Learning how to learn at Boulevard Elementary
I like to learn. It keeps me alive, keeps boredom at bay and, I hope, makes me a better citizen. My curiosity has led to satisfying employment.
While “learner” is the job title we most frequently assign to students, learning is, in fact, a lifelong necessity for all of us. For that reason, I am thrilled to report that the teachers and principal at Boulevard Elementary School are paying a lot of attention to helping their students master the skills and enjoy the thrills of being learners.
While test-driven public policy makes it advantageous to help students build their test-taking muscles, and puts a premium on getting the “right” answer, Boulevard is focused on developing powerful learners. Mistakes are an expected part of the process.
During the 2017–18 school year, teachers asked students to explain what makes a good learner. They were shocked by the responses: Follow rules, listen to the teacher, don’t talk, be nice.
Being compliant is useful, but it doesn’t help a student tackle new subjects.
Teachers are learners, too, and when the Boulevard teachers realized they had missed something profoundly important, they jumped into John Hattie’s research on the essential skills for learning. Helping children become engaged learners has been the focus of their professional development work for more than a year.
To translate their learning into action, the teachers named six essential characteristics of a good learner. Walk through the school and you will be greeted by superheroes whose names are tied to those qualities: Reflective Roxanne, Problem-Solving Sam, Persistent Pablo, Collaborative Corey, Engaged Emma and Inquisitive Imani.
Principal Michael Jenkins used his arts background to draw the characters. Students can identify with the superheroes, and they know these attributes will make them powerful! It’s a great message.
School is full of ideas and information and tasks that students don’t already know about but are expected to conquer. If you don’t have a way to find your way through the unknown, it can be terrifying, overwhelming, discouraging.
During my time as a tutor, I’ve seen kids give up because they were faced with something they didn’t already know, but it is possible to give them the tools to keep their natural curiosity alive and stay engaged until the light goes on! Boulevard teachers are now busy sharing those tools.
One strategy is to ban erasers. It communicates that making mistakes is proof that you are trying—a far cry from the emphasis on the right answer. Teachers also encourage student risk-taking by making their classroom a “no-putdown zone.” Learning is hard work and failure is a part of it.
Another strategy is a “wonder wall.” Teachers can reward inquisitiveness by encouraging kids to identify things that interest them and spending time talking about those interests. Learning should include things that kids want to know!
I like the activities that promote persistence. Students are encouraged to use their brains, a book or a buddy before turning to the boss (the teacher) for help. A group activity asks class members to brainstorm ways to proceed when they are stuck.
Learning is hard work, and mastery is rewarding and empowering! Discovering your ability to learn is a tremendous source of hope and joy.
If Jenkins has his way, Boulevard’s children and staff will keep their eyes on the big prize, building a community of learners who experience the reward of figuring out something that was not previously understood. This is what it looks like when a school is not derailed by the debilitating emphasis on test-based accountability.
Susie Kaeser has been a public school advocate and resident of Cleveland Heights for 40 years. She is co-convener of the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the retired director of Reaching Heights.