Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Kids can do hard things.

Sounds like a simple sentence right?  Of course we know that kids can do hard things.  Everyone can do hard things.

But I feel like I have to write this down so I don't forget it.

I teach World Geography - have for years.  One of the main standards for the class is to have a realistic mental map of the world.  At the beginning of the year I hand out a blank map of the world.  It's terrifying to see that the mass majority of the students can only label United States and possibly Canada and Mexico.  (You'd be shocked how many can't even do that.)  But I push through and do this assignment every year no matter how sad it is for me to see.  I do it so that my students and I can see how a year of hard work can pay off.  Every year I've flirted with different ideas of finals for the class.  I started with a multiple choice test of 70 major countries around the world that evolved to naming those 70 countries without any type of word bank that eventually led me to yesterday.

This year my final was this: identify 158 countries by name without anything except a numbered map and a piece of paper.

My friend's, who loves the world, reaction, "I don't even think I can do that!"

I was worried.  Super worried.  158 names especially crazy names we've never heard of like Azerbaijan or Eritrea or Burkina Fuso.... that's tough.  And honestly I can understand why a logical rational adult would say, "Why?"  In a world of maps and technology at our constant finger tips why in the world would I make my students memorize 158 countries.  I was scared that I would get backlash on the waste of this test.  I really was. (It's not over.... we'll see.)

But let me explain my logic.

First, they were tested on 158 countries throughout the year, so really this final exam - if they studied along the way - should just be a review.

Second, if they memorize 158 countries again for the final there is a higher chance they'll remember a portion of those for the rest of their lives.  (I have quizzed multiple high school seniors and on average they still remember at least 100 of them)

Third, sadly, memorization is something that students today aren't taught.  The basic skill is not part of any core standards and so teachers understandably focus on other things.  In my humble opinion this is detrimental for anyone.

But still I was worried.  158 countries is a lot.  I was worried because what happens if all my students fail?  What happens if none of them study, none of them do well, none of them accomplish my goal?  I was so scared that I told the students that the test would be out of 140 instead of 158.  That meant they'd have 18 they could get wrong and still get 100%

I think this is a huge concern for teachers.  Honestly, I think this is why sometimes we don't push students very hard.  Afraid students won't measure up.  Afraid of the backlash. Afraid it isn't worth the fight.

And then I gave the test to my first class yesterday.

The most unbelievable thing happened.  As soon as class started they begged for the test.  They silently put their heads down and got to work.  They wrote and wrote and wrote.  They shook their hands out when they got tired, they quickly ran to the pencil sharpener so they could get back to work.  They worked their tales off.  The results?

I don't know why I was scared.  I don't know why I questioned.  Silly me.  Somehow I forgot.  Kids can do hard things.  With the proper scaffolding and encouragement, kids can do anything.

My class average on the test yesterday.  Not out of the silly 140 total I had nervously created.  But out of the 158 countries....


That means on average my 105 students I taught yesterday could from memory identify 142 countries around the world.

I have never been so proud.

Now I get it.  They will probably forget these countries by tomorrow.  They may never use this information ever again.  But my kids learned something about themselves yesterday that I hope they will take with them for the rest of their lives.  They can do hard things.

And sadly, the most tragic thing that I see as a teacher over and over and over again, sometimes parents don't want to let them.  Parents say they can't.  Parents that honestly probably believe they can't.  It's a fight getting kids to do hard things.  It's a pain.  And sometimes it doesn't seem worth it.

But yesterday when I saw the sense of accomplishment from those kids.  When I saw the huge grins on their faces as they told me their score.  I felt something and I know they felt something.  And hopefully that lesson lasts way longer than their memory of any test or any assignment they had at PG junior high.


Erica said...

I love this! Kids and People can all do hard things!

Natalie said...

i hope you're proud of yourself too. any kid would be lucky to have you as teacher.

Camile said...

I think I need to take your geography class -do you have an on-line version? ;) My first-day map would probably make you cry, especially considering how many history classes I took in college.
But I love the title of the post and I would hope that most of the parents were thrilled to have a teacher make their kids work hard for something. I tell my girls over and over again that talent and natural ability is really great, but being a hard worker is even better.