Smart as a Fifth Grader

fullsizeoutput_104aIt was a cold, damp day in Wilson, Arkansas but there was a warm, cozy feeling in Mrs. Lights’ 5th grade classroom.  I was making my monthly visit to Rivercrest Elementary School and invited in to the room. It was the end of a busy week for me and this stop was just what I needed. Here is why…

If you have worked with me, you know that I can get a little obsessed with insisting that we have to transfer the work and learning to the student. Now, I don’t mean in its entirety but I do believe that when students do the thinking and truly understand what they are working to achieve, learning happens.  They have to see the learning targets and know what we expect. We can not keep these “secrets” to ourselves. It should not be a surprise to a student to find out, after the work is done, how we were planning to grade it or what success looked like. Imagine in your personal life the times when you had no idea what you were trying to accomplish. You work and work but see no end in sight. How does that feel to you? Anyway, I am on my soapbox again but this really is a huge piece of improving schools; the work I so strongly believe in.

Back to the 5th graders. They had just finished their first draft of an argumentative writing assignment. Each of them had prepared an argument for or against school uniforms.  Every student had a clear understanding of what the structure of their writing piece was to be.  How do I know this?  Well, to my heart’s content, each student had a scoring guide/rubric and they were actually scoring each other’s writing.  Ms. Light would call on a student to read their writing.  The student was offered an opportunity to stand or sit behind a podium with a sound amplification device (very professional!) and read their argument.  While the reading occurred, every student in the room was listening carefully and scoring the writing using the rubric that Mrs. Light had provided.

When each student finished, the learning really started! Student after student provided feedback to the reader.  Great comments were made about what was positive about the writing and very helpful suggestions were made for improvements. The conversations were based on what they knew was expected in their writing. The readers asked questions for deeper explanations from their peers and Mrs. Light guided the discussion when it was needed. For the most part though, the students were really learning from each other. It was obvious to me that they were used to working this way. It wasn’t just because I was visiting but this was how they edited and improved their writing with each other.

When the class finished their work, I had an opportunity to ask the students about what I had just witnessed.  I wanted to know if they understood the value of having the scoring guides and providing feedback to each other.  Not to my surprise, they were able to articulate just what I was hoping to hear.  These fifth graders knew that by being able to have the scoring expectations in front of them, they could clearly understand what the writing had to include, not just for the reader but obviously for their own writing as well.  And, the most important conversation that I had with them was about trust. They knew that it took a great deal of trust for each of them to stand before their peers and read and they also knew that it took humongous courage to take the feedback from the others and not feel criticized or judged. They handled it all like pros and this goes back to the environment that Mrs. Light has created.  There is a feeling of trust and respect in the classroom. It is a room where each and every student’s opinion is valued and a safe space for their thoughts to be heard.

I drove away that day with a smile on my face. I know that these fifth graders are learning to think, to hear what others have to say and to be honest and fair to each other.  I know that they are working to improve their writing and that is important but I recognized that day that the community of learners that they are part of is the value-added piece. They are experiencing great life lessons about working together in community so that they all can improve. When I grow up, I want to be as smart as these fifth graders!  Thank you, Mrs. Light for being you and doing the right work.

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