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Building blocks for success, beyond the elephant

Building blocks for success, beyond the elephant

Teacher readiness series #6

I’m not nearly as concerned about student readiness for school as I am about teacher readiness for students. The building block of helping your students be successful in particular activities begins with understanding where your students are at and looking at the activity through your students’ eyes.

To understand where your students are at, please don’t make assumptions about their abilities.  All of us have resources in our rooms.  Whether those resources are crayons, scissors, iPads, computers, resource books, or weather prediction stations, don’t assume your students know how to use them.  Also don’t ask them a yes or no question concerning whether they know how to use these resources.

One of the earliest, universal lessons we learn as students is to smile and nod with a knowing look in our eye when asked a yes or no question by a teacher.  This is emotional survival 101 for most kids.  Therefore when we ask, “Do you know how to use an iPad?”, there is a reasonable chance the student will answer nod and smile whether they know or not.  To get around this, ask a specific question that requires an answer.  “Explain to me how you would download and install a new app?” will tell you a lot about their iPad knowledge.  Asking your students to show you how to hold a pair of scissors and how to cut a piece of paper will tell much more about their cutting skills than asking them if they know how to use scissors.

Next, don’t assume that the person who wrote the instructions for a project took a student’s point of view.  A very basic example is a project that instructed the first grade students to cut out multiple pieces, then color the individual pieces and glue them.  For first graders, this was the more difficult sequence.  What happens when you cut before coloring?  Lots of pieces of paper need to be tracked and tend to go everywhere.  For this particular project, it was much less work to color, then cut and glue, and this simple change made students more successful.  When we sit down and actually do the project we are asking our students to do in preparation, we get better insight into how the project or process could be adjusted to increase student success.

Another foundational step to successful projects we often miss is having an example of the finished project for students to see.  When we teach writing skills this is the approach we are all used to.  We will expose them to a mentor text as an example of a finished product.  Then we will break down the process into steps asking and answering the question, “What skills do they need to successfully write a short story?”  Those steps include having a beginning, middle, and end.  It includes developing characters, the setting, the crisis and so on.  It is no different with any other project.  The end goal should not be a mystery; we should have an example.  Then we should ask ourselves what are the steps to success if I am a first grader in completing this project.

Here is another important point in leading students successfully through projects.  It is better that I fail as a teacher, than my students fail in their project.  If things aren’t going well, stop and assess what you missed as a teacher.  Identify and admit your mistake, make a course correction, and get the project back on track.  Students need to see that we make mistakes.  In fact the best learning takes place through making mistakes and correcting those mistakes.  In our classrooms mistakes should be valued as the best opportunities to learn.

To keep us from getting lost in thinking this article is just a potpourri of suggestions, let’s focus back on the central issue.  For our students to be successful, we need to make the task developmentally appropriate for the time we have, and make sure our students have the skills and resources they need for the task.  In summary, what does it take to get my students from point A to point B?  Every time we consider having students do anything, that quick mental calculation should be taking place.  It is very frustrating for students to constantly be asked to complete projects or homework they (or we) aren’t prepared for.

One of the added benefits of an approach in which you consider capabilities and break down assignments into appropriate steps, is that your classroom becomes not only a place of success but a place of safety.  Having your classroom as a place of safety is an important contributor to student success that we will explore in the next article.

Rick Doughty is a parent of three young adults and the Vice President of Administrative Services at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. His wife Sally is a second grade teacher at a Title I school in Beaverton, Oregon. Rick is a Certified Trainer in brain-based learning through the Jenson Learning Corporation and has a master’s degree in communication studies. His passion is helping to make complex material and ideas useful and understandable. This passion is reflected in his book Fulfilled Kids, Fulfilled Parents which takes principles from neuroscience and helps us put them to use in parenting.

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