Last Project of the Year: Students Design Their Own ELA Class

What is it that students want?

This was the question I asked my sixth graders in an alternative assignment to giving them an end of the year survey. I know some of the usual answers that sometimes we as teachers don't take as seriously (and maybe should) and I also was hopeful of the answers that may seem surprising and shocking. I have included both in this post to start a conversation. 

I started with three areas to consider:

  1. Rules 
  2. Content/Assessment 
  3. Classroom Setup

I'll start by showing you an example rather than telling you right away. Check it out:

They had the option of doing an electronic presentation or a poster. Many of them opted for technology. Here are a copy of my notes:

Now, let's break down the highlights of the presentations in all five of my classes. 

What They Want

1. Technology

As stated above, students got the choice to work on technology for their presentations. Students overwhelmingly opted for technology all the time. From games like Kahoot to typing their papers in Google Classroom, students reported that technology eased anxiety and also boosted engagement in a class. They liked using it also for the aspect of listening to music while they were working. While this is controversial because often we wonder about student-on-task-time, I like the idea of listening to music in class because it is what we naturally do as adults when we are trying to focus. Teaching students to use tools responsibly is the key to success with any integration of technology into a program or curriculum. 

2. Choice Seating

They hate assigned seating! Cue the love-hate relationship between needing students to focus in class and having them choose where they want to sit. I hate seating charts. Let me go on record. However, I also view them as a necessity. They are punishment. Let me be clear. But I am also intrigued by the idea of working the seating chart in a different way. One group proposed that tables are numbered and often seating is randomized for a breakup in the monotony of a seating chart. I liked this idea a lot. Working to bridge gaps between student and teacher desires in the classroom is a sign of relationship building and an attempt to build a cohesive community (without getting run over). 

3. Choice in General

Let's just go there. When I am working with new teachers the idea of choice enters into the equation right away. From classroom management to day-to-day assignments, the idea of choice helps give power to students over their learning. Some examples that students brought up in their presentations were 1.) Choice in genre of writing in how they respond to a piece of text (I loved this). 2.) Book or novel choice. Also, they brought up the choice in wanting to choose HOW they read a book whether this is in partners, in small groups, or whole groups. This is what they said about HOW they wanted to read a class book:

General Students said:

Advanced Students said: 

Both sets of classes had a huge response in favor of independent reading. If I take a moment to reflect, how often do we ensure that general students are given the same amount of independent reading time and expectation that advanced students are given? As educators, we must empower our struggling readers to also feel strong enough to read on their own. Practice begets product. 

This is what my students said about what TYPES of fictional books they wanted to read:

General Students said:

Advanced Students said: 

4. Graded on Participation

This was one area that had me stumped a little bit. Effort. Participation. Show up points. This was tough for me because I have a heavy hand with grading. But then I got to thinking that maybe they are on to something with putting effort in to something-particularly with the writing process. I don't think it should be a huge part of the overall grade, but I do like the idea of having "try" be a factor in the writing process. How often do I encourage students to "just write" or "get some ideas down on paper" when really in essence this is another form of saying I want participation. Perhaps they have a point. 

5. Positive Rewards

We have to be more positive in education. Teachers forget that we want students to enjoy school. It is controversial using rewards in and out of the classroom, yet I heard them loud and clear that "we want to do lots of fun stuff too, Mrs. Hampton." We had a field day with the students at the end of the year, and as I sat at the top of the stairs to our field I looked out on 145 kids just having a good time in green grass and the sunshine. Mixing in positive supports-not just associated with behavior-keeps the humanity in some of the aspects of school that are forgotten. Here are some ideas for the next school year:

  1. Track and field day
  2. You made it through state testing reward
  3. Writing or reading endurance prize
  4. Teamwork challenges
  5. Book bowl
  6. March madness reading tournament (I have a dream of team brackets reading books...)

6. Less Homework

I assign a lot of homework. I am aware of this. I also know it stresses my students out. So, how should I feel about this? The district I am in has a homework policy of 10 minutes per grade level per night. So, my sixth graders are expected to work on homework for 60 minutes each night. While advanced may sometimes exceed this, general students may not hit this number for a variety of reasons. Think of accountability, practice, and expectation as the tools needed in order to get this particular job done. This is a multifaceted issue that can transform student learning. However, many are not fans of homework. Including my students. Now, I always assign an Article of the Week. However, with writing and reading there may be writing assignments or reading to do to prepare for the next day's lesson. So the delicate balance between getting through curriculum and also balance the mental and emotional health of our students is an important issue to debate in education. 

Writing Mindset Reflection: What do YOUR students want? How do we balance compromise in our classrooms to make students feel like members of the classroom community?