Thursday, May 15, 2014

Impressions Leave a Mark

Zig Ziglar once said, “It’s not where you start that counts, it’s where you finish that matters.” As my students and I begin the last stretch of our almost ten month journey together, I don’t want them to lose sight of their own personal growth as people and students. If school ended today, I’d want them to be proud of their development as citizens and lifelong learners. They are on their way to making their mark on society. But, our school year isn’t over today. We have five weeks to continue to grow, develop, reflect, hold ourselves and each other accountable, and be better than we were the day before.

Which is why, one day recently, as my students gave their worst impression of ball toss during Morning Meeting, it was time to talk about our lasting impressions, and the legacy they leave.

Our class has Morning Meeting at the beginning of each day. We begin with a whole class greeting, making sure we’ve all said hello to one another. Our current favorite greeting is Ball Toss greeting. In this greeting, a student verbally says good morning to another, tosses a tennis ball to them, and is greeted back by the student who caught the ball. This student then greets another student and tosses them the ball. Over the course of the greeting, each student has been greeted, has greeted another, caught the ball, and tossed it. Everyone is involved. As we’ve become more proficient doing this over time, we’ve added more balls to the greeting. Each ball continues the same pattern as the first ball, being thrown and caught by the same ordered people pattern until the final person has all the tennis balls. As an additional challenge, the last person who caught the ball during forward ball toss reverses the direction. We then do ball toss backwards and non-verbally, so the ball travels back to the person who began the greeting, but no one can speak as we do it.

However, what happens when everyone is involved in Ball Toss but not engaged? The students were not holding themselves accountable to the guidelines they set for themselves. The start didn’t look any better than the end: students and their peers dropped balls, made errant, no look throws, giggled, and wayward tennis balls lightly hit peers in the face and stomach. I could have chalked up our approach and execution to the Monday morning blues. Or, that standardized testing had finished the prior Thursday. But the combination of our foibles, and our reaction to them, made me feel that this was something different. We needed to talk about it, not excuse it away.

I asked the students to stop the greeting and sit down. I asked them to reflect on why they thought we stopped. They identified our errors, citing busy weekends, the end of standardized testing, being a Monday, and a plethora of other reasons why our minds weren’t in the greeting. Would they have used these reasons if we were taking a quiz today? A standardized test? If their parents were here? Would these reasons have been acceptable then? When prompted, they all shook their heads no, and explained why it wouldn’t have been acceptable.

“Why is it okay for you to do it now and why will you accept less than your best?” I asked. “How do you want me to remember you? How you want to remember each other, and our year together?”

They were staring at me. They were engaged. They wanted to explore these questions. Now, how was I going to drive this moment home? How would I help them see that this wasn’t about ball toss anymore. It was about how we carry ourselves, how we hold ourselves (and each other) accountable. And, how we bring our best effort every day and expect that of others. Because, we’re worthy, they’re worthy, and neither of us should accept anything less. Ever.

When I want to reflect, I write about it (see this post). It provides me with perspective. I asked the students to do the same: write a letter to themselves explaining what they did and why they did it. On the back of the paper, they were asked to write down their personal goals for their final 28 days as fifth graders. “People are going to remember you for the first impression and last impression you make,” I reminded them. “How do you want to be remembered here in your final year in elementary school? What should your legacy be?”

After five minutes of writing, I cooperatively grouped students. They were asked to speak to their group members about their writing. I would circulate, but I was a silent observer. This wasn’t about me. This was about students sharing their thoughts, listening to their peers share theirs, and discuss how they would learn and grow from this experience.

When students returned to their seats, they were invited to share a synopsis of what they wrote. They didn’t have to, but many did: “I want to be remembered as a good student and a good person.” “I want my classmates to know I gave my best effort.” “I am going to enjoy these last 28 days the way I enjoyed every other day by doing my best.”

I thanked the student sharers for their honesty. I then asked them to keep the paper in their classwork folder. This paper wasn’t for me to collect and use to remind them of the deal they made with themselves. This was about each student holding what they wrote close to them, and referring back to it until they didn’t need to anymore. Until they began to do these things naturally, consistently, leaving a positive impression wherever they go. Because, that’s what people will remember. And people should remember the good that’s in all of us.

Most importantly, that’s what I want my students to carry with them as they go through life: a positive lasting impression that leaves a never-ending mark, and a willingness to reflect when they haven’t. Both will be more powerful lessons learned than anything else I will ever teach them. I hope that my impressions will leave a mark, and we will consistently learn from each experience begun, whether we finish each one or not.