Self-Assessment for Squirrels

Okay, so here’s the scoop for today.  But before you read this you must understand a few things:

1. I love my job.  I love what I do.  And I love the people with whom I work.  My staff and colleagues.  And my students. Having said (and meant) that, you also need to know that the regard I have for these people does not change the fact that we are all human.  So, if I make a comment that seems harsh, please consider the context in which it is intended.  We are, none of us, perfect, because we are human.  We are, each of us, valued, because we are human.

2. Students come to teachers in batches.  And just like batches of cookies, or batches of quilting squares, each batch has its own distinct personality.  Each can be generally characterized with a few select descriptors.  Like a person might characterize the personalities of “Pride and Prejudice” as being aristocratic.  Generally speaking.  Or the characters of “Tale of Two Cities” as being gritty, more or less.  So too, classes of students have ‘group personalities’, attributes that sort of evolve and emerge as they are thrown together.  Some personalities add this attribute while others add that.  Classes of students are like soup made from what’s handy in the kitchen – each pot comes with a unique flavour and can never be duplicated.

Okay, we can begin.

My period four grade tens are cheerfully immature.  And disengaged from school, but hyper-engaged socially.  Unfocused on anything I’d like to discuss, but super focused on any tiny little facial twitch or subtle gesture of their peers.  They are distractible like the supremely-caffeinated squirrel from whatever that movie is.  You know the one.  Imagine a room full of supremely-caffeinated squirrels being asked to sit for an hour in desks, in rows, and concentrate on, say, the process of communication. *sigh* My period four grade tens absorb energy, mine in particular, like black holes.  Like each of them is a black hole unto his or herself in the tiny cosmos I call my classroom.  This is true.

And they are utterly lost when it comes to figuring out if they’ve done quality work or not.  The ability to self-assess is a required area of skill development in all of our English Language Arts curricula and so this is an area of intense focus.  Well, with these guys, every area is one of intense focus.  Or lack of focus. Really.  They are just like that.  I could ask them a question – nearly any curricula-related question – and all my little squirrels would look at me like they’d met an inexplicable anomaly.  When I do that (ask them a question) they daren’t move lest they attract a nanosecond of my attention and I ask them to respond. They would shatter to a thousand bits in that instant. So asking them to take a curricula-related skill, and apply the least bit of analysis to their own performance of it, and they become statues of squirrels.

I am horribly (and daily) reminded of the poor creatures, once so lively and animated, turned to stone in the courtyard of the White Witch’s castle.

So yesterday I wanted to get them doing some creative writing in preparation for listening to the original “War of the Worlds” with Orson Welles.  We have watched a BBC documentary about UFOs, (teensy language warning!) and have listened to Nasa’s recordings from space via the Voyageur. We learned how to take notes in response to media with the Cornell note taking system. And I asked them finally to fill in a RAFTS planning sheet to write their own little science fiction. They were riveted.  Really!  You could’ve heard a Martian breathing on the moon – it was completely silent while every little mind went into science fiction overdrive.

Maybe they’d been abducted and replaced with look-alikes??

While they did that I wanted to meet with each one to review the major written assignments they’ve submitted: an eye witness report, two literary essays, and a poem.  I’ve marked all these and have written feedback on their papers, plus filled in the rubric for each.  They have seen them, but they just toss them into their binders or folders and I don’t think they even skim my worried little notes! Squirrels can’t make much sense of teacher talk.  This is another truth.  What they need is engagement!!  My solution is to talk with each student, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of their written work, make a plan for increasing the effectiveness of their communications and have them winning Gillers by Christmas.  This was my goal for this week.

However, Monday’s class was AWFUL – distractions happening all over the place – a student who’d moved away moved back and this created a shuffle in the just-settling-again-after-he-left-hierarchy-of-things.  Imagine a small tank of goldfish happily swimming in little fishy circles.  Now drop in a harmless but malevolent-looking Plecostomus and imagine them all flitting about erratically, hyperventilating on air bubbles, sucking all the Os out of the H2Os … just chaos. Except for the Plecostomus who just settles in and enjoys the show.

Try herding these little beasties into rows and into desks!!

Try herding these little beasties into rows and into desks!!

You get this picture (here) ?

Yes. But it was exhausting and generally took the wind out of me.  Monday evening I flopped over and stayed flopped until my alarm set me off the next morning. So on Tuesday, when I’d planned these individual conferences, I introduced the RAFTS assignment and expected more mayhem.  But no!  They were totally focused and into the assignment – quiet and working. Their little imaginations were rapt with crazed stories that had to be told. (They are sort of grade sixish in some ways, but charming and cute like that.) I had to work a bit to get them to focus on the task (like little Dorie trying desperately to remember what she’s supposed to be remembering!) and half the hour was gone, but, eventually, they were absolutely engaged.

