Be the change, change, classroom expectations, guest blog

Flying Above the Radar

With the arrival of our twins, I asked for guest bloggers and was super excited to share this post with all of you by Kaitlyn Gentry…

Too often in education, and in life, people aim to fly under the radar. No one wants to fail, but appearing overtly successful makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It is like a cultural regression towards the mean. Occasionally people fly high and norms are challenged, but aren’t those are statistical anomalies, ones that can be corrected with a wider data sample or retests? Why would a tiny point continue to appear above the radar, outside of that regular curve?

            My previous year was a successful one: students grew, parents were happy, and I emerged from my first year as a third grade teacher unscathed. But that is what happens when you fly below the radar. Soon thoughts began creeping in…Why had the year gone so smoothly? It must have been those sticker charts and earned recess minutes, those warnings of “this is impacting your conduct grade”, the “If I were taking this test, I’d be paying close attention to the chart of page 52.” The carefully calculated control I wielded over my group of eighteen boys had allowed for effortless success; except when it didn’t. Those small failures: students no longer caring to earn extra recess because they saw through the ploy, boys ignoring the conduct grade pleas, memorization of the chart on page 52, without understanding the chart. These were easily explained away: these are the strategies that everyone uses, the boys are ready for summer, the required chart on page 52 is actually pretty boring.
Enter the outlier.
I realized I was wrong. Those excuses were just that, excuses, and I began to see that I wasn’t alone in my thinking. There was a cluster appearing outside of the curve…a conversation was growing about the amount of control exerted upon our students, about the threats of grades, homework, lost recess, and the more subtle “positive reinforcement” of earning stickers or treats to memorize, regurgitate, and perform in lock-step fashion. I realized that in order to make my next year a true success it was not going to be smooth, within the curve, or below the radar.
This year was messy: filled with conversations about citizenship, having a voice, effort, reflection, process over product, and growth over grades. Instead of discussing their monthly grades, each student wrote a reflection paper, covering areas of growth and difficulty in every subject, which we reviewed together. These reflections also went home at the front of their folder, to be reviewed with parents, before grades were discussed if they chose to do so. Instead of removing or adding recess time for talking in the hallways, we discussed the impact of showing respect for the other classes in session. Writing assignments were no longer assigned a letter, instead I wrote to each student on their papers, citing strengths and areas for improvement. My students did not simply “aim for an A,” but sought to improve their writing mechanics, structure, creativity, or detail. Not only did this allow my students to understand specific and measurable goals, but it also helped them take responsibility for their growth. They were not relying on me to “hand down” their grade, they were able to improve by focusing on specific skills.  I eliminated many of the multiple choice tests and created projects which gave the students choices to experience authentic learning opportunities. They were no longer memorizing empty facts about the medieval time period; instead they were investigating the history of medieval warfare to design a realistic video game and “teaser video.” I stopped assigning stickers for books read or neatness. Instead, I learned about what my students liked to read, and why. We discussed beautiful artwork and made connnections between finished art and final papers, with students remarking that craftsmanship is present in both. It was eye-opening to realize how I devalued both of these areas by simply assigning stickers for completion, insteading of encouraging a conversation to occur. I was at times very uncomfortable, and so were my students, but our existence above the radar was making a real impact. Conversations were starting in classrooms nearby, students were responding, and growth was happening. Could I view this year as more of a success?  
Enter the point under the radar.
It was one sentence on a final student survey: “I look like I know what I am doing in compositions, but sometimes I do not; next year look for the boys who don’t stand out.” I had missed one…A tiny, small voice, hidden below the radar. In all of my efforts to reach each student, to listen to them, to support their individual growth, I had overlooked at least one. He was reaching out now, but it was too late, the final desk cleaned, the last locker emptied.
However, his message will help me not regress towards the mean, because the mean is created by those who have already deemed their methods as successful, instead of striving for more. I will not count this year as a “success” because I missed at least one, there is much more to be done, and next year I will continue to be an outlier, to work beyond the curve to reach each student, even those hidden safely below the radar.
Bio of Kaitlyn Gentry:
I am entering into my fifth year of teaching, and my third year with my third grade boys at Calvert School in Baltimore, Maryland. I attended Calvert, and I feel fortunate to be able to give back to such a wonderful community where I am encouraged to explore, take risks, make mistakes, and to grow alongside my students everyday. I have loved establishing a PLN through twitter (@mk8g) this year and write about my ever evolving pedagogy on my classroom blog (http://ninthageboys9-1.blogspot.com/) to teach my students not to just be “consumers,” but “producers” as well!

1 thought on “Flying Above the Radar”

  1. What a phenomenal post. It almost moved me to tears when I read "I had missed one…A tiny, small voice, hidden below the radar". It takes such courage to challenge the norms and experiment with the process of teaching content in a meaningful way. You are an inspiration. Best of luck in your coming year!

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