Toward the end of the year, my students do lots of self-reflection: Which books had the biggest impact? How did they choose writing topics that mattered to them? When did they struggle, and what did they learn from those struggles? Which strategies were most helpful? What new genres, concepts or techniques did they explore? What will they work on next year?
Questions like these help my students notice what they’ve tried and how it worked out. It helps them build behavior patterns that lead to academic success and a sense of vitality. But as meaningful as that self-reflection is, I wasn’t offering my students an opportunity to examine another crucial part of their experiences: each other.
So I came up with three additional questions:
- Who in our class supported you in an important way?
- Who in our class pushed you to think differently or more deeply?
- Who in our class inspired you by setting an example?
I knew my students might feel awkward acknowledging each other in these ways. There’s vulnerability in saying, “This person had an impact on a part of my life that’s important to me,” especially if it’s a person you don’t know well or who didn’t realize their actions were so meaningful. So before my students wrote their responses, I described how some of my colleagues have supported, pushed and inspired me. I wanted to show that I was willing to do the same, potentially difficult thing I was asking of them.
Most students had no trouble with identifying classmates, but a few called me over to ask for more help. If they had a rigid view of what “support” looks like, I asked, “Is there anyone who suggested a great book for you to read? Or gave thoughtful feedback on your writing? Or encouraged you during a tough assignment?”
If they didn’t get the idea of a classmate pushing them, I asked, “Is there someone who introduced a perspective you hadn’t thought of? Or who debated your ideas? Or who gave you critical feedback that ended up helping you revise?” I explained that getting pushed might not feel good in the moment but often leads to growth; I wanted my students to notice the value in that kind of discomfort.
I also wanted students to expand their thinking about who could be a source of inspiration: “Maybe it’s someone who’s willing to put a different opinion out there or who works really hard to improve their writing or who reads a ton.” It was hard to keep my own values from influencing what the students might say, but I tried by adding, “These are some of the qualities I find inspiring, but what inspires you is going to be based on what you find important.”
In that context, here’s what some of my sixth-graders wrote. Names have been changed, but otherwise these are their words:
- “Vincent has always been a support because we correct each other’s writing a lot.”
- “Tonya always was willing to help. Unlike others, she took time to help me instead of rushing through it.”
- “Karyn helped me by being a good partner … and always doing her share of the work.”
- “Ella always pushes me to think differently or more deeply. Whenever we peer review, she always leaves helpful and insightful questions to help me add imagery that I had never thought of before.”
- “Martin has … helped me think about our mystery book in a way in which I could set up all the clues in my head and estimate what would happen next.”
- “Hugo really digs deep and finds lots of things I can change or I can think about.”
- “Mariah really inspires me in this class. She always adds a great perspective to class discussions.”
- “Sometimes writing gets stressful, and when that happens I sometimes get tense, but Anna always stays calm, and I admire her for that.”
- “I have read Ned’s work, and it has inspired me to write more and check over my work more carefully.”
Most students named three specific classmates in their responses, and everyone named at least two. A few students were unable or unwilling to recognize classmates who pushed or inspired them: “I really don’t think any of my classmates have pushed me, but Ms. Porosoff does and my family does.” And a few said everyone had helped: “I don't think one person inspired me, but I think everyone I worked with inspired me in a way.”
What was particularly exciting was that students didn’t acknowledge only their friends or only kids who get the best grades or who are the most vocal during discussions. Also, they didn’t name only students who share their social affinities or belong to traditionally privileged groups. The students were able—at least in the moment—to see each other, appreciate each other’s contributions and build a sense of solidarity.
Porosoff teaches English at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and is the author of Curriculum at Your Core and the upcoming EMPOWER Your Students: Tools to Inspire a Meaningful School Experience.