by Andrew Miller
Although a new year of school brings new beginnings, it also allows us the opportunity to reflect on the past year and think about what we did to make it such a great year. The same can be said for the five tenets of the ASCD Whole Child approach. By the end of the year, our classrooms are usually “well-oiled machines” where students are engaged and challenged in their learning, feel safe and supported, and are healthy in every sense of the word. I’ve had the privilege of visiting so many classrooms where this is happening. We can learn from our past experiences to better prepare ourselves for the upcoming school year and find ways to create a learning environment now that truly fosters the whole child. Why wait until the middle or end of the year to make sure students are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged? Let’s go back to the future to improve the present (i.e., reflect on how we ended last year in order to change and improve our current actions). Here are just a few of my reflections on how we can do this.
Engaged With Technology
By the end of the year, I see some of the most purposeful uses of technology to support instruction and assessment. When we use technology carefully and intentionally to help our students learn, we can sustain engagement. Haphazard technology integration can create a short “buzz” in the classroom, but purposeful use of technology—to flip the classroom, allow students voice and choice in their assessments, and more—can create better, more sustainable engagement for our students. We can start this journey toward strategic technology integration now.
A Safe Growth Mindset
When students feel safe, they can grow. I’ve visited classrooms where students are always asking questions and trying new ideas without fear. They feel safe in not knowing the answer, and they feel safe in receiving feedback from their peers and teachers. How can we create a culture of critique and revision, where students continually seek feedback and ask deeper questions to grow in their learning? We can start by modeling a growth mindset as teachers and encouraging the process of peer critique and feedback. We can scaffold students to ask great questions. Let’s start creating a safe space now for our students.
Supported Through Relationships
By the end of the year, we’ve built strong relationships with our students. But we can start to build these relationships now by using formative assessment tools to get to know all parts of the child. We can use these assessments to look at data and academic achievement, but we can also use them to know how our students learn, their passions, and their family life. This balanced data can allow us to know our students better at the beginning of the year and establish relationships with them to ensure we target the right kind of support.
Challenged through Project-Based Learning (PBL)
Sometimes I hear people say, “I don’t think my students can handle PBL at the beginning of the year.” Although it’s true that we need to build a culture for PBL, I think, if appropriately designed, it can be successfully implemented at the beginning of the year to give students the right amount of challenge and rigor. PBL can create a place where students learn content with an authentic challenge. Our students deserve to be challenged all year round, so let’s start now.
Healthy Without Anxiety
Health is a big category in terms of supporting the whole child. While we may initially think of physical health, we can also think of mental health. When students enter our classrooms at the beginning of the year, they often have high anxiety levels, which is not healthy at all. By the end of the year, this anxiety in the classroom is usually gone. We can mitigate anxiety as soon as the year starts by standing at the door to welcome students, creating norms with them, and openly committing to supporting them in their times of stress. We can also tell students that failing is not the end but rather the beginning of learning. By acknowledging that anxiety exists and working actively to remove it from the classroom, we can create healthy students now.
The reflection process can also be replicated as a means of professional learning. This “Back to the Future” protocol can be done in the early stages of a process (whether designing a unit of instruction or setting the classroom culture). It allows you to reflect on the past and think about specific steps you can take to make your vision for the future happen. How will you go back to the future to improve the present this school year?
Andrew Miller is the author of the ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail: How do I foster risk-taking and innovation in my classroom? He is on the national faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, an organization specializing in 21st century project-based learning. Miller is also an ASCD Faculty member, providing expertise in a variety of professional development needs, and a regular blogger for Edutopia. Connect with Miller on Twitter @betamiller.