Anna Hull has taught students at every grade from preK-8th but always thought of herself as a primary teacher. “I taught 14 years of kindergarten and then ‘looped’ classes teaching 1st grade and 2nd grade as my students progressed. In 2009, my principal really needed me to teach a 4th grade class. After some arguing and a few tears, I thought ‘Ok, I can do this.’ It was the best decision even though I didn’t realize it at the time,” Anna admits.
Leaving her comfort zone of the primary grades meant that Anna needed to plan differently and embrace new strategies for engaging the students. Anna explains, “I had to expand the way I thought about student thinking. I quickly realized it was important to empower students with the ability to plan their day and make decisions about their learning.”
Anna developed a multi-faceted approach to engaging students in making real decisions about what happens in her classroom at Petronis Elementary School in Panama City, FL. For example, students often help plan how they want to use their time during the day—with some students deciding to do literacy centers, while other students using the time to work on their “Must Do” list. In both instances, Anna pulls students for guided reading and math instruction throughout the day. Students have the flexibility to work on what they want and need to, at their own pace, but with the goal of accomplishing the same tasks in the end.
Anna also involves students in developing their classroom behavior system that includes earning tickets to recognize when students exhibit certain qualities such as helping others or following directions. Her students determine which types of behavior deserve a ticket, what tickets allow them to do or earn, and how many tickets are needed for various incentives.
To make decisions, Anna holds class meetings in which students voice their opinions and outline the different approaches they could take. Students are asked to identify the pro and cons of the different ideas—whether the discussion is about how they should use their time during the day or how their behavior system should work. “The kids don’t always agree with each other and they don’t always agree with me,” says Anna. “It is my job is to facilitate that. It is very important for kids to learn how to negotiate, bargain and be a team player.”
Anna recently returned to teaching the primary grades at her school and brought many of the strategies with her. During this past year with a second grade talented and gifted class, Anna also added a student survey to her list of strategies. She adapted her survey from tools designed by the Measuring Effective Teaching Project, which she was introduced to as a participant at the Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) conference in May. Anna states, “I took fast and furious notes at this conference… and then searched online for information on how the MET group used the surveys…because I knew this would become a powerful element of self-reflection and evaluation in my classroom.”
Anna asked students to respond in writing to 10 questions that ranged from whether or not they learn “that it is ok to make mistakes” to whether or not they “think hard about the writing they do.” Students were also asked about the types of work they wanted to do more of when they “looped” with Anna for third grade. Many students requested more project-based work, more opportunities to use technology, experiences publishing books and more time working with their peers.
Anna has been analyzing patterns from the student survey results and is unpacking students’ explanations of their answers. And, she is already thinking about how she can improve the survey for next time, perhaps making the questions more specific, asking students more questions and re-crafting the answer choices they can select from.
Anna acknowledges that student surveys can be a little “frightening.” “I think it is important for teachers and administrators to realize that you are really taking a huge risk when you give surveys, either for parents or students. You are opening yourself up to criticism possibly,” Anna warns. “But, your students are your most valuable asset and your most important resource. If, as teachers, we are truly open and honest with ourselves, and truly seek to be thoughtful, reflective practitioners and constantly revise and improve upon our craft, then we will listen to our students and value their thoughts and opinions.”
True to her philosophy, Anna is already using many of her students’ ideas to inform her curriculum for this year. She is even including their feedback into her individual professional development plan because, in Anna’s words, “what better people to add information about what you should do than the kids you teach every day.”