ASSESSMENT · Community

Feeling Safe Enough To Learn

For the past week, my students’ word study has been centered around observing word parts. As part of our work, I’ve been challenging my 7th graders to notice word patterns to help them make sense of the words’ spelling. Yesterday, I wanted to check to see if they could transfer the work we had done into spelling more accurately. As a warm up, I had them number their papers 1-19 and I explained that I would be pronouncing each of the words. Their job was to try to spell at least 10 of them correctly.  

Yep. I gave a spelling test.

They began numbering their papers and then a couple of hands shot up:

Student 1: Is this for a grade?

Me: I haven’t decided yet. Let’s just try it and see how you do.

Student 2: So, even though there are 19 words, all I have to do is spell 10 right?

Me: That’s right!

Student 2: Huh. Okaaaay.

Student 3: Wait, what if I spell one wrong?

Me: It’s ok. All I’m looking for is 10 words spelled correctly. It’s like “flex points”. Which 10 you get right might be different from the 10 someone else gets right. It’s all good. We’re just trying to get better at spelling.

Student 3: What if we spell more than 10 right? Can we have candy?

Me: No, but you WILL have the satisfaction of knowing you learned some new spelling patterns this week! That’s awesome, isn’t it?

Student: Yea, I guess.

Student 4: What if we spell all 19 right? Can we have candy then?

Me: No, I am not prepared with candy today. You’ll have to be happy with internal satisfaction.

Student 5: What if we can think of other words that use the bases we studied? Can we try to spell those too? Can we get extra credit for that?

Me: [stunned to silence]

Wait, What?! They were all over this. Who knew an old-fashioned spelling test would spark this much enthusiasm on a Tuesday morning? I think they sensed that they could do this–especially when there was room built into this assessment for mistakes. That cushion helped them relax and they were excited about showing me all the words they knew how to spell and even try to spell some new words that came to mind.

After all was said and done, I found moderate spelling growth; all but 4 students could spell at least 10 words from our list correctly. More importantly, though, was that I had found a motivational strategy, providing flexibility and ample room for mistakes in assessment.

A Shift In My Mindset

I realize what I did today wasn’t really that profound. For years, many teachers have been offering students the choice in what questions they will answer on assessments. I have done it myself-many times. But I had a mindshift about this practice today. Is offering more choice and flexibility, even in assessment situations, what it is going to take to make this generation of students feel safe enough to learn?

The world is full of dangers and kids today are being raised in a more protective environment than in generations past. Parents are very present in every aspect of their children’s lives: their extracurricular activities, their play time, their decision making, even in their social lives. Good or bad, this is reality. We have raised kids to know “safety first” and we have worked hard in making them feel safe. The problem is, learning is risky–and students know it.

It is clear that my students feel safe asking questions, they feel safe (and somewhat compelled) asking for clarification; they even feel safe asking for help. What they don’t feel safe enough to do is make mistakes. No matter how big or small the task, they crumble at the thought of making a mistake. They feel their safety is jeopardized if they cannot depend on the outcome. I think they feel this way because they don’t know if they can bounce back on their own.

Like with any generational gap, teachers have to figure out how to respond. We know our kids are afraid to fail, and as adults, we work hard to teach “growth mindset”. Still, my students are genuinely afraid. How can I help them feel safe enough to learn? I try to build their confidence. I tell them there is nothing they can’t do or can’t figure out or can’t work toward improving. This is my mantra, but it takes them a long time to really buy what I sell as the truth about learning.

Today, however, was a step in the right direction. My true purpose was to build awareness and confidence with understanding how language works. Aren’t my students’ reactions to the spelling test the epitome of the growth mindset? FINALLY, they weren’t worried about making a mistake. They were feeling confident and wanted to try more.

Happy Birthday, Dear Flex Points!

I could feel a change in the energy when I allowed a cushion for them to make mistakes. Most didn’t need the cushion, but they thought they did. The revelation I had today was that this generation of students might actually NEED this flexibility in order to feel safe enough to learn.

I wish students were less afraid to learn, but until they get there, I need to act in their best interest and provide appropriate scaffolds. That’s what teachers do. I feel like Flex Points might catch on in my classroom. As I get better at differentiating and move closer and closer toward personalizing my students’ learning experiences, I am finding that I can offer quite a bit of choice and flexibility without compromising my assessment of growth or student learning. If I am willing to “flex” how they demonstrate what they’ve learned, they feel more empowered to make mistakes, and ultimately they will learn more.