This is a small miracle.  I sat and just watched them – partly in awe, and partly in fear that if I even moved, if I rippled the air currents, they’d be back all over the zoo again. They were all happy in their little spaces!  I turned to my intern and lip-synced, “I’m afraid to move!”  He grinned, wide-eyed in wonder.  In short, work got done (Glory to God!), but no conferencing.

However, back to the writing portfolios! I needed to get these assignments back so they could use the feedback to work on revisions on the piece they were doing now!  So today, I got them working and started pulling them up, one little sixteen year old at a time, to talk to me.  I intuitively changed the location of the conference – instead of sitting to the side at a table where I normally meet with students, I stayed perched on my stool at the front of the room and had the student stand by my computer tray for the conference.  That way I’m facing the class at all times.  As the first one came up and I spread out her assignments with rubrics on the tray, I saw signs – omens, really – that this was too much distraction (read temptation) for the class – they were prepping to explode again – eyes were blinking rapidly, glances exchanging between perpetrators, signals being passed in the way of umpires cueing pitchers. So I had to a) speed the process up exponentially (they’d never make it with drawn out suspense – who would crack first??), and b) find a way to communicate without getting so intensely involved with a single student that I couldn’t keep an eye on all of them at once.  I totally don’t trust them!!  Though I do like them quite a bit….

Anyhow, instead of getting all personally involved, I showed her all my notes on all her papers, I pointed out the checks and arrows on the rubrics, I stuck a sticky note at the top of the page and told her to read through all my comments. On the sticky note she was to mirror in her own words, summarize, what I said are her strengths and the areas she needs to improve on.  Then hand the whole package back in before the end of class.  She nodded and sat down.

What the spread looked like, minus the sticky notes, which came afterwards.  Apologies for the unclear image!

What the spread looked like, minus the sticky notes, which came afterwards. Apologies for the unclear image!

Meanwhile, no paper airplanes soared between rows; no binders were tipped off neighbours’ desks; no erasers were chewed and spewed into anyone’s lap; no phones came out (that I know of, except V’s and he was busy finding the website with the creepy Nasa sounds!  Nice!). I squinted into the hoary depths of my classroom’s psyche to see if I could discern what they were up to.  Nothing there!  Just the scritching of pencils on paper!

I leaned back and waited for the Ping-Pong effect – you know, when one kid does one thing out of the ordinary, like stuff his pencil into his hair (T’s favorite place for pencils!) and the whole room erupts into a cacophony of brouhaha.

Nothing.  More scritching.

Quickly!  Working very quickly, I did this for each student – the supersonic review of their work with the sticky note and mirror-me instructions.  Got done everyone in about a half hour.  The ones who conferenced first were finished by the end of class and handed their packages back with sticky notes finished – the rest agreed to hand them in tomorrow (they won’t.  I know this.  Half will have lost them – I thought of that after the fact.  And the other half will have neglected to think about them.  They will quite contentedly do them while I update the attendance database.).  But the ones submitted today – after school I added a second sticky note responding to their observations of my comments.


Not only was their mirroring accurate it was clear, concise, precise, and generally satisfying for my pedagogical soul! And they discovered for themselves their own strengths and weaknesses in my little worried notes!!  As an added bonus, I also could use this as an assessment of AR 10.2!  Yay for getting more assessment data collected!  Easy, efficient and effective!  Love.

My room full of squirrelly goldfish should be transformed back from statuedom to their charming animated selves – no more staring frozen when I ask them to think about their own curricular-related skills!  Happiness is mine, sayeth the English Teacher.

Wow. I love this!  Tomorrow I’m going to talk about revisions (versus editing – how do you get that across to your students? Twenty three years I’ve been doing this and I still struggle to make that distinction clear to my little darlings.) and then have them use their observations on the sticky notes to guide their revisions for draft two of their scifis.  Provided they finished draft one – that was homework for tonight.  What are the chances??

8 thoughts on “Self-Assessment for Squirrels

  1. HAPPY to hear your thoughts again and once again glad that YOU chose teaching and I chose nursing and all is well in both our worlds as we aim to be the best we can be. Well done on figuring out your classroom approach with your learning-to-be attentive squirrels!

    Two words that I learned from a music producer as he worked with a group of musicians on improving their stage presence – CAPTURE and ENGAGE. Applies to a million scenarios.

    Maureen (even thought he Avatar shows Dean!)

    • Yes, agreed – about the career choices, and about “capture and engage”. Figuring out classroom approaches never, ever ends. Every day I have to refigure it out because everyday is a new mix of elements. Makes for a challenge. Every. Single. Day!

    • Oh. Goodness. I would think twice before I did that if I was you. The fact that you have to live with me in the family might be enough bad karma for anyone; going public might result in your being ostracized from honourable and respectable forums. But thanks! I appreciate your loyalty!

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