So, I’ve been thinking about excellence. The book my class is reading has meant that we have been talking a lot about greatness–what it is, what it isn’t, what we want it to be, what we don’t want it to be, what it’s like to have it or to witness it. As we were talking about it the other day, I was reminded of Ron Berger’s book The Ethic of Excellence that I read many years ago. The sentence (idea really) that I took away from the book is this: excellence is transformative. At 5th grade back to school night, I told my students’ parents and guardians that I wanted that experience of excellence being transformative for each of their students–that I could not hand it out for free, but that I wanted each child to see that potential in him or herself.
Then there was dramatic music.I decided this was one of my goals for the year.
I mentioned Ron Berger’s idea that recognizing the potential for excellence in oneself is transformative to my group of seniors this year as we discussed characters struggling with their potential or lack of potential for greatness. They were less than wowed. There was no dramatic music. We moved on.
Then, I corrected tests and decided to read some good answers aloud to the class when I returned the tests. I gave some general comments and mentioned how one of the common challenges was not getting to that big idea, not moving beyond retelling, when answering the more complex questions. I read a few short answers from one student who did in fact get to a big idea every time and a passage analysis by another student who also got to the thematic issues. The class could tell that these were good answers– that they went somewhere and had something to say. The two students puffed up. They were smiling big on the inside, even if they were playing it cool; they weren’t so cool that I was fooled. They felt that power of being recognized by others as excellent. I have to say that I was reminded again that these big, almost-grown people sitting in front of me are not so different from my old 5th graders (in fact sometimes they are those exact 5th graders).
When we broke up into small groups later that period, one of the students whose work I read took a much more active role in the group that usual, leading discussion, engaging with the group. Of course I know that there is no proof of causation here. And, I know both those students left feeling like this is a class where they can be excellent. Same student a few days later mentioned paying extra close attention to a particular grammatical error that I have pointed out too many times. And a few days after that the other student that I had recognized also made a point to break, at least for one quiz, another problematic habit that I have mentioned over and over.
All of this has me thinking about my responsibilities. I am responsible for this experience for as many students as possible, not just these two. Why don’t I read more good work aloud? I have some reasons (they are not necessarily acceptable excuses, just reasons):
- The 48 minute class period. Where does the time go?!
- In high school there is just less little stuff that gets turned in.
- When I taught 5th grade, I had students doing short writing on our blog all the time. And, I could share (or the students could see without me) little examples of good work frequently. Plus, I had control over so much of the day in 5th grade. “My classes” with the students amounted to almost all of the “big stuff”. Now I’m just one of the classes, and I don’t get to say what is most important. (What? This continues to be difficult for me to come to grips with.)
- How hard am I looking for opportunities to do this? (Probably not hard enough.)
- I have not valued this enough, and therefore I have not given it time.
So, here’s my plan going forward. As I think about it, there are a bunch of times when I have said things like, “lots of people did a really nice job” or this particular part of the assignment” was really successful for a lot of people.” Why not just read some examples? It’s much more specific feedback and gives those who were not as successful information as well. Between writing the first draft of this post and publishing, I had some old examples all set to read in class. What happened? Well, I was going to do the sharing at the end of class. Then, we ran out of time. Sigh.
There’s not too much time left before exams. However, if I come in with something to share each day (maybe two things), and I manage to get to the sharing half the time, I can make some in roads.