Originally posted in November 2019 as a guest post on Rachelle Dene Poth’s blog, Learning As I Go, Experiences, Reflections, Lessons Learned.
Now that we are into November, it’s likely that at some point this year you’ve been asked the question, “So, do you have a pretty good group this year?” In my time in education, I’ve heard a myriad of answers to this question – some that I don’t want to repeat. Whether it’s right or wrong or not even a thing worth discussing, I do find it interesting to hear what a teacher has to say. And actually, there is one word in particular hat comes up rather consistently when this question is asked. One that on its own doesn’t completely address the question. The word “challenging.”
This year, I am redesigning our high school’s English 4 course and am teaching that class for the first time. When the teacher who had previously taught that course retired, she politely used the word “challenging” when describing to me the group of students that she typically supported in that course. She quickly followed that up with a “Good luck!” that felt more like a warning than words of encouragement.
English 4 is an appealing option for students who are simply looking to pass an English class to graduate and pick up a few helpful life hacks along the way. Many of our students have had significant struggles with learning in the past for a variety of reasons. Those reasons have made it hard for them to find consistent academic success. For these students, senior year has brought both the liberating promise of change once they reach the end of May but along with it the stinging reality that they have navigated their K-12 education to the 12 end of that spectrum and the experience has left them feeling like they have not taken much from a system that has helped some of their peers to thrive.
Planning over the summer was, well, challenging in its own right. I knew very little about this group that wasn’t second hand knowledge. But as I perused the gradebook and academic history for some of my students prior to the start of the year, I knew one thing: I had to give these learners the opportunity to feel what accomplishment feels like. There is a certain rhythm to success that has to be found and then felt before it starts to beat and almost swell from within. I guessed then and now know that many of these students have never heard, nor much less felt that beat, and I knew that I would be working against thirteen years of baggage if I tried to convince them, initially at least, to search for this experience in an academic setting. But I had an idea.
When I find myself feeling stagnant in my own motivation, I often start a #Five4Five Challenge. The #Five4Five challenge was created by Michael Matera, author of Explore Like a Pirate, in the spring of 2018. He posed this challenge through his Twitter and YouTube account, and I was immediately intrigued by the idea. The #Five4Five Challenge asks individuals to select one “thing to do” and do that thing each day for five days straight. What you decide to do is entirely up to you, but you have to do it once a day for each of the five days to succeed. I myself had done six #Five4Five Challenges before the school year began. I had created a vlog, done anonymous acts of kindness, set workout goals, even given up Starbucks for five days straight (that one was brutal). The goal itself doesn’t matter; it’s not about the goal. It’s about intentionality and filling your day with purpose and success. It seemed like the right fit for my learners, and so in the second week of school, I issued them all a challenge.
Now, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t exactly sure how they would respond to it. Would they laugh this off? Would they be into it for a week or two and then fade away as the grind of the semester progressed? Well, I’m happy to share that as I’m writing this, we just finished our fourth week of #Five4Fives (we go two weeks on, one week off), and the experience has not only gone well but it has exceeded all my expectations.
Our implementation has been pretty simple. We created a one-sided handout that has four boxes on it, one box for each of the first four weeks of the course. Each box contains a line for the learner to write out their goal for that week, the days of the week with a checkbox next to each day, and a place for the learner to sign their name if they complete the challenge by the end of the week.
This is not for a grade and we try to keep our daily commitment to discussing these goals to five minutes or less each class period. We don’t always open class with our #Five4Fives, but when we do, I really enjoy it. It’s captivating and powerful for class to begin with students openly sharing their passions and accomplishments. It’s been such a positive culture piece. It’s also been encouraging to watch students fail for a day and then keep going for that week. I’ve noticed too a greater sense of resilience in the students; in the first week, most would hang their head if they had to share about missing their goal the previous day, but now they confidently share their failures too. In those moments, I try to ask, “So are you going to get back on track tomorrow?” Most answer yes and at least make that goal for another day or two that week.
One month in, I’m really glad that we don’t require that the #Five4Five goals be education related. It’s funny, despite having the freedom to set any goal they wish, several students each week still choose a goal that has something to do with school. The goals that they set often speak to their values, their challenges, and desires for change; by offering them the freedom to create the goal that they want they are more willing to follow through with it. The only stipulation we have set for the goals is that they must be measurable.
Check out how we are doing! Here’s some of the data we have collected thus far…
#Five4Five Challenge: Number of Students Completing a Certain Number of Goals Per Week
|Completed One Goal||Completed Two Goals||Completed Three Goals||Completed Four Goals||Completed All Five Goals|
|Week One||4 Students||5 Students||4 Students||10 Students||25 Students|
|Week Two||5 Students||4 Students||4 Students||8 Students||27 Students|
|Week Three||1 Student||2 Students||7 Students||2 Students||36 Students|
Though I’m not sure that I needed this data to have a sense that this practice was having a positive influence on our learners, I’m very happy with the story these numbers seem to tell. I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions from it.
A final piece of evidence that I would like to share comes from our weekly Flipgrid video reflections that students have gotten into the habit of recording. Every two weeks, the students create a video in which they reflect on their efforts in the course and with their #Five4Five goals. This reflection comes from a student named Luis. In week two, Luis chose to set an academic goal for himself, and I’m proud to say that Luis met his goal that week. Afterward he reflected on his experience saying, “…my goal was to do my homework for every class, and I was surprisingly successful. I picked it because junior year I was not good with homework at all and I just had so many missing assignments. And for senior year I want to be able to do all my homework and get some good grades because my grades were terrible last year. I just want to be able to see what I can do, and this goal has really helped me this week.”
Ugh, I love that!
So, the next time someone asks me, “Do you have a pretty good group this year?” I’m looking forward to shooting them a smirk and answering, “Yes, they are definitely… challenging.” Challenging themselves, challenging me to be a better teacher and a better person, and challenging the way I think about my responsibility to help them grow both as people and learners.
Andrew is the Host of the Westside Personalized Podcast (bit.ly/WPPodcast)