Nancy Bennett, 5th & 6th-Grade Math, 5th-Grade Advisor
While any week of school can mark significant milestones and measurable progress, the first eight weeks of the school year are a crucial period for students to begin down the path of owning their own learning. They must learn and practice new routines, get to know instructors and peers, focus on how to meet expectations, and establish solid work habits and habits of mind that will carry them throughout the school year. When Fall Conferences transpire at the end of the eight weeks, these expectations and how to fulfill them are often the essence of many conversations, no matter the grade level, offering students more opportunities to be agents in their own learning. Nowhere is this more important than with our youngest middle schoolers. In the early middle school years, 5th and 6th grade, it is critical for advisors and teachers to help students assume ownership of their learning as they transition from teacher-led learning to teacher-facilitated learning. In the later middle school years after building and strengthening academic skills, behaviors, and competencies, our 7th and 8th-grade students are more adept at taking an active role in their learning.
So, how do we help students assume ownership of their learning?
One strategy we use involves getting students to engage in the mindful practice of The First Six Weeks from the Responsive Classroom — expectations and routines are established, rules are generated, and goals are articulated. For many students, their diligence in all of these areas results in a growing sense of autonomy with an emphasis on being more self-aware and being able to self-manage. Furthermore, students’ confidence builds and their expectations for their school year begin to form and come into view. They anticipate managing their days with predictability, which eases worry and establishes competence, and most presume that a climate of warmth and safety awaits them. Our young people realize to be good stewards of all that is in the school environment, and they count on feeling excitement and enthusiasm about learning together. This mind-set prepares them to manage most of what comes their way and creates the sense that they are included in their academic plan.
Secondly, students at St. Anne’s also learn to take responsibility for their learning when teachers and administrators develop and embrace curriculum and classroom practices that champion student learning in a way that promotes autonomy and ownership. We routinely evaluate student needs in order to provide necessary supports, and many curriculum programs and plans have a spiraling structure that allows students to revisit skills and concepts taught in prior years. Spiraling also allows students to reinforce skills, understandings, and concepts as well as build upon and apply them in novel situations, leveling up each year; imagine spiraling back to spiral up. Additionally, students engage in conversations and cooperative learning activities that promote a growth mindset, which allows them to tackle challenges, make errors, and develop new plans for future attempts at concepts.
Thirdly, in order for students to take ownership of their learning, we know they must be supported in a variety of ways. Teachers, advisors, parents, coaches, and peers can be valuable resources for students to rely on for guidance, suggestions, and reminders. This guidance is provided in a variety of ways: feedback, check-ins and extra help sessions, conversations, reflections, assessments, goal-setting, organizing sessions, best-practice demonstrations, time management tools, and communication platforms (Google Classroom, Gmail, etc.). Each of these practices provides students with effective strategies to keep them on target with and accountable for their learning needs and progress.
Providing a safe, welcoming learning environment, establishing expectations, using an effective curriculum, and ensuring students are supported are essential components of fostering student-owned learning. Equally as important is that the goal is graduated to best address developmental differences — more support with milder expectations in fifth grade building throughout middle school to less support with more grand expectations by eighth grade. Ultimately, expectations exist and support is available at each milestone as students become better prepared for that next assignment, trimester, grade level or high school; they are better able to self-advocate, self-manage, and self-motivate, which empowers them to take possession of their learning.