Lessons of a 4th grade something

Outstanding teaching practices in my daughter’s MNPS classroom

Public education is taking a beating these days. I think it’s been happening, off and on, for my entire life, and sometimes it’s deserved (hello to my 8th grade English teacher: “grammarically” is not a word, and demanding “grammarically correct” work without guidance is not effective teaching). But recently, the attack has grown some dangerous teeth: on May 24, Governor Bill Lee signed a bill that uses millions of dollars of public education funding to pay for private school. So while I normally blog about what I know best–undergraduate science education—I’m branching out to talk about a few of the many outstanding teaching practices I’ve seen my daughters experience at their public schools. And I’m going to focus on a few practices I saw used in my daughter’s 4th grade classroom.

As most educators will tell you, the first step to creating a productive learning environment is to help students feel like they belong. Without this component, students’ motivation and learning lag (and if they are old enough, they leave). So good teachers think a lot about how to generate a sense of belonging. My daughter’s teacher tackled this challenge in many ways, but I want to note two here. First, at the beginning of the year, the class spent time talking about what they wanted to accomplish during the year, and collectively they set five goals:

  1. We will be creative.
  2. We will be critical thinkers. (When I asked my daughter what this meant, she said it was stating your ideas with reasons and evidence. Not bad for a 9-year-old.)
  3. We will be kind.
  4. We will collaborate with our peers. (Yes, these were the words they used. And yes, at least my daughter knew what it meant. I’m assuming the others did too.)
  5. We will be ready for fifth grade.

They posted these (amazing, inspiring) goals in the classroom, where all of the students could see them every day and use them to remind themselves that this was their classroom, where they belonged and set the main goals.

In addition to working with the students to set goals at the beginning of the year, my daughter’s teacher told them about the benefits of gratitude journals, and every day, each student wrote three things that she was grateful for in her journal. I don’t know for sure, but this seems akin to values affirmation exercises that help students focus on sources of strength and validation and have wide-ranging positive impacts.

As great as these activities were, it wasn’t always hearts and squishiness in class—these kiddos also did some work. My favorite two things that they did were to write blogs and to have seminars. My daughter told me that to prepare for their blog posts, they would read a book and then annotate and think about the text. [I did not teach my kid these words, she learned them in school. By 4th grade. I probably didn’t know how to “annotate” a “text” until I was 24.] When I asked what kinds of annotations they made, my daughter said they would think about questions like

  • What did the book make you feel inside?
  • Do you have any connections to the text?
  • What do you visualize when you read it?

They then took these ideas and wrote about them on KidBlog. The teacher would respond with comments like, “I like how you connected to the book,” or “Me too! I have felt that,” and the kids would then have the chance to read and comment on each other’s posts.

In addition, every two or three weeks, the class would have a seminar, which kicked off with students setting a personal goal. They set ground rules, which included actively listening to others’ comments, responding respectfully to and building off of others’ ideas, and not talking too much or too little. They would use these rules to guide their discussion of a book or other text. Importantly, they had to support their ideas from the text—one day my daughter told me very clearly, and in some surprise that I didn’t know it, that using evidence to build arguments is a key standard that all kids have to meet. Finally, they would wrap things up by writing about whether they achieved their personal goal.

Given that I usually write about undergraduate science education, I suspect that many people who are reading this blog post are college professors and know that these are skills we are still pursuing in college—and these are some of the same methods we use. I kind of can’t believe that 4th graders are doing so much, and so well! Lord knows what the kids in my daughter’s class will be able to do by the time they are undergraduates!

And while I’ve chosen to focus here on a few of the practices that my daughter got to engage in in 4th grade, I think it’s important to say that I’ve seen so, so many amazing teachers and teaching practices during my daughters’ years in public school. I think it’s time to stop beating up on it and instead celebrate its amazing teachers and its successes, and to fund it the way we know we should.

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