But still, something was tickling my Teacher Sense.
We'd just finished a story in our reading text book called Off And Running that was all about a class election. (sidebar- This story is harder to read this year because it features a debate between a super-prepared girl and a popular but lackadaisical boy with no ideas. Guess who the students in the story like more. Right.) We had already practiced debating, and the students had done a good job with that. Now we were moving on to other ways to persuade people, this time by creating posters. I went with my first instinct, which isn't normally ideal but sometimes in the day-to-day rush of teaching that's what you (read: I) end up with- I decided to create a mock election for the class. Together we built five possible positions the students could create campaign posters for: Class President, Treasurer, Secretary, Technology Director, and Time Keeper. We sketched out generally what each hypothetical position would entail, the students choose the position they would run for, and got to work.
We weren't actually going to go through with the election, but I was going to let them display their posters and the class would vote on the most persuasive, lending some reality to the process. By letting the kids choose a position to campaign for I was moderately satisfied that there was some student choice, and the kids had helped come up with the list so there was student voice. Still, the whole time the voice in the back of my head was nagging me that this project was pretty mediocre. I didn't get a chance to listen closely to the voice until the students were already rolling and had bought in, which meant by the time I was getting nice and dissatisfied there was plenty of work being done and pulling the plug would have been unfair. I'm not adverse to stopping a project that doesn't work, but this was technically working. I'd create some animosity if I let them work hard for twenty minutes then had them toss the work.
I brooded during lunch. I knew what I wanted them to make persuasive posters about, but I had to persuade myself to go there. It didn't take long to give in.
I like to think I'm a reflective teacher, and it helps to have someone to reflect against. Not in a competitive way, but in a "I look up to your ideas" way. At the top of my What Would X Teach This Like list is Jessica Lifshitz, a fifth grade teacher in Chicago. To put my level of respect mildly, if I could send my own children to anyone's classroom for fifth grade, Jess would be my first, second, and third choice. And our Vote For Me Persuasive Posters did not pass the Jess Test. Jess would push the kids harder. Jess would make the lesson truly real.
At the end of the day I told my kids to take their posters home, finish them, and bring them back the next day. I needed to honor the work that had been done. However. "We are going to try again tomorrow," I said. "I think we can do better. I don't mean you're all doing bad work, you're not. But I could guide us to better, more challenging posters."
The next day I dove in, and the kids were ready. Nothing whets a student's appetite like telling them that you the teacher could help them make something better and more difficult. I announced that Vote For Me was too simple and shallow, and we were better than that. That I know they could push further. "With that in mind we'll be making persuasive posters about real life topics." I would take suggestions, but first I put two seed ideas on the board.
Should phones be allowed in class?
Should athletes be allowed to kneel for the National Anthem?
The room went silent. One kid gave voice to many of their thoughts. "Are we allowed to talk about that in school?"
"I am not allowed to preach at you. I can't tell you what to think. But I'm not. I'm trusting that you're smart, mature fifth graders and you can handle this. I know you have opinions. I've heard them. So defend them."
I wrote the phones one first because I knew some of my kids wouldn't even know about the Anthem controversy. I knew some that did wouldn't want to talk about it. All of them would have an opinion about phones. But my real seed was the second one. This was the real example. When I said I want them talking about real things, I meant it. Inspired by the two seed topics, and with a few false starts and weaker topic ideas - "Should we get free time on the computers?" - we eventually built a fairly strong list.
List- Should phones be allowed in class? Should athletes be allowed to knee during the anthem? Should people be made to recycle? Plastic bags v Paper bags v Cloth bags? Should schools have dress codes? Should schools have uniforms?
Concerns from students melted away as they chose their topics and got to work. It was actually easier this time to get them to write detailed reasons. Part of that, I'm sure, was because this was the second persuasive poster in two days. But I believe the bigger reason is they had something to be passionate about. The two most popular topics were For/Against School Uniforms, a few kids had been in schools with uniforms and they were strongly against, and For/Against Phones In Class. A surprising number of students argued against phones. I'm looking forward to extending those conversations, since most of the reasons revolved around, "Students will be distracted by their phones." "Oh, so you're saying I shouldn't trust you with tech? Or you're saying I shouldn't trust your friends?" And at least two of my girls picked Dress Codes and jumped all over, "Dress codes are always about girls, and never about boys. What's up with that?" Their points, I didn't say anything.
Only two kids went for the Anthem topic. Interestingly enough, they're best friends, or at least best friends in class. And they took opposing sides. They sat next to each other and had a polite conversation as they made their posters, hashing out their views and reasoning. The only guidance I had to give was clarifying the reasons behind the silent protest. I didn't tell them how I felt (of course they should kneel, how is this a debate) They both were struggling with the deeper issues within it, which was the point of the assignment. Most of the students ended up thinking deeper and harder about their posters than they had the day before. We practiced real skills. Success!
I'm not sure if there will be any fallout from this. You never know. Last year I talked about attending a Women's March and had to explain myself to a few parents, but nothing happened. It's possible there will be parents who won't be happy we were thinking about this stuff in class. My admin has my back, and I've got curriculum and standards to stand on. I can't build lessons overly concerned about what parents might say. I keep the parents in mind, but they're behind the kids and the best way to get at the learning. Finding the truth and the real in assignments is one of the big goals of education. Occasionally you need a second chance.
Sometimes you need to turn back not because the road is too difficult, but because it's too easy.
If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.