexile level. Although I was happy students were encouraged to feel good about their scores, I worried about the message that scores are to be compared. It would only serve to perpetuate the pressure to produce high scores if students felt a sense of competition among grade levels. (Even if the current eighth-grade feeling was superiority, I was concerned it could quickly change.) So, I made sure to add on to the message how I believed all the work students did in sixth and seventh grades had really taken root and begun to sprout.
Our words matter. They are a small piece that can make a big difference in how we spend our moments. Since making these small shifts, I have noticed more smiles on students’ faces. And perhaps even more smiles on my own.