And when they're not ready.
Sometimes, they come right out and tell us. And sometimes they are a afraid to say just what's on their mind. But if you get to know your students as more than just the "kids in your class" you'll start to be able to pick up on what they're NOT telling you... but showing you.
My 7th graders have been working on a really cool project over our "Bleeding Kansas" unit. I stole the idea from a high school teacher. The project involved the kids researching a person and then "becoming" that person for a press conference style interview.
I LOVE this project idea. I love the depth of knowledge and rigor attached to it. The kids don't just research and regurgitate the information back, they truly have to get to know the person they researched and infer their answers based on their knowledge. Cross-curricular research skills, oral communication skills, and historical thinking. Win - Win - Win.
And then last night, while I was awake and couldn't sleep at 3:00 AM, I started playing little signs over and over in my head. As much as I didn't want to admit it...my 7th graders weren't ready for this. Some of the signs were...
- The questions I kept getting... "Is this really in front of the class?" "How long do I have to be up there?" "Can I have my research form while I'm presenting?"
- The kids in tears during our "soft deadline" because they were so anxious and nervous.
- The emails I got the night before our due date. I NEVER get emails from kids at home. I got three after 9:00
- The emails from parents giving me a "heads up" about their child's nerves.
And then I started to think more about my classroom and why they may not actually be "ready."
- This is their first BIG project with me that involves research, cited sources, and a presentation.
- The presentation is not only an individual one, but it also requires some high-level thinking skills...in front of their peers.
- We haven't actually done ANY type of oral presentation in class. Nothing.
- They haven't even done any speeches or presentations in their ELA class for me to "piggy back" off of.
One of the things I love about being a teacher is the amount of control I have in my day. For the most part, my principal trusts me to teach my kids the content I'm required and do it to the best of my ability. HOW I decide to do that is completely up to me. I can make changes as I see fit. Sometimes those changes are easy. Sometimes they're more difficult.
By 3:30 AM I had made the decision to change it up. The focus of this project wasn't the oral presentation. It was the research skills and content surrounding the important people during the turbulent time period leading up to the Civil War. Instead of orally presenting to in front of their peers, 7th graders would create a Spark Video about their person. Within that video they were still required to make inferences based on what they learned and answer specific content-related questions.
This was not an easy decision. I LIKE the press conference project, and I am a big advocate for challenging your students and making them step outside their comfort zone. I put A LOT of work into creating it, but it's not about me. This was a HUGE jump outside the comfort zone for some. Creating fear and anxiety was NOT the goal. For the record, I still think this is something middle school students can do, but I think it is more suited for the end of 7th grade (at the earliest) or 8th grade. I will revisit this project again.
Sometimes doing what's best for students means putting aside your own pride and the amount of work that you put in to it, in order to get the quality of work your students are capable of.