George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Tale of Two Perspectives: My Experience Starting with a Clean Slate

A Tale of Two Perspectives: My Experience Starting with a Clean Slate

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Young boy looking pensive

In my 10 years of teaching the ninth grade, I, as have many of my colleagues, have struggled with a certain category of students - the low performers. These are the boys and girls who walk into our classes on the first day of school expecting to fail. They know nothing about us, but we represent every adult that has ever failed them in the past. These kids have a legacy of failure. One so deeply instilled into their own self-image that the prophecy is undeniably self-fulfilling.

For 9 years, I tried a multitude of strategies, all with negligible results. But last year, I tried a very specific strategy that went against everything I was told to do as a teacher. Yet, it completely changed the atmosphere of my classroom and the way these "low performers" saw my class. What's most amazing is that this entire strategy took place on one single day - the first day of school.

I'm first going to walk through my standard first day of school prep from a teacher's perspective. During the week leading up to the first day, as my new rosters of students were being made available for me, I would focus on every bit of data I could possibly acquire about them. Wanting to get to know their strengths and weaknesses early, I valued and appreciated everything. First and foremost, there were the legal documents for my Special Education kids (IEPs, BIPs, etc). Then, I'd focus on my district's tools to access all previous state assessment, district assessment and cognitive testing scores. I'd then work diligently to establish a seating chart with a focus on heterogeneous grouping. For each group of four, I'd place one high student, one low student, and two middle students together. I'd work especially hard to make sure my Special Education kids were separated and in the front groups. This way, from the first day, my kids could learn from each other, develop strong relationships, and grow as a group.

Sounds great, right? Everything I've ever been told about the first day of school supports this idea. However, things always seemed to go south after just a few days. My high kids seemed annoyed, my low kids seemed annoyed, and my middle kids seemed completely apathetic. What makes so much sense in theory was crashing and burning in practice, and I couldn't figure out why.

Now, let's consider this same first day from the perspective of the low performer:

"I'm so nervous about going back to school. It brings nothing but negative emotions to mind, and I always feel so dumb. My teacher's going to hate me because I'm so dumb and the smart kids are gonna laugh at me."

"But maybe this year will be different! Maybe, if I try hard from the start, I can change things! Maybe it won't be so bad!"

Walking in on the first day:

"There's a seating chart. Okay, wait a minute. I'm in the front. Looking at my group, one kid's super smart and gets everything right. The other two are good students, too. I'm obviously the dumb one. All the super smart kids are split up one per group. All my SpEd friends are split up, too, and we're all in the front. I'm stupid to think things could ever change. This is my role. This is what I'll always be."

Last year, on the first day of school, I tried something completely different, and I told my kids all about it when they walked in. There was a seating chart, as I wanted to establish some basic norms, but it was alphabetical and backwards, with my Zs at the front and As in the back (because I figured the Zs were tired of always being in the back). The kids walked in and sat down. I then proceeded to blow their minds:

"I want to talk to you a bit about your seats. I want to make it very clear that I have purposely avoided learning anything about you except your names, and I promise not to look up anything about you for the first two weeks of school. This way, any ideas or thoughts I have about you will be based on our face-to face interactions every day. Today, in my class, all of you start with a clean slate. I don't care how successful or unsuccessful you've been in the past, because in this class, it doesn't matter. How you perform this year is based entirely on how much effort, excitement and motivation you show in this class every single day. I'm so excited to start this journey with you, and I can't wait to see how far we'll move together."

Of course, I did the legal stuff. I paid attention to any required accommodations and quietly made them available, but I didn't let those Special Education kids know that I knew. I let every one of my students develop whatever persona they wanted. I developed relationships with every one of my kids that were sincere, honest and mutually respectful. Then, the two-week mark passed. As a homage to everyone that has ever told me how valuable data is, I looked up my kids... and was completely shocked! Kids I clearly would have pegged as GT were not. Those with horrible assessment scores were many of my group leaders. The low socioeconomic status kids were actively engaged with smiles on their faces.

