Today, my 6th graders tackled the opening passage of The Waves, by Virginia Woolf.
Those two things are connected. I swear.
The Waves is a text I've only ever done with high school students. Before we started, I told them that I doubted there were many 6th graders in the world who had read Virginia Woolf.
The assignment is the first in the sequence of patterning strategies I teach. This year, I waited for a while to start teaching patterning because I wanted to make sure that my students could handle it. As this is my first year teaching middle school, I didn't want to throw them into something that they would find too challenging and that would frustrate them.
So today, I decided that they could handle it. I gave them the text and asked them to find pattern groups. I kept repeating that there were no wrong answers - anything is right, so long as you can explain it.
And they did great. They found the same pattern groups that my high schoolers found (and Andrew's AP kids found): light, water, and circular imagery, figurative language, sensory language, animals, nature words...and lots more.
They attacked the challenge head-on, and I was so impressed by the level of focus, the analysis they already are capable of doing and the enthusiasm they had about finding those patterns. It tapped into their natural curiosity and was just perplexing enough to be fun, but also motivate them to try harder.
Exactly the opposite of what happened when they saw their grades for the first time.
I finally had to make a rule that they couldn't check grades or ask grade-related questions during class. That came about because I had dozens of students walking up to me as I was giving instruction to the whole class to show me their grade and ask how they could make it up.
And that is despite having a video walking them through the process and a guide for what to do if they were missing work.
I guess I underestimated how anxiety-producing getting grades is for a 6th grader. I didn't spend enough time talking about the feelings they were having, and that short-circuited the learning because all they could think was, "I have an F on an assignment? My mom is going to kill me. I need to make it up before she can see it. I need to make it up now. How can I make this up? Am I stupid? I thought I was doing okay, but I'm not sure anymore..." ad infinitum.
You can't learn when that's going on in your head.
And from my perspective, the students who had spent the last four weeks learning together, being excited about what we were learning and doing, and felt successful and productive were now questioning everything...because of one letter.
So today, I had them write about their feelings, worries, and expectations in terms of their grades. I went over how to make up work and reassured them that everything was make-up-able.
Then I told them we were done talking about grades for a while. And I told them we were reading Virginia Woolf.
And something shifted. They didn't ask how they would be graded. Some asked if they could continue working on it at home because they had found more patterns they wanted to explore. They didn't worry about anyone else "taking their answer," and when I asked for volunteers to share what patterns they found, literally every hand went up. We ended up going around and having everyone share.
I don't think they are over their grade anxiety. It's a journey, and it's one that has many wrong turns along the way. There will still be grade questions and frantic emails. There will still be frustration and confusion and anger.
But today, we turned that anxiety into perplexity. And that perplexity ushered them back in to believing, even temporarily, that what really matters is learning, not the letter attached to it.
Plus, they are some of the only 6th graders in the world who can say that they read The Waves. For now, that's one more step in the journey.
We've got a long way to go, but at least we're moving forward again.