This week, I spent a day following the schedule of my fifth grade students. I read a thought provoking Washington Post article in the fall that got me thinking about this, and I wanted to better understand the experience that my students go through every day. I’m lucky to work in a school that supports teacher professional development, and so, from 8 to 3 pm, I joined the group that my 5th grade advisory students are in, otherwise known across the school as… the Milkduds (The name comes from MLKD, which are the first four letters of this group’s four advisory teachers. The K is for my advisory: Krakauer).
What was it like to be a 5th grade Milkdud? I’m still processing my reflections, but here are some of my learnings:
1) It’s hard to bounce from class to class.
It was weirder than I expected to have to transition from topic to topic. When I was in 5th grade, I had one elementary school teacher. These students are in a middle school model, so they move from class to class. It was hard for me to switch gears so often! One minute we were in health class talking about the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness, and a few minutes later we were in reading class talking about the earth’s plates. It wasn’t always easy to make those transitions.
2) I felt out of control.
As a teacher, I’ve never really felt like I have tons of power. When I experienced the day as a student, I realized how much of the student’s day is dictated by adults. They told us where we could sit and when we could stand. They told us what to discuss. They told us what to write. They told us when lunch was over (and I hadn’t even started peeling my orange)! The teachers at my school are great about asking for student opinions, offering choice, and doing a mix of project-based activities. And yet, I still left the day with the overwhelming feeling that students have to defer to adults all day to direct their actions. I wonder if something different is possible in a public school model, when there are 20-something people in a room together?
Being a student felt a little like being on an organized tour while traveling. You go from site to site and you have a guide to tell you about each place and give you suggestions on how to best make the most of each experience. It’s not the only way to learn about a new place, but the tour guide makes sure you see all the important stuff. Sometimes, however, you’d rather just get there and get lost fumbling around.
3) I wanted to behave… and also to be naughty.
Throughout the day, I found myself wanting to do the right thing, to have people think that I was a good student. And I have to admit — I also found myself wanting to see what I could get away with. For instance, in science class we were doing a bread mold lab. We set up an experiment to measure how fast mold grows in a cold setting versus a warm setting. I started to wonder all sorts of other questions. Would it grow faster or slower in the sun? Would it matter if I spit on the bread? What if we rubbed the bread on the bottom of the table before putting it in the ziplock bag? My curiosity and the desire to experiment were strong! It gave me a greater appreciation for students who resist following directions. And yes, I did “peer pressure” an unnamed student at my table to cough on the bread.. and Mr. Maier agreed to put an extra piece of bread by the window to see how things change in the sun.
4) I realized that it must be awesome… and really hard… to be a high achieving student.
In math class, we had a rubric assignment, which means a giant project that counts a lot for your grade. I raced through, finishing steps 1-9 in an hour, an assignment which my fellow students had been working on all week. The students were impressed, and asked, “What?! You finished the whole rubric today?!” Another student pointed out, “Guys, she did finish college already. She has a bit of an advantage here.” And it’s true. Even though I teach a humanities subject, I rock at long division and multiplying decimals. And the assignment was fun — we had to design original carpet squares, and then calculate costs compared to traditional carpeting. When I did well, and my fellow students were impressed, it felt good. Throughout the day, I generally worked faster than a real 5th grader. Teachers took time to read through text slowly that I could skim through and understand quickly. Overall, I noted that strong readers must get really bored waiting for their peers to catch up. When teachers repeat the same instructions multiple times, it makes students feel less inclined to listen, because you assume that it’ll be repeated in a few minutes. However, some students surely need the additional time, and I imagine that they might also get frustrated when teachers go “too fast.” This experience left me wondering how I can even better challenge my high achieving students while still supporting students who struggle.
5) I felt like part of a team.
My fellow students were super helpful throughout the day. I had friends to show me where the colored pencils were kept in math. While I worked, I heard students sharing tips with each other about what was coming up next in science or social studies class. My table groups worked together to complete the assignments. Overall, I felt a real sense of community. Students look out for each other and help each other make it through the day. Sure, sometimes students struggle to get along, but the overwhelming feeling that I had was one of camaraderie.
6) The students really appreciated having me take on their role.
I had no idea what they’d think of having me be a student for a day. I hoped that they’d forget I was there so I could see a normal day in the life. While I do think I saw a real day, they didn’t forget I was there. They loved calling me “Sara” instead of “Ms. Krakauer.” It seemed like they felt really good about having an adult take an interest in what it’s like to be in their shoes. I didn’t really expect that, but I was really glad about that part of the experience.
I could go on about all the things I learned from this experience, but I’ll stop there for now. I’m confident there will be a lot more time to discuss this with my colleagues — I work in an exceptional school, with a talented, thoughtful group of educators and students. I love learning alongside these people… whether standing by the white board or sitting at a desk.
My day as a 5th grader will definitely change how I look at my students when they walk in my classroom. I highly encourage other teachers to try it out. And if you do, let’s discuss.