My kids honestly felt as if they were equals, both with each other and with me. We continued our journey together for the rest of the year, and my "low performer" group was nonexistent. My kids always knew I saw them for exactly who they were and not what their stats said about them. They knew I had no preconceived ideas about them, no stereotypes. They knew I cared about them because I took the time to truly get to know them.

A new school year is starting soon, and I know exactly how I'm going to prepare my student background analysis... I'm not.

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Robin Liesenfelt's picture

This is so true! I waited to group my kids year before last. The kids grouped themselves, and one of my groups was working especially hard. I knew they weren't the highest group, (3 of the 4 were SPED) but they were working! When I saw their data and split them up later, it was as if they all shut down. They even asked to be put back together, but the data was clear, they shouldn't be together. Biggest mistake I ever made. Listen to your kids and trust what you see.

Ramy Mahmoud's picture
Ramy Mahmoud
Secondary Science Teacher/ University Lecturer

Thanks so much, Robin! Data is absolutely important, but we can't tell our kids to improve their future if we label them by their past.

Dan Callahan's picture
Dan Callahan
Professional Learning Specialist, Edcamper, Graduate Professor

"the data was clear" actually discounts the data that you had right in front of you. There's absolutely a place for observation-based, qualitative data in our decisions.

Robin Liesenfelt's picture

That's exactly what I mean. I was looking only at the quantitative data and discounting the qualitative observable component.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

This is fabulous, Ramy! First I have to say I am so impressed (and a tad intimidated) by all the prep work you used to do for that first seating chart! The most I usually do is check for histories of behavior problems so I can place those kids near the front, plus the required SpEd accommodations. But what I think made such a difference for your kids is not so much that you told them you hadn't looked up their data, but that you yourself didn't look it up. You weren't treating them based on what you had read, so, as you said, you got to know them exactly as they were in your class. That's powerful. Thanks for sharing! Now enjoy some extra time off this year as you don't dig into all that data. :-)

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Edcamper, Former @Edutopia, Founder of Social Media Marketing Consultancy aimed at helping educational orgs.

I'm a big fan of data in a lot of situations..but as you so eloquently pointed out, it can inadvertently create biases and work against everything we tried so hard to achieve.

Kudos to you to take the risk to do something COMPLETELY different after 7 years. I hope your story inspires others to rethink the way they use data in the classroom.

Darla/The Preschool Toolbox's picture
Darla/The Preschool Toolbox
Private Preschool Teacher

Love and compassion go a long way in motivating students that may not have had an opportunity before. Isn't it amazing how "data" can change when students have someone who believes in them (perhaps for the 1st time ever) - Thanks for sharing your experiences with others! Blessings to YOU for a great school year!

Mike Treanor's picture
Mike Treanor
High School Science Teacher

I have to say ... for over 15 years I have followed what I thought was "the way," that is collecting as much data as humanly possible before school starts, spending huge amounts of time grouping and planning, and trying to "differentiate" based on my findings and experience.

And ... none of it has ever worked very well at all. I have slowly developed a system of letting kids pick their own seats and groups as long as they demonstrate responsibility. I have also started having leadership roles in class that any student can apply for. Little things. I have still looked at data, but it has become less and less important.

This is the first time I have seen this strategy put forth so clearly and it has given me pause to reflect on how doing what makes sense to me instead of following blindly is usually the best way. I should do it more often and I should keep searching out articles such as yours that encourage thinking and conversation.


Carol Goldie's picture
Carol Goldie
French and Spanish 7-12 in Upstate NY

This is how I've always done it. I don't want to know about their past progress because I don't want to have preconceived notions about them. I get frustrated at the transition meetings we have to attend. They are a waste of time and things are said about these kids that are appalling. I find my notes usually at the end of the year and am usually surprised at the differences. Then I have a colleague who always wants me to go through her list and give her the dirt. I have done it, and I don't think my input is ever useful.

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