by Devon Davidson, Grade 5 Teacher
This week, I’ll have the pleasure of meeting with the fifth-grade parents to discuss their children’s progress during parent/teacher conferences. Spring conferences are my favorite discussions, as they’re focused on the progress each student has made, and my hopes for their sixth-grade transition. The conferences also kick off the emotional unwinding of the end of a school year. Every school year is a fluctuation of progress, but teachers, students, and families begin to see the overall linear line of growth toward the end of the year. This is why at conferences I’ll be focusing on growth of character, independence, and resiliency, as opposed to growth in grades. Over the past month, my fifth-graders embarked on their greatest challenge of the year — an inquiry-based project on Egypt from our social studies class — and their success was not marked by a grade, but rather by an empowered sense of self.
Taking the First Step Toward Growth
I started our inquiry project by telling the students they might feel uncomfortable and frustrated, but that we needed to learn to embrace frustration in order to grow and build our problem-solving skills. From the perspective of a fifth-grader, an inquiry project can feel unsupported, unguided, and as if their teacher has abandoned them. Breaking from the structures of detailed rubrics, graphic organizers, and step-by-step directions can be overwhelming and scary.
In time, students realized that our inquiry project wasn’t abandonment. It was about gaining responsibility, maturity, and growth through a challenge. By determining what to research through a list of “thick” and “thin” questions, creating their own research paths, and determining whether or not sources were valuable, students began to develop greater responsibility. Instead of a big, bulky, fill-in-the-blank packet, they had flexibility to adapt and organize their research based on individual strengths. Students independently examined their research for holes, and attempted to fill those gaps by exploring new resources. They had the skills to assess what was missing, and the grit to find a way to track down the information.
Growing Through Frustration
When I tactfully asked the students at the end of the project if they felt it was a valuable project, they all politely nodded yes. I rephrased, a little more honestly, and asked, “Would you want to do it again?” They roared back with, “Yes! Absolutely! It was so fun!” So I pressed, “Frustration is fun?” and they said yes.
Getting to the point where students recognize frustration as fun isn’t easy. There is an incredible amount of careful planning, scaffolding, and instruction in disguise. Also in disguise is the growing sense of creativity, confidence, and accomplishment they experience when overcoming challenges like this project. Eventually, each student learned that his or her roadblocks fostered inspiration and creativity. The time they spent working through their frustrations or challenges led to a greater reward. Pushing through each challenge required greater resiliency and skill than any other test, packet, or classwork activity.
By the end, the students had fun and were impressed wih themselves and one another. The fascination and wonder over how their peers imagined and completed their projects was contagious. Their projects ranged from a sevenlayer edible pyramid cake and a Minecraft model so detailed a museum could display it, to an Origami paper folded temple and videos showcasing our up-and-coming performers and journalists.
The students collaborated to design the grading rubrics for every part of this project, but I think they would all agree that the letter grade won’t reflect their actual success. I witnessed students who underestimated their abilities quickly find out how capable they truly were. I hugged a student who finally felt believed in, because she was in control of her learning. And lastly, I awed at the growth that one month, one project, and 52 students could produce.
Growth and Grades
At my conferences this week, there will be grades. However, my conference goal is to focus on the growth each child has made this year, regardless of the numbers. I encourage our families to hear the message of growth this spring, and to ask their child’s teacher how this school year has empowered their child.