Student Success Redefined

Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.

–John Lennon, Imagine, 1971

Before John Lennon dared to imagine it, Martin Luther King Jr. dared to dream about it in his August 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Even before that, Abraham Lincoln envisioned it in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, an unwavering dedication to “the task remaining before us.” Unity. Equity. Imagining all people living life in peace and harmony, at one with the world an epic history lesson. Yet this achievement tale, as old as time itself and often characterized by “if we dare to dream it, we can do it,” has taken a new twist in 21st century education.

As we continue to attempt to close achievement gaps in our schools, we need to redefine what student success looks like in our classrooms. What does a highly efficient, highly effective 21st century education look like? And, more importantly, how can we best prepare our students for this new age of innovation in an era defined more by automation than imagination?

Reimagining student achievement in the middle grades presents an even greater set of challenges when we consider students’ social-emotional needs. A good education was previously defined as delivering information with a subsequent payoff of passing the test. The level of achievement was denoted by the test score. This process produced a natural anxiety for students as “who I am is defined by that number on the top of my paper.” As a current middle school teacher, I believe that to change the dialogue, we must change students’ mindsets about achievement. We need to embody in our students the importance of going through the process, promoting the difficulty found in the struggle, and appreciating the emotional connection that pays off.

The 21st century middle school student needs to understand that their level of achievement is no longer explicitly tied to a test score. Standards are simply a tool and a primitive measure of student progress. Life itself is an assessment of learning. Students are now not just responsible for acquiring information, but for taking ownership of it and developing their own ideological presentation of it. Imagination is the foundation of innovation, and the practical application of ideas that accompany it will help determine how future generations solve their problems and deal with real world issues.

A highly efficient, highly effective 21st century education should begin with creating shared learning experiences that cultivate all types of relationships: between teacher and students; from student to student; and between students and the content, curriculum, and the real world. This philosophy promotes clever, smarter, and more resourceful thinkers who recognize their own emotions and biases, and more importantly, feel comfortable and confident in openly expressing their views. The success comes from students recognizing that they can be changemakers. They need to go through the struggle to appreciate being in the driver’s seat as they problem-solve while learning to identify with and appreciate a more worldly viewpoint.

It all begins with embracing the idea that we “have a story to tell” via our lessons, but that story has an unwritten ending. It should be familiar and relatable to enhance student’s understanding of its purpose. We need to get back to the heart of what constitutes a good lesson, and that is a good story with a multidimensional purpose, one that embraces creativity, promotes literacy (historical and otherwise), and that connects with students’ lives.

Learning experiences should also leave room for growth opportunities and a touch of humor. Incorporating an emotional element of circus in middle school helps create that resonance we all seek. The story can go in any direction at any time and provide unlimited learning potential for everyone involved, including the teacher. Incorporating “childish delight” through having fun while learning pays tribute to the social-emotional beings in our classrooms, a necessary consideration if we are to help bridge the gap between elementary school and the rigor associated with high school.

Creating classrooms as diverse learning communities that are safe places for students to take risks and express their opinions is another key element in helping students attain academic achievement. Unique approaches that break down content into manageable inquiry-based tasks that kids like and relate to enables conversations to take place. As collaboration begins, this encourages student voice. Students need opportunities to build trusting relationships and to become self-evident “truth-seekers,” skills necessary in creating informed, literate thinkers.

The core ideal behind achievement–student motivation–hasn’t really changed. What has changed is our approach of going from simply knowing the content to a more reflective emphasis on a student’s relationship to it. Success now is more about creative, individual, and practical application of knowledge rather than simple recollection of it. As a result, the next generation will recognize how to be more civically engaged and predisposed to solution-minded thinking.

We are no longer merely teaching content; kids are now learning more about how to learn and how they best learn. In the end, what is truly important is that educators retain an unwavering dedication to the task before us: Offering students what they want and what they need to be successful.

Jennifer Ingold is an eighth grade social studies teacher at Bay Shore Middle School, Bay Shore, New York. She is the 2019 National Council for the Social Studies Middle Level Teacher of the Year and 2019 New York State Council for the Social Studies Middle School Teacher of the Year.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.