So during the last 3 days of each school year, for the past 15 years, I do an assignment called The Courtesy Contract. Sometimes, students reach out to me years later to see what they had written during middle school and I get to search through these time capsule notebooks and find those names from long ago. Last week, I was contacted by a senior in high school who remembered this assignment and wanted to see his. He told me his name and the year I had him so I could easily go back in time and flip through the artifacts to find his.
What I found, but hadn’t remembered, was a document written by a sad young man, a middle schooler in a dark chapter of life, as so many are. It was heartbreaking. I remember this student as quiet to the point of concerning, and this assignment helped explain some of that isolation.
So I pulled the document from the massive 3-ring binder that housed those from his year, replaced it with a copy, and put the original in an envelope with a little note from me to the young man that he is now. My note hoped he had found happiness since 8th grade. It hoped that he found support for his sadness and that he now could see with a little hindsight who one feels in middle school does not need to define us.
With his permission, this was the response I received from his after he had picked up his envelope.
“…reading it last night I was surprised at all prideful and stubborn I was at that age. Some of the things I said were pretty extreme. Not really the goal setting letter I had in mind, but it does tell me how much I’ve improved and changed as a person. I never hated you as a teacher, but I remember hating all the activities in class that we did that forced me to communicate or present to my classmates. What I would give to have a class with assignments like that now! It just shows I’ve become the opposite of what I used to be, and I’m happy about that. At that age, I never wanted to remember middle school, so I’m really grateful you made us do this assignment because otherwise I would’ve done nothing of the sort willingly. It felt as if there was this 3 year gap in my life that I’d lost, but now I have an accurate grasp on how I felt. So yes, I have found happiness!”
I took this exchange to briefly commiserate with him as well. You see, I also hated middle school as a student. It’s ironic, I know, but I also know it’s no coincidence that I have devoted much of my professional career to these grade levels. How he phrased it: “At that age, I never wanted to remember middle school…” really resonated with me. I focus on middle school because it’s a vital phase in our human development. I focus on middle school because I’m sure, in some level, it also forces me not to forget.
Along those lines, this student also recognized the power of reflection and of archiving ourselves. Sometimes we don’t think to do it ourselves, and we must rely on our schools to help us. Portfolios aren’t just for Open House, after all, they are meant to be looked at years down the line to remind us who we were as learners and as younger people. As he states,
“It would be cool if they could do more assignments like the contract though, because I would love to have more things to remember what I did and how I felt in middle school right now, even if I was completely opposed to remembering it at the time. Can you imagine if I didn’t take the contract seriously and didn’t write how I really felt? I didn’t take pictures, I didn’t keep a journal or vlog, and there’s so much more to middle school I want to remember more than just how I felt at the end of 8th grade year. I really appreciate you taking the time to make such a memorable name for a website [my classroom agenda, www.wolpertworld.com], and having your contact info there, as well as stating that you check your email every day. Without that and your continued upkeep of the contracts, I’d have nothing except two pictures in my 8th grade yearbook to remember middle school.”
I was so grateful for his response and his affirmation of the kinds of assignments I push students to do. You teach using different strategies with the awareness that it will help them in life, but with no expectation that they will link their skills to what happened during their time with you. I’m so grateful when past students reach out. It it fuel.
More importantly, however, it goes to prove something I tell middle school teachers all the time: these kids are all still Works in Progress (as we all are) and their books are not yet written.
Research has shown that collaboration is one of the most effective strategies in student achievement. But to be really successful, a classroom needs to use collaboration techniques beyond the time period alotted for a any one project. It has to be a part of the classroom culture. From there, collaboration can be used in research, in presentation, in culminating artifacts, in drafting/prototyping, etc…You can always find a way for students to work together.
Here is a 10-min How-to video on 9 different collaboration tips to use during any project. Use them during any PBL unit or to simply enhance the collaborative culture in your classroom. The video includes the following and more:
The Collaboration Constitution (including lesson downloadable)
Instructions for a student-created rubric
Tips for fluid grouping by content area names
Examples of color coded group work to assess students individually
A collaborative research Google Form for curating and archiving
Tips for a student-created collaborative Research Library
An example of collaborative writing
Advice on crowdsourcing feedback and peer review activities
An example of a collaborative culminating public product
PBL Secret Sauce 4: Tips for Collaboration in PBL - YouTube