Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sixth Grade: High Hopes

We know that 21st-century learners need to be able to think about what they are learning—going beyond simply knowing the material, making it personal and relevant. Making the breakthrough to that level of understanding is not always easy for students, but struggling is an important part of learning, too.
 —Ric Dressen @Edina Super

Being a player of computer solitaire, I am familiar with a certain cycle of hope and despair.  Every new game is full of hope at first. Maybe this game will end with the magic of seeing all the cards flutter up into place and the words “You Won!” blinking away. Then as I start moving into the rounds I still maintain hope, now balanced by reality: the aces either are or are not going to appear.  Right up until the game is utterly lost, I am full of hope. Then, when the cards are just repeating and there are no new moves, it’s time to cut the losses and move on.

I recognize traces of this cycle of hope and despair in school as well—and it seems especially strong in sixth grade (remember this blog post?). After five years as a paraprofessional at the high school, working primarily with students on the autism spectrum, this year I am a paraprofessional at Valley View middle school and spend a great deal of time in sixth grade classrooms. I encounter this cycle of hope and despair daily as I help students lay the groundwork for what I know lies ahead in high school. In addition to covering material and designing lessons that meet specific state standards for curriculum, the middle school teacher’s job is to pry open those brains and strengthen the neural pathways that these students will need as they move through secondary school.

At Valley View, many of the teachers are having students create “Interactive Notebooks.” Daily notes are taken on the right side of each page, and the left side is for the students to draw, write or create some kind of thinking map in order to interpret the day’s learning in a personally meaningful way.  This is where hope enters the equation. Will this tool help students become invested in their own learning, and not just do the minimum required to earn the grade they desire? Will it really be personal for each individual student, building on their strengths and what they already know?

But now comes the reality: for many students, these strategies are difficult. One sixth-grader I work with is happy and productive when the task is to fill in the blanks with geography vocabulary in social studies. But when he has to bullet point advantages and disadvantages of maps and globes, he breaks down. He’s got the obvious ones, but how to go deeper? Is it really two bullet points (as I argue) to say maps distort land masses and that areas closer to the poles are stretched, or is that one point? It may seem trivial, but a lot of time can go by while we work this out, and there is no going on until the point is settled. And there is no getting that time back either. Now everyone else has started looking up the next 20 vocabulary words, but it will be homework for us. Multiply this by the eight classes he is in during every two-day cycle, and it is easy to feel lost. Sometimes a student’s head goes down to his desk top as he crumbles. Hope arises again, though, as he practices using visual tools such as thinking maps to help him grasp onto concepts.

We keep moving. Much is luck, a little is skill, all is patience. And hope.

Janet Ha

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